Thursday, October 30, 2014

God of Liberation

Exodus 1:1-14; 3:1-15
Galatians 5:1, 13-15

The central story of the Hebrew scriptures is liberation from slavery in Egypt.  In the continuing saga of sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau, like his father before him, Jacob has a favorite son and makes that clear to all the other sons by bestowing a coat of many colors on Joseph.  Joseph doesn’t help matters by sharing with his brothers his dreams in which they all bow down to him.  So the brothers hatch a plan to kill Joseph, but at the suggestion of one of the older brothers, they make a little money and still got rid of Joseph by selling him as a slave to a caravan of Ishmaelites that happened to pass by.   The Ismaelites sold Joseph to the captain of Pharaoh’s guard, a man named Potiphar.  Although Joseph’s work as a slave was exemplary, Potiphar’s wife had Joseph thrown into prison because he refused her advances.  Joseph languished in prison until one of his fellow prisoners, who was tapped to be Pharaoh’s cupbearer, mentioned Joseph’s dreams interpretation skills to Pharaoh.  Joseph’s accurate interpretation helped Egypt prepare for a future famine.  Joseph became Pharaoh’s trusted advisor and was given power over Egypt as its governor.  

The famine spread throughout the Middle East until Jacob sent his remaining sons to Egypt where it was said they could buy food.  Through a long chain of events, Joseph was reconciled to his brothers and the whole clan moved to Egypt where they were treated well as Joseph’s relatives.  Over several centuries, Joseph was forgotten and the Israelites had multiplied in such great numbers that they were perceived as a threat by the sitting Pharaoh.  First Pharaoh enslaved the Hebrews forcing them to build supply cities.  Brian McLaren writes that Pharaoh called for, a gradual genocide by decreeing that all the male babies born to the Israelite slaves be thrown into the Nile River to drown.  You can see how this strategy would leave the next generation of Hebrew women either barren or vulnerable to sexual enslavement by Egyptian men.  After one generation, no more “pure” Hebrews would be born.  

McLaren goes on to say, “Often in the Bible, when there is a big problem, God prepares a person of people to act as God’s partners or agents in solving it.  In other words, God gets involved by challenging us to get involved.  In this case, God prepares a man named Moses.”  You know the story about Moses’ mother putting her infant son in a basket of reeds and floating him in the river.  Pharaoh’s daughter found the baby and raised him as her own as an Egyptian, and his mother was chosen to be his wet nurse.  He was an Israelite by birth and an Egyptian by culture.  We’d call that an identity crisis!  

Moses claimed his roots when he saw an Egyptian beating up an Israelite.  He killed the Egyptian to protect the Israelite, which made him a fugitive in Egypt.  The Israelites were afraid of him too, so he ran away from Egypt.  Along his way, he defended a group of girls from some bullying shepherds, and found a home with their grateful father.  He married one of the young women and thought he was settled.  But God had other plans.

One day when he was with his herds and he saw the bush that seemed to be on fire, but was not burning up.  It was God’s way of getting Moses’ attention.  God send Moses back to Pharaoh to demand the release of the Israelite slaves.  You know the story of Moses’ demands, Pharaoh’s refusal, and God’s responding plagues, one after another until Pharaoh finally let the Israelites go.  But even then Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his army after the fleeing Israelites.  Caught between the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s advancing army, the Israelites thought they were doomed, but God parted the sea allowing the Israelites to walk across on dry land, but the Egyptian army was caught when the waters of the sea closed.  McLaren observes that, “The fate [the Egyptians] had planned for the Israelite babies now became their own fate.”

The story of the exodus: Makes one of history’s most audacious and unprecedented claims: God is on the side of slaves, not slave owners!  God doesn’t uphold an unjust status quo but works to undermine it so a better future can come.  That revolutionary message is still unknown or rejected in much of the world today.  If you believe it, you will live one way.  I you don’t, you’ll live another way.

This story was told every year by Israelite families at the festival of the Passover.  Not only did it commemorate the angel of death passing over the homes of the Israelites in the final plague, but it celebrated the Hebrews passing over from slavery to freedom through God’s liberating power.  Passover reminded the Israelites that their God heard the cries of the oppressed and downtrodden and was on their side.  It was a reminder that they must always remember what it was like to be a slave, and to have no home, so that they would treat strangers with kindness and justice.  

“Jesus, as one of the descendants of those slaves, was formed in this story of liberation. . . . Where others saw a worthless slave, an exploitable asset, a damnable sinner, a disgusting outsider, Jesus saw someone to set free.”  

Let me conclude with McLaren’s last paragraph in this chapter.

The night before his crucifixion, Jesus and his disciples were celebrating the Passover meal. He urged his disciples to keep doing so—not just annually, but frequently, and not just in memory of Moses in ancient Egypt, but also in memory of his life and message.  That’s why followers of Jesus continue to gather around a simple meal of bread and wine today.  By participating in that meal, we are making the same choice Moses made—and the same choice Jesus made: to join God in the ongoing struggle to be free and to set others free. 

That’s what it means to be alive in God’s story of creation and nonviolent liberation.  It’s a road into the wild, a road we make by walking.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Like Seeing the Face of God

Genesis 32:22-33:11; 50:15-21
Matthew 25:31-40
Luke 10:25-37

Brian McLaren wants to talk about the difference between rivalry and reconciliation with the scripture passages that we heard this morning. I’ll just be honest with you up front. I don’t want to talk about reconciliation. And I’m not sure rivalry is the best word for the antithesis of reconciliation. Maybe that works in the story of Jacob and Esau, but that seems too limited to me. I can think of a number of ways to describe broken relationships: a falling out, cut off, estrangement, divorce, betrayal, enmity, distrust, resentment, hatred. I don’t want to talk about reconciliation because I have carried so many of those other feelings in my heart. Of all the Sundays that I’ve preached, I have the most stories for this Sunday from my own life—and I can’t tell you any of them because it wouldn’t be fair to the other parties.  Of course in my versions the other persons would be at fault and I could be perfectly snarky—except in the stories where I am at fault and my own shame gets in the way.  
So I’ll share something I learned this week at the Bishop’s Gathering of the Orders in Yakima.  Every year our Bishop calls a three day meeting of clergy and lay people serving churches as pastors. We are a diverse group of people who read the Bible through many different cultural and theological lenses, who have different life experiences from which to draw in ministry, who have varying degrees of experience, whose first languages are English, Spanish, German, Dutch, Tagalog, Samoan, Tongan, Japanese, and more.  The purpose of our gathering is collegiality along with some continuing education. It really is wonderful to see our friends and colleagues whom we seldom see because of distance and our commitments to our local churches. Unfortunately, we usually divide into cliques and geographical, language, or theological groups and spend our time with the people with whom we have the greatest affinity. But tension has been growing among us for a number of years over the issue of gender minorities serving in ministry and now same sex marriage.  In fact, some of us have brought charges against others of us, starting the supervisory process that can lead to church trials and the loss of credentials as we have seen in other conferences.  We are supposed to be a covenanted people bound by mutual care and accountability because of our call to serve the church.  But we have become distrustful of one another with some on both sides of the issue feeling betrayed and fearful.
The Dean of Boston University, Dr. Mary Elizabeth Moore, a deacon in the United Methodist Church, led part of our continuing education. She invited us to consider part of Jacob’s story that comes before the part we heard this morning. We know that Jacob deceived his father, Isaac, and cheated his brother Esau out of his inheritance and blessing, and that Esau was so angry that he made plans to kill Jacob. Jacob fled to his uncle Laban who lived a great distance away in Haran. There Jacob was cheated by his uncle who promised his daughter Rachel’s hand in marriage to Jacob if he worked for seven years, only to substitute his older daughter Leah on the night of the wedding. Jacob was then allowed to marry Rachel, but another seven years labor was required. Laban was as underhanded in his dealings with Jacob as Jacob had been with Esau. In the chapter just before our first reading Laban chased Jacob to retrieve what he believed Jacob had stolen from him. Mary Elizabeth Moore cited the covenant that Laban made with Jacob, the one that says, “The Lord watch between me and thee while we are apart,” as a promise not to harm one another, claiming God as their witness because they could not trust each other.  
Jacob’s first covenant in his rivalry and broken relationships was to do no harm.  Sometimes in broken relationships, that is as far as we can safely go.  First we have to be safe.  We may need to live separately, to observe distance and ask God to keep watch between us.  That may mean that I have to leave reparations to God, but if I am to be safe, then I need to remain at a distance or limit contact.  I can only work on myself, to learn my life lessons, and to hopefully grow in grace.  I know how hard that is!  I have vented my anger to a third party, and worked on my own responses, and I know how hard it is to let go, to forgive, to move forward with grace.  I want to be clear that sometimes safety is all that we can work toward and it will have to be enough to trust God with our broken relationship.
But sometimes, over time, grace wins.  Jacob learned about himself through experiencing Laban’s deceit.  Jacob’s deceit and vying for power, and the resulting distrust and fear of retribution from Esau made Jacob look hard at himself and the scriptures tell us that he spent a terrible night wrestling with God, refusing to let go until he received a blessing, and leaving the encounter forever humbled.  As frightened as Jacob was of Esau, he made his best effort to demonstrate his repentance.  The miracle in the story is Esau’s forgiveness.  We don’t know how Esau arrived at his change of heart, perhaps it was Jacob’s demonstrated repentance and vulnerability.  We do get to hear how Jacob experienced the profound grace of forgiveness and reconciliation when he tells Esau, “For truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.”  
Grace broke through in Yakima when one of our colleagues spoke to our gathering with obvious emotion saying, “You are my church.  I came here to be with you.”  Grace broke through when we shared conversations around tables and named the things we need to talk about.  Grace broke through when we each named one thing we would commit to doing to improve our connection.  Grace broke through when we shared bread and wine in communion, looking in each other’s faces and seeing the face of God.  
Jesus tells the story of a Samaritan, a hated enemy of the Jews, who stopped to help a man beaten at the side of the road when his own religious leaders walked by on the other side of the road. When we recognize our common humanity even in our enemies, grace can break through. We can lay aside our fear and distrust so that we see the other’s real need.  It is not too late to see the face of God in those from whom we have been estranged.  In Jesus’ parable, it is the hated Samaritan who models God’s love. Grace is possible.  Reconciliation is possible.  
But it takes some wrestling with God to see our own part in the breaking of the relationship and participation in God’s grace, whether offering or receiving, or simply being willing to be open to grace. We have all been on both sides of estrangement. We have been hurt and we have caused hurt. We can hang on to our rivalries, estrangements, anger and resentment, or we can choose grace. I can tell you from experience that taking that one small step of being willing to be open to grace is enough to unleash a flood of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. It is like seeing the face of God. As we offer grace and seek reconciliation, our own faces reflect God’s image.  
God’s grace is that powerful!   

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Plotting Goodness

Genesis 12:1-9
Mark 11:15-19

Several years ago I heard an interview in which an author on Bill Moyers’ series “Faith and Reason” claimed that all religions believe that God favors the adherents of their religion over all others.  He said something like, “No tribe ever pointed to their neighbors and said God loves them more than us.” The Hebrew people believed that they were the chosen race, God’s favored ones. They held the belief that they were special to God; that they were blessed. Anthropologically, that’s not an unusual claim. What is unusual is the claim from some of their oldest stories, including the one that we just heard from Genesis, that God blessed them so that they could be a blessing to others. It’s clear from the biblical histories that the Hebrew people did not always honor that belief, remembering only the first half. What we hear throughout scripture is the push/pull of nationalism over blessing, of favoritism over equality, of dominion over stewardship. In the account in Genesis, Abram hears God tell him to leave his home and journey without knowing his destination. At one point God promises Abram all that he sees. Abram hears that he will be blessed and that through him the nations will be blessed.  
Abram and his wife Sarai are blessed by God. They understand themselves to be special. What a great feeling to be special in someone’s eyes! We see little sparks of being special in our lives, but they don’t always last very long. There are moments when we shine—in a relationship, at work, in school, in sports, in a great performance or a problem solved, in a goal achieved or a dream realized. And then the spotlight falls on someone else, or the glow fades, and we return to normal. Believe it or not, that’s a good thing. We need to know that we are special—and that others are special too. If we believe too long in our exceptionalism, we become arrogant and self-serving. One of the definitions of sin is love that is turned in upon itself, a love or joy that becomes self-centered. Abram hears God say that he is blessed and that God has a plan for Abram and his descendants—and God will also bless Abram’s neighbors and God also has a plan for each of those neighbors and their descendants all over the world. Even if we don’t always feel blessed or special, it’s harder still to think of our neighbor’s as equally blessed and loved by God. So it makes a tremendous difference in the quality of our lives if we understand ourselves as blessed so that we can be a blessing to others. If my children need good schools, then my neighbors’ children need good schools too. If I need to make a living wage, then my neighbors need to be able to make a living wage too. If I need access to health care, then my neighbor needs access to health care too. If I have been blessed, then I need to bless others. If I have received grace, then I need to extend grace.
This spring I was privileged to hear Rabbi Donniel Hartman, President of the Shalom Institute in Jerusalem, and the Director of its iEngage Project. Rabbi Hartman told his audience of Jewish and Christian clergy that if there is ever to be peace in the Middle East, Israelis must give up their claim to being God’s chosen people. Because he is a Jew and because he understands himself to be blessed, he believes that Palestinians deserve the same rights of self-determination that Jews claim, and that his Palestinian neighbors are no less loved by God than he and his children are. All of the inhabitants of Israel and Palestine deserve to be safe in their homes. He finds the grounding for his argument in the Hebrew prophets. The prophets imagined a supernatural peace in which the wolf lies down with the lamb, and an impossible peace in which one nation gets all of its desires met, and a realistic peace in which people find a way to honor one another’s needs as well as their own. If we cling to a belief in a supernatural peace or an impossible peace, we will all be disappointed.  We will all lose.  But if we can imagine a realistic peace, we have a chance of achieving it.  In other words, achieving realistic peace demands that we learn to honor one another’s needs with an understanding of the miracle of our own blessing and a desire to bless others.  
Our forebears in the faith preserved conflicting and conflicted stories. These stories are not history. They are metaphors and mythic explanations about human behavior and how humans encounter and experience the living God. They are a mixture of faith statements, confessional fables and cautionary tales. We can look back at these stories and mine them for wisdom. We can see a road that has formed behind us, but like Abram, we face the future as unmarked territory in which we make the road by walking. We take with us our images of God which may change as we face new challenges. We will make a different road if we claim that we are special than the road we will make if we believe we only live once in a random universe. There is another road that we can build if we believe the past and future are static and pre-ordained. Or we can find our way forward trusting that God chooses goodness and wholeness for us and that we will find God already ahead of us as we accept that we truly are blessed and we bless others. Our faith tradition whispers that we are God’s beloved people—and so are our neighbors—that we are blessed to bless one another—and if we walk in that faith we will make a different road altogether. Instead of competing with one another, how can we build together? Instead of being afraid of losing something in an end sum game, what if we honored our neighbors’ needs? Henri Nouwen writes:
Not claiming your blessedness will lead you quickly to the land of the cursed.  There is little or no neutral territory between the land of the blessed and the land of the cursed. You have to choose where it is that you want to live, and that choice is one that you have to keep making from moment to moment.
We have to choose blessing for ourselves and for others or we will discover too late that we have chosen cursing by default. That takes some conscious decision making.  We make the road we want to travel by walking. We make the world we want to live in by our blessing others.  The Hebrew scriptures claim that God is always plotting good for Israel, and the prophets add for all nations. If we are to live under that blessing, we must also be plotting good as co-creators with God.
I hope that you will read chapter 6 in McLaren’s book. I find his description of being alive in God’s generous creation compelling. Now receive these words from Henri Nouwen as a blessing:
The eyes of love have seen you as precious, as of infinite beauty, as of eternal value. When love chooses, it chooses with a perfect sensitivity for the unique beauty of the chosen one, and it chooses without making anyone else feel excluded.
       We touch here a great spiritual mystery:  To be chosen does not mean that others are rejected . . . . To be chosen as the Beloved of God is something radically different.  Instead of excluding others, it includes others.  Instead of rejecting others as less valuable, it accepts others in their own uniqueness.
This is your mantra for the week:  I am chosen as the Beloved of God—and so is my neighbor.  We are chosen as the Beloved of God—and so are they.