Monday, May 14, 2012

May 13, 2012 - Welcome to the Real World

Genesis 29:14b-19; 21a; 22-23a; 25-28; 30b

Does anyone remember the TV show An American Family?  Premiering on May 30, 1971 on PBS, there were twelve episodes featuring Bill and Pat Loud and their children.  It was the first reality television show, and was quite controversial at the time.  It took a “typical” American family, placed them in front of the lens of a TV camera, and then broadcast their lives to the world.  In the process the family unraveled, and millions of people were riveted to their TV screens to watch.  Before that show, most families were seen on TV as a Leave It To Beaver family, with the appearance that everything is fine in most homes.  An American Family lifted the lid off of the American home and presented the real world of family life.

As I’ve said before, the Bible presents the lives of its characters in all their dysfunction, struggles, ups and downs – it shows us the real world of human life.  There are no illusions or false pretenses given in Scripture.  What churches have tended to do, unfortunately, is to polish up the lives of the Biblical characters, put halos on them, and thus removed them from the reality of every day life.

We can do the same thing with Mother’s Day.  It’s a great holiday but it can also mask a lot of pain that people face – the pain of wayward children, the pain of struggling relationships, the pain of missing spouses, the pain of a missing mother, and the pain of those who were unable to have children.

Our Scripture reading for this morning presents some interesting characters to us, and it gives us a glimpse into the very real world of their relationships and struggles.  This is a small part of the longer story of the life of Jacob, and as we examine what happens between Jacob, his father-in-law/uncle Laban, and his wives Leah and Rachel, we find their real world was one of struggle, pain, conflict, deception, and heartbreak.  I would encourage you to find time and read the entire story of Jacob as found in Genesis chapters 27 – 37 and 49 – 50.  It will make you feel better about your life and family.

Today’s part of the story begins with Jacob living with and working for his uncle, Laban.  After a month Laban comes to Jacob and tells him he would like to pay him for his labors.  Laban had two daughters – Leah and Rachel, and he was certainly aware that Jacob was in love with Rachel.  The Bible describes Rachel as lovely in form, and beautiful.  She was hot.  Leah is described as having weak eyes (17).  Poor Leah!  The good news is she is immortalized in Scripture, but the bad news is that it’s with the description of having weak eyes.  It was a nice way of saying she was not very attractive.  It's the Biblical way of saying she has a nice personality.

Jacob is so head-over-heels in love with Rachel he is easy picking for Laban.  Love is a wonderful thing, but it can sometimes cloud our thinking.  When I first met Tanya I started showing up early in the morning at the library because I knew that’s where she would be.  My roommate had to tell me where I could find the library.  I started going to Shakespeare plays with her, and at that point in my life I had absolutely no interest in Shakespeare.

Jacob has it bad.  So bad, he tells Laban he will work for him for seven years if he can marry Rachel.  Laban, I imagine, was quite shocked.  And Genesis says that Jacob served seven years...but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her (20).  Now there’s a Mother’s Day story.  You know kids, your father loved me so much he worked seven years for my father before we were married.  I’ll leave out the part about your grandfather cheating him and all the other things that happened, but isn’t that a nice story?

The seven years are finally complete and Laban gives a feast but there is no happily ever after.  Jacob wakes up in the morning and finds he is married not to Rachel, but to her sister Leah.  Jacob reaps what he has sown.  Jacob, the deceiver, has been deceived.  Entering his father’s tent, Jacob deceived him in order to steal away his older brother’s blessing.  Now he entered into another tent only to find he has been deceived by his father-in-law.

We could ask how many people find out the person they married is not really the person they thought they knew?  What happened to that kind, funny person I was dating?  There is never any harm in taking plenty of time to get to know the person you are going to marry.  There is never a need to be in a hurry.

Jacob is incensed by the deception and confronts Laban.  Laban, who plotted to do this from the beginning.  Laban calmly tells Jacob it is not our custom here to give the younger daughter in marriage before the older one.  At that point Jacob is probably ready to say you could have mentioned that seven years ago!  Laban tells Jacob he can marry Rachel, if he agrees to work for another seven years.  Jacob agrees, and a week later he and Rachel marry, and Jacob goes to work for his father-in-law for another seven years.

Verse 30 gives us this interesting piece of information – and he loved Rachel more than Leah.  Now there’s a reality show for you.  And also a source of clients for a counseling service.  Your father-in-law deceives you, you end up married to two women who are sisters, you love one of them more than the other – what a mess!

But isn’t that where we often live our lives?  How often do we look at our lives, throw up our hands, and say what a mess!  I can’t even trust my own family, my marriage isn’t what I wish, and let’s not even talk about my job!  I’m working in the family business and my father-in-law is my boss and he hired me through a deceitful arrangement!

Is your life looking any better to you?

So here we have a polygamous marriage, a deceptive father-in-law, a deceived son-in-law, and no mention of God anywhere in this part of Jacob’s story.  So what do we make out of this story?

This is who we are – a collection of people who believe we must do what it takes to survive, and doing what it takes to survive can lead us down the road to some very bad decisions and very bad situations.  But these are the people God used, and used in such dramatic ways!

Churches too often communicate that you must get your life cleaned up, shined up, and halo worthy before God is going to be interested in you or willing to use you.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  These are the people God used – Jacob, a deceiver who lived his life by treachery and built his fortune through deceit.  Rachel, the loved wife, but also the insecure wife, who was so jealous for her husband that she later made some very tragic decisions.  And poor Leah, the unloved wife, who had to live with the knowledge her husband’s heart was with another woman.  And the struggle doesn’t end with this generation of the family.  Remember the story of Joseph and his brothers?  Guess who was Joseph’s mother – Rachel.  Do you know who was the mother of the other brothers – Leah.  That explains some of the animosity of the brothers toward Joseph.

God uses people who live in the real world of struggles, and problems, and failures.

When I was a junior in high school we had a very interesting event take place in worship one Sunday morning.  When it came time for the sermon, one of our elders stood up from the choir where he was seated and made his way to the pulpit.  He began to criticize our minister over something he had said in his sermon the previous Sunday.  I remember what he said – if you can’t say something nice about someone you should keep your big, fat mouth shut.  As I remember it most of us laughed and agreed when he said those words.  I imagine this particular elder had it in for our minister, and this was his excuse to get rid of him.  After complaining about the minister using such language from the pulpit, he said I believe we should fire him immediately.  Chaos broke out as people were trying to speak at once.  In the middle of the chaos a young lady who was my age stood up.  She was seated on the other side of the sanctuary from me.  I knew who she was, but I didn’t really know her as a friend.  Everyone in town, in fact, knew who she was.  They knew who she was because she had been the subject of a great deal of whispering and gossip around town, because she was pregnant.  When this seventeen-year-old pregnant girl began showing up in church there were a lot of people unhappy.  But she stood up in the middle of the chaos that day and spoke out.  She said our minister had reached out to her and to her family and so she started coming to church.  Unfortunately, she was met with a lot of stares and whispers, but she kept coming back.  Up until that moment, I didn’t know why she had started coming to our church.  I admired her courage, because it was obvious she had not received much of a welcome.  But I learned something incredibly important that day.  I learned that you do not have to have your life perfectly put together before you come to God, or have it perfectly put together before he will love you, or have it perfectly put together before he will use you.  God used that young lady to teach our church a lesson that day, a lesson we had been to blind to see.

We live in the real world, and that is where God meets us.  You don’t have to have a halo or a perfect life before God will love you or work in and through your life.  God wants you just as you are. 

May we pray.

Monday, May 07, 2012

May 6, 2012 Ancient Stories and Timeless Truths: Rebuilding Life

May 6, 2012
Nehemiah 5:1-12

It’s an interesting perspective from where I stand on Sunday morning.  Choir, don’t you think this is an interesting perspective?  One reason it is so interesting is that when I look out at you I see what could be called the “ducks floating on the water” view.  You know the old saying about a duck casually floating on a pond?  On the surface they seem calm and serene but below the surface they are paddling like crazy. 
When I look out on the congregation I see a group of people who look calm (perhaps some of you are too calm, as your eyes are closed) but I know the reality is very different.  You may appear very calm on the outside, but inside you may be a wreck, and perhaps your life is a wreck.  In a group of people this size it will always be true that some will be going through times of great difficulty.

Today’s message is Rebuilding Life, which is from the book of Nehemiah.  You’ll remember that Nehemiah’s book tells the story of the Hebrew people finally being permitted to return home after years of captivity in Babylon.  When they returned to Jerusalem they found a city in ruins and they began the difficult process of rebuilding the walls of the city.  The people faced immense challenges as they sought to rebuild the city of Jerusalem and their lives.  As Nehemiah writes of the rebuilding of the city walls he is writing about far more than just rebuilding walls of stone and mortar; he is writing the story of rebuilding life.

There is no way I can do justice this morning to all the material we find in the book of Nehemiah, so I will just be skimming the surface.  I hope you will take some time in the coming days and read through the entire book.

Over the years I have repeated a phrase countless times to Tanya.  I will say wouldn’t it be nice to lead a normal life?  But what is a normal life?  If you think everyone but you is living a normal life, think again.  And if you get tired of juggling any number of responsibilities, we’re not the first people in history to have to do so.  As the people rebuilt the wall, there was so much opposition they had to work with one hand while carrying a weapon in the other in order to defend themselves.

Some people may have a vested interest in seeing that we do not change.  Perhaps our decision to change will confront others with the reality that they too need to change and to rebuild their lives.  Some people may simply be skeptical of our commitment to change.  Do not let the doubters stop you from rebuilding your life; do not let the doubters determine how successful you will be in your efforts; do not let the doubters tell you that you cannot change.

But what they also do is affirm that God is the foundation of their lives, and they affirm the ability to change through the power of God.  There is a spiritual component to life, and it is the foundation of life.
A very important principle comes from the life of Nehemiah himself.  Nehemiah was a very strong and effective leader.  We certainly need great leaders, but what we must remember is that everyone must lead their own life.  Leadership is not only a commodity in short supply in our nation and even our churches; leadership is also in short supply in the lives of individuals.  Nehemiah was someone who took responsibility for his life and did what he was called to do.  Take a hard look at your life – are you a leader for your own life?  Are you doing what you have been called to do, what you need to do?

In chapter five we find another principle.  In verse ten we find the people complaining about the financial difficulties they were being forced to bear.  After suffering for over seventy years in exile, they were now being taken advantage of by their own countrymen.  They were facing bullies among their own people.

There are bullies in this world who seek to take advantage of others.  We must speak up against the bullies we face.  This is not easy for many, but there are times when we must stand up and confront the situations that are unhealthy for us.  When someone is treating us in a manner that is hurtful to us, we must speak up and confront the situation. As difficult as it can be to confront a situation or a person, there are times when such action is both necessary and justified. 

And we must speak up on behalf of others. As you can see, I’m not a big guy, and I wasn’t a big kid, and I had to face bullies. I remember very vividly when a friend of mine stood up for me when others were trying to bully me.  This is what the people were asking for in the passage we read this morning – they were asking for someone to stand up and speak on their behalf.

There are religious bullies that must be faced as well. In another church where I served, on my first day in the office, I had a visitor who announced to me that their goal was to make my life and ministry as difficult as possible.  The person was a bully who sought to get their way on every matter and had bullied the church for years. A few weeks ago, North Carolina pastor Sean Harris, in a sermon, advocated violence by parents against children who give any indication they may be gay.  I serve on the board of a foster care agency, and what we see happening to children is both heartbreaking and heart wrenching.  When someone such as Pastor Harris gives a religious sanctioning to using physical violence against children, we must speak out and say that it is wrong, as is anyone who advocates violence in the name of Christ.

It is necessary that we ask ourselves the question am I doing anything that is harming someone else or making it difficult to rebuild their life?  If you read in chapter five we find the situation of people returning from exile and then being placed in slavery by the abuse of their own people.  Upon return, many people were in financial difficulties and they were taken advantage of to the point they had to sell members of their own family into slavery.  When they complained to Nehemiah, he called the people together and denounced the practice and it stopped.  Things don’t always work out this way, unfortunately, as people who are doing something to complicate or hurt the life of another don’t recognize – or they refuse to recognize – how their actions are hurting someone else.

When I was attending seminary I had a job working in the Butchertown section of Louisville.  The couple that owned the business bought an adjoining property with an old house they decided to refurbish.  I spent most of a summer stripping layers and layers of old paint of the doors of that house.  It was monotonous work and I was tired of it after several weeks and I was gripping about it one day to Scott, who owned the business.  My opinion was to just add some more paint, but he told me sometimes you have to remove the accumulation of years to make it new again.  And he was correct.  After scraping off that paint I discovered beautiful wood, and they were once again like new.

The years of life add a lot of accumulation to us.  We experience difficulties and get a few scars.  We have some trials and tribulations and we get some calluses.  We receive hurts and disappointments and we put a protective layer around our hearts.  We make a few mistakes and we begin packing around a load of guilt and regret.  But the grace of God removes the accumulation of the years, and the Spirit begins to reshape and rebuild life. 

Perhaps your life needs rebuilding.  What is keeping you from doing what you need to do to rebuild your life?  Have you spent time in prayer, asking God to give you direction and strength about what you need to do to rebuild your life?  Perhaps you believe it is too late or too difficult to start over and rebuild life.  It is never too late.  It may be difficult, but it is not too late.  What will you do to change your life?  What will it take to allow God to enter into your life in a powerful way and change your life?

Do you need to rebuild your life?  If so, will you begin to do so today?