In This Together

Acts 11:19-26 New International Version (NIV)

19 Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. 20 Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.

22 News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. 24 He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.

25 Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.

Our text for this morning begins with persecution. Stephen was martyred for being a follower of Jesus, and if you recall, a man named Saul helped orchestrate Stephen’s killing. So for their own safety, these followers of Jesus spread throughout the land, traveling as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch.

I’ll be straight forward with you here because you may not know where I stand on the subject: I’m against persecution. I’m against killing people because they follow Jesus. But some good comes out of this. As I often say, God doesn’t cause bad things to happen, but that doesn’t mean that God can’t work through a bad situation. Like Joseph says in Genesis 50 after his brothers sold him into slavery, what was intended for evil God has used for good.

The good thing that God did as a result of the persecution of the followers of Jesus was to spread the gospel and plant churches. One place that was receptive to the news of Jesus as the messiah was Antioch. So the church in Jerusalem commissioned a friend of ours to offer leadership in Antioch. The first pastor of the church in Antioch was Barnabas. In verse 23 we read: “When [Barnabas] arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.”

Barnabas picks right up where he left off in chapter 9, encouraging people! In chapter 9 he was encouraging the disciples to allow a former enemy of the faith to become a part of their fellowship. Now he is encouraging the church to continue to follow Jesus.

Luke then continues to give some commentary on Barnabas in verse 27: “He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.” Barnabas is a good guy, a good Christian, and his ministry was highly effective because more people were coming to their church every week.

But notice what Barnabas wasn’t. He wasn’t the full package. He didn’t have all of the skills needed to make the church in Antioch work. Yes, he was filled with the Holy Spirit, but that doesn’t mean that he had every gift that he might need for the ministry that he had been called to. So what does Barnabas do? He goes and recruits an old friend to help in the ministry at Antioch. And that old friend is Saul.

Barnabas and Saul lead the church in Antioch for a year as co-leaders, as co-pastors. I’m sure that their jobs overlapped quite a bit, but based on what we read about these two, I’m going to guess that Barnabas was the one who offered the pastoral care and Saul did a lot of the preaching and teaching. Barnabas is the gentle, caring, encouraging one. Saul is the public speaker with the sharp wit and quick tongue.

What I find amazing about this story is how obvious it should be to us all that we can’t do everything. I don’t think that Barnabas invites Saul to help him with the ministry at Antioch because the church is too big for Barnabas to do everything. We are probably looking at a house church of 20-30 people. Barnabas recognizes that he has some gifts, but lacks others. Barnabas knows that he is really good at caring for the people; his ministry of encouragement is firmly established. But he needs someone else to bring balance to the ministry at Antioch. Saul happens to be gifted in the areas that Barnabas is lacking, so they work together, and they work together well. It says in verse 26 that they taught a “great number of people.” And we shouldn’t overlook that little line at the end where it says that it was in Antioch that followers of Jesus were first called “Christians.”

Up until this point, the followers of Jesus were called disciples, the church, or even the way. Christian was a title given to them by people outside of the church; a title which means “little Christ.” The church in Antioch was following the way of Jesus so well that those outside the church called them a bunch of little Christs.

I’ve been called a lot worse.

So we have Paul and Barnabas running this church in Antioch. They are a ministerial team. Now here is a tough question. How many people on the staff at First Church of Antioch were full-time, paid, professional ministers? Zero.

How many people here today are full-time, paid, professional ministers? The same number of people here are full-time, paid, professional ministers as there were at First Church of Antioch. And I think that has its advantages.

I’m not full-time, and I’m not even sure that I want to be. You know, because I’m lazy and don’t want to do that much. My other occupation is that of a father. It pays well in hugs and kisses! Yes, it would be nice to have more money coming in. But being bi-vocational allows a number of ministry opportunities that full-time ministry wouldn’t.

Here is a fun experiment to try sometime. If you go to the park and just walk around by yourself, you may make eye contact with one or two people. Someone may even say hello…if they already know you. We tent to keep to ourselves, and that is just a part of the culture in which we live. But if you were walking a dog or pushing a stroller, people who would never have made eye contact with you when you were walking by yourself will now come and start talking to you (or your pet/kid).

Being the primary care giver for our children has allowed me to have conversations with people at the library, in stores, and on the playground, especially with other parents. There is a natural connection, perhaps a shared understanding of each other’s problems. Oh, I only got four hours of sleep last night./Oh yeah?/Yeah, Ephraim was up all night with a cough./I’ve been there. I feel ya, man!

There is a ministry of caring that happens naturally and organically.

I met a woman at the YMCA a few years ago because her son had a “crush” on my daughter. She just came up to me and told me that our kids are so cute together and how Hadley had done the sweetest thing for her son. And I said, “That’s super. Who is your son? Who are you?”

We would casually talk over the next few months and I found out that she was going through a divorce and she was worried about her two-year-old son. She was worried that her ex-husband was moving back to Atlanta.

I eventually realized that I was counseling her through life as a divorced mom. Between sets right next to the dumbbell rack I was ministering to her, every Tuesday and Thursday. And it happened naturally, organically. I didn’t even realize it until one day she said that she was glad that I was her pastor.

I was her pastor? She had never set foot inside my church. She had never heard me preach or even pray. And she never put a dime in the offering plate. But yes, I was her pastor. And the reason she felt comfortable enough to let me walk with her through the most difficult time of her life was because we were both caring for our small children. We had that connection outside of the church.

I know that nobody in our congregation is a professional pastor, but I do believe that we are all called to care for one another and to pastor one another in some sense of the word. And you surely interact with people at work, in the market, or just on the street every day. Contractors are interacting with the flooring and electrical workers. Teachers are interacting with other teachers and students. I believe that as followers of Jesus we actually need to care for these people, to love them. Listen to their stories. And like my friend from the Y, you don’t just listen to them because you are trying to get them to come to church. You listen to them because you are being the church. You are bringing church and you are bringing Jesus to them. You are loving them just because they are beautiful people, created in God’s own image.

We don’t know what Barnabas did for money, but Saul/Paul made his living as a leather worker, or as we often assume, as a tentmaker. He worked with his hands and provided something for the broader community. Paul was probably a little more intentional in engaging people about their religious beliefs than I am, but I bet there were times when the conversation just happened naturally. He developed relationships with the leather tanner and the iron smith that made his leather-working tools. And through those relationships, I’m sure Paul made an impact in his community.

Being bi-vocational means that I’m not spending my entire day sitting in the office, typing on the keyboard of a laptop or reading another theology book. It means, like Paul and Barnabas, we are out in the community, working a real job like regular people. Sure, being bi-vocational has its problems, but it has its advantages as well.

I feel more and more like we as a church need to be ministering to the community. I sure hope that you don’t see ministry simply as something that I do as your pastor, but as something that we do as the church. And as churches across the country continue to decrease in size and power, it is going to become necessary for lay people to take care of certain ministry roles.

Let’s keep working with this idea of helping people outside of our church. Imagine you have some kind of skill, hopefully this isn’t too hard to imagine! Maybe you have some plumbing skills or a green thumb. What does it look like to use those skills to help a neighbor when their pipes are leaking or their flowers are dying? Even more so, what does it look like when you help your neighbor with their leaking pipes or their wilting flowers and don’t ask anything in return? It looks countercultural!

We live in a time when modern technology has made our lives more convenient than ever before. We can microwave a turkey while searching on our phones to find out Zachary Tyler’s wife’s name. But even though we have convenience available to us that our parents couldn’t have conceived of a generation or two ago, we are also much more busy. Isn’t that strange? The more conveniences we have the busier we become.

So when you use your gifts and skills, your helping hands or your listening ears, to help a neighbor in need, you are standing out from the rest of the world that doesn’t have time for anyone else.

Barnabas asked Saul to join him in ministry as bi-vocational pastors because Barnabas knew his weaknesses, and because Barnabas knew that they could do more together than they could alone.

You have probably heard the phrase “United we stand, divided we fall.” This phrase is often credited as one of Aesop’s fables. Aesop tells the story of a hungry lion in the savannah. This lion would like nothing more than to kill and eat one of the four oxen that he sees ever day down by the watering hole. But these oxen are smart. While one ox drinks from the water, the other three stand, rump to rump, watching for the lion, and butting him away with their horns if he gets too close.

These oxen have a falling out one day. Probably over a lady oxen, I can’t say for sure. So they decide to go their own way and go to the watering hole by their selves. One by one, the lion is able to sneak up and take down the mighty oxen. United they stand, but divided they fall.

This week we were left a nice gift at the front door of our church. Sometime between 3:30 pm Thursday and 7:30 am Friday, someone put a door hanger on the front door of the church. The hanger said, “Searching for a Dynamic Church for You and Your Family?” It then gave the contact information for a local church, some core values of the church, and the meeting times for the church. On the ground below the flyer were two religious tracts explaining how to get to heaven.

Explaining to me how to get to heaven?

Explaining to Mennonites how to get to heaven?

Inviting our church families to a dynamic church?

I didn’t know any other way to take this than to be offended. I called the pastor of this church and asked him about this practice, and he apologized over and over again. He assured me that he did not intend for anyone from their church to post those items at our church and that we were not singled out. They were trying to canvass the area and he offered a few suggestions for how these tracts and the door hanger ended up on our front door.

I don’t know why or how or by whom these were placed on our front door. But I ended my phone conversation with the pastor by saying, “I’m pretty sure that we are in this together.” In saying that, I was saying that even though we may disagree on a number of things, I don’t see our ministries as competing. We are working for the same larger goal, even if our steps along the way are different.

Saul and Barnabas were very different people, yet Barnabas knew that he could count on Saul to do the good things he had been called to do and use the gifts that he had been given. And in a few weeks we will see that they even went their own separate ways on different mission journeys. But even in their differences, they always knew that they were working together, as a part of the global church, to do the good things that God had called them to do.

As Saul will later say, after he changes his name to Paul, we are all a part of one body. Some of us are hands. Others are feet. And the body works best when all parts function together, no matter how different we may look.

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Remember Where You Came From

Acts 4:36-37

36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), 37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.

Acts 9:26-31

26 When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. 28 So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 He talked and debated with the Hellenistic Jews, but they tried to kill him. 30 When the believers learned of this, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.

31 Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.

Every year I make a valiant effort, at least in the spring, to grow some vegetables. We have several raised bed gardens in our back yard, because as anyone from Staunton can tell you, the soil here isn’t really that great for growing vegetables. Our soil is made of a lot of clay and rocks. If you can get your spade into the dirt, there is no guarantee that you will be able to grow anything in it.

So we have 4×20, 4×12, and 32”x64” raised bed gardens in our yard. Every spring I turn that soil over with my shovel, break up the clods of dirt, rake out the old debris, and make sure the soil is nice and smooth. One of the steps in the process is to amend the soil. By amending the soil I mean that I add nutrients to the dirt. I often put compost from our bin on top of the raised beds and work it into the soil. Last year’s food scraps actually become the nutrients that help to grow this year’s vegetables.

One of the words that we use to describe this rich, black, compost is “humus.” This should not be confused with “hummus,” which is a vegetable dip made from blended chickpeas. We use the word humus today to describe the final stages of compost, but interestingly, humus is an old Latin word that just means dirt.

Have you ever noticed that the word for humus and human are very similar? I’ve known some dirty people in my days; I grew up on a dairy farm in Ohio, and if you weren’t dirty, you weren’t working. But the connection between human beings and dirt is much deeper than the fact that we can get pretty dirty sometimes. If you performed a chemical analysis of the human body, you would find that our 99% bodies are made up of just six elements: carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, calcium, hydrogen, and phosphorus. It probably won’t surprise you to find out that those same elements can be found in the soil.

In the book of Genesis, we are given the story of how God created everything that exists. The stars, the waters, and the earth upon which we live. And in Genesis 2:7, we read this: “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”

According to this passage, human beings originated in the soil, in the dirt. God made Adam out of the dust of the ground. Or, if you read this in the Latin, God formed “hominis” from the “humus.”

If someone ever tells you that you aren’t anything but dirt, you can say, “Yep, that’s how God made me.”

Of course, what separates us from the common dirt of the ground is that God breathed his very breath into the nostrils of humanity, but we will come back to that. For now, remember that from dust you were made and to dust you will return.

How many of you have ever heard the phrase, “Remember where you came from.”? Often it is parents who say this to their children as the children are heading off to start a new career or something of that nature. “Remember where you came from” is a way to remind a person of a number of things. First, it is a way to keep a person from getting a big head. I am reminded every time I go home that I am a farm boy from Ohio. I grew up baling hay in the summers, feeding the cows year round, and—please forgive my vulgarity—shoveling manure on a regular basis.

The second thing that a person means when they tell someone to “remember where you came from” is to help that person recall that they didn’t get where they are all on their own. I didn’t go to some fancy private college when I finished high school. I worked on the farm while I attended community college and then transferred to a large, state university. And when I decided to go to seminary, I didn’t get scholarship money. But I did receive support from my church and other churches in my community.

I don’t have a lofty title, a big paycheck, a fast car, or a mansion on the hill, but I’m doing well. And I know that I didn’t get here on my own.

When someone says, “Remember where you came from,” they are trying to instill another “h” word in your life. They are trying to keep you humble. Humus, human, and humble all have the same root in Latin. To be humble is to remember that you are human. To be human is to remember that you came from dirt. And you came from dirt because God breathed his holy breath into you and me. Remember where you came from.

In the book of Joshua we find the story of the Israelites entering the Promised Land. If you recall, the Israelites had been freed from Egypt, but were forced to wander in the wilderness for 40 years because of their idolatry. In the 4th chapter of Joshua we learn that the Israelites are about to enter the Promised Land, but one thing stands in their way: a river. To get to the Promised Land, they would have to cross the Jordan. No problem, God likes to dry up large bodies of water to allow these chosen people to cross. And God does just that.

But as they are crossing, Joshua, who has taken over as the leader of the Israelites after Moses died, receives instructions from God to do something strange. God tells Joshua to have one member of each of the 12 tribes of Israel collect a stone from the middle of the now-dried-up river and carry it with them to the other side. When they arrive on the other side, they are to take these stones and stack them on top of one another.

I’ve tried to stack 12 stones on one another before, and it didn’t work too well for me. I can usually get two or three stacked, and then they fall over. The stones from the middle of the river were probably large, flat stones, made smooth after years of gushing water helped to erode them. So these weren’t your average stones, they were pretty unique.

Imagine you are walking along the side of the river, and you see twelve stones stacked upon one another. You will probably take notice of this. And if they are smooth, flat stones, you would be able to assume that they came from the river. So how did twelve stones from the middle of the river get to dry land and stacked upon one another? You know it didn’t happen by accident. You know that these stones didn’t get there on their own.

When Joshua is given the instructions from God to stack these stones on one another, God knows that the next generation is going to see these stones, displaced from the river and assembled in a strange way. And these children will ask questions. I have young children, and when they see something that is strange to them, they ask questions. Sometimes it is pretty embarrassing to me because they ask these questions loud enough for others to hear! God tells Joshua that when the next generation asks “What do these stones mean?”, the adults are supposed to tell them what God has done. Tell them that God dried up the river so that we could cross, just like God dried up the Red Sea so we could escape Pharaoh. Tell them that God called their ancestor, Abraham, and promised that he would be the father of a great nation. Tell them that God made the entire world, the heavens and the earth, every plant and animal, and formed human beings out of humus.

In other words, these stones are there to help the next generation to “Remember where you came from.”

I’ve been speaking a lot so far this morning about humility, because humility is so important for a leader. But I also think that sometimes humility can keep us from doing the things that God has called us to do. See, when we learn at a young age that humility is important, we also learn, perhaps inadvertently, that this means that we can’t stand out from the group. Even worse would be to say out loud that you thought you were better than someone else at something!

When I think of the leadership roles in a church, one of the responsibilities that comes to mind is the song leader. In our hearing congregations a song leader needs to be able to, well, sing. If you can’t carry a tune in a bucket, you probably shouldn’t be the one to stand up on a Sunday morning and lead others in song.

The church that I am a part of struggled for a number of years to find song leaders. What we ended up with was one person who led singing every week because nobody would stand up and say, “I will help.” Why wouldn’t others help? Because to volunteer to lead music doesn’t seem very humble. It is saying “I’m pretty good, at least as good as this guy!”

But if you have been given a gift, if you are musically talented, God didn’t give you that gift to keep to yourself. That gift was meant to be shared.

Jesus tells a story about three men who were given a certain amount of money to keep an eye on as their master was out of town. All three men received different amounts of money. When the master returns, he checks with these men to see what they have done with what the master has entrusted them. Two of the servants are able to double the master’s money, while the third one simply buries the money to keep it safe. The master praises the first two men, putting them in charge of even more. But the one who simply buries his money is called “evil” and “wicked.”

If you know the story that I am describing, can you tell me the unit of money that is used to describe the amount that the master puts each servant in charge of? The word is “τάλαντον” or “talenton” in the Greek, which is often translated as “talent” in English. And guess what English word we get from the word talent.

This is the tension in which we find ourselves as leaders. On one hand we are called to be humble, to remember where we came from and how we got where we are today. But on the other hand, we have been given gifts by God. And I’m going to use strong language here and say that it is a sin not to use the gifts that we have been given in the church.

This, then, is my struggle. How do we in the church use our gifts yet stay humble? I think that one of the most important lessons that we can find comes from a man named Joseph.

We first learn about Joseph in Acts 4, where we read: “Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.”

Joseph is better known by the name Barnabas, son of encouragement.

We don’t hear anything else about Barnabas for a few chapters. If we jump ahead to chapter nine in the book of Acts, we find the story of a man named Saul. The first sentence of Acts 9 is, “Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.”

Saul is trying to round up and arrest people who are claiming that Jesus is the messiah. Saul is gaining a reputation for persecuting the early church, and the church is afraid of this man because he is not only overseeing the arrest of the members of the church, he is overseeing some of their executions.

Saul has his conversion experience in this same chapter after meeting the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus. He is taken in by those in the church, but they are still a little scared of him. Let’s look at verses 26-27: “When [Saul] came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus.”

We start chapter nine with Saul threatening the church. By verse 27 we find Barnabas trying to convince the other disciples that the man who had breathed murderous threats against them was now on their side.

We know Saul because he would later change his name to Paul and become one of the greatest church planters, evangelists, and writers of our New Testament. Yet I wonder if we would even know who Paul was if it wasn’t for Barnabas.

Where would any of us be without our Barnabases, without our sons and daughters of encouragement?

We find ourselves within this tension. We are humble humans beings, made from the dirt of the earth. But we are gifted by God to do good things for the kingdom. We need Barnabas-like people to help point out our gifts to us, and we need to be Barnabas-like people to help others see their gifts.

I never planned to be a pastor. I went to college to study biology and move toward a career in animal health. But one Sunday as I was helping a woman named Melanie wipe down tables after a fundraiser for our church softball team, Melanie told me, “Kevin, I know that you are planning to be a veterinarian, or something like that. But when you spoke at church a few months ago, I thought that you would make a good pastor.”

That was 15 years ago, and I remember it like it was yesterday. Melanie was one of my Barnabases.

I bet that many of you have stories like mine. Someone else saw that you had some kind of gift, and they encouraged you to use it. They encouraged you to pursue a job, an educational track, or a volunteer role because they saw in you a gift, a talent, from God. You may have known already that you had this gift, and humbly chosen not to pursue it. Or maybe you didn’t even know you were good at something. But when others pointed out your particular gift, it gave you the encouragement to move in that direction.

I come back to that imagery of the twelves flat stones, stacked alongside the banks of the Jordan River. Those flat stones, worn smooth by the flowing water look strange to most passers-by. Stones don’t naturally stack up like that on their own. And large, flat stones from inside the river don’t find their way to the bank of the river without assistance. No, those stones needed help. They didn’t get there on their own.

And neither did we.

Remember where you came from. Stay humble, and recall those Barnabas-like people who have helped to get you where you are today.

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For what do you pray?

Luke 11:1-13

One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

2 He said to them, “When you pray, say: “‘Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. 3 Give us each day our daily bread. 4 Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.’”

5 Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ 7 And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.

9 “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

11 “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Adam and Eve’s sons, Cain and Abel, went back to school one August, and of course they came home complaining about the work load. Adam, being the sensible father that he was, reminded his sons that he had survived school when he was a boy and surely they would, too.

“But Dad,” said one of the boys. “School was so much easier when you were growing up. You didn’t even have all of the subjects we are studying today.”

“Really?” replied Adam. “What subject could you possibly be studying that we didn’t?”

The boy replied, “History.”

It’s that time of year again, my friends. Back to school means a lot of things to a lot of people. It means shopping for backpacks, sneakers, school supplies, and that one box of Kleenex every student is required to bring in. It means you need to watch out on the roads for those school buses that seem to stop at every other corner. It means that children are grumpy, and parents are elated.

Most importantly, back to school means a changing of the seasons. Oh, sure, I enjoy the change from summer to fall. But that’s not what I’m speaking of. I’m talking about the change from baseball to football season. Back to school means back to football.

Based entirely on my own personal observations—which I admit may be wrong—football players seem to be the most religious athletes. It isn’t unusual to see a player take a knee in the end zone or point up to the sky when they score a touchdown. One player did this so frequently that we soon called offering a solitary prayer on the field after athletic success “Tebow-ing.” Even more so, before every game, it is common to see the entire team stop, take off their helmets, and pray together. It seems like every team, form high school through the professionals, take a moment before the game to pray to God for victory.

Seems just a little silly to me.

I’m not saying that football players should not pray. But if both teams are praying for a victory, which one is going to win? Is it the team with the most Christians on it? The team with the most pious coach? It is okay to pray for a victory, but remember that someone has to lose. I think it would be better to pray for safety for both teams, for good sportsmanship, and that the players could grow together as a team.

We have been working for three weeks on Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, looking at “To Whom Do We Pray,” “How Do We Pray,” leaving us today to ask the question, “For What Do We Pray?” You can pray for whatever you want. You are absolutely welcome to pray for a victory in a football game, or if you want to pull a Janice Joplin and pray for a Mercedes Benz, that’s fine. There’s a good chance you won’t get it, but you are hurting anyone in asking.

Let’s start today by looking at the first line of this prayer. Jesus starts off by telling his disciples that when they pray, they are to say, “Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread.”

If you are familiar with Matthew’s version, you know that it flows a little more smoothly. But in Luke’s choppy version I notice something that I hadn’t notice before. Look at how quickly Jesus goes from “your kingdom come” to “give us each day our daily bread.” Jesus teaches them to pray for something really big, God’s kingdom to come to earth as it is in heaven! This is a prayer for God to set this world right. This is a prayer for an end to poverty, hatred, sickness, and destruction. This is a prayer for the end of terrorism, mass shootings, and war.

I’m just going to come right out and say it, that’s no small task! God, make this fallen world right again.

The very next thing that Jesus teaches his disciples to pray for is bread. This contrasts all the more with the previous request in our world because most of us aren’t worried about where our next meal will be coming from. Either Wendy’s, Burger King, Food Lion, or Martins for us, I’m sure. So for those of us who really don’t need to worry about where our food comes from, this seems really insignificant. Especially when compared to ending world poverty, violence, and sickness!

I think that is the point. God cares about the really big things. But God also cares about the little things.

I had a friend, whom I loved and appreciated dearly, that used to pray for something that I thought was absolutely silly. When we would be going somewhere, he would somewhat jokingly talk about his “parking angel.” God would give him a good parking spot, amen, hallelujah!

But here is where it started getting weird. He would pray for a good parking spot when we would go to the hospital to visit a sick member of the church. This didn’t sit right with me. Shouldn’t he save his prayers for the big stuff? We are going to see someone that just had an emergency appendectomy, and you are wasting God’s time with a prayer for a good parking spot? I’ll walk the extra 100 steps on my own if God will heal the person in the hospital!

Is it wrong to pray for a good parking spot? I don’t think so. God cares about the big things and the small things. I just hope that if you are the kind of person who prays for parking spots that you also pray for the big things! Don’t allow a prayer for a parking spot to take the place of a prayer for someone who is sick or starving. Jesus prayed first for the kingdom, and then for his daily bread.

But all of that is pretty basic, and I promised you that we were going to get a little nerdy today. So without further ado, let’s get down and nerdy.

How one understands prayer often depends on their view of God’s sovereignty or providence. Providence isn’t just the capital of Rhode Island. Sovereignty and providence are fancy words that we often use interchangeably to describe how much control God has over all of creation. As if sovereignty and providence are enough, we often add a few more big words to the equation as well by talking about the omnipotence and omniscience of God. Omni is simply a prefix that means “all.” So to say that God is omnipotent is to say that God is all potent, or all powerful. To say that God is omniscience is to say that God is all knowing. So when we talk about God’s sovereignty or providence, we are discussing how God’s all-powerful and all-knowing attributes are employed in the world.

Some Christians have a view of God’s sovereignty that says that nothing happens unless God wills it to happen. You live in Staunton, Virginia because God willed you to live here. You got a good grade on your report because God willed you to get a good grade on that report. There are surprisingly a lot of people who believe this in one way or another, often at different levels or to different degrees.

We especially see this in times of trauma. When someone passes away, well-meaning people will often say things like, “I guess God needed another angel,” or “I guess it was just his/her time.” Some will even go all out and say, “God’s ways are not like our ways; His thoughts are not like our thoughts.”

So you can see how at various levels people believe that God causes all things to happen. I don’t. The low hanging fruit in this argument is to talk about slavery, the murder of a child, or the Holocaust. If God causes all things to happen then God caused the Holocaust.

I know that you can make an argument from the Bible for God causing all things that happen to happen, but this is not the only way to understand those passages of scripture. Praise God! Because I don’t know how to worship a God that causes the death of innocent men, women, and children.

That’s the easy argument to make, but I promised you nerdy, and we are just getting started. And we are talking about prayer this morning, so let’s try to get a better understanding of God’s sovereignty based on prayer.

My question is if God has already figured everything out and nothing happens unless God causes it to happen, why even pray? Yes, you could pray to thank God, but what about intercessory prayer? Why would you pray that God heal someone or that God give us this day our daily bread if God had already decided what to do and things only happen when God wills them to happen? And think about the way Jesus taught his disciples to pray in Matthew’s Gospel when he said to pray, “Thy kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

If nothing happened without God first willing it to happen, isn’t praying for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven an unnecessary prayer?

This is why those who have a hyper-sovereignty view of God will say that they pray so that God will change them. There are aspects of this approach to prayer that I like, but there are aspects that I don’t like. We will come back to that in a minute.

Let me first return to those big “omni” words that I gave to you a few minutes, especially the word “omnipotent.” Is God omnipotent; is God all-powerful? I want to say both yes and no. Yes, God who created the heavens and the earth is all powerful. God can move mountains; he put them there to start with! But we also say things like God is love.

And therein lies a problem that should bother every Christian: if God is loving and God is all powerful, why do bad things happen? And if God wants us to pray for things and people, why do these prayers often not get answered in the ways that we want them to be answered?

This is where my “no” comes into play in the question of God’s omnipotence. I believe that God is not all powerful because God has given some of his power away in the gift of freewill. It isn’t as if God can’t take that power back, but because of God’s commitment to allow us to choose to follow him or not, God does not use the power that he has to force us to do anything.

Much of my understanding about prayer, and theology in general, is based upon my understanding of free will. In the very beginning God created us as human beings with the ability to choose one way or the other. Eat the fruit or don’t. We often have made the wrong decision, that is true. But for a loving God to be loved in return God had to create us with free will. Because we have been given free will God will not force us to acting one way or another. I for one am thankful for that. But the problem I see is that God also created others with free will. Life would be so much easier for me if everyone else didn’t have free will.

So what does this have to do with prayer? One of the challenges that we run into then is that our prayers may actually be asking God to inhibit the free will of others. Take for instance a teenage boy praying that a girl falls in love with him. That girl may have no interest in the boy whatsoever. For God to answer the prayer of the boy by making the girl like him would be a violation of her free will.

Let’s take it to another level. What if you have a family member that is participating in a destructive activity. Let’s say for the sake of argument that they are abusing prescription drugs. You can pray for that family member to stop abusing drugs, and I think that it is absolutely fine to pray for them to stop using drugs. You should pray that they stop using drugs. But they still have the free will to continue their abuse. Your prayers do not override the gift of free will that God has given to every person to ever live.

It is my observation that most of the time, God moves in small increments. Steps that are often smaller than we would like them to be. I believe that God does answer our prayers, but often that answer comes a lot slower than we would like, in part because God has decided that He will not violate our fee will.

So how do we pray? The first thing that I would suggest is that we invite God into our lives. It isn’t a violation of free will if you ask God to do something. Again, in Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This is inviting God to change you and your world to make it more like God had envisioned it to be. This is about aligning your will to God’s will. This is about prayer changing you and the world around you through your partnership with God.

Because God has given us free will, we are now giving some of that power back to God through our prayers and through an invitation to God to lead our lives.

And we pray for others by asking God to influence their decisions so that their lives are more in line with God’s will. Not that God will force them, but we pray that God will draw them to himself, so that they can use their gift of free will to follow Jesus.

In 1980, the rock band Rush released the song “Freewill.” This song was a critique of those who understood the world as a system of predetermined occurrences. There is also a line that critiques anyone that doesn’t have an opinion of free will or determinism: “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

Life is a series of choices that we have to make. It is my prayer that God will help me make the right choices in my life. May that be your prayer as well.

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How Do You Pray?

Luke 11:1-13

One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

2 He said to them, “When you pray, say: “‘Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. 3 Give us each day our daily bread. 4 Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.’”

5 Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ 7 And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.

9 “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

11 “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

A new pastor moved into a town, and he went out one day to visit his parishioners. All went well until he came upon this one house. It was obvious that someone was home, but no one came to the door even after he had knocked several times. Finally he took out his card, wrote on the back “Revelation 3:20” and stuck it on the back of the door. Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will dine with him, and he with me.”

Later in the week, as he was counting the offering, he found his card in the collection plate. Below his message was the notation “Genesis 3:10.” Genesis 3:10: “And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked: so I hid myself.”

If you were here last week, you are probably thinking that today’s scripture sounds pretty familiar. Yes, we are looking at the same text two weeks in a row. I hope that you like it, because we will be looking at it again in August. What started as a single sermon soon became a two-part sermon series on prayer. You know how it goes, you start writing something and you just can’t get it all said in a limited number of words. So I broke the sermon into two parts: “To whom do you pray?” and “For what do you pray?” But as I was writing the sermon for this Sunday, I realized that much of what Jesus says here is not about either of those things. This isn’t just about to whom or for what you are to pray. The entire passage is about how to pray.

Luke tells us that Jesus is praying, and Jesus’ disciples come to him and ask him to teach them to pray. In some ways, this is silly. How long have they been with Jesus, and they are just now asking him about prayer? Prayer was and is a part of the Jewish tradition, but we must remember that it is understood differently than in Christianity. Jews pray regularly, but not in the same way we assume Jesus did, based on how he taught his disciples.

In many ways, I don’t think that it really matters how you pray. I don’t think that one prayer is better than another. Sometimes we hear people stand up and pray long, flowery prayers that last for hours at a time. Is that prayer better than a short prayer? Are you more spiritual or is a prayer more effective if it is long? I don’t think so. We have examples where Jesus prayed all night long. But when he teaches his disciples to pray, this prayer can be said in less than one minute.

Think of all the variations of prayer and options for prayer. Must you close your eyes when you pray? I hope not, because I know that some people pray while they are driving. Don’t just throw your hands up and scream, “Jesus, take the wheel.” That’s just not safe, and I’m sure that Carrie Underwood is to blame for multiple accidents every year.

Does your posture matter in prayer? Which is better, to stand, sit, or bow down? What about the time of day. Is it better to pray in the morning or evening? Hands lifted, folded, on a rosary, or in your pockets? How important is it at mealtime to assume the position of elbows on the table, hands folded, with forehead resting on the terminal knuckle of the thumbs—maybe that’s just me.

What about prepared prayers. Are they effective? My family sings “Johnny Appleseed” before most meals. If they are hungry, they will try to hit a starting note while the meal is being served, “Oh…. The Lord’s been good to me…” Is that better or worse than an extemporaneous prayer where you just pray whatever comes to your mind? What about praying the Lord’s Prayer every day, or the Shema, like our Jewish brothers or sisters do? Is praying these kinds of prayers over and over effective? Some people use prayer books, reading the prayers that other people have written. Is that okay?

The answer is yes. That is okay. You may not like prewritten prayers, or you may not like long, off-the-cuff prayers. But in my opinion, I don’t think that God minds them one bit. I always say that how you pray is less important than that you pray.

Prayer is simply communicating with God. God created us to be in relationship with God and with one another. We pray because we have a personal God. How we pray doesn’t seem to be really important to me. Much of it is just a personal choice.

Yet we do learn something about how to pray in today’s passage. We learn how to pray with “shameless audacity,” according to the NIV.

Jesus tells the story of a man who has a visitor that shows up in the middle of the night. Showing up unannounced at midnight seems rather rude to me, yet in 1st-century, Jewish culture, it was more than rude to not provide for that friend. It would be disrespectful and offensive. The host doesn’t have any food in his house, so what does he do? He goes to wake up a friend to see if he has any food that the host can share with his visitor.

How does the friend inside the house respond? How would you respond if someone woke you up in the middle of the night and asked you to raid the fridge for them? I’d say, “Cletus, you know the Wal-marts is open 24 hours a day. Why are you bothering me?”

I get a little more redneck when I’m short on sleep.

The friend inside makes some excuses. The sleeping arrangements were different in those days, and the friend is worried that if he goes to get some food for the visitor, he will wake up his children. And those of us who have young children know how it feels to have your children wake up in the middle of the night. You hear those two little feet hit the floor, step, step, step, over to the door, creak goes their door, creak goes your door.

Not only is the friend afraid of waking the children, he has already locked the door. This wouldn’t have been a simple deadbolt lock like we have. Oh, you’ve locked the door. “Twist,” now it’s unlocked. To lock the door probably meant that they had put a large board across the inside of the door or barricaded it with something heavy. To unlock the door meant an act of physical exertion on the part of the half-asleep friend.

What makes the friend inside the house finally break down and give the visitor some bread is the shameless audacity of the man hosting a late-arriving visitor. Essentially, the host wears down his friend until he gives up and gets the bread…presumably to make the host leave so he can get back to bed!

One of the challenges of being a parent is, well, everything about being a parent is a challenge. One in particular that I’m thinking of is their desire to always buy something when we go to a store. I’m sure that it is confusing to them because that is what stores are for, you buy things at a store. So when they go with me, they want to buy something. I remember once as I was checking out at a grocery store the children were looking at the candy that is conveniently located at each checkout area. They were saying, “Dad, can we have this, can we, can we, can we? I want a blue push pop. Dad, can I have a blue push pop?”

The person working the cash register actually said to me, “I don’t know why they put that stuff right there.”

I looked her in the eye and I said, “Oh, Sweetie,” because when I’m disappointed in someone’s intellect, I turn all southern belle. “Oh, Sweetie. Really, you don’t know why they put the candy three-feet high in each aisle?” I said as I shelled out an extra $1.25 for the push pop.

This seems to be the scenario that Jesus is describing. I’m not giving my children these push pops because they are my friends. I’m not giving the candy to them because it is a healthy treat. Often I’m not even getting them this snack as a reward for good behavior. The only reason that I get them the push pop is so they will stop asking for a push pop! They wear me down and I give them the push pop because of their shameless audacity. And let’s face it, nobody has more shameless audacity than a 4-year-old.

It sounds like Jesus is saying that if we keep praying, and praying, and praying, God will eventually give in. And he follows this parable with verses 9-10: “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”

Well isn’t that great!? Keep bothering God like a visitor in the night, keep bothering God like a little kid waiting in line at the grocery store, and God will eventually give in. That is wonderful news, because I can be very persistent as well. That’s how I got my wife to finally marry me!

This is the story that a lot of Christians tell. If you just keep asking, God will give it to you. Just have faith and keep asking and you can have money, riches beyond your imagination. Just have faith and keep asking and your health will be restored. Just have faith and keep asking and your children will never have any problems.

Well, I have a problem. This formula doesn’t work like that. I know that it doesn’t work like that because I have tried. Growing up, I prayed a very specific prayer every night before I went to bed. I wanted to be a professional basketball player when I grew up, so I prayed that God would make me grow to be 6 foot 7 inches tall, 220 lbs, with a vertical leap over 40 inches. This was the ideal body, in my mind, for a professional basketball player, because these were the metrics of one of my favorite ball players. So I prayed every night for years to grow to be 6’7”, 220 lbs., with a vertical leap of over 40 inches. For years I prayed this prayer. With faith I asked God to give me this size and athletic ability. I even bargained, if God gave me the physical size and athleticism, I would work on my skills on my own to get me to the level that I needed to be at. God, just make me 6’7” tall, 220 lbs., with a vertical leap over 40 inches.

Turns out I got one out of three. But 220 lbs. is a lot different on a 6’ 0” frame than on a 6’7” frame.

This is just a “fun” example of how the basic formula of how to pray does not guarantee anything. There are many more serious examples of how the formula has failed us. We have all prayed for sick people to be made well, only to see them die. Children with cancer die in spite of the persistent prayers of people around the world. People with chronic pain pray with shameless audacity and never get better.

One of them was the Apostle Paul. He prayed to have an unnamed thorn in his flesh removed, but it wasn’t. Jesus himself prayed until drops of blood formed on his forehead, praying that he need not be crucified. He was.

So this leaves me with two options. Clearly, Jesus told the disciples to pray with shameless audacity like a child wanting candy and he followed that by encouraging them to ask, seek, and knock because if they do they will be given, they will find, and the door will be opened. Either Jesus was wrong, or we have misunderstood him.

Guess which option I’m going with.

Repeat after me: This is not a guaranteed formula for having your prayers answered as you would want them to be. This is not a magic trick or a recipe.

The interpretation of this story about the shameless audacity of the asker hinges on the context of this passage. Look at verses 11-12, “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?” I keep joking around saying that this is a real low bar that Jesus is setting. When you hear this from Jesus you think, What kind of father would do such a thing? I’ve got a twisted sense of humor, but I’m not going to give my child a poisonous creature when they ask for food.

The father in this rhetorical question isn’t supposed to represent God. The father in this rhetorical question represents to opposite of God. Verse 13, “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

God isn’t the kind of Father that gives scorpions and snakes. God is the kind of Father that gives fish and eggs. And this story is parallel to the one about the friend who doesn’t get out of bed to help provide for the night visitor. God isn’t that kind of friend. God isn’t the kind of friend that gives because you wear him down, break him down, with your shameless audacity. God is the opposite kind of friend, the one who gives because you are his friend.

When Jesus’s Jewish, 1st-century audience heard this story, they wouldn’t be able to conceive of a person who wouldn’t get out of bed to help a friend in need, even in the middle of the night! Not doing so is like giving your child a snake when they ask for a fish or a scorpion when they ask for an egg.

Prayer isn’t about wearing God down with shameless audacity. It is about bringing your petitions to a good Father and a good Friend. God will get out of bed in the middle of the night, wake up the children, and throw open the locked door to help you out. But we also have a part in all of this. We ask God, that’s traditional prayer. But what is next? We seek. Again, in just a few chapters Jesus will tell the story of a shepherd who searches for a lost sheep, and a woman who searches for a lost coin. Prayer isn’t just about asking God for something. Prayer requires an action from us. We need to start looking high and low, seeking what is lost. Prayer isn’t simply asking God to do something, it is about partnering with God to do something.

When we pray, God expects us to do something as well. We don’t pray for daily bread and turn down a job offer because we expect that God will give us daily bread in some miraculous way! Ask, then seek. Get up off your chair and do something.

We also knock. There are three options that I can think of when we go to a door and knock. One, the door will be opened. Two, the door will remain closed. Or three, someone will ask us to come back later.

It is by all means a cliché, but I think it is a true cliché that God answers all prayers. Sometimes with a “yes,” other times with a “no.” And still other times with a “not yet.”

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To Whom Do You Pray?

Luke 11:1-13New International Version (NIV)

11 One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

2 He said to them, “When you pray, say:

“‘Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come.3 Give us each day our daily bread. 4 Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.’”

5 Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ 7 And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.

9 “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

11 “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

This morning we are starting a two-part sermon series on prayer. I decided to make this a two-parter because as I was writing this sermon I quickly got to 2,000 words and realized that there was much more to cover and that I would be doing a disservice to you and to this text to stop there. So today we will be asking the question, “To whom do you pray?” and next week we will follow that up with “For what do you pray?”

Today’s text probably sounds kind of familiar to you…but slightly off. This sounds a lot like what we often call “The Lord’s Prayer” from Matthew’s Gospel, but we are missing a little something. Like, where is this Father you speak of? Matthew says that the Father does art in heaven (or something like that), Luke doesn’t say. Luke does include the part about “your kingdom come,” but leaves off that whole “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” thing.

There are actually some manuscripts of Luke’s Gospel that include these little phrases. Evidently a scribe who was hand copying the text realized that something was missing. Let me just say that that isn’t a good practice to get into. Don’t go adding things to the Bible just because you think that they should have been there!

Luke and Matthew’s account of the Lord’s Prayer are similar enough for us to assume that they were both recording the same event, and different enough to make me pretty confident that this really happened. The gospels were written at least two generations after Jesus spoke these words, and the disciples obviously thought they were important enough to pass on the later generations of Christians. Matthew records a more flowery, flowing version while Luke hits all of the high points. This illustrates my understanding of the inspiration of scripture. Even though every word may not be exactly the same, the point of the message is what really matters. Luke still hits the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the issue.

Obviously, the point of this entire passage is that we are supposed to be like annoying little gnats that keep pestering God until we get what we want. Like when I take our children into the grocery store and they keep asking for candy. “Can I get a push pop? Can I, dad? Can I, can I, can I?”

Eventually, I’m going to give in, because of, in Jesus’ words, their “shameless audacity.”

That’s not the point at all. What I really want us to notice today is the personal nature of this scripture. How does Jesus address God? He calls him “Father.”

Other religions worshipped distant gods, some of whom made occasional trips to the earth to check in on human beings. Some gods made humans and then just checked out. Still other gods needed to be constantly appeased, to be made less angry. How do you make god less angry? Oh, you know, you throw a virgin into a volcano every now and then or cut the heads off children on an altar. I know that’s how I would make my dad less angry when he was upset.

No, just the way Jesus referred to God as Father differentiated the God of the Israelites from the gods of the pagans. This idea of God as Father can be traced all the way back to the Exodus, maybe even further, when God called Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. Exodus 4:22b-23a, “This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, ‘Let my son go, so he may worship me.’”

Father was probably one of the more formal ways that Jesus referred to God. Many times we find Jesus using a more familiar and endearing term. It’s an Aramaic term that many of our Bibles leave untranslated. That term is “Abba,” you know, because Jesus thought of God as a member of a 1970’s pop disco group. No, this Abba means something like dad, daddy, or my favorite, poppa.

Anytime we talk about God as Father I believe that it is important to address the fact that many people have not had good experiences with their fathers. Some earthly fathers have deserted their children. Some are abusive of their spouses and/or their children. Some fathers are drunks, some are lazy.

This really hit home for me this weekend as I took part in a continuing education event in Harrisonburg. For four hours we talked about child sexual abuse, how to prevent it, how to recognize it, how to report it, and how to work toward healing. More often than not, children are sexually abused by family members, sometimes even their own fathers or step-fathers.

So please understand that if this is your experience of fathers or of men in general, first of all, I’m sorry that you had to experience that. And I totally understand why someone who was abused by their father would not find it helpful to think of God as a father.

If this is your experience with fathers, please know that our God is not that kind of Father. That’s the point of verses 11-12: “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?” God is like a good father, not like the fathers that some have experienced. In just a few chapters Jesus will illustrate the kind of father God is when he tells the story that we often call “The Prodigal Son.” Even if we defy God, shame God, waste everything that God has ever given to us, God will always welcome us back with open arms. God will drop everything to run to meet us, kill the fattened calf, and throw us a party. That’s the kind of father our God is.

If the metaphor of God as Father is still traumatic to you, keep in mind that even though Jesus often refers to God as Father, God is not a man. We often use the male pronoun “he” to refer to God, but God does not look more like me than he looks like my wife. In the creation narrative of Genesis 1, we find in verse 27, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

We don’t want to exclusively think of God as a man, even though God has usually been depicted in our artwork as an old man. God is not a man, God is not a woman.

There are also plenty of metaphors for God in the Bible that use feminine imagery. When I first was told that there was feminine imagery for God in the Bible, I thought someone was joking. But check these references out. In Hosea 11:3-4 God is described as a mother to Israel and God gives birth to Israel in Deuteronomy 32:18. You don’t get much more feminine than God giving birth! Isaiah 66:13, Isaiah 49:15, Isaiah 42:14, and Psalm 131:2, Psalm 123:2-3 all contain feminine imagery for God. And that doesn’t even account for the female animal imagery for God, like when Jesus compares himself to a mothering hen.

And do you remember when Jesus described God as a father who would run to meet his prodigal son in Luke 15? The story right before that compares God to a woman who looks for her lost coin. (See also the possible interpretations of the phrase “El Shaddai,” literally, God of the Mountain.)

The point of all of this isn’t to make God masculine or feminine, male or female. I will continue to use male pronouns like “he and him” and I will refer to God as Father, mostly because that is what I am used to and that is the way Jesus most commonly refers to God. But I also recognize that I was never hurt by my father.

The point is to make God personal but not too person. God is both personal, like a Father, and yet holy. In the first line alone, Jesus does just that, establishing a tension between the personal and the holy. He says “Father,” and then follows that up by saying, “hallowed be your name.”

We just can’t seem to give up some of our King James language. Hallowed? What’s that? Maybe we could say, “holy is your name.”

Remember that for something to be holy means that it is set aside as special or unique. When God gives Moses the 10 Commandments, one of those commandments it to not take the Lord’s name in vain. The Israelites understood this to mean that you should not speak the name of God, which I did last week when I said Yahweh. The name Yahweh is written in Hebrew with four letters, and is sometimes called the tetragrammaton, which is a fancy way of saying “four letters.” To this day, a practicing Jew will not say the tetragrammaton out loud. If they are reading the scriptures and they come across those four letters, a Jew will speak either the words “Adonai,” or “ha shem.” “Lord,” or simply, “the name.”

So imagine you are one of the disciples who has just asked Jesus to teach you how to pray. He starts by using an everyday, personal, familiar approach to addressing God. Jesus simply calls him “Father.” But he follows that by saying, “holy is your name.” Yes, God is personal, but yet God is still “other,” God is still holy.

Even God’s name is holy.

I hope to spend at least next week looking at the verses in the middle of this passage, but right now I want to draw your attention to something that I know I have missed in this text up until someone pointed it out in a commentary. This section on prayer begins with Jesus calling God, “Father,” and it ends with Jesus discussing how God is a good father, not the kind who would give his child a scorpion or a snake (setting a low bar there, Jesus!). In the middle of this explanation of prayer, Jesus tells a story where God in not described as Father, but as a friend.

Look at the first part of verse 5: “Then Jesus said to them, ‘Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight…’” Who is this friend in the story? It is God.

As a father myself, I am beginning to realize that the boundaries between being a father and a friend aren’t always that clear. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that my children and I tend to be interested in the same things. One of my children’s favorite games to play is called “octopus,” which is similar to dodgeball, but when you get tagged, you move your arms around and try to tag other people. It is a fun game to play outside in the cool of the evenings. We practice riding bikes together as a family and take trips to the park. We go on (easy) hikes together and sit around the fire pit, roasting marshmallows and hotdogs.

Yes, I’m a father to these children. I provide financially for them. I help put food on the table and clothes on their backs. I make the most of teachable moments and try to pass on what bits of wisdom I do have. But they are also my friends. I genuinely like to spend time with them.

In John 15:15, Jesus lets his disciples know that they are more than just servants to him. He tells them, “I have called you friends.”

What a friend we have in Jesus! What a friend we have in God. I know that some of the metaphors that we find in the Bible will be more useful than others. God is called a rock, a fountain, a potter, a shepherd, a vine, the bread of life, the alpha and the omega. Each metaphor is helpful and allows us to better understand certain aspects of who God is. God is also like a father, who runs to meet us and a woman who searches all night for a lost coin. God is personal, yet God is holy. That is the God to whom we pray.

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The Tent of Hospitality

Genesis 18:1-10a

The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. 2 Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.

3 He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. 4 Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. 5 Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.”

“Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.”

6 So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three seahs of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.”

7 Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. 8 He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.

9 “Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him.

“There, in the tent,” he said.

10 Then one of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”

This is such an interesting passage for a number of reasons. Before we get to what I really believe to be the point of this passage, I just want to take some time to discuss the theology and the imagery of God present in this text.

To do so, I want to ask you all a question. Who is/are the visitor(s) that is/are welcomed by Abraham? Because those of you in my church are Christians, there is a really good chance that I already know your answer. You are going to say that the visitor was God. More specifically, you would probably say that this right here is an example of the triunity of God revealed in the Old Testament. This is clearly the Trinity showing up at Abraham’s tent. The three visitors are God the Father, God the Holy Spirit, and God the Son–aka, Jesus. Just look at verse 1-2a again, “The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby.”

It says that the Lord appeared and then it says that three men were standing nearby. And in verse one, the word translated as lord is the tetragrammaton, the name of God, which we often translate as Yahweh. Yahweh is the name that God uses to refer to himself years later when Moses meets him at the burning bush and asks God for his name. Yahweh appeared to Abraham in today’s text.

However, if we were reading this text in a Jewish synagogue, we would probably read the text differently. Our Jewish friends would say that these visitors are not God, but three angels. Some Hebrew scholars even go so far as to state that the angels were Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael (of whom I had never heard, though he makes a great Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. Raphael is found in the book of Tobit.).

So which is it? Were the visitors an early manifestation of the Trinity, or were they three angels? You can make an argument for either, but I really don’t think that it is all that important that we get it right. The point of the story isn’t who the guests were, but how Abraham treated them. Furthermore, we are never told that Abraham knows who they were. Angels or the Triune God, even Abraham couldn’t say. In fact, he may have just assumed that they were regular people like you and me.

I’m going to go on record here and say that I lean toward the understanding that says that the visitors were angels. Here is why. John 1:18a says, “No one has ever seen God,” and I’m not in the business of arguing with John.

So what do we do with that whole, “The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre” thing? First off, Abraham never refers to the visitors as Yahweh. He does call one of them “lord” in verse 3. But that is the Hebrew word “adonai,” which is a generic word for lord, like “lords and ladies.”

Let’s go back one chapter earlier to Genesis 17:1: “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless.”

For the Amy Grant fans out there, what is translated here as “God Almighty” is the Hebrew El-Shaddai.

In chapter 17 you have the giving of the covenant. Abram becomes Abraham, and the sign of the covenant is passed on to Abraham and all of his people, which is circumcision. What you won’t find in chapter 17 is a physical presence of God.

When the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures say that “God appeared,” they didn’t mean that God appeared and people could see him just like we can see our neighbors. When this phrase is used, it generally means that God made himself known to someone in a new way. God appeared to Moses in the burning bush. God made himself known to Abraham in the giving of the covenant. And in today’s passage, God made himself known to Abraham through three visitors.

Abraham had already built up quite a reputation as one who excelled in hospitality by the time we get to today’s passage. Traditions states that Abraham and Sarah’s tent was always open on all four sides so as to invite in visitors from the four corners of the world.

We are told that Abraham is waiting under his tent during the “heat of the day.” He sees three strangers approaching, and he runs from the tent to meet them. He bows low, not as an act of worship, but an act of humility. This would have been a common gesture to show visitors respect and to ease any tension that they may have about coming up to a stranger in the middle of the desert. Remember, there was no guarantee that either party was friendly.

Abraham offers the visitors water to wash up with and a little food. When they agree to this offer, Abraham goes the extra mile. He runs to his cattle herd, chooses a select calf and has it slaughtered for their meal. He gathers cheese curds and milk and Sarah makes bread from the choice flour. These visitors are treated like royalty. Today’s equivalent might be lobster or filet mignon, crème brulee.

After this meal fit for a king, the visitors ask Abraham where his wife, Sarah, is. They ask because in one year, Sarah will have a son. The post-menopausal Sarah laughs at this news, just as her husband did one chapter earlier. That ship, she believes, has sailed.

The birth of Isaac was not a gift from God for the hospitality that God had received that day. God had announced to Abraham that Isaac would be born three days earlier. Evidently, Abraham didn’t tell anyone else about this. Not even Sarah. When the visitors announce to Abraham that he and Sarah will have a son together within the year, this is their way of letting Abraham know that they have special insight. They have come from God to deliver a message, which is the very definition of an angel.

This passage is about the generosity of Abraham. Scholars claim that this event happened three days after receiving both the covenant and the sign of the covenant. So three days later Abraham is running around, greeting guests, choosing fatted calves, and preparing meals. You would have to think that he was uncomfortable, having just lost an important piece of skin. But his desire to show hospitality is stronger than the pain.

But the thing that I find the most fascinating about this story is where it falls in the book of Genesis. When we read scripture like we do, chopping up verses and chapters, reading them out of context, we often miss a bigger story. To know why this story is here, it is helpful to look at the following chapter.

Genesis 19 is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. In verse 1 we read, “The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city.” Already we can see the differences between the previous story and this one. Abraham sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day, Lot sat at the gate of the city in the evening. The author is intentionally setting up a contrast here for the readers. The difference, you might say, is like night and day. Abraham is a man of honor and righteousness. Sodom is a city of violence and wickedness. Abraham is full of generosity for strangers. The people of Sodom look to mistreat and sexually exploit the strangers. Abraham received a blessing from God. Sodom received judgment from God.

There is a contrast between the way that these outsiders were welcomed by Abraham and the people of Sodom. Abraham was known for his hospitality. Sodom was known for its sinfulness. Ezekiel 16:49-50a says this: “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me.”

The sin of Sodom includes inhospitality. You don’t get any more inhospitable than attempting to sexually attack your guests.

The theme of the virtue of hospitality is continued in the New Testament as well. Think of all of the disgusting, no-good, rotten people of the first century. There were tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners, and the worst of the worst, the children. Children were to be neither seen nor heard, they were in a way outcasts. Once, when Jesus was blessing the little children, his disciples tried to turn the families away. And Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me.”

Hospitality isn’t just about opening your home to others, it is about opening your lives to them, making time and space for them. Jesus did not have a home, but he was hospitable.

So why does any of this matter? Why is hospitality important? I think that hospitality is important, or it should be, for people across the spectrum of Christianity. Suppose you emphasize evangelism in your faith. Hospitality should be central to your evangelism. You need to be building relationships with people, getting to know them better, opening up your home and your life to them. It would be interesting to hear some kind of data on how many people become Christians because they were shown love or hospitality by another Christian.

Now I don’t want you hearing me say that you should be hospitable just to make someone pray the sinner’s prayer. That’s not being authentic, and people can sense when you want something from them. But if you build real relationships with people, if you practice the hospitality of Abraham, you will be able to have conversations that you otherwise would not be able to have.

But what if you lean more toward the peace and justice side of Christianity? How will hospitality come into play for you?

Come back to that image of Abraham’s tent open to all four directions, welcoming people from all corners of the earth. When Abraham was practicing hospitality, how many people do you think Abraham expected to also be a part of his religion? Zero. His religion had just started three days before our text for this morning! Abraham was the first Hebrew. When he opened up his tent, killed the choice calf, baked up a storm, and gave his guests milk and curds, he knew that they believed in some other deity.

From a peace and justice perspective, the hospitality of Abraham calls us to invite other people into our homes, into our lives, to get to know them. To hear their stories. To be hospitable does not mean that you believe in the same God, and it doesn’t mean that you have the same ideology. You could even plan to vote for Trump and invite a Clinton supporter over for tea!

The point that I am trying to make is that it is a lot more difficult to hate someone after you get to know them. You don’t want to kill someone after you have seen the pictures of the children on their phone or heard their stories about their loved ones. The first step toward peace and justice is hospitality.

For those who don’t locate themselves as an Evangelical Christian or a Peace and Justice Christian, what other reason might we have for practicing the hospitality of Abraham? I’m glad you asked, because I’ve saved the best for last.

We practice the hospitality of Abraham, inviting people who might be radically different from ourselves, into our homes and into our lives because that is who God is.

Our God is a God of hospitality. God created a world, a world that he called “good,” and invited us to come and stay awhile, even though God knew we would mess it up. God invited Abraham to follow him to a land that he would show him. God invited the Israelites back after wandering in the dessert and again after the exile. And through Jesus, God invites us into full communion with God and with our neighbors. Tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners, children, Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes, and everyone in between is invited.

When Jesus knew his time of ministry was coming to an end, he gave us a beautiful image of hospitality. The image is that of a house, a big house, with lots and lots of rooms. “In my Father’s house,” he said, “there are many, many rooms.”

Jesus didn’t say that all of his followers will get their own mansion in heaven. The image that he gives his disciples of life after death is that of living in God’s house. Our God is a god of hospitality.

So we come back to verse one yet again, where we are told that the Lord appeared to Abraham. Where did God meet Abraham? In Abraham’s act of hospitality. When Abraham extended love and welcome to the strangers, God showed up.

The author of Hebrews writes, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” I want to take it one step further. Do not forget to show hospitality to all people, for when we do, the Lord will appear.

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You Can Do It!

Deuteronomy 30:9-14New International Version (NIV)

9 Then the Lord your God will make you most prosperous in all the work of your hands and in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your land. The Lord will again delight in you and make you prosperous, just as he delighted in your ancestors, 10 if you obey the Lord your God and keep his commands and decrees that are written in this Book of the Law and turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

The Offer of Life or Death

11 Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.

The Slovenian philosopher Slovaj Zizek tells the story of a man who visited a psychotherapist for a number of years because the man believed that he was a kernel of corn. Week after week, year after week, the therapist tried to convince the man that he was not a kernel of corn, but was in fact a human being. After years of therapy, the man finally came to accept that he was a person, which brought great joy to the therapist, who sent him on his way and pronounced him “cured.”

Two weeks later, the therapist heard a banging on his front door. When he opened the door, he found the man who had previously believed himself to be a kernel of corn, and the man seemed to be under great stress. The man yelled out, “You have to help me! My next-door neighbors just bought chickens, and I’m afraid that they are going to eat me.”

The therapist replied, “But you know that you are a human being and not a kernel of corn.”

The man responded by saying, “Sure, I know that. But do the chickens know?”

That silly story is actually meant to convey a deeper truth about all human beings. We can understand something, even believe it at an intellectual level, yet we still act differently. We can say that we believe something, yet act in the completely opposite way. And far too often, our actions reveal our true beliefs.

Our text for today is from the book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is the Greek name given to this last book of the Hebrew Torah when the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek in what we call the Septuagint. Deutero means 2nd, and nomos is the Greek word for “law.” But this word can be a little misleading, because Deuteronomy isn’t a second law, it is a second giving of the first law.

Recall that when Moses and the Israelites come out of Egypt, they arrive at Mt. Sinai where they receive the Law from God. But the Israelites have a hard time keeping the law and trusting God. Sure, they say they trust God, but their actions tell a different story. God tells them to take possession of the Promised Land, they hesitate, and are punished with a sentence of wandering in the wilderness for 40 years.

After this 40-year sojourn, Moses leads the Israelties right up to the edge of the Promised Land and gives them the Law again. In 40 years the Israelites would have seen two generations born and two generations die. It is hard to say how closely the held to the Torah in their wandering years, but now as they are about to enter the Promised Land, God, through Moses, gives them the law again, a deutero-nomos.

Let’s look at Deuteronomy 1:5, which explains a bit of the context of this book for us: “East of the Jordan in the territory of Moab, Moses began to expound this law, saying…”

What follows from this point is Moses preaching on the Law, on the Torah. That’s 34 chapters, minus the first five verses, of preaching. Try reading Deuteronomy straight through sometime. And you thought my sermons were long and boring! Moses revisits the religious holidays that the Israelites are supposed to keep. He talks about idolatry and forbidden forms of worship. There are laws dealing with slavery, sexual relations, marriage, divorce, and tithing. Moses also restates what we commonly call the Ten Commandments and gives what Jesus calls the “Greatest Commandment” in Deuteronomy 6:5, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” The “love your neighbor as yourself” part is in Leviticus.

After all of this challenging, confusing, and downright-weird-at-times teaching, we come to chapter 30. Verses 9-10 sound a lot like the Prosperity Gospel to me, especially because Moses uses the word prosperous. He says, “Then the Lord your God will make you most prosperous in all the work of your hands and in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your land. The Lord will again delight in you and make you prosperous, just as he delighted in your ancestors, if you obey the Lord your God and keep his commands and decrees that are written in this Book of the Law and turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”

The Prosperity Gospel says that if you are faithful that God will bless you with health and wealth. Moses says that if you are faithful that God will bless you with health and wealth. The difference is that Moses is speaking of the community of Israel as a whole being blessed for their faithfulness. The “you” is plural, which is most accurately translated as “ya’ll.” Among the laws that the Israelites are commanded to keep involve commandments to care for the poor, the weak, the powerless, the widows, and the orphans. Moses isn’t offering a “get rich quick” trick. No, he is promising that their community will be strong if they care for what Jesus will call “the least of these.” Or to put it differently, they will be as strong as their weakest member.

I step back and look at the book of Deuteronomy and shake my head. How can anyone possibly keep all of these commandments? Remember that there are a total of 613 commandments in the Hebrew Bible, and we Christians like to reduce it to the big ten. Even those seem nearly impossible to keep, so we follow Jesus’ advice and boil it down further to the top two: love God and love your neighbor. But really, who can do that?

I’ve got one neighbor who works early in the morning and he leaves for work in his old Ford pickup truck each morning around 6:00 am. It is by far the loudest vehicle I have ever heard in my life. He lives one block away, so he backs out of his driveway, puts it in drive, and he must be late every day because he then floors that old V8 with open headers and a glasspack exhaust.

My windows shake, and my children wake.

The point that I’m trying to make is that even after we boil down and reduce the commandments in the Bible, they are still really difficult, if not impossible, to keep.

The good news for us is that we are no longer under the Law, we are under the grace of God! We don’t follow Moses, we follow Jesus. And the teachings of Jesus are a lot easier to keep, right?

Maybe not. Perhaps you are familiar with the six antitheses of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Each starts out with a reminder of the teachings of the Torah by saying, “You have heard it said,” and then quoting a passage from the Law. You have heard it said, “Do not commit adultery.” You have heard it said, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” You have heard it said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” Jesus then makes the teaching even more difficult with the line, “but I say unto you…” But I say unto you, do not lust, turn the other cheek, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

Many people have tried to get around these difficult sayings of Jesus by claiming that this is ethics for the world that is to come; this is eschatological, or how things will be when Jesus comes back. Others have said that Jesus is showing us how impossible it is to actually be perfect, as his father is perfect, like he commands in Matthew chapter 5, verse 48. Jesus is pointing out how fallen we really are in therefore in need of God’s grace.

I’m not buying it.

There is a phenomenon known as the “Pygmalion Effect.” The Pygmalion Effect is an observation made in the workplace, schools, and in society in general that claims that when higher expectations are presented, people tend to perform better. If you let someone know that you expect them to get good grades, perform well at work, or be a good citizen, the chances of them doing so increases. That is why there is a “Pygmalion School” here in Staunton.

Of course, there is an opposing phenomenon to the Pygmalion Effect, which is known as the Golem Effect. The Golem Effect says that low expectations can contribute to poor performance.

I doubt that Jesus had the Pygmalion Effect in mind when he called his disciples to practice these six antitheses, or when he called them to be perfect. But it is clear that Jesus had high expectations of them.

No, I don’t think we can be perfect, and no, I don’t think we can perfectly follow the teachings of Jesus or the Torah all of the time. But that isn’t an excuse for not trying. We have these difficult teachings and we are expected to do it. Yes, we will make mistakes. Yes, we will fail. But you can do it.

We can’t do it on our own. We need the church, we need each other, and we need the helper that Jesus promises to send his disciples in John’s gospel. We need the Paraclete, the Advocate, the Holy Spirit.

You can do it, we can do it, if we work together.

Let’s go back to our original text from Deuteronomy, beginning in verse 11, “Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven… Nor is it beyond the sea… No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.”

Just as I said that the words of prosperity earlier had to be understood as speaking to the entire community and not just individuals, I believe that this too is speaking to the collective body. Moses says to the people, you can do it!

You can do it, and you know that you can. But there are always those outside influences that make us question whether or not we can. Like the man who was afraid of his neighbor’s chickens even though he was convinced that he was not corn, we allow outside forces make us question ourselves.

On one level I know that I can love God and love my neighbor. I can even love the guy with the loud truck that wakes up my entire family in time to milk the cows. I can love my black neighbors, and I can love my police officer neighbors. I can love my Christian neighbors, and I can love my Muslim neighbors. I can love my straight neighbors, and I can love my gay neighbors. I can do this, even when the world around me is saying that I can’t.

Our world says that we must choose. Which side are you on? If you say black lives matter, then the world will assume that you don’t love the police officers. Or, if you say police lives matter, it sounds like you don’t care about black people.

My advice to you and to myself today is to stop listening to the world. You are not corn, even if the rest of the world is a bunch of big old chickens!

You can do it! It won’t be easy, and you will surely stumble along the way. But you can follow God, you can follow the teachings of Jesus. You can love the Lord your God with all your heart, strength, mind, and soul. And you can love your neighbor as yourself.

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