Sunday, June 17, 2012

Jacob's Ladder

Gen. 28:10-19a; 

                                We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
                                We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
                                We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
                                Brothers, sisters, all.

What on earth did Jacob see?  Lying there, suspended between earth and heaven, watching those angels parade on the holy escalator, this Biblical Jack had a vision of a beanstalk that led to more than a pot of gold.  And yet we are never told what Jacob saw at the top of the ladder? Was it the throne of God?  Was it a place where all our loved ones are waiting for us?  Mary Chapin Carpenter, in her song My Heaven, writes, “Nothing shatters, nothing breaks, nothing hurts and nothing aches.  We got ourselves one helluva place, in my heaven.  Grandma’s up here, grandpa too, in a condo with a to-die-for view. More memories than my heart can hold, when Eva sings, ‘Fields of Gold’, in my heaven.”  What on earth did Jacob see, as he lay on the ground, suspended between earth and heaven?
        We are such a visual people.  Most of us have a huge dose of Doubting Thomas running through our veins.  We have to see or touch. We have to experience before we truly believe.  We want to know what Jacob saw and then we want to see it for ourselves.  We want to leave nothing to chance.  But that is not the way faith works. God’s revelations, God’s glimpses of heaven, are usually auditory, not visual.  Moses begged to see God, but the Lord only offered the phrase, “I am”.   John began his gospel by describing Jesus as, “The Word”.  Our savior reminds us faith is based on what we hear and believe rather than on what we see.  While we focus on the ladder that captured Jacob’s imagination, we are better served by the promise the young man heard, “I am with you and will keep you forever.”
                                Every rung goes higher, higher.
                                Every rung goes higher, higher.
                                Every rung goes higher, higher.
                                Brothers, sisters, all    

        Why Jacob?  God choosing Jacob makes about as much sense as God choosing Israel.  Jacob tricked his brother, lied to his father and was forced to leave home due to his ill behavior.  And yet God recognized his potential. What could God have seen in this young man?  Up to this point in his life the noblest thing Jacob had accomplished was to run away.  And yet here he was at Bethel, looking up into the stars at that stairway to heaven.  Why Jacob?  Why any of us?
        The Psalmist sings, “Lord, you have searched me and known me.  Where can I go from your presence?  Where can I go from your spirit?  You formed my inward parts.  Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.   In your book was written all the days of my life.”
        God knows us because God created us.  God sees the potential in each of us because God placed a particular gift within our souls.  It doesn’t do any good to quarrel with God about whether or not we are gifted.  It’s like arguing with your parents on report card day.  I still remember when I was a kid I would come home and have to face my parents as they evaluated my progress or lack there of over the past six weeks. It would begin with mom.  She was the worst.  It seemed she could only see my failures.  Remember when we used to get grades for penmanship and spelling.  I never had a chance. Mom’s solution for failure, and in my mom’s eye that was any grade below a 90, was to eliminate outdoor activities after school.  There were times I would come home and hand over my ball glove before she saw the report card.  Then she would say, “Sit here until your dad gets home and we can discuss this.”  After a lengthy conversation between my parents, my father would come in and say, “Do you feel you are performing up to your potential?”  What kind of question is that?  I always wanted to say, “Dad, have you looked at your handwriting lately.  You know, this might be genetic.”  But of course I didn’t.  I would always admit that I was capable of doing better.  Then they would say the worst possible thing imaginable.  “All we have ever asked is that you do your best.”  Now that I have been a parent for over 31 years I know that there is a chasm the size of the Grand Canyon between a parent and child’s definition of what constitutes one’s best effort.  And I have come to believe that same gulf exist when it comes to our relationship with God.  Who better than God knows what we can accomplish when we tap into the recourses of our potential.  Jacob the thief, Jacob the liar could not see himself as Jacob the father of the 12 tribes of Israel. But God could.  In the darkness of that hallowed night, God awakened Jacob and said, “Son, look at the ladder.  Pull yourself up rung by rung and become part of my kingdom.”  Jacob must have responded to the voice by saying, “Am I dying?”  And God said, “No my son.  It is time for you to start living.”  Jacob said, “I don’t know what to do.” God responded, “Yes you do.  Listen to your heart.  And remember, I am with you always.”
                                If you love him, why not serve him.
                                If you love him, why not serve him.
                                If you love him, why not serve him.
                                Brothers, sisters, all.

        One of the amazing things that we often forget about Jacob’s ladder is the purpose of the dream was never to show Jacob the gate of heaven but rather to reaffirm God’s promise that the land would belong to the ancestors of Abraham.  It was an affirmation that Jacob was God’s guy.  Can you imagine how alone Jacob must have felt when he laid down that fateful night.  Of course you can.  We all have those moments locked away in our psyche when we were not sure what tomorrow might bring.  Too often we find our lives in juxtaposition with the life of Jacob.  We are moving from one land or one job, or one experience to another.  We are not really sure if the steps we are taking are the right ones.  We can’t go back, but we are nervous about stepping forward.  And in the midst of our uncertainty someone comes up to us and says, “You belong here, we have been waiting for you to arrive.”  In other words, “You are our guy”.
        Sometimes I think we are so busy looking for heaven, we forget God has placed us here for some heavenly purpose. Don’t ever think that your presence here is some grand cosmic mystery.  God knows our coming and our going.  God placed us in the path of others as an opportunity for more than just an accidental collision.  From the beginning God chose Jacob to be the next step in the formation of the tribes of Israel.  Looking up into the sky, Jacob heard a voice that said, “The land on which you stand is the same land which I gave to your grandfather Abraham.  In due time it will be yours.  You will be in charge of a great family and I will be here to help you along the way.”
        I dare to suggest this morning that each of you, in some particular and marvelous way, is God’s guy. God chose you and gave you the gift to fulfill some heavenly task.  I have no idea what it is but I suspect you know.  Maybe it is obvious.  Sarah discovered she was called to involve this congregation with folks in Guatemala.  Lynn has committed her days to working with the sick and disenfranchised in Nelson County.  Pat has decided to minister to the older folks in our neighborhood.  Fred, Cathie, Deb, Olivia, and Phyliss, have dedicated a year of their life to our young folks. Nellie Ray are here but their hearts are always in Southwest Virginia. I could go on and on but you get the point.  God has chosen each of us for a particular purpose.  Sometimes it is obvious.  Sometimes, like Jacob, we need a visual illustration to clear our eyes.   But the bottom line is God has chosen you to create a piece of heaven here in this place.  God has said to you, “You are not alone.  I will be here to help you.  I will be a light when the way looks dark.  I will be lift you up and cheer you on, but you must first trust me enough to grab hold of the ladder and become one of my angels.”
         Close your eyes. Open your ears and you will hear the voice of God.  Close your eyes. Open your mind and you will see a ladder before you. Close your eyes.  Open your heart and grab your opportunity to become someone’s angel.  Close your eyes. Open your spirit to the possibility of God’s kingdom here on earth.  

        When we think of Jacob’s ladder, we think of climbing it and discovering heaven.  But Jacob discovered the ladder has a far holier purpose.  God comes down to us.  God reminds us that we are not here by accident but have been put on this earth for a sacred purpose.  And then God promises, “I am with you now and I will be with you forever.”  If God could see potential in Jacob, imagine what God must see in us.

                                                We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.
                                We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.
                                We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.
                                Brothers, sisters, all.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

What Does Your God Offer?

 1 Sam. 8:4-11; 2 Cor. 4:13-5:1
        The Apostle Paul writes, “We look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen.  What can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.”
        Bill Howard walked into my office earlier this week to talk about the computer that sits on my desk.  His question was very simple, “How do you like what you have?”  I had some definite thoughts about what I had and what I might desire.  My computer is a desk top version.  It will go as far as an extension cord will allow.  In terms of internet access, wireless is not an option.  On the flip side, it is a wonderful typewriter and is great for writing sermons.  Other than that it seems inadequate.  Of course how would I really know?  My understanding of what a computer can or cannot do is tied to my limited vision.  My computer probably does all kinds of wonderful things beyond my narrow imagination. But if a narrow imagination is all I have to work with, then it is my imagination that limits the possibilities of what might be.
        In our Old Testament passage, Israel suffers from limited imagination.  They want a king for one reason and one reason alone, everyone else had one.  Up until this time Israel was a loosely defined group of tribes that had no centralization in their political structure.  If there was a problem, a judge such as Samuel was the go to guy.  There was no separation of Church and State.  The judge/prophet spoke for God and the people were expected to respond.  Sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t.  The demands of God were a little tougher than the people desired.  Israel felt if they had contact with someone who lived among them, such as a king, the lines of communication would be better and the world would become a safer place.  In other words, the people desired a champion who would comply with their demands rather than a God who possessed an entirely different set of priorities.
        As we enter the political season, I think we understand this completely.  Be honest now.  When we pick our political favorites, what is our number one concern?  Is it National Security; environmental issues; the economy; foreign wars; or does it simply come down to voting for the guy who thinks closest to the way we think?  In other words, who is going to take care of what is important to me?  That is exactly what was on the minds of the Israelites.  They wanted a king.  They wanted someone who was just like them, who understood their problems and would respond to their needs.  They had no desire to have their imaginations stretched,  Against the wishes of Samuel and God, Israel got what it desired.  Samuel was told to go out and anoint a King who would create a centralized government.  Walter Brueggemann makes an interesting comment on this text.  “There was both indignation and pathos in the voice of God who knew better than to let them travel the road alone but God was exhausted by a people of limited vision who insisted on their own way.”   
        God through Samuel warned Israel about “the ways of kings”. Samuel promised the culmination of political power and centralized government would bring with it the redistribution and concentration of wealth, the monopoly of land control, taxation, confiscation of land and the drafting of an army.  Samuel finished with this dire admonition, “You will once again be slaves, but this time when you cry to God, Yahweh will not answer.  You have sought a new earthly rather than heavenly covenant, one which leads to futility, abandonment and eventually death.”  We all know none of that matters when one only plans for today. The visions that tomorrow brings are always is something in the future, not to be considered, until it is too late. 
        Perhaps this would be a good time before you get overly nervous to assure you that during this political season I have no intention of using this pulpit to make the case for anyone who is  seeking to become our next “king”.  If you want that “sermon” you will have to talk to me on my back porch.  But let us never forget the Bible is a very political book that makes no distinction between church and state. Furthermore, this text is one of those dangerous passages that is saying a lot more to us than who we might vote for in the upcoming election.  It is questioning our relationship with God.  Do we trust God?  Can we trust God? What kind of relationship are we willing to risk with this deity that demands far more than most of us are wiling to relinquish?  For some the most fundamental questions are, “Who exactly do I believe God to be and what can God offer me?”  That is the selfish question that has dominated theological minds from the time of Samuel.  But I think there is a far important question, a question that fell from the lips of the Israelites once they put their trust in kings.   Not only who is God but where is God?
        The youngest of theologians, our very own children and grandchildren respond quickly to this question.  “God is every where.”  That is what we have correctly taught them to believe.  Of course they also believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Good Fairy.  Eventually their childlike imaginations are dispelled by the harsh reality of the world.  Like most of us, our innocent children grow into adults that have lost the ability to dream beyond their own desires.  Then when tragedy strikes, together we look skyward, demanding God appear and punish those we have anointed as king.  What a daunting message to deliver just before we go outside and have a church picnic.
        Where is God?  I suspect the great truth is God is never where we expect God to be.  Like the prophet Elijah we anticipate a booming voice which rises above the wind and gives us a clear answer to all our desperate inquiries.   Like the great reformer Martin Luther we clamor out into the middle of an electrical storm hoping the words of God will be written across the sky.  You might remember both men were sorely disappointed.  The wind, the rain, the fire and the storm offered nothing.  But then, when they were calm, when they were silent, when they were ready, when they moved beyond their own desires and yearned for a Godly vision, a word came to them in a still small voice.  It was as if God was saying, “Are you finally ready to listen to me?”
        There is an ancient story about a conversation between a student and teacher.
         “Where shall I find God”, the student asked.
        “Here”, the teacher said.
        “Then why can’t I see God.”
        “Because you do not look.”
        “But what should I look for?”
        “Nothing. Just look”
        “But at what?”
        “At anything your eyes alight upon.”
        “Must I look in a special kind of way?”
        “No, the ordinary way will do.”
        “But don’t I look in the ordinary way?”
        “No you don’t.”
        Exasperated the student asked, “Why not?”
        The teacher calmly explained, “In order to find God you must be here.  You’re mostly somewhere else.”
        To believe in the God of the Incarnation is to believe in the imagination of a God who comes to us in the now, in the ordinary, in the moment of our spiritual dawning and allows us to see with eyes and hearts a vision beyond our immediate desires.  God is discovered when we acknowledge we live in the dawning of God’s coming age.  God is discovered in our stories, in our dreams and in our songs. God is discovered when we look beyond what we cannot see and imagine what God desires.   “God”, according to Desmond TuTu, “is discovered in a goodness that is stronger than hate.” 
        So dream, not of what is but rather of what could be when we trust in God’s amazing imagination.                      Amen.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Nic at Night

John 3:1-17
There is something about the night I find frightening. If you know me very well that might seem hard to believe. I love darkness and I find the unknown to be incredibly stimulating. In the darkness I am much more aware of my surroundings. My vision becomes intensified and I am not just talking about my eyesight. At night, when things slow down, when there is time to do nothing but think, that which confused me at noon sometimes begins to make sense. And when things began to make sense, often that becomes an incredible reason to be afraid.

That is why I love TV. A brain is not required to watch television. I admit I am a Jeopardy freak which takes a bit of concentration but for the most part the shows I watch require some but not all of my attention. I can watch NCIS or Law and Order, flip back and forth to the ball games, have a conversation with my wife and still figure out the plot. If I wanted Shakespeare, I would retreat to bedroom room, shut the door, and open my mind completely to the Great Bard. But TV, that is pretty much a no brainer. Just how much focus does it take to watch ESPN or for that matter CNN. Besides, if I didn’t watch TV I would begin to think about whatever scripture I was working on for Sunday. Let me tell you, at night, when you study scripture away from all the routines and interruptions going on during the day, sometimes it begins to make sense. Trust me, when the Word of God begins to make sense, dangerous things are sure to follow.

A prime example of this was Nicodemus. If you are not familiar with the man let me review his credentials. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, a leader in the Jewish community. During the day he was a highly respected teacher of the Torah. But at night, when no one was around, and when the mind is open to discover that which seemed improbable during the day, Nicodemus would search out Jesus to ask deep theological questions concerning the kingdom of God. Why did Nicodemus visit at night? Perhaps he did not want his fellow church leaders to know he was seeking out the guidance of the controversial rabbi from Galilee. Or perhaps it was something more. In the daylight, in the midst of making sure the books are balanced, the holidays observed, and the dietary and social laws obeyed, the words of Jesus must have sounded like utter nonsense. But at night, when things slowed down and Nicodemus took time to examine his soul, I suspect he discovered a huge, empty void.

How often do you take the time to look deeply into your soul and careful reflect on how you stack up to the words that Jesus has so freely offered to us? There were not many people in Jerusalem who had a better reputation than Nicodemus. He was an honest man who grappled with honest questions. Like us he was concerned about his children. He worried about the economy, crime in the street and the general welfare of the status quo. He was a very religious person who attended the Synagogue faithfully. And yet something seemed to be missing. He wondered why God had placed Jesus in the midst of his life. He wondered why his colleagues treated Jesus as an adversary. During the day, when he was in the midst of all the rituals of being a good religious person Nicodemus probably didn’t think much about Jesus. But at night, when he listened to his heart, Nicodemus knew something was terribly wrong. Perhaps that is why he sought out Jesus. This one man looked beyond cultural expectations and routine matters to speak words of hope and radical transformations.

Sometimes it is so easy to forget our primary job as members of the church of Jesus Christ. It makes sense to worry about the budget, the physical plant, the programs for our children, the fellowship opportunities, the music and a lot of other really important things. I hear folks asking why churches continue to decline in membership? Some folks want to know why the church seems to be out of touch with people under 30? Others raise questions about involvement with social issues? All are those are great questions that take up a lot of my daylight hours. But at night, when it is OK to dare to step a bit out of the box, I sometimes dare to think the greatest danger to Christianity today is our desire to be religious. I suspect that wasn’t in your top ten list. What on earth could be wrong with appearing religious? Being religious brings to mind such expressions as pious, devout and Godly. Certainly nothing wrong with that. But being “religious” can also refer to a system of beliefs, practices and ethical values which spend too much time on appearances rather than transformations.

Nicodemus belonged to one of the most religious groups known to humankind. During the life of Jesus, Jerusalem housed one of the finest schools in the Roman Empire. There the Torah was taught, memorized and practiced. The Sabbath was holy and faithfully observed. Prayer was not just allowed in school, it was required. The Ten Commandments adorned the walls of every government building. In each home hung a plaque which read “Hear O Israel, Blessed is our God.” How much more religious can you get? Yet here was Nicodemus, faithful in his attendance, faithful in his prayers, faithful in his giving, faithful in his religious duties and yet, late at night, he felt so spiritually empty.

How many of you can understand Nicodemus? How often have you thought if you do everything correctly, your reward here on earth will be great. You attend church, you say and do all the right things, you have everyone fooled into believing that your faith is central in your life, but the problem is you can’t fool yourself. Is there something missing? You look around and notice that as far as power and possessions go, attending church doesn’t seem to matter all that much. You have discovered in this life it rains on the just and the unjust. That doesn’t seem fair but that is just the way it is. Nicodemus lived a good religious life. But he knew there must be more than just doing everything the right way. He was smart, he worked hard, and he put in the necessary hours. Nicodemus, a rational, intellectual man looked at his life and realized something was missing. In the darkness, he wept over his loneliness; in the darkness he confronted his emptiness; in the darkness he sought the light; in the darkness he finally had the courage to say, “Jesus, I can no longer live my life without you.”

In perhaps the most important chapter in the book of John, Jesus said to Nicodemus, and to every one of us, “You are not supposed to live life alone. God loves you so much you, God has sent me as a sacrifice in order that you will have abundant life.”

John 3:16, those words that we learned as children are far too complex for me to fully comprehend. Why must Jesus die in order that I might live? Why can’t I live a life worthy and acceptable to God? How is the sacrifice of one sufficient for us all? When I ask those questions in the light of day, I can come up with a basket full of theological explanations that satisfy my brain ….. but not my heart. But then at night, with the TV off, and no distractions to interfere with the mysterious wonders of God’s handiwork, I am completely overwhelmed by the magnitude of God’s mercy. God ordained the sacrifice of a loved one on behalf of a prodigal and ungrateful world. What kind of sense does that make? I have no logical answer for God’s grace. And yet, fully aware of by my own weakness, I give thanks. For in the darkness, I embrace grace, the antidote for my sin sick soul.