Practicing Our Faith Sermon Series – #5: Practicing Healing

SCRIPTURE – James 5:13-16 – 13 Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.

SERMON
Practicing Our Faith Sermon Series
#5 – Practicing Healing
March 18, 2018
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson

I’ve never told you this before, but I was once on the receiving end of a miraculous, super-natural healing. No, a TV evangelist didn’t smack me on my forehead or slay me in the Spirit. I was miraculously healed by a chicken poppyseed casserole. This happened right after our first child was born. We were living several hours away from our family, we had virtually no support system, and we were beyond exhausted. And then a little old lady from the church I was serving as a youth pastor showed up at our apartment door with a steaming hot pan of chicken poppyseed casserole. And the Lord said, “It was very good.” It was absolutely the cure we needed for what ailed us at that moment. Does that count as a healing?

For our Lenten sermon series, we’ve been looking at how to grow in our faith through the ways we practice living it out. We’ve learned that practicing things like saying yes and no, honoring our bodies, and offering forgiveness help us take the next step on our faith journey. We never expect to master these disciplines, but by practicing them, we can hope to gradually get better at them and honor God in the process.

Today, we are talking about practicing healing. The first challenge we have to overcome is trying to come to a common understanding of what it means to heal, because that concept means different things to different people. For a lot of folks, healing means a physical cure from some malady or illness. That’s certainly one aspect of healing, but it in no way defines its totality. What does it mean to heal or to be healed? And does healing have anything to do with our faith?

Early believers thought so. Healing was very much a part of the early Christian understanding of a life of faith. We know that Jesus healed many people during his time on earth, including the 10 lepers we read about earlier. When Jesus sent his disciples out into the neighboring towns, one of their marching orders was to heal every sickness and disease. The early church picked up on that, making rites like anointing the sick with oil and the laying on of hands an integral part of their wholistic ministry. To this day, the Catholic Church has as one of its seven sacraments the anointing with oil for the purpose of healing.

But somewhere along the line, the sacrament of healing lost its cultural value. It was most likely around the time of the Enlightenment, when spiritual reality and material reality were separated, and the role of human knowledge took precedence over the role of faith. You no longer needed to be anointed with oil when you were sick, because new discoveries were providing scientific cures for diseases. That has proliferated down through the centuries, to the point where the concept of healing is relegated almost exclusively to the world of medicine.

Of course, healing does still exist in religion, but only as a caricature. You probably know of folks like Benny Hinn, who’ve made a fortune off of performing theatrical “cures.” You’ve probably also heard about the dog who was sent to Christian obedience school. On graduation day, he was asked to sit, and he sat. He was asked to speak, and he barked. He was asked to heal, and he raise his paw and said, “Lord Jesus, I command you to remove the squeaky demon from this chew toy.” There’s a good reason we Christians are skeptical about healing as a spiritual practice.

So, healing is either something done with medicine or something to be made fun of in religion. And yet, healing has so many more layers and dimensions to it than a physical cure. As John Koenig says in the book Practicing Our Faith, “Healing events are daily signs of the divine mercy that is surging through our world and guiding it toward its final perfection. This is true whether they take place by the sharing of chicken soup, the performance of delicate surgery, or the laying on of hands in a service of worship.” All these acts, and many more, are ways of practicing healing.

In our passage, James tells us praying is one of those ways. He says, “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.” One of the most effective ways we can practice healing is through intercessory prayer, praying for someone who is sick to be made well (which may be different than being physically cured).

Right after I was diagnosed with MS, a staff member at my seminary came to me and said, “Kory, a group of us have a prayer meeting every Wednesday morning, and we’d like to invite you to attend so that we can lay hands on you and pray for you.” I liked this guy, but I was still coming to terms with my this next chapter in my life and skeptical of what sounded like evangelical revival tactic, so I didn’t go, because that’s not how healing happens. I had just learned I had multiple sclerosis; what good could they do for me?

I have since learned two things about that invitation. First, what he was offering was solidly grounded in scripture. And, second, healing absolutely does happen that way, but maybe not the kind of healing I was looking for. If we think of healing only as a physical cure, then we are limiting our understanding of how God works in our lives, and we’re setting ourselves up with unreachable expectations. If our only form of practicing healing is an intercessory prayer that says, “Lord, take away my grandma’s terminal cancer or else,” then we’re missing the ways God can bring about healing that transcends the physical realm.

Healing, in its most divine form, is not about curing. It’s about restoration. It’s about restoring wholeness to what is broken. That can be a broken bone, or a broken heart, or a broken society. Theologian Paul Tillich said that, “Healing is an element in the work of salvation.” Often, Jesus combined a physical healing with a spiritual one, telling the person who had been physically cured that their sins were forgiven. And remember, James says the prayer of faith will save the sick. Salvation, not curing. So, to practice healing is to practice restoring something to its original, God-ordained state.

Because of this more holistic way of seeing this practice, I believe healing is making a comeback, returning from its banishment to the outskirts of religion to take a central role in the restorative process. I believe, after centuries of thinking religion didn’t have anything to offer in the way of healing, people are coming to see the power of prayer in a different light. When I started in ministry, whenever I was visiting someone in the hospital, I would have to wait until the doctors and nurses and staff were done before I could spend any time with them, and my visits were frequently interrupted for the more important work of attending to the patient’s physical needs. But several times in the past few year, I’ve been visiting with a patient when the doctor has come in the room. I have introduced myself as the person’s pastor, and the doctor has said, “Oh, don’t me interrupt. I’ll wait until you are finished.” The power of prayer is being accepted as part of the healing process for a patient.

So how do we practice this? First, we have to expand our understanding of healing. Trust that God can bring about healing in all situations, even if a physical cure doesn’t take place. Wounds can be healed and wholeness can happen even as bodies give way to sickness and death. Practice having the eyes to see the healing power of God that goes beyond our limited expectations of a person receiving a super-natural cure.

A second way to practice healing is to trust that your prayers for healing make a difference. It can feel helpless to see a friend or loved one suffer, and sometimes prayer can feel like busy work or last-ditch effort to do something, although we don’t always believe it matters. But James tells us the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. When I laid in the hospital bed with my new diagnosis of MS, I could feel the power of people praying for me, and that brought me a sense of peace, that God could work through this curve ball my body had thrown me.

So, who can you pray for today? Who needs healing? Who needs peace, assurance, guidance, a cure? How about praying for our country to be healed from violence and division? We can pray for all of those things, and then trust that God hears those prayers. I believe healing is happening all around us, in some of the most unorthodox and unexpected ways, through whispered words of forgiveness and steaming hot chicken poppy seed casseroles.

I want to close with this story, my most memorable experience of the power of healing. I was once asked to come see a man in a coma so that I could anoint him with oil. Now, you may not know this, but I’m not Catholic, so this was something new to me. Thankfully, I had some oil in my office we use on Ash Wednesday, so I grabbed it and headed to the ICU unit at UK hospital.

The scene when I arrived was tense. The man in question, an athlete in his 40s, had fallen and hit his head and was not expected to survive. The family included a 10-year-old son and the man’s ex-wife and his current girlfriend and his parents and his ex-in-laws and his current girlfriend’s parents. The mood was chaotic and turbulent and contentious. So I gathered the family in the room, and I anointed the man’s head with oil and said a prayer. Then, I invited each family member to anoint his head with oil and speak a word of love to him. And then, completely by the Holy Spirit’s leading, I asked if any of the family members would like to be anointed with oil. Almost all of them stepped forward. Instead of doing all the anointing myself, I anointed the first person, then handed them the oil and said, “Now, anoint the person behind you.” I watched as the son anoint his mother, the ex-wife, who then turned and anointed the current girlfriend as all the various in-laws looked on. The best way I can described what happened was that air in the room softened. Although the man died the next week, I know healing took place in that room, thanks be to God.

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Go! Sermon Series – God Calls Abraham to Sacrifice His Son

SCRIPTURE – Gen. 22:1-14 – After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “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.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. 11 But the angel of the Lordcalled to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13 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. 14 So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

SERMON
God Commands Abraham to Sacrifice His Son
Gen. 22:1-14
October 14, 2018
Kory Wilcoxson

This hasn’t happened yet, but whenever they get around to asking me to edit the Bible, I plan on making some substantial changes. I’m not sure who “they” are, but it’s got to be some kind of committee, probably uses Robert’s Rules of Order. The very first change I would make would be to take this story out. This is exactly the kind of story that gives God a bad name and has kept millions of people from pursuing a life of faith.

Let’s say I’m a curious non-believer who wants to know what God is all about, so I start reading the Bible. I like the creation story, although Adam and Eve seem a bit flaky. I make it through the part in Genesis 6 when God wipes out the whole world except for Noah. Everybody has a bad day. But then, just 22 chapters into this book, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his own son. That’s a deal-breaker. Why would I want to believe in a God who would do this?

I’ve not been asked to edit the Bible, and probably won’t be any time soon. But there HAVE been people who have had the chance to edit the Bible, the authors and scribes and people who have hand-copied the Bible for centuries. Any one of them could have decided to leave out this story…and yet, here it is. Still in the Bible, confronting us with this image of God which conflicts so drastically, so violently, with who we know God to be. We have enough senseless acts of violence in our world already, don’t we? Do we really need to hear a story about God commanding Abraham to commit another one?

OK, let’s see if we can make sense of this story, and to do so, we need to put it into context. This is not some random request made by a capricious, blood-thirsty God. This is the only time in scripture where God makes this kind of demand, so there must be some kind of justification for it. We do NOT worship a God who asks people to kill other people, despite what we read in the Old Testament. How do I know? Jesus. Jesus is always a good answer in church. Jesus definitively showed us what God is like, and what we see in Jesus is a God who loves, who offers grace, who sacrifices for others. So, we need to name right now the God in our story today is not representative of the God we know through Jesus.

So, why would God ask Abraham to do this? To get at an answer, we have to go back 22 chapters, when God created the world. As a part of that creative process, God makes Adam and Eve and gives them free will. God didn’t want his creation to worship God out of compulsion, but to worship God freely and of their own choosing. Would they do it? God didn’t know, so God gives them a little test, telling them not to eat of a certain tree. They take matters into their own hands and fail miserably, and God quickly learns that God’s most beloved creation may not always respond well to authority.

Fast-forward a few chapters to when the world has gone to Hades in a handbasket, so God wipes everyone out and starts over with Noah, hoping that he, being a good man, would set things right and stay out of trouble. And yet, not five minutes after departing the ark, Noah gets drunk and curses his own children. Well, that didn’t take long. A few chapters later and the descendants of Noah take matters into their own hands, building the Tower of Babel, trying to reach to the heavens so they can be equal to God. So far, God’s grand experiment with humanity is blowing up in God’s face.

So, God changes the game plan. Rather than work at a cosmic level, God is going to get personal. God picks one particular person – Abraham – and puts all God’s eggs in that basket. God promises Abraham he will be blessed with land and offspring, despite the fact his wife is barren. God is basically betting everything that Abraham will be the one person God can trust to bring about the kind of world God was hoping for from the beginning.

But things get off to a rocky start. First, Abraham and Sarah go to Egypt, and the Pharaoh takes a liking to Sarah. When that happens, Pharaoh would usually kill the husband and take the wife as his own, so Abraham takes matters into his own hands and tells Pharaoh that Sarah is his sister to save his own skin. So much for trusting in God’s provision. Then, Sarah takes matters into her own hands and tells Abraham to have a baby with her servant, Hagar, since Sarah can’t have kids. So much for trusting in God’s provision, part 2. God was hoping Abraham would finally be a human who would trust God, but so far, it’s looking like trust is not something humans are capable of.

God stays true to God’s promise and Abraham and Sarah eventually have a child, Isaac. We know Abraham was 100 years old when Isaac was born. When the family would go for a walk in the neighborhood, Isaac was in a stroller and Abraham was on a walker. But God had proven to them, against all odds, that God’s promises were good, that God could be trusted, that God would do what God said. Now, God needs to know if that’s true of Abraham, as well. God has already had God’s heart broken by humans several times in the short span of 21 chapters. God needs to know if Abraham’s love for God is the most important thing in Abraham’s life.

That brings us to our story today. In order to test Abraham’s faithfulness, God asks him to let go of the thing most important to him – his son, Isaac. Did God really want Abraham to kill Isaac? Of course not. But God needed to know if Abraham truly trusted God. So this drama plays out, with Abraham taking Isaac to Mt. Moriah and going through with God’s command until the very last moment when the angel intervenes and spares Abraham the anguish of this act.

God’s response to Abraham at this moment is the most important part of this whole story. God says through the angel, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” Did you hear that? “For now I know.” Contrary to the belief that God is all-knowing, up to this point, God didn’t know whether or not Abraham would be obedient. “For now I know.” Abraham has passed the test and God knows Abraham is completely devoted to him.

How about us? Have we passed the test? That’s a valid concern. When we go through our own trials, it’s easy for us to make God the scapegoat, to make God responsible for our difficulties. Way too often God is given the blame for any obstacle we face. “God must be testing me.” And that seems valid based on this story. But it’s completely unfair to God for one simple reason: Jesus.

Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, our worthiness in God’s eyes is not dependent upon our own trustworthiness, because God knows none of us can live up to Abraham’s example. As Paul says in Romans, we all fall short of the glory of God. But God doesn’t need to test us, because Jesus has already passed that test. Paul writes about Jesus in Philippians, “And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” We are reckoned as righteous to God, not because of anything we have done, but because of what Jesus has done for us.

So, I want to encourage you to change your focus about this story. So much energy is expended on trying to understand why God would test Abraham, but that misses the bigger picture of what God ultimately does. Verse 13 says, “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. So, Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

In this story, the God who tests is also the God who provides, and even when the test is no longer needed, thanks to Jesus, God continues providing. Just as God provided a ram to take Isaac’s place, God provided Jesus, the lamb of God, to let us know how much God loves us and wants to be in relationship with us. God knows what it’s like to lose a loved one, which I hope is a small comfort to those of us who’ve had to endure an unimaginable loss in our lives. God knows what that is like.

God knows because God chose to trust in humanity, which ended up being a much more painful proposition than God ever intended. To trust in someone is to make yourself vulnerable, to open yourself to the pain of being let down. Anyone who’s ever been in a relationship knows that pain. And yet, God doesn’t stop trusting in us. Isn’t that bizarre? Is that any way to run the world, trusting over and over again in people that you know are going to let you down?

It’s the way of love. God loves us so much in spite of our constant disappointments. And all God asks in return is our trust that God will provide, even when God feels a million miles away. So often we take matters into our own hands because we know what’s best. But through Jesus Christ, God says, “Trust in me.” God calls us to lay at the altar anything that is separating us from trusting completely in God. It’s no coincidence that in a few minutes we’ll invite you to come forward and lay your pledge at the foot of the table, in essence sacrificing something precious to you as a sign of trust that God will provide. “Trust in me,” God says. Some days we do, and some days we don’t. And God still provides.

That’s the truth this story holds for us. In the midst of our pain, we are called to remember that we were never promised that a life of faith would not be a struggle. Our trust in God doesn’t exempt us from the difficulties of life, the broken hearts and the dwindling bank accounts and the rivers of tears. Ours is indeed a resurrection hope, but this doesn’t mean we won’t first face our own Gethsemanes, our own trials, our own Good Fridays. And yet, even there, we are not alone. Even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, God is with us, comforting us, consoling us, helping us to see that the cross is not the end of the story.

When it comes to living a life of faith, we don’t get to choose our battles. We don’t get to choose our mountains. All we get to choose is whether or not we trust in God. One writer said, “The character of faith that allows us to be transformed by suffering is not doubt-free certainty, but tenacious trust.” God provides. God provided for Abraham, God provided for Jesus, God provides for us. God provides, not necessarily a way out, but a way through.

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Go! Sermon Series – God Tells Hagar to Return to Sarah

SCRIPTURE – Gen 16, 21 – 16 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar, and Sarai said to Abram, “You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife. He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my slave-girl to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the Lord judge between you and me!” But Abram said to Sarai, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her.

The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. And he said, “Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am running away from my mistress Sarai.” The angel of the Lord said to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit to her.” 10 The angel of the Lord also said to her, “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.” 11 And the angel of the Lord said to her,

“Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the Lord has given heed to your affliction. He shall be a wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; and he shall live at odds with all his kin.”

13 So she named the Lord who spoke to her, “You are El-roi”; for she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?” 14 Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it lies between Kadesh and Bered.

15 Hagar bore Abram a son; and Abram named his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. 16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.

 The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. 10 So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” 11 The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. 12 But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. 13 As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” 14 So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.

15 When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17 And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18 Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” 19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

20 God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. 21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

SERMON
Go! Sermon Series
God Tells Hagar to Return to Sarah
Gen. 16:1-6; 21:8-21
Oct. 7, 2018

Here’s the funny thing about the story of Hagar – it has no business being in the Bible. There’s nothing that it contributes to the progression of the narrative. Starting with Genesis 12, the story tells us how God chose a specific person – Abraham – to the bearer of God’s divine blessing. Abraham will carry that blessing and, after a few false starts and stumbles, will pass the blessing onto Isaac, who will pass it onto Jacob. That’s what Genesis is about, God blessing Abraham and Abraham passing on that blessing through his Godly-ordained offspring.

But Ishmael is not one of those offspring. He’s the by-product of Sarah’s impatience and Abraham’s lack of trust. So, Hagar’s story doesn’t belong here. She’s simply a messy complication in the narrative, an unfortunate footnote. Ishmael, the son that she has with Abraham, is not the child God had in mind when he blessed Abraham, so there’s no reason for his story to be told. This is like trying to get somewhere unfamiliar and turning down a street that ends at a brick wall or a cornfield. Like other stories we have looked at, this is a dead-end story. So why is it in the Bible? Why does the author of Genesis spend a chapter and a half telling Hagar’s story?

It’s certainly not because she was important. In fact, she was just the opposite. An Egyptian slave girl was about as low on the social status pyramid as you can get. If you’ll notice, Abraham and Sarah never call her by name. To them, she is simply, “that slave girl.” Abraham and Sarah had recently been to Egypt, and when they left Pharaoh gave them some parting gifts: sheep, oxen, camels, and servants. Hagar was probably one of those, numbered among the livestock as property changing hands. As a human being, Hagar was invisible. She didn’t count.

Her only value to Abraham and Sarah was as a slave and then as a surrogate. The couple has been promised by God that they will bring forth a great nation, but we know that Sarah is barren, and fathering a child is an important first step in fathering a nation. Rather than trusting in God, Sarah gets impatient and forces the situation, telling Abraham to make a child with Hagar. This may seem extreme and even adulterous to us, but back in those days it was actually quite common. In fact, some ancient Near-Eastern laws had a provision for dealing with barrenness, which included using her maidservant in this capacity. So, Sarah adds to Hagar’s job description, invoking the “other duties as assigned” clause to force her to get pregnant. It’s not like Hagar was actually a human being to Sarah; she was simply a means to an end.

Hagar becomes pregnant with Abraham’s child, and she begins to rub it in that she could get pregnant when her boss couldn’t. Sarah goes to Abraham and says, “Do something about this!” Abraham just shrugs his shoulders and says, “Your problem, not mine.” So, Sarah begins treating Hagar harshly, so much so that Hagar is faced with a no-win situation: stay and put up with her harsh treatment and this dysfunctional family, or risk her and her unborn baby’s life by running away. Faced with a time of trouble and turmoil, she runs.

It reminds me of the commercials for Southwest Airlines, which have the tag: “Want to get away?” We’ve all been in those situations, when we know what’s coming but we don’t want to face it, when life doesn’t seem fair and we’re not appreciated, when we feel like anywhere is better than here, anything is better than this. Have you ever wanted to just get away? Hagar feels that way, so she leaves the relative safety and security of Sarah’s control and heads out into the desolate wilderness.

End of story, right? Sarah picks another maidservant for Abraham to impregnate, this one a little less cheeky and a little more compliant, they have a kid, and the narrative just goes chugging right along. No one was going to miss what’s-her-name. She probably wouldn’t last a day on her own anyway. So, after she runs away, the story picks back up with our main characters, right?

Strangely enough, no. Rather than staying with our main plot, the story follows Hagar out into the wilderness. Isn’t that just like God, to leave the 99 sheep in order to chase after the one who’s lost? While on the run, an angel of the Lord comes to Hagar. Let me emphasize again that we’re talking about an Egyptian slave girl. By all accounts, she was a nobody. She was young, she was single, she was female. Everyone around her would say God had no use for her, just as God had no use for a young, single female named Mary, And yet, both women are visited by an angel of the Lord and given extraordinary news. Mary is told she’s going to have a baby named Jesus. Hagar is told to go back to Sarah because Hagar will have a son, that his name would be Ishmael, and that God would so greatly multiply her offspring that they will be too numerous to be counted. And Hagar responds by naming the God who spoke to her.

Now let’s hit the pause button a second here to recognize the magnitude of what’s going on. There are several firsts that take place. Hagar becomes the first woman in the Bible visited by a divine messenger. She is the first woman to be given the promise of descendants. She is the first woman to see and have a conversation with God. And she is the only person in all of scripture who gives God a name: El Roi, which means, “the God who sees me.” Hagar, the Egyptian slave girl, the nobody, the invisible, has been seen. The slave girl that was never called by name by her owners is called by name by God.

So, she goes back to Abraham and Sarah and has Ishmael, who becomes Abraham’s first-born son. Meanwhile, Sarah finally does conceive and has Isaac. And now the story turns into a soap opera. You’ve got two half-brothers, 13years apart, both of whom could make the claim as the first-born. You’ve got Sarah, mother of one of the boys, who despises Hagar, the mother of the other boy. Did I mention that Sarah and Hagar are both married to the same guy? And then you’ve got Abraham, the father of both boys, the husband of both women, caught in the middle. Throw around a few chairs and you’ve got an episode of Jerry Springer. Is it any wonder the Bible tells us the matter was “very distressing” to Abraham?

Sarah once again takes matters into her own hands. Even though she finally got the son she was promised, she doesn’t want that Egyptian slave-girl and her boy hanging around. Ishmael not only stands to get an inheritance as Abraham’s first-born, but he’s a constant reminder to Sarah of her lack of trust in God. She tells Abraham to send them packing, but there’s a problem. Abraham loves Ishmael. After all, Ishmael is his first-born son. But God tells Abraham to go ahead and do what Sarah says, because God will take care of them. So, for the second time, Hagar leaves the protection of Abraham’s camp and goes into the wilderness.

Only this time, she’s not alone. Ishmael, her teenage son is with her, and her well-being is tied directly to his. Eventually, they run out of water, and it’s looking like they both are going to perish. The story appears to have come to another dead end. Hagar puts Ishmael under some bushes and departs, saying she can’t bear to watch her own child die. But the God who sees is also the God who hears, and for the second time an angel of the Lord visits this invisible nobody.

I was talking once with a young mother outside of the church nursery where a bunch of kids were playing. In the middle of one of her sentences, there was a loud, blood-curdling cry from the nursery. The mother stopped, tilted her head to the side, and got this look of intense concentration on her face. After a second, she said, “Nope, it’s not mine,” and went on talking. It’s amazing how parents, even in noisy places, know the sound of their child.

God, our parent, knows the sound of our cries. The angel of the Lord says to Hagar, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy.” The angel reiterates the promise of blessing for Ishmael, and then opens Hagar’s eyes to show her a well of water, from which she gives Ishmael a life-saving drink. El Roi, the God who sees, now helps Hagar to see, and when she does, God literally saves her life. This dead-end story ends up being not such a dead-end after all, as Ishmael goes on to father a great nation, and is considered the line through which the Arab people and the religion of Islam descended.

I believe Hagar’s story is in the Bible as an important reminder that the God of Abraham and Sarah and Isaac is also the God of Hagar and Ishmael. A person’s worth to God is not determined by their status or birth order or usefulness. This story says to us that even the most invisible people in our world matter to God. We may only choose to give our attention and authority to the powerful, the privileged, the wealthy. What about the single, the pregnant, the oppressed, the foreigner – God sees them. They matter to God.

When I think of the modern-day Hagars, I think of people whose livelihood is dependent on taking care of others, and yet who are often invisible. I think of factory workers, waiters and waitresses, hotel maids, custodians. For many of us, these people only exist for their utilitarian value. We only see them because they serve a purpose for us. And when they’re out of our sight, they’re out of our mind. There are Hagars all around us.

The same God that gave us life gave them life. The same God who hears our cries hears their cries. God tells Hagar to go back to Sarah because God is with her as she goes. The outsiders, those on the margins, those who don’t fit our definition of valuable, they are also God’s children. Hagar’s story gives us this jaw-dropping sense of God’s intimate interest and care for the invisible people in our world. God has opened their eyes and shown them the life-giving well of water that is the kingdom of God in their midst.

And guess what? The church is full of water bottles. Actually, the Bible calls us “clay vessels.” God calls us to fill ourselves with the living water of Jesus Christ, and then to go out and quench the thirst of the Hagars and Ishmaels of this world who are literally and spiritually dying of thirst. We have that to offer, don’t we? We have the means to say, “You matter to God.” People are crying out for hope, for justice, for a reminder that God sees them. They want to know that we see them, that we believe their stories, that we stand beside them when they are mistreated and abused, even if it means standing against those in power. They are dying of thirst. And there is water right here, sweet, life-saving water. “She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.” Hagar and Ishmael mattered to God. Do they matter to us?

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Stewardship Sermon – Enriched

SCRIPTURE – 2 Cor. 9:6-15 – The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. As it is written,

“He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor;
    his righteousness endures forever.”

10 He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness.[c] 11 You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12 for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. 13 Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, 14 while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. 15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

SERMON
Enriched
2 Cor. 9:6-11
Sept. 30, 2018
Kory Wilcoxson

Pastor John Ortberg tells the story of the time he and his wife went hot-air ballooning with friends of theirs. Although everyone was a little apprehensive, they decided to take on this new adventure together. Everything was going fine until the balloon got tangled up in some electrical wires several hundred feet off the ground. Ortberg and his friends began to panic as the balloon operator tried frantically to free them. Ortberg’s friend turned to him and said, “You’re a pastor, do something religious!” “So,” Ortberg said, “I took up an offering.”

It’s funny but it’s true, right? One of the ways the church is known in our culture today is as a place that just wants your money. When televangelists are taking donations for their new private jet and mega-church pastors live in swanky mansions, it’s hard to get away from the stereotype that the church is all about the dollars and will use any means to get them. “Call now to give your love offering to help us build our Shine Jesus Shine drive-through car wash and pray and spray station.” It’s easy to believe that the church is most concerned about getting rich.

But on this Sunday, as we start our annual stewardship campaign, I want to shift our thinking from getting rich to being enriched. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 9 that we are “enriched in every way” by God, meaning that God has blessed us with everything we need. But God has done that for a specific purpose.

There’s a certain place I like to eat in town, and you’ll be shocked to know it’s not a BBQ place. I go to this restaurant because of a certain salad. Now before you accuse me of vegging out, you have to understand why I like this salad. It’s called a BLT Chef Salad, and it only has four ingredients: a bed of lettuce, a heaping of mozzarella cheese, a ton of diced tomatoes, and then, piled on top, is a huge mound of bacon. Like, a whole pig’s worth of bacon. I like ordering it because when my wife asks me what I had for lunch, I can truthfully tell her I had a salad; what she doesn’t know is that it was really just a mountain of bacon with some other stuff around it.

I was eating at this restaurant the other day with a very good friend when the waiter brought me my BLT Chef Salad, set it down in front of me, and asked, “Is there anything else you need?” And I looked around me, at this huge salad, at the full glass of sweet iced tea, at my good friend sitting across from me, at my nice clothes, at my car parked outside the window that takes me from my loving family to my great job and back each day. “Is there anything else you need?” No, no thanks, I’ve got all I need.

Did you ever think that when you were at this stage in your life you would have all the blessings that surround you? Your parents, your children, your grandchildren, your home, your job, your cars, your friends, your hobbies, your church. Who could have imagined? I’m sure there are times when you dream about having more – bigger house, nicer car, more zeroes in the paycheck. That’s only human, and we all do that from time to time. But when we stop and look at our lives, do we have all we need?

Paul encourages the Corinthians not to forget the source of their blessings when he says, “Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness.” We have spent our lives working hard and sowing seeds that are now bearing fruit: seeds of love that have blossomed into our families; seeds of education and training that have led to our jobs and responsibilities; seeds of wealth and prosperity that have grown into all the wonderful things we enjoy around us. We’ve spent a lifetime working to get where we are, and now we are enjoying blessings beyond compare. Do we have all we need?

Paul knew the Corinthians had all they needed, and that they had a need to share it. Paul is in the process of collecting an offering to take back to the church in Jerusalem to show them that the churches he has started are living out the gospel by being generous in their giving. Paul tells the Corinthians that he is sending some folks to collect their portion of the offering and he expects the Corinthians to demonstrate their generosity. So, this is Paul’s stewardship campaign cover letter.

In it, he reminds his readers that they have been blessed for a purpose. He writes, “And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.” In other words, God has given you all you need, you have all you need, so now make sure others have what they need. We express our thanks to God through our generosity.

Notice here that Paul doesn’t mention an amount. He doesn’t say, “A gift of $10 is the silver generosity level and comes with a cute angel lapel pen, but a gift of $100 gets you the gold generosity level, complete with a ‘God Loves Me’ sweatshirt.” Paul doesn’t set a minimum or maximum to define generosity. Paul knew that our attitude when we give is more important than the amount. God is not concerned about how much we give; God is concerned about how we give. “Give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or out of compulsion, because God loves a cheerful giver.” God doesn’t love a rich giver or a poor giver; God loves a cheerful giver.

Is it possible to be a cheerless giver? Sure! We can give begrudgingly, we can give because we feel we have to. And just to be clear, the church won’t turn away a cheerless gift. But your decision to give isn’t between you and the church. It’s between you and God. Too often a cheerful giver is cheerful because he got away with giving as little as possible! But what if God took the same approach with us, giving us as little as possible? Looking at our own lives is proof that God is by nature a giving being, and one of the ways we reflect God’s image in us is when we are giving. Giving is in our nature – it feels good to give, doesn’t it? – but we have been conditioned to believe that what we have is ours because we earned it, which doesn’t leave much room for God’s generosity.

If we do what our culture tells us to do, we focus on what we’ve done to get where we are, how we are the main reason for our success, and we become more concerned about holding onto what we have. But if we focus on what God has done to help us get where we are – people who have been brought into our lives, doors that have been opened – then we are more likely to think more generously.

It’s through our generosity that God is made known to others. Paul says, “You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.” There’s a ripple effect to our giving. When we give and others are blessed by it, they in turn praise God. The more we give, the more God is praised. When we give to God this way, we are sending a message to our world that we aren’t buying into the consumerism and consumption that is so rampant around us. Rather than focus on becoming rich, we seek to enrich others the way we have been enriched.

I read this fascinating story the other day about the metamorphosis of a caterpillar. At a certain stage in its life cycle, a caterpillar becomes a voracious, over-consumptive glutton, consuming everything in sight. It’s not concerned about whether or not the praying mantis or the cricket gets its food; the caterpillar simply eats and eats and eats. The more it consumes, the fatter and more sluggish it gets. Are there any comparisons there to our culture? I’m not thinking of any specific individuals, but how our culture as a whole encourages us to eat and drink and buy and take, regardless of the needs of those around us.

When a caterpillar does this, something amazing happens. At the moment when the caterpillar is at its most gluttonous, inside of it these things called imaginal cells begin to stir. Imaginal cells are specialized cells that, when they connect with each other, become the catalysts for the caterpillar’s metamorphosis. These cells feed off the caterpillar’s excess and begin the process that will turn the caterpillar from a gluttonous, self-serving creature into a beautiful butterfly.

We are called to be the imaginal cells in our world. We are called to counter the self-serving greed of our culture in order to bring about transformation and change. We have something beautiful to show the world, God’s creativity and abundance and love. And it’s through our generosity, the ways we take that which enriches us and use it to enrich others, that we not only express our gratitude to God, but we also begin to change this world.

I hope you’ll take heed of the Stewardship Campaign materials you’ll be receiving. In 2019, we are seeking to grow our staff in a way that will help us have a greater impact on our families and our community. We are hoping to enrich the lives of those around us and connect people with God and with each other. We are planning to be the imaginal cells that help transform our worldview from greed to gratitude. And each of us has a part to play in making that happen.

I close with these words from author Thomas Tewell: “The only motivation for giving is gratitude. We do not give in order to earn God’s love or in order to deserve God’s love. We do not give because God needs the money or because the church or other worthy organizations need the money. We give simply in response to God’s gift to us in Jesus Christ. There is no other motivation for giving.” Our God is a giving God and we have been the recipients of that generosity. May the way we reflect that generosity be one of the ways we say, “Thank you.”

 

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Go! Sermon Series – God Kicks Adam and Eve Out of the Garden

Genesis 3 – Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” 10 He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” 11 He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” 12 The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” 13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” 14 The Lord God said to the serpent,

“Because you have done this,
    cursed are you among all animals
    and among all wild creatures;
upon your belly you shall go,
    and dust you shall eat
    all the days of your life.
15 I will put enmity between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
    and you will strike his heel.”

16 To the woman he said,

“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
    in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
    and he shall rule over you.”

17 And to the man he said,

“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife,
    and have eaten of the tree
about which I commanded you,
    ‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
    in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
    and you shall eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your face
    you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
    for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
    and to dust you shall return.”

20 The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living. 21 And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man[d] and for his wife, and clothed them.

22 Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— 23 therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. 24 He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.

SERMON
God Tells Adam and Eve to Go
Gen. 3
September 23, 2018
Kory Wilcoxson

One of my favorite Far Side cartoons shows this peaceful landscape setting with a shady tree and a grazing deer. And in the middle of this serene meadow is a giant jar with the label “Humans” on it. The jar is broken open, and in the background, there are two naked people running off. And you see a voice from the cloud above saying, “Uh-oh.”

Yes, uh-oh. You have to wonder if God was thinking that after the events of today’s passage. God creates this wonderful idyllic paradise full of butterflies and hummingbirds and cute little bunnies, and then humans come along and build casinos and film reality TV shows and mess the whole place up. So, God kicks them out, evicting them from the paradise God created for them.

We’ll get to that part in a second, but it’s important we know the events leading up to it. In this version of the Creation Story – the first is in Genesis 1 – God creates man and puts him in the garden to work it and take care of it. That’s a bit distressing to those of us without green thumbs, but I trust that, unlike me, Adam could tell the difference between a daisy and a dandelion and knew what he was doing.

Or maybe he didn’t, because right after that God literally says, “It’s not good that the man should be alone,” as if God knew that if you give us men a few chores around the house and access to power tools, we might cut off an appendage. So, God creates Eve as Adam’s helper. Genesis tells us that the man and his wife were naked, and they felt no shame because they didn’t know better.

When you think about it, they were a lot like toddlers. For most toddlers, clothing is optional. They don’t care if they’re naked. They’ll run around the house all day without clothes on, and much to our chagrin, they’ll do the same thing in Target. But at some point in their life, every toddler will become self-conscious about being naked, at least at Target. But for now, Adam and Eve are as innocent as toddlers.

Enter the serpent. The serpent was more crafty or cunning than any of the other creatures. Notice that he never calls God a liar or directly contradicts what God said. Everything the serpent said was kind of true. Instead of forcing Adam and Eve to sin, he does what most temptation does: he plants a seed, and lets it grow within the person.

The serpent asks for clarification of God’s statement to Adam and Eve. He starts off with, “Did God really say…?” That is a loaded question. When I hear the voice in my heard start a question that way, I know I’m in trouble. “Did your mom really say no cookies before dinner? Maybe. But she didn’t say anything about eating a part of a cookie. Or a hunk of cookie dough. Or a scoop of cookie dough ice cream. And ice cream has milk in it, and milk is good for you! You’ll be doing your mom a favor!” And so goes the temptation, planting seeds in us that grow into doubts and rationalizations and acts of disobedience.

If God loved Adam and Eve, why the prohibition? God created this beautiful setting for them and gave them dominion and use over the entire garden except for one specific tree, which is called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Why would God create this tree and then tell Adam and Eve to stay away from it?

Here’s what I think. At this point, humans are a grand experiment. God created them and then gave them free will. That’s huge. Instead of controlling them, God decided to let them choose for themselves. So I believe God was genuinely curious to see how humans would respond. If they were told not to do something, would they still do it? If they have every need cared for, would they still seek out something that is forbidden? So, God builds a City BBQ and a Lyle’s BBQ and an Edly’s BBQ and says, “Eat any of this, just don’t eat from this one tree.” God is testing Adam and Eve to see if God’s creatures will be obedient to their Creator.

What’s wrong with eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? Let me try to answer that by way of an analogy. Driving is a good thing. I like driving. I’m glad to be able to get places in my car. But driving is not good for a five-year-old. Flying is an amazing luxury. What a privilege to be able to fly a plane hundreds of miles in a short span of time. But when I go to the airport, they won’t let me fly the plane. Only the trained pilots can do that. Or, on a more serious note, we tell little kids to keep away from strangers, but we don’t go into detail about all the bad things that could happen to them. We give them the knowledge they need and can handle for their age.

I believe God intended for Adam and Eve to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil when they were ready for it. I believe God wanted Adam and Eve to grow and mature and learn about life in order to be able to handle the knowledge the tree offered, the understanding of the presence of good and evil. They are still toddlers and not developmentally ready for the knowledge the tree would provide. But Adam and Eve couldn’t wait, they didn’t listen, and gave in to temptation. In a sense, you could say they tried to grow up too fast, to move from spiritual toddlers to adolescence before they were ready.

Notice the result of their transgression: they realize their nakedness and are so ashamed of it they make some clothes to cover themselves. It’s the world’s first cover-up, and it sets the stage for humanity’s continual transgressions against God, and then our feeble attempts to cover them up. For the first time, they are self-conscious in the truest sense. They are conscious of their self apart from God, and that consciousness makes them embarrassed.

In my mind, that is the greatest sin here. It’s not the eating of the fruit. It’s not the disobedience. It’s their failure to take responsibility for their actions. Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent, and God has to deal with the mess.  A city employee in Lodi, Calif., sued the city for damages after a dump truck backed into his parked car. The man says that because the city’s vehicle damaged his private vehicle, the city owes him $3600. The catch? The man who owned the car was driving the dump truck. He backed into his own car, and now wants the city to pay him.

If Adam and Eve were alive today, they would be filing lawsuits against the serpent. Why? Because then they could blame somebody else for something they did wrong. I believe failure to take responsibility for our actions is one of the worst sins we can commit, because it not only denies the truth about what we have done, it usually shifts the blame to someone else. Adam and Eve made me do it!

So God does something that I believe absolutely broke God’s heart. God curses his own creation and then takes Adam and Eve, his two kids, made in his image, and puts them out on the street. God said, “If you live in my garden you will obey my rules!” But they didn’t, so now they are going to have to grow up and make it on their own. They no longer have access to the garden and all its delights. They are no longer toddlers. If they want to be adults, they’re going to have to act like adults. They are now conscious of their selves and will have to live with that.

But they won’t be alone. Even though they have directly disobeyed God, even though they took this grand experiment and dumped it in the trash, even though they turned on God at the first opportunity, God still loves them. Have you ever felt that way toward your kids? You know, you love them, but you don’t like them? I’d give you a personal example but I want to be welcomed back into my own home after church today. That’s how God feels. So even as God is kicking Adam and Eve out, God makes for them garments of skin, because God still loves them and doesn’t want them to be ashamed of themselves.

Adam and Eve disappointed God, and we’ve been disappointing God ever since. God has provided everything we need to live, to thrive, and instead we turn to false gods, worshipping idols of our own making, listening to the voices of the slithery serpents around us instead of tuning into the voice of God. Every day we do something that warrants our eviction from God’s presence.

And yet, God is still here, watching over us, clothing us. Jesus Christ came to show us that God loves us so much that, in spite of our disobedience, God has clothed us with grace and forgiveness and a tenacious love that refuses to kick us out again. We still have to endure the consequences of our disobedience, but like a loving parent, God still holds us, even when we kick and scream and try to get away.

I really wish Adam and Eve hadn’t eaten that fruit. But I’m glad we have this story, because it reminds us that every time we make the same choice – to disobey God, to focus on ourselves, put our own desires above the good of those around us – that God doesn’t kick us out us. Because of Jesus Christ, we know that God is still with us, loving us, clothing us with the kind of stubborn grace only God can give. God’s goodness will always be stronger than our brokenness. So, remember, even on your worst day, you haven’t gone too far for God to find you.

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Go! Sermon Series – Noah Leaves the Ark

We continue our sermon series looking at times in the Bible where God called people to “Go!” Today, we stand with Noah in the ark after the flood when God calls him to leave the ark and start a new life.

SCRIPTURE – Gen. 8:6-19 –  At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made and sent out the raven; and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. Then he sent out the dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground; but the dove found no place to set its foot, and it returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put out his hand and took it and brought it into the ark with him. 10 He waited another seven days, and again he sent out the dove from the ark; 11 and the dove came back to him in the evening, and there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. 12 Then he waited another seven days, and sent out the dove; and it did not return to him any more.

13 In the six hundred first year, in the first month, on the first day of the month, the waters were dried up from the earth; and Noah removed the covering of the ark, and looked, and saw that the face of the ground was drying. 14 In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dry. 15 Then God said to Noah, 16 “Go out of the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives with you. 17 Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh—birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth—so that they may abound on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.” 18 So Noah went out with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. 19 And every animal, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves on the earth, went out of the ark by families.

SERMON
Go! Sermon Series
Moses Leaves the Ark – Gen. 8:6-19
September 16, 2018
Kory Wilcoxson

I recognize the unfortunate coincidence of preaching on the story of the Great Flood when the eastern coast of our country has been battered by Hurricane Florence. So, let me say right away that there’s an important comparison I want us to avoid making. In the Genesis story, God sends the flood to wipe out the earth and start over with Noah. Making God the cause of the flood is as means to an end of making a point about God’s sovereignty and concern for God’s creation. That does not mean that God is the cause of any natural disasters that take place, including Hurricane Florence, and to believe that is a dangerous perversion of scripture and of God’s nature. I don’t believe God sent Hurricane Florence, but I do believe God is present in the midst of it, and our prayers are with all those affected.

This modern-day parallel about devastating storms and the destructive power of water is a good way to get into this story that we all know so well. People who’ve never read the Bible or don’t even believe in God know about Noah’s Ark. It’s a standard Sunday School teaching, there’s cute little songs about it, and we’ve all seen children’s books with grandfatherly Noah surrounding but fuzzy lions and grinning alligators and cuddly cobras and smiling tarantulas.

I tend to think that whole experience wasn’t that easy for Noah. I’m guessing that smile he’s wearing in those children’s books is forced, don’t you? Noah was a righteous man, and he trusted in God completely. He built his ark, just like God told him to, and through God’s grace Noah rose above the waters instead of sinking below them, while the rest of humankind perished.

Imagine his situation: there’s the storm of the century going on outside, he’s adrift in a floating zoo, animals of all kind all around him, the tigers getting hungry, the rabbits doing their thing: “I thought we had only two rabbits! Where did these other 18 come from?” He’s got no idea of what’s going on outside, no idea of where they are, no idea of when they will get to leave. The boards from his homemade boat are creaking from the winds, water is starting to seep in through the cracks, claustrophobia must be closing in like a noose around his neck. He sees the panic on the faces of his family members, his kids are really starting to get on his nerves, “Daddy, tell Ham it’s his turn to clean the elephant’s pen!” He must have felt confusion, terror, fear of the unknown and the future. It’s hard to keep the faith when the storm is raging around you.

But I have to wonder if there’s a deeper concern in Noah’s heart as he’s floating along at the mercy of the waves. There’s a children’s story that goes like this: One child asks another, “Would you forget me in an hour?” “No.” “Would you forget me in a day?” “No.” “Would you forget me in a month?” “No.” “Wanna hear a joke?” “Sure.” “Knock knock.” “Who’s there?” “I thought you said you wouldn’t forget me!”

Noah must be wondering if God has forgotten him. Have you ever felt forgotten by God? Can you relate to what Noah’s experiencing? Feelings of fear, doubt, confusion. Not knowing why something happened, not knowing what’s going to happen next, not knowing what our future is. How could God let this happen? Where is God during all this? Why won’t God fix things? The walls begin to leak and the boat begins to rock. The thunder gets louder and rains intensify. We are surrounded by panic, choked by fear, and whether it rains one day or forty days and forty nights, it feels like a lifetime. We put our trust in God and build our ark of faith, but in the darkness and chaos of the floods, our righteousness dissolves into doubt, our once sturdy faith becomes a leaky vessel, and we wonder if we’ve been forgotten. It’s hard to keep the faith when the storms are raging around you.

And if we’re really honest, our fear of being forgotten by God comes about because of our susceptibility to forget God. In the craziness of living life, sometimes we forget God, so when the waters begin to rise in our lives, we wonder if God will forget us. It’s so easy to do. It doesn’t take a big thunderclapper of a storm to cause our faith to sink. Sometimes it’s simply the living of everyday life, making ends meet, living up to our responsibilities, keeping our schedule. Did I remember to pick up the kids from soccer? Did I remember the dinner party Friday? Did I remember to get bananas at the grocery? Did I remember to schedule the repairman? We struggle to recall all that we have to remember, and before we realize it, we’ve remembered all the little things, and forgotten the big thing. As we’ve tried our best to keep everything together, we’ve drifted away from our Anchor, the One who holds us in place. We’ve forgotten, and we wonder if God has, too.

That’s why it’s helpful to reinterpret the flood story, to move beyond our Sunday School understanding to see what God is doing here, because at its heart, it’s a story about remembering. If we go back a few chapters to the beginning of the Bible, we learn that water covered the face of the earth, and God brought order to that chaos. God separated the waters of the sky – that’s rain – from the waters of the earth, then made the waters of the earth dry up so that there would be land. Then God created the cuddly cobras and the smiling tarantulas all other living things.

A few chapters later, and we humans have made a real mess of things. So, God decides to start over and hits the reset button. The waters that God had separated God now brings back together, so that the rains that God put in the sky come pouring down, and water once again covers the face of the earth. We’re back to where we started.

But there’s one significant difference. Noah and his ark. In the beginning, there were no living things around for the churning of the water, but now there is. Noah is experiencing first-hand the chaotic nature of the storm, but what he trusts is that God is once again in the mode of Creator. In a sense, the Noah’s Ark story is a re-creation story, in which God will once again bring order to the chaos, separate the water, and cause dry ground to appear. As William Brown writes, “This is earth’s re-entry into the womb. The waters bear the ark like amniotic fluid, while the ark holds the promise of the earth’s reproduction. The storm scene is a womb scene.”

And when that happens and God is done recreating, God tells Noah to go out of the ark, to re-enter this new world that God has created, to be reborn into this new life that awaits. But here’s the thing: Noah didn’t know what was on the other side of that door. Where do you find the strength to walk through a closed door, not knowing what awaits you on the other side?

What’s on the other side of our storms? If only Jim Cantore and the Weather Channel could predict that, right? We’ve had the skies open up around us when we’ve received bad news, or lost a loved one, or had an unexpected diagnosis. We know chaos, don’t we? We know what it’s like to face an unknown future, to not know what awaits us on the other side of a storm, to face that door that is closed in front of us.

God promises us that our storm scenes are womb scenes. What this story tells us is that what is waiting for us on the other side of our storms is new life, God’s re-creation, the order that God has made out of the chaos we’ve experienced. God has remembered us. It may not be what we want to happen; I’m sure Noah wasn’t thrilled about starting over with only his family to support him. It’s not what we would want to happen when we come home to an empty house for the first time, or when we realize we can’t physically do what we used to do, or when our hair falls out after a chemotherapy treatment. The storms in our lives take their tolls, don’t they? But when the water recedes and the rain subsides, we walk through that door and find that God is still there and that new life awaits us. How does it change the way we weather our trials if we see our storm scenes as womb scenes?

That’s the promise God made to Noah and God makes to us. I wonder if God knew what God was getting into with that promise. God knew what humans were like, and only 40 days or so before this covenant with Noah, we humans had provoked God so strongly that God wiped us all out. Do you ever wonder if God looks at the mess we’ve created and thinks, “What this world needs is a boat full of true believers and a really big flood?” Thousands of years later, and yet, we haven’t changed.

But God did. Once Noah leaves the ark, God puts a rainbow in the sky, a sign of God’s promise to never again destroy the world. Between the flood and the rainbow, something in God’s heart was transformed. Even though we have provoked God in ways worse even than that of the people who lived during the flood, God has kept that promise.

By doing so, God faced a dilemma. How does God deal with this broken world without wiping the slate clean and starting over? How does God honor the rainbow? And then God did the unthinkable, the unimaginable, something so radical and foolish and passionate and full of love. Instead of sending a flood, God sent Jesus. God sent Jesus to remind us of the rainbow covenant, to show us that God remembers us and that God is at work in all things to bring about new life.

I don’t know what storm awaits us, but I know that there is one. That’s a fact of life. But it’s also a fact that God is present in the midst of the chaos and that we don’t ride the waves alone. We have God and we have each other; that’s what it means to be the church. And when we arrive on the other side of the storm, we can trust that God is doing something new. The storm scene is a womb scene. Thanks be to God.

 

 

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Go! Sermon Series – Abram Called to Go

I start a new sermon series today looking at some of the times  calls people to “Go!” and their responses to it. I hope this series is a blessing to you!

SCRIPTURE – Gen. 12:1-9

 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the LordAnd Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.

SERMON
Abram Told to Go
Gen. 12:1-9
September 9, 2018
Kory Wilcoxson

Statistics say that most people in this room have either moved in the past 5 years, or will be moving in the next 5 years. My family and I are exceptions because we haven’t moved recently and don’t plan to move soon! But for a period of time in our lives, we moved a lot.

In 1997, my new bride and I were preparing to move from Jeffersonville, Indiana, to Indianapolis, where I was starting in seminary. On the day before we were moving, I was rushing home to pack up the last few boxes and was in such a hurry that the local police decided to pull me over and congratulate me on my new marriage and upcoming relocation. They even gave me a special certificate to commemorate the occasion.

Two years later, when Leigh and I moved from Indianapolis to Columbus, Indiana, we asked a good friend to help us move and to drive the moving van to our new home. He must have been really excited to see it because he ran into the back of our car on the way there.

Two years later, we were once again packing, this time moving from our Columbus apartment to a church in Illinois. While the movers were loading up the truck with our stuff, our apartment was struck by lightning. We took that to mean that God wanted us out of Columbus as soon as possible!

Moving is just a reality of our life today. But that’s also true of people in the Bible. Have you ever noticed how often people in the Bible are changing their addresses? When you read the Bible, it’s hard to find anyone who is seriously being used by God who isn’t on the move. Noah set sail, Moses walked the wilderness, the disciples uprooted themselves when Jesus called. I’m still looking for the verse that says, “And Slackerdiah laid around his house for 30 years and became a great man of faith.” I don’t think I’ll find it. The truth that the biblical nomads make real for us is that faith is discovered along the way, and that’s what we’ll be exploring in this fall sermon series.

We start with probably the most momentous move in the Bible. You may not know that the shift between Genesis 11 and 12 has profound implications for us. Through the first 11 chapters of Genesis, God’s work with humanity has been on a grand scale and marked by several starts and stops. God created the world, but then kicked Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden because they disobeyed. Because humans were so evil, God had to wipe the slate clean and start over with Noah and his family. Well, we humans messed up again, at the beginning of chapter 11, tried to build a tower that would reach all the way to God so we could be on God’s level. So, after a deep sigh and a resigned, “Oy vey!” God decides to take a different approach. Instead of painting with a broad brush, start in Gen. 12, God was going focus in on one particular man and his family.

But things don’t get off to a great start. At the end of Ch. 11, we get a genealogy that runs down through Terah and his son, Abram (who won’t become Abraham until later). We’re told in the midst of that listing that Abram was married to Sarai, who was barren. So, at the end of Ch. 11, we know that Abram is the end of the line as far as the genealogy goes, and unless something changes, he’s the end of the line period. His wife is not able to give him a son. Abram and Sarai have no potential to continue their lineage. It’s like when I was searching for a church camp out in the farmland of Illinois, and my GPS unit led me down a dead-end road. I got to the end of the road and looked out into this cornfield and my GPS said, “Your destination is ahead.” And I shouted at it, “No it’s not!” I was stuck at a dead end, just like Abram and Sarai.

I think God must love dead ends because it gives God a chance to turn our world upside down. Moses led the Israelites to the shores of the Red Sea, but couldn’t get across. Dead end. Jesus, the supposed Messiah gets crucified and buried in a tomb. Dead end. Abram and Sarai, who are supposed to be fruitful and multiply, are burdened with barrenness. Dead end.

That leads us to Ch. 12 when the God who created the cosmos and the platypus and everything else invests in one particular person and promises him two things: God promises to lead Abram to a new land and to make him a great nation. Sounds wonderful, but there are two small problems. First, Abram already had a place to live, and second, you can’t have a great nation without some offspring. Dead end.

And yet, God says, “Go!” Would you have gone? I would like to say “yes,” but to be honest, I’m pretty comfortable and settled right here. And I’m sure Abram was, too. Moving for him involved not just uprooting his family but moving his livestock and business and workers. It also meant leaving behind his hometown and family and friends. I can relate. When I was 11 years old, right after my mom married my step-father, she pulled me aside and asked, “How’s your sense of adventure?” Then she told me we were moving – away from my dad, my grandparents, the only home I’d ever known – to Washington, D.C. I should have been excited about this new adventure, but I all I could think about was what I was leaving behind.

So then, why did Abram go? Wasn’t he afraid he’d get lost, geographically and spiritually? I’m reminded of the bumper sticker that says, “I took the road less traveled – now where the heck am I?” I guess he went because God said, “Go!” But God didn’t just say, “Go!”. God said, “Go to the land I will show you,” which means Abram wasn’t going alone. God is packing a bag and accompanying Abram on this journey. God would be with him.

There’s a major difference between a travel agent and a tour guide. A travel agent will help plan your trip, book your travel, find hotels, but when it’s time to leave, your travel agent says “Bon Voyage” and stays behind. But a tour guide goes with you. A tour guide knows all the sights to see and places to avoid and tips and tricks and shortcuts. If you get stranded in a strange land, a travel agent is nowhere to be found, but a tour guide is right there with you. So, knowing God the tour guide is with him, Abram just goes.

If we want to be honest, what choice did he have? The only other option was to stay put and grow old, and where’s the sense of adventure in that? We are all vulnerable to the feelings of complacency and stagnation. The metaphor of the life of faith as a journey is a challenge to our modern ideologies which yearn for settlement, security, and placement. And yet, if we stay put too long spiritually, we begin to think that God stays put, too. We begin to think that God has become as stagnant as our own beliefs, set in concrete and unbending. But God is much more fluid than that. If we are too comfortable, too secure, or too into having control, we may find ourselves at a dead end.

This notion of following doesn’t have to be geographical, although for Abram it was. Because we are called to be followers, I believe God constantly calls settled people on pilgrimages and down new roads. I believe God calls us to leave certain situations so God can bring us into other, better situations that will allow us to use our gifts to serve. And that can be painful because there’s no iron-clad guarantee that everything will be all right. Sometimes it’s safer to stay in the dead end staring at the cornfield than to leave the GPS behind and venture down unknown roads.

This passage always makes me think of the brave souls who left their homes on in this part of the country and ventured westward into the unknown frontier. Can you imagine being a mother or father, your kids loaded up in the covered wagon, a full supply of Cheerios and juice boxes, heading across territory with no rest stops or even paved roads? Can you imagine, as you’re winding your way across the plains of what would become Kansas, and in the distance you see these tiny little points, and you think, “Aw, those rocks are so cute!” And the closer you get those rocks turn into the Rocky Mountains, and you’re not sure how you’re going to get past them, and the horses are tired, and the kids have watched every episode of “Paw Patrol” 14 times. And yet, you go, because the call to follow God is stronger than the desire to stay put, so strong that even the Rocky Mountains aren’t dead ends.

We are not called to live dead-end lives, and God promises not to leave us there, if we are willing to follow. What is guaranteed is that God will be with us on the journey. And our trust is rewarded with the rich experience of traveling with God through the mountains and valleys of life. The road is never easy, and there will surely be pain along your journey, and there may be times you long for comfort and security, but what other choice do you have? Sure, we can stay put, but is that all there is to life, just staying put? What risk is God asking you to take? Where is God calling you to go? As the band Switchfoot sings in its song, “Afterlife,” “Everyday the world is made, a chance to change But I feel the same. And I wonder why would I wait till I die to come alive? I’m ready now, I’m not waiting for the afterlife.”

I don’t believe any of us are called to stay put. Then this faith thing would be easy! No, God is calling us to go, to hoist our sails, to step on a new path. It may mean leaving behind something that is safe or comfortable. It may be the exciting journey of working in a new ministry or helping someone you don’t know. It may be the scary journey of confronting the demons of your past in therapy or trying to heal a broken relationship. But remember, God is not a travel agent; God is a tour guide, going with us into whatever new adventure awaits. Abram didn’t have to go; neither do we. By going, Abram was blessed beyond measure by God, including a family he never thought he could have. What blessing might we miss by just staying put?

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Let Me Tell You A Story sermon series – The Talents

SCRIPTURE – Matthew 25:14-30 –  “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents,[f] to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

SERMON
Let Me Tell You a Story sermon series
The Parable of the Talents
Matthew 25:14-30
August 26, 2018

We finish our sermon series today on the parables by looking at what is probably the most difficult parable to understand and make sense of in all the gospels. As I was doing my reading this week, one of the commentators of this story wrote, “”Welcome to one of the most difficult and contrary passages in our whole bible, one that, on its surface at least, is fraught with unattractive paradox.” Nothing screams “this is going to be a great sermon” like the words “fraught with unattractive paradox.” Feel free to start on your grocery lists, and when the music starts, you’ll know I’m done.

Why is this parable so fraught? In most parables where there is a lord or master or authority figure, that person is the representative of God. Think of the father in the Prodigal Son story or the landowner who pays all the laborers the same wage, even though some only worked an hour. But in this story, the master is just…icky. He is described as a man of dubious character who makes his money off other people, and he punishes the slave who did the most prudent thing with what he was given by saving it. Is this how our God acts?

Our story today is usually thought of as thinly veiled allegory in which the master going on a journey is Jesus, who’s about to depart from this earth and his disciples. In the story, when the master returns, we’re told that he wants to “settle accounts” with his slaves. The belief back then was when Jesus came back to earth for the Final Judgment, he would settle accounts with all his believers to see how they lived out their faith in his absence. This parable tells us that those who have been fruitful will be rewarded by “entering the joy” of their master, but those who are not fruitful will be cast into the outer darkness. No pressure here, folks, but just in case today is THE day, let’s all start looking really busy.

Let’s look more closely at the challenge placed before the master’s servants. Before he goes, the master entrusts to each slave a portion of money. There’s no clear definition on the meaning of the word “talent” in this passage, but we do know it was a lot of money. Matthew could have easily said, “To one he gave a bijillion dollars, to one he gave a gadzillion dollars, and to one he gave a millivanillion dollars.” The point that Jesus is making is that the master is entrusting to his slaves something very precious and valuable, more than they could have ever imagined.

While the slaves aren’t given any instructions on what to do with the money, we’re told that the one given five talents and the one given two talents went off “at once,” as if they understood the opportunity they had been handed. I remember the first time I saw big money. I was riding in the car with my grandma, and I told her I didn’t believe there was such a thing as a hundred-dollar bill, at which point she opened her purse, took out a $100, and let me hold it. I came so close to opening the car door and jumping out with the cash. I don’t care that we were on the highway, for $100 I’ll take my chances!

The first two slaves also take their chances, and they are able to double the money. But not the third slave. Instead of working to increase the amount he was given, he does the prudent thing: he gets a mason jar, stuffs the money inside of it, and buries it in the backyard. And when the master returns, the third slave hands him exactly what he had been given, not a cent less, but also not a cent more. And for that, he is punished. You could easily argue that the third slave didn’t do anything wrong, and you’d be right, I guess. But you could also argue that he didn’t do anything at all, which in this case is worse than doing something wrong.

Let’s try to translate this parable into our modern context. First of all, let’s name right up front that comparing Jesus to the master in this story has serious limitations. Yes, Jesus was going away and, yes, Jesus has given us gifts to us. But the master’s response to the prudent slave doesn’t mesh with my understanding of Jesus. The master is described as a harsh man with a dubious way of doing business and violent response to what some would call prudent financial management in uncertain times. That’s not the Jesus I know, so we have to be careful about how far we push the allegory here. There must be someplace else Jesus wants us to focus besides the actions of the master.

Secondly, let’s be clear: this parable is not about money. It’s not an encouragement to make more money, because God knows no one in America needs to be encouraged to do that. Instead, the talents today most likely translate into the gifts we are given by our Master, who is God, and there’s really no limit to what those gifts can be. Painting, administration, nurturing, investing, swinging a hammer, cooking a meal, running a meeting, rocking a crying child – all of these and many, many more are gifts we have been given by God to put to use.

And that’s where the third servant gets himself into trouble. He practices what one commentator called “fearful inactivity.” This is the kind of guy who wears a belt AND suspenders because he’s afraid of being exposed. Instead of taking a risk to increase what he was given, he buries it. Instead of investing it and earning interest, he hoards it. Fear that something bad might happen kept him from making the most of his opportunity.

A few summers ago when I was in Alaska, I had a free afternoon and decided to sign up for ziplining. Doesn’t that sound great? Ziplining in Alaska! Conveniently I forgot that I’m really afraid of heights. So, when I got there, I put on all my equipment and my guide said, “Good! Now climb that ladder.” I said, “You mean that really tall one? Can’t I just climb that step-ladder? He said, “Yeah, but that’s not where the ziplines are.” So I climbed the ladder to a platform about one gadzillion feet off the ground. When I got there, the other guide said, “You made it! Now step out here to the edge of the platform so I can hook you up.” I said, “Well, I can’t do that.” She said, “Why not?” I said, “Because that would require letting go of this tree trunk, and I’m not quite ready to do that.” In our parable, the third slave is more content hugging the trunk instead of going out on a limb. Because he feared the master, he did nothing.

I don’t believe in a God we have to fear. I believe in a God who loves us and wants to see us use our gifts to serve God. So, what are we afraid of? What keeps us from using the gifts we’ve been given? Maybe we feel like we don’t have any special gift. Sure, we can do things, but they are just routine, they’re not gifts. Notice in this story there’s a man with five talents, a man with two talents, and a man with one talent. But there are no no-talent people in this story. You may think you skipped class on the day God was handing out gifts, but you have one. What are you passionate about? What fills you with joy? What do other people say you are good at? That’s your gift.

When Sydney was younger, every time I would go on a trip, she would make me a little survival kit with instructions and tuck in my suitcase. It would include things like a quarter in case I got lost and needed to call someone, a mint in case I had to talk to someone and I had stinky breath, and a band-aid in case my arm fell off and I needed to put it back on. She packed my bag with the things I needed to survive. Before we were born, God packed our bags with what we needed, not just to survive, but to thrive. What did God pack in your bag?

Now, as this story reminds us, not everyone’s gift is the same. Some may be more visible than others. I can stand up in front of people and prattle on, but I can’t draw my way out of a paper bag. I know good folks who can cook delicious meals but make babies cry by just looking at them. Not all gifts are the same, but every gift matters, and every gift is meant to be used. As William Barclay wrote, “We are not all equal in talent, but we can be equal in effort.”

Maybe we’re afraid of using our gift because we think we’ll use it wrong, or that our gift is so inconsequential that it doesn’t matter, or that it won’t make a difference, or that someone else’s gift is a lot better than ours. To which Jesus says in his most loving, pastoral voice, “Get over it.” At the end of our lives, when we settle our accounts with God, God won’t ask us, “So, why weren’t you more like Billy Graham? Why weren’t you more like Desmond Tutu?” No, God will ask us, “So, why weren’t you more like you?” God will say to me, “I created you to be Kory. I gave you gifts to be Kory. Why weren’t you more like Kory?”

I understand not wanting to fail or do a bad job. No one likes to try and not succeed. But what this parable tells us is that the worst thing you can do is not try and fail; the worst thing you can do is not try at all. It’s what Max Dupree calls the sin of unrealized potential. God has given you a gift. Your life. Your mind. Your abilities. Your body. Your passion. These are your gifts. And you are called to use these gifts to serve God, to provide God a return on the investment. Sure, we can use these gifts to serve ourselves. But that’s not what they are meant for. If you are only building a reputation, or building your retirement portfolio, or building a collection to display, or building an investment account, then you are not building God’s kingdom. You’re only hugging the trunk.

You have been given a gift worth a bajillion dollars – the gift of your life. You have been entrusted with this gift by God and called to go out on a limb and use it to further God’s kingdom. So, what will you do? Bury it because of fear? Not use it because you’re too busy? Hide it away because you feel like it’s not good enough? Our church needs ushers and greeters who can help us welcome people into our midst. Our congregation needs nursery volunteers and people to make meals for the sick and new moms. Our church needs people to lead ministry teams, to serve communion, to fix door handles, to count money. Do you have one of those gifts? Do you have some other gift that needs to be used?

My prayer for each of us is that our lives come as close as possible to realizing the potential that God has intended for us. But we’re not going to get there by hugging the trunk. Sure, going out on a limb by using your gifts is a risk. But you’ll never know how much you can accomplish for God until you try.  Will God punish us if we don’t use our gifts? I don’t believe so. I believe we’ll be punishing ourselves and those who could benefit from our gifts. You’ll never hear God say to you, “Well done,” unless you do something.

 

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