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Truth Found in Community (October 20, 2019)

Luke 18:1-8; Genesis 32:22-31

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

Have you noticed? There seems to be a growing crisis of anxiety and depression in our culture. More and more people are experiencing hopelessness and despair, and the reasons are all around us. Increasing gun violence, separating refugee families and caging children, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and fear-inducing rhetoric about the perceived dangers that are all around us. We hear these words day in and day out. Day after day. Week after week. Month after month.

All of these words constitute an actual spiritual assault on our collective soul. The words of injustice and hatred and fear that are constantly being heaped on us are having an effect. There is a correlation between the hateful voices we’re continually hearing and the deep sense of gloom we’re experiencing as a culture.

We’re not alone. These texts today speak to this cultural despair. One aspect of depression and anxiety is the belief that the hopelessness, the injustice, the anxiety of today is the way it will be from now on.

That is a lie and we cannot believe the lie. One of the reasons we fall prey to that lie is that far too often it’s the only voice we hear.

In both of these texts, the main characters are dealing with hopeless, anxiety-causing situations, but doing so all alone. The widow in the gospel is alone because she has no one to advocate for her, no one to speak encouragement and hope to her. Where is her community? She has to face this unjust judge all alone. The only voice she hears is one that says there will be no justice for you. There will never be justice for you.

In the Genesis text, Jacob is worried about his pending meeting with his twin brother Esau. And he has reason to be. Jacob cheated Esau out of both a birthright and a blessing. All his life Jacob has been a scoundrel and a cheat. As he returns to his homeland for a reunion with Esau in this chapter, he’s still trying to trick his brother. He divides his property into two camps, hoping Esau and his men will attack one camp and not the other. He then, in an attempt to soften up his brother, divides the tribute he’s bringing among three different groups of his servants. Jacob deals with his situation alone because he keeps dividing his property and household into smaller and smaller camps until he ends up alone. And alone, the only voice Jacob hears is one that says your brother wants to kill you and steal you fortune. So there will be no peace for you. There will never be peace for you.

Can’t we relate to these stories? It seems the only voices we hear are voices of hopelessness, injustice, despair, cruelty, division. It’s wearing us down. We’re starting to believe that what these voices are saying is true.

But there’s the word of hope for us. Somehow in both of these texts there is another voice that counters the lie. For the widow in the gospel, there is a voice that tells her that the injustice she is currently living with is not the only outcome. It doesn’t have to be a permanent reality. That little sliver of hope—that the lie of injustice she keeps hearing isn’t the way it will always be—is something she clings to. As she hears this other voice of hope and then boldly repeats it herself, she wears out even an unjust judge and a new reality emerges. The hopeless injustice of today gives way to the newness of tomorrow.

For Jacob too, another voice is heard. In his situation it is the voice of God who comes in human form during the night. The voice of God who is vulnerable enough and persistent enough to wrestle with him all night long. The voice of God who keeps offering the possibility of another outcome. The voice of God who winds up blessing him. The voice of God who wrestles the lie away from Jacob and as a result leaves him changed, scarred, tired, but with a new voice and a new purpose for his life. Jacob limps away from his encounter with God, but having heard God’s voice he begins a new life with a new name.

These are timely stories for us. Dark nights of the soul are now part of our daily human experience. What matters is that when we’re in the struggles of these dark nights, there is another voice we can listen to. There is a voice other than the one telling us there will only hate, only fear, that there will never be any hope, that there is no future. There is another voice that we can cling to. And what’s more, we can echo that voice right into the heart of that hateful, hopeless abyss.

What we know about God, what Jesus reveals to us about Gods, is that God speaks something different than the injustice and anxiety we see and endure. What these two texts tell us is to cling to that voice of God. Rather than struggle alone, we can speak together of God’s promise of justice; to encourage each other to never let go of God no matter how dark the night gets or how long the night lasts. We must not believe the lie that is spoken in the night. We must wrestle, cling, and continue to repeat the voice of God. Dawn is coming. Justice will be delivered.

The voices of hate and fear seem real in the night, but they are shown to be lies when the dawn comes. God comes to us and whispers words of truth, words of love, hope, and new life into our ears. It’s these words we cling to, these words we repeat, these words we remind each other. The dawn is coming. Hear the voice of hope, of justice, of peace, and of joy.

Hear them. Because they are words of truth.

Repeat them. Because they are words of encouragement.

Shout them. Because they are words of hope.

The hateful, frightening voices of the night will not win today. Speak words of truth to the person next to you: they are loved, they are worthwhile, the dark nighttime of injustice and despair is coming to an end. Together we can endure. God has spoken it.

 
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Posted by on October 28, 2019 in Sermon

 

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Your Story Needs to be Told (June 23, 2019)

Luke 8:26-39

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27 As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— 29 for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31 They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. 32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. 34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35 Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 36 Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37 Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

While on sabbatical last year we spent a few days in Paris. We wandered over to a classic French sidewalk café, and wanting a full “Paris” experience, I ventured into an area about which I know nothing: French cuisine. So I ordered a grade AAAAA sausage that was advertised as unique to France. This ought to be great!

The server, however, upon hearing my order, frowned. “I don’t recommend that for tourists,” she said with significant emphasis. “Don’t worry,” I responded. “I’m feeling brave.” “No,” she said again. “This is not good for tourists. It is very strong.” “Good!” says the naive tourist, who, ironically, was on a sabbatical the theme of which is “Listening.”

She brought the unique French sausage, called “andouillette” (“ahn-dwee-yet”), and I quickly admitted she was right about the strong odor. Well, more than strong. It was revolting. But I’m in France, so, I took a bite–after all, it couldn’t taste worse than it smelled.

Oh, was I wrong. Now, to my credit, I did swallow a bite. And kept it down. But then I made the mistake of pulling out my phone and Googling it. There’s a reason for the horrendous smell. It’s made of all kinds of meat from various parts of animal intestines. Including the colon. Hence, the indescribable taste.

I tell you that story not because of the particular significance of it as a story, but because of the significance of stories in general. Stories have the power to connect people. When we hear a story, almost always we discover ways that our own stories can connect to it. If you’ve been to Paris, there’s that intersection between our stories. If you’ve sat at a sidewalk café, you can connect there. If you’ve eaten anything strange or disgusting, you’ve got that connection. When someone tells a story, there are almost always parts that our own story has an intersection with. It’s the nature of stories.

Which is why I believe this gospel text ends the way it does. We usually get all caught up with this strange story and miss the ending. There’s a lot going on. A man possessed by thousands of demons, uncontrollable and living among the tombs of the dead; the casting of the demons into the pigs and their destruction in the lake; the pig farmers demanding that Jesus leave their town. There’s so much there that we don’t always hear the end.

This man who has been saved by Jesus is sane and calm. And he begs that he could now follow Jesus. Isn’t that what we would think to be the best outcome possible? Another disciple! Isn’t that what we hope for everyone? That all would want to follow Jesus? Isn’t that the ultimate positive ending?

But it’s not what happens. The man begs to follow Jesus, and Jesus says, “no.” Have you ever noticed that? Instead, Jesus instructs him to go home and tell his story. Share his experience of this encounter with God. Because stories connect people. Can you even begin to imagine hearing him tell this story from his own perspective? His experience? His encounter with God?

So Jesus invites this man to share his.

Notice Jesus tells him just to tell his story, not to expect a particular outcome. He doesn’t need to convince anyone of anything, he doesn’t need to coerce a particular faith response, he doesn’t need to demand some kind of commitment to Jesus. Just tell your story. Just share your experience. There’s a bond, a connection, an intersection when people share their own stories. Something more profound than intellectual agreement. There’s a deeper connection—soul to soul.

As beings created in the image of God, of course we’ve had encounters with God. We all have God stories to tell. We just don’t tell them. Why don’t we? Maybe because we discount our own stories ourselves. Or maybe we think we’re the only ones who’ve had an experience like that. Or maybe because we’re afraid no one will believe us. Maybe because we think our story isn’t mystical enough. Or maybe because we think the only reason anyone would tell a God story would be if they’re trying to convert somebody.

No. Like this formerly demon-possessed man, we have those stories and they need to be told.

We have stories about our journeys from sickness to health, from chaos to peace, from oppression to value, from death to life, from bondage to freedom. We have those stories and they need to be told.

We have stories of times we’ve experienced grace, forgiveness, compassion, holiness in unexplainable ways. We have those stories and they need to be told.

We have stories of encounters with God, with a creator, with the divine, with the living Christ. We have those stories and they need to be told.

Our stories are unique to each of us, which means that unless we tell our stories, the world is deprived of that unique connection to another way God meets us. We need to tell our stories because the world needs to hear them and connect to them and know something more about the God who loves them.

The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with [Jesus]; but Jesus sent him away, saying “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

What has God done for you? What is your God story? We have those stories and they need to be told.

One of my God stories is posted on my sermon blog, http://www.pastorrobmoss.wordpress.com. The web address can be founds in the announcement sheet. You’re invited to read it there!

(One of my God stories is posted here, but due to time constraints wasn’t part of the oral presentation of this message).

I have a clinical diagnosis of depression. This results in a chronic vulnerability to circumstances and stress that can leave me with no energy or desire to deal with it all. It flares up occasionally, but with medication and therapy I’ve learned a lot of coping mechanisms to keep me relatively healthy.

However, during one of the worst episodes, I found myself feeling that I was simply in a free-fall. Down and down and down in what seemed like a bottomless pit with nothing to slow it down or stop it. It was terrifying. All of the things that I’d been able to use previously to use to stop or at least slow the sense of falling were either not working or out of reach. My intelligence, my humor, my resilience, my theology, even my faith made no difference whatsoever. There was nothing in my life but falling. Trite expressions like “trust God” or “put your faith in God” were meaningless. It’s not that I did or didn’t believe in God, it’s that I simply didn’t care if there was a God or not. I didn’t have the resources available to me to sort that out.

And so I fell. Deeper and darker into the pit with nothing to grab or push against or hold. But it was in the midst of this darkness that I came to a realization that somehow I was no longer falling. It wasn’t a sudden realization, but a slowly dawning awareness. Rather than falling, I had the impression of being held. In this, my most vulnerable, helpless state, I was being held–kept from falling, if you will. This had nothing to do with me, it was nothing I did. It was  happening in spite of me. I was being held. I was safe. The darkness would end. The falling would stop.

Whatever it was that was holding me is what I call God. I can trust this God because this God came to me when I could do absolutely nothing for myself. What has emerged in this journey, and what I’m now able to articulate is that this God apparently finds me worthwhile, valuable, and lovable. I’m worth the effort to this God.

Many others were part of my “being held,” it’s true. I wasn’t alone, but had people in my life that were very caring and connected. That connection, that care, that compassion is the very nature of this God who found me, came to me, and held me. This is a God I can trust. This is the God Jesus talks about and reveals for me. Nothing has been the same since.

 
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Posted by on June 21, 2019 in Sermon

 

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When Your Life is in the Toilet, What Do You Say About God? (November 17, 2013)

Luke 21:5-19

I started a new medication a couple of weeks ago. My doctor told me that while this medicine is building up in my system there may be some side effects, like headaches.

Sure enough, after several days on this medication I woke up with a pounding headache that lasted the entire day. I was grateful for my doctor explaining the possible side effects, because the headache was an opportunity to recognize that the medication was beginning to work.

Jesus is letting us know in this gospel text that the headaches we face in our lives aren’t just bad news. They are opportunities to speak of the presence of God with us.

Here’s what’s going on in this reading. Jesus has been teaching in the temple in Jerusalem. People are marveling at the elegance and extravagance of this center of Jewish life and faith. It was truly magnificent. It is said the outer court could hold 400,000 people. It was not only huge, but ornate. Precious metals, jewels, elaborate carvings throughout. And in a structure that size, that amounts to a building the grandeur of which is difficult to imagine.

The temple was not only elaborate, but vital. It was more than just a church building, it was the very house of God. God lived there. As long as the temple stood, the people knew God was present with them.

Now, Luke wrote this gospel several years after the Roman siege on Jerusalem in 70 A.D., during which the temple was destroyed. So when Luke’s original audience was hearing this gospel read for the first time, the glory of God’s presence in this building was already just a memory. So for these hearers, the question wasn’t, “When will this happen?” but, “Now what do we do?”

It’s pretty easy for us to believe in God when everything is easy and comfortable. Good job, health, nice home, secure income, and sunshiny days make it pretty easy to speak of the goodness of God.

But what do we do when that isn’t the case? What do we do when our loved ones are sick; when our basements flood; when our government does things we believe are wrong; when our church experiences conflict and people leave; When people condone evil in Jesus’ name? What will we say about God then?
How do we continue praising God when all the signs of God’s presence are gone? How will all those grieving, starving, helpless people in the Philippines ever be able to speak of the goodness of God after the experience of the worst typhoon to ever hit land? When the little they had to begin with is completely gone. What will they say about God now?

Living in a broken world means that bad things will happen to us. Guaranteed. This doesn’t mean God has deserted us or that doesn’t care about us–because horrible things happen to everyone. From the most righteous to the most evil. Everyone.

But for followers of Jesus, these are more than merely times to be miserable. These are opportunities, he says. These are the times to speak up, he says. These are the times to reveal your faith, he says. These are times when we can powerfully bear witness to the God of hope and life; the God who brings life out of death, strength out of weakness, forgiveness out of brokenness, healing out of pain.

This is why we gather, learn, practice, encourage. Not for times when everything is fine, but so that we can be a light when others see only darkness.
Some of you here are experiencing great joy and contentment today. Wonderful! Enjoy it! Use this time to grow in your faith and in your ability to speak it. But know that you need to be here in order to encourage those who are struggling today.

Because some of you here are discouraged today. Some of you feel like there is only darkness, that God is nowhere to be found. You are hurting and lost. You also need to be here to be reminded that no matter how hard things are today, that there is a God of hope and new life with you. You need to be encouraged so that you might be able to speak about that in the midst of the hard things going on.

The God who raised Jesus from the dead is present for each of us. Watch for the opportunities to share this hope. When things are hard, when our lives  are difficult, when we are in the midst of conflict, that’s when we will be listened to. When this happens, what will we say?

 
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Posted by on November 18, 2013 in Sermon

 

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