Saturday, October 29, 2016

“God Meant It for Good” - September 25, 2016

Text: Genesis 37:3-11, 17-22, 26-34; 50:15-21

If you think about it, it is amazing that we gather together each week and consider scriptures written by people who lived in a completely different culture, with a pre-scientific worldview, two to three thousand years ago.  The way they lived was very different from us.  Housing was different, transportation was different, health care was different, retirement was different, family life was different, basic ideas about the nature of the world and the way the world worked were strikingly different.  And yet we turn to these writings week after week, seeking truth and meaning and seeking God.

But the things is, as different as these people may have been, we read stories – stories of real people, stories of real families, stories of real communities that know both struggles and joys, and as different as they were, we can see ourselves in these stories.  And we know that at some level, these are also our stores, and God speaks to us in the midst of this.

Last week we looked at Abraham and Sarah.  Though it seemed unlikely at the time, God told Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky – and God’s promise proved to be true.

Abraham and Sarah had a son named Isaac.  Isaac is not a part of our reading today, but some of the realities at play in the story can certainly be traced back to Isaac and his wife Rebecca.  As you may recall, they had twin sons named Jacob and Esau.  It would not be overstating it to say that the two sons had an intense sibling rivalry.  This was only encouraged by their parents, who each had a favorite.  Jacob was his mother’s favorite while Esau was his father’s.

Rebecca helped Jacob to cheat Esau out of both the blessing and the birthright that belonged to him as the oldest.  Jacob eventually fled out of fear of what Esau might do to him.  He went back to the old country and worked for his Uncle Laban, and eventually married his cousin Rachel – except that at the wedding, Laban pulled the old switcheroo and the woman under the veil, the woman whom he had married, was not Rachel but her sister Leah.  He worked for Laban another seven years for the right to marry Rachel.

Now Jacob is back home, he has made amends more or less with Esau, and he has many children.  His entire family history is one of favoritism and treachery and cheating and dysfunction, but Jacob, or Israel as he is known by now, has grown and learned along the way.  He was given the name Israel after wrestling with God.  But the thing is, while he has learned and grown, he hasn’t really changed all that much. 

Our scripture this morning begins, “Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his children.”  Instantly there is a red flag.  We know that this is a problem.  We know that this is a really bad idea.

What the narrator does not tell us is that Joseph was the first child born to Rachel – the sister Jacob had wanted to marry in the first place and his favored wife.  (That’s another bad idea, but that is probably for another sermon.)

It is not simply that Jacob has a favorite child; he makes no pretense about it.  He gives Joseph a coat with long sleeves.  That is the Hebrew text.  For some reason, the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, has this as a coat of many colors.  Now you tell me: what sounds more appealing – Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat or Joseph and the Amazing Long-Sleeved Robe?  It’s really not much of a contest.

Clothing is important.  Clothing matters.  You may not be very particular about the way you dress and you may think that what a person wears really doesn’t make any difference.  And to an extent that is true.  On Sunday mornings here some wear shorts and some wear suits and ties, and it’s all fine.  It’s not about what we wear.

But the fact is, clothing can convey status.  I remember as a kid having some Sears Jeepers tennis shoes, and they were definitely not cool next to the kids who had Converse All-Stars.  What we wear can matter.
An awful lot of people in the ancient world owned only one coat, or robe.  If you wanted a new one, you couldn’t just run to Target or order one off of Amazon.  Every piece of fabric had to be woven by hand, and it was time consuming.  A person might spend months weaving fabric for a robe.  Clothing was a symbol of status, of importance, of wealth.

Whether it was a special long-sleeved robe or whether it was an Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – or maybe an Amazing Long-Sleeved Technicolor Dreamcoat – Jacob had given Joseph a robe that not only conveyed status, that not only made people take notice of how special Joseph must be, but that also rubbed it in to Joseph’s siblings every time they saw it.  Jacob did not even pretend to love his children equally.  And it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that there will be repercussions.

Joseph, for his part, is not embarrassed by the special attention; he seems to revel in it.  He has dreams of his own greatness and is only too happy to share these dreams with his brothers.  “I dreamed we were all binding sheaves in the field,” he says.  “My sheaf stood up and all of your sheaves bowed down to it.”  And then he told them another dream: “The sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”  Did I mention that Joseph had 11 brothers? 

Is Joseph arrogant, is he tone deaf, is he trolling his brothers, or is he just a teenager?  The answer is probably, “Yes.”  But this does not help family dynamics in this family that kind of had two strikes to start with.

Joseph’s brothers are out in the fields with the flocks, and Jacob sends Joseph out to them.  Knowing the way his brothers feel about him, you kind of have to question Jacob’s judgment at this point.  But then, if he were that aware of the results of his actions, he would no doubt have done a lot of things differently.

Joseph’s brothers can see him coming from a distance.  Maybe there is something to the coat of many colors possibility – that would stand out from a distance more than long sleeves.  Or, maybe it is just the way he walks, or maybe he is the only one who would be coming to see them out in the fields.  As he approaches, they vent their anger and hostility toward him.

They are so consumed with envy, with jealousy, with hatred that they would kill their own brother – even their younger brother they were supposed to take care of.  They want to kill him and thrown him in a pit and say that a wild animal got him.  But Reuben, the oldest brother, doesn’t want to do him harm.  “Let’s not shed his blood – let’s just throw him in the pit and leave him here,” he says.  He planned to come back and let him out later.  They listen to Reuben and throw Joseph in a pit.  Reuben wanders off apparently, and when some Midianite traders happen to pass by, Judah says that it would be better to sell him into slavery than to leave Joseph to die.  So that is what happens.  When Reuben returns to the scene, he is utterly distraught by this turn of events.  To explain it to their father, the brothers take Joseph’s robe, dip it in goat blood, and take it back to Jacob.  

Jacob surmises for himself that a wild animal got Joseph.  But it is interesting that his sons give Jacob back the gift he had given Joseph – with blood on it.  They are not just getting back at Joseph; they are also getting back at their father.

OK: this is a seriously messed-up family.  I guess one of the things that happen when you read stories like this in the Bible is that you can look at your own family and think, “Hey, maybe we’re not that bad.  Our family isn’t perfect, but at least we don’t plot murder and sell our siblings into slavery.”  We read this and our families seem pretty good by comparison. 

It is a wild story.  The coat may or may not be Technicolor but the characters and the story certainly are.  From Abraham and Sarah down through the generations – to Isaac and Rebecca, to Jacob and Leah and Rachel, to Joseph and his brothers – the promise has been that God will use these people as a blessing to others.  A blessing to others.  Right now, they are not even a blessing to each other, much less to the nations.  How will this ever happen?

Our second reading comes much later in the story.  In the intervening time, Joseph almost miraculously rises in Egypt, largely on his ability to interpret dreams, to become second in command in all the nation.  In a time of impending famine, he is in charge of all the grain in the country.  And when his brothers come to Egypt, desperate for food, they meet up again with their long-lost brother Joseph.  There is a reconciliation of sorts, but the brothers are still scared to death.  When Jacob dies, they figure that Joseph was just biding his time, just waiting until the old man was gone to get his revenge.  And so they fall down before him and beg for their lives.  They fall down before him, just like in those dreams that Joseph had as a kid.

But time and life have given Joseph perspective.  He tells his brothers, “You meant this for harm, but God meant it for good.”  In retrospect, Joseph can see that what had happened actually served to save his family.  Somehow, improbably, impossibly, Joseph is in charge of all the grain in the one place in the whole region that has any.  In the end, good came out of what was meant for evil.

This is not to say that God orchestrated the whole thing.  This is not to say that God led his brothers to want to kill Joseph.  This is to say that God has a way of working even in the midst of treachery and human sin to bring about good.  God is faithful even if we are not.

Now, if you look at this story and want to find a few practical applications, it’s not that hard.  I’m going to lay it out and just be real blunt about it, if you don’t mind.

#1 – Don’t play favorites.  It’s just a bad idea.  Now, I have to admit that I do have a favorite child.  But if you only have one child, that’s OK.  Or maybe another way of putting it is that they should all be your favorite child.

#2 – Don’t be a jerk.  You probably thought there would be something more profound when you came to church this morning, but this is one of the takeaways from the scripture.  Joseph was severely handicapped in this regard, because his father, Jacob, is maybe the biggest jerk in the Bible, and the apple did not fall far from the tree.  As a teenager, Joseph only thinks of himself, he rubs his favored status in the face of others, and surprise, surprise: the result is not pretty.  We have probably observed similar things.  Maybe we have lived it ourselves. 

#3 – Think things through before you do something stupid.  Again, it’s pretty simple.  Reuben was distraught over what they had done to Joseph.  As the years went on, everybody regretted their actions.  This altered life not just for Joseph, but for the entire family – the brothers carrying guilt and shame and regret, Jacob carrying the burden of loss and grief for many years.  A little foresight on the front end would have gone a long way.

I have a friend named Ken who has several nephews and other family members, all young adults, who live in a place where guns are plentiful.  Along with nearly all their friends and social group, they are almost always carrying a gun.  They are young, they are a little on the wild side, they tend to drink too much and get into arguments.  Now, conflicts are a part of life and disagreements are going to happen.  But when you compound that with alcohol and when everybody has a gun, bad things happen.  Nearly all of Ken’s male young adult family members in that area are in jail, they have been shot, or they are dead.  It’s tragic.  I wonder if Joseph and his brothers were kind of like that.

Thinking things through before doing something stupid applies not only to those who turn quickly to violence when conflict arises; it also applies to a culture that allows that to happen.  And lest we get sidetracked by a big societal issue, important as gun violence is, we all face those decisions and situations where thoughtfulness rather than an impulsive reaction would be really helpful.

#4 – Remember who you are.  Remember who you are.  God made a covenant with Abraham that his descendants would be like the stars in the sky and a blessing to the nations.  It was a covenant passed on generation by generation, a covenant God renewed with Jacob, who came to be called Israel.  Israel’s children knew that they were heirs to that promise. 

But to observe their behavior, you wouldn’t know that.  To see the pettiness and arrogance, to see the envy and jealousy, to see the treachery and violence in their hearts, you wouldn’t know that.

We need to remember who we are.  We are brothers and sisters in Christ.  We are Jesus’ hands and feet in this world.  We are children of God.  When time are difficult, when we feel down, when we feel alone, when we are discouraged or troubled or bewildered, it can be helpful to remember that we are God’s children.

And then, #5.  This is where the story ends.  Even if we fail miserably on numbers 1-4, even if we make a terrible mess of things, even when we forget who we are, God is there and God loves us.  Even in our world of dysfunction and violence and sin and evil and just plain meanness, God does not forget us and God does not abandon us.  Even when we are not faithful, God is always faithful.  Even in a world in which so much is meant for harm, God is always working for good.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

"A Fall Sermon" - September 11, 2016

Text: Genesis 2:4b-8, 15-17, 3:1-8

In traditional Christian theology, it is called “The Fall.”  That moment when sin entered the human race, became a part of the human condition.  There is a famous little jingle that goes all the way back to The New England Primer, an elementary reader published by the Puritans in 1642: “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.”

Well – thanks a lot, Adam.  Thanks for the taint of Original Sin.  We may not make a habit of quoting that little jingle, but we know the sentiment.  In everyday language we sometimes excuse our behavior by saying, “Hey - I’m only human,” which means roughly the same thing. 

Today we are kicking off the fall, appropriately enough, by looking at The Fall.  (I didn’t get a title in the bulletin but if I had, it would say, “A Fall Sermon)  We are starting a new church year with the Narrative Lectionary, a set of scripture readings for each Sunday that follows the narrative – the storyline - of the Bible.  The readings will be different than last year, but again we will start in Genesis and look at key Old Testament stories through up until Advent.  After Christmas, we will read continuously through one gospel, this year the gospel of Luke, until Easter. 

Our scripture today, of Adam and Eve in the garden, is as good a place as any to begin, because it is one of those formative stories in the Bible.  It gets some big ideas out there from the very first pages of scripture.  Creation, humanity, community, sin, grace – it’s all there. 

In Chapter 1 of Genesis, God creates the world in seven days, beginning with the heavens and the earth.  Each day God creates a portion of creation and then pronounces what has been created as good.  Finally, God creates human beings, male and female, in God’s image, and God says that it is very good.

In chapter 2, we have another account of creation, a much earthier version (pun intended).  God creates the human being from the dust of the ground and breathes life into the human.  It is a play on words in Hebrew – God made adam from the adamah.  God made a human from the humus. 

The human is placed in the garden to till and keep it.  The English translation actually understates the relationship of the human to the garden.  The word translated “till” is really closer to “serve.”  And to “keep” the garden really has a connotation of guarding, watching over, protecting.  The Psalm says “the Lord will watch over your going out and coming in from this day on and forevermore.”  The word “watch over” is the same word used here.

So the human is created, God breathes life into the human, and there is a vocation – a calling – to work, serve, to protect, to watch over the garden.  There is a vocation, and there is also a limitation.  It is a small limitation, but it is a limitation.  The human can eat of every tree in the garden.  Imagine acres and acres of fruit trees and fruit-bearing plants.  Apples and oranges and peaches and pears.  Mangos and bananas and coconuts.  Apricots, plums, cherries, pomegranates, pecans, walnuts, almonds, avocados, figs, dates.  Throw in vegetables and berries and grains.  We are talking about an incredible gift.  We are talking about freedom – God said, you may freely eat of any tree in the garden.

But there was also limitation.  The human was not to eat from one tree: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 

In the ensuing verses, the woman is created from adam.  The woman is called Eve, which means “life,” and adam becomes the proper name for the man, Adam. 

So you have a man and a woman living in this beautiful garden.  They are to care for the garden and to keep and protect the garden, and they may eat from a veritable smorgasbord of offerings.  They may freely eat of everything in the garden, save for one thing.  Save for one tree.

Now, if you are given all kinds of stuff but told that there is one thing you cannot have, what do you tend to focus on?  What you have or what you don’t have?  What you are allowed or what is forbidden?

If a child is taken to a toy store and told that they can choose any toy in the whole place except for that shiny bicycle over there, what is the one thing they are going to want?

If someone is told that they can focus on any area of research they would like, but that this one area is off limits, which area is going to intrigue them the most?

If you are hiking and find a trail that appears to lead to an incredibly beautiful place, but a sign says do not enter, which trail is going to interest you the most?

Our instinct is to strive, to be ambitious, to attain that which we don’t yet have.  Our instinct is to want more.  And if there is anything we don’t like, it is somebody placing limits on us.  We don’t like being told no, not by anyone.

The man and woman seemed to do OK in this beautiful garden – for a while.  But then one day, the woman is approached by the serpent.  The serpent asks, “Did God say you can’t eat from any tree in the garden?”  The woman replied that she and the man could eat from any tree in the garden except for the one in the middle of the garden – they weren’t to even touch it or they would die.  Now, God had not actually said that, but apparently, just to be on the safe side, the man and woman had added the part about even touching the tree. 

The serpent said, “Of course you won’t die – God knows that your eyes will be open and you will know good and evil.  You will be like God.”

Interestingly, the woman saw that it was good.  She apparently already knew good.  The woman and the man saw that it was good, it looked delicious, it would make them wise, and so they ate.  And when they ate, their eyes were open and they knew they were naked, so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths.

Then, they heard God walking in the garden, around the time of the evening breeze.  Martin Luther had an interesting take on this.  Luther said that when that first couple heard the wind, they thought it was God.  It was actually just the wind, but they assumed it was God and so they hid.

What the woman and the man came to know after eating the fruit was guilt and shame.  They wanted to cover themselves up.  They hid from God just as they were in a sense hiding from one another.  And when they are found out, they turn to blaming.   The man blamed the woman – she gave me the fruit.  The woman blamed the serpent – he tricked me. 

Now, people have done all kinds of things with this text.  There are those who have argued that women cannot be ordained ministers because Eve was the first to take a bite of the apple.  If you read this story and that is the meaning you get from it, I would worry about you.  I really don’t think that is the point.

There are those theologians who have used this passage to argue for a doctrine of Original Sin – that sin entered the human race by the sin in the garden, and since then there has been a more or less hereditary passing on of sin.  Before the fall, humanity was capable of living sin-free, but no more.

I think that is also may be a little bit too much reading into the story.  To me, this is a kind of universal story about all of us, about the choices that we all make, about the nature of temptation, about our striving for more, about the nature of shame.

I mentioned the great coach Vince Lombardi last week, and I hate to do this to you, but I’m going to quote him again this week.  Lombardi famously said, in a comment that is etched in the American psyche, “Winning isn’t everything – it’s the only thing.”  The comment kind of spun out of and Lombardi came to regret it.  “I wish I’d never said the damn thing,” he said shortly before his death.  “I meant the effort… I meant having a goal… I surely didn’t mean to crush human values.”

But that attitude, that drive to succeed and to get what you want at all costs, no matter what sacrifices are made or who might get hurt, is deeply rooted in American culture.  We have all seen that.  It is also exactly the kind of thing that our scripture warns about.  Ambition can get the best of us.  Accomplishing and acquiring and accumulating all sorts of things has a big part in determining our sense of worth, and that is not always a good thing.

Peter Marty recalled a cartoon in an old New Yorker magazine.  A wealthy husband and wife with self-satisfied grins sit down to dine at a fancy restaurant.  The waiter introduces them to the menu.  “For your convenience,” he says, “the starred items are dishes associated with success, riches, power, and the like.”

The man and woman were in to upward mobility.  They wanted to be like God.  They were not the last ones with that desire.  Adam and Eve went on to have three children, three boys.  Abel was blessed, seemed to do everything well.  He was the golden boy who somehow managed to get what he wanted.  Abel never seemed to make a mistake, except one.  One day, he went for a walk with his brother.

Cain had a much more difficult time of it.  He wanted everything his brother had.  He resented his brother and blamed Abel when he didn’t get it.  Cain blamed his brother to the point that he knew that if he could just get rid of Abel, it would all be his.  And so he did, but life did not get better.  He spent the rest of his life wandering the earth, carrying a load of guilt for murdering his brother.  He thought that the only way to get rid of the guilt would be for someone to do to him as he had done to Abel – but no one ever would.

The treachery and murder in their family compounded the guilt and shame that Adam and Eve felt.  And they saw the continuing cycle of blaming and wanting more.  They could see it in their third son, Seth, and his children.  And their children and their children.  Generation after generation, always striving, always wanting more. And when they got more, they would still want more.  To have more, they would steal and cheat and lie and fight wars, nation against nation.

And if it that didn’t work out, they could always find someone to blame.  The government.  The schools.  The administrators and bureaucrats.  They could blame the church. Blame the media.  Blame their families, their neighbors, their bosses.  Blame their enemies.

Today is the fifteenth anniversary of what we know simply as 9/11.  Freshmen entering Iowa State were only 3 or 4 years old when it happened.  It was that long ago, but I remember it very well.  I was driving to church, not too far from our house, about to turn onto 13th Street.  I was listening to Morning Edition on NPR when they started talking about a plane that had crashed into the World Trade Center.  The early reports were sketchy, but as the morning went on it was clear something awful had happened, and we all knew that life was going to change in some way.  There were incredible stories of courage and bravery and sacrifice that we continue to remember and honor.  But what we felt most was deep loss and deep sadness.

What happened on 9/11 fell in that long line of violence and blaming and hatred that goes back centuries, even millennia.  Harry Emerson Fosdick’s great hymn has a line, “Cure thy children’s warring madness; bend our pride to thy control.”  The sentiment of that hymn has always been needed. 

I think of the 15 years since September 11, 2001, and the choices that have been made.  Choices made by all kinds of people, including us.  And sometimes I wonder if maybe the sort of choices made back in the first pages of scripture keep getting made over and over, again and again and again.

The episode we read about this morning is not just Adam and Eve’s story; it is also our story.  It is about choices that we all make, over and over, even when we know better.

The comedian Ron White put it this way: “They told me I had the right to remain silent… I may have had the right, but I didn’t have the ability.”  Knowledge alone is not enough.  Knowing what we ought to do is not always enough.  Falling short is part of the human story. 

In the end, the man and the woman did not die, not on that day.  At least not a physical death.  But innocence died, trust was broken, and the closeness they had felt to God and to one another would never completely be recovered. 

Yet in this story we also have grace.  Grace in that even as they left behind the garden and had to travel east of Eden, God was with them, caring for them, providing for them.  Grace in that while the knowledge we gain does not necessarily lead to wisdom or to making the right choices, it does increase our ability to do good, our ability to bring about justice and righteousness and healing.

And grace in the fact that just as the man and woman had choices, so do we.  We have freedom.  We have the ability to live in God’s grace, to take up the vocation of serving and keeping God’s people and God’s world – or not.  And there is grace in that while humanity kept making choices that just broke God’s heart, God never gave up on us.  Filled with pride, humanity kept saying, “More!”  But in time God sent One filled with humility who went to Calvary and said, “Enough.”  Thanks be to God.  Amen.