What if this was our starting place?

A Sermon from the time the Ancient Israelites returned to the Holy Mountain where Moses had first heard God. They weren’t disappointed, God was waiting with Ten Words that would shape them for generations…

 “I know there is strength in the differences between us. I know there is comfort, where we overlap.” ~Ani DiFranco

Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites:

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.

Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenantyou shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.

Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom & a holy nation.

These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.”

So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. (Exodus 19:3-7)

So we’re going to stop here for a moment…

Before we get to the list of what we’ve long called God’s Ten Commandments it’s so important for us to hear where God begins, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself…” God doesn’t say I’ve brought you to my mountain, or I’ve brought you out to wander the wilderness, or here we are, the end of the road, catch you later. God says, “I have drawn you to myself – to the center of my being… I called you and I heard you and I’ve rescued you, I’ve born you and carried you on my wings to freedom” And where is the place of freedom? God says, “I have brought you to myself.” Freedom is being gathered to the very center of God’s being.

 

What if this was our starting place every time we turned to the biblical text? What if this was our starting place at the beginning of each day? What if this was our starting place in every encounter with those we love and those we don’t? What if this was our starting place with every neighbor and stranger and we meet? What if we remembered that in all things, no matter who or where we are, where we’ve been or where we’re going, our story begins at the center of God?

God’s calling, rescuing, loving, drawing us to God’s self is the starting point… it began with Noah standing in the mud and then Abraham and Sarah who laughed and journeyed and believed and with Joseph who trusted God even though his life kept falling apart and now here we are again, and God says this, this is what love looks like.

Then God spoke all these words:

I am the Lord your God,

who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;

you shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses God’s name.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.

For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Honor your father and your mother,

so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

 God says, “If you obey my voice and keep my covenant, (that is, if you follow these words, make these the spiritual and communal practices of your life), you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine (all of creation, including you, already belongs to me), but YOU shall be for me a priestly kingdom & a holy nation.” (Exodus 20:1-17)

It’s as if God says, listen up folks… this is what it looks like to be a covenant people, this is what real freedom and real love looks like. This is not an edict, it’s a relationship – and if a relationship is to be grounded in freedom and life-giving love it means giving up the desperate, taking, hiding, stealing and killing that kept you alive in Egypt. It looks like believing that there is enough, enough food and water and time and love to share. If you can believe this, if you can really take this in, then you will truly come to know me… if you can live like free people you will know what it is to live a precious and holy life…

And that’s been our life’s work for generations, hasn’t it? Believing there’s enough… enough God, enough to eat and drink, enough time and enough space, enough love – so much so that we could just start giving it away?

These Ten Words that we’ve often translated as commandments are not meant to be arbitrary prohibitions – they’re meant to be words that ground us, and remind us that God’s story is a radically different story than the world’s story… The world told the Ancient Israelites that they were sub-human, unworthy of just pay or safe homes; the world treated them like property to be controlled, discarded and abused… But God said, “You are worthy of my love and protection, you are called and blessed and set apart to be a people who will demonstrate a WHOLE NEW WAY OF LIFE.

This new way of life takes practice… like learning an instrument or an art form or new skill or craft… to be transformed from a student plunking keys to pianist you start at the beginning and work the steps over and over again… like putting in the time on the potters wheel… hours and hours of lumps and messes and crappy pots until you craft something beautiful. What if we read these Ten Words like the 12 step program…another kind of practice. Instead of a checklist it’s a way of life and when you stumble and fall you go back and work the steps, practicing and practicing again and again until they are inscribed on you… until they transform you.

These Ten Words are meant to craft a people, to shape their identity, to resurrect their hope and purpose and worth. For centuries these Words will shape the identity of the Israelite people as they continue their journey, and they will struggle and they will make progress and they will teach and learn these Words again and again, they will forget them and God will remind them – sometimes not so politely. Sometimes they will really, really suck at living these words (just wait a few weeks the Narrative Lectionary is bringing back the drama) and then there will be times they surprise themselves and God with their capacity to love God and their NEIGHBORS.

That word neighbor comes up a lot in these Ten Words. Often times when we read this story we hear the word neighbor and we think, oh, the person sitting next to me, that’s my neighbor, or the person living in the next tent over… or just down the block in our case. But what if when God talked of the Ancient Israelites’ neighbors God wasn’t talking about other Israelites? What if God was talking about the strangers they would encounter on their journey? What if God was speaking of the neighboring communities, the people already living in the promise land?

What if the most radical part of these Ten Words is that they weren’t about protecting the Ancient Israelites (who God has already rescued and drawn to God’s self) but their neighbors?

What if the most radical part of these Ten Words is that they aren’t for our protection, but our neighbors?

Wouldn’t that be a kicker, if it turned out that this isn’t even about us?

In the history of Christian Doctrine we’ve absorbed these Ten Words as Ten Great Commandments and they run deep in our cultural story like no other people…  in the United States we have held tightly to these Ten Words, insisting they be predominately displayed and we’ve modeled our civic laws and social morality on what we think they mean. These words, once meant to shape the identity of a minority people, to set them apart as a radical community to demonstrate God’s abundance and neighborly love have been used in our time to stand in judgment of those who are different, to reject those who society deems failures. To hold accountable those we believe have fallen short. Have we only used these Words to protect ourselves? What would it look like if they protected our neighbors instead? It’s a radical notion isn’t it? That God’s covenant is bigger than we can imagine?

Today is World Communion Sunday – a day we celebrate the global village of believers – a day we recognize that God’s table is bigger and wider than our table – that God’s love is greater than what we can imagine, even on our very best most loving day… Can we imagine God calling us to extend that love beyond the borders of our comfortable communities, even beyond the borders of our own tradition?

Can we celebrate and deepen our particular identities as well as our place in the global community without degrading or diminishing one another?

If we can hear them anew, God’s Ten Words teach us how. Celebrating and deepening our identities in God is what the first half of the Ten Words is about… Remembering and belonging to God… Loving God above all else… how might a love like that shape us as a people?

And the second half is about how that love will enliven our relationships with everyone else… how to feed and clothe and care for, how to respect and engage and protect the other.

God’s table is big and wide… God’s story is big and wide… and we gather at our communion table to celebrate our story… the story of a Jewish man named Jesus whose whole life was the best demonstration of these Ten Words the world had seen… a man who sat at some of the worst tables, with believers and unbelievers, with sinners and saints, with ordinary folk and messy folk and righteous folk and folks who didn’t know one from the other… and again and again he said there was room for one more. We remember and we celebrate a man who gave his life for love, a man who in the most radical and mysterious way is also God.

And so on this day, we will celebrate at the table where there is always room for one more. One more voice, one more story, one more song and we will eat these Ten Words like bread until they nourish our soul, until we believe every word of them, until they truly set us free. Amen.

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Returning to what is sacred…

This week the Narrative Lectionary hones in on the story of God’s Ten Words (or Ten Commandments) for the newly forming Israelite people. The story takes us back to the foot of a mountain in search of God. Back to a mountain where Moses has stood before. Back to a mountain Moses has climbed many times before. Back to a place Moses has met God before. Back to the holy ground where God first called him by name, “Moses, Moses.”

The biblical writers use two names for this mountain, some call it Horeb while others call it Sinai and of course, we readers, scholars and storytellers don’t all agree about the whereabouts of this mountain or whether there are one or two, or whether it is a geographical location or a mystical one. But what I love about this story and about this man Moses is how raw and deeply human he is.

How many times have you returned to a holy place hoping to find God again? 

I have. I have walked the holy halls of old schools decades after I sat in their classrooms and I have sat quietly in the empty sanctuary where I was once sung too and baptized even though I am a stranger to the community who worships there now. I have returned to the sites of hard conversations and promises made, listening for the lingering hope and stirring passion that made them sacred. I have walked the same roads and trails hoping to encounter the holy in the beauty and wonder of creation just as I have before. I have revisited the prayers and poems that have consecrated the brokenness and the beauty my life has born. And I return each sunday for worship in a space made holy by it’s gracious people and sacred by God’s willingness to show up and break open our hearts again and again.

Our Call To Worship this week at Friendship (see below) honors the way in which we return to what we know is sacred… the holy places in our lives – the geographic and the mystical – in order to rekindle, to listen, to learn and to experience God again and again.

holygroundApproaching God On Holy Ground

We have returned with Moses,

to the foot of the mountain

where we’ve seen you before O God.

Once again we will remove our shoes

and stand on this sacred ground.

We are looking for your word,

your promise,

your protection.

Reveal yourself to us again,

like you did on that ancient day

to the one who dared to answer,

“Here I am”.

Here we are, O God,

Curious

Hopeful

Attentive

Afraid

Listening

Ready

Open

Joyful

Surprised

Hungry

for your presence.

(614)

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Wade In the Water

A sermon from the climatic moment of the Exodus story just after the Israelites have leftEgypt. Pharaoh and his hard heart cannot let them go, pursuing them to the edge of the Reed Sea, even after the plagues, the darkness, the pleading and the dying, even after his promise to let them go… and so we find them here, Pharaoh’s army at their back and God’s turbulent waters lapping at their toes…

Exodus 14:10-14, 21-29 (Narrative Lectionary, Year 1)

 For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains,

but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.

~Nelson Mandela

Exodus 14:10-14, 21-29

When I was a teenager, maybe fourteen or fifteen, my small, economically depressed, town in Iowa decided what would really turn things around was a water park. And so they upped the sales tax and built “The Beach (Ottumwa Beach)”… “The Beach” which was, more or less, an enormous parking lot with a baseball style concession stand and two water slides, one that went straight down at a near 90 degree angle to the earth, and another one that looped and turned, going inside the one indoor pool for swim teams and back out again. “The Beach” also had a kiddie area but the thing folks were most excited about was the wave pool… I had no idea what a wave pool was.

 I had spent every summer of my childhood, up to this one, at the public pool just down the street from my house. It was next to my elementary school and across the street from my grandparents’ house. I loved that pool, I loved the cheap snacks and the blue painted walls of the deep end, I loved the diving boards, both the low board and what in my memory was a towering high dive. But most of all, what I loved was the stillness of the water… there was no movement, no surprises, the depth was clear and the only way to get a wave was by making one yourself by bobbing up and down with your whole body until the water began moving at your command. I knew every inch of that pool, I’d learned to float and swim and sink to the bottom, I was never afraid. I was comfortable in that pool…

From the first moment I walk into “The Beach” I am not so comfortable… as an awkward teenage girl one of my favorite things about the public pool was that I could get in… up to my neck… the deep pool here at “The Beach” was reserved for the swim teams and the deepest end of the wave pool was only about four feet… I immediately walked out towards the deepest part and sat down with a friend… the water didn’t seem very wavy to me, and I didn’t know what to expect. We weren’t really beach people in my family… In fact I don’t think my dad’s legs have ever seen the sunshine… we were road trip people, not water people. I had never seen, let alone experienced ocean waves in person.

So we’re sitting there in lukewarm water up to our waists and suddenly a bell rang and some of the kids started yelling with excitement. The wave started small and gentle… just a little bump in the water – I wasn’t impressed. But then it began to swell up over my face so I stood up but I couldn’t find my footing and the wave carried me off towards the back wall – I couldn’t see my friend anymore and I tried to put my feet down but I got a mouthful of water and even though I knew I could touch I started to panic and I went under with the wave, I’d never been in water I couldn’t control.  I had never felt more out of control.

The next thing I know there was another loud ringing and a boy, only a few years older than me, sort of pull-drags me out of the water towards the wading end. He is the lifeguard and saw me go under and hit the alarm, the waves stopped because of me” he said. “I had to jump in and save you” he said. As he leaves me still coughing at the shallowest edge he yells at me, “if I couldn’t swim I should stay out of the pool, that if I came back in I had to wear a life vest…”

I didn’t visit “the Beach” again that summer…

To some degree this was due to embarrassment, sure, but I’ve never trusted water in the same way after that experience. Water is unpredictable – it can be life-giving and nourishing… we swim in water before we are born, our bodies are made up in large part by water, we need it to survive, almost every civilization that has survived and thrived through history has grown up near large, life-giving bodies of water – even the ancient Egyptians in our story this morning, the Nile served as their life-source – water to drink, to raise livestock, to water fields, to move easily between settlements – it was as important of a resource as the slave-trade they had built their economy on.

At the same time, water rises up and destroys us. Flood, tsunami, torrential rains and hurricanes destroy the earth and entire civilizations. Water moves to the music of deep currents, heavy wind and the earths dancing rotation. Just a few weeks ago we heard the epic story of floodwater so deep and destructive it cleared the earth – except for one family.

And this is where we encounter the ancient Israelites… on the bank, stuck between the terror they know – in Pharaoh’s whip, and the unknown terror ahead – in the unpredictable waters of the Reed Sea.

The Israelites are terrified…“Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, “Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” Their hysteria reminds me of the kind of thrashing that happens when you feel as if you’re drowning… it’s a wild and desperate fear.

Can you imagine it?

What must it have felt like, to taste freedom, only to face death? I imagine their choking anger at Moses… and God, and their heaving despair at the thought of capture… of return to slavery. Their fear would have been palpable – their voices rising to be heard over the sound of the chariots at their back and the waves beating the seashore in front of them.

Moses says, do not be afraid. Stand firm… be still… it’s the most counter-intuitive move isn’t it? When you’re drowning? To stop flailing around and put your arms in the water.

There’s a beautiful Jewish Midrash that sometimes accompanies this story when it’s told in synagogue. There is another brave man standing on the seashore. His name is Nachshon and he is from the tribe of Judah… one legend says he is Judah’s great, great, great grandson, another says he is the brother in-law of Aaron. But one midrash telling goes like this, ‘While the people were terrified, immobilized by fear, Moses listens to God and stretches his hand out over the sea, but the sea refuses to part saying, no, I was born on the 3rd day of creation and I will not be moved for these people… why should I rescue them? They too have worshiped idols in Egypt. They have forgotten who they are.

And so Nachshon , from the tribe of Judah, wades into the water, first up to his knees, and then to his waist, and finally the water reaches his nostrils and just as he is about to disappear into the sea, the water rises up on both sides – the breath of God – the ruach of God, blows through pushing the water into moving, swelling, liquid walls and drying the land for the Israelites to walk across.

In this telling someone had to go first… someone has to harness their fears and give into the future and walk out into the troubled water.

Can you think if the liminal moments in your own life in which you’ve had to face your fears? When you’ve had to move forward simply because backwards wasn’t an option? Can you think of a moment you’ve stopped fighting, or worrying, or wrestling and given yourself to the moment?

Have you ever gone still and put yourself in the care of God, completely?

There are as many readings of this story as there are ears to hear it and tongues to tell it. For some, it is a story of liberation – of God seeing, hearing and responding to the desperate cries of the oppressed, it is a story about a God who will not abide the evil of abuse and terror. For others, it is a story about God’s power in the face of human fragility – a reminder that without God we are helpless. And for others it’s another terrifying story of death and destruction with God acting in ways we can’t quite comprehend.

The Israelites will spend the next forty years in the wilderness, sometimes eagerly and sometimes stubbornly finding their way, they will wrestle and push and pull as they come to know, to trust this God claiming to be the God of their ancestors – on each leg of their journey they will offer us a new perspective on who God is and how God works in the world… they will begin to tell stories like Nachshon’s story to fill in the gaps and interpret their own texts.

But for this instance, on the seashore, amidst the terror and the din of the waves, their story stands still for just a moment. They don’t know what their future will hold, they only know the whispered promises of an ancient blessing and they have to act. And so they stop flailing, they put their hands down and grab onto one another, they put one foot in front of the other and they cross the sea on dry land. And nothing was ever the same again.

In our tradition, this is what we say we’re doing at our own baptism… we stand on the seashore in solidarity with the ancient Israelites and we say, “Our story is not our own, these are not our waters to control, we don’t belong to the Pharaohs of the world, we belong to God.” We wade into the waters of our baptism, and we trust God’s life-giving, creation making, chaotic and powerful waters… we trust God to trouble the water in order to transform us and we emerge on the other side – not just alive, not just surviving, but made wholly new. Amen.

 

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I don’t want to go…

A sermon from when God drops into the life of one man and calls forth a movement people, based on the Narrative Lectionary Year 1.

Genesis 12: 1-9

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. ~Lao Tzu

Here are some questions I have about this story:

How did Abram even hear God?

How did he know it was this God? His God? We’ve come to call our God the God of Abraham… the God of the ancient Israelites but that story has yet to be told… How did Abram know God’s voice?

How do we know God’s voice?? How do we discern when it really really God calling us out?

And how would you respond to a call like Abram’s?

I’m going to tell you the truth. This week. This moment. After the sting of the flood story still fresh in my memory, with nothing more to go on than an ambiguous blessing… If I were Abraham I’d say no.

If I were Abraham, I’d say: I don’t want to go. 


Think about all that Abraham has to lose… according to chapter 11 of Genesis his family had lived for hundreds of years in the land of Ur of Chaldean and then moved in his adulthood to Haran where they have just build a life together. He and Sarah and their siblings and his family and her family, they had land and livelihood, livestock and belongings… in other words… some amount of stability.

There are other stories of a call to action, for a people to migrate that make sense to me later in our biblical story… when we come to the exodus story – for sure – those folks are going to want to escape the tyranny of Egypt… and later when the Israelites find themselves under siege they have no choice but to move into exile… but this. This is the beginning of the story – this feels like the defining moment of being asked to be a moving people – a people who God will never stop calling to move, to transform, to change direction and to change the world, this is the moment God makes a promise that will take generations to unfold, a promise that still hasn’t come completely to fruition. It’s a mighty calling requiring so much of them… so much of us…

I think I might say: I don’t want to go.

How many of you know something about Dr. Who?

At the crux of this story that spans generations there is a constant character called the Doctor…  similar to our biblical heroes, this character’s age and how time passes in his story is unclear, but the story goes that he is an ancient character that has moved forward and backwards in time for something like 1000 years… I love a lot of things about this story… it’s a great adventure and I love the way it delves into the concept of time and history, what’s written in stone and how the story can be changed with the simplest encounter… but the piece I love the most is the transformation the Doctor goes through every few hundred years…

This is a TV show that has spanned years and if you were cynical you might write these transitions off as a clever way to change up actors and still keep a storyline intact but these transformations are written into the story as a heartbreaking necessity… there comes a time the world requires that the Doctor take on a new form, a new identity, even a new personality… his memories remain somewhat intact but he goes through a process of transformation… of regeneration… that requires him to let go a great many things go so he can live into the future…

This clip is of the Dr.… right before he is transformed (regenerated), and he knows he must go, and he knows he will still be, but he also knows that things will never be the same… I don’t want to go… 

It’s such a natural response when we face a great change isn’t it?

Can you think of the times you’ve encountered great change?

When you’ve made a move or changed professions?

Become a parent or partner?

When you’ve said yes even though you felt unqualified and unprepared?

When you’ve had to move forward into an unknown future?

What gave you courage to move forward? Why did you say yes?

Sometimes we go because we’re naïve – we go because we hear this story, we hear this promise:

I will make of you a great nation (tribe, family, community)

I will bless you.

I will make your name respected…

You will be a blessing.

We move forward because we believe in the blessing and want to be a blessing… and we trust a story that isn’t yet written and we have no idea that it’s going to be much harder and heartbreaking than we can imagine…

When I got to the end of my three years in seminary I sat with a panel of professors, my advisor and a couple of other Profs. I had invited… and one of them asked me towards the end of our lovely conversation, almost in passing, “was there anything I would have done differently?” and without thinking twice I said, “yeah, I wouldn’t have come.”

Don’t get me wrong… I loved seminary, I loved the way it stretched and challenged me, I loved the community that we created there, I loved the way my faith was deepened and my identity was shaped in what was really such a short but intense time… but I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that if you had sat down my naïve and hopeful twenty-something, small town Iowa self and said:

“The next three years will be harder than you can imagine. You will be confronted by all the ways in which you fall short, you will have to face your own inner demons and make peace with the broken parts of yourself if you have any hope of loving others in a whole and pastoral way… your sense of call, your faith and the gifts that you think you’re bringing to ministry will feel inadequate in the face of the overwhelming loss and the deep needs you will actually encounter… your theological notions, all your ideas about who God is and how God works in the world will be deconstructed and put to the test and then in the midst of practicing ministry you will be invited to reconstruct something from the rubble, you will struggle to find your voice and hold on to it, your family will be stretched and your marriage will end… you will have to confront some things and let go of some things and you will rediscover who you are again and again.”

I told them, “If I had known then what I know now, I would have said, no, I don’t want to go…”

Isn’t that the true story of all the hardest and best parts of our lives? That had we known how hard the work — the job of parenting, of adult care-giving, of loving someone besides ourselves, even truly loving ourselves would be – if we knew up front what it would require us to give and give up we would never agree to take even the first step into the great unknown… and that’s crux of it… later on, after Abraham has already begun the journey, God tells Abraham, it’s going to be a struggle… its going to be a long, long journey, a journey that included bondage and exile, wilderness and famine… “days will come that I couldn’t feel farther away.”

I don’t know about you but there are days in which God truly does feel far away. We continue to fight with one another, in our churches and in the world… we’re still, thousands of years after this story is told and recorded, we are still arguing over who this blessing… this blessing we are reading and preaching and praying about this morning, belongs to. And it’s not just this blessing we fight over, the religious community is as polarized as the politics in this country. I read article after article about how the church is dying, how we don’t know how or simply don’t want to be relevant, how folks are continuously wounded and rejected… it’s a terrible story and I’m so tired of this story… of this life-sucking narrative… but in many ways it’s an easier story to tell than the great-unknown story staring at us from the future…

After Abraham agrees to follow God’s instructions, after he has already made his way south towards the land of Canaan God take Abraham outside and says,

“Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then God said to Abram, “So shall your descendants be.” And Abraham trusted God; and God recognized Abram’s righteousness.” (Genesis 15:5-6)

There are billions of stars, in our galaxy alone, and the ones we look up and see are light years away – some of them already dead and others just being born… what an amazing ancient analogy for our contemporary eyes… there is more to life, there is more living and dying and more hope and struggle, there is more time and space and creation than we can possibly see… and the only thing to do is stand in wonder… to be amazed.

Recently I was painting at a conference in Atlanta and Brian McLaren was talking to mostly progressive mainline folks (like myself) about some of things that we must let go of if we are going to live into the future God is calling the church… if we are not only to survive but to be a life-giving movement of God’s love in the world… I can’t remember everything he listed that would help get us moving but at one point he said, “we have to give up our cynicism.” And man, I almost dropped my paint stick… give up cynicism?! Dude, I love cynicism … I am at home in my cynicism… I am comfortable in my progressive, self-righteous cynicism… to tell you the truth, I’ve been cynical about Brian McLaren… it was like being doubly convicted!

And yet, Immediately, I knew he was right… If I am going to live a life of faith, if I’m going to put one foot in front of the other and believe God is calling us into a transforming future then I’m going to have to lay down my cynicism and put my wide-eyed wonder on and trust God.

Can we trust God with this infinite human story that doesn’t end with us? Can you? What must you leave behind in order to move on? What will you say in answer to God’s call? Will you stay or will you go?doctor

(564)

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Making promises…

Our biblical story for this week is Genesis 12:1-9. The epic Genesis story of God suddenly drops into the day to day reality of one man’s life. God chooses Abraham, and never really tells us why. God chooses Abraham and “invites” him on a great journey. There are times I’m up for a grand adventure, but in this story, if I were Abraham, I’m not so sure I would go.

Why in the world would I pack up my comfortable life on the word of a God I don’t know and have never met and wander the land for the rest of my life on the promise of a future I can’t possibly conceive of? 

It’s so hard to go, it’s so hard to move forward, to say yes to an unknown future and an unknown God. Would you stay or would you go? We will wrestle with your answers in worship and as our fall season of covenants and promises continues to unfold.

We Tell the Truth About Ourselves                                                                                  (At Friendship this is how we describe our time of Confession.)

Loving God, you have called us as your people,

but we don’t always want to be your pilgrim people,

called to be on the move,

from simple to complicated,

from safety to insecurity,

from comfortable to strange,

from what we know, to what we will never fully understand.

We don’t want to face where we fall short,

We don’t want to name the places,

we’ve dug in our heels and refused to be moved.

We don’t want to know the ways,

we keep the world from becoming safe and just for all of your children.

The journey from the homes we’ve made for ourselves

to a new home in you is not a journey we can make alone,

we need to know you are with us on the winding road, O God.

 

(540)

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From Preservation to Promise

A sermon from the bookends of the flood story, based on the Narrative Lectionary Year 1.  Genesis 6:16-22 & Genesis 9:8-15

It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory. ~W. Edwards Deming

The book of Genesis is our story of beginnings… not simply one beginning but many beginnings… the opening words of Genesis are often read as “in the beginning” but really, the Hebrew says, in a beginning… and then those chapters that unfold offer us not one but two creation stories… two beautiful songs that tell a story of beginnings… they are lush and epic stories about God bringing order over the deep and unknown, about primordial waters, air and planets being shaped into a life-giving biosphere of beauty…

We might read our story today, this story as flood and promise, as another creation story, or a new creation story…

In the Ancient imagination … when God separates light from darkness and pulls back the water, creating a space for earth to flourish one might imagine this creation as a sphere, a fragile Eco-system dependent on interconnectivity – compassionate and communal care-giving… and this is how the story goes for some time, but eventually the earth evolves, or rather devolves, into chaos. Genesis 6:11 tells the story of a world gone terribly wrong, the earth has become corrupt and violent, and so, in deep grief and regret, God tells Noah to build an ark, a vessel that will preserve the seeds of a new life, a new creation, and then the corruption and chaos of human destruction causes creation to collapse on itself – the waters of the deep enter the safe haven of God’s creation, and God does not save it.

God does not save it, but then, after 40 days of rain and 150 days of swelling, after chaotic waters of the deep consumed the earth, Genesis 8:1 says that God remembers Noah and the hope of a new creation that is preserved in the arc… God remembers Noah and sends a mighty wind… A ruach… The same word used to describe God’s breath that first moved the waters in the world’s creation, to dry the waters. Then, in the part of the story we read this morning, God makes a startling promise…

When I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow [I’ve set in the sky] is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.

This ancient flood story is imbedded in a tradition of primeval stories told by and for the people of God as a way to make sense and meaning of the world and how God is at work in the world – the same way Jesus uses parables to make sense of how God is at work and who God is calling us to be . There are over 200 hundred ancient flood stories. They are found across centuries and in every culture and they reflect the fragility of the world, the deep desire for human preservation and the tremendous forces of creation, both natural and human to be both life-giving and life-destroying. Many of the flood stories, some much older even than ours, are stories about warring Gods and selfish Gods, there are stories about pragmatic Gods who flood the world for the sake of population control.

Our story is unique because it’s a monotheistic story… A story with just one God… More than any other story in the bible, the story of Noah and the great flood demonstrate the ancient Hebrews’ wrestling with how to hold the harsh realities of their lives together with the goodness of creation in one God… In our flood story God is complex and even confusing… God calls creation good, God is also angry, grieved, even absent for a time… But then God preserves and remembers and God makes a way for new life to flourish… Even after all the pain and destruction and waiting, in chapter 8 of Genesis God tells us that the people haven’t changed, human beings continue to have the capacity for both good and evil… It’s as if the flood doesn’t accomplish anything… It didn’t change the hearts of human beings but from the ancient Hebrews’ perspective it changed the heart of God.

Instead of reading this story as a crime and punishment, what if it’s an invitation to move, like God does, from preservation, to promise? What if it’s an invitation to enter the story and wrestle with our own ideas about who God is and how God works in the world? This is the first of many covenants that God makes with God’s people… A covenant is two sided agreement, it’s a living breathing promise that requires a response, a relationship… A decision to move towards God.

Consider how often we live into preservation mode… How often we shore up all that we have in order to keep the flood waters at bay… Whether it’s because we’ve never had enough or have lived so long in excess that we have become greedy, suspicious, even violent in order to hold tightly to what we believe will save us only to find ourselves drowning in regret… How often do we let our fears corrupt our ability to be gracious, or brave or to give away love without treating it like a transaction? God looked at Noah and said “you, you’re the only faithful one – I will hide you away and preserve your life… How often do we hide away the most precious thing we have to give, to the detriment of all those around us?

The world, not unlike the world of our ancient story, can be hard and harsh… Human beings have shown, even in the last few weeks, such capacity for evil… But it is not only in far away places where there are be-headings and bombing in which our striving for self-preservation has won out over our ability to see one another as human… It happens in our own hearts as well. I knew a woman once who was in love with a man who couldn’t believe her, she shared her whole self with him, promised she loved him and did her very best to demonstrate that love. But every day he would poke holes in her promise, he would question every story, sure there was more that she wasn’t saying, he would not accept her love without suspicion and did not want to share her with anyone else. Eventually the holes he poked corrupted her love and she ended the relationship, his desire for self- preservation, to protect himself, won out over his desire for love.

The covenant God offers is a risky proposition, it requires the willingness to loosen our grip on self-preservation and truly believe that we are loved by God along with all of creation… It requires trust to relinquish our powers of destruction and begin the hard work of reconciliation, it requires courage to stand in the mud alongside those who are suffering and get our hands dirty insisting we see the rainbow and are holding ourselves, and God, to it’s promise.

Amen.

(465)

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Standing In the Mud

At Friendship Presbyterian Church where I am the pastor we are starting our second year on the Narrative Lectionary offered by the good people at workingpreacher.

flood waters

com. Eachweek I’m hoping to post notes, a bit of liturgy and, after it’s preached, my sermon (if it’s of the manuscript variety). This Sunday we kick off the fall season by going back to the beginning, to the genesis of our story…

We will hear two portions of the epic and ancient flood story (Genesis 6:16-22 & 9:8-15), it is a story about life and loss, about preservation and destruction, about a wild God and God’s wild creation. So come, come and stand in the mud with us and wrestle with this promise: “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 

How do we stand in the mud and live, hope, and believe this promise?

In the midst of beheadings and war zones, in the face of fear and hatred and with the ugliness of racism, and xenophobia on display all around how do we participate in this covenant? How do we recognize our own part the world’s destruction and human despair? Wouldn’t it be easier to blame the divine? Wouldn’t it be easier to hide our heads in the sand, than to put our hands in the muck and mud and plant seeds of a new creation?

 What is our part to play in making God’s promise a reality? 

For starters… We Tell The Truth About Ourselves                                                       (At Friendship this is how we describe our time of Confession.)

Fear rises like the floodwaters of ancient days,

We turn inward,

absorbed in our own pain,

groaning in our suffering,

groping in our anger,

the darkness of despair threatens to wash over us.

If we look outward the world seems to be going under with the tide,

The complexity of power goes unacknowledged,

it is brandished and misused,

We struggle to love well,

to resist deceit, hatred and violence.

Rising, rising waters of hopelessness threaten to engulf us.

 Make good on your promise O God; do not let these floodwaters consume us.

And this will be our Blessing:

You are made in God’s image,

you are beautiful creatures of wisdom and promise,

you are forgiven

and you are chosen.

But God’s promise isn’t for you alone; it is for all of creation.

Carry this blessing with you,

let this promise inspire hope in you,

and all whom you encounter,

make it a symbol of freedom,

flying in the face of indignity, pain and injustice,

make it a call to action, for justice and peace,

until all of creation can breathe the deep breath of God’s promise.

 

If you would like to use my words please feel free, 
but give me a shout out! 
Something akin to © Shawna Bowman 
at shawnabowman.com is perfect :)

(2044)

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What do you know?

Sermon for Sunday March 2, 2014 (Narrative Lectionary)

“Human beings must be known to be loved; but Divine beings must be loved to be known.” ~Blaise Pascal

We read John 9:1-41 the story of the Man Born Blind with the refrain, Open our eyes Lord, We want to see Jesus… you should read the whole story of this man born blind and sing a song about seeing Jesus.

 

Sermon: What do you know? 

In our tradition, this is what we call Transfiguration Sunday… in our other three gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke there is a story of Jesus taking three of his closest friends and disciples and climbing to the top of high mountain to pray, while they are there Jesus’ face is transfigured (or changed) – and he shines like the sun, so brilliantly it blinds the disciples…

(Not surprisingly) John doesn’t offer us this traditional transfiguration story. There’s no mountain top or blinding light or God’s voice speaking from the clouds… instead, there is a man, born blind, there is spit and dirt and mud packed on eyes… and there is a transfiguration… yes, there is an alteration but instead of Jesus, it is the man who is forever changed…

I say changed and not healed for a reason… I say changed and not restored… because it’s important that we tune in at the very start of this story and hear some key things about these characters…

Jesus has just left the temple… where he’s been arguing and almost arrested by the authorities for making bold claims about himself, for siding with sinners and for performing miracles… or as we know John loves to call them, signs, on the Sabbath… Jesus is with his disciples and they encounter this man… a man born blind who sits by the temple gates begging… he is not alone in the world, he has a family – parents – who are later called upon to testify but in the social order and religious beliefs of this time blindness such as his was considered a blemish – evidence that someone has done something terribly wrong. So engrained was this belief that when the disciples see him, they don’t pause for a moment to wonder if he’d done something wrong but instead asked the question “Who has sinned? This man, or his parents?”

And Jesus says something radical… something so difficult for us to hear, so hard for us to believe, so very different from everything his culture and ours tells us over and over again… Jesus says, Nothing. Neither this man nor his parents have done a thing to earn this. They haven’t sinned, they haven’t made God angry, this isn’t punishment or shame or castigation.

How many times have you heard the voices in the crowd, on the news, in your own communities, even in your own heads, that heap on the shame… this pain, this difficulty, this difference… it must be punishment. Or it’s the refrain that pops into our head (unbid) when we encounter brokenness, difference or suffering in another… This one of oldest and most harmful stories we tell about God.

There are so many voices… in Jesus’ time, in the generation the Gospel of John was first written for and in our own time, that declare God’s wrathful judgment where it isn’t. There are voices that claim that every disaster and illness even our differences – whether physical or biological, if something sets us apart it must be our punishment. Voices that shame parents of difficult or differently-abled children, voices that claim that God is only interested in loving whom society deems perfect… and yet here is a radical notion. The man who was born blind was just fine… In fact more than fine. The problem wasn’t him, but the community that defined him. Jesus said so. He was perfect – the perfect vessel, the perfect disciple, the perfect teacher to partner with Jesus in a story that would transfigure our understanding of who truly sees… and who is truly blind.

Let’s trace this unfolding scene for just a moment… the man born blind gets progressively more aware as the story unfolds… receiving sight is the signal or catalyst of the change… but he comes to understand… to know who Jesus is gradually as the story unfolds… first his neighbors don’t even recognize him… which seems strange doesn’t it? Another failure to see who and what is right in front of them… at first the man simply describes Jesus as the “man called Jesus”… then when the authorities question him, he realizes Jesus must be a prophet and tells them so… when questioned a second time he asks if others want to become Jesus’ disciple as well… and insists Jesus must come from God… how else could he wield such power?

My favorite part of this whole story is the man doesn’t actually see Jesus with his own eyes until the very end of the story… remember he went away from Jesus with mud covering his eyes… and yet he came to know who Jesus was, what wisdom and power he held… through his actions… through his words… through his touch before he ever laid eyes on him. Jesus comes to him after he is thrown out of the temple and has to introduce himself… “you are speaking to him.” Says Jesus. By then the man has already come to know and love Jesus, and so when he sees him, he worships him.

The opposite happens to the Pharisees (religious authorities) doesn’t it? They can see Jesus from the start… and they can see the blind man… and they can see the way the world works… bad things happen to bad people… and physical differences are blemishes, and people who experience loss or suffering or pain have deserved it. Messiah’s don’t come from working families in Galilee. Messiah’s are royal and untouchable… you don’t know their mothers and brothers… God doesn’t work through ordinary people; and certainly not poor ones. God only lives inside the temple not outside laying around the gates…  and miracles don’t happen on the Sabbath.

The authorities were afraid, and fear always stands in the way of vision. They don’t have a vision for the world working any way but the way they’ve always known, and so they eliminate the possibility of God standing right there in front of them… they cannot see the truth… they can’t even imagine it. They have physical sight but no vision… they have shame but no grace, they have a rulebook but have forgotten whom it’s pointing to and worship the rules instead.

Does your fear ever cloud your vision?

Has God ever stood right in front of you but you couldn’t see?

What gets in your way of knowing this God?

What is the difference between what we see and what we know?

When the religious authorities question the man and his parents, insisting that some one has to be a sinner in this story… there must always be a bad guy mustn’t there? I love that in that moment he doesn’t even care if Jesus is a sinner or a saint…

The man answered, “I don’t know whether he’s a sinner. Here’s what I do know: I was blind and now I see.” (John 9:25)

Here’s what I know… what a great way of understanding how we come to know God. Here’s what I know. Here’s my lived experience. For the blind man it goes like this: I was blind and now I see.

What do you know?

What is your lived experiences of God?

Of life or love, of fear or doubt?

When has someone stopped and seen you? Really seen you?

Jesus spits in the dirt and makes mud and smears it all over this man’s face. This is an intimate and embodied act… have you ever had an experience like that?

Has anyone ever looked at your wounds, or the parts of you the world’s voice, or even your own voice, has declared broken and shameful or a sign of weakness and called it a strength? Have you ever come to know someone so well that you recognize them with out having to lay eyes on them? You know them by their words and deeds…

This is the invitation John extends to every seeker… come and get to know this man called Jesus… this prophet, this one who comes from God, who embodies light in the most unexpected places… come and know him, not by looking but by living… set aside your assumptions and shame and come to know him… encounter him in the generosity of the poor, in the stories of those born blind, or different, seek him out in the life of the ones you thought at first glance were the powerless… seek him out in your own life.

I think there is a reason this story doesn’t often win out in the public discourse we have about religion and faith… for all the grief I give these “religious authorities” I also understand them. I understand the need to have an answer… even a terrible answer can quiet our fears a bit better than no answer. And there are times God feels downright unknowable aren’t there?

Jesus never does get to the question of the man’s blindness – there is no explanation. I was blind and now I see… and that’s enough for the man for now. There so many things in our lived experiences we’d like an answer for. We live a lot of our lives like these Pharisees trying to make logical sense of why the world works like it does… why bad things happen, why people suffer, why it feels at times as if God is very far away. And if we think we have an answer, boy do we cling to it, don’t we?

But we also know there are no simple answers. This is the complex story of what it means to be a people of faith… we draw close to God and move far away and then circle back again. We find community and build families and relationships and at times we stretch them and even break them, and we learn to mend and rebuild and remake them. We are transfigured by our faith over and over again and there is cadence to our lives… a desire to know and be known by God… to see and be seen by Jesus, to love and be loved by one another.

And so we come to know by doing. We come to know the love of God because we enact it here – in this place, in our prayers and when we come to the table and when we go out into the world. We enact it in our lives as we reflect and refract and carry the light of Christ for one another. We take turns leading and following and leaning on the one who seems to have the clearest vision in each moment – depending on one another’s imaginations and trusting God to keep revealing God’s self in our midst. Amen.

(10684)

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Unbinding – Sermon Sept. 15 (Narrative Lectionary)

If you’d rather hear the audio click below! 

Love is a binding force, by which another is joined to me and cherished by myself. ~Thomas Aquinaslove-21

Before I read the scripture I reminded folks that we’re using the Narrative Lectionary – that it includes longer portions of text so that we can see the arc of the story… but even with these longer passages moving from the creation story to the middle of Abraham’s story in Genesis 22 is quite a leap; and so I began by asking: Do you remember the beginning of Abraham’s story? When God first called him? Genesis 12 tells us that Abraham was 75 years old when God told him, “I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing.” Blessed to be a blessing… it a beautiful beginning to a story in which God comes along side Abraham again and again as they travel together. God saves Abraham’s skin and Abraham goes where God tells him… over the years and miles Abraham challenges God, welcomes God and even laughs at God when God tells him that Sarah is going to have a child. Do you remember when Sarah laughed too? But then it came true…

Genesis 21:1-3 tells us,

21:1 The Lord was attentive to Sarah just as he had said, and the Lord carried out just what he had promised her. 2 She became pregnant and gave birth to a son for Abraham when he was old, at the very time God had told him. 3 Abraham named his son—the one Sarah bore him—Isaac (meaning laughter).

then in Genesis 22:1-19

22:1 after these events [Many years later… some scholars say at least 10 or 11 but some rabbinic sources say 30.], God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!”

Abraham answered, “Here I am.”

2 God said, “Take your son, your only son whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah. Offer him up as an entirely burned offering there on one of the mountains that I will show you.” 3 Abraham got up early in the morning, harnessed his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, together with his son Isaac. He split the wood for the entirely burned offering, set out, and went to the place God had described to him.

4 On the third day, Abraham looked up and saw the place at a distance. 5 Abraham said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will walk up there, worship, and then come back to you.”

6 Abraham took the wood for the entirely burned offering and laid it on his son Isaac. He took the fire and the knife in his hand, and the two of them walked on together.

7 Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father?”

Abraham said, “Here I am, my son.”

Isaac said, “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the entirely burned offering?”

8 Abraham said, “The lamb for the entirely burned offering? God will provide (or see) it, my son.” The two of them walked on together.

9 They arrived at the place God had described to him. Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He tied up his son Isaac and laid him on the altar on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to kill his son as a sacrifice.

11 But the Lord’s messenger called out to Abraham from heaven, “Abraham? Abraham?”

Abraham said, “Here I am.”

12 The messenger said, “Don’t stretch out your hand against the young man, and don’t do anything to him. I now know that you revere God and didn’t hold back your son, your only son, from me.”13 Abraham looked up and saw a single ram caught by its horns in the dense underbrush. Abraham went over, took the ram, and offered it as an entirely burned offering instead of his son. 14 Abraham named that place “the Lord sees (or provides).” That is the reason people today say, “On this mountain the Lord is seen.”

Sermon: Unbinding

So, this is terrible story… there’s simply no way around it… according to the Genesis story-teller God sets out to test Abraham… Abraham who is an old man, Abraham who has followed God, fought for God, believed God, loved God… Abraham who has given up his other son already, Ishmael and Hagar have already been exiled and when Abraham argued for them to stay God promised Abraham… that while Ishmael would be safe it was Isaac who would bear their family’s future… and now God demands this unthinkable sacrifice…

Who is this God? Why would the God of life command Abraham to do this? The God who brought the world to life in our Genesis story from last week. How does that jive with this image of God… this picture of what it means to be faithful? When I read this story I can’t help but think of all the horrifying things human beings have done to one another, to our children in the name of God – even in our own time. What kind of God would ask for such a thing? Does God really give tests? To find out if we love God enough? If we fear God enough?

I keep winding my way in and out of the story, looking for a loop hole, looking for an explanation then realize I’ve really only bound God or myself up in a whole other mess… and that was an ah-ha moment… the moment I realized this story binds up God… as much as it does Isaac.

This is where how we read the bible becomes really important. Some would argue that if the bible is the Word of God then it is perfect, that it is never wrong… but it is compiled of stories told and written by imperfect people and about imperfect people – just like us. Our biblical stories were written by people who were influenced by the time and place they lived. Their lives informed how they understood the world around them, and most importantly how they understood God. The perfection in our sacred texts is not in its ability to be factual or historical – there are places where this is the case – but it’s perfection is it’s ability to point to the way God enters into our human story again and again… we’re invited to read the bible as the story of how the people of God, work, wrestle with and learn about God… how they hear, explain and are moved and changed by God… and maybe even how God is changed by them.

 

This is one of those stories that is really hard to peel back and hear from Abraham’s perspective… it has been used to bind up God for so long… it’s been told as a parable to elicit obedience. It’s been used to make God into a hungry monster, in need of appeasement, it’s been used to describe the need for blood sacrifice to pay for human sin… but for Abraham the emphasis of the story is not on the need for sacrifice… but the moment that need is lifted.

The language of sacrifice wasn’t uncommon in ancient cultures it was the norm. There were religious cults that sacrificed someone every time the sun rose. It was common practice to offer one’s self as a sacrifice and sacrifice was seen as a way to both honor God and give a portion of what belongs to God back to God…

Last week I told you that most scholars believe these Genesis stories – the Abrahamic tradition – was written down or compiled during the Babylonian exile or right after. Surrounded by a culture of sacrifice and violence the Israelites were learning to describe their God differently. Just like the creation story paints a picture of a creative and life-giving God… in a weird way this story does the same. Imagine telling this story in a setting where the first half isn’t at all surprising or out of the ordinary… imagine telling the story to a crowd of people who are nodding affirmatively when you say that part about God testing Abraham… yeah, that seems right… I’ve heard of gods doing that…

Then comes the part where God requires a sacrifice… yeah, heads nod… gods always seem to need that…

The story unfolds, the audience was likely ready for it to happen, like it had so many times before. An entirely burnt offering, consumed by the fire, offered to God as a sign of repentance, honor, gratitude.

But then the story takes a surprising turn, from out of no where comes a young ram… and God calling out to Abraham, I know you revere me, don’t do anything to harm him. God lifts the requirement of human sacrifice… God unbind Isaac, God unbinds Abraham, God unbinds the story of violence and death.

Israel continues to tell stories in opposition to the stories around them… non-violent creation stories… alternative ending to child sacrifice… it’s a counter testimony. The true God doesn’t work through violent means, does not require the sacrifice of our lives… but provides for our life.

It would take many more generations and the destruction of the temple for the people of Israel to let go of animal sacrifice – Abraham substituted the ram for Isaac, as he seemed to believe that some sacrifice must be made. But this is a wonderful story about a turning point in the way the people of God understand what God truly requires.

The evolution of how we see and understand who God is unfolds in these sacrificial stories. The book of Leviticus is filled with instructions about making sacrifices to God but then later in proverbs it says “Doing charity and justice is more desirable to the Lord than sacrifice” (21:3).

The prophet Jeremiah tells us that God never intended for the people to sacrifice their children, he says this is the word God, “Because the people have forsaken me, and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind… this place shall no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter.” (19: 4-6)

And then the prophet Ezekiel reports that God says this of sacrificial practices, “Moreover I gave them statutes that were not good and ordinances by which they could not live.” (20:25-26)

And in Hosea we read, “Therefore the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when ‘Loving-kindness I desire, not sacrifice.’” (6:6)

These prophets show how complex our story of God is, but they also give us permission to not only see the way in which the people of God change but how God might be changed by the people… a friend of mine suggests that it is God that learns something in this story, “God learns that God’s capable of wounding God’s loved ones, even though God was sure it was the right thing to challenge and grow Abraham’s faith in this dramatic way.” He says, “Maybe God finally learned how fragile people are, and how little God knows about them, maybe it’s events like these that makes God finally determine to, ultimately, simply become one of us.” (David Huth, via facebook!)

How we read the biblical stories matter… are we reading them for facts or something deeper, something more true? Do we hear the stories of the people of God as stagnant, frozen in time and place or do we believe the story of God is a living breath, ongoing story still in the making?

The biblical story is not meant to bind God. The bible is meant to open God, to shed light on God and our path towards God… and God’s path towards us.

Binding up the rope (I actually had a rope and started binding it up) – In our context we need to ask ourselves, are there ways in which we bind God, squeezing the life out? How do we understand the role God takes in the midst of the violence in our world? Do we witness death and destruction, experience loss, confusion, and rejections and then project it onto God? Obvious examples are Westboro Baptist Church or Jerry Falwell – and we stand in opposition to their views about God’s punishment, violent activity through natural disaster and hate… but where does this way of seeing God creep into our own stories about how the world works?

How often when I was a chaplain – meeting with folks from every religion and even no religion and I would often hear the desperate plea, why is God doing this to me? Why is God punishing me? It’s like this story of a vengeful God is imprinted on our hearts and can’t be undone.

I would say,” God isn’t against you, God is with you, God does not hate you, God loves you. God has not abandoned you.”

Where does this bound up idea of God get us?  How do we bind ourselves up in stories of anxiety (scarcity), anger (pain and suffering), hatred (when we imagine life is easier for others), disappointment (when we don’t get what we expected…hoped etc – sacrificing ourselves on the alter of fear – are there ways in which we haven’t relinquished the notion that God requires, even causes our pain?

Then there is an unbinding of the rope (unfurled the rope in my hands) – Can we imagine an unbinding? Can we imagine a God that doesn’t incite fear, but love – that doesn’t punish us for our fears but comes along side us? Can we look at the whole of the story of God, and see that God never, never abandons us? Can we hear the good news that just as God sees and provides for Abraham and Isaac God will do the same for us? Do we hear God’s promise, God’s release?

For Christians the ultimate story of God’s unbinding is in God’s willingness to enter into human experience, to become human and walk among us. No longer a God far away, but a God here and now, dirty feet planted on the earth, come in person to challenge the forces of hate and destruction… unable to even be bound by the cross… he defeats death on a quiet morning slipping among his disciples, men and women, whispering words of life in their ears… whispering words of life in ours…

The questions we’re asking through out this fall: Who Is God in me? Who am I in God? (Diana Butler Bass) It was a lot easier and more fun to ask and answer this question last week when it was about a creative life-giving God wasn’t it! What about an unbound God?

Who is the unbound God in me?

What if God is flowing freely through you? What is undoing in you? How is God softening your heart? Loosening your tongue? What is God setting you free from? What words of life does God have for you?

Who am I, unbound in God?

What if you are a force for change in the world? What words of life do you have for those around you, for God? 

There is also a good binding… the binding we do in communities like this one, where we bind our stories and ourselves together as a people of God, and imperfectly go about doing God’s work in the world together. In doing this we bind ourselves to God, not in a painful or bloody way, but in a life-giving way. We entrust our story to the story of God that is bigger than us, that has been unfolding for generations and will continue to unfold long after we leave this earth.  It is not a stagnant story or a dying story; it is a living, breathing story without end. Amen.

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Creator God – Sermon, Sept. 8 (Narrative Lectionary)

God is really only another artist. God invented the giraffe, the elephant, and the cat. God has no real style. God just keeps on trying other things. ~ Pablo Picasso

 Our Prayer For Illumination: O God of beauty and delight, make space in our lives to celebrate all that you have made, to enter into the complexity of life, that which is easy and that which is hard, with your voice in our heads and your words inscribed on our hearts, declaring that indeed, it is good, very good. And may we carry your Word into the world until it is made so. Amen. 

Our Reading from Genesis 1:1-2:4a (Common English Bible – mostly) We read this as a community, as the story pop-corned around the room, told by more than 30 voices we watched it unfold in images on the screen accompanied by the beauty of the soundtrack from Tree of Life)

When God began to create the heavens and the earth— the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters— God said, “Let there be light.” And so light appeared. God saw how good the light was. God separated the light from the darkness.God named the light Day and the darkness Night.

There was evening and there was morning: the first day.

God said, “Let there be a dome in the middle of the waters to separate the waters from each other.”God made the dome and separated the waters under the dome from the waters above the dome. And it happened in that way. God named the dome Sky.

There was evening and there was morning: the second day.

God said, “Let the waters under the sky come together into one place so that the dry land can appear.” And that’s what happened. 10 God named the dry land Earth, and he named the gathered waters Seas. God saw how good it was. 11 God said, “Let the earth grow plant life: plants yielding seeds and fruit trees bearing fruit with seeds inside it, each according to its kind throughout the earth.” And that’s what happened. 12 The earth produced plant life: plants yielding seeds, each according to its kind, and trees bearing fruit with seeds inside it, each according to its kind. God saw how good it was.

13 There was evening and there was morning: the third day.

14 God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night. They will mark events, sacred seasons, days, and years. 15 They will be lights in the dome of the sky to shine on the earth.” And that’s what happened. 16 God made the stars and two great lights: the larger light to rule over the day and the smaller light to rule over the night. 17 God put them in the dome of the sky to shine on the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. God saw how good it was.

19 There was evening and there was morning: the fourth day.

20 God said, “Let the waters swarm with living things, and let birds fly above the earth up in the dome of the sky.” 21 God created the great sea animals and all the tiny living things that swarm in the waters, each according to its kind, and all the winged birds, each according to its kind. God saw how good it was.22 Then God blessed them: “Be fertile and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let the birds multiply on the earth.”

23 There was evening and there was morning: the fifth day.

24 God said, “Let the earth produce every kind of living thing: livestock, crawling things, and wildlife.” And that’s what happened. 25 God made every kind of wildlife, every kind of livestock, and every kind of creature that crawls on the ground. God saw how good it was. 26 Then God said, “Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.”

27 God created humanity in God’s own image,
in the divine image God created them,[b]
male and female God created them.

28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, and everything crawling on the ground.” 29 Then God said, “I now give to you all the plants on the earth that yield seeds and all the trees whose fruit produces its seeds within it. These will be your food. 30 To all wildlife, to all the birds in the sky, and to everything crawling on the ground—to everything that breathes—I give all the green grasses for food.” And that’s what happened. 31 God saw everything he had made: it was supremely good.

There was evening and there was morning: the sixth day.

The heavens and the earth and all who live in them were completed. On the sixth [a] day God completed all the work that he had done, and on the seventh day God rested from all the work that he had done. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all the work of creation.[b] This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created.

Sermon: Creator God

So today we are marking the beginning of a new season… in my newsletter article last month I described it as a season of experimentation… in that letter I focused on this worship experiment that we are embarking on today, we’re not only going to see what its like to have multiple services, in the coming weeks we will experiment with styles of worship, with music, with what liturgy or preaching means… we are using a new lectionary, called the narrative lectionary that will take us on a journey through the whole arc of the biblical story beginning today with creation… I’m excited about this season but anxious too…

And our experimenting isn’t relegated to the worshiping moment… As part of our ongoing discernment our session is reading a book called Christianity after Religion… the author, Diana Butler Bass, is encouraging communities of Christian faith to enter into a season of exploration, of asking questions about who we are and who God is calling us to be. We are going to be working together to tackle these questions this year. These questions are exciting but also nerve racking when the answers seem hard to grasp – hard to hang onto…

And for many of us, it’s not just here at Friendship that we are marking the changing of a season. We are starting new jobs, new relationships, new schools, gaining independence, moving from childhood to adulthood, or maybe we are becoming more dependent, moving to new homes and saying goodbye to places we’ve long loved and called home. For others, we facing decisions about where to make a home, our healthcare and families, decisions that will shape our lives in the coming months and years… we are facing news, some joy-filled news and some heart-wrenching and we are asking questions – like we do when new phases of life confront us, when seasons change – who am I in this phase of my life? Where is God and where is God calling me? These are good and hard questions…

I wonder if facing a new season, looking deep into the unknown, unsure of what to expect is how God feels when staring out over the face of the deep… breathing that deep breath of wind… 

In the beautiful song of creation that we just told together God looks out upon the deep, sometimes described as dark and chaotic, and God speaks light into being… not so much light to expel the darkness – the story doesn’t tell us that it’s evil or out of control, just that it’s messy – one poetic rendition from African American poet, James Weldon Johnson, says,

“And far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.

Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said: That’s good!”

So God sheds a bit of light on the situation… and that is good – having enough light to pick our way forward into the unknown, but God doesn’t just call the light good – over and over again God keeps surveying the whole of what is coming to life – the darkness and the light – and calls it all good.

Is this how we face the unknown? The deep darkness, the chaos in our own lives?

For some (what I learned growing up) this is the story of God creating order out of the primordial chaos, of God demanding its compliance, bending it to God’s will… exercising God’s power. And there are times this can be a comfort – imagining a God who can control the elements of the natural world, creating boundaries between sky and earth, darkness and light, good and evil… this is a God who can save and protect us.

But it can also make God feel very far away from us, not part of us, but some external force… it can also give us reason to approach our own lives in a similar manner… as something to be subdued and controlled.

And if we divide our world into parts – into two halves: order and chaos, goodness and evil, known and unknown then won’t all of our energy go into drawing a line in the sand and then won’t we spend all of our lives holding that line? Shoring it up, working to keep chaos at bay? Will we ever choose being curious over being comfortable? Can we face the unknown with something besides fear?

I wonder if there is another way to understand this “chaos” from which God draws life in this story.

What if we imagine God’s act of creating as a lavish work of creativity, of curiosity and the chaos teeming with a diversity that will make for a full life? Instead of a demonstration of fierce power, what if the power is in God’s imaginative act of entering into this raw material and coaxing it towards life, shaping it so that it generates and regenerates, what if we understood God’s “order”, not as control, but as a divine balance? God doesn’t do battle in this creation story, God doesn’t win while creation loses, God creates and collaborates…

Listen to the story… God seems to be singing to creation,

 “Let the waters swarm with living things…let birds fly above the earth up in the dome of the sky… Let the earth produce every kind of living thing…” (Gen. 1:20-24)

Over and over again God coaxes life forth and invites all of creation to participate in it’s making… it reminds me of a gardener… In the process of planting a garden we plant seeds deep in the soil, and we rely on creation to work with us, to offer itself to the project of birthing new life, the gardeners job is to provide the space for life to take root and flourish… to take on a life of it’s own…

When this Genesis story says God made dome, it means God carved out a great expanse so that life could burst forth, God did not build walls but makes space, and this is the image that we are created in…

God said, “Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.” (Gen. 1:26)

Can we imagine that we resemble God? That God invites us to the act of creating rather than control? This passage… to take charge of the earth, often translated as dominion, has gotten us into a lot of trouble through the centuries as humans have imagined themselves in the image of a God that subdues the world through violence if necessary, as one who forces the earth and it’s creatures to bend to it’s will…

But rather than dominion meaning a repressive or even just a maintaining force… let’s imagine it, for a moment, in the way God demonstrates dominion in the act of creation… by reaching into the depths making the way for life to flourish… we are created in God’s image as the midwife, the gardener, the artist, the lover, the creator…

How do we as humans made in this image of this God face the unknown? How do we survey the deep or approach the chaos of our lives?

Explaining our theme… In her book, Christianity after religion (that I mentioned earlier), Diana Butler Bass says that sometimes weforget that spiritual journeys are entwined with the Great I AM.”[i] We forget who and whose we are, in part, because we get caught up in the chaos of our lives, of the drama or mundane moments, and it seems that God is something very far away. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the unknown when it feels as if we are facing it alone.

Diana Butler Bass says that we’ve gotten accustomed to asking the ‘who are we’ question as if we are alone in the world, untethered or disconnected… and it’s an awfully tough question to answer in isolation. She suggests that we push the questions a bit further, remembering that we are grounded in a larger relationship with God; she suggests we ask ourselves two questions:

Who am I in God? And who is God in me?

In the creation story of a God who moves into the world and generates life from the inside out, where do we locate ourselves in this work? Are we insiders or outsiders? Part of the creative process? Co-creators with God? For the Israelites who first told this story it became an anthem of new life beyond Babylonian control, it became a protest of the world-view that kept them in bondage… “While their oppressors saw the origins of the universe as violent and bloody, the Israelites told their children a different story rooted in goodness and blessing. Light came from the deepest night, and order from chaos. The sun and the moon and the stars were set as signs of beauty and the changing of the seasons, providing light and direction and the keeping of time. God filled the earth with vegetation that was fruitful and nourishing, moved the waters back from the land and provided a home for the creatures that crawled across it, walked upon it, and flew over it. In the midst of this loveliness, humankind was tenderly placed, and blessed, and called to be caretakers and stewards of an abundance of gifts.”[ii]

How we orient ourselves to God matters.

  • It matters when facing decisions about military action in Syria and how we relate to human beings around the globe.
  • It matters when we try to understand the violence in our own city.
  • It matters when we are beginning new journey, beginning new work and relationships.
  • It matters when we are confronted with chaos, heartbreak or crisis.
  • How is God working in me? How am I working in God?

We are going to use these questions through out our worship experiment, reminding ourselves that this isn’t simply an exercise in finding ourselves but finding ourselves in God and discovering how God is moving in us. What if we truly believe that we were made in God’s image, not just imitators of God, but that we live and move in God and that God lives and moves and breathes into us?

This week as you face a new season or settle into a place already well known:

Ask yourself, who am I in God as a creator… a creative force, a generator, life-maker?Imagine God is inviting you to generate new life… where, who, how will you be a force for creativity?

Ask yourself who is God in me as a creatormoving as a creative force, a generator, life-maker? Where might God carve out a place for new life? What are the spaces in your life teeming with the possibility?

Where are the vast depths and the darkness? Instead of facing them with fear, imagine this:

God smiles,
And the light breaks,
And the darkness rolls up on one side,
And the light stands shining on the other,
And God says: This is very good!”

Amen.


[i] Bass, Diana Butler (2012-03-13). Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[ii] Huey, Kate. Feed Your Spirit, Weekly Seeds at ucc.org

 

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