Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Wide Awake

Wide Awake
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11[1]
We have all kinds of ways of avoiding the hard truths that beg for our attention.  We lose ourselves in the images that play out on our television screens or in the world of social media.  We distract ourselves by overusing alcohol or caffeine to get through the day.  Or we become workaholics, keeping busy every waking minute.  Or we just go shopping.  Somehow spending money on something, on anything, seems to make us feel like everything’s really just fine. Anything not to have to pay too much attention to what’s really going on in our world, in our nation, in our State, and in our town.
We use these and many other distractions to keep from having to face many painful truths. Children are abused, and their lives are put in danger. Girls and young women are at risk of being “trafficked” like consumer goods. People live on the edge of literally losing everything, clinging to jobs that have little or no future. Families are coming apart at the seams. Morality seems to be a quaint relic of a by-gone era. And when widen our gaze, we find that there are wars raging all over the world, wars that spread violence like an epidemic and leave in its wake thousands of victims, mostly innocent, left to fend for themselves in refugee camps that are bursting at the seams.
I think St. Paul knew how hard life can be. He had been through countless hardships, mostly because of his commitment to follow Christ and to proclaim the good news. Part of the message he proclaimed was the promise that one day Christ would return and finish the work of redemption. One day he would set right all the wrongs in this world. One day he would make all creation new again, as it was at the beginning. As you can imagine, that hope was something the early Christians clung to for dear life. In fact, they held onto it so tightly, some of them got their priorities confused and became almost obsessed with the idea that Jesus would return any day.
Paul reminded them, as Jesus had said before him, that their attitude toward that great day of restoration was to be one of watchfulness. He contrasts that with the observation that most of the people in his world were living as if they were either asleep or drunk. They had no sense that their life choices were self-destructive. They had no awareness whatsoever that there could be anything different or better than the life of satisfying their own selfish desires. When you think about it, it doesn’t sound like much has changed. It seems like many people in our world today are simply hurtling head-long from one day to the next, hardly giving any thought to what they’re doing or where they’re headed or what their future may be. And as a result, their lives consist of one tragic misstep after another. And they go on living that way, seeming not to notice the warning signs on the path they’ve chosen.
The Apostle calls those of us who follow Christ to wake up from the fog and the haze of living like that, a life that he says is lived essentially in darkness. He says it this way, “for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober” (1 Thess 5:5-6). The challenge here is for us to forego the approach of going through life with “eyes wide shut.” Instead we are to “wake up.” Essentially, I think, what it takes for us to wake up and be watchful is to pay attention.  We are called to live intentionally.
That means that we have to approach the challenges of life in a different way than most people do. We seem to prefer the fine art of distraction, avoidance and denial to facing the truths about modern life. Paul had a different idea about all that. He called the believers of his day action. He told them to “put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (1 Thess. 5:8). Here he returns to the foundation for all Christian living: faith, hope, and love. We can open our eyes to the pain in this world and invest our efforts for God’s purposes only as we have the faith to trust that God has something better in store for us.  We can “wake up” to the harsh realities all around us only as we hold onto the hope that God’s new world is dawning in our lives today.  When we can approach life with this kind of faith and hope, then we can we take the risk of loving those around us, all those around us, even those who are difficult to love, especially those who are seemingly “unlovable.”
When we neglect to live out the faith we profess, we’re living like we’re asleep. There are plenty of times when I’d much rather just close my eyes to the truth that can be painful. But our Scripture lesson reminds us that we are called to something different. We can no longer afford to linger in the various distractions that allow us to turn a blind eye to the hurts and injustices in our world.  We cannot continue to blame those who are different from us simply because it’s easy.  We cannot continue to ignore the suffering around us because it is too painful to watch.  We cannot continue to indulge our selfishness just because it feels good.  To do so is to go through life as if we’re walking in our sleep. But the faith, and hope, and love that Jesus Christ inspires in us has the effect of calling us to serve, “wide awake” to the realities of our world.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/19/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Next Generation

Next Generation
Psalm 78:1-7[1]
There was a time when “new and improved” was the marketing slogan that would move products off the shelf. Of course, over time, it got used so much that we began to ignore it altogether. “New and improved” was just a part of the packaging. Different times bring different slogans. For a while “Next Generation” was the ticket for selling a new product. I’m not sure many of us even knew what “next generation” meant, but it seemed to convince us that we needed to “upgrade”—or at least it made us want to! I think we’re already getting to the point where “next generation” is losing its punch. There have been too many “next generation” devices that just didn’t perform well enough to justify the expense!
One arena in which “next generation” still seems to have some selling power is in the church. In fact, there is focus group of Presbyterians calling themselves “NEXT church” that has been working to to promote church renewal since 2010. Their goal is to answer the questions, “What’s next for the church? What’s the spirit calling us to? How do we be the church of Jesus Christ in the 21st century?”[2] It would seem that there are enough people trying to find answers to those questions that there is sustained interest in what NEXT Church might offer.
Our lesson from the Psalms for today addresses this question quite explicitly. In fact, the practice of teaching the “wonders” God has done to the next generation is something that the psalmist recalls as a command to be obeyed. The purpose of this command is fairly straightforward: “so that they should set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments” (Ps. 78:7). In this context, it would seem that the answer to the questions posed by various renewal groups is clear: if you want the next generation of the church to thrive, make sure to keep telling the story of what God has done. And do it in a way that is compelling so that they will “set their hope in God.”
Unfortunately, if we were to read the rest of the Psalm, we would hear from Israel’s history that telling the story of God’s wonders doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the next generation will actually “set their hope in God.” In fact, time after time, those who actually witnessed firsthand God’s “wonders” turned away from faith. The psalmist says that they “forgot” what God had done (Ps. 78:11). They “had no faith in God, and did not trust his saving power” (78:22). Perhaps the psalmist gets to the heart of the problem by pointing out that “their heart was not steadfast toward him; they were not true to his covenant” (78:37). It is a sobering reminder that even those who witness God’s wonders may not “set their hope in God.” And it is a reminder that even the faithful retelling of God’s story does not guarantee that future generations will put their trust in God.[3]
In spite of a history of unbelief on the part of Israel, generations later, the psalmist continues the tradition of telling the story of God’s saving wonders so that future generations would trust in God. In fact, he envisions the effect of telling the story not only on the children of the present day. He believes that each generation has to the responsibility to recount God’s wonders “that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and rise up and tell them to their children” (78:6). It seems clear that that faithfully telling the story would affect a generation not yet born. And beyond that, continuing to tell the story would lead that future generation to pass it on to their children. Even though the psalmist is well aware that not all will embrace the story of God’s wonders with faith, he continues to tell the story nevertheless.
It seems to me that as each generation of the people of God faces new challenges and seeks new ways to be faithful to the gospel, this never changes. Telling the story of God’s saving wonders always has been and always will be vital to the life of the church.[4] While I remain interested in the ideas generated by movements like NEXT church as much as anyone else, I believe that a foundational part of the answer to the question of how we are to be the church of Jesus Christ in the 21st century must include a commitment to telling the story of God’s wonders to coming generations.
As I mentioned last week, I would say if you are searching for a reason to motivate you to contribute to the work of Hickman Presbyterian Church, this is another place to start. While on the one hand I think we must entrust our children to God’s grace and love, we support the work of the church with our tithes, our time, and our talents to ensure that we are doing everything we possibly can to lead them to “set their hope in God.” We offer our service, our faithfulness, our telling of the story, as well as our contributions in order to plant the seeds of faith in the next generation.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/12/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Gregg Brekke, “What’s next for NEXT Church?” Presbyterian News Service, September 9, 2016. Accessed at https://www.presbyterianmission.org/story/whats-next-next-church/ .
[3] Cf. J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV:993.
[4] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 256: “remembering and telling are essential to the existence of the people of God.”

Love That Will Not Let Go

Love that Will Not Let Go
Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37[1]
As we come to the time of year when we think about our commitment to serving this church, it’s not just a matter of filling out pledge cards and time and talent sheets. It also provides us an opportunity to look at one aspect of that the Book of Order calls being “involved responsibly” in the life of the church. That is, to evaluate “the integrity of one’s membership” (G-1.0304). I think it does us good to ask ourselves, “Why are we here?” For some it may seem self-evident that we’re here because we’re “supposed” to be. But I’m afraid we are living in a time when that answer doesn’t cut it for many people.
There was a time when the church was the focal point of a community like this. You came to church because that’s just what you did. That was the sum total of your social life. Beyond that, it was assumed that a “good Christian” goes to church every Sunday, and to miss church called into question your standing in the community. To skip church altogether on a regular basis raised embarrassing questions about flaws in your character. But those days are long gone, and those external pressures to participate in church life no longer effect most people. We need a more important reason to make a commitment to support the church with our tithes, our time, and our talents.
I think our Psalm for today addresses this question. It is a Psalm about how God has consistently demonstrated that he is “good” and “his steadfast love endures forever (Ps. 107:1). I’m not sure that word “steadfast” is one that has much meaning in our culture these days. It doesn’t seem to communicate much about the kind of love God has for us. Other translations like “Covenant love,” or  “Faithful love,” or even “Loyal love” might help us. But I think the point here is that God loves us with a love that will never let us go. It is a love that remains faithful, no matter what.
More than that, this Psalm reminds us that God’s love for us is such that he seeks us out when we’re lost. If you were to look over the whole Psalm, you would find that there seem to be several “stanzas” about how God seeks out those who are in distress. Whether they are lost in desert wastes, confined in prisons of darkness and gloom, or at their wits’ end due to the dangers they encountered, in each and every circumstance, the Psalmist says “They cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress” (Ps. 107:6, 13, 19, 28). No matter where we may find ourselves in this life, God seeks us out in all the places of distress, shame, and even danger into which we may have wandered or gone astray. This is also what it means when the Psalm affirms that God loves us with a love that never lets us go.
The promise is that, no matter where our lives may have taken us, God not only seeks us out, but he restores us to life. The Psalmist reminds us that God’s love is such that “He satisfies the thirsty, and the hungry he fills with good things” (Ps. 107:9).  God’s love means “he shatters the doors of bronze, and cuts in two the bars of iron” to set the prisoners free (Ps. 107:16). God in his love “turns a desert into pools of water, a parched land into springs of water” (Ps. 107:35). God’s love is such that he “raises up the needy out of distress” (Ps. 107:41). Our Psalm for today demonstrates that there is no situation in which we may find ourselves that God’s love cannot reach us and restore us!
I think if we’re casting about looking for a reason to make the commitment to support this church with our tithes, our time, and our talents, this probably stands at the top of the list. If we’re trying to find the motivation to continue being “involved responsibly” in the life of the church, I think we need look no further: God loves us with a love that will not let us go. And this love is such that God seeks us out in all the dark and deserted places we may find ourselves. And God’s love doesn’t leave us there, but restores us to peace, joy, and a life that is full and free.
Some of you I’ve been participating in the “Black & White Photo Challenge” on Facebook. On the way back from a meeting in Omaha, I stopped at the Holy Family Shrine near Gretna. It’s a beautiful and peaceful place. I particularly liked the water feature that is meant to remind us of the Spirit’s constant presence in our lives. But I saw a sign that I found interesting. Although they have a service at 10 am on Saturdays, the sign made it clear that attending that service did not fulfill one’s “weekly obligation.” It was a surprising reminder that there are still many people whose commitment to their church is based on their belief that it is an obligation they must fulfill.
I would not want to throw stones at another person’s faith or how they practice it. But I would have to say that kind of external motivation only goes so far. It seems to me that an authentic response to God’s love has to come from within. We participate in the life of the church because God’s love has found us, has claimed us, and has restored us to life And so we are here, humbled by that love, making the attempt day by day and week after week to express our thanks to God for this amazing gift. It seems to me, in view of all that God has done for us, we can do no less than offer all that we have and all that we are to the God who loves us with a love that will not let us go

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/5/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Caring Deeply

Caring Deeply
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8[1]
We live in a time that seems devoid of risk-takers. To be sure, there are plenty of people who engage in risky behaviors, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about people who set off on journeys of exploration without knowing for sure whether they would make it back safely. I know there are some of them, but I don’t see too many people “boldly going where no one has gone before.” Even NASA, which seemed to embody that spirit for so many of us for so long, is retreating from manned space flight to sending robotic devices to take all the risks for us.
You may see things differently, but to me it feels like we’ve decided these are the days for playing it safe. We do everything we possibly can to minimize the risks we take in every aspect of our lives. We want guaranteed outcomes, assurances of protection, and hedges to minimize any potential exposure to loss. Any kind of loss. But the problem is that life is full of losses. To protect ourselves from loss, we have to refuse to be vulnerable to the people around us, to life itself. Choosing to live that way is really choosing to avoid life altogether. Yes, if we take risks, if we make ourselves vulnerable, we’re going to get hurt. We’re going to lose something or someone we cherish. But to refuse to do so is to choose not to live at all.
When you pay attention to the story of St. Paul’s life and ministry in the New Testament, I think you’d have to conclude that he took a different approach to life. While he may have started out on a relatively safe path, after he met Jesus Christ his life was anything but safe. As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, it seems as if Paul was constantly going from the frying pan into the fire as he went from town to town preaching the gospel and planting churches. Paul was nothing if not a risk-taker, making himself vulnerable in just about every way possible—even risking his life at times for the sake of the gospel and the people he served.
In our lesson for today, Paul mentions the fact that he had been “shamefully mistreated” at Philippi just before coming to Thessalonica. If we read the story in the book of Acts, we find that he was arrested and thrown in jail, although it was illegal to do that to a Roman citizen without due cause.  Again, we have to remember that jails in St. Paul’s day were a far cry from jails today! I think it would be more accurate to say he spent the night in the city dungeon. I’m not sure how eager I would be to get back to the work of preaching the gospel and serving the church if it meant spending time in jail, let alone a dungeon! And yet, Paul seemed to take it all in stride. He continued to take the risk of serving Christ.
If you think about all that St. Paul had been through, I think it’s amazing that he continued to press on from place to place. When St. Paul came to Thessalonica, a city he’d never visited before, he says, “we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition” (2:2). Just exactly what that opposition was, we may never know for sure. The book of Acts mentions opponents who followed Paul from place to place, stirring up opposition against him, gathering crowds to run him out of town. Despite all of that, the Apostle kept right on proclaiming the Gospel in every new city he visited.
I don’t know about you, but I find it amazing that Paul was able to keep on going despite all the opposition and even outright attacks he faced. I think he gives us an idea of why he would do so when he says, “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves” (1 Thess. 2:8). It was his genuine love for the people he was serving that kept him going in the face of overwhelming odds. The fact that he “cared deeply” for them was what motivated him to keep taking the risk of putting himself out there, serving no matter what the cost, sharing God’s love for all whom he encountered on his travels.
I think part of the reason why he was willing to make himself so vulnerable was because of his commitment to practice what he preached. In another letter he says, “we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:2). His commitment that his private life would be consistent with his public life made it possible for him to share himself so openly with the people he served in churches all over the world of his day.
I’ll be the first to admit that it’s difficult to take this approach to life. Most of us cannot say that we perfectly embody the model of aligning our private lives with the part of ourselves we present to the world. Most of us cannot say that our public lives are a shining example of discipleship to Jesus Christ.  When we feel vulnerable in these ways, our natural tendency is to withdraw and protect ourselves. But that’s not the example Jesus set for us, nor did Paul. They offered themselves freely because they were motivated by something deeper and more powerful than a desire for safety. They served because of the heartfelt love and concern they had for others. I think their example can help us today: we, too can take the risk of making ourselves vulnerable and choose to serve others no matter what the risk may be because we care deeply for the people around us.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/29/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.