Sunday, September 24, 2017

Finding God in Hard Places

When Isaac was old and his eyes were dim so that he could not see, he called his elder son Esau and said to him, “My son”; and he answered, “Here I am.” He said, “See, I am old; I do not know the day of my death. Now then, take your weapons, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field, and hunt game for me. Then prepare for me savory food, such as I like, and bring it to me to eat, so that I may bless you before I die.”

Then Rebekah took the best garments of her elder son Esau, which were with her in the house, and put them on her younger son Jacob; and she put the skins of the kids on his hands and on the smooth part of his neck. Then she handed the savory food, and the bread that she had prepared, to her son Jacob.

So he went in to his father, and said, “My father”; and he said, “Here I am; who are you, my son?” Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me; now sit up and eat of my game, so that you may bless me.” But Isaac said to his son, “How is it that you have found it so quickly, my son?” He answered, “Because the Lord your God granted me success.” Then Isaac said to Jacob, “Come near, that I may feel you, my son, to know whether you are really my son Esau or not.” So Jacob went up to his father Isaac, who felt him and said, “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” He did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like his brother Esau’s hands; so he blessed him.

Now Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him, and Esau said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob.” But the words of her elder son Esau were told to Rebekah; so she sent and called her younger son Jacob and said to him, “Your brother Esau is consoling himself by planning to kill you. Now therefore, my son, obey my voice; flee at once to my brother Laban in Haran, and stay with him a while, until your brother’s fury turns away— until your brother’s anger against you turns away, and he forgets what you have done to him; then I will send, and bring you back from there. Why should I lose both of you in one day?”

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”  Gen. 27:1-4, 15-23, 41-45; 28:10-17 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from God--Creator, Redeemer, and Renewer. Amen.

Over these past few weeks, we’ve begun to hear the story. The story of how our relationship--how all of humanity’s relationship with the living God is a story of blessing upon blessing. We first read about the blessings of creation and our special responsibility to care for it. We then saw how God blessed Abraham through a difficult time--saw the obedience of Abraham who was willing to sacrifice his own son, who trusted that God was big enough to see God’s promise through to fulfillment and how, in the end, God did not ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.  How just, at the right time, God provided the sacrifice.

So, what happens when story goes awry? How does all of this work when the blessing is stolen? When God gives God’s blessing to someone we perceive as completely unworthy and undeserving?

As our story opens today, Isaac is now an old man. He and Rebekah, his wife, have been extraordinarily blessed by God with large herds, a number of servants, and much wealth. They are the parents of twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Esau, the oldest, will be entitled to both the birthright and the blessing under their cultural norms. This means that Esau can expect to be quite wealthy upon the death of Isaac--that he can expect to receive two thirds of all of his father’s estate.

But, the birthright doesn’t only come with wealth. It also comes with power. Esau will be the leader of his family. His brother, Jacob, and all of Jacob’s family will be expected to respect and honor his wishes, as the oldest son and family patriarch.

Then, there is the blessing. This is more personal for Esau. It is the blessing given by God, first to Abraham, Esau’s grandfather. Then to his father Isaac. The blessing--the promise--that God would make a great nation out of Abraham and his descendants and that God would bless them to be a blessing to others.

With both the family birthright and the promised blessing of God, there is a great future ahead for Esau.

And, then, it all falls apart.

It begins with family dysfunction. We get a premonition of this dysfunction at the very beginning of their story, when Esau and Jacob are still in Rebekah’s womb. She experiences a difficult pregnancy. So she turns to God who tells her that the two sons she is carrying will become two nations. That the younger of the two will be the strongest and that the older will be his servant.

Then, in earlier chapters, we also read about how different Esau and Jacob were--physically and temperamentally. Esau was ruddy and handsome, an outdoorsman, a “man’s man.” And that he was Isaac’s favorite.

Then there’s Jacob. He was more delicate. He preferred to stay indoors, particularly in the kitchen. A “mama’s boy.” Yet, smarter than Esau, a schemer. And that Jacob was Rebekah’s favorite.

This family dysfunction plays out one day in the kitchen, where Jacob has just finished cooking a full pot of lentil stew. Esau enters, famished after a full day of hunting. Tricked by Jacob, Esau gives up his birthright--the two thirds of his father’s wealth--in exchange for a bowl of lentil soup.

We see this same dysfunction in today’s lesson. This time, both Jacob and Rebekah are engaged in trickery. In scheming to deprive Esau, who has already lost his birthright. To deprive Esau out of the blessing, too. That more personal promise he is to inherit from Isaac--that promise from God for his future and for his family’s future. 

Rebekah and Jacob are successful in their subterfuge. With Isaac’s failing eyesight and the deception of his wife and son, we read in our text that Isaac mistakenly gives the blessing to Jacob. That, in a similar twist and in exchange for a bowl of savory food, of delicacies, of “rich food,” Isaac gives the blessing to Jacob. A blessing of wealth and power and, eventually, the ancestral blessing of God’s promise. A blessing that can’t be taken back.

Esau is outraged. He is beside himself with anger and frustration. “Bless me, me, too, Father!” he cries out bitterly to Isaac. “Haven’t you reserved a blessing for me?” He says, in tears, to his father. And, then, Esau plots to kill Jacob. To wait until their father has died and the days of mourning have passed. And, then, to kill Jacob. His brother.

Rebekah gets wind of Esau’s plan. She convinces Jacob to leave. To run away. To escape the wrath of his brother. To flee to the home of his uncle, Laban--Rebekah’s brother. Back to the ancestral land of Abraham, Jacob’s grandfather. 

Family dysfunction. Playing favorites. The ongoing patterns of deception that continue on and on. The evasion. The covering up. The running away. These all become patterns of life. And Jacob, in particular, is complicit for much of what has happened. For much of the family dysfunction.

Yet, Jacob doesn’t live happily ever after, as tricksters rarely do. In the story, Jacob finds himself on the run, alone, in the wilderness. Somewhere between the home he has left behind and that of his uncle. 

Our story says he came to “a certain place.” The original Hebrew reads that Jacob came to “the place.” There’s a definite article here. To the place.  As though the reader will know exactly where this is. Early Jewish writings tell us that this is Moriah. This place--Mount Moriah--has special significance. It’s where the near sacrifice of Isaac happened. It’s also the place where Solomon would eventually build the temple. The temple on the highest place in Jerusalem.

Jacob does not know this. All he knows is that he is tired. He is tired of running and he is all alone. Without family or friends. In a desolate place. All by himself.  With a stone for a pillow. 

And, then, the dream begins. It is a wild dream. A wild vision of a stairway stretching from earth to heaven, with angels--messengers of God--moving first up the stairway and then back down. Over and over. Up and down. From earth to heaven and back down again.

Early Jewish writings compare this stairway to those attached to temple towers in the ancient Near East. These stairways were considered microcosms of the world--that the top of the tower represented heaven, the dwelling place of the gods. And that priests would traverse the stairway between heaven and earth and provide communication from the gods to the people. These writings challenge this notion. They argue that this dream is evidence that God speaks God’s own words--words of promise. And that, in this dream, God is personally present with Jacob.

Whatever its interpretation, Jacob wakes up. He realizes that this place is the place--a holy place. A place of God. He takes the stone he has been using for a pillow, anoints it with oil and sets it upright to mark this place. Then, Jacob names this place Beth-el, meaning “house of God.” It is here, in this place of wilderness, in the midst of life and of suffering, in this hard place, that God has been present for Jacob.  Eventually Israel would build walls around this place and invite people to it as a place of sanctuary, as a holy place. That they will mistakenly believe that it is only in this place where God is to be found.

We often make that same mistake. Believing that God is only to be found here, inside these walls. What this story teaches us that, in fact, God is found out there. In the wilderness, in the midst of life and of suffering, in the hard places. In the messiness of our lives. It is in the hidden and most obscure, in the darkest places of our lives and of our world that God is most present. At work. Reconciling.

Because that, ultimately, is how the story of Jacob and Esau will end. With reconciliation. Jacob comes back. Just like we come back. To God, who has always been present with us and who refuses to let our dysfunctional pasts determine our futures. Where those patterns are altered through God’s grace. 

Ultimately, it is Jesus, who becomes the embodiment of this presence of God in the midst of human sin and dysfunction.  It is Jesus who is like the stairway in Jacob’s dream. Jesus, who binds together earth and heaven. Jesus, through whom we find God in the midst of the hard places. We find God just like Jacob did. Present, even when we don’t realize it. 

This is the story of Jacob. It is our story. Mostly, though, it is the story of God. How, despite the obstacles we throw in the way, despite the tragedy or our sinfulness, despite the wilderness of our lives and our world, God sees a much bigger picture than we can. God sees where the blessings lie hidden. And God uncovers them to God’s glory.  And brings us back. Home. To the house of God.

With Jacob, we, too, can proclaim, “How awesome is this place!” And, mostly, “how awesome is our God!” Amen.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Is God Big Enough?

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.

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”  Genesis 21:1-3, 22:1-14 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from God, our Creator; Christ, our Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit, our Renewer and Re-creator. Amen.

Blessings. We talked a lot about blessings last week, didn’t we? As we read through the story of creation and heard, once again, the narrative of God’s creativity and loving care in designing a world of order and fruitfulness, it’s hard not to think of how richly God blessed humanity with all of the beauty and diversity of creation. The goodness of such creation. Six times in the story, God looks at what God has created and declares it “good!”

And, then, it all falls apart.

There’s a progression of violence in the early chapters of Genesis. It begins with Cain and Abel and continues to escalate as all of humanity spirals downward into greater and greater conflict and destruction. People are setting up empires to oppress the masses. Entire systems perpetuate injustice. 

And, then, we meet Abraham. The primary actor in our story today.

Abraham’s story is unusual. If you remember it from our lessons this past summer, it is Abraham who left his father’s household in Mesopotamia and moved to Canaan. Abraham, who had been called by God to make this journey.

People in Abraham’s time didn’t just do that. They had a cyclical view of history. They believed that everything that had happened would happen again. That somewhere in that cycle you died and then your kids continued the cycle. And that nothing changed. The cycle continued. Over and over and over again.

But, Abraham is different. He leaves. He steps out of the cycle. And walks into a new future. Leaving home. And leaving an entire way of life. Abraham has a destiny, a destiny planned by God. A plan to father a new kind of people to usher in a new era for humanity. One based in love and not violence or power. One that would bless all people.

How do you do this? How do you form a new kind of people who will take the world in a new direction? Well, as Rob Bell, a contemporary theologian, writes, “You have kids!”

And that’s what Abraham and Sarah did. Have kids. Well, not at first. Because, at first, Sarah, Abraham’s wife, was barren. Worried that God’s plan might go awry, Sarah and Abraham tried to fix things. And the result was that Abraham had a son with Sarah’s servant, Hagar. Ishmael, they named him.

But, this wasn’t exactly God’s plan. What was God’s plan would that this new nation would come from Abraham and Sarah. And, so God promised them a child. A son. It is here, where our story begins today. With their son, Isaac, meaning “laughter.” And with God keeping God’s promise to them. Not only the promise of the son. But also the promise that through that son that they had been blessed with--through Isaac they would become a great people. That through these blessings, they would bless others.

Isaac makes it through childhood, which alone is a great feat. And, perhaps just when it begins to feel to Abraham, that everything is right with the world and that maybe, just maybe, this plan of God’s is really real. Once again, it all falls apart. Or so it seems.

Genesis 22 opens with this verse. “After all these things, God tested Abraham.” It’s such an interesting phrase, isn’t it--”after all these things.” After Abraham has broken the cycle, followed God’s command into an unknown future, trusted in the promise of God to give him a son and to make a great nation out of him. After all of these things, God decides to test Abraham. As though Abraham hasn’t already passed test after test.

We hear a lot about God testing us. We need to step back a little bit here and thing about that word “test.” It has such a negative connotation, doesn’t it. It always gets applied to us in our lives when something bad is happening or things seem to be going wrong. “God is testing me,” we might say in response. As if God wants to see whether or not we’ll be faithful through the suffering. Or as though God is sadistic--that God wants to test how much we love God.

But that’s not what this is. Here, this test is like the tests that you used to take in school (or that you still do). Tests that are intended to measure your progress. To make sure you’re ready. Ready to move onto the next step of learning. Tests help us identify our readiness for what is next to come. It’s the same here with Abraham. God comes to Abraham to see if he is ready to move onto the next step. To really become the “father or nations.” 

“Abraham, Abraham,” God calls. And Abraham answers, “Here I am!” In the Hebrew, the word is heneni. It’s not just saying, “Hey, I’m here. I’m present.” It is Abraham saying to God, “I’m here. I’m at your disposal. Tell me to do whatever you want and I will do it.” 

And so, God tells him to take his son. His only son. To “please” take his son. You see, it’s not a command, it’s a request. Abraham has a choice here. A choice of whether or not to follow God’s request. Or to refuse it. If he was going to do what God asked of him, it would have to be done willingly. 

Abraham is silent. Perhaps he was just stunned. But, there is no argument. No resistance. Perhaps it is just silent resignation. But, Abraham does it. He packs up the wood and places it on the donkey. Then, gathers two young servants and Isaac. And he moves toward the mountain. To build an altar. Abraham, who already has a history of building altars and who is experienced at making sacrifices--Abraham begins the journey.
At the bottom of the mountain, they stop. And Abraham takes the wood and puts it on Isaac’s back. As they begin up the mountain, Isaac has a moment of realization. “Father, father,” he says to Abraham. “Heneni,” Abraham answers. “Here I am. Fully for you, my son.” 

Isaac has noticed that they have everything they need, except for one thing. The lamb. There is no lamb for the burnt offering. What will they use? He asks his father. And Abraham, still stunned, mumbles, “God will provide.”

I wonder what Isaac’s reaction was when his father began to bound him up and then to place him on top of the altar they had built together. Did he resist? Did he try to run away? Was his pleading, or crying, or struggling? Or was there just placid, stunned submission, like his father. The one he trusted with his very life.

Or what was Abraham thinking as he looked into Isaac’s eyes. Into “Laughter’s” eyes. Eyes that had always watched for Abraham as he returned each day from the pastures. Eyes that had held the promise of a nation, of heirs, of God. Eyes now filled with terror and trust at the same time. How they must have pierced Abraham to his very core!

And, then, just as Abraham is ready to make the sacrifice. Of his son. Abraham hears God, “Abraham, Abraham.” And once again, for the third time, Abraham responds, “Heneni. Here I am.”

How close they came. Abraham pulls Isaac into a deep embrace. And then sees the ram off in the distance. Yes, God has provided.

It is horrifying, isn’t it. We have no concept of what it means to participate in such an act. What kind of religion would demand child sacrifice? Yet, this was the world in which Abraham lived. The gods that people worshipped in his time and place demanded all kinds of offerings from their worshipers, including blood sacrifice. Sacrifice in exchange for the favor of the gods. But interrupting what would have been a normal practice, God is saying, “Enough! No more of this!”

And, yet, if I’m honest, I have to question whether I would want to even have a relationship with a God that would ask me to do that, to do something so repulsive, to sacrifice my own child. Of course, that’s not to say that we don’t sacrifice our children to various gods every day, depending upon what we teach in our own homes. To sacrifice our children to OUR gods. Those things we think are important. Our own priorities that become the gods our children are sacrificed to--the god of money, or of power, or of envy, or of competition or consumerism, or violence, or prejudice.

Yet, Abraham’s story isn’t so much about a man sacrificing his child, but a man who risks everything for his belief in God. Abraham had been given a promise--that he would be the father of multitudes. That many nations would come from him, that his descendents would be as numerous as the stars in the heavens and the grains of sand on the seashore. Isaac was the physical representation of that promise from God.

What if the sacrifice was more about whether Abraham believed that God was big enough to carry out the promise. That even if Abraham destroyed the physical sign of that promise by sacrificing Isaac, God would still carry out the plan. That Abraham’s God was big enough.

The minute Abraham showed that he trusted God to carry out the plan, even without Isaac, the physical sign of that plan. The minute Abraham did this, he passed the test. He was ready to go onto the next step. To truly become the “father of many nations.” Because Abraham understood. He understood that everything he had--his son, his family, and even everything he would ever have- it was all ultimately a gift from God. That it didn’t belong to him. But, that it all belonged to God.

We tend to hold tightest onto those things that are the most dear to us. Our own Isaacs. Our homes. Our 401k’s. Whether those things are, those things that we think will bring us security and comfort. 

And, we thank God for them. We have lists of those blessings in the fellowship hall. Lists we created last week that we thank God for.

Yet, we grip them so tightly that they end up bound on the altar of our choice. Just like Abraham’s hand must have trembled at the thought of losing Isaac, so we tremble at the thought of losing these things. Or of giving any of it away. Not just money, but all our gifts. All those gifts God has given us--teaching, caring, listening to someone, serving, leading.

We don’t realize. Or we simply forget. That none of it belongs to us. None of it, including even our church, belongs to us. It all belongs to God.

That’s what the test was for Abraham. That’s what the test is for us. We have to be willing to give up part of who we are and to step into who God tells us we are. To be willing to believe that God is big enough. Bigger than what we can see or even imagine. And that God is able to do more than we can even ask or think.

A few thousand years later (after all these things), when Abraham’s descendants were as numerous as stars, there was a similar scene. But this time, it would be God’s own son who would walk up the side of the mountain, carrying the wood for his own death, his own altar of sacrifice. And this time, God would not stop it. God wouldn’t be spared the pain of God’s own son dying, wouldn’t even reach down to cover Jesus’ eyes that were so full of terror and trust at the same time.

This was God’s gift to us. “For God so loved the world…” And God did it to birth new life for us. Through Jesus’ death. A new covenant. A new promise. Between God and humanity. One that can’t be broken, even if we try to destroy it ourselves. This is the promise and gift we have through Jesus Christ in our baptisms. Life. 

So, after all these things. After church and Sunday school, maybe this afternoon when you’re enjoying a beautiful, warm afternoon--probably one of the last before autumn begins. As you’re thinking about everything that has happened, and you’re giving thanks for every blessing that you’ve been given and the many people who have blessed you. Think about this story. And know that God’s Spirit lives within you. It’s that Spirit you know that you hear deep inside saying, “Take what I have given you and offer it back to me.” That’s the test for you. The test of your trust. The test of the question: Is your God big enough?


Preached September 17, 2017, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Gen. 21:1-3, 22:1-14; John 1:29

*With special appreciation to Rev. Linda Pepe and her blog, Theological Stew.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Order Out of Chaos

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

So God created humankind in his image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.
God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.

These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. 
                                                                                             --Genesis 1:1--2:4a (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from the Triune God--The Creator of the world, the Word made flesh, and the brooding Spirit, hovering over the waters. Amen.

Beginnings. Fall always feels to me as a time of new beginnings. We’re moving from summer and returning from those last days of summer vacation and getting down to business. Or, to school, which is beginning for some and already started for others.

We’ve just come off Labor Day--that holiday that seems to mark the end of summer--and we’re moving into fall. The temperatures are beginning to drop. The days are beginning to grow shorter. The football season has started. Soon, the leaves will be turning and we will definitely have transitioned from late summer into the beginning of autumn.

We’re in beginning days here, too, at Grace & Glory. Today is our Rally Day--the start of our fall programming, including the start of Sunday School and the beginning of Children’s Church. We’re starting cross-generational Sunday School today, which we’ll continue once a month into the fall and spring. In another week or so, we’ll begin a new Table Talk opportunity with our sisters and brothers at Shiloh Church. In a couple weeks, we’ll have a healing service, which will also continue through the year. And, then there’s October. That month in which we will celebrate and celebrate and celebrate Reformation 500--a major anniversary in the church, particularly for us Lutherans. It’s as though, after the lazy, hazy days of summer, we are ready to get down to business.

Then, there’s one more thing that we’re beginning this year. Along with Shiloh, we are moving to a new lectionary--a new series of readings. For years, we’ve been in the Revised Common Lectionary, a three-year cycle of readings that mostly focuses on the New Testament. Today, we begin the Narrative Lectionary, a newer lectionary that has been developed by a group of professors at Luther Seminary. A lectionary that spans four years and that will focus on all of scripture, both the Hebrew scripture (or Old Testament) and also the entire New Testament. Each year over the 4-year cycle, we will begin in the fall in the Hebrew scripture. And, then, in the spring we will focus on the New Testament.

The purpose of making this change is to remind us once again of the broader arc of the history of salvation. The meta-narrative, if you will. The whole story of God from creation through to the formation of the church, after Christ. To see the big picture. And, mostly, to try to figure out where our story fits into God’s story.

And, so, appropriately today, we begin at the beginning. With creation.

In Genesis chapter 1, verse 1, the story opens. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” Or as Eugene Peterson writes in The Message Bible, “Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness.”

It was shapeless. It was chaos. It was darkness. 

It’s important to note here, that the word in Hebrew for “darkness” is a rather evocative word. The opposite of darkness is light and, particularly, for us believers, light often symbolizes God. We read today, for example, in the first verses of the Gospel of John that through the Word--through Jesus--light entered into the world. The light that shines in the darkness and that the darkness does not overcome.  

By contrast, in the Hebrew, darkness means everything that is the opposite of God, everything that is anti-God. The wicked. Judgment. Death. All are signified by the word for darkness.

So, in the beginning, when the world was without form or shape, when it was chaotic and without any order, when it was dark--it is here that God enters in. That God enters in and speaks the Word. Saying, “Let there be light.”  

This first word changes everything. It is with the dawn of light that the incredible story of God as sovereign creator of the world begins. It is with the dawn of light that God enters into time and space and begins to order things, to separate them. The light from darkness. The waters, separated by the dome, and earth and sky. The separation of the earthly waters into land and seas. God separates and creates boundaries. And God names time and space to be a world for all humanity. In this very action, Claus Westermann writes, “[God] shows [Godself] to be the master creator of the world.” By simply acting and speaking.

But, that’s not everything.

Did you catch verse 11? After God spoke light into being and separated and ordered the chaos, God then shares God’s creative powers. In verse 11: “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.”

God is not a creative control freak. God shares creative powers with the earth. Mother earth. Birthing all vegetation. This is not a God that powers over. This is a God that powers with. That shares creative power with the earth and, eventually, with humankind.

As the earth is bringing forth vegetation, God continues to create. Now he begins to populate the earth. First with creatures. Swarms of living creatures. And birds, flying above the earth across the dome of the sky. And, then, in the oceans and seas--great sea monsters and other living and moving water creatures. And, then, more creatures: the cattle, and the creeping things, and the wild animals of the earth.

Then, once again, God shares creative powers. This time with the creatures that have populated the earth. God blesses the swarms and says, “Go! Create! Fill the waters! And the earth! And the sky! Be fruitful! Multiply!”

Finally, humanity. Male and female. Our story says that humankind was created in God’s image, in “our” image, verse 26 says. In the image of the Three. In the image of the Trinity. Without establishing relative rank or worth of the genders, God, the spinner of this creation story, indicates that humankind is found in two varieties--male and female. And that this humanity, in its complementary nature, is a reflection of the Deity. That God has both male and female traits. 

God also shares creative power with humanity. And, then, God also gives men and women responsibility. Our text reads that God tells the newly-created humans to have “dominion” over the earth and all its creatures. The word is really better translated as to steward. Or to be caretaker. Or, better yet, to care for earth and all its creatures. 

Because that is the image of God. God is not a “powering over” God, but a God of “powering with.” Stewarding. Shepherding. Caring for God’s creation. For all of God’s creation. As we humans are to care for all of God’s creation.

Six days. Six days of creating, of co-creating with earth and its creatures, and with male and female. Six days of goodness.

Yes, I said six days. Because God enters into our time and our space. Into days as we mark days. Twenty-four hours. We so often get hung up on the story of creation, as though it is a story of science. It is not. It is a story of God, of who God is. The story of the One who enters into our world and creates. And who co-creates. And who continues to create and co-create.

And it is a story with a purpose. With a goal. After six days of creative activity--of good creative activity--God rests. God takes a break. A respite. God marvels in God’s creation. And then God lets creation be for a period of time and makes room for it to create by withdrawing. By allowing us and all creation to come to be what God intends us to become. 

This is a metaphor for our lives, isn’t it? When we are in the midst of darkness and chaos, God enters in and begins to separate. To make order out of the mess. Creating life out of death and then, allowing us to become fully who we are. To become God’s people. 

It’s a marvelous story to begin with on this day of beginnings!  Knowing that God has created and continues to create. That God continues to co-create with us and with the earth and all its creatures. And trusting that even when God takes a brief respite, God is always there, ready to break in and speak a word of light into the darkness of our lives. And to bring creative blessing after blessing to us and to all of God’s creation.

May God continue to grant us new and creative beginnings, now and for all time. Amen.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Called to Be

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:

This is my name forever,
and this my title for all generations. 

Exodus 3:1-15 (NRSV)

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

Anything, but ordinary. This has been our theme this summer as we’ve worked our way through the stories of Abraham. Of his son, Isaac. Of Isaac’s son, Jacob. Of Jacob’s son, Joseph. And last week and today, Moses. A descendant of this entire line. Saved from sure death, as we heard last week, by the midwives, Shiprah and Puah, and by the persistence of three other women--Moses’ sister, his mother, and a princess, the  very daughter of the Pharaoh who sought to kill all of the Hebrew male babies.

It is anything, but ordinary.

In the years between last week’s story and today’s story, once again, much has happened. Moses, a Hebrew by birth, taken into the Egyptian royal household, into the Pharaoh’s own family--Moses as grown up.

In the same time frame, the subjugation and slavery of Israel by Pharaoh, by the state, has continued and has likely gotten worse. One day, as Moses is out among the Hebrews--his people--he sees this. The forced labor of his kinfolk. In fact, he sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew. One of his own people. 

Moses is grieved by it. Perhaps it was to alleviate his own guilt for escaping the painful experiences of his people. Or perhaps Moses identified with them in their oppression and sought to take action, to do the right thing. Or perhaps it was a complex mixture of motivations that are part of the human experience. Whatever the reason, Moses responds by killing the Egyptian. And by burying him in the sand so no one knows.

Except for one thing. The next day, when Moses seeks to intervene in a dispute between two Hebrews, one of them says, “Who made you a ruler and judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Moses then realizes that the murder he committed was known. And soon he is on the run from Pharaoh, who finds out about it and seeks to kill Moses.

Moses flees. Eventually he settles in Midian. He marries and has a son. As Moses is making a new life for himself as an alien in a foreign land, things continue to get worse for his people still enslaved in Egypt.

In Exodus 2, verse 23, we read that “the Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out.” That “out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God.” And, in verse 24, “God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”

God heard. God remembered. God looked. God took notice.

It is hear that today’s story begins. Moses is shepherding his father-in-law’s sheep. He leads them beyond the wilderness onto a mountain. To Mt. Horeb. Also known as Mount Sinai, the place where God gave Moses the ten commandments. 

Moses is walking along the mountainside with the sheep when, out of the corner of his eye, he notices something odd. A bush burning. 

Now, normally, this wouldn’t be that odd--that there would be a fire burning in a bush. It was a semi-arid climate. That there was a brushfire wasn’t unusual. What was unusual, though, was that the bush was never consumed by the fire. It never burnt up. Moses looked and then he took notice. And, then, he went to investigate.

When God saw that Moses had turned aside to see, God calls to him. “Moses! Moses” God says. Moses responds, “Here I am!” Then, God says, “Come no closer!” God tells him this is holy ground. That Moses should take off his sandals. And, then God helps Moses remember. “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” Immediately, Moses hides his face. Because, he remembers. He knows that this is the God of his ancestors.

I’ve always been intrigued by these few verses and, particularly, how odd it is that God tells Moses to take off his shoes. To go barefoot on this holy ground. To walk on this holy place with his ordinary, dirty, sweaty bare feet. It reminds me of when I moved back to Minnesota and how common it was for house guests, even strangers, to be told to take off their shoes when they came in out of the cold, out of the wintry, snowy mess outside. I’m sure the invitation was a way to help keep the carpet clean. That’s why it seems like such an odd request for God to make of Moses. Didn’t God want to keep this place holy? And clean?

I wonder if when God told Moses to take his sandals off, what God was really saying to Moses was be real. Be a regular person. Because as we continue to read on, this is how Moses is. Normal. Regular. Like you and me. When God lays out a plan for Moses--that God has seen God’s people and how miserable they are in Egypt. And that God has heard their cries and knows how much they are suffering and has decided to do something about it and to recruit Moses to help God do something about it. Well, Moses doesn’t act with the awe and the reverence that we would expect. In fact, Moses acts pretty normal. Pretty regular. LIke you and I probably would.

“What the heck are you talking about? I’m not ready to sign onto this plan of yours! And here’s my list of reasons!” All of a sudden, Moses’ “Here I am!” becomes his “Who am I?”  “Who am I that have the ability to do this? Who am I that I should lead Israel out of Egypt?” And then, Moses asks, “Who are you? Who are you that they will believe me and follow me?”

Perhaps the reason that God asks Moses to remove his sandals is because God wants Moses to be himself. To remove all pretense. To be vulnerable and fully open to what God has to say. And, yes, to question and challenge God. To wonder how God has chosen him. To wonder how God has chosen us.

We do that, don’t we? Like Moses, when we see that burning bush in our lives and we turn and take notice and hear God’s call for us, we wonder, don’t we? Who am I? Who are we? That God should be calling us to help. To help relieve the suffering and oppression in our world. Who are we? What abilities do we have to do what God is calling us to do? 

And, then, to say, “Are you serious, God?”

The images we saw on television this past week from the towns and cities along the Gulf Coast were devastating, weren’t they? Hundreds of thousands of homes flooded. Businesses devastated. First responders inundated with thousands of 911 calls. Tens of thousands without electricity. Chemical fires burning. And a death toll at 47 and growing. Devastating.

And, yet, people heard the call. The call to do something. To help. Ordinary people. Helping their neighbors. Bringing their small boats and rescuing others in need. Story after story after story of people helping other people. With no regard for race, for ethnicity, for immigration status, for gender, for all of those things that can be used to so easily divide people. Ordinary people doing what is anything but ordinary.

When Israel was suffering, God looked and took notice. God could have acted alone. Or God could have chosen anyone else for the job. But, God specifically selected Moses. There must have been something about Moses, with all of his flaws, with his gifts, with his unique abilities. Perhaps God wanted Moses to simply be. To be himself and nothing else. Moses. Called to be.

Each of us called to be. To be who we are and nothing else. As ordinary as that is. As unique as that is. We have been selected by God. We have been freed from shame and brokenness by Christ. 

We have been called to be. To be who we are, in our world, working together with God to free all those who suffer, to free all those who are enslaved by leaders who seek to enrich themselves or gain more power, to free all those who are oppressed by systems that continue to keep them down. You and I are called to be. 

As Moses was, as Joseph was, as Jacob was, as Isaac was, and as Abraham was, we are called to be.  Ordinary. And yet, anything, but ordinary! 

Praise be to God!


Preached September 3, 2017, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
13th Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45b; Romans 12:19-21; Matthew 16:21-28.