Sunday, August 13, 2017

Now As Our Service Begins

The Rev. Dr. Skip Ferguson
Manassas Presbyterian Church
Manassas, Virginia
August 13, 2017

Now As Our Service Begins
John 13:34-35

“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
It’s a great title for a sermon, don’t you think?
Short, punchy, to the point.
You read the words in the worship bulletin
even before the service begins
and you know right where the preacher will head
once he takes his place behind the pulpit.
“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
Don’t the very words make you feel uncomfortable,
a little warmer,
especially your feet,
as though heat was radiating from the floor?

“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”
is not the subtitle of my sermon.
It is the title of a famous sermon
preached in the year 1741 by Jonathan Edwards,
the Puritan theologian and preacher.

Let’s imagine for a moment,
on this beautiful Sunday morning,
that we ourselves are in Edwards’ church in Connecticut
more than 270 years ago,
about to hear what we assume will be
the very model of “fire and brimstone”,
Edwards about to hurl lightning bolts from his pulpit,
fury rising in his voice with every sentence,
he himself the last bulwark,
between the sea of sinners sitting before him
and the wrath of an angry and vengeful God
enthroned in Heaven above.
The irony is that, in spite of the title,
the crux of Edward’s message preached
all those years ago,
was that God is a God of grace and goodness,
a God who sent his Son that we would know mercy,
that we would know love.

Now, we – none of us – can deny we are sinners.
We are, by definition.
How many times have you heard me say
that sin is anything,
that causes us to turn from God?
We sin in ways both small and large,
in the things we say and do
and the things we fail to say and do.
Edwards was not wrong in using the term
to describe himself and his congregation.

Sinners we may be,
but we are not in the hands of an angry God.
We might well be in the hands of
a disappointed God;
but angry, no.

Too many preachers over the centuries
have tried to paint God as an angry God,
a vengeful God,
the God we often call, quite mistakenly,
the God of the Old Testament,
a God with his finger always ready to press
the “smite” button on his holy computer keyboard.

But God sent Jesus
to wash away that mistaken notion.
God sent Jesus to reveal to us a God of love,
a God of grace, of mercy, of forgiveness.

Think about Jesus’ lesson for us
in the parable of the prodigal son.
The central message of that extraordinary parable
is that we can never descend
into such abject sinfulness,
never stray so far from God,
that God will not be waiting for us to return to him,
God’s arms open wide in welcome,
no words of criticism or judgment on God’s lips,
no punishment meted out first,
with forgiveness saved for later.                                                      
No — our Father in heaven
is filled with joy in our presence,
the lost lamb returned to the fold.
God doesn’t want to smite us,
God wants to forgive us.
God isn’t filled with wrath;
God is filled with love.

Love is at the very core of Jesus’ message,
Jesus’ teachings.
His words to us in our text—
what could be clearer, simpler:
“I give you a new commandment,
that you love one another.
Just as I have loved you,
you also should love one another.
By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples:
if you have love for one another.”
(John 13:34-35)

Jesus loves us,
and we in turn should love one another
to show the world we are Christ’s disciples.
What’s complicated about that message?
Why do we find it so hard to understand,
so hard to live?

Jesus puts it another way;
“‘You shall love the Lord your God
with all your heart,
and with all your soul,
and with all your mind.’
This is the greatest and first commandment.
And a second is like it:
‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
On these two commandments
hang all the law and the prophets.”
(Matthew 22:37)

Do you remember our text from last week?
Again, the words of our Lord Jesus Christ:
“If you love those who love you,
what credit is that to you?
If you do good to those who do good to you,
what credit is that to you?
Even sinners do the same.
…Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’
and not do what I tell you?”
(Luke 6:32ff)

Jesus’ message is not complicated.
It is hard, though, to put in practice,
there’s no denying that.
Who among us would find it easy to love
the hate-filled bigots who poisoned
the sylvan beauty of Thomas Jefferson’s university
and the streets of Charlottesville
with their toxic racism,
and, as one astute observer put it,
“the pagan intensity of [their] idol worship.”
(Cunningham in The New Yorker)

Where we trip ourselves up
is when we misinterpret the Bible,
and use the Bible for our own purposes,
making of scripture something it is not,
As the Reverend William Sloane Coffin
once wryly put it,
“Too many Christians use the Bible
as a drunk does a lamppost:
for support rather than illumination.”
Racists have never been hesitant to wave their Bibles
and carry their crosses as signs of their
supposed supremacy.

We are to interpret the written word
through the lens that is the Living Word,
which means if our interpretation
is not grounded in grace and love,
mercy and compassion,
then we’d better go back and try it again.

Jesus showed us just how to do this
in the lesson of the adulterous woman,
a lesson I’ve shared many times
throughout my career.
In those few sentences
in the 8th chapter of John’s gospel,
we have a perfect example
of how to read the Bible,
of how to interpret the Bible.

You recall the story:
a woman was caught in adultery,
which back in Jesus’ time was a crime,
a crime punishable by death;
Scripture said so, not once, but twice,
in two different places.

The woman was guilty,
she never denied it.
And the punishment was clear from the scripture:
death, death by stoning.

Jesus knew his scripture,
so he should have been the first to pick up a stone,
the first to say,
“Scripture demands that this woman die for her crime,
for she has broken the law of Holy Scripture,
I will throw the first stone
and I call all those who live by the Word of God
to pick up stones and throw them,
throw them at this sinner until she is dead,
just as scripture demands.”

But of course, that’s not what Jesus did.
We remember his words, don’t we:
“Let anyone among you
who is without sin
be the first to throw a stone at her.”
(John 8:7)

Jesus shows us how we are called to live:
by grace, with grace.
Jesus showed us that even when we sin,
God isn’t interested in vengeance or punishment;
God is not wrathful.
What God wants from us is repentance,
What God wants from us is that we turn and learn,
learn and turn.
“Has no one condemned you?”  
Jesus asked the adulterous woman.
When she responded that no one had,
Jesus said to her,
“Neither do I condemn you.
Go your way,
and from now on do not sin again.”

and learn.

We come to church to honor the Sabbath,
to sing our praises to God,
to pray,
to be nourished at our Lord’s Table,
and to learn.
We come to learn about God,
to learn that God is a God of goodness,
a God of grace,
a God of love;
a God we can, and often do, disappoint,
but a God who still offers us endless new beginnings.

You may recall me telling you of how
the pastor at the Brick Presbyterian Church
in New York City,
the church where I was ordained,
began his benediction each Sunday with the words,
“Now as our service begins.”
The first couple of times
I heard him say those words,
they always sounded out of place,
coming as they did,
at the end of the worship service.

But I realized that he was right in what he said:
“now as our service begins”.
Our worship service was about to end,
and that meant that
we were about to go back out into the world,
the worshiping community at Brick
about to spill out the doors
back onto the frenetic streets of Manhattan.

He was reminding us to go out as disciples of Christ,
go out in grace and love,
living grace and love as we served the Lord;
and that by our love,
even on the mean streets of New York,
others would know we were disciples of Christ.

The ugliness of the events in Charlottesville,
the age-old threat of war,
remind us how hard our work is
when we leave this place and go back out
to face all the challenges before us,
in our homes, our community,
the world around us.

Still, in a few minutes we will leave,
go out the door,
go back out into the world,
our worship service at an end,
our service as disciples about to begin again.

And, when we go, we are called to go
with the words of our Lord with us,
leading us, guiding us:
“I give you a new commandment,
that you love one another.
Just as I have loved you,
you also should love one another.
By this, everyone will know
that you are my disciples:
if you have love for one another.”

To God be the glory.


Note: This is Dr. Ferguson's final sermon preached at 
the Manassas Presbyterian Church prior to 
his retirement as the pastor of the church. 

Sunday, August 06, 2017

As It Should Be

The Rev. Dr. Skip Ferguson
Manassas Presbyterian Church
Manassas, Virginia
August 6, 2017

As It Should Be
Matthew 14:13-21

Now when Jesus heard this,
he withdrew from there in a boat
to a deserted place by himself.
But when the crowds heard it,
they followed him on foot from the towns.
When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd;
and he had compassion for them
and cured their sick.

When it was evening,
the disciples came to him and said,
“This is a deserted place,
and the hour is now late;
send the crowds away
so that they may go into the villages
and buy food for themselves.”

Jesus said to them, “They need not go away;
you give them something to eat.”
They replied, “We have nothing here
but five loaves and two fish.”
And he said, “Bring them here to me.”

Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass.
Taking the five loaves and the two fish,
he looked up to heaven,
and blessed and broke the loaves,
and gave them to the disciples,
and the disciples gave them to the crowds.
And all ate and were filled;
and they took up what was left over
of the broken pieces,
twelve baskets full.
And those who ate were about five thousand men,
besides women and children.
The feeding of the 5,000 –
a story that appears in all four gospels;
surely it is one of our favorites stories.

It is a simple story:
thousands of people gathered to hear Jesus,
to learn from him
and to be healed by him.
The day is drawing to a close,
darkness about to descend;
Jesus and the crowds are in a deserted area,
wilderness, to use the Old Testament term.

All those people,
tired and hungry after a long day,
and yet among them, apparently,
just five loaves and two fish,
hardly enough to feed Jesus and his disciples,
much less 5000.

The disciples, concerned for the people,
and, sure of the solution
to the problem before them,
said to Jesus,
“Send the crowd away,
so that they may go into
the surrounding villages and countryside…
to get provisions.”
(Luke 9:12)

Jesus, calm as always,
even in the face of his disciples’ fretting,
surely surprised them,
even confused them, with his response:
They need not go away;
you give them something to eat.”

All of the disciples must have thought
the same thing after hearing Jesus’ words,
“Are you kidding?
How do you expect us to feed 5,000 people
with five loaves and two fish?”

And, although we know this story
as the “feeding of the 5,000”,
if you listened carefully to Matthew’s final sentence,
you know that there were more than 5,000.
Did you hear it:
there “were about five thousand men,
besides women and children.”
In other words, five thousand men,
plus their wives and children.

So, how many were there to feed:
10,000? 15,000?
Five loaves and two dried, salted fish
to feed them all.
Have you ever seen dried, salted fish?
More prune than plum,
more raisin than grape.

The story then turns Eucharistic,
redolent of what we will do in a few moments:
Jesus taking the bread,
blessing it,
breaking it,
and giving it to the people
through his disciples.

It’s at that moment
we come to the heart of the story,
when we wonder,
wonder what really happened that day,
in that place.
Wonder about the miracle.
And it was a miracle –
of that we should have no doubt.
But was the miracle sharing –
that the people gathered there,
all began to open bundles, bags, satchels,
to share the provisions they had,
such as they had,
a piece of bread here,
a piece of fish there?

Everyone surely reacting at first,
as we all have a tendency to do,
not wanting to share,
thinking only of themselves,
worried that they might not even have enough
for themselves and their families.

But then, getting caught up in the spirit,
the spirit of grace,
the spirit of Christ,
and sharing,
sharing joyfully,
sharing with friend and stranger alike.

If that was Jesus’ plan,
then indeed it was a miracle,
getting 5,000, 10,000, 15,000 people
to sweep aside their concern for themselves,
and open their hearts
as well as their satchels
to one another.

We can also read this story another way,
that the miracle was that God provided—
give us this day our daily bread.
That as Jesus handed each disciple a loaf of bread,
another miraculously appeared,
appeared as if out of thin air,
manna from heaven,
as though the angels of the Lord God
had descended Jacob’s ladder,
each carrying a large basket
filled with heavenly loaves,
Jesus then able to hand out loaf after loaf until,
as Matthew tells us, all were “filled”.
everyone was satisfied, no one was hungry,
all were content.

I’ve always leaned more toward
the first interpretation,
that everyone gathered there shared,
shared what they had with with one another,
that the story of the feeding of the 5,000
was a predecessor to the story of “Stone Soup”,
that story most of us read and loved as children.
I’ve always preferred that reading
because to me
5000, 10,000, 15,000 people sharing—
that’s a miracle!

We can read the story either way, though.
Whichever way we read it,
we have a miracle:
thousands upon thousands gathered peaceably,
listening, learning;
then sharing a meal together,
everyone filled spiritually,
as well as physically,
everyone nourished,
no one left out.
5,000, 10,000, 15,000 people.

And, while the gospels don’t tell us,
it was likely an extremely diverse group:
Jews, Greeks, Romans, Samaritans, Ethiopians
men, women, young, old,
olive-hued, dark-skinned,
fair, ruddy,
different languages, different cultures:
but all together.

And, still there’s more:
Jesus and the crowd weren’t even in Galilee,
their homeland;
they were other side of the sea,
in Gentile territory.
But happily no walls blocked them,
no soldiers told Jesus and his disciples,
“Turn the boat around and go back
where you came from
and take this crowd with you.
You are foreigners and you are not welcome here.”
They gathered peaceably even on foreign soil.

All of this is as it should be.
All this is what God wants for us.
Women and men filled with grace,
living peaceably, sharing,
following their shepherd:
God speaking through the prophet Ezekiel,
I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep,
and I will make them lie down, ….
I will seek the lost,
and I will bring back the strayed,
and I will bind up the injured,
and I will strengthen the weak.”
(Ezekiel 34:15)

This is what God means when God says to us
that he will give us a future with hope:
that we will learn to live peaceably together,
sharing, feeding,
teaching, healing,
caring for one another.

That we will learn to live by our Lord’s words:
“If you love those who love you,
what credit is that to you?
If you do good to those who do good to you,
what credit is that to you?.
Even sinners do the same.
…Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’
and not do what I tell you?”
(Luke 6:32ff)

I’ve always like the quote,
“I love the theory of the church;
it is the practice that leaves me cold.”
It is a reminder that even within the Body of Christ,
we often fail to get it right,
fail to live as we should,
to do as our Lord teaches us.

Still, we come together,
and, as all those people did so long ago,
we come to listen,
to learn,
to be fed by our Lord,
gathered in community,
all of us together,
all welcome,
peace reigns.

All as it should be.


Sunday, July 30, 2017

To Do What?

The Rev. Dr. Skip Ferguson
Manassas Presbyterian Church
Manassas, Virginia
July 30, 2017

To Do What?
Selected Texts

It was John Milton, in his classic Paradise Lost,
who imagined God speaking of his children:
“I made [them] just and right,
sufficient to have stood,
though free to fall….
Authors to themselves in all,
both what they judge and what they choose;
for so I formed them free
and free they remain.”
(Book 3, line 96ff)

Poetry—fiction— to be sure,
words written in 1667,
but still, it sounds right, doesn’t it:
that God made us just and right,
though free to fall.

We can look,
we can examine,
we can decide;
we can choose.
We can choose wisely and well;
and we can choose poorly and painfully:
“sufficient to have stood,
though free to fall.”

We are free to fall;
free to make bad choices;
free to go down wrong paths;
free to turn away from God;
free to close our hearts and minds to God;
free to deny we’ve done any such thing.  

Last week we talked about Jacob,
and you heard me refer to him as a liar, a cheat,
a thief and a coward.
Jacob, one of the patriarchs,
a man found in the very first chapter of the Bible,
and yet the words I used were apt and accurate:
he was a man who lied to his father,
stole from his brother,
and then ran away like a coward
rather than face the consequences of his choices.

Milton assumed we were
made for the good as children of God,
and Augustine made the same assumption
a thousand years before, writing,
“God…made man upright,
and consequently with a good will.”
(City of God, 14.11)

And yet, for as much as
we would like to believe that,
believe that of ourselves,
the Bible begins with Adam and Eve making bad choices,
Cain making a truly horrifying choice,
Isaac’s wife Rebekah making a bad choice,
Jacob making one bad choice after another.

Keep reading, chapter after chapter,
book after book,
and that’s what we find –
children of God,
followers of the Lord God,
“Authors to themselves in all,
both what they judge and what they choose;
… formed .. free and free they remain….
free to fall.”

If we are free,
it begs the question, free to do what?
Read through the Bible and it seems
that we are free to turn from God
and make bad choices, small and large.
major and minor.
And always free to deny we’ve turned,
slipped, strayed.

Born just and right we may be,
born with good will each of us,
but can we think ourselves any better than
those whose stories run through the pages of the Bible?
Aren’t their stories our stories, too?

When we are baptized,
as we just heard,
the liturgy of the sacrament
reminds us that we are given
the gift of God’s Holy Spirit.
Doesn’t that protect us, help us,
if not keep us from making bad choices,
at least keep our bad choices,
to a minimum?

The very fact that we are here on Sunday,
when we could be somewhere else,
every one of us,
doing something else –
doesn’t that somehow inoculate us,
immunize against the virus of waywardness,
against making bad choices?
If we are honest with ourselves
—and that’s often no easy thing—
we know the answer is, no.
Churches of all denominations,
including our own,
are filled with Jacobs, Rebekahs,
Adams, Eves;
Peter, the rock,
denied our Lord 3 times.

We come to church,
come to this place to learn,
to learn how to live good lives,
godly lives,
to learn how to make good choices,
godly choices,
to learn what God wants from us,
to learn what God wants for us,
to learn what Jesus has to teach us.

We learn here in worship,
with the pastor the “teaching elder.”
We learn in the hymns we sing;
we learn in classrooms;
we learn as we work and serve;
We learn from one another;
we learn with one another.

God knows his children well
knows you and me–
“Formed free, and free we remain”
free enough to have led to this lament from God:
I was ready to be sought out
by those who did not ask,
to be found by those who did not seek me.
I said, “Here I am, here I am,”
to a nation that did not call on my name.
I held out my hands all day long
to a rebellious people,
who walk in a way that is not good,
following their own devices;”
(Isaiah 65)

This text isn’t just about
a particularly troublesome group
who lived long ago and far away.
Every text in the Bible is a text about us,
about you and me, here and now.

God knows we walk our own paths;
That we pride ourselves on our independence,
our freedom, our ability to choose.
And so God uses grace and love to call us to him.
God uses grace and love to teach us.
God uses grace and love to remind us
that no matter how far we might stray
we can never stray from God’s loving embrace:
“But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior….
you are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you.”
(Isaiah 43)

Even though you may fall,
our Lord says to us,
do not fear;
Even though you may choose poorly,
our Lord says to us,
do not fear.
Even though you may follow your own way,
your own will,
your pride and your stubbornness leading you
to stray far from me,
our Lord says to us,
do not fear:
“for you are precious in my sight…”

Frederick Buechner has observed,
“The world does bad things to us all,
and we do bad things to the world
and to each other,
and maybe, most of all to ourselves.”
As though we cannot help ourselves.
As though there is a bit of Mr. Hyde within us
fighting our outward Dr. Jekyll.

Still, here we learn a better path
a better road to walk.
Here we learn how to make good choices.
Here is where Liam and Regan will learn.
Here is where you and I,
even as we qualify for senior discounts,
continue to learn,
all the days of our lives.

Follow Jacob’s life through the pages of Genesis,
and you’ll follow a path that seems so ordinary.
Jacob continues to chisel and lie,
but less so as time goes on,
less so as he grows in faith, mature faith.
He finally is reconciled with his brother Esau,
for that is always God’s hope for us,
that we live reconciled with one another.
But even Jacob prevailing against an angel
could not turn Jacob into an angel.

Life is to be lived,
lived fully and without fear.
Life for us is to be lived in gratitude to God
as we follow our Lord Jesus Christ
learning to live Christ’s grace,
Christ’s love,
Christ’s compassion and peace.

We have been made just and right,
sufficient to stand,
though free to fall….
Authors to ourselves in all,
both what we judge and what we choose;
for so God formed us free
and free we remain.

Free to choose.
Free to do.
But free to do what?


Sunday, July 23, 2017

“I Will Keep You”

The Rev. Dr. Skip Ferguson
Manassas Presbyterian Church
Manassas, Virginia
July 23, 2017

“I Will Keep You”
Genesis 28:10-19

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran.
He came to a certain place
and stayed there for the night,
because the sun had set.
Taking one of the stones of the place,
he put it under his head and lay down in that place.
And he dreamed that there was
a ladder set up on the earth,
the top of it reaching to heaven;
and the angels of God were ascending
and descending on it.

And the Lord stood beside him
and said, “I am the Lord,
the God of Abraham your father
and the God of Isaac;
the land on which you lie
I will give to you and to your offspring;
and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth,
and you shall spread abroad
to the west and to the east
and to the north and to the south;
and all the families of the earth
shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.
Know that I am with you and will keep you
wherever you go,
and will bring you back to this land;
for I will not leave you
until I have done what I have promised you.”

Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said,
“Surely the Lord is in this place—
and I did not know it!”
And he was afraid, and said,
“How awesome is this place!
This is none other than the house of God,
and this is the gate of heaven.”
So Jacob rose early in the morning,
and he took the stone that he had put under his head
and set it up for a pillar
and poured oil on the top of it.
He called that place Bethel;
but the name of the city was Luz at the first.

I am not making this up;
it is not fake news.
Many hotels have them,
especially higher-end hotels,
luxury hotels in larger cities.
They are called “pillow concierges”.
Yes, you heard right: “pillow concierges”.

Someone on the hotel staff who will see to it
that you have a pillow that is just right for you,
a pillow that is neither too hard, nor too soft;
feather pillows, memory-foam pillows;
a pillow that’s perfect for side sleepers,
back sleepers,
and those who sleep on their stomachs.
The pillow concierge will remember
your pillow preference,
so on your next visit
your room will have your preferred pillow,
right there on your bed,
ready for you, ready for you to lay your head down,
for a restful, refreshing night’s sleep,
“flights of angels singing thee to thy rest!”

How far we’ve come over the past 4,000 years
since poor Jacob was forced to
lay his head on a rock;
a cold, hard stone for his pillow
as he slept outside under the stars.

Of course, as our text tells us,
the rock on which Jacob rested his head
would become the next morning an altar to God,
an altar Jacob set up and anointed with oil
to mark the place where he had slept,
the place Jacob would thereafter call, “Bethel”,
Hebrew for “house of God.”

But it isn’t the stone as a pillow
or even as an altar,
that captures our attention in this story.
It’s that ladder,
that ladder with the angels going up and down:
“…a ladder set up on the earth,
the top of it reaching to heaven;
and the angels of God
… ascending and descending on it.”

It’s that ladder we call, “Jacob’s ladder”
that fascinates us,
artists by the scores over the centuries
capturing the image in mosaic,
pen and ink,
perhaps most majestically,
carved into the towers
of Bath Abbey in England.

Jacob always sound sleep in the pictures –
he’s dreaming, after all -
his head on that awful rock,
the ladder in the background,
angels going up one side and down the other.

What our text calls a ladder, though,
is probably better translated as, “ramp”,
a ramp as part of a building
built to rise up to heaven,
a building with ramps leading from earth to heaven.
Such structures were not unknown in Jacob’s time.
A ramp, or perhaps a stair,
that’s probably what the author of our text
had in mind as he wrote the words of our lesson.

But there’s something about a ladder
that makes for a more compelling story,
something about a ladder that’s more fascinating
than a staircase or a ramp –
they both sound so ordinary.
A ladder is vertical, steep,
wobbly, dizzy-ing.
A ladder can pierce the clouds
and reach the highest heavens.

Of course, with all our fascination
about the ladder,
all those artists capturing angels
going up and down,
no one seems ever to have taken a step back
and asked,
why would angels need a ladder,
or for that matter a staircase or a ramp
to travel between earth and heaven?
Don’t angels have wings?
The angels in every work of art that I’ve seen
capturing Jacob’s ladder
all have wings,
wings presumably that allowed them to fly,
fly about,

But setting aside the ladder,
the ramp, the stair,
angels flying or not flying—
even the stone,
there is something more here,
something that is easy to overlook,
buried in a single verse,
“And the Lord stood beside [Jacob]”,

The Lord God, Yahweh,
the one we call holy, eternal,
loving, gracious,
our Creator,
our Redeemer,
the one we praise—
this God,
this very God
and stood by Jacob;
not delegating his message to the angels who were—
and the pun is clearly intended—
just a stone’s throw away.

The Lord God stood by Jacob
and spoke to him:
“Know that I am with you
and will keep you wherever you go…”

“I am with you…”
“I will keep you.”

God’s promise to Jacob;
a promise all the more extraordinary
because it was a promise made to a liar,
a cheat,
a thief,
a coward.

The Lord God stood there and spoke to Jacob,
the son who conspired with his mother;
the son who lied to his father,
the son who took advantage of
his father’s age and blindness;
Jacob, who stole his brother Esau’s birthright,
cheated his brother out of what was rightfully his,
and then having done the deed,
fled like a coward,
ran away, afraid of Esau’s wrath.

Was there anything good,
anything honorable,
anything decent about Jacob?

Still, God did not hesitate to make the promise:
“I will be with you.
I will keep you.”
The Hebrew word we translate as “keep”
also meaning “watch over”.

And this is God’s promise to all God’s children,
the scoundrel as well as the saint,
that God will watch over us,
for God’s love for us is unconditional.

There is no more beautiful evocation
of this promise than the words of the Psalmist
found in Psalm 121:
“I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved; 
he who keeps you will not slumber.
He who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time on and forevermore.

This is God’s promise to us,
each of us,
all of us, you and me,
God’s promise to us even when
we ourselves lie as Jacob did;
even when we ourselves cheat, as Jacob did;
even when we behave cowardly,
run away from responsibility, as Jacob did.

But this promise,
like all God’s promises,
is not something for us
to just sit back and praise God for.
It is a promise that should evoke a response
in us, from us.

To use the imagery we used a few weeks back,
this is a vertical promise
that comes down to us from God,
and it calls us to respond horizontally,
taking God’s promise to keep us, watch over us,
out into the world,
we—you and I—
responding to God’s goodness
by keeping and watching over all God’s children,
especially the most vulnerable,
the young, the old,
the sick,
the stranger, the hungry,
always remembering that the answer
to Cain’s infamous question to God,
“am I my brother’s keeper?”
(Genesis 4:9)
is YES.
It is so obviously “YES”,
that God didn’t even bother to respond.

“The Lord bless you and keep you,”
is the blessing Moses taught his brother Aaron
and the first group of priests
to offer to all God’s children.

Moses didn’t make up those words himself;
it was the Lord God who taught them to Moses.
The Lord God who wanted
all God’s children to know
that they are blessed,
that they are kept,
they are loved.
We are blessed,
we are kept,
we are loved,
not for who we are
or how we worship,
or where we live,
or what language we speak,
or where we are from.

We are blessed,
we are kept,
we are loved,
scoundrel and saint,
for who God is,

And so, in our the words of the Lord our God:
The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you,
and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you,
and give you peace.”
(Numbers 6:24-26)