Saturday, December 5, 2020

“Do Not Be Afraid: Hold Hope” - November 29, 2020

Text: Luke 1:26-45


In this, the strangest year of most of our lives, we are entering into the season of Advent.  And like most everything else this year, Advent is going to be different this time around.  Christmas is going to be different.  But it seems to me that with many of the usual festivities and much of the typical hoopla set aside this year, we may have a chance to experience this season in a new and perhaps a deeper way.

Advent is a word that means coming.  This is a time of beginning.  Today is the beginning of a new liturgical year.  And you know, with all that has happened and all that is going on right now, this is really welcome.  We could use a new start, we could use a new beginning about right now.

The beginning that we read about in our scripture this morning comes about in a most unlikely way.  The angel Gabriel is sent to a town in Galilee, in northern Israel, far from the center of power in Jerusalem, to the town of Nazareth.  The angel appears to a young woman who had been promised in marriage to a man named Joseph but was not yet married.  The young woman’s name was Mary.  And the angel Gabriel has a message that is nearly beyond belief.  

We have heard Gabriel’s words before, heard them many times.  We usually hear them around this time of year.  But I want us to think especially about these words this morning, and specifically about three things that Gabriel says.

“The first is Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you.”
Mary is called favored.  The Lord has regarded her.  What an amazing thing – to be thought of, to be regarded, to be viewed by God with favor.  The literal meaning is to be graced by God.  This is rendered in some translations as “Hail Mary, full of grace.”

Here is Mary, maybe 13 years old, promised by her family to marry the carpenter Joseph.  She really would have had no say in the matter.  She lives in an occupied nation, in an unimportant town.   Life is hard.  Roman oppression is a daily part of life.  

Of course Mary is startled.  Anybody would be.  But as much as being startled by the appearance of an angel, it is startling that the angel appears to her of all people.  And say that God has regarded her.  Favored her.  Graced her.

If the reading didn’t go any farther than that, we would have reason for hope.  Because here is the thing: God has not regarded her because she has a beautiful voice.  Not because she has been an exemplary student.  Not because she has done a great deal of important work.  Not because she has a sweet jump shot.  Not because she has been born to wealth or to a well-connected family.  God has regarded her, God has favored her, because that is what God does.  This isn’t about Mary as much as this is about God.

And God regards each one of us.  God favors and graces each one of us.  Our lives matter.  Our lives matter to God.  Not because we are brilliant or talented or skilled or beautiful or especially worthy or hardworking.  God regards us, God favors us, because of who God is.  This is what God does.

“Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you!” The scripture says that Mary was perplexed, which is no doubt an understatement.  We would all be scared to death, I think.  And what does the angel say?  “Do not be afraid.”

We have actually heard these words in scripture several times already this fall.  Abraham and Sarah followed God to a new land.  They face struggles and as they get beyond child-bearing age they have a hard time holding on to God’s promise that they will be parents of a great nation.  But God says to them, “Do not be afraid.  I will be your shield.  Look towards heaven and count the stars…So shall your descendants be.”

Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery and years later, they were reunited with him when they traveled to Egypt to buy food.  After their father Isaac died, they were afraid that Joseph would exact revenge, but speaking words that for them were words from God, he said, “Do not be afraid!  Even though you intended it for harm, God meant it for good.”

Then there was Elijah, speaking to the widow of Zarephath, who was ready to prepare bread with the last of her remaining flour and oil for a meager last meal for her and her son, and then get ready to die of starvation in a time of extreme famine.   Elijah spoke God’s word for her: “Do not be afraid.  The jar of flour will not fail, the jug of oil will not run empty until there is rain.  You will have food to eat and you and your son will live.”

Do not be afraid.  We hear these words time and again, and especially in the story of Jesus’ birth in Luke, which we will be looking at throughout these Sundays of Advent.  Earlier in the first chapter of Luke, an angel had appeared to the old priest Zechariah.  He was terrified, but what did the angel say to him?  “Do not be afraid.”  The angel Gabriel told him that the Lord had heard his prayers and that in her old age his wife Elizabeth would conceive and bear a child – who would be John the Baptist.

And now the angel Gabriel comes to Mary.  And what does he say?  Of course.  He speaks these same words: “Do not be afraid.”

Why is it that these words are repeated over and over in scripture?  And why do angels almost always say these words?

Well for one thing, the appearance of an angel is no doubt scary.  If an angel appears to you, your mind immediately races - what is happening?  You may be filled with dread and you certainly feel a healthy dose of fear.

But there is more to it.  God and God’s messengers again and again say, “Do not be afraid” because truth be told, there are a lot of things in our world that can inspire fear.  There are 101 reasons to feel anxiety and worry.  In the year of our Lord 2020, a message from God of “Do not be afraid” is needed more than ever.  

I think it is safe to say that there has been plenty to worry over this year.  Illness.  Loss – loss of income, loss of jobs, loss of so many things we may enjoy.  Loss of life.  Injustice.  Loneliness.  General turmoil in our culture.  We need an angel to come and tell us, “Do not be afraid.”

Last week, looking back on the year that isn’t even finished, Anne Lamott wrote, “This was the most astonishing, distressing, transforming, nerve-wracking, heartbreaking and generous year possible.”  That pretty well covers it.

Many of us did not get together with extended family for Thanksgiving.  Today we are meeting for the 38th Sunday in a row by Zoom.  These are not normal times.  And just as the angel Gabriel spoke to Mary, we hear God’s words to us: Do not be afraid.  Do not be afraid.  I am with you.

One more word from the angel Gabriel.  Mary, of course, had a hard time believing what she was hearing.  Her son will be called Son of the Most High?  He will reign over the house of Jacob forever?

What was being described wasn’t just wildly improbable; it was completely impossible.  On a simply logistical standpoint, Mary says, “I don’t even have a husband yet.” But the angel said: “Nothing is impossible for God.”

We have actually heard those words before too.  They appear one other place in scripture.  Again, back in Genesis with Abraham and Sarah, who kept hearing these promises but weren’t seeing the promise come to pass.  Until one day three visitors show up and tell Abram that when they stop by about this time next year, Sarai will have a son.  Sarai overhears and laughs out loud because by now the thought is preposterous.  And the visitors, angels, say “Why is she laughing?  Nothing is impossible for God.”  They named the child Isaac, which means Laughter.

Just as an angel had spoken these words to her ancestors about an unlikely birth, an angel comes to Mary and says, “Nothing is impossible for God.”  And in the midst of uncertainty, these are words to hold on to.  Words of hope.

Mary went to visit her older relative Elizabeth.  Only Elizabeth could understand the miracle of this child Mary was carrying.  Only Mary could understand the miracle of this child Elizabeth was carrying.  
 They share so much.  And there is so much they do not know.  They don’t know what to think of the angel who brought news of God’s favor.  They don’t know why they have been chosen.  They don’t know who their children will become, though they have some clues.  They don’t know how being mothers will change them.  They don’t know how their children will change the world, or how the world will change their children.  They don’t know how their hearts will soar, and ache, and break for the children they are carrying.  They don’t know how the community will react – whether they will be supported or run out of town as their surprising pregnancies became known.

But they know each other.  They are filled with joy for one another.  And they know that in the midst of so much unknown, there was an incredible and extraordinary gift from God.  There was overwhelming grace.

Nothing is impossible for God.  This is all about hope.

When we are filled with fear, nothing is impossible for God.

When we don’t know how we can make it through the pain we are facing, nothing is impossible for God.

When we don’t see a way forward, when we can’t imagine a solution, nothing is impossible for God.

Mary’s son changed the world.  He brought hope to the hopeless.  And for that he suffered and died.  But hope was not lost.  Because nothing is impossible for God.

Do not be afraid.  God looks upon you with favor.  Nothing is impossible for God.  So hold on to hope.  Amen.

“Raising Radishes, Raising Children” - November 15, 2020

Text: Psalm 78:1-7, Matthew 5:1-11


What a great day!  In a year filled with unique moments, we have shared in a baby dedication for Clara Ilene Grauman, who lives near Chicago.  How great is that?

We have dedicated Clara, but not only that, we have dedicated ourselves, to God.  We have prayed for God’s blessing on her life and we have promised as a community to care for her and help to support her parents and pray for her parents.  

Mutual support and encouragement and accountability is one of our reasons for our existence as a church.  And in those watershed moments, during those rites of passage, it is important to make the support and encouragement of the church tangible, as we have done this morning with the child dedication service.

While the arrival of a child is an occasion for great joy, for much excitement, while it comes with high hopes, it is also a bit daunting.  It can be daunting because raising a child is an awesome responsibility.  And it goes without saying that the times we live in do not make it any easier.

Caring for another life, nurturing a child through years of growth and change is no small thing.  It is a great joy and a great responsibility.  At times it will be a great heartache and at times it will be a great headache.  It’s a package deal.  I once heard Tony Campolo say that grandchildren are God’s reward for not killing your children.  Parenting is not an easy job, even in the best of times.

In the musical “The Fantasticks,” two exasperated fathers are talking about the difficulties of raising their children and they compare raising children to raising vegetables.  They note that when you plant a vegetable seed, you know what you are going to get, but it’s not that way with children.  The break into the song “Plant a Radish.”  

Plant a radish.
Get a radish.
Never any doubt.
That's why I love vegetables;
You know what you're about!

Plant a turnip.
Get a turnip.
Maybe you'll get two.
That's why I love vegetables;
You know that they'll come through!

They're dependable!
They're befriendable!
They're the best pal a parent's ever known!
While with children,
It's bewilderin'.
You don't know until the seed is nearly grown
Just what you've sown.

Every turnip green!
Every kidney bean!
Every plant grows according to the plot!

While with progeny,
It's hodge-podgenee.
For as soon as you think you know what kind you've got,
It's what they're not!
There is no more important task than parenting, but the thing is, we don’t have control over the final product.  We can teach our children and love them and guide them and point them the right way, but in the end it is out of our hands.  We all know that we can raise two different children in essentially the same way, and those two children will be very different from each other.  

At times the Biblical writers speak as though raising children is more like vegetable gardening.  Proverbs 22:6 says “Train children in the right way, and when they are old they will not stray.”  This sounds like a cut-and-dried, failproof formula, but we all know that it doesn’t always work that way.  It really isn’t like raising vegetables.  

Training children in the right way, bringing them up to love and follow Jesus, to love God and love their neighbor is the best way of helping children to become loving and caring, responsible, Christlike adults.  There is a lot of truth in that proverb, but it is just that: a proverb, not an immutable law.  It is wise advice, not a guarantee.

Because there are no guarantees, and because life is unpredictable, our need for God and our need for one another is even greater.  The way in which we as parents and the way in which we as a community teach our children and support and encourage one another is vitally important.

In our scripture from Psalm 78, we read:
God commanded our ancestors
   to teach [God’s laws] to their children;
that the next generation might know them,
   the children yet unborn,
and rise up and tell them to their children,
   so that they should set their hope in God.
God’s laws and promises have to be repeated again and again.  The stories of the Bible have to be retold for each new generation.  The teachings of Jesus are not caught by osmosis – we have to teach them to our children and our children’s children.  We have come to faith only because of generation after generation who passed on the faith, who told the stories, who taught their children.  It is so good to have Clara’s grandparents and great-grandparents here with us because they have very much had a part in this.  

And the fact is, we are all children.  No matter our age, we are all God’s children, and we have to remind each other again and again about the ways of Jesus.

In the Psalm, did you catch the reason for all of the teaching?  It is “so that they should set their hope in God.”  The goal is that our children and our children’s children – succeeding generations – might set their hope in God.

To paraphrase a well-known expression, “it takes a church to raise a child.”  One of the reasons it is so tough, one of the reasons it takes all of us, is precisely because of the content, because of the values that we seek to instill in young people – and hopefully older folks as well.  It is not easy stuff.

Our New Testament reading comes from the heart of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, known as the Beatitudes.  We have heard this so often that we kind of lose sight of the radical nature of what Jesus is saying.  Look at who he says are blessed: the poor in spirit.  Those who mourn.  The meek.  Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  The merciful.  The pure in heart.  The peacemakers.  Those who are persecuted for doing the right thing.

It is difficult to teach things like this.  These are the sort of things we teach through our actions much more than our words.  And these are not the kinds of things children are going to pick up in the street.  They are not likely to learn it from TV and certainly not from social media.  The values that we are trying to instill are countercultural.  

Think about Jesus’ teachings: Love your enemies.  It is better to give than receive.  The first shall be last and the last shall be first.  Do not worry about tomorrow.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  

And then look at what Jesus does.  He associates with sinners and tax collectors – with those who are outcasts of society, those who are looked down upon, those who have a bad name.  He gets in trouble because he isn’t so concerned with outward shows of piety, but says it’s what is on the inside that really matters.  

He values women and carries on public conversation with women and has public friendships with women in a time when that was a cultural taboo.  Likewise he speaks with Samaritans – despised half-breed heretics in the eyes of most folks - and uses them as the good guy in stories he tells.  He has time for children when most people thought that children should be neither seen nor heard.

Together, we are trying to follow the ways of One who challenged the norms of his culture – and ours.  While people for the most part like Jesus, most do not take seriously many of his teachings.  We are trying to instill values that are not widely held.  Raising a child is hard enough.  Raising a child in the way of Christ is even more difficult.  It takes a church.

Raising radishes or turnips or carrots is certainly easier than raising children.  It is a lot cheaper and much less time-consuming, and as the song tells us, you have a lot better idea of what you are going to get.  Radishes cause a lot less frustration and they generally don’t cause much heartache.  And you don’t have to teach vegetables in the way they should go.  

With children, there is not only a curriculum, it is a tough curriculum.  Because we are trying to teach a way of being and living that we find pretty tough ourselves.

Today is our stewardship commitment Sunday.  You might be asking, why aren’t we talking about money?  Well, for one thing, we have already had some conversation about money, and Phyllis did a really fabulous job of speaking to us about giving and tithing last Sunday.  But beyond that, while stewardship is certainly about money, it is about a lot more than that.  It about our lives.  We have a responsibility for all that God entrusts to us, including our children, including one another.  When we live out of gratitude for God’s amazing gifts, and when we take those gifts – all of those gifts - seriously, the money is going to take care of itself.

For all of the difficulty, the joy that children bring, the potential and promise they have, the love that we give and the love that we receive from our children, make it all worth it.  We have a wonderful and awesome responsibility.  We give thanks to God for Clara and her big sister Fern and for all of our children.  And we know that they are not simply our children, they are God’s children.  We are all God’s children.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

“YOUNEVERKNOW” - November 8, 2020

 Text:Jonah 3, 4


We are living in a time of uncertainty, and it reminds me, believe it or not, of a baseball story.  I’m a Cardinal fan, and it’s been a long time but I may have shared the story of Cardinal pitcher Jouquin Andujar.  Jouquin was a colorful character.  When he took his practice pitches before each inning, the last pitch he would throw wildly and like a bullet, about 20 feet up on the screen.  Besides just plain orneriness, he did this to send a message to the opposing players that his fastball just might get away from him.  He didn’t want them getting too comfortable at the plate.

A reporter once asked Jouquin to describe the game of baseball in one word.  He was from the Dominican Republic, liked to be known as One Bad Dominican, and his English wasn’t perfect, but he had a wonderful response.  The one word to describe baseball, he said, was “YOUNEVERKNOW.“  It was an inspired answer.  And it’s true.  You head to the ballpark and it could be a no-hitter or an 18-17 game.  Youneverknow.

YOUNEVERKNOW actually applies to a lot of things.  If you were asked to describe the story of Jonah in one word, a good answer would be: YOUNEVERKNOW.

God asks the prophet Jonah to go and preach to Nineveh.  Nineveh was a foreign city, denounced for its violence and evil by the prophets Zephaniah and Nahum.  Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, an enemy of Israel.  God asks Jonah to go to Nineveh, and not surprisingly, Jonah did not want to go.  

Jonah didn’t like these people, didn’t like the idea of God caring about these people, and personally, it would be fine with him if they all rotted in hell.  And besides, Jonah knew it would be an exercise in futility.  There was no way the Ninevites would listen to him.  Nineveh was to the east, so Jonah did what any self-respecting prophet would do: he got on a fast boat headed west.

That probably makes Jonah a lot like us.  If we were asked to do something that seemed just too difficult or too distasteful, or we were asked to minister to people we absolutely did not like, our first reaction might be to run.
Jonah skips town and fast, but the ship comes upon a terrible storm and it looks like everyone will die at sea.  The crew figures out that they are in this predicament because Jonah had disobeyed his God.  The crew members come across as decent and sincere people – they are not worshipers of the God of Israel, but they are much more appealing characters than Jonah, the prophet of God.  They really don’t want to do it, but as the storm intensifies they do what they have to do.  Jonah is thrown overboard and the storm immediately calms.  Jonah ends up being swallowed by a big fish and after three days to think about what has transpired, he is vomited up on the shore.

And so the Lord asks Jonah a second time to go to Nineveh.  It’s an offer Jonah really can’t refuse – I mean, he’s already done hard time in a fish’s belly.  So he goes to Nineveh.  He didn’t have to like it, but he went.

Nineveh was a very large city.  The passage says it took three days to walk across the city.  Maybe that is a case of describing Nineveh in legendary terms, but at one time Nineveh was actually the largest city in the world, the greatest urban center on earth.  Jonah travels one day into the city – he doesn’t even reach the heart of town.  And here is his entire text: “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.”  That’s it.  In Hebrew, it’s just five words.  A five-word sermon that does not mention God, does not say why the city will be overthrown, and holds out no hope of escaping this sentence.  To be honest, it was a pitiful performance, a half-hearted effort.

But amazingly, the people of Nineveh responded.  Jonah doesn’t even mention God, but the people nevertheless believe in God.  They fasted, put on sackcloth, and repented of their sins.  The news reached the king, who followed the lead of the people.  He took off his crown and his robe, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes.  He proclaimed that every living thing, human and animal, will put on sackcloth and ashes and fast and repent of their evil ways and the violence in their hearts and perhaps God will spare them.

And it works.  Because of their repentance, God decided to spare the city.  

This made Jonah very upset.  He was disillusioned and depressed by the success of his mission in Nineveh.  He was at the same time the worst and the most successful prophet ever.

The lessons of this story might be summarized in that one word: YOUNEVERKNOW.

1.  YOUNEVERKNOW what God may call you to do.  It was inconceivable to Jonah that God would want him to go to Nineveh.  He thought he knew better than God.

Contrast Jonah with Jesus’ disciples.  Jesus says, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.”  And Andrew and Simon and James and John follow.  Just like that.  No questioning, no delay.  There was no doubt some uncertainty, some sense of “what are we getting ourselves into?”  But nevertheless, they followed, because they knew that God had called them.  

There are those times when we find ourselves in places and situations we never would have expected.  Maybe we find ourselves living in Iowa.  Maybe we find ourselves in a Baptist church.  Maybe we find ourselves involved in an organization or cause or role we really hadn’t planned on.  We never planned to coach kids.  We never planned to lead Sunday School.  We had no ambition to become a deacon.  But here we are.  Circumstances, or maybe God, led us to this place and we said yes.  Youneverknow.

2.  And then, YOUNEVERKNOW how others may respond.  
Jonah had the Ninevites all figured out.  They were heathen beyond hope.  And yet, every person in the city repented.  Men, women, rich, poor, boys, girls, royalty.  They all repented of their sin.  Even the animals put on sackcloth and ashes and repented.  (Which gives us hope, because I know there are some cats out there that definitely need to repent.)

Today, there are people that society has by and large written off as worthless.  As beyond hope.  The church can sometimes write those people off too.  What would happen if we took seriously the fact that no one is beyond hope, no person is beyond reaching, no one is beyond being transformed by the love of God?

The great German pastor Helmut Thielicke had an old photograph on his desk. It was a snapshot of a Christmas pageant.  A group of grizzled looking men are wearing white robes and holding candles in their rough hands.  Another group of men is kneeling before them, feigning terror.  It is clear that they are supposed to be the angels, speaking to the fearful shepherds.

Why was this photograph the only one on the pastor's desk? Thielicke explained that it was taken in prison, while he was a prison chaplain.  The men in the scene were hardened criminals whose lives had been transformed by Christ.  Murderers and rogues were dressed like angels.  For Thielicke, it was a parable, not unlike the story of Jonah, a visible reminder of the awesome power of God to change us. The message of Jonah is that change is possible even in the most unlikely places and unlikely people.  YOUNEVERKNOW.

3.  The story of Jonah also tells us that we never know what the future will bring.  Jonah would not have imagined that God would ask him to go to Nineveh.  When he went the other way and found himself thrown overboard in a storm, he was not expecting to be swallowed and then barfed up on the shore by a big fish.  When he finally did go to Nineveh, he was pretty sure of how things would turn out and basically sabotaged his own message, trying to fail, but the people repented anyway.

Jonah’s experience sounds a lot like 2020.  We haven’t been swallowed by a big fish and vomited up on the shore and then sent to the last place on earth we would want to go; it just feels like it.  We never would have imagined what would happen over these past months.  

But here is the Good News: the story of Jonah tells us that YOUNEVERKNOW about God.  Jonah assumed that God was just like him, assumed that God didn’t care about those no-good Ninevites, assumed that God operated in predictable ways.  

Contrast Jonah with the king.  I love the king in this story.  The king has better insight into God than God’s own prophet.  The king says to the people, “Who knows?  Maybe God will relent.”  He doesn’t claim to understand how God operates.  He knew that we don’t control what God will do.  But he also understood that what we do does matter.  And because of the people’s repentance, God spared the city.

What this tells us is that the future is wide open.  The future is filled with possibility.  We are not just actors playing roles that are designated for us, but we have a part in shaping the future.  What we do matters.  

Jonah thought he had things all figured out, but he was wrong.  Like Jonah, we get into trouble when we think we know it all.  But the fact is, there is a great deal we do not know.

To say YOUNEVERKNOW does not mean that we don’t know anything.  It is a word that speaks of mystery and possibility and wonder and faith.  We don’t know, we won’t know until we try - we won’t know until we check things out.

YOUNEVERKNOW what God may call you to do until you
really listen.

YOUNEVERKNOW how others will respond until they have the opportunity.

YOUNEVERKNOW what the future will bring until you
have lived it.

YOUNEVERKNOW about God until you commit yourself to following in God’s ways.

YOUNEVERKNOW is really an invitation to give things a try – to give God a try.

The invitation for us is that in the midst of these uncertain times, we might commit our lives to following where Jesus leads us.  That might mean going to some unexpected places.

That can mean living without knowing all the answers.

That means the future is wide open.  It is filled with possibility.  And until we really seek to follow Jesus, well, YOUNEVERKNOW.  Amen.  

“Living in God’s Abundance” - November 1, 2020

Text: 1 Kings 17:8-16


Mindy and Emma chose the song they just sang, based on the Beatitudes.  It’s a beautiful song.  The Beatitudes tell us that God wants to bless the poor, the humble, those filled with sadness.  God wants us to be merciful and to be peacemakers.

The same day that Mindy told me this is what they would be singing, I read a piece by Diana Butler Bass who said that she thinks of the Beatitudes as Jesus’ Voter Guide.  They are in a sense Jesus’ platform for the Kingdom of God – the way God wants us to live and the values that God wants us to pursue.

Of course, no candidate and no party is going to bring forth the kingdom of God.  And none of us fully live up to Jesus’ vision.  But we are called to work toward a Beloved Community.  I know that many of you, maybe most of you have voted already, and if you haven’t I encourage you to vote as an act of Christian discipleship and responsible citizenship.

Of course, we are down to the final days of a grueling, rancorous, seemingly endless presidential campaign, and we may all feel some anxiety about it.  So, for these moments, I would ask us to set all of that aside, and look instead to the loftier words of scripture.  We turn our attention to our text for today and - well, I hate to say this, but the context is all about - politics.  

Last Sunday we looked at King David.  David was succeeded by his son Solomon, who built the temple, but after Solomon’s death, the kingdom was divided into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah.  Ahab was king of Israel.  He came to the throne about 130 years after David’s reign.  

Ahab arrived on the scene at a critical time for Israel.  As a nation, Israel needed reliable allies both for national security – it was a dangerous world – and to have good, stable trading partners.  And then, people were worried about the economy.  Folks were having trouble making ends meet.  It actually sounds vaguely familiar.

Ahab set out on a building program and rebuilt the city of Jericho.  You may remember that when the Israelites captured Jericho, they marched around the walls seven times and the walls came tumblin’ down.  Later Joshua said, “Cursed be anyone who endeavors to rebuild the city.”  The walls were to remain in ruins as a testament to what God had done.  But Ahab disregarded this warning.  Jericho was rebuilt, but the chief builder’s oldest and youngest sons died in the process, just as Joshua had said would happen.

But as much as urban centers and building programs, Ahab was concerned about agriculture.  A good crop could make all the difference.  It would lead to a happier population, and a happy population made for a more secure king.  Which, if you are a king, is the bottom line.

Israel had long worshiped its own God, Yahweh, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the God who had led the nation from captivity in Egypt.   Now to Ahab’s way of thinking, Yahweh was still their god, but in the modern world, you had to adapt to new realities.  An agricultural god like Baal couldn’t hurt.  If having one god on your side was good, then two or three would be even better.

For several generations now, the rulers of Israel had mixed the worship of Yahweh with worship of other gods.  Judah, the southern kingdom, had a slightly better track record on this, but that wasn’t saying much.  Ahab’s father was King Omri, who followed this path.  1 Kings chapter 16 says that Omri did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, more so than all the kings who went before him.  But then came Omri’s son Ahab, and the scripture says that Ahab was even worse than Omri – he took the prize as the worst ever when it came to doing evil in God’s sight.  

Now, Ahab had political skill.  He married Jezebel, a Princess of Sidon.  Sidon was a Phoenician city, just north of Israel in what is now Lebanon.  Politically, this was a shrewd move, cementing ties between the two countries.  The Phoenicians were merchants and ship builders and this brought access to raw materials like Cedars of Lebanon.  Jezebel was a dedicated worshiper of Baal, the god of rain and agriculture and fertility, and like I mentioned, Ahab was glad to get all the help he could get agriculturally.  

So Ahab’s marriage to Jezebel brought closer ties to a neighboring state, increasing both trade and security.  Beyond that, Jezebel brought with her a dedication for the worship of the Phoenician gods Baal and Asherah.  And the text says that Ahab himself served and worshiped Baal and built altars to Baal and sacred monuments to Asherah.  

In response to this, the prophet Elijah tells King Ahab that “As sure as the God of Israel lives, there will be a severe drought, with neither rain nor dew.”  God was not just randomly sending a drought to punish Ahab.  What is going on here is that Baal is the God of rain.  For turning from the God of Israel to Baal, God is saying, “If that’s what you want, you can depend on Baal for your rain.  Count me out.”  
Of course, Elijah’s pronouncement does not make Ahab happy.  Ahab has killed for a lot less than this and as it turns out, Jezebel is maybe more formidable than Ahab.  So God tells Elijah to flee, to go live by a ravine east of the Jordan River.  There he is miraculously fed by ravens, who bring him meat and bread twice a day.  He has water to drink from the stream until it dries up because of the drought.  God is miraculously supplying Elijah with food, but Baal, who is supposed to be responsible for rain, is totally dropping the ball.  So God tells Elijah to go to Zarephath, in Sidon, where a widow will take him in and feed him.  He goes there and at the city gate meets a poor widow who is gathering sticks.

Elijah asks the woman for bread, but she says that she is gathering sticks to make a fire so she can prepare the last meal for her and her son.  There is just a tiny bit of meal and oil, and after they eat this there will be nothing to do but die.  The drought is not confined to Israel.

This is a traumatized woman.  She has lost her husband, she is fighting poverty and losing, there is no food, she is nearly despondent, heading home to face death with her son.  And then Elijah, this prophet who I have to say is totally lacking in social skills shows up.

But Elijah is also facing trauma.  He is also trying to survive, running for his life, in a battle with an evil king and queen.  He comes across as blunt and demanding, and we would prefer a little kindness and understanding from Elijah, maybe a little pastoral care.  But Elijah, like this widow has had a bad day.  It’s been a long streak of bad days for both of them.

It actually seems ridiculous for Elijah to ask this woman to provide for him.  But he does.  She is getting ready to cook one last meal, which will only temporarily stave off death for her and her son.  Elijah says, OK, but first, give me some water and make me a little bread, and then make some for you and your son.  God promises that the jar of meal and jug of oil will not fail until God sends rain.  

What do you do, if you are this woman?  Maybe you think, “We’re going to die anyway,” so you make the cake for Elijah.  But I think it’s more than that.  Somewhere inside this woman there is courage.  There is hope.  And there is generosity that is hard to fathom.  Every day, she gives away all she has.  Every day, she empties the jar of meal and the jug of oil.  And every day, God provides more.  

Jeff Manion offers this insight:

The chief inhibitor to generosity isn’t greed; it’s fear.  Fear of not having enough.  And the only remedy for fear is trust.  Trust and generosity walk hand in hand, and it is really difficult to pursue the generous life while scared.  God delivers us from fear as we trust God to unleash generosity.  When a person begins to tap into generosity, they’re dialing into a core of God’s character.
Because God is generous toward us, we are able to be generous toward others.  Trusting in the goodness and care and grace of God, we become more and more generous.  

In so many instances, it is easy for us to hold back because of fear that we don’t have enough.  Fear that we’re not good enough.  Fear that there is only so much love and kindness and compassion to go around, and we need to hang on to it.  Fear that we better hold on to whatever resources we have because it’s all we’ve got and things might get really rough somewhere in the future.  Fear that we might fail, so why trying something new?

The fact is, we have so much more than we realize.  Maybe we have only been counting our own resources, what you can read in a bank statement or put in a spreadsheet, and forgetting about God’s love and care and provision, which like that jar of meal and jug of oil never run out.  

Have you ever felt like you were just at the end of your rope, that you couldn’t manage one more day?  But somehow, somewhere, you find the strength to go on and you make it through.  It’s that jug of oil again.  Or have you ever felt really alone, and just when you need it most someone shows up to lift your spirits and help you along?  It’s that jar of meal.

These have been desperate times for a lot of people.  Sometimes it seems like all we can do to make it to the next day.  But again and again, God gives us what we need to see us through another day.

This widow, amazingly, gives away all she has, again and again - and again and again, God provides.  Now, here is the irony of it all: this woman lives in Phoenicia.  She lives in a suburb of Sidon – Jezebel’s home town.  Elijah is sent presumably to a Baal worshiper, whose generosity keeps him alive.  God is a God of life.  God uses ravens – unclean animals – to provide for Elijah, and then God uses a poor, marginalized woman from Jezebel’s own hometown to provide for him.  God provides, sometimes in strange and mysterious ways.

This is the first in a number of dramatic stories involving the prophet Elijah.  Some leave you laughing, some make you cringe, some make you scratch your head, some are pretty entertaining.  And though these events took place nearly 3000 years ago, it is amazing how relevant they can be.

We can easily fall into living out of a mindset of scarcity.  There is not enough, and we need to hold on to whatever we have tightly.  God shows us another way.  When we live out of abundance, sharing freely, God’s blessings keep coming.
God is a God of life.  God is still in the business of providing for us.  And we are called to respond to God’s abundance with kindness and compassion and generosity.  May it be so.  Amen.

“A Home for God” - October 25, 2020

Text: 2 Samuel 7:1-17

Last Sunday our scripture included the birth of Hannah’s son Samuel.  Samuel became one of the judges of Israel and a great prophet.  And in time, Samuel anointed Saul as the first king of Israel.  Saul was tall and handsome and certainly looked the part, but in time was found to be lacking as a ruler and leader.   

God had warned that this king experiment might not go well.  And in time God had Samuel anoint a new king.  Samuel went to an unlikely family in an unlikely tribe and told Jesse to bring his sons before him.  God chose the youngest, the shepherd boy David, to be king.

Of course, this anointing was very hush-hush, and it would be years before David actually took the throne.  In the intervening years, David became a musician in King Saul’s court.  He defeated the Philistine giant Goliath with his slingshot.  He was a faithful servant of the king and then a decorated soldier.  In time, Saul became consumed with jealousy over David’s popularity.  

So Saul’s soldiers chased down David and there was a bloody civil war.  Eventually David became king of the united monarchy.  He expanded the borders of the nation, he consolidated royal power, and he took Jerusalem from the Jebusites and made it the capital city.  

Not only was the nation becoming more powerful, David was becoming more powerful.  He has more wives, he has more children, and he has a beautiful palace, built of cedars of Lebanon.  Finally, he has the Ark of the Covenant brought to Jerusalem.  The Ark contained the two tablets of the law.  It represented the presence of God and it was the most treasured religious symbol of Israel.  

At this point, David is doing exceedingly well.  He has become king; he has established a new capital city and defeated military enemies.  He has power and fame and is loved by the people.  But when David reflects on all of this, something is not quite right.  He is living in a brand new, beautiful palace, but what about God?  Where is God living?

To us this sounds like a weird question.  What do you mean, where does God live?  In the ancient world, this was not a weird question at all.  God was very much attached to place.

God’s home during the years in the wilderness, after the flight from Egypt, had been in the Tent of Meeting.  The Ark of the Covenant was housed in the Tent of Meeting, or Tabernacle, a kind of portable sanctuary that was the center of worship for Israel.  For David, what it all came down to is that while he lived in a palace built of the finest materials, God had a tent.

So David made plans to build a proper home for God.  It was only right.  It was only fitting.  And if in the process, this increased national pride and unity and made David even more popular and even more powerful, well, that was a price David was willing to pay.

David shared his plans with the prophet Nathan.  He says, “I’m living in a house of cedar, but the Ark of God stays in a tent.”  He doesn’t get any farther than that; Nathan the prophet simply says, “Go ahead and do what you have in mind.”  But after initially giving his thumbs-up to the project, Nathan went home and slept on it.  God spoke to Nathan, and Nathan passed the word of God on to David.

And essentially, here is what God says: “I’ve never had a house before, and I don’t need one now.  A tent has always been good enough.  Through generations of the Hebrew people, I have never, not even once, said to the leaders of Israel, “Build me a house of cedar.”  

Have you ever been given a gift that you really didn’t want?  That you would never ask for?  Sometimes we may give someone a gift that is really what we want more than it is what they want.

God never asked for a house in which to live.  Now, God did ask for a number of things.  God had asked for justice for the poor, for debts to be forgiven, for faithfulness.  God had asked for devotion.  There were the Ten Commandments – God had said, “Honor Me, honor your parents, keep the Sabbath, don’t murder or lie or steal or covet or commit adultery.”  But there was never one word from God about, “Build me a house.”

God says, “Don’t build me a house.  Instead, I will make you into a house.”  But God was not talking about a place to live.  God was talking about building David’s descendants into a great people.  

King David inspired Israel to let go of tribalism and become a unified nation.  He was a wise and charismatic leader.  He saw that to truly be a national capital and to truly unite the people, Jerusalem also needed to be a center of faith.  David saw that Jerusalem should be a beacon to the nations.  But he failed to understand that this would happen not through building an impressive temple, but by being a holy people.

But you know what?  Building an impressive temple is a heck of a lot easier than becoming a holy people.  Building structures is the easy part.  Building a community, a living, breathing community of grace and compassion and welcome and integrity and openness and faithfulness - that is much taller order.  

The ironic thing is that the building God had in mind would bring greater glory to David than any buildings made of the finest cedars of Lebanon.  Years later, the temple ultimately built in Jerusalem by David’s son Solomon lie in ruins along with the second temple that was built a few hundred years later, but the House of David continues to this day.  One of David’s descendants, Jesus of Nazareth, continued the house of David, and all of us here this morning are spiritual descendants of that house.

The strongest structures are not necessarily those made of wood or stone or bricks and mortar.  Yet so often, our answer to God’s call over the centuries has been to build something.  To launch institutions, to build temples, to establish hierarchies.  

When we do this, we can spend our time and energy serving the institution, and God can kind of get lost in the process.  It can become all about the institution.

Now ironically enough, today we will have our budget forum – we will be thinking very much about the institution, about the building, about structures.  And these are important.  Our church buildings and mission agencies and denominational ties and our history and heritage do matter.  But these are not an end in themselves.  And they certainly do not contain God.

God is always on the move, always active, always at work.  God cannot be contained in a building or in any other box we might want to put God in.    

I don’t know if you are counting, but today marks 32 Sundays in which we have been unable to meet together in our sanctuary.  It is not just us.  It is churches everywhere, all around the world.  If we had not already learned it, it should be obvious by now that the church is not the building.  The church is the people.  

As Paul puts it, “The God who made the world and everything in it does not live in shrines made by human hands.”  In Ephesians 2, we read,

You are … members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.  In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.   (Ephesians 2:19-22)

Did you catch that?  WE are built into a dwelling place for God.  God does not live in buildings, but in US.  We should look for God not in structures or institutions, but in God’s people.  

Today is Reformation Sunday.  On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church, an action that signified the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.  Luther was essentially arguing against the abuses and the kind of fossilization that can come about when we think of faith primarily as an institution.

Baptists are a part of what was known as the Radical Reformation.  You might not think of us as a bunch of radicals, but for a long time, that is exactly what people thought of Baptists.  And at our best, maybe that is who we are.  The Baptists went further than Luther and many of the Reformers in holding to believer’s baptism, a very non-hierarchical church structure, and the idea of soul freedom – that each person is absolutely free to worship – or not worship God - according to one’s conscience - which leads to an emphasis on the complete separation of church and state.  

Problems can come about when we focus too much on institutions and structures.  There is an anthem our choir sings, written by Baptist Ken Medema.  I love the words:

Come build a church with soul and spirit,
come build a church of flesh and bone.
We need no tower rising skyward;
no house of wood or glass or stone.

Come build a church with human frailty,
come build a church of flesh and blood.
Jesus shall be its sure foundation.
It shall be built by the hand of God.
As we go to class and go to work and raise children and teach and build and volunteer and share and cook and give and encourage and support and pray and help and cry and laugh and sing, we are the church.  And God is there, right there with us.  God is building us into a family of faith.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.


Monday, October 19, 2020

"Hannah and Her Song" - October 18, 2020

Text: 1 Samuel 1:1-20, 2:1-10


If you are like my family, you may be thinking about how to navigate the holidays in the midst of a pandemic.  We have pretty well decided that as far as extended family goes, it’s going to have to be a virtual gathering.  Which is really sad and yet another casualty of the pandemic.

For those families who will not be getting together, I guess maybe a small consolation is that it helps eliminate those awkward conversations with relatives who are outspoken with their opinions on politics and religion and other hot-button topics, and can’t be appropriate and can’t leave it alone when it is clear their opinions are very different than yours.  The consolation may be that at least you don’t have to be around that cousin who just makes you crazy.

I’m thinking about that this morning because our scripture today includes one of those big family meals on a holiday, and this family had some issues.

Over the past Sundays, our scripture readings have included some of the big names of the Old Testament.  Abraham and Sarah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses.  This morning our two readings focus on Hannah.

Hannah is married to Elkanah.  Each year the family would travel to Shiloh for a religious festival.  This was before Jerusalem was an Israelite city.  At this point, Israel was more of a confederacy of tribes, with judges providing leadership but with no king ruling over the whole nation, no centralized authority.  There were various shrines, such as the one at Shiloh, where the different tribes of Israel would offer sacrifice and worship.  We’re not sure what festival or observance this was, but it apparently was not only a religious observance; there was a feast, a big meal.  

Now while Hannah was married to Elkanah, Elkanah also had another wife named Peninnah.  Hannah was unable to have children, and because of that Peninnah lorded it over her.  She rubbed it in her face.  In that culture, a woman’s worth was very much tied to her children.  

So the whole family travels to Shiloh for something akin to a family Thanksgiving dinner.  And it is the worst Thanksgiving ever.  Peninnah provoked Hannah, irritated her, mocked her.  And the thing was, when they went home afterwards, Hannah would still have to face Peninnah.  It wasn’t like that cousin that drives you crazy; Peninnah was always there.

For his part, Elkanah is trying to console Hannah.  He tells her that she matters to him, that he loves her whether she has any children or not.  “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” he asks.  Now here is a pro tip: while Elkanah’s heart is in the right place, asking “Am I not worth more to you than ten sons” is probably not the best way to offer consolation.

At the dinner table, Elkanah gives Hannah a double portion of this special meal to show his love for her.  But with the ridicule of Peninnah, it is just too much.  She refuses to eat.  She leaves the table in tears.  Like I said, it is not a great Thanksgiving.

In her distress, Hannah goes to the temple.  She prays and weeps bitterly.  She tries to make a deal with God.  God, if you will just give me a son, I will dedicate him to you.  I promise.

It is a bargaining prayer.  Maybe you have prayed like that before.  Lord, if you can just get me out of this jam, I swear, I will change my ways.  I promise.

I’m not exactly sure what to make of this kind of prayer.  It’s not the way I generally pray.  And what if you pray like this and your prayer is not answered?  Maybe it is easier not to pray in such a bold way.

But it does show Hannah’s desperation.  It shows the depth of her pain.  She is even willing to make a quid pro quo with God, saying that if she has a son, he will be dedicated to God’s service in the temple.  And this is not a small thing: she was willing to give up having her son around as her social security in her old age, if God would just bless her with a son.       

The priest Eli observes Hannah and he thinks she is drunk.  “Woman, stop making a drunken spectacle of yourself,” he says.  I mean, there had been eating and drinking and carrying on – everybody was kind of tailgating for the Lord, and Eli assumed Hannah had a bit too much.  Still, this is not an especially good model for pastoral care.  I mean, he could have simply asked her if she was OK.  

But she tells him, No; I am not drunk; I have had neither wine nor strong drink.  Do not think I am a worthless woman.  I am simply a troubled woman pouring out my heart to God.  I have been speaking out of my anxiety and great vexation.  This was true; she had left the big feast and had not eaten or drank anything.

And Eli says, “Go in peace; may God grant the petition you have made.”

And she feels better.  Whether it was Eli’s encouraging words, or whether it was simply the catharsis of pouring out her heart to God, she ate and drank and was no longer sad.  And before long, she had a son, who was named Samuel.

That is the story of what happened.  And then, Susie in Pittsburgh read for us Hannah’s response.  It is Hannah’s song. Mary’s song, the Magnificat, found in Luke, is similar to it and modeled after it.

Hannah’s song speaks of the great reversal that God will make.  

The poor, the hungry, the lowly, the hurting, those filled with sadness will be lifted up.  The rich, the mighty, the powerful, those who have all the control and all the advantages, will be brought low.

Hannah is not asking that God just level the playing field.  She is asking that the world be turned upside down.  Many of the Proverbs view wealth as a blessing from God.  But Hannah’s song offers a different view, the view that God sides with the poor.

Now if things are just turned upside down, if you are just flipping things, then someone is always on the bottom.  But there is another way of thinking about this.  Perhaps it is the case that for those who are calling all the shots, a just and equitable world feels like the world has been turned upside down.  

In Hannah’s world, and down through the ages, many have accumulated wealth and power by taking advantage of the poor.  That is why we find time and again admonitions against abusing the widow and of caring for the alien in your land.

Gaining wealth at the expense of those on the bottom is a time-honored practice.  We see it all the time.  In this pandemic, the wealthiest have done fabulously well, while those who could least afford to lose jobs are the ones who have lost them.  

Hannah’s song, her vision, gives hope to those who are on the bottom – those who are left out and those who are losing hope.

It is interesting that in calling for justice, sometimes the most effective voice is the most vulnerable voice.  Martin Luther King was the great leader, but it was Rosa Parks choosing to sit in the wrong seat that set off the civil rights movement.
The most effective voice calling for action to save our climate is Greta Thunburg, who after all this time is still just 17 years old.
And then the strongest international voice calling for gender equality in education is Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban as a teenager and recovered to win the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 17.
And then there is Mary the mother of Jesus, a young unmarried woman whose own song heralded the birth of Jesus and the changes he would bring.

In a sense, these women are spiritual descendants of Hannah, a vulnerable woman crying out for justice.

In the Old Testament, not many women are named.  If mentioned at all, they are mostly mentioned as wife of, or daughter of, somebody important.  Hannah is not in a family of means.  She is not married to anyone especially significant.  She has not done anything notable to build a reputation.  She is just an ordinary married woman with no children, which was about as socially insignificant as you could be.  And yet we have not only her name, we have her words – and the words of a woman are especially rare in the Old Testament.  We have her name and her story and her voice crying out for justice.

Hannah’s song ends by saying that God will give strength to the king, God’s anointed.  Do you remember?  Israel does not have a king.  Not yet.  Hannah’s son Samuel will become the great prophet and Samuel will anoint the king, in time anointing King David.  Hannah anticipates a time when Israel will have a king who will establish justice in the land.  She celebrates God’s solution before it has even happened.

Well, what about us?  What about us living in this very strange time, in this sometimes scary and chaotic world in which we have to face multiple crises?

Like Hannah, our lives can be filled with sadness, with pain, with disappointment.  And it is within our faith to ask for something different from God – even to demand something different from God.  That is not the way we usually pray.  But maybe there are those times when we need to take our situation and we need to take God seriously enough to pray in that way.  It’s OK.  God can handle it.

And then this story serves as a reminder for us that God is in the business of bringing about justice.  It is for us to pray for that, to call for that, to work for that.  And like Hannah we can look toward and anticipate God’s victory, even when we cannot yet see it.

Now let me acknowledge that in some ways stories like this can be problematic.  What about those who suffer from infertility and long for a child?  What about those who for whom everything doesn’t work out in the long run as it does for Hannah?  This may story not be entirely helpful for everyone.  

But it does serve to tell us that we can pour out our souls before God – and we can look toward and live into God’s justice, even when we cannot see it yet.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.  

“A De-Calf Faith” - October 11, 2020

Text: Exodus 32:1-14


After various and sundry plagues, ranging from gross to scary to truly terrifying, Pharaoh finally relented, and while it took the parting of the Red Sea to get over a last minute hurdle, the Israelites made it to freedom.

And the people celebrated.  Let by Moses’ sister Miriam, they sing and dance and celebrate the freedom God has given them.  But the celebration is short-lived.  The wilderness was a difficult place, and the people actually started wishing they were back in Egypt, under their old masters, where at least they could count on food to eat.  But in their hunger God sends clear water from the rock and manna from heaven to eat.

Finally the Israelites reached Mt. Sinai.  The people consecrated themselves to the Lord; Moses went up on the mountain, wrapped in smoke, and God gave him the Ten Commandments.  The most important commandments prohibited the worship of other gods and the making of idols of any kind.  The people agreed to live by these commands three different times.

And then, Moses goes up on the mountain again, where God will give him the commandments on tablets of stone.  Moses takes Joshua, his assistant, with him.  Aaron, Moses’ brother, is left in charge.  And it takes a while.  There are laws and rules and regulations, and there are detailed plans for building the tabernacle and the ark of the covenant.  It seems like it takes forever.  

The people become restless.  Moses tells everyone that he is going up on the mountain to take care of some legal stuff with God and he will be back.  Don’t wait up.  But after 40 days and 40 nights, they start to wonder if Moses is ever coming back.

The people decide to take matters into their own hands.  They go to Aaron and say, “We don’t know what has become of Moses.  Make gods for us to go before us on our journey.”   It is more of a demand than it is a polite request.  

This sounds shocking because they had just promised three times to follow God’s commandments, and now they were asking Aaron to help them in breaking the first two – to worship another god and to make an idol.

Aaron is in a tough spot.  He wants to calm the crowd, to placate the people.  So Aaron goes along with their demands.  He asks them to take off their gold rings and bring them to him.  

The question that may come to mind for you is, "Where did these people who had been slaves in Egypt get a bunch of gold rings?"  Doesn’t that sound suspicious?

The answer is that the plagues in Egypt had been so bad that the Egyptians had given rings to the Israelites as an incentive to leave quickly.  God had told the Israelites to ask the Egyptians for gold, and when they did, the Egyptians gave them golden articles, kind of as a payoff to get the Israelites out of Egypt ASAP.

Even as the people were turning in their gold rings to make an object of worship, God was giving Moses instructions on the mountain that he was to take an offering from the people, and gold received was to be used for building the tabernacle.  Rather than a building for God, the rings were being used to break God’s law.

Aaron melts down the gold and casts an image of a calf.  “These are your gods, O Israel,” he says.  The word Elohim, a word for God, is a word that can be plural or singular, so it’s not exactly clear if Aaron is saying this is your god, or these are your gods.  And there is only one calf, so “gods” sounds a little odd.  But Aaron adds, “Tomorrow will be a festival to the Lord.”

While Aaron had given in to the people’s demand for an object of worship, he was steering them back toward the Lord.  They had made a golden calf, but the festival would be to Yahweh, the God of Israel.  

So what we have here may not be so much an image of a false god, but a false image of the true god.  Although in the end I’m not sure if there is much of a difference.

At any rate, the next day there is a festival.  The people bring sacrifices, they have your basic Sunday morning service, but then everything comes apart and it descends into revelry, which basically means immoral behavior.

God sees all of this and God is not happy.  He tells Moses to go down the mountain at once, saying “Your people are acting perversely.”  Before, it had always been my people, but now God says to Moses, they are your people.  They are your problem.  And indeed, God proposes to wipe them out and to give Moses the promise he first gave to Abraham.  He says, “Leave me alone so that my wrath might consume them, but of you I will make a great nation.”

Moses might have been tempted to take God up on the offer.  He wasn’t so happy with the people either.  But he nevertheless intercedes on behalf of the people.  He tells God, “These are your people that you brought out of Egypt with a mighty hand.”  He says, “You don’t want the Egyptians saying that you brought the Israelites out of Egypt just so you could wipe them out in the wilderness.”  And finally, he reminds God of the promise he had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  In the end, Moses talks God out of it and God decides against the disaster he had planned to bring on his people.  

Now, you can say what you want about God planning to wipe out the people - and you can say what you want about Moses talking God into changing his mind.  It really is an amazing exchange.  But there is no question that this is not a neutral, impartial, detached god.  This is a very passionate and involved God.

So Moses goes back down the mountain, he sees all that is going on, he is furious with the people and smashes the tablets of the law in a scene that helped make Charlton Heston famous.  (For you students, that’s an old movie actor).

There are a number of ideas and questions we might explore here.  First, I want to think about the role of Aaron.  He wants to indulge the people’s request – or demand, perhaps – and at the same time he wants to be faithful to Yahweh.  So he makes the golden calf, breaking the first two commandments, but at the same time says that this will be a festival to the Lord, to Yahweh.  The God of Israel.

Well, you really can’t have it both ways.  That was kind of the point of the first two commandments.  If you are a true worshiper, you need to be all in.  Aaron opts for a half-calf faith, if you will, but was required was 100% de-calf.

Some of you can attest to the difficulty of going completely de-calf, but I’m not just talking about coffee.  Because there are any number of things that can demand our allegiance, that we have a hard time letting go of.  There are any number of things that we can get confused with the real thing, with the true god.  

It is interesting that at least in Aaron’s eyes, the golden calf was not so much a false god but a false representation of the true god.  And in that regard, the golden calf wasn’t the only false representation of God.

What about Moses and the way people looked to him?  For the Israelites, Moses apparently functioned somewhat like the golden calf.  Without Moses, they were lost.  They confused Moses with God.  Now to be fair, there were times when Moses spoke and God answered in thunder, so of course there was an awe about him.   But if the calf was a false material image of the true God, then for some Moses functioned as a false human image of God.

It is possible for us today to put our faith and hope in things and people and institutions and movements and ideologies – even good things, even wonderful people - that should be reserved only for God.  

The other things that struck me as I read this familiar story once again was this whole matter of waiting.  Moses is gone up on the mountain and it just takes forever.  It is hard to wait.

The thing is, these were a traumatized people.  They had lived as slaves for generations, and now they had made an epic flight to freedom.  But even free from pharaoh, the future is unclear.  The people looked to Moses for leadership, for stability and comfort and a word from God.  But Moses is nowhere to be found, and the people start to worry.  They start to wonder.  After a while they get a little panicky.

We know a bit about waiting.  Do you remember back in March – when it seemed like life might be on hold for a few weeks – when we might not get to normal for a couple of months, until sometime after Easter?  Do you remember that?

Nothing is the same and we are all waiting.  And it gets hard.  In our devotion on Thursday night, we looked at the verse in Galatians that says “Let us not grow weary in doing what is right.”  Well, that is hard.  This is a very wearying time.  For most of us, this has got to be the most wearying year we can remember.  There is a reason that mental health professionals are keeping extra busy right now.  And so I am a little more sympathetic with those Israelites who did not handle that time very well.  

The people got one another worked up and demanded gods to go before them.  They were anxious.   They were worried.  But what if they had instead encouraged one another and supported one another and helped one another through a vulnerable time?

And then what about us?  We have that same choice and that same opportunity, through this vulnerable time.  We can care and encourage and support one another and trust in the God who will not let us go, even in those wearying times.

“Let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we shall reap at harvest time.”  Thanks be to God.    Amen.

“God Meant It For Good” - September 27, 2020

Text: Genesis 37:3-8, 17b-22, 26-34, 50:15-21


It is pretty amazing that we gather together each week and consider words written by people who lived 2-3000 years ago.  It was a completely different world.  Housing, transportation, health care, retirement, basic ideas about the nature of the world were very different.  Yet we turn to these writings week after week, seeking truth and meaning and seeking God.

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

Last week we looked at the story of Abraham and Sarah, and God’s faithfulness to them.  God told Abram to count the stars, 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 what happens in the story can certainly be traced back to Isaac and his wife Rebecca.  You may recall that they had twin sons named Jacob and Esau.  The two sons had an intense sibling rivalry that was only encouraged by their parents.  Jacob was his mother’s favorite while Esau was his father’s favorite.  His mother helped Jacob to cheat his brother out of both the blessing and the birthright that belonged to Esau as the firstborn.  Jacob eventually fled out of fear of what Esau might do.  He worked for his Uncle Laban, back in the old country, and eventually married his cousin Rachel – except that at the wedding, Laban pulled the old switcheroo and it turned out that 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.

By now, Jacob is back home, he has more or less made amends with Esau, and he has many children.  But his entire family history is one of dysfunction.  Jacob is now known as Israel, which means “Striving with God.”  He has grown and learned along the way, but he still hasn’t learned that much.  The very first verse we read this morning says, “Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his children.”  Instantly, this is a red flag.   We know that this is a really bad idea.

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

It is not just that Jacob has a favorite child; he is so obvious about it.  He has a coat made for Joseph 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 Long-Sleeved Robe?  

You may think that what a person wears really doesn’t make any difference, and ideally that may be true, but clothing can definitely convey status.  I remember as a kid having some Sears Jeepers tennis shoes, and they just did not stack up next to Converse All-Stars.
Now think about this: an awful lot of people in the ancient world owned only one coat, or robe, or tunic.  If you wanted a new one, you couldn’t just run to Target or order one from Amazon.  Every piece of fabric had to be woven by hand, and that might take months.  Clothing was very much 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 love it.  He has dreams of his own greatness and is only too happy to share these dreams with his brothers.  This does not help family dynamics in this family that kind of had two strikes to start with.

One day Joseph’s brothers are out in the fields with the flocks, and Jacob sends Joseph out to them.  Joseph’s brothers can see him coming from a distance.  As he approaches, the brothers 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.  But Reuben, the oldest, 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 help him out later.  The others 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.  Reuben returns and is distraught by this turn of events.  The brothers take Joseph’s robe, dip it in goat blood, and take it back to their father.   

Jacob surmises for himself that a wild animal got Joseph.  But it is interesting that his sons give Jacob back this 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.

This is a seriously messed-up family.  I guess one of the things that happens when you read stories like this in the Bible is that you can look at your own family and think, “Well, maybe we’re not that bad.  Our family isn’t perfect, but I guess it could be worse.”

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?

The second part of our reading comes much later.  Joseph winds up in prison in Egypt but rises almost miraculously, largely on his ability to interpret dreams, to become second in command in all the nation.  In a time of impeding famine, he is in charge of all the grain stores in the nation.  And when his brothers come, desperate to buy grain, they meet up again with their long-lost brother Joseph.  There is a reconciliation of sorts, but the brothers are still scared to death.  And when Jacob dies, they figure that Joseph was just waiting until the old man was gone to get his revenge.

The younger Joseph wouldn’t have thought twice about it.   But now he is older and wiser.  He has experienced hardship and he has grown from it.  And time has given him perspective.  He tells his brothers, “You meant this for harm, but God meant it for good.”

Joseph can see in retrospect that what had happened actually served to save his family.  In a time of severe famine, somehow, improbably, impossibly, Joseph is in charge of all the grain in the one place in the whole region that has any grain.  In the end, good came 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 plot to kill Joseph.  This is to say that God has a way of working out God’s purposes even in the midst of treachery and human sin.  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.  Here are a few:

#1 – Don’t play favorites.  Generally, as a parent or an employer or an educator, it is a bad idea.  Now, I have to admit that I do have a favorite child.  As much as I love Harry and Rudy, Zoe is my clear favorite.  Of course, Harry and Rudy are a cat and a dog.  If you want to have a favorite child, just have one child.

#2 – Don’t be a jerk.  You may be thinking, I came to church just to be told “Don’t be a jerk?”  Well, sometimes we need to be reminded of the simple things.  Joseph was handicapped in this regard, because his father, Jacob, is maybe the biggest jerk in the Bible.  As a teenager, Joseph only thinks of himself, he rubs his favorite status in the face of others, and the result is probably not what he would have wanted.  I hate to be so obvious, but one of the takeaways is, don’t be a jerk.
#3 – Think things through before you do something stupid.  Again, it’s pretty simple.  Reuben was distraught over what the others had done to Joseph.  As the years went on, everybody regretted their actions.  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 particular area where guns are plentiful, and almost all of their friends and social group are carrying.  They are young, they are a little on the wild side, they tend to drink too much at times, and they tend to get in 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.

We can make poor, impulsive choices as individuals and we can also make poor, impulsive decisions as a society.  A little thoughtfulness, a little foresight, might serve us well.

#4 – 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.  Israel’s children were heirs to that promise, a promise they no doubt had been hearing all of their lives.  

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

We need to remember who we are.  We are children of God.  We are brothers and sisters in Christ.  We are Jesus’ hands and feet in this world.  When times are difficult, when we feel down, when we feel alone, when we are discouraged or troubled, we need to remember who we are.

And then, #5.  This is where the story ends.  Even if we mess up, even if we fail on numbers 1-4, even when we play favorites, behave like jerks, act without thinking and forget who we are, God is there.  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 does not abandon us.  God forgives and God gives us, like Joseph, the strength and ability to forgive.

God is always faithful.  Even in a world in which so much is meant for harm, God is always working for good.  And our calling is to join God in that work.  Amen.

“Count the Stars” - September 20, 2020

Text: Genesis 15:1-6

For the last 26 weeks – exactly half a year – we have not had any in-person gatherings.  No worship, no committee meetings, no Bible Studies or Sunday School classes – although we did have an official work day in August.  For the first time in 6 months, we are gathering in person, at least some of us are.  Preaching primarily to a camera over these past months has been a weird experience, although it feels pretty normal, pretty routine now.  But this – speaking not only to those who are at home, gathering on Zoom, but to those who are here, in person – this is weird.   Different and really good.

One of the difficult things about this pandemic is the uncertainty of it all.  How long will this last?  When will things be sort of normal?  How much different will normal be?   Or, is normal an outdated idea?  How is this going to affect us all in the long run?  Is this going to change the way we do church?  There are just an awful lot of things we do not know.

We all live with uncertainty.  It is the unknowing, the living without good answers, that can get to us.  It certainly got to Abram and Sarai.

Last Sunday we looked at creation and the fall, in Genesis chapters 2 and 3.  In Genesis 12, Abram and Sarai enter the picture.  God says to Abram, you don’t really know me, but I want you to leave your country and your kindred and go to a land that I will show you, and I will make of you a great nation.

And Abram and Sarai go.  They go to a place they do not know.  They are unsure where they are heading.  And they don’t really have a history with this God who is leading them.  It is a leap of faith.  They arrive in the place God has for them, but it’s not easy.  There are triumphs along with serious setbacks.  In a time of famine they have to go to Egypt.  Abram’s nephew Lot made the journey with them, but there are squabbles with Lot and disputes over grazing land.  Because of these disputes Lot and Abram they decide to separate, with Lot settling to the east and Abram to the west.

And then God says to Abram, look out in the distance, north and south and east and west.  All of this I will give to your descendants forever.  They will be like grains of sand they shall be so numerous.

But here’s the thing: Abram and Sarai had no children.  Before they even left Ur of the Chaldees, it was notable that they did not have a child.  They had been in this land that God had shown them, living among the Canaanites now, for some years.  Still no child.  But God repeats this promise that they would be parents of a great nation, parents of a multitude.

It is one struggle, one mishap after another.  Lot gets caught up in the middle of a war between adversarial kings and is taken prisoner, and Abram has to go into battle with his household and his allies in order to free his nephew.

And in our scripture this morning, God speaks yet again.  God says, “Do not be afraid.  I am your shield.  Your reward shall be very great.”

It is a little unusual.  Abram was not afraid of enemies.  He had just overcome enemies in battle and rescued Lot.  But God says, “I will be your shield.  You reward shall be very great.”

Abram was not interested in the shield part nearly as much as the reward part.  He says, “God, can you be a little more specific?  This reward part – I’d like to talk about that.”

God said, “Do not be afraid,” and it is clear that Abram was feeling anxiety.  But it was not about safety and security so much.  Abram is thinking, “I don’t really need a shield, what I need is a family.  I need descendants.  At this point, a guy that works for me, a servant, Eliezer of Damascus – he is as close as I have to an heir.”

Now you may notice that descendants are a huge deal in the Old Testament.  You can find page after page of genealogies.  Why was this so important?

We need to understand that people did not talk about eternity then.  They way that you were part of eternity was through your descendants.  Your children were the way that you lived on.  And so descendants were crucial.  Abram was becoming rich with flocks and fields and gold, but that did not matter.  To be truly rich one needed children.  Descendants in a sense made the other blessings of life durable and lasting.

God replied to Abram, “Eliezer of Damascus will not be your heir.  Your very own child, your own flesh shall be your heir.  Count the stars if you can.  So shall your descendants be.”

In the face of continuing anxiety and uncertainty, God says to Abram, “Count the Stars.”  The stars were a kind of symbol of God’s promise.  (And I have to say, I the stars of the sky are a more appealing metaphor than grains of sand.)

You know, we have those clear nights when you can see the stars, but there is too much light for us to really see the stars very well.  If you go way out to a place far from activity, far from homes and traffic and far from towns and cities, you can really see the stars.  Go camping in the Badlands and look up at night and it is completely different than looking into the sky in Ames.

But a few weeks back, after the Derecho had hit, we went outside one night.  We didn’t have any power.  Nobody around did.  No house lights.  No street lights.  There was no traffic.  It was still.  We went outside and looked up and we could see the stars so clearly.  We pointed out the Big Dipper and we looked at this amazing sky just full of stars.

I think about Abram and Sarai.  Of how they had said yes to God and traveled in faith to an unknown destination, an unknown future.  At this point, we are all in that boat.

Some by choice – I think of new students who have come to Ames, to this new place, filled with so many unknowns.  But even if you have lived here for a long time, we are now in this new place, this new situation, and not very much is certain.  It’s not just college students who have moved to Ames for their first semester.  It’s all students.  High school and middle school and elementary students who are trying to navigate online school.  And some who will go to school in person tomorrow for the first time – or later in the week for the first time, depending on what group you are in in the hybrid learning model.

Think about parents.  And teachers.  Nobody signed up for this pandemic, and life right now is filled with stress and nothing is certain.

Most of us do not handle uncertainty very well.  Many of us do all we can to minimize, if not eliminate, the unforeseen.  I admit that I want to know what is going on and I want a certain amount of control.

When we go on a trip, I have it mapped out in advance.  Even with GPS, I usually consult the map.  If we have to make a purchase, whether it is a vacuum cleaner or toaster oven, I consult Consumer Reports.  If we are buying a car, I read reviews for weeks.

There are students who don’t like to sign up for a class unless they have a scouting report on the professor and expect to get a decent grade.

But for all our trying to control things, life just cannot be controlled.  For all our efforts to minimize risks and figure out the future and manage what is coming down the road, we can’t do it.  The unexpected always comes into play.

Abram and Sarai had faced uncertainty.  And they will continue to face uncertainty.  And in uncertain times, we are faced with this question of trust.  To move forward in a time of uncertainty requires trust.  Did they trust, could they trust the God who had led them thus far?

“‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.  So shall your descendants be.’ And Abram believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

This is a well-known verse that is cited in several places in the New Testament.  “The Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  

We live in a time of anxiety, but then, what time has not been a time of anxiety?  We have to deal with the gulf between the future that we hope for and the unfulfilled reality of the moment.  All of that is magnified, perhaps, in this time of pandemic.  But from the time of Abram and Sarai on to today, there has always been this disconnect between the world as it is and the world that we hope for.  We want things to be right and hope and pray and maybe believe they will be, but it’s not yet.

In such a time, Abram believed God’s promise.  He trusted God.  And God reckoned it, or counted it as righteousness.  The good news is that when we cannot have complete trust, when our faith is yet imperfect, God takes the trust that we can muster and counts it as righteousness.  Righteousness it not so much about what we do; it is more about what God does within our relationship with God to make things right.

God’s promise is that even though we cannot necessarily see how we will get from here to there, God will see us through.

God says to us, “Count the stars.”  Count the stars and know that we can trust in the love and grace and goodness of God.  Amen.

"Adam, Eve, You and Me" - September 13, 2020

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

Today, as we kick off the fall, we are also starting a new year with the Narrative Lectionary – a set of scripture readings for each Sunday that follows the narrative – the storyline - of the Bible.  We will start in Genesis and look at key Old Testament stories through the fall up until Advent.  After Christmas, we will read continuously through one gospel up until Easter - this year it’s the gospel of Luke.  After Easter we will look at stories of the early church through Pentecost.  And then it’s anybody’s guess what happens after that.  I mean, things have not exactly been going according to plan over these past months, anyway.  But generally, that is where we are heading.

Our scripture today is as good a place as any to begin this trek through the Biblical story.  It is one of those formative, key stories in the Bible.  It gets some big ideas, big concepts, big issues right out there from the very first pages of scripture.  Creation, humanity, community, sin, grace – it’s all there.  

Genesis chapter 1 is the more familiar story of creation.  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 telling of the creation story, a much more earthy 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 (human) from the adamah (the fertile soil).  As close as we could get in English is to say that God made a human from the humus.  

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

There is a deep connection to the land that we find in this story.  I was talking to someone recently who had moved here from California and she commented on how there is a connection to the land, almost a reverence for the land that is felt here that she had not noticed so much in other places.  That may be true.  Many of you grew up on farms or are involved in farming and agriculture.  Many of you take great joy in gardening and flowers and landscaping and caring for the land.  From the very beginning, there has been this human connection to the land and a call to care for it, to serve the land and protect the land.  We are tied to the land and according to this scripture, we were formed from the land.  Which, if you think about in a purely biological systems way, is actually true.  The elements in our bodies were formed in the stars and come from the soil of the earth.  We are not just formed from dust, we are formed from stardust, literally.  It’s amazing.  
So the human is created from soil and breath.  God breathes life into the human, and there is a vocation – a calling – to serve and watch over the garden.  There is also 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, pecans, walnuts, almonds, avocados.  Throw in all of the vegetables and berries and grains.  We are talking about an incredible gift.  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.  Adam really does not carry a gendered meaning – it just means human.  God takes the rib and forms the woman, who is called Eve, which means “life,” and adam at this point become the proper name for the man, Adam.  

So you have a man and a woman who are 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 regular smorgasbord of offerings, save for one thing.  

If you are told there is just one thing you cannot do, one thing that is off limits, what do you tend to focus on?  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?

Our instinct is to strive to attain that which we don’t yet have.  And if there is anything we don’t like, it is somebody placing limits on us.  In the pandemic, that is half of what the mask debate is about, right?

The man and woman seemed to do wonderfully 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 except for the one in the middle of the garden – they weren’t to even touch it or they would die.  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.  And because of the guilt and shame they felt, they hid.

What the woman and the man came to know after eating the fruit was vulnerability.   They hid from God just as they were in a sense hiding from one another.  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 seriously worry about you.  

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 action of the man and woman in the garden, and since then there has been almost a herditary passing on of sin.  The man and woman’s action in the garden is called The Fall.  Before the fall, humanity was capable of living sin-free, but no longer.  There was a little ditty popularized by the Puritans that said, “In Adam’s fall, we sin all.”  Don’t you love that?

I think that is also perhaps a little too much reading into the story – a little too ambitious.  Again, I don’t think this is the main point to be gained from this story.

To me, this is a kind of universal story about all of us, about the choices that we make, about the nature of temptation, about our striving for more, about the nature of shame.

The NFL season has started and so maybe it is time for an annual quote from the great coach Vince Lombardi.  He famously said, in a comment that is etched in the American psyche, “Winning isn’t everything – it’s the only thing.”  The comment spun out of control, like a viral tweet, 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 is deeply rooted in our culture.  It is also the kind of thing that our scripture warns about.  Crossing the boundaries of what is good and helpful and healthy both for ourselves and for others can come with a price.  Breaking faith with God, breaking faith with others comes with a cost.   

The man and woman wanted to be like God.  They were not the only ones.  Adam and Eve went on to have three children, three boys.  Abel was blessed, seemed to do everything well, managed to get everything 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 that Abel had.  He resented his brother and came to the point where he thought if he could just get rid of Abel, his problems would be solved.  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.  

The treachery and murder in their family compounded the guilt and shame 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.  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 school.  The administrators and bureaucrats.  They could blame the church. Blame the TV set.  Blame their families, their neighbors, their bosses.  Blame their enemies.

This episode is not just Adam and Eve’s story; it is also our story.  It is about choices that we all make.

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.  Falling short is part of the human story.  

In the end, the man and the woman did not die, not on that day.  But there was a death, in a sense.  Innocence died, trust died, and the closeness they had felt to God and to one another would never completely be recovered.  

At the root of it all, this is a story about relationships – between humans and the land, relationships between individuals, between men and women, between us and God.  In all of those relationships, there can be brokenness.  We know this; we have experienced all of this.  But in this formative story, we also see God’s grace.

Grace in the fact that even as there were consequences for their actions – the man and woman 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, 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 when we have fallen short, we have the ability to start again, to mend broken relationships, to return to God.  And as we will find as we continue this journey through scriptures, God never gives up on us.  Amen.