Southminster Presbyterian Church

We are a community of people encouraging each other, seeking to be like Jesus; serving God by loving generously, proclaiming boldly, and giving with grace and humility.


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To Be Continued

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Genesis 50:15-26; Jeremiah 29:4-14

            I wonder how many of you remember an old 1960s television show called Lost in Space.  Or maybe you have seen reruns of it.  Its most memorable character was a robot that went around waving its arms saying, “Danger, Will Robinson!”  If you’ve never seen it, you are not missing anything.  It had bad acting, stupid plots, and ridiculous special effects, but my 10 year old friends and I watched it every week because of the way it ended.  Each week this family marooned on a distant planet faced some new crisis: lack of food or water, attack by aliens, or a disastrous mistake by one of the crew members, and each week the crisis was solved or averted.  But that was never the end of the episode.  Each week after the crisis passed, the show went on for another 2 or 3 minutes, and suddenly a new crisis enveloped the family.  Then the action froze, and a caption appeared on the screen that said, “To be continued,” and we were left hanging for another week.

            The ending of Genesis has written over it “To Be Continued.”  We see this first in the story of Joseph.  When the brothers sold Joseph as a slave to a passing caravan headed to Egypt, they assumed that the story of Joseph was over, that they were rid of Joseph once and for all.  So you can imagine their consternation when decades later they go to Egypt to buy food during a famine and discover that the Egyptian official selling them the food is none other than Joseph.  They thought the story of Joseph was over, but it wasn’t.  It had a sequel.

            Some of you have told me about some painful experiences in your past, times when you experienced neglect, abuse, harassment, or grossly unfair treatment.  In the news recently this has taken the form of sexual harassment and assault against women and in some cases against men, perpetrated by people in positions of power.  Maybe that has happened to you.  Or maybe you have had other experiences of mistreatment that have left a scar on your life.  Like Joseph you know how injustice feels.

            For you the ending of Genesis has good news.  Because injustice, abuse, and suffering do not have the last word in Joseph’s life, nor in yours.  Others may have intended you harm, but God has a plan for your good that will not be thwarted.

            But now at the end of Genesis, after their father Jacob dies, the brothers think that maybe their story is over, that their past is about to catch up to them.  They say to one another, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?”

            But Joseph says, “Do not be afraid!  Am I in the place of God?  Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.  So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.”

            When Joseph discovered that injustice and abuse did not have the last word over his life, he was empowered to forgive his brothers.  And when his brothers discovered that guilt did not have the last word over their lives, they were empowered to face the future with hope.

            As I said, some of you have shared with me painful experiences of mistreatment and abuse in your past; but some of you have also shared with me painful memories of being the one who did the mistreating, the one who did things for which you now feel shame, remorse, and guilt.  And even if you don’t have some dark deed in your past, I’ll bet all of you have felt guilt over something, if not something you did then something you didn’t do—the time you didn’t help when someone needed it, the time you did not speak up when someone was being mistreated, the time your silence or inaction contributed to someone’s downfall.  There are all kinds of ways for us to feel guilty.

            But for us, too, the story of Joseph is good news.  Just as the wrongs done to us are not the end of the story, neither are the wrongs we have done to others.  Just as God brought good out of the injustice done to Joseph, so also God brought forgiveness and blessing into the lives of his guilty brothers.  Guilt is not the end of the story.  There is a “To Be Continued” written by God into the script of our lives, a sequel where God can still work to make us a blessing, if we only give God the chance.

            But there is one more “To Be Continued” at the end of Genesis.  As he approaches his own death, Joseph says to his brothers, “I am about to die; but God will surely bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

            Interestingly, when Joseph delivers this promise, the people of Israel were not yet slaves in Egypt.  That would not happen for several generations.  At the time Joseph spoke these words, his brothers and their families were quite prosperous.  They were living in one of the most fertile places in the land of Egypt.  Their population was growing.  Eventually they would become so numerous and prosperous that the king of Egypt would fear them.  When Joseph said to his brothers, “God will surely bring you up out of this land,” they did not yet know how bad things would get.  They did not yet know that they would become slaves.  They did not yet know that Pharaoh would take their male babies and throw them in the Nile River.  That was still years away.  But Joseph knows that whatever happens in the future, God still has a future for his people.  And not even death, neither Joseph’s death nor ours, can thwart God’s purpose for us or derail the future God wants for God’s people.

            While I was a pastor in Potlatch, Idaho, I got to know a retired mill-worker named Fritz.  Fritz was not a member of our church, but I visited him because I heard his wife Alice was seriously ill.  Fritz was terrified at the prospect of losing Alice.  They were so close and did so many things together, he couldn't imagine life without her, and when Alice died, he was devastated.  He looked and acted like someone whose life was over.

            Fritz had never been a churchgoer, but after Alice died he was so lonely, he started coming to our church.  He always got there about 45 minutes hour early.  He said he didn't want to be late, but he lived only five minutes away.  I think he got there early because it meant less time being alone.  Since he was always there early, I put him in charge of folding the bulletins.  In Potlatch we did not have a church secretary; we didn’t even have a folding machine.  So I had Fritz fold the bulletins while he was waiting for church to start.  And while he was at it, we had him recruit ushers to take up the offering.  That made him the he ad usher.  Since he was the head usher, he thought he should join the church, which he did, and eventually he was elected to the session.

            Meanwhile, Fritz discovered the Boy Scout troop our church sponsored.  Since he had always been an avid outdoorsman, Fritz got involved with the troop on a regular basis helping some of the boys with their requirements.  Soon he was going to every meeting, and he became such an important part of the program he was given a distinguished service award by the Lewis and Clark Council of the Boy Scouts of America.  All of which happened in the six years following Alice’s death.

            I won't say that these were the happiest years of Fritz's life.  They weren’t.  Fritz still missed Alice and was terribly lonely.  But Fritz discovered that after Alice’s death there was a “To Be Continued” written over his life.  After Alice’s death Fritz discovered a new life he had not experienced before, and in the process he became a blessing to people in ways he never would have imagined.

            Six years after Alice’s death Fritz died, and we had a funeral service for him at the church.  The church was filled to overflowing with people, many of whom were there because they had gotten to know Fritz in the last six years of his life.  Included in the service that day were a whole row of Boy Scouts in full uniform who spontaneously stood at attention and saluted as Fritz's coffin was carried out of the church.

            There is a “To Be Continued” written over our lives, even after we have lost a job, even after we have been passed over for a promotion, even after we or a loved one has been diagnosed with a fatal disease.  Even after the loved one dies, even after we die, there is a “To Be Continued” written over our lives, a work of God yet to be completed that no past injustice, no present guilt, and no future tragedy can ever thwart.

Thanks and Giving

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Genesis 14:17-20; 28:18-22

            I have a confession.  I hate stewardship sermons, sermons about giving and pledging.  Partly because they seems so self-serving.  For a pastor to preach a sermon about giving is like the ultimate a conflict of interest.

            But my real problem with stewardship sermons is how bad many of them are.  This week I read message about giving on the website for Joel Osteen Ministries.  Now I know that some of you like Joel Osteen, and I have seen some good stuff that he has written.  But this message on his website, written by Lisa Comes, is really bad.  She starts out with a story:

One time God spoke to my parents to give a $5,000 offering. They always tithed, but this was an offering over and above their tithe. And it was a lot of money! My brothers and sisters were young at this time. I remember Daddy gathered all of us around him and said, “Kids, God spoke to us to give this offering, and we are going to pray over it. I just want you to know that God is going to bless us in return.” He wanted us to see how God works.  Well, a few weeks later, a lady from another state called my dad’s office. She said she was going to fly her own private plane to Houston because she had something to give him. Daddy met her at the airport, and she hand delivered a check to him for $5,000. She told him that God spoke to her to give him that money. She got back on that plane and went home.

            I want to know what kind of stewardship it is to fly a private plane across the country just to give someone a $5,000 check. The plane trip could have cost that much.  But that is not the lesson Lisa drew from the story.  Here is what Lisa said about the story:

God wants to bless you and prosper you in your finances and in all areas of your life, but there is a spiritual principle that we must follow in obeying and giving that unleashes God’s supernatural provision! …  Tithing is the key to financial blessings. Oftentimes, we want to receive the latter part, the overflowing part! And God wants us to! But we have to be faithful and obedient with the first part, giving.

            Did you notice how similar that is to Jacob in our first scripture reading?  Jacob says to God, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you.”

             For Jacob, as for Lisa Comes, giving is a way of making a deal with God.  If you give to God, God will give to you.

            Friends, that is not stewardship; it’s bribery, it’s manipulation—the same kind of manipulation Jacob tries throughout the book of Genesis: manipulating his father to give him the blessing instead of his brother Esau, then later trying to buy off his brother’s anger with waves of presents.  Jacob is always trying to manipulate people, and he does the same thing with God.  But he has missed the point.  God blessed Jacob, not because Jacob made a deal with God, but because God chose to bless Jacob even before he was born.  Jacob cannot and does not need to buy God’s favor.  He has already received it as a gift of God’s grace.

            And that brings me to Abraham.  Genesis 14 is a remarkable story of how Abraham organizes an army of 318 troops to defeat the armies of four kings and rescue his nephew Lot. On this Veterans Day weekend here is another little reminder that freedom does not come cheap.  It requires courage and sacrifice.  But then Abraham on his way back from this victory meets a mysterious priest/king named Melchizedek.  This is the first appearance of Melchizedek in the Bible, and also the last.  We are told nothing about him except that he is a priest of God Most High and that he comes from Salem, which is probably an abbreviation for Jerusalem.  It may be that Melchizedek is a symbolic figure, who anticipates the later priesthood that served God at the temple in Jerusalem.  The New Testament also suggests that Melchizedek is a symbolic figure anticipating the future priesthood of Jesus.  But none of that is mentioned in Genesis.  In Genesis, Melchizedek shows up, provides a meal for Abraham, and blesses him.

            But here is the part of the story I find interesting.  Abraham gives Melchizedek a tithe, one-tenth, of everything.  Abraham does not give this offering—for that is what this is, a kind of offering to God—in order to gain blessing for himself.  He gives it because he has already been blessed by God.  God blessed Abraham with an incredible victory including the safe rescue of his nephew.  Unlike Jacob, and unlike Lisa Comes, Abraham does not give a tithe to God in order to obtain God’s blessing but to give thanks for it.

            And that, I believe, is the proper understanding of stewardship.  We don’t give to God in order to get God’s blessing.  We give in thanks for all the blessings God has already given us.

            If you give for the reasons Lisa Comes suggests, you are not experiencing gratitude, you are experiencing greed.   Giving money to God in order to get more back does nothing to help us overcome greed in our hearts; it only reinforces it.  And if you give for the reasons Jacob gave, out of anxiety or fear, your gift will not help you overcomes those fears and anxieties.  Jacob continued to be plagued by anxiety and fear throughout the rest of the story.  Giving out of anxiety or fear does not remove those emotions from your heart, it only reinforce them, because you are still depending on yourself, on your own strength and resources.  People who give out of guilt, anxiety, or greed will never experience blessing.  Because they will always be experiencing more guilt, more anxiety, and the desire for even more money.

            The antidote to greed is gratitude.  The antidote for guilt is gratitude.  The antidote for anger and resentment is gratitude.  When we practice gratitude, we push aside the restless desire for always wanting more.  When we practice gratitude, we push aside the fear and guilt of never being good enough for God.  When we practice gratitude, we push aside our jealousy and resentment over what others have, replacing it with thankfulness for what we have.  Gratitude is the channel on which God’s blessing flows to us, and giving, rightly understood, is no more and no less than the practice of gratitude.

            So this year, as you make your pledge for the coming year, don’t give just to support the church budget.  Don’t get me wrong.  I care about the church budget as much as anyone.  But don’t give for the sake of the church budget.  Don’t give out of fear or guilt or even less out of a back-handed desire to wring a blessing out of God.  Give because God has already blessed you.  Give because you have a heart pumping blood through your body and it is bursting with gratitude.  Give because you know where your next meal is coming from and want to help those who don’t.  Give because of all the important people in your life on your cell phone contact list or because of those precious dependents that you list on your tax return as a deduction.  Give because you have both the strength and the freedom to be here this morning.  Give because when the day comes that everything in your life has changed—when the day comes that your job is over and your house is sold and your friends are gone and neither your body nor your mind work the way they once did—on that day your life will still be in the hands of a loving God who will never let you go, and that is the reason to give.

            The only true reason for giving is gratitude, and gratitude is itself part of the blessing that God wants to give us.

Wrestling with God

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Genesis 32:9-12 and 22-32

Introduction to Scripture Readings

Before we hear our scripture readings, we need a brief review of the story of Jacob.  Jacob is the grandson of Abraham who tricked his blind father Isaac into giving him the blessing that Isaac had intended for Jacob’s twin brother Esau.  When Esau found out about this, he vowed to kill Jacob.  So Jacob fled across the Jordan River to the east to live with his uncle Laban.  He lived with Laban for many years, working for him, marrying both of his daughters, and becoming quite prosperous.  But then God told Jacob to return to the land of his parents, the land that God has promised to Abraham, Isaac, and their descendants.  There is just one problem: to return to the promised land, Jacob has to face Esau.  So Jacob sends word to Esau that he is coming home, and word comes back that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men.  And that is where our first scripture begins.

[Read scriptures]

Sermon

[Slide 1] The story of Jacob’s wrestling match poses numerous questions:

1)      Who is the wrestler? [Click 1]

2)      Why are they wrestling? [Click 2]

3)      What’s with the stalemate? [Click 3] What does it mean that neither quite wins?

4)      Why are they obsessed with each other’s names? [Click 4]

5)      Why is daybreak so important? [Click 5]

Let’s take these questions one at a time:

Who is the wrestler? [Slide 2] The Bible says only that Jacob was alone, “and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.”  The man comes out of nowhere and is totally unidentified.  One interpretation is that Jacob is having a dream about wrestling with Esau. [Click 1] That might explain why they are wrestling.  They have been wrestling with each other since they were born.  It might also explain the stalemate.  But why are they asking each other’s names?  And why would Esau have the authority to give Jacob a new name?

The better answer is that Jacob is wrestling with God. [Click 2]  In verse 28 the wrestler says to Jacob,[Click 3]  “You have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.”  Later in verse 30 Jacob confirms this when he says, [Click 4] “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”

But that interpretation makes the other questions harder to answer. [Slide 3] Why are they wrestling?  And what’s with the stalemate?  What kind of God can be wrestled to a draw?  And what is important about daybreak?  Why does God have to ask Jacob to let him go before sunrise?  Does God have a curfew?

The key to this story is Question 2: [Slide 4] Why are they wrestling?  The answer becomes clear in verse 26: [Click 1: v. 26] “Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’  But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’”

The whole conflict with Esau started over blessing.  Jacob tried to wrestle away the blessing his father intended for Esau, and now Jacob tries to wrestle blessing from God.

We see this in two of Jacob’s prayers. [Slide 5]  In Genesis 28 when Jacob flees from his brother Esau, he has a dream of a ladder going up to heaven with angels of God ascending and descending the ladder.  After this encounter Jacob utters his first recorded prayer—Genesis 28:20: [Click 1] ”If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God.”  To me this is not a prayer; this is a negotiation.  Jacob is bargaining with God.  Even here Jacob is trying to wrestle a blessing from God.

Jacob’s next prayer, [Slide 6] comes in Genesis 32 in the scripture Edina read for us. Jacob journeys home and hears that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men, so he prays.  This time Jacob admits that he is not worthy of God’s blessing, but then he says to God in verse 9: [Click 1] “Lord, you said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred and I will do you good.’”  Then Jacob repeats that point at the end of the prayer in verse 12: [Click 2] “Yet you have said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.’”  In this case Jacob is trying to force God’s hand by holding God to the promises God made to him.  In other words, Jacob is still wrestling with God.

By the way, earlier in Genesis, God did not say to Jacob, “I will do you good.”  God said to Jacob, “I will be with you.”  There is a difference, and that is where the stalemate comes in. [Slide 6] What’s with the stalemate? It means that God will allow us to hold God to God’s promises.  God agrees to be held by us, but not always in the way we think or want.

Now we come to Question 4: [Slide 7] “Why are they obsessed with each other’s names?” [Click 1] First, why does Jacob want to know God’s name?  Answer: So that Jacob can summon God.  So that Jacob can call on God’s name, knowing that God has to answer.  But God doesn’t work that way.  The wrestler refuses to reveal his name.  Even later, when Moses asks God’s name, God says, “I am who I am.”  We are not given a name by which to summon God.

And yet, even though we cannot control God, God offers to be with us. [Click 2] And that is why God asks Jacob’s name.  The name Jacob means “usurper.”  Of course God already knows this.  But when Jacob admits his name, he admits that he is a usurper, trying to take God’s blessing into his own hands.  When Jacob admits his name, it is a kind of confession.

But then God gives Jacob a new name: Israel, which means “God will strive or persevere.” Jacob thinks he has to wrestle a blessing from God, but actually God is striving for Jacob.  God has been striving all along to bring Jacob to the place and the life God wants for him.

But morning comes when Jacob must let go of God and turn to face Esau.  That is the meaning of Question 5: [Slide 8] Why is daybreak important?  Daybreak is when we must get up from prayer and face the challenges of the day.  But still God promises to go with us, even when we limp. [Slide 9: Blank]

When rightly understood this scripture describes a profound reality.  I have seen people wrestle with God.  I have seen it at the Bible studies I have done at Praisealujah.  Before the Bible studies at Praisealujah there is singing, and during the singing I have seen numerous people go up to the front, drop to their knees and in some cases prostrate themselves on the front steps begging God’s help to make it through another day.  They are wrestling with God.

I have seen at the City of Glory worship services.  At the end of their worship service people come up to the front for prayer.  This is not a casual prayer like we usually offer.  Pastor Lauden lays hands on them, and even though it is in Swahili, I can tell it is intense.  Pastor Lauden sweats when he prays.  When he prays he has to wipe his forehead with a handkerchief.  Pastor Lauden wrestles with God.

You may not have been that intense, but I know many of you have also wrestled with God.  You have wrestled with God over a loved one with cancer or a child with special needs or a grandchild with addictions.  You have wrestled with God over your job, or lack of one.  You have wrestled with God, sometimes in anguish, over things that have happened in your family or in our community or in our country.  I know people in this church who have wrestled with God.  God allows you to wrestle a blessing from God if you hold on.

But be warned: when you wrestle with God, you will not come away unscathed or unchanged.  You may in fact come away limping, but you will also come away with a new name, a new identity marked not by your power but by God’s.

Blessings to Go Around

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Genesis 26:1-33

            As I said in the eNews this week, all conflict is based on a zero-sum view of reality: if I gain, you lose; if you win, I lose.

            This starts early.  Lately I have the chance to watch my two older grandchildren—ages 4 and 2—interact with each other.  It is not always pretty.  The four year-old will gather up all the toy planes we have, take them over to a chair, and protect them with his body so the two year-old cannot take any of them.  Of course there is plenty of toy planes for both of them, and they are intended to be shared, but not in that four year-olds mind.  The two year-old, for his part, will bide his time playing with other toys until the four year-old gets distracted by something.  Then the two year-old runs in, grab one of the planes, and runs away.  I don’t think he even wants it.  He just wants to establish his right to it.  Or maybe he just wants to hear his brother scream.  I don’t know.

            We saw the same thing two weeks ago in our scripture reading about Sarah.  Sarah says to Abraham, “The son of this slave woman [Hagar] shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.”  There was actually plenty of inheritance for both of them.  God had promised to bless both of these sons of Abraham, but in Sarah’s mind there was not enough blessing to go around.

            So now we come to the story of Isaac.  The conflict between Isaac and the Philistines is over water, which is a big deal in the Middle East.  But as in the case of my grandchildren the conflict is really over something else.  It’s over dominance.  Verse 14 says, “He [Isaac] had possessions of flocks and herds, so that the Philistines envied him.”  So the Philistines tried to drive him away.

            But look at how Isaac reacts to this situation.  When Isaac’s servants dig a well and find water, the Philistines come and claim it.  What does Isaac do?  He moves on and digs another well.  Talk about spineless!  Doesn’t Isaac have the backbone to stand up for his rights?  Apparently not.  So he moves on and digs another well, the Philistines come and claim that one, too.  So Isaac and his servants move on to dig a third well.

            Talk about appeasement.  Doesn’t Isaac know that letting your enemies get away with stuff like that emboldens them to become even more greedy and oppressive?

            But here is the surprise: when Isaac and his servants dig the third well, there is no more conflict.  Verse 22: “He [Isaac] moved on from there and dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he called it Rehoboth saying, ‘Now the Lord has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.’”  And sure enough, Isaac prospered, so much so that in the next paragraph Abimelech, the king of the Philistines, and Phicol, his army commander, make a peace treaty with Isaac.

            At this point Isaac is the more powerful; Isaac has the upper hand.  At this point any smart geopolitical strategist would say to Isaac, “Don’t make a treaty with these Philistines.  Remember what they did to your father? They filled up his wells with dirt.”  The smart advisors would tell Isaac to make no any treaty with the likes of Abimelech.

            But Isaac does.  Why?  We aren’t told, but maybe he remembers the words God spoke to him in our first scripture reading—the same promise God made to his father Abraham:

I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, and will give to your offspring all these lands; and all the nations of the earth shall gain blessing for themselves through your offspring.

            For God it is not a zero-sum game.  God is capable of blessing Isaac abundantly and at the same time blessing all the other nations through him.

            So Isaac makes the treaty, and here is the next surprise.  It works.  Despite the conflict in the past, this time the peace agreement works.  After this peace treaty is concluded, there is peace between the Israelites and the Philistines for 700 years.  There is no more mention of conflict between the Israelites and the Philistines anywhere in the rest of Genesis or anywhere else in the Bible until we come to the time of the Judges 700 years later.

            But this scripture is not just about foreign relations; it is about any conflict there may be in your life.  When my own children were young, they argued with each other just like my grandchildren do.  One day my two older children were arguing about who got to sit in the back seat of my brother-in-law’s new Volvo station wagon.  His new Volvo had a rear-facing seat in the back, and my children thought that was so cool, they both wanted to sit there, but there was room only for one.  So they fought over who got to be one sitting in the rear-facing seat.  Finally my brother-in-law said he would flip a coin.  Unfortunately flipping a coin reinforces the zero-sum view of reality.  It may settle a dispute, but it reinforces the sense that one person wins and the other loses, thereby sowing the seeds of resentment.  But my brother-in-law gave it a new twist.  He took out a quarter and said to my daughter, “Call it heads or tail.  If you are right you get to sit in the seat, but your brother gets the coin.  And if you are wrong, he gets to sit in the seat, and you get the coin.”

            Suddenly it was no longer a zero-sum situation.  They both could win.

            The lesson in our scripture this morning is that God has enough blessing to go around, if you search for it.  There was enough water for everyone, if they searched for it.  It was possible for both sides to prosper on the land, if they let go of their fears and resentments long enough to work at it.

            Whatever the conflict you are having in your life, there may be a way for both of you to win, if you look hard enough for it.

            This is where counselors can sometimes help.  If people are having conflict, and they can’t see a way out of it, I encourage them to work with a counselor.  Because a good well-trained counselor can help you reframe a situation, looking at it from a new angle that does not add up to a zero-sum, that does not end up with a winner and a loser but helps both people grow in the process.  Sometimes the very act of making concessions, as Isaac did, can help both parties end up with more than they had before.

            There is an old middle-eastern story about an Arab sheik dying and leaving his camel herd to his three children.  The eldest was to get half the herd, the middle child was to get one-third of the herd, and the youngest was to get one-ninth of the herd.  That in itself sounds unfair, and you might think that such an uneven distribution between the children would itself cause conflict.  But that was not the problem.  In that culture the children accepted the division specified by their father.  The problem was that the sheik left only 17 camels, which could not be divided according to the sheik’s percentages: one-half, one-third, and one ninth.  So the children quarreled with each other over who got an extra camel, and their conflict affected the whole village.  Finally, an elderly woman brought her one camel to the children and said, “Here, take my one camel and add it to the herd.  That will make 18 camels.”  So she gave them camel, which meant that the camels could now be divided.  The oldest child got nine camels, which was half.  The middle child got six, which was one-third, and the youngest got two camels, which was one-ninth.  That totaled 17.  Then elderly woman came and got her camel and went home.

            Sometimes it does not have to be a zero-sum game.  Sometimes there is enough blessing to go around, if we only work hard enough to figure it out.

The Sacrifice

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Genesis 22:1-14

What was God thinking?

Isaac was the child of the promise,

The one giving Abraham descendants,

Who would become a great nation

And inherit a promised land,

Who would bring blessing

To all the families of the earth.

“Through Isaac your descendants

will be named,” God said.

 

Isaac was the key to the promise,

Abraham’s only son

Now that Ishmael was gone.

Abraham was over a hundred,

Sarah over ninety.

No more children in that womb.

 

And now God wanted Abraham

To sacrifice him.

A whole burnt offering,

With nothing left of Isaac

Or of the promise.

 

What was God thinking?

Jesus was the child of the promise,

The hope of the prophets,

The descendant of King David,

To deliver Israel from its enemies,

And establish God’s kingdom,

To cast down the proud

And lift up the lowly,

To give sight to the blind

And food to the hungry,

To bring peace on earth

And goodwill to all people.

 

Jesus was God’s last best hope,

God’s only Son.

“Unto you a Savior is born,”

Said the angels.

“You are the Messiah,”

Said Peter.

“You are the Son of God,”

Said Nathanael.

Even the demons knew who he was,

And trembled.

 

And now God wanted to sacrifice him

On the altar of Pilate’s tyranny,

Watching the dreams of the prophets,

And the disciples, and Mary,

Bleed to death, or suffocate

On a Roman cross.

 

Abraham’s son, his only son,

Himself carried the wood of the sacrifice

To an altar on Mt. Moriah.

Not far from the spot

Where Solomon would build the temple,

And future generations of Israelites

Would sacrifice bulls and sheep.

 

God’s son, his only Son,

Himself carried the wood of his sacrifice

To a hill called Golgotha,

Not far from Mt. Moriah.

Not far from the temple

Where Solomon offered bulls and sheep.

 

Abraham’s son, his only son,

Was bound and lifted onto an altar,

Stretched out on the wood,

Ready to be pierced

By Abraham’s knife.

 

God’s son, his only Son,

Was bound and lifted onto a cross,

Stretched out on the wood,

Ready to be pierced

By the soldiers’ nails.

 

At the last second an angel intervened,

Halting Abraham’s knife

In mid-air.

A voice from heaven cried,

“Abraham, Abraham,

Do not hurt the boy!”

 

But on that second altar,

No angel intervened,

No voice from heaven

Told them to stop.

The only voice came

From the victim:

“My God, my God,

Why have you forsaken me?”

 

In the end Abraham’s son

Was taken off the altar

And restored to his father,

A ram offered in his place.

 

In the end God’s son

Was taken off the cross

And laid in a tomb.

No one offered to take his place.

 

Now it is true that on the third day,

God’s Son was raised.

The tomb was emptied,

The wounds healed,

The disciples rejoiced,

And the story had a happy ending,

Just like for Isaac.

 

But what do we do with the suffering

That happened along the way?

What do we do with those agonizing steps

By which Abraham dragged himself

To Moriah, step by step,

Carrying the fire and the knife,

Watching his son carry the wood,

Getting closer and closer

Day after day,

Pausing only while his son said,

“Father, where’s the lamb

for the sacrifice?”

 

We are told this is a test?

But of what?  Abraham’s faith?

Abraham shows no sign of wavering,

Even when he gets to the spot,

Even as he builds the altar,

Stone by stone,

Even as he binds his son,

Lays him on the altar,

On top of the wood

And stretches out his hand,

And takes the knife,

And raises it to plunge into his Son.

 

There is no question that Abraham

Intends to obey.

The question is what God

Intends to do.

How far will God let this go?

 

This is not the last time Abraham’s children

Wondered about this.

When they were slaves in Egypt,

Pharaoh drowning their sons in the Nile,

Their cries rose up to God,

“How long, O Lord, will you let this go on?

 

And later when the Israel was defeated,

Slaughtered by Babylonians,

Homes destroyed, children killed,

People bound and taken away as slaves,

They too asked, “How long, O Lord?

How far will you let this go?

When will you intervene to save

The promises to your people?”

 

And what about that other Son,

God’s only Son?

What was it like for him,

Day after day,

Heading for Jerusalem,

Knowing what lies ahead?

What was it like for him,

Sitting at supper with his disciples,

Knowing it was his last?

Or praying in that garden

Waiting for his betrayer to show up?

What was it like being bound

And led away by the authorities

Knowing that his fate was sealed?

He never asked,

“Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?’

He knew.

 

I know that both of these stories

Have a happy ending.

But along the way there is a depth

Of suffering, understood

Only by those who have been there.

 

And maybe that is the point,

Or at least part of it.

God does not ask of Abraham,

What God would not also do.

If Abraham was asked to sacrifice

His only son,

Then so was God.

And if you understand the Trinity,

If you believe that Father, Son, and Spirit

Are one,

Then the lamb for the sacrifice

Was God Himself.

 

The Bible never explains the suffering

We must go through

On the way to resurrection.

The Bible never offers an excuse

For God putting Abraham

Through that trial

Or Jesus through his.

The Bible never glosses over

The anguish of a parent for a child

Or of God for God’s children.

 

But one thing is clear:

God is not aloof from this anguish.

Where is God in these stories?

Lying on that altar,

Hanging on that cross.

God is the lamb for the sacrifice,

And far from destroying the promise,

The sacrifice fulfills it.

 

The Other Son

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Genesis 21:8-21; 16:1-11

            Between our first and second scripture readings, two things happen: 1) Hagar gives birth to a child fathered by Abraham named Ishmael, and 2) Sarah, Abraham’s wife, finally gives birth to her own promised child named Isaac, which brings us to the second scripture reading: Genesis 21:8-21.  [Read]

            I read this story in Presbyterians Today the magazine of the Presbyterian Church (USA):

While visiting a country where he did not know the language, the American visitor attended a church service.  Not familiar with the order of worship and unable to understand the pastor’s instructions, the visitor watched the man next to him and did as the man did: standing, clapping, praying, etc.  It worked fine until late in the service, when the man stood, and the visitor followed suit.  This time, however, only he and the man were standing. …

Later the pastor greeted the visitor and said in English, “I take it you don’t speak our language.”  “No, I don’t.  It’s that obvious?” replied the visitor.  “Well, yes,” the preacher said.  “I announced that the Acosta family had a newborn baby boy, and I asked the proud father to please stand up” (June, 2009, p. 11).

            In our scripture for today, the problem is not two fathers; it’s two mothers.

            There are several sermons I could preach about this story.  I could, for example, talk about Sarah’s needless jealousy.  Sarah had already been promised, more than once, that her child would be the chosen one.  She did not have to fear that Ishmael would take away God’s blessing from her son Isaac.  But she worried about it anyway, to the point that she was determined to get rid of Ishmael.  Sarah believed that God has only so much blessing to pass around, and that if you share some of that blessing with others, you will lose it for yourself.  I could preach a sermon about that: Sarah’s ungrounded fear that there is not enough blessing to go around.

            I could also preach a sermon about Abraham.  Abraham, after all, is the one who sent Hagar and her child into the wilderness with no more provisions than she could carry on her back, and she had to carry her child, too.  Did you notice that?  Abraham did not even send a donkey with her to help carry extra provisions.  I could preach a sermon about that, but that’s not the sermon I want to preach this morning.

            The sermon I want to preach this morning is not about Sarah or Abraham; it’s about God, because God is the one who tells Abraham to go along with Sarah’s demand.  I don’t know about you, but I find that terribly disturbing.  It is one thing for Abraham to send Hagar and her small child into the wilderness with only the provisions that Hagar could carry on her back.  But God seems to go along with this.  Why?

            I find this particularly puzzling because of the promises God makes about Ishmael that are almost as significant as the promises God made about Isaac.  [Slide 1: God’s Promises about Ishmael] In our first scripture from Genesis 16 God says to Hagar, [Click 1] “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for the multitude.”  Notice how similar this is to the promises God gave to Abraham and Sarah: that they would have offspring like the sand of the sea and the stars in the sky.  In chapter 17 God gives an even greater promise to Ishmael.  God says to Abraham, [Click 2] “As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.”  Notice how similar this is to the promise God gave to Abraham back in Genesis 12—to make his descendants a great nation that would be blessed.  But now God is endangering all of these promises to Ishmael by encouraging Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael into the desert.

            Hagar and Ishmael are not the only ones God treats this way.  Now I want to show you some parallels between the story I just read today from Genesis 21 and the story we will read next week from Genesis 22. [Slide 2: Parallels between Genesis 21 and 22]

[Click 1] In Genesis 21:12, God says to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy [Ishmael] and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you.”

            God puts all the promises about Ishmael at risk by telling Abraham to send Hagar away.  But then in the next chapter …

[Click 2] In Genesis 22:2, God says to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”

            Ishmael is not the only child of the promise God puts at risk.  God also puts Isaac at risk.  Both are children of the promise but their lives are threatened by God’s own actions.

            But that is not the end of the story. [Slide 3: Parallels between Genesis 21 and 22]  Here is the conclusion of the story from Genesis 21:

[Click 1] Genesis 21:19-20: “Then God opened [Hagar’s] eyes and she saw a well of water, and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow.”

And here is the conclusion of the story from Genesis 22:

[Click 2] Genesis 22:12-13: God said to Abraham, “Do not lay your hand on the boy [Isaac] or do anything to him….”  And Abraham looked up and saw a ram caught in a thicket by its horns.  Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.

            There is still a question here: If God intended to save both children, why did God put them at risk in the first place.  That is a good question which I will talk about next week.  You will have to come back next week for that one.

            But here is the sermon for this week: God is watching over both children.  Sarah may care more about her own child than Hagar’s child, but God cares about them both.  In the end God saves both children, because in both cases God has a purpose for them that is not yet finished. [Slide 4: Blank]

            By the way, there is a sequel to this story.  When Abraham dies in Genesis 25, both Isaac and Ishmael come back together to bury their father in the family burial plot in Hebron.

            This is significant because Isaac eventually became the ancestor of the Israelites, the Jews, and Ishmael is considered the ancestor of the Arabs.  In 2013 I visited the Holy Land and saw the wall [Slide 5] that separates the Israelis from the Palestinians on the West Bank. The wall was put up to keep them apart, like Sarah telling Abraham to send away the son of Hagar.

            Unfortunately this extends even to Abraham’s tomb.  On the same trip we also visited Abraham’s tomb in Hebron and discovered that the building itself is divided: one side is for Jews, the other for Muslims. [Slide 6] Both must look at Abraham’s tomb from different sides through bullet proof plate glass windows.

            I understand that this has been done to reduce the opportunity for violence.  But that is not how God intended things.  In the town of Ibillin near Nazareth we visited a Christian school. [Slide 7] In this school Israeli children and Palestinian children learn together.  Jewish, Islamic, and Christian children take classes together not only to learn about academics, but to learn about relationships and God’s purpose for human life.

            That’s where Jesus comes in.  After the resurrection Jesus says, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” [Slide 8]  This is a picture of a painting over the door of the Christian church in Ibillin.  We may want to send some people away like Sarah wanted to do with Hagar, but God is determined to work both sides of the fence.  Whatever group of people you would like to send away: maybe it’s immigrants, maybe it’s Republicans, maybe it’s Democrats, maybe it’s your in-laws—whatever people you might want to send away, God is determined to work in their lives just as much as yours, and we will only fulfill God’s purpose for us when we become a blessing to all the families of the earth, and not just our own.

The Promise

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Genesis 12:1-9; Hebrews 11:8-12

            I had an English professor at Whitworth University who spoke at a chapel service and said, “Faith is the courage to step out knowing there is no certainty until after the step has been taken.”

            That’s the story of Abraham in our scriptures this morning.  Notice what Abraham is asked to leave behind:

Now the Lord said to Abram [his name before it was changed to Abraham], “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”

            Abraham was asked to leave behind family, friends, community, and country to set off for a land that God was going to show him.  God did not even tell him where he was going. God just told him to set out.  All he could do was hold on to the promise.

            Now about that promise.  I have said before in a sermon and I said it again last Sunday in the adult Sunday School class: the first three verses of Genesis 12 are the most important verses in the entire Old Testament.  Abraham is given three promises in these three verses:

-          Land: “Go to a land that I will show you.”

-          Descendants: “I will make of you a great nations.”

-          Blessing: “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Land, descendants, and blessing.  The next 900 pages of the Old Testament, and much of the New Testament, is the story of what happens to those three promises.

            For his part Abraham is one of the least likely people to succeed at these promises.

-          Land: Abraham is promised a land, but he spends his whole life as a wandering migrant, moving his sheep and cattle from place to place searching for pasture and water.  The only piece of the promised land he ever owns is the cemetery plot for his wife Sarah. 

-          Descendants: Abraham is promised descendants who will become a great nation, but he and Sarah have no children and they are getting old.  How will Abraham become the father of a great nation, if he dies childless?

-          Blessing: Abraham and his descendants are to be a blessing to all the families of the earth, but Abraham spends his entire life just trying to survive in a parched land with sometimes hostile neighbors.  How will a life like that ever be a blessing to others?

The only asset Abraham has, the only thing Abraham has going for him, is faith—the courage to take that first step and set out for the promised land, even though he does not know where it is.

            Having said that, I must note that Abraham’s faith wavers all through the story.  In the very next story, Genesis 12:10-21, there is a famine in the promised land.  What does Abraham do?  Does he trust God’s promise?  No, he bails on the promised land and heads to Egypt.  Then he lies to Pharaoh about Sarah, claiming she is his sister instead of his wife.  He does this so that Pharaoh can take her into his harem without having to kill Abraham first in order to claim her.  Basically he throws Sarah under the bus to save his neck.  So much for having descendants with her.  And because of this God brings plagues on Pharaoh and the people of Egypt, which means that far from becoming a blessing to other nations, Abraham has become a curse.  No sooner does Abraham receive the promise of God than he endangers it because he tries to take matters into his own hands instead of trusting God.

            And yet, God keeps saving the promise.  Because of the plagues, Pharaoh restores Sarah to her husband Abraham, and later they are able to have children.  Every time God’s people endanger the promise with their unfaithfulness, God saves it.  That is the story of Genesis and the rest of the Old Testament.  God keeps saving Abraham and his descendants until finally the descendant comes who can fulfill the promise—the descendant of Abraham who finally brings blessing to all the families of the earth.

            And that is where we get Jesus.  The very first thing the Bible tells us about Jesus, the very first verse of the New Testament, tells us that Jesus is a descendant of Abraham.  He is the one in whom the promises to Abraham are finally fulfilled.

            But that does not happen in Abraham’s lifetime.  Instead Abraham must take a step into the unknown, knowing that there is no certainty until after the step has been taken.

            In her book Traveling Mercies Anne Lamott writes,

A memory came to me then, of our pastor Veronica telling us just the week before how she gets direction from God in prayer; she said that when she prays for direction, one spot of illumination always appears just beyond her feet, a circle of light into which she can step.  She moved away from the pulpit to demonstrate, stepping forward shyly—this big-boned African-American woman tramping like Charlie Chaplin into an imagined spotlight, and then, after standing there looking puzzled, she moved another step forward to where the light had gone, two feet ahead of where she had been standing, and then again.  “We in our faith work,” she said, “stumble along toward where we think we’re supposed to go, bumbling along, and here is what’s so amazing—we end up getting exactly where we’re supposed to be” (p. 84).

            For Abraham inheriting the land was not an event but a journey.  This is exactly the point made about Abraham in our first scripture reading from the New Testament book of Hebrews: “By faith Abraham set out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.”  For Abraham inheriting the promise was not an event but a journey, and the same is true for us.  Faith in God does not mean you have arrived as a parent, a spouse, a neighbor, a coworker, or even a fully mature follower of Christ.  Faith does not mean you have arrived.  It means you are willing to take the next step God wants you to take, trusting that God knows where you are going and will be there every step of the way.

Scattered and Gathered: Babel's Blessing

It is easy to read the story of Babel as a dire warning against human unity, but what if that’s not the real point? What if this is a story about God’s continuing work of creation? When God mixes up humanity’s language, God dissolved the monoculture of Babel and created diversity. From Babel humanity proceeded to fulfill God’s desire for the children of Noah to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” On World Communion Sunday it is especially poignant that we celebrate not only the diversity given to us at Babel, but the unity we experience in Christ. Join us as we worship a God who scatters and gathers.

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Testimony of a Tempter

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Genesis 3:1-13

Introduction

As I said in the eNews this week, one of my favorite short novels is The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis.  Screwtape is like an under-secretary in the devil’s department of temptation.  His letters are advice to his nephew Wormwood on how to tempt people, how to draw people away from a relationship to God and from the life God wants us to have.  Lewis uses these letters in a kind of backward way to tell us how to avoid temptation and how to nurture a relationship to God.

So for today’s sermon I have written my own Screwtape letter based on the story we just heard in Genesis 3.  This is “Testimony of a Tempter.”

Letter

Dear Nephew Wormwood:

Your letter came as a surprise.  It’s been a long time since I heard from you.  I was beginning to think you had forgotten your old uncle Screwtape, especially after all the help I have given you.  You have come a long way down in the organization, Wormwood, but you will never reach bottom if you forget those who helped you along the way.

Now to your question.  You asked about my greatest temptation.  Naturally, many come to mind.  Your uncle has had a fairly illustrious career, if I say so myself.  But the greatest temptation—that would have to be the first one.

You young tempters have it so easy.  Centuries of lust, greed, exploitation, and violence have given you so much to work with.  At the beginning we had nothing to work with.  Everything was good: happy marriage, clean environment, plenty of food, fulfilling work.  It was disgusting.

A lesser tempter might have given up, but I saw possibilities.  You see, Wormwood, even good things can be twisted if you know how to do it.  That is the key to temptation.  Almost nothing is evil in itself.  It becomes evil only when it is twisted from its intended purpose.

Take sex, for example.  Sex might have been a disaster for us.  God gave it tremendous power for drawing people together and uniting them in a family.  Sex could have been awful for us.  To be useful, sex had to be twisted.  We did it by separating sex from its most important component: commitment.  Once we separated sex from commitment, we produced one of our greatest emotional triumphs: jealousy.  And with jealousy we created many other delightful experiences: suspicion, mistrust, fear, anger, resentment, and vengeance.  We’ve done such a good job with sex hardly anyone associates it with something holy.

Yes, Wormwood, anything good can be twisted into something bad, if you know how to do it.  That is what I did at the first temptation.  In the Garden of Eden the only thing had I to work with was freedom.  Now freedom is another of those nauseatingly good things that God concocted.  Imagine giving those funny little human beings a freewill.  What was God thinking?  Didn’t God know that humans could use their freedom to reject God just as easily as to love God?

That gave me my opening.  I approached the woman first.  No particular reason.  The man was just as gullible.  It did not matter whom I approached first, the key was to approach them one at a time.  People are far more likely to do something stupid if they don’t first stop and talk it over with others in their family.

So I approached the woman and said, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”  Of course I knew that was not true.  So did the woman.  Immediately she answered, “What are you talking about?  We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden.”

Suddenly the woman was defending God.  Now you may think that is a bad thing for us, but it isn’t.  Because in the very act of defending God the woman discovered that God could be questioned.  She realized, perhaps for the first time, that her freedom to enjoy God was also a freedom to put herself over God, in effect to become God’s judge.

I did not even mention the forbidden fruit.  I didn’t have to.  The woman brought it up herself.  She said, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden, except for this one tree…”

Isn’t it delightful how the human mind works?  You put two children in a room full of toys, and the only toy they want is the one held by the other child.  God had given the woman a whole world of fruit to enjoy, but suddenly she is thinking only of the one God prohibited.

Do you know why people are like that, Wormwood?  I hope they are teaching you something in that school.  People crave power.  It irked her that God would restrict her freedom by prohibiting this one tree.  I played on this by suggesting that God might be jealous.  I said to her, “Perhaps God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Actually, this was partly true.  Half-truths are always better at deceiving people than outright lies.  What I said was partly true.  Eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil meant taking into their own hands the power to decide good and evil.  Rather than listening to God, they would in a sense become God, deciding for themselves what is good and evil, right and wrong.

I never actually suggested eating the forbidden fruit.  The woman thought of that on her own.  You know, Wormwood, we do not have the power to make people do evil.  The decision must come from the people themselves.  But I could see that already in her mind the woman was rationalizing the decision.  She looked at the fruit and saw that it was good.  Of course it was good.  Everything God made was good.  The question was whether the humans would use the good things God made according to God’s intended purpose.

The ending was delightful.  The man and woman ate the fruit to become like God, and they ended up ashamed of being human.  They hid from God in the bushes, like a snake.  Having tried to rise above their humanness, they sank below it.  Having tried to assert their freedom, they now scrambled to avoid responsibility.  The man blamed the woman, and the woman blamed me.  I can still hear her: “The devil made me do it.”

Well, Wormwood, I hope you have learned something from this story.  You will never succeed at creating evil.  We do not have that power.  We must take things that God created and use them for our purposes, making them more important to people than God.  When sex becomes a person’s god, we get lust.  When achievement becomes their god, we get pride.  When possessions become their god, we get greed.  And when a person or relationship becomes their god, we get idolatry.  See how it works, Wormwood.  Don’t try to make something evil.  Try to make something good into something people want more than God.  Then stand back and watch what happens.

I have always had success with this approach, except that one time it did not seem to work.  I still have not figured out why.  We offered that guy from Nazareth everything: wealth, power, prestige—everything.  But he turned it all down so he could go out and get himself nailed to a cross.  I never figured it out.  Sometimes I think that failure may come back to haunt us.

But let us think of happier things.  The world is still full of gullible people, just like Adam and Eve.  The possibilities for temptation are endless.  So carry on, Wormwood.  You have nothing to lose but your soul.

The Reason You Are Here

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Genesis 1:26-31; 2:1-4

            I want to begin this morning with a scene from the TV show Everybody Loves Raymond.  In this episode Raymond’s young daughter Ally asks him, “Why are there babies?”  Thinking that she is asking about sex, Raymond has a sneezing attack and has to leave the room.  But his wife prods him to go back and answer her question.  So armed with several books about sex he goes in to have “the talk” with his daughter.  And that’s where our scene begins.

[Show 4 minutes from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0j4iMm4yz8I]

[Description of the scene if the video does not work out: He comes into Ally’s room and says, “I guess you have some questions about babies.”  “Yeah,” she says, “why are there babies?”  He says, “Well, when a man and woman love each other they get married, and then sometimes they decide to make a baby.”  His daughter interrupts and says, “I already know where babies come from.  I was wondering why they are here at all.  Why did God put us here?”  Raymond looks at her and says, “What?”  She says, “Why are we here?”  He says, “Don’t you want to talk about sex?”  She says, “No, I’m wondering why God put us here.”  Raymond looks at her and then starts sneezing.]

            The Bible, I am glad to say, is not afraid to discuss why we are here.  In fact the answer to that question begins in the very first chapter.

            I am going to spend the next several minutes in a rather intense Bible study, so stay with me.  This may seem a little dry and academic, but it gets to the heart of why we are here.

            First, let’s look at Genesis 1:26-27 [Slide 1]

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; …. So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God they were created; male and female God created them.

            What does it mean that we are created in the image and likeness of God?  It can’t mean we look like God.  The Bible is adamantly opposed to making any image that claims to look like God or be God.  So what does it mean to be created in the image and likeness of God?

            Well, there is another place in Genesis where these same two words are used: Genesis 5:3 [Slide 2]; “When Adam had lived a hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.”  Here we have the same Hebrew words as in Genesis 1.  Adam became the father of a child in his image and likeness.  Did that mean the child looked exactly like Adam or represented Adam?  No, it meant that they belonged to the same species.  There was a relationship between Adam and his son unlike the relationship Adam had with other animals—a relationship that allowed them to be a family.

            So what does it mean that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God? It means we are created capable of a relationship to God.  We are created to be part of God’s family.

            God demonstrates this in Genesis 1:29 [Slide 3]: “And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.”  At this point I am not interested in the dietary issues posed by this verse.  That is another subject.  What interests me is the way God speaks directly to humans in this verse.  God speaks to humans in a different way than God speaks to other parts of creation.  Earlier in chapter 1 God says things like, “Let there be light … let the waters be gathered together into one place … let the earth bring forth living creatures.”  Elsewhere in Genesis 1 God speaks the world into existence; but here God speaks personally to the man and woman as an “I” speaking to a “you.”  God does this all through the rest of the Bible.  Unlike other creatures God addresses humans personally as an “I” speaking to a “you.”  That’s part of what it means to be created in the image of God: God can talk to us, and we can talk back.

            Which brings me to another astonishing detail in verse 26: how God uses the plural. [Slide 4]. God says, “Let us make humankind in our image.”  Who is “us”?  We are not told.  Many Bible scholars suggest it refers to the heavenly host, the angels.  Others say it is a plural of deliberation, like a Presidential candidate saying, “We are taking our message across the country.”  The candidate means, “I am taking my message across the country,” but the candidate uses “we” and “our” makes it sound like the candidate is part of something bigger.

            Of course a classic Christian answer is that God refers here to the Trinity.  When God says, “Let us make humans in our image,” God is referring to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  I cannot prove which of these interpretations is correct, but they all assume that God is not a solo act.  From the very beginning God is a relational God, and in creation God invites human beings into that relationship. [Slide 5: Blank]

            And that brings me to one final peculiarity about this chapter.  Why does it describe creation as happening in seven days?  Some take this literally.  They say the Bible describes creation happening in seven days because that’s how it happened.  God created everything in seven 24-hour periods.  Of course science disagrees, and those who take this chapter literally are forced into some bizarre explanations of why some fossils appear millions of years older than other fossils.

            But that debate misses the point.  The Bible is not talking here about seven 24-hour periods.  That is obvious when you look at verse 14 [Slide 6]: “And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and seasons and for days and years.”  Here in verse 14 God creates the sun and the moon, specifically to be markers of time.  But here is the strange thing: verse 14 is the fourth day of creation.  God does not created the sun until the fourth day!  So what does a day mean if the sun has not yet been created? [Slide 7: Blank]

            It has to have a symbolic meaning.  The seven days of creation mean that the creation is headed toward a climax—a destination—which is the seventh day, the Sabbath, the day of rest and worship.  The whole point of creation is so that we can rest in God’s love and celebrate our life with God forever.   Or as the Presbyterian Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it: “The chief end of people is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.”

            That’s the Bible’s answer to Ally’s question.  Why are we here?  We are not put here because there is overcrowding in heaven.  Nor is our purpose to accomplish something before we die.  Our purpose is relational: to love God with all our hearts and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  That’s why we are here, not to accomplish something, not to prove something, but to love someone beginning with our Creator, and in the process to let our Creator love us.

            A few months before she died, I had a conversation with Beverly Klose, one of our members at Wesley Gardens.  Beverly was fairly discouraged that day.  Her eyesight had gotten so bad she could no longer read, which she loved to do.  In fact it had gotten so bad she could hardly see to get around her apartment, and she was beginning to trip on things and fall, which made her feel even more helpless.  But it wasn’t feeling helpless that really got her down.  It was feeling useless.  She said to me, “I don’t know why I’m still around; I’m not good for anything anymore.”  Actually I have known numerous people in the later years of their lives who said something like that to me.  “I don’t know why I’m still here; I’m not good for anything anymore.”

            So I said to Beverly, “Can you still pray?”  She said, “Of course.  I pray every day.”  I said, “Then keep praying, because there is no better gift you can give to God or to us.”

            That’s what it means to be created in the image of God.  You are here for a purpose: not to accomplish something but to love someone—to love God with all your heart and to love the other people God puts in your life.  That is your purpose, a purpose so great not even an eternity will make you obsolete.

Waiting for the Rainbow

Ken Onstot

Scriptures:  Genesis 6:11-22; 8:1-12

(Noah's son, enters with two boards and begins nailing them together with a thin third board set up on a saw horse.  Noah enters.)

Noah:  I hope you're almost finished with that patch, son.  We're about to spring a leak on the penguins.

Son (flinging down his hammer on the board):  Will you get off my back, Dad!  The penguins will be just fine.  Penguins are supposed to like water, aren’t they?

Noah:  It's not the penguins I'm worried about.  If this boat leaks, we will all go down.

Son (going over and confronting his father):  I thought you said God was going to protect us.  God will save us, you said, if we build a boat.  So we built a boat.  Now every time I turn around I have to fix a leak.  Or haul water down in rain buckets.  Or rebuild the fence between the foxes and chickens.   Or shore up the flooring between decks, so the giraffes don't land on the hippos.  If we're saved by God, how come I'm doing all the work?

Noah:  Sometimes our work is the means God uses to save us.

Son (goes off to the other side):  Well, I'm starting to wonder about God.  What kind of God would kill off an entire planet—men, women, children, animals?  Does that sound like a loving God to you?

Noah:  Would a loving God stand by and let the world go on as it is?  Would a loving God let people go on killing each other, exploiting each other, lying to one another to satisfy their lust and greed?  Would a loving God allow the world to be despoiled by fewer and fewer people consuming more and more of the earth's resources while others don't have enough to survive? Would God be loving to let people exploit women for sex, children for labor, and nature for greed?  Is that what a loving God would do?

Son (subdued):  Of course not.  But isn't God throwing out the baby with the bathwater... I mean, literally?  Why should children and animals suffer for the wrongdoing of adults?

Noah (also subdued):  I don't know, but it always happens that way.  Look at any war that has ever been fought.  The whole creation suffers when people act wickedly--even children and animals. Children always suffer for their parents' sins.  Then they grow up to repeat them.

Son:  That's an encouraging thought.

Noah:  That's how it works.  The sins of the parents are inherited by the children.  The only way to stop the cycle is to start over.

Son (going over to his father):  So where does that leave us?  If human beings are so hopelessly corrupt that God must wipe them out, why should God save us?  Are we so much better than everyone else?

Noah:  I've wondered about that.

Son: What makes you think we will ever get off this boat?  God told you it would rain for forty days and forty nights.  Apparently God forgot to tell you that the water would go on rising for 150 days.  We've been on this boat for over a year and we still can't see the ground.

Noah:  God promised to save us.

Son:  When?

Noah: I don’t know.

Son:  And then what happens?  Suppose the waters recede and we get off this floating menagerie.  What will keep it from happening again?  You say that God flooded the world because of people's sin.  Well, we're people, aren’t we?  What's going to keep us from sinning again? What will keep our children and their children from sinning?  What will keep God from throwing up his hands and wiping us out all over again?

Noah:  I don't know.  But God must have some plan in mind.  Otherwise God would not have bothered to save us.  Perhaps there is some kind of water that can wash away sins without washing away people.

Son: The only kind of water that could cleanse us from sin is the kind that would kill us.

Noah:  Well, this water (motioning around him) is not going to kill us.  Remember that raven I released two weeks ago.  It never came back.  Maybe it found a place to land.

Son:  Or maybe it ran out of strength and drowned.

Noah:  I don’t think so.  After that I sent out another bird--a dove.  Last night it came back with this.  (He takes out of his pocket a twig from a tree.  The Son goes over and looks at it.)

Son:  An olive branch.  (Thoughtfully)  We haven't had any good olives since, … I can’t remember.  Where did you get this?

Noah:  I told you, the dove brought it back.

Son (handing the branch back):  It was probably just some floating debris, another painful reminder of what's been destroyed by the flood.

Noah:  But look, its fresh.

Son (ignoring it):  How can anything be alive down there after a year under water?  If this boat ever does land, which I doubt, we'll never find anything to eat.  It will all be buried under mud.

Noah:  God will provide, my son.

Son (with sudden vehemence):  How?  We were supposed to be in this boat for 40 days.  But the water kept rising for 150 days.  You think it's starting to go down, but with no land to look at, who can tell?  After 40 more days you sent out that raven.  It never came back.  Who knows what that means?  Then you waited another 7 days and sent out a dove.  It comes back with a branch.  We can't feed this family with a branch.  We're running out of food, Dad.  In another day or two I'm going to slaughter one of those bulls and have steak. (He starts to march off with the hammer in his hand.)

Noah:  Wait!  You can't do that.  They will become extinct.

Son:  Who cares?  Why worry if some species becomes extinct when your own family doesn’t have enough to eat.  We've got to survive.

Noah:  God has given us all the food we need, if we share it.

Son:  But it won’t last much longer.  If God is going to save us, he better do it quick.

Noah (putting his arm around Son):  Son, calm down.  Do you remember how frightened you used to be by storms?  When you heard the thunder you ran for your mother and me.  We held you, and then when the storm passed I took you outside and showed you the rainbow.  The rainbow meant the storm was over and the sun was coming out.  The storm always ends, the sun always comes out.  That's how God meant it to be, and that's how God wants it to be again.

Son:  So we're waiting for the rainbow.

Noah:  That's right.  The rainbow reminds us of God's faithfulness.  I know this is hard.  I don’t know why there is so much suffering in the world, so many floods and fires, storms and earthquakes, wars and famines.  I don’t know why these things happen.  But I have to believe that God still has a purpose for us, otherwise we wouldn’t be here.  And I know that no storm can separate us from God's love, otherwise God would not have given us the rainbow.  I don’t know how God will finally deal with human sin, but I believe that one day God will give us a different kind of water—the kind of water that can wash away sin, without washing us away in the process.

Son (shrugs):  So meanwhile I'm supposed to fix the leaks.  Is that it?

Noah:  Yes.  And those boards you put up will be the structure of God's love.  All our work to serve God, to preserve the creation, to help one another live full and productive lives--all of that will be signs of God's faithfulness, just like the rainbow.

Son (going back and picking up his hammer):  I hope you're right, Dad, especially since it's the only chance we've got.

Noah:  Yes, I guess it is.

 

Planned Giving

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: I Corinthians 16:1-4; Acts 11:27-30

            You may not realize this, but the scripture we just heard is the first recorded instance of Presbyterian disaster assistance.  You may not have heard the word “Presbyterian” in that scripture, but it was there in verse 30.  After hearing about a famine among people in Jerusalem, the Christians in Antioch sent relief via the elders, which in Greek is the word presbuteros—Presbyterian.  They sent relief via the Presbyterians.

            This offering also had special significance to the Apostle Paul.  He discusses it at length in both his letters to the Corinthians as well as in Romans and Galatians.  He wanted all the Gentile churches around the Mediterranean to participate in this offering, not just for practical reasons but for theological reasons.  For Paul this offering was symbolic.  It represented a predominantly Gentile church in Greece sending aid to a predominantly Jewish church in Jerusalem.  Jews and Gentiles had an uneasy relationship in the early church.  So this was significant: a Gentile church in Greece sending aid to a Jewish church in Jerusalem.  It would be like liberal leaning church in Seattle collecting an offering and sending it to Trump supporters in Texas who were flooded out of their homes.  In a famine there is neither Jew nor Greek, in a flood there is neither liberal nor conservative, only people who live by the grace of God.

            Which brings me to our second scripture reading.  These are Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians for how to participate in this offering: I Corinthians 16:1-4.

[Read I Corinthians 16:1-4]

            I think there are three lessons to be learned from Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians about this offering: [Slide 1]

            First, Giving should be planned.  Paul wants, not a one-time emotional response, but a planned discipline of giving over time.  On the first day of each week, he says, put something aside so that we don’t have to take a collection when I come.  Giving is not just a one-time emotional response to a need, but an on-going grateful response to God’s blessing.

            Here is something else you may not realize.  You have already given to the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance response to Hurricane Harvey.  You gave to it last spring when we had the One Great Hour of Sharing offering during Lent.  Every year when we give to the One Great Hour of Sharing, we are giving to next year’s disasters.  Even though they have not yet happened, we know they will.  So thanks to your giving last spring, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has already used some of your money for sending teams of people to assist local churches and communities in Texas.  Furthermore, the Presbyterian response won’t evaporate by New Years.  The ongoing money we give to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance will be used for years to come in the rebuilding process, even after the news media has moved on to other things.

            How many of you here this morning participated in one of the mission trips to Mississippi or Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina?  Southminster’s first mission trip to help the victims of Katrina was in the spring of 2007.  That was two years after the hurricane.  The media had gone on to other things, but Presbyterian Disaster Assistance was still there, working with mission teams from churches like ours to find the neediest people, organize groups to help them, and arrange housing and meals for the mission teams.  They did this for years after Hurricane Katrina, and they are planning to do it for years after Hurricane Harvey, counting on the ongoing support year after year of Presbyterians giving to the One Great Hour of Sharing.  Presbyterians, like the apostle Paul, believe in planned giving.

            Second, Giving should be proportional.  In our scripture reading Paul says to the Corinthians, “Each of you is to put aside and save whatever extra you earn.”  This, unfortunately, is not the best translation of Paul’s idea.  In Greek he says literally, “Store up whatever you prosper.”  In other words, give according to the blessings that God has given you.

            The same point is made in our first scripture reading.  Acts 11, verse 29: “The disciples determined that according to their ability, each would send relief to the believers living in Judea.”  Giving is meant to be proportional to what God has given us.  We do not charge a membership fee where everyone pays the same amount to be a member of our church.  Membership in Christ’s body is free.  Giving is not the payment of our dues but an offering of gratitude, which is why the Bible talks about tithing, giving 10% of the crop to God.  In the Bible giving is meant to be proportional to what God has given us.

            Finally, and sometimes this point has not gotten enough attention, Giving should be accountable.  Notice how Paul addresses this in the scripture reading.  He says in verse 3, “And when I arrive, I will send any whom you approve with letters to take your gift to Jerusalem.”  Paul is not going to take the gift by himself.  Why?  To avoid any possibility or even appearance of misappropriation of funds.

            Giving should be properly handled and accounted for.  This is not just an accounting principle; it is a Christian principle.  We always have two different people count the offering every Sunday.  They sign the deposit slip with the amount, so that the deposit matches the bank record.  When any money is spent it needs at least two signatures, and when anyone in the church is reimbursed for expenses, they are asked to produce receipts.  And every year the whole thing is audited.  Giving should always be properly handled and accounted for. [Slide 2: Blank]

            A final story.  This is from the book Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller.  Miller tells about an unusual friend of his named Curt.  Curt was not a church-going sort of guy.  He came once in a while, when there was a special reason, but he said he did not really care for church.  Donald Miller writes,

[Curt] used to keep a huge jar on his dresser that was full of money, and when he deposited his paychecks he would pull out 10 percent from the bank.  Cold, hard cash.  He would take the money home and put it in that jar.  The thing must have had a couple thousand dollars in it.  I was over one night watching [TV], and Curt was griping because the cabinet shop didn’t pay him enough so that he could get the motorcycle he wanted.

“Well,” I told him, “you must have thousands of dollars in that stinking jar.  Use that.”

“Can’t,” he said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Isn’t mine,” he smiled, sort of embarrassed.  “It’s God’s.”

“God’s?” I shouted.

“Yeah, that’s my tithe.”

I was a little shocked. … He didn’t seem like the tithing type. …  [But he explained that every so often he took the jar down to the church and dumped the contents on the desk of the church financial secretary.  Then he said,]

“You tithe, Don?”

I just looked at him.  I couldn’t believe it.  I was about to get a lecture on tithing from a guy who probably subscribed to Bikes and Babes magazine.

“Well, Curt, I guess I don’t.” After I said this, Curt shook his head in disappointment.  “It’s a shame, Don,” Curt tilted back a bottle as he spoke, punctuating the sentence with a post-swig burb.  “You are missing out.  I’ve been tithing since I was a kid.” …

Curt went down about two weeks later and turned all his money into the church secretary.  More than three thousand dollars.  I started feeling so guilty I couldn’t sleep (pp. 194-195).

            Giving is not meant to be about guilt.  It is meant to be about gratitude—daily, weekly, and yearly gratitude.  It is not a one-time emotional response to a disaster.  Not that you shouldn’t give to the victims of Hurricane Harvey.  But that is not all there is to Christian giving.  Giving, as the Bible talks about it, is an on-going, planned, and properly accounted for response to what God has given us.  That’s how we try to do giving here at Southminster.

Grace Not in Vain

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: I Corinthians 15:1-11, 51-58

            Before I read our second scripture, I want to show a two minute segment of a Veggie Tales movie.  Some of you, especially our children, are already familiar with Veggie Tales.  They are short videos, often with a Biblical theme, where the characters all look like vegetables.  This particular Veggie Tale is called “A Snoodle’s Tale.”  One day a Snoodle appears in a town of Snoodles.  This new little Snoodle does not know where he came from, or what he is for, but he finds 3 items in his backpack: a paint brush, a kazoo, and a pair of wings.  He is especially excited about the wings, and he decides to show the others that he can fly.  That’s where our first movie segment begins.  Here is two minutes of “A Snoodle’s Tale.”

[Show www.youtube.com/watch?v=aJzJ5s970Pc.   Start at 2:55, stop at 5:11]

            We will watch the end of the story in a few minutes.  But I wonder if the Apostle Paul ever felt like that Snoodle.  As we heard in the first scripture, Paul was called to be an apostle.  The risen Jesus has appeared to him in order that he might share with others the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ.  And Paul had been doing that for years, starting churches in cities across the Mediterranean, including Corinth.  But the church in Corinth had so many problems.  In chapter 1 we read about divisions and factions in the church.  In chapter 5 there is an episode of sexual misconduct.  In chapter 11 we discover they are abusing the poor, and in later chapters they are fighting with each other over who has the best spiritual gift.  Some of them even question whether Paul is really an apostle.  Paul could have easily felt like that Snoodle: that his gifts as an apostle were unappreciated and wasted and that all his work was in vain.  But it wasn’t!  And here is why.

[Read second scripture: I Corinthians 15:51-58]

            Notice how often in this chapter Paul talks about how our faith might seem like it is in vain [Slide 1]

-          Verse 2: “… you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.”

-          Verse 14: “… if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.”

-          Verse 17: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”

Without Jesus’ resurrection, I think we could all end up feeling like that Snoodle, as if everything in our lives is wasted.

            But in fact Jesus has been raised, and that changes everything. [Slide 2]

-          Verse 10: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.”

-          Verse 58: “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

            Often when we think of Jesus’ resurrection, we think of what it means for life after death.  We think of Easter in terms of what happens after we die.  But Paul sees what Easter means before we die.  It means that the things we do to serve Jesus in this life are not wasted.

            Why?  Because in the resurrection God does not brush aside our feeble efforts to serve Jesus, the way the other Snoodles brushed aside the artwork of that little Snoodle.  God does not brush aside our efforts to serve Jesus.  Rather in the resurrection God takes our efforts to serve Jesus—God takes our lives—and makes of them something more remarkable and more important and more lasting than we ever imagined.

            Listen again to verses 51-52: [Slide 3]

Listen, I will tell you a mystery!  We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.

            The resurrection does not mean the continuation of life as it is.  We don’t rise from the dead and go back to being the same bickering, self-centered, angry or depressed people we have always been.  In the resurrection we are transformed into what God intended us to be all along.  And that means the things we do to serve Jesus here and now, things we do to show God’s love in this life, will not be wasted in God’s kingdom; they will be perfected. [Slide 4: Blank]

            Now we are ready to watch the conclusion of “A Snoodle’s Tale.”  After the Snoodle is rejected by the others, he wanders up to a mountain where he meets a voice.  We never do see the figure he meets up on the mountain, but we hear his voice.  The voice invites the Snoodle to come in and have a cup of tea.  And that’s where we see the Snoodle transformed.  Here is the final four minutes of “A Snoodle’s Tale.”

[Show same youtube video.  Start at 9:32 and stop at the end 13:29.]

            What I especially like about this story is how the Snoodle is not the only one transformed by his encounter on the mountain.  Did you notice that?  The Snoodle is not the only one who flies at the end of the movie; so does everyone he encounters.  When the Snoodle tells his story, others are changed.  His efforts are not in vain.

            Neither are yours.  Go and tell your story.

Beyond Tolerance

Aaron Willett
1 Corinthians 12:12-31

Introduction: NASA MOON LANDING

We’re going to play a little game here…

You are a member of a space crew originally scheduled to rendezvous with the mother ship on the light side of the moon. However, due to mechanical difficulties, your ship was forced to land at a spot some 200 miles from the rendezvous point. During reentry and landing, much of the equipment aboard was damaged and, since survival depends on reaching the mother ship, the most critical items available must be chosen for the 200-mile trip. You have before you a list of the nine items left intact and undamaged after landing. Your task is to rank order them in terms of their importance for your crew in allowing them to reach the rendezvous point. Place the number 1 by the most important item, the number 2 by the second most important, and so on through number 9 for the least important.

You have one minute. (PLAY "Rocket Man")

Now, instead of crashing alone, you’ve landed with four or five of the people near you. In small groups, develop your own team list.

You have two minutes.

Ok, now we’ll either illustrate my point or we won’t… but either way I hope you all had some fun. Here’s what engineers from NASA said. Write these down in the right-hand column:

  1. Oxygen Tanks

  2. Constellation Chart

  3. Water

  4. FM Radio

  5. Food

  6. Rope

  7. First-Aid Kit

  8. & 9 Last: Matches and Compass, neither of which would do any good on the moon’s surface!

Now, take a minute to total up the difference in numbers between your two lists and NASA’s. Negative numbers don’t matter, just the difference. For instance, if you had written 4 or 6 for food, that’s one away from NASA’s 5.

Arithmetic at church!

We’re you closer alone or as a team? – A show of hands

So back to our Scripture. The Corinthians were struggling with divisiveness--they were tolerating each other. In particular their economic diversity and differences in status had become problematic. They had even begun to understand the work and power of the Spirit in these divisive terms, as Ken discussed last week. Paul has his work cut out for him as he attempts to distinguish diversity from division.

Paul begins this by repeatedly cautioning against their overly high self-estimation. He reminds the Corinthians that they’re not as smart as they think, that they’re puffed-up, they’re babies, boasting in the wrong things, etc. But he doesn’t stop there. In verse 13, from today’s reading, he declares that we were “all baptized into one body--Jews or Greeks, slaves or free.” He is declaring that in the Body of Christ divisions of race and status are moot.

I love the Body metaphor, but I wonder, if Paul were writing today, would he have written about the Biome of Christ instead of the Body? I find all this biome research fascinating. In addition to our own cells, our individual biomes are made of bacteria, fungi, viruses, and more. Estimates vary, but for each of our human cells there are one to ten of these other organisms. We fully depend on many of them for the normal functioning of our bodies. For instance, e. coli lives in our intestines and when kept in its proper place, it is essential to our digestion. My high school biology teacher, Mr. Ford, liked to remind us that when we passed gas--and kids you’ll want to remember this--we could always blame our e. coli.

Recent research into autoimmune disorders has led to what is called the hygiene hypothesis. This theory suggests that our overuse of antibiotics and anti-bacterial cleaners have over-sanitized our personal environment. Our immune systems evolved with all these other critters around and when they’re absent our histamines go crazy and start attacking our own cells.

I think it’s not too far a reach to suggest that racial division within the church is not unlike an auto-immune disorder. We have taken a good and proper function—the fellowship among believers—and intensified it to the point that it turns in on itself. This process if fueled by our implicit biases. Vernae Meyers describes biases as “the stories we make up about people before we know who they are.” If we allow our biases to prevent us from building relationship with people who aren’t like us, we miss our calling. Just as we need a healthy biome in our body, so too do we require diversity to experience the full riches of the Body of Christ.

In the brilliant TED Radio Hour episode from which I cribbed my sermon title, Arthur Brooks of the conservative American Enterprise Institute makes a pitch for why Liberals and Conservatives need each other. I was struck by how much this made me reflect on how we function as the body of Christ. He believes that liberals have it right when they cry out for the needs of the poor and the marginalized, and he believes that conservatives have it right when they describe market forces as a fundamentally better solution than government. I think his perspective boils down to “we’re all in this together and we need each other to make it work.”

In the Body of Christ, tolerance is insufficient. We must draw near, we must become proximate to each other and our neighbors. Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that we need all the answers before we get close, but the answers (and even the right questions!) will come when we step out in faith and into proximate relationships with the poor and with our neighbors of color.

In verses 21-23, Paul reminds us that we need our members that appear weakest. Do you feel like you’re an appendix or the tonsils in the body of Christ? Well, even though we’re still not sure what exactly those organs do, rest assured that God IS going to use you too—even if we don’t know how just yet!

Of course this is all far more serious than the fate of our collective tonsils and appendixes. This past week has been striking and upsetting for many of us because of last weekend’s flare of white supremacist violence in Charlottesville and more recently the ISIS attack in Barcelona. I’ve been reflecting on this metaphor of the body as it relates to race, and I believe I stand firmly in our tradition when I declare that as followers of Jesus we offer no quarter to ideologies of hate, discrimination, or supremacy.

According to The Confession of 1967, found in our Book of Confessions:

“God has created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family. In his reconciling love, God overcomes the barriers between sisters and brothers and breaks down every form of discrimination based on racial or ethnic difference, real or imaginary. The church is called to bring all people to receive and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church, and the exercise of political rights. Therefore, the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it. Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize others, however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess.”

White supremacists, and Nazis in particular, think the body ends with those who look and think just like they do. However, Christian unity is not derived from conformity. In our baptism we become the Body of Christ – all of us. This is not accomplished by our own will or power, not by our individual excellence or personal acceptability, nor is it by our conformity to each other. It is by the power of the Holy Spirit and our conformity to Christ. Christ lived and died for each of us; and in our baptism we share in his death and we each share in the new life of his resurrection.

Each time we shake hands or touch dirt, our personal biomes grow in diversity. There is more diversity in the Body of Christ here at SPC than we know. Every time a child or grandchild comes out as lesbian, gay, or transgender; each time one of us develops a debilitating disease, each time a child is born or a new member walks through the door, each time the shape of our body changes we discover that there is room in the Body of Christ for more diversity.

Paul is reminding the Corinthians that they need each other. In the same way, we need each other, we need our neighbors, we need our sisters and brothers at City of Glory. We must move beyond tolerance; tolerance is insufficient in the body (or biome!) of Christ. We need each other. Our interdependence is necessary for us to experience the fullness of our Christian faith.

Last week, Eliana Maxim, one of our Executive Presbyters, who also served here briefly as an interim pastor, shared this:

Our recently adopted Confession of Belhar writes, “We believe that any teaching which attempts to legitimate such forced separation by appeal to the gospel, and is not prepared to venture on the road of obedience and reconciliation, but rather, out of prejudice, fear, selfishness and unbelief, denies in advance the reconciling power of the gospel, must be considered ideology and false doctrine.”

[In their struggle against Apartheid,] The Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, where this confession came from, learned that the work of facing and naming evil, speaking truth to power and beginning the work of undoing institutional racism begins with us, the church.  We need to examine how we have been complicit in maintaining structures that provide privilege for some but not all, how we have allowed the Gospel to be co-opted by those who espouse racist ideologies, how we have kept silent when our voices could be living water.

This is not about being political. This is about being faithful.

Well, on Saturday, September 23, The Presbytery of Seattle is sponsoring the Crossroads Anti-Racism Training. It runs from 9-4 and only costs $10 for lunch. I invite you to join me and others from around the presbytery in a day of learning and equipping for the hard work of racial reconciliation. Maybe this will be one more step in seeking Paul’s “more excellent way,” the way of love.

Friends, tolerance is easy, reconciliation is hard. We have to press into these relationships until they become a part of us. In our unity, as the Body of Christ, we experience the presence and power of the Spirit, and we witness to a love that is more than tolerant—we show the world the reconciling love of God by whose power we, the holy, common people of God, constitute the Body of Christ, incarnate in the world.

 

Overhearing the Gospel

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: I Corinthians 14:1-12, 13-25

            In our scripture readings this morning Paul makes several references to speaking in tongues.  I don’t know if you have ever been to a church or prayer service where people spoke in tongues, but I found an ABC News segment on YouTube to show you a little of what it is like.  It features a mega-church in Tampa, Florida, led by Pastor Randy White.  Near the beginning it shows him praying in tongues as he walks past a strip joint.  He prays in tongues because he believes this gives him protection from Satan as he prays for the people inside.  Then we see part of a church service at his church where people are praying in tongues and fainting.  They are not having a heart attack; they faint, presumably, because they have been overcome by the Holy Spirit.  Here is a three-minute segment of the show.

[Play https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9Ep0WHAsIY]

            Apparently speaking in tongues was a big thing among the Christians in Corinth.  It was popular for the same reason it was popular in Tampa, Florida.  It’s dramatic.  It feels miraculous.  It’s exciting.  What’s a plain old pastor standing in a pulpit compared to that?

            Paul is careful not to put down those who speak in tongues.  In fact Paul says he does it himself.  But when it comes to worshiping together in a church, Paul puts the emphasis on something different.

            The key words in today’s scripture reading are the words “building up.”  Worship is for building up the body of Christ, building people up in their faith, love, and service for Christ.  Notice how often those words are uses in I Corinthians 14: [Slide 1]

-          Verse 3: “On the other hand, those who prophesy speak to other people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.”

By the way, when Paul talks about “prophesying” he does not mean predicting the future.  In both the Old and New Testament a prophet is someone who proclaims God’s message.  It might include a word of hope about what God will do in the future to save us, or it might include a word of warning about what will happen if we don’t change our ways.  But in the Bible prophecy is roughly the same thing as preaching.  So in this scripture, when you hear the word “prophesy,” think of preaching or teaching God’s message.

-          Verse 4: “Those who speak in tongues build up themselves, but those who prophesy build up the church.”

-          Verse 5: “One who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.”

[Slide 2]

-          Verse 12: “So with yourselves; since you are eager for spiritual gifts, strive to excel in them for building up the church.”

-          Verse 17: “For you may give thanks well enough [when speaking in tongues], but the other person is not built up.”

-          Verse 27: “Let all things be done for building up.”

You see how prominent in this scripture are the words “building up.”  They especially apply when Paul is talking about outsiders—the uninitiated: [Slide 3]

-          Verse 16: “Otherwise, if you say a blessing with the spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say the “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since the outsider does not know what you are saying?”

[Slide 4]

-          Verses 23-24: “If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your mind?”  (It reminds me of the woman in the video: “These people are crazy.”]  But if all prophesy, an unbeliever or outsider who enters is reproved by all and called to account by all.” [Slide 5: Blank]

No one can deny that Pastor White’s church is being built up in numbers.  In fact even the woman we saw at the end of the video ends up joining his church.  And Paul does not object to speaking in tongues.  He says in verse 5, “I would like all of you to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy.”

          Let me clarify.  In that statement Paul does not mean that everyone should speak in tongues.  In chapter 12 he is clear that different gifts of the Spirit are given to different people, and not all have the same gift.  In the video Diane Sawyer makes one mistake.  She says that according to the Bible all the apostles spoke in tongues.  I assume she is referring here to the story of Pentecost where the apostles and other followers of Jesus are together in a room and the Holy Spirit comes upon them and they speak in other languages.  But in that case they were speaking in languages that other people understood.  In other words, they were communicating the gospel in languages spoken by people from other countries.  They were not speaking in a string of syllables and consonants that no one could understand.  Pentecost is not a story about speaking in tongues; it’s a story about the apostles prophesying—proclaiming God’s message in languages people could understand.  If you really want to experiencePentecost, don’t go to a church where they speak in tongues, come back this afternoon for the City of Glory church service, where people sing and preach in Swahili, and where those of us who don’t know Swahili are given head phones to hear a translation of the sermon into English.  That’s Pentecost.

          When Paul says, “I would like all of you to speak in tongues,” he does not mean that everyone should speak in tongues.  He means that he is fine with people speaking in tongues, especially when they are praying to God in private.  But when it comes to church Paul would rather have fewer people speaking in tongues and more people teaching Sunday School, or inviting their friends to a Bible study, or supporting missionaries who actually learn the languages of the people among whom they serve.

          And that brings me back to what God really wants in a church service.  I do not think God wants people passing out in church.  I know of no place in the Bible where one of the gifts of the Spirit is unconsciousness.  Paul does not want people passing out in church; he wants them to hear the gospel.  When we sing, God does not care whether we sing traditional hymns or new Christian worship choruses; God wants people to be overhearing the gospel in the music and words, letting the words and music combine to touch both their hearts and their minds, both their emotions and their understanding.

          The same is true for other parts of the service.  When people share the story of God working in their own lives, we overhear the gospel, and it encourages us to believe that God can work in our own lives.  Likewise, when in our prayers we share deep personal needs for God’s help, we overhear the gospel, and it encourages us to believe that God can help with our own personal needs.

          One little digression before we finish.  Later in I Corinthians 14 Paul makes that infamous statement where he says, “Women should be silent in the churches.”  Unfortunately, many churches have taken that to mean that women should not be preachers.  But that is not what Paul means.  Back in I Corinthians 11 Paul says that women in the church should prophesy with their heads covered.  Why he wants their heads covered is a whole other Bible study that probably has to do with cultural associations in Corinth.  The point is that Paul supports women prophesying in church, which as I said means preaching, as long as they wear a head covering.  So in chapter 14 he is not talking about women preachers.  He is apparently talking about women adding to the chaos of a Corinthian worship service by shouting questions.  We surmise this because later he says they should ask their questions at home.  Paul’s concern is that women not add to the chaos of a Corinthian worship service where people are speaking in tongues and shouting out prophecies and asking questions all at the same time.  Paul is not concerned about women preaching in church; he is concerned that worship be intelligible, that people be able to hear and understand the message that is proclaimed.

            The point of worship is to build up the body.  Worship is not just about ourselves; it is not just about meeting our own needs.  It is about building up the body, so that everyone—young and old, men and women, long time members and newcomers—can hear the gospel in terms each can understand.

The Unavoidably Communal Part of Communion

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: I Corinthians 11:17-34; I Corinthians 12:12-13

            This week in our church eNews I said that communion is one of the few things left that you can’t download from the internet.  But apparently I was wrong.  After submitting that article, I Googled “taking communion at home,” and I discovered there is a website called eHolyCommunion.com.  Their home page says,

Come before God; attend our complete, private, and self-paced read through worship service.  Prepare and be filled with our Lord Jesus Christ by receiving him in Holy Communion. … We are online 24-7 with easy access for you all day and all night by your PC, laptop, notebook, cell phone, and tablet in countries all over God’s good earth.

All you had to do was get a piece of bread, some grape juice or wine, and log on.

          There you are.  You could be home taking communion in your pajamas.  Except it would not be communion.  Listen again to what Paul says to the Corinthians:

When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper.  For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.

            Apparently when the Christians in Corinth had communion, they combined it with a full dinner, a kind of first century potluck.  Only it wasn’t really a potluck.  The richer Christians brought their own food and drink and consumed it before the poor Christians arrived so they did not have to share it.  This explains what Paul says later in verses 33-34:

So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.  If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation.

            Paul was furious because the Corinthians treated communion as their own private meal, and in the process they forgot about the community, especially the needs of the poor.  Paul is so upset about this, in verse 27 he says, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.”  In other words, if we take communion in an unworthy manner, we are desecrating the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ and doing ourselves more harm than good.

            Unfortunately people sometimes misunderstand what this means.  I once talked to a church member who told me she never takes communion if she is mad at someone.  If she is mad at someone and hasn’t forgiven them, she feels unworthy to take communion.

          That might limit the number of us taking communion this morning.  In fact we might not even bother passing the tray.  If we must be worthy of communion before taking it, we might as well all go home.

            But that is not what Paul means by taking communion in an unworthy manner.  He explains what he means in verse 29: “For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.”  In other words, to take communion in an unworthy manner means to take communion without discerning the body.

            Okay, so what does it mean to discern the body?  The context gives us the answer.  In I Corinthians 10, Paul again talks communion and says, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”  Then in the next chapter, chapter 12, he says, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.”

            What does it mean to discern the body when taking communion?  It means to recognize that communion makes us together the body of Christ.  It means that communion is unavoidably communal.  You can’t receive the body of Christ broken for you without sensitivity and concern for the greater body of which we are a part.

            One evening a couple weeks ago, I was driving home past our church when I saw a group of about 10 youth sitting in a circle on the lawn in front of our building.  I thought, “What’s going on?”  So I turned around and came back.  When I parked, they didn’t seem to notice me.  Their heads were bowed as if reading or praying.  But as I walked toward them I noticed they were all tapping away on their phones.  It was a bizarre sight: ten youth in a circle on the church lawn heads bowed tapping away on their phones.  I said, “Hi, I’m Pastor Ken.  What’s up?”  One of them finally looked up and said, “Pokemon Go!”  Pokemon Go is a game you play on your phone where you capture various Pokemon characters by finding them in places around the neighborhood.  When you go to a certain spot, these Pokemon characters show up on your phone.  Our church is a Pokemon Go hot spot, where many different Pokemon characters will show up on your phone when you come here.  Finally I said, “Do you guys know each other?”  They looked around, shook their heads, then bent back down to their phones.  I thought, “Wow, here is a group of youth, drawn to our church by Pokemon Go, and they don’t even know each other.  Nor did they seem interested in knowing each other.  They just came for what each of them could get on their own phone.

            How tragic would it be if that is what happened this morning during communion.  If we are here only to get Jesus for ourselves, we are missing part of the point of Jesus’ coming.  Jesus gave his body for us, so that we could become a body in him.  Jesus came to bring us together in a community that would embody his love, not only for each other but to the larger community around us, including the poor.  That, by the way, is why we have a special offering for the Deacons on communion Sundays to help people in our church or community with emergency needs, like temporary housing, rent assistance, or assistance with utilities or handicap accessibility.  We have a Deacons’ offering on communion Sundays to remember that communion makes us part of a community in Christ.

          In a book called Alone Together, Sherry Turkle, a psychologist at MIT, tells about some children who are given a robot dog called AIBO.  AIBO is programmed to do many things that a real dog would do.  For example, it learns to come when called, to wag its tail when happy, and to sulk with its head down when neglected.  An 11 year-old girl named Yolanda suggests that AIBO has advantages over a real dog.  “AIBO,” she says, “doesn’t shed, doesn’t bite, doesn’t die,” and a 9 year-old named Lydia adds, “I might like [AIBO] more than a real living animal, like a real cat or a real dog, because, like if you had a bad day … then you could just turn this thing off and it wouldn’t bug you” (p. 59).

          I wonder if that isn’t why many people prefer a virtual church to a real one.  If your church is online and you’ve had a bad day, you just turn it off and it won’t bug you.  But when you come to a real church with real people, then you are up against people who shed.  We do it in our own peculiar ways, but we shed, and sometimes we bite, and sometimes people die and it hurts.  Learning to live with real people in a real church family takes patience and sensitivity.  It requires the effort to communicate and clear up misunderstandings, and sometimes it results in losing someone you have grown to care about, and it hurts.

          But that is exactly what God did by sending Jesus.  God did not just send us text messages in the form of commandments or emails through the prophets.  God sent his Son in person, in the flesh, in the body, to show the depth of God’s love in human bodily life.

          So welcome to communion.  At this table we get not a virtual savior but a real one, not an on-line community but a community of flesh and blood.

Why Sexual Morality Matters

Erin McArdel and Ken Onstot

Scripture: I Corinthians 6:12-20

 

Part I: Dealing with Taboo Topics—Erin

Let me tell you 'bout the birds and the bees

And the flowers and the trees

The moon up above, and the thing called love

Who can guess what the topic of today's sermon is?   That's right. Today, we will be talking about sex.   Now you might be wondering, why? What business is it of the church to be speaking about what we do with our personal lives behind closed doors?  

And in fact, generally speaking (and I realize that I am making a gross overgeneralization here) I think that the church has done a terrible job of addressing the issue of healthy sexuality.  The topic of sexuality, it seems, quite often only comes up in our churches in the discussion of homosexuality, the results of which are frequently toxic in that they drive a wedge in our communities and make some feel unaccepted.  I do not believe that is at all the kind of message Paul would have advocated for.  Paul does, however, find it important to talk about touchy subjects which we may rather avoid or which might make us feel uncomfortable...such as sexuality...and so to answer the question of what business the church has in our sexual lives...Paul would say plenty.

Paul believes that all aspects of our personal lives have bearing on our communal lives as the Body of Christ and thus should be examined through the lens of whether they give glory to God.  Sure, we have freedom in Christ, which is to say that because we are forgiven and made right with God through Christ, we are no longer bound to trying to achieve righteousness before God through the Old Testament law.  However, with the gift of freedom comes the responsibility of making good personal decisions and striving to reflect the love of Christ in all that we do. One of the tasks of Christian community, in Paul’s view, is to hold one another accountable to living lives that bring glory to God.  Both the individual and communal Body are the instruments through which we encounter and serve one another and God.  Because of this, the choices we make in our personal lives and with our bodies matter and it also matters that we talk about issues such as these in community.

If we are not willing to strip away the masks we layer on for fear of being seen as our naked and true selves, if we do not desire to constructively and critically assess our lives and choices and perhaps be a bit uncomfortable in the process of being challenged and stretched into becoming our best selves—then we should probably avoid Paul’s writings.  Because, let’s face it.  He tackles some pretty tough subjects.  But since Paul is speaking as an Apostle, we can learn something from him of the heart of God.  Through Paul, God confronts us with topics we might rather avoid—topics like sex. 

Now there are some in this room for whom this topic may be particularly challenging who have been hurt by sexual immorality, sometimes even at the hands of the church or of fellow Christians. Through Paul’s writing, God responds compassionately saying, “I hear you. I see your hurt, and it’s not okay.” And God gives directions so as to avoid further hurts and divisions. If at any point during our sermon today, anyone feelstriggered, please be gentle and gracious with yourself and do what you need to do, whether you need a time-out from the sermon or to talk with one of us afterwards. It is important to us that everyone feel safe.  

It would of course be impossible for us to tackle all aspects of sexuality in one sermon.  But we hope that today will begin to remove the stigma so often associated with this topic and will create a safe space to have continued dialogue as we wrestle with how to glorify God in the sexual dimension of our lives. 

Being sexually moral involves engaging in consensual sexual behaviors within the confines of a committed and just relationship for the purpose of expressing love and unity.  Partners should view one another as equals and desire mutual satisfaction.  In the portion of his letter that we read today, Paul advises the church in Corinth and us that in order to glorify God in our sexual behaviors, we must flee from fornication or sexual immorality and he gives his theological arguments for this charge, which include the argument that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. We will explore the importance of our bodies—and why this message was so important for the Corinthians to hear—in the next section of our sermon: Why Bodily Life Matters.

 

Part II: Why Bodily Life Matters—Ken

To understand this scripture I must go back to something said by Socrates about 400 years before Jesus.  I quoted this in a sermon two weeks ago, but let me read part of it again.  Socrates said,

It has been proved to us by experience that if we would have pure knowledge of anything we must be quit of the body—the soul in herself must behold things in themselves. … And thus having got rid of the foolishness of the body we shall be pure and hold converse with the pure, and know of ourselves the clear light everywhere, which is no other than the light of truth (Classics of Western Thought: The Ancient World: 102-103).

Basically, Socrates believed that bodily life was at best irrelevant and at worst a hindrance to our spiritual lives.  We will only have a true spiritual life, he said, when we are quit of the body, meaning when we die and our immortal souls experience the pure light of truth.

The Corinthians to whom Paul is writing have been steeped in this philosophy.  From this they drew two seemingly opposite conclusions.  On the one hand, some of the Corinthians thought that bodily life was bad and that Christians should avoid bodily entanglements as much as possible.  In the scripture we read two weeks ago from I Corinthians 7, they say to Paul, “It is well for a man not to touch a woman,” meaning we are better off having no sexual relations at all, even if we are married.

Paul disagrees.  In chapter 7 he tells the Corinthians that becoming a Christian does not mean you should avoid marriage or sexual relations with your spouse.  These are good things created by God.  If you are married your job is not to leave your marriage but to serve God in your marriage, including the mutual enjoyment of sex.  Paul is quite explicit about that.  Bodily life is not something to be avoided; it is the arena in which we are called to serve Jesus.  That’s part of what it means that our bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit.  They are the arena in which we are called to love and serve God.

But some of the Corinthians drew the opposite conclusion from Socrates.  They said that since bodily life is irrelevant to our spiritual lives, it does not matter what we do with our bodies.  We are free to do anything we want with our bodies.

These folks are quoted in our scripture reading for today.  They say, “All things are lawful for me.”  In other words, we can have sex with anyone we want, because it is just physical.  It’s something we do with our bodies that has no relevance to our relationship with God.

Interestingly, this is similar to the way many people view sex today.   Christian Smith, a sociologist from Notre Dame, has written a fascinating book called Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults.  The book is based on surveys and in depth interviews with about 2,500 young adults, 18 to 23 year-olds, from across the country and from all walks of life.  Among the many topics covered in these interviews were questions about how they viewed sex.  Here are some responses from the young adults interviewed:

  • Well, it’s more physical.  You just, you don’t have to be dating them or going out with them.  You just have a physical thing at a party or whatever.
  • In my personal perspective, hooking up is completely different than getting into a relationship.  If I’m hooking up with a guy, I don’t plan on dating them.  It depends. … I don’t need that commitment.  I don’t need that relationship.  I don’t need that love from somebody else.  I’m fine with myself.  Entertainment, thrill, all of it.  Just for fun.
  • It’s more of a physical thing, not an emotional thing.  You don’t have to worry about the emotions or the jealousy.  But the only bad thing about that is someone always ends up getting feelings [for the other], and then … [well] It’s not a good way to go, but you do it sometimes (pp. 60-61).

The theme in these comments is that sex is not that big a deal.  It is just something you do with your body; it does not really define you as a person; it does not really affect your soul.  Except when it does.   And that brings us to the next part of our sermon.

 

Part III: How Sex Unites—Erin            

Paul would argue that there is no such thing as casual sex.  Sex always affects you as a person either for good or for ill.  He writes “The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.”  He reminds us that our bodies are members of Christ and that we are united to the Lord and one spirit with him. 

Paul believes that all bodily deeds are of spiritual significance and should be oriented toward God who created our bodies, redeemed our bodies, and will one day resurrect our bodies.  Thus, that which we do with our bodies should draw us into deeper relationship and union with God, including especially something as intimate as sex.

Paul makes his case for the unity that can and should come out of sex by referring to one of the creation accounts wherein God recognizes the human need both for community and for intimate partnership and thus creates a woman for Adam.  Adam recognizes her as his equal in that they are created of the same matter.  They are created as sexual beings with mutual desire for one another and in the act of being united to one another through sex, they become one flesh. 

Paul challenges us to view and experience sex in a manner similar to that of the Genesis account—as an act which unites us with the other, becoming, in effect one body.  Furthermore the act of sex which has a uniting effect between two partners can also draw us into deeper relationship and union with God.  How so?

Firstly, we are created by God as sexual beings.  Our sexuality is a part of the order of creation, which God deemed as good.  Since our sexuality is instinctive to our humanity, there is no way that we can separate it out from the way in which we relate to others or to God—it is a part of us.  The gift of sex is meant to be enjoyed and to draw us nearer to our partner.  Since we come to know God more through our relationships with one another, as we are drawn nearer to our partner through engaging in healthy and disciplined sex, we can also come to know God more.

Secondly, we are drawn into deeper union with God when we recognize our vulnerability and dependence on God.  The Genesis account describes that the man and his wife were both naked and unashamed.  Sex, when participated in equally with the goal of expressing love, unity, and achieving mutual satisfaction invites us to be fully vulnerable before our partner.  Our being naked before the other, both physically and figuratively, requires trust, honesty, openness, and sensitivity to the other’s needs and desires.  It’s interesting that, further on in the Genesis account, after the man sins, he becomes ashamed of his nakedness.  “I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself,” he tells God.  He became afraid of being vulnerable before God.  Practicing honesty and openness within the context of sex with our partner may better empower us to be vulnerable before God.  When we are willing to be completely honest and open with God about our whole selves, then we can be more aware of and receptive to the dwelling of Christ within us and we can be better representatives of God’s grace in the world. 

Finally, through the act of sex we both give and receive love.  A major attribute of God is love.  I said previously that one of the major purposes of sex is the expression of love between two consenting and committed individuals.  Since all of love comes from God, then we can gain a deeper understanding of God’s love for us when we engage in loving acts with one another, including sex between partners.  This love can be cheapened, however, if out of the context of a committed relationship—wherein one can be fully united, vulnerable and intimate in the way God intends, and Paul would argue that sexual acts that are absent of commitment are immoral.

Paul writes that the body is meant not for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the fornicator sins against the body itself in that he or she defiles the bodily temple where the Holy Spirit dwells.  Because our bodies are members of Christ, temples of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, we should treat them with reverence and honor.  In the act of sex, one should treat both his or her own body with respect and also the person with whom they are having sex.  There are all kinds of ways that sex can be used dishonorably and destructively—some more obvious than others—such as sexual abuse, incest, pedophilia, pornography, or having an affair.  But there are other, less obvious ways that sex can be destructive.  Some examples are having sex before one is ready as a result of peer pressure, engaging in sexual behaviors as a result of one’s own insecurities in an attempt at seeking approval from another, having sex to make another person jealous or because we feel jealous of them, or any situation where there is an imbalance of power within the relationship.

As the body of Christ, it is important that we examine our own sexual lives to ensure that we are engaging in moral and unifying behaviors and also that we speak out against sexual immorality so that we are not complicit in silencing the voices or experiences of those who have been hurt or are hurting themselves.  As God’s representatives in the world, we should stand with God in validating the hurt caused by sexual immorality, responding to it with compassion, love and justice, and creating a safe place for people to heal. 

If engaging in sexually immoral behaviors ourselves or silencing the voices of those hurt by sexual immorality, thenwe are cheapening the gift of sex from God—a gift which is intended to bring unity between two partners within a committed relationship and draw them closer to God.

Part IV: The Connection to Commitment—Ken

After describing some of the attitudes about sex which Christian Smith encountered in his interviews, he writes,

A significant number of emerging adults, it seems, have suffered devastating breakups involving romantic partners with whom they thought they were very seriously involved, probably on the path to marriage. … We interviewers were taken aback, actually, by the number of traumatic breakups we heard described, since we had embarked on the interviews with the belief that emerging adults generally want to hold off on seriously committed relationships.  But the fact is that while most emerging adults do want to hold off, they … also yearn for the kind of intimacy, loyalty, and security that only highly committed relationships can deliver (p. 61).

And that brings me back to Paul’s theme in I Corinthians.  Sex is not a bad thing we should avoid at all costs; it is a good thing meant to bind us together in lasting relationships and give us a glimpse of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness.

I find it ironic that at the very moment in history when some heterosexual couples are playing down the importance of marriage, homosexual couples are fighting for it.  Isn’t that ironic?  I have known numerous heterosexual couples who said to me, “Marriage is not that big a deal.  It’s just a piece of paper.”  And yet there are now homosexual couples thrilled to have that piece of paper.

Let me say that today’s scripture, by itself, does not address the issue of homosexuality.  This will not be a sermon about homosexuality.  There are other places where Paul addresses homosexual relationships, and those scriptures need to be looked at in their own context.  Unfortunately, Bible scholars are in fierce disagreement on what those scriptures mean, so that’s why we have faithful Bible believing Christians struggling with this issue.  We are not in agreement in this church, in this Presbytery, or in the worldwide body of Christ on how to understand homosexuality.

But here is what comes through to me in this scripture passage: sexuality, whether heterosexual or homosexual, only achieves its true purpose when combined with commitment.  When sex is separated from commitment, it produces jealousy, anxiety, fear, and sometimes a desperate need to control or dominate the other person.  Then something meant to give us loyalty, security, mutuality, and hope gives us just the opposite.  Instead of being a sign of God’s steadfast love, it casts doubt over whether steadfast love is even possible in human bodily life.

Sex is meant to make two people one, and when it does, it gives us a glimpse of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness, the kind of steadfast love and faithfulness God wants for us all.

Lasting Love

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: I Corinthians 13; Psalm 136:1-3, 23-26

            Every time I read I Corinthians 13 I feel guilty.  It says, “Love is patient.”  I hear that, and I think about the time a couple weeks ago I was in the grocery store check-out line, and the person in front of me wanted to buy a bottle of gin.  So the checker had to go find someone with the key to open the liquor cabinet and get the bottle of gin, which took forever, and when she came back the customer said, “No, that’s not the right bottle.”  So she again had to find a manager with a key, and after several minutes brought back a different bottle of gin.  But when the customer tried to pay for it his card was rejected.  So he fumbles in his wallet looking for another card and finally says he’ll have to go home and come back.  And this was in the express line.  Love is patient, but sometimes I am not.

            Then it says, “Love is not envious.”  I have a confession.  I am not envious of many people, but I would give anything to have a voice like Tom Hutyler, the stadium announcer for the Mariners.  Have you listened to that voice?  A voice like that could bring an entire community to Jesus.  If I had a voice like that … well….  Love is not envious, but me—that’s another story.

            Even worse is verse 5: “Love is not resentful,” or as the Good News Bible translates it: “Love does not keep a record of wrongs.”  I don’t know about you, but I find it easier to forgive a wrong than to forget it.  It is just too handy to keep it around, and use it as a weapon if the other person ever starts to complain about something I do.  Love does not keep a record of wrongs, but me—that’s another story.

            If it is any comfort, the Corinthians had the same problems.  This week while studying this passage, I discovered that almost every characteristic of love mentioned in this chapter was violated by the Corinthians.  For example, Paul says that love is not envious or jealous.  Earlier in I Corinthians chapter 3 Paul says to the Corinthians, “For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not … behaving according to human inclinations?”  The Corinthians had a problem with jealousy.

            Paul also says, “Love is not boastful or arrogant.”  In I Corinthians 5 Paul says to the Corinthians, “Your boasting is not a good thing,” and in I Corinthians 4 Paul says, “But some of you, thinking that I am not coming to you, have become arrogant.”  Some of the Corinthians see themselves as superior to others in the church.  They see themselves as being more knowledgeable or spiritual.  So Paul says to them, “Love is not boastful or arrogant.”

            One more example.  In I Corinthians 13 Paul says, “Love does not insist on its own way.”  Earlier in I Corinthians 10 Paul says to the Corinthians, “Do not seek your own advantage.”  In Greek it says literally, “Do not insist on your own way.”  Almost every aspect of love described in this chapter was violated by the Corinthians.

            Which brings me to a point I made in the church eNews this week.  You often hear I Corinthians 13 read at a wedding.  I myself have read this scripture at probably a hundred weddings in the last 35 years.  But I Corinthians 13 was not originally written for weddings.  It was not originally written for couples or families.  It was written for people needing to get along with each other in a church.  All the things said in this chapter are describing ways we need to treat each other in the church: with patience, kindness, and even politeness, putting up with one another, believing in how God can work in us, and hoping for what God can yet do through us if we give God the chance.  I Corinthians 13 is not only a manual for family relations; it is a manual for church relations.

            And here is why love is so important in a church: because all the other things we might do in this church are only temporary.  Paul says, “As for prophecies, they will come to an end.”  For the word “prophecies” the Good News Bible uses the expression “inspired messages.”  In verse 2 it says, “I may have the gift of inspired preaching, but if I have no love I am nothing.”  I hate it when the Bible gets personal.  But it is true.  Preaching is not the most important thing that happens in a church.  One day there will not be no more preaching.  In the Kingdom of Heaven there will be no more sermons.  We will not need any preachers telling us about God; we will see God face to face.  But by the time we get to heaven we better have learned how to love, because if we haven’t, heaven will not be heaven.

            This point is so important, Paul uses several examples to make it.  He says, “If I have knowledge but do not have love, I am nothing.”  It does not matter how smart you are or how many degrees you have behind your name or how many Bible studies you have been to; if you haven’t learned how to love people you have nothing.

            Or he says, “If I give away all my possessions but have no love, I am nothing.”  It does not matter how much you give to the church or to COTN; it does not matter how much volunteer work you do at Kent Hope or the Des Moines foodbank or anywhere else; if you have not learned how to love people, you have nothing.  Because all those things will be gone in the Kingdom of God.  There won’t be any churches or foodbanks or homeless shelters in heaven.  What there will be are people, and if you haven’t learned how to love people, what are you going to do?

            Do you see what is at stake here?  Love is the only thing that will still be relevant when everything else is gone.  So if we don’t start practicing love here and now, practicing love in our families, in our church, in our community, even in our country and world, we won’t be ready for heaven even if by God’s grace we get there.

            But here is the good news.  God’s love is not like ours.  God is patient and kind, even when we are not.  God does not keep a record of wrongs, even when we do.  God’s love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.

            And that’s why for Paul the most important characteristic of love is its endurance.  After all the other characteristics of love are mentioned, Paul summarizes with these words: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”  Then he says, “Love never ends.”

            Garrison Keillor once said that there are no perfect marriages, only marriages that give up and marriages that keep trying (Wobegon Boy, p. 142).  That is true of all forms of love.  None of us are always patient.  All of us are sometimes envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude.  We all keep a secret record of wrongs.  The only chance we have to succeed at love is to hang in there with each other—to keep trying.  That is the key to marriage and also the key to being a church: to keep trying, to keep showing up, to keep working at it.  For Paul the most important characteristic of love is endurance, and the most important way we show love and grow in love is by continuing to try.

            This does not mean we never confront other people about their actions.  If you noticed, Paul said, “Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth.”  In other words love does not overlook wrongdoing that hurts other people or puts them down.  Love is not silent when people are unjustly treated or ignored.  Love does not stand aside while people destroy themselves or others with drug abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, or deceit.  Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth.   Yet even with that, love continues to seek the best possible good for the other person as well as for ourselves.  It’s faith, hope, and persistence never fails, just like God’s faith, hope, and persistence in us.

            In a book called The Road Less Traveled psychiatrist Scott Peck notes that when couples fall in love all things seem possible to them. He writes, “United with our beloved we feel we can conquer all obstacles.  …  All problems will be overcome.”  But then he says, “Sooner or later, in response to the problems of daily living, individual will reasserts itself.  He wants to have sex; she doesn’t.  She wants to go to the movies; he doesn’t.  He wants to put money in the bank; she wants a dishwasher.  She wants to talk about her job; he wants to talk about his.  She doesn’t like his friends; he doesn’t like hers.  … One by one, gradually the ego boundaries snap back into place. … Once again they are two separate individuals.  At this point they either begin to dissolve the ties of their relationship or to initiate the work of real loving” (pp. 87-88).

            The same thing applies to being a church.  It is one thing to commit your life to Jesus in a powerful moment of faith.  But when you join a church—that’s when you begin the real work of learning how to love.

Single, Married, Divorced, and Christian

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: I Corinthians 7:8-16, 17-24

            I Corinthians 7 is not a scripture one would normally pick for a wedding.  In verses 8-9 Paul says,

To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.

Now there is a ringing endorsement for matrimony.

But this scripture does not only addresses marriage; it also has implications for civil rights.  Listen again to verse 21: “Were you a slave when called?  Do not be concerned about it.  Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever.”  A verse like that, wrongly interpreted, could set back the civil rights movement 200 years. 

            This chapter can be easily misunderstood, so this morning I am going to talk about it more like a Bible study than a sermon, because if we don’t understand this scripture in the right way, we will get the wrong message.

            I need to begin, however, with a quote from the Greek philosopher Socrates.  This is one of Socrates’ teachings recorded by his disciple Plato: [Slides 1]

For the body is a source of endless trouble: … it fills us full of loves, and lusts, and fears, and fancies of all kinds, and endless foolery ….  Whence comes wars and fightings and factions? Whence but from the body and the lusts of the body?  … It has been proved to us by experience that if we would have pure knowledge of anything we must be quit of the body—the soul in herself must behold things in themselves. [Slide 2] … And thus having got rid of the foolishness of the body we shall be pure and hold converse with the pure, and know of ourselves the clear light everywhere, which is no other than the light of truth (Classics of Western Thought: The Ancient World: 102-103).

Socrates believed that to understand goodness and truth you must transcend human bodily life; you must get as far from bodily life as possible.

            Socrates lived around 400 years before Jesus, so when Jesus showed up, the Greeks in Corinth tended to see Jesus in light of Socrates.  Paul quotes their point of view in the first verse of chapter 7: [Slide 3]

            Now concerning what you wrote: “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.”

Note that the words in quotation marks are not Paul’s point of view.  They are the words that the Corinthians wrote to Paul.  The Corinthians, at least some of them, think that sexuality and marriage are bad and that Christians are better off remaining celebate.

            Paul certainly admits that bodily life contains hazards for our spiritual lives, but he does not want spiritual life to be divorced from our bodily life.  He wants our bodily lives to be the arena in which our spiritual lives are lived out.

            So in verse 8 Paul says, [Slide 4] “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am.”  In other words, it is okay to be single.  You don’t have to have a husband or wife to be a complete person.  Jews were taught that to fulfill your personhood you needed to get married and have children.  But Paul says no, you can serve God just the way you are as single person or a widow.  In fact later in the chapter he mentions some advantages of being single.  Without the responsibilities of a family, a single person can devote more time and energy to helping people in need and showing Christ’s love to the lonely and forgotten.  For Paul being single is not a liability but an opportunity.  It is an opportunity to serve God in ways you could not do if you were married and had a family.

            On the other hand, Paul says, you can also serve God when you are married.  Verses 10-11: [Slide 5]

To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.

            Remember, Socrates taught that bodily life was a source of trouble.  The Greek Christians in Corinth took this to mean that the best thing was for a man not touch a woman. In other words, they thought that Christians should avoid marriage, and if married, that they should separate from their spouses and become like monks or nuns.

            But Paul says no.  Don’t separate, because you think marriage is harming your spirituality.  Rather think of marriage as a place for living out your spirituality.  Verses 12-14: [Slide 6]

To the rest I say—I and not the Lord—that if any believer has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her.  And if any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him.  For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband.

            Paul does not mean that marriage will automatically make your spouse into a believer.  Marrying someone because you think you can change them, or fix their problems, or make their issues go away—marrying someone for such a reason is almost always a mistake.  However, if you are married and you are a follower of Jesus, or if you become a follower of Jesus after you are married, then you don’t need to leave your marriage to go live in a monastery or convent.  Your marriage can now be part of your mission field. [Slide 7: Blank]

            Paul is not dealing here with situations like domestic violence, adultery, criminal behavior, destructive addictions, or severe mental and emotional dysfunction.  We cannot apply this scripture blindly to these situations because Paul is not addressing these situations in this scripture.  He is addressing people who have been told that bodily life is bad and that sexual relations will corrupt you, especially when a believer is married to an unbeliever.  Remember, these are people who say to Paul, “It is well for a man not to touch a woman, isn’t it?”  To them Paul says, “No, bodily life is good.  Jesus came to redeem our bodily lives.”  You need not be afraid of being tainted by an unbelieving spouse.  You can be the one doing the “tainting.”  As a husband or wife you can be the one infecting the people around you with faith.

           Of course sometimes that doesn’t work.  In verses 15-16 Paul talks about a situation where the spouse does not want to stay in the marriage.  In that situation, Paul says, you cannot control what your spouse does.  If your spouse is determined to leave, or to wreck the marriage by persistent destructive actions, then you can’t save it by yourself.  As Paul says in verse 15, God has called you to a life of peace.  The point is to continue serving God whatever your situation, whether you are single, married, divorced, or widowed.

           By the way, that is also the key to understanding Paul’s words about slavery in verse 21: [Slide 8] “Were you a slave when called?  Do not be concerned about it.  Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever.” Paul is not endorsing slavery.  Paul is the one who said, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).  Paul does not endorse slavery, nor is he against slaves gaining their freedom.  Paul is the one who set free a slave girl in Philippi and later a slave named Onesimus.  When Paul says, [Slide 9] “However that may be, let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you,” he does not mean you should never change your circumstances.  He means that you should live into your calling as a disciple of Jesus Christ no matter what your circumstances.  If you are a slave, you don’t have to wait until you are free to serve Jesus; you can do it now.  If you are single, you need not wait until you get married to serve Jesus; you can do it now.  If you are married, you need not wait until you get rid of your husband or wife before you can serve Jesus; you can do it now.  Because if you learn to serve Jesus now, in your present circumstances, you will still know how to do it when your circumstances change, as inevitably they will. [Slide 10 Blank]

           There is a wonderful picture of this in C. S. Lewis’ book The Screwtape Letters.  As I have mentioned before, The Screwtape Letters is a series of imaginary letters from Screwtape, one of the devil’s chief tempters, giving advice to his nephew Wormwood on how to tempt people.  At one point Screwtape reprimands Wormwood for letting his subject get into a relationship with a devout Christian girl.  Here is Screwtape’s description of the situation.  Remember, this is written from the devil’s point of view.  When Screwtape talks about the “Enemy,” he means God.  Screwtape says,

I have looked up this girl’s dossier and am horrified at what I find.  Not only a Christian but such a Christian…. The sort of creature who’d find ME funny!  Filthy, insipid little prude—and yet ready to fall into this booby’s arms like any other breeding animal.  Why doesn’t the Enemy blast her for it, if He’s so moonstruck by virginity—instead of looking on there, grinning?

Then, of course, he gets to know this woman’s family and whole circle.  Could you not see that the very house she lives in is one that he ought never to have entered?  The whole place reeks of that deadly odor.  The very gardener, though he has been there only five years, is beginning to acquire it.  Even guests, after a weekend visit, carry some of the smell away with them.  The dog and the cat are tainted with it. … The whole house and garden are one vast obscenity.  It bears a sickening resemblance to the description one human writer made of Heaven (pp. 101-102).

            God does not despise human bodily life, whether single or married, divorced or widowed, working, unemployed or retired.  God does not despise your life as it is; rather God sees your life right now—single or married, working or retired—God sees your life right now as an opportunity to share God’s love in a way that other people will be tainted by it.

Freedom, Rights, and Service

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: I Corinthians 9:19-23; Galatians 5:13-15

            On June 12 thousands of people in over 80 cities across Russia marched in protest of corruption by Russian officials, specifically the way certain Russian officials were getting rich by controlling government contracts and doling them out to a favored few in exchange for lucrative bribes.  It is important to note that they were not calling for the overthrow of Vladimir Putin or the Russian government; they were only protesting the practice of corruption and favoritism by some officials.  But immediately riot police went out and started beating up the protestors, arresting more than 1000 of them just in the city of Moscow.

            When I read about this, I thought about the last time we had marchers in Seattle.  I don’t remember what the issue was, but whether I agreed with it or not, and even if I was irritated because a street I wanted to use was closed off for a time, I give thanks that we have the freedom in this country to march—to engage in peaceful, non-destructive demonstrations to express a political opinion, because many people in the world do not have that right.  Freedom of speech is not something to be taken for granted.

          Nor is freedom of the press.  According to Article 53 of the North Korean Constitution, citizens of North Korea have freedom of speech, press, association, and demonstration.  But not really.  The only demonstrations allowed are the ones actually organized by the government.  Internet access is tightly controlled and most radios and televisions in North Korean homes are engineered only to receive government approved stations.  In addition all journalists must be approved by the government and be members of the ruling party.   So even if sometimes I shake my head at the rantings on cable news channels, I am grateful they exist.  Because in some other countries they are not allowed.

            And then there is religion.  In North Korea, as in several other countries, Christian are allowed to worship in a limited number of preapproved churches, but they are strictly forbidden to invite non-Christians to come to their services.  There are very few countries that forbid the existence of Christian churches, not even North Korea.  But there are a numerous countries, including North Korea, with strict laws against proselytizing people, which means telling people about your faith and inviting them to come and experience it.  So I am grateful for the freedom we have in this country, not just the freedom to worship but the freedom to invite our neighbors to come and worship. That is a simple freedom not to be taken for granted.

            But nothing will endanger our freedom like its misuse as a vehicle for self-indulgence and greed.  In our first scripture reading from Galatians 5, the apostle Paul says,

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. … If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

          He goes on in Galatians to describe the fruits of self-indulgence, what he calls the works of the flesh, verses 19-21:

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissension, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.

            I did not really appreciate this list until I read Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of it in his massive paraphrase of the Bible called The Message.  Listen to his paraphrase of Galatians 5:19-21:

It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.

            That’s what we get when our freedom is separated from our purpose.  Our purpose is to love God with all our heart and to love our neighbors as ourselves, and if our freedom is not used for that purpose, it will eventually destroy us.

            And that’s where we come to Paul’s discussion of his own freedom in I Corinthians, chapter 9.  In verse 19 he says, “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.”  By the word “win” he means help people believe in and experience God’s love for them in Jesus Christ.  If our freedom is not used for that purpose, Paul says, then it is wasted.

            He goes on to give examples.  As a Christian he is free from the Jewish laws of the Old Testament, but he is bound by a greater law—the law of love.  And so when relating to Jewish people, he respects and observes their laws so that when he shares the gospel with them, he will have credibility.  Likewise with those outside the law—meaning Gentiles—he shows respect for them and their traditions so that when he shares the gospel with them, there will be no unnecessary barriers to hearing it.  When he says, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some,” he does not mean sacrificing his own beliefs and values.  He means respecting and loving people on their own terms, in order that they might hear and believe the good news of God’s transforming love.

            This is part of a long discussion in I Corinthians 9 about the rights of an apostle.  I was thinking about reading the whole chapter, because the first 14 verses are about clergy compensation, the right of an apostle to be paid.  I thought that was something we should all read.  Only if you read it you will discover that after spending 14 verses arguing that apostles have a right to be paid, Paul says he gladly gives up this right in order to help spread the gospel.  So you have to be careful.  The Bible does not always say what we want it to say.  But the point Paul makes over and over in this chapter is that his rights as an apostle don’t mean anything unless he is using them to share with others the love of God shown to us in Jesus Christ.  That’s the point of being an apostle.

            That is also the point of having freedom.  If we have freedom of speech, it is not so we can put each other down but so we can build each other up in the life God wants us to have in Jesus Christ.  That certainly includes standing up for people whose rights have been trampled, but the point of standing up for human rights is not so that people can do whatever they want; it is so that people everywhere can become the beacons of light and hope that God meant them to be all along.

            The only way we will preserve freedom of speech in this country is if we use it to build people up rather than to tear them down.  The only way we will preserve freedom of the press in this country is if we use it to speak the truth in love.  The only way we will preserve freedom of assembly in this country is if we use it to build bridges of community.  And the only way we will preserve freedom of worship in this country is if we use it to worship Someone greater than ourselves.

"Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care."

Psalm 95:6-7