Where Are You in Jacob’s Story?

 A sermon for Proper 11: Genesis 28:10-19a, Psalm 139: 1-11, 22-23, Romans 8:12-25, Matthew 13:24-30,36-43

 

We continue following Jacob’s story. A lot has happened since last Sunday, and at least a bit is important for setting the stage for today. Last week Jacob took advantage Esau’s fierce hunger and bullied him into selling his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup. Between then and now we read that Isaac is old and nearly blind. And while Jacob had successfully taken possession of his older brother’s share to his father’s estate, he does not have his father’s blessing, which includes the passing on of God’s promise and covenant.  Rebekah over hears Isaac telling Esau to go hunt game and prepare it so he may bless him. She schemes with Jacob to disguise him with lamb’s wool and a lamb stew to deceive Isaac into thinking that he is Esau and bless him. Yes, the plan is to steal Esau’s blessing. Taking the birthright was an opportunistic action. This is just plain deceitful, no matter how acceptable it might have been in matters of dynastic succession, think Game of Thrones, it is not justifiable. But the plan works, Isaac blesses Jacob. When Esau returns and discover s the ploy he is fiercely angry and promises to kill Jacob; which, of course, Rebekah over hears, and she warns Jacob and sends him off to her brother Laban, on the pretense of getting a wife, which works in part because Esau has a Hittite wife, which displeases both Rebekah and Isaac.

Rebekah watches Jacob set off on a journey that basically reverses his grandfather Abraham’s original journey. She believes it will only take “a little while” which literally means just a few days; (Schifferdecker). We will see. It will be a hard journey, with at least one night out under the stars (Ellingsen). Jacob is vulnerable, alone in dangerous territory (Schifferdecker). He is essentially banished from his family; which in those days is about the worst thing that could happen to someone. It is virtually a death sentence (Bratt).

This is also the first time Jacob appears by himself,   and it becomes a new beginning that comes to him in a dream (Fretheim). It is significant that at the moment that he is most vulnerable in his life, God appears not to judge, but to confirm that he is the one who will carry the promise (Fretheim).

I think it is a wonder that Jacob wants to or can sleep, but he does, and in his sleep, he dreams and in his dream another reality to slip into his life (Bratt). God communicating through dreams is common in Scripture   (Harrelson). Mary had a dream, Joseph had a dream, perhaps we should wish each other something more significant than sweet dreams.

Ladders are associated with judgment. Psalm 75, verse 7 reads:

It is God who executes judgment, putting down one and lifting up another” (Butterworth).

Ladders, which are more like a ramp, or stairway (Bratt), (Harrelson) are a bi-directional connection heaven and earth (Fretheim). Think of them as a sort of divine portal; they are holy places, not built by us, but are places in time and space that are revealed by God (Gaventa and Petersen). They provide an avenue of communication between heaven and earth. Angels, the divine intermediaries, or messengers, going up and down the ladder, or stairway; their motion reveals the reality of divine – human communication. It’s interesting that in this story these messengers never speak (Fretheim). They and the ladder are another sign that we are not alone (Bratt).

In Jacob’s  dream,   the angels may not speak, but God does (Fretheim). God confirms that Jacob is the heir of the promise and the covenant and that his descendants will be a blessing to all the families of the earth (Ellingsen) a repeat of the blessing he received from his father with Isaac. Then God adds to the promise (Schifferdecker)

Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land.

Jacob wakes up, remembers the dream realizing that

Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” awesome -! it is none other than the house of God, and the gate to heaven (NRSV Genesis 28:16-17)

He takes his pillow rock and makes it a pillar, which is a common religious symbol, then pours oil on it and names the place Bethel, which is literally beth – house and el – of God, “the house of God” (Schifferdecker), (Harrelson). You know from other stories whenever we hear something named in scripture it is a significant event, and that makes this story significant. This particular time it emphasizes the continuity between the immediate experience and the ongoing significance of receiving God’s promise. In this place, in this time, ordinary place and an ordinary rock have been divinely transformed to become a sacred symbol. Pouring oil on the rock is a form of anointing, which you know sets it apart for God’s use. It also stains the rock so that anybody who comes by can see and know it is a sacred place (Fretheim).

But I have to wonder; is all of this, that Jacob does, is it simply actions of grandeur? I wonder that because the very next thing Jacob does is to revert to his old self, as he makes an if- then bargain (Schifferdecker).

If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, 21 so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, 22 and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you. (NRSV Genesis 28:20-22).

 In short,  if God keeps the promises, then I will remain loyal accepting Yahweh as his God, he will construct a sanctuary, and offer a tithe (Fretheim). It makes you wonder how or if Jacob really changed? The bargain reveals that Jacob still thinks he is on his own (Schifferdecker). It’s true Jacob’s proclamation and actions about Bethel indicate that he has moved from not knowing to knowing about God’s presence. However, his grand bargain reveals his knowing is just a little bit shallow; sort of like the shallow soil of Jesus’ parable of the sowers and the seeds.

Kathryn Schifferdecker notes that this story isn’t really about Jacob; this story is really about God. Jacob’s dream comes entirely at the initiative of God. The world continues to be a place of meetings and times, like Bethel, which dreams come in a troubled night’s sleep, and God uses both that place and that time to get through to us (Fretheim).

We intuitively know that there is a transcendent, or otherworldly, quality of God. And there is some thought that if we get to close to God we compromise the divine perfection. Jacob’s story assures us this is not so. The story assures us that God is mysteriously able to be both transcendent and awesomely present at the same time; as you hear me say the Kingdom of God is right here right now (Fretheim). The story also reveals how this interaction affects God; because from this moment on, from this story on, God self-identifies as “the Lord, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Schifferdecker). Our relationship with God matters ~ to God and it matters for God’s presence in the world.

So, I am wondering where we might be in all this? We tend to believe that how God is present to us is how is present, should be present to everyone. It’s not true, if we read Abraham’s family story, we will see how God is present to everyone in Abraham’s family, differently. Every person has a different relationship with God.  When I was doing my work at MTS, we were discussing how God acts in the world through physical manipulation, moving molecules and stuff around, or does God work through inspiration that makes use of required human participation. I disagreed with every one of my classmates. I came to understand I didn’t need to push my argument; we understood how God acts differently because I needed to believe that God to act one way and my classmates needed to believe that God to act another way. Mysteriously, it is not a contradiction of God’s being.

A lesson from the stairway to heaven is that like Jacob, we often believe, or think, or act as if we are alone, all by ourselves (Bratt). We assume we too have to clamber up some sort of ladder to make ourselves successful. Notice, no matter the words to the song we sang, notice that Jacob never climbs the ladder; no human is on the ladder. That ladder is a pathway for the divine messengers between us and God; which is a role Jesus now permanently fills. But the ladder still assures us that we are never alone; we never have been, we never will be. We may be slow to accept God’s gracious promises to make us a blessing. We may be slow to accept that we don’t have to do this all by ourselves. We may be slow to accept God’s promise to make it for us ~ and with us. We may be just like Jacob in thinking that we are alone , he was not, God was at his campsite, and at his side forever.  And he is for us. We have our own campsites, they look like the places where we work, and they look like our homes, and they look like parks, and they look like churches, and they look like church camps. God is present in every one of those places and all sorts of other places, just as God is present in communion we are about to celebrate. We take common bread and we take we common wine and then we profess, we do not make, we do not put in, but profess that God/Jesus/Spirit is present in them. We don’t even know how it happens, we can’t even agree how it happens, but we all know that God/Jesus/Spirit is present (Bratt). The is true wherever you are, God is present.

I believe that deep – deep -deep down we know this. And it is one reason why we   value all sacred spaces; no matter where they come from, or who makes them sacred, we value all of them. We value them because they reflect one way that we are connection with God. Our experience rudely tells us that our life’s being moves up and down, and left and right, and all over the place, but in this story, we are assured that regardless of all that action God is with us. No place is forbidden to us, every place can be, ~ every place is, ~ that place where we can be certain of the God’s presence. You know those special ones, Will, just got back from one, Camp Mitchell, it is one of those thin places we deeply cherish (Fretheim). This story of Jacob nurtures our awareness of consecrated space and the certainty of our eternal relationship with God (Butterworth). It affirms that Heaven is not just connected to the earth, but is also interested in the earth; that Heaven is not just connected to us but is interested in you. God/Jesus/Spirit and angels don’t just have access to the earth, God/Jesus/Spirit wants to be involved in both your life’s circumstances, just as God is involved with Jacob’s (Bratt). None of us, I don’t think, none of us are as scheming as Jacob is; but scheming doesn’t really matter there is no divine criterion about that, but his story gives us hope that God will ~ no ~ that God has blessed us, and will continue to bless us.


References

Bratt, Doug. Proper 11A Genesis 28: 10-19a. 23 7 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Butterworth, Susan. “Stones, Wheat, and Weeds, Seventh Sunday after Pentecost.” 23 7 2017. Sermons that Work.

Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 23 7 2017. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 23 7 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Fretheim, Terence E. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary; The Book of Genesis. Ed. I. Vol. XII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. App Olivetree.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Mast, Stan. Lectionary Epistle. 6 9 2015. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermonstarters/&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Schifferdecker, Kathryn M. Commentary on Genesis 28:10-19a. 23 7 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

 

 

 

 

 

A Time to Choose

A sermon for 6th Sunday after the Epiphany; Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8,
1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37Epiphany 6,

In 1985 I worked for a small software company, and it was my job to coordinate all our interactions with existing customers. When the owner decided to move offices, I was tasked with keeping us available to our customers through the entire move. But remember in those days there were no cell phones, there was no internet, we did everything by land-line which meant we had to have an office. I arranged to have the existing lines left on after the new lines were turned on. I arranged for one desk and chair to stay behind and another to go on ahead. The plan for the move was to start Friday afternoon, move Saturday, finishing setting up on Sunday and be open for business as usual on Monday morning. It was a good plan. There were no obvious difficult places in this short journey.

And so, we started. Friday afternoon everything except one desk was packed and ready to be put on the truck. Then the phone rang. The contractor spoke to our boss, and everything had to be delayed to Monday. There was some sort of delay involving the paving, which kept the building inspector from doing the final inspection, which kept the fire inspector from issuing the certificate of occupancy, which meant we could not have the keys. Without getting into all the details, in a miniature Exodus style, we journeyed in stages. What was to take 3 days, took an entire week. The next Friday evening we were finished.

Moses is almost finished. His task of leading Israel out of slavery in Egypt is almost finished. His task of leading Israel through the wilderness is almost finished. His task of bringing Israel to the Promised Land is almost finished. Moses’ life’s work is almost finished.

This morning we heard the end of Moses’ 26-chapter farewell sermon (Ellingsen) (Clements). In the very next verse, Joshua assumes leadership of the camp, the leadership of the people of Israel, as they begin to take possession the Promised Land. Moses’ final words are a challenge. Israel has a choice; they can choose to follow God and thereby choose life and prosperity, or they can choose to follow something else and thereby choose death and adversity.

If you recall the story of the Exodus journey, it is not at all an obvious choice. It is a choice that is complicated with Israel’s history of choosing not to follow God, and as a result suffer all sorts of death and adversity.

This is not the only time Israel faces this choice. Scholars teach us that all the Pentateuch was actually written down while in captivity in Babylon in sometime in the 6th century BCE. In returning from exile, they are entering the Promised Land again (Bratt). It is as awesome a challenge as the journey from Egypt, and thus, they chose to re-enact the choosing liturgy. They call upon what many consider a discredited faith, after all, they are in captivity in the land of another god. They call upon the God who shepherded them through their meta-journey to shepherd them once again as they struggle to break the bonds that bind them to a strange land, as they struggle to cross a wilderness to cross the Jordan and repossess their land. And they can only do this by acknowledging their prior failures, confessing their complete dependence on faith in God, and recommitting to divine loyalty through a new wilderness journey (Clements).

But would it surprise you to know, this is not the first time Israel has been asked to make the choice Moses challenges the to make. Twice Joshua requires Israel to choose: be loyal to God and have life, or be loyal to another god and face death (Howard). Nor is this the last time. All the post return prophets put the same choice before Israel. And finally, Jesus, the Son of God, put the same choice in a different form, before Israel, before all humanity, they can choose to believe in me, as the Son of Man, and live in God’s gracious presence, or not and know darkness and chaos.

When we are honest with ourselves, we know that Jesus’ challenge to choose is not the last time we have faced Moses’ challenge. Through the first five or six centuries, there were varying versions of Christianity and the early Church faced the challenge choose God/Jesus/Spirit and life or choose darkness, chaos, and death. In the 16th century, the Church was faced with the upheavals of the reformation, and all must choose how to follow God/Jesus/Spirit, or another way. We see it as a choice of styles; then it was much closer to choosing God/Jesus/Spirit and life or choose darkness, chaos, and death. This time of choosing flows into the 18th century when some people chose to journey to a new promised land where they could choose God and know life in the presence of God’s grace.

In this country in the 19th century, after the Civil War people in the former Confederate States faced a great anxiety. There had been a surety that God was on their side and would assure their victory. Defeat, put them in a bind similar bind as Israel, in captivity. Again, it was a time to choose God and life, a time to acknowledge their failures, not only in war, but in the oppression of a peoples, and by accepting God’s redeeming work, they could accept God and know life (Bratt). Some did. But, some decided to abandon any larger issues of faith and national destiny; they chose their self-interest and gave no attention to the larger fate of the nation. That choice has led many into darkness and chaos. In the 20th century the sordid brutality of those who chose to keep oppressing a people because of the color of their skin, or their gender, or their nation of origin persisted.

Since 1790 when only male property owners had the right to vote there have been 28 legal changes affecting the right to vote. Since 1870 when the 15th amendment gave the right to vote to former slaves and protected the voting rights of adult males of all races there have 23 legal changes affecting the right to vote (Rowen). In the 21st Century, we have faced more choices; some have chosen to make a stand of non-discrimination against those differing sexual orientation and to continuing to fight for racial and gender equality, and religious equality.

In the past two years, we have seen how we are asked to choose life. But have you ever wondered what this looks like this time? It looks like it was before, choosing life looks like

  • Loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and to keeping his commands, decrees, and laws.” (Deut 30:16)
  • tilling and keeping creation’s gardens (Gen 2:15) (Howard)
  • nurturing leading causes of life (Gunderson)
  • loving our neighbors – all of them
  • doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God (Micah 6:8) (Bratt)
  • feeding the hungry, dressing the naked, and tending to widows and orphans
  • releasing the oppressed
  • allowing a voice for the silenced
  • showing deference for the disrespected
  • finding the image of God in those declared un-human, humanizing the objectified, and sharing Solomon’s song with those made sexual objects (Lewis).

What have we, as a nation, chosen? I suspect we have chosen economic prosperity. We have commoditized or monetized:

  • agricultural products
    • and seen small local farms collapse
  • retail business
    • and witnessed far too many local stores and business close
  • airlines, car manufacturing and seen all sorts mergers lead to bigger profits
    • at the cost of millions of jobs, and decline of the related families
    • corporate citizenship as many leading US corporations, have chosen to go overseas for tax benefits
      • a move that also deprives our nation of revenues, which could be used to help those in need; and it also, deprives stockholders of dividends, which are important to those living on 401ks
    • housing
      • you know the continuing story of 2008 collapse
    • education
      • and are seeing school loans that are so large they are delaying graduates from buying cars, starting families, and buying houses
    • medicine
      • there has been merger after merger of pharmaceutical companies and medical suppliers sometimes to improve business but often to eliminate a competitor and rarely, if ever, to get a badly need product to the people who need it
    • hospitals
    • and now insurance companies.

As a nation we have not chosen to live in the presence and service of God.

I believe that as a nation we are standing at another border. Once again, we are being asked to choose:

  • life and prosperity, or death and adversity (Deuteronomy 30:15)
  • life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness or the tyranny of false hope
  • living in the presence of the Lord God or the formless void, darkness and the chaos of waters (Genesis 1:2).

It is not an easy choice (Lewis). To choose God is messy (Howard). It is not a majority decision no matter what we hear people say. It stands over against many cultural values revealed in decisions, that so many others make. It may be costly, just ask the prophets. It requires true trust in God/Jesus/Spirit. It is the subtlety of what Paul is talking about: choosing God/Jesus/Spirit not Paul or Apollos or whichever religious leader is popular today. It is what Jesus is doing when he is saying “you have heard … but I say,” and then lays out choices that emphasize the values of relationship (Howell).

I believe that as a nation we are losing our ability to choose God as seen in our relationships with other people, especially those who we disagree with. Watch Facebook and social media carefully, and you will see it. More and more frequently I see people defriend another, or just give up what has been a value to them. More and more I hear leaders not arguing about diverging views of this or that policy but about the quality of a person who holds a dissenting view. We are losing our ability to disagree and still be in a relationship that reflects the image of God. And that is death.

Today is set before us life or death, being and seeing the other as the image of God or being and seeing the other as less than, which means as not human, and this is death for both. Today is set before us life or death, trusting the power of God who raised from the dead the great shepherd of the sheep or the all-consuming formless void, darkness and the chaotic waters of nothing.

I know you are a good and generous people; you give of your time, your considerable skills, and your money to supports Jesus’ ministry to proclaim that the Kingdom of God is right here, right now. Which is a measure of choosing. I know that all of us are all free to: continue living into that choice, are free to make the choice for the first time, or free to renew a choice gone fallow.

As for me and my house we will choose (Joshua 24:15) to continue the journey and follow the Lord God with all our heart, soul, and strength (Deuteronomy 6:5) loving our neighbors as the image of God in whose image we live and breathe and have our being (Acts 17:28).

References

Bratt, Doug. Epiphany 6 A Deuteronomy 30:15-20 . 12 2 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Clements, Ronald E. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Book of Deuteronomy (NIBC) Numbers 36:13. Vol. I. Nashville: Abingdon, 20151. XII vols. OliveTree App.

Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 12 2 2017. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 12 2 20127. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Howard, Cameron B.R. Commentary on Deuteronomy 30:1520. 12 2 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Howell, Miguelina. “The Gift of Reconciliation, Epiphany 6 A.” 12 2 2017. Sermons that Work.

Lewis, Karoline. Choose Life. 12 2 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

Rowen, Beth. U.S. Voting Rights. n.d. 12 2 22017. <infoplease.com/timelines/voting.html>.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

 

We are never alone

A Sermon for Proper 21; Ester 7:1-6. 9-10, 920-22, Psalm 124, James 5:13-20, Mark 9:38-50

In our early adult years my parents always threw a New Year’s Party Actually they threw three The first was for our neighbors The second was for their many friends The third was for our friends While generous, that party was earned, we provided some of the finger foods, but we really provided all the serving staff: keeping tables furnished, drinks fresh, and dirty dishes picked up You know, all that stuff that can cause you to miss the event you host. I don’t know how many years this went on, but it was at least ten. As great as these parties were, my folks could not hold a candle to King Ahasuerus, we know as Xerxes. In the Book of Ester alone there are ten parties, and that is in a relatively short time I say relative because one party was 6 months long! Six months! I did not know you could buy that many gold plates. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves

Xerxes’ exquisite banquet for the ministers, officials and officers of all 127 provinces is about over. In the last week he calls for Queen Vashti, who is hosting a party for all the wives, to make an appearance. She refuses. He gets angry. All his advisors get concerned that she may set a precedence for all the other wives. So, he dismisses her. After a while he misses having a queen; and so begins the process of selecting another one. It is an elaborate process.

You may remember that Nebuchadnezzar has conquered Israel and taken most of the Jews into exile in Babylon (Gaventa and Petersen). Among them is Mordecai, a distant relation to Saul (Gaventa and Petersen). His cousin Ester is among the young ladies drafted into the Can You be a Queen? selection. Xerxes, smitten by her appearance, makes her queen. She immediately wins his allegiance when she reports, by way of Mordecai, a plot to assassinate him.

It is Persian policy to treat all the conquered territories with respect,        honoring the local languages, laws, customs, and religious practices and to integrate foreigners into the court (Sakenfeld). Among them is Haman, an Agagite, who Saul was supposed to destroy but chose not to (Gaventa and Petersen). Xerxes appoints him to the highest office in the royal court. It is customary for the people to bow as he comes by, and everyone does, except for Mordecai. He is so infuriated he decides to kill not only Mordecai but all the Jews in the Kingdom. He will start by hanging Mordecai from a 75-foot-tall gallows. Gruesome as it is, a 75-foot gallows are tinged with the humor of excess. He convinces the King, who is not told who the offender is, this disobedience is a danger to the laws and customs and is given permission and finances to exterminate all the Jews.

Needless to say, Mordecai is terrified. He asks Ester to intervene. She is afraid because it means death to approach the King without being summoned. He replies:

Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this (Ester 4:13-14).

After much sack cloth, ashes, and fasting Ester approaches the King. At dinner when Xerxes asks what she desires, she says only that he and Haman come to dinner the next evening. But that night the King can’t sleep, and asks that the daily journal be read to him. The story of Mordecai exposing the plot to kill the king is read. He learns nothing was done for him. Haman is ordered to dress Mordecai up in royal garb and parade him around the court on the King’s horse. Utterly humiliated Haman returns home and tells what has happened.

Their reply is:

If Mordecai, before whom your downfall has begun, is of the Jewish people, you will not prevail against him, but will surely fall before him. (Esther 6:13)

At dinner the next evening the King again asks Queen Ester what she desires, even to half the kingdom. This night she answers:

If I have won your favor, O king, … let my life and the lives of my people be given me that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, are … to be killed, … to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king (Esther 7:3-4).

Xerxes demands “Who is responsible for such a reprehensible plot?”  “Haman!” Furious, the King stalks out. While Haman is pleading for his life, leaning over Ester on her dinning couch, the King returns. “Enough is enough!” and he orders Haman to be hung on the very gallows he has built to hang Mordecai.

The King awards Haman’s estate to Ester, and appoints Mordecai to manage it. He also gives Mordecai the signet ring that Haman previously held. With royal permission, Ester and Mordecai send notices around the kingdom revealing the plot against the Jews, and providing for their defense. Ester, Mordecai, and the Jewish people are saved from annihilation.

This is as good a story as there is in scripture. As with any good fiction story, there are strong characters, Vashti and Ester, and ~ oh yea, Mordecai. There is a villain, Haman. There is intrigue galore:  plots to kill the king and genocidal revenge. There are acts of selfless courage, and, of course, a Disney ending. I wonder when Aronofsky will take it on?

However, there is more here than a good story. If you noticed, I never mentioned God, prayers, or any kind of divine appearance or guidance. There are none. Well, there is no overt presence. Mordecai’s admonition to Ester about approaching the King includes the phrase:

“Relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place.”

Haman’s family’s reply to his complaining says, in part:

If Mordecai, … is of the Jewish people, you will not prevail against him, (Esther 6:13)

Commentators hear both as a reference to God (Jacobson, Lewis, and Skinner; Schifferdecker; Hoezee). There are remarkable coincidences:

  • Ester just happens to become queen.
  • The king just happens to have insomnia on the night of Esther’s first banquet; and
  • The court records read to him just happen to be the ones that tell about Mordecai saving his life.
  • Haman just happens to come to the court when the king is contemplating how to reward Mordecai.
  • The King just happens to see Haman leaning over Ester.

Former Arch Bishop of Canterbury William Temple is quoted “When I pray, coincidences happen, and when I don’t, they don’t.” Jon Levenson defines a coincidence “as a miracle in which God prefers to remain anonymous” (Schifferdecker; Levenson). There are multiple implications of presence of God’s hidden hand that offers hope to us when we are confronted by an overwhelming challenge and have no sense of God’s presence (Hoezee). Just because we can’t perceive it, does not mean God is not there (Sakenfeld).

Beyond the coincidence, there are the manifold actions of the stories heroines and heroes, which include many back ground characters. Ester’s story emphasizes human initiative, responsibility, and accountability (Sakenfeld). Our lives are full of ordinary and occasionally extra ordinary events, coincidences and chance encounters. In them is the hint of God’s presence. Perhaps there is a hint of God’s call. Our challenge is to find the discernment to see. Our challenge is to find to courage to act (Schifferdecker).

Our action; however, needs to be prayerfully considered. Just prior to today’s Gospel reading, actually just before last week’s argument, about who is greatest, the disciples fail to cast out a demon. Jesus tells them “this kind comes out only with prayer” (Mark9:29). Today Jesus tells them

“no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me” (Mark 9:39).

The comparison reveals the possibility that the disciples were trying to cast the demon out with power compared to the unknown exorcist who is acting in Jesus’ name. So, before we act, it’s worth testing where we are acting from, power or Jesus name.

We are all aware of the many global, national, local and personal problems that seem so dominate. We could easily be overwhelmed. Even with Francis’ gentle persuasion to perceive and act with mercy, it is a scary world. It is easy to find ourselves stripped of all our customary go to resources. It is easy to feel persecuted. It is easy to feel desert, to feel alone.

You are not alone; you never have been, you are not now, and you never will be alone.

Recently Angie and Nugget were in one of the local big box stores. She was stooping down looking at stuff on the bottom self on an endcap. An employee, who knows them, saw Nugget, but did not see Angie, hurried to end of the aisle, afraid Angie had fallen or was in trouble. The employee was relieved Angie was okay. Angie was blessed knowing that someone cared enough to act.

I believe there are more of these kinds of acts than we know. I believe there are more anonymous divinely inspired acts than we know. It’s this belief that lets me know; we are never alone.


References

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Hoezee, Scott. Old Testament Lectionary – Esther 7:1-6, 9-20; 9:20-22. 27 9 2015. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermonstarters/&gt;.

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 27 9 2015.

Levenson, Jon. Ester. Westminster John Knox, 1997.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Schifferdecker, Kathryn M. Commentary on Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22. 27 9 2015. <workingpreacher.org>.

God, who cannot be contained, is always present and responsive.

A sermon for Proper 16 B

1 Kings 8:(1, 6, 10-11),22-30, 41-43, Joshua 24:1-2a,14-18, Psalm 84, Psalm 34:15-22, Ephesians 6:10-20, John 6:56-69

When I see a series of commas and parentheses in the lectionary, I know I’m in trouble because I really do not believe in reading bits and pieces of anything. So I went back and read the entire story of the building of the Temple. I found the dimensions of the Temple, 60 cubits by 20 cubits by 30 cubits. For some reason, I was inspired to look up the size of the Ark, which is 300 cubits by 50 cubits by 30 cubits. A bit later I read Solomon’s Palace was 100 cubits, by 50 cubits by 30 cubits. What it is about 30 cubits, which is only 45 feet? Perhaps it’s a tower of Babel and some height thing, but there is no obvious connection. Who knows maybe it is a symbolic reminder that God cannot be contained.

The story opens with the Ark being brought to the Temple and put in its most holy place. As soon as the priests leave the room is filled with a cloud. If you recall, a cloud that leads Israel out of Egypt; that a cloud cover the top of Saini when Moses is consulting with God; and a cloud is in the Tabernacle Tent when God speaks to Moses. We know the cloud marks God’s presence. If you read all the verses you will read about glory, God’s name and deep darkness, all of which, along with the Temple itself, are marks of God’s presence. We might like a cleaner, clearer depiction of God’s presence, but we can’t have one. Solomon himself says:

But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built! (1 Kings 8:27)

So while the Temple or any other human construct may represent God’s sovereign presence, it cannot contain nor constrain the divine presence (Epperly, Petersen and Gavenat, Nelson, Seow).

However, because of their presence we are reminded of, we are assured of: God’s freedom to intervene; that we are free to come into God’s presence; that we are free pray to God’s presence in the face of whatever calamity may have befallen us. (Seow)

One unusual feature in Solomon’s dedication prayer is the inclusion of foreigners. The Temple is a place all Israel and all the nations of the world may come to and offer prayers or may offer prayers towards. In short he is telling all the world God will listen to your prayers.

We shouldn’t be surprised, we know God created all humanity in God’s image. (Gen 1:26) What is hard for us to remember is the divine image in the other, in the ‘them’ over there. It is hard to remember that God’s desire to be in a relationship with us includes us being in the same loving relationship with everyone around us. (Galvin)

As we know from the recent violence in Blytheville and Mississippi County, it is oh so easy to get caught up in fears, self-interest, vengeance, greed, and self-protection. When we live in that, fear our souls can shrink.

From our Christian Sacramentality, we may see Eucharistic symbolism in the story. As with the Temple, we believe in the real, abiding, though mystic, presence of God in Eucharistic elements. (Whitley) We also know they cannot contain the totality of God nor constraint God’s presence. Through the Gospels connecting Jesus to the Temple (Matt 26:61, 27:40, Mark 14:58, 15:29, John 2:19) we see how both point towards the true living presence of God that is revealed through manifold salvific acts.

While the story is framed as Solomon’s dedicating the Temple, it is significant his first response to the appearance of the cloud of God’s presence is to pray.  (Jacobson, Lewis, and Skinner) Verses 31 to 40, which we did not hear, are a list of prayers Israel may offer to God covering everything from resolving disputes to seeking help while in exile. Solomon would expect us to take all our emotional responses to the recent and ongoing challenges in Blytheville to God in prayer. He would expect us to acknowledge that we continue to be radically dependent on God. (Galvin) In the Celtic Christianity, there is a prayer tradition of drawing a circle around yourself as you pray. It is not a barrier of protection. It is a reminder that Christ is above, beneath, behind, in front, to your left and your right, all around you, all the time. It’s not a magical act that banishes fear. It is an empowering act of faith in God that does allow us to subdue our fears so that we can live with them and not allow them to control us and how we respond the world and our interactions with people around us. As one bit of wisdom puts it

when we are afraid we do not need to be afraid of being afraid because people who love you and God are with you. (Epperly)

The other option of an Old Testament reading is from Joshua where he asks Israel, who they will follow, and they robustly proclaim they will follow God. He tells them they cannot. He’s right. The rest of the Old Testament is the continuing story of peoples and kings failing to follow God. It is also to the story of God’s continuing presence. If God’s is not constrained by the Temple, if God’s presence is not constrained in sacramental elements, God’s presence is not constrained by the sinful mess of the world. So, we are justified by being frightened, or concerned, or whatever adjective you chose to use, by the violence, injustice, oppression and all the other forms of inhumanity towards each other. However, through prayerful seeking we can know God’s loving presence and therefore we will not allow the fears of the world to determine our response to the world. Through prayer we will glean the loving response to ‘them’ over there God is calling us to. We might even glean God’s guiding response in their lives.


References

Ellingsen, Mark. Proper 16, OT 21, Cycle B. 23 8 2015. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. Pentecost 13 _ August 23, 2015. 23 8 2015. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/2015/05/pentecostsundaymay242015/&gt;.

Galvin, Garrett. Commentary on 1 Kings 8:[1, 6, 10-11] 22-30, 41-43. 23 8 2015.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. 1 Kings 8:1-43. 23 8 2015.

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 23 8 2015.

Lewis, Karoline. Dear Working Preacher Not Just Bread Anymore. 23 8 2015. <workingpreacher.org>.

Nelson, Richard. Interpretations: First and Second Kings. Ed. James Luther Mays, Patrick D. Miller and Paul J Achtemeier. Louisville: John Know Press, 1987.

Petersen, David L and Beverly R Gavenat. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville TN: Abingdon Press, 2010.

Seow, Choon-Leong. New Interpreters’ Bible: First and Second Books of Kings. Ed. Leander Keck. Vol. 3. Abingdon Press, 1999. 12 vols.

Whitley, Katerina. “The Word Made Flesh – Proper 16(B),” 23 8 2015. Sermons that Work.

What do we expect to see?

A sermon for Proper 24

Exodus 33:12-23, Psalm 99, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22

At lunch the other day, I was at table with Susan Inman a candidate for Secretary of State. I did not know who she was, until we were breaking up. Only then did I realize the depth of her earlier comment “I’m so ready for election season to be over.” I gather she was talking about the frenetic pace of running for state wide elected office. I’m also ready for the election season to be over, though it’s because I’m oh so tired of commercials. Angie and I’ve seen them so often we recognize them before they really get started and rush for the mute button. As tired as I am, I decided to go to last Tuesday evening’s candidate forum. There were no surprises. Plenty of avoid the question answers. Plenty of implications about something else answers. A couple of clear to the point concise answers. And one that hit the spot; although I don’t recall who; the question was something like “What one thing do citizens need?” After a bit of rambling around, the candidate said “Hope.”

The answer is spot on. In troubled times, and these are complicated times, and there are troubles aplenty to be dealt with, all of us, as individuals and as a community, need hope. To lose hope, is to begin the journey to fanaticism.  Karoline Lewis writes:

We know well the triad, “faith, hope, and love” that gloriously rounds out Paul’s chapter on Christian love in 1 Corinthians 13.  …  [note] the order in 1 Thessalonians — faith, love, and hope. The Corinthians need some lovin’.  … the Thessalonians? Their loved ones are dying and Paul said, that Jesus would return in their lifetime. Now what? What happens to those who have died? The Thessalonians need hope. Big time. (Lewis)

They aren’t the first people in the bible to need hope.

Last week, we left Israel in what seems like an okay place. Moses had talked God out of “consuming them.” However, when Moses gets off the mountain and sees what they are up to Moses’ blood boils over. He angrily confronts Aaron who simply says “Well yeah, they gave me gold, I threw it in the fire, and this calf popped out!” Then Moses sees the people running wild, he calls for all those on God’s side to assemble. The sons of Levi do, and before the day is over 3000 people are dead, slaughtered for their transgressions in the affair of the golden calf. The next morning Moses goes to see God, to see if he can make atonement, if he can restore Israel’s fellowship with God. (Holman Bible Dictionary) It doesn’t go all that well.  In short, God tells Moses to begin the journey to the Promised Land, an angel will be with them, but God will not, in part because his presence would consume them.

This morning we pick up the conversation. Like last week, Moses argues with God; he asks hard pressed questions, boarding on demands. He wants to be certain (Brueggemann 5818) God will be with Israel; because he knows that it is God and God alone who makes Israel – Israel.  (Fretheim 3031)

Where God is absent, particular forms of art, literature and social relationships cannot exist. In both eastern European communism and western capitalism we see the effects, though in different ways. In communist countries where the holy dimension of covenant was denied, social relationships became increasingly brutal and empty. Western free-market systems where God’s presence is constrained by consumer economic forces, human dignity fails and life becomes paralyzing and empty. A market society devalues persons who have no productive capacity and relates rapaciously to the environment. (Brueggemann 5839) Its only when God is truly present that any social system provide homes for individuals. And when we fear we are losing God’s presence, we resort to fear mongering. (Mathis) And we see this not only in church or religious settings but also political settings. I suspect it is part of the rising ideological purity that precludes any kind of conversation with any one who is not ideologically pure, as we define it. I worry such fear based ideological fanaticism is finding its way into science, which further addles our ability to see what happening in and to the world around us.

After getting assurances God will be with him and Israel, Moses asks one more question. He wants to see God’s glory? He gets a divinely complicated answer and partial granting of his request. But having been assured, there is life after the golden calf, (Brueggemann 5834) I wonder what Moses expects to see? (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner)

All of us have reveled after one form of the golden calf or another. And we all know it did not just “pop out;” we are fully aware of our own duplicity in trying to manage the devices and desires of our own hearts. The morning after, as we seek to atone, as we try to put our relationship with God back together, when we go looking for God, when we seek to see God’s glory, to see God’s face, to assure us that life will go on, what is it we expect to see?

As for me; I don’t know! I cannot imagine size, nor shape, nor color, nor density, nor any other characteristic; except that whatever we see will convey the knowledge and experience of faith, love and hope.


References

Brueggemann, Walter. The New Interpreter’s Bible. Ed. Leander E Keck. Vol. Exodus. Abingdon Press, 2003.

Fretheim, Terence E. Interpretation A BIBLE COMMENTARY FOR TEACHING AND PREACHING. Ed. Patrick D Miller, Jr. and Paul J. Achtemeier. Vol. Exodus. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991.

Hoezee, Scott. Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Exodus 33:12-23. 19 10 2014. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php&gt;.

“Holman Bible Dictionary.” WORD – QuickVerse , n.d.

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 19 10 2014.

Lewis, Karoline. Dear Working Preacher. 19 10 2014. <workingpreacher.org>.

Mathis, Eric. Working Preacher Exodus 33:12-23. 19 10 2014. <workingpreacher.org>.

The imperceptible helping presence of God

A sermon for Proper 21

Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32

So last week it was some two and a half months into their wilderness journey when the Israelites began to complain about the lack of breakfast and dinner. This morning, well we don’t know how long it’s been. I looked at a map that marks the Exodus journey, and it’s near as far from Sin to Rephidim, as it is from the sea to Sin. That wasn’t much help, because we really don’t know where Rephidim nor Sin actually are. We do know Horeb and Sinai are the same place. The Bible tells us that in chapter 19 they get to Saini, so if they don’t get to Sanai until then, how do they draw water at Horeb/Saini in chapter 17, as we read today? Cartographers are scratching their heads. Theologians remind us “Hey – Horeb means mountain of God.” (Hoezee) essentially: this is where God is. And since Israel is asking “Is God with us or not?” let’s not worry about there where of this mystery, let’s learn from what’s happening.

For the third time since their departure Israel faces extreme thirst hunger (Ex 16:1) or thirst (Ex 15:25). Before they complained. Today they quarrel. Quarreling does more than raise the emotional level. The root of ‘quarrel’ is a legal dispute. (Portier-Young) (Harrelson) Walter Brueggmann notes “Israel isn’t complaining about being thirsty, they are demanding proof that God is present.” He writes:

The only evidence of Yahweh’s presence that Israel will accept is concrete action that saves. Thus Israel collapses God’s promise into its own well-being and refuses to allow Yahweh any life apart from Israel’s well-being. (Brueggemann)

Terence Fretheim notes, they are seeking a way to coerce God to act, (Fretheim) much like Satan is tempting Jesus on the pinnacle of the temple to goad God to act. (Brueggemann)

We all know Jesus tells Satan “… it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Mat 4:5ff) So we know testing God is a dangerous idea. But the real danger here, is perverting the relationship with God. Israel has essentially tried to place God at their beck and call. Moses isn’t really much better. Yes he turns to God, but not to seek help for Israel; he’s asking God to save his skin. (Brueggemann)

This behavior leads to two sorts of unfaithful and dangerous behaviors. The first is to not take reasonable precautions, like wearing seat belts, while proudly proclaiming “God is my protection.” The second, and in my experience, is more prevalent, leads people to think, and say “God did not heal me/you because I/you don’t have enough faith.” (Fretheim) I don’t know about you, I’ve heard both. Both are flat out corruption that reduces faith to utilitarianism, (Brueggemann) a philosophy that seeks the good for the most, of greater concern,  its focus is consequences, not inherent value or motives; (merriam-webster.com utilitarianism) and consequently ignores those frequent times when our way, our desire is not God’s way nor God’s desire. In many respects it reduces God to a product that commercials do their best to convince you will not only solve your immediate problem, but subliminally suggest it will transform your life beyond your imagination. (Ashley) (Brueggemann)

Now we all know stories of floods (Gen 7) and fire (Gen 19) and pillars of salt (Gen 19:26) and plagues (Ex 7) and the wrath of God. So we might be taken back a bit by God’s response. There is no wrath, no scolding, not even a moment of “Now listen here …,” ~ there is none of that. (Hoezee) God tells Moses, “Get your staff, take some leaders; go to the rock at Horeb. I will be there; strike the rock and water will come out of it so the people may drink.” That’s it; ~ and not.

Moses used that very same staff, to make the waters of Nile undrinkable (Ex. 7:17). Once again, Moses is God’s manifestation of a divine extension of creation. In turning the Nile red with blood, in holding back and returning the waters of the sea, God, through Moses, demonstrates divine creative activity. Here a creative act provides Israel with water; and as water is essential to life, it’s also another gift of life.  (Petersen and Beverly Roberts Gaventa) (Fretheim) That water is under rock formations in the area does not negate God’s hand at work. Once again God is working through the natural and through the human (this time Moses) to provide blessings, and to give life to God’s people.

We are in the midst of our own wilderness trek. Though we are not likely to run out of water, indeed if you ask the road engineers we’ve an overabundance of the stuff, but, we have faced experiences that give rise to the questions “Is God here?” or “Has God abandoned us?” As God is imperceptibly standing in front of Israel at Horeb, God is imperceptibly here. God did not abandon Israel in the Sin dessert, God has not and will not abandon us here. That is not to say that God will grant us every wish. 1. Not every wish we desire is life giving, and 2. God’s ways and timings are not ours. So, while it is desirable to express our concerns to God, it is also desirable that we seek God’s reply and presence, which, by this morning’s story, is likely to be discerned in nature and/or in/or by family, friend, or stranger. And when we experience the presence of God, it’s our calling, actually a requirement of our baptism, to share it; in reality to seek and share it. (BCP 304)

When a community or a church has questions of God’s presence, when a church seeks God’s voice, God’s guidance, it’s the work of all the leaders, of all the people. Not all the work is the same, nonetheless, everyone is a part of: the questioning, the seeking, and the discerning process. It’s hard work. I’m not so sure ours is as hard as Israel’s trek across the desert, at least it’s not as physically challenging. I am sure we are not alone. I want to go back to our Baptismal Covenant. Not the proclamation of faith, which is critical, not the praxis vows, which are equally important, but to the response we make as each vow is presented: “I will, with God’s help.”

So, by the circumstance of numbers we find ourselves called to discern a new or different way of being Church, in the Episcopal tradition in the Delta in the 21st century. It’s not a rite of the church but rather a necessity of the church. We might hear the calling “Will you seek a way to be the church right here, right now?” In my heart I know our reply “We will, with God’s help.” Amen.


Works Cited

n.d. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary&gt;.

Ashley, Rev. Dana’e. Sermons that Work. 28 9 2014.

Brueggemann, Walter. The New Intrepreter’s Bible. Ed. Leander E Keck. Vol. Exodus. Abbingdon Press, 2003.

Fretheim, Terence E. Interpretation A BIBLE COMMENTARY FOR TEACHING AND PREACHING. Ed. Patrick D Miller, Jr. and Paul J. Achtemeier. Vol. Exodus. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Exodus 3:1-15. 28 9 2014. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php&gt;.

Petersen, David and Beverly Roberts Gaventa. New Interpreters’ Bible, One Volume Commentary. Nashville TN: Abbingdon Press, 2010. ebook.

Portier-Young, Anathea. “Commentary on Exodus 17:1-7.” 28 9 2014. workingpreacher.org. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2136&gt;.

Wrong way to the right way

The other day I was traveling to a usual and customary out of town location for a regularly scheduled meeting.  For an unknown reason I got off an exit earlier than normal, shortly made a left hand turn resulting in a one block trip on a one way street in the wrong direction; other than my embarrassment, no harm done. However, when I got to the street I was headed to I saw a gentleman in a wheel chair obviously struggling. I rolled down the window to inquire, and it turns out his wheel-chair seat had broken. I was able to give him a short ride to his destination, for which is he was thankful. Extra bonus, I was not late for the scheduled meeting.

I am not one to believe the God micro manages human events; in general  I am a believer in the perversities’ of numbers; in short, life happens. I believe it is whether we choose to allow life’s events to define us or if we turn to the presence of God to determine how we respond to life’s events that makes the difference in our lives. Drawing from John 9, I believe life happens, let the works, the glory, the presence of God be made known.

Did God cause me to exit one stop early? Did God cause me to make a wrong turn? Was all that simply serendipity? Who knows? What I do know is that as a result of all that, I was blessed to give assistance to a person in need. My day was blessed from very early on.