The Promise Renewed, Anew

For Christ the King Sunday… Scriptures from Jeremiah 36 and 31

This week sits at a funny intersection of our secular and liturgical calendars.

Today marks the beginning of the end of the year, the holiday season that starts with Thanksgiving, runs headlong into Christmas and then comes to a grand conclusion with New Year’s Eve. Though I suppose technically, if we look at the consumer marketing calendar, the holiday season started just before Halloween.

In the liturgical calendar, today is the final Sunday of the year. We have completed another cycle of feast days and seasons. Next Sunday, we start over with Advent.  
But today, we mark the end of the year with Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday.  

“The day centers on the crucified and risen Christ, whom God exalted to rule over the whole universe. The celebration of the lordship of Christ thus looks back to Ascension, Easter, and Transfiguration, and points ahead to the appearing in glory of the King of kings and Lord of lords. Christ reigns supreme.

Christ’s truth judges falsehood. As the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, Christ is the center of the universe, the ruler of all history, the judge of all people. In Christ all things began, and in Christ all things will be fulfilled. In the end, Christ will triumph over the forces of evil.

Such concepts as these cluster around the affirmation that Christ is King or Christ reigns! As sovereign ruler, Christ calls us to a loyalty that transcends every earthly claim on the human heart. To Christ alone belongs the supreme allegiance in our lives. Christ calls us to stand with those who in every age confessed, “Jesus Christ is Lord!”

In every generation, demagogues emerge to claim an allegiance that belongs only to God. But Christ alone has the right to claim our highest loyalty. The blood of martyrs, past and present, witnesses to this truth.”  (From the Companion to the Book of Common Worship)

The Christ the King festival was established in 1925 by decree of Pope Pius XI.

For just a little context, 1925 was the year that Benito Mussolini declared he was taking over Italy and turning it into a dictatorship ending free elections.

Adolf Hitler published his personal manifesto Mein Kampf that same year.

In 1924, government sponsored unrest in the Ruhr region of Germany led to the complete destabilization and collapse of the German economy.  The issues created by the collapse forced France and Belgium to agree on a lowered reparation payment plan and an to end their occupation of the Ruhr within the following year – 1925.

And Stalin was General Secretary of the Central Committee in Russia.  

Looking back, we can see the early warning signs of the second world war.  I’m not sure that Pope Pius was that prescient, but he did see the dangers of nations like Italy being ruled by dictators. And of national governments seeking to silence or remove the church from public life entirely.

He outlined the purposes of Christ the King Sunday in an encyclical or letter from the Pope to the bishops and other clerics.  He spoke of the ways that individuals – whether part of the Catholic faith or not – might reflect on the ongoing sovereignty of God, as well as the Kingdom to come.

Then he spoke to the political happenings of the day, writing:

“Nations will be reminded by the annual celebration of this feast that not only private individuals but also rulers and princes are bound to give public honor and obedience to Christ. It will call to their minds the thought of the last judgment, wherein Christ, who has been cast out of public life, despised, neglected and ignored, will most severely avenge these insults; for his kingly dignity demands that the State should take account of the commandments of God and of Christian principles, both in making laws and in administering justice, and also in providing for the young a sound moral education.”  (Quas Primus)

A few weeks ago, we looked at Samuel’s interactions with God and with the people of Israel as they asked for a king, so that they might be like other nations.

It was a bad idea from the beginning, which God made clear to the people through Samuel.  Kings are fallible, vulnerable to the temptations that all of us humans face.  

And yet, God relented.

Like a parent who knows that every choice their child makes has the potential for great success and equally spectacular failure, God gave Israel the agency to change their minds. Or to go ahead and say, “No really, we want a king.”  

Which they did. Even after God let them know the consequences of placing their faith in the leadership of men.

And within just a few generations, the wheels had come off the wagon in the northern kingdom.  And eventually, those same consequences would come south to Judah.

And once more, God chooses a prophet to carry a message of repentance into the crisis.

36:1 In the fourth year of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from the Lord:

2 Take a scroll and write on it all the words that I have spoken to you against Israel and Judah and all the nations, from the day I spoke to you, from the days of Josiah until today. 3 It may be that when the house of Judah hears of all the disasters that I intend to do to them, all of them may turn from their evil ways, so that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin.

4 Then Jeremiah called Baruch son of Neriah, and Baruch wrote on a scroll at Jeremiah’s dictation all the words of the Lord that he had spoken to him. 5 And Jeremiah ordered Baruch, saying, “I am prevented from entering the house of the Lord; 6 so you go yourself, and on a fast day in the hearing of the people in the Lord’s house you shall read the words of the Lord from the scroll that you have written at my dictation. You shall read them also in the hearing of all the people of Judah who come up from their towns.7 It may be that their plea will come before the Lord, and that all of them will turn from their evil ways, for great is the anger and wrath that the Lord has pronounced against this people.”

8 And Baruch son of Neriah did all that the prophet Jeremiah ordered him about reading from the scroll the words of the Lord in the Lord’s house.

Unlike Jonah, walking through the city calling on the people of Ninevah to repent, Baruch went to the Temple. The people heard the word of the Lord, including some of the men who had access to the King. They knew that this was an important word, and that it was critical for the King to hear the message.

Remember the Ninevite’s response?  The King’s response?
Sackcloth and ashes. Repentance.  Fear of the Lord.

And they were the enemies of the Lord!

Here’s how the king of Judah… the descendant from the house of David… responded
21 Then the king sent Jehudi to get the scroll, and he took it from the chamber of Elishama the secretary; and Jehudi read it to the king and all the officials who stood beside the king.

22 Now the king was sitting in his winter apartment (it was the ninth month), and there was a fire burning in the brazier before him. 23 As Jehudi read three or four columns, the king would cut them off with a penknife and throw them into the fire in the brazier, until the entire scroll was consumed in the fire that was in the brazier.

No sackcloth.
Wrong kind of ashes.

Now, it’s important to note where this takes place. The king is in his winter apartment, which means he had a separate place to live during the warmer months.  In other words, the King is quite comfortable, on this occasion and in general, enjoying the luxuries that come with money and power.

He is so comfortable with power, in fact, that he is not at all frightened by the words from the prophet. As Jehudi read, Jehoiakim literally removed the offending words from the scroll.  He destroyed them by throwing the scraps into the fire.

He utterly rejected the word of God… one slice of the pen, one big old NOPE after another

I don’t know if this was the first, but it certainly was not the last example of book-burning by the ruler of a nation. It is a means of silencing opposition, no matter its origin  

Quite literally, this destruction tells the writer and would-be readers that the sword is mightier than the pen. Symbolically, the message is even more sinister: the one in power can destroy ideas, beliefs, hopes, or dreams.   

We don’t see a lot of book burning these days, but books do get banned.  

People call for boycotts of artists and musicians, when their images or lyrics oppose our strongly-held beliefs or offend our sensibilities.  And certainly in the past months, as protesters make known their frustration with deadly police actions, pipelines through sacred land, city water systems being poisoned and the threats of elected officials against minority groups… there have been government-sponsored efforts to quiet, if not silence their voices.     

But this was not an act of free speech or art…

What the king had forgotten in his arrogance and narcissistic paranoia, was that the message was not from flesh and blood, from Jeremiah, but from God.
This was the word of God to the people of God…
Delivered to a King by a prophet chosen by God.

And in the end, even if you’re the king, you don’t get to decide what has and hasn’t happened.  What God did or didn’t say.
27 Now, after the king had burned the scroll with the words that Baruch wrote at Jeremiah’s dictation, the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah:

28 Take another scroll and write on it all the former words that were in the first scroll, which King Jehoiakim of Judah has burned.

Thus, even now, all these generations and translations later, we see in our scriptures not only the warnings of God against the king and the people of Judah, but the actions that Jehoiakim took.

Ironically, this king who thought so highly of himself that he assumed he could silence the voice God,  the very God who had made it possible for him to rule…That king is essentially a footnote in the history of Israel.  

He is just one more king who disobeyed.
One more king who led the people astray.
One more example of why the story of humanity’s redemption is dependent on God’s grace and not our obedience.  

You see, even before this scroll was re-written, before the original was read to the king and his court, before it was taken to the temple to be read aloud to the people as they fasted, Jeremiah had also heard a promise from God.  

A message of hope:
31:31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt— a covenant that they broke,  though I was their husband, says the Lord.

33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord:

I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Even as Zion is overtaken by the Babylon, Jeremiah’s prophecy offers consolation.  God has offered a new covenant. A Covenant that moves the relationship between God and the people into new territory.

This covenant is inclusive of both kingdoms – Israel and Judah. God’s promise to David was that a king from his house would always be on the throne in Judah, but there was no such promise made for leadership in the north, leading to chaos and conflict within Israel and against Judah.   

Now there is hope for a reconciliation between the tribes, a close to the enmity between these two kingdoms. And there is hope for the poor and the powerful as all will know God, from the least to the greatest.

Second, this covenant will be built on the foundation of the Torah, with teachings that center on the written word. Not only written in the scrolls, but on the hearts of the people. They can go beyond hearing, beyond reading the laws, to knowing and understanding them at the heart level. They can thus become a faithful people, lawful instead of lawless, maintaining covenant in community.

And finally, this new covenant is dependent on God’s divine faithfulness, remaining in place despite human inconsistency.  God assures that the covenant is unbreakable by taking on the work directly and completely. Listen again for who will be the prime mover in this effort:

“But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God.”

Lot’s of I language there… but this isn’t God making the people into puppets, controlled by some unknown puppet master. This covenant is actually even more relational, less distant.

Where God’s earlier covenant was intimate, using the metaphor of marriage between God and the people, this covenant goes a bit further.  The people will not just understand intellectually that God cares about their future.

God now promises that the people will know the Lord and be known by him.
God promises that we can know the Lord
God promises that we are known.
And loved.

Yes, even us… generations and half a world away from the continent on which Jeremiah and the Hebrew people lived.

We are known and loved by the God who makes and keeps promises.  Because here’s the most amazing part of this new covenant… and the part that ought to sound a little bit familiar.

It offers a fresh start.  

This is not the promise of heirs more abundant than the stars of the night sky… as amazing as that promise was for Abraham and Sarah

This is not the promise of a land filled with milk and honey… as incredible a promise as that was for a people being led out of captivity in Egypt

This is not the promise of a kingdom that will not perish… as honoring as that promise was for David.

This covenant offers the promise of forgiveness.

The Lord says “They will know me for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

The language of a new covenant should sound a little familiar because they are words we remember every month or so…  

On the night that Jesus was betrayed, first he blessed and shared the bread with his followers, explaining that it was his body, broken for them.

And then he took the cup and blessed it as well, and then he said this cup is the new covenant in my blood, for the forgiveness of sins.

This is a callback from the Jesus to the unique words that only Jeremiah heard and shared from the Lord. The new covenant is fulfilled in the person of Jesus who knew humanity intimately as he lived and walked among us. As one of us. Even as he knew and kept God’s will and God’s laws perfectly, fully divine in his complete humanness.  

What is not unique is the betrayal that came before the words of forgiveness were spoken.
The people had chosen a king over God. The King had chosen to worship his own power, rather than God’s power. His own version of the Law over God’s Law. And in choosing to obey the King, the people had chosen again. Not God, but humanity.

That choice sent them into exile, where they waited and watched for God’s rescue, God’s plan for redemption. The fulfillment of that plan was Jesus, God’s answer to the people’s betrayal.

The one who came to do the things God had expected of the people and their kings all those generations ago

The one who subverted the empire by seeking out the people at the edges, the ones who had the least influence, the least power, the fewest resources.

The dangers we face as the church of Jesus Christ in 21st Century America are not unlike the dangers faced by 1st century Jews living in the Roman Empire.  Not unlike those faced by believers in 1925.

The powerful rulers of this human realm would love to distract us from the work left to us by Jesus.
They would slice off and discard the parts of God’s law that are inconvenient or too difficult
They would sit in comfortable spaces, surrounded by people who are afraid to speak truth
They would silence the voices of those being left behind

And so, on this Christ the King Sunday, we look ahead a bit to Luke’s description of Jesus going to his hometown of Nazareth, where he inaugurated his ministry by reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Jesus then sat down and said something utterly shocking: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Fulfilled?  Yes… fulfilled.

The Roman empire was still in charge. Caesar still sat on his throne. As did Herod.

But the Kingdom of God had arrived in the person of Christ. The embodiment of the God who keeps promises.

Christ, the promised one who sought to return the outcast into the community
The Promised One who healed and forgave and set captives free.
The Promised One who embodied the work that every believer is called to do, making the world a more just, more loving, more hope-filled place.

As we live into the laws written on our hearts, the Kingdom of God is here.
In this place, in the Body of Christ
In the church of Jesus Christ
In the people of God who answer the call to make disciples and teach them all that he commands.

The Kingdom of God is here in God’s people who speak truth to power
Who refuse to sit quietly and instead rise up…
choosing to do justice and love mercy,
even as we walk humbly with the God who knows us, forgives us, loves us and sends us.

10 Random Things I have learned in the last couple of weeks

1. When your jeans are loose and you don’t have a belt, slippery undies are a bad choice.

2. Swimming is excellent exercise. You do not, however, get bonus calories for swimming in colder water… silly FitBit

3.  Baby pigs are adorable and actually enjoy being held and scratched behind the ears. Or at least the ones at our feed store do.

4. Even decades later, I can recite the Girl Scout Promise and Law. Well, most of it. At least as much as I can the Apostle’s Creed, so there’s that.

5. I am not excellent at processing giant emotional waves. Unless they are someone else’s, in which case I am all yours.  There’s some work to be done there, obvs.

6.  My gut is right more than I am willing to believe. Probably because it catches the stuff I don’t want to know, or hope is untrue.

7. Number 6 above sucks.

8. Combine numbers 5-7 in a week, and ugh.

9. I have a deep well of faith and hope, in spite of the truth my gut knows about people and life and even me.

10. I am loved.  Yeah- I kinda knew that already, but sometimes I get to learn stuff like this in deeper ways. And that counts, too.

How are you doing after Election2016?

Me?    I am pissed.
And I am afraid

Here’s the thing. I am a God-loving, God-fearing person.
Which is to say, I have faith that God is with us in all circumstances.

But I am afraid.
For my friends who are religious minorities
For my dear ones who are LGB or T or queer.
For my neighbors who are ethnic minorities

And I am so very angry that my people…
churched and educated people…
straight people…
especially white people…
have put these dear family friends and neighbors in harm’s way.

Because we are – collectively – a hot, selfish mess.

Suffering from some sort of moral-ethical dysphoria
that makes it impossible to see our faults and biases, our racism
even with the mirror of voting demographics so close we see our breath on the glass

So wrapped up in maintaining our status and comfort
that we refuse to take on the vulnerability of standing in the gap
even as we point out the failings of those OTHER people

I am a WE person, always ready to join in, always ready to include
But I don’t want to be part of this WE

I want to point at THOSE white people and say THEY are the ones.
But I can’t.

I am part of that hot, selfish mess.

Maybe not with my vote (okay, definitely not with my vote)
But every day, I am part of the system and benefit from it

Every day, in small ways, I take advantage of my whiteness
and my cis-het-marriedness
my education
my Christianity
my cis-normative gender
my middle-class access to abundance

I am part of the hot, selfish mess by association
and especially when I don’t speak out or act out against it.
I see and feel the truth of that more and more each day
and have been working hard at doing better and doing more

I’m pissed that not enough of us are doing that work
I’m pissed that not enough of us are willing to do that work
I’m pissed because the stakes are too high for all of us
And I’m afraid that it will take way too long for enough of us to wake up

Oh, Mercy

The story of Jonah would rank pretty high if we created a Top 10 most familiar of Bible stories.  We can probably outline it together in a handful of bullet points, in fact:

  1. Jonah is called to take God’s word to the people of Ninevah
  2. Jonah defies God, and heads the opposite direction by sea.
  3. A storm threatens to swamp the boat and Jonah is thrown overboard.
  4. Jonah is then swallowed by a whale, where he stays for 3 days.
  5. Jonah is spit out on shore and goes to Ninevah
  6. In Ninevah, the people repent and are saved, and Jonah is not impressed.

That’s pretty much it, in a nutshell.

The lesson we tend to take away from this fish story?  If you don’t go where God tells you to go, you might very well end up smelling of fish guts.

That’s not a bad lesson, to be honest, but I want to take a little closer look, starting with chapter 1:1-17

Honestly, I think we relate to Jonah much in the same way we can relate to the prodigal son.  

Even if we never followed through on it, most of us have spent time plotting an escape… an opportunity to run away from God or family or other rule-makers and start fresh someplace else.  

I can remember clearly the afternoon I spent gathering up a few days worth of clothes, counting my meager collection of birthday money and coins, writing down the phone numbers I might need (this was way before cell phones)… all so that I could run away to my grandmother’s house.  

I didn’t leave… because there was no peanut butter in the pantry, and  couldn’t imagine what else might sustain an eight-year-old runaway on the road to Oklahoma.

I can also distinctly remember telling God at 17 that I might be willing to be a pastor someday, but it seemed like an awfully boring way to spend one’s life.  (If I only knew then…)

I don’t know that I literally went the opposite direction like Jonah, but I certainly chose another path. And I definitely found myself in some awfully stinky circumstances as a result.

Thing is, that flippant “no thank you” to God was about me – my wants, my misconceptions about ministry, my lack of maturity.  It had nothing to do with the people God was calling me to serve.

For Jonah, the people – THOSE PEOPLE – were a huge problem.

You see, Ninevah was proud of killing Judeans.  Among the antiquities you can see at the British Museum in London are carved reliefs that depict scenes from the Assyrian sieges. One of these elaborate carvings is called The Siege of Lachish, and it shows images of Judeans being impaled and stacks of heads that were counted by the Assyrian scribes.It seems that the Assyrian soldiers may well have been paid according to the number of Hebrews that they were  credited for decapitating. This particular relief was discovered in Sennacherib’s palace near modern day Mosul, Iraq.  

Which is to say – in Ninevah.
Yes – that Ninevah.  

So God wants the king and the people of Ninevah to repent.
And God wants Jonah to be the one to tell them.

And it’s no wonder he headed out to Joppa. Joppa was a port city, located in Tel Aviv. It was and still is in many ways a gateway to the west. It was a natural way to get as far away from Ninevah as possible. He was headed in the opposite direction.

Funny to recall in this moment that repentance is all about turning around and walking directly away from your sin. Literally – turning and going in the opposite direction toward God.

Anyway…  at this point, Jonah is all about getting as far as possible as quickly as possible – from where God wanted him to be.  And on the boat, he found himself among the only people in history more superstitious than baseball fans…  even more superstitious than Cubs fans.

To be fair, sailing was fraught with peril.  Still is, really. Even with our modern equipment and technology, making one’s living on the sea is dangerous. While these ancient mariners would have been familiar with waves, currents and the severe weather that is common in the region, they didn’t have our scientific knowledge to understand the why’s. They attributed what looked like fickle weather and angry seas to capricious and irritable dieties.   

When Jonah spoke up claiming his identity as a Hebrew, it made absolute sense to attribute the storm to the Lord’s disfavor – even without knowing anything about Jonah’s God.

Our God.

What they did know was that God required some sort of action, some kind of attention from them and/or Jonah in order to calm the seas.  Even when Jonah suggested throwing him overboard, the men tried rowing and praying to this strange God. All to no avail.

And so into the water with Jonah, Into the water and into the belly of the great fish. For three days. And then, as oddly or miraculously as when the fish appeared, the fish drew near enough to dry land to spit Jonah out and swim away.

The whale or fish or whatever the creature was – it has sure gotten a ton of press over the millenia. Their story has been told and retold across the generations.  Jonah and the whale… they are inseparable.

But the book of Jonah is not primarily about his time in a fish/whale.  Here’s how we know this is true:
The book of Jonah mentions “fish” exactly twice.
Meanwhile “God” is used 14 times;
“LORD” is used 21 times.

Which ought to lead us to ask less what the book teaches us about nature or human nature… and MORE about what the book of Jonah teaches us about God

The first thing we learn through Jonah’s story is that God calls us to surprising – maybe even ridiculous things. In our human terms – it is no surprise Jonah didn’t want to go to Ninevah.  It is much more surprising that God would send Jonah into a place that is so hostile to God and God’s chosen people.

God has something in mind that is beyond Jonah’s understanding. Beyond our understanding. Listen to what happens when Jonah finally answers that surprising, ridiculous call, starting back up in chapter 3, verses 1-10.

Once again we see that God is faithful to journey with us, even in our rebellion, our stiff-neckedness. God speaks again to Jonah, in spite of his rebellion… and Jonah goes.

Honestly, God could have left Jonah to his own devices on several occasions:
God might have allowed Jonah to keep wandering westward, alone and without purpose.
God might have let Jonah drown, accepting him as a sacrifice from the captain and crew.
God might have left him high and drying out in silence on the beach, refusing to entrust this life-saving message to an unfaithful prophet and choosing someone else.

But our merciful God extended compassion to Jonah, just as God extended compassion to the people of Ninevah.  

Just like Jonah knew would happen. God actually extended grace and mercy to THOSE PEOPLE.

That is really the calculus that did Jonah in from the beginning.
How could God ask him to go there?
To talk to THOSE people?

He knew God’s nature because Jonah knew God’s history, God’s habit of keeping promises

If they repented, Jonah reasoned, God would surely forgive them save them, love them, adopt them, fold them into the family. And how is that supposed to be ok when THOSE PEOPLE have been so very evil?

But God is merciful.  

God extended mercy to the sailors who cried out to him and then did as God commanded – even though it seemed wrong to toss this man into the sea.
God extended mercy to Jonah. 

And then, God extended mercy to the Ninevites.  Not just the King, not just the people, but the animals, too
All called to repent.
All in sackcloth and ashes
All forgiven
All granted life

When vengeance would have been understandable, When reaffirming God’s version of Law and order justice would have been much more appealing to Jonah and his friends back home…

God extended mercy.  

And Jonah responded in a way that rings very true to me…
The start of chapter 4 is often titled, Jonah’s Anger.  

What isn’t captured there at the end is what must be a long… holy…  exasperated sigh.
I know it makes me sigh. Surely God did, too.  Oh, Jonah…

This is not the ending we want in a story.  Especially since we tend to place ourselves in the story by way of Jonah. We want justice – maybe vengeance – for the Judeans that the Ninevites had killed

We want Jonah to be proved right.
To be a hero.
To be the strong voice of a strong God who is mightier than any other God

But here’s the thing… God’s desire to see reconciliation is greater than our need for retaliation, our tendency toward oppression, subjugation, dehumanization.

God’s promises are true for the Hebrew people, and for the gentiles… the widow and her son that took in Jeremiah, the Ninevites, the Samaritans, the tax collectors, the unwanted, unclean and unclaimed who came to see that same compassion in the person of Jesus.

And God’s promises are true for us.

God’s mercy and lovingkindness extends to us. Even when we would withhold compassion and hope from others, intentionally or as collateral damage.

You know, if we see God’s compassion to Nineveh as surprising, we should probably view his offering a second chance to Jonah as equally surprising. And God’s second, third, fourth, fiftieth chances for us even more so.

None of us… not one of us, now or ever, has deserved God’s mercy.

It’s an interesting time to think about the abundance and wideness of God’s grace and mercy,

This week started with All Saints Day, a time to remember all the saints who have come before, that great cloud of witnesses. And the truth is that if we were to see an accounting of all those saints, there would be almost certainly be more than one or two who would surprise us.  There are probably a lot of THOSE people in that cloud, and not just the Ninevites.

We come together today to welcome our new members and gather at table with friends and strangers, a beautiful reminder of our deep connections by faith, not just with God but with other people.

And on Tuesday, our nation will finally vote to complete what is the most divisive election I can remember…  And I am a political junkie who usually enjoys debates and platform building and the work of making these important decisions together.

But this year, I’ve mostly turned the TV off. It has not been fun.  Nor has it been particularly edifying.

And yet, I am not overly worried about Tuesday.  I suspect that we will be fine as people go to polling places,

I’m not worried about Tuesday night as votes are counted, though I’m a little leery about how the talking heads will spin it.

I am much more worried about Wednesday
and Thursday
And Friday
And the days, weeks months and years to come.

I’ll confess, it scares me to think about how people will react. Because of the language and rhetoric unleashed this year?
It’s been ugly.
It’s been mean-spirited.
It has done anything but Unite the States.

More than ever, we have been talking in disparaging terms about THOSE PEOPLE who support that candidate.

And they talk about THOSE PEOPLE who support the other candidate in ways that are equally hateful and hurtful

And Lord help THOSE PEOPLE who are in that third camp or THOSE PEOPLE who have decided they’d rather sit this one out. Because THOSE PEOPLE are even more likely to be told what a waste of time and space they are.    

These are scary times, church.
If we are ever to reclaim the United in “USA” in any real sense, there is a lot of work to be done.  And people aren’t going to be very interested in setting aside all their fear and anger to do the hard work of reconciling with co-workers, neighbors and even family members.

But even still…  These are exciting times, church.
Because we are in the Family business.
The business of reconciliation.
The business of calling people to confession and repentance

We are in the business of making bigger and bigger “us-es” and fewer and smaller  “thems”   

We are in the business of tearing down the walls that divide us, by offering to the world all the love and grace and mercy that the Holy Spirit drives deep into our hearts the moment we say YES to following God.

We are in the business of going where God has called us, no matter how surprising and ridiculous it seems, to say to THOSE people that we love them.  

And that is true in this room, in this congregation. For you and for me.
No matter how you mark your ballot or what party you support, I have to love you.
No, let me amend that.
No matter how you mark your ballot, I GET to love you.
And you get to love me back.

Because this isn’t the work of pastors.
Well, again, I’ll back up.
This isn’t work that is ONLY for pastors.

Every follower of God, every follower of Jesus is invited into and expected to be a part of this holy and difficult work of loving ALL. And when we do the work, our God, who is faithful and just, who keeps promises and loves wildly, will show up, in us, through us, and among us.

Bit by Bit

We are well past the days of David and Solomon.  100 years past it in fact. We are beyond the days of a single Kingdom, the days when the Twelve Tribes of Israel were one. There are now two kingdoms.The house of David is still on the throne in the south, in Judah but there is no continuity in the north. And Ahab is now on the throne.

Elijah is one of the many prophets who did the work – the hard and thankless work- of attempting to remind the people and the kings who ruled them of those pesky commands of God. And, truth be told, the wrath of God.

For as much as God loved those chosen and wonderful people, God could see their hearts had strayed. They had definitely unseated God as king of their hearts, And bit by bit, generation by generation, they were setting aside their identity as well.

They were still God’s people, at least from God’s perspective. After all, the promising God we’ve talked about the last few months does more than make promises… God keeps promises. And God promised to be their God.

The people promised to be God’s people, but it turns out they are just as fickle as they are stiff-necked.

Looking at my own life, I’ll confess… some things don’t change much. Like most folks, I can be fickle, stiff-necked, and willing to sin… And like most folks I am always less than thrilled about dealing with the consequences of those sins.

Archeologists and historians who have studied the region tell us that Ahab was among the most successful and most powerful of the ancient Hebrew Kings. He was part of the fourth dynasty in Israel, established by his father, Omri.  Omri was described as doing

“what was evil in the sight of the Lord; he did more evil than all who were before him.”

And the apple did not fall far from the tree. If we back up just a bit from this morning’s reading, we get a sense of what’s happening there…

In the thirty-eighth year of King Asa of Judah, Ahab son of Omri began to reign over Israel; Ahab son of Omri reigned over Israel in Samaria twenty-two years. 30 Ahab son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him.

31 And as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, he took as his wife Jezebel daughter of King Ethbaal of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal, and worshiped him.

32 He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria. 33 Ahab also made a sacred pole. Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him.

Did you catch that… Ahab married Jezebel, who brought with her from Sidon the religions of the local people.  But let’s not give in to the temptation of laying all of this at her feet.  Ahab had the power to require all in his household to do as he pleased. Not just as king, but as the husband, the patriarch of the household. If it had pleased him to honor only the Lord, he could have made her set aside the rituals she knew and learn the ways of Yahweh worship.

But that was not the choice he made.  

In his arrogance or disregard for the Law of God and the covenants made with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and David, Ahab joined Jezebel in worshiping Ba-al.  Ahab set up an asherah and an altar for that purpose, even as he claimed to worship Yahweh.

Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him.

Including his father.

And, as God has done and will continue to do do for the people, God spoke through a prophet.  In this case, we hear from Elijah at the beginning of our passage for today.  

Listen to God’s word.  1 Kings 17:1-24

Elijah announces to Ahab and the court that God is aware of, but not anywhere near ending an ongoing drought.  Then God sends him to live by a tributary of the River Jordan. At the wadi, he is cared for by ravens.

Ravens are not known to be empathetic birds, the sort that are willing to do for you if you do a kindness for them. In fact, are among the birds that are the people of Israel are not allowed to eat according to the law. This is likely because the raven is a scavenger, sometimes eating dead things, sometimes eating the eggs or the young from other birds’ nests. They were considered unclean. And the things they touched became unclean as well.

But God chose to use these unclean birds as the the means of provision for his faithful prophet. And care for him, they did.
Unusual choice for God.
Unusual behavior for a raven.

A creature’s natural instincts can be swayed by God; as Creator, God can over-ride the way things are, the way we’ve always seen and understood the world .

The drought continued and eventually the wadi dried up. God speaks again, sending Elijah to Sidon, the country of Jezebel, to be cared for by a widow. So he travels about 50-60 miles from east of the Jordan to Zarapeth, where he meets the widow to whom God has sent him.

He tells her to bring him water and then bread, just as God commands. It seems, however, that the widow wasn’t getting the word from God, she never got the message that God would provide.  Not for her, not for her son, and certainly not for some guy who just wandered in from the wilderness.  

Water is scarce, but she shared it.  Bread?  Seriously? Let’s look back at what she said,

“As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”

In a perfect echo of Elijah’s words to Ahab…
As the Lord the God of Israel lives… there will be no rain.

The widow tells Elijah Your God (not hers) has created this drought. Your God has left us with nothing. Your God may have sent you here, maybe even to me. But I’ve got nothing. I’m on the verge of death. So yeah, join me if you like.  I. Am. Done.

The widow, using the language of scarcity, the language that most directly expressed her reality, her understanding of the world, made clear that had very little to offer.  Her resources are – quite literally – about to run out. She is resigned to death.

Elijah has different story to tell. Even in a foreign land, even in midst of drought… God can and will provide.

There is an audacity of hope and faith in his words.
An audacity that is borne out of his time with the ravens
An audacity borne out of God’s faithfulness to an unfaithful people.

Elijah can speak abundance; he is fluent in the language of promise.
Do not be afraid, he says, understanding that scarcity breeds fear.
Do not be afraid of the words I am going to say.
Do not be afraid of me when I say them.
Trust me….

You can wait to die if you like, but first make and bring me a little food, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. Because the promise of the Lord my God – who does indeed live is this: There will be food enough to for this household until the rain once again falls.

As a person of faith, Elijah  has the audacity to repeat the promises of a foreign God, his God, our God to this widow who has lost hope in the gods of her own land.

Elijah has the audacity to trust the promise of God to provide

When all looks hopeless.  When Elijah honestly could have felt helpless, instead, Elijah trusts that God meant it.
Do not be afraid.
The oil will not fail
The bread will not fail.

This is the language of abundance…
There is enough.
There will be enough.
Because God is enough.

God is with Elijah.
God will be with the widow
God’s promise abides.

The language of faith is the language of abundance.

God provides…  not in excess, not extravagantly or indulgently, but God does and will provide Enough.
Enough for us.
Enough for today.

It is language that we know well…  language that we pray: Give us this day, our daily bread

And yet, if abundance is simply a language that we learn in a classroom or a sanctuary –  and we seldom use it in the world, it can become about as useful as my Spanish. Just familiar enough to be dangerous.

I fear that we’ve found ourselves in a bit of a spiritual drought in these days

I don’t know that the Christian church in America has built altars to Ba-al in our sanctuaries, but we have placed our faith in a lot of things that have nothing to do with the promises of God. That has never been more clear than in watching the most prominent- or at least famous – voices and faces of North American protestantism attempting to find their place in this election cycle.

I fear that the syncretism of our time, the mixing of idolatry and true worship in this moment of history,

is clear in the awkward and unfortunate hitching together of politics and faith.   

You see, there are no kingmakers in the New Testament. When we sing of Jesus as the King of Kings, it is reminder that all humans will bow down to the Lord of Lords, the Three in One. Including those who have the most money, the most power, the most influence. Presidents and CEOs, monarchs and oligarchs alike.

Certainly we pay attention to the body politic.  We have civic responsibilities. But it is not the church’s job to anoint anyone or any platform.

What is our role as the body of Christ?
To bring the rain.
To bring the healing waters, the water that assures people need never thirst again.  

Our role as the body of Christ?
To let justice roll down like mighty rivers.
To see when we have enough and share from the overflow.

Our role as the body of Christ?
To let righteousness come like an everlasting stream.
To live lives that are audaciously hopeful and faith-filled.  

We who have faith are the ones who can point to the promises of God. Not just the promise of salvation, the promise that in Christ we can live with God eternally– though that is a lovely and good promise.

We who have faith are the ones who can point to the promise of God to hear us when we cry out in fear and sorrow like the widow, God’s promise to answer when we lift our desires in  prayer.

We who have faith are the ones who can point to the promise of God to remain with us in good or bad, in tragedy and triumph… Because we know that God is faithful.

We who have faith are the ones who cling to the promise that where 2 or 3 are gathered in Christ’s name, He is there.

And so we gather, not just to see and be seen, to greet and to be greeted, but to experience the presence of God, Father, Son and Spirit.

We gather, not just to go through the motions, mouthing the words, but to worship in Spirit and truth

We gather, not just to affirm what we already know, but to grow deeper in our understanding of God’s Word and challenge one another to live the commands more fully.

We gather, so that are a well-nourished and fully-hydrated body, ready to run the race of faith set before us with perseverance, faith, hope and joy.  

To Build a House

When we left off last week, Hannah had brought her young child Samuel to Shiloh, where he would serve alongside the prophet Eli in the temple. Unfortunately, Eli’s sons were corrupt and unfit to follow their father as spiritual leaders, and God spoke rarely in those days. Except to Samuel.

So when Eli died, Samuel found himself leading the Israelites as prophet, judge, and priest. He was respected and known as a prophet of great faith. As an old man, Samuel tried to hand off that leadership to his own sons, but they too, were also unable to remain faithful to God.

This is when the elders of the tribes of  4 …Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, 5 and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.”

6 But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, 7 and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.

8 Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. 9 Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”  (from 1 Samuel 8, NRSV)

And so he did. Samuel told them. He delivered God’s warning to the people who were asking him to give them a king.

He said, “This is how the kind of king you’re talking about operates.  He’ll take your sons and make soldiers of them— chariotry, cavalry, infantry, regimented in battalions and squadrons. He’ll put some to forced labor on his farms, plowing and harvesting, and others to making either weapons of war or chariots in which he can ride in luxury.

He’ll put your daughters to work as beauticians and waitresses and cooks. He’ll conscript your best fields, vineyards, and orchards and hand them over to his special friends. He’ll tax your harvests and vintage

to support his extensive bureaucracy. Your prize workers and best animals he’ll take for his own use. He’ll lay a tax on your flocks and you’ll end up no better than slaves. The day will come when you will cry in desperation because of this king you so much want for yourselves. But don’t expect God to answer [those cries]”  (from 1 Samuel 8 The Message)

19 But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, 20 so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”

21 When Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord.

22 The Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to their voice and set a king over them.” ( 1 Sam 8 NRSV)

Honestly, this has got to be one of those moments face-palming, head-shaking moments for God. Samuel had warned them.  But the people were just as stiff-necked as their ancestors were in the days of Moses.

As God spoke, Samuel first anointed Saul, and then later David.  The transition from one rule to the next was chaotic, but eventually David’s position was solidified.  We begin our reading for today very close to the beginning of David’s time as King…

7 Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, 2 the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.”  3 Nathan said to the king, Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”

4 But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: 5 Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? 6 I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. 7 Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”

8 Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; 9 and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 10 And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies.

Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. 12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom.

13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod  such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. 15 But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. 16 Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.  17 In accordance with all these words and with all this vision, Nathan spoke to David.  (2 Samuel 7:1-17, NRSV)

David is finally settled in his house, experiencing God’s gift of rest from surrounding enemies. Did you notice, though, that the narrator did not call David by his name?

The King is settled…  The King spoke to Nathan… Nathan spoke to the King…

This certainly helps reinforce the idea that David is King, not Saul. It also reminds us that the way people see us is not the way that God sees us. And, in fact, that we can get more attached to our identity as described by our work – our roles – Than our personal identity in relation to God.  

When God speaks, starting in verse 5, God always refers to David not as the King, But as as “my servant, David.”

God knows David by name.
God created and claimed David
God called and anointed David.
God had work for David to do, but the work was not David’s identity,
Nor was that work David’s righteousness. That is all about grace.

The promises made and kept by God are always undergirded by Grace…

God’s promises are never contingent upon our human works. including the promise of personal and communal relationships with God…

Otherwise, David, well, he would certainly never be known as a man’s after God’s own heart.
Those stiff-necked Israelites would never be God’s chosen people.
And we gentiles would never have been on God’s radar, much less adopted into the family as sisters and brothers of Christ.  

Grace abounds, friends.  

Like the air that we need to survive and do nothing to create or earn we are surrounded by the very grace our hearts crave…

But our human nature, our imperfect image-bearing, our not-quite-living-up-to-the-promise-of-the-garden reality keeps us from just being with God, rather than tracking how much we or others are doing for God.

Let’s look more closely at this conversation between God and David (by way of Nathan) starting at verse 2:

David is basically stating that he lives in a house of cedar, while the ark of God lives in a tent. David’s dwelling is stable, permanent and secure, while the ark — the symbol of God’s presence — is housed in something impermanent, flimsy by comparison.

What David wants is to build a “house,” or a temple, for God.  What isn’t entirely clear is David’s motivation.

Was David thinking this would be a tangible way to show gratitude? Kind of like the stories of pro football and basketball players who get multi-million dollar contracts and then build a new house for their parents  or grands or aunties or other family members who raised them…as a show of gratitude for their support in the early years…

Was David thinking this would “pay God back” for giving him rest and establishing him as king? Not so much an act of gratitude as settling a debt and clearing up his account with God.

Or maybe David wanted to build God a temple because he believed that if he did something for God, then God would do even more for him…

I could see any of these being true about David…
just as I can imagine these thoughts going through 
my own mind and heart.
OK… Just as I can remember similar ideas going through my own mind and heart, for smaller blessings than David experienced.

Because like David, even after decades of experiencing the enduring nature of God’s faithfulness, trusting in the saving work of Jesus and learning about the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life and in the world, I still don’t  fully understand the nature of God’s grace. Over and over again, God changes the equation from any sort of transaction into an unmerited gift.

See, David doesn’t need to build God a house in order for God to build David’s house. And David doesn’t need not do something to pay God back before God can or will do something more for David.

In fact, God makes it abundantly clear in this exchange that in addition to all that God has already done for David, there is more to come.

First, God reminds David that there is a reason none of Israel’s leaders never built a house for God.  God never asked them to. It was never on the list.  God’s got way more than 99 problems with the Children of Abraham, and living in a tabernacle ain’t one.

Second,  God reminds David of three things from David’s own experience with God: taking David from being a shepherd to be prince over Israel, being with David wherever he went, and cutting off all enemies before him.

Then, God gives three promises for the future:

In verse 10, God promises to “appoint a place” for Israel, to “plant them, so that they may live in their own place,” where they will not be disturbed, nor afflicted by evildoers. This seems very much tied to God’s promises in verses 9 and 11 to “make for [David] a great name” and give him “rest from all [his] enemies”.

Then God makes a promise that seems to be in direct response to David’s concerns about housing.

In verse 11, God promises to make a new kind of house for David. This is not a dwelling of cedar, or even of stone. This house will be a dynasty; God will establish a kingdom that will always be ruled by a descendant of David.

Now, let’s be super clear on something important…  this promise is in no way dependent on David and certainly not on David’s building God a temple. The temple will come later. In fact, it will be built by David’s son Solomon, and at this point in the narrative, Solomon may not even be a twinkle in David’s eye. And so, Solomon’s future building projects cannot be considered a prerequisite nor a condition for what God promises David. This is an unconditional covenant.

It is also an eternal one; God uses the word “forever” three times to describe David’s kingdom (2 Samuel 7:7:13, 16).

Verse 13:  He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.

And Verse 16: Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.

Now you try and tell  that grace does not abound … this eternal covenant with the God who was and is and ever will be is unconditional. No strings attached.

The longevity of this dynasty isn’t even dependent upon David’s descendants behaving perfectly. In fact, God says that when — not if!  When! — the son commits iniquity, he will be punished, but God’s steadfast love will not depart from him as it did from Saul.

The consequences of sin will be real… for David, for all of this family.
Just as they are real for all of the tribes of Israel as time goes on.
Just as they are real for you and for me, for the church universal.
Just as they are for this particular gathering of saints in this time and place.

But remember friends, grace abounds.  

Sin brings consequences, but never ever ever will that consequence be a withdrawal of God’s steadfast love for us.

In fact, the mention of Saul toward the end of our passage is meant as a sobering reminder of what can happen to a kingdom and to a king, but it also heightens the graciousness of this promise God makes to David.

There’s really no logical reason why God would make this promise to David and David’s heirs…
God knows the human heart.
God has seen the ways that the power to judge, much less the power to rule as king, when mixed with our human messiness, is a recipe for corruption and manipulation by leaders.  

But God’s plans go far beyond the horizon that David could see.  

And so we will hear echoes of God’s promise to David in the words of Isaiah and other prophets especially as we approach advent and recount the story of God’s people awaiting their messiah.

We will hear echoes of God’s promise to David when Jesus says to Simon, the disciple who first claimed  him as Messiah, the Son of the Living God, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.”

We will hear echoes of God’s promise to David as Paul describes Jesus as the cornerstone, the one that the builders rejected but became to foundation on which the kingdom of God would be built..

God’s greatest desire is to see the world blessed through the people God blesses.
To see the world loved through those who experience God’s love
To see the world reconciled through those who have experienced the grace that abounds beyond anything we can imagine.

Grace that cannot be housed
Grace that cannot be contained or constrained by transaction

Dear ones… Grace. Abounds.

Even in our 21st century quid-pro-quo meritocracy
Grace. Abounds.

Even as we choose not a King, but a president.
Grace. Abounds.

We are surrounded by grace.  Swimming in it.
We are redeemed by grace.  Saved by it.

Our stories of survival and redemption and being welcomed home are dripping with grace. 

And those stories need to be told, over and over, out in the wide world, warts and all…
so that  every person we see and hear and touch and smell in this world,
no matter where we go, knows they are welcome in God’s house, too.

And Finally, Yes.

Narrative Lectionary passage for this week: 1 Samuel 1:9-11, 19-20; 2:1-10

I’d love to just dive right into this story, but I really think it’s worth the few minutes it’s going to take to get a sense where today’s story about Hannah fits into the larger story of our God, as well as the promises God made to our spiritual  ancestors.  

Partly because of one of the frustrating things I find true about my own recollection of the Biblical canon- I grew up hearing the stories of Gideon and Paul, John the Baptist and Esther, Noah and Joshua, Peter and David…. All mixed in with plenty of Jesus…  and rarely in order…  and generally without any of the begat sections that might have helped get them closer to the proper order.

But I also want to help you see that Hannah is both a continuation of and kind of a hinge point in the history of God’s chosen people.  

Just like Moses and the people that he and Aaron led through the desert, Hannah was a part of the promise made to Abraham all those many generations ago. After the first generation of the wandering Israelites had died, Joshua finally led the next generation into the land that had been promised. That story is in the book of Joshua, which is followed by the book of Judges.  

The judges are series of leaders that included Samson, Deborah, Gideon and others who took on the work of helping the people to establish themselves, to protect their new homeland and to follow God’s law.  Like much of human history, this part of the Hebrew’s narrative is filled with sin, as well as repentance. But even as Israel grows in number and prosperity, the book does not end well…

The final chapters describe a brutal rape, followed by murder, and dismemberment. The people fall into Intertribal warfare and finally the book of Judges ends with these words:

21: 25 In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.

The book of Ruth comes next, then the two volumes dedicated to Samuel with their companions called 1st and 2nd Kings.  1 Samuel is where we are first introduced to Elkanah and his two wives: Hannah (the first) and Peninnah (the second wife). Peninnah had children; Hannah did not.

Now – every year Elkanah left his hometown and went to Shiloh to worship and offer a sacrifice.  Eli and his two sons served as priests there. When Elkanah sacrificed, he gave portions of the sacrificial meal to his wife Peninnah and all her children, but he always gave an especially generous helping to Hannah because he loved her so much, and because God had not given her children.

Year after year, Peninnah taunted Hannah cruelly, never letting her forget that God had not given her children. Every time she went to the sanctuary of God Hannah tried to steel herself for the abuse she would face, but she was reduced to tears and one year, she just couldn’t eat.  Elkanah noticed, and he even asked her what was wrong, wishing she were satisfied with what he provided her.

And here we’ll pick up the reading for today…  (1 Samuel 9:9)

After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”

It turns out that Eli was watching her as she prayed, silently.  He could see her lips moving, even though she didn’t speak… somehow he decided she must be drunk, so he walked up and told her she was making a scene. She needed to sober up. When Hannah told Eli how she had been mocked, he understood that she truly was pouring out her heart to God in sorrow and pain.  He said to Hannah, “Go in Peace and may the God of Israel  give you what you have asked. “Hannah’s heart was lighter as she asked Eli to remember her and pray for her. And finally, she could eat.

They [Elkanah and Hannah] rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, [yes, that kind of knowing] and the Lord remembered her. In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.”

The next time Elkanah took the family to Shiloh to worship God, Hannah didn’t go. She told her husband, “Once the child is weaned, I’ll bring him myself and present him before God—and that’s where he’ll stay, for good.” Elkanah said to his wife, “Do what you think is best.

So she did. She stayed home and nursed her son until she had weaned him. Then she took him up to Shiloh, along with the makings of a generous sacrificial meal—a prize bull, flour, and wine.

First, they butchered the bull, then brought the child to Eli. Hannah introduced herself to Eli, saying  “Would you believe that I’m the very woman who was standing before you at this very spot, praying to God? The one you thought was drunk… I prayed for this child, and God gave me what I asked for. And now I have dedicated him to God. He’s dedicated to God for life.”

Right then and there, they began to worship God.

Hannah prayed and she sang,
“My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.
“There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.
Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.
The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world.
“He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail.
The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.”

Hannah’s prayer for a child came from a place of deep sadness, deep pain. She knew she was loved. She was the first of Elkanah’s wives, The favored one… even though Peninah was the one able to provide him with children.

Hannah did all the things wives are meant to do.  She would have run the household, helping Elkanah assure that all of the people associated with his land were fed and cared for.  And every time Peninah bore another child, especially another son, the absence of children from her own womb….

When I think about the way our text describes Peninnah’s taunts,   I can’t help but picture a couple of scenes in the 1958 movie adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  Not the plot so much as the tension that is so visible between the childless Maggie (played by Elizabeth Taylor) and Mae with her clan of noisy children…  all representing a legacy, a continuation of the family name.  All representing something that Maggie apparently can’t have. And Mae, like Peninnah, is fertile which it comes to producing children and inflicting pain.   

Hannah was faithful to Elkanah, was faithful to God.  She was a good woman.  There was no obvious reason for her not to be fruitful. She had heard from childhood the story of Abraham and Sarah.
The story of a woman who believed and tried to believe in her moments of doubt that God would bring her a child, even in her old age.
The story of the promise itself: that through Abraham and his children, there would be a great nation of people, a nation whose people outnumber the stars in the night sky.

From childhood, Hannah would have imagined herself adding to that number.  Because both Abraham and Sarah were blessed to be a blessing…  

She knew that God remembered Hagar and Ishmael in the desert, blessing them and giving them life and land. But Tamar was not the mother God had called to bring the first child of promise. It was Sarah.  Sarah who laughed at God at the idea and then laughed with joy at Isaac’s birth.

And so Hannah, even in her sorrow, had hope.  

Because her God – our God- is the God who keeps promises and brings life.  Even out of barrenness, even in the wilderness.

Even though we live outside the garden, beyond the promise of good without the knowledge of evil, the Earth we till can produce more than enough food for all…

Through the womb of the red sea, God brought Moses and the children of Israel into a life of freedom from the bonds of slavery.  

All those years outside the land of promise, God continued to bring life, in daily manna and quail, in the sound of newborns wailing and toddlers giggling.

Hannah remembers the stories, remembers God’s promise to bless the children of Israel, remembers the ways that even in her barrenness, God and Elkanah have cared for her, and so she prays for a way to honor and thank them.

Remember me, she prays.  Remember me..

Year after year, every time they go to Shiloh,
Remember me, she prays.  Remember me..

and all the days between
Remember me, she prays.  Remember me..

And finally, yes.

Oh the joy!

God hears and remembers me (just as God heard Tamar)
God hears and remembers me (just as God heard the people’s cries in Egypt)
God hears and remembers and pours out a blessing on me!
A blessing of grace, of life, of transformation… with every passing day as her belly swelled…
God’s blessing was so very real.. So very present.
What a glorious beautiful yes.  Finally.   

Hannah keeps her promise as well, bringing Samuel to Eli, where he is dedicated to service to the Lord.  And it is in this moment that Hannah sings.  

She joins Miriam and Deborah as a singers of songs of joy. She sings over the gift of her child who will ,in time, annoint another singer of songs, David.  And from the house of David will come another child of promise through another singer of songs, another woman of faith, the most favored of ladies – Mary.   

Hannah sings…

The people of Israel are favored by God, and historically,  God is their king. But look carefully at what she sings… God is incomparable, there is no God like this God. Human strength comes from God and is exalted in God. God is in the business of reversing what we understand as might

The strong become weak and the weak become strong
The mighty become powerless,
The dead come to life
The poor become rich

But not because they are able to do so in human power…
God raises up, brings down, kills and brings to life
God lifts the needy from the ash heap so they might join those in seats of power

Not by might does one prevail
All the ways we exert power as humans fall short in comparison with God’s power to change the course of human circumstances.
God made good from Joseph’s plight, using a passing band of Ishmaelites to save Egypt and the people of many nations (including Israel) from famine.
Generations later, God brought the people out of Egypt with displays of the power in plagues and the parting of the sea.
Joshua and Gideon never won a battles through strategy or armies so large they overwhelmed their foes, it was always God’s strength on display in human weakness, in their willingness, by faith, to do the illogical.  

There is something beautiful and poignant about this story. And while it seems to be so very distant from us, it is very timely. Hannah had nothing…  and when God provided her most fervent desire, she kept her promise to give it away. Entrusting her child to the future – a future of service to God, and by extension a future of service to the people

Hannah sings a prayer that speaks to her own joy, even as she rejoices for her people. Her fortunes have been reversed.  She had nothing to contribute, no legacy to offer her people, but now God has blessed her to be a blessing to them and to God.

Her long-awaited child was given by God, with no promises that another would follow. Even so, Hannah returns Samuel to God in gratitude.

The open-handedness of her gift is astounding.  Partly because we live in a culture that offers cry rooms to parents dropping their children for the first half day of preschool…  and partly because we have become so accustomed to abundance that we are terrified of scarcity

Many of us have been in seats of power and influence long enough that a song about God’s power to reverse fortunes should make us uncomfortable.
Uncomfortable enough to look at what we are grasping too tightly.
Uncomfortable enough to loosen our grip before God loosens it for us.

We should be uncomfortable because it doesn’t take a lot of squinting to read the teachings of the prophets and the words of Jesus as stark reminders that God favors the poor. God favors  the powerless and the oppressed

And my friends, in case you’re wondering… that is not us.

Contrary to what those who are striving for power would tell you, we remain the strongest, richest nation in the world. We have access to more resources than anyone else. We have the biggest arsenal of weapons.  The only thing we don’t have the most of… people.  But the places with more people don’t have our technology.

We in this room right here are not poor- especially those of us with a roof over our heads, a car in the driveway and a bank account in the black.

We are not oppressed – especially those of us who are Anglo, who are Christian, who are native speakers of English.

Yes, we have our struggles.  And yes, some of us do struggle against discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation  Yes, we all experience illness and loss.

But we have been blessed… so, so very blessed.

As we think about our own homes and this congregation, As we choose leaders for the communities we represent and for our nation…

We ought to be asking ourselves this question… After we’ve counted our blessings, after we’ve given thanks, what would God have us do with that inventory?

Are we going to use those blessings to bless others?  Or are we going to wait for God to force our hand?

Are we -each of us – seeking out opportunities
to give away our wealth?
to advocate for those whose voices have been silenced?
to give up a seat at the table so that someone else might join?
to cry out for peace?

Are we mourning with those who mourn…
Especially with  those mourning loved ones taken unjustly through gun violence
Or because public health spending has been cut to dangerous levels
Or because access to insurance and prescription medicine Is still not universal
Because people die from all of those, you know.

Are we seeking peace in our cities…
By working to assure that all citizens have equal access to education and training, transportation and recreation, jobs and housing?

Because the church of Jesus Christ, the One who embodied not just the love and mercy of God but is also the King of Kings and will sit as our judge…. His church has been blessed and empowered by the Holy Spirit.  

It’s time to stop storing up our blessings for a rainy day…  because our world is already flooded with pain and sorrow and injustice, And we, my friends, are part of God’s disaster recovery plan.

The church of Jesus Christ… This church…. This Body…
h
as been blessed…
and called…
and commanded to be about the business of being a blessing in the world
joyfully singing God’s praises…
sacrificially feeding others and giving ourselves away …
obediently listening and following God’s ways.…
Day by day… hour by hour… moment by moment.

May we count our blessings, give thanks and open our hands to release those blessings to the glory of God.
Day by day…
Hour by hour… Moment by moment…
Until teh very end of the age.  

Amen.

 

Image is Everything

Last week, we left the people of Israel in Egypt, awaiting the 14th of the month, when the plague on the first born was to be visited on the people of Egypt. They had their instructions, and on that night, they wore their traveling clothes and goin’ shoes as they ate lamb and unleavened bread for dinner.  They painted the lintels and sills of their doors with the lambs’ blood, marking their homes as Hebrew homes, keeping their oldest male children and animals safe.  As God told Moses to expect, this was the last straw for Pharaoh.  He finally let Moses and the children of Abraham go.

As we move forward through the story I want you to listen closely and make note of the ways God is described.  What do the people of Israel see and hear when God was present?   It might help us later if you to scribble down some notes…

God led the people out of Egypt, not in the most direct way possible, but toward the Red Sea.  They were prepared for battle, of course, but God was worried that if they actually faced war, they might choose to return to Egypt. So the Lord led them out along the edge of the wilderness, with a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day. Then, when it seemed that Pharaoh’s army had them surrounded on the shore, God provided a way through the Red Sea.

Time and again, the strength of the Lord was on display, revealing the difference between the rulers of human kingdoms and the power of the Creator,  revealing the faithfulness of the God who makes and keeps Promises.

Time and again, the generosity of the Lord was on display, revealing the care of the God who Provides. Manna and quail, water and safe passage. Whatever the people needed- even rest – was offered in love.  

They continued on, following the Lord in the cloud and fire, grumbling a bit, bringing their complaints to the judges and Moses, gathering their daily bread, resting every seventh day…  until they reached Mt. Sinai. The whole of Israel set up camp there, facing the mountain.

3-6 As Moses went up to meet God, God called down to him from the mountain: “Speak to the House of Jacob, tell the People of Israel: ‘You have seen what I did to Egypt and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to me. If you will listen obediently to what I say and keep my covenant, out of all peoples you’ll be my special treasure. The whole Earth is mine to choose from, but you’re special: a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.’  “This is what I want you to tell the People of Israel.”

7 Moses came back and called the elders of Israel together and set before them all these words which God had commanded him. 8 The people were unanimous in their response: “Everything God says, we will do.”

Moses took the people’s answer back to God. 9 God said to Moses, “Get ready. I’m about to come to you in a thick cloud so that the people can listen in and trust you completely when I speak with you.”  (Exodus 19:3-9 The Message)

God did exactly that… after a three-day ritual, the people were consecrated. They were warned not to touch or come near the holy mountain.  

And then…  at daybreak, there were loud claps of thunder, flashes of lightning, a thick cloud covering the mountain, and an ear-piercing trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp shuddered in fear.

17 Moses led the people out of the camp to meet God. They stood at attention at the base of the mountain.

18-20 Mount Sinai was all smoke because God had come down on it as fire. Smoke poured from it like smoke from a furnace. The whole mountain shuddered in huge spasms.

The trumpet blasts grew louder and louder. Moses spoke and God answered in thunder. God descended to the peak of Mount Sinai. God called Moses up to the peak and Moses climbed up.  (Exodus 19:16-20 The Message)

God sent him back down to remind the people not to come up, and to bring Aaron back with him.   God continued to speak to Moses from the cloud, and to the people it was like Moses was in conversation  with a horrible storm…  The cloud flashed with lightning and echoed with thunder and blasts from a horn like a storm siren.

God provided the rules that the people were to follow, like “Terms of Agreement” for the covenant between God’s chosen people and their Lord. Moses and Aaron returned to the people with those terms.

Moses took the Book of the Covenant and read it as the people listened. They said, “Everything God said, we’ll do. Yes, we’ll obey.” (Exodus 24:3, The Message)

Then God told Moses to climb up the mountain again.  

Moses told the elders of Israel, “Wait for us here until we return to you. You have Aaron and Hur with you; if there are any problems, go to them.”

15-17 Then Moses climbed the mountain. The Cloud covered the mountain. The Glory of God settled over Mount Sinai. The Cloud covered it for six days. On the seventh day he called out of the Cloud to Moses. In the view of the Israelites below, the Glory of God looked like a raging fire at the top of the mountain. (Exodus 24:14-18, The Message)

Moses was on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights.

This time God gave Moses all the instructions for creating and outfitting the Tent of Meeting, for selecting and ordaining the priests who would lead the people in worship, as well as a strong reminder that the people are to keep the Sabbath. Then God gave Moses two tablets of Testimony, slabs of stone, written with the finger of God.

It was at some point during this forty days and nights that the events in our assigned passage for today take place.  

1 When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”

2 Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.”  

3 So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”

5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.”

6 They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.

7 The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8 they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ ”

9 The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10 Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”

11 But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?

12 Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.

13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'” 14 And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.  (Exodus 32:1-14, NRSV)

FIrst, I have to confess that the conversation between God and Moses sounds to me like two parents, who have heard about their children’s misdeeds via the babysitter, as they linguistically disown the the Israelites.

“Your people,” God says to Moses, “whom You brought up out of the land of Egypt….  They are out. of. Control.”

“Oh no, God,” Moses says, “Remember you brought them out of Egypt with your strong and mighty hand!  Those are Your people”

I’m just going to claim that as scriptural evidence that we truly are made in the image of God… at the very least in terms of a universal conversation pattern.

But seriously… what were they thinking?  What got into those people?
And how did Aaron get suckered into aiding and abetting them?

Granted, “forty days” isn’t necessarily a precise counting of 40.  The number 40 is often used symbolically in the ancient Hebrew culture, denoting “a long time.” So it might have been 40 days, or six months….  Or a long weekend.

We all know that time can be slippery… Especially when you are anxious.

Like when you’re in the middle of a lot of change and transition, and your leader seems to have forgotten that he was taking you someplace better than Egypt, better than the wilderness.
Like when you’ve already been waiting for a while to get to some sort of “normal” life again.
Time might just mess with your mind a bit.
It gets slippery

The truth is, Moses was coming back.
The bigger truth is that God remained with and for them…

But it’s human nature to lose sight of the truth when we’re stressed. Am I right?

The proof was  was there… How many ways was the presence of God made visible, just in the trek from Egypt to Mount Sinai? Depending on how you count them… between 6-10…

What did you write down?  Yeah- God has been present in many ways…  and even incarnationally – in leaders like Moses, Aaron and Hur.

But now, in this moment of fear and anxiety, when Moses and God seem to be in an eternal side conversation without them, the people decide they need something tangible.  

The problem isn’t so much that they want to get rid of Yahweh, the Promising God who has delivered them out of Egypt and led them to this place.  The problem is their incomplete understanding of their God.

Their vision is blurry.  And thus, the golden calf is less the image of a false god than a false image of the true God.

But God is outraged.
They have created a graven image of God.
And this is not to be tolerated.  
It says so in those Terms of Agreement.
Multiple times.
Multiple ways.  

Even if they had created an accurate image, it would have been a breach of their covenant, their part of the promise to be in relationship with God.

I can only imagine how the God who Created Everything would be less than thrilled to seem confined to the form of a calf.  To be re-imaged into the form of one of the many local gods…  Those Ba-als and other gods are fickle and unfaithful, manipulative and even manipulated by the actions of those who worship them.

It’s no wonder God was ready to rip into the Israelites.  

But Moses reminds God that the promise made to Abraham and Sarah all those generations ago was still in effect.  And that even the Egyptians had seen God’s true nature.  After all, it really was God, not Moses who had brought the people up out of Egypt.  

In this pivotal moment,  Moses stands in the breach- turning away God’s wrath to make way for God’s mercy.  This was radical advocacy, as Moses stood against God on the people’s behalf.

He must have believed that even in rebellion, God would be faithful to the people.
And God was.
God is.  

Over and over again.
Present and faithful.
Even now.

It’s all still there in the Terms of Agreement pages. Archived for us in the scriptural records.

The original version in the chapters of Exodus I kind of fast-forwarded through, and a slightly updated version in the life and teachings of Jesus throughout the gospels. When we read them again, with fresh eyes in search of the true God, we see with fresh eyes who we are in relation to God.

We are God’s people, blessed to be a blessing.
Honored to be part of recognizing and naming God’s creative and merciful work in each beloved child we meet- whether or not they know or believe that God loves them..

We are God’s people, the Body of Christ, blessed to be a blessing.
Following in the way of Jesus, Watching for the signal from God to stay or go. Trusting the Holy Spirit to empower and encourage, to provide us the gifts we need.

Oh it’s easy for us to lose hope, to lose sight of God.
Way too easy.

We’ve got even more distractions at the ready than those stiff-necked people Moses was responsible for leading. And we’re still plenty stubborn.

We may not have altars and golden calfs, but we manage to erect plenty of sacred cows.  And should anyone come, even in cover of darkness, to do some sacred-cow-tipping, you can be sure that someone else will set it right back up.

Traditions, preferences, habits, memorials, procedures…  all of them can become idols that distract us from our worship and work as the people of God. The very people and things meant to help us express our love for God become human-made images of false gods.

And certainly there are sacred cows in our broader culture… exceptionalism, nationalism, capitalism, individualism… that can lead us to worship secular idols of our own making – those tangible proofs of success…
a new car, the right style or brand of clothing, or a lovely house in the right neighborhood,
a respected career or one more advanced degree.
There are the idols of busyness or importance.
The idols of economic security and social standing.    

I’m pretty sure we could go on all day with a list if we wanted, but I suspect I’ve stepped on most everyone’s toes at least once already.  I know my toes hurt.  

I’ll be honest here… The other night, before we knew that Hurricane Matthew was going to make that wobble out into the ocean as it approached Cape Canaveral, our home was within the range of hurricane force winds…  the 100-120 mph range. I wasn’t scared of being hurt or even killed. But I was worried about my stuff. What if I lost all my stuff?   Yeah.  I know.

John Calvin was likely right when he said  “The human heart is a factory of idols…Everyone of us is, from [our] mother’s womb, expert in inventing idols.”

But you know, in addition to creating images of false gods that distract us from our Saving and Promising God, we can also become a false image of the true god.  

Together, we are God’s plan for the world as we bear God’s image, reflect God’s image in the world. Or as the apostle Paul would say, we are the Body of Christ, knit together and empowered by the Holy Spirit, to continue God’s ministry of reconciliation

When I was at the Rosh Hashanah service the other day, celebrating the Jewish New Year with our friends, one of the songs we sang described 13 qualities of character that help us to reflect the image of God in our daily lives. Since the service was for children, they included an English translation in simplified language that I want to share with you:

Adonai Adonai God is apart from us and a part of us
Ayl God gives us strength when we are…
Rahum: Compassionate
V’Hanun: Accepting
Erekh apayeem: Patient
V’rav Hesed kind
Ve-Emet and honest
Mozayr Hesed extending kindness to people we know
La-alafeem even to those we don’t know
NoSay Avon by not letting petty people upset us
Va-Fesha by not letting mean people upset us
V’ha-Ta-A by not getting upset by people who just want to make us mad
V’Na-Kay and by forgiving those who are truly sorry.

I like that list a lot. I need those reminders of who God is, and what it looks like to reflect God’s image day by day.  But this isn’t a list just for me or for you, at least not alone.  This is a list by which we are all accountable to one another as we  bear God’s image into the world.

If people can see us being compassionate, accepting and patient, kind and honest, whether or not we know the people to whom we extend those kindnesses.  

If people can see us letting things go- the pettiness and button pushing, the ways that mean people treat us.  

If people can see us forgiving anyone who truly seeks forgiveness…

Then people can see and experience God.
In us.
Through us.

As I read that list, I thought… yeah, the Apostle Paul, he made good use of his knowledge of the Hebrew law.  He enfolded all of this as he described the fruit of the Spirit… the evidence that people are living according to God’s will in the power of the Holy Spirit.  And he described it again as he taught the church at Corinth what love was meant to look like in community. Not just for his fellow Jews, but for the Gentiles like us, who were being folded into family of God via adoption.

On the days that God seems far away for us, in this time between called pastors as our vision team and session pray and listen for the mission God has for this congregation, time might get a little slippery, it’s already been more than 40 days!

The truth remains  that God is with us and for us and that God has a wonderful plan for this body…

I just might become harder to hold tight to that truth, too.  

I’m here to say – keep your gold jewelry, unless God tells you to give it away or sell it to help the poor. I’m not going into the statuary business any time soon.

But do something for me…  in the coming weeks and months, make note of the things you feel most protective of, most concerned about losing.
As you run across them, ask yourself….
Are they more precious to you than relationships with others?
Are they more precious than your connection to the God who brought you out of your own Egypt, whatever that bondage may have been?
Are the things that prod you into conflict or frustration, or even the temptation to head back to Egypt or some other, easier place to dwell, are those things truly of God?  

When God calls us and empowers us to get moving… literally or figuratively… it is easy for seeds of doubt, fear and hatred to be sown This is why Paul reminded us for all generations that Faith, Hope and Love must abide.

In you, in me, in all of us together.

Then and only then are we true image bearers of the true God.

The Promise of Passover

With enduring gratitude to RevGal Teri Peterson (who blogs over here) and Working Preacher’s commentary for this week (by Jacqueline E. Lapsley).  Some Sundays a preacher needs a lot of help to pull a rabbit out of her hat.

—–

If we pick up the trail of our narrative again, after Jacob’s death, we see that Joseph and his brothers stayed in Egypt. Joseph continued to have favor in the king’s court, and he lived to be 110… which was long enough to see three generations of the children of Israel born.  

God continued to bless each of these generations to be a blessing, keeping covenant with the descendants of Abraham.  As they prospered, Egypt prospered.

And then… a new king rose to power in Egypt.  

One who had not known Joseph, had not heard the stories of how the Israelites who had become so numerous had once been welcomed because of Joseph’s wisdom, because of his keeping Egypt and other nations from starvation during a horrible famine.

Instead, this new king only saw the potential for trouble.  

These people were not his people. They were a minority, rapidly gaining ground.  They were immigrants, really, taking up space and using resources that  – by right – would/should have gone to Egyptians.

This king had lost sight of the abundance that existed and could only see scarcity, the potential for loss, and even the potential for an uprising or alliance with other outsiders and enemies that could displace him and his people from their place in power.

And so, as we read in the first chapter of Exodus (11-14):

[The egyptians] set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.

The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.

And yet… the king was still not satisfied. The Israelites were still a threat, and they would be as long as they continued to live and multiply. And so…
Against the will of the God who promises, the God who creates, this king was determined to destroy the Hebrew people.
Against the will of the God who brings life, the king ordered death for every male child born.

And as is God is wont to do in humanly impossible situations, God made a way.
And because God has an incredible sense of irony, it happened in the household of the king.

We know the story of baby Moses, who ought to have been destroyed at his birth, being rescued and raised by Pharaoh’s daughter.How he eventually came to know the God who promises, the God who is who God will be, the God who calls those who seem least likely to lead.  

Which God did… making clear that this man who stammered would be the one to speak for God in the halls of the Pharaoh.  making clear that there would be no turning back for Moses, or the people of Israel.  

Now that the promise of God to Abraham, the promise that his descendants would be a mighty nation, the promise of land and on which to prosper, now that this promise was threatened by the destructive power of the Egyptian King, the time had come for God to intervene.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh: Indeed, by a mighty hand he will let them go; by a mighty hand he will drive them out of his land.”

God also spoke to Moses and said to him: “I am the Lord.  I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name ‘The Lord’ I did not make myself known to them.  I also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they resided as aliens.  

I have also heard the groaning of the Israelites whom the Egyptians are holding as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant.

Say therefore to the Israelites, ‘I am the Lord, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment.

I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians.  

I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord.’”  Moses told this to the Israelites; but they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.

We also know the story of Moses being sent to tell Pharaoh that the people of Israel were not his to rule or oppress or destroy.  That the people of Israel were God’s people. And it was time to let them go.

Then the Lord spoke to Moses, “Go and tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the Israelites go out of his land.”

We know the story of the plagues –
the water in the Nile turning to blood,
the frogs, the gnats, the flies,
the death of the Egyptian livestock,
the boils covering the people’s skin, and their animals’ skin
the hail and the locusts and the darkness.
And finally, the plague on the firstborn.  

The God who promises, the God who creates… had, well basically, God had had enough.

But rather than destroy all the children of Egypt or even all the male children as the King had commanded, the plague would fall only on their firstborn sons.

God gave this warning through Moses:
“Thus says the Lord: About midnight I will go out through Egypt.

Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the female slave who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the livestock.  

Then there will be a loud cry throughout the whole land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again.  But not a dog shall growl at any of the Israelites—not at people, not at animals—so that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.

Then all these officials of yours shall come down to me, and bow low to me, saying, ‘Leave us, you and all the people who follow you.’ After that I will leave.”

And still hot with anger, Moses left Pharaoh

But God had words of instruction and warning for the Israelites, too.  And that is where we pick up today’s readings:

12:1 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt:

This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.  Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household.

If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it.

Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats.  You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight.

They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it.  They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.

Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn.

This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord.

For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord.

The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.

The episode is, of course, the one recalled every year in the celebration of the Jewish Passover. The story also has profound meaning for us as Christians for two reasons –
it reveals that delivering people from oppression is a core feature of God’s character,
and we cannot help but see its connections to our understandings of the death of Jesus in the New Testament (namely Jesus as the Passover lamb).  

But I’d like us to make note of something important, an ethic that is key to understanding current passover practice, as well as  Jesus’ teachings about community and abundance.

Did you catch the bit about families too small for a whole lamb? In that case – or if a family cannot afford to provide a lamb for the Passover, it is the responsibility of a neighboring family to share what they have.

The idea that “households join together” and that the lamb shall be divided proportionally to the number of persons present reflects a deep biblical conviction that the good of the community as a whole must and should be intentionally cultivated.

Over and over again, the Hebrew Bible and our very Hebrew messiah emphasize that members of a community are to be responsible for the community’s welfare, and not, in general, to be focused on the rights of particular individuals.

Yes, I know, that sounds like a socialist construct…  but it’s in there… especially in that commandment to love our neighbors as we love ourselves –  and even as Christ loved us… even sacrificially.

Whether under the oppression of an Egyptian regime or the Roman empire, or in Central Florida neighborhoods, we who know the God Who Keeps Covenant are to be a bodily representation of the God Who Loves, the God Who Provides.

You can imagine, these slaves who have been experiencing true scarcity must have been confused – or at least surprised – by God’s command to eat what they can that night and burn the leftovers. Normally they would have saved every scrap, gathered and wrapped it up to take it along.

With this strange meal, when God’s chosen people are told not to wait for the bread to rise, and thus, the economy of the wilderness is inaugurated. Israel is set to embark on a journey in which they learn to trust the God Who Promises as their Deliverer and as their provider of food – their daily bread. They must leave hoarding and scarcity behind, both as a practice and as a mental habit, if they are to embrace faith in this God who delivers them.

And there is more…
13:1 The Lord said to Moses:

Consecrate to me all the firstborn; whatever is the first to open the womb among the Israelites, of human beings and animals, is mine.

Moses said to the people, “Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, because the Lord brought you out from there by strength of hand; no leavened bread shall be eaten.

Today, in the month of Abib, you are going out.  When the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, which he swore to your ancestors to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey, you shall keep this observance in this month.

Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a festival to the Lord.  Unleavened bread shall be eaten for seven days; no leavened bread shall be seen in your possession, and no leaven shall be seen among you in all your territory.

You shall tell your child on that day, “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’

Telling the story in every generation — that God delivers those who suffer from oppression, that God works for the flourishing of the world — is a central task for those who trust in God. After all, the testimony of those who have experienced God’s saving power is both vital and necessary for God’s work in the world to go forward.

In fact, if we do not tell God’s story, other stories will fill the vacuum, and far too few of those stories are life-giving. Far too many stories make powerful people the heroes, and thus awaken our fears, stir up our need to dominate, and tempt us to abuse our own influence for personal gain.

Too many of our human-focused stories make us forget that we are, in fact, a WE.

When we tell the story of the God Who Promises, the God Who Provides, we join believers in every time and place to participate in what the Jewish tradition describes as the ongoing repair of the world (tikkun olam).

And doing the work of tikkun olam – doing the incarnational work of reconciliation that Jesus and the apostles embodied in their time, working for the flourishing of the world, here and now – in our neighborhoods, in our community, is how we love our neighbors well.

Being a part of the story – not just telling the story but being part of the story –  in every generation is a central task for those who trust in God.

But to do so, we must leave behind the destructive bent of empire, the scarcity and fear that leads to exclusion and division. It means putting on your shoes and grabbing a coat, and not waiting for the bread to rise, because leaving the empire is risky business.

Our God can and will topple the gods of the empire… The empire will not like it, of course. Those in power will fight to keep it – with everything they’ve got, as they always have…

But over and over, in every generation, in every year and week and day, God is working for freedom and for life, pushing on the gods of empire — the gods of consumerism and violence and self-sufficiency –

And in every generation, in every year and week and day, we are to remind ourselves and our children that we are different. We together are different because of what the Lord did for us when we came out of Egypt.

This isn’t about nostalgia —looking back with longing.

The past is the present is the future. So the people of God are told to re-live this moment, to re-enact it and experience again the simultaneous anxiety and awe of trusting God.

We will do exactly that in a few minutes as we approach the table and share in the Lord’s Supper. We will tell the story that Jesus told. Remembering that the bread he held up and blessed and broke was unleavened bread, bread that did not rise, because he was reminding the disciples again that the Hebrew people could not wait that night.

We will tell the story of our deliverer, who blessed the wine that represented the blood of the lamb and then said it was his own blood, poured out for the forgiveness of sins. A new covenant alongside the old, the present in concert with the past and looking toward the future.

When we eat and drink today, we proclaim the saving death of Jesus, and we proclaim that we refuse to be sustained by the bread of affliction, we refuse to claim the power of the empire

We claim instead the nourishment of the God Who Provides, the God Who Promises, the God who is Faithful. And we trust that the word and the table and the Spirit together will sustain and and empower this Body to live and do the work to which we are called – all to God’s glory.

May this be true in us and of us, today and every day. Amen.

Long and Winding Road

Narrative Lectionary Texts (embedded below): Genesis 37:3-8, 17b-22, 26-34; 50:15-21

This fall, we are trekking through the Old Testament again, this time watching for the recurring theme of promise.  There was a promising start in the garden, the promise of paradise and purpose as the first humans tended the garden.

But this was followed by the broken understanding, the people choosing to believe that God would somehow hold back from them, not offering them the best, choosing to go against God’s wishes. And then facing the consequences.

Even in their exile, in their struggle to produce their own food in the reality of the same world we inhabit, Adam and Eve experienced God’s grace.  God’s presence was a bit more distant, but the promise of care and provision remained.

They were still known and watched over, they were still beloved.  Just as we are beloved in our still-not-as-it-should-be,  still-not-as-it-will-be world.

Abraham’s relationship with God also reminds us that God is a keeper of promises.  To be sure, we can never predict exactly how those promises will play out Or when.  But as we consider the millions – maybe billions – of people who have walked this earth and who trace could their spiritual lineage to Abraham through his sons Ishmael and Isaac, God’s promise of heirs as countless as the stars in that ancient, unpolluted night sky is a promise kept.  

In spite of Abraham’s faltering obedience, he ultimately displayed great faith, and was rewarded. And, as the apostle Paul writes, that faith was his righteousness.

Fast-forward now, from Abraham to Isaac, the child of promise. The long-awaited son of Abraham and Sarah. Isaac had an older half-brother, Ishmael, fathered by Abraham when Sarah – not unlike Adam and Eve – chose to act on her doubt that God would come through, could come through.

She chose to believe that God might somehow hold back, that she would never bear children. And so she offered up her bond-servant, Hagar. What could have been a lovely gift of surrogacy  from one woman to another was marred by jealousy. And when God caused Sarah to conceive and give birth to Isaac, things went from bad to worse.

Abraham agreed to release Hagar and Ishmael from their bond, but only after God extended the promise to Ishmael, that as a descendant of Abraham, Ishmael would also be the father of a nation. We also see a prophecy that Ishmael would often be in conflict and others would be in conflict with him. His people would live in the east.  

We don’t hear much more about Ishmael once they go to the wilderness, because the narrative focus shifts to Isaac and then Jacob. But we do see evidence of his descendants and their interactions with the Israelites.

Jacob was Abraham’s grandson, the second son of Isaac… (though not by much, as he and Esau were twins). Jacob becomes the heir instead of Esau when he  gains his father’s blessing through deception.

He flees to his uncle where he prospers and earns his two wives, Rachel and Leah. Eventually, Jacob’s name is changed to Israel, and between his wives and their handmaidens  he has twelve sons, the ancestors and namesakes of the twelve tribes of the Children of Israel.  Just as a side note, they also had a daughter, Dinah..

Of those 12 sons, Joseph was the youngest.
And we’ll pick up our reading there…

37:3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. 4 But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him. 5 Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. 6 He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed. 7There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.”

8 His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.

Now – you would think that Israel – Jacob – would have learned something from the conflict and drama of his youth. But as we see in many of our own households, people tend to carry the good and the bad of their family’s ways of being into the households we create through marriage.

That dysfunction that made you mental as a teenager will most likely play out in some way as you relate to your spouse or co-workers, room mates or children.  Or all of the above!  

Sometimes you fall into the same patterns without even noticing or at least not until it’s too late. Sometimes you fall of the ledge on the opposite side – overcompensating in hopes of avoiding the same trap.

My mom’s brother was just charming enough that he got away with more than she did.  Mom found that really annoying. But she also began to suspect that because her parents seemed not to see or respond to his antics (and always cracked down on her)… they must have loved him more.

So it came as no surprise when my sisters and I were gathered here in Florida for Christmas a few years back, we all got identical t-shirts.  We all opened them at the same time, along with my brother opening his while on the phone from Texas.  

All four of the shirts said “Mom loves me best”

She thought it was clever. But I’m not sure it had the desired effect. More than one conversation with more than one sibling has raised concerns that not all the shirts were given with the identical levels of sincerity,.. or irony… Either way, that strange rivalry that exists between siblings had been awakened from hibernation.

That same dynamic had been simmering among Joseph and his brothers for several years. The robe didn’t help.  Neither did the dream. After all, the symbolism clearly  suggests that they will become subservient to him.  Really,  it is no surprise that they “hate him even more.”

It is hard not to sympathize with the brothers in this instance — Joseph has been stoking the fires… poking the bear. Honestly, He was a jerk.
So they decided to do something about it.

17b So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. 18 They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. 19 They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 20 Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”

21 But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 22 Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him” — that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father.

Ok – not even jerks deserve to to be thrown into a pit to die.
And those jerks you’re thinking of right now? No – not even those jerks…

And if even if he did think Joseph deserved that kind of death, Reuben probably had no desire to be the one responsible for causing his father that much pain. I mean, what kind of wrath might Israel unleash at that point?   

Plus, there is the possibility of looking like a hero if Reuben is Joseph’s rescuer.
Then Judah pipes up… clever boy, this one…

26 Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27 Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed.

28 When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.

And thus a Schmidt family tradition awaited… lying dormant for thousands of years, until the twins were born.  

I’m not sure who made the threat first- mom, dad, my brother or me.  But at some point in the juggling of all the diapers, bottles and crying jags that accompanied the first several months of life with twins, someone asked if we might be able to sell them to a passing band of Ishmaelites.

I’m pretty sure that all four of us kids, and perhaps my dad, only escaped our own times in exile because there were no Ishmaelites roaming Central Texas in the 70s or 80s.

But I digress. Let’s go on

29 When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes. 30 He returned to his brothers, and said, “The boy is gone; and I, where can I turn?” 31 Then they took Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat, and dipped the robe in the blood.

32 They had the long robe with sleeves taken to their father, and they said, “This we have found; see now whether it is your son’s robe or not.”

33 He recognized it, and said, “It is my son’s robe! A wild animal has devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” 34 Then Jacob tore his garments, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son many days.

Reuben was the first to mourn.  

Perhaps he mourned his brother. Perhaps he mourned his opportunity to be the hero. Perhaps it was the recognition that his relationship with Jacob was in the balance as well.   

Listen to his words when he realizes Joseph is gone: When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes. 30 He returned to his brothers, and said, “The boy is gone; and I, where can I turn?   In the Hebrew, his repetition of the “I” is even more emphatic than it appears in the English translation.

Then, Instead of confessing all to his father, Reuben goes along with the lie the brothers tell their father, that Joseph has been killed by wild animals

Ultimately, Joseph is sold to Potiphar in Egypt. Through a series of twists and turns, he finds himself in a seat of great power and influence. His prophecies make it possible for Egypt to survive a famine that was so severe people from neighboring countries came seeking aid.

Eventually, that included Joseph’s brothers. They made a couple of trips to Egypt, the first time not knowing they had been in the presence of their long-lost brother.

Joseph sets them up, a bit, so that he might see Benjamin, and so that his family might be saved from starvation. Eventually, even Jacob comes to Egypt and meets the Pharaoh.  He blesses Joseph’s children before finally dying.

Let’s take a look at the last portion of the reading…

50:15 Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” 16 So they approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, 17 “Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him.

18 Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” 19 But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? 20 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. 21 So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.

It’s hard to know who we are meant to identify with in this story.  Certainly, we want to be like Joseph, lucky and skillful enough, faithful and gifted enough to overcome adversity.  And we are eager to look past his faults and failings, just as we prefer to look past our own.

We like being the hero of the story, whose choices are helped along by fate (and a promise-keeping God).
We like the idea of being in the right place at the right time to see God’s purposes worked out in our own long and winding roads.

The truth is, we are also a bit like the other brothers. Jealous, plotting… and dangerous when we feel cheated. And Rueben, not a bad guy, but not really all that good, either. Definitely interested in looking good.  We are certainly a bit like Jacob, wrestling with God, unable to love as unfailingly and fairly as God. 

But as we think about the promises of God, we need to look beyond the people with whom we relate… What is God up to in the midst of all this human messiness, this messy human-ness?

Certainly, God does not will that Jacob’s sons would hate one another, especially to the degree that is leads to violence…  (what kind of a God does that?)

We’ve talked before about the tension caused by the fact that God has given us agency, intellect, and free will, even as we believe that God can and does intervene and direct us.

In other words, the spirit of God is at work in a world that is shaped by human actions.
God is present in this story through the actions of others, of Joseph, of pharaoh, of all those who move Joseph’s story along toward its positive conclusion.

And so, generations before God steps into time and takes on flesh, there is thus a strongly incarnational element in the way God is at work in this long and complicated narrative of creation, separation and eventually – reconciliation – between God and humankind.

When we were commissioned to the work of making disciples and teaching all that Christ commanded, we were commissioned into that same work, becoming the Body, God’s incarnational plan for for reconciling the peoples of the world to one another and to God.

So what does that mean, precisely? Or as Paul might ask.. how then shall we live?

For one thing, we don’t get to throw people into pits. Physically or metaphorically.   Yes, there are a bunch of people I would love to walk right up to a pit, distract and then gently push while they aren’t looking.   I know there are plenty of people who would be happy to do likewise with me.

I suspect that if we were to dig enough pits for everyone to dispose of the people they would just as soon not attempt to get along with… well, the world would be awfully hard to navigate.

But that isn’t who we are called to be. That isn’t what we are called to do. We are made in the image of the God who Reconciles, the God who Loves, the God who Rescues and Redeems. We are made in the image of the One the psalmist thanks for raising him out of the pit. The One to whom I have given thanks for not leaving me where I have have been pushed, or where I have fallen.

Thus, we are to listen for the cries of those who have been rejected or set aside, those who have been put down and held down, those with whom we would rather not associate because they are not to our liking for one of eleventy-hundred reasons…. and when we hear their cries, we are to walk over to the pit from which they call out, put out a hand, and raise them up.

And we are to be about the work of filling in the holes that we have dug, teaching others to fill in theirs.  We are to be about the business of speaking up and showing up, wherever those cries are heard, learning about the bigger picture and seeking real change, real healing, real wholeness.

Because the long and winding road that Joseph walked may have started with a pit, but it ended with a family reunited and made whole. Isn’t that worth getting a little dirty for?