A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Monday, July 31, 2017

Pastoral Prayer (July 30) - Athens First UMC

[Pictured above are some of the members of the Honduras Missions Team. Our congregation offered them our support and prayed for God's blessings to be with them as they will be serving August 5-12. They are living out our church's mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our community and world.]

Surely, your presence is in this place, O Lord. Your presence is here in this time of worship where we sing from hymnals and read from bulletins. But your presence isn’t confined to just one hour on Sunday mornings.

Surely, your presence was in this place earlier in the week when our Tuesday morning prayer team gathered in our Welcome Center to pray over the many prayer cards.

Surely, your presence was in this place when a college student came to receive guidance, prayer support, and just someone willing to listen.

Surely, your presence was in our Fellowship Hall this past Wednesday when we gathered for fellowship and a fun Talent Show.

Surely, your presence was with the small group of people who met in our sanctuary during the middle of the week to lift up each other and our church in prayer.

Surely, your presence is with us at all times and in all places, even when we may not even be consciously seeking you. Thank you for your presence, especially when we find ourselves tumbling down one of life’s many chutes. And thank you for providing a ladder just when we need it the most.

For those who are in need of your healing, lift us to higher ground. For a troubled country frozen by political ideologies, lift us to higher ground. For those who are in need of direction in life, lift us to higher ground. For those who are fighting the demons of addiction, lift us to higher ground. For those who are running from you, lift us to higher ground.

Like you did for Jacob, pull us up to higher ground Lord Jesus, even as we pray the words you taught your disciples, and now teach us to pray together saying, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Sermon (July 30) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Chutes & Ladders"

     Do you remember the game, Chutes and Ladders?  It’s been a while since I’ve played this board game, but here’s a quick recap of how it works. 
     You have a game piece, spin the spinner, and hopefully you end up landing on a space that will take you up a ladder so that you can get ahead in the game.  But sometimes, you end up landing on a space that forces you down a chute which is a real bummer.  You don’t want to go backward.
     This simple child’s game encourages players to find where the ladder spaces are on the board and you hope and pray that you will land on the right space.
     It took me a while until I finally bought a ladder that was tall enough to take care of some basic household chores. Without a ladder, it’s kind of hard to get anything done around the house.
     Ladders don’t just help us with projects around the house. They can help us in our faith as well. Sometimes, instead of choosing a ladder that can lift us to heaven we choose a chute instead which ends up spiraling us downward and away from where God wants us to be.
     The story of Jacob from the Old Testament is more a story of chutes than it is of ladders.  Jacob seems to have an uncanny ability to choose chutes over ladders and here’s a quick summary of his life to help us understand the context of our Old Testament scripture for today.
     Many of us are familiar with the story of Jacob and his twin brother, Esau.  It would be an understatement to say that Jacob has been a real pain in the backside toward his own family members.
     Jacob is the guy, who when no one is looking, kicks his golf ball from out behind the tree before hitting his next shot when you’re not even playing winter rules.  Jacob is the guy who lies about his past accomplishments if it will help him get a promotion.  Jacob is the guy who sells you a car without telling you that there’s a problem with the transmission.  Jacob is the guy who stabs you in the back, if it means getting ahead.
     Jacob began his cheating ways when he was in his mother’s womb, if you can believe that.  Trying to beat his brother Esau by a few seconds so as to be the firstborn, the scriptures tell us that Jacob grabbed Esau’s heel while they were both in their mother’s womb, but to no avail.  And this is where Jacob got his name, which literally means “heel grabber.”
     And from there, he just keeps on choosing chutes over ladders.  One of the most popular stories in the Bible is the one where Jacob ends up taking advantage of Esau’s extreme hunger one day by exchanging some stew straight up for his birthright. 
     But that’s not all.  Heel grabber tricks his own father who is lying on his death bed by impersonating older brother Esau, and Jacob ends up receiving the blessing that was meant for his brother.
     Now, the problem with heel grabbers is that even though they may get what they want, they make a lot of enemies along the way.  And when Esau found out what his brother did, he set out to kill his own twin brother, Jacob. 
     Jacob’s mother, knowing that things are going to get ugly really fast, tells Jacob to run away and hide out at Uncle Laban’s house.  While on the run, Jacob stops for the night, and finding the most comfortable rock he can, he places it under his head like a pillow.  Jacob’s decisions which involved going down one chute after another, has literally led him to hit rock bottom.
     And the really sad part of it all?  I don’t think that Jacob has any clue how far he has fallen or how bad his decisions have been.  You almost get the impression as you read up to this point, that Jacob probably even thinks that rocks are meant to be pillows.
     One of the striking features of the bible is that nobody, not even people who you would think should know better, are immune from making bad decisions or from allowing themselves to drift away from God.  The bible is a frustrating book to read at times, because just when God’s people seem to be moving in the right direction, somebody messes it all up.
     It kind of reminds me of Gilligan from Gilligan’s Island.  Remember how the Skipper and his crew would be this close from being rescued, and then just before the end of the show, Gilligan would do something that caused them to stay stranded?
     But let’s not just blame Jacob.  We can find many more names of people who like Jacob, make decisions that leave us scratching our heads and shouting out, “what were you thinking?”
     And truth be told, if we really think about it, we’re just like them in many ways.  At times, we too, find ourselves drifting away from God.  Sometimes it’s due to our poor choices and sometimes it’s because…well let’s face it.  Life is hard.  And we just say, “What’s the use? I’ll take the easy way.”
     The problem is that when we choose to take one chute, it’s that much easier to take the next one and the next before we find ourselves in a free fall away from God and our faith.
     A while back, a friend of mine who’s a pastor was talking to me about the importance of taking time out of our schedules to just be with God and to find renewal in his faith.  And he said, “Every time I take time to do be with God in an intentional way, God seems to help me to get back on track again.  And I end up feeling stronger in my walk with Christ.  But for some reason, I allow myself to wander away again from the faith.”  And with a puzzled look on his face, his next words were, “It’s the strangest thing.”
     And I thought to myself, “He’s right.  It is so easy to fall away from God, even when we know what we need to do and to whom we should go.”
      A few years ago, a survey was conducted which included several churches in our country and the purpose of this survey was to determine why it is that people end up drifting away from the church.  And the number one reason it gave was that for many people, they just don’t feel challenged enough to grow in their faith.  The people who leave the church, tend to be the people who want more in their faith, but no one seems willing to help them to go to the next level. 
     And that makes sense.  If you reach one level and plateau, it gets kind of old to just stay where you are. 
     In addition to folks who stray away because they aren’t being challenged enough, there are also folks who are falling away because life has been tough on them.  They’re asking questions like, “Why does God allow bad things to happen?”  “Why are you allowing me to go through all of this suffering?” 
      And still, there are others, who like Jacob, simply make bad decisions, sending them down one chute after another until they reach a point where they have fallen almost completely out of a relationship with God.

     But here’s the good news for those of us who have gone down our fair share of chutes.  God never gives up on us.  Just like in our Old Testament reading for today.  Here Jacob is on a cold and damp ground with a rock under his head.  He’s drifting off to sleep and he begins to see something that will mark a turn around in his life.
     He sees a ladder set up on earth.  Not a short ladder.  But a tall ladder that reaches up to heaven.  And not only that, but he also sees angels ascending and descending on that ladder.  And as Jacob is given this unexpected glimpse of God’s presence, God speaks to him and reminds him of a promise that was made to his father Isaac, and to his grandfather, Abraham.  And the promise is that through their family, God will bless the world.
     Sometimes, when we end up going down chutes for whatever reason, we forget the bigger picture of God’s promise that one day the sin and brokenness in our world will be overturned and everything will be made new.  And the way that God is going to reclaim his creation and make everything new is through you and me. 
     So God reminds Jacob of this promise which he had forgotten.  God promises to be with Jacob and also assures him that the covenant will be fulfilled through him.
     Jacob then wakes up from his sleep and says, “Surely, the Lord is in this place.”
     In one of the churches I served, a guy in his 20s whose name was Dave, began attending worship services out of the blue.  All I knew about Dave was that he lived a couple of blocks from the church and that was about it.  So, I got to know him a little better and one day I asked him just out of curiosity, “What was it that led you to begin attending church here?”
     And he told me how he had grown up in the church but then when he got out of school, he just kind of drifted away from God and the church.  He told me how he had moved to the neighborhood because of a job transfer.  He wasn’t married and enjoyed his new home and especially liked relaxing on Sunday mornings in his closed-in porch.
     He said that since moving into his new home, he liked drinking his coffee and reading the paper on Sunday mornings.  And he said, “But every Sunday morning, I couldn’t help but listen to your church bells.  At first, I didn’t think a whole lot about it, but one Sunday morning, it was the strangest thing.  I decided to put my paper down.  I got dressed for church, and I’ve been here ever since.  I feel like I’m back home with God again,” he said with a smile.
     One of my favorite hymns is the hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessings.” Robert Robinson who lived in England during the 1700’s wrote the lyrics for this hymn. One of the verses says, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love. Here’s my heart, O take and seal it. Seal it for thy courts above.” Robinson was known to backslide in his faith which is why he included those words in this great hymn of faith.
     During one of those times when he had backslidden in his faith, Robinson was sitting next to a woman on a stage coach. This woman was quietly humming this tune. Not knowing that she was sitting next to the writer of this hymn, she asked him what he thought of this hymn.
     Robert Robinson said to her, "Madam, I am the poor unhappy man who wrote that hymn many years ago, and I would give a thousand worlds, if I had them, to enjoy the feelings I had then."
     This woman responded by quoting a phrase from the first verse of that hymn. She said, “Sir, the streams of mercy are still flowing.” The woman on that stage coach ended up helping Robinson to climb back up the ladder in his faith with God.
     Let’s face it.  We are all prone to wander from our faith. All of us land on chutes at one time or another.  We fall away from God and sometimes it even feels like we’re headed the opposite direction.  But then comes along a ladder and it seems to come out of nowhere.  
     You hear those same old church bells.  You sit next to someone humming a tune.  You lay your head on that cold rock.  And guess what?  We discover that we were the ones who moved.  Not God.
     Jacob, the one who grabbed his brother’s heel, all of the sudden realizes that God has a grab of HIS heel.  And God isn’t letting go.
     This God is determined to have his way with us.  Whether we’re on the run or we have drifted away without even noticing, at the bottom of every chute is a ladder and this incredible promise:
     “I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised to do through you.  Through you, I am going to change the world!”
     Never expecting that God would ever catch up with you again, the only words that come to your mind are these words of praise…

     “Surely, the presence of the Lord is in this place.”

Chutes & Ladders
Small Group Questions
Genesis 28:10-19a
July 30, 2017

Remember the "Chutes & Ladders" children's board game? To win, you need to land on the ladder spaces instead of the chutes spaces. 

Share a time in your life when you felt that you landed on a "ladder" space where you were able to move forward in a good way. Share a time when you landed on a "chutes" space where you ended up going backward in a not so good way.

The story of Jacob from our Genesis scripture reading is a story of how he ended up on one chute after another which was leading him farther and farther from God. Some of the reasons we drift away from God include 1) We simply gradually drift away from God and the church almost without noticing! 2) We don't feel challenged enough spiritually and so we plateau or slide back in our faith. 3) Sometimes, life has been tough on us and we kind of give up on God. 4) Other times, we just make really bad decisions that take us away from God and the church.

Share how you have experienced some of these reasons for drifting away from God and the church.

The good news of this story about Jacob is that God sent him a ladder to help him climb up from all of the chutes in his life. This story reminds us that God is always reaching out to us with a ladder (grace) to draw us closer to God, the church, and one another.

What ladder has got set up for your recently? Share with the group.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Pastoral Prayer (July 23) - Athens First UMC

[Since we have been focusing on the Book of Genesis during these summer Sundays, this hymn in the picture above seemed appropriate for us to sing. Notice how verse 3 includes the words, "...Abram's faith and Sarah's story formed a people bound to you..." This is really what the Book of Genesis is all about, the gradual fulfillment of God's covenant to make of Abraham and Sarah a great nation. Yes, there are many twists and turns to this story, but through it all, God's covenant is being fulfilled. No wonder the chorus in this hymn exclaims, "Alleluia, Alleluia!"

God of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, and Jacob, thank you for these patriarchs and matriarchs of our faith. Thank you for these wonderful old bible stories that serve as our family photo album in telling us how you formed us in your image and claimed us as your own.

Every time we gather for worship, it’s like a family reunion where we retell our past stories of faith, renew our family bond, and seek to live as your people in the present time with an eye to the future when we will gather again as your people. Thank you for including each one of us in your family of faith, O God.

And as your family of faith, we rejoice whenever somebody celebrates a special blessing in life. And as your family of faith, our heart aches whenever somebody experiences pain or brokenness. This is what it means to be part of your family and this is what it means to be your people. We are blessed!

In a world that is so divided by political ideologies, strong opinions, and heated debates thank you for reminding us that we have more in common than the issues that divide us. We belong to you. You love us. We are created in your image. We are united in Christ.

As your family of faith, we offer our prayers for those who are struggling to get by. We offer our prayers for those who are tempted to make a trade that will hurt their relationship with you. We offer our prayers for those who are searching for their purpose in life and what it means to be fully human. Remind us whenever we gather as your people that we have been created in your image, to worship and serve you.

O God of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, and Jacob, thank you for reminding us of our family tree, of our true identity, of the importance of Christian community, and of our need for you. Help us along life’s journey, to always be planted in the good soil of your love made known to us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It is in his name that we pray in unison saying, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sermon (July 23) by Rev. Robert McDowell "The Esau Principle"

     When I was in the 1st or 2nd grade my parents gave me this really cool looking spaceship complete with action figures and light-up screens for my birthday. This spaceship could fold up like a little briefcase so that I could take it to school and play with it during recess.
     I had this spaceship for only about two weeks when I noticed that a buddy of mine had a really awesome spinning top that I had always wanted.  I think they were called wizards back then.  And I really wanted his spinning wizard top.
     And this buddy of mine, knowing that I had the coolest toy in the entire school, and knowing that I really liked his wizard top, offered a straight up trade with me.  “I’ll give you the wizard top if you give me your spaceship.”
     Not knowing the long-term ramifications of this toy exchange, I said, “Sure.”  And so I made the trade.  After just one day of this trade, I knew that I had made a terrible business decision because I ended up really missing that spaceship.  And when my parents found out what I had done, I really knew that I had made a bad trade. 
     As you can tell, I’m still not over it.  I miss that spaceship!
     Sometimes, we make bad exchanges as we go through life, don’t we? 
     Our scripture reading from the Book of Genesis is about a different kind of exchange that happened a long time ago between two brothers, Jacob and Esau, an exchange in which one of the brothers, Esau lived to regret it.
     Last Sunday, we focused on the story of Isaac and Rebekeh.  Isaac, the son of Abraham, marries Rebekeh, and Rebekeh becomes pregnant with twins.  Our hopes are raised as we come to this story of Rebekeh’s pregnancy because we see God’s promise made to Abraham being fulfilled - the promise that God made back in Genesis chapter 12, that God would make of Abraham a great nation.
     Our scripture reading this morning says that the first twin which was born had all of this red hair which is why mom and dad named him, “Harry” or actually, the Hebrew word is “Esau.”   And just a few seconds after Harry is born, out pops Jacob, which means “Heel Grabber” because he had been gripping Harry’s heel during the delivery as if he was trying to be the firstborn.
     And so we have the birth of these twins, “Jacob” and “Esau.” 
     We are told that Esau became a skillful hunter and that Jacob was more of a homebody.  And one day, Jacob was cooking one of his specialty dishes called “Red Stuff.”  At least this is what my bible translation calls this dish.
     Have you ever brought a “red stuff” casserole to a carry-in-dinner?  The NIV bible translation calls it “red stew.”  The King James Version calls it “red pottage.” 
     The Hebrew is obscure, but my guess is that it looked like and tasted a lot like Skyline Chili.

     I don’t know what exactly this dish was but it must have been really good because it ended up costing Esau his future inheritance.
     Esau comes in from his hunting trip and he is starving.  And he smells this skyline chili and he is ready to give up just about anything to have a plate of this red stuff. 
     Now here we have some suspense.  Esau is the firstborn of the twins and as firstborn, he has the birthright.  The family inheritance is his.  And Jacob, knowing that his brother is starving, makes Esau a deal right there on the spot.
     A straight up trade – A delicious serving of Jacob’s famous skyline chili for Esau’s birthright and the family inheritance.
     This is why you should never buy groceries when you’re hungry.   We will put things in that cart that we know won’t help our diet or our budget, but when you’re really hungry, the temptation can be too great to overcome.
     Esau makes the worst decision of his life in his moment of weakness – he makes a straight up trade.  The family inheritance for some red stew.  Now, even if that stew was the best tasting stew in the known world at that time, it still wasn’t worth blowing the family farm over it.
     As I think about this story of Jacob and Esau, I think of the bad trades that we sometimes make in our faith.  What looks to be a great trade at the time, ends up being something that actually moves us away in our relationship with Christ.
     This morning, I want to look at the Esau Principle.  The Esau Principle is a principle that I just made up. The Esau Principle says to never make a trade that will lead to a negative impact on your relationship with God.
     I want to quickly cover some potential bad trades that can set us back in who God is calling us to be.

Trading True Identity for a False Identity

     The first bad trade is to trade your true identity for a false identity.
     That’s essentially the trade that Esau was making to Isaac. He was giving up who he was as the first-born. By making the trade, he was making himself something other than who he truly was. He was accepting a false identity over a true identity.
     So what is your true identity? Even if I don’t know you very well, I know your true identity. You are a child of God and you were made in God’s image. That’s a very “book of Genesis kind of thing to say” since the creation story is how this first book of the bible begins.
     In the creation story, which we focused on back in the month of May, we saw how we were created in God’s image and God called us, “good.” That’s why the Bible includes the creation story because God wants us to know from the get-go what our true identity is.
     We were made in God’s image. What does that mean that we were made in God’s image? It means that God created us for purpose. We were created to live our lives in such a way that we are always reflecting God’s glory back onto God which is what worship is and we are also always reflecting God’s glory back into the world, which is what service is. The creation story wants us to know that each one of us was created for worship and service. Worship and service. Worship and service.
     Say that with me. “Worship and service.”
     Being created in the image of God means that we are meant to always be in relationship with God, to know that we are loved by God, claimed by God, and given a purpose by God. That is every human being’s true identity.
     The problem is that we sometimes forget. We’re like Esau who trades away his heavenly banquet for some leftover stew.
     Whenever we trade away our true identity as God’s image bearers, we accept a false reality of who we were created to be. We weren’t created to just live according to our instincts and our impulses.  We were created to be part of this magnificent overarching biblical purpose of being an important part of the building of God’s kingdom here on earth. How cool is that?
     It’s a game changer when we accept and live out the awesome identity of who God created us to be from the very beginning. It can be the most freeing thing we ever experience. Accepting our true identity can be a game changer.
     I remember when I was in 6th or 7th grade and I went on a church youth retreat to the beach one summer. There was just something about that week that helped me to experience God’s love in a very real way that became very personal and meaningful.
    I’m sure it had something to do with the bible discussions we had during the week. But what really did it for me was in the singing of praise songs around the campfire every night. One of those songs was a song that is now in our United Methodist hymnal, “Pass It On.”
     That song helped me to connect with God in a way where I was able see my true identity. God loved me unconditionally, pimple face and all. God loved me for who I was.
     That was a life changing event for me because I couldn’t stop singing that song days and weeks after that youth retreat. I still think back to that time of my life. I mean, I already knew that God loved me but it was the first time that I really, really experienced that love and accepted it.
     It was that chorus that I think really spoke to me. “That’s how it is with God’s love, once you’ve experienced it. You spread his love to everyone, you want to pass it on.”
     Thanks to that summer youth retreat, I knew what my true identity was. I was loved by God in a very real way, not just in a theoretical or theological way. God’s love was something I could experience and receive in any given moment.
     Now, it’s also true that since that time many years ago, I have needed to remind myself of my true identity over and over again, because we easily forget. It’s easy to forget who we are as people who are loved by God.
     Sometimes we accept a false identity of who we are where we never measure up to our own standards let alone the standards that others have on us. In one of my churches, I remember needing to wake up at 4:30 in the morning so that I would have time to make it to a hospital where a church member was going to have major surgery.
     The alarm went off. I got in my car and drove to the city where the hospital was located. I had timed it just right because as I got out of my car in that hospital parking garage, I was thinking how I had just enough time to see this person back in pre-op before the surgery.
     As I was scampering through that parking garage to go into the hospital, that’s when it suddenly dawned on me that I had driven to the wrong hospital. It needed to be in the other hospital that would probably be another twenty minutes away. There was no way that I was going to make it on time.
     I quickly turned around, got in my car and started driving to the other hospital. I probably drove too fast and went through some questionable yellow traffic lights to get there. I go into the hospital, rush to the pre-op area, and I am told that my church member had just been taken back for surgery.
     In that moment, my heart just sunk. I felt terrible. I said a little prayer there in the hallway, and I went out into the hospital lobby. I was already doing the negative self-talk and beating myself up over my mindless mistake.
     To my surprise, a pastor of a church near my church was in the waiting area of that same hospital during that early morning hour. He was there for a church member having an early surgery as well. When I told him about my mistake, I’ll never forget this.
     Knowing that I was upset with myself, he grabbed my arms, looked into my eyes and he said, “God loves you, Robert.” He said it again, “God loves you, Robert.”
     I needed that. I always need that reminder because I can so easily forget of this basic truth of my true identity.
     So I’m going to tell each one of you, straight up. “God loves you.” Let me say it again. “God loves you.” Don’t trade your true identity for anything less than that. That’s always a bad trade.

Trading Christian Community for Solo Christianity

     Let’s look at another potential bad trade.  Trading Christian Community for Solo Christianity. 
     We live in a culture which is trading in Christian Community for Solo Christianity.  People don’t see the need for the church if they can pray just as easily in their home.  Or maybe they see the hypocrisy of the church and they say, “I don’t need to be part of a church that gossips about each other or where the people hurt one another, sometimes even maliciously.  I’ll just live the Christian faith on my own.”
     And yet, the Bible reminds us again and again, that our faith is not meant to be lived in isolation.  Hebrews 10:25 is probably the kingpin verse for this bad trade.  “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
     When we get out of the habit of meeting together as the church for worship, fellowship, study, and service, we end up falling short of the biblical model of Christian community.  The Esau principle reminds us that even with all of the shortcomings of the church, this is a trade that we don’t want to make.
     One day, I caught up with a pastor and I asked him to share something good that was going on at his church.  And by the way, he’s not United Methodist.  That’s important to know as I share this with you.  He paused for a few seconds and then his eyes started to light up.  And he proceeded to tell me about a new small group ministry for men that had just started attending his church.
     And he said, “It’s been so great to see people in the church growing in their faith through this small group ministry.”  And then he said, “We’re using the John Wesley model (and he gave me this big smile knowing that I’m United Methodist.) “We are using the Wesley model of having members of the church participate in small groups to receive encouragement and strength through the other members of the church.”
     He said how people in these small groups are really opening up and sharing about their struggles  and how the members of the small groups are giving each other support and encouragement in dealing with these issues that all of us deal with on a day to day basis. 
     You can’t have this kind of spiritual growth without Christian Community.  Solo Christianity will take you only so far.
     The Esau principle reminds us to not trade Christian Community for Solo Christianity.  Solo Christianity can easily turn into “no Christianity.”

Trading Our Faith for a Life Without God

     Let me offer one more bad trade.  Trading our faith for a life without God.  That’s the ultimate bad trade, isn’t it?  I run into people all of the time who say that they started out in the church as a child, maybe they were baptized, their parents took them, but over the years and into adulthood, they just kind of fell away from their faith.
     And it’s not like they don’t believe in God, but they are not attending any church, they’re not reading the bible, they’re not active in a prayer life, and they’re not using their God given gifts to serve others.
     Most of the time, they don’t even realize that they made the trade.  They just gradually fell away from their faith.
     Jesus told a parable that explains how easy it can be for people to make this bad trade.  In this parable, he talks about a farmer who scatters seed with the hopes that all of the seed will eventually grow into beautiful and productive plants. 
     Some of the seeds fell on the hard path and before the seeds could take root, birds came along and snatched up those seeds.  Other seed fell on rocky ground and this produced some plants but because there wasn’t enough soil, the sun scorched them and they didn’t make it.
     Other seeds fell among thorns and those thorns ended up choking those plants.
     But then Jesus went onto say that some seed did fall on good soil and it brought forth incredible and unbelievable amounts of grain.
     The point of the parable is that seeds need to be planted in the right soil in order to grow and flourish.
     And whenever we make bad trades as Esau did in our Genesis reading, we can end up cutting ourselves off from God’s promises.
      Maybe you have heard the story of the farmer who was getting tired of farming and so he contacted a realtor to help him sell his property. And the realtor asked the farmer to describe his farm so that he would be able to put a description of the farm in the newspaper. 
     And the farmer thought a moment and he said, “Well, I have 100 beautiful acres with a fenced in meadow, a freshly painted barn with plenty of storage.  A meandering stream runs through the green meadow and there’s even a couple of acres of wooded land."
     The realtor thanked the farmer for the information and he said, this will appear in tomorrow’s newspaper and hopefully this will catch a prospective buyer’s eye.
     Around the middle of the morning the next day, the realtor receives a phone call and it’s this farmer.  And the farmer says, “I changed my mind.  I don’t want to sell my farm.”  And the realtor said, “What caused you to change your mind?” 
     And the farmer said, “I read the description of the farm that was in the newspaper and I decided that this is just the kind of farm that I’ve always wanted to have!  I just didn’t realize until now, that this is the farm I’ve always wanted.”
     Isn’t it true that we often forget to appreciate what we have already been given by God?  Sometimes, all it takes is for us to step back and to appreciate what God has already given us. 
     I think of a dear friend of mine who passed away a couple of years ago. Even with his leukemia and blood transfusions which were every other week, it was a struggle for him to attend church but he did week after week.
     His faith remained strong to the very end. The spring before he died, we had met for lunch and he offered a prayer before our meal. As he prayed for my family, my ministry, and for me, I was reminded of just how much I had missed his prayers. Even in his failing health, he continued to inspire so many people, including me.
     Here’s a man who lived out his faith the right way.  He didn’t make trades that would lead to a compromise of his faith. He remained faithful to the Esau principle which is to never make a trade that will have a negative impact on your relationship with Christ.

     My friend is an example that if you want to stay strong in your faith, stay rooted in the good soil and don’t give away the farm.

The Esau Principle
Small Group Questions
Genesis 25:19-34 & Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
July 23, 2017

We continue our stories of the Book of Genesis this summer by focusing on the birth of Esau and Jacob, the twin sons of Rebekah and Isaac. In a moment of weakness (hunger!), Esau traded his birthright to Jacob in exchanged for some stew! Pastor Robert invites us to think about three bad trades that we may be tempted to make in life.

#1 Trading Our True Identity for a False Identity

What helps you to remember and claim your true identity as a child of God, an image bearer of a loving God who created you and called you, "good?" Why do you think we sometimes forget who our true identity is?

#2 Trading Christian Community for Solo Christianity

How have relationships with other Christians helped you to grow in your faith? Why is your small group important to you?

#3 Trading Our Faith for a Life Without Christ

What are some reasons why we might fall away in our faith? Share a time when you stopped praying, or reading your bible, or attending church. What brought you back?

List some ways that can help us to maintain a strong faith as we go through the ups and downs of life.