This Is NOT Appropriate For Church – Sermon on Joshua 2.1-14

Joshua 2.1-14

Then Joshua son of Nun sent two men secretly from Shittim as spies, saying, “Go, view the land, especially Jericho.” So they went, and entered the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab, and spent the night there. The king of Jericho was told, “Some Israelites have come here tonight to search out the land.” Then the king of Jericho sent orders to Rahab, “Bring out the men who have come to you, who entered your house, for they have come only to search out the whole land.” But the woman took the two men and hid them. Then she said, “True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they came from. And when it was time to close the gate at dark, the men went out. Where the men went I do not know. Pursue them quickly, for you can overtake them.” She had, however, brought them up to the roof and hidden them with the stalks of flax that she had laid out on the roof. So the men pursued them on the way to the Jordan as far as the fords. As soon as the pursuers had gone out, the gate was shut. Before they went to sleep, she came up to them on the roof and said to the men: “I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that dread of you has fallen on us and that all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites that were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. As soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no courage left in any of us because of you. The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below. Now then, since I have dealt kindly with you, swear to me by the Lord that you in turn will deal kindly with my family. Give me a good sign of faith that you will spare my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.” The men said to her, “Our life for yours! If you do not tell this business of ours, then we will deal kindly and faithfully with you when the Lord gives us the land.”

Today we begin our Sermon Series on Women of Faith. Last Advent I asked all of you to submit questions or topics for preaching that you have always wanted to hear about from the pulpit. I received so many questions and comments that I was unable to address all of them during our January series on Questions, so I decided to save this particular series for later. It was incredible for me to discover how many of you wanted to hear about the women from scripture. I remember one card said, “I hear there are these great women from the Bible, but no one ever preaches on them.” So, here we are, may God bless our time together as we explore dynamic and feminine faith.

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Sometimes we read stories from the bible that are not appropriate for church. A few weeks ago we did just that as we remembered Elisha and the she-bears, and Isaiah getting naked for three years. Every once and a while we come across that passage that is so daring and vulgar that we would rather ignore it, and most of all, we would not read it aloud in church.

Rahab the harlot. A woman of ill-repute. From the Red Light district becomes the savior for a few spies.

Why in the world would God use her to save his people? Rahab the harlot? I mean I would understand if God chose Rahab the UMW president, or Rahab the Sunday School teacher, but Rahab the prostitute? This is not appropriate for church.

Moses has died. He led his people to the brink of the Promised Land, and handed over God’s people to Joshua. Joshua in turn takes care of the nomadic nation and sends spies ahead of them to survey the land and, in particular, Jericho.

Two men, hand-picked by their leader, sneak their way into the city, and as it sometimes happens to young men close to the edge of death, they arrive at Rahab’s place in the bad part of town.

The king catches wind that some spies had entered the city and he sent his own men to capture them. When the foot-soldiers arrive at Rahab’s place, she listens to their questions, and she lies! Perhaps as only women of the night can do, she peaked from behind the door, offered that dynamite smile, and said with confidence, “Sure, there were two Jewish guys here earlier, but they paid for everything, and went on their way. I’m sure if you start after them right now, you’ll be able to catch them.

While the king’s men traveled down the road, sure their bounty was just ahead of them, Rahab returned to the roof where she had hidden the Hebrews. She explains that she had heard of the mighty acts of their God, how they were delivered from Egypt, and defeated their enemies. In return for saving their lives, she asks for them to repay the favor when they return to Jericho to destroy the city.

I can imagine what some of you are thinking right now: Seriously Taylor? You told us you were going to preach on women of faith and this is who you picked for us? Rahab? She’s a conniving and lying harlot! 

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However, the Old and New Testaments are filled with saintly characters who have both enviable and regrettable characteristics. Noah gets drunk and passes out naked after landing the Ark, King David lusts after Bathsheba and plots to have her husband killed, Peter denies Christ three times after his arrest. What becomes important, what sets them apart, is that God wants them to do something holy, not that they were holy to begin with.

Rahab, full of faith, heard about how the Lord delivered his people, and Rahab believes and embraces God as supreme. Her declaration and acts of salvation towards the spies are more than actions and words; she is worshipping the Almighty. Even with her scandalous background, something not appropriate for church, Rahab experienced the greatest wonder of all – God’s limitless love and power to use and save the least likely of people. 

After church last week Lindsey and I left Staunton and we traveled to Alexandria to be with my family. Not only were we planning to enjoy the Labor Day holiday, but we were going to surprise one of my grandmothers for her 81st birthday.

I love my grandmother tremendously. Ever since I was a child she has referred to me as “precious lamb of Jesus Christ,” she has been there for every major moment of my life, and still shouts out with great joy every time I call her or visit her.

On Monday evening, after surprising her, we sat around my parents’ dining room table to enjoy a home cooked meal and celebrate my Gran. One of the more wonderful qualities that I inherited from her is the ability to ask questions that lead to conversation. I began with: “I want everyone to go around the table and share a story about Gran that brings you joy or made you laugh.

My mother told the story about how when she was a child, my grandmother would dress up like a waitress, sit my mother and her friends down at the table, and would take their order for lunch. The options were obviously limited, but it made the girls feel special, and I can just imagine them giggling as my grandmother scribbled away the orders for Grilled Cheese sandwiches.

I told the story about how my grandmother was always trying to teach us something new. When I was quite young, she used to require my sisters and I to learn a new word from the dictionary whenever we stayed the night at her house. The only word I can remember learning was “Taxidermy.” But not only were we required to learn a new word, but we had to use it in a sentence when our parents returned! I can only imagine the kind of sentence I came up with when I was 8 years old with the word taxidermy in it!

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But my favorite story is the one that Lindsey told. Gran had come over for dinner one night while we were all together, and when the evening came to a close she could not find her keys anywhere. We searched all over that house; taking off the couch cushions, crawling on the carpets while sweeping our hands, we even emptied out the trashcan just in case. But as it would happen, the keys were nowhere to be found. I eventually drove her home in my own car and used the spare key to let her into her house, with the hope of finding her car key sometime soon. Thirty minutes later my grandmother called. “I was just getting ready for bed,” she said, “and wouldn’t you know it, but I found my keys in my bosom!

Some things are not appropriate for church.

While I sat there listening to the hilarious stories from my grandmother’s life I was struck with the sensation of awe and love. My grandmother has embodied, for me, a life of faith and dedication, one that I try to emulate daily. But I also realized, that I know nothing negative about her. In my experience, coupled with all the stories I have heard, everything about her life is positive. Yet I know that she could not have lived a perfect life. That, like me, she has sinned, she has fallen short of God’s glory, she has made mistakes, she has regrets.

Everyone has something from their past that they are not proud of. What I believe Rahab, and my grandmother, have to teach us this morning is that we are not defined by the mistakes and shortcomings and judgements from the past.

By the time the New Testament was written, Rahab is remembered among the ancestors of Jesus (Matthew 1.5), regarded as an example of living faith (Hebrews 11.31), and justified by her works (James 2.25). By the time I was born my Grandmother had become the sweet woman full of life and laughter that I have always experienced. Whatever they did in the past matters little to the Lord. He did not judge them for their lives, but called them to respond to the grace poured out on their lives.

Can you imagine how strong Rahab’s belief and faith must have been? To sell her body the way she did, to be powerless and insignificant, and then she grabbed hold of her own destiny and lived faithfully. Two strangers had appeared that night, just like everyone else that walked through her doors, but her fear and faith propelled her into hiding them. She saw an opportunity to change her life, to save the lives of her family, and she did so.

Rahab, thinking of all that she had heard about the Lord, lied to the king’s men and came to terms with the spies. She refused to let her status and place in life limit her power for saving others. She was convinced that the city would fall at the hands of the Hebrews, but she was not simply motivated by fear; she was profoundly impressed with the news and strength of the God of Israel. “The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below.”

Her profession might not be appropriate for church, but her faithfulness is something we can all admire.

If you take a moment to look around the sanctuary, what do you see? Do you see perfect couples sitting shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand? Do you see loving families with children all sitting neatly in their pews? Do you see men and women who are full of faith and grace, capable of love and mercy? Do you see grandparents who adore their grandchildren?

I see a church full of Rahabs. I see people sitting in the pews with pasts they would prefer to remain hidden and untouched. I see families that are broken and full of disappointment. I see careers that have floundered, former decisions that have derailed lives, and regrets about choices that changed everything.

The beauty of the church is that it is full of Rahabs, people like you and me, that have been brought together to be the body of Christ for the world. The immense wonder and joy of the church is that in spite of our dark pasts we have been called to a brilliant present. That like Rahab we can become saintly by responding to the tasks and call that God places on our lives.

If we kept out everything that was not appropriate for church, then we would have an empty building. All of us, with our brokenness and disappointments, with our sins and temptations, have moments from our lives that are not appropriate for this place. However, that is precisely why we are here.

God’s sees us, knows us, calls us by name, and recognizes our potential in spite of our faults. God looks on all the Rahabs of the world, people like us, and beckons us to the Table, to the feast that we do not deserve simply because he loves us.

Look around at one another my friends, do not cast the first stone in judgement, do not sit high and look down on your brothers and sisters in faith. Instead, rejoice; give thanks to the Lord of heaven and earth who loves you, the God who calls on harlots to be helpers, sinners to be saints, and Christians to act like Christ.

Amen.

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Devotional – Matthew 18.15

Devotional:

Matthew 18.15

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.

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During our weekly lectionary discussion group, after reading Matthew 18, Leah Pack questioned the group in attendance about whether or not any of us has had an experience of someone from the church confronting us in order to point out our faults. After all, pointing out the faults of a fellow church member is something Jesus charged his disciples to do. While the group pondered particular moments from their church lives, I shared with them one of my experiences.

Preaching in Birmingham

Preaching in Birmingham

I had been helping serve at a church in Birmingham, Michigan for most of the summer. My responsibilities included visiting the hospitals, preaching, teaching, leading worship, and regular committee attendance. It was a particularly rewarding summer for me, and helped me identify my own strengths and weaknesses for ministry. Throughout my internship I met with the Seminary Committee who helped to provide the necessary information for my journey and offer advice and feedback regarding my work. On my last evening in Birmingham the committee shared their final evaluations for the summer and wished me well on my ministerial journey; the group was incredibly gracious and kind with their reflections.

As we prepared to leave the church that night one of the older gentlemen from the committee asked to speak with me privately before we left. “You are so full of it,” he began, “I watched you all summer long, and you might’ve fooled everyone else but you can’t fool me. You are one of the most arrogant and self-righteous young men I have ever met.” And with that he left me alone in the room; his words piercing deep in my soul.

I learned later that the man had a very difficult time watching a young person speak with such confidence from the pulpit on a regular basis and that, for him, was a sign of arrogance. Nevertheless, his words have stayed with me ever since that particular evening a few summers ago. Though I may not completely agree with him regarding his judgment of my faults, it was helpful (though painful) to hear him speak his mind. It has helped me to be mindful of the ways I come off as a pastor to others in ways than I could not previously imagine.

One of the highest callings of discipleship is a willingness to confront others when they are at fault. However it is important to remember that we are not called to judge them, but instead speak the truth in love about ways others have wronged us, and how we can reconcile broken relationships.

How have you confronted others who have faulted you? Has anyone pointed out your faults? Let us be truthful people who are kind with our words and courageous in our faith.

 

Barefoot Basics – Sermon on Exodus 3.1-6

Exodus 3.1-6

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

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I love churches. I’m not sure when my affection for worship spaces began, but for as long as I can remember I have always loved Christian buildings. Whenever I travel somewhere new, and have an opportunity to explore a local church – I do so.

The first time I went to Guatemala, while all my friends were bargaining with the local artisans for a blanket, or a sweater, or a bowl, I found myself walking around the village peaking in on the churches. When I was younger I would arrive early for youth band at my home church just so I could walk around the building, sit in the different pews, and even stand up in the pulpit to pretend I was the preacher. In fact, when I came to St. John’s for the first time, Good Friday evening of 2013, I was introduced to the Staff-Parish Relations Committee, and when they inquired if there was anything I needed to know about the church, I asked to see the sanctuary.

When I enter a church for the first time, I have made it a habit to walk to the front near the altar, kneel on the floor, and pray. Sometimes the prayers have been about the safety of the mission trip, or for God to bless the people and preacher who call this space home, or even for God to bless me with a church of such beauty in the future.

One summer, when I was provided the opportunity to lead a group of college students to Taize, France, I found myself walking with my friends and exploring the local town. Between the three daily worship services with 5,000 other twenty-somethings, we had the freedom to do as we pleased, so we hiked around Burgundy, France.

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When we entered the small chapel, I was overcome by its opulence. The stained glass was filled with such vibrant colors, letting in just the right amount of light through the scenes of scripture. The crucifix at the front had a triumphant Christ hanging on the cross above the altar. The pews were made of well-worn wood that conveyed a deep sense of time and care. While my friends examined the fine details of the space I walked to the front, fell to my knees, and I prayed.

I must have been there for some time, because when I opened my eyes it took them a moment to readjust to the light. Below my knees, I noticed some writing on the marble stones that made up the floor. While my eyes began to focus on the crude letters, I was gripped with a sense of fear and awe – the floor was made of old gravestones.

With all the beauty surrounding me on the walls, and ceiling, with an altar worthy of a king, and a pulpit raised high in the air, I neglected to notice the most sacred and holy element of the church. The floor and foundation of the worship space was made possible through the saints that have gone on before us, a constant and beautiful reminder that this was holy ground.

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Just like every other day, Moses was tending to the flock. The morning was typical, calm, and cool with the dew hanging on the leaves while Moses walked along the path. Perhaps while walking in the still silence, Moses thought back upon his life, and what had led him here. He had grown up around the inner circle of Pharaoh’s cohort, raised by the princess as her own, but when he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew he could not contain his rage and committed murder. Moses fled from the comfort, power, and prestige of Egypt because he was afraid. He eventually settled in Midian and married Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro the priest.

Moses was tending the flock that belonged to his father-in-law when he led them beyond the wilderness and came to Horeb (“wasteland”), the mountain of God. Walking along the path, filled with thoughts form the past, Moses discovered a bush on fire, and even though it was blazing, it was not consumed. Rather than continue on his journey, Moses turned aside to look at the great sight, to see why the bush was not being burned up. Then God called out from the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he replied, “Here I am.” The Lord commanded Moses to stay put, and remove the sandals from his feet, for the place where he was standing was holy ground. “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

It was just an ordinary, everyday journey for Moses. A normal routine with no “religious” intentions. He was not going out to seek the perfect modern preacher or guru to learn about what God was calling him to do with his life, he was not sitting in the great temple of Jerusalem, he was just doing his job.

God chose the mountain in the wilderness as the place of revelation and change for Moses’ life. The encounter took place far and away from the sights and sounds of the religious community, this holy moment takes place in the least likely of situations and locations.

A burning bush appeared in the wasteland, but the fire did not consume it. Moses was not frightened away from the bush, nor was he repelled by the sight of something strange, but instead he was drawn toward it. His curiosity propelled him forward, not for religious reasons, but because it was unknown.

God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, loves to make use of human curiosity for his own purposes. Curiosity often leads to discovery, new life, and new vision.

Moses was the one who ran away from familiarity into the unknown. He had left behind his family and calling in Egypt because he feared for his life. He escaped to the place of Midian, found a wife, and a new calling and was settled. It happened in the ordinary and mundane moment of routined life that Moses was jolted into a new reality.

God is the one with the initiative in the situation. Moses was not begging on his knees for God to enter his life, instead it is God who confronts Moses and calls him to a task.

We gather in this space for worship with expectations. We come to church to sing, to pray, to live, to love, and to encounter the living God. It is our hope and belief that in so doing we will come into contact with the divine in such a way that we can be filled and transformed for the coming week. However, if the story of Moses and the burning bush is to come alive for us today, then we must prepare ourselves to be encountered by the living God when we least suspect it.

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Years ago, Zig Volskis was preparing to preside over a wedding for a beautiful couple. He had done the necessary pre-marital counseling, he had met with the families to discuss the needs of the wedding ceremony, frankly- he had taken care of everything he needed to for the wedding to be perfect. Like with all weddings he stood at the front with the wonderful couple and began to speak about the holy covenant of marriage, of Christ’s role in bringing two people together as one, and the responsibility to live into this new identity with faithfulness.

Zig had done a lot of weddings. He knew that at some point the bride would start crying, and if he really worked it, the the groom would cry as well. He knew that some of the people in the congregation no longer believed in marriage, but believed in the young people enough to show up. He had done enough weddings to know the routine. But this was to be no ordinary wedding…

I can’t do this,” the bride blurted without warning. Zig, the great pastor that he was, immediately took over the situation, escorting the young woman out the congregation to have a serious conversation. Thinking that it might just be wedding jitters and nervousness, he invited the young woman to speak. “I can’t do this,” she said, “I’ve had my doubts, of course. But it just hit me right before we walked in. We were waiting for my grandmother to arrive and she was running late. The longer we waited, the more angry my fiancee became. When she finally made it he began yelling at her for ruining this moment, for making us wait on her. The entire time I walked down the aisle and saw him standing at the front, I realized for the first time, that I was making a terrible mistake.” So Zig re-entered the sanctuary, and as calmly as possible, informed everyone that the wedding would no longer take place.

God shows up in the most unexpected times and places. In the midst of a beautiful wedding ceremony the Spirit moved in such a way to give a dose of reality to a young bride about the mistake she was about to make. In the midst of a cold December evening when I was sixteen, God brought me down to my knees and propelled me on a path toward church ministry. In the midst of a leading a flock God appeared in the burning bush to call Moses into something difficult and holy.

I knew a pastor who, every Sunday morning, would kick off his shoes at the back of the sanctuary before entering during the opening hymn. When I finally asked him about this strange practice he casually replied, “this is holy ground.” I think he was right; this space, the inside of our sanctuary, this room where we gather to meet the living God is holy ground. But I also think he was wrong; the ground is only holy because of God’s appearance, not because we say it is.

I love worship, and I love churches. I have had some incredible moments in my life where I have heard a preacher proclaim words from a pulpit as if he or she was speaking to me, and to me alone. I have been in the middle of singing a hymn only to realize that tears were flowing down my face because of the depth and beauty of a God who could love me in spite of my sinfulness. I have prayed at the altar after receiving communion and experienced even just a foretaste of what God’s kingdom is all about. But some of the most transformative and life-giving moments of my life have taken place when I least suspected them, in places far removed from the religious center of the church.

Being called by God into a new life is not something that applies only to clergy, nor is it something that happens exclusively in worship. We are all called in one way or another to live faithful lives for God’s kingdom, whether we are clergy or lay, teachers or students, engineers or musicians, writers or mathematicians. We are given incredible opportunities to respond to God’s calling in manifold ways in our daily lives by loving our neighbors as ourselves, by asking the hard questions that other people are afraid to mutter, by looking at the world through Christ’s perspective.

We are not abandoned and left alone. We see how God is really gracious toward us in the fact that God confronts us in his incredible holiness. The fact that God does not permit his people, the righteous, or the church to perish, means that He refuses to let us go our own way when we act and behave as if we were people who do not need to hear the Good News.

We stand on holy ground, here at church and out in the world, confronted by the Holy One, who searches deep into our souls and knows what we think, what we feel, and what we believe. God cannot allow us to wander off and be left to our own perspectives, but meets us in the ordinary, when we least expect it, and calls us by name: Moses, Moses; Taylor, Taylor, etc.

When God confronts you in the midst of life, how will you respond? Will you continue your journey and ignore the unexpected call? Or will you say, “Here I am”?

Amen.