Regional Assembly Sermon – Surprise!

I was honored to preach at my denomination’s Kentucky Regional Assembly this past weekend. Here’s the sermon text.

SCRIPTURE – Gen. 18:1-15

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures[c] of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it.Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” 10 Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” 13 The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too wonderful for theLord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.”15 But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

Gen. 18:1-15
Sept. 26, 2014 – KY Regional Assembly

It’s truly an honor for me to be standing in front of you today at the culmination of my time as your moderator. I want to thank Rev. Nathan Brown and Rev. Jackie Twedell for opening up their pulpit and to all the great folks of First Christian Church in Hopkinsville for their amazing hospitality. I sure feel sorry for whatever church has to follow this act in two years!

I want to thank the Regional staff for their leadership and their support, as well as the entire Regional Board, including my teammates Darrell Hayden and Shelia DeMoss, for their hard work these past two years. And I would like to thank you, the people that make up the Kentucky region, for your continued faithfulness and commitment to living out your faith in Jesus Christ in tangible, transformative ways. I have been blessed to serve you.

But I didn’t want to. At least not at first. When Greg called me and asked me to consider serving in this role, my initial reaction was surprise. I responded the same way as the girl who was caught off-guard when her teachers asked her to name two pronouns, and she said, “Who? Me?” How often do we respond that way when we’re asked to do something we don’t feel capable or worthy of doing? God gives us a call that God knows we’re capable of doing, and yet our first response is surprise. Who? Me?

Do you like surprises? I remember growing up I spent the night at a friend’s house. We liked to play practical jokes on each other, so that evening while he was brushing his teeth, I snuck up to the bathroom door and jumped out to scare him. Only it wasn’t my friend who was brushing his teeth. It was his dad…in his boxer shorts. Awwwwkward. We just stood there looking at each other, and then with the brush hanging out of his mouth and toothpaste foam on his lips, he said, “I don’t like surprises.”

But some surprises are good, right? A few weeks back I was able to attend a surprise birthday party for my friend Cheryl, who swore that her husband Darren would never, ever throw her a surprise party because she hated them. When Cheryl pulled into the driveway, Darren hid behind the guests, afraid of Cheryl’s reaction. After hugs and smiles and happy tears were shared, Cheryl was asked if she was mad at the surprise. She said, “If I’d have known how special this would be, I would have asked for it a long time ago!”

Some surprises are good, some are not so good. So how do we classify the surprise that Abraham and Sarah get when they are visited by the three guests? It had been 24 years since God had first come to Abraham and said, “Go” and Abraham had said “Who? Me?” and God had said, “Yes, you.” So Abraham and Sarah went, trusting in the promises of God, promises of land and offspring that were taking a L-O-N-G time to be fulfilled. In fact, too long for Sarah. She got fed up with waiting and instructed Abraham to have a child with her handmaiden Hagar. If God wasn’t going to act, Sarah was going to take matters into her own hands. She was, in polite terms, a control connoisseur.

So imagine her surprise when she overhears these divine visitors tell Abraham that Sarah was going to have a son. Who? Me? I know it’s fashionable to wait a little later in life to have children, but don’t you think 90 is a bit past the expiration date for this kind of thing? I love the way professor Gerry Janzen translates Sarah’s response: “After I have become word out with use and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” Hers is a worn-out body, and yet she’s just heard the absurd promise that new life will come from it. So she laughs.

I think Sarah’s laugh is one of disbelief. That’s different than unbelief. Disbelief still contains the element of belief, but it is belief with limits. “I believe that God can do some things, probably most things, but not even God can do THAT thing!” God comes to Moses and says, “You’re going to Egypt to free my people.” Who?  Me? You’ve got the wrong number. I can’t do that. Disbelief. For people like Moses and Sarah, the real issue is the character and the capacities of God. For them, Yahweh is measured by and confined within what they know of themselves and of the world. For them, God can’t operate outside those limits, the limit of a stuttering fugitive shepherd or a 90-year-old worn-out matriarch. That’s why Moses protests. That’s why Sarah laughs. The God they know has limits. The God they know isn’t capable of surprises.

But they eventually learn what we already know: God is not confined by our limits, but calls us beyond them. And, if we are willing to go there, that is where we find the divine surprise. I wish the gospel writers had been a little more adventurous in their writing style. The Bible needs more exclamation points. Can anything good come from Nazareth? Surprise! Hey, Jesus, don’t touch that leper. Surprise! Geez, we’re out of the good wine already? Surprise! Sorry, this banquet is for the elite only. Surprise! Lazarus? You mean the dead guy? Surprise! Uh, folks, the body isn’t in the tomb. Say what? Surprise! Time and time again God shows us that God’s capacity to surprise us greatly exceeds our expectation of being surprised.

But the limits we place on God’s capacity to surprise are justified, aren’t they? You heard Diana Butler Bass, right? You saw her colorful line graphs that basically said mainline Protestantism as we’ve known it is becoming extinct. But we don’t need her to tell us that, because many of us live it every Sunday. A graying congregation. Declining attendance. Dwindling giving. Is it too harsh to say. Kentucky disciples, that ours is a worn-out body? We’ve seen the trends, we’ve read the articles, we’ve watched as our pews get a little emptier every year. And we wonder…is God done with us?

Ha! Laugh with me…Ha! Is God any more done with us than God was with Sarah? With Moses? With Nicodemus? With Saul of Tarsus? The God who came to Moses and the God who came to Sarah is the same God who comes to the region of Kentucky and says, “Surprise!” And I’ve got news for you. God isn’t going to clear it with Greg Alexander before coming to your church. “Um, Greg, God here. Yes, again. Listen, I was thinking about going out to Salvisa and Madisonville and Murray and doing a new thing. Would that be OK with you?” That’s not going to happen! God doesn’t live at Regional Office at Red Mile Road. God lives in Dry Ridge and Flemingsburg and Hopkinsville and anywhere God’s people are willing to open their tents, welcome a stranger, and extend hospitality. And yet, we are hesitant to do that, because inviting them might mean opening ourselves up to the surprising ways God works, and sometimes it’s safer to stay put. Does our God have boundaries? Are we responsible for putting limits on what we think God can do?

I wonder what would happen if our response to God’s surprise wasn’t a laugh like Sarah’s, but a confession like Mary’s. When God comes to her and tells this single teenage female that, like Sarah, she’s going to have a baby, her response isn’t laughter. She doesn’t say, “Who? Me?” She doesn’t say, “I can’t do that.” What does she say? “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Wow! Did you hear that? Wow!

“According to your word.” What word is that to which she is referring? Maybe it’s Isaiah 43: I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. Maybe the word is 2 Corinthians 5: So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! Or how about Matthew 9: New wine isn’t put into old wineskins, but into fresh ones. Maybe it’s Psalm 51: Create in me a clean heart, O Lord, and put in me a new and right spirit. Is it safe to say that when God’s word comes to us, we’re not being encouraged us to maintain the status quo? “Hey Kentucky? God here. Just checking in. No news for you, just keep doing what you’re doing.” I can’t find that in the Bible anywhere. All I see is that when God shows up…surprise!

During my two years as moderator, I’ve been able to witness how God’s capacity to surprise is already happening around the region. Our Lexington area youth led a powerful worship service remembering Dr. Martin Luther King. Really? Can anything good come from teenagers today? Surprise! I read about mission trips where youth from Mt. Sterling and Jeffersontown and Hurstbourne changed lives and made a difference while learning that faith isn’t just about head and heart, but also hands and feet. I’ve seen the congregation of First Christian Church in Owensboro rise from the ashes of their burned-down church to continue on their vital and vibrant ministry.

Did you hear the one about the church that turned a divisive conflict into a new church start? That’s Chalice Christian Church in London. Surprise! Did you hear the one about the church that raised $10,000 for a local food pantry. Good job, First Christian Church in Mayfield. Surprise! Did you hear the one about the church that thought it was dying, and then God showed up? Surprise! The God who brought new life from the worn-out body of Sarah is the same God who comes to us right here in Kentucky.

The message God is bringing is one of hope, but like for Abraham and Sarah, it’s a call to move. Author Anne Lamott says, “If we stay where we are, where we’re stuck, where we’re comfortable and safe, we’ll die there. If you want to know only what you already know, you’re dying. When nothing new can get in, that’s death. But new is scary, and new can be disappointing and confusing – we had this all figured out, and now we don’t. New is life.”

I believe God is coming to us with an offer of new life. God’s not coming to Greg or Linda or the regional staff. They are not the region. You are the region. We are the region. And God is coming to us in ways that will take our breath away, which creates space within us for new breath, the breath of the Holy Spirit, which will call us out into this scary new future. It may mean for us that we can no longer sit in our buildings and wait for people to come to us. It may mean we have to meet them where they are, listening to their stories and their pain and their longing, introducing them to a God who is not bound by doctrine or dogma or liturgy, but who is working in and around them in surprising ways. It may mean having conversations with people who don’t look or think or act like us, not for the purpose of converting them to our way of thinking, but to build a connection that reflects the mutuality of our relationship with God. It may even mean passing the communion tray on Sunday morning to someone you think doesn’t belongs at the table. This new thing God is doing with us? It can be scary. Very scary. But new is life.

Kentucky Disciples, our story is still unwritten. God is still moving in and among us, working in all things to bring about good. But there’s something troubling me that I have observed about our region. It has nothing to do with attendance or giving or camps. What is troubling to me is our reluctance to be co-authors with God of our own story. In preparation for this message, I read through three years’ worth of our regional newsletter, the Kentucky Christian, looking for inspiring stories where God had shown up and something amazing had happened. Do you know how many I found? Not enough. Not nearly enough. So one of three things must be true: (1) God is not at work in the region, so nothing amazing is happening; (2) the regional office ran out of paper; or (3) we aren’t sharing our stories.

Maybe we think our story isn’t good enough. Maybe we don’t think what’s happening in our congregation is amazing enough. Maybe we think we can’t hold a candle to that big church down the road and the story they have to tell. Has God moved on, passed by our tent? Or do we have a story to tell, Kentucky? Of course we do!

We need to hear those stories for several reasons. First, there’s a different story being told about Christians out in the world, and it’s a bad story. If I learned everything about Christians from the stories I hear in the news, I’d probably be spiritual but not religious, too. But that’s not the only story, is it? We have a different story to tell, not of hatred but of love, not of exclusion but of embrace, not of judgment but of grace. The world needs to hear our stories.

When we tell our story, we tell God’s story. We need to be reminded that God is still here, God is still with us, and God is not done with this worn-out body just yet. Your story has the power to change this region, to infuse it with new life, to serve as a lighthouse to those who need guidance or a gentle nudge or a swift kick in the pants to remind them they are God’s people, called to do God’s work.

But your story, when you tell it, won’t only change the region. It will change you. Naming the ways God is at work in your congregation is like holding up a mirror to yourself and seeing Jesus in the reflection. We will discover things about ourselves as we tell our stories. It may be something new, or it may simply be something we had forgotten about ourselves. As was quoted at the beginning of our assembly, “God will not save us without us.” We have stories to write. We are God’s co-authors. What surprises await us when we pick up the pen, when we boldly proclaim that God is not done with us yet, when we open our imaginations to the surprising God in our midst? Yes, our story is still unwritten. So who are we waiting on to write it? Greg? Linda? It’s not their story, folks. It’s your story. It’s God’s story. Let’s stop worrying about if we have anything to say and if the ink’s going to run dry, and let’s get to writing.

After Sarah laughs at the visitors’ birth announcement, they ask Abraham why she did this. Then they ask the question, “Is anything impossible for God?” And then they leave, the question left hanging in the air, unanswered. “Is anything impossible for God?”

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