Thursday, June 22, 2023

An Inadvertent Blessing

 


An Inadvertent Blessing

 

Genesis 21:8-21
21:8 The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.

21:9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac.

21:10 So she said to Abraham, "Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac."

21:11 The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son.

21:12 But God said to Abraham, "Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you.

21:13 As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring."

21:14 So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.

21:15 When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes.

21:16 Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, "Do not let me look on the death of the child." And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept.

21:17 And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, "What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.

21:18 Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him."

21:19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

21:20 God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow.

21:21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

 

The Bible has an abundance of stories that challenge our “modern” thinking about morals and ethics. (This makes us curious as to how some find in it, “absolutes,” of what is considered moral and/or ethical behavior!) These stories about Abraham and his legacy from Genesis are no exception. 

 

Abraham had received a promise from God that he and his wife, Sarah, would together sire a great nation of people, “as numerous as the grains of sand in the sea.” But they were getting on in years, and it sure looked like the promise would go unfulfilled. Sitting at the breakfast table one morning, and fretting about it in their “over the newspaper” conversation, Sarah had a brilliant idea: The old boy could sleep with her young hand maiden, Hagar, and if she were to bear a child, Sarah could “midwife” the birth and claim the child as her own. I guess this was considered an acceptable practice—at least legally—in that primitive time, but there is no way it would pass muster with any culture’s mores around motherhood! Why, in our time, even surrogacy, when properly contracted by legal agreement, is often still challenged in court by the surrogate when motherly instincts kick in. On numerous grounds, one of the most “fought over” issues of our time has to do with a woman’s rights over her own body. This story of Abraham, Hagar, and the “stealing” of Ishmael by Sarah via adverse attachment just doesn’t sit well for most readers, today.

 

We know that the Bible tells us that later, Abraham and Sarah are given a supernatural dispensation by God to have a “full blood” child of their own when Abraham was 100 and Sarah was 90, and they named him Isaac, a name that means “laughter.” Some may suggest that the boy’s name can also mean “joyful,” which his parents certainly were when God “made good” on the promise, but having a baby at 100 and 90? I think uproarious “laughter” is in order. This was either a bona fide miracle of God, or a whopper of a story. Perhaps it is a little of both?

 

But Sarah’s initial suggestion to “jump start” God’s promise of an heir by having Abraham impregnate Hagar is quite a plot, isn’t it? I once heard a preacher call it one of the worst cases of shpilkes (Yiddish for “ants in the pants”) in history. Abraham seemed quickly down with the plan, as many men might be, when their aged wife suggests they have a sexual affair with a young maiden, with her blessing. The Bible isn’t clear as to the true motive of Sarah. Does she have the same anxiety as Abraham over the delay of God’s promised blessing of a child? Or is she just tired of Abraham’s harping about it? Or, maybe she’s tired of the “extra effort” going on in her bed over Abraham trying to make the “blessing” happen? Even if we give her the benefit of the doubt, and believe her motives were more about the future of Israel than getting Abraham to cool his jets, the plan seems dubious, and the outcome would eventually get the best of her, which is what today’s text is about.

 

Sarah, after her own child, Isaac arrives, finds the presence of the older Ishmael to be vexing, and his mother regularly reminds her of the manufactured affair her husband had with Hagar, one which Sarah, herself, had arranged. She saw their presence as an irritant, and possibly even a threat, to the continued fulfilment of God’s promise to her, Abraham, and their son, Isaac. In a bigoted turn, Sarah rejects “Hagar the Egyptian” and orders Abraham to “cast out this slave woman” and her son. Sarah had no problem with “Hagar the Egyptian” serving her as HER “slave woman,” but now that she had birthed a son fathered by her hubby, and one that might someday be a rival to the precious child of her own blood, Isaac, she wanted them gone. Human nature being what it is, I suppose we should excuse this rude—even cruel—behavior by Sarah, but in our modern cultural understanding, it is hard. I suppose, also, we could understand that Ishmael’s presence might also be an ongoing reminder of her lack of faith that God would make good on God’s promise, that she and Abraham would have a son, together. But her lack of faith, or at the very least, a bad case of shpilkes, aren’t a great excuse, either. 

 

Abraham seems upset by the whole development, although in fairness, we must understand that in so much of the Old Testament, women are to blame for the misfortunes that befall men. At least that what the male-authored stories tell us. Still, Sarah does not come off well in this story in Genesis. Due to her indignancy, Hagar and her son, Ishmael are sent away by a reluctant Abraham. We do get the feeling from the text that Abraham is legitimately sorry for this action, but again, we should remember who is giving us the history!

 

One person who importantly also believes an injustice is being done is God. God comforts Abraham, telling him that God will make a “great nation” of Ishmael, as well. God “hears the cries” of the banished Hagar and sends an angel to comfort her, also telling her that her offspring will also be the father of a “great nation.” What started out as a human-designed “scheme” to provoke a blessing out of God, now results in a powerful, inadvertent blessing upon Hagar, her son, Ishmael, and the nation he would begin. Like Paul’s handkerchief that exhibited healing powers in the New Testament, this Jewish story would suggest that God’s “inadvertent” blessing went with Ishmael because he was also Abraham’s offspring, and Abraham was God’s “chosen.” Maybe, but I am more convinced that God, being a God of justice, could not allow the injustice of Hagar and Ishmael’s banishment to stand, and offered God’s blessing on them, as well. 

 

It would be a grand oversimplification to reduce all of the historical love lost between Jews and Arabs to the familial breach between Isaac and Ishmael, but it sure seems to have it as its origin. Imagine—some of the worst and longest violence-provoking hatred in the history of humankind stemming from this singular incident! Oh, what a lack of faith can produce! It should make one be a bit more careful about how, when, and where we trust God, especially when we believe we have heard a “word” of direction from the Almighty! On the downside, we DO have to see this whole text as a “faith story,” and not necessarily recorded history of an actual event, for putting the onus of eons of war and struggle on a singular act of bad judgment on the part of Sarah and Abraham, is ludicrous—as ludicrous as pinning the entire “fall” of humanity on the characters of Adam and Eve. Like humanity throughout history hasn’t been responsible on our OWN part for propagating and ramping up such “sins” from generation to generation?

 

This is where we should pivot to the REAL story within the story—the “inadvertent” blessing bestowed upon Ishmael by God, out of God’s own sense of justice. Ishmael will not suffer because of Abraham and Sarah’s shpilkes. Ishmael, too, will have a nation, and it will be great. It is not too far an abstraction to see that the nation that someday would give birth to the THIRD major biblical religion—Islam—is the nation begat by Ishmael. If we draw this conclusion, we must also concede the importance of Islam on the world scene, as well as to the biblical narrative. We are all in this human drama together! Christians who ONLY side with Israel are guilty of the same prejudice that caused Sarah to demand Abraham send Ishmael and his mom, packing.  God’s blessing extends to the Islamic faith as well, and if we are to ever bring the “Kingdom’s” peace to the world, it must include the people God chose to bless alongside the descendants of Isaac. 

 

We could spend a lot of time sharing “closer to home” stories about how “inadvertent blessings” is a way of life for God, and the cause of countless blessings upon humanity. As a tech-involved person, here is one of my favorites:

 

A troubled, young woman presumably with a drug problem, gave birth to an “unwanted” and unplanned child a few decades ago. She immediately gave the child—who was born with his own health issues due to his mother’s issues--up for adoption. A kind California couple who could not have their own child reached out in love and adopted the needy infant. The lad survived, and would become known by his adopted father’s last name—Jobs. Steven Jobs, who would go on to found a famous technology company that has brought rechargeable magic to masses, and that I must confess, a company that has acquired much of my personal disposable income!

 

 God is a God of justice, compassion, and “inadvertent” blessings! In spite of our human failings, and even the injustices which we are so good at propagating, God continues to do God’s part to “head off” the resulting failings and bless “both” parties! As long as humans contrive false dichotomies, divergent aims and policies, and polarizing circumstances, God will work to bless all “factions” in an aim toward an harmonious, Beloved Community.” In math terms, God adds and multiplies, not subtracts and divides. When we “send something away” because it is distasteful to us, God will seek to redeem it, and even pronounce a blessing upon it. This is the lesson we should take from this story! And the “lesson” is not that we should be less polarizing in our behavior to “avoid” God blessing our adversaries, but should instead just learn that God WILL bless our adversaries until we reconcile with them. God’s eventual goal is a shared blessing among all of God’s people, not a divided, “We’re better (or might right or more “orthodox”) than you!” human reality. Note, also, that God’s bias is toward the “least, the last, and the lost.” If we are to receive God’s blessing, we, too, should adopt offering a cup of cold water (or much more!) to the “least of these.” It’s the way of God. It’s the example of Jesus. And it is the mission of the Holy Spirit. Amen!

 

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

The Whoppers We Tell to God

 


The Whoppers We Tell to God

 

Exodus 19:2-8a
19:2 They had journeyed from Rephidim, entered the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness; Israel camped there in front of the mountain.

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

19:4 You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself.

19:5 Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine,

19:6 but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites."

19:7 So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the LORD had commanded him.

19:8a The people all answered as one: "Everything that the LORD has spoken we will do."

 

“I’ll never do it again.” As a kid, I probably made that promise to my angry dad a thousand times, in an attempt to stave off a more immediate consequence to something I had done wrong. Israel was no different. Humanity, as a whole, is no different. The problem is so much more complex, though, as we look at this lectionary passage from Exodus this weekend.

 

First of all, what is the infraction or infractions we are dealing with in this text? Go back to my conflict with my father, and the same question applies. Now, my parents were pretty lenient with me and my two brothers, for the most part, but we did have rules. Why? This is the first question we come to: Why do we have rules at all? Whose purpose do they serve? 

 

In terms of my parents and our “household” rules, some of them—honestly—were for the benefit of my parents. We were “regulated” to keep them from having to constantly deal with the inevitable conflicts that occur between siblings. They needed time to carry out their OWN relationship, and we WAY too often got in the way, or should I say our BEHAVIOR got in the way! Some of the rules about how we should conduct ourselves in the home were to offer our parents a moment’s peace. Other rules were designed to keep us brothers from hurting each other, plain and simple. Some of our rules were crafted to promote mutual RESPECT for each other, inclusively. Of course parents should be respected—even the Bible tells us so—but siblings should be afforded a measure of respect, as well. The Bible also urges parents to not “break the spirit” of their children, fostering instead an environment of love and acceptance, and not just for the members of the household, but for others, as well. And this leads to the next reason for rules for children: they are part of our developmental growth, so we understand that we are being “launched” into a world full of rules and laws, and we’d better know how to properly conduct ourselves. 

 

This “household” rule examples certainly apply to the wider society, as well. We, as human beings, must live with each other. As I write this, I’m watching the live news coverage of the arraignment of former President Donald Trump. This event has, like pretty much all things “Trump,” has divided us into two camps. One camp proclaims that the “rules” are for all Americans and must be applied equitably. The other camp believes Trump is being treated unjustly by applying these rules to him. Regardless of what you believe about this typically polarizing event, rest assured you will never hear from Donald J. Trump are the words, “I’ll never do it again.”

 

God has given Israel rules. I would never argue that NONE of these laws are for God’s benefit, especially as we often view God in the rule of “parent” of the human race! Even GOD needs a sabbath, and this may well include some peace from us and our self-emolliated conflicts. However, the Bible tries to make clear that the main purpose of God’s law is to help God’s people “live in harmony” with one another, and to respect the rest of the creation we inhabit. God’s laws are both guiding AND developmental, for humans and our society.

 

In the Exodus text, “God” communicates this fact: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians…” Is this a threat, spoken by God to Moses, for him to pass on to the people? I don’t know about you, but I do NOT see the God of the Bible and of Jesus Christ as a God who makes threats, even in “parent” mode. And yes, my mother DID occasionally make that dreaded statement, “Just WAIT until your father gets home!” As I read this text, I think “God” is saying this NOT as a threat, but first of all, as a sad reality: in order to “save” Israel, God had to smite the Egyptians. It seems that God is more grieved by this reality, and in this “reminding” of Israel, God focuses on the positive outcome, namely how God “bore you on eagles’ wings” and drew them to Godself. Like all parents, sometimes in attempting to bring justice and favor to one’s own children, our Parent God must level accusations against a persecuting or unjust party. As a parent, it is never pleasant to do this, and rarely is it fully “true” that the opposing party is fully “at fault” in the situation! As we read texts like Exodus, we must always remember the statement that “history is written by the winners.” The God of the Bible seems not to want to abide a world where there are “winners” and “losers.” God’s highest aim appears to be God’s desire that all of God’s children may live together in unity. 

 

Again, as I write this message on Tuesday before our Western PA United Methodist Annual Conference, we are confronted with a “rules” conflict between factions that are all people of God. On Wednesday at 4:00PM the “special session” of the Annual Conference will most likely approve—by majority vote—the disaffiliation of 300 of our local churches from the denomination. This schism is over rules: rules of our denominational Book of Discipline that one party wants upheld and not changed, and that the other party that wants a few of them changed, and are protesting what they see as an injustice created BY these rules; “rules” that govern how we interpret the scriptures; and how the accountability for these various rules is or isn’t carried out. The problem is that each faction tends to see the other as the “Egyptians.” Maybe we need to adopt God’s “reasons” for why rules and laws exist—to help God’s people live together in unity, instead of just obeying rules “because they are the rules.” It is my observation that there are those folk who painstakingly and passionately OBEY rules, just for the sake of obedience, with little thought as to the reason the rule or law may exist, in the first place. Obeying a rule is not a “victory” if the reason the rule exists is either ignored or even negated by the vociferousness with which some prosecute the rule’s adherence. 

 

This latter element is one of the several issues that visits Israel regularly. However, let’s focus on the whoppers Israel regularly tells to God, such as the one in today’s text: "Everything that the LORD has spoken we will do”; or the other one they invoke, from time to time, when caught in the act, “We’ll never do it again.” In fact, succeeding texts in the Bible make clear that they DIDN’T “do” what the Lord had spoken to them, and neither did they keep their promise to never break the rules again. Time and time again, Israel’s selfish and self-serving behavior led them to ignore the rules or disobey God’s law, if it benefitted them. For example, the code of hospitality—“welcoming the stranger” or foreigner in the land—which is one of the highest of the formative laws God gave God’s people, was regularly violated by Israel.

 

Even more unfortunately, we modern Christian members of God’s “family” have been guilty of the same “whoppers” we have told to God concerning our own behavior. And we have unevenly applied our understanding of God’s laws, when it serves us. In the Christian realm, we have people who claim to be “Pro-Life,” but who support capital punishment and reject refugees and immigrants. We have persons who champion the rights of the LGBTQ community, but often ignore God’s moral laws of respecting relationship covenants, and abide hurtful, promiscuous behavior. We proclaim ourselves as “anti-racists,” and yet propagate systemic racism when it benefits our socio-economic class, and even vote for racist leaders. I’m not sure which is worse—telling whoppers to God, or living out the very whoppers we tell? 

 

In the Hebrew Bible, Moses often goes to bat for Israel before God. Remember the times God gets so upset at the two-faced behavior of God’s people that God tells Moses that God is considering wiping them out and starting over with fresh stock. Moses “argues with God,” several of the Exodus texts tell us, and “wins” the argument and “God repents of the evil that God was going to do against the people.” In our understanding as Christ followers, it is the Son of God who “goes to bat” for us all, as we can never keep our promises. When I think about the schism going on in the United Methodist Church, I fear that both sides of the “split” are believing that the separation will enable them to “start over” to rebuild their faith system without the “persecution” (or at least the pestering) of the other. In this, we are “guilty” of the same oversimplification of reality that is ascribed to God in the texts I just referenced. We need a “Moses” to tell us we are being led astray by our OWN whoppers!

 

So, what are the “so whats” we can get from this story in Exodus? First of all, Israel survived, and is even thriving, to this day. This is testimony that GOD keeps GOD’S promises, not that Israel was good at keeping theirs. But God IS faithful, and we can count on it, even when God can’t count on us! Secondly, we should rejoice in the “Moses” we have—Jesus Christ—who HAS gone to bat for us before God. And finally, it would behoove us to revisit WHY we have rules and laws—that we may live together in unity—and purpose to use these rules as a way to respect one another, to this end. And we should stop making promises we just won’t keep, and work together to formulate relationship-nurturing agreements and compromises we can, to the glory of God! Amen.

Friday, June 9, 2023

A Day in the Life...


 

Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26
9:9 As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, "Follow me." And he got up and followed him.

9:10 And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples.

9:11 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?"

9:12 But when he heard this, he said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.

9:13 Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners."

9:18 While he was saying these things to them, suddenly a leader of the synagogue came in and knelt before him, saying, "My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live."

9:19 And Jesus got up and followed him, with his disciples.

9:20 Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak,

9:21 for she said to herself, "If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well."

9:22 Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, "Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well." and instantly the woman was made well.

9:23 When Jesus came to the leader's house and saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion,

9:24 he said, "Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping." And they laughed at him.

9:25 But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up.

9:26 And the report of this spread throughout that district.

 

Let me tell you about a hectic day of my own, from “long ago, in a galaxy far away,” as the expression goes. How long ago? Well, this day happened before I was married, and during the Jimmy Carter/Walter Mondale campaign for the White House in 1976. I was serving as the executive director of a tiny non-profit organization that I had a hand in launching that year in my home area of Venango County, PA. The organization was formed to coordinate and facilitate what was then known as “public access television” on two unrelated cable TV systems in Oil City and Franklin, PA. This was a time WAY before YouTube or even the Internet, and public access was a provision that the Federal Communications Commission envisioned would allow the public “access” to produce and air local TV programming over a town’s cable television system. Unfortunately, the regulations did not provide for the means to produce these programs, only requiring the operators of cable TV systems to open a channel for access to “cablecast” them. This meant that in most communities served by cable TV, people had no way to take advantage of this access. Enter our small non-profit known as “Venango Video,” which provided and managed two small TV studios and a mobile production van to make public access TV a reality for our area. Using telethons, private contributions, and a few federal and local grants, we launched two cable TV “stations” on local cable TV systems. Initially, Venango Video entered a cooperative relationship with a “TV and Media” class offered by our Vocational-Technical School in Oil City, and began incorporating both their television production equipment and their students in helping to produce and air our programming. After “narrowcasting” several weekly programs hosted by local “celebrities,” providing live coverage of city council meetings, and airing a few parades and “local color” festivities, I got an interesting phone call that set up one of the most hectic experiences—and days—of my life.

 

The call came from the assistant campaign coordinator of Senator Walter Mondale’s staff. Mondale, as some of you may remember, was on the Democratic ticket as the vice presidential candidate during the 1976 campaign. Walter Mondale was to make a campaign stop in Oil City, to give a “major campaign address” in the band shell at Justus Park, a small town park along the Allegheny River. They had been told of our fledgling cable TV operation, and asked if we would be willing to “cover” the event for our access stations. Knowing that the national media would descend upon our little burgh as well, it was an intimidating thought, but I also knew it would be an incredible experience for our students, and a great “break” to build our local TV audience. I said “yes” to the invitation, and a couple of weeks later, met with Mondale representatives when they were in town for the advance work. They gave me official press passes for me, our volunteers, and our students. 

 

Early in the morning on the day of the campaign visit, our “team” began to set up our camera stations in Justus Park. Mind you, we had old black and white, “instructional” grade television equipment, and we were setting up our cameras next to huge, state-of-the-art, color television equipment being deployed by the national media, including several camera stations with “PBS” logos on them. The Mondale people got permission for us to set up our cameras right next to the PBS people, who told us they were there to telecast the speech for the popular “MacNeil/Lehrer Report.” Being a “fan” of this nightly broadcast, I was pretty excited. Our students just liked the attention they were getting from the national TV crews, who were asking them all kinds of questions about our local TV efforts. 

 

At one point, a man with PBS press credentials came over to me to offer the power connections at one of their camera positions for us to “plug in” our simple equipment. I thanked him, and struck up a conversation with him. As we talked, I noted his badge said “Director” on it, so I asked him if he was a TV director with PBS. He told me that no, he was actually with ABC Sports, but was a friend of Jim Lehrer, and from time to time, would accompany him on such a “remote” telecast to direct the “show” for him. He then introduced himself as Chet Forte, who I knew as one of the most famous TV directors in all of televised sports (He was the director who “pioneered” Monday Night Football!). As I stumbled over my words, I did manage to eke out that I was also a “big fan” of Mr. Lehrer, to which Mr. Forte said, “Here, tell him yourself.” I turned around and there was Jim Lehrer, standing behind me in his trademark trench coat. He introduced himself to me and the several of our TV students standing around me. Was I impressed? Youbetcha!

 

The public event came off without a hitch, but after the rally ended, Senator Mondale’s representatives asked me if we had a “portable rig,” as they wanted to invite us to the private gathering being held in the Holiday Inn adjacent to Justus Park. We did have a primitive Sony “Porta-Pak” system (also black and white), so our best student camera person (who had “mastered” the quirky Porta-Pak) and I followed into the hotel. Once inside, we were the only “mobile” team who had to plug in, as the Porta-Pak’s battery was dead. “Jim,” the student operating the camera and lugging the heavy video recorder over his shoulder, did an amazing job posturing for camera shots among the network TV crews, and I did my best to make sure the extension cord to his unit did not trip up any of the dignitaries orbiting around the Senator (who would later be elected Vice President to Governor Carter). At one point, I was given a chance to ask a couple of questions to the candidate, which we would later include in our local TV production of that exciting day, which was certainly one to remember for us all. At the end of the day, after all of the TV equipment had been put away, the tapes reviewed, and all of our students safely returned home, yours truly went home to collapse.

 

There is an epilogue to this most hectic day of my young adult life. I was still living at home during that time, but had pretty much been absent from the house for a couple of days, getting our equipment and student crew ready for the Mondale Rally. I literally hadn’t seen my parents for three days. Unbeknownst to me, an NBC News crew had caught my brief interview with Senator Mondale in their camera shot. Later that night, my mother was talking on the phone with my grandmother, who asked if she had heard from me yet, to which my mother answered that, no, she had not heard from me, but that I must be OK, as she saw me, alive and well, on the NBC Nightly News.

 

While this may be the longest introduction to a Bible message in recent history, it is the story that kept running through my head as I read today’s Matthew text covering a “day in the life” of Jesus of Nazareth! As hectic as that 1976 day was for me—and even as I recall it, my heart starts to race again—a “typical” day in the life of Jesus tops it, big time! Why, in this short text from chapter 9, Jesus heals the woman who was hemorrhaging, raises a dead girl, calls a new disciple, and experiences his own version of being “seen on the NBC News” (“And the report of this spread throughout that district…”). As we read through the Gospels, it is clear that this would be a “typical” day for Jesus, days in which he would add historic teachings, such as the multitude of parables he told, as well as the Sermon on the Mount. He would encounter and heal all kinds of people, cast out devils, and would have numerous “discussions” with religious leaders, including quite a few who were trying to trip him up. The penalty for a “bad answer” could be death, which he obviously did unfortunately experience, later. We know Jesus spent considerable time “forming” his group of disciples, which included more than a few boat trips across the Sea of Galilee, as well as a storm or two, from which he would rescue them by calming the winds and waves. If all of this was not enough, Jesus might also find himself serving up lunch to over 5,000 people, picnic style. Miracles such as this populated his short, three-year ministry. And as one who sacrificed so much for our benefit, he still said he prefers mercy over sacrifice. As an itinerant pastor, I would have been disappointed to have such a short tenure as three short years in any of my appointments, but look what Jesus accomplished in HIS three years of ministry!

 

A day in the life of Jesus was sure something else. As I read through the lectionary passages for this weekend, I couldn’t help but think of how Jesus just “worked.” What do I mean by “just worked”? Let me offer a few examples. You might think of a few of your own, as I offer these prompts:

 

Marriage “just works.” Dara and I recently celebrated 46 years of marriage. It just “works” for us. We so much enjoy each other’s company, love to travel together, have countless hours of meaningful conversation about life, the universe, and everything, and have been blessed to raise a wonderful family, to boot. Now, I know you are going to say, “But a good marriage takes WORK!” Sure it does. And you don’t think the life Jesus lived took much work on his part? What about all of those times he had to “go off by himself to pray,” or just to regroup? Or the difficulty he had “guiding” those disciples? Peter was a handful, obviously. But marriage just WORKS, when each party puts the effort into it. We have grown comfortable with each other, but not to the point of taking undue advantage of this “comfort.” We each still want to bless the other and please the other. And we have never tired of finding new ways to experience and express our love, one for the other. It all just WORKS, and I am so thankful for this!

 

Apple products just WORK. Years ago, at about the time I had grown frustrated with Microsoft-based operating systems and “PCs,” Dara bought me my first Apple product—a Generation Three iPod. From opening the expertly-packed, artistically-designed “music maker,” it just WORKED! (And I was a guy who built his own PCs for myself and my family members, but had tired of the glitches and viruses, and waiting 10 or 15 minutes after turning it on before using it, while the computer “updated” its security.) We started making the “great migration” to Apple computers, phones, and electronics, and have never looked back. This sermon is being written on an Apple iMac with a 27 inch “Retina” screen and over a terabyte of “fusion” memory. It has never glitched in its eight years on my desktop, nor has my MacBook Pro laptop. Apple stuff just WORKS.

 

One more example: the U-Haul people. We just bought a new car, and like the previous three cars before it, we needed a hitch put on for our bicycle carrier. I went to the U-Haul site online, typed in the make and year of our new car, ordered the appropriate hitch their website offered, and scheduled an appointment to have their expert installers put it on our car. It took five minutes of computer time, and about an hour and a half with the car in their shop, a couple of weeks later. When it comes to hitches and a nice neat job of installing them, U-Haul just WORKS.

 

Again, Jesus just WORKS! We modern followers and disciples know we can rely on him for our redemption, guidance for living, healing for our bodies and souls, as needed, his “ear” for hearing and addressing our prayers, and comfort and peace when the winds and waves of life buffet us. Jesus just WORKS. And while we understand that, like using Apple electronics, we often don’t know HOW he is working, or why he sometimes takes a different path than we think or wish he would, he just WORKS. The Apostle Paul hit the nail on the head in Romans 8 when he wrote, “God causes all things to WORK together for good for those who love God and who are called according to God’s own purpose.” And we trust Jesus to “work” for eternity! 

 

We can only imagine, based on the stories the Gospels tell us, what a “day in the life” of Jesus must have BEEN like then, and certainly now, as our watchful, living Savior! I love that scene in the movie, “Bruce Almighty” where that character starts getting the “prayer emails” from God’s children across the globe, and is quite quickly overwhelmed. And yet, even with us all crying out, all having our own “basket” of needs, all wanting to stay on God’s “good side,” God just WORKS for all who love Jesus. Amazing, isn’t it?

 

I worry about the “notoriety” we in the church are giving to Jesus in our day. I just heard that the Rev. Pat Robertson just died, and like so many of us, he was a conflicted character regarding the witness he gave for Jesus Christ. On one hand, he really pioneered religious broadcasting, especially via satellite, and the early days of specialized cable TV channels. On the other hand, he kind of lost his mind and ran for President of the United States, only later to hold court on his flagship TV show, the “700 Club,” where he suggested that gays and sin were responsible for everything from the terrorist attacks of 2001 to hurricanes that devastated parts of the country. I would never question that Rev. Robertson loved Jesus, but he often had a funny way of giving God “credit” for some horrible stuff. And here we are, as United Methodist Christians, providing a lousy witness to the world regarding the first word of our denominational moniker. If you look up “united” in the dictionary, you will NOT see a picture of the UMC! And yet, somehow, each “side” in the current disaffiliation debacle loves Jesus. We just don’t offer him much good PR. Aren’t we glad that, ultimately, God is “in charge” of God’s own image? Maybe the church should call Apple or U-Haul for pointers?

 

Maybe all of this is why God appointed a Sabbath Day? Both God and God’s creatures probably need a break from such hectic “days in the life.” We all need a rest, even the Deity! Amen, Dear Ones!

 

Thursday, June 1, 2023

Genesis Is Not the Name of an Inferior Beer

 


 

Genesis 1:1-2:4a
1:1 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,

1:2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

1:3 Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light.

1:4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.

1:5 God called the light Day, and the darkness God called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

1:6 And God said, "Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters."

1:7 So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so.

1:8 God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

1:9 And God said, "Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear." And it was so.

1:10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together God called Seas. And God saw that it was good.

1:11 Then God said, "Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it." And it was so.

1:12 The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good.

1:13 And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

1:14 And God said, "Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years,

1:15 and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth." And it was so.

1:16 God made the two great lights--the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night--and the stars.

1:17 God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth,

1:18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good.

1:19 And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

1:20 And God said, "Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky."

1:21 So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good.

1:22 God blessed them, saying, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth."

1:23 And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

1:24 And God said, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind." And it was so.

1:25 God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.

1:26 Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth."

1:27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God they were created; male and female God created them.

1:28 God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth."

1:29 God said, "See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.

1:30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food." And it was so.

1:31 God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

2:1 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude.

2:2 And on the seventh day God finished the work that God had done, and God rested on the seventh day from all the work.

2:3 So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that God had done in creation.

2:4a These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.

 

I know I’ve told this story before, but it bears repeating, as we look at part of the Creation story we find in Genesis 1 and 2. Many years ago, two good friends of mine and I, as “young adults,” were in Washington, D.C. on a “mission from God,” so to speak. During the latter days of the Watergate mess, we were holding daily prayer services on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building, and were passing out Bible portions, courtesy of the American Bible Society, that urged such prayers, as the nation struggled. We were staying at the Washington YMCA on G Street, which was a kind of little United Nations, back then. Sunday came around, and the three of us were going to go out and look for a church to attend. Had we gotten out of the YMCA, we might have ended up at Foundry United Methodist Church, but as we were milling around the YMCA, we saw a very diverse group of folk carrying Bibles, so we asked them if someone was holding a service in the building. “Yes,” they answered, “You are welcome to join us.” So, we did—three very inquisitive (but possibly not so bright) young Christian men wound up in a church service run by a splinter group of the Mormons. A strange splinter group. The speaker that day kept saying he was reading from the “Book of Genesees.” Now, as a Western Pennsylvanian, I only knew “Genesee” as the Rochester, New York equivalent of Pittsburgh’s Iron City Beer, both of which were really bad beers, in my opinion. To call Genesis the “Book of Genesees” wasn’t doing this ancient and classic text any favors.

 

The splinter Mormons aside, history is rife with arguments and even outright fights about the Creation story in Genesis. As you know, some fundamentalist Christians want to see Genesis as a literal telling of how the universe was created by God, kind of like a kid makes a snake out of Playdoh. To varying degrees, they turn it into a “science book,” with some going as far as postulating that the Earth is only a few thousand years old, and was created in six calendar days (our calendar!). Others give allowances for the days of Genesis representing epochs, but still holding out for God creating by just “speaking forth.” And there are those “progressive fundamentalists” (how’s THAT for word jambalaya?) who believe God created, but used evolutionary processes identified by science to do so. Have you ever taken time to ask yourself what YOU believe about the Creation? 

 

The Creation stories (and yes, there is more than one—Genesis 1 and 2 tell different versions of it) in the Bible are there to say WHO created, rather than HOW. Genesis was never meant to be a science book. All great religions have creation stories, as they all want to postulate as to how things came to be, giving credit to the Divine. What is unique about Genesis is that it eschews the kind of “turtle stacking” metaphors or “parade of gods” that other faiths tend to feature in telling their stories. Genesis is out to tell us that THE God that was the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” created the world out of a spirit of creativity, beauty, and great love for the world—and for us! That the Hebrew “bereshith” (In the beginning) story evokes God “speaking” the elements into creation is the dead giveaway of how much God cares for it, as the God of Israel is a God of “The Word.” God speaks, and the universe becomes. The Creation is the paint-on-canvas of the very thoughts of the Divine mind and mouth! While Genesis is not the mispronounced name of an inferior beer, it IS a story of how God “brewed up” the world we know, with great intentionality, affection, and “eternally miraculous” design, “exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think,” in the words of the Apostle Paul, in Ephesians. Hold that thought, for a moment.

 

And what of humanity? We are the “crown jewel” of this creation story! One of the other lectionary passages for this weekend is Psalm 8, which says we were made “a little lower than God (or angels, depending on your translation).” While it is arrogant to think that the world was created to be our “playground,” the text does say that we have been given “dominion” over it, an idea which some have taken to mean we “rule” it, or even “use it UP,” as we will and have. A better translation would be that we are to be “stewards” of it, free to gain life and sustenance from it, but also to help perpetuate it for future generations, and to honor the Creator by prizing and polishing the creation. Our Moslem siblings have this idea as a central understanding of how we have been “put in charge” of the creation. One Imam I heard speak said that God “loaned us the world” like we rent a car from Avis. We are free to use it, but must return the car in the same condition it was in when we drove it off the rental lot, and FULL OF GAS, as well, or we pay the penalty. I think that, biblically, that is a fair metaphor. 

 

But what ABOUT us? If we’re the “crown jewel,” or “God’s favorite,” what does it mean that we are made in the “image” or “likeness” of God? We don’t really know what God looks like. The only actual images we have are: a burning bush, a pillar of cloud, and a pillar of fire, in Exodus, or the shekinah “glow” or “glory” of God that would show up on the mercy seat in the tabernacle or temple at high holy days. Not very helpful, when we look in the mirror, though. We have the Holy Spirit, but then we’re back to metaphors, whether it be the “wind,” or the dove, or the flames over the heads of believers at Pentecost. Again, not very helpful. We have Jesus, of course, but he came in the model of a male, essential, I’m sure, to be at least taken a BIT seriously, in the era when he appeared. But the text says that we are made in the “image” of God, and that is “male and female.” We can play all kind of theological games with this one…and we do. On one hand, we must acknowledge that God must include both “male and female” attributes, if we are made in God’s image. Fundamentalists hate going there. On the other hand, we could say that the “male and female” manifestations of humanity are just part of the procreative blueprint of all of life, the way God created it. Plants, animals, and protozoa have male and female manifestations that must come together in some way (a little more technical for the protozoa, but let’s not go there right now) for an organism to reproduce itself. Hence, it makes sense that humanity was created in this same order. 

 

There are some important points to be made here. First of all, that God made us “male and female,” biologically, in order to mirror the rest of living things, in terms of procreation, this does NOT have to mean that “men” can only love “women,” and vice versa. Biology and fertilizing “eggs” does not have to also mean that beings can only have intimate affection for the “opposite sex,” as some have postulated. Throughout the creation, biological procreation is often uncoupled (forgive the phrase) from life in community, and even in the closest of companions. That in the human community, “males” and “females” inordinately “fall in love” and enter into intimate (hopefully life-long) relationships, is necessary to preserve the species of homo sapiens. However, as the world (“creation”) is groaning under the excessive weight of human beings (8 billion of us as of January of 2023), might it be possible that as human evolution continues, less of our covenantal relationships must exclusively be between the biological males and females, since procreation needs to slow down a bit? As society advances, “whom we love” need not be always driven by the biological ability to fertilize an egg. Imagine, if you will, that “male” and “female” might either be just the biological descriptions of humanity, OR at the ends of a continuum of human expression. Same-sex relationships, in this understanding, are not only not sinful, but may naturally occur along parts of this continuum. We know this happens in other manifestations of nature. Might we be living in a time, as the creation advances, that these “non male and female,” intimate relationships become more normalized, as the Earth needs less humans to be “created” in this era? It is my view that what honors the God of Creation is genuine love and a commitment to love one another, more than a limited understanding of covenantal love being only between two people who are biologically able to produce babies. 

 

Of course, there is an entirely different way to view how humanity is made in the “image of God.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer came up with the observation, based on his exhaustive study of scripture, that what makes the God of the Bible unique is God’s being “for others.” Throughout the scriptures, God goes out of God’s way to relate to humanity, constantly striving to guide humans to their best life in community together, forgiving them for their penchant for selfishness, self-destruction, and violence. This “for others-ness” of God is supremely manifest in the Christ Event. God WITH us, in the most profound sense of that phrase (“Emmanuel”) to lead us, teach us, redeem us, and launch us out to “make disciples” is what Jesus was—and IS—all about. So, if God is ultimate “for others-ness,” and we are made in God’s image, are we made to be “for others,” as well? Bonhoeffer thought so, and I’m convinced. One of the reasons I am convinced shows up in how HARD it is to aspire to this “image” of God. No matter how hard I try, I find it so difficult to organize my life such that I value even DARA’S life more than (or at least equal to?) my own! When we have our difficulties, it is almost always over my wanting her to meet some need of MINE, rather than me looking out for her welfare, desires, and pleasures, first. And she’s the woman I LOVE and have spent 46 years with! Imagine how much harder it is to apply the “love your neighbor as yourself” standard Jesus put out there for us! Especially when my “neighbor” just cut me off on Rt. 228! The very fact that this is, at least for me, a continual, not-going-too-well, “work in progress” is proof enough that Bonhoeffer is correct. We are made in the “for others-ness” of God, and have been challenged by Jesus, himself, to live into this goal of the created order of humanity. It not only “takes a village” to raise a child, as they say, but it is the ONLY way it will work. We were created to be “in community” with each other, and life apart from that model will constantly disappoint, foster depression and desperation, and erode the possibility for the “abundant life” Jesus is trying to offer us. My whole denomination is splitting right down the middle over what we think the Bible says about “homosexuality.” If that honors God, then I’m a monkey’s uncle. And if Jesus were dead, he’d be rolling over in his grave.

 

Here's another element of the miracle of the Creation to ponder: it’s not over. While God set it in motion (“finishing it,” as the text says), God also put deep in the DNA of the Creation an amazing ability to continue the creative energy by evolving, adapting, improving, and exploring! Some have criticized the scientific theory of evolution, saying that it “goes against the second law of thermodynamics,” namely that things, left alone, will “run down,” not evolve to a higher level. (They often use the example of an unkempt lawn.) Of course, you see where I am going with this? Their assessment totally dismisses God’s incredible DESIGN and ENERGY in the system! Things ARE evolving because we were MADE to do so, and to adapt, improve, and explore, as well! And God’s continual presence with the world adds fresh energy to the system. It isn’t designed to “run down,” and it will NEVER run down, as long as God’s energy flows through the created order—and through us, as believers. It is precisely this “pro-evolution” tendency that best demonstrates God’s creativity, and God’s on-going LOVE for us all. God loved the world so much God not only couldn’t abandon us when we failed, but God couldn’t STAY AWAY! The God who used to “walk with Adam in the cool of the evening” came walking again on the shores of the Sea of Galilee! And right now, continues God’s peripatetic journey through the indwelling Holy Spirit!

 

This Sunday is Trinity Sunday, when we recognize that God is “Three-in-One”—God the Creator, God the Son (Redeemer) and God the Holy Spirit (Sustainer). Of COURSE we may affirm this construct, as our “for others” God is also therefore a God of COMMUNITY. Christians believe that, even in the Godhead, God is a “community,” modeling this for all of creation. The Creation story is one of the texts chosen each year for this observation, as it has that mysterious little reference to “let US make humankind.” And yes, I know that in Hebrew this is not meant to be a reference to God as somehow a “community,” but might it foreshadow it? And as God journeys throughout the evolving creation, “visiting” us anew in Jesus Christ, and then taking up permanent residence with us through the Holy Spirit, may we acknowledge that the “us-ness” of God is something to accept as a possibility, while affirming the “oneness” of God, as the Divine, as well? I also know this gets to be pretty heady theology, but when it comes to actual practice, we should be able to affirm the depth and genuineness of God’s love for us as our Creator, the intimate and sacrificial love of God for us in Jesus Christ, and the empowering, wise, and guiding love of God for us in the Holy Spirit! 

 

Maybe I’ll go and scare up a Genesee to celebrate? Have a meaningful Trinity Sunday, Dear Ones! And find a neighbor who needs a “random act of kindness!” Amen!

What's Next?

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