Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale

The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.

When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt. Genesis 21:8-21 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Since April, I’ve been a weekly television series on Hulu called The Handmaid’s Tale. Have any of you seen it? Well, it’s based upon a book with the same title written by Margaret Atwood in 1985. 

It’s set in the near future in New England, in a totalitarian theocracy that has overthrown the United States government. Did you hear the word “theocracy” there? This society--this theocracy--is one that is based upon a deeply perverted misreading of the laws and codes of the Old Testament.  The leaders of this culture believe that they are being punished by God for dangerously low reproduction rates. That they have failed to fulfill God’s mandate to be fruitful and multiply.

The story is narrated by Offred, a handmaid. A young woman, fertile and in her prime child-bearing years, who has been assigned to bear children for an elite couple who has trouble conceiving a child. Offred is not her real name. As a handmaid, her name consists of the word “of” followed by the name of her commander, who in this case is Fred. Of-Fred. 

Every month, when she is most fertile, she is required to have impersonal, wordless sex with the Commander while his wife sits behind her, holding her hands. Her freedom, like the freedom of all women, is completely restricted. She can leave the house only on shopping trips. The door to her room cannot be completely shut. And the Eyes, who are the secret police force, watch her every public move.

And, as I’ve been watching it, I’ve been struck by the growing power struggle between the two women--the commander’s handmaid and his wife--to be the one who is most important to the commander.  

It’s a frightening and disturbing story. And it’s similarities to the story today of the power struggle between Hagar and Sarah are just as frightening and disturbing.

That’s really what this is, isn’t it? A power struggle, right? A struggle between two women to gain power in their relationship with Abraham. A struggle between two women whose only power in society comes through their potential to produce an heir.

But, wait a minute. I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

Our story opens today with Isaac, the son of Abraham and Sarah. He has now reached the point in time to be weaned. In our world, this might mean that he was 8-9 months old, perhaps a little older. In the time of our story, he would have been breastfed until he was 2 or 3 years old. Infant mortality rates were very high. That Isaac had reached this point was a big deal. A rite of passage. Reaching this age gave much greater certainty to both Abraham and Sarah that Isaac would live to actually become Abraham’s heir. 

It was cause for celebration. So, that’s just what they did. Our story tells us that Abraham prepared a huge banquet.

It was during this celebration, or perhaps a short time later, that Sarah saw Ishmael laughing. You remember Ishmael, don’t you? He was the first-born of Abraham. The son of Hagar. Hagar, the Egyptian. Sarah’s slave given to Abraham. Given so he could have sex with her to make an heir. Since Sarah was barren and unable to produce one herself.

When Sarah saw Ishmael laughing, she got angry. It’s hard to really know why this made her so angry. Perhaps, seeing Ishmael reminded her of her former barren state. Perhaps, seeing him reminded Sarah of the way in which Hagar had treated her after Ishmael was born. How Hagar, who was able to produce an heir, had shown disrespect to Sarah, her master. 

Or perhaps it’s because when Sarah saw Ishmael, she was reminded that he was still a potential threat to Isaac. To Isaac’s inheritance. In a society where a woman’s entire value was measured by her ability to produce an heir.  In a society where a woman’s only source of power was through her children and, specifically, through her sons. In a society where a woman was completely dependent upon the wealth and inheritance of her husband and her sons. It is no surprise that Sarah viewed Ishmael, and also Hagar, as a potential threats to Isaac and to herself. 

And, so, Sarah goes to Abraham. And she demands that he send her away. That he divorce her. 

Abraham is very distressed by Sarah’s request. That she should ask him to send away his son. (Do you notice that our text says nothing about a concern for Hagar?) 

Yet, God speaks to Abraham. Tells him to comply with Sarah’s request. So, Abraham packs up some bread and a small amount of water and sends Ishmael and Hagar away. Into the desert. Where their water runs out. Where Hagar, who can’t bear to watch her son die, puts him under a tree a distance a way. She can’t watch and, yet, she still hears his cries.

If feels wrong somehow, doesn’t it? That God would side with Sarah in this mess. This big mess. Much of which is Sarah’s own making. It just feels wrong. That the woman who is the slave, the one with even less power than her mistress, the one who complied with Sarah’s wishes. It just feels wrong that she should be sent away. With her son. Who is even more innocent. That they should both be punished. Be cast aside. And that God would go along with it. It just feels wrong, doesn’t it?

How many times has this happened to you? That you’ve been cast aside? Been in a position with no power and been pushed aside? Pushed to the edges of your family? Or your friends? Or pushed to the edges of society? Like the elderly, like the disabled, like the poor, like those who are gay, or undocumented, or those who skin is the wrong color? Or those with the wrong religion or belief system. Cast out. Pushed to the edges. Where it seems as though they’ve been abandoned by family, by friends, by our world. Perhaps, even, by God?

But, this isn’t the end of the story. 

As the first season of the Handmaid’s Tale came to an end, Offred, the handmaid, learned that there were a number of people working quietly, working underground. Resisting. Resisting the the evil theocracy and those who had so devalued women. She begins to understand that this is not the end of the story. 

The desert scene with Hagar and Ishmael also wasn’t the end of the story. We read that God heard Ishmael’s cries. God came to Hagar and took both of them to a well where they might receive sustenance. Where they might receive life-giving water. And, then, God promised them greatness.

God hears you, too. God hears you and I and all those who have been cast aside, all who are on the edges. Broken, beaten down. Wracked by sin and guilt. Hurt by the evil of the world. God hears and comes, too. God takes us to the well and gives us water. Life-giving water. 

And, then, God promises greatness. Greatness that comes through love. Through the loving and life-giving act of Christ on the cross. Through the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit. 

We are called to this greatness through love. A love we have received through nothing we have done, but solely a result of God’s own love. A love that transforms and changes. A love that hears you and I and leaves no one cast out. 

This is the nature of our God. God leaves no one cast out or alone, left to die. No one.

For this, we praise God in the words of the psalmist today, “You are great! You do wondrous things! You alone are God!


Preached June 25, 2017, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Third Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Divine Comedy

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7 (NRSV)

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Welcome to Ordinary Time. Or this liturgical season we also call “Time after Pentecost.” It’s a season we mark with green. Green paraments. Green stoles. Green banners. Green, a color that signifies growth. When lawns are growing. Gardens are growing, Crops are growing.

There’s growth in the church, too.

Our texts from the Gospel of Matthew go on for several weeks to explain to us what discipleship means, how we grow in our faith and how we grow in our response to God’s grace.

In our readings from the Old Testament (or Hebrew scripture) during this Ordinary time, we have two patterns to choose from. The first is a series of texts that are selected to complement the Matthew readings. The second pattern--the one we’ll be following over the next 12 weeks--tell us of the family stories of Abraham. Of God’s call to Abraham and covenant with him. It is these stories that will be the focus of my preaching. And, hopefully, the focus of your further study and thought at home.

We don’t often hear these stories. And so, this is an opportunity for us to dig deep into them. Some of us may have never heard these stories. For others, it may be the first time since childhood. Nevertheless, this is an opportunity for us to learn of Abraham and Sarah, and to see how God worked in their lives and, perhaps, envision how God might work in ours.

So, let’s begin.

Well, almost.

I say that because our story today doesn’t actually start at the beginning of Abraham’s story. Through a quirk in the liturgical season this year, we’ve lost a few chapters of the story.

We’ve missed God’s call to Abraham and his family to move from Ur in Mesopotamia down to Canaan. Seemingly, out of the blue, God calls Abraham to move away from his homeland, away from his family, away from his father’s household. And to make a long journey. Away to a place that is culturally foreign to him.

One of the things I’ve found interesting since moving here is how deep-rooted many families are in this state. Going back for generations. A few weeks ago I was talking to a family at the pantry--the Preston family, of the Preston Plantation in Trimble Co.. This family has lived in Kentucky for generations.

God’s call to Abraham to move from Ur to Canaan would have been like a call for the Preston’s to move from Bedford to Boston, Massachusetts. To a land completely different. Away from their family and their roots. To a place culturally foreign to them.

With God’s call, though, came a promise. A threefold promise. God promised to make of Abraham a great nation. God promised that Abraham’s name would be respected for generations. And God promised to bless him so that he could be a blessing to all the families of the earth.

And, so, they set out. Abraham, Sarah, and Lot, Abraham’s nephew. Eventually, they made it to Canaan. At first, they didn’t settle down. They lived a rather nomadic life, moving down to Egypt, then up to southern Canaan, and a few more places in between. And, also, in between, Abraham and Lot decided to go their separate ways.

After a while, Abraham and Sarah arrived in Hebron. It was there, in Hebron, located between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean, that they settled. In Canaan. Near--as our story reads--near the “oaks of Mamre.”

Time passed. Abraham and Sarah were getting on in years. And still, no children. The promise from God that they were the beginning of a great nation hung over them. So, they decided to take things into their own hands.

We have a tendency as human beings to do that, don’t we? We become impatient. Or we seek to control our circumstances. Or even to control God and God’s promises.

Abraham and Sarah were no different that we. They developed a plan. Abraham decided that his chief servant, his head of household, would become his heir.

God’s response? “No, I don’t think so. That’s not what I promised you, Abraham. I promised you that you would have a son. A blood heir. And from this blood relative, I promised you would become a great people.”

So, Abraham and Sarah developed a second plan. Sarah offered her maid-servant, Hagar, to Abraham, so that Abraham could have a son who was of his own flesh and blood. And, that worked. For a moment.

Until God, once again, said, “No. This isn’t my plan for you. My plan is that you will have a son with Sarah.” Then, God renewed the covenant with Abraham. Promising, once again, that Abraham would be the father of nations. And calling for a visible mark, a reminder of this promise, upon every male in Abraham’s household.

Abraham’s response? Well, to the men in this room, if God came to you at age 99 and said you would be the father of many nations, what would your response be?
Yes. Abraham laughed. He was no different. Yet, even in the midst of his own doubt and cynicism, and the ridiculousness of God’s plan, he went along with it. And, he, along with all of the men in his household, was circumcised.
And Abraham and Sarah, once again, waited.

It is here, finally, that today’s story picks up. It open with the sentence, “The Lord appeared to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre while he sat at the entrance of his tent in the day’s heat.” In reading this, we know that God appeared to Abraham. Abraham, however, didn’t. At least, not initially.

What Abraham experienced that day, as he was sitting in his tent to get away from the heat of the day, three men approached him. He sees them and immediately runs to them to invite them in. Do you notice that Abraham goes out to them?

Then, Abraham shows deep hospitality to them.  It’s similar to the hospitality that I’ve experienced myself, both in Texas and here.

He brings his guests to the shade of the nearby trees. He brings them water to wash their feet and to drink and refresh themselves. And then he really opens the hospitality floodgates. He tells Sarah to prepare bread. And this isn’t any small amount. According to our story, he tells her to get 23 quarts of flour and make bread out of it. (That’s close to 25 loaves of bread.) And he tells his servant to kill one of the calves and to cook it.

Abraham then serves a sumptuous feast of veal and bread and butter and milk, and I’m sure there probably was a little wine in there, too.  It was amazing hospitality!

As they are eating, these three strangers reveal the purpose of their visit. It’s to announce that within the next year, Sarah, at around age 99, and Abraham, at around age 100, will have a child. A boy, named Isaac.

Now, Sarah, has not been present at this meal. She is not allowed there culturally. But, like any good wife, she’s listening in. And when she hears this announcement, she, like Abraham, laughs.

I put this proposition out to the WISE group on Thursday. I asked them how they might respond if God came to them and said that, at age 90 (I knocked down ten years!), they would get pregnant and give birth to a child.

They, laughed, too. Just like Sarah.

We are not that different from Abraham and Sarah. God promises these amazing things from inconceivable people and places and we laugh. Maybe it’s doubt. Maybe it’s cynicism. Maybe it’s because so often we make all of these great plans and everything just seems to fall apart.

But, it is there. In the midst of our cynicism. And our doubt. And our failed plans. And our laughter. It is there, that God steps in. Like some great divine comedy. God steps in and turns it all around to accomplish God’s purpose. Just like Abraham and Sarah. Just like us.

And, that, my friends, in this ordinary time, is anything but ordinary. Amen.

Preached June 18, 2017, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
2nd Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7; Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35-10:8.

Monday, June 12, 2017

In the Image of God

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:16-20 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you
from the One who is
and who was
and who is to come.

Welcome to Holy Trinity Sunday!
Every pastor’s nightmare.

Why? You might ask.
it’s because no matter what I
or any other pastor tries to say about the Trinity,
it is inevitable
that we will lapse into some form of heresy.
So, I am not going to preach today
about the Trinity--
the Triune God,
the Three Persons of the Godhead,
or whatever other name
you want to give our God.
I will let the two-and-a-half pages
of the Athanasian Creed
attempt to do that shortly.

I am going to the beginning.
The very beginning.
To the beginning of all time.
Because that is where our Genesis reading begins.
“In the beginning
when God created the heavens and the earth.”

In the original Hebrew,
the word used for God is Elohim.
this is a plural word.
The singular word for God is El.

It’s also helpful to know that the word,
is a simple, ordinary word for God.
It can be used to identify any deity.
It’s not a personal name.
Its use implies
that this God is not just the God of Israel,
but God,
the creator of the entire universe.

in just the first phrase,
we have a sense
of not only the plural nature of this God,
but also the sovereign nature
of this creator of the whole world--
of a sovereign God
who creates effortlessly,
and with no limits.

So, God goes about creating the world.
God thinks,
God speaks,
God births,
God prevails,
God creates,
God builds,
God arranges,
God shapes,
and, then,
God delegates.
We read in verse 26,
where God says,
“Let us
(Do you once again hear
the plural nature of God there?)...
let us make humankind in our image,
according to our likeness.”
Two early church fathers,
Gregory of Nyssa and Chrysostom,
called this phrase--
”let us”--
the divine deliberation
among the persons of the Trinity.
Luther wrote
that it confirms the mystery of our Christian faith,
that there is one eternal God,
in whose divine essence
there are three distinct persons.

It was the eternal Triune God there,
fully present at the creation of the cosmos.
And it was the eternal Triune God
who made humankind in God’s own likeness.
In the image of God.

The image of God.
That’s an interesting expression,
isn’t it?
We use it often,
but I wonder if we know what it really means.
In the image of God.
All of humanity,
created in the image of God.
We read that in Genesis 9
as God is instructing Noah
upon exiting the ark,
“Whoever sheds the blood of a human,
by a human shall that person’s blood be shed;
for in his own image,
God made humankind.

It would seem to me that,
if each of us
and all of us
are created in God’s own image,
there is great dignity in that.
Great dignity in what it means to be human.
For me
and for you
and for every person we meet.
How does it change your reaction
or response to someone
if you understand that they,
like yourself,
have been created in God’s own image.
That homeless person on the street?
That next-door neighbor
who makes you a little crazy?
That person
who just cut you off in traffic?
President Trump?
Hillary Clinton?

Does it change things for you
if you view each one in that list
and of all humanity
as made in the image of God?

There is great dignity
for all people
in being created in God’s image.
It is the same dignity,
and glory and honor,
that the psalmist writes about in Psalm 8…
“When I look at your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars
that you have established;
what are human beings
that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them
a little lower than God,
and crowned them
with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion
over the works of your hands;
you have put all things
under their feet…”

there is dignity
in being created in God’s image.
there is also great responsibility.

There is this fancy word in theology
that I really like--
Theologians often talk
about the perichoretic relationship
of the Triune God.
Perichoresis is a word
that describes this relationship:
as co-indwelling,
and mutual interpenetration.  
Alistair McGrath writes that
“it allows the individuality
of the persons
to be maintained,
while insisting
that each person
shares in the life
of the other two.”
In this relationship of the Triune God,
there is separation,
yet there is togetherness.
There is individuality,
yet there is community.

How the three persons
of the Godhead
live in relationship to each other
is how God has created all creation to live.
Not just humanity,
but all creation.
Respecting the gifts
and individuality of the other.
loving and caring for each other
and all creation
in full relationship,
in community.
A community of being
in which each person
maintains its distinctive identity,
yet is interconnected to the other.  

we know
that we are not now perfect representations
of the image of God.
In our fallen state,
we constantly dismiss this
in others and in creation.
We ignore those who we think are unimportant,
or disrespect those with no power.
We manipulate others for our own ends.
We pollute and damage creation,
using it for our own selfish needs
instead of how God desires.

The good news,
as we read in Colossians 3,
is that our new selves
are being “renewed in knowledge
according to the image of its creator.”
This renewal,
this creative work
doesn’t happen by our own understanding
or strength.
Instead it happens through God,
through the redemptive work
of the Son on the cross
and through the sanctifying work
of the Holy Spirit
that begins in our baptisms.

And, it happens here
in this place.
In community.
inside these walls,
with each other.
It is here
where we continue to be shaped
and formed
through the Word
and in the Sacraments,
in relationship with each other,
to become the people who God desires us to be--
people created in the image of God.

This is God’s desire for us.
This is God’s desire for all humanity.
God is determined
that we will all be reshaped
into God’s image,
just as God intended us to be
from the sixth day of creation.
as the church,
is our task.
It is the same task given by Jesus
to the disciples:
to participate in God’s mission.

Did you hear that?
To participate in God’s mission.
Notice that it is God’s mission
and not ours
or that of the church.
It is God’s mission
that we will all be reshaped
into God’s image.
We are called to give witness
to that mission--
how we have experienced God
so that others might see
and wonder how God is working.
To witness through word and action
to what God is already doing
in our neighborhood,
our community,
and our world.
God is always ahead of us,
and renewing.
Our task
is to join God in that work--
in God’s mission--
and to testify to God
as the source of all grace,
all love
and all community.

To join the dance of the Trinity.
To jump into that relationship of mysterious,
yet, unbelievable
Three in One.
To be freed
in hope and love
and to be woven into full relationship
with the Triune God
and with all humanity
and all creation.

How else can we respond
except in the beginning
and ending words of our psalm today:
“O Lord,
our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name
in all the earth!”


Preached June 11, 2017, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Goshen, KY.
The Holy Trinity
Readings: Genesis 1:1-2:4a, Psalm 8, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, Matthew 28:16-20