Sunday, October 15, 2017

Whatever Is


Philippians 4:4-9

 

        Later today I was scheduled to go to Charlottesville to make a presentation on The Book of Confessions. I delighted to help out some of my fellow ministers in their officer training and looked forward to having a meaningful discussion on both the historical setting and theological significance of the eleven statements of faith found in this document. Then I got an email asking if I might switch topics. Instead of The Book of Confessions, I have been asked to explain the Essential Tenets of the Reform Faith. 

        Anyone who has been elected to the office of elder might remember the series of questions posed at their ordination. The one I find most troubling and the one to which I am to speak about tonight is, “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expectations of what scripture leads us to believe and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?”

        I would hope before anyone would answer this question they might ask, “What are the essential tenets of the reformed faith?” In this intelligent and diverse congregation the answer I receive would be quite different than my experience this evening. This congregation celebrates a variety of religious experiences and doctrines. This has helped us listen to an assortment of truths, some which are spelled with a capital T and others which are no less important but might not be universally held. The creedal statements we find in our Book of Confessions include declarations from six different denominations written over a period of 1700 years. While the Hammurabi Code, The Magna Charta, and the Declaration of Independence each agree on the importance of the human experiment, each differently defines the essential concept of human liberty.   So why should we be surprised that a religion 2,000 old might differ on which tenets/critical beliefs should be held as truth?

        As a Christians we share with all other Christian denominations our belief in God. But just mention the word Trinity and the sparks begin to fly. Do I mean Father, Son, and Holy Ghost or Creator, Reconciler and Sustainer? How did the concept of trinity come about? What does it mean? Do we believe in one God or three? Regardless of our answers, gratefully it does not lessen our faith in the mysterious ways in which God reveals God’s self.

        Second, and perhaps more universally, we celebrate the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. We are not alone. God, Emmanuel, is with us.

        But then a great divide begins as we try to discern the actions of this mysterious God. As Protestants, we acknowledge we are justified by Grace. We cannot save ourselves but are dependent on God’s love in Jesus Christ to draw us back to God and fulfill God’s command to love God and others nearly as much as we love ourselves.

        Second, Protestants claim the authority of scripture. That can really cause the sparks to fly. Here at Rockfish I think we see The Bible as the lens through which we know God and discover ourselves. The Bible points us to truth.       All that is well and good, but even as I have tried to carefully craft those words there are folks here who wished I would have made stronger statements concerning God, incarnation, salvation and the Bible. Others of you might have felt the language chosen was much too definitive and left no room for disagreement or discussion. Such is the nature of the beast when we choose to talk about something we believe but can’t prove.

        As you might have guessed, each of the denominations from which we originate has definitive statements which further define the essence of what we believe. Those statements are both significant and debatable.  Hopefully each of us is open to the Holy Spirit in determining what is good, acceptable, and perfect.

        Like our ancestors, who came by different streams and trails to claim citizenship within this great nation, we each have traveled a distinctive theological road. Some crave discussions concerning transubstantiation, the trinity or atonement. Most of us are more interested in how God expects us to live together.   Sometimes you just have to set Books of Order and creedal statements aside and return to the Bible.

        This week our text peeps in on a church in the town of Philippi. Discussions within this congregation centered on the identities of God and Jesus. They argued over interpreting the Torah and how a Hebrew document could speak to a Greek congregation. Most of all they  disagreed over who would take Paul’s place.

        Paul wasn’t coming back. It was up to the members of the church in Philippi to develop their own leadership. They were attempting to establish faith statements which would both drive and inform their discussions. They did not have a copy of The Book of Confessions.  The New Testament had not yet been written. All they had was what they had heard from Paul and the early Apostles. 

        As Paul sat down to write, he knew the tension in this little congregation was about to explode. Each discussion burst into a passionate debate ending in anger and accusations. These were friends being torn apart by multiple   versions of what each considered to be the truth.

        Paul could have ended his letter when some great theological statement telling them to get their house in order. Instead he wrote these words:

        “Rejoice in the Lord always. Let your gentleness be known. Turn to God in prayer. God will hear your supplications. Know that the peace of God will guard your hearts and minds.

        My friends, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, do these things and the God of peace will be with you. Greet each others as saints in Christ Jesus knowing that the grace of God is with you.”

        Tonight in Charlottesville folks aren’t going to ask me questions. They will make declarations concerning the church and accusations concerning the church’s loss of belief. There will be allegations directed at the Presbytery of the James and beyond. Each will range from sincere to sanctimonious. Thank goodness there is a time limit on the meeting or it would never end. I already look forward to the moment when the moderator closes with a prayer. I know some will linger but at some point I will excuse myself and head to the parking lot.  Then, in the privacy of my car, before I turn on my radio to hear some soothing jazz, I will give thanks to God for allowing me to serve Rockfish Presbyterian Church, a diverse and complex people, who love each other, respect each other, argue with one another, listen to each other, but most of all, sing praises to God for bringing us all together. 

Thank-you for always letting your gentleness always be known. Please don’t ever change.  Amen.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

My Favorite Commandment


Exodus 20:8-11

 

        In 1927, the African-American poet James Weldon Johnson gave us a gift. Reaching back into the memories of his childhood, Johnson resurrected an art form that had almost become lost. Throughout the Black community there were the preachers, the story tellers, who would remind his congregation of this great God who despite darkness and chaos issued a promise of hope and life. These sermons were seldom heard outside the Black church.  Johnson used his own words to recreate those sermons in a brilliant gem he called God’s Trombones. The best known of these sermons was titled, “The Creation”. It began like this:

                God stepped out on space,

                And he looked around and said:

                I’m lonely  ---  I’ll make me a world.

                And as far as the eye of God could see

                Darkness covered everything,

                Blacker than a hundred midnights

                Down in a cypress swamp.

                Then God smiled,

                And the light broke,

                And the darkness rolled up on one side,

                And the light stood shining on the other,

                And God said: That’s good!

 

        Those words would be far more effective if spoken by someone with a voice like James Earl Jones but I think you get the idea. The Black preacher took what folks knew and mixed it with what he believed God did and began to paint.

        So how would a white preacher today enlighten a congregation on the vast wonders of the creation story as recorded in the book of Genesis? Perhaps like this.

        God stepped out into the midst of darkness and chaos and declared, “Let there be light.” God then separated the light from the darkness and a poll of 68% of the angels declared this to be a good thing.

        On the second day God separated the waters from the earth. God raised his arm and created the sky. Facebook created a chat room to discuss this.

        On the third day God created dry land. The dry land God called earth and the water was called the sea. MSNBC reported the phenomenon was seen by 33% of the other gods as a risk which was not sustainable.

        On the fourth God placed the sun and the moon in the sky separating the night and day. Fox reported this as fake news claiming it was an illusion created in Hollywood.

        On the fifth day God declared swarms of creatures would emerge from the waters and birds would occupy the air. A poll was immediately taken by Gallop to see how many angels were upset by this violation of their air space.

        On the sixth day God created every kind of animal to roam the earth. Then God said, “Let us make humans in our own image.” That afternoon humans recorded their initial thoughts on newly established twitter accounts.

        On the Seventh day God unplugged his phone, canceled the newspaper, turned off the TV, and rested.      (stop)

        The fourth commandment might be my favorite. That may seem strange because Sunday is the one day of the week I do everything but rest. Of course Doug Wood is quick to remind me I play a lot of golf the other six days.

        In our tradition, Sabbath is celebrated on Sunday.  Recently the faithful have been heard to grumble about those who engage in other activities on Sunday morning. Our battle cry is, “Remember the good old days when the churches were full and all of us had to suffer through a twenty five minute sermon.” But now children play baseball on Sunday morning and no one gives it a second thought. Families engage in projects around the house on Sunday morning and no one feels guilty. Today folks do anything they can on Sunday morning to forget the past six days.  Maybe we Christian who have worked so hard to preserve the Sabbath we have forgotten why it was declared sacred?

        In the beginning of the development of Judaism, the Sabbath was a day of rest. It was the day designated to escape the daily grind and remember that from the beginning God declared without recreation there could be no re-creation. The Hebrew’s identity was created in the midst of slavery. They were exiles in both Egypt and Babylon. They knew firsthand what it was like to be confined by a captor who cared little for their welfare. So once a week, they remembered a God who rested. They remembered a God who cared. They remembered the God who had rescued them and they remembered this God expected them to care and if necessary rescue those around them. If you are enslaved seven days a week you will never look up and notice the plight of your neighbor. But if on the seventh day you rest, and remember, and praise God, it is amazing what you will see.

        History tells us that when the Hebrew people returned to Jerusalem they went through centuries of creating rules and regulations concerning what could and could not be done on the Sabbath. They institutionalized their holy day. People started worrying so much about what they couldn’t do they forgot why Sabbath keeping was so important. By the time Jesus arrived he kept getting in trouble with Sabbath laws. If someone was hungry on the Sabbath he fed them. If someone was sick he wasn’t going to wait until the following day. Proper behavior on the Sabbath was to hide out at home, be miserable, and anxiously wait for the sun to set. Then they willingly put their shackles on and prepared to go back to work.

        We read these stories in the New Testament and we laugh at how strict the Jewish laws had become. How quickly we forget our Blue Laws. Did you know Blue Laws were created in the 1640’s in England because Cromwell declared folks were having too much fun on Sunday? The descendents of Cromwell, many of them Presbyterians brought this tradition to the colonies where it became universal law. Blue laws existed into the 20th century until professional sports captured the imagination of a vast majority of the American public. Once professional sports began to be played on Sunday and heaven forbid, beer sales were legalized to support the games, the blue laws lost their hold on society. Then even folks who had no interest in the Boston Red Sox or the Washington Redskins wondered why folks went to church in the first place.  We had set rules and regulations on how to observe the day. But we forgot why the day was so important? What about a refresher course.

        Remember the Sabbath. It is no accident that this is the fourth commandment. The first three commandments declare YWHW to be God above all others. God gave us life. God gave us purpose, but we are so quick to forget all this because we are easily enslaved by our jobs, our cell phones, social media, or a hundred other things that dominate our lives. The Sabbath was created so we might pause and REMEMBER who we are and whose we are. We can only do this when we put all those other things down and purposefully rest, purposefully remember, and purposefully give thanks to the one who gave us life. Then our mind and heart is released. Our eyes recognize the folks around us and we boldly proclaim, “I care for them. I will treat them with dignity. I will protect their lives and their property. I will utter the truth to them and try not to envy their new BMW sitting next to my eight year old Toyota.  

        Sabbath is where memory and observance merge. We remember the goodness of God and we give thanks. We remember the sacredness of our neighbors and we vow to be better neighbor. When we remember, we rediscover the beautiful world God originally imagined.

        Institutions that enslave us hate joyful communities. Think of all those things that divide and isolate us.  When we were growing up nothing could destroy our world quicker than gossip. Now our kids are enslaved by social media. When we were young adults no one imagined loving going to work every day. But no we are warned if we don’t work 24/7 someone can be found who will.  How healthy was that? Today we are living the good life yet we aren’t we still enslaved by worrying about what will happen tomorrow.

        On the seventh day God rested. God rose above the burden of being The Creator and said, “I need to kick back and remember why I’m doing this in the first place.”

Are we so different from God? Don’t we need a day to refresh our souls? Don’t we need an hour to share a few memories from yesterday, or perhaps even 2,000 years ago. Perhaps we need to sing, “Bless the Lord O my Soul.” Perhaps we need to pray, “Thank You.” Perhaps we need to re-invite others celebrate a moment without chaos and darkness. Let’s reclaim the Sabbath. Let’s drop all the old rules. Let’s just try to keep the Sabbath……. restful.  Imagine what a gift that could be.       Amen.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Bending the Knee


Philippians 2:1-11



        For the past couple of years I have become intoxicated by a TV show called Game of Thrones. Maybe you have heard of it. For those of you who have a life not controlled by HBO let me give you a brief summary of what transpired this season. Game of Thrones is a mythical country which sort of resembles England. King’s Landing houses the Iron Throne and the head of each tribe desires to occupy it.  This season the person on the throne is a particularly nasty woman who will do anything, include killing her kin to keep the throne. Her chief rival is a woman known as the Queen of the Dragons. The name is not allegorical. She actually has dragons at her disposal. The Kingdom of the North is ruled by Jon Snow, who is quite the heart throb. He died last season but was resurrected, probably due to the outcry of young women who watch the show. Then there is the Army of the Dead, a mass of Zombies who exist in the region beyond the kingdom of the North.

        This season the Zombies are marching south. The Queen of King’s Landing wants to destroy the Dragon Queen. Jon Snow faces the threat of the zombies and knows his only chance for survival is to join forces with the Dragon Queen. But in order for this to happen Jon Snow must “bend the knee” to the Dragon Queen.

        Bending the knee has certainly taken on a life of its own this year. From professional sports to the hottest show on TV, a lot of knees are being bent. So imagine my surprise on discovering in one of the most poetic texts in the New Testament, Paul reminds us when we hear the name of Jesus we all should bend the knee. My response has always been, “Well of course we should. He is Lord of Lords. Jesus doesn’t need a dragon to get my loyalty.”

        But have you ever given a moment’s consideration to why God exalts Jesus and gives him a name that is above every other name? The answer may not be what you want to hear.  In verse eight Paul declares, “Jesus humbled himself.” Do you have any idea how difficult it was for Paul to utter that phrase? When I think of the Apostle Paul a lot of words come to mind. He was brave, persuasive, brilliant, and opinionated to the point of being pig-headed. But I have a hard time thinking of Paul as humble.  Imagine how difficult it must have been for Paul to admit that Jesus, the son of God was not only human but humble. Name one example of any god in Greek, Egyptian, Babylonian or Roman mythology that counted humility as a virtue.

        Yet Paul writes to his dear friend in Philippi. “Make my joy complete. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. And how do you do this? Be like Jesus who humbled himself.”

        There is not a lot of bending the knee these days. We have pretty much divided ourselves into conflicting tribes. Internationally there is the US, Russia, China, North Korea etc. In America we have red, blue and purple states. Locally we have folks for the pipe line and those against it.  Maybe Game of Thrones is so popular because it is such an accurate portrayal of the 21st Century.  Any sign of humility, any indication of humbleness is perceived as a weakness which will be quickly exploited.

When we find our way to church we claim we are here to bend our knee to Jesus. But do we really believe Jesus wants us to be humble? Our actions show otherwise. I speak as one more guilty than most. My rage can be fueled by a limited vision. I’m not quick to understand the reasoning of someone who disagrees with me. I am informed by a world-view of my own making. Seldom does that include taking the time to consider that someone else’s view might be as provocative as my own. I rush to my office, look up at my wall of institutional degrees, and conclude that certainly Jesus must think like me.

        This morning’s text reminds us that conceit and ego were not invented in the 21st century. The church at Philippi had hit a bump in the road. Two folks stood diametrically opposed to each other and demanded the church take sides. Paul was asked to step in and solve the schism. In a moment of brilliance the apostle whispered, “Humble yourselves and God will lift both of you up. We are empowered not through rage or anger or might.  We are empowered when we take a knee, not only to Christ, but with those Christ calls his children.”

        I can’t think of a better day to remember this than on World Communion Sunday. This is one of those celebrations Presbyterians got right. It was begun by a Presbyterian minister in New York City in 1933. Our country was a mess. The Great Depression was creating food lines that wrapped around buildings. Roosevelt introduced his New Deal Policy which initially was not fully embraced by members of his own party. An American Nazi party was organized and supported by some prominent New Yorkers. Christians became suspicious of other Christians. Hugh Thompson Kerr went to ministers throughout the city and asked, “If we can’t do anything else together, let’s at least come to the Lord’s Table as one people.” Initially only a few folks outside the Presbyterian tradition joined Kerr.  But by 1940 the first Sunday of October was celebrated as the day Presbyterians, Methodist, United Church of Christ, Lutherans, Brethren, and Disciples of Christ gathered at the table of Christ. Today, denominations all over the world celebrate today as a day of communion and a day to pray for peace.

        I had the honor of eating lunch with Tom Long on Thursday. Tom is a noted theologian who has taught at Union, Princeton, and Emery. Since retirement Tom gives lectures and workshops around the country. I am lucky enough to have known him for some time. I asked Tom why he thought folks are drawn to the idea of World Communion. I love his answer.  He said, “When Jesus was teaching and preaching Augustus Caesar was the most powerful man in the Roman world. In the eyes of most, Augustus Caesar was a god. But Jesus never mentions him.”

        Well sometimes I am not the brightest knife in the drawer so I looked at Tom and said, “What’s your point?”

        “Today the most powerful folks in the world are Merkel, Macron, Trump, Kim and a slew of others. They consume our conversations. But if Jesus were around today, he would respond the same way he responded 2,000 years ago. Jesus would say, “I am about my Father’s business.” Then Tom smiled, “Louie, you know what that business is!”

Indeed I do. It is lifting up the broken and empowering those who are enslaved. It is recognizing those who are never seen and releasing those who have never felt free. It is speaking a word of peace to those at war and word of hope to those who are victims of war. In bending the knee, we are saying to any institution that worships power or any nation that specializes in terror that we are Christians. We need to be about our father’s business.

That is why today Christian’s worldwide come to the table. Then, for the sake of others, together, we take a knee.     

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Giving Thanks


Exodus 16:2-15

        None us need Mac Davis to remind us that memories are tucked between the corners of our mind.      Memories occupy a special place in our soul.  Memories, like the smell of a fresh cut rose lingers in our mind, reminding us of another time and place.  Some memories come with a degree of pain as we recall a moment of bitterness.  The best memories offer the promise of a new day.  Some hark back to the sage who reminds us that the darkest moments often come just before the dawn.  It is these memories that sustain us and give us hope.
        Faith is built on memories.  The Exodus story a reminder, to both Jews and Christians alike, that while Pharaoh can come in all shapes and sizes, in the end, it is God who stands tall in the midst of adversity.
        A favorite memory from the Exodus tradition is the story of manna from heaven.  The slaves crossed into the wilderness and declared themselves free from Egyptian tyranny.  Immediately they discovered being free isn’t everything they had imagined.  In Egypt, where they were shackled, they also knew breakfast would be on the table.  In the wilderness, their food was running out and with it their reliance on God.  All that had left was their voice and my, oh my, did they complain.  They screamed at Moses, “Did you and your God lead us out here into the wilderness just so we would die?”  I am always amazed how quickly the Hebrews were ready to pack up the promise of freedom for the security of being a slave.  At each turn in the road they would complain.  The majority wanted to go back to Egypt.  I think if they could have figured out how to re-cross the Red Sea many would have.  But there was no turning back.  They had to learn the hard way that when God makes a promise, God fulfills that promise.
        The Israelites were instructed each morning, just after the sun rose, the desert would sparkle with breakfast.  Each person was to gather just enough “manna” to last one day.  If they gathered too much, the leftovers would spoil.  If they gathered it too late the sun would ruin it.  If they didn’t gather it, they would go hungry.  It wasn’t a great meal.  It certainly lacked in variety.  But it was enough to sustain folks until the next sunrise.  They might not have gotten what they wanted, but they certainly got what they needed.
        This story remains burned in the memories of the Hebrew people.  The message, “God will provide”, was too simple to ever be forgotten. Can you think of a time when God has not provided?  Oh maybe it wasn’t exactly what we wanted, but looking back, can you think of a time when God’s gifts have been lacking.  The truth is we take the gifts of God for granted every day.
        I had eggs for breakfast yesterday.  Amazingly, I did not have to go out to the barn and retrieve them.  In fact if memory serves me right those eggs found their way to my house over a week ago and they were still fresh.  Can you imagine what my great grandparents would have given for fresh eggs and milk any morning they so desired them? 
Before I left the house this morning, I checked my weather app to see what kind of day it was going to be.  We have had four hurricanes blow our way in the past month. As deadly as they have been can you imagine what it would be like to not to know a hurricane was coming.  Hurricane Harvey wrecked havoc upon the Texas coast. But everyone was warned to leave days in advance.  100 years ago 5,000 folks died in Galveston because no one knew the storm was coming.
Now you can say that refrigeration and apps on a phone are created by the inventiveness of the human mind.  Or you might give credit where credit is due and believe that God gave us the ability to think.  Every day I am amazed at the gifts of God that I just take for granted.  Every step of my life, every triumph, every tragedy, every non-descript day, God has walked beside me, patted me on the back and lifted me up when necessary.
Of course too often we play the role of the confused Israelites in the desert.    When things go bad, if the gas prices are high, if the stock market takes a plunge, we throw up our hands and scream to whoever might care to hear, “How could this happen?  This is the worst day of my life.  Send me back to Egypt so I can die as a slave.  Where are you God when I need you?”  And ironically, we still have eggs in the refrigerator, and I can still check out the weather on my app.
Think back for a moment.  What was the worst day of your life?  Perhaps a family member was diagnosed with a grave illness.  Perhaps you lost a job. Perhaps it was 9-11.  During that event, where was God?
What was the best day of your life?  Perhaps it was a marriage or the birth of a child?  Perhaps it was when your child achieved something remarkable?  Perhaps it is anytime you wake up and don’t find your name in the obituary?  Where was God?
Sometimes the presence of God is not apparent until days or maybe even years later.  At times of birth, we are so busy counting toes we forget who is the author of life.  At times of bereavement we are so busy drying tears we forget who conquered death.  In times of crisis, we forget God has seen and responded to every crisis known to humankind.
Whether you are in the wilderness waiting for manna or in the midst of a confusing day waiting for relief, God is there, waiting to be acknowledged, waiting to be heard, and waiting to see if we will respond to God’s holy truth.
Each day we dare to wake up can become a memory validating that God is good.
Each day we dare to get out of bed can became a confirmation that nothing can separate us from the love of God.
Every day we eat breakfast is an affirmation that God may not supply what we want but we do receive what we need.
Memories are not just tucked between the corners of our mind. Memories are the foundation of our faith. Each of us has experienced a miracle. Each of us has received a little manna. Think of the abundance of God’s grace and mercy in your life. Then give thanks. For God is good.  God’s mercy is everlasting.                  To God be the glory.  Amen.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Who is your Pharaoh?


Montreal Baptist Church

“Who is your Pharaoh?”

 

        Good Afternoon.

        It is an honor to be standing in the pulpit of James Rose. This is such holy ground I should take off my shoes. No one is more highly respected in this county than your minister. His voice is heard at Commission meetings. His prayers are heard at the Sheriff’s office. He walks the halls of our schools. If you are sick, he is there. If you are discouraged, he is there. If you need a friend, he is there. To count James as a friend does not make me unique, for James is a friend to every person in Nelson County. But it does make me blest.  Thank you, my friend, for inviting me to stand in your pulpit. Thank you for inviting some members of the Rockfish Choir to sing to God and your folks.   We are here to serve you through our music, through our words, and through our prayers.

Will you pray with me.

Lord we have come to this holy place,

to be among holy people,

who thrive on Your Holy Word. 

        Touch my heart,

that I might be open to your spirit.

        Touch my lips,

                That Your spirit might find amplification.

        Touch my soul,

                That I might understand the difference between,

                        Your truths and my diversions.

                In the name of Jesus, I pray. Amen.

What a joy it is to be here…..in the middle of the afternoon….. after many of us have been in church all morning…. And after all of us have consumed a mid-day meal.  Many of us would prefer to be snoozing in our easy chair pretending to watch football. But thank God for the women. They got us to church this morning. They fixed the meal at noon. And they told us if we came to church this afternoon we could snooze along with everyone else because some white guy is bringing the message. Well I am here to tell you it is worse than that. This white guy is Presbyterian. Let’s be honest. When James told you a Presbyterian was going to be preaching at your revival didn’t your heart sort of sink? Didn’t you turn to your husband and whisper, “Reverend Rose must have been out in the sun too long.” Whoever heard of a Presbyterian preaching at a revival? In the Presbyterian Church if you say “Amen”, folks think the service is over and we go home.  If you say “Thank You Jesus” or “Praise God” the elders will give you directions to the nearest Baptist Church.  So I can understand why you might be a little nervous about what’s happening next. Let me assure of one thing.  I don’t preach long. So no matter how painful the experience, it will be quick.  Can I hear an Amen from the choir?

The scripture I have chosen comes from the last three verses of the second chapter of Exodus. “After a long time the King of Egypt died. Another Pharaoh took his place. The children of Israel became slaves and they groaned under Pharaoh’s rule. Their cry for help rose up to God and God remembered the promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”  

The title of this sermon is, “Who is your Pharaoh?”

As I confessed, I know very little about Revivals. But I have seen people revived.   I spend a lot of time in hospitals. I have witnessed the miracle of a heart being revived when everyone had given up hope. I spend a lot of time doing counseling. I have sat with folks struggling with their marriage. I have witnessed lives revived when it seemed all was lost. I spend a lot of time with folks floundering with this thing we call faith. Sometimes the idea of God seems more than we can imagine. And then miraculously there is a spiritual transformation. Some folks call that born again. Presbyterians like to say we are revived to remember who we always have been, A Child of God.

The children of Israel needed to be revived. You know the story. Joseph made his brothers mad and so they sold him to slavers headed for Egypt. He could have become complacent and given up but Joseph remembered he was a child of God. He was bought by Potipher and won the confidence of his master. He also attracted the eye of Potipher’s wife. Joseph should have feared his master wife even to the point of giving in to her desires but he refused because, he was a child of God. Being a man of integrity got Joseph thrown into prison. He was shackled but not broken. He began to interpret dreams and his gift was noticed. Eventually Joseph was brought before Pharaoh and put in charge of preparing Egyptians for the drought Joseph had predicted. Joseph fought complacency. Joseph rejected fear. Joseph refused to be broken by slavery because he never forgot who he was.

As Joseph predicted, a drought came across the land. Thanks to the foresight of Joseph, the storehouses of Egypt were full. People from near and far came to barter for food. Then one day, the folks needing assistance were the brothers of Joseph. Joseph could have had them killed on the spot, but he didn’t. Joseph remembered who he was. In an act of compassion few can understand, he embraced those who had enslaved him and welcomed his family to Egypt. But not even Joseph, with all his ability to see into the future could imagine what would happen next.

Pharaoh died. Joseph lost his meal ticket. The next Pharaoh did not know Joseph. The descendents of Joseph should have jumped up and headed home. They should have known they were strangers in a strange land. But they had forgotten the stories of Abraham. They had forgotten they were a chosen people. They had even forgotten they were the children of God. They weren’t happy being in Egypt.  They were just to complacent to leave.

Ever suffer from the disease of complacency. You become satisfied with who you are. Oh you used to have dreams, but they have been forgotten. You used to have an appetite but now everything taste the same.  You used to see the sunrise as the opportunity for a new adventure but now you barely have the energy to get out of bed. You go about your business. You don’t even care that at the end of the day Pharaoh pays you less than your worth. That’s what happened to the children of Israel. They got comfortable living in Egypt. They let someone else do their dreaming. And Pharaoh watched, and Pharaoh smiled, because Pharaoh depends on us becoming complacent.

Then fear set in. Word began to circulate in the Israelite camp that Pharaoh was not happy. The production of bricks was less than satisfactory. The number of mouths that needed to be fed was cutting into Pharaoh’s profits. What good were these Hebrews if they couldn’t meet the Egyptian’s requirements? See the subtle change that has taken place. When Joseph and his brothers came to Egypt they were known as the children of Israel which means, “Willing to struggle with God.” Now they called themselves Hebrews which translates as, “From the other side of the water.” They had gone from a people defined by faith to a people longing for a place they couldn’t even imagine. They might have wanted to leave but to do so would mean crossing the water. If you are afraid, you don’t venture out. If you are afraid, you become satisfied. If you are afraid, you allow yourself to become enslaved. Pharaoh has no power unless we give it to him, and that was exactly what the Hebrews, the people from the other side of the water, did. They enslaved themselves to a new master.

Complacency leads to fear. Fear leads to enslavement. Enslavement leads to hopelessness and hopelessness is a very real sign of a people who have lost their memory. The Hebrew people had no idea who they were. No one could remember what was on the other side of the water. No one could remember Yahweh. They cried out into the darkness because they had lost sight of the light. They cried out because they had forgotten how to do anything else. Complacent folks don’t have a plan, just a complaint. Fearful people have pain and barely any hope. Enslaved people redefine the very definition of life. That is what living under the thumb of Pharaoh can do. We cry out, never thinking anyone will hear. We cry out, oblivious to the memories we have lost. We still cry out, never expecting that someone across river might hear our voice. We cry out because we have forgotten our name, Child of God.

Now don’t think the Hebrew people did anything to deserve God’s grace. Truth is they forgotten God. They cried out in the darkness never expecting a reply.  They knew Pharaoh had won. And they were right.

Pharaoh loves complacency. When we give up; when we blame everyone else; when we won’t even try; Pharaoh wins.

Pharaoh thrives on fear. When we are so afraid to change our ways because we are fear losing what we don’t even have, Pharaoh wins.

Pharaoh depends on us giving up. When we feel enslaved by life, when we feel everything is stacked against us, when we feel the weight of the world on our shoulders, Pharaoh wins. 

Pharaoh is happiest when we are a complacent, fearful, enslaved, and a quiet people. Pharaoh knows when we voice our complaint, we are still alive. Pharaoh knows when we lift our voice, somebody might be listening.

So let’s return to my favorite part of our scripture. Imagine God sitting way off in the corner of the universe playing poker with the angels. God picked up his cards and glances down at an Ace, King, Queen, Jack, Ten, all hearts. God coolly lay the hand face down on the table, picks up a cold bottle of his favorite adult beverage and takes a long drink. Then God checks out the faces of each angel and slyly smiles.  The chips began to grow in the middle of the table as each participant believes they possess the winning hand. God get’s ready to push all his chips in when a distant cry comes to his attention. God flips his cards to the middle of the table and declares, “I need to fold. My people need me.”

What kind of God relinquishes a winning hand to rescue a lost cause? A God who remembers.

The Hebrew people had forgotten that Abraham came out of retirement to risk everything on the promise of having a son. They forgot there was nothing complacent about that old man. But God remembered.

The Hebrew people had forgotten that when Isaac saw the knife above his heart as he lay on the altar, he never wavered.  The Hebrews forgot there was no fear in that young man. But God remembered.

The Hebrew people had forgotten that even though Jacob was born second, he would not relinquish his fate to cultural expectations. They forgot no one was going to enslave that rebel. But God remembered.

God remembered the deal made with Abraham. I will be your God and you will be my people. God remembered the birth of Isaac, sealing the deal. God remembered wrestling with Jacob and renaming him Israel because the rebel was willing to struggle with God.

Imagine worshipping a God with that kind of memory. It creates all kind of problems. A God with a memory knows us better than we know ourselves. A God with a memory isn’t likely to listen to a lot of excuses. A God with a memory is liable to look us straight in the heart and ask, “Who is your Pharaoh?   Who drives you into complacency? Who puts fear into your heart? Who shackles your dreams?”

  I wonder who Joseph saw when he looked into a mirror.  Did he see the boy thrown into the pit or a man who controlled his destiny? Did he see a slave who lost his identity or man who knew he was a child of God?

Who do you see when you look into a mirror? Do you see someone walking in the light or do you see someone broken down by Pharaoh’s whips? Do you see someone who thrives on God’s word or someone who struggles to even remember the holy promise? Don’t be ashamed to admit who you are. Pharaoh can wear you out. Pharaoh wants to leave you without hope. But Pharaoh can never quiet your voice.

If you look in that mirror and don’t like who you see, get down on your knees and pray, “Jesus, have mercy.”

If you look in that mirror and you are overcome by fear, cry out, “Jesus, still the storm in my life.”

If you look in that mirror and can’t remember who God intended you to be, scream until your lungs bleed.   

WHY, because you are a child of the living God. Despite having the winning hand, despite all the chips laying there for the taking, once God hears your voice, God will still stand up say, “Boys, I’ve got to fold. Someone needs me.”

Listen to the good news in this morning’s scripture.

Despite our complacency, God comes to us.

Despite our fears, God comes to us.

Despite our chains, God comes to us,

Because we are children of the living God.

Remember that!

Remember That!

        REMEMBER THAT!

                And be revived!            Amen.