Sunday, August 21, 2022

Unraveled: Seeking Understanding When Everything Falls Apart

But where can wisdom be found?
    Where does understanding dwell?
No mortal comprehends its worth;
    it cannot be found in the land of the living.
The deep says, “It is not in me”;
    the sea says, “It is not with me.”
It cannot be bought with the finest gold,
    nor can its price be weighed out in silver.
It cannot be bought with the gold of Ophir,
    with precious onyx or lapis lazuli.
Neither gold nor crystal can compare with it,
    nor can it be had for jewels of gold.
Coral and jasper are not worthy of mention;
    the price of wisdom is beyond rubies.
The topaz of Cush cannot compare with it;
    it cannot be bought with pure gold.

Where then does wisdom come from?
    Where does understanding dwell?
It is hidden from the eyes of every living thing,
    concealed even from the birds in the sky.
Destruction and Death say,
    “Only a rumor of it has reached our ears.”
God understands the way to it
    and he alone knows where it dwells,
for he views the ends of the earth
    and sees everything under the heavens.
When he established the force of the wind
    and measured out the waters,
when he made a decree for the rain
    and a path for the thunderstorm,
then he looked at wisdom and appraised it;
    he confirmed it and tested it.
And he said to the human race,
    “The fear of the Lord—that is wisdom,
    and to shun evil is understanding.” ---Job 28:12-28 (CEB)

Grace, mercy and peace to you from the Triune God who laid the earth's foundations, set its measurements, and to whom none on earth can compare. Amen.

Over the past year or two I’ve really begun to get into podcasts. My son started me on them - he listens all the time and will regularly share new ones with me that he thinks I might be interested in. One of my favorites is The Daily, which is a daily deep dive into something in the news, often digging deeper into politics here in this country or into events or situations happening in other countries. Throw in a little art and science, and that pretty much covers it. The exploration is usually about things that are happening now. The big and urgent questions of each day. 

But, this past Friday, they did something a little different. Instead of pursuing a current event, the entire podcast was focused on the topic of “cosmic questions.” Questions that often don’t have concrete answers. Big, dreamy existential questions that we don’t have the answers to. Like: “What’s a black hole and why do we care what happens inside?” Or “Is there other life in the universe? And, if so, why don’t we know about it.” One more. “Why do we remember the past and not the future?” You know, the questions at the center of your everyday dinner-time conversation.

Well, maybe not so much. 

But, it was a fascinating conversation that made me want to do more research and gain more understanding about one particular question they explored. And, as happens frequently, this particular podcast seemed to be perfectly timed with our text today from Job. Because the book of Job is also about a cosmic question. The question of suffering. Why there is suffering in this world? And, perhaps, more specifically, why do bad things happen to good people? 

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? Experienced something especially devastating. A diagnosis. A loss. Or maybe several. I doubt there's anyone here who hasn’t had something incredibly hard happen in their lives. And who hasn’t asked the question, “Why, God? Why?” 

That was Job’s experience, too. He - like you and I - was one of the faithful ones. But, as the story goes along he becomes the subject of a cynical bet between God and Satan. A bet to question - really, to test! -  how faithful Job would remain in the face of hardship. And devastation. 

When he loses everything, he, too, asks the question, “Why?” 

Then, his friends show up. They’re not particularly helpful. Maybe you’ve experienced “friends” like this. Who, in the face of deep loss come with platitudes. Like “It’s just God’s plan!” Or “It was for the best!” Or, one of the worst, “Maybe God is punishing you for something you did.” 

Then, after these so-called friends, another one shows up and speaks a poem to him, a poem about Wisdom. It's from this poem from which today's text comes. 

About Wisdom. 

Wisdom is a key figure in the Hebrew scriptures, always in the feminine. Proverbs 8 talks of Wisdom as the one created at the beginning. “I was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be.” It would only be in the first century that the Church would make the connection between the person of Wisdom in the Hebrew scriptures with that of Christ in the New Testament - particularly, with the idea of logos in the first chapter of John. The Word made flesh. Wisdom embodied in the person of Jesus Christ; then, later, in Christ’s Spirit. One who captures the fullness of God. 

But, in the Hebrew scriptures, Wisdom is identified as a righteous woman, who walks in God’s ways, who seeks justice. Who is seen as both a playful child and a wise architect. A primordial being with the claim that, “whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the Lord.” It’s the claim in the last verse of our text today: “The fear of the Lord is wisdom; turning from evil is understanding.” The irony of this particular claim is that it points us exactly to Job and to who Job was. A righteous man. Faithful. A lover of God. 

Not that being righteous. Or faithful. Or a lover of God is a bad thing. But, if we expect that if we do these things or are a righteous person, we will escape hardship. Or difficulty. Or loss. Then, we, like Job, fail to understand. And, if we think, too, that we are experiencing hardship because we haven’t been good enough, we also fail to understand. Like Job, we fail to experience the bigger picture. Of who God is. Who asks Job, “Where were you? Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Where were you when I set its measurements? Where were you when I stretched a measuring tape? Where were you?” 

We try so hard to control everything. And when we no longer have control. When everything in our life has unraveled. We, then, finally - hopefully - begin to experience God. And God’s presence. With a sense of wonder of this God, at work at the beginning of our world. At work in the midst of our world in this very moment. God, who does not promise a perfect life or a life without struggle. But, God. Who promises to remain. To be. With us. 

That then is true wisdom. A breathless, awe-filled reverence for God’s mystery and God’s expansiveness. For God’s presence that is beyond what we can control. Or make sense of. Or fully understand. In this life. 

So, close your eyes for just a moment. 

Become aware of your breathing. Listen to its gentle rise and fall. Become aware of being in the presence of God. 

Allow the God of love to look at you. (What’s in that gaze? Acceptance of you as you are is a good start.) Adopt a position of receiving. Stay with that for a moment.

Now, think back over the week. Give thanks for something or someone that brought you light and life. 

Was there a time when you struggled? Bring that to God’s deep, compassionate listening. 

What do you need for the coming week? Let God know.

Then remember that God loves you. And that God will remain faithful. To you.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Preached August 21, 2022, at Grace & Glory, Prospect, with Third, Louisville.
Pentecost 11
Readings: Job 28:12-28; Psalm 42:1-3, 5, 9-11

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Unraveled: Unraveling Bias

Then Pharaoh gave an order to all his people: “Throw every baby boy born to the Hebrews into the Nile River, but you can let all the girls live.”

Now a man from Levi’s household married a Levite woman. The woman became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She saw that the baby was healthy and beautiful, so she hid him for three months. When she couldn’t hide him any longer, she took a reed basket and sealed it up with black tar. She put the child in the basket and set the basket among the reeds at the riverbank. The baby’s older sister stood watch nearby to see what would happen to him.

Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe in the river, while her women servants walked along beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds, and she sent one of her servants to bring it to her. When she opened it, she saw the child. The boy was crying, and she felt sorry for him. She said, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children.”

Then the baby’s sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Would you like me to go and find one of the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?”

Pharaoh’s daughter agreed, “Yes, do that.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I’ll pay you for your work.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. After the child had grown up, she brought him back to Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopted him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I pulled him out of the water.” --Exodus 1:22, 2:1-10 (CEB)

Grace, mercy and peace to you, from God our Creator, Jesus Christ our Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit our Advocate and Sustainer. Amen.

Genocide. It’s the world into which baby Moses was born. This week I turned to Professor Google to learn more about how genocide is defined and what exactly it is. Unsurprisingly, one of the first links was to the U.S. Holocaust Museum website. On it, they define genocide as an act or series of acts designed to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. They arrange these acts into five categories: 1) killing members of a group; 2) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; 3) deliberately inflicting conditions of life on a group that are designed to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; 4) imposing measures on a group that are intended to prevent births; and 5) forcibly transferring children of a group to another group.

So often, I think, we try to convince ourselves that we are so different from the people of the Hebrew scriptures. That we have advanced so much further. And, perhaps, we have. Yet, on a related website I found a list of places in our world this very moment where genocide is occurring or at risk of occurring. South Sudan. The Congo. The Uyghur people in China. Afghanistan. Indonesia. Yemen. 

And lest we think that we, here in this country are immune, I would like to acknowledge the traditional, ancestral, unceded territory of the Adena, the Hopewell, the Myaamia, the Shawnee, the Cherokee and the Osage First Nations on which we are gathering and worshiping today.

Genocide. It’s the world that Moses was born into. A world where his life should have ended just as swiftly as it had begun. But, it didn’t. Thanks to a plot devised by Moses’ mother and his sister, whose name, Miriam, we would learn later in the story - thanks to their plot, Moses survived, one of who knows how many children didn’t. 

We have to wonder how detailed their plot was. Perhaps, it was simply to place him in the basket among the reeds, hopeful that Adonai would spare his life. Perhaps, their plan was more detailed, more opportunistic, even manipulative as someone suggested this week. Regardless of the complexity of their plan, the life of Moses, first-born son in his family, was spared because of it.

There are alot of things we could consider today under our summer-long theme of unraveling. The unraveling of Moses’ mother, of her hopes and dreams for her son. The unraveling in Miriam’s life, not subject to the genocide orders and how that may have impacted her. Or even the unraveling of the Pharaoh's daughter bias, conscious or unconscious, that she likely inherited for the Hebrew people.

But, today, I’d like to spend a moment looking at the actions of Pharaoh’s daughter that go directly to the unraveling of her own father’s plans of genocide. And, particularly, what it means to be an ally versus what it means to be “nice.”

I don’t know about you, but for my entire childhood I was constantly reminded to “be nice.” That idea is so deeply ingrained within me that I even talk to my two fighting cats, telling them to simply “be nice” to each other.

To be a nice person, as pagan spiritualist, Nadirah Adeye writes is to be “someone who doesn’t want to make others feel badly.” (One can find truth in the most interesting places!) She continues, “Being nice is about the personal choices we make regarding our friendships and relationships. A nice person, for example, likes to see diversity at gatherings, but may not understand that “diversity” is not just people of different complexions or lifestyles (but who all have similar assumed world views and behavior patterns). True diversity is, at times, grinding and intense and messy and loud and awkward.” We may say we want diversity, but do we really?

To be an ally, though, is very different. Anne Bishop, author of Becoming an Ally, defines it in this way: “Allies are people who recognize the unearned privilege they receive from society’s patterns of injustice and take responsibility for changing these patterns. Allies include men who work to end sexism, white people who work to end racism, heterosexual people who work to end heterosexism, able-bodied people who work to end ableism, and so on. Part of becoming an ally is also recognizing one’s own experience of oppression. For example, a white woman can learn from her experience of sexism and apply it in becoming an ally to people of color, or a person who grew up in poverty can learn from that experience how to respect others’ feelings of helplessness because of a disability.” 

To be an ally sometimes requires that we are not nice. It requires vulnerability. Risk on our part. It requires that we do the work to examine and question our own privilege. To understand who we are internally. And also how our external appearance or membership in a certain group might have an impact on our power in society. Being an ally means being willing to be uncomfortable. And trying again. Over and over. It’s less about being right than it is about being unwilling to allow wrongs to persist unchallenged. And to be willing to move toward the mess and discomfort rather than simply walk away.

Perhaps that’s why I’m so intrigued by the Pharaoh’s daughter. The unnamed Pharaoh’s daughter. Because, perhaps. Perhaps, just for a moment as she saw that Hebrew boy baby, she could connect with him. She could learn from the sexism she experienced in her own culture and use her own privilege to be an ally. To push back against her own father and against the systems of oppression he continued to perpetuate. To save a baby. To save Moses. Who God would eventually call to be an advocate - an ally - in his own right. To use the privilege he’d gained as a son of the Pharaoh’s daughter to help lead an oppressed people to freedom. 

Isn’t this the story of Jesus, too? Son of God come to earth to be an ally? To find every opportunity to push back against these same systems of oppression that continue to plague us today? To be vulnerable himself? To risk death so that all people - you and I included - might be fully free? Freed so that we might risk like Jesus? Called by God to carry on the work of unraveling and re-weaving, the mission of God to create a tapestry of diversity and beauty in our world? Yes.

For this, I say, Thanks be to God!

Preached August 14, 2022, at Grace & Glory, Prospect, with Third, Louisville.
Pentecost 10
Readings: Exodus 1:22, 2:1-10; Psalm 83:1-4, 9-10, 17-18

Unraveled: Unraveling Doubt

It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”

Thomas, the one called Didymus, one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!”

But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”

After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!”

Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.” --John 20:19-29 (CEB)

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Creator, Jesus Christ our Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit our Sustainer. Amen.

Where do I begin? I have to admit to you that, as I’ve been working and living through this past week, there are a lot of things I have felt called to preach today. This may be a longer sermon because of it. Let’s hope it makes some sense by the end.

I want to begin with this idea of how we respond when the unimaginable happens. Perhaps that unimaginable thing is happening to us personally. Perhaps it is something that happens to us collectively. I’m thinking today about the people of eastern Kentucky. 

If you’ve watched any of the videos of the flooding or the damage in the aftermath of the floods, or considered the loss of life, this was for our neighbors one of those “unimaginable” events. I’m one of two co-coordinators for disaster response in our synod. (I used to say I was a co-disaster response coordinator, but decided I needed to change that wording a bit.) 

Whenever a disaster hits, there are organizations, both in-state and from across the country, who begin to meet on Zoom to coordinate the volunteer response. These groups are called VOAD groups - Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. Every state has a VOAD group. There’s a national group, too. So, when a disaster hits, all of the VOAD partners plus all of the state and county emergency management teams jump on daily calls to, first, understand the need and, then, to coordinate the response. Lutheran Disaster Response - our churchwide organization that works through the affected synod - is one of those partners. And because Lutheran Disaster Response operates primarily through synods, I am typically on those calls, too.

When the floods hit a week ago in the eastern part of the state, the VOAD organizations and EMS teams took to Zoom. We typically aren’t part of this initial crisis response, but work more longer term. Yet, it’s important to know the extent of the disaster, so we all jump on the calls

You can imagine what we heard. Stories shared that most of us, including the EMS teams, could never have imagined would have happened. The devastation, the loss of life, the grief and heartbreak caused by these floods where streams and rivers, in some cases, were 20 feet above “normal” flood stage.

As I sat and listened in this past Monday, there was one need that stood out to me. A young woman working for a housing development corporation in Owsley Co. - one of the poorest counties in Kentucky. This young woman, Cassie Hudson, made a plea for $50,000 cash. It’s not often that people just blurt out the need for cash on these calls. Usually requests are for volunteers and supplies. Not just cash. But, for Cassie - like for Thomas in our text today - there was a need to be direct. To be honest. To risk. To be vulnerable. To see the evidence. To find the hope.

Isn’t that what Thomas is doing in our text today? Wasn’t he just verbalizing what every other disciple had been thinking - at least before Jesus appeared to all of them (except for Thomas) as they waited in fear in the upper room that Easter evening? A locked room that didn’t stop Jesus from showing up. And who, when he did show up, spoke a word of peace to them. Twice. Peace be with you. Peace. As in shalom. Meaning wholeness. Belonging. Community. 

But, Thomas wasn’t there. He wasn’t there to receive this word of peace from Jesus, literally in the flesh. Have you ever wondered where Thomas was? Why he wasn’t there? I have to wonder if, so devastated by Jesus’ death - by the unimaginable - he might have self-isolated. Caught up in his own grief. Grief that had turned him into a doubter. A skeptic. A cynic. Even a truth-teller. “Unless I see…I won’t believe,” Thomas says, even after the other disciples have witnessed to him. Who believed only when they saw! Who, in that moment, experienced their own Pentecost, as Jesus breathed his Spirit on them and sent them out.

Then, for Thomas, Jesus shows up. Again. And offers him exactly what he asks for. Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. Touch me. See that I am real. And believe. No longer is Thomas the cynic. No longer does Thomas need to touch Jesus. To touch the wounds on his hands. Or on his side. Simply being in the presence of this resurrected Jesus has restored his hope. Restored his faith. Restored his joy.

We never read of Thomas again in scripture. It might be easy to imagine that he simply faded away. Except, he didn’t. Thomas would go on to found the early Church in India. To build communities of Jesus’ followers that exist today - St. Thomas Christians, they call themselves. One of whom is an ELCA pastor, who serves just down the road from us in Corydon.

Because, like the other apostles, Thomas took seriously the divine authority given him by Christ. The authority for his own mission that can only be understood in light of the mission of Christ. A mission of self-giving love. A mission evidenced and fulfilled by Jesus’ life and death. A mission to which each and everyone of us are called, under the authority of Christ through our baptism in the Holy Spirit. Just as Thomas and the rest of the disciples were called, then sent. Thomas. Truth-teller that he was.

So, who is the Thomas in our midst? What is the truth here that no one is naming? That no one is vulnerable enough to speak out loud? Something that we all see, but that no one will say? 

Perhaps, one of those truths is that church as we’ve known it is no more. Our numbers, like virtually every other church in this country, are unraveling. Drastically. Something that is not your fault, or mine. But, something that has been trending in our nation for well over 50 years. We just - lucky or not - happen to be living at the end of it. In the midst of this liminal time.

What will the future bring? What will happen to the church? I daresay, none of us know. But, here’s the thing. When that unimaginable thing happens, whatever it is - Christ will be there. Breaking through the closed doors of our building, the closed doors of our hearts, the closed doors of our minds, saying to us - as he said to Thomas… Put. Touch. See. Believe. You and I will not do this new thing. God will do this new thing. And, God in Christ through the Holy Spirit will then send us into mission. Whatever that mission will be.

What’s an example of that mission? A possibility? Here’s a real-life, honest-to-God example of a mission God sends us on - of what it means to invite others to put, to touch, to see, to believe.

I’d like to read from two emails I received this week from that young woman I mentioned at the outset - from Cassie Hudson, Executive Director of Partnership Housing in Boonesville, KY. 

On Tuesday, she wrote this: "I have 3 small homes to build and a couple small repairs to other homes. I have the contractor willing to build back all of these 3 homes at no cost for his labor, I'm just struggling so bad with money for building materials. Owsley County is the poorest county in KY, finding money is difficult and we just experienced a historical flood in March 2021 which I was very successful in getting everyone homed, homes rebuilt etc. and fully recovered by July 2021, merely 5 months after the flood. This flood happened in a different part of the county and our previous efforts went untouched and I'm so thankful to God for that. Any and all funds no matter the amount is appreciated but I'm needing at least $50,000. Funds are just not coming in like previously, I think its because there has been so many disasters throughout KY since March 2021."

Then, on Thursday, after receiving an email I sent letting her know that Lutheran Disaster Response, because of dollars we and so many others have given - that LDR through our Synod would fully fund her request, plus any additional funds she might need, here’s what she wrote: I am at lost for words.  I can never thank you and everyone involved with.  You have not only took such a worry off of me but you will be able to help these people who can never recover from such devastation.  I'm usually a person with a lot of faith and belief that everything will work out and line up but on Monday evening, my faith was being tested.  I had doubt, I was worried and didn't know how I would pay for the materials to build these homes, but I was building them as I had just dug footers and poured them on one of the homes.  On Tuesday, I threw my doubt out the window that morning and put it in the lords hands.  He placed me here with PH almost 10 years ago to learn housing and to help the people of Owsley County and everything I've accomplished has been because of him, so I knew he wasn't finished with me...and today I receive your email."

Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe! Believe that God is working in our midst. Believe that God will turn our cynicism to hope. Will move us from isolation to community. From disbelief to faith. From fear to joy. So that we might then be like Thomas, like Cassie. To throw our doubt to the wind. And with all the authority of Christ to invite others to put, touch, see, and believe. 

Let us pray: Lover of the poor, defender of the needy, sanctuary of the rejected: for those who suffer injustice today, for men and women who cannot provide food for their families, and for whole communities who fear today and have no hope for tomorrow, we offer the longings of our hearts in prayer. We seek for them, O God, the gifts that are dear to us: food for the table, drink for the soul, shelter in the night and open doors to welcome us in. Amen.

Preached August 7, 2022, at Grace & Glory, Prospect, with Third, Louisville.
Pentecost 9
Readings: John 20:19-29; Psalm 16.