Beginning with beloved…

A sermon about the time John the Baptist waded into the Jordan and baptized Jesus even though he didn’t want to. (Matthew 3:1-17)

Spiritual identity means we are not what we do or what people say about us. And we are not what we have. We are the beloved children of God. ~Henri Nouwen

Last week we heard the story of the Magi who came to see the tiny child that the skies had announced with a shining star and voices of angels and this week we find ourselves peering up at the sky once again, this time, with Jesus. Not baby Jesus, but a grown man who has come with the crowds to be baptized… who has come to this sacred place fraught with history and meaning…

Jesus has come to the river his ancestor Jacob crossed with but a staff…

Jesus has come to the river his ancestor Joshua led the people across on their journey from bondage to freedom

Jesus has come to the river the crossed by Elijah and Elisha – also on dry ground

Jesus has come to the river Elisha bid Naaman to go and wash and be healed

This is the riverbank in which John the Baptist has chosen to occupyThis is the riverbank John the Baptist has chosen to protest the powerful and elite and those who are using God’s word like a weapon in the synagogues and in the name of Rome… John the Baptist has returned to this place where God has rescued the people of God before and proclaims God’s power to do so again… he wades into the river and invites others to do to the same… to wade in, and immerse themselves in waters of redemption and transformation.

To be clear… John isn’t baptizing folks so they will be saved when they die. He’s marking them and reminding them of their entire salvation history and inviting them to claim it. John has become the prophet he was born to be and his words are powerful! Come and be baptized and live like the claimed, liberated, loved, empowered, powerful people of God you are! Make this day a new day!

Like the prophets that have come before, John chooses to create a movement on the margins and the people come… “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan” (Matthew 3:5) crowds were streaming to the Jordan for renewal and repentance… not a ritual for rituals sake but as part of a revolution… for the common Jew quashed by the Roman Empire and at the mercy of the Temple Elite repentance meant relinquishing their dependence and their loyalty to the very authorities who controlled their lives.

And according to the Gospel of Matthew, this is where Jesus turns up for the first moments of his public ministry, not the temple or the synagogue, not to confer with the high priests or those in positions of power. Instead he arrives on the river bank – this sacred, contested, political, spiritual and religious space… and asks to be baptized.

This isn’t the first time Jesus and John meet… we know they’ve met before, still in the wombs of their courageous mothers… when Mary sang her own liberation anthem… and I wonder if they hear it’s echo as they greet one another in the flesh on the riverbank.

At first John refuses to baptize Jesus, but Jesus insists… for some Jesus’ insistence is cause for discomfort… why would a sinless man repent, why would God’s own son submit to someone else’s authority, how could this cleansing act have any power over someone already so perfect?

Jesus will defy expectations throughout his life and ministry. He will scandalize the established religious community and disappoint his disciples again and again…. he will refuse the hospitality of rich and sit on the floor of the poor… he will dismiss the wise and encourage children and women and outcast to sit at his feet… he will forgo religious talk for dinner and stories… he won’t claim a throne or pick up a sword – even in the name of righteousness. Even John will one day write him and ask… are you sure you’re the one??

But for now John finally agrees– he plunges the body of Christ… this wholly human wholly divine man under the surface of the Jordan.

I wonder if Jesus’ whole life flashes through his mind’s eye as he sinks beneath the surface. Not just his embodied life, but his life that began at the beginning – when all of creation first burst forth. Beginning with that first infinite breath of God and on and on through his own life, death and resurrection. And then forward through time all the way to ours.

When we baptize today we often say the words, “remember your baptism” – can you remember? Can you tap into this collective memory – can your imagine yourself part of the whole? The ALL of creation? Plunged beneath the waters of God’s making and rising to hear God’s words:

“This is my Child, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

It’s a bold claim – to suppose that these words are for us right along with Jesus. But Jesus spends his life making it abundantly clear: no one is excluded, or exempt or abandoned by God. No one is out of reach or untouchable or too terrible for God to love. Jesus insists on being baptized right along with everyone else and so here we are, right along with Jesus, rising out of the river to hear these words:

“This is my Child, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

 As someone raised up in our Christian tradition and trained up as a Presbyterian Pastor… as someone who loves the communities and ritual we’ve created I worry and I wonder about what we’ve done with this particular sacrament, this baptismal moment… we’ve taken this baptismal moment… a ritual created as an act of protest against the temple authorities, an act meant to symbolize the power of the river, the people, the margins, of God’s ability to turn the world on it’s head and we’ve institutionalized and domesticated it… we’ve written rules about it, who can do it and what they can say and can’t say about it when they do. We’ve treated this moment like a ticket to be redeemed for salvation or a place at the table or to a place in heaven…

But the waters of baptism aren’t meant to save us, they are meant to renew and empower us. They aren’t meant to transport us to safety but to transform us into people who aren’t afraid to live – who aren’t afraid to stand against hate and oppression, who aren’t afraid to love; The waters of our own baptism are meant to stir our communal memory – to connect us to the God story that can hold our story and the next person and the next person’s story… until they are all woven together into one big beautiful, mess of a story and we don’t know who’s is whose and we can’t separate ourselves out or line ourselves up according to who’s the best or smartest or strongest or most deserving and so we all have to accept the fact that when God calls out you are mine, you are beloved, it is with you I am most pleased that God is talking to ALL of us….

When I first encountered this idea, maybe 15 years ago, that in Christ’s baptism, God calls us each beloved – I believe in Henri Nouwen’s book, Life of the Beloved, I was astounded… I wasn’t sure I could believe it about myself – that God would love me like God loved Christ, so I started telling my boys who were tiny at the time, every night at bedtime: “You belong to God, you are belovedyou are mine, you are beloved.” such a simple and yet, such a powerful statement – so easy to say and yet… so hard to believe about ourselves, isn’t it?

What might the world look like if we all knew ourselves to be claimed and loved?What might the world look like if we all knew one another as claimed and loved?

I found this simple truth so hard to hold onto over the years – especially in the times of loss or failure that I finally got it tattooed on my arm… yep. Tattooed. On my arm. You are beloved. Where I could see it. Every day.

cropped-youarebeloved.jpg

Nouwen says the biggest obstacle to knowing God’s love is that we can’t seem to hold on to this simple truth when we are hurt, rejected, abandoned or failures… We can’t believe we are beloved in the face of hatred or abuse and so we acquiesce, we reject ourselves… but what if we didn’t? What if Leelah Alcorn the young transgender woman who committed suicide by stepping in front of a truck in the last weeks had known herself as beloved before she heard the names rejection or abandoned? What if we taught small children to look in the mirror and see beloved before they saw strong or weak, big or small, black, brown or white?

Nouwen says when  truly believe this about ourselves – that we are beloved, we can’t help but believe it about others as well… I know, it’s idealistic isn’t it? But isn’t that what Jesus modeled throughout his whole life and ministry?  A ridiculously expansive grace that even his followers wished he would tone down? What if police officers… What if protesters, What if Americans…. What if Christians… What if Muslims and Jews… What if we saw one another first as beloved? What if that’s where we began?

Instead of tattoos to remember that you’re beloved… I’m not going to ask you all to get tattoos today but I am going to invite you to remember, during the next hymn we’re going to flick and fling and smear this water (in small bowls) on one another – I’d like to invite you to share the love… shower one another with a bit of water and remember…You are beloved.

God doesn’t tear through time and space to confer judgment or rapture folks off to heaven or leave some folks behind. God breaks into the human story to name and claim and love us. “You are mine. You are beloved. That’s the beginning of our story. Don’t you forget it. Amen.

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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.

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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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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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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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