Tuesday, October 25, 2016

God's Kingdom Come

II Samuel 7:1-17
October 23, 2016

            Call the Midwife is one of my favorite shows to air on PBS in the last few years. It is based on the memoirs of Jennifer Lee Worth, who began her vocation as a midwife in the late 1950’s, living and working from Nonnatus House, an Anglican convent. The nuns who lived there were also trained as midwives; they, along with the young midwives such as Jennie, served the desperately poor neighborhood of Poplar in London’s East End.
            In one of the later episodes this past season, a very pregnant mother was brought to the clinic because she had fainted while working. She, her husband, and their other children lived and worked on their barge. They were essentially river gypsies. The mother was fine. But she was anemic and needed rest, so she was encouraged to stay in the hospital until the baby was born. This would delay her family’s leaving. But her husband and the children wanted her to stay. She was not used to this kind of quiet, easy life. She worked hard. Even the food she was served was different. Normally the mother began her day with a piece of bread. But the nurses wanted her to eat an egg for the protein it would give her.
            One of the midwives tried to help the family out. She got the children enrolled in school. They were given new uniforms. The teacher at the school insisted that they go through a delousing as a matter of course. Everyone seemed happy with all of these new arrangements; everyone except the mother. When the children and their dad went to visit her, she saw them in their strange clothes, smelling of disinfectant, and became incensed. Why were they deloused when they didn’t have lice? They got lice in school not in the boat. Weren’t their regular clothes good enough for them? They were always clean and mended. Then and there she said she wanted to go home, to go back to their boat. She wanted her own clothes, and her own food. She wanted her children to be her children once again, not these strangers in uniforms. The midwives insisted they had only been trying to help, but she didn’t want help. She hadn’t asked for help. They did not know what was best for her or for her family.
            The midwives in this story were well-intentioned. They only wanted to help. But their helping went from dealing with an immediate need to trying to alter the way the family lived. In the process of helping, the midwives imposed their own ideas about the right way and the wrong way to live. Their intentions were good, but they thought they knew best. However, the mother adamantly disagreed. In her eyes, she knew best, not them.  
            David’s intentions were good too. But I think there is a reason for the expression, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” I used to believe that this expression was coined solely because of people like me who start projects with good intentions, but never quite finish them. However, now I think that this cliché also refers to the good intentions that are based on believing we know best. David thought he knew best about the kind of house God should have.
            This chapter is somewhat of a pause in the ongoing narrative of Second Samuel. In the previous chapter, David brought the Ark of the Covenant, God’s house, into Jerusalem. It was a triumphant moment, and David danced and rejoiced at the head of the procession carrying the ark. David was now settled in his house as king of Israel, and God’s house was settled as well. Yet … Have you ever experienced the room painting phenomenon? You know, you paint one room. You sit back to admire your work, thinking how nice and fresh the room looks. Then you look around at the other rooms of your house and realize how bad they look in comparison. When I read these verses about David settling into his house, I think of that painting phenomenon. It seems that David looked around his house, pleased and happy with the recent events. But then he realized that God’s house looked a little shabby by comparison. So he told the prophet Nathan,
            “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.”
            Nathan must have thought David was on to something, because he responded,
            “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”
            However the Lord might have been with David in other ways, the Lord was most definitely not with David on this. God did not speak directly to David, but went through Nathan.
            “Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.”
            God went on to tell Nathan to pass along the message to the king that God does not want David to build God a house. Instead God will build David one. David’s son will be the one to build God a physical house, but what God will build is a kingdom. What God will build is a royal house, a house, a kingship that will live on for generations. God was building, is building, will build a kingdom.
            As a preacher, this passage caused me to ask the question that so many preachers everywhere ask every week. “How the heck can I make a sermon out of this?” I understand that it establishes the House of David. I understand that it foreshadows Solomon building the temple. I completely get that it makes clear that the Kingdom of God was not contained or limited to a physical structure. But outside of that, what? What does this mean for us? As one of my preaching professors used to say, how will this resonate with us on Tuesday?
            Certainly, the idea that the church is not a building is one that we understand in a whole new way. That is personal. That is right where we are, isn’t it? Our identity as a congregation was so tied to the big church on Beard Street that I’m sure it was hard for us to imagine that we could be a church anyplace else. Yet here we are: a church, a congregation, worshipping in a storefront. It may not look like a typical church, but it is a church just the same. It’s church not just because we’re here, or that we’re worshipping here. This is church because God is here with us. God is here in our worship, in our fellowship, in our prayers, in our singing. God is here with us in this place, therefore this place is the house of God. We are a visible, tangible witness to the truth that God is not contained or limited to a building or a structure.
            But what God relayed to David through Nathan was not only that God would make a royal house of David, God would also build a kingdom that would surpass any earthly, human made kingdoms. God was in the process of creating a heavenly dynasty. God’s kingdom would come.
            As Christians, we believe that God’s kingdom was fulfilled through the incarnation of God in Jesus. Jesus declared this to be true. God’s kingdom is in our midst. Yet, Jesus instructed his disciples to pray for God’s kingdom to come. We still pray these words every time we gather in worship. God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
            If the coming of Jesus ushered in God’s kingdom, why do we still pray for God’s kingdom to come? Are we praying for the kingdom that was started in David? Or are we praying for something more? Perhaps the answer to both of these questions is “Yes!”
            I once believed that God’s kingdom was a place, a destination that you had to reach. You could map out the way to it using the Bible like a GPS. I also believed that the place was up, above us, located somewhere in the clouds. Yet, I no longer look up when I look for the kingdom. I look to the right. I look to the left. I look all around me. Because I think that God’s kingdom is right here in our midst. I believe that God’s kingdom exists right next to the world we create for ourselves. And I believe that every once in a while we get a glimpse of it. The invisible line that seems to be drawn between our world and God’s kingdom blurs; the veil which keeps our eyes from recognizing God’s kingdom is lifted.
            We see God’s kingdom in acts of kindness and generosity. We see God’s kingdom in moments when someone truly puts another person’s well-being over and above their own. We see it when a stranger reaches out to a stranger. There is a video on social media of a homeless man on a subway train. The man was shirtless and shivering. Another man, a younger man, went over to him and, literally, gave the homeless man the shirt off his back. He took off his own shirt and handed it to the homeless man. When the older man fumbled trying to put it on, the younger man helped him. He gently placed the shirt over his head and helped him put his arms into the sleeves. There was no connection between these two men before this happened. I don’t know if there was one after it occurred. But in that moment, the camera on someone’s cell phone recorded a glimpse into the kingdom of God.
            As we keep working our way forward, discerning step-by-step where God is calling us to go, may we remember that God is not limited to a place. God is not contained by the walls we build or the bricks we lay. God’s kingdom will not be found in our midst just because we have a building to call our own. God’s kingdom is right here. God’s kingdom is being built. God’s kingdom will continue to grow and expand. God’s kingdom is in our midst. God’s kingdom come.

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleliuia!” Amen.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Quick Fixes

Exodus 32:1-14
October 9, 2016

            One of the duties that I had in John Knox Presbytery, my presbytery of membership before I moved here, was as vice-moderator of the presbytery. As we do here, when you accept the position of vice-moderator, you assume that you will take over as moderator the next year. At every presbytery meeting, the vice-moderator would moderate for part of the meeting. It was good practice for your upcoming term as moderator.
            Before every presbytery meeting, the executive presbyter, the stated clerk and the two moderators would meet in a conference call. We would walk through the items for the agenda, talk about any challenges that might arise, and determine the parts of the meeting the moderator would facilitate, and the parts the vice-moderator would. I studied every item on the agenda, but I particularly studied the items that fell under the time I moderated. I wanted to be as prepared as I knew how to be. That means that if I was presiding over the time when we dealt with items 1 – 5, then I really knew items 1 – 5.
            It was my first meeting to serve as vice-moderator. I was nervous, but I knew my agenda items. It was decided that I would run the first part of the meeting, and I went up to the podium ready to go. But at one point, the moderator, clerk and executive presbyter had to have a side discussion about a question over a fine point of polity or Roberts’ Rules of Order – I can’t remember exactly. What I do remember is that we had reached the end of the agenda items that were mine. We reached number 5. I had read all the other items on the docket, but I had only prepared to moderate 1 – 5. But here I was, the vice-moderator, standing in front of the assembled presbyters, not saying or doing anything. The other people in charge – the real people in charge as I thought then – were off talking about something else.
            All eyes were on me. We were trying to stay on schedule and on time. It was winter in the upper Midwest, and people had driven long ways to get there and would have to drive long way back. I knew that the questions in every one’ mind were,
“Can’t we continue? Can’t we move on to item number 6? Come on, Madame Vice-Moderator, let’s get a move on. That’s why you’re up there.”
My pulse was racing. My heart seemed to be attempting to thump its way out of my chest. Also, I’d broken my wrist about three weeks earlier, so I was in a cast. As they all stared at me, I swear my wrist started to hurt more than normal. I did not know what to do. I looked at back at them, cleared my throat, and said,
“I’ve only been trained up to item number 5, so please talk amongst yourselves for a few minutes.”
I suspect that anyone who has occupied a position of leadership has experienced that kind of moment: you are the one in front and you are supposed to know what you are doing. Everyone is looking at you with expectation, because they also think you are supposed to know what you are doing. After all, that is why you are in leadership. If you are a teacher, teach. If you are a preacher, preach. If you are a lecturer, lecture. You get the idea. If you are there to lead, then lead already!
The story of the golden calf in Exodus is one that I have heard since I was a little girl. We studied it in Sunday School, most likely with cut-outs of the lead characters on a felt board. It was referred to in sermons. It is even a story that has gone beyond the church and into the wider culture. Mention a golden calf, people think idolatry.
Yet as many times as I have heard, read and alluded to this story, I haven’t given much thought to Aaron’s particular perspective. Obviously, Aaron was wrong in what he did. The people asked him to create a god for them to worship. He should have refused. He should have talked them out of it. He should have said, ‘Heck, no! I’m not going to be the one to lead you down the supposed primrose path to the garden of Sheol.”
But Aaron did not say any of that. He did what they asked.
“Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”
“Aaron said to them, ‘Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons; and your daughters, and bring them to me.’”
The people did what Aaron asked of them. They brought him their gold, and he melted it and fashioned it into the image of a calf. As soon as it was before the people, they said,
“These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.”
The text tells us that when Aaron saw what was happening among the people, he built an altar before the calf. He proclaimed to them that on the next day they would have “a festival to the Lord.”
What Aaron did was wrong. I cannot dispute that. But I wonder how Aaron felt when the eyes of the Israelites turned to him. I wonder what thoughts went through his mind at that moment, and how even his body reacted. Did he think with dread, “Now they want me to fix this”? Did he feel the same palpitations of nerves and fear as I did when he realized that they expected him to do … something?
Perhaps Aaron realized the slippery slope he’d set them upon as soon as he offered that quick fix? Perhaps his proclamation that they celebrate a festival of the Lord the next day was damage control? Wait, folks! I wasn’t trying to turn you away from the true God. I just wanted to make you happy. This calf was just a quick fix to keep us going a little longer. So let’s remember the One we are supposed to worship by actually worshipping that One tomorrow.
Maybe Aaron needed a tangible representation of God as much as the people did? We cannot know exactly what was going on in Aaron’s mind at that moment, but we do know that the Israelites, including Aaron and Moses, were human. As fellow humans, we have some understanding into our own natures. At least this human craves reassurance that God has not abandoned me to my own devices. I know that there are times when I desperately want something of God that is visible and concrete. While I might proclaim that I would never fashion a golden calf, I wonder if I haven’t mistaken something shiny and gold for the true God.
One commentator offered the possibility that Aaron was not trying to create a whole new god. Instead, Aaron created a false image of the God. I suspect that we do that as well. We don’t want new gods to worship. We do not consciously seek out something other than God. But perhaps we get confused, believing that we are worshipping God when really we are paying homage to a golden calf.
We have learned the difficult lesson that we, our congregation, are not our building. A lack of stained windows does not make us any less a church. While I do not believe or think that anyone of us saw the building as God, did we sometimes get confused and put that ahead of God? Had that become a golden calf? There is a sign in front of a house in town that states that prayer is our country’s only hope. Whenever I see it, I cringe a little. It’s not that I disagree per se. I understand, I think, the intent of that sign. We need to pray for our nation. I do not disagree. But the way the sign reads makes it sound as though prayer is that in which we place our hope. But that isn’t right, is it? We put our hope in God. We pray as a way to be in God’s presence, and, hopefully, hear God’s voice. Prayer is powerful and vital, but it is not where our hope lies. Our hope lies in God. That sign reminds me that even prayer can be a golden calf.
I think the truth is that we can make anything into a golden calf. Our families, our work, our denomination, our nation, our particular set of beliefs – all can be golden calves. I wonder if the people already had a golden calf even before Aaron’s creation. Were they afraid that God had abandoned them in the wilderness, or were they terrified that Moses had left them alone and defenseless? Do we put more faith in our leaders, in the church, community or country, than we do in God? Does our trust lie in God or in our own abilities?
The Israelites wanted a god they could see, touch, and hold onto. When confronted with being alone, they turned to Aaron for a quick fix. But God, our God, does not offer us quick fixes. We cannot pin God down into one image or one idea or one rigid perspective or understanding. God does not give us quick fixes. God gives us more. God gives us abundance. God gives us life. God gives us a promise and God keeps that promise – even when we do not. God was furious with the people for that golden calf. An infinite number of sermons can be written on the exchange between God and Moses. But ultimately, God did not give up on the Israelites. God did not abandon them to themselves. God kept covenant, God remained faithful, God kept God’s promise. That is the good news, and it continues today. No matter how unfaithful we are, God never abandons us to the golden calves of our own making. God is God of promises kept. We are forgiven. We are called again and again to worship God. We are given no quick fixes, but we are given grace. Thanks be to God!

Let all of God’s people say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Minister's Corner -- Shawnee News Star

Reverend Amy Busse
United Presbyterian Church

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table…”
Luke 16:19-21a, the Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version

            I got a taste of being invisible a few days ago. The Shawnee High School Genesians (drama club), to which both my daughter and son belong, held a car wash fundraiser for their one act play. I was the first parent to chaperone that afternoon, and my job was to stand in the grass by Kickapoo, holding up a large sign that proclaimed “Car Wash!”

            That was a harder job than it sounds. It was hot. I made sure to use sunscreen, but that didn’t seem to block the sun’s rays completely. Holding up your arms and waving them about for an hour or so is exhausting. I work out, but still! Yet this particular duty allowed me to observe drivers from a different perspective. Some folks would look at me and read the sign. But if I caught their eye, they would quickly look away. Some folks were avidly talking on their phones and paid no attention to me or anyone else, for that matter. Some people were driving and texting. Please stop that! And a few people would smile and acknowledge that I was there. Their acknowledgment did not mean they stopped and got their car washed, but that was okay. I appreciated them seeing me.

            That’s what I mean about being invisible. Because I was close to a stoplight, people would pull up beside me and have to sit waiting for the light to change. I was standing mere feet from their car, but they stared straight ahead, as though I were not there at all; as though I were invisible. Feeling unseen was awkward and uncomfortable for me. It pushed me way beyond my comfort zone. But I have decided that experiencing that discomfort was a blessing. Because the truth is, I’m usually the one sitting in the car.

            How many times have I been stopped at a red light and at the corner stands a person with a sign asking for food, money or help? My answer is more times than I can count. In those uncomfortable moments, I am grateful for sun glasses. They hide the fact that I see that person, but that I’m trying to pretend I don’t. I’m not proud of this. Every time, I wait for the light to change I wrestle with my conscience.

“What should I do? Should I offer them some money? Look at how much I have. I’m a pastor, shouldn’t I model generosity? Is this a scam? Even if it is, that does not mean the person is not desperate and in need. If this is their way of making a living, it is a rough occupational choice.”

 More often than not, when the light changes I drive on, leaving the person behind – seen by me, but not seen. They might as well be invisible.

It would seem that Lazarus was invisible to the rich man. Lazarus lay at his gate, but he was not seen. The rich man did not acknowledge him, did not offer to help him. I imagine that the man walked right by Lazarus. The rest of the story tells us that Lazarus died and was taking to heaven by angels. The rich man also died, but instead of heaven he went to Hades. He was tormented in the flames, saw Abraham and Lazarus together, and begged Abraham to let Lazarus dip his finger in some cool water and put it to the man’s parched tongue. Abraham refused. The rich man had abundance of riches and good things in life, while Lazarus did not. However in the life after life, it was Lazarus’ turn.

            I know that first instinct tells us to see this story as a warning for those of us wanting to avoid Hell’s flames. If we do not want to go to Hades, then we need to take care of others while we can. I do believe we need to take care of others here on earth. But I don’t believe my motivation for doing this should be solely to avoid consequences for myself. I think my call is to help people whose lives are hell on earth now.

            So what will I do the next time I’m at a stoplight and someone is standing on the corner with a sign? Will I help? Will I stare straight ahead? One thing I know for sure, that person will never be invisible to me again. 

Remember This Day -- World Communion Sunday

Exodus 12:1-13; 13:1-8
October 2, 2016

            “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
That is the question asked by the youngest child at a Seder meal. The Seder is a Jewish ceremonial meal celebrated on the first night of Passover.
            If you remember, we observed a Seder meal just a few years ago. I’ve participated in them several times in the last two decades, but I had no idea what they were about until I volunteered as a senior high youth advisor for my church in Richmond. The leaders of both the junior and senior high youth groups organized a Seder for both groups. Although I helped with different elements of the meal – I think I volunteered to bring Matzo, because that was about all I knew how to do – I had no clue what was happening. When it came time to celebrate the Seder, I sat down and looked at this plate set before me that was filled with a strange assortment of foods: parsley, small bowls of salt water, a roasted chicken bone, Matzo, an apple and nut concoction, an egg, horseradish, and a small glass of grape juice instead of wine. It was a youth gathering, after all.  
            The Associate Pastor of the church presided over the meal, and he did an excellent job of explaining the symbolism of the food on our plates. The salt water represented the tears of slavery. The bitter herb represented the bitterness of being enslaved. The Matzo was the unleavened bread the Jewish people ate hurriedly as they prepared to leave their bondage in Egypt. And so on. But it all began with that question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
            We’ve reached the book of Exodus in our walk through the larger story of God’s promise and God’s people. The passage that we have today is somewhat of a break in the ongoing story. What we did not read this morning was the story of Moses. Last Sunday we heard excerpts from the story of Joseph. Joseph was well-loved and well-respected by the Pharaoh and the Egyptians. But Joseph and his brothers, and that “entire generation” eventually died. The Israelites took the Lord’s command to be fruitful and multiply to heart and did just that. But a new Pharaoh rose up to rule Egypt, and this Pharaoh did not know Joseph. He did not know Joseph’s work or contribution to the Egyptians. But he did know that there were many, many Hebrews and their numbers continued to grow. He was afraid of them. He was afraid that they might overpower the Egyptians. So he did what powerful and frightened rulers often do. He enslaved them.
            He oppressed them, and set harsh taskmasters over them. Yet the first chapter of Exodus tells us that the more oppressed they were, the more they multiplied. So the Pharaoh ordered that the Hebrew midwives, Puah and Shiphrah, kill the baby boys but let the baby girls live. The midwives were obedient to God, not Pharaoh, and they did not do what Pharaoh commanded. And so Moses was born. I’m going to assume that we know the basic story of Moses being put into a reed basket by his mother and then rescued and adopted by the daughter of Pharaoh. I’m also going to assume that we know the story of Moses growing up, killing an Egyptian taskmaster for beating a fellow Hebrew, and running away because of his crime. I’m guessing we know the story of Moses encountering God in the burning bush, and the plagues God sent upon the Egyptians so that the Pharaoh would finally let God’s people go.
            That brings us to our passage today. I said that this was a break in the narrative, in the story of Moses and Aaron leading the Hebrews out of Egypt. Perhaps it is not so much a break in the story, but it is a pause. In these verses, God instructed Moses and Aaron on the ritual meal they were to partake in preparation for the final plague. God told them that this day would be the first month of their year. From that point on, God said, on the tenth of that month the Israelites were to take a lamb for each family, for each household. If some families were too small for a lamb of their own, others were to share their lamb with them. Everyone was to receive a portion of that lamb. Everyone was to have enough. The blood of the lamb was to be put on the doorposts and on the lintel of every Hebrew household.
            God gave them specific details on the lamb’s appearance, and how it should be cooked, and what should happen to any leftovers. God specified the way they were to eat this meal: standing, clothed, with their sandals on and their staff in their hands. They were to eat the lamb and the unleavened bread and the bitter herb quickly. That night, the final plague of God would occur. God would pass over the land, striking down the firstborn of any household that did not have that lamb’s blood on the doorposts and lintels. God would pass over. And from that time on, God’s people were to mark that day, they were to remember that day when God passed over them so that they might be liberated and live.
            I struggle with this final plague. It was violent, and it was cruel. Those are two adjectives I don’t normally use to describe God. But it is hard for me to see it in any other light. Yet God’s passing over was to be remembered. It was to be the Passover, a remembrance of the day God delivered God’s people out of slavery. However violent that Passover was, it would shape the identity of the Israelites forevermore. They were the people who were delivered by God from slavery into freedom.
            Why is this night different from all other nights?
            As Christians we do not observe Passover as our Jewish brothers and sisters do, but our faith and our identity is inextricably bound to that identifying moment as well. Not only because we share the Torah, but because it was in the context of the Passover that Jesus marked the identity of his followers. The meal that we celebrate this morning shapes our identity as believers, just as the observance of Passover shapes the identity of the Jewish people.
            At the Passover meal, Jesus took bread and wine, common elements of any meal, and gave them new meaning. Every time the disciples shared in eating bread and drinking wine, they were to remember Jesus. They were to remember his life, his teachings, his command to love, and eventually they were to remember his sacrifice on the cross. That moment, that meal marked them. It shaped them. It gave them a new identity. Whenever they remembered that day, they remembered again Jesus and they remembered anew who they were because of him.
            Isn’t that what we do this morning as we gather around this table? Isn’t that what we do every time we eat this bread and drink this wine? We remember who Jesus was and is, and we remember who we are. Our communion of bread and wine is a sacrament. It is a sacred meal, a sacred ritual. But it is also an ongoing witness to our identity as followers of Christ. It shapes us and molds us and recreates us again and again.
            Christians around the world are partaking in this feast today. There may be differences in culture and custom, there may differences in the bread that is used and in the wine that is served. Yet we are bound together by something much bigger than what makes us different. When we break the bread and drink the cup, we remember who we are. We remember whose we are.
Why is this night different from all other nights?
 Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Family Dynamics

Genesis 37:1-8, 17b-22, 26-34, 50:15-21
September 24, 2016

            The thought that keeps coming to my mind when I read these excerpts from the story of Joseph and his brothers is that this would be the worst family to share a holiday meal with. Can you imagine it? Joseph, his brothers, their wives, their kids, maybe grandkids have all had a big meal. They are sitting around the table, perhaps drinking a little more wine or tea. The kids have left the table to play or fall asleep. The folks still sitting there are chatting, and as often seems to happen at meals like this, memories and stories from the past are shared.
Stories of boyhood escapades and close calls are told. And as these memories are resurfacing, Joseph coughs and says, “Hey, you remember that time when you sold me into slavery? That was funny.”
            Judah turns to Dan and says, “I told you he’d bring it up before the night was over. You owe me five sheckles.”
Levi drops his napkin and sighs, “This again? When are you gonna let it go?”
            Joseph loses all pretence of this being just another memory says, “Let it go?! You people sold me into slavery!”
            Simeon is exasperated and says, “We were young! We didn’t know what we were doing. And besides that, Rueben is the oldest. He should have stopped us. Blame him!”
            “Me? I tried to stop you! You did this behind my back. They wanted to kill you, Joseph, and I wouldn’t let them.”
            Naphtali adds, “Look, Joe, I know we shouldn’t have done it. I know it was wrong. But you’ve got to admit, you were so annoying. ‘Hey you guys, I had a dream. You bowed down to me. Hey you guys, look at this coat dad gave me.’”
            “It wasn’t my fault Dad gave me that coat. And I couldn’t help what I dreamed. Those dreams were from God, and you know it!”
            Benjamin speaks up, “You think you had it bad? You used me to get at them, Joseph. I never stole anything.”
            Zebulun says, “It’s not like things didn’t work out for you Joseph, Mr.-I’m-a –bigwig-for-Pharaoh.”
            Joseph is outraged. “I don’t care! You shouldn’t have sold me into slavery!”
            Asher tries to make peace, “We said we’re sorry, Joseph. And we really are. You said you forgave us.”
            “I did. But it still makes me mad. You all were just jealous, because I was Dad’s favorite.”
            This is how family dynamics looks sometimes isn’t it? One child seems to be the star, while the others either denounce that, act out against it, or feed into and perpetuate that dynamic. In reality, the dynamics of this family would give any modern therapist pause. The patterns of favoritism and family struggle have been sent into place since Abraham and Sarah. And while I’m starting us off with a little humor, I realize that the story of Joseph and his brothers was not a funny one. Joseph’s story is an extreme example of parental favoritism and sibling rivalry. What the brothers did to Joseph was horrible. No one deserves to be sold into slavery. No one deserves to be treated like this by anyone, much less at the hands of brothers.
            These last 14 chapters of Genesis are known as the Joseph Cycle.  These are the final stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs of our faith. Last week in the narrative, we read about God’s extravagant promise to Abram. His descendents would be more numerous than the stars. Joseph, Reuben, Simeon, and the rest are the second generation of those descendents and God’s promise.
            A quick review of what has happened in the stories leading up to this one: Abraham and Sarah finally had the son they had been waiting for, the son they had been promised. Isaac, the son of laughter, was born. Immediately after the passage we read last week, Sarah took matters into her own hands and urged Abraham to have a child with Sarah’s handmaiden, Hagar. According to the customs of that time, Hagar would have been considered a surrogate for Sarah and Abraham. Ishmael was the son born of that union. He was soon to be the older brother to Isaac. He incurred Sarah’s anger by teasing Isaac, and she insisted that Abraham send him and his mother away. Abraham sent them out into the wilderness, and Hagar was convinced they would both die in that wasteland. But God rescued them and promised that Ishmael would father his own nation. 
            Abraham and Isaac seemed to have a solid father and son relationship, except for that brief moment when Abraham was told by God to build an altar and sacrifice Isaac on it.  Abraham was ready to do it, but an angel of the Lord stepped in at the last minute and stopped him, even as he raised the knife to his own child. Isaac grew up and met Rebekah.  They married, and she, like her mother-in-law before her, struggled with infertility.  She and Isaac finally had twin boys; Esau and Jacob.  Esau the older brother was exploited and tricked by Jacob, the younger brother.  Esau also went on to father a nation, but for a long time he was determined to kill his little brother; a desire that was shared by his nephews for their younger brother.
            Jacob ran from Esau, but met God in a dream and Rachel by a well.  Jacob was promised by Rachel’s father, Laban, that he would be able to marry Rachel, but Jacob the trickster was tricked. He thought he was marrying Rachel. He married her older sister, Leah, instead. Jacob was a man of many wives. He married Rachel, but he also fathered sons with Zilhah and Bilpah.  With Leah he had Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulon, and eventually Dinah.  With Zilhah he had Gad and Asher.  With Bilpah he fathered, Naphtali and Dan.  And with Rachel, his beloved, he fathered Joseph and Benjamin. 
            A lot of sibling rivalry; a lot of strange and strained family dynamics. Abraham and Sarah played favorites with Isaac over Ishmael.  Isaac played favorites as well, loving Esau more than Jacob. Rebekah favored Jacob.  Finally, Jacob played favorites with Joseph.  That’s our jumping off point today. 
            Jacob and his entire clan have settled in Canaan. The first detail we read about Joseph is that he’s 17 and has been with his brothers, helping them tend the flocks. For some reason, he brings a bad report about them back to Jacob. The text doesn’t mince any words about Israel’s love for Joseph.
“Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age.” 
Because of Israel’s love for Joseph, he gave him a special coat.  While the traditional interpretation has been “a coat of many colors,” the closer translation is what we read in our text, “a long robe with sleeves.” Why would this long coat with sleeves have been such an extraordinary gift to receive? Why would it have signaled Israel’s favoritism for Joseph, other than he took the time to make only one son a coat? Clothing not only covered and protected one’s person; it signified someone’s position in society. A common laborer wore the clothing of a common laborer. A shepherd wore the clothing of a shepherd. Someone who had a long coat with sleeves probably wasn’t destined for the fields for very long. Besides the impracticality of that kind of garment for shepherding flocks or harvesting crops, it would have been a coat worn by someone with status. Joseph was 17, but his father made it clear with the gift of this coat that Joseph ranked higher, not only in Israel’s affections, but in status and position over his brothers. That favoritism did not go unnoticed, which brings us back to where we started.
The family dynamics that resulted in Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery began long before this brutal action. While we may scoff at the idea of doing something so utterly unconscionable to our siblings, think about how we humans treat other humans. When I was a kid, I was taught that I was a part of my immediate family, but even more I was a member of God’s family. Jill and Brad were not my only siblings, all of God’s children were. How do we treat our brothers and sisters? How do we harm them and they us? How do we respond to the dreamers in our midst?
In the courtyard outside of the Lorraine Motel, now the Civil Rights Museum, in Memphis, Tennessee is a plaque. The Lorraine Motel was where Martin Luther King, Jr. was staying when he went to Memphis to speak in support of the striking Black garbage workers and their demands for equal pay and just treatment. It was on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was assassinated, seemingly putting an end to his great dream for a truly equal and equitable America.
The words on this large stone plaque are a quote from Ralph David Abernathy, President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was quoting these verses in Genesis during his sermon and eulogy at the funeral service for Dr. King.
“They said to one another, behold, here cometh the dreamer … let us slay him … and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”
This human family we live in, well our family dynamics are flawed at best. Yet the stories of Genesis, the stories of these families, our families, make up the larger story of God’s promise – God’s promise to them and to us. God’s promise was not impeded or thwarted by the terrible ways our forefathers and foremothers treated one another. It was not stopped by favoritism or anger or jealousy or revenge. It was not held hostage to their flawed ways of being family. God’s promise is not held hostage by our flawed ways either. We humans are capable of wondrous things, and we are capable of great evil. But God’s extravagant and gracious and loving promise to us continues and grows and finds fulfillment in spite of ourselves. That is the great and glorious good news. God works through us, through our family dynamics, to bring about good and love for us, for all of us, for all of God’s family.
Children of God, let us give thanks and say, “Alleluia!”


Sunday, September 18, 2016


Genesis 15:1-6
September 18, 2016

            The Grand Canyon has recently been designated as a Dark Sky site. Like a place that has an historical or a wilderness designation, a Dark Sky certification means that this is a place where the problem of light pollution has been addressed; where artificial lights have been changed and refitted so that the night sky, the dark sky, can be seen in all of its glory. Light pollution is so ubiquitous that two-thirds of the world’s population has never seen the Milky Way, the galaxy in which we live. Light pollution not only affects our vision of the night sky, it causes havoc with the instincts of nocturnal animals and other creatures. Light pollution is wasted energy. As the journalist, who reported on the Grand Canyon’s Dark Sky designation, said, light pollution is one of the easiest fixes. You change the lighting and you fix the problems associated with it. It took two years to find all of the lights installed in and around the Grand Canyon. It will take a few years more before all of the lighting is updated to the right kinds of lights that prevent light pollution. But as a Dark Sky site, a clear night at the Grand Canyon means that stars, planets and the glow of the Milky Way are visible. A Dark Sky gives us back the night sky.
            Abram would have not understood our contemporary problem of light pollution. Everywhere he went was a Dark Sky site. So imagine, if you can, the multitude of stars that were visible to Abram and the glow of the Milky Way that shone down on him when God instructed him to look up at the stars. A lot has happened since the beginning of Chapter 12 when God first spoke to Abram and told him to go.
            “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 you 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.”
            God said go. Abram went. He went with his wife, Sarai, and his nephew, Lot, and their households. The journey to this land God promised was not an easy one. They ran into trouble in Egypt, when Abram told Sarai to tell the Pharaoh that she was his sister, not his wife. He and Lot parted company. God promised Abram again that he and Serai will have a child; they will be the patriarch and matriarch of a great nation. Lot got stuck in a conflict between different kings, and Abram rescued him. Years passed. Many years passed. But God’s promise of a child had yet to be fulfilled. Abram and Sarai grew older and older and older. It was inconceivable that Sarai could ever conceive.
            We come to our moment in their story and the Lord spoke to Abram again. The Lord came to Abram in a vision, a dream, and spoke the words that will be spoken to God’s children again and again. “Do not be afraid.”
            “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”
            As I said, years had passed, yet God’s promise of children and nations and blessings must have seemed more distant and more unlikely to Abram than ever. I have no problem believing that Abram was wrestling with doubt. He voiced that struggle to God.
            O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.”
            One commentator wrote that God’s reply to Abram was as good as saying, “You better change your will.” God reiterated God’s promises of blessings and descendents. Not only did God speak these promises to Abram once again, God employed an object lesson.
            “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” “So shall your descendents be.”
            This was a Dark Sky. Abram would never have been able to count all those stars. It would have taken more than lifetime for him to count the stars that shone above him. That was God’s point. You can’t count the number of stars in the heaven; you won’t be able to count the descendents I will give you. It will be more than you can count, more than you can fathom, more than you can imagine. God’s promise to Abram exceeded the boundaries of Abram’s imagination.
            The final verse of our passage is one that has been quoted and quoted again. “And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
            God reckoned Abram’s belief to him as righteousness. God credited Abram with righteousness. Abram believed. God gave him credit for it. It seems simple enough. If we only believe and trust in God’s promises, as Abram did, then we will have righteousness credited to our cosmic account.
            However as I understand it, the Hebrew in this sentence is ambiguous. It could also read that Abram reckoned it to God as righteousness. Our first response to that might be indignation; who is Abram to reckon God with righteousness?! Yet, isn’t that what we do when we take the leap of faith and believe God – when we trust and hold fast to the assurance that God keeps God’s promises. We credit God with righteousness. I believe in God’s promises, even though those promises seem a long time in coming, because I trust that God is righteous. God’s promises are trustworthy. I trust God because God is righteous.  Still, Abram is not perfect in his trust. It will be over a decade before Isaac is actually born. In the next chapter, Sarai gives Hagar to Abram and Ishmael is born to be Abram’s heir. Abram and Sarai give into the temptation to take matters into their own hands. Just as we do. I think the major obstacle we have in trusting God’s promises, in trusting that God is righteous, is that these promises seem situated far off in the unknown and murky future, and they seem in direct conflict with the reality of today.
            Today, it can be hard to trust in God’s promises. Today, it can be tough to credit God with righteousness. Everywhere we turn there is suffering and hatred, warfare and pain, destruction and death. God is righteous, but the present world is not. Yet it is this present that we live in. It is this present that drives us. It is much more expedient to take matters into our own hands, and make our own future. But it seems to me that the opposite of trust is not disbelief, it is control. To trust God does not mean that we just sit around and wait for something divine to happen. Trusting God is not passive. But when I try to control everyone and everything around me; when I try to control and manipulate and dictate how I think my life should be, God very kindly and very firmly lets me fall on my … face.
            Be honest, if you were to look up in the night sky would you believe that the descendents of this congregation will ever be as numerous as the stars? Will we be a church filled with children and young people and new generations once again? Or will we continue childless?
            Maybe we will. Maybe we won’t. I’m not convinced that God’s promises are tailor made to suit an individual congregation, or an individual for that matter. But I do believe that God’s promises are for all of us – all of God’s children. I do believe that God’s promises are bigger and more expansive than anything we can imagine. I do believe that God refuses to give up on us or abandon us or leave us to our own deficient devices. I do believe in the goodness and trustworthiness of God’s promises, even as I struggle with my own doubt. I believe in God’s promises for the future because I remember the ways God has kept His promises in the past. I struggle with doubt, and I wrestle with my faith, and I question God. But when all is said and done, I move forward step by step believing, hoping and trusting that God holds our present and our future in His hands; his righteous, gracious and loving hands. Look into the night sky and know that God’s promises outnumber the stars. May we all reckon God with righteousness and trust in God’s promises.
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!”


Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Story of Us

Genesis 2:4b-7, 15-17, 3:1-8
September 11, 2016

Well, I came upon a child of God
He was walking along the road
And I asked him, Tell me where are you going?
This he told me
Said, I'm going down to Yasgur's Farm,
Gonna join in a rock and roll band.
Got to get back to the land and set my soul free.
We are stardust, we are golden,
We are billion year old carbon,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.
                                                            Joni Mitchell

            “And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.” These lyrics are from the song Woodstock. Joni Mitchell wrote them, but the performance of them that I know and love best is by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. I’ve listened to this song countless times over the years, but until I started working on this sermon, I’d never thought too much about the line, “And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.” I’m assuming, and I believe my assumption is correct, that this is a reference not just to Yasgur’s farm or to the Woodstock concert itself, but to the Garden of Eden.
            It’s a nice idea, isn’t it; getting back to the garden, getting back to a time and place when human beings and creation, human beings and God lived in perfect harmony.  Wars were not yet fought. Poverty was not even a concept, much less a reality. There were no isms to overcome; racism, sexism, ageism, etc. Justice was not necessary because there was nothing to cause injustice. If only that snake would have kept his mouth shut. I almost entitled this sermon, “This Is Why I Hate Snakes.” But the snake is only one part of this story.
            That leads to the question I have been asking myself all week; what is this story really all about? I know that theologically speaking, it is about God’s creation and humanity’s fall. It is about original sin, and Adam and Eve’s disobedience. It is the story that has justified centuries of violence toward women because Eve took the first bite of the forbidden fruit. It is the history of humanity’s first bad decision. It is the reason there is a garden to which we are constantly trying to return. It is the story of how Adam and Eve lived in paradise, until the tricky serpent came along, and God’s original children listened to the snake instead of God.
            But was the garden perfect? What do we mean when call something “perfect”? Was it without flaw? Was it a place where no mistakes could be made? If that’s true, then it wasn’t perfect because mistakes were made; hence, why we’re trying to get back to it. If God created it to be perfect, then the snake would not have had the ability to whisper tantalizing suggestions in Eve’s ear. If it were perfect, then Eve would not have considered disobeying and taking the fruit. If it were perfect, Adam would not have stood beside her through all of this and done nothing.
            Maybe the Garden of Eden was not perfect. Maybe God did not create us to be perfect; at least not perfect in the way we understand perfection. God created Adam to be in relationship with God. As one of my friends pointed out in Bible study, God spoke creation into existence. If you read the first account of creation that is what God did. God spoke it into existence. But when it came to Adam, God got his hands dirty. God took the ground and formed Adam. The name Adam is a Hebrew play on words from the word for ground, which is adamah. God formed Adam from the ground, and you would think that if God’s hands formed humanity, then humanity should indeed be perfect, right? Yet Adam and Eve were not perfect. Perfect people do not disobey. They did.
            I loved playing with my dollhouse when I was a kid. I could arrange the furniture anyway I wanted to. I could put the doll family who lived there in any room, have them do anything I chose, say anything I wanted them to say. They were inanimate objects, and they did what I commanded. I guess if God had wanted to create perfection, we would have been created like those dolls. God could move us around where God chose. God could make us do and say what God wanted. But that is not how Adam and Eve were created. That is not how we were created.
            God created Adam to be in relationship with God and with the rest of God’s creation. God created Eve to be in relationship with Adam and with God and with the rest of God’s creation. God created us for relationship. God created us with free will. We were given brains to think and bodies to move and use. We were given the freedom to say, “No.”
            I’ve come to believe, as heretical as it may sound, that the Garden of Eden was not a perfect place – at least not in the way that I have always defined perfection. I believe it was a place of abundance. I believe it was a place where the chaos was kept at bay. Remember, when God spoke the world into being, God pushed back the chaos. But the chaos was not destroyed or eliminated. The Garden of Eden was a place of abundance and safety, but not perfection. The couple and the creatures that inhabited it were also not perfect. Those two free-thinking, imperfect people did what all free-thinking, imperfect people do. They messed up. They acted wrongly. They broke relationship with God. They fell, and they were sent out into the world where the chaos threatened to come rushing in – and often it did. Often it does.
            It seems to me that the story of Adam and Eve is the story of us. It is the story of the human condition. It is the story of broken relationship and the sadness and consequences that follow. It is the story of us. We are Adam and Eve. We continue to break relationship. We continue to make bad choices. We continue to suffer the consequences of our brokenness. It is the story of us.
            How fitting it is, then, that this story of us is chosen for this particular day. Fifteen years ago, on a beautiful September morning, while I held my two-month-old in my arms and watched my two-year-old play on the floor, I and the rest of the country, the rest of the world, also watched in horror as planes flew into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. We heard of another plane bound for Washington D.C. that crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. We watched on our televisions as chaos swept back in. We witnessed the moment when families were ripped apart, when parents would no longer come home to their children and children would not be returned to their parents. Our terrible brokenness was on full display. Our human condition had never seemed lower and more wretched. Yet we also saw those who worked to keep the chaos at bay; those who rescued and helped, those who sacrificed their own lives to go in when others were desperately trying to get out. It was a horrific and appalling and heartbreaking chapter in the story of us.
            Fifteen years later, we are still broken. The chaos still threatens to overwhelm us. This is the most rancorous election seasons I have ever been privy to, and I know that I get caught up in and contribute to that rancor. I wonder sometimes, especially when I feel to the depths of my being the hatred and anger that seems all around me, if the story of us will ever have a happy ending; if there will ever be a chapter devoted to peace and compassion, to justice and righteousness. If the writing of this story is left up to us, then I doubt that chapter will ever be written. But the good news is that it is most assuredly not left up to us. Because back when the story of us began, back when we were still in the Garden, back before we listened to that sneaky snake, God created us to be in relationship with one another and with God. We broke the relationship. We broke it and we have suffered and struggled ever since. But God didn’t break the relationship. God did not end it there. God kept trying to help us write the story. We speak of us trying to get back to the Garden, but in reality I believe it is God who is trying to lead us back there; back to relationship, back to abundance of life and love.
            God is still with us, still writing the story of us. In spite of the terrible things we do to one another, God is still pushing back the chaos and calling us to do the same by showing the same love, compassion and mercy to others that God shows us. It seems to me that the story of us is not yet finished, because the story of us is the story of God. We are broken, but God is still creating, still shaping us with his merciful hands; still loving us with his unconditional love. Thanks. Be. To. God. 
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!”