Hope in a Basket

Sermon on Exodus 1:8-2:10 & Acts 7:17-22 for Pentecost +11 A, August 24, 2014

 We all participated in the program of reading the entire bible at the same time in 90 days recently.  For many of us it was a Fam reuniongreat experience to see the big picture instead of getting lost in details.   But reading the whole bible means reading the parts we normally skip over, so for some of us, it was like going into a store-room that had not been opened for years – finding odd and unfamiliar things there.  We found disturbing things there too – especially all the violence.  

Well, a nearby church was also reading the bible in 90 days, and some of them were getting quite alarmed by what they were reading.  The issues ranged from science and the bible to the divinely sanctioned slaughter of the Canaanites. So, they called me to come by and lead two sessions with them at their Wednesday night adult program.  

What can you do with the whole Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) in two sessions?  I do not know if it helped anyone, but my goal was this: just like a new frame can change the way you see a picture, I wanted to put the Jewish stories of the Hebrew Bible in a frame that made sense.  

The Family Story Frame

The frame I used was the idea of the family story.  Everybody tells family stories.  Sometimes they come up at family holidays, and often when the family re-assembles for funerals.  People tell their own family stories to re-connect with each other and to say who they are.

So, you could tell your family story about life in this area, or how you came to live here on the coast from somewhere else in America.  You could even go back to where your family roots were before your people came to this country, in Europe, Asia or Africa.  

But the same story would be different if you told your story with reference to God.  How was God involved in your family story?  That would put the picture in a different frame.  You might think of times when hope seemed lost, but your family pulled through.  You made it to America, you made it through the Great Depression and World Wars, you even survived the turbulent ’60’s.  

So, you can look back and see the hand of God at work.  There were coincidences, help came from unexpected sources.  Even really bad experiences produced unimaginably good things.  

Well, the Hebrew Bible is like family story-telling with God in the picture.  For Jewish people, context is everything.  If you tell a story, it has to be a this-world story about people on this earth – the one God crafted for them to live on and filled with everything they need to be blessed and fruitful.  Everything that happens on earth happens within the context of God’s great Creation-blessing.  

But Jewish story telling always has an eye open to the conundrum of the human condition.  We are these amazingly gifted, intelligent, resourceful creatures, even able to use language like nobody’s business, and yet at the same time we have this pernicious propensity to mess things up.   We can be pretty nasty.  Downright brutal if we think it serves us.  And we can be self-indulgent and even reckless, while blaming and scapegoating others without mercy.  We are both nearly god-like in some ways and nearly the opposite in others.

Context: Creation Blessing now complicatedMoses in basket painting

So we have just read a slice of the family story with God in it from Exodus.  The all-important context is that the blessed world that God created is a pretty complicated place.  There are now different races with different languages, there are empires and there are slaves.  The Hebrew people, as we pick up the story, are an ethnic minority living in the Egyptian empire where they are brutally oppressed slaves.

In other words, the context is really messed up.  This is not at all how people are supposed to live.  The conditions of oppression and brutalization are wrong; there is no justification for it.  Humans should not live this way in God’s world.   Nobody needs to be taught the golden rule – we all know it.  Egyptians know that what they are doing is wrong.  It is wrong for everybody, not just for people with a bible that tells them so.  

God’s Response, or not?

So, what is God going to do about it?  If you know the whole Moses story you know it is going to involve plagues of frogs and hail and an angel of death leading up to a marvelous escape on dry land though the middle of the Red Sea.  That story is coming.  

But this story we read is interesting for what is missing.  God is not mentioned at all.  This is also the way Jewish people told their family story with God in it: sometimes God was not in it.   

So you have these Hebrew people, living in Egypt where long ago they came to escape the famine back home, and now there is a new king with a short memory.  He does not remember how it was the Hebrew people, namely Joseph, who helped his country survive seven years of famine by storing up grain in the good years.  

The only thing this new king, or Pharaoh sees is a people who look different and speak a different language whom he can use and abuse to slave away in terrible conditions, so he can have cheap t-shirts, microwaves, cell phones and lawn care.   He does not exactly “get” the Creation-blessing perspective that applies to the whole world and all the people on the planet.  He thinks Egyptians are exceptional.

Besides, Hebrews multiply like rabbits.  So he makes them work all the more, lest they find the strength to rise up against him, join his enemies, or even escape.   

The Family Context

That’s the political context.  But then the story gets very small.  Suddenly it is about one man and one woman from the tribe of Levi, who have a baby.  But again, context is everything.  They have their baby, a boy, just after Pharaoh’s new law went into effect.  The midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, are under orders to kill newborn baby boys.  

Have you ever noticed how dumb this plan is?  If you want fewer babies, it would make more sense to eliminate potential mothers.  It takes very few men to have lots of babies, as long as there are women around, right?   But even dumber is that this unnamed Pharaoh-king has just ordered the elimination of his own slave population.  Who is going to build his supply cities if there are no boy slaves?   

But anyway, the two named women midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, powerless females, defy Pharaoh.  Civil disobedience is baked into the biblical cake.  No Pharaoh is the final authority – they all just think they are.   Their laws and their brutal enforcement machines are not the last word.  They can bring out the water cannons and the police dogs, even tear gas and the national guard, but their might does not make them right.  The system of race based oppression they are enforcing is simply wrong.

Irony Abounds

Hebrew story-telling is filled with irony.  Pharaoh tells everyone to throw the baby boys into the Nile, but the Nile is where baby Moses hides in safety. It is the      girls who are allowed to live, but it is females who subvert Pharaoh’s plans at every turn: the midwives, Moses’ sister, his own mother, even Pharaoh’s daughter.  Ironically, it is Moses’ mother who is paid by Pharaoh’s purse to nurse her own baby.  And Moses gets a royal eduction, tuition and room and board paid for by the palace itself.  

Hope in Irony

So, is God in this story after all?  How can we not see hope in all this irony?  It is also a feature of Hebrew story telling that so often the powerless little people make all the difference.  Women, not men succeed.  They have no obvious power but God characteristically uses the weak to shame the strong.  

God uses people who work for the good, for life-giving ends to subvert the injustice of a brutal system that is bent on death.  The women put themselves at risk to do the right thing, the life-supporting thing, and the future of the whole story turns on their courage.  

Personal Reviewhistoric church

Look back on your own story, and your family’s story.  How did you come to this moment?  As you look back, I’m sure there were periods of hard times.  There were times of impossible circumstances, darkness and even despair.  Like the Hebrew people in Egypt, it did not seem likely or even sane to believe things could get better.  

And what happened?  Probably no dramatic divine interventions.  No plagues against the problems and no parting of the sea.  And yet, maybe through ironic “twists of fate” coincidences, lucky breaks, unexpected healing, or slow, steady recovery, you are here today.  Looking back and noticing God at work in God’s unseen ways gives us reasons for hope for today and for our future.

A Fulfillment of Promise Story

We read from the book of Acts a slice of Stephen’s version of this Moses story.  He told it as a fulfillment story.  He said, 

  “as the time drew near for the fulfillment of the promise that God had made to Abraham, our people in Egypt increased and multiplied…”

I think we can read our own stories as promise-fulfillment stories too.  If we slow down enough to pay attention to our lives, we discern God’s good purposes at work behind the scenes.  When we pause to consider what it means that we have come through those past valleys to this moment, we are filled with hope.  

We can trust  that the God who helped Moses survive the crocodiles in that little basket (I know, the crocodiles are not Moses & Croc mentioned, but I cannot read this story without imagining them there sniffing around in the bulrushes) is watching over us too.  

The God who was there with Moses was the God who Jesus trusted with his life too, even in the context of another oppressive and brutal Empire.  Jesus showed us that a life of complete trust in the Creation God of the birds of the air and the lilies of the fields can be a life of hope, even in the face of death.

The Point is the ProcessScreen Shot 2014-08-23 at 6.46.06 PM

We do not know how our stories will end.  But that is not the point.  The point is the process.  The point is the one moment we ever have to live, which is this present moment.  In this present moment, we can trust that God is with us.  We can trust that God will accomplish God’s good purposes, and we can trust that we are in God’s hands.  

So, in the context of our lives we can have the courage we need for the moment we are living in.  And yes, courage is required.  Hope requires courage, because we live in a world in which the human propensity to mess things up keeps producing difficult circumstances.

We can face injustice with courage and hope, just like the midwives did, knowing that no authority, no system, no law has the last word.  This is God’s world, and no pretentious Pharaoh gets permission to treat humans as commodities.   No system, however successful it may make the few, justifies the oppression of others.  

We can face our own circumstances, as Moses’ family did, with the hope that God is going to be there for us every moment.  It may be scary and uncertain at times.  It may look even hopeless, and there will be times of loss and sorrow, but that is never how the story ends.  

We can wake up each new morning with wonder at the gift of life, and wondering how God is going to use people, events, coincidences and ironies to fulfill his original Creation blessing in our lives today.  

And we can even wonder how God is going to use us to bless the lives of others.  We may be the ones to discover the baby in the basket, or the ones giving after school tutoring to the ornery middle school Moseses in the neighborhood.    

Take the time, even today, to look back at your story.  Think of the ways God has been there, as in this story, unseen, behind the scenes, in process with you and your family.  And then take courage and renew hope that your Heavenly Father is still at work, just as Jesus taught us, now, and all the way to the end.   May God’s kingdom come, may God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Therein lies our hope.



Where is God?

Sermon on Psalm 42 for Pentecost +10 A, August 17, 2014

 Psalm 42

My focus is usually on the gospel text, but, this time it is the Psalm that I want us to look at together.  The reason is that it was written by a person who was depressed.  We do not know who wrote it or anything about them.  The title says it was written by a group, the Korahites, known for being a group of singers in the temple according to the book of Chronicles.  

But those Psalm titles are secondary and late, and are often guesses at best.  If there were ever a personal Psalm, expressing the emotions of an individual in pain, it is this one.  Originally, it was probably connected with Psalm 43; they share a common refrain and other features.  But we will look only at Psalm 42 today.

I departed from the lectionary texts to look at this Psalm because there have been a variety of reasons recently to experience sadness, and to reflect on what sadness and depression is about, and how to deal with these emotions as people of faith.  

Missing Robbin WilliamsRW

 Recently we have been aware of the tragic death by suicide of comedian and actor Robin Williams.  News of his death was sad enough at first, and only became more so when we learned of the circumstances.  

Robin Williams entertained us and made us laugh for years.  Ironically, though I rarely mention pop culture references in sermons, just last week I recalled his dramatic role in the film Good Will Hunting.  That film will always be, for me, a powerful exploration of human emotional complexity.  It is also a film about the potential for hope, and the capacity for personal redemption, and so it is fitting to remember in our present context as well.  

Robin Williams was enormously gifted.  They said the Disney animators who drew for Aladdin had to work their heads off to capture the instant character changes he portrayed.  When Aladdin rubbed the lamp for the first time, the Genie came out singing,  “You ain’t never had a friend like me.”  As he sang, Robin ran through a myriad of voice impressions in rapid fire.  No one was his equal.

But along with being uniquely gifted, Robin Williams was also troubled.   He went through treatment for cocaine first, and then, throughout his life, for alcohol addiction.  Near the end of his life, his friends reported that he had sought help with depression.  

I do not know if Robin Williams suffered from “clinical depression,” but in any case, all depression is real and painful.  

The occasion of William’s death by suicide shows us both the depth of his own sadness, and the news of it caused us sadness as well. It also leads us to reflect about our own sadness and even, for some, our depression.  For those of us who have been touched by suicide in our own families or among our close friends, this is all the more a poignant moment.  

Emotional Realism: Psalm 42thirsty deer

So, as a person of faith, I turned to the book in the Bible that most openly expresses human emotions, from joy and awe to bitterness and grief, including sadness and depression; the Psalms. 

Psalm 42 was written by a person in deep sadness, and perhaps depression.  He uses the language of the self, which is translated for us, the “soul.” 

First he speaks of his longing for God’s presence, saying, 

1 As a deer longs for flowing streams,

so my soul longs for you, O God. 

2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.

When shall I come and behold the face of God? 

Longing is the experience of absence; so he feels that God is not nearby, but far away.  He makes it personal and vivid.  What is the food of a hungry heart?

3 My tears have been my food day and night,

He puts the inevitable and crucial question on the lips of cynical friends  – perhaps not even being able to admit that it is his own question too:

“while people say to me continually,“Where is your God?”

The “Where is God?” Question

Here he has struck a nerve.  It feels as though the answer is: “Nowhere; God has left.  In God’s place in my heart is now only sadness.”  People of faith are not people of perpetual happiness.  People of faith suffer loss, feel grief, heartache, and sadness.  And when we do, yes, let us admit it: it feels as though God has gone away and left us alone.  

What to do?  The Psalmist tries memory of happier days; maybe it will cheer me up to recall past times of joy, when God seemed real and present.

“4  These things I remember, as I pour out my soul:

how I went with the throng, 

and led them in procession to the house of God,

with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, 

a multitude keeping festival.” 

But it does not work.  Memory alone is not enough.  It may even make things worse. Immediately after this memory of happy festivals and songs of thanksgiving he says again:

“5 Why are you cast down, O my soul,

and why are you disquieted within me?”

Quicksand Memories

This is so true for us.  Memories can be like mental quicksand, pulling us down instead of lifting us up.  We remember when the church was strong, when the seats were filled, when there were children and young families, and before we were so deeply divided over controversial issues.  

We remember when our loved ones were still alive and still healthy.  We remember how much we used to be able to do that we can no longer manage.  We look in the mirror and hardly recognize the person from long ago that we still think of ourselves as. Screen Shot 2014-08-16 at 11.30.24 AM

I recently ran across a story about this.  A man was on a cruise.  He left his cabin to head toward the room where the music was playing old dance tunes.  Way down the hall in front of him an older woman was just exiting her cabin at the same time.  She was nicely dressed, but looked old and somewhat bent over.  She had not noticed him.  

As she started walking along ahead of him, she heard the dance music.  In that instant she started to do a little shimmy, snapped her fingers, and made a little shuffle and swerve.  Then, “when she reached the door, she paused, assembled her dignity and stepped soberly through.”  (The story is from Chicken Soup for the Soul, 3rd Serving,  p. 240).  

For a moment she was the woman she remembered being, decades earlier, before she was camouflaged by age.  We are all like that.  Our minds can hardly conceive that we are not in our 20’s and 30’s, even as we feel the pain in our joints and see our reflections in the mirror.  

But the trouble is, often that the very memories of past joy can lead to the painful realization of the present reality.  We will never be 25 again.  Our lost loved ones will not return.  The reasons for our sadness are real, and probably permanent.  

Some Help for Sadnesstrucks and clouds

The book of Psalms is realistic about the facts of sadness and depression.  But it is not a book of therapy.  Fortunately, for us, researchers who study emotion have a great deal of help to offer.  

For those of us who have clinical depression, professional help is what we should seek immediately.  There are solutions.  Some of the problems are cause by brain chemistry, and so there are medical interventions that we must never feel ashamed to take full advantage of.

For all of us, I want to share some basic insights that are powerfully effective in dealing with sadness.

First, ruminating on the cause of our sadness is not helpful.  This is what we naturally do, even though it never works.  We say, as the Psalmist did, “Why am I sad?  Why are you cast down, O my soul?” 

And then we look for specific causes to justify our sadness – we remember things that hurt us or losses we have experienced.  We plumb our feelings in the recent past – and we always, always, always find blame-targets for reasons.  The practice of ruminating always makes the sadness worse, and never makes it better.  

Second, researchers tell us that feelings are real and simply must be acknowledged.  Shutting down, turning away, hiding, masking, our feelings is never successful.  What we burry in one place simply comes up in another – often in bodily signs of pain, discomfort, or even actual illness.   We cannot distract ourselves out of our sadness with TV or golf or shopping.  And if we self-medicate through pain-numbing substances like drugs or alcohol, we will only make matters worse and worse.  

“It’s already here”clouds and sun

So the solution that is the alternative to ruminating and to denial is simply to say to ourselves, when we become aware of sadness: “It is already here.”  We become aware of our feelings, and we acknowledge them as present and real.  We say, “Whatever feeling I am feeling, it is already here.  It is real.  It is already present.”

So, we then give ourselves permission to feel it.  We say, “Whatever it is, it is already here, so let me feel it.”  We allow ourselves to feel the sadness that is already there; the grief that is already there; the hurt, the loneliness, the pain, the loss.  

Most often, when we allow ourselves to feel the pain, it lasts for a time – often no more than a half an hour – then, like a cloud burst that pours down hard then passes, the feelings of intense sadness subside.  

This is cyclical.  The feelings may likely return, especially when the cause is a permanent condition, like the loss of a person we loved.  But each time the cycle repeats, we go through the same process.   “The feeling is already here; it is real; so  I will let myself feel it.”  We do not judge the feeling as a bad feeling, or ourselves as bad for having the feeling, we merely acknowledge the reality and allow ourselves to feel our feelings, just as they are, non-judgmentally, in the present moment.  

There is more to it, and I have some excellent resources I can direct you towards if you are interested.  We have them in our church library and they are readily available for purchase online.  (see especially, The Mindful Way through Depression: freeing yourself from chronic unhappiness, by Williams, Teasdale, Segal, and Kabat-Zinn, 2007, a clinically proven cognitive therapy + mindfulness approach.)

Remaining hopeful

Screen Shot 2014-08-16 at 11.39.29 AMIn the end, we have this hope, in spite of our feelings of sadness: that God is there, and is there for us, even when it does not feel that way.  

Twice the author of Psalm 42 asserts this statement of faith, even against emotional odds:

“5  Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,

my help and my God.”

Hope in God.  Hope is a risk, not a certainty; it is the risk of faith.  Hope is what Jesus modeled for us.  Hope in the God that Jesus taught us to know and love.  Hope in the God of the birds of the air and the lilies of the fields.  Hope in the God who Jesus called, “Abba” our loving Heavenly Father who gives us each day, our daily bread. Hope in the God who has seen us through many days – good days and bad days – and will be there for us in the future, until we draw our last breath in this life.

“Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,

my help and my God.”


The Essential Risk

Sermon on Matthew 14:22-33 for Pentecost +9 A, August 10, 2014

Matthew 14:22-33

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Everyone has heard the joke about walking on water (from the Comedy Central web site):Screen Shot 2014-08-08 at 8.45.24 PM

“A Catholic priest, a Baptist preacher and a rabbi fish in a lake. The preacher has to go back and fetch his pole, so he walks across the water, gets the pole, and walks back. Then the rabbi has to go for some beverages, so he walks across the water, gets the cooler, and walks back.

“The Catholic sees this and invents a reason to go back for something left behind too, but when he gets out he falls into the water. He swims back, gets back into the boat, and says, “God, let me walk across the water.” He tries again and falls into the water, swims back, tries again and falls again.

“The Baptist leans over to the rabbi and asks, “Do you think we should tell him where the stepping stones are?”

When you think about it, going completely underwater is quite a unique experience. Suddenly it is quiet; the sounds of the world are gone. There is no air to breathe. And if it’s not a pristine swimming pool, and if it’s not daytime, it is hard to see anything.Poseidon

I remember when my father taught me to put my head all the way under the water: it was scary.

In the ancient world, the sea was considered by some to be a god; probably you know the name Poseidon, for example. There were mythologies of great sea monsters inhabiting the deep: Leviathan, Rahab, the Chaos monster all live in the poetry of our ancient ancestors and even show up in the bible’s poetry.

Humans and the Risky SeaScreen Shot 2014-08-08 at 8.49.03 PM

Humans have lived by the sea since the dawn of civilization. We learned how to fish with nets from boats thousands of years ago. We have known for a long time what it means to be at the mercy of the sea, when storms come up before shore can be reached. We have known what it means lose people to the sea. We have known the sea to cross its expected boundary at the shoreline and flood fields and homes and towns.

So for these kinds of reasons, the sea is often chosen as an image of risk. The sea is a place of dangerous disorientation. To “be at sea” about a decision is to lack direction – no landmarks to guide us because we are not on land.

We talk about having “a sinking feeling” and “the water coming up to our necks.” Shakespeare’s Hamlet muses about taking “arms against a sea of troubles.” We speak of “drowning” in all kinds of things from debt to pity. To be “in deep waters,” to be “in over our heads,” is to be vulnerable. It is dangerous. It is risky.

The Call to RiskScreen Shot 2014-08-08 at 9.01.35 PM

This is exactly what people of faith are called to do: to take the essential risk, and to keep taking that same risk again and again, even as the odds of success diminish.

That is what this gospel story is about: leaving the safety of a shoreline, getting out into a little boat on the big sea, at night, with storm clouds coming; taking an essential risk. And then, being willing to go still further; to leave even the modicum of safety the little boat provided and to join Jesus out where there is no safety net, no stepping stones to rely on.

To be a person of faith, is to take the essential risk, and to keep taking the risk, that it might be true. There might actually be a God. That there might be a God who is there, and who cares.

The Commanded Risk

For Jesus, it was essential that his followers, the ones we call disciples, were willing to take that risk. Where are we in Matthew’s Jesus story? Matthew has just told us the story of the feeding of the 5,000 and the 12 leftover baskets of bread. It is a story about abundance. About risking the small amount we have for the sake of the many in need.

But that story demanded nothing of the disciples. They served the bread and took up the leftovers. No sweat. In fact it ends with cushy comfort: bread in the basket is like money in the bank. Security, at least for the time being.

Jesus is aware, however, that life is not really like that. Life is not sitting on the grass eating bread with friends. And so, Matthew tells the story with these words:

“Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.”

Barely have they swallowed the last bite of bread, and Jesus orders them into the boat to cross to the other side. He made them. It was important to him that they take a risk.

Meantime, Jesus does his characteristic withdrawal to go be alone, and, again like Moses, to pray on a mountain. Jesus’ life of faith was continually renewed and energized by his practice of prayer. There is no such thing as a vital spiritual life apart from the steady practice of prayer; even for Jesus himself.

No Special Help, All Night

It is important for Jesus that the disciples in that boat receive no special Jesus-help to face the coming storm. They will live most of their lives without him physically present, and so they must begin to learn what it is going to mean. In this way I hope we can see that Jesus has put them in the story in the same situation that we find ourselves in.

Matthew has set the stage for this next moment:The "Jesus Boat"

“the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.”

I have been to Israel where in a museum on the sea of Galilee there is an ancient boat, from approximately the time of Jesus, that they preserved. The guide, of course, calls it the “Jesus boat” – which is what the tourists, like me, want to imagine. But, upon seeing it, everybody in our group had the same thought: it’s so small! We would be tempted to call it a canoe, though it’s a bit larger than that. Still, to be battered that way by the waves, far from land, with the wind against you, in that little thing would be terrifying.

To make it worse, the battering and wind lasts all night. The next bit of action happens when it is nearly morning. So they are, soaked and exhausted, as well as terrified.

Life is Like That

Well, Matthew has done a good job of describing what life is like for a lot of people. It is like that. Can you imagine the life of a Christian in Iraq, right now, fleeing for their lives from the I.S. terrorists? Or the lives of parents in Central America who are so hopeless and devoid of all rational, reasonable options, that they put their kids on freight trains bound for our borders? Can you imagine the experience of a Palestinian who just wants to have a simple life, but who lives at the mercy of the maniacs of Hamas who keep firing rockets into Israel and inviting massive force retaliation?

There is a world of poor people, oppressed people, displaced people, and abused people, whose whole lives are lived as if in little boats, at the mercy of the waves, with the wind against them, far from shore.

Us Tooman in boat

But even for us, who live such lives of privilege, access, and stability, we also know what this experience means. If you saw the film “Good Will Hunting” several years ago, you remember the painting of the man rowing a little boat on a stormy sea that the psychologist, played by Robin Williams, had on his wall. When the client, Matt Damon’s character, noticed it, he made fun of it, to hurt him – and it got to him. Why? Because being at sea, tossed about in a little boat was what he had painted to depict how he felt when his wife, the love of his life, was dying of cancer.

We have been in that boat in that storm too. Sometimes our marriage and our family issues put us in that boat. Sometimes it is loss and grief. Sometimes it is illness and the fear of the future. Sometimes it is because of things we brought on ourselves. There are all kinds of reasons, and to top them off, we all know that no matter how good life is, it does not last forever. The future is unknown.

The Essential Risk of FaithScreen Shot 2014-08-08 at 9.10.26 PM

So this is why the life of faith is a risk. People of faith are called to get out of that boat on that storm, believing that there is a God, and that God cares. We will risk being wrong about that – maybe it is like paying the silent universe a compliment it does not deserve. We have plenty of doubts – who would not, under these precarious conditions?

But people of faith take that risk, and keep taking that risk, and go even further, like Peter (whose name means rock, right?) of leaving the small safety of the boat to step out with new risks, trusting that there will be a strong hand there for us when we need it, when we start to sink like a stone.

So, we risk wasting our time in prayer and silence – without proof that it does any good, because we want to nurture our faith and direct our compassion towards people in need.

And we risk all kinds of effort at being a force for good in the world on behalf of people in need. We risk our money to fight hunger and poverty. We risk our reputations to be on the side of justice for the despised and the marginalized. We risk our convenience for the sake of this fragile planet we live on. We risk our time on behalf of children and the elderly.

We are called to take the essential risk of living in a world as if it includes a God who cares, and then we keep risking and risking ourselves daily, on the possibility that God has put us here precisely to be a part of God’s mission of rescue to the world.

And what do we find, when we take these risks? We find what Peter found. That God is indeed there for us when we need him. The storms do not magically go quiet, but the hand is there for us, reaching out, grasping our hand, and, in the end, saving us. Saving us from a self-absorbed life; saving us from a life of indulgence and apathy, saving us from despair and hopelessness, and saving us from the fear that we were alone.

God is here for you. Take the risk of believing that. And take that risk every day. Even with little faith, and plenty of doubts, just like the men in that boat, and watch what happens.



“And all ate and were filled”

Sermon on Matthew 14:13-21 for Pentecost +8 A, August 3, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-08-02 at 9.48.06 AMMatthew 14:13-21

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Today’s texts about hunger and food got me thinking.  One of my favorite afternoon snacks is a handful of nuts.  They are full of protein, right?  Great.  But there is one thing I know for a fact, even before I pop them in my mouth: that as soon as I swallow, I will want more.  I know that no matter how many handfuls I eat, I will always crave another.   My hunger will not be satisfied.Screen Shot 2014-08-02 at 9.52.57 AM

This actually makes me mad.  I feel manipulated.  Indeed, I am being manipulated.  People are profiting from keeping me hungry.

According to scientists who study the brain, we humans have pleasure centers that light up in an MRI scan when we experience something enjoyable.  The big food manufacturers do a lot of research about this.  Of course they do; they want us to buy more of their products.  (see: the NYT review of How Sweet It Is:‘Salt Sugar Fat,’ by Michael Moss)

So now they know that there is what they call a “bliss point” at which we experience the maximum pleasure we can have from, for example, sugar and salt.  They know how much sugar to put in to a soda or a cereal box to make us feel maximum bliss.

neuroscientists also know that there is no “bliss point” for fat.  The more they put into ingredients, the more we like it.  Add cheese, for example, to just about anything and we want more and more.

They now know how to manipulate levels of sugar, salt and fat in foods to make us continue to want more and not feel satisfied, just as the nuts I snack on do.  The potato-chip slogan “no on can eat just one” turns out to be one of the most bold, public confessions ever made.

Eating and Satisfaction TodayScreen Shot 2014-08-02 at 9.59.34 AM

Eating without finding satisfaction seems to sum up much of life in the Western world.  We have become experts in consuming more and enjoying it less.  That seems to be how the world is set up to operate.  It leaves us unsatisfied.

So, this morning we are asked to consider a radically alternative vision of how the world can operate.  We read a Jesus-story that ends saying,

“And all ate and were filled (= satisfied)”

All ate” means that no one went away without eating.

filled or satisfied” means that what they ate was life-giving and nutritious.

This is the alternative we are seeking.

Meal StoriesScreen Shot 2014-08-02 at 10.03.27 AM

God’s people, people of faith, characteristically tell stories about meals; about eating together, about abundance in the midst of seeming scarcity, and about satisfaction.  Nobody is hungry at the end.  There is enough.  More than enough.  What a contrasting vision!

We tell the story of the Hebrew people who were slaves in Egypt, escaping into the wilderness, and how Moses prayed, and they were given daily manna to eat.  The scarcity of wilderness was overcome by daily provisions from a common source.  All ate, and were satisfied.

We tell stories like the one in which Elisha the prophet feeds 100 men with only twenty loaves of bread, and it was enough; there were even leftovers.

In the context of wilderness and scarcity, there is enough for all to eat and be satisfied.  That is the faith story.  That is the radical alternative.

Modern Scarcity and the Jesus Meal

Today, we live with abundance, and yet we experience scarcity.  We all brought our own specific hunger with us this morning.  We came with hunger: hunger for meaning in our lives, hunger for peace, for reconciliation of broken relationships, and hungry for a solution to our fears for the future.  I believe we are here because we also sense a hunger for God.  We are hungry indeed.Screen Shot 2014-08-02 at 10.07.48 AM

The story we read today is about an unplanned meal in the wilderness. The story is set as Jesus has gone there for a reason: to be alone.  Why would he?  We are not told, but other times in Matthew Jesus withdraws from the crowds for prayer.  He knew his own hunger was spiritual and he nourished his spirit with practices like prayer and silence.

There could have been another reason for his withdrawal: danger.  His cousin John the baptist has just been killed.  Herod thinks Jesus may be John, come back to life. Maybe he will try again.   The danger is real.

It is odd to consider that John was killed at a meal.  It was Herod’s birthday bash.  There must have been plenty of everything at that meal.  No one had to ask where in  the world they would get all the food needed to satisfy the guests; there was no scarcity in Herod’s palace.

But scarcity was a problem outside the palace, out in the Galilean wilderness.  The way the story goes is interesting.   Jesus wanted to be alone, but ended up with a crowd around him.  Clearly, people were hungry for something that Jesus was offering.   When he saw them, he had compassion on them.

But anyway, they have been there all day, now it’s supper time, and no one has planned for this.

All the disciples can think to do is to send the hungry people away.  They understand scarcity for what it is.   Let them each go find a way to solve their problem individually.  Let them go to the local economy and get their needs met.

It’s a question of supply and demand; market economics – unless there is an alternative to market forces, even in the context of wilderness scarcity.  Jesus believes there is.

Two Kinds of Taking

In Herod’s realm, the rule is “take what you can get.”  As the agent of Imperial Rome, Herod Antipas of Galilee could take enough from impoverished peasants to build himself a lavish palace. I have walked though the ruins of that palace; it was huge and must have been opulent.

Outside in the wilderness, Jesus has an alternative which also begins with taking.  He takes what he has on hand, he takes five small loaves of bread and a couple of fish.  Then he does what Herod would have never thought to do: he looks towards heaven, and blesses the bread, and breaks it, and gives it away.

Jesus was doing what all Jewish fathers do at the supper table.  The common prayer of thanksgiving begins,Screen Shot 2014-08-02 at 10.11.59 AM

Blessed are you, oh Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.

Can there be true scarcity when God, the Source and Sustainer of the universe is present?

When Jesus turned to heaven to bless the bread in that prayer of thanksgiving for God’s provision, he was undoing the possibility that scarcity could have the last word.   When God is acknowledged as the source of the bread, the only possible response is to give thanks, break bread, and give to everyone, so that “all may eat and be satisfied.

The Christian Model

This is fundamental to the Christian world view in every way on every level.  Our characteristic action is to come together, as we will do today, around a common table to share a meal.  At that meal we will say the words that Jesus told us to do in memory of him at the last supper: take bread, bless it, break it, and give it to all that “all may eat and be satisfied.”

On a personal level, this means that we look to God for the satisfaction our spirits are hungry for.  We practice the spiritual practices of a Christian, withdrawing for prayer and silence, just as Jesus did.  And in stillness, we find rest, and peace, and the presence of God for whom we hunger.  We taste and see the goodness of the Lord.  We eat the living bread, and are satisfied.

On a wider level, we ask questions.  We ask, who is at the table and who is not at the table?    Why are they not at the table?  Have they been excluded from the table?  Who would Jesus exclude?

We ask, who is hungry?  What are they hunger for?  What is on hand that we can take, bless, break, and give away?

Today, we are surrounded by people who, like the unenlightened disciples, can only see scarcity.  They tell us there is not enough so often that we believe it.  They tell us we do not have enough to share.  They say “send them away; they are on their own.”

An Alternative VisionScreen Shot 2014-08-02 at 10.14.25 AM

But God has given us an alternative vision.  We are here to tell the meal story of the people of God.  We are here to look past wilderness and scarcity, and to look up to the One who provides.  We are here to look at what we have been given with thankful hearts, to break it and to give it to everyone at the table, until all are fed.  Giving becomes our characteristic spiritual response.

This is why there is an offering in every worship service.  As an act of worship, as a response to God’s grace, we give away what we have been given.

This is why we have a Christian Service Center food pantry: so that we can give to people who are hungry.

This is why there is a Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and a Presbyterian Children’s home.   It is characteristic of Christians to imitate Christ: to take with thanksgiving and to respond by giving.

This is also why we give of ourselves in every way.  This is why we do VBS: we see children around us hungry to know that they are loved by God and by us, and so we give.

This is why we open our doors to  AA and ALANON, that those who are hungry to live lives of recovery from addiction may meet.

And this is why, when we look at the crisis on our borders: we feel compassion for the crowds, just as Jesus did.  And we take what we have, we look to heaven and give thanks, and break it, and give it, so that all may eat and be satisfied.

And when we have given away the little we had on hand, what do we experience?  Abundance.  There were twelve baskets left over.

  • One for each disciple.
  • One for each tribe of Israel.
  • One to keep giving out of for each month of the year.

There is not scarcity, but plenty, because, in the wilderness, someone

took bread, 

blessed it, 

broke it 

and gave it away.

And then all ate and were satisfied.



Worthless as a desert (with oil under it)

Sermon on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 for Pentecost +7 A, July 27, 2014

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

by James B. Janknegt

by James B. Janknegt


He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”GS long ago

Worthless as a desert (with oil under it)

Someone told me of the old days of Gulf Shores when it was a sleepy little town with little vacation cottages before there was even a grocery store.  They said you could buy property pretty cheaply.  Farmers did not want it; you could not grow anything on the sandy soil.   That was then.  Now every acre its worth a fortune.

That story reminded me of a speech made in the US Arabiacongress around the time of the First World War in which a representative asked what interest we could possibly have in Arabia, since it was only a worthless, sandy desert.  How different the deserts look to day with their oil derricks dotting the landscape.

Unintended Consequences

But it is complicated.  Who is all that desert land valuable to?  The House of Saud came to power in what we now call Saudi Arabia and allowed American oil companies to explore and drill for oil.  As our need for oil increased, so did our relationship with the Saudi’s.  Those sandy deserts became hugely valuable to both of us.  We needed the oil, and the Saudi’s got rich.

Should we be happy?  A dependable supply of oil has made us happy for years, but there have been other consequences too.  The house of Saud came to power only with the help of the armies of Muhammad ibn al-Wahhab, founder of the radical version of Islam called Wahhabism.

With piles of our petrol dollars flowing to Saudi Arabia, there has been plenty of cash available for themSaudi oil rig to sponsor schools for strict Whahhabist style radical Islam all over the Middle East.  This is the form of Islam followed by al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and, more recently, the ISIS terrorists who are now on the move in Syria and Iraq.

By the way, ISIS has just last week expelled Christians out of Mosul in Iraq on pain of death.  Most of us probably had no idea that there were Christian communities in Iraq since the 300’s AD, complete with churches, monasteries, and thriving Christian communities.   Well, no more.

So, the dollars we spend at the gas pump have ultimately enabled the most radical form of Islam to prosper and have filled the pockets of our worst enemies.  Now how do we estimate the worth of all those sandy deserts?

People concerned about the environment, as all Christians should be, also raise the issue of what it means that we have been burning all of that oil all of these years.  There are layers of reasons why the worth of those deserts is rather complex.

Kingdom Joy – or Not?Screen Shot 2014-07-26 at 5.05.34 PM

This is exactly the kind of complexity about value that Jesus was teaching about the Kingdom of God (which Matthew calls the Kingdom of Heaven).  What is the  kingdom like?  It’s hugely valuable, like stumbling onto buried treasure; like a pearl merchant, fulfilling a life-long quest, finding what he had been seeking and recognizing its value.

For the people who see the treasure as treasure, and the pearl’s unequaled value, it is worth everything.  They risk everything, sell everything, and feel unqualified joy.

Kingdom Joy for Some

This is the experience of those who have gotten the message: that the God that Jesus came to show us is really God, here and now.  The message is that God can be imagined as a loving Heavenly Father who is for us, not against us; who is with us, every moment, in every experience of our lives.

The message of the kingdom is that God cares when we suffer and in fact suffers with us.  That God knows we need daily bread, and supplies it.  That God hears our cries and knows the longings of our hearts, and that our alienation can be reconciled, our sins forgiven, and our joy made complete.  This is of inestimable value!

The message of the kingdom is that the powers of this world are not ultimate.  The Caesar’s, the Herod’s, the Pilate’s who oversee systems of oppression and injustice are not going to be around forever.  Neither will the people exploiting the peasants, seizing their land, driving them into debt-slavery win.

The message of the kingdom is that God hears the cries of the poor.  There will be a day of reckoning.Kudzu

So, to people who fight against the kingdom, the value looks different.  It looks like kudzu weed that spreads out over everything and cannot be controlled.  That’s what the mustard plant did in gardens in Jesus’ day.  It was a weed in the days before Round-Up.  Was the spread of the kingdom good news or bad news?  It depends on who you asked: whether you held the plow or the whip.

The kingdom was like leaven that a lady put into flour.  It takes time, like leaven does, but it’s unstoppable once it gets going.  And the result is bread; three measures of flour is enough to make bread for one hundred people.

And yes, God can be imagined as the lady who got the process started.  This too is part of the reason for the joy of those who understand the message of the Kingdom: that God is the God of women and men, and the hierarchies of gender have no place in the Kingdom.Kneeding bread

This is great news to women, even if it is a bitter pill to us men of privilege – but the kingdom is like that all the way down.  Gender hierarchies are gone, status hierarchies are gone, income hierarchies are gone, ethnic hierarchies are gone in a kingdom in which:

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  (Gal. 2:28)

This is great news!  At least to some.  Maybe not to all.  The whole idea that God loves everyone, without preference and without exception is fantastic news to those who thought they were unloved, but a tragedy to those who thought they were special cases, and worse news to those who live as if there is no God at all, observing their crimes.

So, the value of the kingdom looks different to different people.  For some, it is the greatest treasure in the world, to know and love God, and to be a part of God’s new family.  It is worth risking everything for.  It is the cause of joy and celebration.  It is satisfying like a quest that finds its object and a meal of homemade bread, shared with 99 others.

The Mysteriousness of the Kingdom

But there is something mysterious about this kingdom: it is hidden in plain sight.    The treasure is buried in a field.  The pearl has to be searched for.  It grows and spreads like mustard seed weeds multiply, but you do not see it grow on any single day.  It spreads invisibly like leaven in dough.

This too, is like the kingdom.  It spreads beneath the radar.  It does not need armies with weapons, bugles and banners.  There is no big white horse at the head of a public parade.

Rather, the unstoppable kingdom spreads quietly through quiet acts of love and mercy.  It spreads through cups of cold water given to the thirsty.  It spreads and grows by acts of compassion to the elderly and the grieving.  The kingdom advances by decisions to forgive instead of seeking vengeance and by generous giving that flows from compassion.  The kingdom rises up like a tree when there are people working for justice on behalf of people oppressed.

The kingdom spreads through people who show up to a church work day so that we can prepare to host Arts Camps and VBS.  The kingdom grows when we gather to sing and reflect on scripture and encourage each other’s faith on Sunday mornings.  The kingdom grows quietly when we welcome strangers as friends.

Odd Combination of Old and NewOld and New

And there is another wrinkle to consider about the kingdom.  It is also

“like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”  

The old is what we are already familiar and comfortable with.  The old is the covenant promise to bless Abraham and Sarah and their descendants, and through them to become a blessing for the whole world.  The old is the promise to have a king on David’s throne whose kingdom would be worldwide and forever.  That much is as comfortable as an old sweatshirt on a January evening.

But the scribe who has been trained for the kingdom is like the one who brings out of his treasure what is new as well.   What is new is less familiar, and less comfortable.  It is new to imagine Jews and Greeks at a common table together, the circumcised with the uncircumcised – unthinkable in the past, but now a reality in the kingdom.

It was not possible to imagine being OK with women as leaders in times past, but the kingdom is a new age; the end of the old age has come.

There was a time – in fact a long time – when the very idea that there could be a world without slavery was inconceivable.  But, though it took 1900 years, finally no Christian can imagine a world that tolerates owning human beings as property.

The Newness and its Difficulties We Face

Right now, we are living in times that are painful times for some, and times of great joy for others.  We are trying to come to terms with new issues that do not seem at all comfortable, but rather difficult.

Our Presbyterian Church just met in General Assembly. The assembly  is comprise of commissioners who are: one pastor and one lay person from each Presbytery in our country.  These people – not a governing body like a congress or a court, but these people from congregations all across our country overwhelmingly voted to do two things:

GA 2014

GA 2014

They voted to allow Presbyterian clergy to have permission to marry gay couples in states where it is permitted by law, if they feel it is appropriate to do so.

And they voted to propose and amendment to our constitution, our Book of Order, defining marriage as between “two persons, traditionally a man and a woman,” but not anymore limited to mixed gender couples.

I am aware that there are deeply held feelings about this issue and I have great respect for everyone I know who is engaged in this issue.

As you all probably know, there are members of our congregation who have gay adult children.  It is almost certain that all of us know people who are gay, and probably most of us have gay relatives somewhere in our families.

We know these people.  We know that they are not predators or people of debauchery. And yet, even knowing people, who are just like us in every way other than their sexual orientation, some of us still have strong feelings about the definition of marriage.  We have longstanding experiences of the the world as it has been, and no wish to see it change.

Others, however, have known first hand the pain and suffering undergone by gay people who have been bullied, shunned, and shamed for something they could no more choose than the color of their eyes.

So, we are left with this question: is this a case of a scribe, trained to see things in the kingdom, brining out new as well as old treasures?  Or is this a case of the church abandoning its treasure altogether?   Let me say again, I am aware that there are deeply held beliefs and strong feelings on both sides of this question.

Probably you all know that I am personally in favor of these changes.  I do see them as part of the great trajectory in scripture of welcoming the stranger and removing barriers to full inclusion.  But I am also aware that people I dearly love think differently, including people in my own family.

Hope for Unity

I do have great hope for our church that we can see ourselves as a family.  No two spouses agree on everything, but a marriage is based on a union far deeper than total agreement.  In fact our unity, as a church, is rooted in baptism into Christ.  We are all members of one body.  We have one Lord, one faith, one baptism.

My prayer for us is that we can remain open to each other.  My belief is that through staying in conversation with each other, we will all be able to respect one another, even those with whom we differ.

My commitment is to believing that you hold your opinions with deep integrity and  my hope is that you will believe that I do as well.

So, please hear this call: let us be who we are.  We are people of the kingdom.  We are people who have discovered the treasure.  We are people willing to risk everything on the unlikely and often hidden idea that there is such a thing as love in this world, that working for justice is not in vain, and that God is here, and God is good, and that God is for us.   And let us be people of the kingdom together, united in Christ, praying, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

And let us get on with doing quiet, hidden, unstoppable kingdom things: loving, forgiving, and working for the healing and reconciliation of the world.



Romans “13” In Context

Steven Kurtz:

context is everything. Many thanks to Michael Snow for this!

Originally posted on TextsInContext:

A brief look at Romans “13” in its historical and textual context:

586 BC Solomon’s Temple destroyed

[Second Temple Consecrated, 516 BC]

After the Babylonian captivity ended, Judea survived under the succeeding Empires.

323 BC Death of Alexander the Great. Kingdom divided among the generals.

Judea comes under the Ptolemies, who also rule Eygpt

198 BC Judea annexed by the Seleucids, under Antiochus III, who rules Syria

During this period, Jews were under no government edicts to change customs [though many fell under the spell of the Hellenistic spirit of the times]. Antiochus strengthened the High Priesthood, made Torah official law for Jews and exempted Jews from taxes.

Judea was still a theocratic/Temple State.

Internal strife precipitated a crisis under the next king, Antiochus IV, Epiphanes. High Priestly faction, the House of Zaddock, was pro-Ptolemaic.

Another artistocratic family, the Tobiads, was pro-Seleucid.

Complaints against High Priest Onias III led to…

View original 941 more words

God in the Weeds

Sermon on Gen 28:10-19a for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost A, July 20, 2014

Gen 28:10-19a

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went towards Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the

Jacob's Dream by Marc Chagall

Jacob’s Dream by Marc Chagall

top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place — and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first.

Here’s a little question to start with:

What is going on in this world, and where is God in it?

Or, we could ask it personally:

What is going on in my life (or my family), and where is God in it?”

I read a quote this week that bears repeating here:

For every complex problem there is an answer that is ‘neat, plausible, and wrong.’” (attributed to H. L. Mencken in Feasting on the Gospels, Matthew, vol. 1)broken road

To give an account of life that is neat and plausible is certainly to get it wrong.  I experience life as complicated, and mine isn’t half as complicated as the lives of  many whom I have observed.  I am quite sure you experience life as complicated.

Things go wrong.  Plans sometimes fail.  Illness happens.  Accidents happen – sometimes tragically.  Loss happens.  And there is evil.

We understand a bit about evil.  We all know what temptation is, and we have all done things we wish we had not done.   We have all indulged our impulses and believed our own excuses, pretended to be special cases, and acted selfishly.  So, we understand the impulse to evil.

And yet, there is another kind of evil – or a dimension, or a level (what should we call it?) that is so much worse.  There are people who seem to have been given over to evil – business people who will do just about anything to the unsuspecting or to the environment if it makes them money.  I have been cheated and sold garbage more than once.

There are people who exploit and abuse women, children, or the elderly; people who abuse others verbally or psychologically,  and there are criminals of all kinds.

So, we ask, “what is going on, and where is God in it?” because the answer is not at all neat nor obvious.

“Never mind” – God clock face

One serious answer that has been given is the one people like Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin offered.  It was called Deism.  In this account, God just simply does not interfere with the world.  He made it, but lets it run like an expertly crafted Swiss Clock all by itself.  (So then, this is the “best of all possible worlds” – Leibniz?  Read Candid once and that notion goes away.)

I guess Deism lets God off the hook for not jumping in and stopping evil – since intervening is simply not what God would do – but I find it unsatisfying.  That kind of  account of “what’s going on in the world” simply overlooks an experience that is common to the vast majority of people who have ever lived.   We experience God.  Nearly all of us do.  Certainly all groups of us do.  We know of no human culture that is or was not religious.

This universal feeling does not prove anything, of course, but it leaves us needing to give an account of what is going on in the world that at least leaves the door open.

Stories of the Hidden Presence

This is one of the reasons I am so happy to have inherited from the Jewish tradition the stories of the Hebrew bible.  They can be read on the surface like quaint, ancient attempts at history, but they are not that.

Rather these stories of people like Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and dear old Jacob and clan are much deeper.  They are narrative struggles to understand what is going on in the world and where God is in it.  In other words, theology – in its most practical, even visceral sense.  And they are complicated stories – not at all neat and tidy.Jacob's Dream

We read a bit of the Jacob story.  Jacob is the poster child for moral ambiguity.  He is a trickster, a deceiver and a manipulator – remember the story from last week of him stealing his older brother Esau’s birthright?  Jacob gets himself in all kinds of morally ambiguous situations.

But at an even deeper level, Jacob’s story keeps shoving a problem in our faces as we read it: what is going on and where is God in it?  Especially when it comes to the question of causes.  Who or what is behind the things we experience in life?  Is God doing things, or are we left to our own devices and to chance?

Jacob has stolen his older brother’s birthright, but then, at his mother’s instigation, also connives to steal his father’s final blessing (remember the trick about putting on hairy skins on his arms so his nearly blind father would feel them and think it was his hairy older brother, Esau?).

But readers already know that when Rebekah was pregnant with the two boys, the Lord himself told her that the older would serve the younger.  So was it God, or was it human manipulation that won the birthright-blessing for the younger Jacob?

After he steals the birthright-blessing, Jacob has to run away from home to keep Esau from killing him.  Our story takes place in the middle of his flight.  He comes to a certain place – no place special to him – and spends the night.

“Some Place” – !

Before we look at what happened as he slept, we need to realize that this place that he just thinks of as any-old-place is anything but!   It happens to be Bethel, which for centuries has been a Canaanite shrine location where the God El was worshipped.  Could he not have noticed?

And, to make it even more important, Jacob’s grandfather Abraham had been there years earlier.  In fact God, we are told, had appeared to him, and he built an altar there.  God did not just appear to him, God also re-affirmed the promise there, to give to his offspring the land.  (see Gen 12-13)  That was a pretty big deal.  But to Jacob, it’s just “someplace.”  Is this chance that Jacob stops here?  Coincidence?  How should we read it?

So in this place, Jacob arranges some rocks “around” or “under” his head (translations differ) – for what reason, no one really knows.  Are the rocks under his head for a pillow?  That seems bizarre to me.  Are they arranged “around” his head for “protection” as some suggest – without in any way saying how that would work(!).  Why mention rocks at all?

But could it be that the author’s suggestion that Jacob did some odd things with rocks, in relation to his head, may be a way of giving us readers a possible explanation for why he had such a weird dream.  So, again, what’s going on?  Did the rocks cause the bad night’s sleep and weird dream, or was God doing something?

The Ziggurat Tower DreamZiggurat Ur

Anyway, he dreams he sees angels going up and down on something.  Our English translations say it’s a ladder – giving rise to the image in the song “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.”  But it is not a ladder at all.  It is more like a stair, or a ramp.

Maybe you have seen artistic representations of those tall, multi-level monuments, built by the Egyptians and Babylonians as religious shrines, like in the story of the tower of Babel.  They called them ziggurats.  They were supposed to be a place where heaven and earth could meet.

And that is exactly what Jacob dreamed about.  Angels going up and down meant that he was in a place where heaven and earth touch each other.    The Irish call places like that “thin” places – where you feel as though the border between you and God is thin as paper, and you can almost touch.

So, in his dream, Jacob sees the Lord!  And the Lord does what he did in Abraham’s dream – he states the promise in great detail.

“I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

Let’s just pause right here.  How is God going to accomplish this?  We are going to read that Jacob finally makes it to his uncle Laban’s home.  There, he falls in love with his first cousin, and marries her.  Only, on the day after the wedding night, it is not her, but her sister he wed.  Uncle Laban tricked Jacob to get him to stay and work for him longer.

So, long story short, later Jacob marries the other sister also.  The two women, Rachel and Leah, start having babies, and eventually the twelve sons, who will become the twelve tribes of Israel, are born.   Again the story forces us to wonder, who or what was the cause of all this fruitfulness?  Was it the God who promised Jacob in the dream, or was it uncle Laban who tricked him into polygamy?  The story itself gives two possible explanations.  Which do we believe?

The Faith Conclusionthin place woods

Anyway, after the dream, in the morning Jacob awakens and says one of the classic lines of all times:

“Surely the LORD is in this place—and I did not know it!”

What is going on, and where is God in it?

God is always in it.

Only most of the time we do not know it.

We cannot be faulted for not knowing it.  It is not at all obvious.  In fact, some of the time it is the opposite of obvious that God is in it.  Bad things happen.  Lots of them.

It would be neat, plausible and wrong to say that God is either the cause of everything that happens, including the evil, or that he causes nothing, as the Deists believed.   It is way more complicated than that.

And so I love the fact that these texts purposely demand us to see the problem for what it is: we go through our daily lives, not with miracles happening and angels flying around, but as normal humans do.  There are plausible explanations for the cause of everything.  And as we do, looking back, we can see God was at work, and we did not know it.

Sometimes we do have those moments of encounter.  We sometimes experience a “thin place” where heaven and earth seem to touch.  Thank God for those moments of wonder or awe – but they are the uncommon, not the common.

But a person of faith does not demand certainty, and certainty is not what we ever get.  We get glimpses.  We get “hints and guesses,” as TS Elliot called them.  But we choose to believe what Jacob learned: God is present, even when we do not know it.

God’s promise to be with us is what we rely on.  And thankfully, we have the advantage over Jacob that we have seen more of the promise fulfilled.  We known that Emmanuel, God with us, is true.  We have the advantage of being able to look at Jesus and see God with us.   We have had a glimpse of one who lived present to God’s presence in a powerful, life-giving way.

Things do go wrong; that much is true.  Life is like a field with weeds in it, as in Jesus’ parable.  But sometimes, God is in the weeds.  God is present even in the pain and sorrow.   Some of the events we would have done anything to avoid, at the time, turn out to be the very ones that shaped our lives for the better.

So, whatever is going on in your life that makes you ask, “What is going on and where is God in it?”  we are invited to live with the ambiguity as people of faith in the promise.

As we said last week, we are called to be the good soil people who simply take the risk that the message of the kingdom’s real presence is true, because God is in this place, even when we don’t know it, and God will never leave us.




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