The Whole Story

A sermon about the time Joshua called all the folks from ALL over Canaan together in a Sacred Place and teased, and cajoled and invited them to remember who they are…

 “i imagine that yes is the only living thing.”
~e.e. cummings

Prologue: Since receiving the Ten Words from God the Israelites have traveled the Wilderness for forty long years… generations have passed, Moses has died and Joshua takes leadership… they have passed through the Jordon and are making a life in Canaan – “the promise land” and today Joshua calls the people together at Shechem – We first hear of this sacred place Shechem (in Canaan) in the book of Genesis when God first promises this very land to Abram… Abram builds an altar in this very place and worships God… before continuing his own journey.

The book of Joshua records their passage into Canaan in it’s early chapters and the 12 tribes of Israel have spread out across the land… Joshua calls the Israelites from all over Canaan to gather once again at Shechem to renew their commitment to God.

 

Covenant at Shechem

Covenant at Shechem

Joshua 24:1-15

1 Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. 2 And Joshua said to all the people,

“Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. 3 Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many. I gave him Isaac; 4 and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. I gave Esau the hill country of Seir to possess, but Jacob and his children went down to Egypt.

5 Then I sent Moses and Aaron, and I plagued Egypt with what I did in its midst; and afterwards I brought you out. 6 When I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, you came to the sea; and the Egyptians pursued your ancestors with chariots and horsemen to the Red Sea. 7 When they cried out to the Lord, he put darkness between you and the Egyptians, and made the sea come upon them and cover them; and your eyes saw what I did to Egypt. Afterwards you lived in the wilderness a long time. 8 Then I brought you to the land of the Amorites, who lived on the other side of the Jordan; they fought with you, and I handed them over to you, and you took possession of their land, and I destroyed them before you.

9 Then King Balak son of Zippor of Moab, set out to fight against Israel. He sent and invited Balaam son of Beor to curse you, 10 but I would not listen to Balaam; therefore he blessed you; so I rescued you out of his hand. 11 When you went over the Jordan and came to Jericho, the citizens of Jericho fought against you, and also the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and I handed them over to you. 12 I sent the hornet ahead of you, which drove out before you the two kings of the Amorites; it was not by your sword or by your bow. 13 I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and oliveyards that you did not plant.” 

14Then Joshua said, “Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve the Lord in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

Have any of you heard a mama turn to her sassy child… young or old and say, “listen up… I carried you in my womb for nine whole months, and I wasn’t just sick in the morning, but noon and night… my feet swelled up and by skin stretched to hold you and my belly grew and grew until I was as big as a house…  and then I gave birth to you… 18 hours of backbreaking labor to push you into this world.”

Or, if you were adopted like me it might go more like, “we waited and waited and waited for you, we thought we would never ever have children, and then we met you, and fell in love with you and we chose you and brought you home and made your ours.” And then she goes on…

“All these years I’ve fed you and clothed you, I’ve run you around and I’ve learned new math and had to remember old math to help you with your homework, I’ve taken care of you when you were sick, staying up all night – even the time you puked all over me, I stayed right there by your side. I’ve dried your tears and held your hand when you’re afraid… I’ve loved you and I’ve never, never asked for anything in return…”

And it’s not just Mama’s who do it, is it? We all do it. We do it to our parents and our children, to our spouses and partners and friends… we do it in community – in families and churches and baseball teams We love to tell and retell our origin stories, origins of life, origins of friendship, origins of relationships, stories of the most, the best, the worst… and we don’t tell them in some neutral or scientific way… we tell them in a way that gives them the MOST meaning and the RICHEST life and IMPORTANT purpose. We shape the stories in ways that describe who we were and who we HOPE to become…

I love this story from Joshua… I love the way his God sounds like my Mama… “After all I’ve done for you,” says this Mama God… “After I’ve chosen you and loved you, after I’ve rescued you and born you out of what enslaves you and after I’ve given you a new life; after I’ve shaped you into a community and fed you and nourished you; after I’ve walked, carried, led and conquered the world for you… now You’re going to worship another God… now you’re going to serve yourself and forget about me?!”

I love how Joshua goads the people… “Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living…”

Just like a Mama, “Go on now… do what you want, pay no mind to me… I only gave you life.”

I don’t say this to dismiss Joshua (or our Mama’s); just like those who have shaped our stories, whether our actual mothers or other wise folks who have come before us, whose ancestors told them the story – Joshua is doing the important work of communal historianwhat Joshua is saying is, “Remember who you are… you’ve seen this God at work, you’ve heard these stories, you are these stories…  There’s no better GOD than this… will you choose this God? Will you love and serve this God?”

Joshua is one in a long line of oral historians that have been telling the story of God back to the community since Abram was first called to leave Haran and become a movement people. And each voice has a different tact and different flavor… for different times and places in the unfolding story of the ancient Israelites. And we can see how the people of God’s ideas about God – their theology and their moral philosophies, their ethics and their own relationships evolve through the voices of these historians… I want to spend a little time thinking about the story Joshua is telling and why… and what stories we are telling and why?

Questions to ask about this story and our stories:

It is a good story? And by that I don’t mean happy endings and simplicity…

Does it compel the people? Does it serve them? Is it life-giving? Does it bear essential truths about their identity and God’s identity?

What about the stories we tell about ourselves and about God? Are they compelling and life-giving? Do the bear real truth about who we are? About who God is?

What does Joshua include? What does he leave out? Why? What parts do we tell and leave out?

Why is God always on the side of Ancient Israel? Is God ALWAYS on our side in the stories we tell?

What does it mean to tell a story about belonging to God and claiming God in the midst of exile? 

It’s likely Joshua’s version of this story is coming from the dust and ashes of exile… it wasn’t written down in real time but in the midst of fear and doubt… in the midst of losing members of the exiled Israelite community to other rituals and traditions, to other families and cultures… this was a period of deep theological development, discovery and rediscovery – the Israelites faced the very real risk of assimilation after living for a generation in exile… These stories about their history and about God invited them to remember, to reimagine and reevaluate who they are.

Transient, homeless, enslaved, exiled, abandoned and yet chosen, remembered, loved… this is an identity that is rich in the imagination of the Ancient Israelites and has been their lived experience before… this is a story of hope… of promise that the morning does and will come, if only they hold onto God and one another. Imagine hearing these words, from a loving, goading, promising God, in the midst of utter despair.

I love the next part of this story even more than the first – in the second half of chapter 24 the people answer Joshua (Joshua 24-16-28)

16Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods…

19But Joshua said to the people (nudging them along), “You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins…

21And the people said to Joshua, “No, we will serve the Lord!” 

22Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” 23He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.” 24The people said to Joshua, “The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.” 25So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem.

26Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God; and he took a large stone, and set it up there under the oak in the sanctuary of the Lord. 27Joshua said to all the people, “See, this stone shall be a witness against us; for it has heard all the words of the Lord that he spoke to us; therefore it shall be a witness against you, if you deal falsely with your God.” 28So Joshua sent the people away to their inheritances.

It’s not just Joshua that chooses God but all the people gathered at Shechem. And ALL of their stories are important, ALL of their voices are important. For those living in exile, this story is an invitation to renewal – to reclaim the God of their ancestors and the God of their future… of their own inheritance.

Story is power.

It can shape us and move us.

Or it can bind us and defeat us.

We have a different story than the Ancient Israelites. We are not exiles. We are not prisoners. But we have a story.

Joshua told the story of the Ancient Israelites as God’s chosen people – a protected people – but that’s not the whole story is it? Remember the time they wanted to turn back to Egypt at the first sight of the Reed Sea? Remember how they first greeted Moses when he came down the mountain with God’s Ten Words? Remember how they failed and forgot and lost? These parts are recorded in other parts of the Bible, and the book of Judges tells a less dramatic, a less violent story of how the people came to live in Canaan.

The first hearers of these words knew the whole story and so do we, but in that moment Joshua told the story they needed to hear most. And what they needed was a word of hope…  even if it was a goading word of hope.

Like that story our mama tells, it’s not a story we tell because it’s historical or factual but because it’s true on a deep and visceral level. She’s telling it to compel us to listen, to behave, to remember who we are.

Joshua charges the whole community to be witnesses to one another’s’ stories – he reminds them that he is not the only storyteller, that the combined voices of the community bear the whole story of who God is.

Telling the whole story as a people of faith in our time is even more complex. There isn’t a monolithic experience of God but there is a central story about a God who hears, rescues, claims and challenges. About a God that coaxes and pushes and goads us into covenantal life, into a believing and loving God in return. What we’re being rescued from might be vastly different here in Norwood Park, than it is in Englewood. What God’s claim on us means is different here in the U.S. than in Palestine. And how God is calling us to respond, to serve, to love might look very different as well. We must listen to the chorus of voices, to their differences, and their commonalities, in order to hear the whole story of God.

How would Joshua goad us if he were here? What would he say to nudge us towards God?

What are the stories we need to tell that will give us hope?

What are the stories we need to tell that will give us courage?

What are the stories we need to tell that will call us to action?

What are the stories that you will tell about who you are and the God you claim?

This is our story. And it’s an ongoing, living, moving, breathing, dynamic story about a living, moving, breathing, dynamic God of which our we are only a part… and we’re invited to claim this God as our own and to join our voices to it, to add our lived experiences – and to listen for the experiences of others until the whole story of God gets told. Amen.

(731)

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What’s Your Story?

Beloved community,

gather in and gather around,

incline your hearts and

listen closely for the story of who we are.

Add your own voices to

the story of what God has done.

Claim God for yourself

to worship

to love

to follow

to serve.

This week’s Narrative Lectionary Reading is taken from Joshua 24. In the unfolding story of the people making new lives in the “Promised Land” Joshua takes a moment to remind them who and whose they are. Whenever I read these “recaps” of the Ancient Israelites story I’m struck by two things.

The first is how rich and imaginative the oral tradition was in those ancient days. I long to recapture this practice in our lives and communities. Some might even say I’ve become a bit obsessed with the art, practice and privilege of storytelling. I love the digital age, the opportunity to learn and relate and be challenged in the context of the Global Community.

I love words and text and imagery but I want to balance these things with having a story, a story I’m connected to, that I’m implicated in whispered in my ear. I love the intimacy and the humanity of real-life storytelling. I can forget the person in a facebook feed is real and whole and has as complicated and complex a life as I do. But if you’re sitting across the table or standing in the middle of my circle speaking your truth into the open, you better believe I will see your humanness. Is it just me?

The second piece that strikes me is the piece about privilege. The storyteller (and later story recorders… and later story canonizers) have significant power don’t they? Who tells the story and how they tell it shapes the identity of the community, and the communities place in the world for generations. How do we decide what parts to tell? What to highlight and leave out? How do we paint our friends? How do we paint our enemies? Who’s side is God on in our stories? Do we ever enter communities where we are strangers or outsiders so we can hear the story from another perspective?

When you think about the stories of your lives and your communities how do you tell them? Whose version is ‘canonical’? Who has the privilege of the voice, the pen, the mic?

When I tell the story of my own life I love the version in which I’m a survivor, determined and independent. I love the version in which I am creative and interesting and interested. But there are pieces missing from that version aren’t there? There are moments I’ve failed badly, I’ve broken promises, I’ve been wrong, I’ve been self-centered or self-righteous (this might be my achilles heel), dependent or just plain ordinary (gasp!).

Is our faith community a place we bring our best selves and tell only our best stories? Is it a place we can hear the depths of one another stories without judgement or fixes?

Telling the Truth About Ourselves

We often think the easiest thing,

is to only share the good parts of our lives with one another and with God,

the career successes,

the sweet and easy parts of our relationships

the parenting wins,

that time we kept our cool,

stood up for justice

or had the best, right, funniest answer.

We are sure the world can’t handle our inner ugliness.

We are certain that we are the only ones who have failed,

that our relationships are the only ones to sustain cracks,

that we are the only parent who has let down a child, or a friend, or a stranger in need.

and so we keep the hard parts of ourselves hidden and our ugliness gets uglier.

We can’t imagine that God would embrace our trauma and turmoil,

we are afraid God won’t love our selfish, mean or broken hearts,

we don’t believe that God’s grace is so expansive that we can reveal our true selves

and so we don’t tell the truth about ourselves.

Blessing

But here’s the thing,

You are not alone and

healing happens in the light of day,

reconciliation is grounded in telling the truth,

and love isn’t love if it’s built on conditions.

God’s grace really is so expansive

it will hear and hold and transform

your WHOLE story.

Yes, we are broken,

but we are also beautiful children of God,

so take in this good news:

In all things,

you are seen,

you are loved

and you are forgiven.

Amen.

(618)

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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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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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Two-face Jesus? September 12.2012

MARK 8:27-33
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples,
“Who do people say that I am?”
And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them,
“But who do you say that I am?”
Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

I don’t know about you, but when I read this text I really feel for Peter. First, it seems as if Jesus is baiting the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” What are folks saying about me?” And it’s Peter who seems to land on the right answer, declaring Jesus the “Messiah”. This is no small title. For the first time in Mark’s Gospel Jesus has been identified as the one for whom the community has been waiting. Peter steps forward and makes an audacious claim, Jesus is not simply a devout Jew, not just a really compelling Rabbi, not only a prophet but the Messiah.

For a people who can’t seem to get ahead, who are constantly under the thumb of the ruling class, who are pushed to the outside again and again this is a scandalous statement. It’s brave and crazy to imagine that finally, the one who will save them — who will bring them justice and win the day — has come.
And just as shockingly Jesus confirms this news. But then, in an even more incredible twist he goes on to describe what is about to unfold in the days and weeks ahead. Rather than triumph and power he describes a scene of violence and death. His death. He paints a picture of those who will turn against him, his own people, the ruling class, the government, even his own friends.

I grieve for Peter in this moment… this isn’t at all what he thought he was describing when he declared Jesus the Messiah. The one who comes to save them will be arrested and put to death in the most shameful of ways? Peter’s head must have been reeling when he pulled Jesus aside and demanded an explanation.

Have you ever signed up for something and then found out it wasn’t at all what you thought? It required much more from you than you expected? Have you ever believed in someone with your whole heart? Thrown your whole self into following and supporting them only to discover that they weren’t quite what you thought? Maybe you romanticized or idolized them and then they turned around and got real… it turned out they were more than what you imagined, more complex than simply meeting your personal needs.
In this crucial moment Peter finds out that what he thought would save him didn’t look at all like the salvation he’d hoped for. This was his first glimpse at what loving Christ would cost him and at God’s vision for reconciliation that didn’t entail a hostile takeover but instead included a road right through the valley of death before it would emerge into the beauty of a mountaintop resurrection story that could heal the world.

Sometimes it’s those crucial moments, when the rug is pulled out from under us, when the veil is lifted, when we’re confronted by the complexity of life and we begin to see the raw, messy and hard truth of it; in these moments we learn who we truly are and who we are truly called to be.

Peter’s life will never be the same, he’s looked into the eyes of his Messiah and seen the truth. This isn’t the Messiah that he expected but it is the one the world desperately needs.

May the many faces of Christ take you by surprise,
And stretch your imagination,
May the cause of love that is bigger than winning,
and larger than just one life,
turn your expectations on their head.
May this surprising Messiah who is more than we could ever expect
continue to bring new  life to darkest places in your life,
and healing to the world.
AMEN

Peace, Shawna

Musical Mediation
You Can’t Always Get What You Want
Rolling Stones

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Daily Reflection, May 9th

Image

JOHN 15:4

Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abidesin the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 

I’ve been thinking about this word abide. What does it mean to abide in someone? To abidein Jesus? The word has several meanings. It can mean to dwell in or to sojourn, which are words I gravitate to. I imagine dwelling in Christ to be an act of centering. Of being reminded of who and whose I am. But as I thought about the word abide I realized that it has other meanings as well. It can mean to follow the rules, to stay put, to stick it out, to wait patiently.There times that we can sit in the quiet space of prayer or even in the chaos of our lives and remember with joy that we are grounded in the goodness of God. Other times the chaos doesn’t seem so joyous and the quiet can be oppressive and lonely. There are moments in which we don’t feel particularly connected to God or one another and in this scripture from the Gospel of John Jesus invites us to hang on — even when the connection seems tenuous at best, he promises a mutually life-giving relationship. Stand by me Jesus tells us. Stand by me and I will stand by you.What does it mean to stand by Jesus in our own time and place? To dwell in and go with Christ?May God be your dwelling place,
and your companion as you sojourn,
May you abide in Jesus in the midst of this complex world
And know that Jesus abides in you,
May your life in God bear the fruits of this connection,
And may it connect you to the world.
AMEN

Peace,
Shawna

Ben E. King, Stand by Me

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