Monday, September 19, 2016

Move Your Stake

From a sermon by Jack Cabaness
Katonah Presbyterian Church
September 18, 2016

Originally titled: "The Faith of Abraham"
Text: Genesis 15:1-6

The late Fred Craddock was a wonderful preacher and storyteller. One story in particular that has stuck with me is a story that he told about his childhood. Fred recalls:

When I was a boy, once I was taken out of the house and to the backyard and was allowed to lie on the grass and chew the tender stems of grass. You know how you do on a summer evening, just lie there, chew the tender grass, and look up at the sky.

And my father said to me, "Son, how far can you think?

I said, "What?"

He said, "How far can you think?"

"Well, I don't know what you mean."

"Just think as far as you can think up toward the stars."

I screwed my imagination down, and I said, "I'm thinking ... I'm thinking ... I'm thinking."

He said, "Think as far as you can think."

"I'm thinking as far as I can think."

He said, "Well, drive down a stake out there now. In your mind, drive down a stake. Have you driven down the stake? That's how far you can think.

I said, "Yes, sir."

He said, "Now what's on the other side of your stake?"

I said, "Well, there's more sky."

He said, "Move your stake."

And we spent the evening moving my stake out there. It was a crazy thing to do, but I will never thank him enough for doing it. (as quoted in Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories)

There are times in the life of faith when we are called to "move our stake." That’s what happened to Abraham in today’s reading. When we first encounter Abraham in Genesis chapter 12, a voice comes out of nowhere and tells 75-year-old Abram to leave behind the only home he has ever known and to journey forward to a land that God will show him. God promises to make of Abraham a great nation, and that all of the families of the earth will be blessed through him.

And Abraham and his wife Sarah do exactly what they were told. They pack up and leave their old lives behind. As we read Abraham’s story in Genesis chapters 12, 13, and 14, we learn of their adventures in and out of Egypt, and we also watch how Abraham and Sarah grow even older and continue to remain childless, even though God has promised to make of them a great nation.

And even apart from God’s outlandish promise, there is the question of legacy. Without a chosen heir, how can they have any legacy at all? For people of Abraham’s time, no matter how much prosperity or land you might store up, unless you have offspring who will continue to work the land and care for you as you age, your legacy and prosperity become as fleeting as crops that wither in a season.

When Abraham cries out to God, “O Lord God what will you give me! You have given me no offspring!” he is in pain. He is questioning his faith, doubting God's care for him, wondering if Sarah and he would ever have a child of their own. This is a moment of despair. 

God listens, and then he tells Abraham to look at the night sky and move his stake. Specifically, God says, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And Abraham believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:5-6)

What do we mean when we say that Abraham believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness? What do we mean when we talk about Abraham’s faith? What do we mean when we talk about our faith?

The sixteenth century Reformer John Calvin once wrote that we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit. (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.2.7)

John Calvin (1509-1564)

I’ve always loved how Calvin refuses to mince words … we shall possess a right definition of faith! as opposed to a wrong or a misguided or incomplete definition.

But I love even more what Calvin actually had to say about faith. Faith is a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence—God’s goodness--toward us. It’s not a highly specialized knowledge of theological minutia about God …It’s a firm and certain knowledge of God’s goodness toward us.

And Calvin goes on to say that it is revealed to our minds, and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit. There is both a head aspect of faith and a heart aspect of faith. These are two sides of the same coin.

Regarding the head side of the coin, what we actually believe about God—the content of our faith—is important. Just because God is a big mystery doesn’t mean that we can’t say anything at all. One of my favorite theology professors Doug Ottati would often tell us not to appeal to mystery at the top of the third inning. Play your nine innings of theological baseball. Say what you do know, namely, that in spite of everything and even in the face of seemingly contradictory evidence, God is good, all the time, all the time, God is good.

Faith is a firm and certain knowledge of God’s goodness to us. The content of faith is important, and sometimes it’s necessary to challenge someone regarding the content of faith.

Rodger Nishioka is a Presbyterian seminary professor with years of experience in youth ministry. He recalls attending a worship service in a church when the youth group was reporting back about a recent mission trip to Mexico. One young woman was describing their experiences, and she reflected on the poverty that they had witnessed in Mexico, and she said, “God must love us more, because he has given us so many more blessings.”

Rodger was shocked. He realized that this was one of those times when it was necessary to challenge someone’s speech about God. If the content of your faith only enables you to see God’s goodness to you and not to others, then it’s time to move your stake.

Go back and read the stories of the Bible again. Read what Old Testament prophets like Joel and Amos had to say about greed and riches and poverty, and think twice before you say that God must love rich people more.

Thus, the head aspect of faith enables us to speak convincingly about God’s goodness toward us and others. There is also the heart aspect of faith, which is the aspect that enables us to trust. In the words of one preacher, this aspect of faith is perhaps best expressed as a verb and not so much as a noun. In other words, we might say, “I faith sometimes. I wish I could faith more often. And I am working toward faithing in God in all that I do.” (from Martin Copenhaver, Living Faith While Holding Doubts)

There’s a poignant scene in J. D. Vance’s haunting and moving memoir Hillbilly Elegy. J. D. writes honestly about his mother’s struggle with addiction, and being raised by his grandparents, who had a complicated relationship to each other and to the rest of the family. One day J.D. asked his grandmother, whom he called Mamaw, “Mamaw, Does God love us?” She hung her head, gave him a hug, and began to cry.

The question wounded Mamaw because the Christian faith stood at the center of their lives, especially hers. She knew that this wasn’t a head knowledge question about God’s love; this was a heart question about God’s love for them: Given all that has happened to us, does God really love us after all?

The remarkable thing about the story of Abraham is that even after his nighttime astronomy session with the Lord, Abraham and Sarah continued childless for many more years.
When it came to trusting in God, Abraham and Sarah were always being challenged to move their stake a little more, to trust a little deeper.

J.D. Vance had this to say about his grandmother:

The theology she taught was unsophisticated, but it provided a message I needed to hear. To coast through life was to squander my God-given talent, so I had to work hard. I had to take care of my family because Christian duty demanded it. I needed to forgive, not just for my mother’s sake but for my own. I should never despair, for God had a plan. (from J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy)

When the New Testament author of the Book of Hebrews reflects on the heroes of our faith, he writes about Abraham and Sarah and all the heroes of the faith, saying, “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.”

The writer James Michener recounted that medieval pilgrims who traveled the long road from France to the Cathedral of Saint James in Spain would, as they neared the end of their demanding journey, strain their eyes toward the horizon, hoping to see the towers of the long-sought cathedral in the distance. The first one to see would shout, “My joy!” (Michener, Iberia)

The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, a pilgrimage site since the Middle Ages and the reputed burial place of St. James the Great, one of Jesus' Apostles.

With our heads, we believe that God is good to us.

With our hearts, we trust that the same God who has brought us this far will carry us on to the end of our journey, and, in the meantime, we take one step at a time, putting one foot in front of the other, anticipating that moment when at long last one of us will shout for all to hear: My joy! My joy!

All glory and praise be to our God. Amen.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Adam and Eve: A Story About All of Us

From a sermon preached by Jack Cabaness on September 11, 2016.
Katonah Presbyterian Church

Where was the Garden of Eden? Was it somewhere in Asia, somewhere near the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers?

Would you be surprised if I told you that it could found at 3207 Donegal Road in El Paso, Texas? And the action took place not in 4004 BC, but sometime in the Fall of 1979. 

I was ten years old, almost eleven. My parents had decided that I was old enough to be left at home by myself for a couple of hours. Those two hours proved to be just enough time for a scientific experiment to go horribly wrong. I was curious to find out just how flammable a single sheet of tissue could be, and the sheet of tissue immediately became a small fireball. I dropped it at once, and successfully stomped out the would-be fire, but the carpet had been singed. I wondered how on earth I was going to explain all of this to my parents. Here, they had trusted me to stay at home by myself, and I had given credence to the stereotype of unsupervised children playing with fire. 

I was embarrassed and ashamed. I went to my bedroom and decided that I could pretend I had fallen asleep while reading a book. When my parents came home, I didn’t greet them, and I continued to pretend to be asleep. And then I could hear my mother’s voice calling, “Jack, where are you?”

You see, this ancient story is a story about all of us. The word Adam in Hebrew is A-dam, meaning the man, or the human. The word Eve means mother of the living. This is an archetypal story about what it means to be human; this is a story about you and me.

The traditional Christian interpretation of this story, going back to St. Augustine in the early 5th century, is that it’s a story about how sin came into the world. In Augustine’s view, Adam and Eve’s sin was very grave indeed. They only had to remember one thing. ONE THING! Don’t eat from that particular tree. And they blew it! During that time in the garden there was only one possible way in which Adam and Eve could sin, and wouldn’t you know it, they managed to do it anyway! That was what St. Augustine found utterly inexcusable!

The traditional Jewish interpretation is that this is a story not so much about how sin came into the world as it is a story about human self-consciousness. Once upon a time we were like children, naked but unashamed, trusting and unafraid. We were like a two-year-old after his bath, romping gleefully through the living room, free of that unnatural restraint called clothing. In the beginning, says Genesis, we were unself-conscious, and we had the trusting simplicity of children.

But we quickly became aware of limits. You are free to enjoy the garden—only stay away from that tree over there. As one commentator explains, the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is a tree of limits, for what makes us different from God is that we don’t always know what is good, whereas God does. Because we’re not God, we live with limits. (from a sermon by Will Willimon preached at the Duke University Chapel, October 9, 1988)

Life itself has its limits. We don’t know everything. We will die someday. And one of the things that we don’t know is when we will die. Once we were naked and unashamed, but then we became naked and afraid, and we realized that we were way more vulnerable than we’d ever care to admit.
I find myself holding on to both Augustine’s view of the story and to the traditional Jewish view.
What I learn from St. Augustine’s reading of the story is that choices have consequences, and sometimes those consequences are tragic:

--Leaving a loaded gun where a four-year-old can find it.
--Drinking and driving.
--Words spoken in anger that destroy a relationship.
--Realizing how a controversy about building a pipeline through Native American burial grounds in North Dakota evokes generational sins of systemic racism and cruelty.
--or how this 15th anniversary of 9/11 reminds us once again of the shocking human capacity to be inhuman.

These are some of the many things that Augustine helps me remember.

What I learn from the traditional Jewish interpretation is that there are times in life when, on the surface, everything seems to be going well. I’m sitting on a couch in my living room, very relaxed, and, suddenly, out of nowhere, I catch a glimpse of my own mortality, and once again, I am naked and afraid.

Earlier this summer, I quoted from a Facebook post by author Anne Lamott, which she wrote immediately after the tragic shootings in Dallas and the attack in Nice, France. She wrote,

Life has always been this scary here, and we have always been as vulnerable as kittens. Plagues and Visigoths, snakes and schizophrenia;
Cain is still killing Abel and nature means that everyone dies.
I hate this. It's too horrible for words. When my son was seven and found out that he and I would not die at the exact same second, he said, crying,
"If I had known this, I wouldn't have agreed to be born."

Perhaps you’ve felt that way at times, too. Whether you find Augustine or the traditional Jewish view more persuasive, there are times when we all find ourselves naked and afraid.

But the good news for all of us who are naked and afraid is that there is a voice that calls out to us and asks, “Where are you?” It’s the same voice that cried out in the very beginning, “Let there be light,” and then there was light. It’s the same voice that cried out, let there be mountains and oceans, aardvarks and elephants, and then there were mountains and oceans and elephants and aardvarks.
Every time the voice cried out, creation responded. Thus, when the voice cries out to us, “Where are you?”, there is a hopeful expectation on God’s part that we will respond.

Close your eyes just for a minute. Close your eyes, and listen. Listen for the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze. Can you hear that sound?
Now, I’d like you to listen for a voice. Listen for a voice that asks, imploringly, “Where are you?”
What tone of voice do you hear?

Is it a menacing voice of someone determined to do you harm, or is it the voice of a loving mother looking for her son who’s hiding in his bedroom?
Do you hear a loving voice calling your name?

Just as the creation itself was called for by the voice of God, we, too, have a calling to respond.
In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks,

The responsible life is a life that responds. The Hebrew word for responsibility comes from the Hebrew word for other. God is that great Other, calling us to use our God-given freedom to make the world more like the world that ought to be. (Jonathan Sacks, Lessons in Leadership: Weekly Readings from the Jewish Bible)

In that same Facebook post that grieved a summer of violence, Anne Lamott offered several practical ways for each of us to take responsibility. She wrote,

I know that we MUST respond. We must respond with a show of force equal to the violence and tragedies, with love force. Mercy force. Un-negotiated compassion force. Crazy care-giving to the poor and suffering, including ourselves. Patience with a deeply irritating provocative mother. Two dollar bills to the extremely annoying guy at the intersection who you think maybe could be working, or is going to spend your money on beer. Jesus didn't ask the blind man what he was going to look at after He restored the man's sight. He just gave hope and sight; He just healed. To whom can you give hope and sight today? What about to me, and disappointing old you? Radical self-care: healthy food, patience and a friendly tone of voice.

As I read Anne’s words again, it occurs to me that God models this kind of care for us.
A loving voice calls out to Adam and Eve, where are you? And when God learns that Adam and Eve have fashioned for themselves clothing out of fig leaves, which must have had the same comfort level as medium grade sandpaper, what does God do? God fashions for Adam and Eve clothing out of animal skins. Can you see the progression? From fig leaves to fur coats.
God’s grace wins out. Or, as Anne Lamott says, “Grace always bats last.”

Today is Homecoming Sunday in our congregation, and my prayer is that you can hear the healing note as the evening breeze carries God’s question, “Where are you?”

My answer is that I am here, with other disciples of Jesus, who are doing their best to follow. I come here not because I have everything together, but because I do not have everything together, and I am more vulnerable than I’d care to admit. And I’m painfully aware that I haven’t always made the best choices.

But I am here because I’ve heard that loving voice calling out to me, inviting me to become a person of love and responsibility, working alongside you to make this a more just and gracious world.

All glory and praise be to our God. Amen.