Devotional – Genesis 12.1

Devotional:

Genesis 12.1

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”

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And that’s how it all began. The Lord said to Abram, “Go.” In the entirety of the Old Testament, there are few passages as important and theologically profound as God’s calling of Abram to go to a strange new place. We can talk about Jacob wrestling with the emissary from God by the banks of the Jabbok river, we can talk about Joseph saving the Egyptian people from certain starvation, we can even talk about Moses’ trials and tribulations with the Hebrew people in the wilderness, but this moment with Abram, this call, sets in motion the great narrative of God with God’s people.

The sheer magnitude of such a call cannot be overlooked. During the time of Abram’s life, almost everything was dependent on staying in one’s country and with one’s family. Most people spent their entire lives, from birth to death, within a handful of miles and rarely explored anything outside the normal and comfortable dwelling of “home.” And yet God had the audacity, the boldness, and the faithfulness to call Abram to do the unthinkable: go to a strange new place and leave it all behind.

This, in a sense, is akin to the call of all Christians. We might not be asked to leave our home country, we might not be asked to leave our families, but we are certainly compelled to enter into strange relationships and moments around us. It is easy to stay within a certain bubble throughout our lives and never stretch too far into the unknown. We can develop rhythms and habits that actively prevent us from encountering anything out of the ordinary. But God is extraordinary.

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Lent is a time for us to reflect and repent. We reflect on the many ways God’s has so graced us, and we repent for the many ways we have failed to positively respond to that grace. Lent is a time for us to all recognize the Abram within us, and wonder where God is calling us to go. What place are we avoiding because it makes us uncomfortable? What relationship have we let fall apart because it just felt like too much work? What frustrating behavior in a friend or a spouse or a child have we let percolate for far too long?

In some way, shape, or form God is calling each and every one of us to “go.” God calls us to “go” because our God is a God on the move. God cannot be relegated to a sanctuary on Sunday mornings at 11am, God is not absent until we pray for God’s presence, God is not sitting on a throne up in heaven watching us through a telescope. God moves, and so should we.

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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.

Prepare To Be Surprised – Sermon on 2 Kings 5.1-15

2 Kings 5.1-15

Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.” He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, ‘When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.” But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet has commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean. Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.”

Prayer

Have you ever gone looking for God? Maybe your church or your prayer life was no longer cutting it, and you thought about actively seeking out the God who you used to meet in the sanctuary.

For a long time, I made it my duty to help other people find God.

I would help organize trips to domestic or foreign locations, often leading youth and adults into uncomfortable situations so that they could live out the calling of the gospel by serving their neighbors.

Whether you lead a group to Winchester, Virginia or Xela, Guatemala the paradigm remains basically the same: Take a group of people out of their comfort zone, encourage them to serve others through physical means, participate in theological reflection and fellowship, and return home a changed individual.

I have been blessed to see wealthy American men weep in the arms of poor Guatemalan women after working for a week in a remote village, I have seen privileged teenagers play in the destroyed and desolate streets of New Orleans with other children who had lost everything. I have seen college-age Christians sing and chant hymns fervently with their eyes closed after having not stepped foot in a church in years.

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All of these trips were fantastic and were remarkably important for the people who participated. The only problem was, after returning home, it only took a few weeks to fall back into the same routine as if nothing had actually happened. In fact I’ve seen nearly the same thing occur after a group does a Bible study for months: as soon as they finish, they are on fire for Christ, but within a few weeks, that fervor has disappeared. The thought usually goes something like, “I did what I could but I can only do so much” “I tried to keep the fire alive, but I have other responsibilities” “I know this is what Christ wants me to do, but it’s too hard.”

We often engage in these activities expecting to experience God on our terms, only to return back to life the same as before…

Many, many years ago, a foreign warrior named Naaman had it all. He had the favor of his king, he was consistently victorious on the battlefield, and he had power. He was the kind of guy that you hated in high school. The proverbial quarterback of the football team, straight-A student, the guy who had everything just fall into his lap easily. But Naaman had a big problem: he was a leper. Covered in this invasive skin condition, there was nothing he could do to rid himself of the suffering.

The CEO of the huge multinational corporation can get the best table at any restaurant in town without even calling for a reservation, but his son is in rehab for an addiction to heroin. The famous and celebrated writer travels the world to give lectures and presentations – but he’s an alcoholic. The beautiful actress can turn every man’s head, but she dreads the lights and cameras in case they show an unflattering angle. The envied mother in the community has perfect children that never get in trouble but she weeps every night out of her loneliness and depression.

In every life there is a “but.” What’s yours?  Naaman was a successful military man in great favor with the king, but he was a leper.

However, one day, an unnamed completely insignificant Israelite, the quiet girl who always sat in the shadows, the one whose name no one could remember said the obvious: “Naaman, all you have to do is visit the prophet in Samaria, he can cure your leprosy.”

Why Naaman listened to this woman, we will never know, but he gathered his treasures and traveled to visit the king of Israel. After an embarrassing episode, where it is clearly apparent that Naaman does not know the way God works because he seeks healing from the king rather than the prophet, Elisha invites Naaman to his home so that he will learn there is a prophet in Israel.

The scene that follows is remarkably comical. Naaman comes in full regalia, with an impressive entourage, and gifts galore: ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He stands proudly before the house of the prophet but he does not even get invited inside. Instead, Elisha sends out a messenger to instruct the officer to wash seven times in the Jordan River.

Naaman is incensed! “This so called ‘prophet’ doesn’t even have the decency to come greet me? And then he is so bold as to claim that his river is mightier than ours?” So Naaman went away in a rage.

But, just as before with the unnamed woman, some unnamed servants approach Naaman, “If the prophet had commanded something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be made clean’?” And so Naaman went down to the Jordan and immersed himself seven times and his flesh was restored.

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Before returning to his homeland, Naaman went to Elisha and proclaimed, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel!”

Like many people who go out seeking to find God, Naaman knew how it was supposed to work. However, the scripture today confirms Naaman’s lack of understanding when interacting with the divine. First, he brings all of his treasures to the king of Israel assuming that he would have the power to cleanse him. Second, he arrives at Elisha’s home expecting to be regarded as the dignified warrior he is, only to be slighted by Elisha’s lack of welcome.

Like Naaman, so many of us go out expecting to find God on our terms and in the ways we want.

If we travel to an impoverished part of the country, or if we go visit a remote village on the other side of the planet we will surely find God. If we sweat in the mud all day long for our brothers and sister we will be blessed by God almighty for our actions. Yet, like Naaman, we cannot meet God on our own terms, but it is God who meets us.

What takes place here with Naaman is the way the Bible often deals with God. The extraordinary arises within the ordinary. The heavenly breaks out amid the earthly. What we tend to view as ordinary and plain, the Bible wants to depict as the realm of God’s amazing work among us.

Elisha, and all the other prophets from the Old Testament have something that we have lost in the church these days. They have freedom from the society around them. They are not blown about by the winds of doctrine or expectation, they are not captive to special interest groups, they do not follow all the latest fads, they do not unquestionably serve the latest liberal or conservative agenda. They serve, rather, their living God – that God who is on the move toward the establishment of the kingdom on earth.  – They hear God and follow him accordingly; this gives them the freedom from all the voices of this world and from every ideology that would capture them for its own selfish purposes. They meet God in the ordinary ways of life, respond to the call, and are transformed.

The healing of Naaman is one remarkable story. God takes an enemy of his chosen people and restores him to good health. In spite of the antagonism between two seemingly opposed people, God interrupts Naaman’s life in order to bring about a revelation.

Naaman was healed, but in what way? Yes, there is the physical healing, by washing himself seven times in the Jordan Naaman loses the leprosy that had so plagued him, but there was something else more powerful going on here in the story.

In this narrative Naaman learns about humility and encounters the living and active God. It is not the kings, nor the warrior, in the story who understand the ways of God, but it is through the unnamed servants that Naaman comes to experience the divine. It was through humbly following the commands of his servants that Naaman found cleansing in the muddy waters of the Jordan, but more importantly he found new life in a God that meets us in the ordinary.

What is your “but”? What is your excuse for not letting God meet you where you are? When we meet the triune God it would seem that it happens without regard for being rich or poor. Perhaps even more dramatically God extends his mercy, and works out his plans through the unnamed people in our lives, the ones we so often overlook in our day-to-day living.

Somewhere in your life, God is calling you away from the distraction that you are so rooted in. Perhaps God has been using someone to bear a word of hope for your leprosy, for your “but”. Maybe its your mother who you have neglected to call for the last few months that just wants to tell you that God loves you. Maybe it’s the homeless man on Beverly Street who muttered “Thank God” under his breath when you gave him a dollar. Maybe it’s the co-worker who doesn’t treat you with enough respect or your own child who drives you mad when they neglect to clean their room or do their homework. It might be someone who you are jealous of, or threatened by.

Our scripture today boldly declares that God is the one looking for you. If you want to meet God, then you don’t have to go off on some mountaintop, or move to some sort of spiritual summit. You just have to let yourself go, like Naaman, and be willing to let God take over and ready for the changes in your life.

Be prepared to be surprised. When you meet the unnamed person that God is using to address your leprosy, it will almost inevitably offend you in some way, just as Naaman was furious over Elisha’s lack of decorum. The message will cut deep into your life by way of its simplicity, or its unexpectedness, and it will occur in a way that only you will be able to comprehend.

When God comes to meet us where we are, it does not occur through overwhelming theatrics, flashing lights and great booming sounds. God does not meet us where we expect him to, but rather through simple things:

Yesterday morning I stood here right in front of the altar with my cousin Devin. Devin is currently part of a confirmation class in Alexandria, VA at Aldersgate UMC regularly learning more about faith, God, and the Bible. At the end of this confirmation period, Devin will kneel before his home congregation and will be welcomed as a member into the church. But, Devin has not been baptized, and baptism is a requirement for confirmation.

Devin and I talked and he made it clear to me that he wanted me to be the one to baptize him. So after a conversation regarding the importance of the sacrament of baptism, about what it will mean for him and his life, I welcomed Devin to come here for the weekend and be baptized.

So there we stood yesterday, with the muted overcast light coming through the “I am the good shepherd” stained glass window lighting up the altar. I ran my fingers through the cold water talking to Devin about the glorious ways that God has interacted with his people through water over the centuries. And as I held the water in one hand, and Devin in my other, I said, “Devin, many years ago Jesus gathered at the Jordan River and was baptized by his cousin John. In the same way Jesus calls all of us to be baptized in order to be brought into his body, the church.”

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I stood there for perhaps just a moment frozen in my own words. As I looked down at his blonde head I realized that just as John baptized his cousin, here I was, blessed to be doing the same thing to my cousin.

God confronted me in that moment. In a solitary blink of time I was flooded with the knowledge that the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized is the same river where Naaman was cleansed of his leprosy. That I was standing before almighty God baptizing my cousin in the same way that John baptized his. It was not grand: the sky did not open up with the Sun beating down on us, no trumpets were heard blaring from heaven, and the wind did not blow through the building. But it was perfect, because in that moment God met us in the ordinary: through the simple water and words of baptism.

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God does not meet us where we expect him to, but through the ordinary rather than the extraordinary. God meets us in the proclamation of his Word, in the remembrance of a man named Naaman who walked down to the Jordan River, and through a young man’s baptism on a rainy Saturday morning.

What is God calling you to? Where has God been trying to meet you?

Prepare to be surprised.

Amen.

(preached at St. John’s UMC on 10/13/13)