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.

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

The World’s Worst Evangelism Model: The Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)

A man in a short skirt pays no attention to where he scatters seed.

There are many things which make me uncomfortable about this parable.  In order to explain why, I need you to think about how this parable is normally preached.  In fact, it is how I’ve preached this parable in the past.  Without a doubt, the church has heard this parable as THE model of mission work and evangelism for two thousand years.  This is what we do:  we scatter seed (the word of God) on different types of soil (people) and sometimes it takes and sometimes it doesn’t.  Working against our evangelism in this agricultural metaphor are multiple forces:  the land, the environment, the weather, and evil incarnate.  Success, while as predictable as picking the right soil with the right weather, nutrients, and protection, appears to be as random as winning the lottery.

That bothers me.  If the ingredients to success are so obvious, why does the farmer waste his time sowing seeds in places that he knows will meet with failure?  Why does the farmer scatter seeds in places where he’s fully aware the rocks, thickets, and thorns will make it impossible for the seeds to bear any fruit?  Why set any seeds up for failure?  Why waste seeds?  Why not place everything in a location where good fruit is guaranteed? This frustrates me and I ask these questions for one reason:  in this parable, I believe we are the seeds.  You and I are the embodiment of the Good News represented by the seeds.  The message of Jesus Christ depends on our active engagement with the Gospel.  We are as much the seed, if not more so, than the soil.

Why is Jesus being cavalier with our opportunity to hear the good news?  Shouldn’t everyone get a chance to grow and respond to the gospel, no matter what kind of soil they’re living in?  What bothers me, really what scares me about this parable, is that it writes people off.  Some people, Jesus says, will never get it or only superficially understand the Good News.  This message of “trying, failing and discarding” doesn’t jive with “salvation” for everyone, including dirty rotten scoundrels like us.

Who gets to decide who’s flung from the seed bag into the good soil and why?  I think these are fair questions.  Here’s why.  The usual way this parable is preached goes something like this:  we talk about the soil shaping the personality of the seed.  If a seed lands among thorny plants does that make the seed thorny?  No, the seeds are all the same.  The seed doesn’t grow because if the environment it’s placed in.  But what preachers usually do is they turn the seeds that land in these “difficult” environments into the villains.  The seed seems to be culpability in its own failure.  Just because they’ve landed in the wrong neighborhood, we’re going to stereotype them.  But these seeds didn’t have a choice where the farmer flung them out, where they landed, or where they fell.  However, because they’ve landed in this predetermined spot we’ve decided is evil, the rest of their short lives, that’s going to turn out wrong too.  Because they fell in the wrong place with the flick of a farmer’s wrist, they bear no fruit.  Evil is allowed to invade their lives.  Famine, disease, drought, and suffering will strangle the life from the soil they call home.  The safety and security others take for granted, they will never know.   Why?  They fell in a different place.  They were scattered by the farmer.  Is this farmer Jesus?  As we consider what Jesus asks:  is this parable about the spreading of the Gospel or is it about the refugee crises in Darfur, Kenya, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, immigration from central and South America to the United States, racism in our country, and on and on.

Is Jesus telling us some people aren’t worth saving because they happen to be born at the wrong place and at the wrong time? I hope not.  This is what bothers me most about this parable.  Receiving the Good News and bearing fruit comes as nothing more than an accident of birth; like being born white, upper middle class, and wealthy in early 21st century America.  If you happen to land in the right place, you’ll get the benefits of being placed where God “wanted” you placed from the very beginning.  Your neighbors and friends, who began life with you in the same bag, weren’t so lucky.  They died of dehydration, were picked to death by crows, or didn’t have the same supportive earthly foundation.  You only had those things because you randomly landed in the right place.  But for the grace of God, that could have been you in the thorns or rocks.  You had nothing to do with your Good News; you didn’t make a choice to believe or not to believe in God.  The fruit you did bear just happened to you because all the external factors clicked.  It’s not an achievement if it was going to happen naturally.

Do you see the problem with the parable?  Salvation isn’t the luck of the draw.  If it’s not for everyone, at all times, in all types of soil, rocks, thorns, weather, wind, and rain, then it’s no good.  If salvation is some hereditary club, it’s useless.  Even after the crows have carried you and your Good News seed away, salvation is still has available and viable.  In fact, it’s not random at all.  If salvation is going to work, nothing can stop it from working.

This is how the Apostle Paul explains it:

37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37-39)

Did you catch that?  Nothing, no rocky soil, thorny bushes, birds, evil ones, or anything else can separate us from the love of God.  It’s like God wants everyone to be saved and has systematically removed all the obstacles to salvation.  Not even death will keep us from bearing fruit.  Paul’s universal vision of God’s love runs contrary to the myopic agricultural parables in Matthew’s gospel.  God’s love must be available for everyone or this project, called the Christian church, doesn’t work at all.  When you ration God’s love, we’re just another a self-help group cooking pot-lucks, raising money, and doing charitable work.  If you’re rationing God’s love, you need to ask yourself, how can I ration what’s not mine to give away in the first place?

Paul knew these things.  Matthew’s followers were still trying to figure it out.  Sadly, I think many of our churches haven’t got past Matthew’s metaphors.  God’s love doesn’t stop among our rocky, thorny, crow infested prejudices.  Instead, that’s the first place we need to go and invite God in and look for the divine to take up residence and start to do a new, new thing.

The Radical Heterodoxy of North Carolina BBQ (Matthew 11:16-19,25-30)

There are two types of barbeque in North Carolina; eastern and western.  What’s interesting about this east/west divide in pork preparation is lack of a clear point of demarcation between the west and the east.  For instance, we know that Lexington is the center of western NC barbeque.  You can find western style barbeque served east of Asheboro, even in Pittsboro.  However, once in you’re in Raleigh, the transition to eastern style is complete.  So somewhere in the middle of the eastern Piedmont, a transition occurs.  Do taste buds change drastically between Burlington and Mebane?  Or, at some point in the distant past, did some barbeque cooker make a heretical decision to switch sauces because he wanted to see why his cousins in Kinston kept raving about vinegar?   We will never know.

Now I’m going to get into trouble.  I was raised west of the barbeque Berlin Wall and now live as far to the east as one can get and still be in North Carolina.  I’ve eaten both kinds of barbeque.  After all these years, I can’t really tell them apart.  To me, they all taste like barbeque.  The impact of the sauce, whether vinegar or tomato based, is negligible.  For me, barbeque tastes like chopped pork.  While I do get emotional over slaw, neither the meat nor the sentimental debates surrounding its sauces no longer move me to tears.  I won’t challenge you to a duel if you insult my great granddaddy’s barbeque recipe.

I bring up these perennial debates about North Carolina barbeque because they remind me of something we say every Sunday:  the Creed.  Like eastern and western style barbeque, there are two main creeds of the church.  These historic statements of faith are on pages 880 and 881 in our hymnals.  One is called the Nicene Creed the other is the Apostles’ Creed.  We say the Apostles’ Creed every Sunday morning.  The Nicene is longer and wordier than the Apostles’ Creed.  Because of the sheer beauty of the language, I prefer the Nicene Creed.  But like the barbeque we’ve just debated, they both say the same thing.  One claims to have slightly more flavor.  Both creeds are a restatement of belief in the three persons of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) with brief descriptions of how those persons function in creation. To my mind, it reads like the “special skills” section of a divine resume.

Almost two thousand years ago, the creeds were painstakingly created to give a degree of uniformity to early Christian beliefs.  Now, the creeds are more like barbeque, finely chopped religious words that all taste the same.  Do they help us understand what we believe?

One question I like to ask of anything I read in the Bible is, “What’s Christian about this?”  “Where is Jesus to be found in this story?” Whether we are reading in the Old Testament, New Testament, Paul’s letters, or even Jesus’ parables we ought to wonder, “What makes these stories distinctively Christian?”  The answer to these questions will help determine how we use what we learn and apply what scripture teaches.  We need to know what makes something Christian.

How do you take something you’ve read in the Bible and say, “Is this Christian?”  My first step is to see how it fits with the creeds.  The creeds are the definitive statements on the life, work, and person of God.  Does the creed shed light on what you’re reading?  The creeds are good at what they do but when it comes to illustrating the nuances of human emotion captured by Jesus’ storytelling, they fall short.  The creeds are like Joe Friday on Dragnet.  They are “just the facts” theology. Jesus’ ministry is reduced to nothing.  He goes from being born of the Virgin Mary to suffering and dying under Pontius Pilate.  We need a more.

There is another creed hiding in plain sight.  It’s in the Bible, in Philippians chapter 2.  Some people call it a hymn.  It’s a song people were singing in the earliest days of the church.  Paul quoted the hymn and included it his letter to the Philippians.  They probably sang it in their own church.  Here’s the hymn:

Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8   he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

That’s a creed.  Those verses are a statement of belief.  Unlike the resume bullet points in the Apostle’s Creed, we come away from this passage with a clear understanding of what Jesus did and why he did it.   This is the earliest church’s understanding of who he was and what he came to do.  So when we read a story in the Gospels, we now have a text (a creed) to go back to.  Philippians 2 gives us criteria for seeing what makes Christ Christian, Jesus (Jesus), believing in God from serving God.

As with this morning’s reading from Matthew 11, I want to know, what makes this story Christian?  How is yoke bearing a distinctly Christian action, or is it?  What’s the Christian difference here?  Why does Christian participation matter in a world struggling under so much oppression and weight?

Look as those last three verses, 27-30.  Jesus is being as honest with his followers as he’s ever been.  “My father has handed all things over to me.  No one knows the Son except the Father.  And nobody knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wants to reveal to him.”  It’s all on Jesus. Jesus is giving everyone access to God.  There are no barriers to God.  To be clear, the context for what comes next is this:  everyone can be in relationship with God.

This is how Jesus extends the invitation to begin a relationship with God:  “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads and I will give you rest.  Put on my yoke and learn from me.  I’m gentle and humble.  And you will find rest for yourselves.  My yoke is easy to bear and my burden is light.”

What makes those last two verses Christian?  What makes helping others with their burdens, emotional or otherwise, explicitly Christian?  Firstly, they come in the context as an invitation to Christian discipleship.  An invitation to Christian discipleship is more than saying, “Hey, I want you to believe in God.”  Discipleship is about pairing belief with action.  I believe in Jesus, so I’m going to act in a way that reflects those beliefs.

In this case, (Matthew 11), active discipleship means embracing weakness.  Jesus says come and be weak with me.  You say, “I need strength for the journey, preacher.”  Perhaps our ideas of strength owe more to Nietzsche than they do Jesus?  Emptiness and weakness makes this story Christian.  Go back again to Philippians 2.   In verse seven, the Christ hymn says that “Jesus emptied himself”, taking the form of a slave.  God became weak, a paradox in the truest sense of the word; as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 1:25, “God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”  Jesus scandalizes our images of a powerful ruler.  Philippians 2 tells us that God emptied himself of strength and power, not only that he would know our weaknesses but that they might become his weaknesses.  Salvation comes in sharing a yoke with Jesus, not despite our frailties, weaknesses, or sinfulness but because we are frail, weak, sinners.  He too has a great burden and is offering to help us bear our burden.  These yokes are designed for two.  This story is Christian because it’s realistic about who we are as people.  Jesus acknowledges our weaknesses.  Jesus stands beside us at our weakest moments.  This story is Christian because it acknowledges the reality of shared suffering.  This story is Christian because it reminds us that God suffers with us.  How do we know this?  A God who won’t suffer and die with you isn’t worth worshipping.

Philippians 2 wasn’t written by a committee of theologians.  I’m fairly certain it reflected the deeply held beliefs of ordinary people who worshipped in the 1st century.  By the time they wrote the creed, this hymn Paul quoted was probably as old as the United States of America was this past Tuesday.  So to tell you the truth, I’ll bring it back home to the barbeque.  I can it take or leave it on the creeds.  But when it comes to slaw and Philippians 2, I’ve definitely got an opinion.

 

Saint Waylon Meets Saint Paul

 

I can tell you where I was when I first heard his voice.  It was January 26th, 1979 around 8:00 pm.  I was in my living room.  If memory serves, I have had a bath and am ready for bed.

At first I wasn’t sure it was “His” voice, but as some omniscient narrator, the voice was close to God’s as I’d ever encountered.  Why couldn’t it be God?  The voice was never connected to a living, breathing human being.   As in the opening chapters of Genesis, the voice simply was.  The voice knew, understood, and saw time in ways those in the reality we were watching did not understand. Sometime later I came to understand the voice was not only told narrated this story but sang the song which introduced each week’s episode.  The stories seemed distant, even carelessly woven together; much like the ones we read in Sunday School.  Men and women, brothers and sisters, cousins and uncles, fighting for land and against corruption in places I could only imagine because I had the help of the voice.  The voice enabled me to hold the story together and give the character’s lives a larger meaning.  Wasn’t that what God’s voice did for Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, and his brothers?  The voice put it into perspective.  When it got worse, better, or indifferent; nothing was ever too much for “His” voice to handle.  Surely, this was the voice of God.  I knew, beyond any shadow of a doubt, I needed a voice like this, to narrate the story of my life.  If it worked so well for Bo, Luke, Daisy, Uncle Jesse, and Boss Hogg; surely it would work for me.  Who was this man who told their stories?  Where could I find Waylon Jennings?  Would he tell my story?

Waylon Jennings was reading a script.  I now know he wasn’t the voice of God.  However, he was one of American music’s greatest story tellers.  Like many of his generation, what defined him as a sinner also sets him apart as a saint.  He was a complex and holy man, in the tradition of countless troubadours before him, melding virtue and vice into something ordinary Christians easily identify as discipleship.

Romans 7:15-20 is the basis of every great country song ever written.  I am talking about the real classics.  Think of Waylon, Willie, and Johnny Cash as you listen to Paul write about his own struggles.

15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

A long time forgotten are dreams that just fell by the way
The good life he promised ain’t what she’s living today
But she never complains of the bad times or bad things he’s done, Lord
She just talks about the good times they’ve had and all the good times to come

She’s a good-hearted woman in love with a good-timin’ man
She loves him in spite of his ways that she don’t understand
Through teardrops and laughter, they’ll pass through this world hand-in-hand,
A good-hearted woman loving her good timing man

He like the night life, the bright lights and good-timin’ friends
When the party’s all over she’ll welcome him back home again
Lord knows she don’t understand him, but she does the best that she can
‘Cause she’s a good-hearted woman; she loves her good timin’ man

That’s a Romans 7 song.  She does what’s against her best interest even though she knows she shouldn’t.  The desire to do the right thing is in both of them.  That’s scripture.  As Paul goes on to say, “If I want to do what is good, evil is right there beside me.”  Waylon makes the same point: life means doing the best that we can in love.  Paul says, “I’m a miserable human being.”  Waylon and his wife Jessi Colter both knew about long miserable nights.  Waylon doesn’t hide his misery from God (or anyone).  We know he’s the one who likes the night life, good timing friends, and living recklessly.  It’s clear he’s in the same boat as Paul:  there’s no other salvation from the situation, other than something external, like a voice out of nowhere.

We look for “Christian” movies, music, and products.  I want to ask:  what makes something Christian?  I don’t know anymore.  Half the stuff sold as Christian I wouldn’t touch with a 10 foot poll.  However, there so much out there flies under the Christian cultural radar.  The past and present are available if we would only open our eyes.  When we look around, we’re going to have to look in some out of the way places.

Waylon Jennings is like the Apostle Paul, unfiltered and on tap in Luckenbach, Texas on a hot July afternoon.  Mamas, let your babies grow up to be cowboy apostles; because somebody, somewhere still needs some Good News.  It doesn’t matter how they hear it.  We in the church are past the point of being choosy.  God’s playlist is far deeper than we’ve ever imagined.  Find a chair, sit back, and listen.   Enjoy the music.

 

A Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words

America – a pre-existing condition in need of constant reassurance.

Belief – The idea that feelings equate to reality.  (See Truth)

Christ – Jesus’ last name.

Jesus – Itinerant weeper.

God – Head of a US based multinational corporation which invests in social networking applications, web based communications technology, and merit based wish fulfillment.  (See Mark Zuckerberg).

Truth – Any knowledge, information, or ideas yet to be deemed as “fake”.

Zuckerberg, Mark – Senior Pastor, First Church of Facebook (see God).