Sunday, September 26, 2010

Who is she?

Psalm 8
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-36

Who is she? I’ve never seen her here before. I walk these streets daily. I’m down here at the busy gates into town every single day, but I don’t recognize her. I’ve never noticed her before, and I think I’d notice a woman like that. I definitely noticed her today. How could I miss her? She had my spot. She was standing on my corner, right next to the gate for easy visibility. I’ve been working there for a long time, so I know the best place to be noticed, and she was definitely trying to be noticed. She put herself right there in the middle of the hustle and bustle so she could be seen and heard. She stood where only prophets and prostitutes dare to stand, but she had nothing to sell. How dare she take our prime location! Who is she?

I go there daily to do my job, to serve in the temple of Asherah. Yes, I sell myself, but I do it to make others holy. I do it so that the men can be blessed by the gods. That’s what it takes for them to get what they pray for. That’s what it takes for our land, our community to be blessed with abundance. Some women are there only to make money for themselves, but I’m there for a higher purpose. I’m there because the gods demand it. I’m there because I HAVE to be for the good of all of us. Right?

I don’t go there to shout from the corner the things I think, the ideas I have. No one would stop to listen to me if I tried. I wouldn’t have thought anyone would stop to listen to any of us women, but people stopped for her. I stopped to hear her. Who IS she?

She was talking about one of the gods, Yahweh. Only the people who follow that god seem to think it’s the only god. I don’t know how they do it. I don’t know how they throw all their faith in just one god. I don’t know how they can trust just their Yahweh to protect them and provide for them, to feed them and to fight for them. I don’t know how they can understand that the same god who gave birth to the earth, is the same god who greets the dead. But they do. They believe in just one god, one god who does it all.

So, she was talking about this god, her one god, like many prophets do from the exact same crossroads, but she spoke like I’ve never heard anyone speak before. She spoke like she really knew Yahweh; she knew Yahweh deeper than one person knows another. She knew Yahweh more intimately than a woman knows a man. She knew Yahweh even more personally than a parent knows a child. She is close to her god. She is definitely WITH her god, not just when she prays, not just when she is near the temple. She is with her Yahweh indefinitely. Who is she?

The people around me were mocking her at first. We all were. It’s not too often we see a woman prophesying like this. Sometimes it turns out that they’ve lost their mind, and they don’t even know what they’re saying. Other times they teach from their experience and their knowledge of what has happened before. At first we thought she was like either of these kinds of women, but slowly the murmuring started to change. It was went from mocking little comments under the breath, to disbelief, to some strange sort of belief. We didn’t know who she was, but she captivated us. She owned us while she spoke. She was calming and trustworthy, commanding and peacemaking. She was wise.

But the Wise Woman’s wisdom wasn’t human wisdom. Her knowledge and experience wasn’t of this time and place. She knew the world in a way we didn’t; she knew it from before its existence. She was there before anything else was; she was there stirring about, rejoicing and dancing as each piece was put in place. She was there when the mountains were shaped. She was there when the skies were put in place to separate the waters above from the waters below. She was there when the sea was told to come no further. She was there for all of it, and she was there even before, this Wise Woman. She was there with her one God. She was with Yahweh. Was she, is she Yahweh?

The wise woman, Sophia, they might say in the language of the city, called to them. She stood in that busy crossroad, right there at the gate to the city. She stood there where only prophets dare to stand and speak for God, and she spoke with wisdom and authority like we have never heard. She stood there and spoke and called to them, “Happy is the one that listens to me….whoever finds me finds life.” It was more than I have ever been able to offer. It is more than any of our temples dare to promise. We peddle blessings, abundant crops, a fleeting happiness or momentary excitement, but we can’t offer life. She called to them, to all who were walking through the streets that day, she called to them that they might hear her, and wait for her, and live in her wisdom.

She called to them. Was she also calling to me? I can’t imagine she would care. I mean, she is so wise, certainly she knows what little I have to offer. Certainly she knows how I spend my days, how during the night I just try to sleep away the memories of everything I’ve done. Certainly she doesn’t mean to include me in her call. It was just for the men, for the powerful, the righteous. It was just for the ones bustling to the next business deal, the ones who become holy in the temples, the ones with earthly riches and heavenly promises. It was just for the ones who know all about her god, that Yahweh. It was just for those who are on the inside already, right?

This woman, this Wise Woman, with wisdom from beyond creation, she was only calling to them right? She wasn’t calling to me?

But… but… maybe she was. If what she said is true, if what I could feel about her when she spoke is true, if she was there at the beginning of all this, if she was there when there were no depths, no springs abounding with water, if she was there before the first bits of soil were laid down, if all of this was true, then yes she was calling to me, too. The Wise Woman was calling to me. “To all that live,” she announced her good word. Right there are the gates of the city she stood, right there at the crossroads of our town, the crossroads of MY life, she stood and she cried out “To you, O people, I call.” To me, even to me, she called. Even to me, the Wise Woman spoke. Even in me she found delight, and even to me she gave new life.

The one who was there blowing over the water of creation, the one who threw the stars into the sky, the one who knows their numbers in the heavens, the one who knows their placement in the cosmos, she is calling even to me to follow. May even just a small drop of her wisdom be mine. May I walk in her way of righteousness.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Divine Extravagance

I found it rather ironic mid-week when I was struggling over and deeply worrying about my sermon for this week. People often ask about what the process is for writing sermons, and I can tell you that it’s different for every preacher. But for me some weeks the words seem to come easily and some weeks, like Jacob who wrestled with an angel deep in the night, so do I wrestle with the Word of God. This was one of those wrestling weeks.

The passage that’s listed there is not what I will read, or actually it’s just a portion of what I will read. It’s one that was very familiar to me, maybe to you, too, and one of heard preached countless times. Sometimes that actually makes writing a new sermon harder. It feels like everything that could be said has, and gets me worrying if I am finding a message that maybe hasn’t been said. Maybe I’m getting it all wrong. Hence the worrying about a sermon on a passage that seems on the surface to be all about not worrying.

But, I struggled with God’s word this week because that surface reading just wasn’t working for me, especially because of where this familiar passage comes in the gospel according to Luke. One little word in the beginning of this reading just kept tripping me up. That word? “Therefore.”

It’s not even a theological word, but it just kept getting in the way of writing a sermon about worry or not worrying. “Therefore” connects this perfect “Flora and Fauna Sunday” passage about the ravens of the air and the lilies of the field to what comes before. What Jesus is saying about worrying, often a comforting passage for those who feel overworked and overstressed, means something completely different when read back to find out what this passage is answering. So, despite what the order of worship says (something I often complete earlier in the week than my sermon when I end up wrestling like this), I’m going to read more than just the “Flora and Fauna” passage. Today’s gospel reading is Luke 12:13-31. Listen now for God’s word.

Luke 12:13-31

The request from the man in the crowd doesn’t seem too out of order. He just wants things to be fair. He just wants a share of the family’s inheritance, something that may not have been customary at the time, but it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to ask. Yet, Jesus has some pointed words for this man and others, who might be trying to accumulate wealth. He tells the man in the crowd to be careful what he wishes for. Jesus tells him to “Take care!” saying that even this might be a form of greed.

His parable that follows is pretty clear. The rich farmer had barns that were good enough, that were big enough, to hold his already successful harvest, but he wanted more. He wanted bigger barns to hold more crops and more possessions. He was sure he could make his soul happy by gathering grain and goods and holding fast to them. But Jesus is quick to point out that this just doesn’t work. The things he has gathered may make him rich on earth, but they take him nowhere in his relationship with God. His actions are driven by greed and not by a faithful desire to find happiness in God. He tries to accumulate wealth, to gather riches, but the treasures he stores up take him far from what God truly wants.

Wealth and extravagance, in terms of money and material goods that are accumulated and held onto, do not come out on the winning side of that parable. Yet in the next breath, in the directions indicated by the “therefore” Jesus praises the extravagant beauty of the lilies and grasses of the field. The lilies he calls us to consider are apparently clothed more beautifully than the great King Solomon ever was. They don’t have to work. They don’t have to struggle. They are just blessed with this beauty and are praised for the extravagance they stand for. Their rich beauty is praised by Jesus right after he finishes speaking against the man’s riches!

Why is wealth or the appearance of wealth sinful in one case, but a sign of ideal living for God’s creatures in the next? What’s the difference between the man who delights in his riches and the lily that displays its?

The “therefore” gives us our answer. “Therefore, I tell you,” Jesus says, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.” “Do not worry.” Worry here is more than just hand-wringing. It’s sort of like believing in the New Testament. Belief is never just something you agree with in your head or in your heart even. Belief in the New Testament pretty much always implies actions that go with it. Worrying here is not just thinking and wondering what is going to happen; worrying is gathering wealth and stockpiling it. Worrying is pulling down barns that were big enough and building bigger ones that are too big. Worrying is holding back what we have been given for our own use, or even trying to gather more than what we need just to be sure that we’ll have it.

That’s what the rich man in the parable is doing; it’s what the man from the crowd who questions Jesus is trying to get him to bless. The difference in the riches Jesus warns us against and the riches he praises is not so much where they come from. With the rich man in the parable, the wealth in question is wealth which with he has been blessed by God. The crops he gathers, sure have come to him after seasons of hard work and learning the ways of the fields, but the gifts of the land are gifts from God, God who designed the plants to produce seeds that grow, God who sends rains to water the earth and causes the sun to shine on the leaves that grow. And likewise the riches displayed by the flowers of the earth also come from God’s delicate designing hand.

The difference between these two rich examples is not where they come from, but what is done with them. The crops the man harvests are gifts given to him by God, and yet he seeks to gather them for no other purpose than to hoard them away for himself. He stores them up, intends to hold onto them for many years, and he even thinks that in doing so he has found a way to make his soul happy. He holds back the treasures he has been freely given by God for himself and his own enjoyment. His extravagance and riches are self-centered and serve only to bring joy and merriment to one. He is concerned only with himself, his own happiness, his own future, his own needs, and with such single-mindedness his concern turns to active worry and his worry turns quickly to the sin of greed.

Likewise the riches the lily displays have been freely given by God. The flowers of the field are draped by God more beautifully than Solomon was dressed in fine robes and jewels. God has taken care to be sure each flower is rich in color and fragrance, that each blade of grass can dance in the wind, that each lily will dazzle the eye that gazes upon it. God has drenched the creation with extravagant riches and beauty and praises the ones who share that beauty freely given.

Jesus makes a good example not out of the industrious human being who finds a way to stockpile everything that grows in the field, not the farmer who hides away the blessings he has received. Instead Jesus tells us to be like a humble and even temporary flower growing wild. It doesn’t work (it CAN’T work) to accumulate more of what it has received by grace, so it grows strong and proud as the one thing God has created it to be. It can do nothing more than share the beauty it has received only from God.

The wealth of the lily, the richness and extravagance that is praised in this flower of the field doesn’t come from storehouse stockpiled out of worry and greed. That’s what the “therefore” points out to us. Storing up treasures for ourselves can’t make us rich toward God; it can’t bring happiness to our souls or create joy in our lives. The treasures we have been given by God, the grace and forgiveness we have received in Christ, the talents we enjoy, even the money and materials things we possess aren’t meant to be stored away for only our benefit. They are meant to be shared with others. The lily is extravagantly beautiful in the eyes of God, it is adorned in divine splendor, because all it can do is share its riches with the world.

Holding back what we have been given is where we so often go wrong. Holding back the riches with which we have been blessed is where we stray from God’s kingdom. When we hold too tightly to God’s grace, refusing to forgive others as we have been forgiven we are greedy with God’s love. When we hold too tightly to our abilities, refusing to offer our skills and talents in service to God and others, we are greedy with God’s creativity. When we hold too tightly to our money and our possessions, investing only for our own futures and our own interests, we are greedy with God’s wealth.

The gifts of God are for each of us and for the world, and God gives these gifts extravagantly! While our impulse is to gather as many of these gifts as we can and store them away, this isn’t what God intends; these aren’t Jesus’ plans for the grace he secured for us. Forgive my blatant personification, but a lily is rich not because it takes all the beauty God has given and hides it underground, sharing nothing with the rest of us but a colorless, bland stalk. The lily is rich and splendid because it is being the best lily it can be in God’s kingdom.

The world in which God delights is not found when we look only inside ourselves, serving only our own interests and desires. The world in which God delights is discovered when each of us loosens the grip we have on the gifts we have been given and shares our God-blessed unique lives with the world. In doing that we will see God’s riches displayed in each other. We will find the kingdom of God which we seek.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Can't remember my title

Psalm 104:1-9, 24-26
Luke 5:1-11

I grew up practically across the street from the ocean on the east coast of Florida. Most people who meet me later in life assume that means I was pretty much a beach girl when I was younger. It’s not true, though, not even close. While I actually love snorkeling and swimming in the water when I’m on vacations (and tracking sand into a RENTED car, dragging it into a hotel room, and leaving it behind on THAT shower floor) I wasn’t very into the beach when I lived there.

But when I do get to snorkel over some beautiful reefs it is not just the gorgeous display of color and rich diversity in the reef fish and the coral structures that I enjoy. I love going past the more shallow reefs to what they call “The Drop Off” in Disney’s animated movie Finding Nemo. The drop off is exactly what it sounds like, that place where the ocean floor seems to just drop out from under you. One minute you’re concentrating on following a particular fish and the next you realize the current has pulled you out where you’re floating over water that is much darker and MUCH deeper. If it’s a beautiful day and calm waters the sunlight makes some amazing patterns as it tries to reach down as far as it can in the water that just gets to be a deeper and deeper shade of blue as it sinks. It’s an amazing feeling to be floating there, so tiny in something so big, and for me, it’s one of those times when I finally start to really get the magnitude of our God, and how truly miniscule I am in the scope of all creation.

The Psalmist in today’s and other psalms tries to capture that same wonder and awe for the magnitude and power of God in descriptions of the deep ocean. The oceans, we heard, are a magnificent piece of God’s handiwork. Their size and power, their depth and strength mirror those of God. They are a place of mystery and majesty, holding up the beams of the chambers of God’s household in one line, and likened to a garment that adorns a ruler in another.

I remember learning even as a child that about 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered by water. A poster I saw at the Minnesota State Fair told me 97% of THAT is salt water in the earth’s oceans and seas. More than half of this oceanic area is 9,800 ft deep. If we think of the 5 oceans we know as one world ocean that continuously flows together we find that the total volume of this body of water is thought to be about 310 million cubic miles. In other words that amount of water could be contained by a cube with an edge length of 690 miles.

Get it? I don’t. I can’t even begin to wrap my brain around numbers and distances and volumes of this magnitude, but the Psalmist says that these waters, the deep oceans of the world, they are just as a garment for God who created them. They are the playground of the Leviathan, a mythical sea monster that makes a few appearances in Old Testament poetry. In modern Hebrew the world leviathan simply means whale, but in ancient times it referred to an almost magical creature, a 7 headed serpent in some literature, a water dragon in others. Yet in Psalm 104, the leviathan doesn’t seem to be a creature to be feared. In fact, in this song praising God’s creation the leviathan is almost like a pet for God, another beloved creature God meets in the deep waters for sport, for play, for enjoyment. The ocean is the playground where God delights in the created order. In the sea, leviathan is like God’s beach ball, and God finds great joy in their time together!

Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures there are precious few narratives set in or near the oceans, surprising for a collection of writings from a people whose entire western border is the Mediterranean Sea. However, if we look even briefly at just a couple of those stories that we do have, there is even more to find out about the deep water and especially God who creates it.

The hallmark story of the Hebrew Scriptures is the exodus of the Hebrew people out of Egypt. This happens, of course, through the water by the miraculous parting of the Red Sea. Out of the depths of the sea God’s people are saved while the Egyptians are left floating behind. The sea is where the people are set free from slavery. It is the site and the method of their salvation.

The prophet Jonah, when he is called to the city Ninevah to preach a message of repentance, runs instead to the sea. He jumps aboard a boat to try to sail away from God’s call only to find out that God could find him better than a modern fish finder on a fishing boat can discover a school just waiting to be caught. Jonah is tossed into the rough sea and even swallowed by a creature within it until he at last decides to follow God’s call. In the sea Jonah is corrected, refined by God. He repents, literally, turns around from the direction he was running in order to go in the direction God is sending him. In the depths of the ocean, Jonah is given a second chance; he is shown God’s grace even in the belly of a whale.

These are all stories, traditions, and understandings of the deep that are ingrained in the minds Jesus and those to whom he speaks at the lake of Gennesaret, probably more commonly known as the Sea of Galilee. This is what they know and think of the water when Jesus asks them to go out further and put their nets out in the deep. Certainly, the depth of this inland sea, about 140 feet at the most, is hardly anything when compared with the depths of the world’s oceans, but for a people who rarely venture out of the shallows, any depth is deep!

But really the numbers don’t matter too much in the way we’re looking at the text today. What matters is what the depths stand for, what happens in the depths, both in the history of the Hebrew people and in what Jesus is asking of his disciples both then and now. Cast your nets into the deep water he challenges them. Throw them out into the unknown, the mysterious, the majestic place of God’s creation, and see what you find. He asks the disciples who are familiar with fishing in the shallow water to go deeper to find what they are looking for.

And he does the same with us. He invites us to cast our nets, our faith, our lives in deeper water. He invites us to go beyond the good feeling we get at the surface when we sing together in worship. He invites us to go beyond the casual friendships we make in this congregation. He invites us to go beyond a basic familiarity with the Scriptures from our Sunday School lessons. He invites us to go beyond a rote recitation of familiar prayers. Jesus invites us to go deep in our relationship with him. He invites us out into the deep water where we are challenged to repent of those things that keep us running from God, where we can be showered with grace and forgiveness in Christ. He calls us to deeper waters where we will know what it means to be freed from our slavery to sin. He beckons us to a relationship with the Triune God that is full of joy and delight, playful holiness in the presence of God.

Jesus invites us into the mysterious deep waters, and we follow him there when we give ourselves over to him. We go deeper with Christ when we gather for worship not out of a sense of duty or routine, but expecting to offer God our praise and attention. We go deeper when we care for one another in this community and beyond it with our prayers and with our actions. We go deeper when our prayers are offered from the depths of our hearts, praising God’s majesty, confessing our waywardness, giving thanks for new life in Christ, and seeking the will and guidance of the Spirit. We go deeper when we recognize and celebrate the presence of God in all things that bring us joy and delight.

Jesus guides his disciples out of the shallow water, close to the safe shore, into the risky and mysterious depths. This is how and where he calls each of us. Cast your nets into deep water, Jesus invites, and the blessings you will receive will overflow.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Keeping it in the family

So a couple of times in the last week LadyPrincess has mentioned that she wants to be a pastor. She's only 5 and hasn't started kindergarten (4 more days!) so I don't take this as a declaration of a call or anything, but I do find it interesting. I don't remember saying at the age 5, "Gee mom, I want to be an insurance company administrative assistant." (Of course, in the early '80s I would have just said "secretary.") But then I didn't see my mom in action at her job every week (or like this last couple of weeks almost every day), so I wouldn't have even known how to say that.

One day the conversation came up when she was deciding what job she thinks her younger brother, Godzilla, should have when he grows up. (Maybe headhunter should be one of her options). She thought he should be a veterinarian since he wouldn't be scared of the animals, and he's not allergic to Labradors (something she thinks she is). I asked her what kind of thing she thought she might like to do, and she said quickly, "I want to be what you are! That job is easy!"

Trying not let myself get offended by the words of a 5 year old I asked her what she thought I did. "Well, you write sermons, give speeches, visit the nursing home, and pray. That stuff is easy." Well, OK. I didn't get into the finer points of struggling over a sermon when the creative spirit seems to have left for the night, but that's for another day. A few days later she declared out of no where at dinner, "Mommy, it's OK when you die. I'll just be the pastor of the church."

Hopefully not any time soon, sweetheart.

All of this got me thinking, I wonder what research, if any, has been done on pastoring as "the family business." I mean, how many of us get into this have other close relatives who are also pastors? I knew more than a few classmates in seminary whose fathers and grandfathers were pastors, none whose mothers were I don't think. We had a couple of sibling sets in our school, and most of those had it "in the genes."

I guess this is sort of normal in a number of different careers (maybe many?), but as I thought about it I wondered if I'll ever sound like one of those Hollywood parents who tries to talk their kids out of acting. I hope not. I hope that I'm always finding great joy and satisfaction in what I feel called to do. I hope that I always feel called to do it as long as I'm doing it. Does that make sense?

Also does God really come knocking in certain families more than others? Does a call to ordained ministry come more often in these family or is it just more like to be recognized once the "dynasty" has been established? My guess is the latter which actually makes me want to watch my congregation more carefully. Are there people among us that have never considered a call because they wouldn't even know where to start, what it looks like, how it works in real life?

I have no idea WHAT LadyPrincess will be when she grows up. It is definitely fun asking her to see what she observes about the world and the people who work in it. She has some personality characteristics that would serve an ordained ministry well, but we're a long way off from that. I guess I just wouldn't want her to consider it only because it's what I do. I hope I don't ever give her the impression that doing what I do is the only thing that would make me happy or proud of her.

Interesting. Just one more thing to worry and pray about as I mother my daughter!