Wednesday, September 30, 2015

“Wrestling with God” - September 27, 2015

Texts: Genesis 32:22-32, Mark 14:32-36

My St. Louis Cardinals have the best record in baseball, and the playoffs will soon be here.  Football season has started.  While the Cyclones have not set the world on fire, we can at least look forward to playing Kansas next.  Tennis, golf, NASCAR – they are all in full swing.  For those who are hockey fans, preseason hockey has already started and opening night is October 7.  You can head over to Hilton to catch an ISU volleyball match, and basketball practice begins in a couple of weeks.  This is a great time of year for sports fans.

You may have your own favorite sport, but if you had to name the quintessentially Iowan sport, it would probably be none of these.  Wrestling is popular in Iowa as it is nowhere else.  And I’m not just talking about that great wrestling tournament known as the Iowa Caucus. 

A high school wrestling website rated Iowa #1 on its wrestling-crazy index, a measure of nationally rated wrestlers per capita in each state.  It wasn’t even close.

All of us know something about wrestling.  Even if you have never been to a wrestling meet, even if you couldn’t care less about the sport, we all have some experience wrestling, because wrestling is not just something that happens over at Hilton Coliseum.  There is a lot of mental and spiritual wrestling that goes on in our lives.  Life can be a struggle.  When the stress and the pressure and the uncertainty pile up, when times of grief and pain and sadness come, when we have to make hard choices, we can sometimes feel like we are wrestling – with others, with life, even with ourselves.  Maybe even with God.

Last Sunday, we looked at the birth of Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah.  This week we move ahead a generation.  Isaac marries Rebecca, and they have twin boys, Jacob and Esau.  Esau is born first, but Jacob comes right after, grabbing Esau’s heel.  He is named Jacob, meaning heel-grabber or usurper. 

Jacob wasn’t just born grabbing Esau’s heel; he kept wrestling with him.  Jacob gets Esau, who is famished and not thinking very clearly, to trade his birthright for a bowl of stew.  Jacob will receive Esau’s larger share of the inheritance as the oldest son.  And then with the help of his mother, Jacob tricks his father Isaac, who has lost his eyesight, to give him the blessing that belonged by right to Esau.  Isaac pronounces a blessing of God’s favor on Jacob, thinking that the son before him is Esau, and once spoken, the words cannot be taken back.  Esau finds that Jacob has yet again stolen what belongs to him and is enraged.

It seems a good time to skip town, and so at his mother’s suggestion, Jacob goes back to the old country to find a wife.  There he worked for his Uncle Laban for 20 years.  He worked seven years for the right to marry Rachel, but Laban pulled the old switcheroo at the wedding, and Jacob unknowingly married Rachel’s older sister Leah.  Jacob the trickster is tricked himself.  Jacob then worked another seven years to marry Rachel, the one he loved.  Being married to two women, two sisters at that, and having an obvious favorite did not exactly lead to marital bliss or family tranquility.  More wrestling.

In the end, Jacob wound up profiting from his time with Laban.  By now has 11 sons and one daughter, and through cunning and trickery – through wrestling with Laban - he has become very wealthy.  And yet he’s not happy.  After all, he’s still working for his uncle, and Laban’s sons are becoming upset that Jacob is whittling away at what is rightfully theirs.

Jacob is in a tenuous situation, and it is entirely of his own doing.  It was time for Jacob to move on, time to head back home to see if his parents are still alive.  It was time to face Esau.  It was time to face the music.

Twenty years after leaving home, twenty years after taking both the birthright and blessing that belonged to Esau, twenty years after fleeing for his life, Jacob is still fearful.  First, he is fearful of Laban.  He loads up all of his belongings and with flocks and servants and wives and children in tow, he flees in the dead of night.  It is three days before Laban finds out that Jacob has taken his daughters and grandchildren and up and left.

Laban catches up with the whole contingent and Jacob and Laban wind up pledging a covenant.  “May the Lord watch between you and me while we are absent one from another,” they say.  It’s a sentiment you find on charms and pendants that friends may wear – you have to put the two charms together to complete the verse.  It sounds beautiful, but those charms leave out the next part, which says, if you mistreat my daughters or take another wife, God will see it.

In this instance, “God will watch between you and me” is not actually a statement of care.  It is more like saying, “My eyes are on you, mister, and if you mess up, mister, by God I will hunt you down.”  You don’t find Christian bookstores selling charms with that part.

Finally Jacob and his household are on their way.  Jacob may have been fearful of Laban, but he was more fearful of his brother Esau.  He sends messengers ahead to meet Esau, hoping to find favor with his brother.  And the messengers return, saying that Esau is coming to meet him.  And he is bringing 400 men.  He is coming with a small army.

This was not good news.  Jacob is panicky.  He divides his group into two companies, thinking that if there is bloodshed, maybe at least half of them might survive.  He sends gifts ahead to Esau.  

Jacob comes to the Jabbok River.  He helps his wives and children and flocks cross the river.  He gets all of his possessions across.  Jacob is the last one remaining, the last one left to cross the river.  And suddenly, there is a man there, wrestling with him.  They wrestle until daybreak.  Neither will give in.  Jacob holds on for dear life; he refuses to let go.  And somewhere along the way, Jacob realizes that the one he is wrestling with is God.

The struggle goes on and on, and Jacob still refuses to let go.  The man strikes Jacob in the hip and he is in pain, but he still will not let go.  Jacob says, “I will not let go until you bless me.”  And God, the wrestler, says, “What is your name?”

What is it with Genesis and names?  Two weeks ago, we looked at the story of creation, with the man naming the animals.  Last week, it is Abram and Sarai, and God changing their names to Abraham and Sarah, the forbears of a great nation.

Names can carry great meaning, and this is true yet today.   This week we welcomed a new member into our church family, Ethan Robert Phomvisay.  His middle name is after Mindy’s father, who passed away a couple of years ago.  There is a hope that this child will have something of the spirit his grandfather had.  Ethan was also given a Lao name by Aiddy’s parents: Nelamith, which means “Amazing Spirit.”  Names can embody the hopes we have.

This wrestler by the riverside who is in fact God asks Jacob his name.  Names had an even greater power in that day and were considered to not only describe a person but in some way they were prophetic regarding a person’s character and destiny.  In a sense, by asking his name, God is asking Jacob, who are you?

Jacob’s answer, as much as anything is a confession.  “I am Jacob.”  Jacob is admitting to who he is.  I am a schemer.  A trickster.  A shyster.  A manipulator.  A cheat.  I am Jacob, the one who deceived his father and betrayed his brother.  I am Jacob, the one who will outmaneuver anyone I can.  I am Jacob, the heel-grabber.   . . . bless me.  Bless me.

It may be the first time Jacob has claimed his name, fully owned up to his identity.  This time he is not stealing the blessing that belongs to someone else.  He is not lying and cheating in order to get what is somebody else’s.   He is asking for a blessing that suits him, and before he can get it, he has to stand honestly before God with all his virtues and faults plain to see.  When he finally does this, finally admits that he is who he is, God offers him a new name.

“You shall be called Israel, for you have striven with God and humans and have prevailed.”  Jacob is now Israel – the one who struggles with God, the God-wrestler.   It is a positive affirmation of who Jacob is. 

Walter Brueggeman sees the wrestling with God in terms of prayer.  He writes,

The prayer is an honest, unflinching conversation between partners, albeit disproportionate partners, who have a shared interest which Jacob is not timid in pursuing.

I propose that too much conventional church prayer is excessively soft and accommodating, and has lost the defiant edge that belongs to petitionary prayer.  Such prayers are softened in our common usage, on the one hand, by defeatist piety… That is, [our] prayer assumes that in our condition we have no rights to press or insist upon God.  On the other hand, [our] prayer is influenced by modernist secularism which does not ask much... because we do not imagine a God who could respond vigorously or effectively.  Our sense of self is too humiliated and our sense of God is too emptied to pray with the nerve and robustness that father Jacob readily utters.
It is hard for us to imagine wrestling all night with God, demanding a blessing, as Jacob does.  We tend to tread lightly around the holy.  We don’t want to mess with God.  But look at Jacob.  Look at the way the people of the Bible struggled with God.  You would be hard pressed to find a significant character in the Bible that did not face struggle.  And in our New Testament scripture, we have the example of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, struggling mightily with God, praying that this cup might pass.

To struggle with God, to wrestle with God, means that we take God seriously.  It means that we include God, that God is there with us as we face the difficulties of life.  We might want to think that if a person struggles with God, it is a sign of weak faith – but I think it may be just the opposite. 

Wrestling is a pretty intimate sport.  In baseball, a batter is 60 feet 6 inches away from the pitcher.  If you swim or run track, there is no contact with your opponent.  Even in a sport like football, you are wearing pads and helmets and you are not in contact all the time.  In wrestling, you are up close and personal.  To wrestle with God means that you and God are right there, together, fully engaged, in close contact, right in the midst of your struggles.

In Pope Francis’ address to Congress, he mentioned four Americans who were examples of faith and courage.  Abraham Lincoln, who led our nation through the civil war and issued the Emancipation Proclamation.  Martin Luther King, Jr., the American Baptist minister and leader of the civil rights movement.  Dorothy Day, an advocate for the poor and homeless who started the Catholic Worker Movement.  And Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk who was a writer and social activist.  His autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain, is a devotional classic. 

Besides being uniquely American and being proponents of liberty and justice, what these four had in common was enormous struggle.  They all endured harsh criticism, even threats, sometimes even from their own communities.  They confronted inner struggles.  They all had to face a dark night of the soul.  I think you could say that they all wrestled with God.

At the beginning of the movie “Shadowlands,” C.S. Lewis lectures confidently on the problem of evil.  “Suffering is the megaphone through which God gets our attention,” he tells his students.  He speaks as somebody who has all the answers, because he has never had to struggle with these questions in a personal way.  At the end of the movie, Lewis’ wife has died of cancer.  Lewis knows that he needs to talk to her son, Douglas, to try to offer a comforting word. He decides to tell the boy about his own mother’s death.  Lewis says, “When I was about your age my mother got sick and I prayed so hard for her to get well.”  Douglas interrupts, “It doesn’t work, does it?”  For what looks like the first time, Lewis isn’t sure how to answer.

Finally he begins to cry, “No.  It doesn’t work.”  Out of grief, through struggle, through a wrestling match, beyond anything that he imagined, Lewis finds his way to a faith that has been strengthened and proven through the fire.

Anne LaMott said, “God loves you just the way we are, and God loves you too much to let you stay that way.”  In the midst of our struggling, in the midst of our wrestling can come transformation.

Jacob is transformed by the experience.  Oh, he still has his issues, to be sure, but he is never the same.  When he meets his brother Esau, he is able to say to Esau, “To see your face is like seeing the face of God.”

We always look at this story from Jacob’s point of view, which is only natural.  There is some of Jacob in all of us.  But the picture may be different from God’s point of view.  One writer imagined this scene as God holding Jacob through the night as Jacob wrestled with himself.  A lot of the wrestling we do may be wrestling with life, wrestling with choices, wrestling with circumstances, wrestling with ourselves in the presence of God.

What is amazing to me is that the nation of Israel traces its name to this incident.  Jacob’s name becomes Israel and his descendants carry that name to this day.  It is an odd story, a strange story, yet it is one of the formative stories of the Hebrew people.  Walter Brueggeman asked, “What kind of God wrestles someone like Jacob to a draw?”  And the answer seems to be, a God who desires a relationship.  God wants to be with us in our struggles.

This story is not an invitation to go out and try to struggle with God.  Here, God initiates the whole thing.  Jacob wasn’t looking for a stranger to wrestle with.  We don’t have to go looking for struggles; they just come.  But when they do, we need to ask where God is in this struggle.

Life can sometimes it can be painful.  But as we struggle, God is there alongside us, holding us, blessing us, transforming us, until we see the sunrise.  God loves us just the way we are, and God loves us too much to let us stay that way.  Amen.  

Friday, September 18, 2015

“Is Anything Too Wonderful for God?” - September 20, 2015

Text: Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7

In Ecclesiastes, we read that “to everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.”  There is a time to weep and a time to laugh.  Ecclesiastes doesn’t mention it, but the writer might have added that there is a time not to laugh.

In stressful or serious situations, some people can laugh out of nervousness or anxiety.  When I was a kid, I would occasionally have to hold back a laugh when I was getting in trouble from my parents.  My sister would tell on me for something or other, my dad would be talking to me, and I would be trying to suppress a laugh, which of course only made things a lot worse.  That was definitely a time not to laugh.

And then in church on Sunday mornings, I would sit with a group of junior high aged boys, and Brian would make funny noises during the prayer and get us all laughing.  This was absolutely the wrong time to laugh.  Brian’s parents usually were not in church, but my mom was, and I had to pay for it.

Our scripture today involves laughter, and while there may be some implication that this was not a good time to laugh, the laughter seems totally appropriate and understandable.

Last week we looked at creation in Genesis 2, with the man and the woman in the Garden of Eden.  We looked at the beginnings of the first family.  Today we are in Genesis 18 with Abraham and Sarah and the beginnings of the first family of the Hebrew people.

To bring us up to speed on things before we get to today’s reading: God speaks to Abram in Ur of the Chaldees and calls him to take his family, his household, his flocks, all of his belongings, and move to a new place that God would show him.  There is a promise that God would make of Abraham and his wife Sarai (not Siri, but Sarai) a great nation, with descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky.

But things are not working out so well.  No spring chickens when God called them to move to this new land, they are even older now, with no children, no offspring, no heir, no child to carry on this audacious promise of God.  That promise from God was 25 years ago and the high hopes that Abram and Sarai once had had now faded.  The future is beginning to look bleak.  Abram has a son, Ishmael, by Sarah’s slave-girl Hagar, according to the custom of the day and at Sarah’s suggestion - but Sarah comes to regret it.

When Abram is 99 and Sarai is 89, God repeats the promise and tells Abram that his name shall now be Abraham.  Abram means exalted father, but Abraham means father of a multitude.  Likewise, Sarai’s name becomes Sarah, meaning Princess, recognizing her as the forbear of the nation.  It is the only instance in the Bible of a woman being given a new name.   And God tells Abraham that he will indeed have a son by Sarah.  Abraham falls on his face laughing.

God has been making this promise for 25 years, but there is still is no child.  The promise feels like a cruel joke.  Abraham and Sarah have new names to recognize their status as parents of a multitude, forbears of a great nation, but it feels ridiculous, given that they are old and still childless.

Then one day Abraham is sitting outside the tent, on the front porch as it were, and three men appear.  Abraham insists that they stop and rest.  He gets them water, has them sit in the shade under a tree, and says, “Let me bring you a little bread.” 

As it turns out, what Abraham means by “a little bread” is not exactly what I would mean.  He tells Sarah to take three measures of flour, or three seahs, and to knead it and make cakes.  3 seahs was about 20 quarts, which in my bread machine would make about 23 loaves of bread.  And then Abraham has his servant prepare a fatted calf, and serves it along with milk and curds and this massive amount of bread.  If that is “a little bread,” I wonder what a whole loaf looks like?

I remember visiting Mrs. Letterman, an older woman who lived in the Towers here down the street.  She had moved to Ames from Kansas City to be near a sister who lived in the area.  She had no children and she wasn’t able to get out much, but while she was able, she would walk up the hill to church here.  I visited her once in a while, and one day, even though I had overdone it at the men’s breakfast that morning, she invited me to have lunch with her and I didn’t feel like I could say no. “It won’t be much,” she said.  But she brought out a mountain of spaghetti with salad and French bread.  I was already full when we started, but I bravely made my way through the meal. 

“Stay and have a little bread,” says Abraham, and these visitors may have got more than they bargained for.  Then again, this was the way of hospitality in the Ancient Near East, and still is in many places today.  You provide for the stranger.  You provide for the traveler.   

To recap: Abraham invites, or maybe even implores these travelers to sit and rest while he brings them a little bread, and what they get is a 6000 calorie meal.  Abraham provides genuine and generous hospitality for these strangers.

But then the visitors completely change the arc of the story.  They are not just passing through these parts.  They ask if Sarah is around.  How do they know her name?  What is this about?  Who are these people?

Abraham tells them that Sarah is over there, in the tent.  And one of the men said, “I will return to you around this time next year, and your wife Sarah will have a son.”  God was speaking to Abraham though these visitors, and it is an even more explicit announcement of the long hoped-for promise.  Now there are details.  Now there is an actual time frame attached to it.

Sarah is listening from inside the tent.  And at hearing this statement that she will have a child, she laughs.  She laughs to herself, but it is loud enough for the visitors to hear.  It is cynical laughter, the rolling your eyes kind of laughter, the “yeah, right!” and absolutely appropriate.  What 90 year old wouldn’t laugh when told she is going to have a baby?  What other response could a person have?

I suppose the other response would be to cry.  These reminders of that long-ago promise that she would be the mother of a multitude just rubbed it in her face.  She was no longer of child-bearing age, and Abraham was now 100 years old.  She wasn’t capable of having a child, and she wasn’t sure Abraham was capable of doing his part either.  Her hopes for a child were long gone.  At this point, you could laugh or you could cry, and Sarah laughed, which to me is a pretty normal and healthy response.

Laughter is often the best response to life.  Sometimes all you can do is shake your head and laugh at the incongruity of it all.  Another Abraham, Abraham Lincoln, spoke of laughter as a survival technique.  Serving in a horrible, brutal time in our nation’s history, facing incredible pressure as well as personal pain and disappointments, Lincoln turned to laughter.  He told jokes.  He told stories.  It was a way to survive.

We may think of comedy as escapism, but comedy can be a way to face the realities that confront us, a way to name the incongruities of life.  Laughter can offer us a new perspective and can pierce the power of what is weighing us down.

The playwright Christopher Fry said, “Comedy is an escape, not from truth but from despair; a narrow escape into faith.”  Laughter can be a faithful response to life.

Upon hearing the ridiculous news that she will have a baby, Sarah laughs and says, “Surely you can’t be serious!”  And God replied, “I am serious.  And don’t call me Shirley.”

God asks Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh?” and then God says, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”
That’s really the question, isn’t it?  Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? 

Now you may have noticed the bulletin cover, which asks, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?”  The word here can be translated either way, but the meaning is about the same.  Is anything beyond the scope of God’s power and love and grace?  Is anything too difficult, too great, too awesome for God?

You might think that a good Christian should immediately answer “No,” but I think that question is best left hanging there for a while.  If we are honest, there are plenty of days when we wonder exactly that.  We are familiar with more than enough unfulfilled hopes and dreams and aspirations.  And I know that reading a passage like this is difficult for those who want to have children but find themselves unable.  For a lot of people, there is no miraculous birth as there was for Sarah.

“Is anything too wonderful for God?” is a tough question for someone who has prayed for years for healing, or for a loved one in the throes of addiction.  It is a tough question for someone who has faced setback after setback.

But if we can hang in there with God long enough, even if our prayers aren’t answered the way we hope, we sometimes find that the wonder is in a God who is with us and for us even as we face the difficult times of life, giving us hope and strength and courage and grace.

Let me tell you about a person with a dream.  His name was Maxcy Filer.  Born in Arkansas, he went to college in Indiana, where he married his wife, and they moved to Compton, California – a Los Angeles suburb of “Straight Outta Compton” fame.  As a young man Maxcy had been inspired by Thurgood Marshall and developed a passion for seeking justice for the oppressed and the marginalized.  Maxcy felt that God had put a dream in his heart to become a lawyer. And so, Maxcy went to law school, graduating in 1966 from the now-defunct Van Norman Law School in Los Angeles.

After finishing law school, he took the California bar exam.  He didn’t pass, and so he tried again.  And again.  And again.  He took the bar exam in Los Angeles, in San Francisco, in San Diego, in Riverside, wherever it was offered.  It was a three-day test.  He took the bar exam when his children were still living at home, and he took the bar exam along with two of his sons when they earned their law degrees.  The years came to have a certain rhythm.  He would take the bar exam every February and July and waiting to hear the results in May and November.

Filer didn’t put his life on hold as he waited.  He was an activist, a champion of equal rights for minorities.  A former president of the Compton Branch of the NAACP, he initiated voter-registration drives, promoted peace during the Watts riots and worked to foster racial harmony.  He encouraged talented African Americans to become political leaders.  He ran for City Council and served for many years.  He was a mentor to many young leaders in the community.  He was an unabashed promoter of the city and was known as “Mr. Compton.” 

But through it all, he remembered that dream and he kept taking the bar exam.  Maxcy took the bar exam after he started working for his sons as a law clerk in their office.  And he kept taking the bar exam when he reached an age when most people start thinking about retirement.    Finally, after 25 years, $50,000 in fees for exams and countless review courses, and a total of 144 days spent in testing rooms, Maxcy Filer passed the bar exam on his 48th try.  He was 61 years old.

You might wonder why Maxcy didn’t just give up and pursue something else.  He said that he couldn’t give up because he believed that God had planted a dream in him to become a lawyer, and he believed that God never gave up on him.

Maxcy did not open the envelope containing his results from the last time he took the bar. “He just assumed he had failed it again,” his son Kelvin said. “But my brother Anthony opened it.  I was in a meeting with the Compton Unified School District, and my brother showed up at the door saying, ‘Daddy passed!’  It was chaos.  The people at the meeting thought that meant he had died.  But I knew he had passed the bar.”

Maxcy Filer died a few years ago at age 80.  I saw a photograph of him and his two lawyer sons holding the notice that he had passed the bar.  They have big old smiles on their faces.  They are laughing, a laughter pure joy.

It is exactly what we find when just as God had promised, Sarah gives birth to a son.  He is given the name Isaac, which means, appropriately, “Laughter.”  And Sarah says, “God has given me reason to laugh, and all who hear will laugh with me!”

Is anything too wonderful for God?  The scriptures are filled with surprising, amazing works of God that elicit joy and celebration and laughter.  Time and again, God operates in ways that appear foolish to the world.  Time and again, God chooses to work through laughable, improbable people and events.  God used a downhearted 90-year-old woman like Sarah.  A man on the run with a speech problem named Moses.  A guy given to weird visions like Ezekiel.  A shepherd boy like David.  A young peasant girl like Mary.  A cheater like Zacchaeus.  A disreputable Samaritan like the woman at the well.  A persecutor of Christians and accomplice to murder whom we now know as St. Paul.  Just to name but a few. 

And then there is Jesus.  He was put to death on a cross, and everybody thought that was it.  But God had the last laugh, bringing hope from despair, life from death, laughter from mourning.

And the thing is, God is still in the business of using unlikely, improbable, imperfect people – people like you and me.  And God is still in the business of using unlikely groups of followers – like the First Baptist Church of Ames.

Is anything too wonderful for God?  It’s a good question.  And I think it is up to us to find out.  Amen.

“Created for Community” - September 13, 2015

Text: Genesis 2:4b-25

It is good to see you here this morning!  I was kind of worried that nobody would show up.  Last week, we covered the entire Bible in 18 minutes, hitting all of the highlights that you could fit into one sermon.  But since we covered the whole thing last week, I was afraid that those of you who were here last Sunday might not see a need to come back for awhile.  So, I’m glad you are here!

This fall, we will look at key, formative Old Testament stories.  We begin this morning with creation.  Might as well begin at the beginning, right?  Like the song says, it’s a very good place to start.  Our text today is the second creation story.  In the first creation account, in Genesis 1, God creates the world in seven days.  God says, “Let there be light!” and there is light.  God creates a portion of creation on each day and finally creates human beings.  God declares that creation is good, indeed it is very good.  And then on the seventh day, God rested.

Our scripture today is quite different.  I know that for some people, it is a revelation to hear that there are two different stories of creation - but there it is.  The first chapter of Genesis gives us this broad, big picture view of the heavens and the earth, but the second chapter of Genesis zooms in and describes creation in a very personal way.  If you want to think of it in terms of a football broadcast, Genesis 1 is the view from the Goodyear blimp, where you can see the stadium and parking lot and the formation of the marching band at halftime.  Genesis 2 is more of a zoom-in shot as the football crosses the plane of the goal line.  (If ISU had won, I was going to say Genesis 2 was like a slo-mo instant replay of Quentin Brundage scoring a touchdown, but since we didn’t win I’m not going to say that.)

These two accounts are obviously different.  Humans are created last in the first chapter of Genesis.  In the second creation narrative, the human is created first, before all the other animals.  God is distant and above it all in the first creation story, but here God is very hands-on and right in the middle of it all.  God is described in anthropomorphic terms, playing in the mud, walking in the garden and even doing a little surgery.

These two accounts come from two different traditions.  The language used is different; the Hebrew word for God in chapter 1 is Elohim throughout and in chapter 2 it is Yahweh.  Scholars believe that the second creation story is from an older tradition, but both were passed on orally for generations before being written down in what we know as the Book of Genesis.

So they are different, and both are helpful and important.  I think it is a good thing that we have two different creation accounts.  They speak to us in different ways, they remind us that there are multiple voices in scripture, and together they reinforce the fact that this is not about science.  Taking the Genesis story as a scientific account is a fairly recent idea.  Those who would like the Biblical account of creation to be taught as science are not taking the Bible seriously enough, or maybe they haven’t actually read the Bible.  Now, this doesn’t mean that these stories are not true.  Different as they are, these stories are absolutely the truth.  The Biblical accounts of creation tell us the deepest truths: the truth about God and the truth about the world and the truth about ourselves.

As far as the story itself: God stoops down and creates a human from the earth, from the ground.  God gets out the Play-Doh as it were and creates a human being.  What happens is a play on words in Hebrew.  God took the adamah (or the dust of the ground) and from it made adam.  The word here means human or more literally, earth-creature – creature made from the earth.  We actually have this same thing going on in English, with human having the same root as humus – a human is a creature of the soil, or of the earth.

God places this human, the adam, in a garden, the garden of Eden, with a responsibility to till and keep it.  The garden is filled with beautiful trees and all kinds of fruit.  The human may eat from any of the trees of the garden, save for one. 

In discussing the structure of good writing, Anton Chekhov famously said, “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.”  The forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is the rifle, and it goes off in the next chapter, but we will save that part of the story for another time.

God said, it is not good for the human to be alone.  In Genesis chapter 1, everything is good.  The light and the darkness, the heavens and the earth, the trees and the plants, the birds and the animals.  God keeps saying, “It is good.”  But now, for the first time, God says, “It is not good.  It is not good that the human should be alone.  I will make a helper, a partner.”

It is easy to read this and to think of a helper as an assistant, a subordinate, like Santa’s Little Helper or a Mother’s Helper or maybe Hamburger Helper.  But that’s not the case.  The Hebrew word is ezer, and it is used most often in reference to God.  For example, in Psalm 54 we read, “Surely, God is my helper.”  Or in Psalm 30: “Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me!  O Lord, be my helper!” 

In the hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” we sing this obscure phrase, “Here I raise my Ebenezer.”  It comes from 1 Samuel 7, where Samuel raises a monument to God, who has helped Israel.  Ebenezer literally is a “stone of help.”  This is all to say, the word in no way implies inferiority, and this is important, because in the history of interpretation of Genesis 2, there are those who used this story to argue for male superiority – to say that men are supposed to be in charge.

In search of a helper and partner, God makes out of the earth all of the animals, and whatever the human called the animals, that was its name.  We heard Bob Dylan reflecting a bit on what that was like in a kind of playful way.  But none of the animals was quite right for the human.  The human creature is still alone.  (John, I suspect that the Bernese Mountain Dog came close to being a suitable helper and partner, but not quite.)
So God gets creative – well, God had been nothing but creative, but God gets even more creative, and takes a rib from the human.  And from that rib, God makes the woman, presumably building the rib up using the same ground God had used to make all of the other creatures.  And the man said, “This at last is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.”  Which in todays’ language would be, “Now that’s what I’m talking about!”

The text continues, ”Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.”  Family becomes part of the human community, although it does not go so well for this first family.     

As scholar Phyllis Trible points out, at this point, when the humans are called man and woman, there are different words used, ish and ishah, man and woman, and it is the first time the humans are referred to by gender.  The chapter ends with this interesting comment that the man and the woman were naked and not ashamed.

There is a great deal to be found in this passage, but I think the overriding theme is connections -- community.  We are created for community.

We are created for community with God.  The care and love that God has for humanity is so evident.  God stoops down and painstakingly creates from the earth and then breathes life into the human.  We are dependent on God for our very breath.  Each time we breathe in and out, we can remember that we are created by God.  God provides a wonderful garden.  And when we read on in chapter 3, God would stroll through the garden at the time of the evening breeze.  The connection between God and God’s creatures is very close and personal and intimate.  This is not a faraway God but a God as close as our breath.

We are also created to live in community with the earth, with nature, with God’s creation.  I love the way that the rivers are described.  God is concerned about every detail, and you can just imagine the golden, shining land of Havilah, with the Pishon flowing all around it.  We are to live in community with the earth and all its creatures, and in fact, that is the vocation that the human is given: to till and keep the garden.  To care for and further God’s creation. 

We don’t always do that very well, of course, but living in community with the earth means that there is a mutual relationship -  as we take care of the earth, the earth takes care of us.  On the other hand, when the earth is suffering, we too will suffer.  This is unfortunately something that we see and experience as we live with the consequences of clear-cutting forests, polluting waterways, dumping pollutants into the atmosphere, and exhausting natural resources.  When we do not care for the earth, the earth cannot care for us and we suffer from acid rain, ozone depletion, melting ocean ice, groundwater depletion and water shortages and global climate change. 

Theologically speaking, it is not that we are to care for the earth for what we can get out of it, though that is certainly a massive benefit.  But we are to care for the earth and all of creation because that is what God has called us to do.

And then we were created to live in community with one another.  God said, “It is not good for the human to be alone.”  It is not good for any of us to be alone.  And I’m not just talking about finding a spouse or significant other, important as that may be.  Life in general is not meant to be lived alone.  And so we have families and friendships and we live in communities.  This is one reason we have the church.  We can all try to follow Jesus individually, but it works a lot better when we gather together, when we support and encourage and challenge and teach one another.   We are meant to live in community.

Part of what it means to live in community is this matter of names.  Names are important.  In our scripture, the rivers have names, the animals have names, and the man and woman have names as well – adam, which means human or man in a general sense, becomes the man’s name, which we call Adam, and the woman is named Eve in chapter 3.

I think it is important that we have this detail about the human naming the animals.  By doing that, the human was involved in creation with God, and because God created and cares about every creature, so should we.  But even more than that, when we know a name, we are more attuned to reality, more in touch with the world around us.

You can talk about a random tree, or you can talk about the maple out by the street or the ash in the back yard.  It is different.  In Yellowstone this summer, we saw some pronghorn just up the hill.  Pronghorn are native to North America and have no close relatives anywhere in the world.  They are the second-fastest land animal, second only to the cheetah.  It was cool to see them and to know they were pronghorn.  It meant more than if we had just seen some sort of critter with horns sticking out of its head.

Names are important.  You can call an animal a dog, but it means more to call it a poodle or dachshund, and even more to call him Fritz.

Names are important to relationships, important to human community.  There is a reason we have name tags.  It makes it easier to learn each other’s names, but the reason it is important to know one another’s names is that being known as a unique person is important.  Being known is part of being in community.

If you are like me, you have had the experience of meeting someone a couple of times and then seeing them again and not being able to come up with their name.  It is awkward, and you don’t feel like you can ask because you feel like you probably should remember it.  You might recall where they live, where they work, what their major is, but there is something powerful about knowing each other’s names.

At the end of the chapter, we read that the man and woman were naked and not ashamed.  There is more to it, of course, but part of what this means is that they are not hiding anything and are known to one another and to God at a deep level.

We are to live in community with God, with nature, and with one another.  And these are all connected.  In rising ocean levels and disappearing bees and sick children and senseless violence all over the world, in hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war-torn lands, we see plainly that there’s no separation between human beings and nature, between men and women, between this nation and that nation, between this continent and that island, between our generation and those to follow.  We are all in this together.

More than ever, we need to till and keep the garden, to live in relationship with one another and all creation, to live life connected to our Creator.  May it be so.  Amen.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

“The Whole Story” - September 6, 2015

Text: (attempt at a summary of the whole Biblical story)

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.  God spoke and the world came into being: land and sky, plants and animals, rivers and oceans, stars and sand.  And it was good.  It was all good.  And then, God made humanity.  “Let  us make them in our image,” God said.  Male and female, God created them.  And God said, “It is very good.”

God gave the man and woman a beautiful garden in which to live.  A garden with everything that they need.  They are to till and keep the garden – to use it for food, for shelter, and to be stewards of the garden.  They may eat from any of the trees in the garden but one: The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

But the serpent told the woman that if they ate from that tree, they would be like God.  And so, they did.  Their eyes were opened, but paradise was lost.  They could no longer live in that garden, and after that, life was a struggle.

Things did not get better with time.  As humanity spread and grew, so did the brokenness.  Finally God spoke to Noah, told him to build an ark and bring along animals, two of every kind.  And Noah did.  Noah and his family got on the ark and the rain began.  For forty days and forty nights it rained.  The earth was flooded; mountains were covered.  Finally Noah sent out a dove, and it returned with an olive branch.  There was land. 

And there was a rainbow.  A promise.  A promise for life.  And God follows this up with another promise - a promise to Abraham, in Ur of the Chaldees.  God called Abraham and his wife Sarai to go to a new place which God would show them.  “I will make of you a great nation,” God said.  “I will bless you and all the world will be blessed because of you.  Your descendants will be like the stars in the sky.” 

Years later, when Sarah was long past child-bearing age, God told Abraham that Sarah would have a son.  Overhearing this, Sarah laughed.  Yet it came to be, and the boy was named Isaac, which means “Laughter.”

Isaac was the heir to God’s continued promise.  Isaac and his wife Rebecca had twins - Jacob and Esau, quarreling from birth.  Jacob, the younger, was favored and chosen, crafty and calculating.  Esau was not.

Jacob grows up, he bears the fruit of his deception, he dreams of a great stairway to heaven, and God makes a covenant with him – the same promise made to his father and grandfather.  But Jacob struggled, wrestled with God.  Asking, “Who are you?”  He is not given a name, but is renamed himself.  “You are Israel, for you have struggled with God.”  Israel left with a limp, but the nation would bear his name. 

Israel had twelve sons – the fathers of twelve tribes.  Joseph, the favorite of the twelve, had a prized gift from his father: a coat of many colors.  His brothers were jealous and sold him into slavery in Egypt.  Thinking Joseph dead, Israel’s heart was broken.

In Egypt, Joseph fared incredibly well.  He rose up the ranks because of his ability to interpret dreams and became second in command, in charge of all the grain in the country in a time of impending famine.  The other brothers came to Egypt in search of food.  Joseph, able to grant life or death, provided for them, forgave them, and the family was reunited.  Israel’s family was given choice land and settled in Egypt in the land of Goshen.

But in time, the Pharaohs forgot this history.  The Israelites became very numerous, were seen as a threat and put into slavery.  Pharaoh ordered that Israelite infants be killed.  The people cried out to God.  But God had not forgotten them or the promise.

Moses was born and to save his life, his mother put him in a basket in the bulrushes, where Pharaoh’s own daughter found him and raised him in Pharaoh’s palace.  Years later, a burning bush spoke to Moses, telling him to take off his shoes because he is standing on Holy Ground.  A voice from the bush said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.”  But Moses wants to know God’s name.  The reply is simply, “I am who I am.”  God tells Moses to go and tell Pharaoh, “Let my people go.”  Moses resisted God’s call but God said, “Tell Pharaoh I AM sent you.”  And Moses went.

Pharaoh was not amenable to this request, of course, and so God sent plagues - blood, frogs, locusts and more - and then, the Passover.  Pharaoh finally relented.  Yet Pharaoh’s army gave chase when the Israelites left, so God parted the waters of the Red Sea and the Israelites walked right through.  They were free from slavery but they complained about life in the wilderness.  God sent manna to sustain them.

Moses climbed to the top of Mt. Sinai where God gave him the Law, the Ten Commandments, ways of life for God’s people.  “I brought you out slavery in the land of Egypt, therefore, live as my people.”  But by the time Moses descended the mountain, the people had already made a golden calf to worship.

The people wandered in the wilderness for forty years.  Moses did not reach the Promised Land himself, but led by Joshua, the people crossed the Jordan River into the land of Canaan.  The tribes were ruled by judges, leaders like Gideon and Samson and Deborah and Samuel, but in time, the people wanted a king, like the other nations.  So God gave them kings, but even in the Golden Age of Israel, with Kings Saul and David and Solomon, the Israelites turned from God.  Factions developed, the kingdom was split, the people followed other gods.  There were corrupt kings and conquering armies.

The psalmists wrote of their feeling of abandonment: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  They wrote of waiting: “How long, O Lord?”  They wrote of trust: “the Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.”  They wrote of safety: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”  They offered praise: “O Lord our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!”  And they wrote of God’s care for humanity: “When I consider the heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou art mindful of him?  The son of man, that thou visitest him?”

There were writings that gave people direction.  In Proverbs we read, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” 

The prophets called the people to faithfulness.  Amos said, “Let justice roll like water, sand righteousness like a never-failing stream.”  Micah said to the people, “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.”  Habakkuk told the people, “The just shall live by faith.”

Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel, and despite all of the pyrotechnics, he encounters God not in earthquakes or winds or fire, but in a still small voice.  He was taken away to heaven in a chariot of fire. 

There were those who even in captivity remained faithful to God.  Daniel was thrown in the lion’s den for refusing to worship any God but the God of Israel, but God closed the mouths of the lions and protected Daniel, just as God protected Daniel’s friends Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego when they were thrown in the fiery furnace.

In time the Jews who were taken into captivity in Babylon returned.  The governor Nehemiah and the priest Ezra oversaw the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem.

And the prophets continued to speak.  Isaiah prophesied, “For a child has been born for us, a son is given to us… and he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  Jeremiah said, “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.”

And God did make a new covenant.  An angel from God appeared to a woman named Mary.  The angel said, “Greetings, favored One!  The Lord is with you.  Do not be afraid.  You shall bear a son, and his name shall be Jesus.  The child to be born to you will be great and will be called Son of God.”  And Mary said, “I am the servant of the Lord.”

She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.  John wrote, “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  

John the Baptist paved the way for Jesus.  When he baptized Jesus in the river, the heavens were torn open, a dove descended, and a voice from heaven said, “You are my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Jesus ushered in God’s Kingdom.  His message was, "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand."  He preached: “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.”  “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”  He spoke in parables: The kingdom is like a mustard seed – the tiniest of seeds that yet grows into something great.  The kingdom is like a prodigal son who leaves home, squanders his inheritance, and yet is welcomed home by a loving and forgiving father.

Jesus said we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, and when somebody asked, “Who is our neighbor?” he told the story of a man beaten on the side of the road.  A hated Samaritan, whom we now call the Good Samaritan, was the one to help – he was a neighbor to the man in need.

Jesus traveled from town to town.  The blind could see, the lame could walk, the lepers were healed.  He fed multitudes with a boy’s lunch and turned water into wine at a wedding.  He scandalized the establishment by associating with known sinners.  He included women in his circle of friends and supporters.  And when his friend Lazarus died, he wept.

Through it all, Jesus pointed us to God.  He showed us how to live.  This was God’s will, God’s way, God’s Kingdom.  But not everyone approved.  Some saw Jesus as a threat.  There was a plot.  A betrayal.  A payoff: thirty pieces of silver.  But on that night that he was betrayed, Jesus shared a meal, the Passover meal, a meal to remember God’s faithfulness.  He gave his disciples a command to share this meal in remembrance of him. 

Before long, he was before the authorities - soldiers mocking, crowds jeering.  There was a crown of thorns.  Nails through his hands.  A cross on a hill called Golgotha, or Calvary.  Nearly all of his followers abandoned him.  Peter denied him.  Jesus cried out, “It is finished.”  And he was laid in a tomb. 

But on the third day, women were going to the tomb when they found the stone rolled away.  An angel said, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is nor here, but he has risen.”  God acted and brought forth life from death, hope from despair, joy from mourning.  After the resurrection, Jesus appeared to his followers on several occasions and then ascended to heaven.

Not long after, on the Day of Pentecost, the disciples were gathered together when there was a mighty rush of wind, and the Spirit descended like tongues of fire.  God’s Spirit was present, giving them faith and courage and a call to share the Good News with all nations.  And they did. 

A man named Saul, a persecutor of this new movement, was traveling to Damascus when he was blinded by a light and a voice came from heaven: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  Saul was converted and became Paul, the great apostle.  Paul was ministering among the Gentiles and a dispute arose over whether Gentiles must follow Jewish law in order to be followers of Jesus.  A council was held in Jerusalem and it was decided that the gospel should be available to all people.  The church grew throughout the Middle East and the Mediterranean world.  Paul and Barnabas and Silas went on missionary journeys.  Paul and others wrote letters, sometimes even from jail cells, sharing what God had done, imploring believers to live as faithful followers of Christ.

The cross and the empty tomb changed everything.  We now see that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  God’s new covenant is that we are justified by grace as a gift, completely apart from anything we have done.  Nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus.  Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.  

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”

According to the promise made back in the first chapters of Genesis.  Through this great story, we are drawn to have faith in God’s promises.  Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  And we know that God is faithful; by him we were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.   

One day, God’s kingdom will be fulfilled.  The Lamb will be seated on the Throne.  God will make all things new.  There will be a new heaven and a new earth, and every tear will be wiped away.  There will be a New Jerusalem, with the river of life flowing from the throne of God.  And in the middle of the city will be a tree: not the old tree at the center of the Garden, but the Tree of Life – whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.  And all who want to drink of the waters of the River of Life are welcome: “let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”

The final book of the Bible ends, “Come, Lord Jesus.  The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints.  Amen.”

(Thanks to Rev. Jason Lee for the idea  for this sermon.  In writing this sermon, I drew from Jason's sermon and also asked members of our church to share favorite Bible verses or stories, which I wove into the narrative.)