Sunday, February 18, 2018

This Week's Sermon: "God Said to Abram," Genesis 12:1-9

Genesis 12:1-9

The Lord said to Abram, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, those who curse you I will curse; all the families of the earth will be blessed because of you.”

4 Abram left just as the Lord told him, and Lot went with him. Now Abram was 75 years old when he left Haran. 5 Abram took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all of their possessions, and those who became members of their household in Haran; and they set out for the land of Canaan. When they arrived in Canaan, 6 Abram traveled through the land as far as the sacred place at Shechem, at the oak of Moreh. The Canaanites lived in the land at that time.

7 The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “I give this land to your descendants,” so Abram built an altar there to the Lord who appeared to him. 8 From there he traveled toward the mountains east of Bethel, and pitched his tent with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the Lord and worshipped in the Lord’s name. 9 Then Abram set out toward the arid southern plain, making and breaking camp as he went. (Common English Bible)

“From Haran to the Negev: When God Foretells Transition,” Week One

I still remember the daylong drive here from Berkeley to Longview in September, 2011. I had just last month signed the letter of call establishing myself as your incoming pastor, dropped out of the Master of Theology degree program I would have otherwise begun at the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University, and gave away what little furniture I owned in the (extremely) humble four-room apartment I shared with my seminary roommate.

Aside from my books, which I had shipped here, the entire rest of my life fit in my modest 2008 Nissan Sentra—the exact same one you see parked by the church most days of the week. Surrounded by precipitously packed dishes and piles of clothes, and chugging Starbucks the whole way to stay alert, I made the sojourn from the Peoples’ Republic to Kelso in one very long day.

And I remember being absolutely terrified.

I was a twenty-five-year-old pastor who had been ordained not even three months ago. I had never been a solo pastor. The previous two years at First Christian Church in Concord as I finished seminary, I had always had a safety net in the form of their then-senior pastor, Russ.

That’s why I told you I like wearing my robes on Sundays—so you couldn’t see my new-pastor knees knocking from nerves.

But God had called me here, just as God calls forth Abram and Sarai (Abraham and Sarah) from Ur to Haran—and that journey was no one-day road trip in an air-conditioned sedan. Imagine the fear they had to set aside…for courage in the face of God is not necessarily the absence of fear, but doing right by God despite the fear you may feel. And it’s where we are at now, six-plus years later.

This is both a new sermon series and my last sermon series for you here in Longview. With my last few weeks as your pastor, I want to speak to you in spirit and in truth about the nature of our transition into new roles in one another’s lives, and what my own hopes are for this mighty family of Jesus followers when I am no longer here.

To do this, our Lenten sermon series will cover different stories of transition, moving, and new starts throughout Scripture. We begin today with one of the oldest and greatest—the calling of Abram and Sarai by God to pick up their lives at Ur in Mesopotamia and relocate to Canaan by way of a place called Haran and then to the Negev, from which this sermon series takes part of its name.

Haran is located in what is now southern Turkey (and is now called Harran, with the extra ‘r’), and its name comes from ancient Akkadian to mean “road” or “crossroads,” which is an appropriate name for both a waystation for a traveling couple and this series as we approach a crossroads in the life of our congregation.

Truthfully, our parish has likely been at that crossroads for a while now. My upcoming departure puts where we are into the spotlight, but we have long been at a place where we have to decide exactly what sort of a faith family we want to be.

Take Abram, for instance. He is already seventy-five years old—already well into what we typically think of as old age—and as his story unfolds, we will see that he has no compunctions about pushing back a bit with God when he feels he should, like when he bargains God down from fifty righteous men to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to just ten.

But Abram’s longevity does not keep him from picking up and obeying God’s commission to move from Haran to Canaan. On the contrary, the Genesis account states that he “left just as the LORD told him.”

We may see such response to God’s call as an example of, or a lesson concerning, obedience. And we would not be wrong for doing so. But we would be wrong for seeing this story as only about obedience.

It is about trusting in a new future because it is God who calls you into it.

That new future for you will not include me in this role. I may still be young(ish?), but after six-plus years, I can hardly be considered new. But in some form or fashion, newness is going to have to be a part of our congregation’s future, whether by hook or by crook.

Embracing newness in small ways while I am still here can prepare us for the newness that will come in bigger ways after I am gone. One of my biggest wishes for this parish is a way back towards that pursuit of newness that defined the process that brought me here in 2011. I fear that we may have lost sight of that pursuit of what our future might hold in favor of keep as tight a hold as possible on what we still have.

Yet doing ministry from such a place of emotional and spiritual scarcity is never sustainable, because scarcity by definition does not come with a safety net.

As the temptation to withdraw back into the shell of our historic building and of our favorite pews and our favorite fellowship hall tables begins to rear its head, please remember that this is all it is—a temptation.

It is right that we should be tempted during this season—it is Lent, after all, and its forty days parallels the forty days that Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness before Satan appeared to tempt Him.

The things with which Satan tempted Jesus were entirely temporal, though, not eternal. And as you are about to embark on this journey of transition and discernment, know that you too will be tempted by things that are temporal and fleeting. My hope and prayer is that you keep your focus upon that which is eternal: God, God’s love for you, and God’s presence as revealed and mediated through Jesus Christ.

Return, then for a moment, to the story of Abram. There were (and are) so many reasons we come up with to say no to God’s call in our lives—our own insecurities, our own fears, and our own desires for earthly power that have nothing to do with God’s own singularly creative power. We as humans are extraordinarily talented at saying no to God. But Abram said yes—a characteristic which defines his life throughout Genesis.

Abram says yes to God.

We said yes to God together six-and-a-half years ago, and it began for me with a road trip into the unknown, just as I know that my arrival represented for you the beginning of a journey into the unknown.

But now, it is time once more to begin another such journey. It is time to say yes to the God who calls us onto that path towards the future, whatever it might hold.

We are not at *the* Haran, you and I, but we are at *a* Haran—a crossroads. We will soon take different roads from that Haran—different road trips, if you will, each of us hopefully laden with lessons that we have taken from the other from my time here as your pastor.

In that way, too, we shall be a bit like Abram, whom Genesis says brought everything with him from Haran to Canaan—all his possessions and his entire household.

But for us, I hope that the possessions we will be taking with each other when we reach that fork in the road will be emotional and spiritual in nature. For I know that when I pull that same Nissan Sentra out of the parking lot here for the last time, it will be laden not with the threadbare trappings of a recently-freed graduate student, but with the memories of a pastor who has lived and loved alongside you.

How grateful I am for that eventual reality, bittersweet though it is for me to contemplate right now.

May God laden you down, then, with possessions not of the sort we are tempted by, but of the sort that we need as the future points us ever forward.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington 
February 18, 2018

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Ash Wednesday 2018: "Lose the World, Gain the Heavens," Luke 4:1-13

Luke 4:1-13

Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. 2 There he was tempted for forty days by the devil. He ate nothing during those days and afterward Jesus was starving. 3 The devil said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4 Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread.” 5 Next the devil led him to a high place and showed him in a single instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 The devil said, “I will give you this whole domain and the glory of all these kingdoms. It’s been entrusted to me and I can give it to anyone I want. 7 Therefore, if you will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 Jesus answered, “It’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” 9 The devil brought him into Jerusalem and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; 10 for it’s written: He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you 11 and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.” 12 Jesus answered, “It’s been said, Don’t test the Lord your God.” 13 After finishing every temptation, the devil departed from him until the next opportunity. (Common English Bible)

Ash Wednesday 2018

It has become a personal tradition by now, my sixth Ash Wednesday with you (it would be seven, but last year’s Ash Wednesday came while I was on sabbatical). In order to set the tone for a unique service that is often much more somber than our more celebratory praise worship services of Sunday morning, I read this short excerpt from the UCC pastor and author Lillian Daniel’s book This Odd and Wondrous Calling, as she recounts the experience of preaching her first-ever sermon as a seminary student performing the required field education internship that all Master of Divinity students must complete in order to earn their degree:

I remember sitting at the back of the sanctuary, reviewing my notes for my very first seminary-intern sermon. It was to be a mighty word from God that would correct all the hypocrisy, greed, and faithlessness of the local church that was, nonetheless, supporting my education as they had supported that of so many others. As I mustered my courage to sock it to them, I overheard one woman lean across her walker and whisper loudly to her pew mate, “Ah, our new intern is preaching. I see it’s time for our annual scolding.”

Later, I would pastor a church near that very divinity school, and hear for myself a few “annual scoldings.”

An annual scolding is a helpfully humorous way to describe Ash Wednesday—the first day of the church season of Lent and a day of penitence in which we confess to God our sins and seek forgiveness both from God and from those whom we have sinned against.

Lent lasts for forty days—from now until Good Friday, minus the Sundays—and that number is meant to parallel the forty days that Jesus spends fasting in the wilderness according to Matthew and Luke before being tested by Satan, which is Hebrew for “the Adversary.”

“The Adversary” is an apt label for the devil in this passage from Luke, for he verbally jousts back and forth with Jesus, tempting the Son of God with one thing after another before finally fleeing and thus permitting angels to tend to our Messiah.

The first of the devil’s temptations is simple enough: ask Jesus to turn stones into bread. As a common theme in these temptations, both the devil and Jesus quote Scripture back at one another, and together with the first temptation, it shows that even the most fundamental building blocks of physical and spiritual sustenance—bread and the Word of God—can be turned into weapons with which to do harm when put in the wrong hands. Jesus resists such weaponry, though, despite the starvation inherent in so long a fast.

The third of the devil’s three temptations involves Jesus throwing Himself off the highest point of the Jerusalem temple so that angels will catch Him and prevent Him from dying. To choose so central a point from which to jump makes the intent of the temptation clear, albeit unspoken in the text itself: people will see Jesus evade death through this divine intervention, and thus believe in Him as the Son of God. Yet Jesus, quoting Scripture, again demurs.

It is the second of these three temptations, the temptation to be given power over all the kingdoms and nations of the earth, that I want to talk about the most with you tonight.

I want to talk with you about it because it is perhaps the most relevant to ourselves in our own human condition. Yes, we crave food, but food is not by itself sinful—we are simply admonished as Jesus says, to not live on the food alone, and so we don’t.

Nor must we feel terribly tempted to leap from the highest point in town to prove our own divinity, because we each know that we are not the Messiah.

But being tempted by earthly power? That’s right up our alley, and always has been. Never mind the fact that, at its core, Christianity has always been a religion about surrender—the surrendering of complete divinity that becoming human entailed for Jesus and His surrender to the Roman Empire after the machinations that led to His crucifixion were put into motion.

That is not how we ourselves typically want to go. But it is the way of Jesus, and giving up what we must in order to follow that way is not a request, it is an expectation.

We fail to live up to that expectation, though, each time we put our desire for control and power over the wellbeing of another, be it another person, or another group of people, or even an entire nation. That tendency is but another form of selfishness, but a form that is not merely contained within our own thoughts and feelings that we otherwise keep only to ourselves.

This crass pursuit of transactional power—you give me influence, I give you influence—is increasingly what American Christianity has been associated with over the past couple of years. I say that quite confidently. We are known not for our pursuit of self-control and surrender, but by our pursuit of earthly power, control, and influence.

Just hours ago today, we saw one lethal consequence of pursuit of such earthly power and influence—although it is a consequence that we have seen on replay again and again since the Columbine High School shooting. The Parkland mass shooting in Florida is the latest in a long string of such attacks that, by pure happenstance, happen in a nation with some of the most lax gun laws in the industrialized world—laxness that exists because of the temporal power, control, and influence that groups like the NRA have over our political leaders.

That influence, by the by, is in the interests not of people, but of material possessions—of guns. Guns have no heart, no soul; as we are continually reminded by their defenders, they don’t kill people. People kill people. But would the Christ who repeatedly exhorted His followers to forsake material possessions make a similar defense? The same Christ who told the rich young man who loved his possessions to sell them and then have treasure in heaven? Or would Christ champion the children, not the gun?

But that is not where the locus of political power is at present in our nation. And we are seduced by such powerful forces that promise us the means with which to not only obtain power but also to keep hold of it. Surrendering it tends not to be in our nature—as a nation, as a church, and as individuals. We not only want what we cannot have, we want what we already have—desperately.

Yet, if Christ is to be our eternal example, then our mandate is clear: to lose our worldly power if we must, but in so doing, to gain the heavens. For every single thing the devil offers Jesus is fleeting. Bread crumbles. A moment of drama is but a moment. And earthly power, over generations, always is handed over, whether by hook, by crook, or by the inevitable passage of time.

That is the common question asked by the temptations the devil presents to Jesus: are we willing to sacrifice eternity for what we want in the inherently fleeting present moment? And not what we *need* in the present—but, again, what we *want*.

The well-deserved knock against those of us in the church is that far, far too often—both lately and at many other times throughout our history—our answer to that question is absolutely, we are willing to sacrifice the heavens to gain the earth, not the other way around.

In so doing, we do harm to one another. We do harm to God. And we do harm to ourselves.

May we take this season of Lent, then, as a time to turn that harm into healing, in the hope and prayer that our renunciation of such harm, of such pursuit of fleeting power to forsake the heavens and their creator, ends with us, and that a new church, one surrounded by life and not by murder, and which heralds a world of goodness rather than violence, might yet be possible.

It is a dream I have.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington 
February 14, 2018