Sermon on the Plain—Cedar Lane Edition

This past Sunday’s sermon was our introductory foray into the sermon on the plain, an extremely distilled dose of Jesus’ vision of what his disciples are like. Part of the challenge of this past week’s sermon was to get in a mirror, eyeball to eyeball with ourselves, and think about three questions:
1. Who am I becoming?
2. Who decides who I become?
3. How does Jesus’ message change the way I see other people?

I shot a little video of some Cedar lane folks reading through Jesus’ sermon on the plain, as a way of helping us hear it.  I want to invite you to settle in, hear these words, and spend some time meditating on those questions. May God bless the hearing of his word.

Mentalities for a Church Engaging the Community

In part one of this series, I talked about how complicated it can be to develop a particular set of mentalities within the church.  That’s not all that helpful without some concrete examples of what we mean by mentalities.

The church here at Cedar Lane (Tullahoma, TN) is working to become more engaged with the community, so here is a working set of mentalities that I’m teasing out as part of that transition.  They are not in any particular order yet.

1. We love to serve people. It’s not a burden to us, something we do reluctantly out of guilt.  We find joy in serving other people, and the more we do it, the more we love to do it.  We anticipate having a great time while we serve.

2. Service is a sacred duty. Although we could never repay the gift of Christ’s sacrifice, we receive his actions both as gift and lesson.  The cross is both the means and the purpose of our redemption, a binding path for us to follow if we are to honor our commitment as disciples of Jesus. The Lord bids us honor him by serving our neighbor.

3. Our lives are not our own. Everything that we are, do, and possess is conditioned by the Lordship of Jesus Christ over us. There is no question of convenience or desire.

4. Evangelism is the invitation to participate in the kingdom of God. This necessarily involves the invitation to serve. We don’t view ourselves as servants and others simply as recipients of our service, but everyone as having potential for service in the community.

5.  We are a “Servant” church. It is part of our corporate identity as a people.  Theologically, this is rooted in the idea that the church is the physical representation of Christ on earth today.  In as much as we recognize from scripture that Christ is “servant”, we work to fulfilling that identity in our body of believers.  It is part of who we are.

6.  Whenever we fight against darkness/brokenness, we fight with and for God. Darkness shows up in the world in thousands of different forms. Family failure, financial despair, emotional imbalance and the grief of life unfulfilled are all expressions of evil.  The mission of the church in the world is not just to get people to accept Jesus in order to gain forgiveness in preparation for their death.  Rather, the church exists to embody the God who works to restore and heal his broken creation.

7.  Everyone can serve. Everyone.  Absolutely everyone has a way of fighting darkness in the world.

8.  We want to help people help people. When we see someone taking initiative to push back against darkness somewhere, we don’t immediately suspect their motives, and we don’t jump into criticisms.  Our first reaction is to respect their initiative and passion.  What might they need in support?  Encouragement? Advice? Freedom or space?

9. We do not judge the people we serve. We recognize that before God we have our own problems, and our own sins.  We rely on the forgiveness of God, and are compelled to give what we expect to receive.  We relish opportunities to be gracious and merciful. We know we don’t occupy the high ground, we don’t have a status that allows us to stand in judgement over other people.

10. Service leads to friendship. Our normal thinking about status—that we are superior to others—is an illusion that stands as a fundamental barrier to relationships.  When we serve, he voluntarily dispel that illusion, and open up the possibilities for new relationships. We also deepen the friendships with the people we serve with, so that all the friendships of the church are built upon the identity of service and the practices of service.

11. We want to be great neighbors. Our church is planted within a particular community, and God calls us to be good neighbors to that community.  We are a part of our community, and don’t exist in isolation from the community and its problems.  Jesus teaches us how to be good neighbors, how to interact with the people with whom we share our city.

There’s my initial list.  I hope it’s useful in defining what I mean by strategic “mentalities”.  I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments below regarding what kinds of mentalities might additionally be helpful in making our transition, as well as how the ones I’ve listed strike you.  How present do you think these mentalities are? Are they sound theologically?

The next post in this series will address common destructive mentalities. I’d welcome comments ahead of that post as well!

Hospitality and Restoration: Elisha and the Shunammite Woman

There’s an incredible saga hidden in the narratives of the Hebrew Bible that deserves more attention. It begins in 2 Kings 4, and then shows up again in 2 Kings 8. Maybe the whole bit would get more air time if it had a better title, but for now lack of one it’s called the story of the Shunammite woman. What a mouthful.

The Cracker Barrel of the Ancient Near East

Shunem was a small town just off of a major international roadway, known as the Via Maris.  The Via Maris was a major trade route in the Ancient Near East, going from Egypt through Israel up to Damascas (Syria), where it then connected with other routes to Assyria or Babylon.  This was a major pipeline for trade in the ANE, and the people who lived along the route had a chance to profit by the travelers and live in a wider world due to the trade potential. To help you get your bearings, we’re talking about a place a good bit north of Samaria, just north of Jezreel (about five miles).  You might remember that in Jezreel there was a royal residence—one that was the site of some infamous moments in the sagas of Ahab and his descendants. (Naboth’s vineyard was around Jezreel.) So this town, Shunem, was in a region that we know the prophets were active, but it’s away from Elisha’s home base in Samaria.  We don’t really know where he was going while he was passing through Shunem, but it makes a lot of sense that he needed somewhere to land when he was in this region.

This saga that begins in 1 Kings 4 really revolves around this woman who notices the traveling Elisha, and shows him hospitality by giving him some food. Elisha makes a habit of stopping in whenever he travels that way, and over time she recognizes that he is a holy man.  The woman and her husband build a small room on their house for Elisha to stay in when he passes through, and he becomes a regular guest in their home.

Hospitality Repaid

Elisha wants to repay the hospitality, and so he (in an odd, indirect way, I think) asks her how he can repay the favor. Perhaps his royal connections can help them? She responds that she and her husband don’t really need anything more than what they have, they are self-sufficient. Elisha continues to ask his servant what should be done, though, and Gehazi (the servant) responds by pointing out that she didn’t have any sons, and that her husband was old.

Elisha calls her in again, and tells her that in the next year, she would have a son. She wasn’t fishing for this offer, and had really become resigned to not having a son, and responds almost angrily. “No my Lord, oh man of God.  Do not lie to your servant.”  She doesn’t want false hope or empty promises. Things were fine how they were already—no need to interfere, thank you very much. But, things turn out just the way Elisha had said, and that seems like a pretty good ending to a classic miracle story. But, the story goes on.

The child grows up, and one day goes to his dad who is working as a harvester, and while he’s there he cries out because his head hurts. His dad has him taken to his mother, and the kids sits on her lap until noon, when he dies. So, she takes his body, and she takes it up to Elisha’s guest room, and lays it on the bed, and then takes off to go see Elisha. She confronts him bitterly, “Did I ask my lord for a son? Did I not say, ‘Do not deceive me?'”

Resurrection, Elisha Style

Elisha sends his servant to go quickly intervene, by placing Elisha’s staff on the corpse. Almost as if she knows that’s not enough, the woman insists that Elisha himself go, and so he does, and finds that indeed the attempt to resurrect by proxy didn’t work.  So, Elisha himself goes into the room where the body is—his room.  Reading the account, you get the sense that this is a miracle Elisha really has to work for.  He prays, lays himself on the body in a sort of weird CPR, and then he gets up and paces around for a while. He goes up and does it again, and the boy sneezes seven times and comes back to life. Weird story, but in the end Elisha gives the boy back to his mother.

The persistence in the story, both of Elisha and the woman, gives me a real feeling of urgency. The story fills with tension, because you get the sense that Elisha has really gotten in over his head, that he’s messing with things that are almost outside of his authority, and he might not be able to pull it off. Is Elisha (and by extension, the Lord) just messing with the woman? The stakes are so high, the woman feels betrayed, and Elisha can’t give up on making things right. He seems to be insistent here on taking the role God has given him past the limits. Elisha is far from an impersonal passive prophet in this episode, he is deeply invested in this family.

Restoration

A final episode of the Shunammite saga pops up in 2 Kings 8.  The woman had gotten a tip from Elisha about a famine that would last seven years, and so she takes her whole family and they leave.  Seven years later, they come back, although her lands have been taken over—perhaps by the land-grabbing royal family! She makes her way to the king to appeal for her lands back, and when she gets there she happens to walk in while Gehazi is telling the amazing story of her son’s death and resurrection!  The king is so astonished that he immediately orders the woman’s lands restored to her, along with anything that’s been grown on the land while the family has been away. The way this saga becomes woven into the narrative of the royal family in this last episode is fascinating to me. It’s almost like the king realizes here that he had been unknowingly oppressing someone who had been remarkably blessed by the Lord, and he too realizes that he might be in over his head—the power dynamics get flipped because she has an unseen but powerful ally.

The whole beautiful story is full of hope, faith, persistence, and hospitality. It’s got crazy twists as the woman’s fortunes rise with Elisha’s coming, and blessing of a baby, then fall when the boy dies. They rise again with the boy’s resurrection, then fall when the famine comes. The famine passes away, but the family has lost everything they have, until they are finally restored in an act of surprising justice.  Altogether, the story is something of a vignette of life between the people, the prophet, and the king. I don’t know that it’s easy to boil it down into “the story means THIS:_______”, but it seems to me to be a tale of how one woman gets wrapped up in the prophet’s life with the Lord, and how that contrasts with her interactions with the king. The story makes me want to be careful about taking advantage of people. It makes me want to be careful about making promises to people, particularly on God’s behalf. It makes me want to work hard to make things right for people, and it gives me hope that hospitality can bring some great, if messy, blessings.

Practice Hospitality. It’s one of the ways God heals the world.

The Call – A Sermon from Exodus 3

(This is part two of the Exodus Sermon Series.  The Sermon audio for the series is here.)

Today, we move in our series on Exodus to a well known section, the appearance of God to Moses in a burning bush.

Exodus opens with the birth of Moses, and the stories of his early life are full of promise, perhaps even destiny.  His mother defies her oppressors in the act of saving his life.  She claims the opportunity to raise as her own, but shrewdly creates the opportunity for him to live and learn as part of the Egyptian aristocracy.  Early on he rejects the safety of his social situation to identify with his oppressed people. He interjects himself to fight injustice against them and between them, but is forced to flee when his own people reject his authority and reveal his vigilante actions.

As our story this week opens, Moses has been living in Midian as a fugitive from a crime committed forty years ago in Egypt.  He’s started a new family, gotten a new job, a new life. He still lives in a measure of fear, fear that his past will catch up with him.  Instead, in this story, Moses is forced not to confront his past, but his future.

Here, at the burning bush, God beckons Moses to join him in an outlandish mission.  God shares his own mind with Moses, the Lord reveals his plans and vision of the future, and even his very name.

It is profound that God’s identity is revealed in this story of calling. It is in the context of this story, where God calls Moses to join him in plan of redemption and deliverance, that the Lord reveals his personal name. It is when God acts that we discover what he is to be called, who he is.  This is a story about identity.

But it’s not just the Lord whose identity is revealed in this story.  This is the definitive story in the life of Moses, the moment in which his identity must forever be determined.  It is the most important question he will ever face: how will he respond to the call of God? From this moment on, his life will not be defined by the promise of his early life, his status as a fugitive or failed advocate for justice. His role as a shepherd or even his identity as son, husband, or father will ultimately take a backseat to what is decided this day, this confrontation with a God who demands his future. Whether or not he obeys God’s call will determine Moses’ identity forever.  Much depends on this encounter.

In chapter 3, God reveals to Moses what God is going to do.  The conversation between Moses and God begins with God making this announcement (Ex. 3:7-8):

I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Caananites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.

God reveals to Moses what God is going to.  There is no doubt who is taking action here.  The Exodus will be God-powered. The exodus is not to be an act of Moses’ strength or will, but God’s. God declares, “I have come down to deliver them.” Of course, it must be this way. Who else but God could stand against Pharaoh? Who else but God could command the powers that are to definitively defeat the armies of Egypt? Moses had already tried his own at bringing justice, years ago, and failed.

Perhaps it is for this very reason that it is so surprising that God immediately follows his declaration that “I have come down” with the stunning bid to Moses in verse 10, “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” The God-powered Exodus depends on Moses.

It is a demonstration of Gods power, but God freely chooses to invite Moses to participate.  God makes Moses what he could not become on his own, a deliverer, a force of justice and redemption. The Lord chooses to act through Moses.  It’s an incredible affirmation, but not an unusual one. Lord chooses to act through Moses, just like later he will choose to act through Joshua, Gideon, David, Saul, Elijah, Peter, James, Paul, Epaphras and Timothy.  Just like he chooses to act through you and me.

“But, wait a minute,” you say. “Isn’t that stretching things a bit?  After all, this is Moses we’re talking about here. Don’t you think the call of Moses is a different deal, an exceptional occasion? Perhaps, but you have to realize:

The call of Moses is not the call of Moses.

Confused? Fair enough.  But think about it: is it just Moses that is called here to participate in God’s plans? Aaron, too, but that’s the easy one. After all, he’s the one God tells Moses to take with him when he makes his demands to Pharaoh. But is he the only one?

What about in the elders of Israel? Here at the burning bush, in 3:18, notice that Moses isn’t going straight to Pharaoh, but to these elders, and then they’re all going to go together to meet with Pharaoh.  What about Joshua, who becomes Moses’ assistant and successor? What about Hur, who along with Aaron holds up Moses’ hands while Joshua fights the Amalekites in Chapter 17? What about those are selected as judges over the people in Chapter 18? What about Bezalel or Oholiab, who end up being in charge of the craftsmanship of the tabernacle, or the Levites who are charged with taking care of it? What about the scores of men and women who contribute to building the Tabernacle, or the entire nation that gave generously for the project?

Moses is just the first domino.  He’s the one God speaks to first, but the call of Moses is not just the call of Moses.

The call of Moses is the call of all Israel.

And so it often is with us.  Somebody begins to hear and act on the word of God, begins to respond to their calling, and sometimes it turns out that others join in and discover their own calling there as well.

[The following is very congregation-specific.

As part of encouraging that process, we want to have a forum to have some of those conversations, so on

July 18 we’re going to have an event called “Outreach Sunday”. The whole idea behind it is the recognition that Your calling may not be just for you.

Here’s how it’s going to work.  After class on that Sunday, we’re going to gather for a potluck in the gym. Around the gym, we’re going to set up some booths, tables where people can share in some of the ways they’ve become involved in outreach ministries, and perhaps share some opportunities for you to come alongside and join them in that effort.  I’m very excited about the possibilities of what can happen when we dedicate this time to listening to the ways God has already started to move us into action here at Cedar Lane.

Here’s what we need to pull this thing off:

We need people willing to share their calling and their food.

We need people willing to pay attention.

Paying attention is really critical to this event, and truthfully, it’s critical to our episode with Moses as well.  ]

In the version of this story that is in most of our heads, I think this whole thing starts when God’s booming voice calls out, “Moses, Moses”.  However, notice how particular the text is in how the story actually unfolds in 3:2-4.

“And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here am I.”

Often I wonder, what would have happen if Moses had just turned the other way. I wonder if this was the first time it had been there, or if maybe the bush had been in these familiar grazing grounds for a long time, but this was the time Moses finally got up the courage to check in out.  Doesn’t it seem like the Lord waits for him to investigate t before speaking to him in a clear voice?

But what if Moses had just said, “Whoa, that’s scary!” and hurried back home, or “This bush makes me feel uncomfortable.” What if Moses said, “I’m not comfortable with the difference between this bush’s culture and mine?” Okay, that last one’s unlikely — for Moses.

But for us, I think we come up with all kinds of reasons to turn away from burning bushes, those places where if we stopped and looked for a moment, we would easily hear the voice of God calling us to serve.  The truth is, our world, our community, is full of burning bushes, waiting to be recognized. But we have to learn to pay attention to burning bushes.

This sermon started with the concept of Identity. This is a story that reveals god to be an acting God, a calling God.  It is the episode that brings Moses into the action, forever shaping his identity.  It can do the same to us, if we listen.

A Note about Sermon Manuscripts

I’m going to publish sermon manuscripts here from time to time, and I wanted to say a little bit of how the manuscript functions for me.  It is rarely a word-for-word version of what actually gets delivered from the pulpit, but its part of my preparation cycle when I’m taking the parts of thesermon and working out how they might fit together, how they might sound.  It gives me a chance to tweak the sermon structure and do some word-smithing with particular parts of the sermon.  It’s a part of crystalizing the sermon itself, part of the discipline of preparation, but I don’t usually think of the manuscript as the final version.  and it might sound like a weird nuance, but I want to be clear that between the manuscript and the actual spoken word event, the real sermon is the latter.  The manuscript is a written document reflecting the sermon, the sermon itself is a spoken word.  I think they are both useful, although not exactly the same thing.

I welcome any feedback on either versions of the sermons I intend to post here. As with any post, if there’s an element in the sermon that leads you to another though, please share in the comments.  The more voices, the better!

Cry Out – A Sermon from Exodus 2:23-25

(This is the first in the Exodus Sermon series. The audio for the entire series is here.)

Israel was indeed a nation born of promises.  It was an entire nation that traced its lineage back to one man, Abraham, a man who had received an outlandish set of promises from God.

At the beginning of Exodus, though, it seems as though those promises were merely empty words.  We find Israel, who had been promised Canaan as a homeland, living as slaves in Egypt.  How they got there was simple enough to explain. A long time ago there was a famine in Canaan, and the only place to get food was in Egypt, so, to Egypt they went.  They stayed there until the famine passed, and went it did they decided they liked it well enough, and stuck around. Why not, right? They were comfortable, they were provided for, and after a few decades, they were as at home in Egypt as they had ever been in Canaan anyways.

Eventually, though, they fell prey to the fears of the powerful in Egypt. To prevent them from becoming a threat, a Pharaoh enslaved them, using them to build his own wealth and power. And so, their not-homeland became a home of oppression for them, one in which they lived without dignity, humanity, or possibility. Even Moses, the man who is to be God’s instrument of deliverance, sees no other way.  He is willing to fight the injustice himself, and he does but, he is quickly forced to recognize that he is no match for the injustice his kinsmen face, and he flees.  While in exile, he starts a family and gives his child a most telling name, Gershom, saying that this name was because  “I have been a sojourner in a foreign land.”

Do you see what’s off key there?  Doesn’t it sound like Moses has bought into his current situation as an exile from his real home, which he seems to think is back in Egypt.  See, that’s part of the problem.  Israel was too at home in Egypt.  It becomes clearer and clearer as the story goes on that while Israel didn’t really want to be slaves, they also didn’t want to leave Egypt.  They really don’t even understand how extensive, how radical, God’s deliverance would be.  His actions in the Exodus would completely redeem and redefine Israel.

The Exodus is a story of complete and utter redemption, God’s way.  It is the story of how God responded to the cries of his people, how he called out an unlikely leader to help him utterly defeat the forces that were against his people.  It’s a story of how The same God who collides with the powers of Egypt brings his people into covenant with himself, for the sake of living in community with him.  It is a rich story, and over the next five weeks we’re going to see how this remarkable story of redemption can redefine us, just as it did Israel.

[Let us pray together.]

During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel-and God knew.

-Exodus 2:23-25

This is the true beginning of the Exodus story.  While it seems clear enough that God was behind the earlier story of Moses’ birth, the text makes it abundantly clear that it is the crying out of Israel that triggers the Exodus event. In the next chapter, Moses is twice told that God is acting because he has heard the cry of Israel.  Later on, in chapter six, after being initially rebuffed by Pharaoh, Moses is told again, “I have heard the groaning of the people of Israel, whom the Egyptians hold as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant.”

Israel had become too at home in Egypt, and had disregarded their identity as people to whom God had made incredible promises.  They had become complacent, had fallen asleep.  But when their suffering became unbearable, when they could no longer stomach the status quo, they cried out to God.  And while it may be that they really didn’t know exactly what they were asking for, the simple act of their crying out to God provoked the Lord to action.  It signals to the Lord a crack in their complacency, a readiness for redemption. Their cry means that they are stirring from their slumber.  Crying out is waking up.

It means waking up to all the things around us that shouldn’t be tolerable, but have become so.  It means waking up to our own sins, to our own limitations.  It means realizing that we are not at home in Egypt, that things aren’t just fine, that things must change.

As we begin this journey together, I want to simply ask you to cry out to God with me. Let us cry out to God that, even though we don’t yet know what needs to change around and within us, we are indeed desperate for his intervention, and we rely on his redemption.  Let us cry out, not just in this moment, but habitually, as we continually encourage each other to abandon the things that would enslave us, to prepare ourselves for God’s redemption and redefinition.  Let us be a people that cries out to God. Let us be a community that is always waking up.

We can do this, because crying out doesn’t require much of us.  It doesn’t require us to be courageous or wise, pure or particularly holy.  We don’t have to be smart, or eloquent. Crying out only requires one thing of us, honesty.  Our cry to God, just like Israel’s, flows from an honest assessment of who we are before God.  It requires us to be hints about our flaws and weaknesses, about our limits and sins.  When we cry out we confess ourselves, we confess who we are and what we cannot do on our own.  And so, it requires us to be honest with ourselves as we speak to the one who already knows the truth about us anyway.

We may take that honest cry to God, knowing that we cry out to a listening God. Exodus affirms that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is a God of action, who responds to the cries of his children.

And lest we think that God only hears the cries of his people, that he only acts here because it is actually Israel, let me share with you another passage, Isaiah 19. Isaiah will not allow us to think about God’s listening ear in exclusive terms.  Like Jonah, Isaiah blows open the limits of God’s attention and care.  Speaking of Egypt, Isaiah writes, “When they cry to the Lord because of oppressors, he will send them a savior and defender, and deliver them.” The Lord will hear and respond to the cries of even the enemies of the Lord’s people, the original oppressors themselves, the Egyptians! Don’t be afraid that you are too far gone, to distant from God, that he can’t or won’t hear your cry to him.  The Lord is a listening God, and is ready to respond, even to Egypt, even to you and me.

One more thing.  Everything I’ve said before assumes that when we read the story, we identify most with the part played by Israel.  But what if, in reality, we actually are best represented by the Egyptians? Maybe not Pharaoh, or even actual slave drivers, but just run of the mill Egyptians.  Innocent of direct oppression, they are complicit with the system, and destined for the same destruction as Pharaoh. What if we, who are used to being on the top of the world’s power structures, are more like these Egyptians than we are God’s oppressed people?

It’s a horrible, offensive thought, isn’t it? But the more I think of it, there is really only one way to be sure. If we don’t want to be like the Egyptians, we have to learn to be like God. And this story gives us a clear picture of one important way to become more godly.

If we want to be like God, we have to learn to listen like God. We have to be willing to stop and hear the voices of hurting people, the voices of people who cry out against all the things which oppress them, to the things that enslave them.  The God we serve is an attentive God. This texts affirms that God does in fact hear, he does in fact care, and he does respond! This simple fundamental fact is one of the first places we must meet God if we truly wish to be a people like him, who model our lives after him. We know we have to listen to God, but have we not learned to listen like God? We must hear people, give attention to people, be willing to respond to the needs of people.  We must work to hear what he hears.

And so, let us all cry out to God.  Let us cry out for our own redemption.  Let us cry out on behalf of those around us who need redemption, and let us cry out that we may have open ears to the cries of those suffering around us.  Amen.

(Please feel free to comment, or see this note about sermon manuscripts)