Sunday, September 29, 2013

What's In a Name

September 29, 2013 - Narrative Lectionary - Year 4, Week 3

Exodus 3:1-15

But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ 
God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ 

I know how people know me by the way they say my name.
If you call me, ‘Z!’ – then you know me from college.
If you call me, ‘KJ’ – then you probably played sports with me, most likely in seminary.
‘Pastor Kathryn’ – church.
‘Coach Kathryn’ – You are most likely 8 or younger.

Katie, Kathy… are among my least favorite.
But the one I dislike the most is, “Hey Honey... can you tell me if the Pastor is in?”

What’s in a name?

Respect.
   Trust.
      Relationship.

Moses gets some pushback from those of us looking back at him 3000+ years away. Who does he think he is arguing with God – but there he is.

Before he argues that no one will believe him.
Before he mentions his speech impediment.
Before he flat out asks that someone else be asked instead.

Moses says to God: Whom shall I say sent me?

Our translation of the text says: I am Who I am.

But that’s not quite right. The Hebrew letters are (from right to left)  ‘yod’ ‘he(y)’ ‘vav’ ‘he(y).

Which all together means… well, it’s not translatable.

Y.H.W.H.

Yahweh is how it looks in print and how we often say it, but those are just the consonants with helpful vowels in between them. It’s not an actual word. As if we put the letters ‘K’ and ‘T’ and ‘R’ down on paper and asked people to read it. You can’t. So we might add some vowels, let’s go with ‘a’: KaTaR which means… nothing.

God is so beyond our understanding that even God’s name is outside of our grasp.

But there cannot be relationship without a name. And so God does respond…

YaHWeH…

YaHWeH is the sound of breath. It’s a presence. It’s the embodiment of God everywhere we go.

God is here.

Every breath, God is here.

Yahweh…


I AM here…

I AM all you need…
I AM not defined by you…

Yahweh…

I AM your God…
I AM with you…
I AM enough…

Yahweh…

I AM…

Sunday, September 22, 2013

What Would Jacob Do?


September 22, 2013 - Narrative Lectionary - Year 4, Week 3

W.W.J.D. – What Would Jacob Do?
I always thought the ‘What Would Jesus Do’ bracelets were asking for too much.  It certainly would be a lot easier to hold ourselves accountable to a ‘What Would Jacob Do’ bracelet.

What would Jesus do? He’d sacrifice himself in order to overthrow the evil in this world.
What would Jacob do? He’d trick people so he could get what he wanted.

Maybe the world is so challenged because everyone is reading their bracelets wrong.

In two weeks – three Sundays – we have catapulted from Creation to Abraham to Abraham and Sarah’s son Isaac as a child to now Isaac as an old man, on his death bed. His twin sons, Esau and Jacob, have been at each other’s throats since the womb when all of their jostling and pushing caused their mother, Rebekah, to say, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?”
And the LORD said to her,‘Two nations are in your womb,   and two peoples born of you shall be divided;one shall be stronger than the other,   the elder shall serve the younger.’ When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. Afterwards his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. (Genesis 25:22-26)
Esau was a hunter, Jacob was… well, according to the Bible – he liked to hang out in the tents. 
Isaac, the father, loved Esau, but Rebekah, the mother, loved Jacob.

Esau was forthright and simple.
Jacob was sneaky and conniving.

If this family was around now, they’d have their own reality show.

Interview with Esau:
“I went out hunting for days and it didn’t go well. When I came back I was so hungry I couldn't even think straight and Jacob was hanging out in the tent cooking red stuff. I wanted the red stuff.”

Interview with Jacob:
“It was a lentil stew with coconut milk, tomato and cilantro.”

“It took a lot of effort to make and I knew Esau was just going to gulp it down so why not get what I could for it. I went for it all, asked for his birthright – that I would be considered the firstborn son – and he gave it to me. “
“No one was there to hear it though, so really the whole thing didn’t matter anyway.”

And this is what eventually leads to Jacob tricking his father, Isaac, into giving him a blessing instead of Esau.

The thing is, even with all of that conniving and manipulation, the outcome was not a Jacob who was obviously blessed. Instead the outcome was an Esau who was obviously ticked – and when one is used to hanging around in tents and cooking lentils, it is best not to anger the one who can hunt you down and kill you.

Jacob had to run from home and in between there and his next stop on the Biblical Family of Deceit Tour, he spent the night unprotected in the wilderness and fell asleep using a stone for his pillow.

Genesis 28:10-17 
Jacob left Beer-sheba and went towards Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 

And the LORD stood beside him and said, ‘I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’ 

Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the LORD is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ 

Along Beach Boulevard in Gulfport, Mississippi there is St. Peter’s Episcopal Church by the Sea. For a long time after Hurricane Katrina you could stand under St. Peter’s roof and see the Gulf of Mexico and the beach, not through a window, but through the gaping holes where walls used to be. The walls of the church’s lower half were completely ripped off by the force of the storm, windows were blown out, pieces of the altar were heavily damaged or missing. Inside, the baptismal font was knocked over either by winds and water or debris striking it. Even a substantial granite sign at the end of the church's driveway was damaged… toppled like dominoes and broken into three large pieces.

In the days after Hurricane Katrina, parishioners returned to St. Peter’s by the Sea and found hymnals and Bibles, church records, robes, and stoles strewn outside the building, just part of the rubble and debris.***

Many churches rebuilt, but they did so on higher ground, across the highway. The Baptists, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, the other Episcopal Church – all of them left. It made sense, really. Except that those who still live in the downtown neighborhoods of those beaten shores needed a church.

I give thanks for the Old Testament and its stories of real people and real families. This is not some Legends of Israel comic book where the patriarchs have no sin and God loves them only because of their perfection.  Family systems then and now are riddled with strife – both from natural and human causes. 

Whether it’s the winds of disaster or the trickery of humanity – things get destroyed - and nothing is more devastated than a church that has been blown away by a storm. 

What Would St. Peter’s Do?

In a Mississippi business magazine, the building chair of St. Peter’s tells their story:

“After the storm, nobody knew at first what to do. We survived the first year dealing with our personal lives,” he said. “Then we met and prayed about it trying to figure out what to do. We’ve always been a downtown church. We minister to downtown and will remain a downtown church… We saw a need here and chose to stay.”

Despite the destruction and the heartbreaking trauma of a natural disaster, the people of St. Peter’s by the Sea stayed by the sea and said, "Surely the Lord is in this place… How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’”

MPC is blessed – we have faced no natural disaster, there has been no building destruction. But the winds of secular apathy are howling, and the forces of family dynamics can threaten. 

What will MPC do?
We will continue to build on the faith of those who have come before us.
We will stay and look around and see… the Lord is in this place… How awesome!

  • Over 300 pounds of fresh produce delivered to New Hope Ministries in one summer;
  • Vegetables prepared week after week and paper products crowding the stage for CROSS;
  • Sunday school hallways and classrooms bubbling with laughter and fresh understandings of the Word of God;
  • Dozens of youth and adults sent out to serve by this congregation locally, nationally and abroad;
  • Brand new Bibles placed in the hands of our 3rd graders and our Confirmation Class this morning;
  • Our voices filling the Sanctuary giving thanks and glory to God through song and praise.
Surely the Lord is in this place…
How awesome is this place!
This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.

In the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

(Preacher's Note: I've been brushing up on my family systems theory lately, and especially how it relates to church dynamics. Edwin H. Friedman is the genius on such things and his last book reminds leaders to avoid getting caught up in other people's anxiety, but instead respond by giving their I Have a Dream speech. This is mine.)



Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Can God Be Trusted?

Genesis 21:1-3, 22:1-14 - September 15, 2013 - Narrative Lectionary - Year 4, Week 2

Last week was creation – in the beginning – and it was good.

In the rear-view mirror as we travel this narrative arc are Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the tower of Babel. Today we launch into the story of our relationship with God. God’s promise continues…

In chapter 12 we are introduced to a young couple named Abram and Sarai. Abram is beloved by God and is blessed by God: I will make of you a great nation and will bless you (12:2). That means – you will have many descendants.

But many years went by and still Sarai and Abram had no children even with repeated promises from God that they would be blessed.

Can God be trusted?

Abram and Sarai don’t always act like God can be trusted. Really the whole story plays out like incredibly juicy gossip:

I heard Abram was traveling with Sarai, and when he came upon Pharaoh he told him that Sarai was his sister.
NO!!

He did, and then when Pharaoh took her in… and… “you know”… God got mad. And He punished the entire kingdom until Pharaoh finally figured it out and sent them on their way.
And then… you’re never going to believe this… not that much later, Abram did it again.
NO he didn’t.

He Did! He told King Abimelech that Sarai was his sister.
       Ugh. Can Abram be trusted?

Then… I heard that Sarai got impatient with God’s promise not happening and so she offered her servant, Hagar, to Abram and he took her up on it and wouldn’t you know it, the servant got pregnant and Sarai was so jealous and she treated Hagar so harshly that Hagar ran away into the wilderness.
How awful!

But God brought Hagar back and she gave birth to a son, Ishmael.

Can Sarai be trusted?

Genesis is a book about relationships – the good and the bad. There are fathers and sons, husbands and wives, mothers and sons, brothers, sisters, uncles and nephews… all kinds of combinations sometimes acting for the glory of God and sometimes acting as if to prove just how basic the depravity of humanity actually is.

Out of all of these relationships, the most important relationship in Genesis is the one between God and humanity. The narrative of Abram who later becomes Abraham and his relationship with Yahweh is the foundation for the understanding by the people of Israel and all of its branches – including Christianity – that we are in a relationship with God. We are in a covenant that requires communication and trust. 

But after hearing a story like that one where a faithful person is pushed to the absolute outside edge of obedience… can God be trusted?

Does God put us to the test? This Scripture passage makes a pretty strong case for it. It opens with the very words: God tested Abraham.  Whether or not we want to believe in a God who tests, those who heard this story first understood God that way.  But what is the context of the story? This story that was passed on around the campfire of the people of Israel was written down while they were in exile. They were surrounded by neighbors who worshiped foreign gods, sacrificed children to those gods and as a minority in the midst of violent neighbors they too were being pushed to the absolute outside edges of obedience. 

What if the purpose of the story was to show the people of God how the father of their faith kept that faith in the most trying of times?

Many of us grew up with Aesop’s fables. One of the ones I remember well is the one with the fox and the
grapes. A fox is thirsty and trying to reach grapes that are too high for him. As he jumps and jumps and jumps, he finally has to admit that he cannot reach them and says, “Those grapes are sour, I don’t want them anyway.”

There is a moral to the story and to the storyteller that is the only thing that matters. From this story of the fox and the grapes we are not to conclude:
That foxes only eat grapes when they’re thirsty.
That foxes always leap for their food.
That foxes can talk.

The moral of the story that the people of Israel so badly needed to hear is that God can be trusted and that the father of their faith responded to the most dire of tests with great, steadfast trust. The point of this story was not that God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, but that he stopped Abraham from sacrificing Isaac. In the Biblical narrative this is the last great story of the relationship between Abraham and God. It celebrates their mutual trust and lays the foundation for generations of relationships to follow.

Life in relationship inevitably brings tests of trust. 

I think of the child who is blamed for stealing a library book and promises their parent that they didn’t take it. The parent’s trust of the child is tested at the same time as the child’s trust of the parent is tested.

Does the parent trust the child enough to take a stand on their behalf?
Does the child trust the parent enough to tell them the truth?

Having a relationship with God does not mean that we will never be tested. In fact, by the very definition of relationship – we will.
Do we trust God with our hurts and our pains?
   Do we trust God with our decisions?
      Do we trust God with our material possessions?

God can be trusted.

In turn, God trusts us.

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

Will we take care of God’s creation?
   Will we love our neighbor as ourselves?
      Will we love God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength?

Beloved children of God… can we be trusted?