1. Read The Fine Print of the Abraham Policy.

Like all important issues the history of the insurance policy is littered with good intentions and bad outcomes. For example, The Code of Hammurabi proscribes a fee for all sea-going merchants who may want to protect their cargo. Unfortunately, if the merchants die as a result of an ocean tempest or a pirate rampage, they forfeit their claim altogether. Likewise, out of the Great London Fire in 1666, where approximately 13,000 wooden houses and businesses burnt to the ground in a day, Nicolas Barbon opens an office to insure all homes made of brick. Finally, the New York Life Insurance Company recently discloses that its predecessor, the Nautilus Insurance Company, had a policy in which it would compensate slave-owners for the losses suffered when a valuable piece of their property would run away or die in the hot pursuit. Many of these claims are still on file. And the question that these anecdotes bring to mind is What’s it worth?

We know that life itself—life as a whole—is worth something. And, of course, because of that worth, we have insured the constituent parts of life that we can’t bear to lose. But suppose for the sake of argument this morning that there are things which are meant to be put at risk. And suppose the risk that we take constitutes the extent to which we value those things.

Please take some time today to read the fine print of what I will call the Abraham Policy. The Abraham Policy, which covers all Jews (including Jesus), will insuresomething that we definitely do not want to lose. But it may not be the same things that the Code of Hammurabi, or Nicolas Barbon, or New York Life insures. See if you can guess what it is:
“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

A few years ago, Sheryl and I got this letter in the mail from State Farm Insurance. It was a letter on official letterhead that had been signed by our State Farm agent, George Wasnot. George took his valuable time to tell us that he was sorry to lose us as customers. I remember reading those words and then literally feeling my heart pound the interior wall of my chest. “Ah, George Wasnot,” I said a minute later over the phone. “Could I speak to George Wasnot?” The fact of the matter was that we had never really met George Wasnot; he was always too busy or out of the office when we signed our papers. “This is Sally Bush,” said the voice on the other end of the line. “Sally,” I started to plead in my most pathetic voice. “Why is our policy being cancelled?” “Well, let me see,” Sally said while clicking her computer mouse. “It seems like you’ve missed two monthly payments in a row,” she said calmly. “Sally, this has got to be a mistake,” I replied, frantically. “No, I don’t think so,” she said. “Not on our part.” Well, that last remark cut me to the quick. And when I checked our files at home I realized that I had in fact not sent in our monthly payments and that I had ignored their more friendly reminders.

Now the reason I’m relating to you that episode is to contrast it with what happens with the Abraham Policy. Genesis 12:1—3 gives us the parameters of the argument that Jesus has in the eighth chapter of John’s Gospel. And first and foremost it should be emphasized that all Jewish people are descendants of Abraham and therefore that all of them have been blessed to be a blessing. In other words, within this cosmic policy, God has claimed them as his own unique dependents. Moreover, this claim is unilateral and unconditional. There is nothing a Jewish person or a Jewish family can do or say which would cancel this policy. In the Abraham Policy, unlike State Farm Insurance, God makes the claim upon his people and sends in the payment too. God does both. God performs the stipulations on both sides of the Abraham Policy. And the reason that I know this to be true is because of what Jesus says at two points in today’s passage.
First, in verse 39, he faces down some religious antagonism by saying,
“If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did…”

And second, in verse 58, Jesus makes this bold declaration:
“Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.”

2. Jesus Accepts All Pre-Existing Conditions.

Now I don’t mind telling you that I am confused by these statements. But I am confused by them just as much, if not more, than I am by some of the insurance policies that I’ve signed. In one sense, it seems as if Jesus is saying that the status of the Jewish people hinges upon something that they must do. That is, for them to claim the privileges of Abraham, who had been blessed to be a blessing, they must now do what Abraham did. But in another sense, it seems as if Jesus accepts all pre-existing conditions. Let me say that again. Jesus accepts all pre-existing conditions.

Gene Davenport had been assigned as pastor of a small United Methodist congregation, 25 miles from Birmingham, Alabama. One Sunday night he was preaching when a procession of robed Klansmen barged into the church and approached the communion table. Each one, in ceremonial fashion, dropped an offering of money on the table, right next to the cup of Christ and the bread of salvation. Now, it didn’t take an insurance agent to know what they were trying to do. The Klansmen were trying to insure their own status before God and to validate their own racist claims. And so, without thinking too much, the young preacher simply reacted. He stepped over the communion rail and said, “We don’t want your money.” And then, as the robed men continued their ritual without speaking, Pastor Gene Davenport scooped up the dollar bills and held them over his head. He looked over the members of his shocked congregation, and then ripped the money into tiny pieces of confetti. Now which offering is acceptable to God?
Is it the offering that God has already provided on our behalf? Or is it the way to try to insure the status quo? Well, before I tell you what happened next in that Alabama church, let me return to Abraham. Jesus says that in order to claim the privileges of Abraham there must be an imitation of what Abraham did. And, of course, we know from reading the Genesis story that Abraham did a lot of things. Not all of them virtuous. For example, once Abraham lied about his wife and told the inhabitants of Gerar that she was his sister (Genesis 20:2). Once Abraham impregnated his wife’s hand maiden, Hagar, who later gave birth to Ishmael. After a brief family fracas Abraham then kicked Hagar and Ishmael out. Abraham did a lot of things. But probably the one thing that Jesus has in mind is that he believed that God would provide.

God would provide Abraham a son in his old age. And the way that God would insure the life and integrity of that son is totally bizarre. According to Genesis 22, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. God actually instructs him in how to do it, and what’s even more absurd is that Abraham is willing to do it. Abraham is poised to plunge the sacrificial knife into the sacrificial flesh of the child when an angel of the Lord stops him. And, you see, if we were Abraham’s children, what might that mean?

Well, in the case of Gene Davenport, it means receiving a phone call in the middle of the night. It means hearing a Secret Service agent summon you to federal court on the charge of defacing the currency of the United States (David Augsburger, Dissident Discipleship). And it means risking everything—life, reputation and future—on the belief—on the Abraham policy—that God has already provided.

God has already provided. That’s the insurance policy of Jesus and that’s the way by which he is identified in people like us to this day.

3. There’s A Glory Clause We Should Know About.

After the events of March 16, 1968, Hugh Thompson was in danger of losing his benefits. The Veterans Administration, whose policy had guaranteed his health care, was about ready to cut the army officer loose. What happened was this: as Hugh Thompson flew his helicopter over the village of My Lai in Vietnam, he observed ground troops from his own country. These troops, under the command of William Calley, had begun to slaughter dozens of unarmed and helpless old men, women and children. So, Thompson set down his helicopter in the crossfire between his own troops and the Vietnamese civilians. He then ordered the American soldiers to stop killing the villagers. He then called for other helicopters to transport the survivors out of harm’s way. And, you see, for this act, Hugh Thompson was reprimanded, and nearly court-martialed. Under the policies of the U.S. Veterans Administration, he could have lost everything (Tom Long, Testimony). But under the provisions of God in Christ, not so.

According to John 8:54, there’s a glory clause that we should know about. Jesus describes it like this:
“If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me…”

Here at Latah Valley I want to lift up this sense of glory. There are things in this life that we will be called upon to risk, things like reputation and health and economic status, that we may lose. But, if we do what Abraham did, we will be fully insured and fully assured: God has already provided.

Amen.

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The mission of Latah Valley has three distinct people in mind: the disinherited, the disoriented and the daring boundary crosser for Christ…

The first is the woman, who goes by the initials YZ in a poem by Czeslaw Milosz. He writes,

“You told me then that as a child you had never seen a forest,
Only a brick wall outside a window,
And I felt sorry for you because
So much disinheritance is our portion
If you were the king’s daughter, you didn’t know it…”

This is the first person for whom Latah Valley has been started, the person who is unaware of her inheritance in Christ Jesus, the person who does not yet know that she has a place, a verdant place, in the kingdom of God. She is the person, I believe, who now lives in and around Spokane.

And she has a neighbor. This person is remembered in the Annie Dillard book, Teaching A Stone To Talk. She is among the ladies who are just now realizing that they should have worn crash helmets to worship instead of velvet or straw hats. “Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares,” says Dillard. “They should lash us to our pews…”

Finally, the third person who we have in mind at Latah Valley is the whiskey priest. The whiskey priest is the nameless cleric in the Graham Greene novel, The Power And The Glory. In the 1930’s apparently nearly every Roman Catholic church in the Tabasco Province of Mexico had been closed down by government officials. The whiskey priest, however, kept performing his duties. In spite of his own mistakes and sense of guilt, he went from village to village, hosting communion and baptizing children. Finally, after months of being on the run, he makes it across the border, where he’s safe. Everything’s going to be okay… until a suspicious peasant tells him about a dying man who needs a priest to hear his confession. The dying man is back on the other side of the border. And so, although he knows better, the whiskey priest dares to cross the border, back into the Tabasco Province, where he is captured and killed by police.

And so, with these three people in mind—with the disinherited, the disoriented and with the daring boundary crosser in mind—let me tell you about the tangible ministries that we aspire to be about, and the steps we’d like to take with you as our hand-holding parents.

First and foremost we want to worship in this place, and we want to offer it as a retreat to you and many others.

Second, we want to connect through Threshold Groups with men, women and children in the neighborhoods up and down the 195 highway. And, over time, we want to develop and disciple them as leaders.

And third, through the arts, through gardening, through poetry, prayer and playing horseshoes we want to reach out further and further into the world… We desire mission relationships with people in Gambella, Ethiopia, Rahjastan, India, Eastern Europe and elsewhere.

1. At a certain age, Jesus got dunked by his cousin.
My cousin, Wayne, once did this wild imitation of Wolfman Jack. He did it by bringing his voice down an octave and then by grinding his syllables into these perfect morsels of stereo-phonic sound. He did it by pushing the Record button on an old audio-tape machine and then by introducing songs like Wipe Out and Ballroom Blitz. At the age of ten, I stood in awe of my older cousin. And as I listened to these pre-recorded jam sessions, that had arrived at my doorstep all the way from Indianapolis, IN, I longed for a way to connect with his wild antics. Thus was born a new disk-jockey persona, one previously unknown to the airwaves. Snakeman Scott could be heard trading barbs with Wolfman Wayne for the better part of a year. And then, during the summer that Wayne received his driver’s license, the Delete button fell on radio rapport. Wolfman grew tired of Snakeman Scott and erased every conversation we had ever recorded. And this abrupt cessation coincided with something that took place during the summer that I visited my cousin. While swimming in the local pool, Wayne dunked me. He dunked me so violently, without letting me come up for air, that I could not mistake his message. His message was simply it’s time to grow up. It’s time to grow up and stop pretending to talk to one another as if we were creatures in the wilderness. It’s time to grow up and take control.

So, as rites of passages go, this is a big one. Every year, older cousins dunk younger cousins and something new rises to the surface. Every year, a teenage girl puts her Barbie dolls in the closet. Every year a boy nicks himself with his father’s razor. And every year, somebody gets his drivers license and leaves the rest of us behind. Listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth had a cousin. His name was John bar Zacceriah, alias John the Baptist. And, at a certain age, Jesus got dunked by his cousin. But here’s the twist on this typical rite of passage: Jesus is the One who got his driver’s license:
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan… And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.

2. Then the Spirit drove him out in the middle of nowhere.
That’s how this rite of passage has been recorded for posterity. Jesus actually participates in the Mikvah Bath, which is a traditional Jewish cleansing of the body after a series of ritually impure incidents have occurred in a person’s life. Mikvah actually means collection in Hebrew, as in a collection of waters; and at the same location of Jesus going down into the waters two important historic events had taken place. First, in order for the renegade slaves of Egypt to lay claim to the Promised Land, they had to wade across the Jordan River at this very point. And second, when the legendary prophet, Elijah, had finished his career as prophet, the story of 2 Kings 2:11 is that God took him up into heaven at this very point.

So, you see, after Jesus identifies with his cousin—as we all must identify with our family members—the flood in which he’s submerged isn’t simply H2O, but the story of his community. Jesus personally connects himself, not with the dominant and popular people of his time, but with those stragglers who have been on the run for generations. He is, in fact, driven. He has a license, not to drive his own agenda, but to be driven—which is to say, for the sole purpose of gaining a little clarity on who he is and why he is, the Spirit drives Jesus out in the middle of no where.

“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”
Now, I know the word “drove” here does not mean the same thing as when you and I drive a car; but indulge me. In the same way that Matthew 21:12 describes Jesus as driving out the money changers in the temple—in the same way that Luke 4:29 describes the townspeople as driving Jesus out of their midst—the Spirit pushes the one with whom God has been pleased. The Spirit drives. The Spirit, in this case, does not draw. The Spirit does not invite Jesus gently and gradually. At this point, the Spirit puts his proverbial foot on the pedal and lets out the clutch, taking him no where special.
Last week, as I walked our dog around the neighborhood, I had no where to go and no place to be. Pearl, our five year old border collie, went on instinct. She smelled and sniffed and wagged her tail, and every once in a while, she looked up and gave me one of those adorable looks. Anyway, just as it got dark, I heard two men talking behind me, and I also heard the spin of their bicycle chains. Each one was peddling leisurely down the road, but out of the corner of my eye I noticed how each one wore a white shirt with a dark tie. “How are you?” the one on the left shouted over his shoulder.
“Good,” I replied, trying to muster up my best impression of an extravert. “You guys are pretty dressed up for a bike ride.”

Well, that did it! With that innocent conversational gesture, the two men on bicycles circled around and proceeded to identify themselves. “We’re missionaries,” the one on the right said, reaching out to pet Pearl on the top of her head. “What’s your dog’s name?” he then said, making chit-chat. I told him. “So, what church are you guys with?” I asked, as if I didn’t know. “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints” came the reply. “Which one,” I pressed. And right in that moment, as they rattled off the address of a building, I thought of another question that I failed to ask. And maybe it’s a question that you’ve asked from time to time. And maybe it’s a question that Jesus asked himself out there in the middle of no where.

The question is not—Which Church? But —Which Jesus? According to Stephen Prothero, in American Jesus, the Mormons believe in Jesus as if he were their Elder Brother. Brigham Young says as much in 1865. Moreover, when it comes to Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, Jesus is only important because he obeys Jehovah. And it’s not as if, according to Smith, Jesus is the unique incarnation of God; Jesus becomes God through his obedience (and so might we); and the reason that we know about this reshuffling of the ranks is through something the angel Moroni communicated to Smith near Palmyra, New York.

Now, I really have no interest in beating up on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. What drives me, and what I hope drives Latah Valley into the future, however, is the question of, and the adventure into, the true nature of the person of Jesus. And I’m not saying that I have some kind of inside angle on that nature. But I do think it’s fascinating that instead of traveling from Palmyra to Salt Lake City, Jesus ventures way, way, way out there—to that place where no ideology holds sway, to that wilderness where no politician is trying to get elected for another term, to that desert experience where no church is trying to proselytize or convert you.
“…he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
3. When Jesus is tempted, he keeps company with wild beasts and angels.

Now, compared to the accounts in Luke 4 and Matthew 4, Mark 1:13 is a pretty sparse description of what the temptation of Jesus might have been like. But I’m starting to wonder if it isn’t the best description for us in 2009. Think, for example, about the worst nightmare that you’ve ever had. Without explaining it away in terms of indigestion, it probably involved a few ravenous wolves and perhaps for their chilling effect, it involved a few slithering snakes. Wolves. Snakes. Wild Beasts. Jesus, it seems, keeps these creatures close at hand. He doesn’t leave them behind at his baptism, but instead goes out of his way to face them. And Mark’s Gospel announces simply that he was “with” them.
“Sometime before morning, I understood something. That I could without the slightest effort hold any and all of these moments in my mind; that they coexisted, these varied and tiny and countless agonies. Little agonies…

This is Jesus speaking at the close of the Anne Rice novel, The Road To Cana. Anne Rice, of course, has made a career imagining a different sort of character. Interview With The Vampire, The Witching Hour, Queen of The Damned and Memnoch The Devil are among her best known works. But listen to how this teller of beastly tales, has clearly found something new in the wilderness of her later years. On the lips of Jesus, she writes this prayer…
Dear God, no, do not let them know this, do not let them know the great accumulation of all of this, this agony and joy, this misery, this solace, this reaching, this gouging pain, this…

But they will know, each and every one of them will know. They will know because what you are remembering is what has happened to each and every one of them. Did you think this was more or less for you? Did you think?

And when they are called to account, when they stand naked before God and every incident and utterance is laid pare—you, you will know all of it with each and every one of them…

I started to cry. But I would not close off this vision… I am one of them! And I am Your Son! I am Your only begotten Son! And driven here by Your Spirit, I cry… (The Road To Cana, p. 180—182).

1. Jesus Matters Because of What He Says About The Future
You may not know this, but Jesus of Nazareth has his own Social Security. Not to take anything away from the Act of Congress, signed into law in 1935, but the Social Security of Jesus will take care of us long before and long after our retirement years. It will take care of us whether we’ve been assigned a nine-digit number or not. It will take care of us whether we’ve been issued a card or not. In fact, the only requirement for participation in this plan is that we begin to identify with what Jesus says about the future. Jesus matters because of what he says about the future, and what he says, among other things, is this:
“The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed…”

JC ID

Now, you may not be too impressed with that statement, but it only takes a moment’s reflection for us to realize the vast array of things that can be observed. We live in a culture where people can grow into adulthood and actually observe more life than they live. For example, in the film, Being There, Peter Sellers plays Chance the Gardener, a man with no identity except for the fact that he watches an inordinate amount of T.V. Chance, it seems, has been cloistered away on the grounds of vast estate for his entire life. The only exposure he’s had to the outside world and to relationships in that outside world has been through the television. But when the old man who has raised the gardener dies, the lawyers find Chance and tell him that he has to leave. Being there, however, will prove difficult for a man who has only watched from a safe distance. And then, while wandering the snowy sidewalks of Washington DC, Chance sees multiple images of himself in the multiple screens of an electronics store. Apparently the store managers had rigged up a camera to attract pedestrians. Chance has never really seen himself before, and as he’s backing up to get a wider view he’s struck by a car. The accident breaks his leg, and the pain that he feels is his first indication that there’s more to life than what can be observed. And likewise, Jesus.

In no uncertain terms, Jesus tells the Pharisees that the kingdom is not coming with things that can be observed. So if it can’t be observed, can it be experienced? Can it be felt? Can it be entered? Can we actually participate in the future possibility of the kingdom of God by making ourselves vulnerable to it here and now?
2. Jesus Matters Because of What He Says About Relationships
You see, I think the answer to that question is an emphatic YES. And Jesus matters, not only because of what he says about the future (which is mysterious and unclear) but also because of what he says relationships. And what he says about relationships goes like this:
“The kingdom of God is among you.”

For example, a woman raises twelve children—eleven of them are foster kids, not her own biological children. All of them have special needs. And when the local news correspondent comes out to interview her, he can see how tired she is, and how she struggles financially. “Why?” he wonders. “Why have you taken on this tremendous responsibility?”

“I saw a new world coming,” says the mother with her eyes gleaming. “I saw a new world coming,” she repeats. “I saw a new world coming.”

Now, let’s contrast that kingdom among you motivation for building relationships with what Barbara Brown Taylor mentions in her book, An Altar In The World. She tells about joining a fellowship group in college, and one of the leaders kept telling her, “I love you.” Well, after a while, Barbara became exasperated with what she perceived to be a cliché. She said to this leader, “But why do you love me? You hardly know me.”

“Aaaahh” came the hesitant reply. “I love you because, er, um, that’s what we’re supposed to do. God loves everybody, including you. ”
So, you may be wondering about the problem with that statement. And I’m not going to label it as a problem so much as a teachable moment. I believe that when Jesus makes remarks like the kingdom of God is among you he does not intend to fill our minds with behavior that we’re supposed to do. Rather he really means for us to stumble upon one another, to hurt and be hurt by one another. He means for us to experience the other person in all her inglorious and tedious moments. He means for us to actually find something specific, something idiosyncratic about the other person and to so love that small detail that we ache with joy.

Recently, for reasons that I cannot disclose, I’ve had the chance to think about The Game of Life. The Game of Life, as you may know, is a board game which has been produced and mass-marketed for generations. And one of things that you notice about The Game of Life is that it’s meant to follow the significant decision points of your life. There’s graduation. There’s the first job. There’s marriage. There’s the first house. There’s paying taxes. There’s having children, grandchildren… And the goal, the ultimate goal for which each token moves around the board, is to retire comfortably with a pension or to at least reap the benefits of Social Security.

Now what do you suppose is missing from The Game of Life? I’m going to shock you by saying that what’s missing from The Game of Life is the shadow of death and the encounter with human suffering. And, you see, when it comes to Jesus of Nazareth, this is a reality that he refuses to leave out.
“For as lightening flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day. But first he must endure much suffering and be rejected by this generation.”

God, it scares me sometimes how much we believe the hype and hysteria about Jesus and avoid the substance of what he’s saying right here.

3. Jesus Matters Because He Sorts Out The Hype and Hysteria
Jesus is not guaranteeing any person in this room a secure and safe retirement. What he’s promising is something far, far, far better—too good to comprehend. Without having to travel great distances and without getting your face on television, the kingdom of God will happen in us, around us and through us.