Saturday, July 26, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, July 27, 2014 Genesis 29:15-28 and Romans 8:26-39 “Not According to Plan”

A bunch of people got onto an airplane the other day. They were on vacation, going to visit relatives, moving to a new place, taking a business trip. They were men and women, old and young, babies in arms and folks in wheelchairs. The logistics of their trips had been planned – where they were going and when, who was going to pick them up, whether they needed to go to the currency conversion kiosk …they each had a checklist of sorts, a plan of action.

And then something happened. A missile, and then the plane was exploding and bodies were flying and nothing that happened was part of the plan of action. And even the remnants of their bodies and the plan that had carried them were no longer treated according to the normal plan for such abnormal events.

So much for the checklist. So much for the plan.

A few thousand miles away, parents were dressing their children for school. Food was being prepared, very early in the morning, before dawn since it was Ramadan, the month of daytime fasting. Men were planning their workday at their tasks. Women were figuring out if they needed to go to the market for more rice or bread for the iftar dinner after sundown. 

Nonpolitical people, Palestinians who simply wanted to live their lives, regardless of the 
political strife that has been a subtext of their existence for decades. It was the normal plan of the day for these folks during the holy month.

And then something happened. Bombing from Israel, intent on destroying Hamas, viewed by Israel as a terrorist political group, but who was killed? Children. Old people. Women. Maybe a few Hamas leaders somewhere amongst the dead, but mostly not. Children who should have been walking down the road with their backpacks filled with their books and homework were in morgues. Mothers were in the emergency medical facilities, being treated for shrapnel and for traumatic amputations. Men screaming, looking for their families in the remnants of their demolished homes.

So much for the plan of the day.

What happens to us when our plan of the day is shattered? When our child or our spouse is injured in an accident? When we get a frightful diagnosis? When our friend is arrested? When our son checks himself into rehab?

Plans of the day. The old joke is this: “Do you want to make God laugh? Make a plan.”

The joke is predicated on the notion that God knows that life is unpredictable and that we human beings, who think we can control our universe, can forestall that unpredictability by making a plan.

But our plans are waylaid by the things we cannot predict, by human folly, by wars, by plagues, by the unexpected.

And in those moments, like the painful moments we have heard about these past few weeks, if we know nothing at all, we can still know one thing: God suffers beside us.
God feels our pain, and weeps with us, and holds us in the divine embrace to comfort us and say that bombs and death and demonization of other people are not the only story to be told.

There is another one, one that is based in our sure knowledge that God is with us. God sent our savior, Jesus Christ, fully anticipating that bad things would happen, then as now. God’ s son Jesus taught us to know our Creator in ways that humans could understand. And then Jesus entered into our world of struggles and pain and brokenness in the deepest possible way: he allowed himself to become a victim of betrayal and to be crucified. To suffer pain. 
To feel the sting of Judas’ kiss. To undergo the lash and the cross.

When we cry out “does God know how much pain I am in?” remember this: Jesus, the Son of God, willingly accepted his death.

To know how it feels to be fully human. To understand our cries. To have intimate and personal knowledge of what we suffer.

And that is why Paul says “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Jesus saved us. Jesus suffered for us. He feels the cries of mothers in Gaza whose children have died. He feels the shock of families whose loved ones died on the Malaysian flight over the Ukraine. He feels the fear of little children, sent by their families across the Sonoran desert to find an escape from gang violence in Central America.

Jesus knows the drop in the pit of the stomach of a plan gone awry in an awful way. And he doesn’t turn away. He stays with us in the confusion and the anger and the grief. Because there is nothing, NOTHING, that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

And that love should then motivate us to make changes in the world, or our little corner of it, in a way that is more in keeping with the Creator’s intent than bombs and detention camps.

If we are not separated from the love of God, how can we possible act in ways that deny that all are given that love? How can we not feel their pain, as God feels ours? How can we not speak out and say “Enough!”


Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, July 20, 2014 Genesis 28:10-19a “Climbing Up and Down”

Imagine, if you will, a family in a soap opera. Two brothers, in competition for their father’s favor and inheritance. One a favorite of the mother, one a favorite of the father. And one breaks the rules to get what he wants, by hook or by crook. Sibling rivalry taken to an extreme.

It’s an old story. Old as Cain and Abel, where Cain kills Abel because he is jealous that his father prefers Abel’s leg of lamb to his roasted vegetables. Two brothers in competition, and one does something bad to the other.

And so it is with two brothers who are grandsons of the great patriarch Abraham. Twins. Competitors. One is favored but governed by his animal instincts. One is not favored but uses his cleverness to trick the first into giving him what he wants.

It may have been an old pattern with them when they were children, where the one learned he could get what he wanted from the other by offering him a short-term pleasure…a toy, a piece of fruit, a bird, an extra shirt.

And as adults, Jacob, the second born, once again tricked his brother Esau. Not for a little thing. No, this was a big thing. The inheritance. The whole ball of wax. All for a bowl of lentil stew. And remarkably, at a later point, their mother helped Jacob in the bait and switch. Esau went out to hunt for some food for his father, and while he was gone, Jacob, abetted by his mother Rebekah, covered his arms with an animal pelt so he seemed as hairy as his brother, and went to his blind father to receive the blessing – the inheritance. The ruse worked, and when Esau found out, he was enraged.

To save his life, Jacob went on the run. This was presumably a trip to find a wife from among his cousins, but it was as much an escape from his brother’s wrath.

The venal, greedy jealous trickster was on the run.

And this is the journey he is on when we rejoin his story this morning in the reading from Genesis. He is out in the middle of nowhere, a place so remote that it doesn’t have a name. He’s alone. He’s traveling light – no backpack, little in the way of supplies. Why else would he use a stone as a pillow? Not the most comfortable place to lay one’s head.

And perhaps he is restless in his sleep that night…

…and so he sleeps and dreams. A strange dream, to be sure. A ladder, more appropriately described as a ramp or a series of stairsteps like the jagged side of a pyramid, a ziggurat. And there are creatures, divine creatures, going up and down the steps between heaven and earth. Messengers of God are going up and down. We call them angels, but the notion of angels is something that comes to the Bible much later. These are, for our purposes, merely messengers between the divine and the earthly. Our sleeping dreams, too, are the in-between land between heaven and earth, the place where messages from God are delivered. 

Sometimes the messages are clear. Sometimes they are in a code of sorts, and take some figuring out to determine what the divine message is.

But Jacob seems unconcerned with meanings. He is more focused on the fact that God has communicated with him via a dream. God has not abandoned him, outraged by his behavior. No, God is talking to him in the dream. Perhaps this mess that Jacob has created can be salvaged somehow.

Because then the Lord actually speaks to Jacob in the dream. No second-hand messages from those divine creatures. No, Jacob is hearing the word from the Lord directly.

Now if we had done some of the stuff that Jacob has done, the things that caused grief to his mother, enraged his brother, and deeply troubled his father, the last person we would want to be in conversation with is God. We’d be worried that God would smite us for our bad behavior.

But God does no such thing. Not even “that’s all in the past, don’t worry about it.” God simply ignores the earthly mess and looks forward to the future. God makes a promise.

We’ve heard promises before, right? God’s promise to Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation? 

God’s promise to Rebekah that she would have children?

And once again, there is a promise about fertility, both in progeny and in lands, but there is even more in this promise: God promises protection – “I am with you and I will guard you” – and continued companionship – “I will bring you back.”  Three promises in one: accompaniment, protection, homecoming, on top of the renewal of God’s original promise to Abraham that this family will grow beyond belief.

Sort of suprising. It might feel to us like God is actually rewarding Jacob’s bad behavior, but something else seems to be going on.

What happens next?

Jacob wakes up, and he’s frightened. He’s not rejoicing about the promises, he’s shaking in his boots. What’s that about?

Imagine you’re the kid who stole your sister’s favorite sweatshirt and your sister is going to beat you up, or at the very least, go tell mom about it.

You’re nervous. Then suddenly mom shows up and says, “We’re taking you to King’s Dominion this afternoon. You can pick one friend to take with you.” You’re shocked. You expected to get a time-out, or to get grounded or something, and instead mom says, “we’re all going to have some fun.”

Didn’t she hear about the sweatshirt? Will she cancel the trip when she does hear? Of course you’re nervous. 

So much can go wrong between this moment and getting through the gates at King’s Dominion.

But God knows everything. Why would he not punish Jacob? God must know what happened, and God is pretty powerful. Of course Jacob is nervous, because this all makes no sense. This is the world turned upside down.

And it’s more than the simple lack of punishment that is topsy-turvy. It’s even more basic: God has come down to chat with Jacob in this dream. In the ancient stories, God doesn’t do that very often, and the people he talks to are good people, not sneaky tricksters like Jacob. Why would God communicate with this bad guy, and actually make promises that continue the covenant made to Jacob’s grandfather?

That ladder, that ramp or ziggurat, may be a key to this.

We are used to hearing the old spiritual “Jacob’s Ladder,” which says “we are climbing Jacob’s ladder, we are climbing Jacobs’ ladder, we are climbing Jacob’s ladder, soldiers of the cross.” Who’s doing the climbing? We are. In the spiritual, our spiritual development is predicated upon doing the hard work of climbing so that we may go up to God. It’s certainly a theme that resonated with enslaved African-Americans who first sang it.

But it’s not really what is happening in Jacob’s story. Jacob doesn’t seem to be climbing. Messengers from God are going back and forth, doing all the hiking up and down. And then God comes down to Jacob, that greedy, jealous, trick-playing Jacob, the least deserving of God’s favor. God does the work…

…maybe because Jacob is too much of a mess to do the climbing himself. Maybe God knows that Jacob is utterly unable to climb up, so God will climb down. The God who loves this broken young man. The God who promised his grandfather that he would make of him a great nation. The God who put up with his grandfather’s wrong moves, and his father’s wrong moves, but who always, always keeps the divine promise.

The God who will eventually rename this man, no longer Jacob but then renamed Israel, the name that all of God’s people will gather beneath. The God who climbs down, helping us in our weakness, in our wrong choices, in our exhaustion, so that we can do God’s work. The God who loves us enough to believe in us, even when we sometimes forget to believe in God.

Yes, we need to climb up as we are able. But even when are not, God is with us, offering accompaniment, protection and homecoming for each of us. God climbs down until we can climb up. And for that we should be eternally grateful.


Saturday, July 05, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, July 6, 2014 Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67, Romans 7:15-25a “What’s a Person To Do?”

We continue in Genesis in our Hebrew Bible reading this morning. We were at the turning point of the family of Abraham and Sarah last week, with the near-death of the son of the patriarch and the subsequent death of Sarah.

Now we move to the next generation, and the story of the marriage of Isaac. And it starts out well. The bride-to-be does all the right things, and when she sees her husband to be, she is so pleased that she literally falls off her camel. 

Now first let me give you a sneak preview of how the story will continue in the next generation. Rebecca's son Jacob gets tricked into marrying two sisters, his cousins, by his father-in-law. Yup, you heard me right. He marries not one but two cousins.

The next time someone starts preaching about Biblical family values, remember this story, one of the earliest ones, and an arranged marriage to a cousin, trickery by an uncle, and a second marriage to that cousin’s sister while still married to the first cousin. So much for one man, one woman.

It’s a messy family.

At Monday book group this past week, we were talking about genealogy and the story behind the neatly printed charts of who married whom and who begat whom. Names and lines and dates only begin to tell the story. I shared a different kind of genealogical chart called a genogram. It not only lists the names and the connections, it also lists things like who was in conflict with whom, who died young or of disease, who divorced whom, who suffered from alcoholism or addiction, who was mentally unstable. It gives those who study families a clearer picture of the patterns in a family, and if we try to draw up a genogram of this particular patriarchal family, Abraham and Sarah and their child who is now married, we do see some patterns.

Abraham and Sarah have a complicated relationship. After all, Abraham drags Sarah out of the only community she has known to go to Egypt at the command of God, where he tries to pass her off as his sister so that he, Abraham, won’t get into trouble with the Powers That Be. Well, if we look back at the part of the story that precedes God’s interaction with Abraham, we do find out that Sarah is indeed Abraham’s half-sister –those biblical family values again, right? – so Abraham isn’t completely lying. I guess he figures half-lying isn’t a sin. So now we’ve got Isaac meeting his beautiful, desirous bride-to-be, only to have her turn out to be infertile, just like her parents-in-law. But God once again intervenes, and Rebecca has twins. She deceives her husband to favor one son over the other.  So already we’ve got infertility and deception between family members in play in both generations.

Patterns…another way of saying that history tends to repeat itself. Isaac and
Rebecca will struggle with the same problem of infertility that plagued his parents. Rebecca’s twin sons will struggle with power and damaged relationships…just as Abraham did, just as Isaac did, just as we do today.

Once again, we’re in the realm of Dr. Phil, and as we read the story, we have the uncontrollable urge to say “How’s that workin’ for ya?” with a Texas twang.

And I don’t know about you, but I also have the urge to say to God, “Gee, couldn’t you find a somewhat less dysfunctional bunch of people to be the start of the great nation that ends up including us?”

But God’s wisdom is deeper than our human understanding.

How can we be a part of the great nation unless we are just like our forebears? Great, brave, strong, complicated, endlessly creative, and yet imperfect, in need of our Creator to guide and correct and protect and occasionally  rebuke…we are, indeed, just like our forebears.

In some stories, the characters are perfection personified. They are heroes, supermen and women who defeat evil, who struggle but inevitably triumph. We know that Superman will crush Lex Luthor. We know that Harry Potter will vanquish Lord Voldemort. There’s a comfort in stories like that…they make us feel that good will conquer evil, that we are safe, that heroes will recue us. But that’s not the way things work, is it?

As we grow older, we are no longer satisfied by Harry Potter or Superman, as much fun as they are. We recognize that they are fantasies. Inevitable victory on this earthly plane is not realistic. We know that the good will triumph at the end of days, but here on earth, there is no such guarantee.

And so we find ourselves reading more ambiguous stories, the conflicted and imperfect heroes of the mystery writer John LeCarre, the antiheroes of Albert Camus, Raskolnikov in “Crime and Punishment,” Becky Sharp, Scarlett O’Hara. Much more interesting, because they are much more like what we know and what we experience. Flawed, making bad choices, trying to do the right thing but often taking the wrong path…

…rather like Paul, who says “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. “ 

Rather like us. We know perfectly well when we do something wrong that it is, indeed, wrong. We do it anyway. Perhaps out of convenience, perhaps out of laziness, perhaps out of greed or jealousy or desire or familiarity, but we do it anyway.

And suddenly it makes sense why our Creator has chosen this incredibly messy family to be the starting point for the great nation. Because how can we know how beloved we are, in all of our imperfection, if we do not see how God can use Abraham and his dysfunctional clan to actually bring the promised great nation into being?

If God can take the guy who was married to his half-sister and allowed her to be taken by the Egyptian pharaoh for his harem, the same guy who nearly killed his own son, the son who was tricked by his uncle into a loveless marriage but then managed to get the girl he wanted, who turned out to not be as fertile as everyone liked…if God can take this Dr. Phil family and turn them into the Chosen People, even after they do stupid thing after stupid thing, then certainly God can use us to continue the story of the Chosen People.

What’s a Creator to do, when that Creator wants to move the story of the relationship between created and creator to the next phase of the story? Pick a family, even an imperfect family, and give them what they need. And pick them up when they mess up. And correct them when they get off-track. And love them in spite of it all. Because the story of the relationship is about coming back again and again to the love between creator and created, in spite of the problems.

What’s a person to do, an imperfect person, who wants to do what is right, but who keeps on making the wrong choice, who keeps on doing what he or she knows is off-track, but who keeps trying to turn back to the One who created her? Simply love the God who loves her so much that forgiveness is freely given, and strive to build a more perfect relationship.

What’s a person to do? Love God, as best as we can. Love others, because we find God through other human beings who are just as imperfect as we are. Love ourselves, because God – who has really good judgment about such things – loves us beyond measure.

That’s all there is to do. How will your Monday look different because of that?