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A Discussion of Messianic Judaism, the Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm, and Related Leadership Issues from the Preoccupied Mind of Rabbi Stuart Dauermann, PhD.

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Sunday, November 20, 2005

"Life is a Mixed Bag" - A Sermon on Parashat Vayera

(The following is a sermon I gave on November 19, 2005 at Ahavat ZIon Messianic Synagogue. It deals with the challenge to grow beyond convenient and comfortable categories toward a more nuanced approach to life and relationships).


It is easiest for us, and most habitual for us to think in hard-line, firm categories, in what mathematical theory calls "bounded sets." However, we seldom realize how selective and subjective our categories can be. Thus, we think of things being either hot or cold, wet or dry, animal or vegetable or mineral, hard or soft, near or far, etc., as if everyone thinks in these categories. However this is not the case. Not every culture, or even every person, thinks in the same categories.

One person will look at a group of randomly selected objects will select from among them and put a ball, a grape, a ball-bearing, and an orange together, and the reason is obvious—all of these are round. Another person, looking at the same group of objects will put a banana, a grape, and the orange together, because, equally obviously, all are fruits and all belong in the same category. A third person will look at all the objects and select the grape, the orange, a microwave oven, and a bread-knife together, because, obviously, all belong together, because they are associated with the kitchen. For each of these, the way people group things depends upon what categories are in their minds.

The objects in life are real and objective, but the categories into which we divide them are more selective and subjective than we know. And even when the categories are valid, it is not always so easy to tell what belongs in which category.

We tend to think of people we meet or read about as either holy or unholy, good or bad, spiritual or unspiritual, saved or lost. However, making such choices rightly, that is, in accord with how God probably sees such people, is not so easy, and in fact may even be impossible. Yeshua warns us of this when He reminds us on more than one occasion, that "many who are first will be last and the last first." In other words, people who we thought were clearly in one category will in the end prove to have not been as we assumed them to be. In the Older Testament, this principle is foreshadowed by the Prophet Samuel, who said, "man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart."

Today I want to look with you just a bit at categories, and to suggest that we all need to be far more humble and careful about where we lump people. The fact is, most people I know have a need to lump people, have a need to categorize people as good or bad, safe or unsafe, holy or unholy, spiritual or unspiritual. We feel more secure when we think we know where everything fits. I want to suggest that our true security should be in the Presence of God in our communal life, and in the world around us. We need to be able to say, "I don’t know, but God knows and I need to go on with the business of trusting, serving and growing in Him."

The Enigma of Abraham in Today’s Parasha

We may see that categories are not as we imagine them to be from our Torah reading. Here we see Abraham, lying about Sarah his wife, in a manner which the text reveals is clearly wrong in the eyes of God, of the general culture, and Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Abraham is lying here. The good guy, the patriarch of patriarchs, the progenitor of God’s holy people Israel, is lying and putting his wife in jeopardy as part of Pharaoh’s harem. Not a pretty picture! But I thought he was the good guy! That is our category for him, but this story is not a good example of that!

The text also speaks of him as "a prophet." God calls him such, and tells Pharaoh to ask Abraham, the liar prophet, to pray for him and his household that they might become fertile again. I don’t think there is anyone in this room who would imagine that God would call a person a prophet and would answer that person’s prayer right on the heels of his expeditious lying. But that is what we have here. What a confusing story this is!

What’s the Problem?

Part of the problem is this. We forget to remember that all of us are people in process. Abraham is an unfinished work, I am an unfinished work, you are all unfinished works. This will mean that for the time being, we will have to learn to live with our own inner contradictions, with the inconsistencies of our own lives and the lives of those we know. For some people this is very difficult. They have difficulty accepting themselves, or being honest with themselves, so they hide from themselves the truth about their own rigidity, cruelty, indifference, lustfulness, their own habit of gossiping, the way they make others feel one down, or criticized, or uncomfortable. Many people hide these things from themselves because they cannot face them. They can only see fault in others—they project onto others what they cannot stand in themselves. Or perhaps they habitually criticize others because in some way it makes them feel better about themselves, or protects them from the danger of being criticized by those they have morally disqualified. After all, if that person out there is unspiritual, then who cares what they say about me?

So, sometimes our rigid categories are pathological and protective. And they are also wrong. We need to remember that we ourselves, and everyone else we know, are all people in process. And we need to remember that God is far more patient and accepting than we ourselves are, that He accepts people as they are while working to make them better. We need to learn to accept ourselves and one another as we are while working to be a force for betterment all around.

I am reminded of the splendid movie funded by and starring Robert Duvall. The movie is called "The Apostle." It is about a country Pentecostal preacher whose wife ends up having an affair with a leader in his church. Duvall then kills him, and runs out of town, where he eventually gets involved in another church, doing very much good for very many people. He is eventually apprehended and sent to prison, but even there, he is busy serving God. Someone I know who saw the picture commented,. "I don’t know whether this fellow is using God or if God is using him!" That was a brilliant insight. I think this is precisely where Duvall wanted us to find ourselves: not able to comfortably categorize the character he was playing. The facts of life are these: sometimes God uses the people who use Him.

Holiness in a Box - Or Not

Another way we tend to categorize things is as either being sacred or secular, in the realm of God or the realm of the ordinary. But these categories are most artificial. There are holy things and mundane things. Our tradition speaks of God as the one who makes a separation between the holy and the ordinary, between light and darkenss, between Israel and the nations, between the six days of work and the day of rest—He is the God who makes distinctions in such things. But we must remember that we often encounter and serve the Holy One amidst the most ordinary circumstances of life. You don’t have to wait to get to the Holy Place before you serve the Holy One.

We see this in our Haftarah. In the first story, a widow is about to lose her children to become debt slaves. The great miracle working prophet Elisha enters the picture and perfoms a miracle involving the most mundane of objects—a jug of oil.
In a related story, Elisha meets a woman of Shunem and her family. In as very homey way, she prevails upon her husband and the two of them fashion a guest room where the man of God may stay whenever he is in town. In the midst of this hominess and hospitality, Elisha asks her what she most wants. Finding that she wants a son, Elisha tells her that the next year, at that time, she will be embracing a son. The woman thinks he is playing with her, or fears that what she is hearing cannot be true, but it is.

Later in the story, this son will die of heat stroke, and Elisha will raise him from the dead. How unusual is that? And this story, of an older barren couple, a holy visitor, the promise of a son, who is later rescued from death—this story is an echo of the story of Isaac which is found in our Torah reading.

We, like this woman, need to learn to serve God and the people of God in homey, mundane ways. We need to visit the sick, comfort the grieving, feed the hungry, spend time with the lonely, cheer up the saddened, listen to boring people, for a while at least, and go out of our way to help servants of God within our means and opportunity. In such situations, we just might experience the highly unusual. We, like the woman of Shunem, might just encounter the holy in the midst of the mundane. But even if we do not, it is by serving people in these ways, in ordinary ways, that we become signposts of the Kingdom, By doing such things, we bring honor to God and make one small part of the world a better place.

New Covenant Commentary

Paul expresses the burden of our lesson well in today’s Newer Covenant reading.

1 Corithians 4:1 This is how one should regard us, as servants of Messiah and stewards of the mysteries of God. 2 Moreover it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.

This is what we should be busy doing, not pointing the finger and putting people in boxes, not policing our own private world, but getting on with being servants of Messiah and faithful stewards of the mysteries of God. We should be people who treat we know of God with great respect and care, taking care to preserve, protect and prosper that body of experience and knowledge.

3 But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. 4 I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. 5 Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then every man will receive his commendation from God.

We need to learn how to not be so avoidant and afraid of what people might say about us. We also need to not be quick to condemn ourselves. After all, our judges and we ourselves are all people in process. We must remember that God is the ultimate judge, and although we should be discerning, we must learn not to be judgmental. This is hard for religious people, but absolutely essential if we would be healthy, if we would be sources of health to others we know, and if we would honor God.

So How About You? What Are You Going To Do About This?

Are you judgmental? And if so, why is that? I suggest you sit quietly with that question for about five or ten minutes, being honest with yourself in the light of what people who love you tell you about yourself.

I would suggest that as your sense of God’s acceptance of yourself and of others as people in process grows, your need to defend yourself against imperfections, yours and theirs, will decrease. So my plea to you now is that you might grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Messiah, Yeshua. Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom, and often, a sense of profound inner calm. Are you calm or agitated this morning? May you find restfulness in Him.

May we all learn to serve him and each other humbly, to accept ourselves and each other graciously, and to trust the Presence of God in the midst of us, helping us as individuals and as a community in process to become better day by day. And may we so live in the world as to be non-judgmental people of discernment. By the way we live our lives and how we relate to others, may we commend the Way of Life that we have found, instead of making people feel like God’s rejects because we inwardly feel rejectable and therefore reject them.