Sunday, July 19, 2015
After reading the James Weldon Johnson poem: “The Creation: A Negro Sermon”
And then God made a woman to be a companion for the man and the man and the woman that God had made cared for each other tenderly. All day long they cared for the animals and the plants and the growing things. And in the cool of the evening, when the work was done for the day they walked and talked with God in an intimacy that we envy. But before very long at all things changed. The man and the woman whom God had made good and blessed stepped out of that intimate walking and talking with God and in fact they hid from God. The people whom God had made as companions became fugitives from God.
And then one day many years later, in our story of Noah for today, God looked down on the world. And God saw that the world was full of violence. And that everywhere people were wicked entirely and that even their thoughts were wicked entirely. And God looked at that wickedness and violence for a while and thought about that for a while and then God said, “That’s not good at all. This is not the good world I created and these are not the good people who lived with me perfectly. These are not the people who walked and talked with me in beautiful companionship in the cool of the evening. I created this world good and beautiful. In great love I created a man and a woman to be my companions and to enjoy and care for the world I made. This great wickedness and violence is not what I intended. My heart is filled with pain and I am sorry indeed that I made the whole mess of them. I am going to destroy every single one of them. I’m going to destroy all the people whom I have made and I’m even going to destroy all the animals – the animals that walk on four legs and the ones that creep and crawl and I’m even going to destroy the birds that I have made. I am sick and sorry about the whole bunch of them.”
But then God saw Noah. Noah was a good man when everybody around him was not. He knew God when everybody around him had forgotten God. He lived his life with God as its center, and made his decisions with God in mind. He spent every day of life in companionship with God. He was good and he did good. He knew God and he loved God and according to the story, he’s the only one in the whole world who did.
So God comes to Noah and says to Noah, “When I destroy the whole world I’ll save you and your family. And I’m going to save two of all the animals that I have made – the ones that walk and the ones that crawl and the ones that creep and I’m going to save the birds as well. So build a boat, Noah. And gather up the animals and the birds that I want to save and gather up your wife and your sons and their wives. And gather up all the food that all of you will need for a very long time and load it all into your boat. And wait for the rain. The rain will come and will wash away all the wickedness and all those violent people in that world that I created good and beautiful.
And that’s what happened. God washed away all the evil and the wickedness in the world and started a brand new, clean washed world with Noah and his wife and his sons and their wives. This time they are the caretakers of the plants and animals and the birds. This time they are the caretakers of the clean washed world. So Noah built an altar to God to symbolize a new start in a new world. And God made a promise to Noah never ever to destroy the whole world with a flood again. And just so nobody of us down through the years would ever forget God’s promise to Noah and all of us, and so that God would never forget it, God gave us rainbows.
But the story doesn’t end there, of course, and the clean washed world didn’t last for very long at all. Because before you know it, Noah has planted a vineyard in the new washed world and he’s drunk too much of his own wine and he’s laying naked in his tent in disgrace for his sons to discover.
But God has a made a promise. To be Noah’s God and to be our God.
Now may I say this: If you want to know how to build a boat, don’t follow the instructions that God gave Noah for how to build his boat in the book of Genesis. The Bible is not a book about boat building. And the Bible is not a history book. It does happen to contain a lot of detailed and very gruesome reports of a whole lot of bloody battles and it does list the names of a great many kings who lived a great many years ago. But it is not a history book. If you want to know about ancient middle eastern history, you better read a book about ancient middle eastern history. The Bible is also not geology book or a book about astrophysics. If you want to know how old the earth is consult a geologist. Or if you want to know how long ago the universes were created, ask your phone. Don’t try to calculate that from the book of Genesis.
The Bible is the story of who God is and how God is with people and pretty much every chapter and every page of the Bible tells the story of who God is and how God is with people. Starting with the story of God with Adam and Eve. God made them and everything good and beautiful and installed them in this idyllic place that God had created for them. But on page five of the story, literally on page five, they have already hidden from God because they know they have done wrong. And God is furious. Justifiably furious, and God makes all kinds of threats and sends all kinds of curses. BUT God stops short of destroying Adam and Eve. And instead on page six of the story, there is this promise from God. And God declares that evil will not have the last word in the world that God created good.
And for all of Noah’s building of altars and all of his good intentions and all of his pious promises, and never mind that God saved his very life, there he is before you know it, drunk and lying naked in his tent.
But this is the story of God with people and the story of God with people is very clear. That God is faithful to us no matter where we go and what we do. And no matter how many times we are lying drunk and naked in our tents in disgrace. God may be furious with us, and justifiably so. And God’s heart may be pained - pained to the core - at what we do. But here is the bottom line about God, and it runs through all the stories in the Bible: The bottom line about God is that God is faithful to us even if we are not faithful to God. God’s love of us doesn’t depend on us or what we do. We may be ugly and fickle and forgetful and we may do all kinds of things that make God furious and fill God with pain. But God loves us anyway and God is faithful to us. When the world is a wicked and violent place, God is faithful. When we turn our backs on God or forget God or live our lives as though there is no God, God is faithful. Beloved Congregation Jesus Christ at North Kent Church – that God is your God.
I am desperate that you know who your God is.
Dr. Jack Stewart was with us a few weeks ago. He reminded us that if this congregation is going to thrive, the main thing is to make sure that the main thing is the main thing. Jerry and Jan Wallace were here last Sunday from the First Congregational church of Rockford. They told us clearly that the most important factor in their turnaround from a declining church to thriving church was careful Bible study. The main thing is God and the main thing is knowing God and who God is and who we are with the God. The main thing is Jesus and who we are with Jesus.
So my beloved Congregation of Jesus Christ: it’s very good to have social events and our Membership Committee plans wonderful meals for us and we have a wonderful time around tables together eating good food. It’s very good to do mission. You know how proud I am of you, and how pleased Jesus is to see the long list of important missions that this church supports –financially and with your time and energy. We need to take care of our buildings and our money. This whole congregation has just worked very hard at a Garage Sale and it’s wonderful to have fund raisers especially when the funds raised go toward mission causes. But the main thing is God and who we are with God and how we are with God. The main thing is Jesus and who he is to us. The main thing is devoted Bible study – solid Christian Education for children and adults. The main thing is worship that brings us closer to our loving God. That’s what the church has to share that nobody else does.
We will each thrive and flourish and this church will thrive and flourish and grow when we know and do and share the main thing.
Sunday, July 12, 2015
As you know very well, we have four Gospels in the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And you may have noticed that three of them are really quite similar. Matthew, Mark and Luke often tell the same stories, almost word for word the same. There are a few minor differences between the way they tell the story, and each of them tells some stories about Jesus that the others don’t tell, but there is really a remarkable similarity between those three gospels. Now what we know about that is that Mark was written first, and so I like to say that when Matthew and Luke wrote their stories, they had Mark’s Gospel on their writing table at one elbow. And Matthew and Luke had another document at their other elbow – a document that we call Q which was a compilation of the sayings of Jesus. And both Matthew and Luke used those two documents – the Gospel of Mark and Q when they wrote their own stories. So no wonder they are very similar. We’ve talked about all that before. You may remember that.
But John is really quite different. He does tell some of the same stories, but he also tells a great deal about Jesus that the other gospel story tellers don’t tell.
And this passage is one of those places. John inserts four whole chapters into the story of Jesus’ last supper that the other gospel writers don’t include. In John’s version, he’s sitting around that table with his disciples after the meal there on the Thursday night before his death. He pours out his love for them in a poignant goodbye to them. He goes on for four chapters about how much he loves them. He tells them that he’ll be leaving them, which they don’t understand. But he keeps on talking to them in the hope that after he’s gone they’ll remember what he has said. He talks about his relationship with God. It’s a close, loving relationship that the two of them have together, Father and Son. It’s a circle of love, or a bubble of love that the two of them share together. He describes how he and his Father think alike and he does what his Father asks him to do, and he says that his Father asks him to say. And everything that his Father has belongs to him as well. Then Jesus invites his disciples into that bubble of love – with himself and God. He says, “We will come to you and make our home with you.” e inv
And he uses an example they would have understood immediately. There were vineyards everywhere in that country, and grapes growing everywhere, and people tending to grave vines and harvesting grapes and pruning grape vines after the harvest. So he talks about grapes and grape vines and the branches on grape vines. He says “I am the vine and you are the branches. When the branch is cut from the vine it dies. Becomes lifeless. Falls to the ground, dead. Thrown into a fire and burned. You can’t grow grapes on a dead branch.”
But, Jesus, says, if you are attached to the vine, you are alive. You know who you are – a branch on a grape vine. You can get the water and nutrients you need to grow from the vine itself. You can produce luscious, juicy grapes. And the grapes that you produce will be a source of pride for that vine. Jesus uses the words, “My father’s glory is shown in you.”
Several of you in this congregation are interested in your family tree – and have traced your family tree back many generations. I’m happy to know that because I’ve done the same thing. It’s a way of knowing who we are and where we came from. I am named for my great- great-grandmother, and her blood is running through my body. I am connected to her in ways I cannot explain. I have been to her little village in the Netherlands. I have purchased flour at the very windmill where she bought her flour every week. I have walked the little paths there where she and my other ancestors walked, and I have sat in their churches. I know that I am basically a Dutch peasant woman, a child of the earth and a child of God, because that’s who my ancestors were. When we’re a part of a family tree, we know who we are. When we are attached to Jesus, we know who we are.
And when we’re attached to Jesus, we get our nourishment from him. We draw our strength from him. We soak in his love for us. We walk around in that bubble of love with him. When we are bewildered, we look to him. When we are lonely or confused or in pain, we look to him. When we are looking for some direction in our lives, we follow him. When we feel tired or needy, we turn to him. When things are going wrong in our lives, we turn to him. When we are bone tired weary, we run to Jesus.
And then, of course, it follows that we look like him. And little grapes start to appear in our lives - little fruit that he would be proud of. Little grapes on his vine. We find that we are compassionate toward those who are suffering, and furious with those who are causing their suffering. We wear ourselves out doing what is just and good and kind, and we seek truth in the most unlikely places. We are gentle and self-sacrificing, and faithful. We do what we can to alleviate pain, and we feed the hungry. We actually feed the hungry. And all of that happens in our lives because we are firmly attached to Jesus, and that’s what he did. We are luscious, ripe, juicy grapes on the vine. What else would you expect from a grapevine?
And all of that honors God. We are part of that bubble of love with Jesus and his Father. They have come to us and made their home with us. We live in companionship with them every second of our lives, and who we are brings honor to them.
When I was about ten years old, it was the custom in the community where we lived that people would go visiting in each other’s homes on Sunday evenings. It was not the custom that my parents would hire baby sitters for my brothers and me, so we always went along even if there were no kids in that family, or even if we didn’t know the host and hostess. We took a book along, or a puzzle, or we planned to take a nap – something that wouldn’t interfere with the adult conversation. And there was a ritual that happened every time we pulled into the driveway of the house we were visiting. My dad would stop the car, and he’d look at each one of us kids one by one, in the rearview mirror and he’d say, “Remember your last name.” Which meant that we would speak politely to any adult who spoke to us, and eat whatever was given us to eat, and curl up in corner somewhere and make no trouble whatsoever. And at the end of the evening we would shake the hand of our hostess and say “thank you for a very nice time,” which our mother had taught us to say ahead of time and had practiced with us ahead of time. It meant that we knew who we were – we were Vander Hovens and proud of it. And we would honor the name Vander Hoven and we would not do anything that evening to bring shame on that name.
And then we’d get out of the car and go into the house.
So Beloved Congregation of Jesus Christ at North Kent. Remember your last name. We know who we are, and where we belong. We live in a bubble of love with Jesus and his Father. We draw our life from them. We are nurtured in our connection with them. They have made their home with us. We produce fruits that honor God.
And we always remember our last name. Christian. Follower of Jesus Christ.