Monday, July 9, 2012

God Never Gives Up On Us!

God Never Gives Up On Us

1 Samuel 8:4-20

Rev. Victor Aloyo, Jr.

Have you noticed that no matter how much of a mess we make of our lives, God never gives up on us? We try to do the right thing, but fail over and over again. Paul talks openly about the fact that he knows the right thing to do, but just keeps doing the wrong thing. He can’t seem to help himself. I guess it all started with the first Adam who got to work early one morning and parked on the line between two parking places so that everyone who came after him has parked on the line ever since. What a mess we humans keep making of things. Theologians call it sin and it touches us all. It’s not just you with the stumbles and missteps you’ve made along the way. It’s all of us. We keep making mistakes. Some were on purpose and some just happened. You know the difference.

Insurance adjusters with a touch of grace often calm anxious drivers who call in from their wrecked cars, “It’s going to be all right. That’s why we call them accidents.” The problem is we can’t take them back anymore than we can put toothpaste back in the tube once it’s squirted out in a spurt. What a mess we make of our lives. Some of them we try to cover up, some we just try to live with. Some gnaw at us for years, even decades, later because we can’t let them go. The good news is God is always there patiently waiting to help us pick up the pieces. Why? Because God never gives up on us! That’s exactly what happened in this story of Samuel and the people’s persistent complaining about the need for a king. If you look carefully you will see there are three key themes echoing in this story.

The first one is this: Samuel’s sons have made a mess of things and the people don’t see any good prospects for the future. If Samuel’s sons are the next ones in line to take over, the future is dim at best and the people are demanding something different. What’s wrong with Samuel’s sons? Well, they are about as different from their respected father as anyone could ever be. Contrary to that wise, old saying, in this case the apples fell a long way from the tree! Like old Eli’s sons, Samuel’s boys were only out for themselves. Surely Samuel saw the irony. Like some politicians and business leaders even today, they were feathering their own nest and did not care about the people they were supposed to be serving and leading.

Apparently, Samuel’s sons never figured that out but the people under Samuel’s care did and they were going to have nothing of it. They wanted a change and they wanted it now! They certainly weren’t timid about expressing their feelings. It reminds me of the young monk who entered a monastery where everyone had to take a vow of silence. The abbot told the young monk that he would only get to say two words every five years. The young monk knew this would be a challenge but agreed grudgingly. At the end of the first five years the abbot asked him, “What are your two words?” The young monk replied, “Bed hard.” At the end of the second five years, the abbot asked him what his two words were this time. The young monk replied, “Food bad.” At the end of the third five years when the abbot asked him what his two words were, the young monk replied, “Want out!” And the abbot said, “I’m not surprised; you’ve done nothing but gripe and complain from the moment you got here.”

Some people complain just to be complaining, but in Samuel’s case it looks as if they had plenty to complain about. They were worried about their future and the future of their children. The old man had been a good leader, but his sons were another story altogether. The people were determined to make some changes, so they asked for a king. After all, other nations had a king and graduating from judges to kings would certainly elevate their status with their neighbors.

Notice carefully now what God does at this crucial moment in biblical history. God could have easily intervened and put a stop to it all. God could have rescued his faithful servant Samuel and saved him a lot of undue stress even though God knows the people could be making a mess of things by insisting on a king. What does God do instead? God simply let things take their own course by letting Samuel and his people sort it all out themselves. Here is another one of those early examples of the doctrine of free will where God gives us human beings room to maneuver. Theologians call it the permissive will of God. We get to choose between right and wrong and then suffer the consequences.

 Sometimes we choose between the lesser of two evils as in political elections. At other times we choose between the better of two goods, which is much more challenging — great characters in classic movies often make choices like these. Whatever the case, God lets us choose. Why? Because God decided from the beginning not to treat us like marionettes on a string dancing about at the whims of some divine puppeteer.

So, in our story, God stands in the shadows to see what we are going to do. Are we going to continue to gripe and complain and push for change even though we have no idea what will come of it? What is poor Samuel going to do with this protest crowd setting up camp at his doorstep every morning? Instead of intervening to save the day or deciding we’re not worth it anymore, God never gives up on us.

Which brings us to the second key theme in this passage — Samuel makes a mess of it by taking it all too personally. How easy that is to do. Poor guy! Look how quickly we’ve jumped from his birth and boyhood to his semi-retirement when he’s thinking about hanging it up and passing the baton to someone else. Like the owner of the business who has been thinking all along about turning the family business over to his own children, or at least one of them, Samuel was hoping beyond hope that his no-account sons might shape up just in time to take on the reins, in this case ruling the people as God’s servants on earth.

Oh, he knows what they’re really like. He’s watched them get in trouble all their lives, especially through the teenage years. You know that tear-filled feeling you have as a parent when you drop your firstborn off at some college or university halfway around the country, knowing all the time that this act signals the break-up of the family as you’ve known it? If you’re really honest, you have to admit it’s a bittersweet moment. You’re happy for your child who is moving on with life and getting a good start on their education and career/calling. You have a lump in your throat because you’re going to miss the little troublemaker. But, then you realize suddenly that God has given us the teenage years to get us through the grief of having them leave home!

So, what did Samuel do? He turned to his old friend for help. Who was his old friend? God — the one waiting in the wings to see what we’re going to do. How often we try to fix things ourselves. But Samuel, being a holy and righteous man, knew better than to try solving this one himself. Instead, he took a deep breath and headed off for some time with God, the one who always seemed to have the right answer. Samuel had learned long ago that worrying about something didn’t get him anywhere. In fact, worry, which affects one’s health by eating at you, is a sure sign that you don’t really trust in God to help you handle whatever trouble you are in. Samuel may not have been the sharpest arrow in the quiver, but he definitely had faith and lots of it. Be that as it may, he goes to God in prayer all worked up over the people’s seeming affront to him as a leader and their attack on his family.

What does God do? God pats him on the hand to calm him down and says, “Relax, Samuel. This is not about you, it’s about me. I’ve dealt with this before. It’s me they’re attacking. You need to learn how to self-differentiate.” It’s so easy to take everything personally when you are leader, especially a church leader. But, guess what — it’s not always about you. Sometimes people are just mad at God like after a death. After all, they have to blame someone, and as a representative of God whether clergy or lay, you are often the closest one in sight so you bear the brunt of their anger. That’s what happened to Samuel. At least that’s what God was trying to help him see. God calms Samuel and reminds him that sometimes you just need to let things go, let them go into God’s loving hands. After all, that’s what prayer is — a place to let our worries and anxieties go. What we need to say is this: “God, I have tried everything I can to solve this problem by myself. I have exhausted all the plausible possibilities and now find myself turning to you. I’m letting this worry go to you, God. It’s all yours now.” That’s what Samuel finally figured out. Notice again, God doesn’t intervene to change things. God knows as does Samuel that a king won’t necessarily solve things. God tells Samuel to warn the people that kings have a way of being selfish and demanding things and messing things up themselves, and that sometimes they may not turn out to be any better than Samuel’s rotten sons. “I won’t take it personally,” says God, “if they still want a king. I’ll work with them on this.” And that’s exactly what God does.

Which brings us to our third key theme — God never gives up on them even though they insist on doing things their way. Samuel warns the people that it’s not going to be perfect with a king, but the people insist because of peer pressure, which makes the people sound as adolescent as Samuel’s no-good sons. Like a loving parent who gives his/her children room to grow up and make mistakes, God gives them what they ask for knowing that human kings make a mess of things — Saul, David, and so forth down the line. God gives them kings who aren’t perfect but do the best they can. What does this show but the great flexibility, grace, and generosity of God? That’s the whole point of this text.

As we look from this story through the whole sweep of human history, we see that things haven’t really changed that much. But, the good news is that God is always there to help us pick up the pieces no matter what we do. From Samuel on, humanity kept making a mess of things even as we do today, so God does something radical — God gives us a new king, a king for all time. Who is this king? It is the one we call the Christ, the King of kings and the Lord of lords, the one who picks us up when all we seem to be is down, and because of him, we have the blessed assurance that God will always be with us cleaning up the messes we make of our lives. That’s why we should never give up on God, for God will never, ever give up on us! Amen.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Common Faith - Common Mission

“Embracing Our Gifts:

-Ephesians 4: 1-6
Rev. Victor Aloyo, Jr.

As a humble servant of Christ and the Church for over thirty years serving as a lay leader and an ordained Minister of the Word and Sacraments, I can attest that we are living in exciting times and that a renewed sense of passion for the gospel is being lifted up within a society that is constantly changing. Our Constitution composed of The Book of Confessions and The Book of Order provides us with a sense of direction that embodies the opportunity for constant dialogue and creative envisioning.

There are dramatic movements that are taking place in our society and in our churches. These movements, characterized by the tremendous variety that human beings exhibit makes it all the more remarkable that we all come from the one Creator, that we all depend on God, and that we all can find salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet, we are living in a society that challenges the very nature of the "common-ness" of our faith as we interact within this ever-changing, multi-cultural society within a postmodern context. A society where differences are reinforced by systemic forces of racism, ethnocentricism, sexism, and classism. A society where the repugnance of "the other" is intensified both for those who have power and for those who are powerless. We are living in a time that is characterized by overt and intentional hate. This hatred can be found in a variety of forms but it has one common denominator----the creation that God creates to give God glory, to live harmoniously together with God, apparently finds much joy in elevating our differences so that we can remain divided, instead of valuing our differences in the unity of the Creator. As a consequence we are hating, despising, plotting against, and acting in an oppressive mentality. Estranged from the God of peace, human beings have made wholesome ethnic differences a source of deadly conflict. In greed for wealth and power, land and its fruits, one ethnic group oppresses another, excluding it from the things that rightfully belong to it, suppressing cultural distinctiveness, plundering material goods, sometimes even threatening and obliterating its very existence. These patterns of cross-cultural encounter permeate even church structures and processes.

Our "common faith" provided by the first part of our Constitution which is the Book of Confessions eloquently details our function within the diversity of God's creation (Chapter 1 of the Scots Confession; Chapter VI of the Second Helvetic Confession; Chapter IV and V of The Westminster Confession of Faith). Our "common-ness" will have a deeper value when we, in simple obedience, reach out to our neighbors across social and cultural boundaries. Increasingly it is true that one does not have to move very far geographically to meet someone whose language or way of life is very different from one's own. The influx of non-Christian immigrants to the cities, suburbs and rural areas in our country provide the church with unequaled opportunities for cross-cultural evangelism. As Jerry Appleby says in his book "Mission Have Come Home to America": "The church is in a position to reach people from all over the world in America, by having open arms and an open heart for newcomers. Her Lord calls the church to be good news and to tell the Good News." This Good News can be affirmed in our Confessions, and I'll use one statement from The Confession of 1967, as an example of the Gospel truth in our midst states: "His (Jesus Christ's) suffering makes the church sensitive to all the sufferings of mankind so that it sees the face of Christ in the faces of men in every kind of need." (9.32). Thus, any individual can be redeemed by the grace of God in Jesus Christ and reflect God's glory through his or her personality and gifts. Any culture can be redeemed without losing its uniqueness, and God's praises can be sung in any language. As such, we who are a confessional church, nurture our faith development through the careful interpretation and development of our common faith throughout history. This provides substance for an "informed faith" which is a strong desire among and within a people who have been generally influenced by a hierarchical and/or patronizing religious system.

We are living in a time where we need to embrace the gift of our Common Faith as we live out our sense of covenant community. My understanding of covenant is that there is an act of partnership based on a common vision, stirred in an atmosphere of integrity and respect. If we truly read and put into action the ten great themes of the Reformed Faith as found in our confessions, we then may be able to respond effectively the concerns and needs surrounding our communities.

Our Constitution provides the framework whereby we as the church may dialogue constructively in responding to the following questions as we seek to be faithful to our common mission; What would our communities of faith be like if we celebrated our differences? What if our communities had both respectful separation for different groups and respectful coming together? What if we decided that our multicultural communities were of such importance that we learned each other's music, not just the tunes, but the history, and the feelings of singing today and yesterday....not only music of the church, but music that comes from people's movements? What if we decided that our multicultural communities were of such importance that we learned each other's stories, not beginning with questions, but with active listening....hearing what has been written in history, how it has been written, and what has not been written and asking why....feeling each other's stories with our bodies and souls?

What if we decided that our multicultural communities were of such importance that we learned about each others' images of God? What if we opened ourselves to images of God as an old Black man or woman, or an old Asian man or woman, or a very young Native American person, or a campesino de Mejico. What if we stretched ourselves and learned each other's interpretations of Bible stories?

If we are to embrace these core values for our future then it's time for some intentional breakthroughs! It’s easy to classify cross-cultural work as “ministry” and leave it to charitable organizations. It’s easy to appoint a person to act as our proxy in a foreign land. But, this form of ministry is awfully limiting in our day and age. Each of us faces opportunities almost daily to relate multiculturally. Different cultures abound in the United States. We are a nation with roots in Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, in addition to the people who originally populated the land.

In the midst of these varied cultures, many Christians are isolated. We relate only to people like ourselves, and so we severely limit our witness for Christ. If we are to embrace our gifts, in which we ought to, it will require that for the powerful suspending the privilege, status, and power they have enjoyed. For the powerless, it involves tranforming their patterns of protection and defensiveness into patterns of mutual agreement. The task is not easy, yet let us lift up our core values in our daily practice as we proceed in doing ministry together in the twenty-first century.

Monday, March 3, 2008

A New Ministry Action Plan - UPC moves forward!

As Christians we are called together and empowered by the Holy Spirit to study, worship, love and serve God. We are a community of people within the Presbyterian Church (USA) who represent a variety of backgrounds, cultures, ideas and faith experiences. God challenges us to be a dynamic group of Christians which accepts each member’s unique contribution and celebrates the richness of our diversity. We believe our purpose as a congregation is to:

I. strengthen our faith and spiritual commitment,
II. to nourish each other in Christian fellowship,
III. and to spread the Good News through mission and witness.

We believe that we honor our long, rich history when we listen and respond to our community and world’s current calls for help and seek to engage others on our discipleship journey.
The United Presbyterian Church is in the process of moving forward and exploring every opportunity to serve our community of Plainfield, NJ. With great joy, unparalleled enthusiasm, and willingness to be open to the leading of the Spirit of God, UPC is on the move! Come and See what God has done and is doing as we move towards 200 Years of Continuous Service to our God, to our Community, to the World!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Where God is exalted, Everyone Matters and YOU belong!

The United Presbyterian Church of Plainfield is a community of faith that is moving forward by the power and Spirit of the Living God. We are constantly called to renew our strengths and resolve in becoming a blessed church in the midst of a changing society. The blessed church sees itself as the body of Christ. Nothing else in the world is like a church. The church is a body, not a business. It is an organism, not an organization. It is alive! In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul outlines a vision of the church as a living, breathing, acting body with Christ as its head. Our challenge as we move forward is to continue praying and serving in the presence of the Almighty and let God take care of the results.