Friday, August 25, 2023

Heroines of the Bible

 


Heroines of the Bible

 

Exodus 1:8-2:10
1:8 Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.

1:9 He said to his people, "Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we.

1:10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land."

1:11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh.

1:12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.

1:13 The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites,

1:14 and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.

1:15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah,

1:16 "When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live."

1:17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.

1:18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, "Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?"

1:19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, "Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them."

1:20 So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong.

1:21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.

1:22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, "Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live."

2:1 Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman.

2:2 The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months.

2:3 When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river.

2:4 His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.

2:5 The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it.

2:6 When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. "This must be one of the Hebrews' children," she said.

2:7 Then his sister said to Pharaoh's daughter, "Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?"

2:8 Pharaoh's daughter said to her, "Yes." So the girl went and called the child's mother.

2:9 Pharaoh's daughter said to her, "Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages." So the woman took the child and nursed it.


2:10 When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh's daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, "because," she said, "I drew him out of the water."

 

 

For the life of me, I just can’t understand why so many Christian sects—from Roman Catholics, to the various Orthodox churches, to many independent and fundamentalist churches so DEVALUE women and deny them leadership positions—clergy ones, for sure—in the church? Women are the heroes of the Bible, everywhere you turn! In this text from Exodus, we have the Hebrew midwives who heroically save the male children from the Pharoah’s edict to “kill the male children” as they are being born, because with Joseph gone, the “new” Pharoah didn’t like how the Hebrew people were growing larger, stronger, and more numerous, possibly threatening his power in Egypt. The midwives not only DON’T see that the male Hebrew children die, but assure that they will live, AND even in their fabrication to “explain” why they are living, they lavish praise on the strong, Hebrew women for giving birth to healthy boys against all odds, in Egypt. They could have all been condemned by the power-hungry Pharoah, but they were brave, and didn’t care. In every house of worship where the Jewish or Christian faith is celebrated, there should be a memorial to these incredible midwives, for without them, we may not be here today. Our text tells us these midwives “feared God,” meaning they took their faith and their loyalty to God and their people quite seriously, and they were prepared to put their lives on the line defending what they believed. The Bible has NO PROBLEM lifting up the bravery, creativity, and resourcefulness of women!

 

Later in the text, we read of Moses’ mother, who gives birth to him and “saw that he was a fine baby,” which may be code for the fact that she a. loved her son dearly; and b. somehow knew that God had a vision for her child. She “hid” him in the bullrushes, and when Pharoah’s daughter discovered the child, wound up nursing her own son, thanks to the cunning of his own sister, yet another Hebrew Bible hero. Even Pharoah’s daughter may be seen as a kind of inadvertent hero, as little did she know that in “adopting” Moses as her own, she was creating the pathway for the liberation of the Hebrew people! 

 

From Rahab to Ruth, Mary to Magdalene, Lydia to Phoebe, the Bible is rife with heroic stories of even more heroic women. Why, in the early days of the Christian church, women were EVERYWHERE in key leadership roles, and the “men we most remember” (Peter, Paul?), worked alongside these women and in the case of Paul, even took missional “marching orders” from them. Pauline scholar Robert Jewett points out that Phoebe had been a wealthy shipping heiress who not only became a deacon in the church, but who bankrolled and guided several of the Apostle Paul’s missionary journeys. You will read about many of these heroic women in the Book of Acts, which is not surprising, as “Dr. Luke,” its author, also wrote the Gospel of Luke, often known as the “Gospel of the women.” Luke understood the equality and importance of the women who followed Jesus.

 

It wasn’t too long into the early history of the Christian church that men began to assert their dominance and usurp the power of women. Soon, they were denied ordination and limited to subservient roles to officially anointed male leaders. Women were both subjugated and in many cases exploited by the growing cult of male authority. Even when the Western and Eastern (Orthodox) churches split over theological differences, one common practice—the oppression of women—was maintained between the two “new” factions. How sad it was that centuries later, after the Enlightenment and the Second Vatican Council, women were still so denied full participation in the church that a brilliant Catholic scholar like Mary Daly had to so strongly argue against the deeply-rooted patriarchy of the church that she eventually had to divorce herself from the Christian church, proclaiming that its male-centeredness was so entrenched that it—in her opinion—could never recover.

 

How did the male power-grabbers accomplish this “bait and switch” coup? They used the Bible. It was EVE who was “seduced” by “the devil” (actually, NO, it was a serpent; the Bible never says this was Satan), and then “led the man astray.” It was Sarah who had “birthed” the plan to jump the gun on God’s promise of a son, resulting in the conflict between her and Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac, and today, Israel and the Arab nations. And thanks to these major “failures” of women, it took a “man”—Jesus—to become the “propitiation for our sins” to “wipe away” this woman-initiated stain on humanity. “Oh, it wasn’t that women were ‘evil’,” they might say, “but that they were ‘weak’ and so easily deceived.” What a load of horseradish! First of all, even if you brand these accounts as anything but the stories they appear to be, giving them the full weight of “historical” happenings, you can’t miss the fact that, in each case, a man had to give the final approval on that which became the “blunder” that afflicts us. Each of these accounts that blame women of making the boo-boo would not have, in themselves, led to “the fall.” Adam and Abraham were complicit, and if you “buy” the historical and cultural “power” of the male, they were ultimately where the buck of responsibility stopped. Who TOLD these stories? Most likely male authors. In a way, it’s to the credit (and probably some inspiration of God’s Spirit) that the writers didn’t LEAVE the full responsibility with the women and claim the men were the “victims”! In fact, these accounts (and they just ARE accounts, not necessarily actual human history) demonstrate that both genders are equal opportunity blunderers.

 

The same power-grabbing men would look to the New Testament and shout from the housetops how Paul would clearly forbid women from being teachers and leaders in the church. This MUST be “the Word of God,” so great chunks of Christianity used this edict to deny women their place in the church. It doesn’t take more than a first year seminary student to explain that this “prohibition” of women in the early days of the ecclesia were due to the fact that women were, for the first time in human history, GIVEN PERMISSION to take part at ALL in a religious assembly! If you read all of Acts and all of Paul, you will see that this early “denial” of women in leadership was merely temporary, until they could get their “sea legs,” and until they might not be such easy targets of the oppression and persecution being leveled at the church by religious and Roman leaders. It was NEVER meant to make women “second class citizens” in the church—EVER! If you KEEP READING, friends, you quickly see the power, sacrifice, and heroism of the women of the Christian church and faith! Using anything in the Bible as rationale for denying FULL PARTICIPATION to women in ALL roles in the church—especially in the clergy—is just plain wrong. There is no debate here, theologically and biblically, and yet, here we are. Women are still denied ordination in the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and many, many “sects” of what has come to be known as “evangelical” Christianity. Even in the largest bodies of the evangelical movement—the Southern Baptist Church and the Assemblies of God—women are denied the full privileges of ordination as clergy. They have won back some, over the past few decades, but the men are still in charge. And while these bodies ALSO discriminate against persons in the LGBTQ community based on similar errant interpretations of “the Bible,” I often wonder if the “truer” fear evangelical leaders have of the “blurring” of gender boundaries experienced by LGBTQ persons isn’t the bigger threat, because it may also “blur” their “fully male” claim to authority. 

 

Again, the Bible is FULL of stories of heroic women. Here’s one for our evangelical friends to ponder: would ANY of us be here as believing Christians today if it weren’t for the brave women who went to the tomb of Jesus on that first Easter morning? Who was it who “showed up”? And who was it who went to tell the hiding disciples that “He has risen!”? Of course it was—the women who followed Jesus. Depending on which Gospel account you “like” for that Easter story, these brave women may have had to stare down an entire Roman cohort to get there. If so, they did it. Fast forward to today: look around most of our churches and study their history. Would most of them still be here, if it weren’t for the women who continued to “show up” when the men went off to war? Or, as we tend to see in our day, have just abandoned the church, staying home to watch football or going off to “visit the greens.” The women, like the ones on that first Easter, continue to SHOW UP, and the church has been saved by them. 

 

The United Methodist Church just went through a painful schism. A study released a couple of weeks ago by the Lewis Leadership Center revealed that the group that left was mostly “white and male.” Take a guess at where most of our heroic women clergy in the UMC stayed? Yep, in the United Methodist Church that first began to offer them full clergy rights 67 years ago. Oh, sure, some left, having been co-opted by the “male dominant,” anti-LGBTQ theology and “targeted” view of “biblical authority.” Maybe the “biblical authority” folk should re-examine the Bible for the stories of heroic women and the stumblebum stories of frequent male foolishness? (Sorry, I know that the scriptures teach the FULL equality and necessary equity of all on the gender spectrum, but I just can’t resist a little “male bashing,” as I am sick and tired of the way church leaders and even many folk “in the pews” have treated our women clergy! I’m OK with the fact that many of these oppressors have now exited, which I hope means that the United Methodist Church will soon live fully into our slogan: “Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Doors—the People of The United Methodist Church.”)

 

I honestly don’t remember whether it was an “original” with her, or she was quoting some other teacher or author, but my favorite seminary professor—the late Dr. Susan Nelson—used to urge us, as future pastoral leaders, to “dance Sarah’s circle” rather than “climb Jacob’s ladder.” For her, this meant supporting our “sister” clergy, building supportive and synergistic relationships across all gender boundaries, and working collaboratively and cooperatively to carry out the Gospel mission of Christ. This would stand against the clawing, power-grabbing, and competitive “model” of the church that had been crafted and fueled by its mainly (if not exclusively) male leaders. The Bible tells the story of “Sarah’s circle”—the historic cadre of great women heroes of the Judeo-Christian faith. 

 

As we prepare to launch our “post-Summer” program season of the church, may we celebrate the great women heroes of the Bible, remember the women who have saved and nurtured the Christian church, and pray for the day when where someone is on the gender spectrum will have no impact on how they may serve God and the Gospel ministry of Jesus Christ. Until that day fully comes, may we tell and retell the stories of our women heroes, and support the myriad people BEYOND the male gender whom God is calling into servant ministry. Amen!

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Family Reunion



Genesis 45:1-15
45:1 Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, "Send everyone away from me." So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.

45:2 And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it.

45:3 Joseph said to his brothers, "I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?" But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.

45:4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, "Come closer to me." And they came closer. He said, "I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.

45:5 And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.

45:6 For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest.

45:7 God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.

45:8 So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.

45:9 Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, 'Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay.

45:10 You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children's children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have.

45:11 I will provide for you there--since there are five more years of famine to come--so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.

45:12 And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you.

45:13 You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here."

45:14 Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin's neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck.

45:15 And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.

 

 

Family reunions are becoming an artifact of a bygone era, aren’t they? Our families have certainly scattered hither and yon, and some have even “dissolved” in a cloud of divorces or “tough love” necessitated by aberrant or addictive behavior. In some cases, it just isn’t practical to “gather” the diaspora of our families for even an occasional picnic or “destination” vacation, and in other cases, electronic connections, including FaceTime, Facebook, Instagram, email, and Zoom, have filled the bill, where there is even a desire to maintain connections. What do you remember about the days of “real” family reunions? You know, the times when some matriarch or patriarch of one of the “halves” of your family rented a pavilion or a meeting hall and invited the tiered generations of that part of the family to bring a “covered dish” or kick in for a caterer, and “bring the kids” so the grandmas and great grandmas could marvel how much they had grown since the last gathering? Of course, if you are much under 50 years of age, you may have no memories of such a thing, at all. This is where I realize that next week I will turn 69 years of age, and am almost a full generation ahead of any of you reading this sermon!

 

When I was a kid, we had an annual “Dahle” reunion (my Mom’s side of the family), usually at a local park in a rented pavilion. Of course, the “covered dish” was featured, as were hotdogs and hamburgers on a grill, or two. The Dahle reunion did NOT feature alcohol, as our family was not made up of folk who imbibed, for the large part—at least not publicly—and besides, the public parks ruled it out. We kids ran off to the concrete and steel playgrounds to skin our knees and have a great time, while the adults sat around spinning yarns, catching up, and smearing Merthiolate on our bleeding body parts and applying “flesh colored” Band-Aids. (We had no African Americans in our family, or this might have been an early clue that there was discrimination afoot?) The Dahle reunions petered out, eventually, as again, the family scattered, and the “elders” (mostly surviving grandma-types) moved to nursing homes or to that great nursing home in the sky. 

 

When I married Dara, I also acquired “membership” to the annual “Guentner” family reunion. (I’m not even sure I’m spelling that name right?) This was a gathering of families on the “Apel” side of Dara’s tribe, but frankly, I knew none of them with the last name of Guentner. They were “Aunt Agnes” or “Uncle Don” to me. It was Uncle Don who taught me how to throw horseshoes at the Guentner reunion. And since the Guentner reunion was held at North Park, it either allowed alcohol, or looked the other way, as beer was available and popular. Uncle Don liked it, and the more tuned up he got, the better his aim became at the horseshoe pits. As I was just learning the game of horseshoes, and did not drink beer like Iron City, in those days, Uncle Don used to chide me that my aim was off because I was NOT “pumping Iron.” My favorite character at the Guentner reunions, though, was Uncle Bion. He looked just like Yoda, and since the reunions were always on Sunday afternoons, he would park himself at the quieter, outer fringes of the party, with his ear close to a large transistor radio turned to KDKA and the Pirate baseball game. (The Pirates were worth listening to in those days…) About the only thing I remember Uncle Bion saying was “Shhhh!” eight or ten times when the Pirates were scoring. I must admit, the Guentner reunions were much better than the Dahle reunions of my childhood. Maybe it was the Iron City?

 

Today’s text from Genesis 45 is all about a famous family reunion. As we talked about in last week’s message, Joseph of “dreamer’s coat” fame, had been sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers, who were jealous of his gift, and the attention it brought him from dad (Jacob). Their paths took diverse directions, more so than just the geography that separated them. His brothers, their family, and pretty much all of God’s people who would become Israel, were in the midst of a great famine, and the Pharoah of Egypt controlled vast storehouses of grain. Guess who was in charge of parceling it out to those in need, especially to people of foreign lands? Yep, good ol’ Joe! Thanks to his ability to interpret dreams, he had gotten in good with the rules of Egypt, and had been promoted by them to a position of prominence. This set the stage for our biblical family reunion.

 

One day, who should wander in looking sad and starving, begging for grain, but Joseph’s brothers! Their father, Jacob, hand sent them to beg for help, as the famine was taking its toll. Jacob was aware that this could be a humbling, if not near impossible task, as Egypt had a bad history with the Jews, and was not living under the kind of “code of hospitality” that God required of Jacob’s people. (This code was not yet formalized, but was in God’s nature, and God did not look kindly upon his people when they didn’t care for any strangers in their midst.) Egypt could just as easily tell them to “go pound sand” as give them food to help them through the famine. Joseph immediately recognized his brothers, but they didn’t have a clue that the Egyptian office of whom they must now beg for help, was the brother they had betrayed. 

 

Joseph sent all of the other Egyptians in his court away so he could “confront” his brothers in private, and then he exclaimed to them, “I AM JOSEPH!” What they must have been thinking in this moment reminds me of the lyric of a famous Johnny Cash song: “My name is SUE! HOW DO YOU DO?!?” But because this is a Bible story and not Stephen King, Joseph weeps in front of them for joy and hugs the neck of his little brother, Benjamin. He inquires if his father is still alive, and wants his brothers to bring his father to see him. He offers to not only save them from the throes of the famine, but to relocate them and all of their kin to nearby Goshen, where they will be fed and protected. He tells them that what THEY meant for evil, God used for GOOD, and used Joseph’s unexpected good fortune to save this remnant of God’s people. This family reunion was not just a reconciliation and a tear-jerker, but it would become the seeds of the whole people of Israel. No wonder Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote a musical about it! What a story!

 

Rarely did anything this dramatic happen at any of our family reunions, although I seem to remember a few times when one of the family “prodigals” showed up. After the gossipy titters died away, she or he was offered an “Iron” and welcome to join the others at the horseshoe pits or in the gaggle of “young moms” talking about where the bargains were. (Sorry for the sexism here, friends, but this was just the reality of the late 1970s in Western Pennsylvania!) I do seem to recall one time at the more boring Dahle reunion when a young member of the family who had just graduated from college was invited by a senior family member to “Come to my office next week, and I’ll see if I might have a job for you.” Not exactly a plot for a musical or a thriller movie, but at least a good outcome for that young man.

 

So, here we sit today, as people of faith, recalling our own family reunions, and reading about one of the historic ones in the Bible. Don’t you get the feeling that GOD really enjoyed the irony of this story of Joseph and his brothers? And yes, I know God ORCHESTRATED the whole thing, but even Andrew Lloyd Webber must get a kick out of his clever musicals, especially when the people and the money roll in from them! I think God had a field day with this—so much so, that as the story of Israel and all of the people of God who would follow unfolded, such ironic and even comedic “reversals of fortune” would forever become part of their tribal DNA. OUR tribal DNA! We Christians have the stories of people like Peter, who was always putting his foot in his mouth and even a sword to a soldier, and yet God used him mightily, and he became a pillar of the budding church. How about Saul, who persecuted early Christ followers unto death, supervising the stoning of Stephen? God “grabs” him right off his horse and makes him the “Apostle to the Gentiles.” Most modern historians credit the growth and influence of the early Christian movement with sowing the seeds of the destruction of the Roman Empire that sought to oppress them! God seems to get a real kick out rooting for the proverbial “underdog.”

 

And here we are, we modern believers, gathered yet again to pray, to fellowship, and to worship! Down through the centuries, countless villains, oppressive and obsessive leaders, and even historical circumstances have “conspired” to destroy communities of faith of all kinds, not just the church. And yet, here we are, and most of them are gone. Even in our day, schism has brought about another gut-punch to our United Methodist denomination, but let us remember that God is still “in charge,” and while we may hope the best for the people and churches that broke away, we also believe that God has a good plan for the People Called United Methodists! Maybe someday, in God’s good timing, these two “factions” will hold their own family reunion? We can surely pray!

 

Have you ever pondered what is really happening when we gather to “worship” God? I know all of the language about this—we “praise” God, we give God “glory” when we worship, etc., etc. We feel good doing it, as it is a cleansing, renewing way to express our gratitude to God for life, love, family, and forgiveness. But have you ever wondered what it does for God? Honestly, if you read the Bible from Genesis to maps, you will find very little that says that God is “blessed” by what we call worship. It just doesn’t seem to be in the “character” of Yahweh to “demand” that we do all of this “religious” stuff, for God’s benefit. Remember, this is a God who gets God’s “kicks” out of the underdog stuff, or the ironic, comedic “turns” in the story, as we have seen in today’s text about Joseph and his brothers. What would this God “get” out of a bunch of people singing praises or shouting “Hallelujah”? Here’s my theory.

 

It's all a big, weekly FAMILY REUNION. We are implored by God to “not forsake our assembling together.” We are told to offer our corporate praises, and to sing hymns and spiritual songs to God. But note how important it is that we GATHER to do so! THIS is the “secret” to what worship “does” for God!

 

What I most remember about those family reunions was gazing over to one side of the room or the picnic pavilion, and seeing all of the little, old “grandmas,” sitting together, and joyfully watching their generations of progeny laughing, playing together, and chatting up a storm, as they “reconnected” after not having seen one another for a while. Those grandmas were SO happy, as they witnessed this “joyful fellowship of family” unfolding right before their eyes. They wouldn’t miss it! GOD is like those GRANDMAS, friends!!! God doesn’t “need” our songs, our praises, even our worship, but by wanting us to come together to DO so, means that God gets to see God’s family gathering together each week, joyfully fellowshipping, “catching up” with each other about life, and supporting one another with hugs, prayers, handshakes, and “Gee, it’s so GOOD to see you!” greetings and smiles. God gets OFF on watching this happen! We are God’s family reunion! Choirs SING because they love to SING, and God loves to watch their joy, as they do so. Preachers PREACH because they love God and want to tell EVERYONE about God’s love and grace! God loves to watch them preach, and see God’s people listening to what they have to say! We all love to do like Joseph does to his little brother, Benjamin—“hug the necks” of our fellow Christians and “pew mates,” some of whom may actually have become closer to us than our blood family! You had better believe that God gets “off” on witnessing this happen! THIS is why we worship. This is why we gather—to love on one another, and support one another, come what may. There is healing in these “family reunions”! There is reconciliation in these family reunions! And as we truly learn to “welcome all strangers” into our community of faith, there is GREAT JOY in the growth of our family, as the weekly “reunions” continue. THIS is what God gets out of our worship, friends! If you don’t believe it, keep reading the Bible. It’s all there.

 

So, if your family—or some part of it—still does those family reunions, go to the next one. Look for the grandmas. They are God of the reunion. And then, the next time you gather with your friends at church, think of the grandmas, for that image is the perfect one to understand God’s presence in our worship each week. And there is great joy here! And you don’t even have to “pump an Iron” to experience it! Amen!

Friday, August 11, 2023

Here Comes This Dreamer...


 Here Comes This Dreamer

 

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
37:1 Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan.

37:2 This is the story of the family of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father's wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father.

37:3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves.

37:4 But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.

37:12 Now his brothers went to pasture their father's flock near Shechem.

37:13 And Israel said to Joseph, "Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them." He answered, "Here I am."

37:14 So he said to him, "Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me. "So he sent him from the valley of Hebron. He came to Shechem, 

37:15 and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, "What are you seeking?"

37:16 "I am seeking my brothers," he said; "tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock."

37:17 The man said, "They have gone away, for I heard them say, 'Let us go to Dothan.'" So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan.

37:18 They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him.

37:19 They said to one another, "Here comes this dreamer.

37:20 Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams."

37:21 But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, "Let us not take his life."

37:22 Reuben said to them, "Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him" --that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father.

37:23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore;

37:24 and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.

37:25 Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt.

37:26 Then Judah said to his brothers, "What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood?

37:27 Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh." And his brothers agreed.

37:28 When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.

 

History has never been kind to dreamers. Jesus had a dream of a just and peaceable kingdom, and those who studied the scriptures and knew of it, prophetically, led the onslaught against him, resulting in his cruel death. The Apostle Paul had a dream of an inclusive church, bringing together Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, male and female, slave and free, under a common discipleship of Jesus Christ. He was persecuted, beaten, jailed, and eventually martyred for it. Galileo had a dream of a solar system that made scientific sense, but it was the church that brought him down. (And I’m letting Galileo “stand in” here for countless others whose “dream”—in many cases bolstered by scientific observation or rational logic—went against the grain of worldviews accepted and propagated by the church.) Martin Luther King, Jr. had a famous dream of a society where all races would be treated equally and equitably, and because of it, he was persecuted, beaten, jailed, and eventually martyred (sound familiar?). In each case, the “established” church egged on, if not sponsored, the killing or suppression of the dream. 

 

And yet, in our most recent history, a megalomanic unrolled HIS “dream” of a presidency and a country that revolved totally around him and his whims, masquerading as a government. He found it easy to make millions believe his “dream” included them, too, all the while catering to a handful of monied interests, and quelling the rights of the very people who put him in power. Upon being “deposed” by voters in a democratic election, he started screaming “persecution,” and has threatened to crush his opposition, should he be returned to power. Russia? China? North Korea? Guess again.

 

Why is it so hard to sell a positive dream—one that may benefit all others, not just a narrow constituency? And why is it so easy to proffer a maligned, malignant “dream” (nightmare?) that, at its core, concentrates both power and wealth in a despotic, central politburo which will harvest the plumpest plums from the public tree? History gives us few clues, but maybe today’s text unveils the selfish root of this behavior. Witness Joseph’s brothers.

 

Joseph has a gift. Unfortunately, thanks to Andrew Lloyd Webber, we think it was about the coat, that his brothers decided to sell him as a slave to a group of Ishmaelite traders. But it was his gift of interpreting dreams that got raised their ire, as it endeared Joseph to Jacob, their father. Jacob trusted Joseph, as he recognized that his prophetic dream-gift came from God. One could argue that Jacob’s gift of the coat was a sign of his favoritism, but as I understand it, the coat was probably more Jacob’s way of “anointing” Joseph as a kind of prophet. The long sleeves were a sign of wealth, and possibly even a foreshadowing of his share of the eventual inheritance, but prophets and mystics adorned themselves with long robes with elegant sleeves as a sign of their “office.” The giveaway in this story is the key line, “Here comes this dreamer.” They were jealous of his God-given gift, and the “extra” measure of status it gave him with dad.

 

What about the dreamers in today’s church? Innovation and vision are often only recognized when they fit the patterns and “biblical orthodoxy” of the perceived majority. “Dreamers,” like all true prophets, “speak forth” the truth they understand from God, as typically communicated through what we Wesleyans call the “quadrilateral”: Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason. Gifted dreamers (visionaries?) start with their scripture-rooted faith, hold it up to the changing traditions of the church, which they then “turbocharge,” to use Leonard Sweet’s word, and then re-interpret and extrapolate a vision from these historical “roots,” molded through contemporary experience (needs?) of the church. The dreamer/prophet/visionary is NEVER afraid to apply human reasoning to this formula, as we ARE human, and God’s truth is of little application unless it meets us at our human level. We are not God, and will NOT be God, but we ARE human. And if we believe the experience of the Christ Event, God BECAME human, so God’s truth could connect with humanity, redeem it, and reconcile it to Godself. Dreamers don’t distrust reason; they understand it as an “essential” to interpreting and living out our Christian discipleship. But this process often leads to new ways to “be the church,” ways that may be more “Open Minds, Open Hearts, and Open Doors” than some in the faith community can accept. And “these dreamers” then come under fire. 

 

Scripture? We, like Mr. Wesley, “trust” it as the primary source for our faith. But what if we understand it like Jesus did, as a kind of “seed” which we plant in the world, expecting it to take root and provide a large “yield” of redeemed people? This, in contrast to merely limiting it to “original inspiration,” which then gives way to tightly defined and “enforced” doctrines and dogmas. Tradition, too, is better understood as our history, helping us remember and celebrate what “worked” in our past, but inspiring us to move forward to new ways to tell our story to a changing world. Experience puts us into the current state of mind, making comparisons between what the church HAS been, versus what it will NEED to be, to connect to people in the contemporary context. Too often, church people have sat around lamenting that “things aren’t what they used to be,” rather than “dream” about what they MIGHT be, as the Holy Spirit gives fresh inspiration. Reason is the powerful and necessary tool to weave this all together into a vision, a “dream” that will focus and empower the Christian message and mission for tomorrow. The “quadrilateral” was never a TEST, but a METHOD for dreaming!

 

No modern church leader wants to hear the kind of indictment leveled by Joseph’s brothers: “Here comes this dreamer,” as they are rarely words of affirmation or welcome. And how many creative church leaders—especially young clergy—are “sold into slavery” by old ideas proffered by their congregations, and even their supervisors? Bowing to what “sells” instead of an inspired “dream” of how to make the gospel “come alive” to a skeptical, “disaffiliating” age could do irreparable damage to the church in our time. 

 

Of course, we know that the story of Joseph has a “happy” ending, thanks to the “comedy” of God’s intervention. He saves his brothers, his father, and basically the people who will become God’s people Israel. Are we faithful enough to believe that God can likewise save the church from our parochial folly and fear of the “dreamers”? As a retired pastor now more a part of the “great cloud of witnesses” than a player on the field, I sure hope and pray so! I have done my part to encourage the dreamers, and most especially those who have themselves been persecuted by the church: our gifted women leaders; those who are part of the LGBTQ community; and those who continue to experience racism, sexism, and ageism, even in the Body of Christ. 

 

May we all work for and pray for the day when “Here comes this dreamer” is said with a spirit of excitement and welcome! It will be the dreamers who will bring the Word of God to us, and who will breathe new life into the church. Amen!

 

 

Thursday, August 3, 2023

When Family Breaks Your Heart


When Family Breaks Your Heart

 

Romans 9:1-5
9:1 I am speaking the truth in Christ--I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit--

9:2 I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.

9:3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.

9:4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises;

9:5 to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

 

I empathize with the deep pain of families where either the children grow up to greatly disappoint the loving parents, or where the children, needing love, have parents who disappoint them by focusing on their own needs and disputes, treating the children like possessions, and later, as “bargaining chips” in divorce proceedings. These things are far too common, at least from what I observed as a pastoral caregiver. And doesn’t your heart just break when you read—as I just did today—of a toddler suffering and dying in a hot car when the “parent” forgets them and goes to work (or into a bar)? It’s even more heart-breaking when you read that it happened to an otherwise responsible parent, who has now had to both grieve the loss of a child AND undergo an investigation, let alone face their partner, if there is one in the picture. I should be thankful that I was never under the influence of chemicals—illicit or prescribed—or in such anguish over some event that I could have ever let something like this happen. I just can’t imagine. I’m also thankful that future technology is trying to prevent such horrible occurrences. Our new EV (electric vehicle) has a system that sets off all kinds of alarms if you try to turn the car off and exit the vehicle with ANYTHING in the back seat. Good for those engineers at GM!

 

Putting aside these “extreme” ways our family may break our hearts (or we, theirs), there are still myriad ways we may leave a wake of disappointment behind us. Just ask many transgender persons or others in the LGBTQ community about how their families greeted their coming out. Or the children of parents who divorced. As a pastor, I found myself sternly “correcting” parishioners in my counseling room who used “It will be better for the kids, anyway” as one of their justifications for filing for divorce. No, it will not. Unless there is emotional or physical abuse going on, it will NOT be “better for the kids.” Your children will suffer through a divorce and will never be the same. With adequate support and possibly even therapy, they will get over it, but it will be very hard on them. Believe me. I have met many an adult product of a long-since completed divorce who STILL harbors the hope—and even belief—that their “folks” will get back together. It just breaks your heart.

 

I’ll not spend much time on how addiction—on the part of the children, the parents, or both—just shatters one’s soul. Having had to offer care to families who lost a child to addiction breaks more than one’s “heart.” It’s bone-crushing for these families. They never get over it, even if they make all of the “right” responses to the tragedy. The death of a child due to addiction is paralyzing, and brings on a version of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that is all but untreatable. It’s not much better when the “loss” is not to death, but to the “tough love” act of writing the addict out of one’s life, in the hope that they may seek help, before they destroy ALL of the lives involved. 

 

I’m trying to stay “in the lane” of the heartbreak induced by bad decisions on the part of family members, but please don’t take away that I’m downplaying all of the other ways we may be shattered by loss. But the Romans text in today’s message is about the “tragedy” of choice.

 

Paul is deeply saddened and perplexed by his “family,” the Jewish people of first-century Palestine. Never mind that he had to experience a dramatic confrontation with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus before HE became a disciple of Jesus. He grieves that his family hasn’t yet joined him, despite his best efforts to persuade them. And as we see in his other letters, even when some do, they are hard-pressed to give up some of their former faith practices such as circumcision and kosher eating preferences, even when they divide the community. 

 

I find it interesting that Paul introduces this passage with the strong affirmation that he is “not lying,” for therein lies yet another way people break each other’s hearts, and not just in families! As I write this, we are learning more details about a national “drama” playing itself out in front of us all, namely the latest indictments of former president, Donald Trump. These federal indictments clearly accuse him of lying “bigly” to the American public about his losing the 2020 election, and most especially using these lies in an attempt to motivate his minions (and less self-aware followers) to do his bidding to overturn the results of that election. And now, he continues to lie, saying the indictments are a result of “political persecution.” The “good news” in all of this is that the final “judge” of who is right and who is lying will occur in a federal court of law, with the world paying close attention. On a more “micro” level, I’m sure we can all cite an example of where lies were employed in attempts to help someone get her or his way in a family or in a relationship. It never turns out well. Ever. 

 

So, Paul goes almost “postal,” declaring that he is not lying to his people about the glory and joy he has found in Jesus Christ. However, he does not condemn his people, and if you read Romans throughout, you will see that he pronounces them “safe” in the covenant they already have with God. He is sorry for the joy and freedom they are missing out on, in not accepting God’s pardon and grace in Jesus, but he does NOT believe they are condemned by it. “May it never be,” he exclaims in Romans 11:1, “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? May it never be!” God’s people Israel is “saved” by their faith and the covenant they already have, but are they missing out on some of the freedom Christians experience? This is a tough question, in that my Jewish friends ARE joyful people, and those who take part in the life of a synagogue or other Jewish gathering/community of faith offer all kinds of ministries of justice and compassion to the world. Judaism has evolved since the days of Paul, and maybe we judge it too harshly when we apply Paul’s critique of it to the modern Jewish community? When we do this, I think we are pointing the finger in the wrong direction!

 

If Paul were here with the church now, I fear he would be laying out a case against US, for the same reasons he was upset with his Jewish siblings in his day. Has the church not ALSO spent more time on being judgmental? More time on drawing “lines” as to who is “right” and who is “wrong” about everything from how we read and understand the Bible, to the social issues before us? Have factions in the modern church not continued the practice of schism, thinking it will solve problems, rather than just divide? How would Paul treat this contemporary truth that has led to a divide within many denominations today: “I just don’t want to be in the same church with YOU, and what you believe.” Why, if the modern “nuclear” family were to behave like the Christian church has, every time one of its members disagreed with the “beliefs and doctrines” of the family, they would trash their bedroom and go out the window! And then would hope that the family they left behind would fail, so they could pronounce that infamous benediction, “I TOLD you so!”

 

Families of any kind are complex systems and must be understood in this manner. As I have said many times before, one of the most useless, and even heart-breaking, analyses of any family “crisis” is oversimplifying what is far more complicated than we often see, on first read. And if we continue in this direction, we “spasm” and craft an overly-simplified “solution” to the presenting problem, which usually makes things worse, even after at first appearing to “solve” the issue. Oversimplification should be the “thou shalt not” of the eleventh commandment. A cheap “solution” to a complicated problem just makes things worse, and often leads to a judgmental attitude that adds gasoline to the presenting “fire.” And, of course, any of us with more than a ten-minute short course in human psychology and family systems knows full well that the “presenting” problem may not be the real issue at all! Remember when President Trump suggested that maybe ingesting or injecting BLEACH might be a solution to the COVID-19 problem? This ludicrous idea is akin to the problem we face in the church today. 

 

It was heartbreaking for Paul to see how his “blood” family, the Jews, were often “at war” with his adopted family, the church. It didn’t have to be. And it doesn’t have to be today. The same could be said for other religions and the church, as well. The Good News of Jesus Christ was not meant to be a “call to arms,” but a healing balm for the divisions infesting humanity. And the answer is NOT devising or distilling doctrines that must be “accepted” by all others before we will call them “brother” or “sister.” The answer, while most certainly complex, begins with acceptance, tolerance, and an understanding that we are all seeking God’s favor, and what is best for the creatures of the creation, both human and otherwise. 

 

It is said that the late, great football coach, Vince Lombardi, used to begin his training camp for the Green Bay Packers by holding up that well-known leather prolate spheroid and firmly toning, “Gentlemen, THIS is a football.” Maybe the church needs to go back to such basics? Paul thought so, beginning with the most basic truths of love and grace. Even Mr. Wesley said:


“What religion do I preach? The religion of love—the law of kindness brought to light by the gospel. What is this good for? To make all who receive it enjoy God and themselves, and to make them like God, lovers of all.”


Paul goes back to the “basics” of Jewish faith history. Jesus brought a new “word” to us—“You have heard it said, but I say unto you…” John Wesley appealed to love and acceptance of “the other.” Friends, this is OUR football. May we head the words of Paul the Apostle, speak the truth, and stop breaking each other’s hearts! Amen! 

What's Next?

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