Sunday, September 30, 2012

A sign for you

Exodus 12:1-13
Exodus 13:1-8

The old stereotype of how to write a sermon says that all you need are three points and poem.  Well, I usually try to keep it to just one point, and I've probably used poetry at all as many times as I could count on my fingers.  So, today I’m just going to mess up that stereotype even more.  I’m going to start with a poem.  If technology cooperates we will hear the poem “ Forgetfulness” read by its author, Billy Collins, poet laureate of the United States 2001-2003 and frequent Prairie Home Companion guest.  If not, I’ll read it myself.  Cross your fingers with me.

by Billy Collins

Forgetfulness.  It’s common ground, isn't it?  Senior moments, mommy brain, spaciness… We have lots of different ways to talk about it, but that’s because lots of us experience it.  Forgetfulness.  Apparently, it’s an age-old problem.  Passover is all about forgetfulness.  Or maybe I should say it another way around, Passover is all about avoiding forgetfulness.

Forgetfulness is what hurt the Israelites in Egypt, maybe not their own forgetfulness, but forgetfulness just the same.  The book of Exodus begins with a declaration that a new king had risen over Egypt, one who did not remember Joseph.  Joseph, the favorite son of Jacob, who came to Egypt as a mere slave, but who’s stunning work with dreams and management of natural resources had saved the nation from seven years of drought and famine.  The new pharaoh didn't know a thing about this Joseph; the collective memory about how these other people had come to live with the Egyptians had faded, and forgetfulness led to the enslavement and oppression of the Israelites.  Forgetfulness. 

It’s a human problem, though, not a divine one.  In the midst of their slavery, when the Israelites are being treated harshly by their masters, being beaten while they work, having their sons thrown into the Nile at birth, groaning and crying out to God under their slavery, God remembers.  God remembers the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  God remembers the promise of generations and blessing and land.  God remembers the way it’s supposed to be, the way it will be someday, and God works out a memory for the future.

I hate to assume we all know anything, but the story of the Exodus and what leads up to it is one of the most told stories in the western world.  The movies get a lot of a right, or at least for our purposes, close to right.  God calls an unlikely leader in Moses.  He’s unsure of himself, not very confident about his speaking ability, even a bit of an outsider in his community, having been raised in the palace as the princess’s son.  Yet, still God continues to work through him, giving him messages and warnings to take to Pharaoh while demanding for God, “Let my people go!”  Plagues come down on Egypt, one after another, until finally the tenth and most horrific plagues is upon them, the death of all the first born in the land. From the first born of Pharaoh, to the first born of the slaves, to the first born of the livestock, all will be struck dead unless Pharaoh lets the Israelites go.

But remember how this all started?  Didn't it start with forgetfulness and remembering?  Pharaoh had forgotten and God remembered.  God knows our tendency to forget.  God knows our tendency to forget not just the little stuff – like where I put my keys or the names of the nine muses, or the capital of Paraguay.  God knows our tendency to forget even the big stuff – like who saved the nation and the known world from famine, how these people who are different came to live in the same land, or maybe even the flip side for us today, how these people who are different from all of us were here in the land before us.  God knows our tendency to be preoccupied with what we’re feeling right this second or how we’re going to building comfort and security for our future is so great that we lose sight of the one who brought us through to the present.  And so before they even leave the land, before they are even out of slavery and Egypt, God gets them ready for what they will forget.  God gives them a sign, a feast, and way to tell the story.

The instructions are very specific for the ritual meal they are commanded to share.  It’s a meal for the road, really, not a long drawn out dinner party - - a whole lamb or goat for the household or one to share between smaller households.  Nothing should remain until morning.  The Israelites will need their strength and in the morning they will be leaving.  There’s no time to wait for the bread to rise.  They are to eat it unleavened.  It’s a hurried meal, no time for lounging around.  They aren't supposed to take their shoes off, even, but eat with their sandals on their feet, their staffs in hand, their bodies wrapped and ready to leave at a moment’s notice.   And of course, there’s the most memorable instruction of all, some of the blood of the animal shall be smeared on their doorposts, so that God will know where to find the Israelites, right? 

Partly right.  When the moment actually comes, and the plague of the death of the firstborns is being enacted, God uses the blood on the doorposts to identify Israelite homes.  But when the instruction is given, when the meal is to be eaten, God says the blood is for something else altogether.  “The blood,” God says in the instructions to Moses, “The blood shall be a sign for you.” 

God knows they will forget.  God knows they will get caught up in worrying about how they will leave their home, how they will carry what is needed, how they will escape from the Egyptians, how they will make it out of the land… God knows their minds will wander away from the covenant and promise and providence of God, so right there in the middle of the instructions for their last meal in Egypt, God gives a sign for them.

Signs are so important for our memory.  Signs can bring us back to center in the midst of crisis and confusion, doubt or uncertainty.  It’s why we send and receive cards in the midst of illness and grief, to remind one another of the love and support of friends and family in our most difficult times.  It’s why we wear rings to mark a marriage relationship, to remember the covenants we have made with our partner.  It’s why we place empty crosses in our church or in our homes, to remember the promise of new life, to re-center our thoughts, our prayers, our lives on the hope of God.  Signs remind us who we are, from where we have come, what is important in our life, from our past, for our future.  God gave the Israelites a sign, so that in the midst of chaos and death and confusion, they would remember that God is at work, even in what they cannot understand.

And in addition to sign for that day, God gave them command for the future, a way to remember what’s happening.  A way to remember God’s providence.  A way to remember how God saved their lives and their blessing and their future.  I wonder if in the middle of the chaos Moses looked at God and said, “What?!?!  Do you think this is something we could ever forget?”  Does it sound like something you would ever forget?  The faithfulness of God to God’s promises.  The redemption and salvation of people in slavery.  Being remembered when everyone else seems to have forgotten.  Being loved when hate and oppression surround.  Being free when all we have known is slavery.

The truth is we forget it all the time.  The truth is we get caught up in ourselves and our lives, our present and our plans for the future, that we forget the promises of God that have come true for us again and  again.  We forget how God was present even in our darkest moments, bringing us back to the light of day.  We forget how God has forgiven our sins of the past, as we feel buried in our present guilt.   We forget how God gave us strength to overcome addiction, to persevere through poverty, to walk through deep valleys of grief to live life in a new land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  In the land of milk and honey, it is easy to forget from where we have come and most importantly who brought us there.

So, God gave the Israelites, before they even left Egypt, a way to remember God’s act of salvation.  God gave them step by step instructions for what, when, and how to eat a meal of remembrance.  God gave them a festival with ritual foods and commanded conversation so that they would never forget - - not when struggles with the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Hivites, and Jebusites got long and difficult, not when the land was flowing with milk and honey.    God gave them a ritual to remember that God remembers, God saves, God loves.

I've tried it once before, and I didn't get any grumbling, so I think I’ll try it again.  I've got some homework for us this week.  (Maybe there wasn't any grumbling because no one bothered to do it.)  Here’s the homework:  Each day this week, write down somewhere, somewhere private, somewhere public as a family, just write down somewhere, a time from your own past when God brought you through a difficult time, out of the land of Egypt, out of sin, out of poverty, out of oppression from addiction, depression, grief or restlessness.  Write down a time when God remembered you and and heard your cry.  That’s it.  Just remember.

Of course, I hope those memories will bring about stories that are told to one another, to your children and your children’s children.  I hope these memories will be shared with others, maybe around the Fellowship Hall tables, maybe at Men's Breakfast, maybe at Soup and Spirit, maybe in Sunday School, maybe on the church blog.  (I'll put mine over there if anyone wants to join me.)    I hope these memories of God's faithfulness will be shared because one person's memory is another person's hope, and that's what we are called to be for one another and for the world - proclaimers of hope and freedom.  I hope those memories will bring about prayers of thanksgiving.  But the homework is only to remember that God brought you out, that God brought you out. 

If we remember now all the times we have heard “your sins are forgiven,” all the hugs of friends that carried the love of Christ, all the days of recovery, all the reconciled relationships, all the healing, all the companionship, all release from guilt and grief, these will be our signs. These will be the words of the love poem we will know by heart again.  These will be our reminders of the spirit of life, our hope for years to come.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

These Family Values?

Genesis 37:3-8, 26-34; 50:15-21

There’s an awful lot of talk these days about what makes a family, who can be in a family, who defines a family, and what God desires for families, but the one argument, no matter WHERE you land on any of those questions, that just never quite makes sense to me, is the argument that we should return to biblical family values. When I read stories like this one, like the family of Jacob and Leah and Bilhah and Zilpah and Rachel, one husband for simultaneous wives or at least mothers of his children, like the twelve sons who have so much bad blood among them that eleven of them conspire to kill one, or at the very least just sell him off into slavery in a foreign land, I wonder if these are the biblical family values to which we are being begged to return.

No this story of Joseph, the not-so-humble dreamer turned “Minister of Economic and Natural Resources,” isn’t really strong on the kind of family values that will make a nation great, at least not until the very end of the fifteen or so chapters of Genesis that this saga takes. It makes a wonderfully entertaining bit of musical theater; it’s a fantastic account of God working out a story of redemption through corrupt and sinful human behavior. It’s not so great as a blueprint for governmental policy.

Joseph immediately becomes the favorite son of the eleven at the time, the first son of Jacob’s beloved Rachel and a son born to him in his old age. He gives Joseph a special garment, a coat of many colors in older renderings of the story, a coat with long sleeves in newer translations. We don’t really know. What we know is that it set Joseph apart. It filled him with great pride, maybe too much pride. It reminded his brothers every single time they saw him that he was the favorite. Never a great situation for peaceful family dynamics.

In fact, the brothers’ reaction to their father’s favoritism draws out of them feelings of jealousy from such a deep place in their very cores that the family reaches its ultimate crisis point. It is summed up in what I think is a very easy verse to read right over, and yet it contains the essential problem in this whole text. It contains, really, one of the essential problems that can plague human relationships even to this day. It contains, I believe, one of the essential problems we face in the world, in our nation, in the state, and even in this very community these days. “They hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.” (Genesis 37:4)

The family was in utter shambles. Jacob gifts his favorite son with a special coat, publically sealing what we can only imagine was already obvious to the rest of the family. Joseph doesn’t help much by publically sharing his prophetic dreams with something less than compassion. In all of it communication completely fell apart. And the scripture doesn’t say that anyone gave anyone the silent treatment. No, it seems they were still speaking, they just weren’t speaking peaceably. The words that came out of their mouths toward one another did nothing for building each other up, did nothing for trying to understand, did nothing for coming to common ground. The words that came out of their mouths were only disruptive to the family system, disrespectful, and destructive.

Sounds a lot like the speech we’re all hearing (and maybe are a part of?) in the human family these days. The political conventions were full of it. The advertisements continue it, but lest we think it’s all coming from some ethereal or far away “them,” let’s not ignore the speech in our own community, in the newspapers, at city Planning Commission meetings even… maybe even around white tables while drinking fair trade coffee? Maybe? The sin of ugly, broken down, and even at times violent communication is an easy sin into which we slip, and adds a toxicity to the environment that can poison even the closest of relationships. It fractures families; it cuts through communities. It makes life impossible to live together in love, compassion, or even just productivity.

Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery, dividing the family, almost ensuring they’ll never have to speak to him again, peaceably or not. Today we ensure the same thing by dividing into concretized political parties along lines drawn in the sand. We over-simplify complex issues, assigning false black-and-white positions to very grey concerns. We throw each other in metaphorical pits so that we’ll never actually have to sit down face-to-face and work this stuff out. Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery, sure that they will never see him again.

But they do. And at exactly the right moment. Reunited after decades apart, having just buried their father, Joseph’s brothers fall at his feet in desperate humility, and Joseph undoes what had been done so many years ago back in Canaan when the speech among them broke down. He spoke kindly to them.

That’s what it took for forgiveness to really be granted. That’s what it took for the reconciliation to be real. But what did it take for the speech between them to change? It took an awareness of God’s presence. It took a confession of God’s sovereignty. It took the realization that even in the midst of all the bad intentions, the violence, the hatred even among the brothers, God was able to work something beneficial, even blessed. The brothers in their fit of jealousy back at the beginning of the story had lost sight of the presence of God. Nowhere in all of their anger or scheming or actions is there any mention of God. They aren’t even angry at God, blaming God for their father’s preferential treatment of their brother. They don’t even cry out in desperation, “Why God?” Their ties with the divine are completely cut off, shut down, buried in the fields that will dry up in drought.

But the difference with Joseph is a steady attention to God’s presence in his life. Joseph isn’t perfect. When the brothers first come to him in Egypt, he conceals his identity for a while. He doesn’t feed his brothers right away out of selfless compassion. He sends them back to Canaan to prove the safety of his younger brother before he will feed them more fully. He plants a precious cup in Benjamin’s sack of grain to test them. He’s not the picture of perfection in this saga.

Yet what seems to be different, what seems to move the family toward forgiveness is Joseph’s attentiveness to God, what we might call being awake to the Spirit. When his brothers have fallen before him, when all that has happened in their lives together, then apart, and finally back together again is sitting at the surface, like raw nerves exposed to the air, when their father is dead and buried, and there’s a possibility for it all to breakdown, for the whole relationship to crumble, Joseph can point to the redeeming work of God that is still present, still active, still sovereign in their lives. He can recognize the deeper responsibility and call they have to forgive and move forward in peace together.

This is what it takes. This is what is required to move past such times of great division, great animosity, great ugliness and violence in the words we speak into God’s creation. It doesn’t require perfection from ourselves or others. (If we are waiting for that, we will be waiting a long, long time.) It doesn’t require winning the argument, because really,

  • when people are forced out of their homeland,
  • when wars are fought too long,
  • when the earth is cracked and parched,
  • when sons and daughters are laid to rest far from their parents,
  • when reconciliation comes so late,

who really wins?

What it takes to move forward in such times of great division, great animosity, great ugliness and violence in the words and actions is the recognition, the confession, that even in the midst of all of this God is present, and because we are in the midst of all of this God is working us out. Only when we are able to see that those with whom we argue, those with whom we disagree, those with whom we have generations upon generations of disagreements are still beloved children of God, through whom God is working out a way forward, will we ever speak kind words from the heart, will we ever be in peace.

Someone has to lead the way. Someone has to make the first declaration. Someone has to work toward the real biblical value of peace for the whole human family.  Someone has to point out, speak up, say out loud, that God is at work in us all. So, why not the church? Why not this church? We are certainly set up well to do the work. We share a common belief in God, our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. We share a common trust that God can and does work through the lives and efforts of creation. So why not this gathering of believers who even in the midst of our common beliefs have a whole lot of different understandings of who God is and how God works and what that means for how people live together?

  • Why don’t we work to change the speech around us, this congregation with such diversity of thought, but who has already agreed to live in that diversity together?
  • Why don’t we point to God who draws us together into community and works through our humble offerings and begin to demonstrate to the world not just polite speech which we do very well, but peaceful speech in the most difficult of times?
  • Why don’t we commit to start talking to each other about things that matter in our lives and in our community?
  • Why don’t we transform our gift of friendliness and politeness into a gift of peaceful speech - - not sanitized speech, not happy, ignoring-areas-of-disagreement speech, not speech that smoothes over differences of belief, not speech that ignores areas of potential conflict? Peaceful speech – speech that recognizes that other speakers are children of God, blessed with the responsibility of discernment, gifted with the Holy Spirit to guide them, placed in our lives to add wisdom to our own understanding.

What if we talked about what makes a family? What if we talked about how we can best take care of the poor? What if we talked about what will build a strong community? What if we talked about getting along with people of other faiths, other ethnicities, other nationalities? And what if we did it all peaceably? What if we transformed our speech, even just in our congregation, could we begin a transformation in our community?

“When will people cease their fighting?” our hymn is about to ask. When people of faith recognize the dynamic love of God working toward a better end and join that love in word and action, that’s when fighting will end.

 ("Vote for me" by Cheerful Monk, Creative Commons License)

Monday, September 17, 2012

Body Ministry

I was just filling out a little survey about embodied ministry, and in doing so I remembered a moment in ministry that I had otherwise forgotten. What a gift from the Spirit today!

I served communion in the hospital once to a woman in her mid-90s who we thought was quite close to death. (Spoiler - - she turns 100 next month)  It was a cramped room; I remember that feeling.  I was tired; it was the end of a long day.  I can still feel how exhausted I was making the trek into the Cities for the Sunday evening visit at the request of her daughter.  The saint in the hospital bed didn't have the strength or the presence of mind to actually eat and drink the elements, so without really talking about how we would do this, I held the bread in my hands for the prayers and then put it to her lips.  Her lips closed on it gently, briefly, then opened.  Her daughter than took it and ate it for her.  We did the same with the cup.  In that moment, something we could not have done without our bodies, to me the three us became the church, embodied.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Dare to Ask

Genesis 15: 1-6

                The young man probably stuck out like a sore thumb in the not-so-busy Prague bus station.  He waited in front of the #4 bus stop for the bus his host had promised would take him back to the village he was visiting.  His host, a friend who had been an exchange student in the States the year before hadn’t been able to accompany him on this trip into the city to see the sites, but had diligently helped John study the bus map the night before.  John knew he was right on track.  Mostly.  His walk through the former Jewish ghetto had taken him a little longer than he had planned, so his plan to catch the 5:00 p.m. bus that Saturday night didn't quite work out.  But “No worries,” he thought.  When John and Kry┼ítof had come to town just a few days before, they had taken the #4 bus home at 6:00 p.m.  With just 40 minutes to wait for the next bus, John pulled out the book he had been carrying around for just this kind of occasion.
                Thirty minutes later, though, he wasn’t quite as nonchalant.  Bus #2 had come and gone, and as one might expect about fifteen minutes before it left a line started to form.  Only ten minutes before his bus was to leave, not only wasn’t there a line forming, there wasn’t even a bus yet.  Five more minutes passed and still no line and no bus.  Then the nearby church bell tolled the hour.  Six o’ clock in the evening and STILL there was no #4 bus to take him back out to the village about forty miles out of the city.  What was a tourist, a non-Czech speaking tourist, to do?
                Well, sit.  Of course.  Maybe the weekend bus schedule was a little different, and the 6:00 p.m. bus really came at 6:15 p.m..  Oh no?  Well, maybe 6:30 p.m.  Oh no?  6:45 p.m.?  7:00 p.m.?  Surely it would come at 7:00 p.m..  But it didn’t.  Now what was a tourist to do?  A tourist proud of his navigational skills that had proved useful all day in a foreign city.  A tourist who wasn’t really ready to admit that maybe he didn’t know everything there was to know about traveling on his own.  A tourist who DEFINITELY didn’t want to seem weak, ignorant, exposing his lack of confidence that was growing with each passing minutes.  What’s a tourist to do?
                What is a traveler to do?  A traveler in Prague trying to find the way home, a traveler  in the ancient world?  Abram has been traveling a long time, about 20 years.  He was called out of the land of his ancestors and followed God’s voice to Canaan, to a land God promised to fill with his children and his children’s children.  But Abram, whose name means “exalted father,” isn’t, a father. I mean, time is passing and the reality of not seeing the promise come true is weighing down on him.
                He has followed God’s voice from his homeland of Ur, near the present day Persian Gulf, up to Haran near the modern day intersection of Syria, Turkey, and Iraq, down to Canaan, but then out to Egypt when a famine struck the land.  He came back to Canaan settled in the land, but had to leave for a while to free his nephew who was taken captive in war, again, back to what we know as Syria, before returning to Canaan.  All along the way at least two or three other times, God continues to speak the promise “[F]or the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever.  I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted.” (13:15-16) 
After their journey across deserts and mountains comes to an end, I begin to imagine Abram and Sarai a lot like John, stuck in Prague, sitting in front of bus spot #4, waiting, waiting, waiting for what they know is to come, but just isn’t.  Still there are no offspring so numerous they equal the grains of dust on the earth.  There isn’t even ONE child.  What’s a traveler to do?
John eventually got up from the bench.  It was cold.  It was growing later and later.  The sun was completely down and as it dropped so did the temperature.  He didn’t know a soul in Prague nor have a clue how to find somewhere to stay if he needed to.  He had to admit that bus #4 didn’t look like it was coming.  With no Czech words to really speak of he made his way to a little booth where people were buying tickets and tried to figure out how he was supposed to get home.  He pointed at maps, repeated the name of the village where he stayed, the next largest town whose name he could remember, held up four fingers to try to explain he needed bus #4, ANYTHING to get some help with this next stage of his journey.
All of which is pretty much what Abram finally breaks down and does himself.  Back in Canaan with Lot resettled, in comes the word of God in a vision to Abram, one more time, “Do not be afraid…your reward shall be very great.”  Back in Canaan with Lot resettled, Abram finally gives in, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me for I continue childless?!?!?”  Abram finally lifts up his voice.  He has followed God faithfully and without question this far.  He has moved his wife, his servants, his nephew across thousands of miles.  They have lived in the land they were told would be their land.  They have moved to Egypt in search of food.  They have come back to Canaan.  They have lost Lot in war.  They have found Lot in foreign lands.  They have lived quietly and faithfully waiting for promises to come true, and still, and STILL they have no child.  Definitely not a whole dustbowl of them, not even one.  Abram stands in front of God in a vision, pointing to the map that was the plan, holding up fingers to show how he thought this all would go, frustrated, dejected, uncertain, and desperate. 
Here is the exalted father about as defeated as we will see him.  This is the great ancestor of faith about whom we learn in Sunday School, but this isn’t how we usually think of him.  He’s usually so faithful, so sure, so confident in what has been promised.  Or at least that’s how we remember him.  But here in this story Abram isn’t so confident.  He isn’t so perfect.  He’s a little more, oh, I don’t know.  Familiar!  He looks a lot more like what I see when I look in the mirror, when I look out at the church.  He looks like someone trying to figure it all out.
And it's right here in the middle of Abram’s vision in which he FINALLY voices his question, it’s right here where God not only repeats the promise to Abram one more time, but it’s right here where Abram is reckoned as righteous.  It’s right here that God looks at him and recognizes his faithfulness of so many years, listens to his question, probably his anger or at least frustration, and welcomes his engagement in the relationship.  It's right here that God names Abram's faith as righteousness.
It isn’t the traveler who sits on a cold bench at bus stop #4, proud of how well he navigated the city all day long, who solves a problem in foreign land.  It isn’t the traveler who thinks he knows it all and can do it all completely on his own who learns about the bigger bus station with one more bus back to the village if he can run and catch it.  It isn’t the traveler who tries to do it all on his own who finds his way home.  It isn’t the traveler who keeps his questions all bottled up inside, huddled alone in the dark night of the journey who looks righteous.
When did we get so scared of not knowing?  When did faithfulness start to look like unquestioning, mute mental ascent to doctrine?  When did righteousness turn into leaving our thoughtfulness, even our doubts behind?  Abram did a lot of quiet following.  He heard God’s command and God’s promise and stepped out on faith I can barely imagine to travel all over the world he knew and even beyond what he knew.  He did everything that was asked, and then even a little more trying to expedite the fulfillment of God’s promises.  Yet it wasn’t in his silent following that he was declared righteous.  It was in his questioning.  It was when he spoke to God.  It was when he brought the rest of himself to the relationship. It was when he talked with God, prayed to God, raised his deepest, darkest fear to God, that Abram and his faith is reckoned as righteous.
Righteousness in God’s eyes, faith at its fullness, is not equated with blind faith, checking one’s brains and questions at the door.  God wants a relationship.  God blesses (and uses as a blessing!) those who show up and participate in the life of faith.  At some point in the story of God’s relationship with creation we started to elevate the faith of those who never doubt, those who are able to write off the things that don’t sit well with them, those who can accept every piece of doctrine and tradition that has been handed to them by previous generations, and we began to say that “they” get it.  They are righteous, but I am not.
God bless them.  God bless the ones among us and those outside of these walls who can honestly and faithfully accept what has been told to them.  Really, God blesses them.  But God also blesses those who question.  What we see here in the story of Abram is that righteousness isn’t so much how strongly we believe everything that has been passed on word for word, it’s that we show up to the relationship - - with our confidence, with our certainties, AND with our doubts and our questions.  Abram grew, his relationship with God deepened, not because he sat in silence, stewing and wondering what was going to happen, not for following blindly what he didn’t understand, what he had trouble believing, what didn’t seem possible.  Abram grew, his relationship with God deepened, it was even reckoned unto him as righteous when he finally opened his mouth and spoke, when he engaged God on the journey of faith, yes, even when he QUESTIONED what was going on.
                This morning we begin a new year of our education ministry.  The children, this year as young as 2, will meet their new teachers and begin to forge new friendships in faith.  Adults have volunteered to teach them, often with a healthy dose of fear and uncertainty that they don’t know enough themselves.  New Bible studies are forming.  Networks youth ministry is getting started. Soon adult Sunday School topics will be announced.  Our ministries of faith formation and spiritual growth are getting underway.  The journey is starting; the circuitous walk of faith is continuing.  May what we do be reckoned as righteous.  May we not seek so much fill our doubts with doctrine, to silence curiosity, but to raise our questions, voice our fears, and deepen our relationship with God.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Very Beginning

So.  Here we are.  Right at the very beginning.  A very good place to start.
Right out of the gate we learn a lot, more than we can really see as English readers, actually, about what God is creating and how what is created is all related to each other and to God.  Listen to me read the same opening words Shelley read, but with a couple of Hebrew words throw in for the English
“In that day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up – then the Lord God formed ‘adam from the dust of the ‘adamah and breathed into his nostrils the ruach of life; and the ‘adam become a living being.”
I only replaced three different words, but boy are they important words.  Adam wasn’t originally a proper name in Hebrew.  It was a just a word, a word that meant “human being.”  But along with meaning “human being” it is also intimately related to a word that closely followed it in the verse – ‘adamah – translated in our English reading “the ground.”  ‘Adam, a human being, came from the ‘adamah, the ground. This isn't semantics; this is theology.
And THIS is a story.  Other mythological creation stories have the first people who populate the earth pop out of the heads of gods, born from the gods, or are gods who are thrown out of the heavens.  Our story of who we are starts out very different.  We are not gods.  We do not have the substance of gods.  We are ‘adam and we are made of ‘adamah.  We are people and our substance is the same substance that makes the earth.  Like the earth, we have been formed and created in the hands of God, NOT as little gods, but as really, stuff of the earth.  We are creatures, not the creator.
This has huge implications in a number of ways, but we’ll just look at one this morning.  What does it mean about our relationship with the earth, with the streams the rise from the earth that water the whole ground, with the dirt on which we walk, the trees under which we find shade, and even the later in the story, with the creatures with which we share the planet?   What does it mean?  It means we are no better than they are.  We are no more important.  We are no more godly and divine.  We are made of the same stuff of the earth and when we hurt the earth, we hurt ourselves.  When we abuse the earth, we are placing ourselves in a higher position than God our creator intended.  We are intimately connected to the earth.  We are ‘adam that come from ‘adamah.  When Stew brings up sustainability - - Stew, I heard another preacher say this summer that any time he mentioned his kids or wife in a sermon or another person without asking permission, he had to pay them a dollar, so I’ve got one here for you - - When Stew brings up sustainability in the church, at the Planning Commission, and all over Hudson, it’s not an environmental issue; it’s a theological issue.  It’s a faith issue.  Thank you, Stew, for reminding us of our intimate, God-designed connection with all of creation.
So what else do we learn about our story from Genesis 2 and 3.  We learn that we are deeply connected to the earth, but right away in those same verses we also learn that we are deeply connected to God.  I changed out one English word for a Hebrew word this time around.  In English we usually read that God “breathed into [the human’s] nostrils the breath of life.”  I read ruach, because ruach is a special word.  It means breath as we often translate, but it also means wind, like in Genesis 1 when the wind moved over the water at the very beginning of creation.  It also means spirit, like in Psalm 51 “Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.” 
The ‘adam that was created from the ‘adamah, was also given the ruach of God, breathed right in the very nose on his face.  The people created from creation, the people of fully mortal substance, were given the very Spirit of God to invigorate them, to bring them to life. 
Let’s just sit with that a minute.  We aren’t even 4 verses into the story and this is huge!  What’s fun for me in this story is what I gather might be new to many people. The myth in Christianity is that the Old Testament is full of wrath and anger and punishment and death, and the New Testament brings of stories of God loving on people and caring for people and having compassion us.  It’s not the case, is it?  This is a story of very loving and tender care and creation.  Out of the dust of the ground the holy and divine God crafted human beings.  Using materials created in love, God tenderly and carefully created in love humankind.  And then when the beings were just right, God stooped in to put mouth to nose and breath in the very Spirit of God for life.  If this isn’t loving and caring and showing compassion, then I don’t know what is.
Oh my goodness, we’re never going to make it to the end of this story.  So, we’re going to have to move a little more quickly.  We know this part right?  God realizes this one person (really at this point the word ‘adam has nothing to do with gender; it’s not really even a man, but a person.  He becomes a man a little later, and it’s not until even LATER, like Chapter 4 that this word ‘adam is even used as a proper name, Adam)….  Anyway God realizes this one person is going to be lonely, because as nice as intimate connection with the earth really is, it’s just not the same.  Am I right?  And as overwhelmingly AWESOME as being brought to life with the Spirit of God is, even that is not the complete human experience. 
So God creates a partner, a helper for the person and nothing less than a completely equal partner will do.  A horse won’t do.  A camel won’t do.  A bird, a hippopotamus, squirrel, not even a DOG will do.  The only thing that will do is another human being.  Out of the side of the human God took enough material to make another.
As intimately related as humankind is with the earth, all of humanity is that intimately related to each other.  A woman came from a man, and women and men will come from women for evermore.  Human life is connected in form and in substance, in source and in the Spirit that fills its lungs.  People, men and women, have been created to live and work and laugh and cry and rest and move together.
And together they did EVERYTHING, right from the start.  I need to move quickly again.  In comes the serpent, the craftiest creature of all.  The serpent talks to the woman about eating an apple, right?  Who then goes to find the man who’s off in the garage or something and she somehow bats her eyelashes, and gets all coy and everything, and makes him lose control and also eat the apple, right?  That’s how the story goes? 
Not so much.  That’s how the story has been told and retold.  That’s the how the story has been painted and dramatized and mixed up for not so divine purposes over time.  The quick version of how this really went down - - they were both right there the whole time.  They both knew the fruit was off limits, in fact, the woman even extended God’s commandment against eating it to include even TOUCHING it.  They both knew which fruit the serpent was talking about and ate it willingly of their own accord.
So, we sort of know this story.  We know the general plot although the details may have been tweaked for other purposes over time.  People eat fruit, God gets upset, bad stuff happens for the rest of time including death which in popular readings never would have happened: the people are punished by an angry God. Right? The reading Shelley shared ended with shame.  The man and woman realized they had done what they should not.  They had tried to become what they could not.  They had tried to become like God, and now they were ashamed, or scared, or both and they tried to hide themselves, because what they knew was that eating this fruit would end their life. 
The day they would eat of it they would die, God clearly said to them.  This isn’t as story about how immortal human beings turned mortal.   The promise, or the threat, I guess I should say isn’t that the human beings would otherwise live forever, and that eating from the tree would bring an end to their lives someday.  The warning was if you eat from this tree THAT DAY you will die.  Of course they were scared.  Of course they were hiding.  They knew God was looking for them, and it wasn’t for a good thing.
So, if this story fits our usual understanding of Old Testament vengeful God/New Testament graceful God, how should this story end?  The man and woman would be squashed like pesky bugs in the garden!  But that’s not what happened!  Yes, there were consequences for their actions.  Yes, life from humankind was not quite the same from thereafter.  But did the man and the woman die THAT DAY?  No.  They messed up.  They marred two out of three of their  most important God-given connections, the one between them and God, the one between themselves and their relationships were damaged because of it.  God had every reason to follow through on the divine end of the deal now that they were all in this mess.
But God didn’t.  Yes, the relationship changed. What relationship doesn't change when it experiences brokenness? Yes, the plan for life in Eden has to be adjusted. What plans aren't adjusted when one party doesn't stick with the agreement.
But instead of cutting the whole thing off, with love, with compassion, with grace before the word is ever introduced this is what happens - -

21 And the LORD God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them. 22 Then the LORD God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— 23 therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. 24 He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.

 Right here, right from the very beginning of the story, God fixes the relationship we human beings mess up.  Right here, right from the very beginning we get the whole point of the whole rest of this book, the whole rest of faith.  We people just keep messing things up. We mess up our relationships with earth by thinking we’re somehow above it all.  We mess up our relationship with each other by trying to pass on blame, give others the responsibility for our own actions.  We mess up our relationship with God by thinking the breath of the Spirit gave us the authority of the divine to know it all, judge it all, and rule it all.  We mess things up.
But God doesn’t let it stay that way.  God improvises on what we do.  God is willing to with our imperfections, our persistence in changing the plan that was designed to move toward perfection, in order to keep bringing us make into right relationships - - right relationships with earth, where we struggle to work together instead of take advantage of a perceived superiority in the created order, relationship with other human beings, where we depend on each other for the whole of human gifts, right relationships with God, where we are constantly reminded that the Spirit of God is given to us, but does not begin with us, where we are constantly reinvigorated with life and with freedom and with grace.
What better story could we write for ourselves?

What better and more liberating good news is there than the news that the one who created us is the one who loves us enough to save us from ourselves?  Who picks us back up, dusts us off, and sets us right back in our relationship to keep at it again and again.  And the one who saves us from ourselves is the one who breathes into us that same spirit of salvation - - that same spirit of freedom from all the shoulds and didn’ts and can’ts and haven’ts we force on ourselves and others.
What better story could we write for ourselves?
None that I can think of and none that I’d rather be a part of.  Not one.