What Does It Mean to Be Presbyterian? Following the Wise

Titus 1:4-9
September 7, 2014

To Titus, my loyal child in the faith we share: Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior.
I left you behind in Crete for this reason, so that you should put in order what remained to be done, and should appoint elders in every town, as I directed you:
Someone who is blameless, married only once, whose children are believers, not accused of debauchery and not rebellious. For a bishop, as God’s steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or addicted to wine or violent or greedy for gain; but he must be hospitable, a lover of goodness, prudent, upright, devout, and self-controlled. He must have a firm grasp of the word that is trustworthy in accordance with the teaching, so that he may be able both to preach with sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict it.

            I had a conversation with a neighbor recently. She lives about a mile up the road, but I often see her as I walk my dog, and on this day she decided to walk with me. During our conversation she asked some questions about Calvin Church.

            She told me that she went periodically to a large, nondenominational church in the area, but that she had mixed feelings about it. She then asked me if Presbyterian meant being part of a denomination. I told her it did, and she replied, “No offense, but what I like about going to a nondenominational church is that they aren’t part of a big institution that tells people what to think. She then asked me if I liked being a pastor in a denomination that had a lot of beliefs. Much of what I’ll tell you in this sermon is stuff that I told her, and that she responded in the end, “Wow, I didn’t know.”

            I do I get a tad frustrated whenever I hear people say that they don’t like denominational churches because they want to be part of a church that doesn’t tell them what to think. I get frustrated because in truth the exact opposite of what they believe is true.  Most non-denominational churches do tell you what to think. Most denominational churches do not tell you what to think.

            In reality, Presbyterian churches don’t tell you what you have to think because the whole Presbyterian tradition is based on respecting the conscience of the individual to hear for himself or herself what God is teaching him or her. Meanwhile, because almost all non-denominational churches come from an evangelical tradition that has a particularly strong, common point of view about salvation, the nature of God and humanity, and political perspectives, they often do tell you what to think.

            It’s actually because of these and other misperceptions, and because more than half of our members were originally in another tradition (or none at all), I thought it might be good to take some time to talk about what it means to be Presbyterian. The answers will surprise many of you because what you think about Presbyterians may not be true, and what you don’t think about them may be true. So over the next seven weeks we’ll be exploring important ideas about the Presbyterian tradition.

            I do understand both the appeal and allure of most of these non-denominational churches. I also understand why people think that they are more freethinking than they really are, and why we are much more freethinking than people think we are. The truth is that most of these non-denominational churches are VERY creative in worship and structure, and their size means that they can offer many great programs. And all of them do a tremendous amount of good. They are very good at helping people whose lives are a mess put their lives back together. They also do a good job of making the Bible and religious thought more accessible. I admire what they do and accomplish, but I also recognize that people judge books by their covers, not their content. And what people see on the outside of these churches does not always reflect the beliefs and theology they have on the inside.

            From the outside looking in these churches look like they are open to different perspectives, when generally they’re not. And they look at denominational churches as being rigid and closed, and they’re not. So why do we make those judgments? A lot of it has to do with false American beliefs about the evils of institutions. We are in a period where people distrust institutions, believing anything that isn’t institutional is good, and anything that is institutional is inherently bad. And since denominational churches like the Presbyterian Church (USA) are considered to be institutions, many people outside of us consider us to be bad,… without ever learning much about us.

            I can offer lots of explanations for the misconceptions, but instead let me share the experience of one of our former members. A number of years ago, she moved away from here, and now lives in another part of Pittsburgh. She became very involved in a nondenominational church and loved it. She loved the music, the energy, the size, and all the opportunities it offered. So she decided to join the church. It was during the membership classes that she began to see another side of the church.

            During one membership class, the participants were given church literature that listed all the board members of the church. She asked the teacher why the leaders were all men with no women? The teacher tried to answer, saying something about how women weren’t qualified to be leaders over men, but that just irritated her more (she had grown up in a Presbyterian tradition where men and women were seen as equals). As she asked more questions, she was told she had to talk to the pastor.

            So she made an appointment to speak with him, and he answered her questions by pointing out passages in the Bible saying that women shouldn’t speak in church, that women should not be in leadership positions over men, and that women should be subservient to their husbands, which then extends to women being subservient to men in churches. She asked him what women were qualified to do. He told her that they were qualified to teach (as long as they were supervised by men), cook, serve, and other duties like that. Also, women could teach women.

            This put our former member in a quandary. She was in a church that, on the outside, looked very open, creative, and progressive, but turned out to be more rigid than she had thought. She struggled. Does this mean that God was calling her to join the local Presbyterian Church, or to just keep her mouth shut and join this nondenominational church?

            One day, while walking through the town, she was struggling and praying about it: “God, if you want me to join the Presbyterian Church and not this one, you have to make it clear and let me know.” As she was praying she saw a friend of hers up ahead talking to a man she didn’t know. She walked up to her friend and said “hi.” Her friend then said, “Let me introduce you to Steve. He’s the pastor of the Presbyterian Church up the street.” Our former member ended up joining the Presbyterian Church. I had a conversation with Steve a year ago. He said that she had become a leader in the church, and was a great addition. What you see on the surface may not necessarily reflect what you discover beneath the surface.

            One of the things most of us don’t realize, which is a significant difference between most nondenominational churches and Presbyterian churches, is that many of their pastors have been trained in marketing and publicity. We Presbyterian pastors get no training in that, but we do get significantly more training in Bible, theology, and history. That may be why how we look like from the outside obscures what we are on the inside, but also why many nondenominational churches look like one thing on the outside, and are another on the inside.

            The fact that we are in an institutional church makes it look like we are all the same, when in fact most Presbyterian churches are very different. Meanwhile, the fact that nondenominational churches aren’t part of institutions would give the impression that they are very different, but most of them are extremely similar because they follow the same models, whether they are the Willow Creek or Saddleback models (those are two huge churches that have written the book on creating a megachurch).

            If you went to Orchard Hill, Northway, Grace (in Cranberry), or Victory churches, you would find churches that are really similar in worship and belief. Their styles are extremely similar because they are all following similar models. Meanwhile, if you went down the street to Park Presbyterian Church, which is part of our denomination, you would find a very different church, with very different worship and beliefs, from us. They are good church filled with good people, led by a very good pastor, Paul Merrill. Their worship and perspectives are different from us, being much more conservative, yet they are part of the same denomination. How can that be?

            In fact, if you were to take a tour of Presbyterian churches in the region, you would find a tremendous amount of diversity of theology and worship. Go to Cranberry to Fountain Park Church, one of our churches, and you will find a church whose worship looks much like a coffee house. Go further down route 19 to Wexford Community Presbyterian Church, you will find a church that is much more contemporary like the nondenominational churches. Go further into Pittsburgh to Shadyside Presbyterian Church and you will find a huge, traditional, slightly conservative church filled with marble and columns, and with a massive organ that plays mostly classical music. Then, go about ½ mile away to East Liberty Presbyterian Church, where you’ll find a massive cathedral that holds very progressive beliefs, and that plays both classical and world-style music.

            Despite our differences we are all part of the same denomination. How can that be? Should we all believe the same things and be the same way, especially if we are all part of a supposedly evil institution that binds our thinking?

            What is it that really makes us Presbyterian if we are all so different? At its most basic level, it’s all in our name: “Presbyterian.” What makes us Presbyterian? It’s the fact that we are led by presbyters. You have to dig into our name to understand what I mean, although you already sort of understand it. For example, do you need reading glasses to read this sermon? If so, then you have presbyopia, which means “old eyes.” To be a Presbyterian doesn’t mean we are old, but it does mean that we are led by elders. The name, “Presbyterian,” refers simply to how we structure ourselves. We do not have bishops (those are “episcopal” churches, from the Greek word episkopos, or “bishop”). And we are not congregational. To be Presbyterian simply means that we raise up people of wisdom, whom we call “elders,” to lead us in seeking and doing God’s will. We aren’t necessarily bound by a rigid set of beliefs. We are bound by how we structure our churches. We raise up elders to lead us, and the word “elder” simply refers to people of wisdom.

            We are rooted in our passage, as Paul tells Titus to raise up elders to lead the churches in Crete. The Presbyterian movement was an attempt, as part of the larger Reformed movement, to get the 16th Century church back to the structure of the early church. It was an attempt to move away from the Roman Catholic structure that lifted up priests, bishops, cardinals, and popes as the main leaders, and to get back to a structure where you had lay elders leading the church. Our tradition is one that does not invest all power in the pastor (or what we call “teaching elders”), but seeks a balance of pastors and elders (what we call “ruling elders”) so that together we can discern God’s will. The idea was to create a church that balances leadership between laity and clergy, between young and old, and now between male and female. It is a system both of checks and balances, of shared leadership, grounded in the wise attempt to seek what God is calling us to be and do.

            This is different from how many of the nondenominational churches are structured. Let me give you an example of what I mean. We had a discussion on our session several weeks ago, and in the discussion one of our elders brought up a conversation she had had with a friend of hers. The friend was part of a smaller, non-denominational church that wanted to grow more quickly. They had engaged with Victory Family Church, a large, non-denominational church that is part of the semi-denominational Victory Association. Victory, according to this friend, has a mission where they will help four churches a year grow more numerically. But there are a number of stipulations. One of the main stipulations is that the church has to agree to dissolve it’s board immediately and change it’s structure to a more corporate one, with the senior pastor as equivalent to the CEO, and other staff as the equivalent to the presidents and vice-presidents.

            The truth is that creates a much more efficient structure. If Calvin Presbyterian Church had that structure, we might even be much larger while I ruled by like the CEO of Calvin, Inc. The model for this structure is not the Bible, but American business. This model arises out the marketing and business fields. I don’t share this with you to criticize Victory. They do a lot of great things, and do a great job of reaching out to people whose lives are a mess. They help many people and families rebuild their lives. At the same time, we Presbyterians believe in shared lay/clergy leadership, where clergy are accountable to other elders, and elders are accountable to clergy. It is a biblical model.

            I get the appeal of a business model for church. I had an opportunity to create a church much more like Victory before I came to Calvin Church. I worked for a while on creating a new church development in the North Hills, and walked away from it when too many Presbyterian pastors became worried that the new church would siphon members from their church. Before I walked away from it, I had a number of people suggest to me that I just walk away from the Presbyterian Church and start my own non-denominational church. It certainly would have made church easier, and I could have grown it much faster. But it would also be MY church, not Christ’s church. It would have been about numerical growth, not spiritual growth. And it would have been a temple for me, not God. I believe in elder leadership. I believe in the communal pursuit of God’s will with others of wisdom. I don’t believe in just creating a monument to me.

            So,… ultimately to be a Presbyterian means simply to be part of a tradition that raises up people of wisdom (elders), who seek God’s will together and lead others to follow in that direction. We may not always do it well, or efficiently, but it is what binds us. It’s not about believing the right things, acting the right way, and worshiping the right way. It’s simply about seeking the wise way TOGETHER


Genesis Wisdom: the Three in One God

Genesis 18:1-16
August 31, 2014

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 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.” 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. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”
Then the men set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way.

            Have you ever taken a Rorschach test? You’ve seen them before. It’s the inkblot test where you look at an inkblot, and tell the psychologist what you see. What you see becomes a window into your deeper ways of thinking. For example, if you see violent shapes, it indicates that you may have pathological tendencies. If you see sexual images, that may reveal something else. If you see bunnies, it may mean that you love Bugs Bunny. What you see reveals something about you.

            In a lot of ways, our passage for today is like a biblical Rorschach test. When people read this passage, they tend to read into it what they believe makes the most sense, despite the fact that it doesn’t quite make sense. It’s the fact that it doesn’t quite make sense that I love the most about the passage. The passage is a perfect example of how the Bible was really written, rather than how we try to make it have been written.

            Read the first part of the passage again and see if you can find anything odd about it: “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.”

            What did you notice odd about it? You may not have noticed much because you fixed it while reading it. We often fix the creation stories. We want so badly for there to be one consistent creation story, so we merge chapter one of Genesis with chapters two and three. But they can’t quite be merged. There so much that can’t be merged, but I’ll give you just one example. In chapter one, God creates the human last. It says, “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’” Humans (with no number of humans given, by the way—might have been two or a thousand) are created after plants, animals, and everything else.

            Go to the Garden of Eden version in chapter two. God creates the garden, but apparently it has no plants. God then creates the first human—just one—and places that human in the garden. Afterwards God creates the plants for food and to be tended to by the human. Then God creates the animals as companions to the first human. It is only after they fail to be adequate companions that God puts the human into a deep sleep, takes out a rib, and creates another human—making the two male and female. These two stories are NOT the same stories. But we don’t like the discrepancy because we want the creation story to be one historical story. So we fix the stories and merge them together, making it seem like they are one story. We try to fix the Bible, even when it doesn’t try to fix itself. Those who put the book of Genesis together were clearly aware that there were two stories, but they believed that it was okay to have two stories because each one revealed something different about God, about the nature of life, and about humans. The Bible didn’t try to fix itself, but we do.

            Much of the Bible is like that. We get different versions of the same stories, not because the Bible doesn’t have truth. It’s because the Bible is trying to reveal deeper truths than just history, and it knows that sometimes sharing different perspectives reveals deeper truths.

            Our passage is about Abraham meeting God, but God doesn’t quite look like what we expect God to look like. Read the beginning of our passage again: “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.” Don’t try to fix the story and answer this question: what does God look like?

            Some fix it to suggest that Abraham meets God and two angels. If you saw the recent Bible miniseries, that’s what they did. They showed a vague God along with an Asian angel and an African-American (African-Celestial?) angel. Others fix the story by ignoring the fact that Abraham sees three men, and they just focus on the fact that Abraham addresses God as one person. So they picture it as Abraham just talking with one man—God. But that’s fixing the story, too.

            The way the story is written in the Bible is intentionally mysterious. Read it again. It shows God as a Trinity. Clearly there are three men, but Abraham addresses them as one man. Abraham knows that God is one, but also three.

            I believe that this story is the first revelation about one of the most essential beliefs of Christianity, and one that makes the least sense both to Christians and non-Christians. But it’s also what I love about this story: it doesn’t quite make sense, but it also reveals something of the mysterious nature of God. It’s this mystery that is behind the whole idea of the Trinity. The Trinity is meant to help us form a full relationship with God as God is, rather than as we want God to be.

            The Trinity is a spiritual and theological belief that is mean to help us lift back the veil of God’s mystery, and to help us experience God in different ways that give us a fuller relationship with God. But It’s also a difficult concept about God to explain. In our passage it isn’t explained. God just appears to Abraham as three men, but somehow Abraham recognizes those three as one God.

            So my task, for the rest of this sermon, is to help you get a clearer understanding of the Trinity, not so that you can become a theological whiz, but so that you can form a deeper relationship with God. And I’m going to explain the Trinity through three scripture passages. The Trinity isn’t a belief about God as being three gods. It is a belief about God whom we experience and form a relationship with in three different ways—three different persons of God. God is manifested in these three ways, but God never loses the reality of being one God.

            The first is a passage from the first chapter of Genesis: In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 

            This passage clearly refers to the God we tend to know best—God as Father or Creator. This is the God we think of as being in heaven, but also God who we believe created everything. We have a sense that this is God who is beyond us, who transcends time and space, and who resides in heaven, but who also created the universe.

            By the way, I need to point out that there is a bit of a poor translation in this passage. Where you see it written that, “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters,” the word “wind” is mistranslated. The original Hebrew word is “nephesh,” and while it does mean “wind,” the more accurate translation is that is also means “spirit.” It should read, “a Spirit from God swept over the face of the waters.” At any rate, this passage reminds us that we can have a relationship with God who is beyond us, created us, and loves us like a parent.

            The second passage comes from Paul’s letter to the Colossians: “[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” It’s an amazing passage from Colossian 1:15-7. Paul is moving way beyond our typical debates about Jesus—about whether he was just a man, a prophet, or God.

            Paul is saying that Jesus wasn’t just the man from 2000 years ago, but Jesus is the incarnation of God in the world. He says that in Jesus “all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible.” He is saying that Jesus is the power of God in creation. This has amazing implications. It says that we can have a relationship with the Jesus of the Bible, but that we can also experience and connect with Christ who is in each other, who is within us, who is in all of creation. We experience something of Jesus in sunsets, on mountaintops, at the beach, when contemplating a leaf, when planting and tending a garden, and anytime we connect with God through God’s creation. This is way beyond our normal understanding of Jesus, and it changes the nature of our debates about Jesus. It says that we can connect with God, and form a relationship with God as God is present in everything. This is the Christ who is in us and in each other and in life.

            Let me share one final passage from John 20:21-23. John tells us, “When [Jesus] had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Jesus is breathing onto the disciples his own Spirit, the Spirit of God. This is the Spirit that swept over the waters in the opening of the Bible. This is the Spirit that surrounds us, fills us, and is everywhere. This is the omnipresent God who is involved in our lives making amazing things happen. We can have a relationship with God as Holy Spirit, who isn’t just beyond and within us, but who is in everything.

            What you see in the whole belief about the Trinity is that we are meant to have a deep relationship with God as God is in everything. The Trinity isn’t meant to be a theological concept we just agree to because we are good Christians. The Trinity is a relationship with God who is “above all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:6).

            Who Abraham met under the oaks of Mamre was God who is beyond anything we can understand, but who wants to be involved in all of live. This is God who loves us completely, who wants a deep relationship with us, but who also transcends our ability to understand.

            I don’t know the extent to which we need to understand the intricacies of the Trinity. But do know that when we accept the idea of the Trinity, it allows us to form a deep relationship with God based on God as God is rather than who we want God to be.


Genesis Wisdom; From Prison to Palace, Rev. Connie Frierson

Genesis 41:9-16

       Then the chief cupbearer said to Pharaoh, “I remember my faults today. Once Pharaoh was angry with his servants, and put me and the chief baker in custody in the house of the captain of the guard. We dreamed on the same night, he and I, each having a dream with its own meaning. A young Hebrew was there with us, a servant of the captain of the guard. When we told him, he interpreted our dreams to us, giving an interpretation to each according to his dream. As he interpreted to us, so it turned out; I was restored to my office, and the baker was hanged.”

       Then Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and he was hurriedly brought out of the dungeon. When he had shaved himself and changed his clothes, he came in before Pharaoh. And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it. I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” Joseph answered Pharaoh, “It is not I; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.”

Genesis Wisdom; From Prison to Palace
         For the next three weeks we will be studying the trials and tribulations of Joseph. There are so many ups and downs in this life that it reminds me of the penny dreadful, “The Perils of Pauline.” You don’t have to be a bible scholar to know about Joseph. If you have ever seen Joseph and His Technicolor Dream Coat, by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, you know this story. This is Joseph, the dreamer, the favorite son of Jacob. This is Joseph of the coat of many colors. This is Joseph who was thrown into a pit by his brothers and sold into slavery in Egypt, who was a successful overseer in Potiphar’s household. This is Joseph, who was wrongly accused by Potiphar’s wife and thrown into jail. This is Joseph who interprets dreams of Pharaoh’s butler and Pharaoh’s baker in jail. And as we come to today’s text this is Joseph who has been languishing in jail waiting for more two years for Pharaoh’s butler to remember he owes Joseph a favor.  This is Joseph who interprets the dreams of Pharaoh and is wildly successful as Pharaoh’s administrator.  This is Joseph who needs to both forgive and save his brothers.

            About 14 chapters, and a quarter of all the stories, in Genesis are all about Joseph. So the Joseph story is like a novella tucked inside Genesis.  Why is so much space allotted to Joseph?  His long life incorporates so many of the experiences in our own lives.  Joseph seems so supernatural in his grand abilities and dark suffering. But in some ways Joseph is really a regular Joe.  Our lives incorporate all the highs and lows that Joseph experienced. We know ups and we know downs. We know how it feels to be a brash ‘know it all’ teenager. We know about families that don’t understand us and or that betraying us. We know about working hard and having some success. We know about hard time in pits of grief and loss. We know about prisons that keep us stuck.  I can almost hear God calling to us, saying, “Pay attention!  There is a wisdom in this life that can teach you how to live your lives.”

            Today we are going to start right in the middle of this long story. The middle is an odd place to start. Let me explain. Right in the middle of this story is a HINGE. At the start of our passage Joseph is in jail in Egypt. So he is not only a slave. He is a slave in jail. For all his dreaming, Joseph doesn’t know what will happen next. He is still in jail, still waiting, still faithful, but still profoundly uncertain. But something is about to happen. The MIDDLE is where we are starting because the middle is right where lots of us are. Every one of us is in the middle of something; The Middle of School, The Middle of Life, The Middle of a Project, The Middle of Recovery, The Middle of Family Strife, The Middle of Sickness, The Middle of Learning.  Unless you were born this very morning or are 100% certain you are dying this very night, you are in the middle. Every one of us has a history and every one of us has a future. So we are all in the middle.  The middle is just another word for right now, another word for the present moment. God wants to be with us right in this moment, right in the middle. 

            So what can Joseph teach us about the middle?

First if you are in the middle of suffering. Don’t waste it.  You will be tempted to waste it. You will be tempted to lay on your bed and turn your face to the wall. You will want to waste your suffering because you are wasting away. Don’t do it! When Peter was cast into jail in Acts 12, what did he do?  He prayed.  When Paul and Silas were cast into jail in Acts 16, what did they do? They sang. When Joseph was stuck in jail what did he do?   He talked to his fellow jailbirds. He interpreted the dreams of the baker and the cupbearer. He let God use that place of suffering. There will never be a moment in the future or the past that will motivate us more to search and to find God as the moment of suffering.  That is why Peter prayed as though he had a doctoral degree in divine petitions. This is why Paul and Silas sang with all their heart and soul. This is why Joseph was keen to hear and sense God in the midst of the dreams of others. Suffering hurts. But suffering helps us to focus all our heart and soul on our deep needs. It is in suffering that we stretch and reach out and reach up. Suffering that you don’t learn from is just suffering. Such suffering is pure waste. Let the suffering grow your faith. The point of the cross was that Christ suffered.  But through that suffering new possibilities were born. Suffering was transcended. The cross led to the resurrection. It was that way for Jesus and it can be that way for us.

            This reminds me of a story. A farmer had a dream in which God told her to push against a gigantic rock in the back 40 of her farm.  The farmer understood that this dream really was from God. So day in and day out, after her other chores, she would go out to the rock in her field and push and push against this rock. Every night she returned to her farmhouse worn out and sore and then goes back out again the next day. After years of this the woman became tired and started to doubt.  So she did the wisest thing she knew. She brought her doubts to God in prayer.  And in prayer God answered her saying, “I asked you to push the rock, to be obedient and faithful. I never told you the rock would move. But look at you now. Your arms and legs are muscled and strong. You have a strength now you never had before.”  Never waste suffering. If you are pushing against a rock, let that make you stronger.

            Second, prepare for next opportunity. Joseph learned important lessons in humility in his time in slavery and imprisonment. He went from a brash, thoughtless 17-year-old to a 30 year old with wisdom.  His experience prepared him to rule and to forgive. Joseph prepared for the opportunity in any basic way he could.  If you remember in our scripture, it says Joseph washed and shaved before he went before Pharaoh.  Don’t you think that is weird? Why would such a thing be recorded in the biblical record? But this funny little detail is telling us about Joseph’ willingness to reach out to his captors and enemies. In the Hebrew culture beards were a mark of veneration and manliness. But hair on your head or your face wasn’t cool for Egyptians, especially Egyptians at court.  So with a simple act, Joseph appeared in a way that was polite and acceptable to Egyptians.  Joseph prepared himself so that Pharaoh could hear him.  We can do the same things. Do we insist on things that may us comfortable in worship or in dress or in culture, just because it is what makes us happy. Do we ignore the sensibilities of other in the culture? Do we insist that other bow to our whims and not we to theirs?  Understanding what is essential and what is merely cultural claptrap is one way to prepare for the next opportunity.

            Preparing for the next opportunity comes in many forms. Nelson Mandela prepared for a free South Africa years before it came into existance. For 27 years Nelson Mandela was in jail. Yet at the end of his time in prison, he became the single most powerful man in South Africa.  To an outsider it might look like nothing, but for 25 years, Nelson Mandela broke rocks. Outside the cells of the prisoners in a barren courtyard would be placed a pile of rocks.  Some prisoners would daily sit at there rocks and burn with rage. Some would sit in self-pity and despair at the cruelty of it all.  Nelson Mandela, broke rocks and thought about how to unite a country, how to forgive each other, how to end apartheid.  Third, be God focused. At this hinge of Joseph’s life, Joseph has learned wisdom and humility. In his interactions with Pharaoh, Joseph again and again points to what God will do. Not what Joseph will do.  God will interpret the dream. God has sent the message to Pharaoh.  God has revealed this to future. This was not how Joseph was when he blabbed his glory dream to his brothers and his dad at seventeen. This was not how Joseph was just two years ago.  When Joseph interpreted the Cupbearers dream, he quickly recounted his own story and asked for a favor.  Here Joseph focuses on what God is revealing to Pharaoh.  He allows his own problem to be secondary. He doesn’t use this time to promote his own justice. He doesn’t listen to Pharaohs dream and then immediately jump in with his own cool dreams.  The focus on what God is doing overshadows his own story.  By focusing on what God is doing, God invites Joseph to be part of this saving of all Joseph’s family.

            This is a crucial vision test, if we are to do God’s will, to be God empowered, we need to have our eyes on the right goal.  With everything we do in our person life or in our church life, we need to start the discussion with “What is God calling us to do?”  This is a radical departure from our myopic selves. We too often focus on what we like, what makes us comfortable, what we have done before. 

            Joseph has an amazing story. He has youthful flaws, bad luck and ultimately a chance to serve and to save. He went from a pit to a prison to a palace.  What we lose sight of is that each of us have an amazing story.  God wants to work in and around the beginning and middle and end of our lives in the same way God works with Joseph.  Perhaps our lives have slightly less Broadway appeal, but the most important ways God can wants to be invited to live with us at all these learning moments. 

            Our churches have Joseph stories too.  Hopeful brash beginnings, some difficult and painful middles and lots of work to be done so that our churches become places that restore families, promote forgiveness and feed hungry souls and mouths. So our task as a church is the same as our task as individuals.  1- If we are in tough times then don’t waste them.  Figure out how mistakes and disasters can help us grow up. Don’t waste the suffering. 2 - Prepare our church for the next opportunity.  Are there ways we need to clean up to prepare for what’s ahead? Or can we pray and discern together while we are pounding those rocks. Finally, number 3 - Be God focused. Let’s get the focus off ourselves.  God’s focus often brings blessings of growth, but seldom for growths sake.   As a church the focus is on where God is leading, helping, saving, growing.  We join in God’s work, not hijack the process for ourselves.  The Joseph story has one really great surprise.  It wasn’t about Joseph at all.  It was about what God does – delivers, redeems, frees, forgives, feeds.  I think that is a great place for a church to be.  Amen.

Genesis Wisdom: Babel

Genesis 11:1-9
August 10, 2014

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

            I used to have a girlfriend who did something I found intriguing. I remember coming over to her place one time while she was on the phone. She opened the door, welcomed me in, and continued her phone call. Oddly, she barely said anything on the phone other than, “Uh-huh. Oh! Yeah. That’s interesting.” This went on for about thirty minutes. At one point I had to ask her a question, so I waved and asked if I could interrupt. She put the phone down on her shoulder and started quietly talking with me. She not only answered my question, but then started talking to me about our plans for the next day. During our conversation she would periodically put the phone to her ear and say, “Uh-huh.” or ”Hmmmmm.”

            I asked her who she was talking to, and she whispered, “Oh, it’s just my mom. She’s telling me something about pools and her neighbors.” The phone call went on for another hour as her mother kept talking, and she just listened. When she was done, I asked her, “What was your mom talking about?” She said, “Oh, she calls me every other day and just tells me about everything that goes on. I just listen to her as she babbles on. I actually get a lot done while she talks. I don’t’ pay attention to half of it, but as long as I say something every once in a while to let her know I’m still on the phone, she’s fine.” She was remarkable because she could listen to babble for long periods of time.

            Two weeks ago my family got back from a two-week vacation in Europe. It was one that we had been planning for many years. We spent one week in France and one in England. While in France we rented a car that took diesel gasoline. The problem with diesel cars is that not every gas station sells diesel gasoline. I know this intimately because my car right now is a diesel car. They get great gas mileage—up to 47 miles a gallon on the highway—but I have to plan ahead to find gas stations when traveling outside of the local area.

            While traveling in the Loire Valley, Diane looked down at the gauge and said that  tank was getting low. We needed to find gas soon. Unfortunately, as hard as we looked for stations, we had a hard time finding a station that sold diesel (or “gazzole” in French). Eventually we found a station in the small town of Bleré in the Loire Valley. It was an automatic station outside a closed supermarket. I tried my special European credit card, the one with a chip that had been accepted everywhere, but it was rejected. I tried over and over, but nothing. I tried my normal credit card. It was rejected. What were we going to do? We weren’t sure we had enough gas to search for another station.

            Finally, a woman and her young son pulled up to get gas for themselves. I said to her in my poor French, “Parlez vous Anglais,” or “Do you speak English?” She said, “Non, not very good.” So in my broken French I asked her to help me. She tried, but no matter what she did the card wouldn’t work. She called over an older man she obviously knew, who was walking by. I asked him, “Parlez vous Anglais,” and he said, “Non!”

            The woman explained to him what was going on, and he grabbed the credit card out of my hand, and in rapid French said to me something that sounded like, “Vous benez pontez sani blue paté laxez von pastole, blah, blah, blah.” In other words, I had no idea what he was saying, but that didn’t stop him. He just kept talking to me in French. It was obvious he was chastising me for apparently not doing it right. He put the card in while he talked, and it was rejected. He did it again, and it was rejected again. I tried to grab the card while saying, “Il ne travail pas,” which I think meant “It doesn’t work,” but he just slapped my hand away and tried four more times. Finally, he then gave me back the card, threw up his hands, and in rapid French said something that I took to mean “Yeah, it doesn’t work,” but there were a lot of extra words. He then said something rapidly to the woman and walked away.

            Finally, I managed to ask her if she would put the gas on her card, and I would give her 60 euros to cover it. She graciously helped me. When I got in the car, Diane asked me, “What were you talking about so much. We all in here laughing because all we could hear from you was “Non, non, non!  Oui, oui, oui! Non, non! Oui, oui! Non, non, oui, oui, oui!”  I told her what had happened, and I said, “That guy was no help at all. He just kept babbling and babbling, and I couldn’t get him to stop.”

            That word, “babble,” comes from our passage this morning, which said, “Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth.” Actually, the name of the tower, “Babel,” was a shot at the Babylonians, whose land (what is now Iraq) was littered with old, broken towers called ziggurats. The Hebrews hated the Babylonians, so they made them the star of this story of God’s displeasure.

            The story itself is a really weird story because it almost seems like it has no point, other than maybe an anthropological/historical one explaining why everyone speaks a different language. It pops up in the Bible out of nowhere, sandwiched between the story of Noah and his descendants, and the story of Abraham. Some suggest that the reason it is there is to answer the question, “why do we all speak different languages?” I used believe that, but I did so because I had more of an anthropological/historical view of the Bible. In my 20s I believed that the Bible made up these stories to answer historical questions that the people didn’t have true answers for. So, for instance, I believed that the creation stories were trying to answer historical questions in the absence of historians and scientists.

            Now I know so much more about the Bible than I did then, and I’ve come to realize that the Bible wasn’t written to answer historical questions. It doesn’t not answer historical questions, but teaching history isn’t the point of the Bible. Learning history is a modern pursuit, not an ancient one. The books of the Bible always answer questions about God, humans, and life. That’s the focus.

            When reading the Bible, it’s always better to read it as God’s guidance telling us about life, rather than reading it as a book trying to tell us about history. The Tower of Babel is not necessarily a story about what actually happened in history. It’s a story about how we are called to live out our stories in the midst of a confusing life. The story, like the Bible, answers spiritual questions, such as “where is God? Does God care about me? Can I trust God? Why is the world so difficult? How do I find peace in my life.” The Tower of Babel especially gives answers those last two questions.

            This passage makes a very strong point, which is that while we may yearn for peace, but we aren’t necessarily supposed to be completely at peace, or at least not at peace on human terms. We may have a dream that one day all would be united, speak one language, and live in harmony, but what if that’s not entirely God’s vision for us?
            What if God’s vision is not that we live in a place where the lion and the lamb live together in perfect harmony, but that we have to work and struggle for unity, never quite reaching it, but always pursuing it?  What if God wants us to struggle for harmony and peace—to forge it on the soil of disappointment and turmoil? What if God wants us to forge peace on the ashes of failure, when we finally reach a point where we can forego truly human paths to peace, and finally accept God’s path to peace?

            Think about this story again. Why does God destroy the tower? God says, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” It would be easy to interpret this passage as God fearing that humans will now compete with God, but that’s a misinterpretation. The point isn’t that they will compete with God. The point is that they will substitute themselves for God. They will become so enraptured with their own accomplishments and feats that they will begin to worship themselves. They had already built a tower glorifying their own human power. And in the process they were becoming less than human because to be human means to be spiritual, too. They no longer needed the spiritual if they were gods.

            In so many ways the problems present in this story are reminiscent of the problems that plagued humanity prior to the Noah story, and of the problems that existed in Sodom and Gomorrah. In those cases people worshipped human lust, desire, and power. In this story people were worshipping human ambition, accomplishment, and power. And in both cases they were forgetting that they were created for God’s purposes, not their own. They were scattered, and the tower was broken, so that they now had to struggle with differences and diversity of ideas, language, and perspectives. Any peace and harmony they achieved would have to be struggled and yearned for, but it would also lead them to rise above merely human attributes. They would have to tap into God’s way to peace, which comes through love and compassion, not human accomplishment and achievement.

            Babel’s kind of peace is one built on sameness that creates blandness. God’s peace is built on creativity that creates uniqueness. So, within the story of the Tower of Babel there are lessons.

            One lesson is that the more people think as one, the more arrogant they tend to get, and try to force everyone else to think what they think. Babel is a tower of arrogance, striving to compete with God, and to make themselves gods. This arrogance is the problem of every dictatorship, every political movement, and every attempt to force unity upon people based on human terms. Hitler tried to create this kind of unity based on Aryan supremacy, and in the process created a war that killed over 50 million people in Europe (an extra 10 million died in the South Pacific theater). Stalin tried to force a communist unity on Russian, and killed over 25 million people through execution and gulag concentration camps in order to accomplish it. Mao tse Tung’s Chinese communists killed over 15 million people. Human terms for peace and unity often result in many deaths of oppression.

            Every movement that demands one perspective, or obedience to one way of thinking, eventually creates a false peace. But that doesn’t stop humans from demanding one point of view and ideology to follow. Whether we are talking about the Tea Party, Unions, many religious denominations, capitalists, communists, or atheists, all demand fidelity to one idea and one ideal. They pursue the power of one point of view.

            What I find to be the brilliance and genius of democracy is that for it to operate properly it requires people to engage in the struggle of compromise. Peace isn’t built on one idea that everyone must adhere to. It is based on the ideal of willingly putting aside a striving for unity solely on my terms, in order to achieve a unity based on compromise and community. This is much closer to what God calls us to as Christians. We are not called to one theological belief system. We are called to work together to achieve God’s peace by forging relationships of love despite our different beliefs, perspectives, genders, ethnicities, nationalities, and realities. God’s peace comes not through the achievement of a human Babel, but through unity gained by the struggle to embody God’s compassion and communion.

            I think the closest to this ideal I’ve seen embodied is the Seeds of Peace International Camp in Maine (www.seedsofpeace.org). For over 21 years this camp, and other programs that have sprung out of it, have brought together teens from different sides of warring areas, helping them to forge friendships that spread seeds of peace in conflicted areas. They have brought together Protestants and Catholics from Northern Ireland, Palestinians and Israelis, Greeks and Turks, Pakistani and Indian and Afghani, and so many others. They bring them together for a summer, teaching them to work together through outdoor activities, and learn each others’ perspectives through discussions and classes. The camp has been remarkable because it has led teens to forge peace through struggle, a peace that is closer to what God wants than to what humans strive for. And if you watch a video of the camps, you find people of completely different warring factions becoming friends with each other.

            We are meant to struggle together to come together, not to come together by thinking as one. We are called to live as one with our differences. That’s God’s goal. It is what you see here at Calvin Church. We are not people who completely think alike. We are not a people who look alike. We are not people who live alike. But we are a people at peace because we have sought God’s way over a purely human way. This is what the apostle Paul calls being “one in the Spirit,” rather than merely of one mind.

            Human peace is built on being of one mind where we all think one set of thoughts. God’s peace is built on being of one Spirit where we are united in God’s love, despite our uniqueness.


Genesis Wisdom: Sodom & Gomorrah

Genesis 18:20-33
August 3, 2014

Then the Lord said, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.” So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord.
Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” Abraham answered, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” Again he spoke to him, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” He said, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.

            I’ve always found our passage to be fascinating for so many reasons. First off, it’s not the kind of conversation we would imagine ourselves having with God. We would be much more formal. Abraham’s pretty gutsy. He really challenges God to not do what God had decided to do. Second, it suggests that Abraham knows more what’s right than God. Who is he to second-guess God? That takes courage.

            I also find the passage fascinating because of what it says about our relationship with God. It shows a deep part of what our relationship with God is supposed to be like. To put it bluntly, we are supposed to bargain, beg, and befriend God. Often our prayers lack passion. They lack zeal. They lack intensity. I suppose that part of the reason for that lack is the church’s fault. For centuries church prayers have been so formal, so flowery, and so poetic that many people wonder if our prayers much match up. The fact that we pastors are basically professional pray-ers makes it difficult for non-clergy to believe that God listens to amateurs. But God does, and Abraham is the proof.

            What amateur prayers offer that professional prayers often don’t is a passion that binds us to God, like Abraham’s did. Too often we clergy don’t prayer with passion. And the story of Abraham begging for Sodom is one of passion and zeal.

            The passage is part of a larger story. God has just told Abraham and Sarah that, despite their old age, they will have a son. God then has to leave to lay judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah. Both have been terrible places of sin. Abraham apparently accompanies him because he is there to beg and bargain with God over Sodom’s fate. Abraham has a vested interest in Sodom. His nephew, Lot, lives there with his family. Lot is a good and righteous man, and his family is good. The problem is that Sodom is like an ancient Las Vegas. What happens in Sodom may stay in Sodom, but God is ready to permanently lay waste to Sodom as a result. I suppose this means that there are at least ten righteous in Las Vegas. Sodom is a vile place where people give into their most base appetites, desires, and urges.

            So Abraham begs: “What if there are 50 righteous people there. Will God spare it? What about 45? 40? 30? 20? 10?” God agrees not to destroy it if ten righteous men are found. Angels go to Sodom to test the city. When they appear, the men of the city want to brutalize them. Lot protects them, and in the end the angels offer to help Lot, his wife, his daughters, and their husbands and fiancés to escape.

            Unfortunately, this passage often gets misused by Christians caught up in our culture wars. They use the passage to make their case against homosexuality, but that’s not the passage’s point. Sodom isn’t destroyed because it is filled with homosexuals. The problem of Sodom and Gomorrah was the same problem cited in the Noah story. The people had ignored God, and had devolved into people living at an animal level. They are all about power, satisfying desires and urges, and living at the beck and call of their instincts. They have no desire to transcend their animal nature to open up to the spiritual.

            The men of Sodom didn’t want to rape the angels because they were homosexuals. They wanted to rape the angels for the same reason men are often raped in prisons. It’s a way to get people to submit to the alpha male’s dominance. The men of Sodom wanted to brutalize the angels because they saw them as threats. They were animals trying to make these unwelcome visitors submit. God destroys Sodom because it has become a place where people focusing only on satisfying their passions, their desires, their lusts, and their dominance, not on God. What it shows is that this kind of selfishness and the brutal need for power is an age-old problem.

            The key to understanding this passage, and to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, is not so much a moral lesson, but a spiritual one. Like much of the Bible, it is a story about our relationship with God, and on how to bind ourselves to God. And within the story are a number of important lessons from this passage.

            First, Abraham’s focus was on others, not himself. This is really important because it says something about how and what we pray for. Often our most passionate prayers are just for ourselves. We pray with passion for our needs, our desires, and our dreams. Abraham is mostly praying with that passion for people he doesn’t even know, and who would brutalize him without thought if he visited them. He’s not just praying for Lot because he knows that Lot can leave the city. He was praying with passion for people who were reprehensible and terrible. Abraham truly incarnated God’s love, and this is what made him great. He was passionate about what was right for others, not just himself.

            Second, Abraham was persistent with God. Too often we aren’t. When our prayers aren’t answered right away, we give up and take it upon ourselves to do what needs to be done. Abraham is like a pit bull. He won’t let go: “what about 50? 45? 40? 30? 20? 10?” That’s a model for us. Just because our prayers aren’t answered quickly doesn’t mean God doesn’t answer. Only half of our prayers’ purpose is to get us to get God to answer. Another half is that when we pray persistently, it binds us even more to God in the same way that pursuing a loved one binds us more that that person.

            Finally, God works in God’s ways, not ours, to ultimately achieve what we want. If you look at this passage on its surface, Sodom’s destruction either means there weren’t ten righteous men, or that God decided to destroy it anyway. That’s not actually the case. In the end, God didn’t save the city, but God did try to save the ten righteous. If you count up Lot, his wife, his daughters, and their husbands/fiancés, they come to about ten. And the angels tried to usher them out of the city. The three husbands/fiancés decided to stay, and Lot’s wife didn’t follow the instructions of the angels, but God tried. God may not answer just how we want, but God always answers at the deeper levels to what needs to happen. So God didn’t save the city on behalf of the ten righteous people. God tried to save the ten righteous people.

            The wisdom of this story is a wisdom that says that when we are passionately connected to God, our lives are saved and safe. The question I’d like to have you reflect on is this: How passionate is your connection?