Wrestling Untill Dawn, by Rev. Connie Frierson

Genesis 32:22-31  Jacob Wrestles at Peniel   NRSV
 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

         I love this story of Jacob wrestling with the man, or the Angel, or with God, all the night long by the river.  This story springs to life for me. It is the archetype of the spiritual journey. It is an epic soul deep myth that reveals God, humanity, ego, past, pain, wounds, healing and transformation.  It is amazing what one long night of struggling with God can do. Jacob stopped for the night on his way home to a brother who understandably wanted to kill him and at the dawn he has a life long limp and a new identity. 
I’m not the only one who loves this story.  Lots of people identify with it. Artists have painted this image of a man wrestling with an angel of God is a 1000 different ways. It is a testament to the depth of this story that each artist interacts in a different and unique way. Here is a painting by Rembrandt.   Notice that it doesn’t seem like much of a fight from the angel’s point of view. While Jacob might be striving and pushing for all he is worth, the angel appears to be embracing not wrestling. From the angel’s point of view this is more a divine hug than a battle for supremacy.  Next is a painting by Chagall. I love the divine whimsy of this painting.  Jacob is purple with passion as he runs headlong to head butt the angel.  Here is a painting by a Dutchman, Bartholomeus Breenberg.  It seems to be all about the landscape and not by the tiny figures. Maybe he was making a point about the Glory of God’s creation. Gauguin puts giggling maids in the foreground, who aren’t in the biblical stories. But for Gauguin anything done that isn’t viewed or applauded by girls isn’t worth doing. Gauguin was always one for the ladies.  Edward Knipper is a Christian artist whose pictures hand in the Billy Graham Library and the Vatican.  This is perhaps my favorite.  The cubist element show such fragmented energy swirling around Jacob.  Next we even have this story recreated in Legos. This is a story we can put ourselves into and some people put the story on their bodies in tattoos.  This is indeed one of the most important stories in the Old Testament about our relationship with God.

         But in order to get the most from this Jacob vs. Angel Smack Down, we need to understand a little of Jacob’s back story.  The very name of Jacob, describes Jacob. Jacob means heel grabber or supplanter, or even cheater, deceiver, schemer, and crook.  Jacob was the second born twin. From birth Jacob was wrestling and wrestling dirty for power and wealth. It is said that he grabbed his brother’s heel as Esau was born. Later Jacob gets his hungry, brawny, dimmer brother to give him is birth right, his inheritance, for a bowl of stew. Then Jacob connives to trick his aging, blind father, Isaac, to give him his brother’s blessing.  Jacob pretends to be Esau. Isaac isn’t sure who this is and asks, “Who are you?”  Jacob replies, “I am Esau.” And steals his father’s blessing. After all those shenanigans, Jacob has to run away from home, or his brother Esau will kill him. He runs away to his uncle Laban, an even greater trickster and the cheater. Jacob gets cheated in the marriage mart. But eventually he does well and now, years later, he is on his way home to make up with his brother or be killed by him. 
         These are all the events that lead up to this one night alone on the banks of the Jabbok River. On this night Jacob is about to go home. He is trying to make it up to his wronged brother. He is going back to repent and face his sins against his brother. He may well be facing death as word has reached him that Esau is riding with 400 men to meet him. So Jacob has sent this wives and maids and children and flocks and men across the river and is alone on this pivotal night. You can see that Jacob has a lot to wrestle with on this night. He has a lifetime of bad behavior to mull over and tomorrow it may all come home to roost. There is nothing like mortal danger to bring about some deep reflection.  Someone once said that God whispers to us in our pleasures but shouts to us in our pain.  It is into this time critical and painful night that Jacob wrestles with God. 
         So what can we learn from this story?  First, it is critical to get alone with God.  We have a culture that thrives on distraction. More than any other times before, we never have to be alone with ourselves or our thoughts or our God.  We have media, music, iPods and cell phones, the web at our fingertips. So we need never have quietness.  Even in our spiritual life, we can out source our spiritual growth. Now it can be my job or Graham’s job or your spouse’s job, or your favorite radio or TV preacher or guru to grow your relationship with God.  All these sources can help. But at the end it is necessary for each person to as Paul writes, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12).  Our relationship to God grows in community. But our relationship with God also requires one on one time. When you are alone with God you can answer the question Jacob answered. Who are you?  What is your name?  We can be honest about ourselves and then we can have a real start with God. 
         This brings us to the second lesson. Use your real name as you wrestle with God. The mysterious man in the wrestling match asks Jacob what his name is.  Why did he do this? God had been pursuing Jacob for years. God is all-powerful and all knowing. Why ask?  God is calling Jacob to relive the last time he asked for a blessing, when he stole his brother’s blessing.  When Jacob masqueraded as Esau to receive his father’s blessing, Isaac wasn’t sure this was Esau. Isaac asked, “Is this you? Esau?  And Jacob lied and pretended to be someone he was not.  So this agent of God asks Jacob’s name.  Jacob answers the truth, that he is Jacob, the schemer and grabber and cheat. There is always a humbling truth to be face, an embarrassing reality about who we are and what we have been. The blessings that God wants to bring to us can only be given when we start with truth.
         Wrestle until dawn. Be persistent.  Jacob wrestles all night.  I used to watch my son wrestle in school.  The wrestling matches consist of 3, 2-minute rounds.  Wrestler pushes and grabs and grapples for all they are worth for 2 minutes.  Then they restart and go again, and then again.  In all that is 6 minutes. Now in a hard fought match each wrestler is giving it his all for that eternity of two minutes.  But getting to the bottom of whom we are and who God is, takes longer than 6 minutes.  Too often we are dabbler and not serious searchers.  There is a quality in Jacob that will not let go that we need to emulate. We need to hold fast, return again and again in prayer, silence and practice our faith.          
         There is a woman who reminds me of Jacob; who had Jacob’s persistence, who met God alone and without distraction, who didn’t hide behind any false self as she wrestled with God.  This woman is named Jeanne Safer.  Jeanna is a therapist, a PhD and an author. One of her particular areas of study and therapy are conflicts between siblings.  So perhaps that is what leads her to think about the Jacob and Esau story more closely. But one day Jeanne was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia.  She had been feeling tired. She had no energy.  She had been bruising easily. But one day as she watched a bruise bloom in seconds on her arm. She got herself to a doctor. The doctor immediately ordered blood tests and she could tell that the diagnosis was really serious.  She had almost no platelets in her body.  She didn’t know it but she was one small bump away from uncontrollable hemorrhaging. The treatment started immediately. She was put in the hospital for one month of round the clock intravenous medical intervention and then one year of outpatient chemotherapy, one month on, one month off.  She gave herself over to the medical treatments but she understood that she had to fight for her self in a different way.  As she was admitted to the hospital for this grueling intervention, she redecorated her hospital room. She put one of her favorite rugs over the TV. So she wouldn’t be tempted to zone out, she kept books and images of faith around her. She would take grueling walks down the hallways. She passed windows that opened up into look at brick walls of other wings of the hospitals or bare, brick lined air shafts. But at the end of one hall there was a window that showed one tough, tenacious weed.  She wrote that a dandelion would be exotic compared to this scraggly weed.  But she thought of herself as that weed. The image that she would not let go of was of Jacob wrestling with the Angel of God.  She would not let go until she got her blessing from this suffering. Whatever happened until she had her blessing, whatever that blessing would be.
         When we do these things, when we get alone with God, bring our real selves and call ourselves by our real names, when we persistently wrestle for a blessing, then God does indeed bless us. But that blessing often means that we are forever different.
Jacob received a new name.  Name changing is profound, Abram became Abraham, Simon became Peter, and Saul became Paul.  The point of this entire struggle isn’t that you walk away your same old self, but with a bonus in your pocket. Meeting God and receiving God’s blessing changes us.  Jacob became Israel. And Israel limped forever afterward.  When we meet God in our wrestling we come away with a true knowledge that may make us less in the eyes of the world.  Israel came to know that he was dependant on God.  People who meet God generally realize that their illusion of self-sufficiency strength was just that, an illusion, a lie we tell ourselves.   Young Jacob walked without a limp and caused havoc wherever he went.  But Israel can walk confidently and humbly leaning on God. 
         So as I look out today. It would be best if we all had a little hitch in our giddy-up, a little dependence on God’s spirit, a leaning in humility our God.  If you wrestle for a blessing you will come away with a new name, beloved of God.

Setting Sail: Weathering Storms

Matthew 8:23-27
July 6, 2014

And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him up, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. They were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?”

            I first thought about this sermon series, and about how living a life with the Spirit was like setting sail, because of this passage. This passage reminded me that whether we like it or not, much of life is stormy, and how we weather the storms determines much of what our life becomes. Just like in nature where storms rush in out of the blue, in life we often have to face storms, and the question is whether we will face them with faith or not.

            What kind of storms have you had to weather in your life? Did you grow up in a stormy family? Did you have bad experiences in school or college? Have you gone through terrible work times or unemployment? Have you gone through major relational problems—abuse, neglect, strife, or divorce? Have you gone through terrible grief? Have you been ill or suffered something debilitating?

            All of us wish that we could go through life without experiencing the storms of life, but the reality is that no one gets out of life alive. At some point all of us go through something terrible that overwhelms us and that is difficult to get through. The reality is that storms are just a part of life.

            In many ways the storms that we go through are like the ones I experienced last Thursday morning. I woke up at 2 am, and a terrible rain and thunderstorm was raging. It only lasted about fifteen minutes, but in those fifteen minutes thick trees bent almost to the breaking point, leaves and sticks pelted our windows, sheets of water cascaded over gutters, and tree limbs crashed to the ground. The next morning, surveying the damage, one tree had fallen over covering our back yard, and many branches littered the property and driveway. Clean up was difficult. I was fortunate that my bother and brother-in-law were in town for the 4th because they helped me tremendously. In fact, my brother-in-law ended up overheating my chainsaw engine (it’s electric) from cutting through so much thick wood. The lesson? Just as in the storms on Thursday morning, sometimes there’s nothing you can do about life’s storms but get through them as best you can and clean up afterwards.

            Just like real storms, spiritual, mental, and life-storms are a reality in life. But this is a hard fact for so many people to swallow. It’s so common for people to wonder, in the midst of life’s storms, why they have to suffer them. They become discouraged, thinking that God has made a promise that if we have faith, then we won’t go through storms. I’m not sure where this idea comes from, but many people believe that if they have even a modicum of faith, or attend church on a semi-regular basis, or believe in God, that God will spare them from having to go through life’s storms.

            Many people think like that, asking why, if God is truly good, God would let us go through these storms. I always wonder if they’ve ever read the Bible. Have you ever looked at the people of the Bible? Every single one of them went through storms, whether it was Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, the Israelites, Joshua, Gideon, Sampson, David, Elijah, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekial, the disciples, Paul, or even Jesus. What’s apparent from the Bible is that storms are a part of life. Only one pair of people was asked to live a life without storms, and they created a storm—Adam and Eve.

            Learning to weather storms is a huge part of the life of faith. So the big question is, what do you do to weather storms? The answer is, “whatever you have to.” I’m going to take you back to the metaphor of sailing. When a storm comes upon a ship at sea, there’s often nothing they can do but batten down the hatches and bring down the sails.

            I’m not sure everyone knows what it means to batten down the hatches. Basically it means to fasten down every portal or doorway to the lower decks. Failing to do so is dangerous because if too much water gets down below, the ship becomes too heavy, causing it to sink. Do you remember the 1975 wreck of the ship, Edmund Fitzgerald? Maybe not, but you probably know the 1976 song by Gordon Lightfoot, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” When I heard the song as a teen, I always thought it was about a ship that wrecked in the 19th century, but it turned out that the Edmund Fitzgerald was an iron ore cargo ship that sank in a terrible storm in Lake Superior as it headed to Detroit.

            They’re not really sure why it sank, but there’s a theory that one of the hatches might not have been battened down quite securely, either by accident or because of a flaw in the hatch. Water may have filled the hull, causing the ship to become too heavy, especially in the front. If so, there’s a good chance that a 30 foot wave from behind pushed the stern of the ship upward, forcing the heavy bow downward into the bottom of the lake, 30 feet below. When a storm comes, you have to batten down the hatches to keep from sinking.

            Once a storm hits, you do you best to get through it. But it’s not enough to just lower the sails and batten down the hatches. You need to be ready before the storms come. Our associate pastor, Connie Frierson, spoke about this a few years ago in a very profound sermon. She made a comment that I’ve cited a few times since then. Connie has gone through a number of very bad life storms. Her father died when she was 13. She cared for her mother in hospice. And her beloved husband, Allen, died suddenly of a heart attack about six years ago. His death, as sudden as it was, became even more tragic when the Allegheny County coroner’s office called Connie a month or so afterwards to talk with her. They told her that Allen’s death had been difficult for them because of the condition of his body. Allen had been a fitness and health nut, and they said that his organs, even though he was 54, were those of a 25 year-old. At the same time, they said that his heart was the heart of a 90 year-old. He had a congenital condition. But because his body was in such good shape, he probably never realized that he had had several heart attacks. As you can imagine, Allen’s sudden death was traumatic for everyone who knew him, especially for Connie and her family.

            I still remember something Connie said in her sermon, reflecting on dealing with the grief of Allen’s death. She said, “don’t wait till tragedy hits to work on your faith. Work on your faith before it happens. That way your faith is there to get you through.” Connie didn’t really ask the question, why would a good God let this happen. Instead she relied on God to help her get through what had happened. That’s battening down the hatches and bringing down the sails before storms hit.

            A man named Horatio Spafford understood how faith gets us through storms. You probably don’t know Spafford, but you certainly know his work. Spafford was a prominent Chicago attorney in the mid-19th century. As a senior partner in one of the most prestigious firms in Chicago, he made a tremendous amount of money. He invested that money in property all around the city of Chicago, which was undergoing tremendous growth at the time. He also had been a man of great faith, devoting himself to Scripture reading, prayer, and service.

            Then in 1870 his life started taking a turn for the worse. His four year-old son died of scarlet fever. Then in 1871 the great fire of Chicago burned half the city, and with it Spafford’s investments. By 1973 he had recovered enough financially that he decided to take a trip with his family to England, both to get a change of scenery, and also to hear the famous preacher, Dwight L. Moody, preach in England. Spafford had some extra work to do, so he sent his family out ahead of him, following three days later. The ship carrying his wife and four daughters was hit by an iron sailing vessel, causing it to sink and resulting in 226 deaths. His wife sent a telegram to him that tragically said, “Saved. Alone.” His four daughters had died. How do you deal with this kind of tragedy? Spafford dealt with it by penning his famous hymn, “It Is Well:”

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

(Refrain:) It is well (it is well),
with my soul (with my soul),
It is well, it is well with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.

My sin, oh the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to His cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

And Lord haste the day, when the faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.

            Spafford had worked on his faith before the storms hit, and it allowed him to weather the storms. After the sinking, he and his wife had three more children. Eventually they moved to Jerusalem and started an effort to reach out to people struggling through the storms of life. The American Press dubbed them “The Overcomers.” Their group spent the rest of their lives reaching out to struggling Christians, Jews, and Muslims in an attempt to bring God’s love and grace to people struggling through their own personal storms.

            Storms are an inevitable part of life. The Christian life isn’t about living in a way that prevents us from being hit by storms. It’s about having a faith and life that are able to get us through the storms.


Setting Sail: Following the North Star

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Setting Sail: Weighing Anchor

Matthew 8:18-22
June 15, 2014

Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. A scribe then approached and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Another of his disciples said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”

            This is an odd passage. It really reflects badly on Jesus, making him seem very insensitive. One guy steps forward, pledging to follow him, and Jesus basically responds, “I’m a wanderer. You don’t want this kind of life.” Why would he discourage someone who wants to follow? The other, a disciple who goes unnamed, is grieving over his dead father. Jesus basically says, “So sorry for your loss. Now,… either come with me or forget it.” Is this how you treat the people who like you,… who want to follow you?

            Why do you think Jesus was so mean? This seems to go against the whole image we have of him as a man of deep love and sensitivity. Was he really that insensitive? Was he trying to discourage his followers? Is this the way to build a lasting movement?

            Actually, I think he was trying to give a very blunt message to those who say they want to serve God: If you’re going to sail with me, you have to pull up your anchor, serve God, and trust the ways of the Spirit.

            I don’t know if you’ve ever heard this phrase, or said it yourself, but when I was younger I used to hear people say, “I want the church to be my anchor.” I don’t know that people still say or think it, but it’s still a common sentiment among many Christians today, even if they don’t say it the same way.

            What do you think it means when we say that we want the church or our faith to be an anchor? It means that in an ever-changing world, people want their church and their faith to be the one thing that’s constant. They don’t want change. Why? Because in a world of change, where else can we be safe? Think about the way the world is today. Everything constantly changes. For example, those of us who, in the 1970s and 80s were up on the latest audio technology, who had the best turntable, the best tuner and amplifier, and the greatest set of Boston Acoustics speakers, are now intimidated by our smart phones because we feel like they are so much smarter than we are. There has been more change in the past 40 years than in the previous 200. The change from horses to cars, or from radios to televisions, has not been nowhere near as dramatic as the technological changes in terms of the sheer access to information, entertainment, news, communication, travel, and so much more. When life changes this rapidly and dramatically, what are the constants? People want something safe.

            The desire for the church, religion, and faith to be an anchor is a problem, though. The problem is that if your faith or your church is an anchor, your ship really isn’t doing what it’s intended to do. What are the reasons you drop an anchor? It is to be in the harbor as you either load up or unload cargo. Or it is to be repaired and repainted. When a ship is at anchor, it is not really serving its purpose. The purpose of a ship is to be at sea—either going to new places, bringing goods and services to new places, or bringing people to new places. A church that is an anchor is doing none of those things. It does not serve others, it does not bring God to others, and it does not help us to move to where God is calling us to go.

            The Christian life is meant to be like a ship at sea where we’re willing to go where the Spirit takes us. But if we stay at harbor, we never really fulfill our purpose. In fact, if we stay at harbor, we are in one of the most dangerous places to be. It may feel safe, but if we are at anchor and a storm hits, we increase the danger of shipwreck and destruction exponentially. We are too close to shore, which means our ship could be tossed onto the shore and broken. The anchor also holds us in place while the waves crash, meaning that there is also a significant danger of the ship being pulled under the waves.

            Even if the ship goes a bit offshore and anchors near the shore, it can be dangerous. There’s the possibility of being tossed onto the rocks. The safest place for a ship is actually out at sea in a storm. It is frightening. It can make us sick from the motion. It can feel extremely dangerous. But it is much safer than being at harbor and at anchor. It is also much truer to the spiritual life. Sailing on the winds of the Spirit can lead us to stormy times. Just because we say “yes” to God doesn’t mean that everything will go well. It does mean that God will be with us to see us through. If we try too hard to keep the church at anchor, or our lives at anchor, we end up serving little purpose and not serving God.

            We’re called to be a people who are willing to sail on new adventures with God. A ship’s purpose is to serve, and so is ours. I see how members of Calvin Church keep the church sailing all the time. For example, two of our members, Kim Boyd and Kathy Efaw, are heading to Ghana on a mission trip this summer. They are willing to pull up anchor and set sail for a completely new place with completely new experiences. In the next month we will be sending mission trips to Camp Westminster in Michigan where are our teens will help the camp in its mission to reach out to inner city children. Then we’ll send another mission trip to the Wayside mission in Louisville, Kentucky to help in their ministry to the homeless and broken.

            This setting sail isn’t just about going somewhere else. This fall we are starting a new partnership with EnCompass Point, an afterschool program for teens between the ages of 12 and 16. It is a ministry to children who are often left alone at home in the afterschool hours—hours when teens are most likely to engage in risky behavior, drug experimentation, and crimes. We are trying to create a safe place for teens to be during those critical hours in a program that offers adult mentors, tutoring, games, teaching healthy living, and more.

            How did this program get started? It got started because one of our newer members, Rich Gigliotti (he and his wife, Ashley, just had their first baby this past Monday), felt a calling to help teens who were basically being ignored. He has taken a chance to set sail rather than to stay safe at harbor. This is an opportunity for you, also, to set sail. During the summer we will be looking for volunteers who can offer to be part of the program for one, two, three, four, or five afternoons a week. All you have to do is to be a person who cares about making a difference in teens’ lives.

            Another group that set sail is a choir that many of our members belong to, the Circle of Friends Choir. This is a choir that developed out of a very bad situation when they felt they could no longer continue as a church choir in another church in the area after their director, David English, was asked to step down. Many members of that choir felt they could no longer remain in the church. The fifteen-member choir, no longer part of a church, could have folded up and licked their wounds, looking for any safe harbor to plop anchor in. Instead, they decided to become a community choir serving as a mission to other churches, organizations, and charitable opportunities. Many of their members, including their director, belong to Calvin Presbyterian Church, but many don’t. It is not our church’s choir, even though they rehearse here. They have grown to be a choir of almost forty members who are incredible. They sing old songs. They sing new songs. They have a creative flair that is wonderful. And they make a difference for others by being a choir intended to serve others. This is weighing anchor and setting sail, even if it means setting sail out of the storms.

            This kind of pulling up anchor and setting sail is what our passage is all about. Jesus wasn’t trying to be mean or insensitive. He was simply telling the scribe that sailing with him in serving God was going to be difficult, not easy, and he had to be ready to sleep on the ground, eat crappy food, and wander as they served God together. To the other disciple he was saying that there is little time, and they had work to do with the living to prepare them for life after death, as well as for life in this life. He wasn’t being insensitive, he was telling them all to make sure they had their priorities.

            This passage arrives in Matthew 8 amidst of a series of passages about faith. First there was a passage in which a leper, an outcast, comes to Jesus for healing. Then a centurion, a soldier in command of over 80 men, comes to Jesus asking that his servant be healed. Jesus tells him that it will take time for him to get to his house. The centurion replies that Jesus is a commander much like himself, and that all Jesus has to do is to command that the servant be made well and he would be healed. Jesus proclaims this man, a pagan, to have more faith than all the Jews of Israel.

            Then comes our passage, telling us that we need to be ready to follow in faith no matter what happens. This is followed by a passage in which Jesus and the disciples are in a boat on the Sea of Galilee. A terrible storm rises up, and the ship is tossed to and fro as Jesus rests in the bow asleep. The disciples wake him up, asking him to still the storm. Jesus stills the storm, and then criticizes them for having such little faith and not trusting that God would care for them.

            Our passage for today comes in the midst of all that, and it is a passage that tells the scribe and disciple that if they are to follow in faith, they need to be willing to make faith in God the priority, not security and safety. This is our call, too. We are called to pull up our anchors, whatever that means for each of us, and to find a way to serve God.


Setting Sail: Catching the Wind

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Following Visions

Act 16:6-10
June 1, 2014

They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

            Have you ever read a book that changed your life? I’m not talking about that self-help book that got you through a crisis, or a technical book that helped you figure out your career. I’m talking about the book that changed everything because after you read it you no longer saw life the same way. Your perspective on people, work, the world, and God changed. For me, that book was Catherine Marshall’s book, Beyond Ourselves.

            What made this book so life-changing for me was her basic premise that God is here, God wants to make a difference in our lives, and all we have to do is open up, which she then demonstrated through story after story. At the center of her book were these three basic ideas:
1.    God knows the past, present, and future, and knows what’s best for us.
  1. God loves us so much that God wants to guide us to what’s right.
  2. God can communicate to us what’s right, but we have to listen

            Marshall discovered these principles almost by accident. She says that her first big, and somewhat trivial, experience of these ideas came about when she tried to hang some curtains. She had seen curtains hung a certain way in a magazine and wanted to hang them in a similar way. No matter what she did, though, the curtain rod kept bowing. She invited a friend over to help her, and after an hour neither could figure it out. After her friend left, she tried again, but soon became discouraged. Going up to her bedroom she cried in frustration. She lied on the bed very still, and she heard a voice inside her say, “Do it this way,” and she sensed a series of steps she was to do. She went downstairs and did it. It was perfect. She felt that it was God.

            She even admits that this is SO trivial, yet she noticed in it that God seems to want to be part of even the trivial moments of our lives. She discovered God’s presence more profoundly in a healing experience she had that changed her life. In her thirties she contracted tuberculosis, and it slowly degraded her life. Tuberculosis is a disease of the lungs that slowly kills. It’s rare now because of the many antibiotics we have that cure people of tuberculosis. When she got it in the 40s, there wasn’t much treatment for it. For her, it eventually rendered her bedridden. She became helpless.

            She had been reading about the need to relinquish and surrender ourselves to God, so she decided to do so. Mustering all the strength she had while spending the summer in Cape Cod, she forced herself out of her bed. With all the energy she had left, walked to the beach. There she started praying. She began by confessing to God, telling God about her doubts, fears, and lack of faith. She offered herself to God and said that she would serve God no matter what happened in her life. Finally, she asked God for healing. Afterwards, feeling a bit more energetic and as though God was in her life, she walked back to her bed. 

            Over the next few months, she continued to pray for healing, and as she did she slowly recovered. The strength returned, and one year later there was no sign of the tuberculosis in her lungs. She was healed.
            What made an impact on me wasn’t just this experience, but how she reflected on it afterwards: “It was not until after my entering-in experience in 1944 that the inner Voice became a reality to me. Apparently this surrender of self is necessary groundwork, since not even God can lead us until we want to be led. It is as if we are given an inner receiving set at birth, but the set is not tuned in until we actively turn our lives over to God.”

            Catherine Marshall led me to discover amazing Christians I hadn’t heard of before--people like George Müller, who started an orphanage based on prayer in the 1850s, and over 40 years grew from 4 orphans to over 2050. She led me to people like Brother Lawrence, who wrote about turning everything into prayer—sweeping floors, washing dishes, and more.

            Her writings led me to experience similar things, and it led me to try her approach to life and ministry, which led us at Calvin Presbyterian Church to experience similar things. The fact is that Calvin Presbyterian Church has been a church that has grown because we live by Catherine Marshall’s principles.

            It’s these principles, and others like it that, have led us to our mission to Trinity Presbyterian Church, which we are embarking on today. We are helping Trinity to recover from a crisis that’s led them to shrink from 200 members to 17 over a three-year period. And we are doing it because we believe God is both calling us, and because God has great things in store for Trinity if we are willing to join God in what God is doing.

            One of the people who has also inspired me the way Marshall did is a Southern Baptist writer (a Canadian one,… go figure) named Henry Blackaby. He has listed Seven Realities of Experiencing God that have guided me in my life and ministry, and that speak to both what we try to do at Calvin Church and are going to try at Trinity Church. He realities are:

1.    God is always working around you.
2.    God pursues a continuing love relationship that is real and personal.
3.    God invites you to become involved with Him in His work.
4.    God speaks by the Holy Spirit through the Bible, prayer, circumstances, and the church to reveal Himself, His purposes, and His ways.
5.    God’s invitation for you to work with Him always leads you to a crisis of belief that requires faith and action.
6.    You must make major adjustments in your life to join God in what He is doing.
7.    You come to know God by experience as you obey Him and He accomplishes His work through you. 

            I want you to focus most on numbers 5 & 6. Too many people think doing what God works with us, life gets easier. What this says is that often doing what God wants leads us to a crisis, and that crisis moves us to number 6. When we seek to do what God wants, we have to adjust our lives.

            This is what we are doing with Trinity Church. They’ve gone through a crisis of faith and action. They’ve prayed. We’ve joined them in prayer, and we are adjusting ourselves to join them in what God is doing there and here. We have to change. Trinity has to change. We all have to adjust to what God is doing.

            God has plans for Trinity Presbyterian Church. God has plans for Calvin Presbyterian Church. What we are doing there isn’t the beginning, but it is the next big step. We are all being called forward, and God has great things planned, but we can only go forward if we are willing to join God in what God is doing.


Who Were These Guys? Judas

Matthew 27:1-8

May 25, 2014

When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus in order to bring about his death. They bound him, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate the governor. When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.” After conferring together, they used them to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day.

            Other than maybe Hitler, has there ever been anyone more evil than Judas? Maybe you can throw in a few others like Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, or Pol Pot, or your favorite serial killer, but do we consider what they did as being as bad as betraying God? Judas will certainly go down in history as the biggest betrayer ever. Who could surpass an evil like turning Jesus over to the authorities so Jesus could be arrested and eventually crucified?

            Actually, the tragedy of Judas’ life is that what he did might not have been an act of evil, but an attempt at good. But we don’t think about Judas as a man of good. And because we don’t, it’s hard for us to dig through what we know about him to discover what we don’t know about him.

            The reality is that Judas is an enigma, a mystery man. The Bible tells us how he betrayed Jesus, but it never really tells us why. And we often don’t ask why. The irony of Judas’ betrayal is that the best biblical scholars believe that he did it to try to help Jesus, not harm him. What the Bible also doesn’t tell us is that before Judas betrayed Jesus, the two of them probably had long talks, and even longer arguments, over what Jesus’ purpose and mission was. I can imagine seeing the dusk of twilight the shadows of the two of them, off a ways from the rest of the disciples sitting around a fire, having heated discussions. Judas is waving his finger at Jesus, and then pointing it back toward Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Jesus is gently pushing down Judas’ hands, calming him while he slowly shakes his head “no.”

            Judas may have had a clearer picture of what Jesus was called to do than Jesus did.  It’s just that God didn’t agree and Judas’ was wrong. Let me tell you a bit more about Judas so that you have a clearer picture.

            First, who was Judas? This is the first mystery. We don’t now much about him. Even his name, Judas Iscariot, is confusing. Scholars aren’t sure if “Iscariot” is a reference to where he comes from (like Jesus of Nazareth) or something else. There is no place called Iscariot, although some scholars believe that the name may refer the southern Judean town of Kerioth. Others say that “Iscariot” sounds a lot like the name of a secret society of assassins bent on driving the Romans out of Israel, and so his name identifies him as one of them. Still others believe that it was a name given to him later, after he died, and that means “liar” in Hebrew. Despite this confusion, there is much more certainty about his political passions. He was a zealot.

            When you hear the word “zealot,” how do you define it? You probably think it means a fanatic, or someone who is over the top politically or religiously. Actually, the word zealot meant something very different in Jesus’ time. Today we might call them revolutionaries or patriots. They were people who believed in the violent overthrow of the Roman government in Israel so that Israel could become an independent nation again. Zealots chafed at their 500 years of foreign occupation under the Babylonians, Assyrians, Greeks, and then Romans. Judas was part of a loose collection of zealots who believed in revolution, and this gets to the heart of his arguments with Jesus. He believed that Jesus was the messiah sent to overthrow the Romans and restore Israel. He believed that Jesus was a new David, ready to join his army of angels with an army of humans to raise up Israel again.

            The fact that included a zealot as a disciple tells us a lot about both Jesus’ ministry and how he put together his collection of disciples. I don’t know if you ever heard of a recent book by the acclaimed historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin, called Team of Rivals. She talks about the genius of Abraham Lincoln, who constructed an administrative cabinet not only of supporters, but also of enemies and rivals. He wanted to have different perspectives on his team. Jesus created a sort of discipleship of rivals.

            While Jesus didn’t make enemies his disciples, he did do something similar. Looking at the composition of his disciples, they were all so very different. First, take John, James, Peter, and Andrew. I’ve already told you from previous sermons that they were fishermen. I also mentioned that they were previously disciples of John the Baptist. That may not have fully registered with you, but what it meant was that they were all fairly extreme in their beliefs. In fact, by following John the Baptist, they were following an extreme form of Judaism that believed that all of Israel was corrupted by Roman and Gentile influences, and that righteous Jews should limit or end all contact with Gentiles.

            John the Baptist had come out of the Essene movement, the same movement that gave us the Dead Sea Scrolls. They were a Jewish sect that believed in the pursuit of purity. They had removed themselves from Jewish society to live in caves and cave-like dwellings near the Dead Sea. There was a reason John the Baptist baptized in the River Jordan. That was the dividing line between the Jewish lands and the wilderness. John would not cross the Jordan because it would lead him to set foot in the corruption of the world. People came to the Jordan to be purified. What does that say about John, James, Peter, and Andrew? It says that they had been pursuing purity, and that they had believed in the separation of Jews and Gentiles.

            Meanwhile, Jesus added two zealots: Judas Iscariot and Simon the Zealot. They shared a belief that the Romans had corrupted the Jews, but they had a different solution, as I mentioned above. They believed in the violent overthrow of the Romans in order to purify Israel—a concept the Essenes would have rejected because they believed only God could usher in a revolution, not men.

            Then Jesus added Matthew. He was a tax collector. In other words, he believed in collaboration with the Romans. He worked with the Romans. He had few problems with Roman occupation. Imagine what the conversations among the disciples must have been like—some advocating separation, some overthrow, and others accommodation.

            Getting back to Judas, if you remember the image I gave of Jesus and Judas having passionate conversations in the background, they would have been about Judas’ belief that Jesus was called to overthrow the Romans. Judas was convinced that Jesus’ calling was to be a sword-bearing messiah, raising an army of angels and zealots. Judas’ betrayal was actually his attempt to force Jesus to accept his messianic mantle. Judas wanted to force Jesus to stand up and start the revolution. In his own zealot mind, betraying Jesus wasn’t a betrayal. It was a call to action. He would have been convinced that by bringing soldiers there to arrest him, people would have responded the way they often do when a revolutionary leader is arrested. They would have risen up in protest, and Jesus would have been at the center, leading the Jews to glorious victory. The problem is that Judas’ vision wasn’t Jesus’ calling.

            Judas didn’t intend to have what happened happen. He did not intend for Jesus to be tortured and crucified. He did not intend for his betrayal to lead to Jesus’ death. He did not even imagine that resurrection was possible, and so he killed himself before he had a chance to discover a deeper truth. There is a belief, though, in the ancient Jewish legends that after Jesus’ death he descended into Hell, where a repentant Judas was lifted to Heaven. Remember that in our passage Judas did repent before killing himself.

            Judas offers a powerful example of the dark side of religious zeal. There are some really important lessons Judas teaches us about the nature of religious life and religious calling. Let me share some of them.

            The first lesson is the most crucial for so many religious people: Just because you are certain doesn’t make you right. On both the religious right and the left there are many zealots who are so sure that they know best what God wants, and because they are, they have no problems betraying God’s will in order to achieve what they think is God’s will. Throughout Christian history there have been so many movements, on a large and small scale, that were so certain of their rightness they would use any means necessary to accomplish their goals; even if it went against Jesus’ teachings and God’s will.

            The most obvious example of this is the Crusades. They were an attempt to recapture the Holy Lands from Muslims. They were a terrible period of Christian abuse and corruption. A great example of this is what happened in the first Crusade (there were twelve in all). The Byzantine king, in 1096, had encouraged the kings and nobles of Europe to travel through Byzantium to the Holy Lands to recapture Jerusalem. Many people responded to the call, but most only got as far as the Byzantine capital, Constantinople. Seeing no way to actually get to the Holy Lands from there, they pillaged Constantinople and the surrounding areas before returning to Europe. The first Crusade led to an attack on fellow Christians.

            Another example of certainty leading to wrongness was the period of Christian inquisitions. For three centuries during the Middle Ages, Christians persecuted each other in the attempt to route out heretics. The worst was the Spanish Inquisition, where Muslims, Jews, and enlightened Christians were often brutally tortured in the attempts\ to force conversions or get rid of heretics.

            Even great and good Christian figures weren’t immune to this kind of certainty that begets wrongness. Martin Luther, late in his life, was shocked by a widespread peasants’ revolt that was actually inspired by his own writings and Protestant beliefs. Thousands of impoverished peasants revolted in order to raise their standards of living. Luther wrote a pamphlet permitting the crushing of the revolt. The result was that between 100,000 and 300,000 peasants.

            Also, John Calvin (the namesake of Calvin Church) ended up giving permission to have one of his friends, Michael Servetus, burned at the stake. Servetus denied the doctrine of the Trinity, and Calvin believed that the threat of death would cause him to recant. It didn’t. Of course, Calvin, as great as he was, often led with certainty, whether he was right or not.

            Basically, being certain religiously is not the same as being right. Being passionate about a cause doesn’t make the cause right. Take a look around you. Where do you see people being absolutely certain but also wrong? Now, after you’ve done that, look inward. This is much harder: What are you certain about, but may not be right about? Be honest. You’ll find something.

            The second lesson from Judas is a simple one, although I have to admit that it’s a scary one for me to mention on Memorial Day because of people’s patriotic passions. Here goes: don’t confuse God and country. Judas did, and it led him to betray Jesus. I’m not saying that God doesn’t care about our country. What I am saying is that too often people mistake one for the other. They believe (as John Winthrop said about the founding of the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony) that America is meant to be a shining city upon a hill (misquoting Matthew 5:14). So they believe that anything America does must be God-ordained. That’s both hubris and confusing God and country. I believe God is involved in our country, but that does not mean that our country is God, nor that defending everything American is defending God.

            The final lesson is this: Don’t try to force God to do what you want. Instead, seek and do what God wants. Too often, when we seek God’s will, we aren’t really seeking God’s will. We are seeking what we want God to will for us, and we are mistakenly asking God to confirm what we’ve already decided. We do this when we pray to God, asking God what God wants, while secretly looking for proof that God wants what we’ve already decided.

            Judas is a great example of the dark side of faith, and so we need to learn from him important lessons: don’t confuse our certainty with God’s rightness, don’t confuse God and country, and don’t try to force God to do what we believe is right.