Saturday, March 29, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, March 30, 2014 Lent 4 1 Samuel 16:1-13 “The Unexpected Choice”

We have moved forward from the beginnings of God’s relationship with humanity in the Garden of Eden to the definition of what faith looks like in the story of Abraham to the struggles of Moses as he led God’s people out of Egypt. Now we are in a very different place – the call of David to be the anointed King. Just as we have moved forward chronologically, we have also moved forward to another chapter in the often fractious relationship between God and God’s people.

At first, it was just God and the first humans. Animals, too, and trees and plants and other things. But in terms of relationship, it was very much an intimate encounter. God walked in the garden with them. God sat by as Adam named the creatures. God dug his hands into the dirt to form Adam, and then dig his hands into Adam’s own body to create Eve. And God’s disappointment in Adam and Eve when they ate the forbidden fruit was the palpable pain and grief of a parent whose children disobeyed and caused themselves harm as a result.

As time passed, and as the number of humans increased, the relationship changed. It was not quite as intimate. God became more distant, seemingly sitting above the workings of the humans – both good and bad workings, both good and bad humans – and did not directly address them all. Except for Abraham, to whom God made a promise of parenthood, of nationhood, of a particular relationship with God. Abraham did not always follow instructions, his children were sometimes wayward, but the relationship with God remained as if it were the frame of a house in which they all resided, and God continued to bless Abraham and Abraham’s descendants, even when they erred.

But somehow, the relationship frayed and became even more distant, at a time when it seemed Abraham’s descendants, now numbering so many more than the first and second generations, should be particularly grateful. God had saved them, giving the charge to Moses to lead them out of slavery in Egypt, directly protecting them over and over again, providing for them…but those children of Abraham, now wandering in the desert, doubted God’s presence, doubted God’s promise, until God, through Moses, once again did a miraculous act to remind them of divine love and care and promise.

Fast forward and now we are in a different time as we hear the reading from 1 Samuel. Abraham’s descendants are now a nation. They have crossed into the promised land, the land of milk and honey. But they look around and see that other nations who neighbor them have a different political structure. Instead of relying on their relationship with God and their religious ritual to structure their nation, they want a king. An earthly king to rule and to fight for them and to lead them. A king who is as powerful as Pharaoh was in ancient times. Someone who looks like a king.

Prior to this point, they had had judges who were the arbiters and the leaders, judges who had sometimes been faithful to God’s instructions and who had sometimes fallen in love with themselves and forgotten their God. It had not been perfect, but it was, at least to some extent, a system that tied the actions of the nation to their relationship with God. But that wasn’t good enough. Now they want a king. And the prophet and judge Samuel says, in essence, “be careful what you wish for.” They insist, in part because they don’t much care for Samuel’s sons, and want someone else to lead the nation. So Samuel is led by God to anoint Saul, a powerful and physically attractive military leader, to be the first king of Israel.

The people rejoice, seeing that they have gotten just the king they wanted. Great military man, handsome and tall, fearless, but also flawed.  Of course he was flawed. We are all flawed in some way. And it seems that powerful people, people with big personalities, often have big and powerful flaws. And when he was in the grip of emotions and stress, Saul made bad decisions that were in conflict with the instructions that God had given him.

And so it was necessary for Saul to be replaced. God gave instructions to Samuel, the designated anointer of kings in that time. Samuel was still grieving over Saul’s failure but God said, “Buck up. I’ve got a plan. Get your anointing oil and go to Bethlehem. The next king will be there among Jesse’s sons.” Now Samuel knew that this was risky business. Saul was still technically king. Anointing a new king while the old one was still around was treason. If Saul heard about this, Samuel would be toast. But God gave him a cover story, and off he went to do what God commanded. There was one problem: God didn’t say which one of Jesse’s sons was to be king, and Jesse had several sons.

You know how things went in the ancient world – the eldest son was always the logical choice when it came to things like being in charge, getting inheritances, making decisions. So Jesse trotted out his firstborn, Eliab.  Eliab was a handsome young man, tall, attractive, personable.  Sort of like Saul, whom the Book of Samuel described as the tallest and handsomest man in all Israel. But the Lord whispered in Saul’s ear, “No, not him. How he looks is irrelevant to me.”

So maybe the obvious choice was not the one. “Okay,” Samuel told Jesse, “Show me your next son.” And Jesse called forward Abinadab. We don’t know if he’s a tall guy, or a handsome guy, just next in the queue…in a heartbeat, the Lord says to Samuel, “No, not him.” And one by one, Jesse called each of his sons to parade before him – sort of sounds like a strange Miss America contest, doesn’t it? – and each time the Lord said “Nah. Not him.” One wonders what poor Jesse was thinking…”not a single one of my wonderful boys?” But Samuel, prompted by God, said, “Is there any other one?”

Another one. The youngest. The smallest. The least likely choice according to the way that things worked in those days. Jesse must have though Samuel was crazy. “Yup, there’s one more. But he’s the little one. He’s out tending the sheep.” Samuel, tired by now, said “Get him, and get him quick. We are all going to stand here until you get him.” I expect he sounded sort of testy at this point and I am sure Jesse was nervous. So they ran and got the youngster out of the fields and brought him in. Not tall and handsome, but appearances must count for something, because he was described as having a bit of a flush in his cheeks and beautiful eyes. And the Lord told Samuel, “this one is the one. Don’t argue with me. I know perfectly well he is just barely a child, that he has no experience in battle, that he is small. Anoint him. This is the one.” And the scripture says “Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.”

We don’t know if the brothers said “why him and not me?” We don’t know if Jesse was shocked. We don’t know if David was frightened. All we know is that this most unlikely choice was the Lord’s choice, even if to human eyes it all seemed ridiculous.

Quite a story, but how does it fit into the conversation we have been having over the past few weeks about sin, grace, faith and redemption? We’ve talked about both individual and corporate failure to live as God intends us to live. We’ve talked about the staggeringly generous and undeserved grace that God gives us, forgiving us our sins, through Jesus Christ. We’ve talked about finding hope that we can do better even as we admit our many failings. But how do we figure out where hope lies? There are many options as we try to amend our lives. Which way is the right way? We might find a clue in this story of the anointing of David.

Remember the first choice of king? Saul, the one who looked and acted like a king? Saul, who displeased the Lord because he thought he should do things his own way rather than following God’s instructions? Saul was the obvious choice. And yet he was the wrong one. It was not about earthly measures of who would be the right choice. It was not about his exterior, his handsomeness, his height. The way he looked was not the only measure of whether or not he was the right choice.

So God’s next choice was David, the least obvious choice. An attractive child, to be sure, but a child. Not an experienced leader of anything except sheep. Not the visual image of a king, tall and easy on the eyes. Not a fearless warrior. Not even the firstborn in his family, a child so insignificant that when Samuel asked Jesse to show him his sons, David wasn’t even invited to the party. But there was something God saw in David – not the exterior, but the interior. And so God chose David.  David, the one who would become King David, an imperfect King but one who loved God, the one whose line would culminate in Jesus of Nazareth. The least likely one in which the people of Israel should have hope, and yet God’s choice.

What if the right choices to repair our brokenness and failures are not the obvious ones, the easy answers, the checklist solutions? What if the right choices are the hard, strange and unlikely ones? Changing our priorities to ones the world doesn’t understand. Forgiving those that some folks who say don’t deserve our forgiveness. Helping those who are dirty or scary or strange or ones we can’t really fix. Not buying the newest and shiniest trinket so as to avoid adding last year’s toy to the landfill. Passing on that Starbucks grande caramel macchiato in favor of a cup of coffee from your own kitchen and putting that money into the UTO blue box.  Speaking up when someone says something unkind or demeaning, even when it’s your boss. Thinking that a good vacation is not the one that takes you to the wildest place on the planet just so you can say you did it, but the one that gives you the opportunity to spend time with your family.

These are not choices that make much sense to 90 percent of the people around us. These are most certainly not easy choices. But they are the choices that are shaped by God’s definition of what it means to be good, to be in relationship with our Lord, to be, in the fullest sense, a Christian.

What choices will you make to grow closer to God this Lent? What choices will you make to live as a Christian for the rest of your life? Think twice – it’s not the obvious choice. But it will be the right one. You’ll know it when it surprises you. 


Saturday, March 22, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, March 23, 2014 Lent 3 Exodus 17:1-7 “Are We There Yet?”

If the past two Sunday’s readings from the Old Testament were about sin as an individual failing, this Sunday’s reading is about sin as a communal activity. We’ve got all of those Israelites who left Egypt, who escaped from Pharaoh and his miserable brick-making operation, who saw God’s power and protection as the Sea was parted for them to pass and was drawn back together to drown their Egyptian captors…they should be happy, right? Moses has led them out of Egypt. God has protected them. There is a land promised for them. They only have to get there.

They should be happy, but they’re not. They’re complaining.

They’ve been camping out, and there is no water, or at least not enough. Not a surprise – they’re walking through the desert. It’s not a picnic at the beach, literally or figuratively. They probably have blisters on their feet from walking over the hot sand. They are most likely afraid that Moses doesn’t have a clue where they’re supposed to go. They have no sense that what they were promised will ever come to fruition. They fear that they will die out in this blasted moonscape of heat and grit and nothing to eat or drink.

In this passage, the words that describe what’s happening are quarreling and testing the Lord. I think that would translate into something more like whining and complaining and picking fights with each other, because God isn’t visible to them. Otherwise, they’d pick a fight with God.

If you want to put yourself in their place, imagine that you’re driving to the Outer Banks and somewhere on the highway, after your kids have eaten and drunk everything you packed to help you all get through the trip, the car gets a flat tire. You get out, laboriously unpack all the stuff in the back that you packed so carefully only a couple of hours ago so that you can get to the spare, only to discover that it, too, is flat. You mutter a few choice words. By now, the kids are saying “when will we get there? I’m hungry/thirsty/need to go to the bathroom.” And you murmur sarcastically under your breath “God, thanks a lot!” You conveniently forget that God is responsible for you having the kind of work that means you can afford a car and a vacation and such. And as the temperature rises while you’re waiting for AAA to show up, the tempers of everyone in the car rise as well, until everybody’s blaming everyone else for the situation. “I thought I told you to get the tire pressure checked.” “Mommy, I’ve got to go potty NOW.” “Why is it always my job to make sure the car is maintained?” “Who ate all the Pringles?” “This was supposed to be my vacation, and I’m spending it frying like a, like a…potato chip on the side of the road.” “I’m bored.” “He’s touching me!” “It’s not MY fault!”

Muttering and murmuring, just like the Israelites. You can imagine the Israelites had exactly the same kind of conversation, minus the car and the Pringles.

Now you and I both know that in the car ride with the flat tire scenario, eventually AAA will come and help. We can stay in a motel down the road if it’s impossible to get to the beach that night. There are 7-11s and supermarkets and restaurants, and we will not starve or die of thirst. And still we mutter and murmur, because our needs are not being satisfied and because we have lost touch with the hope that they will eventually be satisfied.

We have lost touch with hope. I’d say that was the biggest failing of the Israelites on this epic journey from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. At regular intervals, they lost touch with hope. They forgot the promise, or didn’t believe that God would deliver on the promise, or didn’t think it was happening fast enough, and Moses was a convenient scapegoat, since Moses was the one having the conversations with God.

And so Moses went to have a conversation with God about these aggravating people who kept saying the Old Testament equivalent of “are we there yet?”

Some of us are old enough to remember a comedian named Henny Youngman, whose most famous routine always started with “take my wife.” With those words, he set us up to believe that he was talking about his wife as an example of something or other, but he immediately extended the phrase, “no, please, take my wife, take her.” And then he would make a joke out of whatever thing she did that was annoying Youngman at the time.

Whenever I hear the verse about Moses talking to God about the muttering and murmuring Israelites, I hear the voice of Henny Youngman: “Take these Israelites, Lord. No, please, take ‘em.” Only it isn’t a joke. He is exhausted with the task of keep them going, keeping them walking and camping and worshipping and simply existing, and he has had enough. The people have lost hope that God will give them what was promised, including what they need to survive the journey. And when you lose hope, you lose faith.

So God provides Moses with a little miracle, to remind the people where all that they have comes from. God instructs Moses to go to a rock and hit it with his stick, and then water will come out, beautiful refreshing cool sweet water, all the water they need. Presumably, a nice swig of that water helped them remember that God was with them, and that Moses was God’s servant in this expedition.

Would that a glass of water were all we needed to reconnect with hope! We all may have had times in our lives when we lost hope that God would be with us. That might have been because God did not give us what we wanted when we wanted it – we didn’t get the promotion we wanted, our child married someone we didn’t much like, our loved one still died despite all our prayers, someone we cared about continued to drink or abuse drugs. We might have muttered and murmured and said, like the Israelites, “Where is God when I need him?”

But God does not always give us what we demand of him, as if we expect God to be our personal servant. God sometimes does other things that make little sense to us in the moment. And like petulant children strapped into the car seat on that trip to the Outer Banks, we complain and say “why aren’t we there yet? Why can’t I get what I want?”

But somehow God doesn’t get aggravated and say “take these people, please.” Who would God ask to take us away? No, God is stuck with us in all our muttering and murmuring and God loves us still…and God is with us in ways that we can see and in ways that are invisible. And that should reconnect us to our hope in God’s promise and to our faith.

Changing that tire on the side of the road? No one driving by too quickly hit you, right? God is with us. The water that comes out of the tap doesn’t give you cholera or river blindness? God is with us. The nurse caring for our dying grandfather ever so gently caresses his hand when she checks on him at 2 am, shortly before he passes into God’s arms? God is with us.

We may not want to call losing hope a sin, but if sin is most simply defined as turning from God, what is hopelessness but the sense that we no longer believe that God is with us? When God isn’t the butler attending to our needs, we say we have no hope that God will deliver.

And if this is a painful failing for us as individuals, how much sadder is it when we lose hope as a community or as a nation?

When we all start muttering and murmuring, forgetting all that we have, because we want what we want it and we want it now?

When we expect to have the right to do whatever we want to do and the heck with other peoples’ needs, like food for the hungry and clean water for the thirsty and care for those who are ill? Who cares about them? I want MY needs met!

Like the Israelites at Massah and Meribah, we too may be feeling hopeless. We may be thirsting for something…water, love, companionship, whatever…and we may even be a little angry at God or think God is not attending to our needs. But when we as a community of believers put our thirst ahead of the thirst of others, we never get the water we need. We are bound to follow Jesus Christ, the Christ whose death and resurrection we ponder in the season of Lent. He is the hope that is in us. He is the living water that banishes all thirst.

But unless we remember that it is not our personal living water, our individual living water, but rather the living water that is freely given to all, we will continue to choke on our own dryness of mouth and heart.

Got hope? Share it, trust it, have faith in it. Offer water for those who thirst to everyone, not just ourselves and our immediate clan of family and friends. Then, and only then, will our thirst be satisfied.Then we will not ask "are we there yet?" We know that we will be there, at last.


Saturday, March 15, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, March 16, 2014 Lent 2 Genesis 12:1-4a “Blessing”

The creators of the lectionary, that calendar of readings from Scripture that guides what we hear each Sunday, sometimes make some choices that cause us to scratch our heads.

The Gospel readings in this season of Lent are not the problem. They march along, telling the story about how Jesus got so very crosswise with the political and religious power structure of his time, how radical his teachings were, and how finally he was killed by those whose power was threatened by him. The Epistle readings, similarly, contain instructions and correctives for the communities who tried to follow Jesus’ way but somehow went off track and started doing things that were in fact sinful. That all makes sense – we learn about how Jesus tried to rebuild the covenant between God and God’s people, and how they didn’t always get it right. But the old testament readings – ah, there’s the part where we sometimes wonder what was in the minds of the lectionary designers.

Last week was pretty straightforward. We heard all about Eve, and humanity’s first instance of failing to follow God’s instructions. Since we are in this season of penitence, of figuring out how we ourselves have gone astray, talking about what may have been the first sin seems logical. But then we come to this week’s reading from the Hebrew Bible, once again from the book of Genesis, and we wonder what the lectionary folks were thinking about.

For here we have the story of God’s instruction to our primeval forebear Abraham, that he should gather his family, such as it was, and get moving to some unnamed place. God tells Abraham that if he goes,   “I [God] will bless you and make your name great so that you will be a blessing.”

Just like last week, God is giving an instruction. This time it’s not about trees and fruit, it’s about going somewhere. Sort of the same, sort of different. But an instruction nonetheless. And there are consequences. Whereas in the story of the tree and the fruit and the snake, God has instructed that if the humans eat the fruit, they shall die – a negative consequence – in this story of God’s command to Abraham there’s a positive consequence. Go where I tell you and I will bless you so that you will be a blessing. I guess God read the books about behavioral psychology which assert that positive reinforcement works better than negative reinforcement…the negative certainly didn’t seem to work in the garden of Eden.

I will bless you and so that you will be a blessing. What does it mean?

Clearly getting blessed is a good thing, a positive reinforcement. We love to be blessed, whether it is our parent saying “I’m so proud of you!” or our boss saying “Good job on the Foofram presentation today!” or our God saying “this is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.”

But what about the second half of the sentence; ”so that you will be a blessing?” What does it mean to be a blessing, and what does it have to do with Lent? Perhaps the first place to start is to figure out what the word blessing means. It’s certainly a word that gets used a lot in this little passage. The word berakah, or blessings, occurs five times in two lines. God wants to make sure that Abraham knows without the shadow of a doubt that the consequences of following God’s command will be not only good, but five times good. Blessing upon blessing upon blessing upon blessing upon blessing.

And it’s a blessing that moves from the individual blessing of Abraham to the blessing of his marriage to the blessing of his family, the family that hasn’t been born  yet, to the blessing of all the world…because God’s blessing at the start is eventually spread throughout all the world because of Abraham.

God gives this extraordinary blessing – nowhere else in the Bible does God use this kind of repetitive blessing formula – and how does Abraham respond? Does he deliver a powerful speech in response to what God has said? Does he make a whole bunch of promises back to God outlining how Abraham will keep his part of the bargain?

Here’s what the book of Genesis says: “So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.”

He just gets up and does what God told him to do. Doesn’t question it, although it is a pretty shocking thing for God to demand. Doesn’t say “okay, but let me take care of a few things first.” Doesn’t do anything except just do what God said.

And that, as we hear in the letter to the Romans, is faith. Abraham doesn’t question God’s command. He just does it. And he does it even though it seems sort of crazy. But he trusts God’s promises.

And he most likely isn’t really sure what God means when God says “you will be a blessing.” Does it mean he will be a good father, even though he is 100 and not yet a father? Does it mean that he will be a model of righteousness for the whole world? We haven’t even heard the word righteousness yet in the Bible, so he may not think in those terms. Perhaps it means all of these things, or just simply that Abraham will be a good man that can make a difference in the world. Abraham doesn’t know for sure, and God doesn’t give any further definition. And despite the lack of clarity, Abraham still goes. Because he has faith in God. He trusts that God will lead him on this journey, and in his life.

So now we get to the part where we think about how this fits into Lent. We’re in a very different place than Abraham, and not just because we’re in Richmond and not in Haran, or because that was several millennia ago and this is 2014. We know a whole lot more about God than Abraham did. After all, we have the benefit of a holy book, the Bible, which is conveniently translated into English. We have the benefit of Jesus Christ, God’s son, who came to help us know God better. We have the benefit of teaches and preachers and scholars to answer some, if not all, of our questions.

So why is it so much harder for us to believe, to have faith, than it was for Abraham? It doesn’t make sense. Or at least, it doesn’t make sense until we read the rest of the Bible, the rest of the story of the rocky relationship between God and God’s people.  Time and time again, we fail in our relationship with God because we cannot believe it’s true – that God loves us in spite of all our failings, that God is with us even when things are going badly, that we are saved even when we feel utterly bereft. God gives each and every one of us not five blessings, but five hundred thousand blessings, in our lives, in a smile, in our education, in meaningful work, in our families, and still we shake our head and say “how could our creator be so good to us? It can’t be true.”

I could delve into the psychology of guilt and shame to try and explain why we do this, but it would take longer than we have here this morning. But I will boil it down to a very simple formula. We find it hard to believe that God loves and cares for us and blesses us because we often think we are unworthy of that love and care and blessing. We think God could not possibly give us a divine blessing because we cannot even give ourselves a blessing. All we see is our imperfection, our failure. How can we be blessed? How can we be a blessing? We are all a mess.

And thus we come to the blessing of Lent. The starting point of Lent is that we are not perfect. In fact, we are far from it. And it is good to take some time to review our lives, to see what we need to correct so that we act in the way God has created us to act. But there is a corollary to this self-examination: there is more to us than just our brokenness. We are created by a God who made us in the divine image. Not perfect, but in God’s image…which means there is always good in us. And God seeks and celebrates the good in us, even as God urges us to amend that which is not good. And to have faith, even when we look deeply into our souls and don’t like what we see, we have to acknowledge that God sees more than the sin. God sees the good acts. God sees the possibilities. God sees the part of us that is most like the image of God. And when we acknowledge that, we can trust in God even in times when we struggle to connect with our creator.

Lent is not only about beating ourselves up for all the ways in which we have been bad followers. Lent is also about seeing what God sees in us – the possibilities of greater holiness. Abraham had no idea what would happen when he left his family’s ancestral land. All he knew was that God said it would be a good thing. We have no idea what will await us in the months and years to come. But if we trust that God truly loves us in all our complexity, then we know that God is promising that we will be blessed as Abraham was blessed, simply for believing that God will bless us. That second half of the sentence, “you will be a blessing” that we have been puzzling over? It isn’t clear and that’s alright. You believe and God blesses you and you are a blessing because are the living symbol of belief, and how you are that symbol, how you are that blessing, is going to be different for each and every one of you. The only common characteristic is the most important one: you believe. And because of that, you are both blessed and blessing.

Does it mean you’ll win the lottery? Most likely not. Does it mean that you’ll have a whole bunch of kids and be the patriarch or matriarch of all of God’s people? I doubt it. But God will bless each and every one of us in ways both commonplace and extraordinary.

So in this holy season of Lent, believe that God will bless you. Believe that you probably won’t know until a blessing comes and that you probably won’t be able to predict the timing or the nature of it. Believe that you may not even know when you will be a blessing, because we can’t always see how we affect others. Just prepare yourself by sweeping away the doubts and demands of proof. Simply say yes to God. Get up and go. You will be blessed and you will be a blessing.      Amen.