Tuesday, May 31, 2011

May 29, 2011 - The Sermon On the Mount - The Beatitudes - Considering Our Relationships

May 29, 2011

Matthew 5:7; Luke 6:36; Matthew 5:9; Romans 12:18;

Matthew 5:10-12; Romans 8:37-39

The Sermon On the Mount

The Beatitudes – Considering Our Relationships

The other evening I was in the greeting card aisle looking for an anniversary card – Tanya and I celebrated our 27th anniversary on Thursday – and I was surprised to find a category of cards I didn’t know existed. As you look through the rack each pocket of cards has a subject and then a line below with the general message. Did you know there is a category of cards called Troubled Relationship? (And by the way, I didn’t buy Tanya’s card from that section!) I was so fascinated by this I decided to take a picture. I took out my phone and was lining up the shot and a guy further down the rack of cards was watching me with a look that said now that’s cheap. He’s going to take a picture of a card and give the picture to someone. Which is not a bad idea, by the way.

Is it a sign of the times telling us there are more relationships that are troubled, or is it simply a sign that someone has figured out how to make money off of troubled relationships? The cards had sentiments such as, I wish I could go back; Always know that I love you; Real love isn’t perfect.

This morning, continuing our series of messages on The Sermon On the Mount, we are Considering Our Relationships. The past two weeks we have been looking at the Beatitudes, which constitute the first twelve verses of the Sermon. The first week we studied the Beatitudes as a prescription for happiness. Last week we studied them in regard to our attachments. This week, we study those Beatitudes speak to our relationships.

Three of the Beatitudes that speak to our relationships –

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Almost everything in life is relationally oriented. Actually, it is more accurate to say that everything in life is relationally oriented. A friend of mine tells me how he and his business partners spend a lot of time trying to come up with ways to make their clients sticky, that is, how they can keep them as loyal clients. They do so by spending a lot of time cultivating relationships with their clients. That’s why so many business deals are done on the golf course, as it’s a way to cultivate a relationship. Church is about relationships. People often come to a church because of a relationship with a friend or neighbor who invites them. Whether or not a person stays in a church depends in large part on whether or not they develop relationships with others in the congregation. Ministry is founded on relationships. When I came home from camp the summer after I graduated from high school and told my parents I had made a public commitment to enter the ministry my mom told me two things immediately – first, there is no shame in deciding to leave the ministry, because it can be very difficult, and second, good pastoral relationships can overcome a lot of bad sermons, but no amount of good sermons can overcome bad relationships.

How many of us have at least one relationship that is troubled? How many of us have a fractured relationship that we just don’t quite know how to fix? Or, maybe we aren’t ready to fix it.

Jesus spent a lot of time focusing on relationships. He told parables about relationships. The parable of the prodigal son, perhaps his most famous, is about relationships. His entire mission was about relationship – the relationship between humanity and God. Much of the Sermon On the Mount concerns relationships. When our relationships are good, life is good; when our relationships suffer; life suffers.

To have healthy, successful relationships, Jesus presents three qualities in the Beatitudes. Normally, I would say I wish we had more time to cover this, but as this is a holiday weekend we can all stay about an hour longer, right?

The first quality is –

Mercy. Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.

In 1970 the movie Love Story was a big hit. Did anyone see that movie? I can’t remember if I did, that’s a long time ago. Also, I was in the eighth grade so I’m sure I thought it was gross. There was a line in that movie that was a really unfortunate line – anyone remember it – love means never having to say you’re sorry. Would that work at your house? Isn’t that just about the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard? Whoever wrote that line probably came up with it after doing something dumb. Yes, I forgot your birthday, Christmas, and our anniversary. And I forgot our kid’s birthdays. But you know what? Love means never having to say you’re sorry. Never saying you’re sorry is about the worst relationship advice I have ever heard. If you love someone you will say you’re sorry – every day, if necessary. And when someone does express sorrow – mercy must be given. Love is all about grace and mercy.

Mercy is foundational to the Christian faith. Many of the parables of Jesus, as I have said, are about relationships and one of the things those parables teach us about relationships is about being merciful. One who has been given mercy, Jesus says, will in turn extend mercy to another.

Mercy that offers grace and it does so because mercy asks us to understand the perspective and the experiences of another person. In keeping relationships healthy we have to ask ourselves what is the other person experiencing that may cause them to say those words that have hurt me? What is the other person experiencing that may cause them to act in such a puzzling manner?

Mercy asks us to step beyond our own feelings and experiences and to seek to understand the feelings and experiences of another. I have learned a few lessons about people over the years and one of those lessons is this – the issue that seems to be causing difficulty in a relationship is often not the real issue. The real issue is often much deeper and we can discover the real issue when we seek to understand what is going on in the life, the heart, and the mind of another person.

The second quality is –

Reconciliation. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.

Everyone wants peace, but doing something about creating peace is a different matter entirely.

To be a peacemaker is to do the work of God, because peacemaking is the work of reconciliation, which is at the heart of what God does. Paul writes in Romans 5:18-20, God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he had committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.

Paul uses the word reconcile five times in that brief passage – it’s important to him! Reconciliation is deeper than how we often think of peace. Peace can simply mean a détente, which means conflict is managed but the relationship is not whole. We had détente with the Soviet Union for years, but you couldn’t say it was a healthy relationship. Some people have a détente in their personal relationships – they come to a spoken or unspoken agreement to be civil with one another but there is no restoration or reconciliation of the relationship.

To be a peacemaker means to take an active role in the healing and restoration of a relationship. This is where things get very difficult in relationships. How many of us have a relationship that is waiting on someone to step forward and make that first step down the road of restoration? But we may resist and say, I’m not the one that is at fault here. It’s not my responsibility to try to fix this relationship. But someone has to take that first step. You may not be able to fix things. The other person may resist to the point that it is impossible to fix the relationship, but a peacemaker is one who will take that first step of reconciliation. There are some people who will resist the restoration of a relationship and they will never admit any fault and they will never make an effort at restoration. But a peacemaker – one who does the work of God at reconciling – is one who will make the attempt to bring reconciliation to a relationship.

Peacemaking moves beyond the personal to the corporate. Peacemaking involves groups, churches, communities, and nations. It means that rather than fanning the flames of discord and conflict we will work for peace.

We will talk about this more when we come to the end of chapter five, as it certainly deserves a closer study.

The third quality is –

Being who you are. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

I’m going to give you a little window into the life of being a minister. Sometimes, people don’t want you to believe what you believe; they want you to believe what they believe. Sometimes, people want their beliefs affirmed by either religious or political leadership.

But here’s the problem – we can’t represent every person’s beliefs, can we? I can’t, and neither can you. One of the reasons I am a Disciple is because of this very point. There are too many churches who want to give religious tests and doctrinal examinations so they can give approval or disapproval to what a person believes. They have religious tests and belief tests they impose upon people. Disciples don’t form creeds and they don’t impose creedalism upon people.

We live in a time when both ends of the political and religious spectrum want to enforce conformity of belief upon people. I think that’s wrong. I may not agree with what you believe, but I’ll be happy to talk with you and listen to you and debate you, but I won’t insist you agree with me. And I will resist creating any atmosphere that creates a sense that you must agree with me, or anyone else.

But there are consequences to what we believe – Jesus says this in the final Beatitudes. He says there are those who either will persecute you because of what you believe and because of who you are. We are fortunate to live in a society that allows freedom of worship, belief, and expression, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t pressure to conform and attempts to take away those freedoms. And there are countries in this world who persecute people because of their religious beliefs and because of who they are. There are brothers and sisters in Christ around the world suffering terribly because of their faith. That is tragic and it is wrong.

What Jesus is asking of us is to simply be who we are, regardless of how people respond to us. If you are a follower of Jesus some people won’t like it and may give you a hard time. Be a follower of Jesus anyway. People may not like your beliefs and they may give you a hard time – be who you are. People may not like what you think – think what you think anyway. Live free and allow others to live free.

Be free and be who God has created you to be no matter how anybody threatens you. This is Memorial Day weekend, when we remember those who helped ensure our freedom, and freedom is a gift that comes ultimately from God. It was for freedom, Paul writes in Galatians 5:1, that Christ has set us free.

May we pray.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

May 22, 2011 - The Sermon On the Mount - The Beatitudes - Considering Our Attachments

May 22, 2011

Matthew 5:1-11

The Sermon On the Mount

The Beatitudes – Considering Our Attachments

Years ago, after a worship service, I was greeting people as they came out of the sanctuary. As one of the ladies shook my hand she said, I really enjoyed your message this morning. I appreciated her comment, but I didn’t preach that morning; it was an all-music service. Maybe that’s why she liked it so much – she didn’t have to listen to me!

I will be the first to admit that some sermons are forgettable, and I have preached my share of forgettable sermons over the years. But there are some sermons that really lodge in our hearts and minds, and the Sermon On the Mount is one of those. In fact, the Sermon On the Mount is so ingrained into the hearts and minds of people that many of its phrases have been adopted into our language, used by people whether they are believers or unbelievers and whether or not they have read the Sermon. Phrases such as salt of the earth (5:13), a city on a hill (5:14), let your light shine (5:15), turn the other cheek (5:39), and do not judge (7:1) are but a few of the phrases that are a part of our language. By my count, there are 32 phrases in the Sermon On the Mount that have entered into the common language of society. That’s amazing, isn’t it?

The Sermon On the Mount, I believe, is the greatest sermon in history, because of its content and because of the preacher. My preaching professor told our class that true preaching is the combination of a person’s words and the content of their heart and life. The Sermon On the Mount is powerful because it is not just words; it is a reflection of the heart and the life of Jesus. These are not just the words of Jesus; they are the definition of his character, his heart, and his soul. It was a message that he not only spoke, but lived, and the challenge of the Sermon On the Mount is that Jesus asks us to live it as well.

Last week we began a series of messages based on the Sermon On the Mount. We studied the Beatitudes as a prescription for happiness, and for the next few weeks we will look at the Beatitudes in greater detail as we group them together in several categories. I have put the Beatitudes in three categories – Relationships, which encompasses the beatitudes on mercy, peacemakers, and the persecuted; Attitudes – represented by the beatitudes on mourning, meekness, and hunger and thirst for righteousness; and today, Attachments – spoken to us by the beatitudes on the poor in spirit and the pure in heart.

Matthew begins his record of the Sermon On the Mount with the note that Jesus began to teach them (verse 2). This was a continual teaching, not just a one-time sermon. The Sermon On the Mount is the essence of the teaching of Jesus; this is what he continually taught his disciples, indicating these are qualities that we are called to continually practice.

One of the things Jesus speaks to is our attachments in life. What do we attach ourselves to, and what attaches to us? He does this first in the first beatitude –

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Tom Shadyac may not be a name you recognize, but you may be familiar with his work. He directed/wrote/produced some of the highest grossing comedy movies in recent years – Bruce Almighty; Evan Almighty; Patch Adams, Liar, Liar; The Nutty Professor and one of the great cinematic masterpieces of our time – Ace Ventura, Pet Detective (I’m still in shock that movie was overlooked by the Oscars). By many standards, he seemed to have it all – a successful career in Hollywood, a 17,000-square-foot mansion, and the kinds of things that millions of people dream of having.

After a very serious injury from a bike accident he began to review his life. I was standing in the house that my culture had taught me was a measure of the good life, he says. I was struck with one very clear, very strange feeling: I was no happier.

He continues – Facing my own death brought an instant sense of clarity and purpose. If I was, indeed, going to die, I asked myself: What did I want to say before I went? It became very simple and very clear. I wanted to tell people what I had come to know. And what I had come to know was that the world I was living in was a lie. So he did something that shocked many people; he sold his house and gave away his millions.

He is right about this – the world we live in is very often a lie. It is a lie because we are presented with counterfeit truths that can be difficult to recognize, and one of those counterfeit truths is this – that having a lot of things and a lot of money is the goal of life. And in our culture, we pursue things and we pursue money with a passion. And we get attached both to things and money and to the pursuit of things and money and they can take over our lives.

And here is one of the dangers of things and money – we have enough to live and take care of our needs but never enough to give us a sense of security. Even when a person has a lot of money and a lot of things there is always the fear of losing that money and losing those things, so security, if it ever exists, is always very fleeting.

Years ago, when I was expressing my desire to have more money, my father-in-law told me that no amount of money will ever make you secure. He said, interestingly, the more you have, the more you worry because of how much you have to lose. He was certainly correct that no amount of money can make us secure, as we have witnessed in recent years just how quickly money can be lost.

It’s important that we note Jesus is not praising poverty in this verse or calling people to poverty. Poverty is not a good condition in life. Poverty grinds one down physically, emotionally, and spiritually. One of the goals of faith is to work to remove poverty.

But those who are poor, Jesus is saying, often learn a lesson that is never learned by others and it is this – when you have little or nothing you learn that real security rests only in one source, and that is God and it is to God that we should attach ourselves, and not money or things. The poor know this because they have no power, no prestige, are often oppressed by others but, because they have no earthly resources, they learn to place their trust in God. (Barclay, p. 91).

Once a person becomes dependent upon God, hopefully, they become less attached to things. I like things. I like stuff. I have a garage full of stuff and a storage building full of stuff and at times I feel as though stuff has overtaken my life. And it has. I am too attached to my stuff.

When Jesus says blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom in heaven, he is raising the question of attachment – in what do we place our trust? In the Sermon On the Mount rich and poor are not so much descriptions of one’s wealth, but one’s attitude toward God and dependence upon him. The rich were less likely to feel reliant upon God or anyone else, while the poor realized their precarious position and knew they could depend only upon God.

The second beatitude that speaks to the idea of attachment is –

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

When I was growing up I would often drink out of a creek as I hiked around the woods on our farm. Our water supply at the house came from a spring just over the hill from the house. We built a springhouse and a pipe came out of the springhouse and filled a big old bathtub where the animals could come and drink. We kept an old tin cup hanging by the pipe so you could fill it with cold water right out of the spring on a hot day. How many of you did something similar when you were growing up? How many of you would today?

There is no way I would drink water out of a stream now or water that came out of the hillside unless it is first been purified through a half dozen filters and other apparatus’ that guaranteed it wouldn’t make me sick. Pure water is about gone in our environment, unfortunately.

The Greek word for pure is katharos. Do you recognize that word? It is the root for our word catharsis, which means to cleanse or purge ourselves of something. This beatitude warns us to be careful of the attachments in life that prevent us from being able to see God and the work of God in our lives and our world.

As we move through life we are like a stream – we pick up a lot of things and those things move along with us, and in the process they clutter up our hearts and minds and make it more difficult to be able to see what God is doing in our lives. Jesus is saying that having a pure heart gives us an uncluttered vision, and an uncluttered vision allows us to see God.

Over the years I have known many people who have experienced a cathartic event – and that event is often one of great difficulty – that clears their field of vision to be able to see what God is doing in their lives. For Tom Shayac it was an accident that almost took his life, but in almost losing his life, his life was given to him.

My father has been gone for over twenty years. I remember vividly going home to help go through his stuff, as we tried to decide what to do with it all. My dad had a lot of tools. I stood in the garage, picking through some of the tools to take home with me. I’m not much of a tool person, because I am not very handy, but I took a lot of them with me. I even took a torque wrench, and I have no idea what a torque wrench does. I use it as a hammer. As I picked through the tools I wondered, is this what life come to? We spend a lifetime collecting some things and then someone else has to worry about what to do with them. Is this what we leave behind? It was not, thankfully, in my dad’s case.

Jesus is presenting matters of great importance in the Sermon On the Mount. He is reminding us that where we place our trust is of immense importance, and reminding us that a clarity of vision, uncluttered by the distortions of this world, will help us to place our trust in him.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

May 15, 2011 - The Sermon On the Mount - The Beatitudes - The Pursuit of Happiness

May 15, 2011

Matthew 5:1-12

The Sermon On the Mount

The Beatitudes – The Pursuit of Happiness

One year on spring break our family decided to visit various places around the state. We thought it would be a good idea to take Nick and Tyler to some historical spots around the state – that really won them over. One of the locations we visited is one of my favorite places – Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, outside Harrodsburg. Have you visited Shaker Village? It is a beautiful, fascinating, peaceful place. Many of the remaining structures at Shaker Village date to the early 1800’s and they still have the original paint and remain as solid and level as when they were built. The Shakers were amazing architects and very impressive builders. When we left Shaker Village we drove into Harrodsburg and visited Fort Harrod. The difference between those two settlements is amazing. Separated by about six miles and built within a few years of each other, there is no comparison in the buildings in those two places. Fort Harrod was rugged and, I imagine, a difficult place to live. You will not find beautiful buildings still standing from that time period at Fort Harrod. But Shaker Village is made up of architectural marvels, almost perfect in symmetry and impressive in their design.

I wondered how those two places could be so different. And then, at Fort Harrod, I found a statement on one of the signs that I believe explained the difference. Speaking of the efforts of George Rogers Clark, who made his plans at Fort Harrod, an historian wrote this – his vision was beyond the understanding of his fellow-forters.

Vision – such a powerful concept.

This morning we begin a series of messages on the Sermon On the Mount, and in the Sermon On the Mount we find the vision of Jesus. It is a vision of how to live as people who follow Jesus and a vision of the ethics for those who belong to the kingdom of God. It is a challenging vision and often beyond our grasp of how anyone could possibly live up to such a vision. Love our enemies? Pray for those who persecute us? It seems impossible, and yet it is a vision Jesus gives for what the kind of place the world could be and the kind of people we can be.

We begin with the beatitudes, that beautiful passage that begins the Sermon. The Beatitudes define for us the essence of happiness. I read this passage not too long ago for the Call to Worship and I substituted Happy for Blessed. The word that is translated into blessed carries the meaning of happy.

Our culture is on a massive search for happiness. Do you want to hear an amazing statistic? In the year 2000 there were 50 books published on the topic of happiness. Do you know how many were published in 2008 on the topic of happiness? Take a guess. Four thousand.


Isn’t that an amazing statistic? Four thousand books published in one year on the topic of happiness. Perhaps the only people those books made happy were the publishers, if the books sold well.

But what is happiness? If I were to ask you this morning if you are happy, would you give a quick yes or no or an I’m not really sure? If we hesitate, or aren’t sure, perhaps it’s because of the difficulty of defining happiness. Is happiness just a euphoric feeling, an emotional high that makes us feel we are on top of the world? Is it the kind of experience that makes us want to go around with a big grin on our face all the time because we feel so good that we may suddenly break into a song? Or is happiness something else entirely?

What about a biblical definition of happiness? I did a search to find how many times the Bible uses the word happy or happiness. It varies according to the translation but neither word is used very often. Some translations don’t use the word happiness at all, while others use it only a few times. The word happy appears anywhere from a dozen to two dozen times in the Bible, depending on your translation. That’s not very many times in such a long book, is it?

But the idea of happiness permeates most every page of Scripture, only it comes more in the form of meaning and purpose, so this morning, let’s allow the Beatitudes to teach us about happiness.

Happiness is not circumstantial and happiness doesn’t depend on what you have or don’t have.

In the early 80’s, when I was attending seminary, I shared an apartment with two other students. It was, to put it simply, a very humble abode. We didn’t have curtains on the few windows; we had sheets or towels or whatever we could find to cover the windows. We did have some bookshelves – they were made of concrete blocks and a few boards we had scavenged from somewhere. Our dining room table was one of the those big wooden spools used for cable and the chairs were the folding clothe chairs that you would put in your trunk and take on a picnic. And there were no bed frames, just mattresses on the floor. We did have one decent piece in that apartment, as seems fitting for several guys in their early 20’s. We had a big, killer-sounding stereo system in the corner. We couldn’t afford curtains but we could really crank up the Lynyrd Skynyrd and Led Zeppelin on that stereo.

We had next to nothing, but I remember that stage of life very fondly. My memories are of a time when I had very little free time and didn’t get much sleep, but it was a happy time. The humble circumstances didn’t seem to dampen our spirits at all. I’m certainly not minimizing the fact that many people live in very difficult circumstances, but the point is that happiness comes from a much deeper source than our life circumstances.

As we read the Scriptures there are great examples of how circumstances do not affect people’s happiness. Paul, in a Roman prison writes in Philippians 4:11-12, I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. Luke tells us in Acts 16:25 that Paul and Silas were beaten and imprisoned and while in prison they were singing hymns to God.

I’m certainly not minimizing the struggle of anyone living in humble or difficult circumstances. What I am saying is that genuine happiness is not circumstantial. It is not based on what we have or don’t have; it comes from somewhere deeper.

In our culture people often define themselves by what they have, but Paul’s identity was not found in what belonged to him but in who he belonged to.

Happiness is not living a life free of difficulty.

I think I have told you before that I teach a class one morning a week in Louisville. I have a group of 9th graders that I teach for one class period, and I have them write papers each term from a list of topics I give them, and at the end of the year I have them read one of their papers to the class. The most popular topic is that of suffering. One of my students, as he read his paper last week, spoke very movingly of losing his father several years before and what he had learned and how the experience made him stronger. He wrote with a wisdom that was beyond his years but it was a wisdom born of experience – a very tough experience.

The Bible presents an unflinching view of reality and part of that reality is the very real presence of suffering and difficulty.

I have stopped trying to answer the question of why? I just don’t get anywhere with that question, and I don’t worry much any more about having an answer. But I do think a lot about what can come out of the difficulties we face. What can we learn? Will we let struggle teach us or break us?

The reality is that we need to embrace the full range of emotions and experiences of life if we are going to be happy. Anyone who pushes a definition of happiness that does not embrace the difficulties of life as a normal part of life is pushing a false happiness and it is a happiness that will evaporate in a flash when difficulty comes. Struggle and difficulty are realities of life, and it is the struggle and difficulty that actually affirm some important realities to us. Could we, for instance, really appreciate joy if we never experience sadness?

This means, then, that –

Happiness is a byproduct of how we live.

What Jesus is saying in the Sermon On the Mount is that happiness is not some external force that we have to search out and find, but happiness is a byproduct of how we live. Happiness does not exist out there somewhere. The search for happiness begins and ends right here – in the heart, the mind, and the soul.

A lot of people are pursuing the wrong type of happiness. Many people pursue this very short-lived type of happiness; it’s here for a moment and then gone. And when it’s gone they go looking for something else – out there – they hope will bring a momentary flush of happiness.

This is why we sometimes hear people say something along the line of I started this or, I stopped that, because it wasn’t making me happy.

The Beatitudes are not what you would find in many prescriptions for happiness, but listen to them now, with the word happy, replacing blessed.

Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying:

Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Happy are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Happy are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Happy are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Happy are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Happy are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Happy are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

– Matthew 5:1-12

Thursday, May 12, 2011

May 8, 2011 - A Tale of Two Women

May 8, 2011

Genesis 16:1-11

A Tale of Two Women

I am the second of five children. One of my sisters, who is the youngest, posted a picture on Facebook the other day of my mother holding her when she was only seven months old. She then posted a comment about the lack of pictures of her because she was the fifth child. After two children, they become so sensitive. I ran across something that I thought you might enjoy, wherever you fall in the birth order. It’s called The First Step.

First Child: My wife grabbed the camera. I grabbed the video camera. My wife took four rolls of film. We immediately ran out to the one-hour developing place and had all four rolls developed with double prints. We had the best picture blown up to 24" X 36" and framed. We hung it up in the entry hall. I had a professional studio turn the four hours of video into a one-hour documentary complete with voice-over by a local anchorman.

Second Child: We took one roll of film and five minutes worth of video. The next day we took the film and had it developed by a twenty-four hour developing center. I took the best picture and put it into my wallet.

Third Child: We couldn't find the video camera and we only had five shots left on the roll of film. We took all five shots but I don't remember if we ever got the roll developed.

Fourth Child: I quickly got up and grabbed the camera. I placed it up high so the child wouldn't grab it. (http://www.ahajokes.com/par032.html).

This morning we study a passage about two very interesting women. The story teaches us many things, and one is how very, very different family life was during the Old Testament era, especially for women.

Sarah was Abraham’s wife, and God had promised that Abraham would be the father of a nation and his descendants would number as the stars of the heavens (15:5). The problem was it didn’t seem the promise could ever come true, as Abraham and Sarah were childless and there seemed little hope they would have a child. Sarah devises a plan – Abraham would have a child with her servant Hagar. As we read through the story we find this turned out to be a really bad idea and led to great difficulty for all involved and it continues to have consequences even today.

While this may not seem like a typical Mother’s Day passage, I believe there are some lessons of great importance in this story.

1. Receive God’s freedom.

Does anyone know when women received the right to vote in this country? On August 26, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution became law and women were granted to the right to vote. That’s not that long ago. There are people in this room who lived when women did not have the right to vote in this country.

Sarah and Hagar lived in a world and a time that was not kind to women. Women were regarded as little more than the property of their husbands and they had little, if any, legal rights. They did not even enjoy the right to inherit anything from their husband’s estate.

The word victim is a loaded term these days, but in a sense, Sarah and Hagar were victims of their time. Sarah was victim to the idea of her time that without children a woman had no worth, had no standing in society, and had no hope for someone to take care of her in the latter days of her life. I’m not saying her plan was a very good plan, but considering her context, it’s an understandable plan. Her plan was born out of a sense of desperation, as she must have suffered from fear about what would happen to her if she had no children. Hagar was a victim because she was considered the property of someone else and had little if no control over her own destiny.

Society has changed in many ways, but our world is still not very kind to women. There are many societies that continue to be very oppressive to women, and unfortunately, some of it is perpetrated under the banner of religion.

It is no small matter that our church values the role of women not just with our words but by our practices as well. There are not two different standards when it comes to leadership in our church. There is not one role for men and a lesser role for women. It’s not my goal to be critical of other churches – I’m not criticizing them, I’m just saying they are wrong – but we are very much in the minority in this community when it comes to the roles of women in church. Sometimes we receive criticism because of our inclusion of women in leadership and our belief that women are not in any way relegated to a second-class status, and I promise you that when anyone criticizes us it does not bother me in the least and I am happy we are able to receive it and I hope it does not bother you either.

In our society, which purports to offer so much freedom to women, there is often oppression directed to women. Some of it is obvious and some of it is more subtle. Our society creates is not kind to women when it comes to the images and expectations that are placed upon them. In fact, to live in a society that proclaims that women have been liberated when we look closer we find that isn’t always true.

It’s tremendously instructive to find how many times Jesus offered freedom to women. The Gospels record for us about the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4; the women Jesus saved who was about to be stoned to death because of adultery, while the man was permitted to go free in John chapter 8; the woman, in Mark 14, Jesus defended after she was criticized for anointing him with oil – Jesus said wherever the Gospel would be preached she would be remembered, which was the only time he said that of anyone; the poor widow in Mark 12 Jesus commended for her sacrificial giving; the woman in Mark 5 who, we are told, had suffered from a hemorrhage for twelve years and she was healed by Jesus. We can make an even more extensive list, but the point is there is a freedom God offers to women that has always defied the expectations of society. And it is an invitation and a warning – it is an invitation to step into freedom and a warning not to oppress women or rob them in any way of their freedom.

2. Leave life in God’s hands.

Patience, unfortunately, is not one of my gifts.

We need to learn to trust God with our future and to be patient with his plans. Sarah had arrived at the point where she either lost faith in God’s promise or she had simply become impatient and decided to take matters into her own hands.

God is amazingly – or maddeningly – slow in how he works. Have you ever found yourself impatient with God?

The difficulty – and here is where Sarah struggled – is we often see the promised future and the competing reality of the present. Sarah understood the promised future – that her descendants with Abraham would be a great nation – but she saw the present reality that they were childless. So in her mind she may have simply been trying to help bring that future into reality.

Love your family; influence your family; mold and shape your family; but trust their destiny to God. I’m not saying we sit back and do nothing in terms of helping to shape and mold our families, but to trust our lives to God’s hands.

Sarah – and Abraham – struggle to trust God, because what God promised didn’t seem to make sense to her. What God is doing doesn’t always make sense to us either, but we are called to trust.

3. Life is larger than our family.

Did you know this passage is at the root of one of the most difficult and violent political problems of our world? This story continues to be so relevant because the Muslim world traces their roots to Abraham through Ishmael and Hagar and Israel, we know, traces their lineage to Abraham through Sarah and Isaac. So when you enter the politics of the Middle East and say God gave that land to Abraham, you have two groups who both say they are Abraham’s descendants.

What’s fascinating in this passage is that God pronounces the same blessing upon Hagar and he does Abraham – in verse ten God tells Hagar her descendants would be too numerous to count.

God was not just interested in the family and descendants of Abraham and Sarah, but Abraham and Hagar and another entire line of people.

We love our families, as we should, but life is larger than just our family. We love the people we know and the people like us, as we should, but life is larger than just the people we know and the people like us. God is looking not just at your family and my family, but all families. He’s not just interested in the welfare of the people we know and the people like us, but all people.

God has not called us together to bless us to the exclusion of others, but to allow us to be a blessing to others. Old Testament Israel struggled to understand this truth as they saw themselves as blessed to the exclusion of others rather than a blessing for others. The Pharisees failed to learn this lesson as well, as they believed God was only interested in those on the inside of faith. Sometimes churches fail to learn this lesson as well. God is passionate and caring about all people. God cares about the outsiders just as much as the insiders.

Love your family, but remember that life and God’s love extends beyond just our own families. May we pray for all families.