God Only Knows (Genesis 28:10-19 and Psalm 139)

One of the greatest love songs ever written begins with these words, “I may not always love you”.  The writer continues, “I’ll make you so sure about it.  God only knows what I’d be without you.”  How do you start, perhaps the greatest love song of the 20th century, with an acknowledgment of amorous doubt?  It would seem to be counter-intuitive to whole idea of a love song.  Brian Wilson was a musical genius in his ability to blend sounds, notes, and compose melodies.  He also understood a little something about poetry.

The first line of the song is not a statement of doubt.  The song’s title isn’t an expression of exasperation.  This love song, which you’ve heard hundreds of times, is more like a Psalm and prayer, than a Top 40 hit.  Why?  The first line and the title do two important things also shown by our scripture readings this morning:  one is an admission of vulnerability.  The other is an awareness of God’s presence.  Vulnerability and awareness: if we want to be fully aware of God’s presence it means becoming vulnerable.  For instance, I may not always love you (that makes me pretty vulnerable to admit this) but by acknowledging that I’m unable to love now or even into eternity without God, my inherently flawed promises are less important.  They are, however, backed by the full faith and credit of the creator of the universe.  My vulnerability, nor my promises, exists in isolation.  That’s what Wilson says.

It is much the same way for Jacob.  Most of know Jacob’s story the same we know the Beach Boys; we grew up listening to his song.  “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder, we are climbing Jacob’s ladder, we are climbing Jacob’s ladder; soldiers of the cross.”  You’ve been singing that one since before you heard “Help Me, Rhonda”.  However, when we look closely, there’s much more to this story than a ladder or stairway to heaven.

Jacob is a man on the run from time itself:  the past, present, and future.  At one point, Jacob thought very little of his family and friends.  He robbed his brother of the most precious gift he might ever receive, his birthright.  Lie begat lie.  Jacob was an outlaw among a displaced people. Physically, he belonged nowhere.  Spiritually, he was disconnected from the God of his father and grandfather. His past was dead, the present was dying, and the future would not exist.  The only way to survive was to keep moving toward whatever existed beyond the horizon.  Fight those in your path.  In stopping, he risked death.

Sleep was his greatest enemy. At night, when the memories of Isaac and Esau could not be banished and his legs were too weak to move, he hid in the darkness; among the rocks.  When Jacob stopped he became vulnerable.  When Jacob could no longer walk he became vulnerable.  Sleep and rest opened the door to Jacob’s greatest vulnerability.

The dream, the one with the famous ladder, isn’t hard to interpret.  Jacob is most vulnerable when is when he’s confronted with the idea of being related and connected to other people.  That’s Jacob’s issue.   In the dream, God speaks to him about descendants, springing forth from the dust.  God promises to protect Jacob and those descendants.  Jacob is the consummate loner.  This dream touches him at his most vulnerable point.  He wants to be connected.  Jacob desires community, fellowship, and family.  But he can’t!  He’s burned those bridges.  Yes he has.  They are well and truly burned.

However, here is the good news.  At our weakest and most vulnerable points, this is where we become aware of God’s presence.  God is already present and involved in our lives.  Until we acknowledge our vulnerability, our need to be completely open about who we are with the world and God; it’s hard to realize (or accept) God is messing around in your world.

Look at what Jacob says when he awakes.  For me, this is the most important part of this story.  It’s a verse I see repeated in my life time and time again.  “The Lord is (present tense) definitely in this place but I didn’t know it.”  He became aware of God’s presence and admitted, “I didn’t know it”.  Have you ever walked away from an encounter like this?  I’ve never walked away from brush or encounter with the divine where it wasn’t preceded by a feeling of intense vulnerability.  God should throw us off balance, make us a little nervous, cause some butterflies in our stomach, and leave you feeling a little stunned.  When you find yourself opening up in a conversation to a stranger then you ask yourself, “I don’t what happened?”  Maybe that was a God moment?  God is in the place, are you aware?

The Bible thinks and speaks clearly about the most powerful human emotions.  Vulnerability and awareness are essential for maintaining healthy communities as well as seeing God at work in the world around us.  It’s also evident in this morning’s Psalm.  Doesn’t it seem like the Psalmist is writing directly to us?

Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.

Can there be a greater acknowledgement of our vulnerability?  “You have searched me and known me”.  God knows us in our totality.  Before God, nothing is hidden.  God is aware of every aspect of our lives.  Even before we speak, God knows our thoughts.  The more God knows about us, the more God is aware of our lives.  Awareness is care, awareness is love.  For the Psalmist, even for me, this is overwhelming.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it. Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

As Jacob realized, at our most vulnerable, when we are sleeping, God is present and aware.  Here’s where God’s idea of vulnerability becomes visionary. The Psalmist says that God becomes vulnerable for us.  Yes, vulnerability is central to our awareness of God’s presence in our lives.  The Psalmist takes this vision one step further.  God becomes vulnerable for us.  We worship a vulnerable God.  A God, who, if we make our bed in Sheol (hell) is already in hell waiting to bring us home.  This is a God who will wait for us in hell.

God becomes vulnerable for us.  What’s more vulnerable than a baby born in a stable? What’s more vulnerable than an innocent put to death?  What was it the Roman centurion said, after Jesus died, when confronted with Jesus’ vulnerability?  He became aware of the presence of God.

When we allow ourselves, like Jacob and Psalmist to open up and be vulnerable to God’s presence in our lives, we will discover something:  God is in the place and we didn’t even know it.

God embraced vulnerability for us.  To do the same seems the least we can do for God.

5 Points About the Unfolding Future

1. Methodism is broken.  We can’t fix Methodism by doubling down on the ideas which made Methodism relevant and vibrant in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

2. Does United Methodism need to fixed?  Living broken is better than living dead.  Remember Parker Palmer’s rule:  No fixing.

3. Our brokenness doesn’t stop us from being faithful to Jesus Christ. Christ claims our brokenness. Being broken is being human.  Dignity is found is embracing brokenness.

4. No one is going on to perfection.   Eternity, whatever it is, will be more than an 18th century Anglican or 21st United Methodists can imagine.

5. Is it possible to be a faithful follower John Wesley and a disciple of Jesus Christ?  Are the two mutually exclusive?  Maybe.

It Was Easier in the 1960’s

It was easier being religious and political in the 1960’s.  I’m not talking about the German Shepherds or the water canons.  Statistics tell us more people attended church on a weekly basis.  There was greater familiarity with the Bible in the wider culture.  As such, when concerned clergy from a variety of faith traditions assembled to push for civil rights or oppose the Vietnam War, most of America understood what that meant.  Jesus was opposed to war.  The oppression of Galilean peasants by the Roman Empire reminded mainline Christians of voter registration drives in Mississippi.

How did this happen? People attended Sunday School and church.  They listened to the sermons of clergy educated in mainline seminaries, many attached to large universities.  These sermons were steeped in the traditions of German higher Biblical criticism which made it possible to look at the teachings of Jesus in a wider social context.  What if, they asked, the Kingdom of God was right here and now?  Perhaps Jesus’ commands to care for the poor, sick, and despised were to be applied to our world?  Preachers, priests, and rabbis marched in Selma.  People got it.  When the men (and occasional woman, remember this was the 1950’s and 60’s) of God protested it meant something because the church was a respected institution in society.

I’m not sure people still get it.  Much has changed in the way Americans attend church over the past fifty years.  Sex scandals have decimated trust in Roman Catholicsim, even with the ebb and flow of Liberation Theology.  Ageing congregations and changing demographics are altering the face of American Protestantism. Mainline denominations are shrinking, nondenominational churches are on the increase, and overall attendance in worship on Sunday mornings isn’t what it used to be.  As such, basic religious literacy isn’t what it was at the height of the Civil Rights movement.

According to Steven Prothero, author of “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know”, most Americans don’t know the name of the first book of the Bible, mistakenly believe that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife, and Billy Graham delivered the Sermon on the Mount.  Not only are people not attending church, they’re not going to Sunday School or receiving what many people encountered as a “basic” Christian education for most of the 20th century.  As Prothero notes, the illiteracy epidemic isn’t confined to Christianity.  The same lack of knowledge can be found in Americans when asked about Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism.  Despite our privileged positions on the inside, we clergy sometimes forget, “we’re not all that” anymore.  The world doesn’t see us in the same way they did forty or fifty years ago.  Our voice, while still audible, isn’t heard or understood in the same way it once was.

This brings me to the recent protests by clergy over the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.   My fellow Duke Divinity Alumnus, Rev. Dr. William Barber and others were recently arrested on Capitol Hill protesting the Senate’s plans to repeal Affordable Care Act.  Dressed in clerical shirts, stoles, and robes; they were a colorful bunch to be hauled in by the Capitol Police.  Here’s my confession, my closet is full of black clerical shirts.  I wear mine on Sunday mornings, when I perform baptisms, celebrate Holy Communion, and officiate at weddings.  If I was going to get arrested, I might wear it then.  But here’s the thing, do the people watching on television (ordinary Americans, people who support the ACA or even want it repealed) understand that these multicolored people are clergy, preachers, and ministers?  Does it make sense to anyone that these men and women are women and men of the cloth?  If religious literacy is at all time low, does it do any good for clergy to be arrested in clerical clothes?  Does anyone care? Might it do more harm than good?

It looked great in the 60’s when every preacher wore a clerical shirt and everyone one you met on the street knew what those clothes represented.  In 2017,  does this help anyone relate the Christian church’s opposition to the repeal of the Affordable Care Act?

If most Americans think Joan of Arc is Noah’s wife, I can guarantee the imagery of rolling waters and justice from Amos is about as foreign to them as a mail order bride.  Fancy preacher clothes aren’t going to help people who think Billy Graham delivered the Sermon on the Mount realize that doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with your God are not things Oprah said.  Right now, we’re presupposing people fully comprehend all the prophetic, justice, and righteousness messaging that Martin Luther King took for granted-because he could.  We can’t!  The world does not get us.  If the church wants to be prophetic (and it must be) America needs to go back to Sunday School.  We can not pretend it’s 1964 and imagine we all share the same largely Protestant points of religious reference.  That’s one more step on the road to religious irrelevance.  The church has an important voice in this and other political debates.   Our prophecy, however powerful, has got to have some context for it to be worth something.  Otherwise, it’s just hot air.

Richard Lowell Bryant

 

The Absolute Worst Titles For The Pastor’s Section of the Church Newsletter

Ponderings from the Pulpit
Musings from the Minister
The Altar Address
The Preach Speaks
Rappin’ with the Rev
Rumination from the Reverend
Words with Friends
One Direction
From the Pulpit to the Pew
Anything with the word “Epistle” (just don’t do it…I beg you)

Richard Lowell Bryant

 

Five Even Better Questions for the #NextMethodism

 

1. Will Conference Boards of Ordained Ministry be replaced by a New Methodist equivalent of the Roman Catholic Church’s “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith”?

2. In the Next Methodism, will District Superintendents and Bishops adopt the British Methodist model, where all clergy are paid the same minimum stipend?  When I returned from Ireland in 2014, all clergy, (there are no Bishops in British or Irish Methodism) superintendents and pastors alike, earned around $40,000.  In Britain and Ireland (the mother church) pastor’s receive stipends not salaries.  If we want Wesleyan purity, could the Next Methodism not return to basic stipends for Bishops, Superintendents, and clergy?

3. In the Next Methodism, how will the apportionment be calculated?  Will it take more money from economically disadvantaged communities in rural North Carolina?   Members of the Next Methodist Churches are struggling to find their next meal, next house payment, and next health insurance policy since they are about to lose the Affordable Care Act.  The Next Methodist’s fervor for a new denomination is only matched by my parishioners needs to pay for chemotherapy and bypass surgery.

4. In the next Methodism, who is going to want to be a Methodist? I’m afraid so many people will be run off, the Next Methodists will be forced to recruit and it may be a hard sell. Come join the hard core Wesleyan remnant! We’re broke but holy! You can get rid of guaranteed appointments and itinerancy. Take the denomination down to a remnant. God will reward you in the end.  Heaven is guaranteed to the best hashtag which births a new bureaucracy.

5. What have you got left?  Nothing.

Things To Do During A Dull Sermon

1. Work on your next sermon

2. Make a papier-mâché version of your own head to leave in the pew so it looks like you’re actually there when you’ve stepped out for a break (Great VBS Project!)

3. Compile weekly shopping list for trip to Food Lion

4. Raise your hand and ask, “Is this the one where you come out in opposition to sin?”

5. Shout “Amen” at the least inspiring moment in the sermon (works for the preacher or congregation)

6. Slap your neighbor. If they don’t turn the other cheek, raise your hand again and report them to the preacher

7. Walk outside to your golf cart where a bottle of whiskey awaits.  Then wait for the conclusion of the service to ask the pastor if you can preach next week.

8. Hold up a sign that reads, “WE ARE PRAYING FOR YOU”

9. Check the ferry schedule

10. Volunteer to work in the nursery