Monday, July 24, 2017

What's With All The Weeds?

This is a sermon that was preached at United Presbyterian Church, Sterling KS on Sunday, July 23 2017.  To listen to the audio click here.

To read the scriptures Matthew 13: 24-30,36-43 click here and Romans 8:12-25 here.


Jesus says, “Let anyone with ears listen!” (v43)

Which is especially meaningful to us since it’s corn season.

Last week we began our study of Jesus’ parables in Matthew 13 about the kingdom of heaven.  In last week’s parable the seeds were God’s word.  In this week’s parable, the seeds are people.  Some turn out to be wheat, and others turn out to be weeds.

Last week during the children’s sermon, the kids planted seeds in this pot.  This week we have some sprouts, but it’s too soon to tell which plants are which.  They have to keep growing for awhile before we’ll be able to tell, just like in the parable.

The parable begins, “The kingdom of heaven is like a farmer…” (v24) 
  • ·      In the explanation in verse 37, Jesus tells us that the farmer is the Son of Man, which means that the farmer is Jesus. 
  • ·      The good seeds are the children of the kingdom of God. 
  • ·      The farmer’s solution to the problem of weeds is to let them grow together and sort things out at the harvest, which means that God will do the sorting at the end of time.

When Jesus was telling this parable, he was speaking to a crowd of people.  Looking out over them, maybe he wondered which ones would turn out to be wheat and which would turn out to be weeds.  Or maybe he already knew.  The more I’ve pondered this parable, though, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that we’re all weeds.

So what makes a weed a weed?

Someone once said that “a weed is a plant that has mastered every survival skill except for learning how to grow in rows.”[1]

To be fair, another definition of a weed is that it is “a plant that is growing in the wrong place.”[2]

Growing up in the city, my definition of a weed is any plant that is growing in the gaps in the pavement.

Those definitions are pretty broad.  Whether a weed is good or bad is really a matter of perspective.  Consider the dandelion.  When I was a kid, I liked to blow on them when they were in the white, fluffy seed-ball stage.  We used to bring the flowers to my mom as loving gifts.  Meanwhile my dad was desperately pulling them up, and spraying herbicide on the lawn to try to get rid of them for good.  We definitely had different perspectives on dandelions.

Sorting out wheat from weeds got me to thinking about Harry Potter.  Maybe you’ve read the books or seen the movies. The theater in Hutchinson has been showing the entire series over the summer.  In the first story, Harry Potter discovers he’s a wizard and goes off to wizarding school.  The first thing that happens when new kids arrive at the school in a huddled mass is they get sorted by the sorting hat into groups, sort of like getting chosen for sororities and fraternities.  The magic talking hat will determine whether they will be part of the house of Slytherin, Hufflepuff, Gryffindor, or Ravenclaw.  While the hat is on each head, it makes an assessment about where each student “belongs.” 

We’re never told exactly what the assessment is based on, but there is some suggestion that Slytherin is the house for bad people because those students are so often at odds with Harry, and also because the main villain of the series, Lord Voldemort, was in the house of Slytherin.  But . . . so was one of the most famous wizards of all time, Merlin.[3]

So you can’t judge someone by the house they’re in, any more than you can judge someone by the church they’re in.

Jesus tells us in another of his sermons, the Sermon on the Mount, not to judge one another (Matt. 7) and points out that our problem is that we don’t see each other very clearly.  Our sins cloud our vision.  The reason the master in the parable tells the servants to let the weeds keep on growing is that they won’t be able to see which plants are weeds and which are wheat.  The message for us is the same.  We can’t tell.  Only God truly knows what’s in our hearts.[4]  And God’s criteria for judging is different than ours.

There was a father who coached a little league team of eight-year-olds.  A few of the kids were really good players, but there were some of the kids who just couldn’t quite get the hang of the game.  They went the whole season without winning a single game.  In the last inning of the last game, they were doing better than usual.  They were only down by one run.  And one little boy who had never been able to hit the ball or catch it came up to bat.  He surprised them all by hitting a single.

There were already two outs, but now there was hope. The next batter up was the team slugger.  Maybe they might actually have a chance at a win.  The slugger hit the ball.  As the boy who’d hit the single was running to second base, he saw the ball coming towards him.  Not so certain of baseball’s rules, he caught it. 

The final out.  Game over.  The team lost. 

But quickly the coach told his team to cheer anyway, and the boy beamed.  It never occurred to him that he had lost the game for his team.  All he knew was he had hit the ball and caught it, both for the first time.
Later the boy’s parents thanked the coach for making the boy’s first time to play in a game a success.[5]

Some might point out that the team lost the game, and didn’t win a single game all season. Or we could say that they all got to share that boy’s joy.
Which way sounds more like the kingdom of heaven? Last week, we talked about how the kingdom of heaven is wherever God’s will is done, and how God’s purposes are about turning hearts to him.  That means that the kingdom of heaven isn’t about winning games or making money or having the best stuff or the best job title, but instead it’s about caring about people and building relationships.

Learning that God’s top priority is people was a big “aha” moment for me.  One of my favorite things that I heard someone say about me years ago is that I get things done.  I always had a big list of things to accomplish.  I got assigned lots of work because I always got it done.  In fact, that was a huge source of pride for me.  I was very productive.  I wasn’t very patient with people, though.  People get in the way of productivity.  So you can imagine my surprise when I was reading one day in the Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Life and I discovered I had my priorities upside down.  The chapter was titled, “What Matters Most.”[6]  I dove into reading that chapter eagerly, anxious to find answers to that question. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I know I wasn’t expecting it to say, “What matters most is people – learning to love God and people.”[7]

The thing is, and you might already know this, people aren’t always all that lovable.  When you heard this parable about the wheat and the weeds, maybe you were thinking of some people that are challenging to love, and thinking, “That person is definitely a weed.”

But really, when it comes right down to it, we’re all weeds.

In chapter 3 of the book of Romans, the apostle Paul makes it pretty clear that we’re all in the same boat.  He says,
“There is no one who is living right.  Not even one. All of us fall short of the glorious life God wants us to live.  There is no difference between us and anyone else in that regard.”[8] 

We’re all weeds.  We all need the salvation and forgiveness that Jesus worked for us on the cross.  We all need God’s grace and forgiveness.
Which is why we’re so bad at making judgments about who is or isn’t a Christian or a good person. It’s just not always easy to tell.  And we tend to judge using the wrong criteria.

There was a schoolteacher named Jody who decided one day to use her summer off to travel across the country and see some of the sights that she taught about. She set out alone in her truck, towing a trailer.  One afternoon as she was stuck in rush hour traffic passing through a city, her truck stopped running.  Hot, tired, and exasperated she prayed, “God, send me an angel.”

About 5 minutes later a man drove up on a huge Harley.  He had long black hair, a long beard, and heavily tattooed arms.  He barely glanced at Jody as he hopped off his bike and went to work on her truck.  Keeping an eye on the traffic, he flagged down a larger truck and they towed Jody’s truck off the freeway and on to a side street where the biker continued to work on fixing the problem.  Jody was too dumbfounded to say much, and especially intimidated by the words “Hells Angels” on the back of the man’s leather vest.  When he was finished and the truck was running again, she managed a timid, “Thank you.”  Noticing her look of fear, the man chuckled and said, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Then he hopped on his bike and rode off.[9]

We can’t tell what people are like from the outside.  That’s why we are to be patient and let the weeds and wheat grow together for now. There will come a day at the end of time when God will separate the weeds from the wheat.  Knowing Jesus and his love is what Paul talks about in Romans 3 as what makes the difference.
For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.24 Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. (Romans 3:23-24)

That’s grace.  Grace is how weeds become wheat. Grace is exciting.  Grace is why we’re here.  Grace allows us to look forward to our glorious future and to enjoy the blessings of today.

Grace is allowing that we don’t all look or act the same, and that’s ok.
Grace is the Holy Spirit at work in us, helping us to be made new from the inside out, helping us to find new ways to express our thanks to God, and to tell others about grace.

This is why I really love the message version of our reading from Romans for today and what it says this about living a grace-filled life:
This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike “What’s next, Papa?” God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. (v15-16)

Who we really are is weeds turned into wheat, children of God through faith in Jesus, looking forward to what God’s going to do next in this great adventure.

We live in the midst of the tension between what is now and what is to come.

We wait with joyful anticipation for God to work in us and around us.

We watch for signs of God’s kingdom coming.

We see signs of God’s work whenever we see the work of the Holy Spirit in us and the people around us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).

During the children’s sermon last week we planted seeds.  We didn’t plant them in nice little rows.  All different kinds of seeds are mixed up together in the pot.  Some of them have started to grow, but I don’t know whether these are the flowers or the mustard or the carrots. 

It’s going to look kind of messy.  Growth is like that.  But out of the chaos we’ll get the beauty of flowers and vegetables.  If I’d just done it by myself, it would have come out differently, but that would have missed the point that all the kids got to participate.

We all get to participate, in different ways, in making God’s kingdom of grace a reality here on earth.

Let us continually be looking for ways to share the same grace that God has given each one of us.

[4] Psalm 139, Psalm 44:21, 1 Kings 8:39
[5] Jeffrey Zaslow, “Tell Me All About It,” 1990,
[6] Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002)
[7] My paraphrase of Rick Warren’s words in The Purpose Driven Life, p125.
[8] Romans 3, Krabbe paraphrase with a little borrowing from the Message version.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Cultivating Faith - Good Soil - Matthew 13:1-13, Isaiah 55:6-13

This is a sermon that was preached on Sunday, July 16 2017 at United Presbyterian Church in Sterling, KS.

Read Matthew 13 here.

Listen to the sermon here.


Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.  –Matthew 13:9

One day, Jesus said to his disciples:
"The Kingdom of Heaven is like y = 3 x2 + 8 x - 9."
A man who had just joined the disciples looked very confused and asked Peter:
"What, on Earth, does he mean by that?"
Peter smiled. "Don't worry. It's just another one of his parabolas."[1]

"The Kingdom of Heaven is like y = 3 x2 + 8 x - 9."

You might recognize that as a parabolic equation.  It’s called parabolic because if you put it on a graph, the line it creates is a parabola.  An arch, like the famous one in St. Louis.

Don’t worry, that’s as far as I’m going with math today.  I brought up parabolic equations because today we begin looking at the section of the book of Matthew that’s called the parabolic discourse. (A discourse is like a sermon.) It’s not called that because Jesus teaches about math, but because Jesus teaches using a series of parables.  Today we’re talking about the parable of the soils.  Next week we’ll look at the parable of the weeds, and then the following week we’ll look at the group of short parables that finish this section of teaching.

All of these parables are teaching about the kingdom of God.  Jesus was continually telling people that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  The parable of the soils is the only one in this series of parables that doesn’t begin, “The kingdom of God is like…”

The kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven is what we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer Jesus taught the disciples when they asked him to teach them how to pray.  In the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

What that means…and I’m borrowing this explanation from the Heidelberg Catechism, one of the confessions found in our Book of Confessions…
“Your kingdom come” means:
Rule us by your Word and Spirit in such a way that more and more we submit to you.
Preserve your church and make it grow.
Destroy the devil’s work; …
Do this until your kingdom fully comes, when you will be all in all.[2]
In other words, God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, is where God is sovereign.

But looking around at the world, it’s easy to draw the conclusion that God is not sovereign and that the kingdom of God is far off.  That was the thinking in Jesus’ time, too.  They were hoping that he would start acting more like a king and work on taking over the government.  But if they were really listening to his teaching, they would have heard that the kingdom of God was not about taking over the government, but about turning hearts to God.  To further demonstrate that, Jesus tells this parable.  And we get a bonus with this parable, we get an explanation: 
The four kinds of soils are four different ways that people hear God’s word.  The optimum results come from the fourth way, hearing and understanding and bearing fruit. 
Which makes it fairly obvious that it’s best to be good soil.  But how much control do we really have over that?

Two scriptures have been running through my mind this week as I was pondering this parable.  One is the scripture from Isaiah 55 that Carol read for us this morning:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
    and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
    giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Is. 55:10-11)

God’s word is always effective at accomplishing God’s purposes.  We should also note, however, that this same passage also talks about how God’s ways are different than our ways.  God’s purposes may be different than our purposes, and so we may misjudge the effectiveness of God’s word.

The other scripture comes from the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  They were arguing over who was the better teacher and Paul put the argument to rest by saying, “God is the one who gives the growth.”

With those two scriptures in mind, let’s look at the four scenarios.

The seed that lands on the path is the person who doesn’t understand the word.  The soil is too hard for the seed to sink in.  They are too hard-hearted, or the word is too foreign to be understood.

Hard soil is what we find in the desert where there hasn’t been water for a very long time.  On those rare occasions when it does rain, the ground is so hard that the water just runs right off.  It can’t soak in.

But what if just one seed didn’t get snatched away but remained and gradually sunk in and lay there unsprouted, maybe even for a long time, and when it did finally sprout it grew slowly, so slowly that no one even noticed.

Hiking in the mountains in California I have seen trees growing out of the side of giant cliffs of rock.  How the seed that became that tree even got there is a mystery.  I was always amazed at the tenacity of those trees to have grown in spite of the impossible conditions.

Good soil is best, but there is grace and hard hearts can be softened.  God says in Ezekiel 36:26, "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”  With humans this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.

The second kind of soil is rocky.  The seed grows but there’s not enough soil for deep roots, so the plant is scorched by the sun.  It can’t handle the heat and withers. 

Jesus tells a similar story about two houses, one built on rock and the other built on sand.  Wind and rain cannot blow over the house built on the rock, but the one built on sand is easily blown away.  We tell this same story to our children in a different way.  Three little pigs each built houses – one made of straw, one made of sticks, and one made of bricks.  When the big bad wolf comes to blow down the houses, the only one that stands is the one made of bricks.

Whether we’re talking about building houses or growing plants, we’re talking about strength of character, and a foundation built on faith in Jesus Christ, instead of other things. 

What if, even though the plants are scorched and the house is blown over, there’s still just enough root to remain, or just enough of the foundation left to rebuild?

There’s a beautiful movie you may have seen that came out in the 90’s starring Keanu Reeves called “A Walk in the Clouds.”[3]  It’s set in the 1940s in the Northern California wine country.  At one point in the story … spoiler alert…the family’s vineyard catches fire.  It looks like all the grape vines are destroyed, including the original plant that they’d brought from their family home in Italy.  They hurry to find that vine. It too looks burned to survive, but as they peel away the burned part, they find that there is still life at the center, and from that life they are able to regrow the vineyard.

That glimmer of hope is what we have through faith in Jesus Christ.  Romans 5 tells us how hope survives in the midst of rocks and trouble:
Therefore, since we are [made right with God] by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

We grow roots into the rock that is Jesus Christ.

The third soil is full of thorns that choke out the sprouting plant.  The worries and cares of this world and the lure of wealth get in the way. 

But what if the plants don’t die and they’re able to push away the thorns and keep on growing?

Scrooge, in Charles Dickens’ story A Christmas Carol, is a pretty thorny guy.  He’s all about saving a penny and has no room in his life for people.  What’s growing in Scrooge is his bank account.  But those ghosts that come on Christmas Eve help push away the thorns and cares that have crowded out the life that still lives deep down inside, and on Christmas morning Scrooge has become a new man.

Jesus talks about worry in Matthew 6:
Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32. . . your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
34 So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
And Paul says in Phillippians:
Do not worry about anything, but in everything with prayer and thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil 4:6-7)

The best way to deal with our worries is to keep on bringing them to God in prayer.

One of the great debates among commentators is how we should see ourselves in this parable.  Are we the sowers or the soil . . . or both? 

If our hearts are the soil, then the only one who can help us make things grow in our hearts is God, so the way to be good soil is to ask God for help with this.  Each of the kinds of soil can be changed through seeking God in prayer. 

If we are the sowers, then we still need God to make the seeds grow and so we still need to be praying as we sow.

If we are the path – the hardened soil – then we can pray, “Change my heart, God.”  And if we are sowing on hard soil, they we pray for that person’s heart to be softened and we keep on sowing seeds of love, hoping that at least one will sprout and take root.
We can also pray for understanding – God, help me to understand what I’m reading in the Bible or hearing in a group or sermon.  If we’re the one teaching or speaking, we pray that our words will find softened soil, listening hearts.

If we are the rocky soil, we can pray to ask God to help us withstand trouble, to help us to remember that God is still with us even in the midst of the trouble.  If we are the sower, we can pray for someone who is having trouble and look for ways to be the help that they need.

If we are the thorny soil, we can pray for God to help us see beyond the thorns, and for God to help us know that his ways are good and trustworthy, and we can look for ways to be thankful for what we have.  We can ask God to help us remember Jesus’ words, to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  If we are the sower, we can pray for those who are having trouble with thorns, and look for ways to help clear them away.

Whether we are the soil or the sower, we can be good soil and good sowers by being consistent and constant pray-ers. How do we do that?

1 Thessalonians 5:17 tells us to pray continually. This is what God wants, and this is our goal, to be in conversation with God through as much of each day as possible.  Most of us probably fall short of that.   Wherever you stand on prayer, join me in a challenge - to spend the next 40 days praying more. 

God says in Jeremiah: You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.  (Jeremiah 29:13)

You’ll find an insert in your bulletins (see below to download jpgs) on light brown paper with a tree on it. Take a look at it now, and you’ll see that it has a chart on it.  Next to each date there are 5 boxes to check off for praying.  Our growth challenge is to go the next 40 days checking at least one box a day. 

There are boxes to check for up to 5 times a day.  I chose 5 because it sounded easier to me to remember to pray when I get up in the morning, when I go to bed at night, and at breakfast, lunch and dinner.  There’s also an ancient tradition of praying the hours each day which would mean praying at 6am, 9am, noon, 3pm, 6pm and 9pm.[4]  That’s 6 instead of 5.

Next to each day there’s also a space for putting a word or two, a note to yourself, whatever you want to put there.  It could be a scripture you prayed that day, or something that occurred to you as you were praying, or the names of people you prayed for.

At the bottom of the back of the card is a version of the Lord’s Prayer, which makes a great template for prayer.

Writer Ann Lamotte has a great book about prayer called Help, Thanks, Wow.  She encourages us to not worry so much about the words, but to call out to God throughout the day to ask for help in big and small ways, to say thanks for things as we go through the day, and to notice God’s blessings and say Wow to those.

Please add to your prayers a prayer for those who are finding this challenge difficult, or who are having trouble deciding to pray at all. 

Please also pray daily for our church, that we would grow in our understanding of God’s vision for us as a church.

"Praying is a joining of realities, making a live connection between the place we find ourselves and the God who is finding us."
--Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor

The place we find ourselves.  I think reality is that sometimes we are good soil, and sometimes we are thorny soil, or rocky soil, or even hardened soil.  We are people in process.  God says in Ezekiel that he will take our hearts of stone and soften them, turn them into hearts of flesh.  All of us are somewhere in that process. 

I know for me even in the course of a day there are times when a seed falling on the soil of my heart might hit any one of those kinds of soil.  Early in the morning I’m better at listening to God than I am later in the busyness of the day. 

Throughout the day, wherever we find ourselves, the more we can think to talk to God and say, “Here I am, God.  Help me bring your kingdom of heaven on earth to this place, to this part of my life,” the more we will be good soil and good sowers of God’s love and grace in the hearts of those around us.

God is so patient with us.  Only God can make us grow. 

Let continually open our hearts to him with thanks and praise.

[2] Heidelberg Catechism Question 123 from the 2014 edition of the PC(USA) Book of Confessions
[3] A Walk in the Clouds, 1995

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Love Will Keep Us Together

This is a sermon that was preached on Sunday, July 9, 2017 at United Presbyterian Church, Sterling, KS.

Read Genesis 24 here.
Listen to the sermon here.


Note:  Watch a fun video of the from which I borrowed the title here.


What’s your favorite love story?

Long long ago in a land far far away, there lived a beautiful princess…

This is the typical beginning to a classic fairy tale love story.  There would, of course be some sort of issue:
  • ·  the princess is lonely or trapped in a tower, or
  • ·  the kingdom is failing, or
  • ·  there’s an evil dragon or an evil villain. 

Whatever it is, the issue creates tension which draws us into the story.  By the end, the issue is resolved, and the princess has met a handsome prince who risks his life to save the day, and they get married and live happily ever after. . .The end.

Believe it or not, the story we read today from Genesis 24 is considered a classic love story.  Not a modern classic, though.  An ancient classic. 

Do you believe in fate?
We also call it destiny, kismet, serendipity.
Whatever we call it, it’s the belief that something bigger than ourselves has a hand in directing our lives.

I prefer to call it providence.  Providence is what we see at work in our story from Genesis 24.  Providence is the hand of God at work in our lives.
Throughout the story of Abraham, he has heard from God and responded with obedience.  In today’s story, God’s action is more subtle, more like the way many of us experience God in our daily lives.  We trust in God’s faithful love, and do our best to be obedient disciples, and watch prayerfully and expectantly for God’s will.

As we’ve been talking about the past few weeks, Abraham has received a promise from God that he will have descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky.  God has confirmed that this happens through Abraham’s son Isaac.  God has also promised Abraham that the land in which he is now living would belong to his descendants – the Promised Land.  So Isaac needs to get married, and Isaac needs to stay local

If this were a Disney story, there’d be a grand ball and all the fair maidens of the kingdom would be invited so that Isaac could choose one to marry.  Like in Cinderella. 

Did you know that Cinderella was really bad at sports? 
She kept running away from the ball.[1]

But this isn’t Disney.  This is a story that shows us how God was faithful in keeping his promise.  This is a story about faith and commitment and a deeper kind of love.

·      Abraham trusts God to lead the servant to the right woman for Isaac. 
·      The servant also trusts God’s leading, and so does Rebekah.
·      Isaac, too, trusts that the woman the servant has brought back is the best woman for him, and verse 67 says he loved her.  No courtship.  No steamy love scenes.  Just faithful, committed love. 

I love how the servant finds Rebekah.  He goes to the well, apparently the local pickup spot (a common place to meet women in ancient times), and he asks God for a sign.  He says, “This is my request. I will ask one of them, ‘Please give me a drink from your jug.’ If she says, ‘Yes, have a drink, and I will water your camels, too!’—let her be the one you have selected as Isaac’s wife. This is how I will know that you have shown unfailing love to my master.”

This is very similar to what Gideon does.  In the book of Judges, we read about God telling Gideon to go lead his people to fight off an attacking army.  Gideon wants to make sure he heard God correctly, so Gideon puts out a fleece, like a wool blanket, and asks God to make the fleece wet and the ground around the fleece dry so that Gideon will know it’s really God’s will.  And the next morning the fleece is wet and the ground is dry.  But Gideon still isn’t certain, so he asks God to do it again, only this time make the ground wet and the fleece dry.  And the next morning the ground is wet and the fleece is dry, so now Gideon knows that God has spoken. (Judges 6:36-40)

Abraham’s servant puts out a fleece of his own.  He is also asking for a sign so that he will know which woman is the right one to take back to Isaac.  And before he has even finished praying, here comes Rebekah.  God knows what’s in our hearts and minds before we can even say it, and God was already working answering the servant’s prayer.  Jesus says in Matthew 6, God knows what we need before we even ask for it.

The servant asks Rebekah for a drink of water, and she responds exactly as the servant had asked, “Yes, here’s a drink, and let me get water for your camels, too.”  Aha!  Could this be the woman he’s looking for?

We should note that Rebekah doesn’t just say she’ll give the camels some water.  She says she’ll keep giving them water until they’ve drunk their fill. (24:19)  The servant has ten camels.  They’ve just crossed the desert, so these are thirsty camels, and a thirsty camel can drink as much as 30 gallons in about 15 minutes.[2]  Drawing enough water for 10 camels is a serious commitment, and says something about the character of Rebekah, and maybe something about her physically as well.  We know how much one gallon of milk weighs.  Imagine carrying 300 of those! 

And then in talking with Rebekah more, the servant finds out that she is the daughter of Abraham’s brother.  Perfect!  God has indeed brought just the right woman to the well at just the right time, and the servant wastes no time in acknowledging this and thanking God for his unfailing love and kindness. Providence at work.

Finding the right woman is only step one, however.  Now to meet her family, and see whether they will agree to let her go.  When the servant tells his story to Rebekah’s brothers, they agree that this is God’s will at work and that Rebekah should indeed go be Isaac’s bride.  And when they ask Rebekah if she will go, she also agrees.  Step two – success!

The last step is to bring her home to Isaac.  How will that go?  Of course, it goes well.  Isaac loved her.  Cue the joyful and triumphant music, and roll the credits.

It’s not your typical modern love story, but we still get a happy ending.  There is love, and, like the song, love will keep them together.  Isaac and Rebekah even become a model for marriage for future generations.  In fact, the prayer at the end of wedding ceremonies used to say, “Send thy blessing upon … this man and this woman … that, as Isaac and Rebecca lived faithfully together, so these persons may surely perform and keep the vow and covenant they’ve made.”[3]

If Abraham were looking for a wife for Isaac today, maybe he would have used, the online dating app.  (For Abraham, it might be called after the matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof.)
In a sense, using is still trusting God for things that are beyond our control, trusting God to work through the algorithm that makes up the software work. 

I recently did something like this, and so did you.  Using is very much like the process that brought us together as pastor and church.  Our denomination has a database called Church Leadership Connection. The name isn’t as catchy as but the process is similar.
  • ·      Churches enter their information and criteria,
  • ·      pastors enter theirs, and the system matches them up. 
  • ·      Lots of prayer goes into the process of preparing the information that we put in, and
  • ·      lots of prayer happens about the matches that we receive, and
  • ·      there is a great amount of trust that God will bring the right matches together. 

Once we all agree that this is indeed the right match, we get married.  There’s even a ceremony.  I hope you’ll all come on August 6 at 4pm when I’ll be installed as your pastor.  Just like a wedding, we’ll make vows to one another, professing our commitment to one another and to God.
Marriage is a commitment. In traditional wedding vows, we promise to stick together through sickness and health. Love and commitment involve willingness to sacrifice

·      Rebekah is willing to leave her home and her family and go to a land far away to live with people she’s never met, knowing that she will never see her family again.  She doesn’t hesitate.  She says, “I will go.” (24:58) 
·      Abraham had done the same thing, obediently following God’s call to leave his homeland and go to Canaan. 

Both of them had to keep on trusting God’s love to carry them through whatever happened in the process of keeping their commitment.
We make commitments to one another and to God when we become members of a church, too.  God brings us together, and God’s love is what keeps us together.  Through our faith in Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit gathers us together and unites us, and gives us the tools we need to be the church together.

At Church we work on learning how to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  None of that is easy.  It’s much easier to stay home, to avoid people…easier to love your neighbor if you never see your neighbor.  That’s what Robert Frost says in his poem “Mending Wall”:  “Good fences make good neighbors.”  But he’s saying it ironically, because the poem is really about how the wall keeps falling apart.  If they never mended it, eventually it would fall down as the natural forces of wind and rain and time wore it down.  “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”  That something, when it comes to relationships between us and with God, is the Holy Spirit.

Relationships are important.  Our relationships with God and with one another are our strength.  They’re also our witness to the world.  Jesus said that the world would know us by our love.  Church is about learning to love one another so we can be equipped to share that love with the world. 
Our unity is vital to our witness.  Unity is much easier if we stay isolated from one another, or if we stick with people who agree with us.  Unity involves sacrifice.

Relationships grow deeper when we struggle together through the challenges that come from diversity and doing life together. 
  • ·      Marriages are stronger when they’ve dealt with the issues that come up, and not just ignored them. 
  • ·      Friendships are stronger when they’ve spent time together talking about things that matter more deeply. 
  • ·      Churches are stronger when they’ve worked through the conflicts and challenges that come from being together.

Relationships can be difficult, but in the Bible, the Apostle Paul tells us how to do this in his letters.  In Romans 12:9, he says,  Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them.”  In 1 Corinthians he tells us what that looks like:
Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged.It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.

Those sound wonderful in theory, but to put them into practice we need to be with other people.  At church we have the opportunity to work on having this kind of love with others who are also working on having this kind of love, to encourage one another and pray for one another. 

We’re going to be working on having more opportunities to build these kinds of relationships with one another in the days ahead.  One of the things the education committee will be working on is getting us together in groups to talk about God and the Bible and life.  In those small groups, we’ll make commitments to one another to be patient and kind, and to support one another even as we uncover ways in which we might not agree about everything.

Our life together begins with our commitment to seek God and to follow Jesus and to trust the work of the Holy Spirit among us. 

·      One step in that commitment is committing to one another in membership, which is why we’ll have an opportunity to consider that step in our UPC101 class on July 23

·      Another step in that commitment is using our gifts to support the work and ministry of this church.  One opportunity to do that is on the insert in our bulletin today from the education committee.

The story of Isaac and his bride Rebekah is one of the great love stories in the Bible. Another great love story is the story of Jesus and his bride the church.  Paul tells us in his letter to the Ephesians that Jesus loved the church and gave himself up for her, so that she might be clean and holy, washed by God’s word, and presented as holy and without spots or wrinkles. (Eph. 5:25-27)

Not that we don’t have spots or wrinkles—because we do—but as if we don’t.  By Jesus sacrifice we are made perfect, spotless, without wrinkles, in the eyes of God. 

It’s like how a bridegroom sees his bride when she’s walking down the aisle on their wedding day.  In his eyes she is perfect, because he sees her with the eyes of love.

That’s how God sees us, made possible through the work of Jesus.  Because God loves us we can trust in his providence, in his sovereignty.
God’s love is strong.  God’s love draws us together. 
God’s love will . . . keep us together.