Sermon for August 7, 2011

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Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

1Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. 2This is the story of the family of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. 3Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. 4But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.

12Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. 13And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “Here I am.” 14So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron. He came to Shechem, 15and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” 16“I am seeking my brothers,” he said; “tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” 17The man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’“ So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. 18They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. 19They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 20Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” 21But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 22Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him” —that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father. 23So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; 24and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. 25Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. 26Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed. 28When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.

1 Kings 19:9-18

9At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 11He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 15Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. 16Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. 17Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. 18Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”

Matthew 14:22-33

22Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 28Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Ctrl+Alt+Del, Reboot, Reformat

Last year at seminary, I took a course called "Introduction to Preaching." Our distinguished professor, Cleo LaRue, was fond of telling the class that the recipe for a decent sermon is as follows: One text, three points, and a really good poem. Fortunately for me, and perhaps less so for you, Dr. LaRue is not here this morning. I think I got the recipe a bit mixed up, because somehow I wound up with three texts, one point, and a really bad pun. I'll let you decide how that worked out.

Three texts, all from today's lectionary readings, and each one revolving around a fascinating, larger-than-life character from three very different periods in the Bible. Earlier in the service, we read of Joseph, the great Patriarch and favorite son of Jacob, whose dreams and special coat have landed him in trouble with his brothers. At the climax of today's reading, those jealous brothers throw Joseph into a deep pit, stripped of his coat and without food or water. We also read earlier of Elijah, arguably one of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament, but in this passage he is hiding in a dark cave, feeling sorry for himself and struggling just to hear God's voice. Finally, we read of Peter, first among the disciples, the unquestioned leader of the early church after Jesus' death. But here he has lost sight of his savior, frightened by the storm, outside of the boat, sinking beneath the waves in the middle of the sea. And there we must leave our heroes of the faith, for the time being. Before we tackle the great challenges faced by Joseph, Elijah, and Peter, let's fast-forward a few millennia to the present time, and some challenges that might seem a little more recognizable to us.

I'm thinking of a very specific challenge, actually -- one that most of us encounter on a fairly regular basis. Raise your hand if you've ever used or relied upon a computer to accomplish something that was important to you. Now keep your hand raised high if your computer has always come through for you 100 percent of the time, never crashing, never freezing, never losing important information, and never blocking your path with a loud angry beep and and a disturbing error message that threatens to undo everything you've spent the last 15 minutes (or longer) trying to accomplish. By the way, if your hand is still in the air, you're either lying (in God's house no less), or else you just haven't been using your computer long enough.

I love computers. My father was a computer programmer, and my earliest memories consist of half-assembled computer parts strewn across the living room floor, of learning to write little programs in a language called BASIC on my Commodore64 computer, and dialing into the internet to play text-based video games with my Dad in the days long before it was actually called "the internet." But no matter how comfortable you are with technology, no matter how smart you are, and regardless of whether you're a PC, a Mac, a Linux, a Unix, or a Texas Instruments Scientific Calculator...if you use computers long enough, eventually you will run into a digital brick wall.

In the glory days of Microsoft Windows, this happened often enough that the blue-colored screen that informed you of a "fatal error" was nicknamed the "blue screen of death" -- or BSoD for short. On some error screens, underneath the error message, the user is presented with a single button to click that says "OK." When you click it, your program shuts down and you lose whatever you were working on. I always found that button bitterly humorous -- it's bad enough that I'm about to lose everything, but do I really have to be "OK" with it, too?

Other error screens will instruct a user to simultaneously push and hold three buttons. You probably know what they are: CTRL + ALT + DELETE. This little routine shuts down your computer and restarts it. This is known as a "ReBoot." I've often wondered what frustrated, computer cowboy first coined that term, ReBoot--and whether he used calfskins or steel-toed boots to get the job done. Incidentally, there is a distinction in computer-speak between a "soft ReBoot" and a "hard ReBoot," but I'll leave that one to your imagination.

If ReBooting doesn't solve the problem there is a final, more drastic approach that can be taken: Reformatting the Hard drive. Reformatting basically erases everything on the computer and starts over from scratch. You have to reinstall all your software, including the operating system. With a ReBoot, you only lose what you were working on at the moment. With a Reformat, you lose everything. This will fix just about any software problem, but it comes at a great cost. It is, obviously, a last resort.

Back to our texts, and to the heroes of the faith we left suspended in crisis. Fortunately or unfortunately (depending on your technology outlook) Joseph, Elijah, and Peter all lived long before the digital era. But in today's scripture passages, they are all in a similar predicament: Joseph has "crashed" into the bottom of a deep pit. Elijah is "stuck" in his dark cave, and Peter is "frozen" by fear, sinking beneath the waves. All are at risk of losing everything that they have worked for, and all that God as called them to do. When I read these passages, I want to yell out to them, across the ages, "CTRL ALT DELETE! Reboot! Reformat! It's the only way!" But I am not the programmer here, and there are no CTRL ALT DELETE keys in ancient Israel.

Fortunately however, there IS a Master Programmer at hand for them, and a different key combination of sorts. For Peter, the Master Programmer pushes the keys JESUS + HAND + BOAT and the wind calms down and Peter is safe again. Since Peter didn't lose everything--only his faith in Jesus, and that only for a moment -- this is more of a reboot than a reformat. Or, technically, I guess it's a "Re-Boat."

For Elijah, the Master Programmer pushes the keys WIND + EARTHQUAKE + FIRE + SILENCE and it is with the final keystroke, silence, that the voice of the Lord comes to Elijah at last, instructing him and promising him the help of Prophet-2.0-Beta, also known as Elisha. This, too, is more of a reboot than a reformat -- a recommissioning for service, and even a bit of an upgrade.

For Joseph, the Master Programmer pushes the keys BROTHERS + GREED + TRAVELING MERCHANTS and instead of dying in the pit, Joseph is sold into slavery, bound for Egypt where his dreams will be put to good use. This, of course, is a full Reformat. Joseph loses everything and everyone he has ever known, starting over from scratch with nothing but the promise of the Master Programmer, the Dream-Giver, who works all things for the good of those who love Him, and are called according to His purpose.

But the story doesn't end there. The scripture message never ends on the page, but rather it speaks through the ages, right into our own lives and situations. And we so often get stuck. We crash. We freeze. But as Christians, we place our trust and hope in a God of second chances, who makes all things new. Every Sunday we gather here for worship and we press the buttons CONFESSION + REPENTANCE and our Master Programmer presses the final button in the sequence, UNCONDITIONAL GRACE and we Reboot. Psalm 103 tells us that as far as the East is from the West, so far He removes our transgressions from us. CTRL + ALT + DELETE. Reboot. Reformat.

And at the heart of that last word -- Reformat -- is a word that we, as Presbyterians know so well: Reform. We are the children of the 16th century Reformation, of the reformers Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Knox, who left behind a medieval church that was frozen, stuck, and plagued by error messages. They started over from scratch, pressing five simple keys: by SCRIPTURE alone + by FAITH alone + by GRACE alone + through CHRIST alone + glory to GOD alone. These are the five famous "solas" of the Reformation.

CTRL + ALT + DLETE. Reboot. REFORM-at. These days, our denomination, the PC(USA) continues to lose members and lose churches -- to changing cultural patterns, to aging congregations, to whatever controversy rules the day. Sometimes it seems that, like Peter, we are slipping beneath the waves, paralyzed by fear and losing sight of our savior. Even here at the First Presbyterian Church of El Paso, Texas, so often we yearn longingly for those glory days when, like Joseph, our community held the status of the "favorite son," blessed by the Father and the envy of our Baptist, Methodist and Episcopalian brothers. Sometimes we feel stuck, frozen, about to crash.

We would do well to remember one of the great mottoes of the Presbyterian Church: "Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda" -- the Church reformed...and continually being reformed. In other words, God is not through with us yet. We would also do well to remember that Peter did not save himself. Only Christ can do that. We do have a job to do--it's what Peter and all the disciples did next: Verse 32 and 33 tell us that when Jesus and Peter "got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, 'Truly you are the Son of God.'"


CTRL + ALT + DELETE. Reboot. Reformat.

And even when we come to the very end of our days, when we are lowered into a six-foot deep pit and sealed in a concrete cave that neither Joseph nor Elijah could possibly have escaped from -- that Blue Screen of Death holds no terror for us anymore. Why? Because we know the story; we know about the cross, the crucifixion, and the sacrifice made by God's only son. More importantly, we know what happened just three days later. Say it with me this time: CTRL + ALT + DELETE. Reboot. Reformat. It's the greatest reboot of all time: Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, and so we too are promised the resurrection and the life everlasting; strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow! Thanks be to God!