Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Welcome Home

Welcome Home
Romans 11:1-5, 25-32[1]
In our highly mobile world, I’m afraid that “home” is a concept that has gotten complicated for many of us. Some of us have made major moves across the country—some more than one. Doing so leaves you feeling out of place, and away from “home.” Some think of home as the house where they grew up. There may still be family members living there. A few of us may even live in the house where we spent our childhood. But many of us don’t have that place to look to as “home” any more. I would say that the way our society operates these days leaves all too many of us with the feeling of not having a home.
Of course, in the absence of a place that is home, we turn to the people around us. For many in our world today, family, friends, and church provide the feeling of support and community that we association with “home.” I think that’s one of the best qualities about this particular family of faith. I would say most if not all of us have a sense of feeling “at home” here. For some of us this may be the only real “home” we have. That makes it all the more important that we gather together, that we share meals, that we build relationships, and that we care for one another. Many of us have no other place to turn to find that feeling of “home.”
I think that one of the main points of our lesson from Romans for this week is that God is the one who is our ultimate “home” in this world. God’s love and mercy extend to all without any “if’s, and’s or but’s.” That sets the tone of the inclusive welcome that our incredibly generous God offers us all. I find it interesting that Paul makes this point right in the middle of an extended discussion of the idea that all those who are now seemingly “excluded” God will ultimately include in the family of those who know God’s embrace.
St. Paul says it this way, “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (Rom. 11:32). That language may offend us; what kind of a God “imprisons” people in disobedience? But it’s often easy to miss the point Paul is trying to make in his letters. Here he’s talking about the good news that although we’ve all imprisoned ourselves in our own disobedience, God works to include us all in mercy! Again, I like the way Gene Peterson puts it in The Message: “In one way or another, God makes sure that we all experience what it means to be outside so that he can personally open the door and welcome us back in.” 
When you read Paul’s statement in that light, you can see that the emphasis is on all.  Now, some of us may wonder what the big deal is with disobedience. Everybody makes mistakes. But when Paul insists that we’ve all wandered into the prison of disobedience, we have to understand that he’s what he’s talking about is first and foremost dis-belief, un-faith, an unwillingness to respond to God’s gift and claim with trust. “Disobedience” means going our own way regardless of the consequences to ourselves or others.  “Disobedience” means satisfying of our own desires at the expense of others. “Disobedience” is not simply accidentally failing to follow the rules, it’s willfully doing what is destructive to oneself and/or others.  And Paul insists over and over again, that we have all fallen into that trap. As a result, we may very likely not feel “at home” with ourselves, with our world, or even with God.
But the “big deal” here is that God’s response to our disobedience is to extend mercy to us all, to include us all in the embrace of salvation.  And Paul says that this happens because of God’s grace (Rom. 11:6), or “undeserved kindness” (cf. Rom. 11:6, CEV).  As we mentioned last week, the fact that it’s undeserved means that God gives his love and mercy to us as a gift. We can never claim that we deserve it, but God gives it anyway because God chooses to embrace us!
The good news is that God welcomes everyone into his loving embrace. That’s the home that we can all turn to when we have nowhere else to look. God’s kindness may be undeserved—by us all—but it isn’t just some “random act.”  In fact, God’s kindness is very intentional: God has determined from all eternity to be the God who has mercy on us all! God has deliberately chosen to include everyone—especially those who seem to have been excluded.  That’s what Isaiah the prophet had said long before Paul: “And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, … these I will bring to my holy mountain …; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isa. 56:6-7). God’s purpose has always been about inclusion, not exclusion. 
God welcomes us all home to the embrace of his love and mercy. For more and more of us these days, that may be the only real “home” we have. And that’s all the more reason for this fellowship of people who are “strangers and refugees in this world” (1 Pet. 2:11, TEV) to extend God’s love and mercy to one another, and to all whom we encounter. We don’t know what burdens a person may be carrying. We don’t know how far from “home” they may feel. But we do know that God’s plan is to welcome us all home, to a home that we can always count on. And that means that we are called show the love and kindness that essentially extends that welcome to those around us. Just as we have been embraced by God’s love and mercy, so we are called to embrace others in a way that says to them in God’s name, “welcome home.”

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/20/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Incredibly Generous

Incredibly Generous
Romans 10:5-15[1]
  There was a time when one of the defining characteristics of communities across this country was generosity. Because we believed that all our material possessions were gifts from God, we felt almost duty-bound to share with any and all who came our way. Whether it was a neighbor in need or a stranger passing through, sharing friendship, a meal, or even at times “the shirt off our back” was simply the way we believed we should treat one another. And in the most notable examples of our practice of generosity, we didn’t let anything get in the way of helping out a neighbor—not politics, nor race, nor creed. Especially in the hardest of times.
  Fast forward to a new century and a whole different standard of living, and things have changed dramatically. Yes, we still perform “random acts of kindness” for individuals. But we are not nearly as prone to share with a neighbor these days, let alone a stranger! Our society has grown many times more prosperous since the days when our parents and grandparents were practicing simple hospitality and generosity. And as we have done so, we have retreated to the “safety” of our homes and cars, which effectively insulate us from the people around us. When we do have to be around “strangers,” as when we are when flying anywhere on an airplane, we use headphones to protect us from having to actually interact with the person sitting next to us.
  I think that the tradition of sharing and hospitality in our culture originated in the Bible. There are many reminders throughout Scripture that all that we have and all that we are come as gifts from God. And we receive them not as a reward for doing good or being good; they come from God’s grace. Grace is a word we don’t use a lot these days to actually describe a person—at least not the way the Bible does for God. Grace means that we can never do enough good to deserve God’s love, but he gives it to us anyway because that’s who God is! We can never be good enough to deserve all the blessings we enjoy, but God gives them to us anyway because that’s who God is!
  I think that’s one of the points of our Scripture lesson from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. I particularly like verses 11 and 12: “The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him” (Rom. 10:11-12). I like it even better in Gene Peterson’s The Message translation: “Scripture reassures us, ‘No one who trusts God like this - heart and soul - will ever regret it.’ It’s exactly the same no matter what a person’s … background may be: the same God for all of us, acting the same incredibly generous way to everyone who calls out for help.”
  “Incredibly generous.”  I think that’s got to be one of the best phrases to describe God’s grace I’ve ever heard.  I think that’s the heart of Paul’s message in this passage.  God is incredibly generous to us all.   God loves us all unconditionally.  God offers new life to us all, without any exceptions or exclusions.  And all this is something that God does simply because it’s who God is. It’s not something we can ever do enough to deserve or earn, but that also means we don’t have to do anything to earn it!
  Now, that’s the good news.  What it requires of us might come to some of us as “bad news.” The incredibly generous gift that God has for all of us requires nothing less of us than to “turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 30:10).  I think that’s what Paul’s getting at in this passage, much of which is quoted from Moses. Again, in The Message translation, Paul says that the incredibly generous gift God offers us all requires “no precarious climb up to heaven to recruit the Messiah, no dangerous descent into hell to rescue the Messiah.”  Rather “The word that saves is right here, as near as the tongue in your mouth, as close as the heart in your chest” (Rom. 10:6-7, Message). 
  The point is that God doesn’t ask us to cross land and sea in order to deserve the incredible generosity God offers us all.  What God asks of us is that we open our hearts and trust that our incredibly generous God loves us and wants us to thrive.  But that kind of trust is not easy.  In fact, many of us would rather cross land and sea in some heroic venture than to open our hearts and trust anyone, even God!  But what our incredibly generous God asks of us is this—that we embrace God’s incredibly generous love completely, with open hearts, or as Paul puts it: “body and soul” (Rom. 10:9-10, The Message).
  I’ve mentioned my Grandfather, Harold Brehm, who was from Talmage. What I may not have mentioned is that he wound up in the grocery business. In fact, he ran his own grocery store during the Great Depression. When I was young, he liked to tell stories about his life. One of the stories he told was about how he extended credit to many of his friends and neighbors during the depression because they couldn’t make ends meet. He wasn’t really bragging. It was simply a matter of my Grandfather being a kind man and wanting to help his friends and neighbors when they were in need. That’s the spirit of generosity that used to thrive in our country. I think it could do so again. But for that to happen, we would have to rehabilitate our view of God. God isn’t in the business of blessing the righteous, or the deserving, no matter how much they may have achieved. God showers his blessings on all of us, simply because that’s who God is. He’s “the same God for all of us, acting the same incredibly generous way to everyone who calls out for help.”

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/13/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

New Mercies

New Mercies
Romans 9:1-5, 30-10:4[1]
  For generations, our culture has been one in which self-reliance constitutes one of the most basic virtues. Most of us would rather not have to admit that there are times when we really could use some help—in fact there are times when we actually need help! But it just isn’t in our DNA to admit that to anyone, even to ourselves. We’d much rather carry on, doing the best we can on our own, relying on our own strength, ingenuity, and stubborn will-power to get through whatever we may be dealing with in life. Anything to avoid even letting on that we need help! For us, admitting that can be seen as the worst kind of weakness.
And yet, the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ is based on the premise that when it comes down to it, all of us need help—desperately. When it comes to our faith and living it out in daily life, we cannot simply rely on our own strength. And when it comes to making us right in the sight of God, we most certainly cannot do anything to achieve this by ourselves. The Gospel message is that we are all in need of God’s grace, God’s mercy, and God’s love—for the faith to sustain us every day, for the love to serve Christ and the Church faithfully, and for the hope that our eternal destiny is safely in God’s hands.
  In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul goes to great lengths to elaborate on this Gospel of new life as a gift of God’s grace and mercy.  He makes it clear that because of Jesus’ death and resurrection we all have new life, a life that truly is life. And yet, in the midst of this wonderful elaboration on the good news, Paul faces an inevitable question —what about God’s own “people”?  The fact of the matter is that God’s “chosen people” had for the most part rejected Jesus and the good news that Paul and others were preaching.  Paul says that it personally caused him “great grief and constant pain” (Rom. 9:2).  But it also constitutes an argument that could potentially refute the Gospel. 
  Think about it—if this is what God is up to in the world, why is it that God’s own “chosen people” have not embraced it?  Or perhaps we could ask it this way—if God is so “faithful” and “loving,” why has God’s project seemingly by-passed the people God promised to bless?  It would seem that either the “gospel” is a massive misrepresentation, or that God is after all unfaithful, untrustworthy, and “the promise of God has failed” (Rom. 9:6, TEV). For Paul, this raises a serious question about God’s intentions on our behalf.
  All of this relates to an issue that defines our understanding of God and salvation throughout the Bible.  It is the subject of “election.”  In the Bible, election is the idea that God chose to bless the descendants of Abraham.  The promises to the ancestors, the Exodus, and the covenant are all part of one great act of God in choosing the people of Israel to be God’s people.  This doesn’t come across very well with us, because “choosing” anyone sounds to us like rejecting someone else—or perhaps everyone else!  I think one of the great sources of confusion about the Gospel is the idea that God picks and chooses who will be saved and who will be rejected.  If that’s the case, then Paul’s “Gospel” really isn’t such good news after all!
  That’s why Paul takes great pains to address this question.  Unfortunately, in this section of the Book of Romans he seems to talk in circles, and it’s easy to get lost in the process!  Though Paul’s language is confusing, the main idea is that when it comes to our salvation—as well as anyone else’s—“everything depends on God’s mercy” (Rom. 9:16, CEV).  Or as another version puts it, “It is obviously not a question of human will or human effort, but of divine mercy” (Rom. 9:16, Phillips). 
  At first glance, the idea of “election,” or “predestination,” or whatever you want to call it, seems to imply that God is arbitrary about who gets to have eternal life and who perishes in the flames. But nothing could be further from the truth!   When the Bible addresses God’s “plan of salvation,” it presents a God who is always taking the first step toward us all. If we follow the Scriptures closely, we will see that what all of this is about is God’s decision from all eternity to be the God who justifies the godless (Rom. 4:5), who has mercy on us all (Rom. 11:32), who takes all notion of rejection away (Rom. 8:1; cf. Gal. 3:13).  At the end of the day what must be said about the Bible’s witness is that what God elects, what God chooses from all eternity, what God “predestines,” if you will, is our salvation—and the salvation of all humankind!   This is true even in the case of those who apparently reject God’s love now, of those who seemingly want to be destroyed, of those who have hardened themselves!  
  All of this may seem difficult to grasp for those of us who live by the creed that you pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and you make your own way in this world. But the essence of Paul’s Gospel in the letter to the Romans is that “everything depends on God’s mercy” (Rom. 9:16, CEV). This is true even for God’s “chosen” people who have seemingly rejected Jesus. For them, God’s mercy will be renewed and they will be restored (Rom. 9:25-26). And for the rest of us, whether we have sought out God or ignored God, God’s mercy claims us all for his own. For all of us, the bottom line is that God is the one who has determined from all eternity to be the God whose mercies are “new every morning.” And if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll have to come the conclusion that we too depend in the final analysis on God’s new mercies for all of our life and for all of our hope.

[1] © 2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/6/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

When We Least Expect It

When We Least Expect It
Matthew 13:31-33[1]
If you’ve spent any significant time in the Southeastern United States, you know that “Kudzu” is bad word.  A very bad word.  People in that part of the country hate Kudzu with a passion.  The reason is that it is one of the fastest growing invasive plants ever to make it to our shores. In fact, it’s called “the vine that ate the South”! Of course, in these parts we’re more concerned about various kinds of thistles, cedars, and weeds like poison hemlock that affect crops and livestock. But authorities in the worst-affected areas of the country spare no effort to eradicate Kudzu.  Or at least to try to stop it from spreading. 
I think one would be hard-pressed to make the case with people in these areas that Kudzu might have any beneficial uses.  In fact, however, in Southeast Asia Kudzu is considered a food crop!  According to Wikipedia, in its native China Kudzu is considered one of the “fifty fundamental herbs” and is used as an herbal remedy for the treatment of alcohol related problems, including liver disease!  There are even some hints that it may show promise for treating migraines, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and even cancer!  Wouldn’t that be a twist—if medical science discovered the ultimate cure for cancer in the plant that we’re spending millions of dollars to eradicate!
Something like this kind of twist is involved in Jesus’ parables from our gospel reading for today.  To use a mustard seed as a means of describing God’s kingdom would have been about as shocking in that day as telling a native of Florida that Kudzu might provide the next miracle cure.  It just doesn’t compute.  Mustard is just about as virulent as Kudzu.  Once it takes hold in a field, it will eventually take over the whole place.  It’s just about impossible to eradicate.  Modern farmers hate it because it gets in their crops.  Ranchers hate it because it not good for their livestock.   What possible good could come from mustard seed?
But that’s part of the point that Jesus is trying to make. God’s Kingdom doesn’t work the way we expect it to.  In fact, it works contrary to our expectations.  And the same was true for the people of his day. The eventual success of the kingdom Jesus proclaimed at transforming this world into a place of justice and peace and freedom would have been about as unexpected to the people who originally heard this parable as the idea of something as troublesome as Kudzu turning out to cure our most serious ailments.   It just didn’t make much sense.
The reason for this is that the Kingdom that Jesus envisioned was one of humble self-sacrifice and mercy. It would have been just as hard to understand how something like that could somehow transform the world of his day as it is for us. It just isn’t the way the world works.  In our world money talks.  Might makes right.  Nice guys finish last.  Those who lay down their lives for others become doormats.  Humility means weakness.  Mercy means being taken advantage.  Speaking the truth to those in power means losing your job—or going to jail! In a world that works like that, Jesus’ vision of a kingdom of sacrifice and mercy that would bring justice and peace and freedom to this world seems hard to swallow.
Unfortunately, we who claim to follow him tend to want to take matters into our own hands. Not content to trust that Jesus knew what he was talking about, we adopt the means of this world to “force” the issue.  It’s difficult for us to go on sowing Gospel seeds, waiting patiently for the harvest, leaving the outcome seemingly to circumstance and luck, with no guarantees but the promise of faith and hope. Many call themselves Christian and genuinely want to see the justice and peace and freedom of God’s Kingdom in our world take shortcuts to get results.  They try to guarantee the success of God’s Kingdom by their own efforts.  Some of them even try to ensure the success of the Gospel by any and every means, including manipulation and deceit. 
But what those who take these shortcuts miss is that you cannot promote the justice and peace and freedom of God’s Kingdom by methods that are inconsistent with God’s truth and God’s ways.  While it may be true that many achieve success by those means, I would have to say that in my opinion it is not God’s Kingdom they are promoting.  Rather they are promoting their own agenda, or their fame, or even worse their prosperity. And all at the expense of many who can least afford it!
In the midst of this, Jesus’ strange parables remain as an encouragement to those who are willing to wait in faith and hope for their Gospel seeds to bear fruit.  The parables of the mustard seed and the yeast in the dough both suggest that, despite all obstacles, and despite all indications to the contrary, God’s Kingdom of justice and peace and freedom is here; it is real among us now.  And these parables point to the promise that one day God’s Kingdom will define all of life in this world, just as surely as the mustard plant will take over a field.  
As unlikely as that may sound to us, Jesus was no fool.  I think he knew that his message about God’s Kingdom was unlikely at best, and at worst it came off as ludicrous.  It made about as much sense as talking about weeds taking over fields like it’s a good thing. The “kingdom” that Jesus brought is something different entirely from what most people expect.  But if I’ve learned anything in life, it’s that sometimes something unexpected can be more satisfying than anything we could have imagined.  God’s justice, God’s peace, and God’s freedom break out in this world when and where and how we least expect it.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/30/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.