Sunday, September 28, 2014

Ordinary 26A -- September 28, 2014

At The Water’s Edge

Exodus 14:10-14, 21-29
10As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the Lord. 11They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? 12Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”
13But Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. 14The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.
21Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. 22The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. 23The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. 24At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. 25He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.”
26Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.” 27So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. 28The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. 29But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.
In 1933, Martin Nieimoller, a German pastor, was a part of delegation of religious leaders who met with Adolph Hitler.  Nieimoller stood at the back of the room and observed Hitler closely.  He didn’t say anything during the meeting.  Later, when his wife asked what he had learned about the Nazi leader, Nieimoller said, “I discovered that Herr Hitler is a terribly frightened man.”
We observe another terribly frightened man in today’s text.  Pharaoh is also a very frightened man, and history has taught us that frightened leaders are apt to become ruthless. Especially when they believe there aren’t enough good things to go around.  They decide they must try to have them all.[1]
Last week, we heard about Joseph and his imprisonment in Egypt.  While in prison, Joseph becomes useful to Pharaoh thanks to his gift for interpreting dreams.  After Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams as a prediction of a coming famine, Pharaoh puts Joseph in charge of managing the monopoly on food that Egypt has amassed. 
The famine is long and severe, and the peasants run out of food.  On behalf of Pharaoh, Joseph says to people looking for food, “What’s your collateral?”  The peasants give up their land for food, and then the next year, they give up their cattle.  By the third year of the famine, the peasants have run out of collateral except for themselves.  And that is how the children of Israel become slaves – through an economic transaction with the government of Egypt.  The only option to slavery is for the peasants to starve.  By the end of Genesis 47, Pharaoh owns all the land except that which belongs to the priests.  And like the shrewd politician he is, Pharaoh only leaves the priests alone because he needs somebody to bless him (Gen. 47.13-26).
God created the world as good.  The Bible begins with a liturgy of God’s abundant provision for all of creation.  But by the end of Genesis, the fear of “not enough” has set in with Pharaoh’s hoarding of food, land and, ultimately, Abraham’s descendents. Pharaoh’s ruthlessness is born of out dreams of scarcity.  For the first time in the Bible, someone says, “There’s not enough.  Let’s get everything.” 
By the time we get to our text today in Exodus, the Israelites had been enslaved for more than 400 years.  I think the fact is worth thinking about for a moment.  400 years is longer than our country has been in existence, longer than any of us could probably trace our own family’s ancestry, long enough that the Hebrews likely had no memory of freedom. They had learned how to cope by this time, but generations of experience had pretty much stomped out any dreams among God’s people of living any other way.
There’s nothing sadder than a situation in which people have not only pretty much given up on the idea that anything good can happen to them, but have also forgotten what goodness looks like.  When people are oppressed or imprisoned for a very, very long time, they slowly, bit by bit, lose the ability to hope for something beyond the small life to which they’ve become accustomed.   Hope requires the creativity and imagination to envision something better beyond what we can see.  Slaves and prisoners eventually lose the ability to imagine that they deserve any other sort of life, and that lack of imagination suffocates all hope.
But slavery didn’t become normative only for the Israelites.  Slavery had become a way of life for Pharaoh as well.   Both the Egyptians and the Israelites have become bound up by fear.  Pharaoh is fearful of losing control what he perceives as limited resources, and the Israelites are fearful of their master.  All of the later chapters of Genesis and the first 13 chapters of Exodus are set against a backdrop of cultural anxiety and fear.
 It is in this hopelessness that God decides to act.  God remembers the promise God made to Abraham.  God sees the suffering of the people -- not only the suffering of the Israelites, but also the crippling anxiety of Pharaoh.  And we can see in this story that liberation is entirely God’s idea.  God’s imagination is larger than human dreams.  And we see God’s creative redemption at work in Exodus.  First, God captures the imagination of Moses.  Once Moses captures God’s vision of freedom and abundance, Moses continue to hold that vision in front of those who have completely forgotten how to dream, including Pharaoh.   Which isn’t the easiest job in the world to do.  But Pharaoh finally relents and that is where our story begins today, with the Israelites on the banks of the Red or Reed Sea.
In front of them is nothing but water with endless wilderness beyond, and coming up behind them is the entire Egyptian military led by Pharaoh.  And in their panic, it occurs to the Israelites that they didn’t ask for this.  As far as they are concerned, this trip was all Moses’ idea, so they throw all their anger and sarcasm at him:   Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? 12Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”
Freedom wasn’t the Israelites’ idea, but it wasn’t up to Moses either. God imagined more for God’s people then they could imagine for themselves.  None of them were operating from a place of faith.  All they had was fear and a growing desire to go back to something that wasn’t good, but a life they understood.
Slavery seems better to the Israelites than to die on the banks of the Red Sea – either by drowning or at the hands of the Egyptian army fast approaching.   This is not the first time they have been unable to see a future beyond their immediate fear.  And it won’t be the last.  The Israelites will keep murmuring and doubting and falling into despair all the way through the wilderness and into the Promised Land.  Moses will keep holding God’s vision before them.  And over time, the memories of slavery in Egypt will be held together with memories of God’s liberation. 
And so it is for us.  Sometimes we prefer the misery we know to the mystery we can’t begin to imagine.  We are like the Israelites, standing at the water’s edge, wondering if it’s too late to turn back around and make a deal with Pharaoh.  We depend upon our excellent coping skills to deal with anxiety as best we can.  But God hasn’t created God’s people to cope, but to flourish.  So out of grace and love, God will part the sea for us if we muster up enough gumption to push on through the mud.  And sometimes, maybe most of the time, God doesn’t even wait for us to get a grip.  We’ll be pushed out into the wilderness despite ourselves. 
But we have to experience liberation for ourselves to believe God’s freedom is real.  Nobody can convince you that everything will be ok, anymore than the people believed Moses.  The children of Israel had to experience God’s grace for themselves, over and over again, in crossing the sea, in seeing Pharaoh defeated, in seeing manna every morning and water springing forth from a rock.  They had to live through their loss of certainty about knowing to expect.  Grace came to them as loss and bewilderment, and sometimes that’s how we experience grace, too.  We have to live through loss and then learn to see it as the deliverance it often is.  The longer we live, the easier it becomes to see God’s grace, but it is never, ever easy to receive it.

Pharaoh could not see that having control of everything would never save him.  After the plagues, he told Moses just to go and take his people out of Egypt.  But the scarcity narrative of Pharaoh’s empire could only be defeated by the power and goodness of God.  When the Israelites make their escape, instead of turning back to Egypt to rebuild a new society based on freedom and justice, Pharaoh and his army foolishly follow into the water. The chariots’ wheels become clogged in the sea bottom and Egyptian drivers cry out, “Let us flee from the Israelites for YHWH is fighting for them.”  Pharaoh had been given the opportunity to escape too.  But it’s too late.  Pharaoh lost his chance. 

Deliverance had come, but it came with a tremendous cost for everyone involved. There is a famous Jewish Midrash in which the rabbi says that God prevented the angels from celebrating the deaths of the Egyptians.  God’s heart was filled with pity for Pharaoh and the Egyptians, as well as pity for the anguish of the Israelites and their terror at the water’s edge.[2] 

So there is a stark choice in this story.  Who are we to be?  Will we stand with Pharaoh’s ethic of fear, greed and anxiety?  Or will we trust the God of abundance and believe we will be cared for? Where will we put our trust?  In our own ability to defeat our enemies and secure our own future?  Or with Jesus whose vision for all people is peace and the wholeness of God’s shalom?

Next week, we will receive one of the special offerings of our denomination, the Peace and Global Witness offering.   This is an offering specifically designed to witness to the Shalom of Jesus and the love of God for people who are suffering from violence, oppression and exploitation.  One of the places Presbyterian mission co-workers have been doing this kind of important work is in Columbia.  At the heart of Columbia’s struggle is a modern day version of Pharaoh’s land-grabbing.  As soon as someone with power wants a piece of land in Columbia, whether it is the government, wealthy land owners, or the cocaine industry, the campesinos (peasant farmers) are run off, harassed or even murdered.

The Presbyterian Church in Columbia is speaking out against this kind of oppression and violence, and has asked American Presbyterians to stand with their communities.  Presbyterian missionaries partner with Columbian Presbyterians to accompany people who have been displaced or have lost family members.  An American missionary wrote in a journal she kept during her time in Columbia about a young man named Yeison, “He wanted Americans to know how he felt.  He told me, ‘Not everything here is drugs and violence.  There are lots of us simply striving to live a good life.  Columbians like their life, they just want it to be more peaceful.”

Another mission worker writes, “We sent to the town of El Tamarindo after a young man was murdered.  There was a spokesperson for the man who claims he is the ‘real owner” of the land, the paramilitary thugs who ran the farmer off by destroying his crop and his home, the military that was called in as back-up, a cluster of campesinos who have all worked the land for years, and the grief-stricken father of the murdered young man.  We had nothing to offer the father except our presence, love and compassion, but in that moment of personal connection, it felt important, it felt like it helped.  It was what accompaniment is all about, and it was a moment we will never forget.”

It seems like such a small gesture, doesn’t it?  Such a small moment of peace in the face of almost overwhelming violence and injustice.  But when we are standing on the side of those who are vulnerable or oppressed, we know that we are on God’s side, not Pharaoh’s.

This week, I spent Tuesday night helping my sister in Christ, Jennifer Frayer Griggs and many others at Hot Metal Bridge serve what we called “The Fancy Table” to the folks who come for a meal at their ministry “The Table.”  Instead of Sloppy Joes or spaghetti served cafeteria style with paper plates, the people who came on Tuesday night sat down at tables covered with white tablecloths, set with real china and glasses, and were served a three course meal including steak and shrimp, prepared by local chefs and students.  As our staff of volunteers moved among the tables clearing plates and pouring refills of iced tea and coffee, the guests kept asking, “Why are you doing this?  What’s the special occasion?” And the truth is, there wasn’t really a reason or an occasion.  The whole idea was basically to love people who don’t experience whole-hearted love very often.

Jenn said that as one man was leaving, he said to her:  “That was wonderful.  For a few minutes there, I completely forgot I was homeless.” 

Such a small insignificant thing, right?  A couple minutes of forgetfulness. A steak dinner served by a bunch of earnest volunteers and high school kids.  Such a brief interlude in the on-going issues of homelessness and poverty and lack of mental health resources.  But when we stand on the side of people who are hungry and insist that God’s abundance is for everyone, we know we are on God’s side, not Pharaoh’s.

Truth is, most days it is almost impossible for me to know whether I am the oppressed or the oppressor.  Truth be told, most of us stand much more closely to the powers we can see with our eyes because we do not trust our hearts to be reliable.  Some days we are as fearful as Pharaoh and other days we are as faithless as the Israelites, but through all of it, God’s peace is held up to us as a new script, a better narrative for our lives.  God and God’s angels are rooting for us, guiding us, through deep seas and high mountains and too many days in the wilderness.  Let us wade into deep water together, trusting God will make a way out of no way.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, “The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity,” in Christian Century, March 24, 1999.
[2] Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture, 215.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Everyone is Hungry For Something

As I mentioned yesterday during our prayers, The Table ministry, headed up by Jennifer Frayer-Griggs and Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community will be holding a special "Fancy Table" event on Tuesday night, September 23.  Here's Jenn talking about the event on KDKA-TV last week:

As Jenn mentions, Hot Metal is sponsoring a kick-starter campaign to support this ministry.  If you feel called to help out, here is a link for you to donate:

Ordinary 25A-- September 21, 2014

What Dreams May Come

I don’t know how many of you are old enough to remember the Smothers Brothers Show from the 1960’s, but if you do, you probably also remember the line that Tom Smothers uttered to his brother, Dick on nearly every show:   “Mom always liked you best.”  It always got a big laugh.  All of us have had the nagging suspicion at some point that one of our brothers or sisters was, indeed, mom or dad’s favorite.

We are dear friends with a family who has four accomplished and beautiful adult daughters, but the dad has a habit of saying out loud that the third daughter, Iris, is his favorite.  Every time Iris comes home to visit, and we are with the whole family, dad points to his daughter and says, “That’s Baby Iris.  Did you know that she’s my favorite?”  The other daughters are so used to dad’s routine that they just roll their eyes.  In fact, it has become a family joke.  Our friend dearly loves all of his daughters.  But I sometimes wonder how it affects the other three sisters to hear their father’s preference for Baby Iris. 

If you know anything about Joseph, you know that the problems with his brothers began even before he was born.  Joseph’s father, Jacob, loved Rachel more any of his wives, and Joseph was one of two sons that Joseph had with Rachel.  As a result of his great love for Rachel, Jacob doted on Joseph, and unfortunately for everyone – particularly for Joseph – Jacob didn’t keep his family favorite a secret.  If nothing else, you may recall that Jacob loved Joseph so much that he gave him a really beautiful coat, which annoyed his older brothers to no end.  Maybe as a result of all that spoiling by his dad, Joseph thought quite highly of himself and made sure everybody knew it.   Joseph even had dreams about how awesome he was, and freely shared his visions with the family. 

Eventually, his brothers from another mother decided they had enough of their annoying younger brother.  They had had enough of Joseph and his coat and his boasting and most especially his dreams.  So they got rid of Joseph about as completely as they could without actually murdering him.  They beat Joseph up, threw him into a deep pit, left him for dead, and ultimately sold him into slavery. 

And that is where our story begins today.  Joseph has been sold by his brothers to the Ishmaelites for 20 pieces of silver and is taken to Egypt.

Genesis 39:1-23 

Now Joseph was taken down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. 2The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man; he was in the house of his Egyptian master. 3His master saw that the Lord was with him, and that the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hands. 4So Joseph found favour in his sight and attended him; he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had. 5From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field. 6So he left all that he had in Joseph’s charge; and, with him there, he had no concern for anything but the food that he ate.
Now Joseph was handsome and good-looking. 7And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, ‘Lie with me.’ 8But he refused and said to his master’s wife, ‘Look, with me here, my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my hand. 9He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except yourself, because you are his wife. How then could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?’ 10And although she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not consent to lie beside her or to be with her. 11One day, however, when he went into the house to do his work, and while no one else was in the house, 12she caught hold of his garment, saying, ‘Lie with me!’ But he left his garment in her hand, and fled and ran outside. 13When she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled outside, 14she called out to the members of her household and said to them, ‘See, my husband* has brought among us a Hebrew to insult us! He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice; 15and when he heard me raise my voice and cry out, he left his garment beside me, and fled outside.’ 16Then she kept his garment by her until his master came home, 17and she told him the same story, saying, ‘The Hebrew servant, whom you have brought among us, came in to me to insult me; 18but as soon as I raised my voice and cried out, he left his garment beside me, and fled outside.’
19 When his master heard the words that his wife spoke to him, saying, ‘This is the way your servant treated me’, he became enraged. 20And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined; he remained there in prison. 21But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love; he gave him favour in the sight of the chief jailer. 22The chief jailer committed to Joseph’s care all the prisoners who were in the prison, and whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. 23The chief jailer paid no heed to anything that was in Joseph’s care, because the Lord was with him; and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper.

Last week we heard God’s promise to Abram, that he would be the father of many generations, and that his descendents would become a blessing to all the families of the earth.  In this text today, we see how God’s blessing is working out for one of the Abraham’s descendents.  And the answer is – not so well.  While Abraham had plenty of intimate conversations with God, by the time we reach Joseph’s generation in the book of Genesis, God has gone quite silent and maybe even gone missing, at least from Joseph’s perspective

After being literally ditched by his jealous brothers, Joseph is sold as a slave to one of Pharaoh’s guards.  Although Jacob’s favorite kid is soon promoted to head of household operations, things go from bad to worse for Joseph.  Pretty soon, Joseph finds himself sitting in prison, unjustly accused for doing the right thing by resisting the advances of his master’s double-crossing wife.  Joseph’s situation is the perfect illustration of the old saying, “No good deed goes unpunished.” Thanks to his master’s scheming wife, Joseph finds himself back in another kind of pit. 

“We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called to his purpose.”  It may be that Paul was thinking of Joseph’s story when he wrote these words in Romans 8.  Because the story of Joseph’s life tells us something of the hidden ways in which God works.  The story begins with Joseph’s childhood dreams of glory, which gets him into trouble with his brothers.  Joseph experiences a completely unearned ascent to become the favorite son of his father, only to find himself abandoned down in the depths of a dark pit.  Although he is rescued and becomes Potiphar’s most valuable household employee, even that momentary recovery of status leads to Joseph ending up in prison. 

But Joseph keeps dreaming through the ups and downs of his life. It is his ability to dream that fuels his ascent to become the second most powerful man in Egypt. Still, it takes Joseph a very long time to finally put together the pieces and see that God’s hand was in all of life, the good, the bad and the ugly. After his father has died and he faces his brothers many years after their cruelty to him, Joseph is able to finally look at his life in the eye and say, Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today (Gen. 45:20).

The narrative about Joseph is the complete story of a complete human life, lived sometimes fearfully, often foolishly, but faithfully.  In the fullness of time and maturity, Joseph lives fully into God’s purpose to make the descendents of Abraham a blessing for all the families of the world.  God takes this dysfunctional family and this deeply flawed son of Jacob, and puts all the fractured pieces together to turn it into something good. Joseph survives terrible parenting, sibling rivalry, blatant betrayal and political scheming to make it through.  Joseph becomes a blessing, despite it all and despite himself.   Even when he didn’t recognize it, Joseph experienced something more real than any dream could be – the steadfast love of God. 

Yet, I still wonder…how did Joseph cope? 

What would it feel like to have my brother decide I was the worst person ever – so bad, in fact, that he decided he wanted nothing to do with me?  For reasons I couldn’t control?  I can’t imagine he’d do sell me into slavery, but my brother could certainly cut me off or walk away from me.  Wouldn’t I seethe with anger?  Wouldn’t I want revenge?  The prospect of losing my brother is something I can barely imagine without feeling hurt beyond description.

How did Joseph cope?

What if someone accused you of something that was completely untrue, and that accusation cost you your job, your family, your freedom?  How would you deal with that anger?  How could you ever trust another human being?  How did Joseph manage to stay sane while he was in prison for a crime he did not commit? 

Think about the prophets like Jeremiah.  How would it feel to be beaten, dragged to the center of town and placed in the stocks to be humiliated in front of everyone simply because you were doing exactly what YHWH called you to do?  No wonder Jeremiah is called the weeping prophet.  You would be weeping too if you saw Jerusalem burning to the ground, all of your hard work going up in flames.

How did Jeremiah cope?  How do any of us cope when we are laid so low by life that we feel like we can never get back up again?

One of the reasons these Old Testament stories are so valuable for us is the very fact that they are not portraits of perfect people or perfect families.  And for that we should be grateful, because if you imagine your family is somehow immune from the sorts of crazy that infected Joseph’s clan, I have a bridge I’d be happy to sell you.

In fact, the sons and daughters of Abraham throughout history and right up until this day have been flawed and sinful and yet, God has continued God’s work in us, regardless of human attitudes or actions.  Walter Brueggemann says that the primary theme of Joseph’s story concerns God’s hidden and decisive power, which works in and through and also sometimes against human forms of power.  God is working out God’s purpose through and sometimes in spite of Egypt, through and sometimes in spite of Joseph and his brothers. 

The purpose of God is established early in the narrative of Joseph’s life when he announces to his brothers that he had a dream about them bowing down to him – in other words, Joseph dream suggested that he would become a leader of people.  And that is exactly what Joseph becomes – a leader who winds up preventing the starvation of thousands of people.  His brothers could not have known, nor could Joseph, the significance of the dream in announcing God’s purpose for Joseph.  It is only in hindsight, when Joseph meets his brothers many years later that Joseph can see what it all meant: Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.  

If someone standing on the edge of the pit had whispered down to Joseph that God had a plan for his life and everything would turn out fine, it would not have helped Joseph one bit, at least not at that point in his life.  Joseph had to move through the pain, a pain that mattered very much to him when he was in the middle of it.  And the promise of this story for us is that Joseph’s pain mattered to God, too.  God hung in there with Joseph, proving yet again that God’s blessing is not a bubble which protects us from pain or even death, but a promise that neither pain nor death will have the final word.  Someone has said that, “God is like one of those genius sculptors who can make art out of anything. Give him a tire rim, a wrecked bicycle, a brass bedpost, and some old duct tape and he will weld it all into an eagle.  Nothing is too bent to be used – not even tragedies, not even bad decisions, not even plain human meanness.”[1] 

We have been talking together as a congregation, looking at where we are as a community of faith, and trying to see where it is that God is calling us.  As Jon Stellfox and many of you said over these past six weeks, “This is so hard.”  And it really is hard. It is hard to imagine what kind of changes God may be calling us to make and what those changes will mean for us.  How painful will they be?  How much do we have to lose? It is even harder to think that a decisions we make might be the wrong.  It is hard to avoid the deep fear that we might totally mess this up and end up in a dark pit.  It is hard to imagine that despite every good intention, we could very well fail. 

Here’s the thing.  The church is not called to be successful.  The church is called to be faithful.  A preacher wrote, “You are never going to be of great use to God until you get the illusions of greatness knocked out of you so that there is some room for the Spirit of God to dwell.”[2]  In other words, this is God’s work to do, not ours.  God is the one who make sure that God’s promise always has a future in the human history.   God may work through us, sometimes even against us, but God will never leave us.  There is nothing we can mess up so thoroughly that it cannot be redeemed by God.  Not the church.  Not our families.  Not even our own lives.  It was true for Joseph.  True for Joseph’s family.  True for us too.

Sometimes God’s work is obvious, and sometimes it is not.  Sometimes our awareness of God washes over us like an ocean wave, and sometimes it is only a distant blip somewhere in the dry desert of faith, when we are just holding on for dear life. Sometimes God seems to speak to us in a joyful shout from the center of our being, and sometimes we have to strain to hear God through the voices of our families, our friends and sometimes even our enemies.  God will surely come to us, too.  In whatever dreams may come to us, we can trust we are a part of the great story of God’s goodness, which is everlasting. 

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine. 118.
[2] Craig Barnes, “Faith is for Dreamers,” June 8, 2008, Shadyside Presbyterian Church.

Monday, September 15, 2014

What's Happening at Emsworth U.P.? Fall 2014 Edition

Fall Schedule Begins on September 21
Sunday School at 9:45 a.m.
Fellowship/Coffee Time at 10:30 a.m.
Announcements at 10:55 a.m.
Worship at 11:00 a.m.

New Adult Sunday School Class Begins on September 21 at 9:45 AM

Mental illness in all of its manifestations is a common occurrence in many, many, many families.  Making no distinction between age, class, race or income level, mental illness is amazing pervasive, yet it is one of those topics that seem taboo in our culture and, most particularly, in the church.  The media portrays people with mental illness as violent or dangerous people, and many find it difficult to access the services and care they need.

While most people will speak openly of their struggles with physical disease, very few feel comfortable disclosing their struggles with depression, schizophrenia, and other sorts of mental illness.  Some people suffering from illnesses such as clinical depression do not speak about their illness because too often they have heard unhelpful or hurtful advice such as, "If you were more faithful (or prayed more or trusted God more), you wouldn't be so sad" or "Why can't you just cheer up?"  or "Maybe you need more exercise (sunlight, vitamins, etc., etc., etc.)

We will spend four weeks talking about mental illness -- from biblical representations of people who suffer and the ways in which they are treated by their communities, to conversations about how congregations can be safe and supportive places for people who suffer from mental illness or who have family members who suffer.

Two books will be guiding our conversations --

Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness by Kathryn Greene-McCreight

Blessed Are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence about Mental Illness, Family and Church by Sarah Griffith Lund

New Beginnings/Unglued Church -- Monthly Dinners/Discussion Groups 
Will Begin On October 13 --New Date!

Many thanks to all who participated in the 6 weeks of weekly conversations about the New Beginnings assessment for Emsworth U.P. Church.  Particular thanks to our leaders:  Jean Ackerman, Donna Hunter, Tom and Marti Smart, Jon and Bez Stellfox, and our Adaptive Change Apprentice, Rev. Sarah Robbins.

The next step in the Unglued Church process is to begin our work in discerning what adaptive changes we will undertake as a church to become a blessing to our community.  Many possibilities were discovered during the New Beginnings house meetings, all of which require our continuing conversation, prayer and discernment.

We will gather for a series of meals, at least monthly, over the next 9 - 12 months to continue dreaming and talking together.  The first meal will be held on Monday, October 13 at 6:00 - 7:30 p.m.  More details to come but please mark the date on your calendar!

Time To Spruce Up Our Fellowship/Meeting Space

Come out on Saturday, October 4 at 9:00 a.m. to join our crew in painting the mini-meeting room downstairs.  There will be donuts!  Coffee!  Did we mention donuts?!!  Come out and give us a hand.  This is part of our continuing effort to update our spaces to make our building useful and attractive for the community.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Ordinary 24A -- September 14, 2014

A People of Uncommon Grace

Genesis 12:1-9                    
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

4So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. 5Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan,6Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. 8From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. 9And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.

God said, “Go,” and Abram went.  Abram left behind everything he knew and departed for…well…an undisclosed location.  But Abram went.  Having absolutely no clue where they would end up and trusting that YHWH would tell them when they got there, Abram packed up his family and his servants and everything that they could carry, and set off in the direction of Canaan.  Well, I’m not sure that Abram knew what direction they were headed, but the text tells us that’s where they headed.  And as if to make sure we do not miss the implication of Abram’s decision, the text carefully catalogs for us all that Abram left behind.  Country.  Family.  Friends.  Inheritance.  All of it left behind, everything familiar fading away.  All of it becoming less and less visible in the dust kicked up by Abram’s group of pilgrims, trudging away from Haran.

Perhaps at the beginning, as they were packing everything up, Abram and Sarai felt something like excitement growing.  We can imagine that feeling, particularly those of us in middle age or later.  Just imagine the opportunity to do something completely new.  Imagine a life shaped by a promise from God that from now on your life will matter beyond the small circle of the familiar.   After all, God said, “I will make of you a great nation…I will make your name great.”  Greatness!  At age 75?  Who wouldn’t feel incredibly pumped at the prospect of a completely reinvented and renewed life?

But at some point in the journey, I’m sure the atmosphere changed – maybe early on or maybe a little bit later when it became crystal clear that there was no going back to Haran even if they could figure out how to get back there.  Whenever it was that they reached that point, I imagine that there was a certain level of grief for Abram and Sarai.  Grief for all that they had left behind.  Grief borne of the realization that there was no going back to the comfortable and familiar.  Grief for all that was left behind them even with the promise of God shining before them.  We know that feeling, too, don’t we?  When the initial excitement of something new or something different wears off and we have to acknowledge that the world as we knew it is forever changed – we cannot help but grieve.  It is the worst kind of homesickness when you finally come to grips with the fact that you can’t go back.  That’s why people hate change – even a good change -- so very much.  Change never happens without loss attached. 

And what happens to Abram and Sarai establishes a theme that is replayed again and again throughout the Bible.   In the Old and New Testament, it’s a familiar pattern.  When God calls people in Scripture, they never, ever, ever get to stay where they are.  Spiritually.  Physically.  Geographically.   They always have to let go of something.   Just like Abram and Sarai.  Moses has to give up a cushy job with his father-in-law.  The people of Israel have to leave the familiar food and routine of Egypt and subsist on manna while wandering in the wilderness. Jonah has to give up his visceral hatred of people from Nineveh and go to a place he despises.  The disciples give up everything to follow Jesus and they do it before they have anything like a real clue what Jesus is about.  Even Saul has to undergo a radical renovation of his heart and soul, and receive a brand new name, before he can begin the difficult work of blessing the new Christian communities.  It happens throughout the entire Bible.  In order to respond to God’s call, you have to give up something, and it’s usually something that you’d really prefer to keep, thank you very much.   There’s no way around it.  In fact, throughout Scripture, God does God’s best work with people who have become a little unglued and a whole lot disoriented.  That’s small comfort, I know, when you are the one who is being undone, but there it is. 

So they didn’t know where they were going, and they mourned what they were leaving, but God couldn’t have been more clear about WHY Abram and Sarai were making the journey.  To be a blessing.  God was ready to create a family of faith whose sole purpose is to bless others.  And several millennia later, that is why we are here.  That is what we are called to DO.  To be a blessing to the whole world and even to the North Boros of Pittsburgh. 

Now you may not have the lofty ambition of becoming a great nation or have your picture on the front page of every newspaper, but I don’t think you would be here this morning if you didn’t want to be a blessing in some small way.  That’s why we’ve been in conversation for the past six weeks in our New Beginnings meetings.  The question before us is not how we can save our church.  The question before us is not how to get new members or get more dollars.  The question before us is not how we can become a bigger church or a more famous church or even a better church.  The question with which we are wrestling is – how can we, the sons and daughters of Abraham, be a blessing to our community, our city, our world? 

Do you want to be a blessing? 

Well, first of all, you’re going to need to let go of stuff that is important to you.  Like pretty much everything that you think defines you, whatever it may be – family, home, material comforts, money.  You don’t have to give everything away or move to another city.  But you do need to loosen your grip on what makes you comfortable.  And none of those things can matter so much to you that you choose what is familiar versus what is God.  Jesus knew this very well when he says, “Those who hold on to their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives for my sake will find them.”  He wasn’t kidding.  And God wasn’t kidding around with Abram when God told him and Sarai to get moving.

Do you want to be a blessing? 

If you do, you’re going to have to trust that even when you have no idea what you’re doing or where you’re going, it’s not the end of the world or even the end of you.  You’re going to have to learn to walk by faith with your eyes closed.  Even if you peek, it probably won’t help much.  As Abram will tell you, dealing with YHWH means dealing with some ambiguity and confusion.  Maybe a lot of ambiguity and confusion.

You’re also going to have get over the idea that you have nothing to offer because you’re too old to change or too frightened.  You may not receive the miracle of giving birth in your 80’s – and personally, I’m very hopeful that God does not have that sort of surprise in store for me – but when you believe that God can certainly work through anyone and everyone, you’ll be amazed at what God can pull off.  Even with little old you.  Sarai laughed like a hyena when God promised her a baby.  Don’t laugh at God.  Maybe laugh with God, but never at God. 

Do you want to be a blessing? 

Every once in a while, you’re going to have to stop moving and hunker down in one place.  Not to give up on the journey, but to rest.  And wait.  And pray. And listen for God.  And wait some more.  While you’re waiting, you may want to build yourself some kind of altar to remind you of how far you’ve come and how far you need to go.  Church buildings are a kind of altar, I think, but they are not the only kind.  But don’t get too attached to any particular holy site, because the odds are good that you’ll have to leave that alter behind when the next stage of the journey begins. 

Do you want to be a blessing?

Here’s a really hard fact of the matter.  You’re going to have to accept that the journey isn’t about you or what you want or the blessings you need, but about God’s purpose to bless all people.  Abraham was not called to be a blessing for only a particular family or a particular country or even for a particular faith. The great nation of Abraham was to be a blessing to all the families of the earth.  

No matter where it is we are going as a church family, we can trust that our mission is as simple as this – we will be blessed if we are a blessing.  There’s no roadmap for how to do that.  In fact, there isn’t even a road.  We make the road by walking it together. 

Just a little more than 24 hours after preaching to you last week about heart break, my own heart shattered.  My dear friend and mentor, Reverend Jannie Swart died very suddenly on Monday afternoon while playing Frisbee with students on the lawn over at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.  You may remember that Jannie preached here at Emsworth a few months ago.  I know at least a few of you remember Jannie’s sermon because you quote bits of his sermon back to me every so often.   One of the stories he preached about when he was here was how he told the people in the church he served in Oil City that for as long as he was their pastor, nobody would dare to utter the word, “program” in his presence.  Many of you have been mindful ever since to avoid that word.  Another of you also reminded me recently of another famous Jannie line.  That evangelism is nothing more and nothing less than beggars telling other beggars where to find bread.  Jannie was more than just quotable.  Jannie understood better than anyone I’ve ever met the challenges the church faces in post-Christendom.

I met Jannie shortly after being called here to Emsworth when he led a missional church group of pastors who met monthly up at Camp Crestfield for a year.  His teaching, for me, had the effect of shaping my ministry during my early months here at Emsworth.  He helped, particularly, in shaping my understanding of church mission as not a committee of the session or a check we send overseas or even the good projects we do in partnership with non-profits and other agencies here in our community.  All of those are good and important things to do.   But Jannie was convinced that mission is nothing more and nothing less than a movement of God that began with the women running from the tomb to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection, and which invites us – all of us – to be swept up in that same movement that is still all around us now.   Jannie said that all of us are missionaries in our communities, in our schools, in our work, in every place we spend our time.  Jannie believed that our task as Christians is to look for ways in which God is already at work in the world and to get in on that action.  The first question is always – where is God in this? And the only way to see God’s movement is to be in relationship with other people, to listen to them, to accept them wherever they are in their journey, to offer hospitality and be hospitable.  Then – and only then – can we serve them. 

At his funeral on Friday, one person said that, like Nelson Mandela with whom he served and worked for many years in South Africa, Jannie was a “man of uncommon grace.”  Which is true.  But the most poignant question for us who mourn all that Jannie was for us and all we have lost in his death came from Sheldon Sorge of Pittsburgh Presbytery who said in his eulogy, “How can we go back after Jannie has changed our lives?”

The answer is, we can’t.  And when we are tempted to forget what we learned from Jannie that our mission as God’s people is to be in relationship with one another, we will promise to remind one another. 

And we can remind one another with this story of Abram and Sarai.  Because God didn’t tell them to build a church and hope that people would find their way to them in order to be blessed.  God sent them out with nothing but a promise that God would guide them to the places and people so they could be the blessing.  It is a promise for us too, as sons and daughters of Abraham.  We can be a people of uncommon grace.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Ordinary 23A -- September 7, 2014

Here Is a Story To Break Your Heart

Here is a story
to break your heart.

Are you willing?

So begins a poem by Mary Oliver whose poetry has become something of an obsession for me lately.  I begin today with that little piece of poetry because it seems an appropriate introduction to a story that we know soooo well that we wonder if there’s anything new to say about it.  So before our imaginations drift into rainbows and Sunday school watercolor pictures of the ark and the animals, listen closely to the scripture. Because this IS a story that will break your heart if you are willing.  If you listen closely, you may hear the heartbreak of God.  And maybe even your own.  Whether or not that’s a good thing is up to you.

GENESIS 6:11-22; 9:8-15  
Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. 12And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. 13And God said to Noah, ‘I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. 14Make yourself an ark of cypress* wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. 15This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits.16Make a roof* for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above; and put the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks. 17For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. 18But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. 19And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. 20Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive. 21Also take with you every kind of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them.’ 22Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.* 11I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ 12God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.

So God created a world and made it good, but things didn’t work out.  By the time you get to the sixth chapter of Genesis, we read that God has pretty much had it with human beings.  The earth was corrupt and filled with violence.  So a furious God says to Noah, ‘I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.”  So Noah goes off to build the ark as God told him to do.  You can probably sing the rest of the story.

Maybe this story seldom makes it out of the church nursery because God’s rationale for destroying the earth sounds too depressingly familiar. The same old story, same as it ever was. Corruption and violence.  Human history repeating itself in the worst possible way, over and over again, each war and conflict supposedly designed to be the last one. 

And wouldn’t this story be so much more uplifting if 40 days of total devastation had actually changed anything about human behavior?  It would be a much better story if there were some small clue that somebody or anybody learned their lesson about messing with God’s intention for the earth.  We can wax poetic about rainbows until the cows come home two by twosie and sing about “arky arkys” until we are hoarse.  It doesn’t change what happens when the flood dries up. Whatever moral lesson humanity was supposed to learn from the story of Noah, it sure didn’t stick. 

Last week when we shared our burdens and our blessings in worship, Pastor Donna shared her burden in feeling that the world is pretty much unraveling at the seams.  It was easy to pray for her burden this week because I have the same one.  I just don’t know what to do but pray.

I guess another option is to tune out completely and stop watching the news or reading the newspaper.  Somebody was quoted in a story entitled, “The Unbearable Weight of World News”, as saying: “I try to (manage) my exposure to the news because media focuses mostly on horrible kinds of stories.  I don’t feel the human psyche is wired to take in that amount of sadness.”[1]  I suspect that many of you here this morning may feel exactly the same way.  

How much more can we take?  How many times can we see horrific images of war, poverty, racism, street violence and even beheadings before such images are so seared into our eyes that they can no longer be unseen, no matter how hard we try to rub them out?  How many times can our hearts be broken by human cruelty before we decide it is better to just shut them down? 

Nothing much has changed since Genesis was written down.  Life on earth is still, for too many of God’s creatures, nasty, brutish and short.   We’re still inventing new and novel ways to purposefully hurt each other or to avoid caring about one another.  And even if what’s happening in Iraq and Syria and Ukraine and Nigeria seems distant from Emsworth, violence happens here too.  The violence may not involve guns or knives or bombs, but there are all sorts of weapons we use to inflict pain on one another.  Neglect.  Indifference. Cynicism. Hurtful words.  Hurtful words are the worst.  Words can do more damage to our souls than can ever be repaired. 

Maybe you think I am exaggerating the sorry state of our plant.  Maybe we’re just in the middle of a particularly vicious news cycle.  All I know is that every time I’ve begun to believe that human beings really aren’t so bad after all, something happens to challenge my hopeful optimism.   Something as mind-boggling awful as ISIS comes into my line of vision and I am ready to give up expecting much from the whole human experiment.
Here is a story
to break your heart.

So in some small way, we can understand how God feels in this text.  Looking around at the unholy mess humans have made, God decides that enough is enough and he’s going to shut down the whole operation.  God gets mad, mad enough to destroy everything on earth except for one family and two of each kind of living creature, male and female, so God can try again.  Which is really sort of strange, when you think about it.  Why God would preserve any remnant of the old order of things?  Noah was a righteous man, but he certainly wasn’t a perfect one.  Why didn’t God start from scratch?  With some new and improved creatures?  Maybe even on a whole new planet?  That’s what I would do, wouldn’t you? 

The only reason I can come up with is that God’s heart just wasn’t in it.  God got mad, but couldn’t pull the trigger, not for keeps.  God could not eliminate the highly unlikely possibility that freaky, feckless human beings could maybe – just maybe – do a little better.  The Holy Imagination still had hope that there’s something in us that can be redeemed, reclaimed and renewed. 

The flood reveals the breaking of God’s Holy heart.  But once God’s heart broken open, it never closed again. 

When Rachel was a little girl, one of her favorite books for me to read to her was, “I’ll Love You Forever” which was about a mother singing through the years to her beloved child:
I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always,
As long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be.
And the mother continues to sing the song, even when the baby becomes a toddler and unrolls a whole roll of toilet paper all over the house.  Even when the baby becomes an annoying teenager.  Even when the child grows up and moves away and forgets to call on Sunday, the mother remembers and sings the song to her child, no matter what.  At the end of the book, the mother has become so old and hobbled that she can no longer sing to her baby.  So the fully-grown man takes his mother into his arms and sings,
“l’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always,
As long as I’m living, my mommy you’ll be.

God draws up a peace treaty with no strings attached.  God doesn’t say, “If you’re good, I won’t try to drown you all again.”  God doesn’t say, “If you’re good, I will keep loving you.”  There are no conditions to God’s promise.  There is no contingency to God’s covenant.  It is simply a promise straight from God’s broken.  It is a promise of faithfulness as clear as the one made by the mother to her newborn baby.  I will love you.  You are my child.  You don’t have to be or do anything.  The fact that you are mine is sufficient.  The very fact of your existence has broken open my heart and I will not close it again.

Barbara Brown Taylor describes what is happening here this way:

“From now on, God will not repay betrayal with betrayal.  From now on, God will not let his sorrow lead him to kill.  He will bind himself to his creation in peace, promising himself to it although he knows it will wound him.  So God will be wounded.  So be it.  With this first, remarkable covenant, God chooses to ally himself with his cantankerous creation, whatever the cost.  If there is to be pain in the world, then God will share it.  Never again will God protect himself from it by killing off those who have caused it.  God’s promise to them is life, not death, ‘an everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on earth.’”

And ever since God made that promise to Noah, God is faithful even when human beings have been anything but.  Scripture tells us that God’s heart is broken again and again, most particularly by the people that God thought might be the ones God could count on – God’s chosen people.  And despite God’s disappointment, God continued to reach out through prophets and poets.  And in the fullest expression of God’s stubborn, broken-hearted love for us, God sent Jesus.  And when Jesus looked around and saw that things weren’t much better than they were when Noah stumbled off the ark, Jesus could have finished off the job of destroying every vestige of evil on earth.  But he didn’t.

 In his humility and humanity, Jesus put down that divine weapon and headed to the cross, a human portrait of God’s heart broken.  Again.  Because Jesus trusted that at least a couple of us might follow after him.  That at least a few of us would be foolish enough to have our hearts broken for sake of the Gospel.   Instead of destroying us for our sins, in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, God decided to remind us that God hadn’t forgotten the promise made so long ago to Noah and his family.  In Jesus, God shows us that God has gone all in to share every heartbreak of humanity.

Here is a story
to break your heart.

Are you willing?
I tell you this
to break your heart,

by which I mean only
that it break open
 and never close again
to the rest of the world.

We have two more weeks in which we’ll be holding our house meetings for New Beginning/Unglued Church.  And as we continue these conversations over the coming weeks and months, I invite you to think about…pray about…maybe not so much what you like to do or what you are good at doing.  Tell me…what breaks your heart?  What keeps you awake at night?  Because if you know the answer to that question, it may just be a clue to understanding where God is calling you in the community to serve.  I think that God speaks to us most directly to us in those places we are most tender and vulnerable.  And I believe it is in our tenderness and vulnerability that we are most able to be Jesus in the world.

The people I know who are doing the best kind of ministry, the most impactful ministry, are doing it because something broke their heart.  It may be a particular group of people or a particular neighborhood or a particular social problem – something broke their heart wide open and the Holy Spirit just won’t leave them alone.  For my friend Eugene Blackwell, it is the gang members and drug dealers in Homewood.  For Matt Harding at Shepherd’s Door, it’s unemployed people and at-risk young adults in Bellevue.  Within 5 minutes of meeting her, you’ll discover that Jenn Frayer-Griggs’ heart is broken on a regular basis by the lonely, hungry people who show up at The Table on the South Side.  Jay Poliziani’s heart breaks for the homeless guys in the Pleasant Valley Men’s Shelter.  My heart was broken open 22 years ago when I held my new born baby and realized that if the world was going to be a fit place for her to grow up in, her mother had better get busy.  And for the past three years, my heart breaks for you, Beloved.  In the best possible way. 

May our broken hearts lead us to where God needs us. 

Thanks be to God.  Amen.