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.

The God of Peace

The God of Peace
Philippians 4:1-9[1]
The world in which we live is definitely not one that could be described as “peaceful.” Uncertainty seems to be the watchword of our time—from the economy to family life, from politics to technology. It seems like everything is in a constant state of flux. Just when you figure out how to actually use your “smartphone” or your iPad, you get a software update that sends us all scrambling to figure out how to work the thing! It can be incredibly frustrating. More than that, the pace of change creates a sense of anxiety in us all that perhaps there really isn’t anything out there you can rely on any more.
The truth of the matter is that change has been one of the “constants” that have defined the human experience from the beginning. No doubt, the changes in our world have accelerated to the point where it can make your head spin. But the human family has always had to adapt to change. In fact, some anthropologists would say that it is our ability to adapt so well to changing circumstances that enabled us to achieve a position of predominance over the created order. It’s hard to reconcile yourself with the pace of change in our day and time, but the strength of our species has always been our adaptability.
In the midst of all this, however, I think we need some kind of anchor, some kind of foundation that steadies us when we are facing such uncertainty. I believe St. Paul understood that very well. He knew that the people he was writing to in the church at Philippi faced a great deal of uncertainty because of their faith in Christ. Some of them had been thrown out of their families. Others had lost their livelihood, because they would no longer sacrifice to the Greek gods that were patron deities of their trade unions. Many found themselves at times at the mercy of mob violence—beaten and humiliated, and at times they lost their lives. These were people who knew uncertainty intimately.
Beyond that, St. Paul himself knew the kind of hardships they were undergoing. In his letters he recounts the life he had experienced as a Christian Apostle. It was definitely not a storybook life. In another place, Paul lists all that he had been through for the sake of Christ and the churches he served: flogged to the brink of death five times, pelted with stones and left for dead, shipwrecked three times, spending a night and a day adrift on the open sea, not to mention spending many a sleepless night in prison, hungry, and cold (2 Cor. 11:23-27). His life was one that was far from safe: he says he experienced “danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters” (2 Cor. 11:26).
When you realize what the first Christians had to go through because of their faith, it makes you wonder how they were able to endure it all. In part, St. Paul answers that question with his call not to give in to anxiety, but to turn to God in prayer. And the promise he makes is a familiar one: “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7). I find that an incredibly practical statement. That’s where the battle with uncertainty and anxiety is won or lost—in our hearts and our minds. We need to feel safe in our hearts and we need to be able to think of our lives as secure in God’s hands.
But more than that, St. Paul assures the believers of his day and every day that “the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:9). I think that’s a loaded statement. Speaking about the God of peace can be a description of God’s character: He is the God who embodies peace. It can also say something about the end result of God’s work in our world: He is the God who is working toward peace. But, perhaps most importantly for this context, it can describe how God relates to us: He is the God who gives us peace. And St. Paul says that it is this God who is constantly with us, providing us with an anchor for our souls and a foundation upon which to stand when everything around us feels like it’s falling apart.
I think it’s easy for us to look back on times past and think that it was much more peaceful then. The pace of life was slower and its course was more predictable. For most of us, those “golden days” were the days of our childhood. I grew up in the 1960’s in a small town in Texas. It certainly seemed a lot more peaceful to a young boy. But of course, it was a time of great upheaval in our country. I think the same can be said for any decade going back to the founding of this church. It has been a time of constant turmoil and uncertainty.
I don’t believe we find our stability, our foundation, or our anchor in a particular time frame. Nor do we find it in a particular version of our culture. Those things are always in motion, flowing like the current in a great river that wanders seemingly at will. We need something more stable than that to help us face the uncertainty of our times. As one observer puts it, we really do face the choice to “trust God or to trust nothing.”[2] Trusting nothing leaves us at the mercy of whatever comes our way. The only real solution is to trust the “God of peace” who is with us through all the uncertainty we face.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/15/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Philip Yancey, Reaching for the Invisible God, 71, where quotes John Donne.

New Life In Christ

New Life in Christ
Philippians 3:4b-14[1]
I think most of us value a feeling of being “rooted.” It means having no lack of friends who have known you for a good long time, perhaps all your life. It means not being able to go anywhere without running into someone you know. It means stability, and it feels like home to us. When I first visited this church, in response to their question about whether I intended to stay here, I replied that I had spent my whole life looking for a place to set down roots. Unfortunately, circumstances beyond my control have “conspired” against that. Three years later, it’s still my hope that I will have the chance to put down roots here.
But one of the problems with roots is that they get stiff and brittle. At times they may start to rot, and when that happens, the life that should flow freely gets choked off. Sometimes a windstorm comes along and blows down trees with roots that have grown brittle or rotten. We usually see that as a bad thing, but when a storm uproots that which is dying, it makes room for something new to grow. The same is true for us: when we find ourselves “uprooted” by our circumstances, it makes room for new life to grow in us. It may be painful, and we may not like it, but in the long run, we can see the beauty of the new things that grow in the place of our old roots.
St. Paul knew what it was like to be uprooted in life. In our lesson from Philippians for today, he begins by giving us his “pedigree.” If we translate them from the Jewish world to the Presbyterian world, I think we could say that he came from a family that could trace its Presbyterian roots back for generations. He went to the best prep school, he knocked the top out of his test scores, made it into finest university, and graduated at the top of his class. He was poised to take his place among the top leaders of his people. He had roots in his life that had grown deep and strong.
But something happened to him that ripped up all of the roots that had given meaning to his life. On the way to Damascus to arrest as many Christians as he could find there, he met Jesus Christ. And that meeting was like a great windstorm that uprooted all that had given his life meaning. In fact, Paul says that he regarded “everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8). Beyond that, he says that compared with knowing Christ, all the achievements that he had relied on previously to give meaning to his life he now considered to be “rubbish” (Phil. 3:9). A better translation would be “filth,” “dung” (KJV), or as one recent version puts it: “sewer trash” (CEB).
We might wonder why Paul would have such a dramatic change of heart. After all, most of the achievements of his life were noble and honorable pursuits—in his eyes and the eyes of his contemporaries. It may seem rather harsh for him to take it and flush it down the toilet. But I think Paul may have known something about the achievements that we tend to rely on to give our lives meaning. They have a way of binding us, of closing us off, of keeping us stuck in a rut. And when God shows up to bring new life to us we tend to cling to our roots rather than allowing ourselves to be opened up for new life to be planted in our hearts.
Make no mistake: the new life he found in Christ was what motivated St. Paul. He had encountered the living Christ whom he thought was dead and buried, and he had discovered for himself the power of what our affirmation of faith calls “resurrection hope.” In light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul says he longed to know “the power of [Jesus’] resurrection” (Phil. 3:10) in his own life. He longed for this even though he knew that the path to that new life would mean sharing Christ’s sufferings and “becoming like him in his death.” But that’s typically the way it is with the new life God offers us—something has to die in order for new life to be born in us.
The power of Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead is a power that changes everything. It brings the dead to life. It overcomes “evil in all its forms.” It makes all things new: a new creation, “a new heaven and a new earth” where love and peace and justice reign on earth in the place of violence and oppression and greed and warmongering. But in order for that new life to take root in this world, there’s a lot that has to be uprooted first—like our complacency, our self-absorption, and our quest for comfort above all else. The new life God offers us will not let us cling to those dead roots.
We talk a lot about the new life in Jesus Christ as a good thing. And it is that. But the death and resurrection of Jesus demonstrate that it only comes through radical change. Jesus had to suffer and die in order to bring the power of resurrection life into this world. Paul knew that he would have to share the sufferings of Christ in order to truly know the “power of his resurrection.” I think what that means for us is that we can no longer go on clinging to the roots in our lives that we think give us meaning and safety and happiness. In order to truly know the “power of his resurrection” in our lives, we have to be willing to let some things be uprooted. But the good news is that when what we’ve been clinging to gets torn from our hearts, it leaves fresh soil that is open and ripe for new seeds to grow and blossom and bear fruit in ways that we probably couldn’t imagine: seeds of new life in Christ!

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/8/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Giving Up

Giving Up
Philippians 2:1-13[1]
I would say that we spend a great deal of effort these days trying to hold onto our expectations of what we want our lives to look like. This goes beyond the drive to make sure we have the basic needs of life. I think most of us enter the adult phase of our lives with an “ideal” or a “dream” of how we want our lives to unfold. Unfortunately, for many of us, life has a way of thwarting that ideal. Instead of living the life we’ve always wanted, we may find ourselves sitting among the pieces of our broken dreams. And the tragedy is that we’re taught to succeed in life, not to lose. Most of us don’t really know what to do with ourselves when we lose.
I would say that the typical response to this kind of experience is that we simply tighten our grip on life. We seem to think that if we hold on tighter we can keep the pieces of our life from slipping through our grasp. But that’s not how life works. Our lives seem to take a course of their own, and when we try to swim against the stream, we only succeed in making ourselves miserable. No amount of effort will enable us to control the outcomes in our lives. But this points us to one of the deeper ironies of life. It’s only when we take the risk of giving up our expectations that we can truly find the peace, contentment, and even joy that we were looking for in the first place.
I think that’s a part of what St. Paul is trying to get across in our lesson from Philippians for today. He uses the example of Jesus Christ humbling himself and literally giving up everything for us to urge the Christians of his day to adopt that way of living themselves. I believe he knew that he was asking them to do the hardest thing they would probably face in their lives. But from St. Paul’s point of view, Jesus’ sacrifice of himself for us demands of us nothing less than giving up our selfish and self-centered ways.
Paul puts it this way: “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, … Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:1, 3-4). As usual, I like the way Gene Peterson puts it in The Message: “If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, … Don’t push your way to the front; .... Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. ... Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.” That means “having the same attitude that Christ Jesus had” (Phil. 2:5, NLT). It means following Jesus like you really mean it!
I think that the key to all of this is a matter of being willing to surrender the illusions we cherish of being able to control our lives. Those illusions keep us closed in, head down, and shoulders hunched as continue chasing pavements that lead us nowhere. I agree with Richard Rohr that surrender involves three aspects of our identity: “our opinionated head, our closed-down heart, and our defensive and defended body.”[2] We have to surrender the willfulness of thinking we know what’s best for us. We have to surrender the hardness with which we surround our hearts to keep them from getting hurt. And we have to surrender all of our efforts to defend ourselves against anything that would keep us from getting the life we’ve always wanted.
 That may sound rather depressing to some of us. It might seem like we’re supposed to give up all our hopes and dreams if we’re going to follow Jesus. But when we have no more hopes and dreams for life, it’s easy to fall into despair. I don’t think that’s what St. Paul had in mind. Rather, I think he had in mind embracing a different vision for our lives than the one the vast majority of the human family has always followed. Instead of seeking our own advantage no matter whom we may hurt, St. Paul held up the image of Jesus as an example of a life that “serves others no matter how much it costs.”[3] I think Paul knew that the lesson of the cross is that not only is God’s strength manifested in weakness, but also God’s life is manifested in death. And he knew that it is only by following Jesus’ example of serving others that we can find our true lives. He knew that the only way to have the life we’ve always wanted is to give up our wants and at times even our needs for the sake of serving others.
We’re not really geared towards giving up anything. Most of us will keep trying as long as we can, even if it means we wind up beating our heads against a wall. And we think of our Christian faith as a way to get what we want out of life. Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that pretending to follow Christ without being willing to sacrifice ourselves and serve others cheapens God’s grace. By contrast, he says that the grace offered to us in Jesus is “costly” because “it costs people their lives; it is grace because it thereby makes them live.”[4] Following Christ demands that we give up our own wants, hopes, and dreams in order to serve others. That may sound like a raw deal. But in fact, when we actually make the choice to follow Jesus in that way, we learn that we truly find what we’ve always wanted in life only by giving it up.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/1/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, 8.
[3] David Garland, Mark, 335.
[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 45.

Living for Jesus

Living for Jesus
Philippians 1:21-30[1]
No matter how far along the path of the Christian life we may find ourselves, I think we always face the challenge of dealing with our own self-interest. Try as we may, it seems to dog our steps all our days. There aren’t many of us who can truly get past concerns of our well-being, our safety, our health, or our financial security. These are matters that are basic to our experience of what it means to be human. We need love, shelter, health, safety, and the means to provide for our basic needs. I’m not sure what it would look like to be able to completely set our self-interest aside.
And yet, the New Testament consistently points to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for our sakes and calls us to follow his example. In the words of Jesus, we’re to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow him (Mark 8:34). Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously interpreted this statement by saying, “Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death.”[2] By that “death” he was referring to the self-denial that “means knowing only Christ, no longer knowing oneself.”[3] While Bonhoeffer was speaking of the ideal, I think it gets more complicated when it comes to the push and pull of the demands life in the real world makes.
I think that both Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Paul the Apostle knew how difficult it is to put into practice the call to follow Jesus. In our lesson from the letter to the church at Philippi for today, St. Paul writes as a man contemplating the end of his life. He was very likely in Rome, under house arrest, awaiting his day in court with Caesar. Whether the outcome of that trial would be life or death he did not know, but he considered the possibility that he might very well lose his life for the sake of his service to Christ. No one, not even Jesus, could face that prospect without some kind of struggle.
And yet, by the time Paul writes this letter to his dear friends in the church at Philippi, it seems he has already come to some kind of resolution of the crisis. In fact, the situation had created an internal conflict within him. As he relates to his friends, he was torn between the options of “departing and being with Christ” which he considered “far better” and “remaining in the flesh,” or continuing with his life of service, which he knew was “more necessary” for them (Phil. 1:23-24). Between the two, Paul reassures his friends that he is convinced that he will get through the crisis and continue to serve on their behalf.
At the beginning of all this, Paul makes a statement that may seem strange to us. He says, “For me, living is Christ” (Phil. 1:21). If we understand that purely from a theoretical standpoint, we might be able to grasp what he’s saying. One translation says it this way: “To me the only important thing about living is Christ.”[4] Another renders it this way, “For me, life finds all of its meaning in Christ.”[5] I think we can understand that Paul was so dedicated to the cause of Christ that it had become the sole purpose of his life. He found fulfillment by living for Jesus.
If that were as far as it went, I think we could all admire St. Paul for his sacrifice, his dedication, and his single-minded devotion to serving others for the sake of Jesus Christ. But I’m not so sure that’s all there is to it. For one thing, it makes it too easy for us to let ourselves off the hook for not being the kind of “super-Christian” that St. Paul was. More importantly, Paul makes it clear elsewhere that he meant for all of us to follow his example in serving others for the sake of Jesus with the same kind of devotion and sacrifice that he did. In fact, in another of his letters Paul says that Christ died for us “so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them” (2 Cor. 5:15).
We, too, are to find the meaning of our lives in Christ. I think that’s why St. Paul said what he did: “For me, living is Christ.” To say that living is Christ goes beyond finding our highest fulfillment in living for Jesus. If we define our commitment to Jesus by saying “For me, living is Christ,” it means completely redefining all the ties we have relied on for meaning in life. To say, “For me, living is Christ” means leaving behind all that we might call our “old selves” in order to find new life in Christ. Living for Jesus in this sense means no more and no less than finding our life in Jesus Christ himself, and in him alone![6]
In the push and pull of our daily lives, this may seem like an impossible ideal. Reality has a way of thwarting all our best intentions and diverting us from this kind of single-minded devotion to living for Jesus. But Christ’s call demands an answer: will we take up our cross and follow him or will we try to excuse ourselves due to the “conflicts” in our lives? If we want to say “For me to live is Christ,” I think it means that we renounce our ideas of self-sufficiency and find our true lives—and our true relationship with every facet of our lives—through the lens of our commitment to Christ. I’m not saying that it will be easy. It’s a perspective we must continually seek to learn. But I do believe that’s what it means to be the kind of people who are living for Jesus.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/24/2017.
[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 87.
[3] Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 86.
[4] Philippians 1:21, New Century Version
[5] Philippians 1:21, New International Reader’s Version
[6] Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 62, 65, 74.

The Lord is With Us

The Lord is With Us
Genesis 50:15-21[1]
I find that “God’s purpose” for my life is incredibly difficult to discern. I also know that my ability to discern what God may be doing in my life at any particular time isn’t very accurate. You may be able to identify with that. It seems, beyond the obvious truth that God wants us all to love him and to love each other, that it’s next to impossible for us to know with any certainty what God may be doing in our lives. I think that’s especially the case when life hurts. We believe in a God who loves us, who is kind and good to us, and who is all-powerful. And for most of us that all adds up to the idea that God must intend to bring into our lives the good things that we desire. Surely it must be God’s purpose to make us happy! And, at least from the outside looking in, that seems to be true for some people. But I would have to say that I doubt that most of us fall in that category.
I would say that the vast majority of people we encounter in our everyday lives are dealing with some kind of significant loss or another—whether it’s a career, or health, or a relationship, or simply the loss of vitality you had when you were younger. Since that’s the case, I personally don’t find it helpful to peddle the promise that if you have enough faith you’ll get the life you’ve always wanted. If that’s God’s purpose for us, then it seems like he hasn’t done a very good job of it! But I would have to say that I don’t believe “making us happy” is God’s purpose for us at all. In fact, I would point to St. Paul who says that God’s purpose for us is to “conform us to the image of Christ” (Rom. 8:29). That happens in a variety of ways, but in my experience it “sticks” most frequently in times of hardship and suffering. It’s in those times that we truly learn the faith that trusts in God in all the circumstances of our lives.
That’s not the answer most of us want to hear. We enter our lives with the youthful enthusiasm that leads us to believe we can do anything. But life has a way of reminding us that we are mere mortals with limitations. Joseph seemed to have some of that youthful enthusiasm. Although his dreams of success and great achievement did actually come true. I doubt that as a young man he could ever have imagined the path that it would take for him to get there. It was a path through slavery and a long imprisonment that led him to become the second most powerful man in the world of his day.
But that wasn’t the primary purpose of God in this seemingly tragic story. God had something more important in mind. And it would take Joseph a lifetime to understand it—a lifetime that I think must have turned out very differently from the one he may have wanted. His journey started with his family. Joseph’s own brothers hated him so much that plotted to kill him. Instead, they wound up selling him into slavery. It must have been quite a fall for Joseph going from being the favored son of a rich man to a slave in a foreign country.
And yet, in slavery, “the Lord was with” Joseph (Gen. 39:3), and he was put in charge of the master’s household. After repeated attempts by his master’s wife tried to seduce him, one day Joseph fled leaving his garment in her hands.  Of course, she accused him of taking liberties with her, and Joseph wound up in jail. Now, what we have to understand is that “jail” in those days was more like a death sentence than confinement. You were thrown into a dungeon and no one really cared if you lived or died. But even in the dungeon, “the Lord was with” Joseph (Gen. 39:21), and he wound up running the place.
After years, two of Pharaoh’s closest servants happened to land in jail. Joseph helped them by interpreting some troubling dreams, and in return he asked them to help him when they got out. Pharaoh eventually had his own disturbing dreams, and one of them remembered Joseph. After interpreting Pharaoh’s dream as a reference to a coming famine, and proposing a plan for dealing with it, Joseph became what was essentially the “Prime Minister” of Egypt! He became the second most powerful man in the most powerful empire in the world of that day!
As a result of the famine, Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt looking for grain. After testing them, he revealed his true identity to them, and Joseph was reunited with his family. Years later, Joseph’s brothers were afraid that he would take revenge on them. But Joseph said, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (Gen. 50:20). Years of hardship, suffering, and brokenness led him to understand that God used all his experiences to shape him into the man who could save his family, as well as many others.
Like many of us, Joseph’s life turned out quite differently than he could have imagined. I think the reason for all that he went through was that something bigger was at stake than his own personal “happiness.” And I think it was this realization that enabled him to find peace by trusting that God’s purposes were for good, even though it may have been hard to see it in the process. I think that’s a lesson we all have to learn if we’re going to learn to trust God to be loving and good, come what may. I think that’s where the water hits the wheel for many of us when it comes down to really learning faith. It may take pain and loss to learn that kind of faith, but we can trust God to be with us every step of the way.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/17/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE. 

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.