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Riding the Waves

Read Matthew 14.22-36

We all know about fear. All of us have been afraid at some point in our lives. Some have been taught to hide their fear, to deny it. Others are quick to talk about their fears, and desperately search for someone to tell them things will be okay.

One writer says this about fear:

Fear controls much of what we do. Fear about financial security prompts career choices or constricts our reactions to the needs of others. Fear for our relationships moves some of us to cling and others to flee. Fear that our labor will amount to nothing produces and obsession that robs vocation of its pleasure.

All of us have fear. All become afraid. The question is “What do we do with our fears?”

I like what Peter does with his fear. He calls out to the vague image in the distance. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” When he gets afraid, Peter talks with Jesus. He calls out. He doesn’t try to hide it or run from it. He takes the risk of facing it.

More than this, when he hears an answer to his question, “Come,” he goes. He steps out of the boat and onto the waters. He takes a risk. If he would have thought about it, it may have occurred to him, “Hey, maybe this isn’t Jesus, but some kook who has it in for me. I could step out of this boat and sink like a lead balloon.” This doesn’t occur to him. Jesus says, “Come,and he goes.

But even Peter has his challenges. A strong wind sweeps in and blows him off balance. He begins to sink and cries out, “Lord, save me.” His faith was strong enough to step out on the waters, but his fear didn’t go away and when a strong wind comes, he loses his focus.

When Peter is safe in Jesus’ arms, Jesus asks him “Why did you doubt?” Together, they step back into the boat and the winds cease.

All of us have fears. Even the closest disciples of Jesus. Even those who had first-hand contact with Jesus struggled with doubts, questions, misunderstandings and most of all, fear.

Peter’s fear is not removed after this incident. He will fear again and again and again. When he fears, though, he knows whose name to call on and whose hands will catch him. We also will fear again and again. The faith granted to us does not banish fear. No amount of pleading, moralizing, or scolding ourselves will make our fear go away. Faith does, however, teach us whose name to call and who waits to calm us. Our faith knows who has power over the deep waters and ultimately conquers our fears.

Peter shows us what it means to take risks in faith. Christians, like everyone else, must learn to live with uncertainties in life.  How will I make ends me? Who can I turn to as I grow older? What should I do to best parent my children? We live with uncertainties in life and still we believe that if we step out in faith, God will be there in Christ to catch us when we fall. We don’t have to stand still and wait for our fears to go away. They never do. Only when we step out in faith, when we exercise what little faith we have, that we discover the strength to live in uncertain times. The more we step out in faith, the more we are able to deal with what comes.

The little faith we have may not seem like much compared to the forces of doubt, of skepticism, of fear. When tragedy strikes, we could just throw in the towel, roll over and go back to sleep, hide in fear. But the promise of God is that our little faith, working together with the little faith of others and empowered by the Spirit, can move mountains, it can latch on to a menacing barge and force it upstream, safely to shore.

Faith doesn’t overcome fear, but helps us live with it. Faith gives us the strength to do things we never thought we could do, to walk where we thought we’d never walk. “Come,” says Jesus.

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Finding Hidden Treasures

Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52

The kingdom of God can not be grasped, but it is revealed through the parables of Jesus.

God’s kingdom is like a mustard seed sewn in a field. From a tiny seed, there grows a huge plant that birds can rest on. From humble beginnings, God’s kingdom takes root and grows. From a few followers, faith in Christ has spread throughout the world, sprouting churches and faith communities too numerous to mention. Contained within the tiny mustard seed is the blueprint for a huge plant. In the same way, contained within our faith in Christ is our call to mission, to spread the good news of God’s love to people everywhere.

Often we get so caught up in our vision of the big picture, that we fail to recognize the small, significant steps it takes to get there. Rather than grow in faith as individual believers, we focus on how to achieve church growth, how to get others to follow us rather than Christ. The message of this parable is that God has already provided the seed for growth. It’s now up to us to cultivate the soil, with the help of the Holy Spirit.

The kingdom of heaven is also like a treasure hidden in a field, which someone finds and hides; then in his joy he goes and sells all he has and buys that field. In ancient Palestine, invasions were common. When people were attacked, they would bury their valuables. They hoped to later come back and reclaim them. This was similar to what happened in the South during the Civil War, when Southern plantation owners buried their valuables to prevent Yankee invaders from taking them.

Some family treasures were never reclaimed. The owners were either killed or exiled. Much later, a farmer could be out plowing the field and uncover this great treasure.

The kingdom of heaven is like this. Sometimes, you’re just going along minding your own business and suddenly you’re hit with a great blessing. Sometimes God works this way. We’ve done nothing to deserve the blessings we receive, but God sends them anyway. The key for us is to see their value, to respond like the farmer in the field, with great joy, giving up what we have to get what’s most valuable.

The kingdom of heaven is like a hidden treasure buried in a field. When you discover it, you want to give all you have to get it.

The kingdom of heaven is also like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

The kingdom of God is like a precious antique you’ve been looking for all your life and when you find it, you’re willing to give up anything to have it. This is what we are all searching for as Christians. We search for the peace, the love, the joy that God brings to life in Christ. At times we catch glimpses. We hear about God’s healing in the life of someone who has battled illness or disease. We see evidence of the unity God’s Spirit brings to people very different from each other working together. We look for the Spirit of Christ active in the world and when we find it, we need to get involved ourselves.

Finally, the kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea that catches fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.

This is a great image for evangelism. It is not our job to sort through the fish, but to cast the net. Our job is to cast the net, to invite others to follow Christ. If we become selective in our process, we cut holes in the net. Certainly, we are called to lead holy lives and to call on others to do the same. If, however, we begin to judge who’s in and who’s out of the net, we’re on the wrong track. Leave the sorting to God, in God’s own time, when the net is safely on the shore.

Jesus teaches us that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. We find it in daily activities like fishing and baking. It comes through human participation, like casting nets and sowing seeds. It is hidden. Not everyone finds it. But if we search and if our eyes are open to God’s surprises each day, we will find the hidden treasure. 

Jacob's Ladder

Climbing Your Ladder

Read Genesis 28.10-22

Our Bible story this morning is a hopeful one. It is one about how God meets us in strange places, when we least expect it, to reassure us when we have doubts.

God’s visit to Jacob in his dream is unexpected. We expect God to be fair, to be just. Jacob does not deserve God’s comfort. He deserves to be in fear, ashamed of what he did. He is a con man. The only way for him to learn his lesson is for him to fear Esau’s wrath. Maybe this fear will teach him a lesson.

But fear is never transforming. Not this kind of fear. Jacob, fearing for his life, is more likely to go into hiding than he is to come clean and make up for what he did to Esau. This kind of fear is crippling. Esau might feel a tinge of perverse joy for getting back at his brother by keeping him in fear, but even knowing this would not bring peace to his troubled soul.

Fear is never transforming. Life changes don’t happen just because of fear. We show videos of tragic wrecks caused by drunk drivers and still some people choose to drink and drive. We tell people of the dangers of contracting AIDS from unprotected sex and still some choose to take the risk. Cigarette labels warn smokers of the risks to their health and the health of others and still they choose to smoke. Tactics to instill fear, though often appropriate, don’t change behavior. Something else is needed.

It is not the fear of God that convicts believers so much as it is God’s grace. God’s grace, like the ladder in Jacob’s dream, connects heaven and earth. We get glimpses of heaven on earth not when we are punished, but when God blesses us more than we deserve. It is grace, not fear, that changes Jacob’s life. Jacob is so thankful that God visited him in this strange land that he turned his stone pillow into a sacred pillar. The stone on which he rested now becomes a reminder of God’s unexpected grace. Jacob pledges to remain faithful. He responds to God’s faithfulness with faith of his own. He dedicates his life to God’s service.

What is amazing in this story is not the dream Jacob had, but the difference it makes in his life. All of us have dreams, but rarely do they make such a difference. When Jacob began his journey, he was a sly young man who lived by his wits. He was a trickster who got by not on his strength, but by his cunning nature. Before the dream, Jacob is ruled by fear, dodging bullets and running away from challenges. After the dream, Jacob is no longer ruled by fear, but by the love of God which keeps and protects him. This love gives him the peace of mind to stand up and face the world.

There is a ladder, a bridge between heaven and earth. Jesus Christ is the ladder that connects us to God. In Christ, God does not wait for us to take the first step, but first comes to us. The Spirit of Christ comes to us like a dream when we least expect it. God’s grace transforms the reality we come to know into something totally unexpected.

Jacob could not have expected his fear of Esau to be replaced by and awesome respect for God. We are called to a life that is ruled by love, not by fear. Though we may fear rejection, we are called to act in love by sharing the good news of Christ with others. Though we may fear death, we are called to trust that even death has been overcome in Christ. Though we may fear losing what we have, we are called to share with others, to invest in the promises of God.

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Love Put to the Test

Genesis 22.1-14

One of the most disturbing and challenging stories in the Bible is the story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son, Isaac. What does this story have to teach us about faith, about God and about ourselves?

We are startled by a world quite different from our own. In Abraham’s  world, human sacrifice was common. As one commentator writes, “It is as though in some green and fruitful field where harvests ripen we come upon the fossil bones of strange creatures which once walked the earth.” In Abraham’s day, it was common in many religions to practice human sacrifice. For us, when we read this, we are jarred out of the story to wonder. “How could he do that? Why would God demand it?”

Some have said that Abraham sees others making great sacrifices for their gods and feels tested to do the same. Abraham feels led to make the greatest personal sacrifice to prove his loyalty to God.

There is no greater test of faith than suffering the loss of one’s child.  For Abraham, this loss would have meant even more than the loss of Isaac, his only son, but also the loss of hope in God’s promise. Isaac was born to Abraham and Sarah as a fulfillment of God’s promise that they would have descendants. Through Isaac, their line would continue. Now Abraham is tormented by this painful dilemma of letting go of this son, of this hope, for the sake of his loyalty to God. Does he hold on and protect Isaac or let go and act in faith?

We don’t know what went through Abraham’s head. We only know that though he was tested, he trusted God. He does as he hears God command.

But what if Abraham was wrong? What if he only thought God was telling him to sacrifice Isaac? Isn’t it true that sometimes we think God is telling us to do something when really it’s some other voice, like Satan, or some destructive force within us? How could Abraham take the risk of destroying what God had given him and Sarah?” These questions remain unanswered in the story. What we do know is that Abraham was faithful, trusting God even to the point of death, even at the risk of losing his only son. We see that this trust in God is rewarded.

Trust in God. This is the central theme of this story. Even when you are tested, trust in God. Even when you are threatened with death, or the loss of a loved one, trust in God. This is no blind faith. Abraham saw the risk he was taking. His faith did not blind him to what was going on. His faith allowed him to see clearly and to trust that God could bring life even when threatened by death. Abraham’s faith is tested and he passed.

The Bible is filled with stories of God testing God’s people Israel. The tests God imposes on Israel are all related to God’s promise of abundant life in the land of Canaan. God tested Israel in various ways to see that the people obeyed, that they remained loyal. What is at issue in these tests is trust – trust in God’s constant care, trust in God’s own faithfulness to promises, trust in the love of God.

Those who successfully pass these tests discover in the process that God is faithful. God can be trusted. In the story not only is Abraham’s faith highlighted, but so is the faithfulness of God. God stops Abraham from sacrificing Isaac. At the last minute, God provides a scapegoat to be sacrificed. God is faithful to the covenant with Abraham and saves Isaac’s life.

The challenge of our faith is to take risks even when we feel threatened, even when we feel tested unfairly. The promise given to Abraham is for us in Jesus Christ. God is faithful and true. We are able to take risks, like Abraham, because God is faithful. Taking risks strengthens our faith. Taking risks, we discover God’s faithfulness. Abraham is tested and still continues to act in faith. His reward is to see God not as an angry, distant ruler, but as a loving parent.

Sometimes our love is put to the test. In any relationship, there are times when “the better” part fades away and “the worst” comes knocking at your door. There are moments when all you can feel in a relationship is pain, anger, bitterness, or disappointment.

Sometimes our love is put to the test. Like Abraham, we must risk losing what we most cherish in order to save what we have. Jesus said “You must be willing to lose your life to save it.” Only by giving up the promise he held dearly could Abraham be assured that all “life” was safe in God’s hands.

Our faith, like Abraham’s, requires that we let go of what is most precious. Let go of whatever we want to control or protect, especially the gifts and promises of God. As we take the risk of letting go we discover not only that our faith can handle it, but that God’s faithfulness is greater even than we could have imagined. We can let go, because God holds on. Great is thy faithfulness. Lord, now and forever. Amen

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Love and Laughter

Read Genesis 18.1-15

God has a sense of humor. God laughs with us. When we get too serious about who we are and what we do, God interrupts us with holy laughter.

Just look at the story of Abraham and Sarah.

Abraham is resting in front of his tent on a hot summer day. He spots three strangers nearby. He rushes out to greet them, shows them hospitality, offers them a bath, some rest, and a bite to eat. They accept his generous offer. He tells Sarah to bake some bread and he prepares some meat. At this point in the story, they have no idea who these visitors are. Still, they go out of their way to welcome them, make them feel comfortable, and meet their needs. To Abraham and Sarah, these are just common strangers. Still they welcome them into their home.

Abraham and Sarah go about the serious business of showing hospitality. They open their home to strangers. They make them feel welcome. Abraham stands beside the strangers in the shade of a tree as they feast on the generous meal provided.

After the meal, the strangers rise to their feet. One of them asks for Sarah. “She’s in the tent,” says Abraham. Sarah was at the tent entrance, listening. “Well, I just wanted to let her know I’ll be back soon and when I return you’ll have a son.”

Now Abraham and Sarah were old, says the Bible. Sarah was past ninety and Abraham over a hundred. “It had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.” That’s a nice way to say Sarah couldn’t get pregnant. It was physically impossible. No way!

Sarah laughed. What an idea! I’m an old woman. Abraham is an old man. We’re going to have a baby. You’ve got to be kidding! Abraham also had laughed when God told him in chapter 17 of Genesis that Sarah would give birth to a son. In fact, Abraham fell on his face laughing. Here, Sarah tried to hide her laughter. She didn’t want the stranger to think she was rude.

But Sarah couldn’t hold it in. The stranger heard her laugh and says, “You may think this is crazy, but with God, anything is possible. Just wait and see.” They did and in due time, gave birth to a son, Isaac, which means Laughter.

Laughter in the Bible flows naturally out of God’s love for us. Love and laughter go together. The Bible isn’t only a stuffy book for stuffy people. It is a book about God’s love for people who often do strange and funny things. It is a book about God’s love for people the world overlooks. Stutterers God calls to speak. Children God calls to lead. Old men and women God calls to become parents. Within the pages of this sacred book, there is plenty to laugh with God about. I like what Fredrick Buechner says about laughter in the Bible. He writes:

Laughter gets mixed up with all sorts of things in the Bible and in the world too- things like sneering, irony, making fun of. It also gets mixed up with things like slipping on banana peels and having the soles of your feet tickled. Sometimes you laugh to keep from crying like when you see an old drunk stumble around looking for his car keys. Sometimes you laugh and cry together like when Charlie Chaplin boils his shoe for supper because he’s starving to death. Holy laughter is hard to find.

Holy laughter is what David does when he spins like a top in front of the Ark of God. It’s what the psalms are talking about when they say, “When the LORD had rescued Zion, then our mouth was filled with laughter, or where they get so excited they yell out, “Let the floods clap their hands, let the hills sing for joy together” because the LORD has come through at last. Holy laughter is what rings out when the Prodigal Son comes home and his old father is so happy to see him, he almost has a stroke, and they throw a party. It’s what Jesus means when he stands in a crowd of cripples, loners, oddballs and outcasts and says, “Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.”

Sarah and Abraham had plenty of hard knocks in their time, and there were plenty more to come. I don’t imagine Sarah laughed nine months later when the baby arrived and this woman ready for the geriatric ward instead checked into labor and delivery. But at that moment when this stranger, an angel from God, told them they’d better start dipping in their pension to build a nursery, they laughed because it dawned on them that the wildest dreams they’d ever had hadn’t been half wild enough.

Holy laughter happens in the midst of our serious pursuits for a better life. God sneaks up behind us, catches us off guard, and blesses us in ways we could never have imagined. 

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The Love of Hannah

Read 1 Samuel 1

Becoming a mother is an important step in a woman’s life. At one time, it was the measure of one’s womanhood. One of the most difficult experiences women of the Bible faced was the inability to have children. Because of the nature of society, women who did not bear children were often undervalued, even forgotten. A woman who was barren was left to feel cursed by God, and ignored by humanity.

Hannah was such a woman. She longed to have a child for years, but she couldn’t. She prayed for a child, but nothing happened. Elkanah, her husband, went to the temple and gave a double offering, but still Hannah was without a child. Meanwhile, she had to endure the taunts of other women who had no trouble conceiving. In her struggle, she became terrible sad, even found it difficult to eat of sleep.

Hannah prays and cries out to the Lord, “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me with child, then I will set him apart for your service.”

Hannah vows that if she receives a child, she will give the child back to God in service.

The Bible tells us that God hears her prayer and answers it. Hannah conceives and bears a son, Samuel. She remains true to her word. She leaves Samuel with the priests to become a minister.

One thing that amazes me about Hannah is the sacrifice she makes out of love. Her longing is so great for a child and yet, when God blesses her, she doesn’t become possessive or smother the child with affection. Instead, she devotes him to service. She is willing to step aside and let the boy grow before the Lord.

Hannah’s great love is demonstrated both in her strong desire to have a child and in her willingness to give the child to God. Hannah’s love is one that reaches out and lets go.

One writer calls Hannah a “beautiful example of how the most unpleasant circumstances can produce a character blessing the world.” Hannah knows what it is like to do without and not just without material goods, but without the hope and joy a child could bring.

In her sorrow, she turns to God. She doesn’t give up. She cries to the Lord out of her sorrow. When she is blessed with a child. Hannah doesn’t just take the blessing and run. She remains true to her word. Offering the child in the service of God.

One of the most difficult things for a parent to learn is how to let go. This has been particularly difficult for mothers. Mothers are encouraged to bond closely with their children, to know the unspoken needs, desires, hopes and fears even before the child is able to express them. Then, as the child grows, the mother is expected to let go, and yet continue to be available for affection and support. How difficult it is to know the right balance, when to reach and when to let go.

I’m sure it was difficult for Hannah. I’m sure that she wanted desperately to take this child home, surround him with affection, do all the motherly things that she had wanted to do for so long and couldn’t.

But Hannah had made a promise to God, and it is a promise she will keep. Samuel is raised to become a priest while Hannah returns home. Each year, she would make for him a little robe, and bring it to him. She continued to be involved in his life, to be supportive, even though she didn’t take care of his daily needs.

The love of Hannah is an inspiration for mothers who must face each day the challenge of holding on and letting go. We see in Hannah that love is more than just affection and nurture. Love is also being true to your word. Love is believing that God cares even more than we can. Love is trusting that when we do the right thing, no matter how difficult, God will bless our lives.

Hannah learns from her experience of infertility how precious life is. She knows what a wonderful and miraculous thing it is when a child is born. She knows that it is beyond our ability to create or control. A child is a blessing to be celebrated, not something to be taken lightly. Having struggled through this experience, it would have been natural for her to become and overprotective parent. She might have clung to the life of her son, hovering over him, anxious about his care. Instead, she is able to let go, confident that God who makes life possible also care for the life created. She takes part in this care without holding on too tightly. She has the faith that Samuel is in God’s hands.

Love holds on and lets go. It’s a mystery. It’s impossible on our own. But with God, it is not only possible, it happens.

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The Living Word

Read 1 Peter 1.17-32

The word God spoke through Christ is a living word. God still speaks to us and through us as the Holy Spirit reveals God’s truth in Scripture. This living word of God at times encourages us, at times challenges us. God’s living word always helps us to live faithfully in light of truth. 

We can meet God’s living word in Scripture, as the Holy Spirit opens our hearts to hear the truth. This is not a matter of private interpretation. It is not the sole possession of an expert, or a charismatic leader. Often God’s living word is spoken in quiet ways: in the laughter of a child, in the loyalty of a good friend, in the silence of quiet reflection. Though the Scriptures never change, how we hear them does. God speaks to us in different ways at different points along our journey of faith.

Sometimes the language of Scripture is difficult to hear. We read in 1 Peter that “You know that you were ransomed…with the precious blood of Christ.” The blood of Christ was shed for us. As the hymn says, “There is power in the blood.” The blood of Christ was freely offered that we might be cleansed of our sin. Just as the people of Israel offered a lamb as the Passover sacrifice, we believe God offered Christ as the sacrificial lamb for the world. Christ died for our sakes, that we might live.

The language of blood and sacrifice is not pleasant to hear. In the second century after the death of Jesus, this talk of the blood of Christ led to the accusation from some outside the church that Christians were cannibals. Even today, we might wonder why focus on the blood, the sacrifice, rather than on the positive hope of the Resurrection? The answer in First Peter is because “you were ransomed with the precious blood of Christ.” We can only receive the power if we appreciate the sacrifice.

One writer points out that we measure the value of something by what someone is willing to pay for it. If we look to the cross, we can discover the value of our lives. Our lives are so valuable, that God was willing to sacrifice God’s own blood on the cross. We can find our self-worth if we only see how valuable we are in God’s eyes. God loves us so much, God gave us Christ, a sacrifice for our sake. You and me.

Don’t listen to anyone who says you are worthless. You are worthy. You are loved. Your life is valuable, even when you don’t think so. Even when people put you down. God lifts you up, by the hope of the cross.

God redeems us in Christ. God gives us the chance to start over, the opportunity to be born anew. Our souls are purified by obedience to the truth so that we can love each other. As First Peter puts it, “You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.

God’s living word is spoken through us as we freely give of ourselves. This new life God provides for us flows through the body of the church as we mutually love and generously serve. We are called to be generous in our giving. As the Apostle Paul puts it, to give our lives as living sacrifices. When we become stingy, when we want to hang on to what we have, this flow is interrupted.

One writer compares the results of being generous or stingy with two bodies of water. The Sea of Galilee has water flowing through it and thus its water is fresh and clear. The Dead Sea, on the other hand, gets its water from the Jordan River and retains it, so its water is “stagnant, salty, and stinks.” We are called by God to give freely, to open our outlets wide and “Let the blessings of God flow through us and provide abundant live to others.

“What is my life worth? What can I give? Who even cares?” The answer to these and other questions are found in the cross. In the blood of Christ, God gave everything that we might live. God’s gift to the world is like an eternal stream that flows through us. Let God’s flowing stream water the seed of faith within you. Give freely as you have received. Love as you have been loved, in Christ.