On Love Being Messy and Finding Our Way Through Life Together -A Wedding Sermon

John 15:9-17

9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, justLOVE-700x552 as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
12This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

On Love Being Messy and Finding Our Way Through Life Together

It’s not without some fear and trembling that I think you, Cyndi, should be feeling in asking one of James’ fraternity brothers to preach and preside at your wedding. I mean, there are almost as many Phi Kappa Psi here as there are family…or maybe that’s the same thing, in many ways.

I’d be afraid. James, I’d be afraid. Afraid of stories that might pop up. Afraid that you’d have a sermon based all on the song “The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers, patron saint of the Phi Psi house at Valparaiso University. A sermon that entreated you to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and no when to run…

I’m not going to do that.

Actually, it’s very easy for me today because in the rush of this day, you’re not going to remember much of what I have to say, or what most people say, though many will have advice for you I’m sure.

I’m not going to tell you not to go to bed angry. Sometimes you’ll do that.

I’m not going to tell you to send one another kissy text messages every day as a way to keep the romance, the spark. Sometimes you’ll do that, but mostly your text messages will be something like, “What do we need from the store?” or “Can it be a take-out night?” and “Pick up my pills at the pharmacy”…that one is especially romantic.

The sermon at a wedding isn’t intended to try to tell you guys how to live successfully with one another. I trust that you’ll find your way together, mostly because, after being with you over these last few months as we’ve sat together I’ve figured out a few things about you two, and one of of your biggest assets is that you don’t put up with one another’s shenanigans very well.

If we weren’t in church I’d probably say that you don’t put up with each other’s crap very well.

And that is an asset, mind you. Being able to call one another on our stuff is a good thing…

You won’t remember much about today, but if you do remember one thing, I want you to remember is this: love is messy. You already know it in part, but nothing like an “I do” cements it.

Messy like finger-painting. Messy like cat hair that sticks to your clothes.

Love is not neat and tidy; love cannot be put in a box. Love is messy.

Love is messy because we are messy and we are lovers.

And, this is the thing: no matter if we’re type A or type B personalities, if we’re ninjas or knights, we don’t have a whole lot of tolerance for other people’s messes.

In fact, when things get too messy in our lives, we often just opt out.

This is why Jesus invites us to love one another with a love like God’s…not with a love like ours.

Because if we only love with a love like ours, a love that we’d prefer, it’d look like romance novels and text messages with kissy faces and never having to go to bed angry. It’d look like a neat house and two car garage and anniversaries that are always remembered…

And when that doesn’t come to reality, well…so often we just opt out.

Instead, the love of God as shown through Christ is one that gives of itself for the other person. It knows love primarily by loving something else, rather than just by being loved. So much of our world today longs to be loved and thinks that is love. But you truly know love only by loving.

Loving when one of you storms out of the room. And, by the way, I storm out of God’s room all the time when I’m angry with God…and have no doubt that God still loves me when I do so.

Loving when one of you is forgetful. Loving when one of you says something they don’t mean in a fit of passion.

I think I’ve said this line in almost every wedding sermon or pre-marital counseling that I’ve ever done, but marriage, Cyndi and James, is not what you do when you’re in love. Marriage is what keeps you together until you fall in love again.

But, that means sometimes it’ll cost you something. It’ll cost you being right in every argument; it’ll cost you not having the last say all the time. It’ll cost you swallowing your pride and saying you’re sorry. It’ll cost you the vindication of pulling all the blankets onto yourself because you’re so mad at the person that you think they shouldn’t get the blankets…and anyone in a relationship here knows what I’m saying…

But remember what Jesus says, “No greater love than to lay down your life…”

I read that as laying down the need to be right all the time. Laying down the need for the last word. Laying down the need for vindication.

Because love is messy…and the grace you give in love is the grace you’ll one day need by your lover.

I think another way of saying that is that it is in loving that we truly are able to be loved.

So James and Cyndi, as we take these vows, as we promise to love one another, hold in your hearts the self-giving love of God, not the fleeting love kissy text messages. There’s plenty of time for that, and that all will happen.

But share with each other the deeper love that God gives to us. In doing so you’ll find that you, indeed, will find your way through life. Together.

Amen.

A Stewardship Sermon: How Could You Forget the Hornets?!

Joshua 24:1-7, 11-12, 14-17, 18b

A two-sided thing become an enigma; one-sided Mobius strip.

A two-sided thing become an enigma; one-sided Mobius strip.

Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many. I gave him Isaac; and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. Jacob and his children went down to Egypt. Then I sent Moses and Aaron, and I plagued Egypt with what I did in its midst; and afterwards I brought you out. When I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, you came to the sea; and the Egyptians pursued your ancestors with chariots and horsemen to the Red Sea. When they cried out to the Lord, he put darkness between you and the Egyptians, and made the sea come upon them and cover them; and your eyes saw what I did to Egypt. Afterwards you lived in the wilderness a long time. When you went over the Jordan and came to Jericho, the citizens of Jericho fought against you, and I handed them over to you. I sent the hornet of head of you which drove out before you two kings of the Amorites! It was my doing, not your doing.
I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them;
you eat the fruit of vineyards and olive yards that you did not plant. Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.

How Could You Forget the Hornets?!

Remind us who we are, God. Remind us whose we are.

Amen.

You’ve all been duped. This sermon looks like a plain old sermon in line with the Old Testament readings we’ve been doing with this lectionary. But it’s not. It’s a stewardship sermon.

Don’t try to leave. The ushers have been instructed to use force to keep you in your pews. We gotta talk about this…and it fits with the Joshua text here. Because stewardship is about our lives, not just our money. And here’s the thing: it is a lot easier to just avoid dying in this life, than it is to truly live.

Let’s start with a story, though.

I remember about two years before my grandmother died she grabbed my hand and led me to the back room of her house in Miami Springs, Florida. On the shelf in the closet back there was a huge King James Bible. And I mean huge. Huge in the “we can use this as a door stop” huge.

And she opened it up and on the inside cover I saw names. Rows and rows of names.

All my ancestors. This was our family Bible.

And we got to the third inside page where the names started to curve around the edge, because we were running out of room, and there I found my name and Rhonda’s name, newly added.

Our family Bible, still in the family after her death, just added Finn’s name last year, and will add new baby’s name next year.

It’s more than a list, of course, it’s a memory. The names there, and my name there, and Finn’s name there, re-members us into a long line of love and history and arguments and forgiveness and…

It reminds me not only who I am, in many ways, but centers me into who I am to be in this world. And the fact that it is written in a Bible is not insignificant, of course.

My grandmother, especially when it came to memories, was a character beyond belief. Her memories always ended on sour notes, it seemed. Like the one time I asked her about her favorite Christmas and she said, “It was when I was 8 and I got a new bike!” to which she then added, “…of course everyone in the house was too drunk to teach me to ride it that day…”

Kind of like when I got a tattoo and she, with a cigarette in one hand and a Manhattan in the other, said “Geeze…I don’t know why anyone would do that to their body…”

I’ve told that story before. But it’s worth repeating. And I’ll probably tell it to Finn and Smalls about a million times, too. Because those stories, and especially more important ones, like when grandma and grandpa lost their first baby, or when they adopted my aunt, or when they all of a sudden got pregnant with my father after being told that they couldn’t anymore, or like how my great-grandfather was a sheriff who never used his gun, or how my great grandmother used to kill snakes in her yard in Ponce de Leon, Florida using a garden hoe. And we’re talking poisonous snakes.

For years I thought my father meant that she used a hose, like a watering hose, and I had visions of my grandmother swinging a hose around her head like a lasso, wrangling snakes…

Or how it was said that my great-great grandmother, Tina, could stop bleeding my quoting scripture and laying her hands on a wound.

Because these stories are the stories of me. They beg of me questions like, “What verse will I contribute?” if we want to get all Walt Whitman on it. But even more humbly, “How am I to be in this world given my family, my identity?”

You know my grandmother’s last words still ring in my heart. My father was helping her get to the bedroom to the living room after cancer had ravaged her body, and she slapped his hands away saying, “I can do this myself.” And she walked over to the chair on her own, sat down, and breathed one last breath. She could do it herself.

And, of course, she couldn’t do it herself. She was at my parent’s house because she couldn’t live alone anymore. She made the last plane trip of her life just that weekend before, flying from Florida to Carolina, to rest in the care of family, to rest in the care of God.

We always think we can do it alone. And in some ways we can. In most ways, we can’t.

This reading from Joshua is of Joshua’s last words to the nation of Israel. He dies right after saying all this. Notice what he does for them: he takes them to the backroom of this new promised land that they entered, he takes them to the closet in Canaan, after they had fought the battle of Jericho, after they had beaten back enemies like Egypt, and he recounts to them, essentially, what is their family Bible.

Their history. He reminds them of who they are and whose they are. And he basically said that, now that they’re done trying to just survive, how will they now live?

And I can almost hear him, in this telling of history, saying, “And you remember the escape from Egypt? That was a great day. And you remember when those groups of hornets attacked the Amorite kings?! How great was that? How could you forget the hornets?!” in the same way my grandmother would laugh and tell me about how one day I hit my older brother because he wasn’t doing what I wanted him to, and when she chided me on it, I said matter of factly, “But Grandma, I had to hit him! He doesn’t listen!”

She couldn’t believe I didn’t remember this event that happened in 1983…which means I was 3 years old. Of course I had forgotten. We easily forget.

We easily forget because life puts us in places that make it easy to forget. We get placed in the rat races of life, in with booming or fading careers, kids, partnerships, new cities, new places…and we spend time just trying to survive.

And then a funeral calls us back to our family and we say things like, “We should get together more often than just for funerals…” And we never do.

But Joshua’s last words, after recounting this history for the people, he says, “Who are you going to serve? Will you serve the other gods of this world, or will you serve the living God who brought you this far by faith?” Another way to ask that question is, “Now that you are where you are, and that you’ve heard where you come from and what God has done for you, how will you be? How will you live?”

How are we to be? How will we live?

Look at these windows here. When these were put here in the early 60’s, these stained glass contemporary windows, not everyone was excited that they would be here. Today I don’t think people can imagine LMC without them, but they were contentious when they were deciding whether or not to put them in. The artist who did them, Richard Caemmarer, just was featured in an article of The Lutheran magazine. Copies are at the back if you’re interested.

But they were expensive. Very expensive. Not totally popular. And now we can’t imagine this place without them.

Or consider this sanctuary itself. Built right before the stock market crash in ‘29, the bank used to stand at this door over here and wait for the offering to be collected so that the church didn’t default on its debt. Families mortgaged their own houses to pay for this sanctuary. Some started a “penny-a-day” campaign to make sure they were intentionally saving.

Howard Mundt, so many years ago, fashioned this altar and this ambo. Staining it to match the church. Linda, his wife, still prepares the Eucharist we place on it every Sunday.

David Miller, pastor here for many many years, now Pastor Emeritus of Luther, was here in these pews just last week. He comes as often as he can, still a pastor to me as much as I am a pastor to him.

Last week on Sunday we had Lois Belden visiting us from Oklahoma. Married here many moons ago, Lois and her grown children remarked at how alive we are here, so happy to check back into this spiritual home and see a vibrant Holy Spirit rushing through here.

All of this, believe it or not, is part of your history now, too. You may not remember it, you may have even not known much of that, but here it is. As you walk these halls these voices echo through this place as clearly as the voice of God in Christ who first called them, who first called you, here.

Speaking of not knowing or not remember, just because we aren’t mindful of something doesn’t mean it’s not part of us. I remember when my other grandmother called my mother and said, “Well, your Uncle Don died…” to which my mom replied, “Wait, who is Uncle Don?! I have an Uncle Don?” They’d never spoken of him. A whole section of my mother’s family Bible uncovered; an obscure name amongst the others. Wild Uncle Don from parts unknown.

“Choose this day who you will serve,” Joshua says to the gathered Israelites in the back room of this new land. That call, though, is not so much about making a decision to follow one path or another; it is more of a decision of whether to live into the path already blazed by those who came before them, blaze it in a new way, but in a way faithful to the God that brought them here.

In the Cottage Meetings we’re having here at the church, we’re asking similar questions about our future. How will the possible things that happen here be a part of our history? For years this community was just trying to survive; I know because I’ve read the back records. But those days are gone. Now we have to figure out how we will live with growing numbers and more need. Will some of our future ponderings be contentious? Certainly. Not unlike installing these windows. Choosing to host a pre-school in partnership with a fellow community of faith, should we choose to, is a big undertaking. Much like deciding to open our space to those who don’t have many doors opening for them if we decide to expand our Wednesday night meal program. How do these things fit with our past? How might God be calling us to live in the future?

Which is why Joshua’s question is so important even for us here today. And the answer is not a given, of course. Real thought is needed here. How will we live into the path blazed before us?

You know, the Joshua of the New Testament, well…his Hebrew name is Joshua, Yeshua…you know him as Jesus, often did this with people. Remember in the Gospel of John where he encountered the woman at the well? She comes in the hottest part of the day so that she’s not seen; she’s avoiding those around her. She’s just trying to survive. After their encounter she told people, “He knew all about my past.” And somehow Jesus knowing and naming her past let her live into her future without fear. Instead of just surviving, she starts figuring out how to live after her encounter with Christ.

Jesus was all the time connecting people’s pasts with their future of salvation.

The message of Jesus is one that reminds us of God’s presence in our past, and assures us of God’s presence now and in the future and so all the guilt of a past that is troubled, or anxiety of a future that is uncertain, is a storm calmed by the words of God in Christ, “I love you; you are mine.” And we are now tasked with figuring out how that compels us to be in this world.

So how does that encourage us to be in this world? How does that encourage us to be toward one another? To our spiritual lives and homes? In one of the cottage meetings we heard a group of young adults say that the church is too timid in making clear what we need financially to achieve our mission here at Luther. So here’s an upfront ask: if you’re not regularly giving to the church of your treasure and your time, I’m asking you to live into the path that brought you here and make that commitment. I’m not talking about volunteering, I’m talking about partnership. I’m not talking about writing a check, I’m talking about participating in the vision that God is living out through us here. And yes, I’m talking about sacrifice. As Gandhi once said, “Worship without sacrifice is not.”

Live out your faith. And not just here, but everywhere. The sacrifice is worth it; it makes us whole.

In your bulletins there’s a strip of paper, go ahead and get that out. We’re going to do what Parker Palmer, that contemplative activist, calls “Quaker Powerpoint.” He’s a Quaker, obviously, and his whole latter half of life has been about calling people to attend to their true selves, their inner selves. Or to put it differently, he’s about helping people to answer the question posed by Joshua in today’s reading, and posed by God in Jesus through the own call placed on all our lives: how will we live? Will we just avoid death, or will we live?

We’re going to make a mobius strip. Hold your paper like this, and twist at one end, and put the two sides together. My Confirmation students will know how to do this…we did it just a few weeks ago. The mobius strip, with just that little twist, becomes a piece of paper with two sides, into an enigma, a piece of art, with only one side.

Palmer says that a life lived true to the inside, to what Quakers call “the light of Christ” dwelling inside of you, to the spiritual heritage placed within you, is a life of only one side. Hipsters call it “authenticity.” Psychologists call it “your true self.” I call it living an integral life, where your insides match your outsides, where you live into who you are.

And who are you? You are the people called by God. You are called into this place. You are a people called to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. You are a people called from your vocations by Christ to live differently in this world. You are a people with a family history and a spiritual history that compels your insides to match your outsides.

And, more personally, we are all people who create parts of ourselves, outward identities, that don’t live into the truths I just mentioned.

What might it mean to make our outsides match our insides? What changes, choices, behaviors might we have to change, what call might we have to say “yes” to in order to take our lives from being flat and two sided, and live into the mobius strip of integral living we’re called to by God? If Christ redeems our past and assures our future, we are free to be people who lead integral lives!

One more story about my grandmother, another one I’ve told before.

When she died we were cleaning up the house and cleaning out the house. And on her writer’s table I found her checkbook. And I started to thumb through it. And for a woman whose dying words were “I can do it myself,” she certainly didn’t live that way toward others. Because she was constantly giving of her treasure, and her time (lordy, I can’t tell you how many times I called her and she was away driving someone else to a doctor’s appointment, even as her own cancer progressed) to others. To her church. To her alma mater. To the smile train, her beloved charity of choice. She didn’t see her church as a charity, by the way…that was her community.

Anyway, as I thumbed through that I thought to myself that, despite how crass her language was, despite her own issues, she lived a life that reflected her values. She didn’t forget the hornets.

Enough tangents, and back to the question at hand: how will you then live? Integrally? Whole? Connected to history and assured of a future? As for me and my house…

 

 

There Goes the Neighborhood

Exodus 19:3-7; 20:1-17

19:3 Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell

Bobblehead Moses gives the appearance of indecision to the commandments...

Bobblehead Moses gives the appearance of indecision to the commandments…

the Israelites: 4 You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, 6 but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.” 7 So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. 20:1 Then God spoke all these words: 2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before me. 4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. 7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. 8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. 12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 13 You shall not murder. 14 You shall not commit adultery. 15 You shall not steal. 16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

There Goes the Neighborhood

In the wilderness of life, Lord,

Keep us free.

Free from our Pharaohs,

…and from becoming Pharaoh.

Amen.

So Israel has escaped from Pharaoh and Egypt, and now they’re fully in the wilderness, wandering around, trying to figure out how to live together, how to be neighbors in a new neighborhood that they haven’t quite moved into yet.

The idea of wilderness in Scripture is an interesting concept. Those of you familiar with your Bible know that just after his baptism in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke Jesus heads into the wilderness to ponder what kind of Messiah he’ll be…maybe if he’ll be one at all. He’s tempted there. Tempted to take power, show power, be power.

And here in the Exodus story we see a mirror of those Gospel texts…or perhaps the Gospel mirrors this text. Either way, it’s clear that the wilderness in Scripture is meant to embody that place where you go to figure things out.

And it’s a place of temptation.

Walter Brueggemann, that beautifully bald (is there any other option?) theologian, author, and poet speaks about this Exodus text as a radical move for the community of Israel. It’s radical because it is, as he calls it, the “anti-Pharaoh” text of the Torah. It’s the text about how Israel is going to now live as a neighborhood of people instead of as an oppressed people.

It’s the anti-Pharaoh text because the community comes together and receives these commandments from God, and these commandments are preventative measures to keep Israel from being under a Pharaoh. The common numbering is 10…although Jews, Christians, and even Catholics and Protestants can’t quite figure out how to number them the same way.

But look at them, a list of “shalts” and “shalt-nots.”

And to be very honest with you, the “shalt-nots” are always easier to keep. As I tell my Confirmation students, it’s a lot easier to stay away from an established electric fence then it is to figure out where to put the fence.

We love shalt-nots, don’t we?

In fact, I dare say that the whole Christian Industrial Complex, the morality police, have created a whole list of shalt-nots in this world.

Because shalt-nots are easy to follow. Thou shalts are tough.

It’s relatively easy to say, “Thou shalt-not have sex before marriage” in comparison to “thou shalt feed the poor.” So which one do you think the morality police harp on?

And of course, the irony of those two statements is that one is explicitly in the Bible and the other one isn’t…

In his lecture on this, the beautifully bald Brueggemann picks out “remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy” as among the most counter-cultural commandments today. And I agree.

We are not encouraged to Sabbath in this world, especially in the States. For a country that is highly religious, we’re not so good at taking time out of our week to honor the God we profess. Brueggeman is so strict with this commandment himself, so counter-cultural with it, that he doesn’t even watch football on Sundays, reserving the whole day to be intently with family and leisure activities. That, my friends, is dedication.

But of course, that’s easy for him to do. He lives in Atlanta and football there stinks. He readily admits that. And folks, let’s be honest, with the way the Bears played last week, well it might not be so hard for you all to adopt it as a practice, too…

But see, the point here is that when “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy” is paired with “you shalt not covet your neighbors cattle or ass or livestock,” we’re pretty good at the latter and not with the former. Because we can avoid the latter. We avoid shalt-nots. But we must do the former. We must do shalts. That’s harder.

By the way, with these last commandments, “covet” here in the Hebrew doesn’t just mean, “desire.” So often we envy, we desire things, and we can’t really help it. Our feelings are what they are, right? But in the original language, covet here is more like “desire with intent to do something about it.” Like stealing. Or slandering. Desire with action.

Oh yes, slander is covetous. Take that person whose life you envy. The way you steal that away from them is by talking bad about them…that’s covetousness. Perhaps we’re not so awesome at not coveting after all…

But back to how these are anti-Pharaoh laws.

See, the question for Israel now is, “how are we to live together?” And in the vacuum of power, well, everything sucks, right? And usually the natural tendency is to centralize power. And yet, notice how these commandments, the 10 Commandments, don’t do that. They don’t provide power to one person.

The first commandment isn’t “Listen to Moses” or “Listen to Aaron” or “Listen to Miriam.” The first commandment is “I am your God. You shall have no other.”

Which, of course, includes yourself.   You can’t centralize power unto you, either. You’re not a god.

And then the commandments say, “And as your God, I must make it clear that you’re not to use my name as a weapon or tool for power.” Or, as it says, “you can’t use God’s name in vain.” But that’s what God really means; God won’t be our tool.

And if you think of how Pharaohs spring up in this world, they usually do so because they claim some sort of inherit power, some sort of dominance, birthright, something that sets them above all else. And while God does call Israel “chosen” they are chosen not so that they can dominate, but so that they can make it clear that domination is not the way of God.

You cannot sign God onto your agenda! The essence of the second commandment. This is why I won’t even sign God onto my Dodge Caliber with a religious bumper sticker…

And then the call to remember the Sabbath rings loud and clear. And how is the Sabbath against Pharaoh? Well, the story has Israel working in the mud pits, making bricks, 24/7-365. The Sabbath, the idea of rest, is the idea that we, as God’s creation, are deserving of wholeness, of a period of fallowness, of a time of growth without production.

And it flies in the face of power. Because power in the ancient world, and power today, lies in producing. God’s story, though, and the story of God’s people, has always been that power is not found in what you do, but in who you are.

And if you’re a servant in Babylon reading this, as those first readers were, working non-stop to try to prove who you are, that is some radical news. The ancient readers of this were of that type, literally slaving away.

But you modern readers, us modern readers? Well, Babylon is not a nation anymore, but it is certainly real. And I know some of us reside there, a slave to trying to prove who we are by what we do.

By God, take a Sabbath. And I mean that. That is our call, our duty, our commandment. It is a gift to us.

And then after honoring mom and dad (showing that mom and dad are our neighbors!) we get to the “thou shalt nots.” No stealing. No adultery. No lying. No coveting with intent to steal.

And, you remember that famous Nixonian phrase, “If the President does it, it’s not a crime”? Well, on paper Nixon was a Quaker, but in practice…well…see, the Pharaoh could take anything they wanted. Your land. Your spouse. Your life. Your reputation. Your livestock and livelihood. Your job. And if the Pharaoh wanted it, they could have, and there went the neighborhood.

But these commandments are set up so that no one is allowed to do that to another person. No Pharaoh can come in and take something by right or power.

And if they did, you could point to them and say, “See here! This is not allowed in this neighborhood.” These commandments were given by God in the assurance that no one was to be Pharaoh over you ever again.

But, and this is more important folks, these commandments also said that you could not be Pharaoh, either.

You are not your own God. You cannot use divine right for your agenda. You cannot just work all the time…your time is not your own. You cannot just take whatever you want. You must honor your neighbor.

In the kingdom of God all is forgiveable, but not everything is permissible.

The 10 commandments are God’s response to the question, “How should the neighborhood go?” Like this. God is central, you will rest, honor your heritage, and no taking of others things. There goes the neighborhood.

Jesus, as he is wont to do, distills it all down for us. Because, you see, when you have 10 commandments of thou shalt and thou shalt nots, we have a tendency to continue to want to make everything into a thou shalt not to make them easy, and so the ancient religious authorities started asking ridiculous questions like, “If your ass falls in a well on the Sabbath, is it legal to get it out?” By ass, of course, I mean donkey…or do I?

The point remains the same. A permission giving commandment that gave freedom for rest had been turned into a severe, strict, thou shalt not.

And so Jesus, following his Rabbi Hillel, notes that the commandments should all be able to be followed on one foot saying, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, and mind. And then love your neighbor as yourself.” The two tablets in two short phrases.

And in that little phrase, Jesus takes all the “thou shalt nots,” all the easiest commandments to follow, and makes them all “thou shalts.” Difficult ones. Ones that deserve wrestling and thought and a good bit of mental and moral energy to complete. No easy outs in this life.

Because this life is not about avoiding the bad, dear people. This neighborhood is not about making sure you’re in the right. This life, this neighborhood, is about doing the good. It is about taking the risk to be the good in the world as God is good.

And in case we’re not sure what that looks like, Jesus offers us his life. A life given out of love for God, and out of respect and love for neighbor. For when others cursed him, he didn’t follow up with a curse but a blessing “Forgive them, God…they don’t know what they’re doing.”

And when they killed him he didn’t follow up with more death, but with salvation. And empty tomb, showing that in God’s kingdom, God’s neighborhood, God’s shalom, all tombs are empty.

And I have a hunch that we need to hear this again today. Because we spend a lot of our time trying to be Pharaoh in this world. And we spend a lot of our time letting the Pharaohs of the world have power over us. Fear is a Pharaoh. Sadness is, too. Depression. Anger. Bosses with dead-end agendas. Work weeks. Anxiety. What is your Pharaoh? Over what are you Pharaoh?

And all the while Christ is standing on one foot, inviting us into a life of love and peace and salvation…and all the while we’re toiling away at trying to make it all work.

When God, in Christ, has done it all for us. Not as a Pharaoh, but as a servant himself.

And as Christ walks by healing the sick, eating with the outcast, and raising the dead…well, there goes the neighborhood. Or at least, that’s how the neighborhood should go.

Narrative Lectionary: Exodus Overview

Exodus (the book not the nightclub on Clark Street in Chicago…that’s Exedus ii Lounge)

If the Exodus happened on a universal scale, it might look like this...

If the Exodus happened on a universal scale, it might look like this…

Major Players

Pharaoh

The Angel of Death (this one knows how to steal a scene!)

Moses, Miriam, Aaron

Jethro

Flame-retardant shrubbery (as in, the burning bush that God appears in)

Pillars of Fire and Water

Stone Tablets

Rocks that Shoot Water

The Ark of the Covenant (Indiana Jones style)

Bezalel and Oholiab (don’t recognize these? Obscure mention in Chapter 31)

A Golden Calf

Meaning “exit,” this book tells the story of Israel leaving Egyptian slavery (perhaps around 1250 B.C.E.?). We find Israel mentioned in a stele erected by Pharaoh Merneptah, the son of Ramses II. Note: Not written by Moses, either.

Seminal Scene (imagine Charleton Heston and these will be clear in your mind’s eye)

The mud pits of Pharaoh

The basket on the Nile containing a baby Moses (whoa…see the connection with Noah and the ark?!)

The plagues.

The Angel of Death.

The Exodus itself.

The escape through the Red (Reed) Sea

Wilderness wanderings

Manna from heaven (what is it?!)

Water from a rock (not to be confused with the awesome band Sweet Honey in The Rock)

Moses ascending Sinai into a cloud of fog (where God moons him…seriously, look it up in Hebrew!)

Moses descending with the 10 Commandments to the Golden Calf (Israel was worried Moses was gone for good, so they made an idol…kinda like we do when we fear God is gone/not present.  Spoiler: it doesn’t end well for some in Israel)

The building of the Ark of the Covenant, Tabernacle, and all sorts of accoutrement.

Bad Evidence

Genesis 39:1-23

1 Now Joseph was taken down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. 2 The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man; he was in the house

Potiphar's Wife.  And Joseph has some killer tats!

Potiphar’s Wife. And Joseph has some killer tats!

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

Bad Evidence

Teach us how to look for you, God                      

Show us the right evidence.

We have a hard time seeing you.

So show us again today, Amen.

So, it’s really important for you to know that the Torah, these first five books of the Old Testament, were written and forged while Israel, as a people, was without a home and being abused.

They were in exile. They had been conquered, morally and militarily defeated, separated from one another, as some of the best and brightest were shipped off to Babylon while others of the nation were left behind in Jerusalem. The over-arching anxiety for Israel at this time was, “Where is God in all this?”

This is why the writers of Genesis had to go back to the very beginning. It is a very good place to start, right? And they recounted the history of their people, from creation to Noah, to Abraham and Sarah, to his son Isaac and Rachel, to his son Jacob, and to Jacob’s children, including this one today, Joseph.

Joseph, who all you Donny Osmond fans know, had a coat of many colors and was a general pain in the butt to his brothers. By the way, the ancient words that has traditionally been translated as “many colors” is actually probably better translated as “having long sleeves.” Which would totally have made a crappy Broadway play, so it’s no wonder why they didn’t go with it for the traveling show. “Joseph and the Pretty Regular Coat with Long Sleeves” is no comparison with “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat”…

But Joseph’s coat, which was given to him by his father, had long sleeves. Which probably was a subtle indication to his 11 brothers who didn’t get a coat with long sleeves that Joseph was destined to chill inside the house while his brothers worked in the field. After all, hard work wasn’t done with luxurious long-sleeved overcoats, but with coarser working clothes…

No wonder that his brothers tossed him in a well, and sold him to human traffickers. That’s how he ended up in Egypt working for the captain of the guard, a guy named Potiphar.

So, imagine yourself hearing this story if you had also, like Joseph, been sold into slavery. Imagine if you, like Joseph, had lost all you had and ended up in a place you don’t recognize.

Maybe for some of you, some of us, we don’t have to imagine too hard…

For some of us maybe we already feel like we’ve been sold to an unbearable work week, or have an unbearable family, or unbearable pain that we carry around with us that won’t leave.

And for a wider world of social injustice, this story speaks volumes. Human trafficking. Slavery. A family that would rather kill one another than look at each other. A person who makes their way up from nothing only to have it all taken away from them on false accusations…

That’s where we find Joseph today in this reading. Potiphar’s wife not only has a wandering eye, but knows an advantage when she sees one. “Let’s seduce the slave, the one with less power,” she thinks.

The headlines coming from the NFL echo in my brain as I hear this, as do images of people getting abused by power and powerful people, falling unconscious in elevators or brandishing whip marks on their little bodies because someone, in their own words, “got carried away…”

Maybe Potiphar’s wife thinks she got carried away. No matter; it’s abuse.

These stories are timely, dear people. It drives me nuts when people lament the violence in the Old Testament as too much, as if we don’t live in violent times…

These are violent times. As author and expert on power and powerlessness, Elie Weisel once wrote, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest”

The evidence she uses to cause others to think Joseph does this seducing act is interesting. She holds up a piece of his clothes as evidence of his sexual pursuit. She holds it up for all to see. “Here is the proof!” Proof.

Proof is an interesting concept. We look for proof when we want some certainty in life. And yet, this proof she holds up as evidence to the certainty that Joseph was pursuing her is bad evidence.

The wrong evidence.

In fact, Joseph’s whole life is filled with bad evidence. His brothers show his long-sleeved coat to his father, now multi-colored with blood, as evidence that he’s dead. And now another garment is shoved in the face of others as evidence that he’s morally dead, accused of seducing the lady of the house.

The fact that he’s been sold and bought and forced into slavery, and convicted of something he didn’t do might be evidence, as some think, that God has no favor for this guy. After all, why would all this bad crap happen to someone God loves and watches out for?

How many times have I heard that phrase before?

“Why would God do this to me?” “Alright God, I’ve had enough of your testing!” “Why is God punishing me? What did I do wrong to deserve this?”

We still have this idea running through our head and our hearts and our lives that the evidence that God is present in our lives is by a lack of issues or tragedy or pain or hurt. But if that were the case, I’d say we’re all godless, because I have yet to meet someone without issues.

And I mean that.

Notice the repeating refrain in this text, a repeating refrain that the writers thought were so important that they put it at every transition point; when things went from good to bad to worse to better to worse to totally-in-the-pits-sucky the refrain is this: And God was with Joseph.

Now, look at the evidence. You might say, “Well, everything Joseph did prospered!” And it’s true. In the story Joseph is skilled and makes lemonade out of lemons. But that doesn’t negate the fact that he was a slave. That he was a victim of human trafficking. That his brothers tried to kill him, that he was accused and convicted of something he didn’t do, and that he was thrown into jail.

In a “God’s got a blessing just waiting for you” sort of world, it would appear that the evidence suggests that God is not with Joseph, that God is against Joseph, that God has it out for Joseph.

And yet the writer, who was probably a servant himself in subjugation to Babylon, this foreign power who had no tolerance for other religions and faiths and ways of living, makes a point to say and repeat and repeat again that, despite all the evidence, God was with Joseph.

But what good does it do you to hear that God is near you?

Well, Potiphar’s wife holding up this piece of clothing as evidence, bad evidence, that Joseph was guilty reminds me of this other scene of clothes-grabbing escape in the Bible.

We have to fast-forward to the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemene with his disciples, and the soldiers are arresting him. And it’s about all over, all the disciples have run away when in the bushes, the soldiers catch this other guy without a name, who in Greek they just call neoniskos, or “new guy,” and one of the soldiers grabs his cloak to arrest him too, and the cloak comes off and the guy runs away naked.

Graphic stuff, right? Naked folks running around in gardens. Scandalous.

And I can see in my mind’s eye this cloak in the soldier’s hand, evidence that this guy had been at the scene, had committed the same supposed crimes of which Jesus was accused. It looks like this scene with Potiphar’s wife.

And you know when we hear about those clothes again? The women show up at the empty tomb, and there are the clothes. Except this time the bad evidence, the evidence meant to convict a person, is turned into good evidence.

Evidence of resurrection.

Because the clothes are lying nicely folded in the place where Jesus’ body should have been. And the neoniskos in that scene, the angelic being, tells the confused Mary’s to head back to Galilee with the disciples, and Jesus is there waiting for them…Jesus is there with them in this life…waiting to share God’s amazing love with them. An amazing love that says that not even death and betrayal and false accusations and scandal can separate someone from God.

It appears that this thread of bad evidence starting with Joseph couldn’t be made right until we had the good evidence in Jesus that God has been, is, and will be with humanity.

Which means, as St. Paul says (one of the times where I think Paul gets it really right), “that whether we live or whether we die, we are with God.” We are safe.

So if you are sitting in a hell of life, and you are wondering if God is with you, imagine the writers of Genesis, sitting in the hell of captivity, clinging to the promise that, despite the evidence, God is with you, loves you, prospers you, even here.

And if you are sitting on a hill of life, happy with the world, do not think that the hill is evidence that God is with you. The moment that the hills of life turn into hells is not the moment where God leaves us, but rather the moment when we need to repeat the refrain, “God is with us” ever more. Because it is true.

I think that we’re all in the Garden of Gethsemene at some point, some days; in that dark night of depression and confusion and hopelessness, we’re all wondering what to make of this life and whether or not we’re to believe the things we hear out of Jesus and the promises of God, but we don’t want anyone to know we’re there. Doubt and fear are not popular to admit.

And the moment we’re going to get caught in our fears and our concerns and our worries that this life isn’t worth it and that God is against us and we can’t see where God is anywhere, let alone here, and that it’s all for naught, Jesus takes the evidence, the fear, the concern, the worry, the confusion…

Folds it up in an empty tomb and makes resurrection out of it. Jesus declares that it’s bad evidence; not enough to convict us of wrong, not enough to convict God of being absent.

Bad evidence all around.

And then in the light of resurrection day, when our hells are hills, we look back and see that Jesus is right. It is bad evidence.

We need not fear, no matter where we are. God is with us.

Amen.

Narrative Lectionary: Genesis Overview

Since we’re reading the Narrative Lectionary in my faith community this year (an experiment), I think it’d be helpful to provide a little overview of the books of scripture we’ll be covering.  This is just a very brief overview.  Nothing too extensive here!

Genesis (the book not the band)

genesis0002

The band not the book.

Major Players

Adam and Eve

Cain and Abel (and Seth…the forgotten one)

Noah

Abraham and Sarah (and Hagar)

Isaac and Rebekah (and Ishmael)

Jacob and Esau

Rachel and Leah

Joseph and his 11 brothers

Written by a number of authors and compiled over more than five centuries, completed while Israel was taken over by Babylon (587-538 B.C.E.) Talks about the common connections of the people who would be known as Israel. Note: Not written by Moses.

Seminal Scenes

-The Garden of Eden

-Cain kills Abel

-The flood

-God visiting Abraham as three travelers

-Sodom and Gamorrah (a misunderstood tale about hospitality)

-The binding of Isaac

-Isaac and Rebekah at a well (the place to pick up hotties in the Bible)

-Jacob stealing Esau’s birthright by dressing up like livestock

-Jacob and Leah and Rachel (and Zilpah and Bilhah) have 12 sons

-Joseph’s brothers try to kill him, he ends up in Egypt

-Egyptian famine and Joseph’s rise to power

-Joseph forgives his brothers

On How Transitions are Difficult but Often Sacred and How God is Irritating and We are to be Blessings

Genesis 12:1-9

1 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 Ie-new-day-a-new-blessing1 will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” 4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. 5 Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, 6 Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7 Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. 8 From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. 9 And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.

On How Transitions are Difficult but Often Sacred and How God is Irritating and We are to be Blessings

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,

by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.

Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go,

but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This is all new. We’re in transition. You may not realize it, but we are. Or maybe you are in your own life. Autumn is full of transitions.

But the transition here is that we’re doing a different set of readings in church this year. You can read up a bit about it in the newsletter this month. We’re following the Narrative Lectionary along with a number of other Lutheran churches…and other denominations…around the country. It starts in Genesis and ends in the Epistles, or letters. It’s meant to give you an arch of Scripture. You’ll hear readings you might not always hear.

It’s a transition that is ripe for inviting you to bring a Bible to church with you on Sunday…which might be a whole different transition for you to imagine carrying around a Bible with you somewhere sometimes. Even for a pastor like me that seems really vulnerable, right? To stand at the bus stop with a Bible on your way to church.

Maybe the fact that that scares me a bit means I should do it. What is it about transitions that make them so difficult?

I don’t know, but here we are in Genesis and it seems like God is already starting to mess with people. God sometimes makes life difficult, and I mean that. God is always asking me to love people I’d rather not, help people I’d rather leave alone, all that sort of stuff. God is irritating like that. I don’t think God causes my troubles, I think God is my troubles, sometimes…

You know religion, by its very nature, is conservative. Get your mind out of the political; that’s not what I’m talking about here. Religion, by its very nature, attempts to conserve, to keep: keep reverence, keep tradition, keep mindfulness.

But at the very beginning of our sacred texts, here in Genesis, you already find God not being conservative, but rather being an agitator for change. God is irritating like that.

In fact, I wonder if religion is a response to an agitating, irritating God. As in, God is always doing something new, so religion was put in place to keep some sort of structure, right?

God “afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted” as the idiom goes. Well, send the cure, cause we’ve got the affliction…

And Abram is pretty comfortable in this Genesis reading. Here he gets afflicted. He’s got all the material wealth he can handle where he is: sheep, servants, land, wives, money. He’s successful by worldly standards.

And then he gets this pesky little note from God saying, “Go into the land that I will show you.” God is irritating.

Now, I want you to focus there for a second. Because this is really troubling to me…and I think it should be for you, too. God asks Abram to abandon everything he’s known: his family land, his home, all of it, and go into the great unknown that God doesn’t really discuss with him in any detail.

This is, I think, one of the most interesting aspects of this passage in Genesis. In these parts of Genesis God is very personal, talking directly to people: Adam and Eve, Noah, Abram.

And yet, for as personal as God is, the writers still emphasize that God is shrouded in mystery, not showing God’s full hand of cards. The Divine brain can’t be picked. You can’t always guess, you can’t always tell, exactly what God is up to.

I’m skeptical anytime I hear someone tell me that God is telling them to do one very specific thing. I’m skeptical of myself when I get that inclination, too.

Because right at the very beginning the ancient writers are making darn sure that we understand that God’s intentions, God’s very specific will, is clouded in mystery. And so anytime that we get a pull that we think is Divine in origin we need to go ahead and sit back and discern whether it is our ego talking, or God.

And if you can rightly tell the difference between the two with any certainty, if you can come up with a formula to do so, please give me a call or shoot me an email. Because that would be darn special.

This is why the Apostle Paul is clear to note that wisdom to humanity is foolishness to God, and God’s foolishness is true wisdom. Jesus was even more succinct when it came to God’s Divine brain, noting that the specifics “is not for (us) to know.”

So what do we do when we’re getting the feel, the pull, to move…but can’t see the end?

See, this is the thing: when it comes to transitions, we always get so focused on the specific “where.” And that preoccupation often stops us from taking up the challenge.

Our nature is to be conservative. To conserve. And so we want to see where we’re jumping before we go.

We want to know that the pain will really go away before we take the first step into therapy. We want to know that the marriage will work, we want to get a glimpse of our old age, before we take that jump. We want to see that the job will lead to more and better success, that the cross-country move will lead to happiness. We want to see the ending before we go any farther.

But what if the ending is, well, open? And what if it’s not about where we end up, anyway?

Why would Abram take the risk to do something new? Why would you?

Most do a cost/benefit analysis, right? What will I gain if I go forward with this transition?

And yet, that’s not the point of this story at all. Abram doesn’t gain in this…he doesn’t need to. Abram’s already as rich as you can get. God promises to bless Abram through this move, but what more could Abram need?

I think that if we only move forward with transitions in our own lives just because it will bless us, then we’re being short-sighted. Our lives are too complex to be single-issue people, especially if that issue is something as fleeting as being blessed with success and fortune.

No, Abram’s move has to be for something different. It is for something different, and on this point God isn’t mincing words. God lays it out plain.

Abram will be transitioning, will be moving, to be a blessing. Sure, he’ll be blessed…actually, he’s already blessed. That’s a given. But the focus here isn’t even really Abram so much as it is everyone else. The whole world.

Abram is meant to be a blessing to the world. He’s going to be a blessing more than get blessed. And I wonder, people of God, what it might look like if we started making transitions, started analyzing transitions, not based on whether or not we’ll be blessed, but on whether or not the transition will make us a better blessing for the world. That’s a scary thought.

It’s a scary thought because, if there’s one thing that we see in the person of Jesus, it’s that being a blessing for the world costs something. Because often the ways that we are most a blessing to this world include some sort of sacrifice on our part. Sacrifices of time, treasure, talent; offering our gifts up to God and our neighbor.

That, I think, is something we miss so often. We make a move personally, professionally, relationally to be blessed, when in reality we already are blessed. Being a blessing means giving of our own blessedness for the sake of the world.

I know, that might not be what you wanted to hear. Me neither. God is good at doing that: taking what I think is wisdom and showing it as foolishness…and then providing Divine wisdom that looks like foolishness but actually is life-giving. How did Jesus say it? “Whoever wants to gain their life must lose it, and whoever loses it for the sake of the Divine gains it.” Right.

This is exactly what I think Jesus was wrestling with in the Garden of Gethsemene, where the Gospel writer Luke notes that Jesus is so intently wrestling with the choices of the night, with the hard decision of if the way of the cross, the way of sacrifice for love, was going to be a blessing, that he sweats blood and water.

In depictions of that event most every artist has Jesus kneeling at a pile of stones, what looks like an altar. In this Genesis reading Abram builds a couple altars. Altars are erected at those places where you are wrestling the sacred transitions. Sacred transitions are always hard. This is why the transition of death never gets easier, no matter how many times I witness it. Sacred transitions are always hard.

It’s why I’ll often come here and kneel when I’m wrestling with something, too. Here, the place of sacred transition, the place where we honor that God is pulling us into the unknown.

Will a move, a transition, enable blessing for the world? That’s a great question for us to hold before any transition in our lives. A hard question.

It’s especially hard when we can’t see the ending…and I don’t ever think we can. So what is it that pulls Abram forward? Faith. We’re always looking for certainty, the sure bet.

If life is a horse race and you’re laying down your life-savings, you want the sure bet. But our faith tells us that the only sure bet in this life is that God loves us so much that God will stop at nothing to be with us. That’s the only sure bet. Everything else is over/under odds, and I’m terrible at betting. Good thing God’s fixed the ending.

Which means, then, that the step forward in transitions can’t be done on certainty; no such thing.

It must be done on faith. Certainty is the opposite of faith, which is why I don’t understand people who claim to have an “unwavering faith.” Faith is, by definition wavering, I think.

Stepping out in faith is always a risk. Always. The tortured Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote a whole book about it, Fear and Trembling, and ultimately concluded that he couldn’t make heads or tails out of how someone might step out in faith with so much uncertainty clouding the present, not just the future.

I resonate with that. I wonder if Abram did, too. Faith is not certainty.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best about faith: “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

And, of course, being in transition doesn’t always mean moving, right? Sometimes the bravest thing is standing still, transitioning out of the “flight” mode your DNA pushes on you. Transitions don’t always mean a move; sometimes it means setting up your altar again after life has knocked it down and staying put.

This brings me round, of course, to thinking about us. You and me; here in this place. We’re having these cottage meetings to talk about mission and vision, to encourage all of us to invest more deeply in God’s call here in this awesome community of Luther Memorial. The amazing Great Conversation is starting with people exploring our faith community here. And sometimes we can get stuck on thinking too much about the specifics of where we want to go with our communal life, with our staffing, with our physical space. We want to see the end now.

But really, underneath all of that, the question that I’m continuing to meditate on is, “How can we best be a blessing to Chicago?” Not to ourselves. But to one another. To this whole city.

You know, Abram traveled from the oaks of Moreh to the Negeb. I’m wondering how we can be a blessing from the shores of Lake Michigan, to the oaks of Oak Park, and to the sidewalks of Naperville. Abram camped with Bethel on the West and Ai on the East to be a blessing there. He made an altar. I’m wondering how we can be a blessing with Bette on the West and Aiyana on the East of us here, at this altar. To this city. To one another.

We’re going to share our blessedness more intentionally with one another and with the city this year. It will be sacred and difficult and may even be a little irritating at times…God is like that…but worth the risk. Worth taking a step even if the stairway is dark. We’re going to be a blessing…even more of a blessing. God promises: a blessing. Amen.

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