Sunday, September 18, 2022

ReMember: Abraham Forgets

Before we move into today’s reading, I’d like to transition us from last week’s story to today’s text in Genesis 12. While the move from chapter 8 in Genesis to chapter 12, today, doesn't seem like a big jump, there’s a lot that goes on in the chapters in-between.

After the story of the flood and of God’s covenant promise to Noah and his descendants, humankind didn’t really improve. In fact, in the verses immediately after God’s promise of the rainbow as an aid to God’s remembering, we have the story of Noah getting drunk. And naked. Probably not the image of the patriarch we want to keep, right?

Things don’t get better from there. There is a human inclination - a human desire - for power and control, especially to serve oneself. In the chapter that precedes today’s text, we read the story of the Tower of Babel. And of the attempt by humans to seek more and more power - to be like God. So, God mixes up their language so they can no longer easily communicate with one another. Then, God disperses them over all the earth so they can no longer together seek greater and greater power. It’s like the ultimate anti-trust action by God to ensure that humankind doesn’t become too big for its britches. 

The story continues down the generations from Shem, Noah’s son, to Terah, father of Abram, who we know better as Abraham. At the end of chapter 11, we learn two things. First, that Terah lives in Ur. (Refer to the map.) 

Ur is in the same location as Babel (or Babylon). Terah decides to move from Ur to Canaan. This means traveling an ancient trade route along what is called the Fertile Crescent (Remember your western civilization history?) to get there. But, Terah never reaches Canaan. Instead he, his family, and his household settle at the top of the Fertile Crescent in Haran. Then, the second thing we learn is that Sarai is unable to have children.

So, it is here where we find Abram and Sarai - where today’s story opens in Genesis 12. In Haran. With no children.

The Lord said to Abram, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you,
    those who curse you I will curse;
        all the families of the earth
            will be blessed because of you.”

Abram left just as the Lord told him, and Lot went with him. Now Abram was 75 years old when he left Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all of their possessions, and those who became members of their household in Haran; and they set out for the land of Canaan. When they arrived in Canaan, Abram traveled through the land as far as the sacred place at Shechem, at the oak of Moreh. The Canaanites lived in the land at that time. The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “I give this land to your descendants,” so Abram built an altar there to the Lord who appeared to him. From there he traveled toward the mountains east of Bethel, and pitched his tent with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the Lord and worshipped in the Lord’s name. Then Abram set out toward the arid southern plain, making and breaking camp as he went.

When a famine struck the land, Abram went down toward Egypt to live as an immigrant since the famine was so severe in the land. Just before he arrived in Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know you are a good-looking woman. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife,’ and they will kill me but let you live. So tell them you are my sister so that they will treat me well for your sake, and I will survive because of you.”

When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw how beautiful his wife was. When Pharaoh’s princes saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh; and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s household. Things went well for Abram because of her: he acquired flocks, cattle, male donkeys, men servants, women servants, female donkeys, and camels. Then the Lord struck Pharaoh and his household with severe plagues because of Abram’s wife Sarai.  --Gen. 12:1-17 (CEB)

It’s interesting to me that, as with Noah in last week’s story, God once more is moving from the distant - from a broader dealing with humanity - to the personal. To Abram and Sarai. 

God calls this couple through whom God promises to bless the whole earth. Abram and Sarai have one function in God’s plan. That is to be a blessing to all families of the “ground.” In most translations this phrase is translated as “families of the earth” or “people of the earth”. But this obscures a crucial aspect of this story of Abram and Sarai. The better translation is "families of the 'ground.'" The Hebrew word here, adamah, is the word first used in Genesis 2 to describe the creation of human beings from the “dust of the ground.” It’s the ground referenced in Genesis 3 to which all life will return in death. It’s the ground that literally opened its mouth to receive the blood of Abel after he was murdered by his brother, Cain, in Genesis 4 - and the ground from which Cain is cursed. In the Noah story, we read in Genesis 5, the hope that he will bring rest from this curse of the ground. But, then, in Genesis 9 it is from the ground that Noah receives wine that leads to his drunken nakedness and the breakup of his family. So, when we hear the call of Abram and Sarai to be a blessing to all families of the “ground” we understand what this is - a new attempt on the part of God to reconstitute the harmony of creation. This is a missionary call for Abram that will be echoed throughout the entire biblical narrative - including to you and to me. That, having been blessed by God in our many and unique ways, we then become a blessing to others.

So, Abram and Sarai go to the land they are promised, stopping at various points along the way to offer sacrifices of gratitude to the God who has called them. But, it is not long before a crisis comes. And the promise of God through Abram and Sarai is soon in trouble.

A famine strikes Canaan. They go south to Egypt - the bread basket of the ancient Near East. On the way, Abram does some thinking - about himself and his future. He devises a scheme to ensure his own safety by trafficking - let’s be honest here that’s what he’s doing, right? - trafficking his own wife to ensure his self-serving plan. 

Now, we first need to recognize that we live in a time and culture that is very, very distant from Abram’s. Women were viewed as property. Polygamy was common. Cousins married cousins. Spouses were not true partners - a husband was the lord and master of the wife and exercised complete control over her body. Over her responsibilities. Over her life. 

The other thing we need to know is that, further on in Genesis, we learn that Sarai really is Abram’s sister. His half-sister. So, in many respects, Abram is telling the truth here. But, remember God’s call for Abram and Sarai? To be a blessing to all the families of the ground. Abram’s actions here end up harming an innocent man - whether the man is powerful or not. Abram is not a blessing to the Pharoah. Either Abram has misheard God or simply forgotten God’s promise to preserve and protect him. His fear has gotten in the way of his trust in this promise - a promise from God of blessing. 

I wonder how many of us forget the promises of God in the midst of our own fears and worries. Wondering about our lives. Or about our loved ones’ lives. Fearing the worst. And, as a result of that fear, acting out of self-preservation, even if it harms innocent people.

Friends, God wants us to be free of fear. God wants us to truly trust that God will do what God says. The core of the relationship between God and Abram was to be blessed and to be a blessing. God remembered and honored that promise for him. 

Abram was given that promise. It has been given to us, as well. We may forget it. But, as with Abram, God did not forget him. And God has not forgotten us. Amen.

Preached Sunday, September 18, 2022, at Grace & Glory, Prospect, with Third, Louisville.
15th Sunday after Pentecost
Reading: Genesis 12:1-17

Sunday, September 11, 2022

ReMember: God Remembers

The Lord saw that humanity had become thoroughly evil on the earth and that every idea their minds thought up was always completely evil. The Lord regretted making human beings on the earth, and he was heartbroken. So the Lord said, “I will wipe off of the land the human race that I’ve created: from human beings to livestock to the crawling things to the birds in the skies, because I regret I ever made them.” But as for Noah, the Lord approved of him.

These are Noah’s descendants. In his generation, Noah was a moral and exemplary man; he walked with God. Noah had three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. In God’s sight, the earth had become corrupt and was filled with violence. God saw that the earth was corrupt, because all creatures behaved corruptly on the earth.

God said to Noah, “The end has come for all creatures, since they have filled the earth with violence. I am now about to destroy them along with the earth, so make a wooden ark. Make the ark with nesting places and cover it inside and out with tar. This is how you should make it: four hundred fifty feet long, seventy-five feet wide, and forty-five feet high. Make a roof for the ark and complete it one foot from the top. Put a door in its side. In the hold below, make the second and third decks.

“I am now bringing the floodwaters over the earth to destroy everything under the sky that breathes. Everything on earth is about to take its last breath. But I will set up my covenant with you. You will go into the ark together with your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives. From all living things—from all creatures—you are to bring a pair, male and female, into the ark with you to keep them alive. From each kind of bird, from each kind of livestock, and from each kind of everything that crawls on the ground—a pair from each will go in with you to stay alive. Take some from every kind of food and stow it as food for you and for the animals.”

Noah did everything exactly as God commanded him.

After forty days, Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made. He sent out a raven, and it flew back and forth until the waters over the entire earth had dried up. Then he sent out a dove to see if the waters on all of the fertile land had subsided, but the dove found no place to set its foot. It returned to him in the ark since waters still covered the entire earth. Noah stretched out his hand, took it, and brought it back into the ark. He waited seven more days and sent the dove out from the ark again. The dove came back to him in the evening, grasping a torn olive leaf in its beak. Then Noah knew that the waters were subsiding from the earth. He waited seven more days and sent out the dove, but it didn’t come back to him again.

God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “I am now setting up my covenant with you, with your descendants, and with every living being with you—with the birds, with the large animals, and with all the animals of the earth, leaving the ark with you. I will set up my covenant with you so that never again will all life be cut off by floodwaters. There will never again be a flood to destroy the earth.”

God said, “This is the symbol of the covenant that I am drawing up between me and you and every living thing with you, on behalf of every future generation. I have placed my bow in the clouds; it will be the symbol of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow appears in the clouds, I will remember the covenant between me and you and every living being among all the creatures. Floodwaters will never again destroy all creatures. The bow will be in the clouds, and upon seeing it I will remember the enduring covenant between God and every living being of all the earth’s creatures.” God said to Noah, “This is the symbol of the covenant that I have set up between me and all creatures on earth.” --Genesis 6:5-22, 8:6-12, 9:8-17 (CEB)

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God, our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.

Holy moly! Isn’t it a little crazy that so many people - some of us likely included - have decided that the events of Noah and the flood are appropriate with which to decorate nurseries. Seriously. This story is terrifying.

Welcome to the beginning of the lectionary year. In the Narrative Lectionary, it is customary that on the first Sunday of the lectionary year, we hear a story from what is called the primordial history. This primordial (or primeval) history consists of the first eleven chapters of Genesis. These are the mythic stories of faith - stories that speak to us in universal truths. They describe not only how things came to be for us as people of faith, but why things are the way they are. 

Usually, we begin with one of the two creation stories in Genesis 1 or 2. But, once every four years, we hear this story. Of God. Of God’s regret. And, then, of Noah and the flood. In some respects it’s a story of creation. But, really, it's more a story of un-creating than it is creating. Do you notice, especially, when we hear the language describing the creatures as they are loaded onto Noah’s ark - the language and its cadence - that it sounds remarkably similar to many of the lines of Genesis 1? This account of God un-creating the world borrows and echoes words and phrases from the first story. Even the sequence moves backwards from humanity, to land animals, to birds, then to food plants.

But, before we get too far into the story, I want to back up to the very beginning. In its opening lines, we hear the depth of God’s emotion. The heartbreak. And, perhaps most troubling, the regret that God felt at having created humanity. God is grieved “to the heart” and twice “sorry” about having spoken creation into being in the first place. God intended a world that behaved and believed very differently from the one that developed. That God was facing in this story. Perhaps, even, the one that God is facing in our world today.

I don’t know about you, but, as a parent, I get it. There were many times when I just wanted to walk away. Tired and exhausted and dealing with one more challenge with my son, I understand, even in some very minute way, how God was feeling. 

It was an evil place, this time of Noah. Wickedness abounds, both in the imagination of the heart and also in societies these humans have created. God is ready to call it quits. One Jewish theologian to whom I frequently listen put it this way. “Have you ever started a project with all excitement and energy, but then come to a realization that things are a mess. That this is not going to work. And that it's time to just shut it down." That’s where God is, she suggests. Ready to “blot out” every living thing from the face of the earth. The Hebrew word meaning to “rub away” as one might rub ink off old parchment. To un-remember. And simply forget it ever happened. Some theologians have suggested that God’s uncreating in this story is less a kid kicking his sandcastle apart at the beach and more a simple turning away. And without God’s sustaining and creative presence, things fall apart. 

But. That’s how chapter 8 begins. It’s in the word “but” where we hear the good news. “But God remembered Noah and all of the beasts and cattle that were with him in the ark.” God can’t quite go all the way, apparently. As God responded to the disobedience of Eve and Adam in the story in Eden and as we will see time after time in the stories that follow, God’s deadly wrath is overcome by our Creator’s more powerful inclination toward salvation. At the heart of this story, setting every challenging aspect aside for just a moment, is a God who, no matter how grieved and angry, is in love with the universe and its creatures, particularly those of us of the two-legged variety who somehow share that same mysterious image of God.

We’re reminded of this in the words of Isaiah 49, “Can a woman forget her nursing baby, that she should have no compassion on the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.”

God remembers that last good remaining speck of creation and turns again toward it. Notice the movement of God from distant to intimate. From the broader view of humanity to Noah. God sees Noah and moves toward him. To a personal relationship with him.  To save him. God’s remembering of Noah leads to God’s salvation of Noah. And a promise - a covenant - to Noah to never again abandon creation to chaos, but to stay in relationship. To stay in the sustaining relationship with creation that makes life possible. A promise marked by a sign. A rainbow. Not so much to help us remember, but to help God remember. 

It is here, in this primordial story, in this teachable moment for God, that God opts in for the sacrificial, messier, more inefficient, more vulnerable route of real relationship. With Noah. And with you. And with me. And God promises, in Christ, to remember us. Forever and ever.


Preached September 11, 2022, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Prospect/Goshen, KY, with Third Lutheran, Louisville, KY.
14th Sunday after Pentecost
Reading: Genesis 6:5-22, 8:6-12, 9:8-17

Sunday, September 4, 2022

Unraveled: Unraveling Fear

They came to the other side of the sea, to the region of the Gerasenes. And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man from the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs, and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain, for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces, and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him, and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the region. Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding, and the unclean spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine, and the herd, numbering about two thousand, stampeded down the steep bank into the sea and were drowned in the sea.

The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. They came to Jesus and saw the man possessed by demons sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion, and they became frightened. Those who had seen what had happened to the man possessed by demons and to the swine reported it. Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood. As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. But Jesus refused and said to him, “Go home to your own people, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you and what mercy he has shown you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone was amazed. --Mark 5:1-20 (NRSV)

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

Fear. It’s the topic of our text today - a story that is preceded by the story of Jesus and his disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee. It’s that story of a storm that comes up while they are in the middle of the Sea of Galilee - a big lake really. And of Jesus calming the waters. Yet, it's interesting to me that the very last thing Jesus says before they reach the eastern shore and step into today’s story - the last thing Jesus says to the disciples is “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?”

Fear. Why are you afraid? What are you afraid of? Now, I know our very American culture demands that we respond to that question with “Nothing. I’m afraid of nothing.” Yet, I wonder. I wonder if we move beyond that claim and think about those times, perhaps. Or those people, perhaps. Or those places, perhaps. That, if we are paying attention to our body and the reaction of our body to those particular times, people or places, we have to admit our fear.

On my vacation last week I had an opportunity to have a long conversation with an old friend who has lived in Los Angeles since he moved there from southern Indiana right after college. Like so many of us when we’re first starting out, he lived in what could be called “not the best part of town.” Maybe you’ve had a similar experience, where with limited income you had to find a place you could afford. A place that didn’t always feel safe. Even if you haven’t had that experience, think about what it feels like to walk at night from a restaurant or a bar or some other place in a “not so good” location. Those little twinges you feel as you hold your keys in your hand ready to open your car door. Or to protect yourself. Or as you pull your purse or your loved one closer to you. Just a little fearful of something or someone that might step out of the dark and turn your life upside down.

So, this friend, as he moved up and made more money, then, as he got married to a woman who was also successful, he began to move closer and closer to the westside of Los Angeles. The side where those with money live. And as he made that move, his attitudes began to change. Especially his attitude around the homeless.

Homelessness is a huge problem in Los Angeles as it is in many cities, including here in Louisville. There, especially, it’s a combination of the climate, housing costs that have spiraled out of control and out of reach for so many, plus drug addiction and a lack of mental health resources. All of this together has created a huge homeless population in L.A. - a population that, especially over the last ten years, has moved throughout the city, including into the west side. Into his neighborhood. 

There’s been a lot of public discussion there over how to deal with this issue, especially around how to deal with the homeless who suffer from mental illness. My friend has a good heart, but he, like many, has come to the position that the laws should be changed to allow those with mental health issues, especially those who seem out of control, to be forcibly removed from the streets and institutionalized. 

Out of sight, out of mind.

Just like the man in today’s story. This man named Legion is demon-possessed. Not just by one demon, but by many. He is uncontrollable. And, according to our text, not violent toward the people in the nearby village, but hurtful to himself. And as much as the villagers have tried to control him, placing him in chains and leg irons, their attempts have been futile. So, he has been banished apparently. Wandering in the tombs and hills nearby.

Out of sight, out of mind.

It’s a story that would make any Jew uncomfortable. Located in the land of the Gerasenes, it’s a Gentile area, so to begin with it’s unclean and out of bounds. There's a herd of swine there, too, which suggests impurity. Plus there’s that cemetery nearby, which for a Jew would be off limits. The man who comes to Jesus has an unclean spirit. This whole place, this man, this whole situation would be taboo for any Jew. But, as we have seen so often before, this is exactly the forbidden territory into which Jesus ventures.

He sends the man’s demons packing. Specifically, at their request, into a herd of swine nearby. Who, then, unexpectedly run off a cliff into the sea, drowning the unclean spirits. The word gets around and the villagers come out to see this man, previously possessed, now clothed and in his right mind. One might think that they would rejoice with him, celebrate over a life restored. But, instead, when they see him sitting there, they are afraid. 

Jesus’ healing action has upset their status quo. They find Jesus threatening. Their world, as they have created, it is tolerable. Even demons can be endured as long as the possessed are relegated to a place outside civilized territory - among the tombs on the outskirts of town. But, when they see the transformation of this man, they are fearful. 

What’s so frightening about Jesus and this action? Because, unlike them - and unlike us, Jesus refuses to leave the world as it is. Jesus transgresses those boundaries and rescues those who are “beyond help.” Such a person - like Jesus - can’t be controlled. Such a person - like Jesus - can only be followed. And they are unwilling. So, they ask him to leave. Because the cure of this demon-possessed man is too expensive. Not just in terms of pigs, but in terms of social stability. Jesus upsets the status quo. The Kingdom of God upsets the status quo. And, as we see in this story and in many of the stories of these past 13 weeks, humanity, its society and its institutions - we - often impede the in-breaking of God’s kingdom more than we expedite it. 

But God’s reign breaks into the world. Not so much through flawed institutions and individuals, but in spite of them. God’s reign comes with power - power to do things neither you nor I, nor any other human being, can do on our own. God’s reign forces us to perceive the truth that we are not in control. As we seek to control our lives and our world, we hold onto what we perceive as safe. As we push down our fear with the claim that nothing frightens us. As our world unravels around us and we lose complete control. Or we lose the control we thought we had. It is then, and only then, when we are vulnerable enough to see that only God is in control. That only God is at work in our midst. Turning things around. Skewing the world toward justice. Bringing resurrection out of death. For us. So that we might be free.

And so that our fear might be out of sight, out of mind.

May God grant it. Amen.

Preached September 4, 2022, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Prospect, KY, with Third Lutheran, Louisville, KY.
13th Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Mark 5:1-20, Psalm 65