Monday, October 31, 2016

God Comes Through

          Visitors attended our church today. They were the parents of a guest musician playing in worship. They were nice folks; members of another denomination and I knew that they were not accustomed to our style of worship or seeing a woman minister. After worship the gentleman pulled me to the side and told me that I gave a fine "presentation." I smiled, nodded and thanked him, but inside I was seething. You might wonder why the man's use of this word was a problem for me. It isn't like he swore at me or insulted my sermon. He gave me a compliment, and I know he meant it sincerely. But here's the thing; I have given presentations. I have lectured in classrooms. I have offered informal talks, and I have led groups in discussions. But when I'm in the pulpit, I am a preacher. I preach. I did not give a presentation today, I preached. I proclaimed the gospel to the best of my ability. Sometimes my sermons are spot on and sometimes they are not, but good or bad they are not presentations, they are sermons. When I am in the pulpit, I preach.

          While the man's words were not meant unkindly, they were still frustrating because behind those words is the assumption that the gospel in the hands of a woman is a defilement. There is still the belief that someone of my gender interpreting scripture is an offense to God. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result, than I must be certifiable, because I feel as though I have been beating my head against this same wall of disapproval and closed-mindedness for 21 years. Quite frankly, I'm exhausted. Yet maybe when it comes to changing people's minds and hearts you need to be driven by a persistence that borders on the insane. The prophets we read about in scripture, including Elijah who is one of the subjects of the following sermon, must have been more than a little odd. After all they were the bearers of the Word of the Lord, and the Word of the Lord tends to upend and overturn all human expectations of justice and righteousness. They were flies in the faces of those who refused justice and mercy to others, and they were thorns in the sides of those who would not turn back to the ways of God. I'm not a prophet, but I am a preacher. And I'm just going to keep preaching, persistently pushing against that wall of prejudice until it cracks. Now for the sermon...

I Kings 17:1-24
October 30, 2016

            The word “cliffhanger” is attributed to a novel, “A Pair of Blue Eyes,” by Thomas Hardy. In the novel, one of Hardy’s characters, Thomas Knight, is left literally hanging by a cliff, hoping for rescue. Knight is not left on that cliff indefinitely. From what I understand, he was rescued eventually. But Hardy, like other authors of the time, released their novels chapter by chapter as serials in magazines. Readers of the London magazine that “A Pair of Blue Eyes” was published in must have read up to this moment in the story, this moment when Knight was hanging on to a cliff for dear life, and then had to wait for the next installment to find out what happened next.
            Whether Hardy was the first to employ such a dramatic plot technique, a technique designed to increase suspense concerning the possible outcome of a situation, I do not know. But I do know that cliffhangers are used on a regular basis in television shows. Usually they happen at the end of a season. Remember the television show, “Dallas?” Who shot J.R.? That was a cliffhanger of epic proportions. I was in high school when that television show was popular, and that cliffhanger kept us going all summer long; a summer that included a writer’s strike. People wore t-shirts proclaiming the question, “Who Shot J.R.?” It was not until the fourth episode of the next season that we finally found out who the shooter was. When the episode revealing the identity of the shooter was to premier, I watched it with friends and a whole lot of other people at Mr. Gatty’s – that was a local pizza parlor in Nashville. I’ll never forget the crowd’s audible response of shock and awe when we finally found out who shot J.R.  By the way, it was Kristen, his sister-in-law and girlfriend, who was supposedly carrying his child which is why J.R. did not press charges against her. I digress.
            The point is that cliffhangers keep us in suspense. They keep us waiting eagerly for the next episode, or next chapter, or the next movie. What will happen next? How will this dilemma resolve itself? Who shot J.R.?
            If Hollywood were to get hold this seventeenth chapter in I Kings, some wily scriptwriter or producer might be tempted to turn this into a series of cliffhangers. There are three significant events in this chapter that concern the prophet Elijah, King Ahab, and a widow and her son.
            At the end of chapter 16, we read that King Ahab married Jezebel and together they worshipped Baal. According to commentators, historical resources record that Ahab was one of the most successful kings as far as wealth and power were concerned. However, scripture records that he was one of the most wicked kings to reign over Israel.
            At the beginning of our chapter, Elijah the Tishbite, a prophet of God, confronted King Ahab for his apostasy, his worship of a false god. Elijah said to Ahab,
            “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.”
            You don’t generally speak words like to this to a king and then get invited to dinner. I imagine that Elijah was not only unwelcome in Ahab’s presence, but he was most likely scared for his life. After he spoke the word of the Lord to Ahab, God spoke to him again. God told Elijah to go east, and hide himself by the Wadi Cherith. God promised Elijah that he would be able to drink from the wadi and that ravens would bring him food.
            Elijah obeyed. He hid at the wadi, and he drank from the wadi. Ravens brought him food: bread in the morning and meat in the evening. But the land was in a drought, so the wadi dried up. Cliffhanger number 1; what will happen next?
            God spoke to Elijah again, telling him to go to a widow in Zarephath. God has commanded the widow to feed Elijah. Elijah obeyed. He journeyed to Zarephath, and he found this widow gathering sticks. He told her to bring him some water. As she was bringing him the water, he also told her to give him the morsel of bread in her hand. God told Elijah that the widow would feed him, but it doesn’t seem that the widow has gotten the same message.
            She told Elijah that she had no bread baked. She only had a handful of meal in a jar at home, and just a small bit of oil in a jug. She told Elijah that she was going home to prepare this last bit of food for her and her son; a last meal as they prepared to die.
            Elijah said to the widow,
            “Do not be afraid: go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: ‘The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day the Lord sends rain on the earth.’”
            Just as Elijah obeyed God’s word, so did the woman obey the word of God she received through the prophet. As God came through for Elijah with the water from the wadi and the ravens, so did God come through for the widow and her son. The jar of meal did not empty. The jug of oil did not run dry. All seemed well. In literary terms this could have been the happy ending. But here is the second cliffhanger. The widow’s son died.
            Surely the widow was angry. She was heartbroken. She and her son were living in the shadow of death when they faced starvation. But with the coming of God’s prophet, that shadow was lifted. Yet here she was, living in that shadow again. Not only would the widow have been keening for her child, her only child, she would have been terrified at her future prospects. Without a husband, without a son, she had no protection. There was no one who would claim her or care for her. As Elijah confronted Ahab, she confronted Elijah. What have you got against me, you man of God? Why did you come to me? So any sin I had would be brought up? So my son would die?
            Elijah took her son and went upstairs to his own room. He put the widow’s son on the bed and he cried out to God.
            “O Lord, my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?”
            Elijah stretched his own body across the boy’s lifeless one three times. He prayed for God to let the boy live again. God heard Elijah and God answered Elijah’s pleas. The boy lived again. Elijah gave him back to his mother.
            God came through. If this were a movie, this would be the happy ending. All the cliffhangers would have been resolved. All the characters were in better circumstances than when they started. However, while cliffhangers are great in television shows and books and movies, real life doesn’t work that way. The truth is that Elijah and this widow and her child were not characters in someone else’s story. They were people trying to be faithful. They were people living difficult lives in difficult circumstances. In other words, they were like us. They suffered and they struggled just as we do. We wonder and worry about the unknown; what will come next; how we will get through whatever challenge we are facing. The widow must have experienced this anxiety, this worry. Perhaps Elijah did as well. One scholar wrote that Elijah lived on the edge of trust. He trusted God even when it seemed that God’s promised help ran as dry as the wadi he drank from. Yet Elijah trusted God more than he worried. He trusted and God came through. The widow also trusted. She trusted the word of God she received from Elijah, and God came through. Even in her grief and anger over her son’s death, her turning to Elijah was a sign of her trust. She called him a man of God. Although she was accusing him, there is still a sense that she trusted that Elijah was a man of God indeed. Her trust in Elijah was also trust in God. God came through.
            I realize that oversimplifying these stories is problematic. The drought was attributed to God. The widow’s potential starvation was a result of that drought. Did God cause suffering so God could come through? Does God cause suffering? This widow got her son back; what about those parents who do not? What about the thousands of people in our world who will die from hunger by the time our worship is finished? Does that mean that God did not come through for them?
            These questions are bigger than I can answer – in this sermon and maybe ever. Yet I am not one who believes that God causes suffering. I am one who believes that God comes through. However, reading this chapter again makes me wonder if I really do believe that God will come through. It makes me question how much I trust. I also realized that I approach my daily life from the standpoint of scarcity. Will there be enough? Enough money? Enough food? Enough resources? Enough time?
            Perhaps trusting God is also about trusting in God’s abundance. God’s love for God’s creation is not just abundant but overflowing. God’s grace and mercy is not just abundant, but extravagant. God’s willingness to be in relationship with us is not just abundant, but overwhelming to the point of being one of us. God approaches us with abundance. Yet too often, I approach God with a scarcity of trust and love and hope and faith. Still God comes through – in small ways and in large. God comes through abundantly, and perhaps as we trust more and more in God coming through, we will do more to come through for others – abundantly.
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

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.