Epiphany 6, Year A, 2017

Choose life.

This is Moses’ final message to the Israelites. Moses has been called by God, led the Israelites out of Egypt, wandered around with them in the desert for forty years and now, now finally, they are about to cross into the promised land.

But what Moses knows, and what the Israelites don’t know yet, is that Moses won’t be joining them. He is 120 years old and is dying. He has been with these people for so long and put up with so much from them. He has put up with their whining for better food, for their worshiping of a Golden Calf, for their longing for a past in which they had been enslaved. And yet, Moses still loves them. Moses wants what is good for them.

So Moses asks them to choose life.

He sets before the Israelites a choice: choose life and prosperity or death or adversity. Easy choice, right?

But choosing life hasn’t been an easy choice for the Israelites, because in this context choosing life means choosing God’s law. And choosing God’s law means worshiping God above everything else. Worshiping God means no longer creating idols—either literal ones like the Golden Calf or metaphorical ones like money, or how we look, or our families.

But Moses has seen what has happened to Israel when they have chosen other idols. He has seen them struggle, seen them wander in the desert and he wants more for them. He wants them to be able to settle down in the land of milk and honey. He wants for them to live at peace with God and with one another. He wants them to prosper.

God’s laws—from the Ten Commandments on—were always meant to be good for people. They were meant to give us boundaries on our life to help us live in peaceful community. Worship God. Do not murder. Do not take what does not belong to you. Honor your family. Don’t lie. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t even have lustful thoughts towards another person’s spouse. All these boundaries are good for us. And Jewish law has always been situational. The Israelites renegotiate the Covenant with God twice once they reach Canaan and rabbis were famous for deeply examining and arguing and working with Jewish law to apply it to new situations as they arose. God’s law is ancient, but it is flexible and it is meant for our good.

The law helps us make good decisions when our instincts are telling us otherwise. I ordered a new duvet and set of shams from West Elm a couple of weeks ago. I was surprised when I received two boxes. When I opened them, I realized they had accidentally sent me a double order: two duvets and four shams. My first reaction was joy! It was a bedding jackpot! I was mentally storing up the extras so I would have a bonus set. But then, sadly, the law kicked in. I reluctantly looked at the return slip and sure enough there was an option to return things because the store accidentally sent you extras. Keeping the bedding would have been stealing. (Even though, to be clear, it was totally the company’s fault.)

Now I don’t think death would have come upon me had I kept that bedding. But, if we live inside the boundaries of these laws, we are less likely to harm others and ourselves.

When God’s laws are broken, the pain from that break spirals out affecting not only the person who broke the law, but their families and friends, too. While breaking God’s law may not kill us, it can mortally wound our relationships.

If we are able to be clear about what God desires for us, it can help us resist those moment’s of temptation. What do I really want when I click on that old girlfriend’s FaceBook page? Connection? How can I get human connection in a more appropriate way? What hole am I feeling when I covet my neighbor’s new chandelier? How can I feel content in my own life?

But of course, we don’t always choose to stay within the law. When I’m talking to little kids about this, I describe our sins as building blocks that we put up between ourselves and other people or God. When we covet, when we cheat, when we steal, we lay block after block and eventually, we stop being able to relate to the person we are harming at all. We depersonalize them in order to justify our behavior.

The good news is, there is a way to knock down those blocks and start to build the trust that leads to life.

When we take responsibility for our actions and understand how we have harmed others, and sincerely ask for forgiveness, we put the people we have harmed in the position where they can forgive us, and begin to tear those blocks down. Now, it is a risk, because you will not always be forgiven. Sometimes you have broken the law so badly that the relationship cannot be repaired. Or sometimes, the person you have harmed may be putting up blocks of their own out of pain and anger.

Because God decided to take pity on us, and send us Jesus, it is now so much easier to ask forgiveness of God. We don’t save up money for any sacrificial animals. We don’t have to travel to the city to find a Temple and a priest to absolve us. All we need to do is turn to God and ask his forgiveness, and because of Jesus’ defeat of human sin, God will forgive us. Every time.

No matter how far down a path of death we have traveled, God always offers us life in exchange. And I say this at least once a year, but I think Alcoholics Anonymous gives us just a perfect example of what this transformation can look like. You acknowledge your weakness, acknowledge you need God, ask forgiveness to those you have wounded and in step eleven: “[Seek] through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.”

If we stay connected to God through prayer, we are more likely to stay in the behavioral boundaries that God desires for us and that lead to healthy and happy relationships.

And those in AA don’t go it alone. AA only works because its members work the steps in community. They have accountability through sponsors. The closest we have to sponsors in the Episcopal tradition is godparents, and I think we would do well to really claim that tradition. I don’t have an actual godparent, but Beth Wharton has acted as my god parent on more than one occasion! And Charlie doesn’t have godparents, because he was baptized in the Presbyterian church, but he’s had at least a dozen of you function that way for him. It is good for us to have church people we know so well that they can help us check in with ourselves to make sure we are on track. But that means we have to be honest with each other about what is going on in our lives!

I promise you, no one in this room has a perfect life. No matter how attractive they are. No matter what kind of car they drive. No matter how happy they seem. Everyone here struggles with something. Because it is hard to be a person! It is especially hard to be a decent person trying their best to follow God.

Just like Moses stuck by the Israelites, Jesus sticks by us. He is on our side, ready to invite us into life. He’s ready to guide us into a way of life that gives life to us and to those around us.

May we accept his invitation.

Amen.

 

 

 

Proper 28, Year A, 2014

God uses whom he wants to use.

Today we hear about Deborah, a biblical Hero from the book of Judges. You may be thinking to yourself. Hmmm. Judges. What was that about again? I wouldn’t blame you. This tiny snippet is the only time we hear from the book of Judges in all three years of our lectionary. And this snippet doesn’t even tell Deborah’s whole story!

The book of Judges takes place between the time of Joshua leading the Israelites into the Promised Land and the introductions of Kings to Israel. The Israelites, after 40 years of wandering through the desert, are FINALLY in this beautiful land they have traveled for years to inherit. So they settle in and happily worship the Lord, right?

Nah, the Israelites settle in and then immediately start worshiping other gods!

The pattern of the book of Judges is that the Israelites betray God, an invading army comes in, God raises up a Judge who defeats the army, everyone praises God, until they start worship other gods again. Lather, rinse, repeat. Human beings are slow learners.

Judges were political leaders who settled disputes and often military leaders—they had a wide range of responsibilities.

This is where Deborah comes in. We know most women in the Old Testament by their relationship to the men in their lives. Sarah follows Abraham, Rebecca is most famous for being a mother to Jacob and Esau, Hannah is famous for finally being able to bear children after loads of prayer. Women are actively participating in life with God, but the stories told of them are usually tangential.

Deborah, on the other hand, is defined only by her own talents. Deborah is a prophetess and a judge, who is married to a man we never see in the story.

An invading army, led by a man named Sisera, is rapidly approaching the Israelites. Deborah receives a message from the Lord to pass on to Barak, who is a military General. She tells him that God has told him to go this specific location—Mount Tabor—where the puny Israelite army will defeat Sisera’s enormous army. Not only was Sisera’s army enormous, but they had tools and weapons the Israelites did not—including 900 thundering iron chariots.

Barak wants no part of this. Even though he hears this message from the Lord, he is rightfully terrified. 10,000 soldiers with advanced weaponry? No thank you. He tells Deborah that he will only go if she accompanies him. She rolls her eyes and says she’ll go, but warns him that he won’t get any glory out of his leadership.

They go to battle, and the Israelites defeat the invading army. Sisera jumps off his chariot, which is getting him nowhere, and goes and hides in a tent. This is where the story gets more like something out of Game of Thrones than the Bible. Sisera thinks he is friendly territory, but Jael, the woman he encounters is actually allied with Israel. She welcomes him warmly into her home, covers him with a rug, offers him some milk and then drives a peg into his head killing him.

So much for meek and mild, right?

God uses these two women and their smarts and their physical strength in a way that feels very modern to us.

As many of you know, I grew up around Army bases in Germany and many of my classmates became soldiers. Every veteran’s day I am particularly struck at the pictures my friends posts of their time in Iraq or Afghanistan. Here are these beautiful young women, not making fish lips in a selfie, but covered in dust, wearing fatigues, surrounded by fellow soliders or Iraqi children they are befriending. These women are so proud of their time in the service and the ways it formed them. Some of them are physicians now, some lawyers, some retail managers, but they are all defined by their own sense of identity rather than whose wife they are or whose mother. (Although many of them are both loving wives and mothers.)

How moving that for God, this is not a new idea. Our society is just catching up to how God always saw women. As valuable, meaningful people in their own right. People who can be used to further God’s kingdom. Although, I truly hope none of us are called to drive a tent peg into anyone’s head.

The good news about the book of Judges is the male leaders God chooses are just as unlikely as Deborah. Samson was strong, but as dumb as a brick. Gideon was just a kid, Jephthah had no idea who his father was, Abimelech was power hungry and Ehud, well, he was left handed. 

That’s right, God can even use left handed people to do God’s work.

One of the things I love about the Episcopal Church is how we take everyone seriously. We think about Christian formation from the infants we baptize to people in nursing homes. In our Women’s Bible Study we don’t have any cutesy pink bibles to help us figure out our role as women. We just study the Bible. At Ladies Night we are just as likely to talk about theodicy as we are to talk about our jobs or raising children. Whether you are a stay at home mom, a stay at home dad, a hedge fund manager, an artist, a CEO, a teacher, a house cleaner, a retired person, or a kindergartener, you are valuable to God. Just as you are.

God uses whom he wants to use.

The unique mass of cells and impulses that make you, you are delightful to God. At your baptism his Spirit united you to Christ. Many of you were baptized as infants. If you think you don’t have your life together now, just imagine what a mess you were when you were a baby. Babies don’t even know what their own arms are for until they’ve been alive for months! Babies are useless! And yet, the God of the Universe deigns to stake a claim on their little lives. Because God knows that each of us is enough, more than enough, just the way we are. He doesn’t wait to use us for his Kingdom until we are married, or have babies, or get a job for which we feel qualified. He doesn’t wait for us to straighten our homes, or get that personal record on a marathon, or have someone buy our first painting to think we are valuable.

God loves us, and God uses us. He invites us to participate in the ongoing relationship he’s been developing with humanity from the beginning of Creation.

Will we join him?

Amen.

Proper 16, Year A, 2014

On a hot August night, a white police officer shot a young unarmed black man in a community just north of a major American city. Rumors spread through the community that the man had died and soon people were out on the streets, protesting and even looting stores.

The city was Harlem. The year, 1943. The young black man was a soldier intervening as the police officer arrested a young woman. The young man did not die, but his shooting tapped into the frustration of the community. 71 years later, the people of Ferguson are experiencing a painfully similar story.

From our reading of Exodus today: “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”

For years the Egyptians and Jews had a good relationship, thanks to Joseph. However, in today’s reading many years have passed and the text tells us that the Pharaoh has forgotten about Joseph.

And what happens when the Pharaoh forgets? He instructs his people to oppress the Jews. He does not remember their story together. He does not remember the power of God that binds them together. Pharaoh forgets and so the Jews suffer.

What happens when we forget our story?

Well, ask Michael Brown. Or Eric Garner. Or John Crawford. Or Ezell Ford. Or Dante Parker. All five are unarmed black men who have been killed by law enforcement in the last month alone. We don’t know exactly what happened between Darren Wilson and Michael Brown, we have not yet heard the full story. But the shooting has tapped into underlying feelings of injustice about how black men are treated by police all over our country and those concerns are certainly backed by data.

The actions of that night in Harlem have repeated themselves over and over and over in this country.

And this week and last we have seen images of police in full military gear pointing loaded weapons at unarmed protestors, assaulting and arresting journalists, even shooting pastors and other peaceful protestors with rubber bullets.

We have been awakened to the face that we have forgotten our story.

We have forgotten that through Jesus, all humanity, whatever our race, have become one in Christ. We have forgotten that every life is sacred and precious.

And in case you’re thinking, “Wait a minute, some of these men were breaking the law! These weren’t all innocent people.” Consider this.

While black children make up just 18 percent of kids enrolled in [public] preschool programs, they constitute 48 percent of the students suspended more than once.”

Did you get that? Four year old black children make up less than a fifth of public preschoolers but, nearly half of the four year olds suspended more than once are black.

Four year olds. Are they guilty?

Consider this.

The writer Mikki Kendall, a black woman, was so tired of the multiple violent and sexist Twitter comments she received every day, she tried an experiment with some of her friends. They swapped out their profile pictures, so Mikki’s picture became that of a white man. Her white male friends switched their photos with photos of black women. Her Twitter handle was exactly the same, but immediately, the threats and harassment stopped. The same people who insulted her now had thoughtful questions about what she was writing. The same people! And her male friends who switched their pictures? One of them only lasted two hours. He was stunned at the horrifying invective launched at him when people thought he was a black woman.

Consider this, in a 2012 Pew poll, the researchers discovered that 75% of white social networks are 100% white. That means that 3/4th of white people do not spend any social time with a single friend of another race.

There is something wrong with us. I doubt these police officers or pre-school teachers were overtly racist, though clearly the twitter trolls were. The police officers and preschool teachers are probably perfectly nice people. They are probably a lot like us. I think the problem of racism is so deeply ingrained in us that we aren’t even aware of our bias. We shoot unarmed young black men, we suspend young black boys because deep down, we are afraid of them. Call it white privilege, call it systemic racism, whatever it is, we are infected.

I wish I knew exactly what the cure was.

Maybe part of the cure is remembering our history. As I rabidly followed news coming out of Ferguson this week, I realized I know very little about the history of race in Charlottesville. I know about Sally Hemmings of course, but that was about it. In the last couple of days I’ve tried to learn as much as I can, but it is just a beginning.

Did you know that at the beginning of the Civil war there were more free and enslaved black people in Charlottesville than white? Did you know Jefferson thought blacks were incapable of the full range of human emotion? Did you know there was a community of freed blacks called Canada where the South Lawn of UVA now lies? You can even see a memorial there. Did you know that in the 1960s, African American homes and businesses were destroyed in Vinegar Hill as an act of “urban renewal”?  Did you know that Greencroft Club was begun because Jews and blacks were not allowed in Farmington?

Remembering our shared history is only part of the solution. Even if we learn everything there is to know about our community’s racial history, historical knowledge can only get us so far.

History can’t tell us who we are and how we are connected. History tells us how we are broken, but not how we can be healed.

In our Gospel today, standing in a center of Roman power, a town named after Caesar, Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is. Peter gets the answer right—the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.

The God we love came to disrupt the power structures of the world that tell us what we are worth. He is a living God, who loved us so much and was so grieved by our inability to love him and one another, that he was willing to become human.

He became Michael Brown. He became the victim of our sin, so we wouldn’t have to sacrifice each other any more. His sacrifice should have been the last. His sacrifice was enough for us.

And yet, here we are.

There is still hope for us. We can pray that this living God will help us see our sin more clearly. We can pray that this living God will build empathy in our hearts instead of fear. We can offer ourselves to God as agents of change.

Clergy and other Christians in Ferguson have been doing just that. They have walked alongside protestors and police officers these last few weeks, offering empathy, offering love, helping to diffuse conflict, while still calling for justice. The Episcopal Dean of the Cathedral in St. Louis, Michael Kinman, has written eloquently on the connection between the Eucharist and the Christian response to Ferguson, but he has also acted as a physical barrier between police and protesters this week. He articulates and lives his faith.

Christians and other good hearted people, black and white, have worked for peace together in Ferguson: cleaning up the streets, feeding children who were unable to start school. And people of every race, across the country have been raising money for the St. Louis food bank, which was hit very hard with the school delay.

We can join this faithful group and can be part of change in our community and country. But first we must look deep in our hearts, and be willing to confront any fear and ignorance that may lurk there.

May God help us.

Amen.

Proper 7, Year A, 2014

Welcome to the latest installment of Real Housewives of the Old Testament!

Okay, so this piece of Genesis does not come out of Bravo’s studios, but it is quite dramatic. The lectionary—our Sunday readings—are going to stay in Genesis most of the summer. Because of when Pentecost fell this year, we have dropped smack dab in the middle of Abraham and Sarah’s story, so let me catch you up. Abraham and Sarah were called by God to follow him. He did not say where, he did not give them a road map or leave them GPS. And they did it! They picked up their household, all their stuff, and began a life of following God. God promised to make a nation out of them—that Sarah and Abraham would have as many descendants as there are stars in the sky.

There was one problem. Sarah and Abraham could not conceive a child. For years they followed God and God kept reiterating the promise, but it seemed totally laughable, especially since they were already in their 70s when God made his promises to them. So, Sarah hatched a plan. Deciding that clearly God had not thought everything through, she gave her handmaiden to her husband as an additional wife so they could conceive a child together. (What an anniversary present!) Abraham and Hagar had a little boy named Ishmael. Great, right? Well, no. As soon as Hagar conceived, she and Sarah began to fight. Eventually Hagar fled, but God told her to go back!

Years later, Sarah actually conceived and bore a child named Isaac. You would think that would solve everything, right? But no, Sarah sees Ishmael playing and laughing and cannot stand it. Ishmael represents a threat to Isaac’s inheritance, not to mention a reminder of her own poor decision making. Sarah asks Abraham to cast Hagar and Ishmael out. When Abraham checks with God, God reassures Abraham they will be cared for. God has gone through a lot with Abraham and Sarah. His goal is to be in relationship with a people and to see the promises he’s made come to pass. The narrative should have been Sarah and Abraham waited patiently, finally had Isaac, boom! promise delivered. Instead Sarah disrupts the plan and Hagar and Ishmael become victims of her regret. And so, they disappear off stage, bread and water in hand.

In another story, that would be the last we heard from Hagar and Ishmael. They don’t fit in with the covenant God has promised Abraham. Why do we need to hear the rest of their story? God may have had a plan for Abraham and Sarah, but our God is a God of love. Hagar and Ishmael may not be part of the covenant, but God’s attachments flow beyond his initial promises. We get a heartbreaking scene where the pair are out of water, so Hagar leaves Ishmael under a tree and walks away so she doesn’t have to watch him die. She weeps and weeps to God and the text says, “And God heard the voice of the boy.” This may seems strange, since it is Hagar who is crying. But the name Ishmael actually means “God hears”. I’m sure when Abraham decided to name him God hears he was thinking of the glory of God’s promise to him, but it turns out that God hears suffering, too. God hears the cries of those who have been shut out, manipulated, abused. God hears the cries of people who are shoved to the sidelines God didn’t just offer comfort, God made a nation out of Ishmael. God saved their lives and lifted them back into society.

God hasn’t stopped hearing the cries of those who suffer. He knows what grieves your heart. He knows the ways you fear for those you love. He knows the ways you have been betrayed. He hears your cries. Too often, we think we have to bear our suffering alone. We come to church, dressed to the nines. We greet our friends with a smile and a platitude, even when our hearts are breaking. One of the gifts we can give to each other as the Body of Christ, is to listen to each other’s cries. But that means someone has to cry first!

One of my favorite books about the power of crying out to God is Frederick Buechner’s Telling Secrets. In it, he tells the grueling story of his father’s alcoholism and suicide and the family’s subsequent silence on the matter. It is only when he begins telling the story of his father’s death, that he experiences true healing. As he reflects on his experience he writes,

I have come to believe that by and large the human family all has the same secrets, which are both very telling and very important to tell. They are telling in the sense that they tell what is perhaps the central paradox of our condition—that what we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else. It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are—even if we tell it only to ourselves—because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. It is important to tell our secrets too because it makes it easier that way to see where we have been in our lives and where we are going. It also makes it easier for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own, and exchanges like that have a lot to do with what being a family is all about and what being human is all about.

 

We become more human, and more connected to ourselves and each other, when we tell the truth about our lives. But telling the truth can be very counter cultural. I can’t stop thinking this week about that picture of Richard Martinez and Peter Rodger that was released last week. Richard Martinez was the father of a young man killed by Elliot Rodger in Isla Vista a few weeks ago. Very soon after the shooting, he gave a very angry speech in which he held politicians responsible for policies that led to the shooting. For a few days his speech was admired as a remarkable outburst of articulate rage. Of course, since media cycles don’t like to admire anyone for too long, soon Martinez began getting criticized for not grieving appropriately, for seeking the limelight in a time where he should have been tucked away somewhere being appropriately sad. Instead of retreating and behaving in a way the world would think is appropriate, Richard Martinez had a private meeting with Peter Rodger, the father of the shooter. The two came out of the meeting vowing to fight for policies that help the mentally ill and stop the kind of gun violence we’ve seen too much of lately.

There is one picture taken of them at this event where their arms are wrapped each other’s shoulders and they stare at the camera with a gaze that captures all their grief and all their defiance. They are letting their cries ring out, and why shouldn’t they? What happened to them was the most excruciating event that can happen to a parent. In telling each other their stories, in crying out to each other, I hope the slow road to healing began. And I hope God hears their cries, and begins to heal them, and our country.

I don’t know all of you, but I know many of you, and I promise you no one in this room lives a life without suffering. We’re pretty lucky, I know. Many of us have income and a roof over our heads and people who love us. But suffering comes in many forms—conflict with a loved one, illness or mental illness of a loved one, loneliness, financial strain, being a survivor of abuse, physical impairment. My dream is that one day instead of dressing all perfectly for church, we would just walk in the room wearing T-shirts that named our suffering. How freeing would it be to realize we were all in this together, broken and crying out to God? Because God does still hear our prayers, but since we are the body of Christ, he may be calling us to be part of his answer. In listening to one another with love and care, we can embody God’s love and care for us.

May we be Christ to one another, bearing one another’s sorrows as we do our best to continue the journey of faith Abraham and Sarah and Hagar began for us. Amen.

Proper 4, Year C, 2013

Good morning!

Welcome to St. Paul’s Ivy on this very special day as we celebrate our 175th anniversary!  If you are visiting from another congregation, we heartily welcome you and look forward to getting to know you during our picnic this afternoon.

We can promise you good food and warm company, but cannot guarantee any pyrotechnics the like of which we see in our reading from 1st Kings this morning.  This showdown between Elijah and the prophets of Baal is amazing.  We can easily imagine the scene being some kind of new reality show. Instead of The Voice or The Bachelor, we would all gather in our living rooms to watch Prophets:  The Showdown.

Of course Elijah is not just parading around to entertain the Israelites.  The Lord is so angry with Ahab and the Israelites that he has caused a multi year drought.  Ahab is described in the Bible as the most evil of all the kings of the Israelites and the other kings were no peaches, so you can get an idea of what kind of person he was.  His wife, Jezebel, encouraged him to start worshiping the local God, Ba’al, so he set up shrines for that purpose.  Breaking the first of the ten commandments is no joke.  I mean, truly, if you are the King of God’s people at the very least you ought to get down to the third or fourth commandment before your integrity starts to fall apart.

Elijah is assigned the uncomfortable task of being the prophet to try to keep Ahab in line.  Elijah has confronted  Ahab before when warning him about the drought. So this scene is round two in their battle.

Ahab gathers all the people of Israel to see this competition between the Lord and Ba’al. In other parts of 1st Kings Elijah can be afraid, even whiny, but here is all swagger.  Beyonce is known for getting into her Sasha Fierce character before a show and I picture Elijah doing his own version of this here.  At the very least he must give himself a pep talk!   Elijah’s first move is to taunt his audience!  Can you hear his scorn?  “How long will you go on limping between two opinions?”

This is what is so pathetic about the Israelites worship of Ba’al.  They haven’t given up worshiping the Lord, they’ve just added Ba’al into the mix to hedge their bets.  They won’t even commit to fully abandoning the Lord.  Elijah is not impressed.

In a contest, Elijah puts himself up against the 450 prophets of Ba’al.  The prophets of Ba’al make a pile of wood and pray and pray and pray and nothing happens to their pile.  And when nothing happens Elijah trash talks to them!  “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”

Like a true showman, he then calls the crowd to get closer so they can all get a good look. He carefully rebuilds an altar to the Lord that has been torn down.  He digs a trench and puts wood into it.  In the middle of a drought, he then pours water all over his pile of wood.  He doesn’t do this once, he does it three times for good measure! The entire trench is filled with water. There is no way this fire should light.

Elijah offers a an offering to the Lord and prays that the Lord would show himself so that the Israelites could know him.  The Lord sends a fire that consumes the burnt offering, the wood, even the water catches on fire.

The people of Israel, given this absolute visual proof of the power of the Lord fall on their faces and worship him.

If this was on our imaginary reality show, Elijah would drop his mike and walk off stage.  Ba’al has been served.

We may not have any altars to Ba’al set up at St. Paul’s, Ivy, but the story of Elijah and the prophets of Ba’al is a powerful reminder about God’s power.

We have been celebrating the ways God has shown up in the past in this place, but a few weeks ago Eric guided our attention forward.  We now begin dreaming about the next 175 years of worship and service in this place.  Will we move forward in courage and hope, trusting that God is powerful?

Or will we hedge our bets?

A few weeks ago, at our last vestry meeting, your vestry voted to authorize the hiring of a full time director of youth ministries to care for our junior and senior high youth and their families.  The children and youth formation committee read about, talked about, prayed about youth ministry in this place and nervously made this recommendation to the vestry.  I’ll be honest with you; I didn’t think there was any way it would pass!  Most churches I know hedge their bets, not wanting to fully commit to youth ministry.  When the vote came in I would not have been surprised to see the coffee table in Neve hall burst into flames.

Hiring a youth minister is not a way to outsource youth ministry.  With a full time youth minister, we are going to have more events, need more chaperones and drivers, need more Sunday School teachers, need more confirmation mentors.  Will you rally around this vestry and the new youth minister when he or she comes?  Will you come to church more often so your kids can be in Sunday School regularly?  Will you put youth events on your calendar first rather than squeezing them in when they are convenient?  Youth ministry is not just about giving teens a wholesome set of activities.  Youth ministry is about inviting teens to meet the living God, the God who so loves his people; he is willing to put on ridiculous light shows to get their attention.

And for those of you not called to work with youth, are you willing to dream big?  To imagine the other ministries God might be calling us to in this place?  How does God want to show his power and his love at and through St. Paul’s, Ivy?

God shows his power now, not through droughts and fire, but through changed lives.  Are you willing to draw near to God in these upcoming years and have your lives changed?  Are you willing to pray?   Join a bible study or Education for Ministry group?  Encounter God in our outreach program?  Finally go to AA? Are you willing to be changed?

Following God is no joke.  After his amazing, bold display of God’s power, Elijah spent a long time on the run, afraid for his life.  (He also killed the 450 prophets of Ba’al, which might have had something to do with his sudden need to hide in the hills.  Jezebel was not pleased.)  We will have moments in ministry when we feel bold and confident in what God is doing and there will be spectacular failures when we want to hide in the hills.

But there is exhilarating freedom to take risks when we realize that our successes and failures aren’t really about us at all, but are both part of living lives that are open to the possibility of God’s power breaking in and doing something miraculous.

Keep your eyes, your ears, and your heart open.  Be a detective who searches for where the Holy Spirit is at work.  Let us know where you think God is calling us. And 175 years from now, let the members of St. Paul’s, Ivy reminisce about the exciting work God has done in our time.

Amen.

Epiphany 2, Year B, 2012

Listen to the sermon here.

Do you remember Abbot and Costello’s routine “Who’s on First?”  “Who’s on First?” is an epically long comedic bit about a disconnected conversation.  Abbott and Costello are talking about a baseball team, but the players’ names are more than a little unhelpful.  The first baseman’s name is Who.  The second baseman is What.  The center fielder’s name is Because.  Abbot is trying to explain all of this Costello, who keeps misunderstanding him and their conversation unravels in a spectacular way.

I don’t know about you, but I go through phases of my life and faith in which I feel more than a little bit like a character in that sketch.  There are times when I just feel slightly off kilter, when I can’t communicate what I want to, when I can’t hear God’s voice clearly, where everything feels a little disjointed.  I’m in one of those phases of my life now where I’ll hand my husband a cup and say, “Could you give this sippy-clock to the baby?”  And my accidental nonsense words often make much more sense than anything politicians or the media are saying. Are rich people corrupt jerks who are taking advantage of the rest of us?  Are poor people lazy slobs who wouldn’t work if they could? Are our economic policies going to destroy our country?  Where is God in all of this?  Do any of the people claiming to speak for God know his heart?  Is Tim Tebow really the closest thing we have to a prophet?

The writer of First Samuel captures this feeling of disconnect beautifully in the wonderful story of the Prophet Samuel’s call.

Samuel was given to Eli to raise by a woman named Hannah.  Her story is another heartbreaking sermon entirely. Eli was raising Samuel in the priesthood in a time where the entire culture felt a little disconnected from God.  The author of 1st Samuel introduces our story with the line:  “The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”  He paints a picture of a community isolated from their God.  Even Eli’s sons, who are supposed to carry on the line of priesthood, who are supposed to guard and protect the sacred traditions, have taking advantage of women in front of holy religious sites.  They are horrible, profane men.

What happens next is not too far removed from our Abbot and Costello sketch.  Now, it’s comic enough that Samuel keeps thinking the Lord’s voice is Eli’s, but this story gets even more wonderfully disconnected when you realize Sam-u-el in Hebrew means “God has heard” and El-I means “my God”.

When Hebrew speakers read this story they hear this wonderful subtext:

Then the LORD called, “God has heard!  God has heard!” and he said, “Here I am!”   and ran to “my God”, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.”

This confusion is even more pronounced because all the action in the story is happening in the most sacred part of the Temple.  Samuel is literally sleeping at the foot of the Ark of the Covenant, where the Israelites believed God’s presence to rest.  He is so close to God, but even in the holy of holies, God’s word is hard to hear and understand.

But, and it is a big but, remember that our God is not a God of disconnect.  Our God is not a God of chaos.  The very first thing God does in creation is bring order out of chaos.  Even when the line of priests is as terrible as Eli’s sons, God does not abandon his people to chaos.

No, God cuts through all the disconnect and chaos and he speaks directly to the one person capable of hearing him.  Samuel.  Samuel cannot hear God on his own, he needs the help of his mentor who redeems himself mightily by understanding what is happening and encouraging Samuel to listen.

Eli and Samuel might not have expected God to speak.  They may have assumed their disconnected way of life was the way life had to be, but when God did finally reach them, they responded immediately and with great courage.

When Samuel finally told God he was ready to listen, God did not give him an easy word.  He did not say, “Samuel, I just wanted you to know that you’re really special.”  Nope, he told Samuel to tell Eli,

See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.  On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end.  For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.  Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.

In case you’re wondering, that is not good news.  In fact, Samuel stayed in his room the rest of the night.  You can just imagine him putting off communicating THAT message just a few more minutes!  When he finally showed up at Eli’s door, Eli insisted he tell him the truth and to his credit, Eli took the bad news with dignity.

This moment was a critical moment in Israel’s history.  Samuel is the hinge between the era when Israel was governed  by Judges and when Israel was ruled by Kings.  Samuel anointed both King Saul and King David and was the first big prophet of the era in which God used prophets to communicate his word.  A huge, important chain of events began on this one night with God’s whispered word “Samuel.  Samuel”

Samuel did not have time to prepare.  There was no retreat.  There were no prophet classes that he took in elementary school so he’d be ready for the responsibility.  Eli did not have a corporate downsizing expert come in to gently break the news that his family was fired.

In an instant Samuel and Eli went from people who were as disconnected from God as everyone else, to being center stage on the story of God’s relationship with his people.

We are not in Advent any more, but this passage might as well be paired with the Gospel of Mark’s admonition to “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.”

God is just as connected to his people of faith today as he was in Samuel’s day.  We may feel disjointed and confused and disconnected.  We may see signs of God’s leaders up to all sorts of bad behavior.  We may believe the church is dying.  But I am here to tell you that God is still God.  God is still making order out of chaos.  God still speaks, even if the word of the Lord is rare in these days, even if visions are not widespread.

Beware, keep alert, because you might, like Samuel, hear God whispering your name some dark night.  You might roll over and tell your roommate to keep it down, but that will not stop God.

Beware, keep alert, because God may be trying to speak to you through someone else.  Like Eli, it might be your job to help someone interpret what they are hearing.  It might be your job to listen humbly while someone tells you how royally you have wrecked your life.

Beware, keep alert, because God might be starting something new with you.  God might want to use you to break the world’s disconnect.  God might want to use you to remind people that God demands justice and mercy and love.  God might be calling you to use your prophetic voice against all that is broken in this world.

And if you are overwhelmed by the chaos of your own life, turn off the television and the white noise machine.  Put down the newspaper and your iPhone.  Tuck yourself into bed a little early tonight and wait in the dark and the silence.  Listen for the sound of your own name, being called by the God that created you, knows you, and has big plans for your life.

Amen.

Proper 28, Year A, 2008

We have reached the end of Ordinary Time.

Sounds pretty dramatic, huh?  The new church year begins on the first day of Advent, which this year is November 30th.  Next week, we celebrate Christ the King day.  So, for all intents and purposes, today we celebrate the last day of the church lectionary year.  While we’ve spent all of Ordinary time following the Old Testament through the stories of Genesis, Exodus and then briefly Deuteronomy and Joshua, after today, the narrative thread ends and the lectionary hops around a bit throughout Advent, Christmas and Easter.  We’ll pick back up with the Old Testament narrative in the books of I and II Samuel-but not until next June.

When last we left the Israelites, they were being led into Canaan by Joshua and a bloody series of battles ensued.

So, what happened next?  What did the Israelites do when they woke up and realized they were actually in the Promised Land?  How are sort-of faithful people who reluctantly followed God into new places now supposed to govern themselves?  For that matter, what does it mean for us sort-of faithful Christians to be governed?

At first pass, the book of Judges may not seem to address these questions.  Judges is a weird, weird book.  It is filled with stories that seem more appropriate for a comic book than a book in the Bible.  There’s the story of Jael, the woman who drives a tent peg through Sisera’s head.  There’s the story of King Eglon, a fat man who gets stabbed while on the toilet.  And of course, the story of Samson who stupidly reveals the secret to his super strength to his devious girlfriend, Delilah.

Our reading today is about Deborah, one of the more sane characters in Judges.  She is a prophetess and a judge, hence the title of the book.  Judges in those days are not judges in the sense that we think of now.  Judges were charismatic leaders who led tribes throughout Israel.  They could adjudicate disputes, but they also could act as military leaders, as Deborah does.

The important thing to note here is that Israel has divided into tribes.  For awhile, Israel was able to function as one people, descendants of Abraham, but now the twelve tribes of Israel have spread out over the land they have been given and each is governed by their own tribal leader.

So, now the tribes are not only fighting with indigenous peoples, this division leads to a terrible civil war in which thousands of people die and the tribe of Benjamin is nearly wiped out.

That’s right, the tribes of Israel start fighting each other!

The author of the book of Judges fully acknowledges the sorry state of Israel by starting nearly every new story with, “In those days, when there was no king in Israel. . .”, as if the lack of a king was to blame for this terrible behavior.

Now, we’ll get further into this issue of kings when we study I and II Samuel next summer, but the problem is God doesn’t think a king is that great of an idea.  Eventually, after the civil war, the Israelites start clamoring for a king so they can be like other nations around them.  They go to Samuel, the prophet at the time, and demand he give them a king.  His feelings get hurt, but God reassures him that they aren’t rejecting Samuel, they are rejecting God as their king.  God tells Samuel to warn them about the consequences of having a king.  Now, these are not punishments handed down by God, these are just the natural consequences of a government led by kings.  Samuel warns the Israelites,

These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you:  . . . He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.  He will take the best of your fields and vineyard and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers.  He will take one tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers.  He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle, and donkeys and put them to his work.  He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.  And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.

Now, if you go back to our reading today, you’ll see that Deborah was called into action when a local king was threatening the Israelites with nine hundred chariots of iron.  That was incredible, incredible technology.  The Israelites were a nomadic people.  They had weaponry, sure, but chariots made out of iron?  No way.  The sight of such a thing must have been terrifying.  The chariots were the iron-age equivalent of jet planes or tanks.  The Israelites just had no recourse against such technology.  And how were Hazorites able to have 900 iron chariots?  They had a king.

And so Israel wanted a king, too.  Not just because kings were exciting, but because militarily they were unable to compete with other kingdoms.

So, the Israelites ignore Samuel and insist that God give them a king and he does.  And some kings were wonderful and some kings were terrible and the Israelites did just as bad of a job of being faithful to God, their true King, as they always did.

For the first few hundred years of the Christian Church, early Christians broke from this idea that the religious group is also the political group.  After all, they were powerless, even persecuted while the Roman government wielded its incredible power.  However, after Constantine’s conversion, once again, the idea that God chooses kings to rule over his people came into power.

Now, of course, with the world wide spread of Christianity, you have Christians under as many different kinds of governments as you can imagine.  There are Christians under dictatorships, democracies, communist rule, even socialist rule in oppressed countries like. . .Sweden.

The rhetoric in THIS country about whether or not we are a Christian nation has been particularly strong this last year.  There are faithful Christians who believe we risk God’s wrath if we don’t elect conservative Christian leaders to government who will end abortion, post the Ten Commandments everywhere, eliminate sex education and reinstate prayer in school.

But, as it turns out, the founders of our Country were not attempting to make a Christian government.  God is not mentioned once in the Constitution and religion is mentioned only twice.  Once in the sixth article, which reads, “but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”  Secondly, in the First Amendment which reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

And this is good news not only for American atheists, Muslims, Hindus or Jews, but for Christians, too.  When Israel finally elects a king, they do not become more holy and obedient to God.  Instead, they shift their loyalty to the king.  The God we serve does not need to be represented in government in order to govern our hearts.

God does judge societies, but throughout the Bible those societies are judged on how well they worship God, take care of orphans, widows, the poor, immigrants and whether or not they have just policies.  We can do all those things as individuals and as church communities within a secular government. Occasionally we manage to do them through our government as well.  We feed the poor school lunches.  We give widows Social Security payments.  We maintain justice as best as we can.  And of course our government is not perfect at this, but that leaves room for those of us in the church to pick up the slack-whether through ministries we already do-like Disciples’ Kitchen and Bread Fund-but also ministries we haven’t even dreamed about yet.  Who knows, maybe one day God will call Emmanuel to start a ministry for migrant workers or open an orphanage or teach financial management to those who struggle.

My point is, as participants in a democracy, we are called to keep our government full of integrity, justice and ethics, yet we can still fully live out our Christian duty within the confines of a secular government.  Our fealty to God is not hampered by the Constitution.  In fact, our fealty is protected by the Constitution, which many Christians in other nations cannot say about their own countries.

So, in short, American democracy gives us the best of both worlds.  We have more iron chariots than can possibly be good for us, yet total freedom to worship and serve our God.

Thanks be to God.

Proper 25, Year A, 2008

I have a bone to pick with this congregation.

I leave for two short weeks and you go ahead and finish the book of Exodus without me?  What am I, chopped liver?

I guess I can’t expect the lectionary to stop when I take a Sunday off, but I will tell you that I did not expect the lectionary to whip through Exodus so quickly. I think somewhere the Israelites are irritated, too. “We wandered 40 years in the wilderness so you people could cover it for nine measly weeks???  Sheesh.”

We have learned how the Israelites ended up in Egypt.  We have seen Moses’ ascendancy as reluctant leader.  We have quaked with the Israelites as God appears to them on the mountain and gives Moses’ the Ten Commandments.  While I was gone, you learned about the fickleness of the Israelites when the formed to Golden Calf, and then last week you read about the breathtaking story where God reveals himself to Moses in a moment of unrivaled intimacy.

For nine weeks we’ve been journeying with the Israelites as they escape from the Egyptians and flee towards the Promised Land, so the culmination of that story must be when Moses, Aaron and Miriam cross triumphantly into Canaan singing songs of victory, right?

Unfortunately, for them, no.

Today we find ourselves in the book of Deuteronomy at Moses’ very dramatic death scene.  The book of Deuteronomy is framed as a farewell address Moses makes to the Israelites.  The language in Deuteronomy is extremely dramatic and verbose.  If Exodus is the travel journal someone kept, Deuteronomy is Moses’ campaign stump speech.  The final scene in Deuteronomy is the death scene of Moses.  God takes Moses up on a mountain, and has him look over all the land he promised to Abraham and Moses’ other ancestors.  God shows Moses “Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain”  Then God says, “I have let you see it, but I will not let you cross over there.”  Moses dies and is buried on that mountain.

Ouch.

Moses has invested decades of his life in following God and leading the Israelites and he doesn’t even get to triumphantly enter the Promised Land?  That doesn’t seem very fair.

And even more annoying than Moses not getting to go into the Promised Land is that this young upstart, Joshua, is going to get to go.  Joshua was a military scout that Moses used to scope out this land and now military leadership of Israel will pass to THIS fresh faced newbie? Where was Joshua when the bush burned?  Where was Joshua when Moses was confronting Pharaoh?  Where was Joshua when the Red Sea parted?  He probably wasn’t even BORN yet. 

I can’t help but think of this passage when I look at our election.  I think about all the work Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton put into women’s rights.  They spent their adult lives dedicated to educating the country about the importance of giving the vote to women.  Yet both died more than a decade before women got the right to vote. 

I think of Frederick Douglass, Robert Purvis, and James Forten who also used the power of education and rhetoric to persuade Americans that slavery needed to be abolished.  They showed 19th century Americans that those of African descent were just as bright and articulate as those of European descent.  And while Douglass and Purvis were able to vote, Forten died before the 15th Amendment was passed.

As we all know, though, their stories are not tragic.  In fact, these are the American heroes our children study in school.  They are heroic, not tragic, because the work they invested in this country was not meaningless-it had a powerful impact on millions of women and African Americans that would come years later.  Their work made it possible for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin to run for the highest offices in our government.  The hard work of the suffragists and abolitionists laid the foundation for years of progress and change.

And the work Moses did was also heroic-he enabled the Israelites to go from being slaves in Egypt to being a nation of their own right.  When he was told he would not enter the Promised Land he did not whine or fuss.  He just looked out over the view and let go.

We have the chance to be heroic, too! 

Whether we are aware of it or not, we enjoy the hard work of generations before us every Sunday.  Our beautiful organ was purchased after we received a generous gift from the estate of a woman named Patricia Stuart.  We were able to renovate the nursery and pre-K classroom because of generous pledges and their careful stewardship by our vestry.  Molly, who we baptize today [at the 11:00 service] is here because of that investment and the families it attracted. We have a church full of incredible leadership and energy because when you were children someone invested in you and taught you what it meant to be a contributing member of a church.  We are a hospitable church because ten years ago the leaders of Emmanuel made a decision to be a welcoming place for those who moved into the many new developments being built in Crozet.  I am lucky enough to be employed here because of your generosity and your commitment to giving the children of this place a priest focused on their education and development.

Stewardship season is not my favorite time of the church year.  Talking about money automatically makes us all feel a little uncomfortable, especially when many of us have recently lost twenty-five percent of our savings!  But stewardship is a time for us to tap into our inner hero! We choose to invest in this place even if we don’t see immediate benefits.  We choose to invest in this place because when we do, we prepare a way for our children and their children.  We invest in Emmanuel because we know that God will take our investment and transform it into doing His work in our community.  Your investment will help us preach the Gospel, feed the poor, heal the wounded and nourish the faithful for years to come. 

If you’re lucky, you may even live long enough to see some of the results of your investment.  But just remember, even if you’re stuck with Moses on the mountaintop, looking over all that which might have been, God is still at work and will be at work in this place for years to come, thanks to heroes like you.

Proper 19, Year A, 2008

Preaching this passage just doesn’t feel right without Charlton Heston here to don a long wig, robe and staff and say something really commanding. For better or for worse, the images from 1956 movie Ten Commandments burn in our minds as our primary images from Exodus.  To us, the parting of the Red Sea is a really fantastic use of special effects and drama. 

But to the Israelites who followed Moses, and the Egyptians who lost their lives, the parting of the Red Sea is much, much more.

After experiencing horrible plagues via the hand of God, Pharaoh has finally had enough, and allows Moses to the lead the Israelites out of Egypt.

Rather than taking the Israelites through  a direct, coastal route out of Egypt, God commands them to go out by way of the Red Sea, which makes no sense tactically.  But Moses obeys God, and the people follow Moses, so they set out in the dark night and trudge through the swampy wilderness surrounding the sea.

Once again, the Pharaoh’s heart gets hardened and instead of letting the Israelites go, he sends all the chariots at his command after Moses and his followers.  The Pharaoh scoffs at the Israelites, since he thinks they are wandering aimlessly right into a position where they will be trapped between the water and the Egyptians.

But, of course, the Israelites are not really trapped, because Moses stretches out his arm and God sets a strong east wind blowing, and soon the Red Sea parts and dry land appears.  The Israelites scoot across, but when the Egyptians follow they are drowned.

One can argue that this moment, as the Israelites move through the waters, is when Israel is formed as a nation.  So, for the Israelites, the parting of the Red Sea is a birth narrative.  Moses’ birth narrative begins when his basket is placed on the river by his mother.  Israel’s birth narrative begins with waters parting.  Their self-identity shifts as they realize what it means to have a covenant established between God and a people.  The people of Israel begin to realize that this God not only has chosen them, but will guide and protect them from harm, as well.  With their collective backs against a wall, only God’s intervention could have saved them-and that intervention did save them and in a spectacular way they could never forget. 

And all of that is wonderful, but I can’t help wonder-what about all those dead Egyptian soldiers?  The liberation of the Israelites leaves us feeling ambivalent-we’re excited for the Israelites, but uneasy about the slaughter that was involved in freeing them.  For that matter, what about all the dead first-born Egyptian babies after the final plague? Why does God need to show his power through such bloody means?   This may be Israel’s birth narrative, but when a nation is born, enemies are born, too.  From here on out, the nation of Israel will be in conflict with its neighbors as they take turns invading each other’s land and killing each other en masse

The Israelites did not invent this idea of nationhood or warfare, but neither does God call them to transcend their ideas about what it means to be a nation in the sense that any nation with undefined borders has built-in enemies.

Thankfully, thousands of years after this bloodshed, God will give us another birth narrative-this time of a boy born in a stable.  This boy will grow up and explain that God wants to reconcile all people to himself, not just one nation.  Throughout his ministry Jesus will come to realize that his mission is not just for Jewish people, but for all people. 

After his death, his followers, people like Paul and Peter, will have dreams, visions and experiences that lead them to invite people who are not like them-who are not circumcised, who come from a variety of cities and countries, who have different skin tones-to join this new community of believers.  These new believers will even have their own birth narratives as they each go through the waters of Baptism and come out safely on the other side, sins forgiven, members of the Christian church.  These new believers will have new primary identities-not as members of a nation, but members of a church.

And you’d think, that two thousand years after this miraculous event all humans would be able to engage with one another as beloved children of the one true God, but I guess that’s just too good to be true!  We are still wrapped up in our idea of nationhood, our nations are what define us and even within our own nation, we use religion to partition ourselves into even smaller competing factions.

Last week, Matt and I were watching an episode of The Onion News Network.  These three minute clips are parodies of news channels like CNN.  The episode we were watching was about hurricanes.  The fake meteorologist was talking about a fake hurricane that was headed right for the Texas-Mexico border.  However, instead of calling it Mexico,  he just kept saying, “Hopefully this hurricane will hit this landmass here instead of Texas.”  It was a funny commentary about how we don’t pay enough attention to natural disasters in other parts of the world. 

I did not think much about it until the following Monday.  I was at the gym, watching The Today Show and the guest meteorologist was talking about Hurricane Ike, which as we know has devastated the Texas and Louisiana coastlines.  On Monday, however, no one knew exactly where Ike would hit.  The meteorologist indicated that the hurricane was going to hit Cuba at full force.  He said this fact as if it was wonderful, exciting news. He explained that when a hurricane hits land it is like a top spinning on sandpaper-the whole hurricane weakens.  The hurricane hitting Cuba would weaken in for the United States.  He did not mention the hurricane’s devastation of Haiti or seem at all concerned about the people who live in Cuba!  Cuba was treated like a really handy, large sand bar off the coast of Florida. 

Now, whatever political differences we have with Cuba, what does it say about us as a culture if we cannot recognize the humanity of people who face the same threat of natural disaster that we do?  Who have we become?

I must say, I was relieved when I went to the webpage of the Episcopal Life newspaper and found a large amount of coverage of how the hurricane affected Cuba, Haiti, even Hispaniola, which I had to look up on a map!  Even in our world where nations are pitted against nations, the church can provide a bridge between nations. When we become Christians, we become part of a borderless community of those that follow Christ.  When we become Christians we become aligned not only with other believers but with all those whom God wants us to help. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if when a person is baptized, they were also automatically issued a passport?

That may not happen, but we can take our responsibilities as citizens of the world seriously.  We can pay attention to world news.  We can make pen pals or support someone in need in another country.  We can pray for a church that is not our own.  We can go on mission trips and immerse ourselves in another culture.  We can send money for relief aid not only for Houston, but also for Havana.

And together, we can celebrate the fact that the liberation of the Israelites was just the beginning of the liberation God had planned for us, that one day he would send his Son to liberate us not just from political powers that repressed us, but our own sin and limitations.  Whether American, Cuban, Iraqi or Chinese, Christ came for all of us and offers us the same grace and forgiveness.  Thanks be to God.

You can donate toward hurricane relief at Episcopal Relief and Development.

Proper 16, Year A, 2008

Welcome to Exodus!  Where Genesis is about God’s creating the world and then covenanting with a particular people, Exodus is about the liberation of that people after they become enslaved by the Egyptians.  Exodus also follows the Israelites’ subsequent search for the land promised to them by God. In our passage today, we find out how five women who did not even know each other, managed to save the tiny child who would go on to triumphantly lead the Israelites out of Egypt.

About a month ago, I realized that the lectionary was transitioning into Exodus.  I am embarrassed to admit it, but before I began working on the series of sermons about Joseph, I could not, for the life of me, remember how the Israelites ended up slaves in Egypt!  My Old Testament professors are somewhere shaking their heads in disappointment. I am very grateful to the author of Exodus for tying the end of Joseph’s story to the beginning of Moses’ story.  The author reminds us that Joseph’s brothers came to live in Egypt with him.  Over the years, they had children, and their children had children and before you know it, Jacob’s children were not just a family, they were a tribe-the Israelites. Remember, that Jacob’s name was changed to Israel after he wrestled with the angel.

God’s promise to Abraham is coming true-his descendants are multiplying.  There are not yet as many descendants as stars in the sky, but his family is getting there.  But as we’ve seen over and over again in history, when a minority group grows more numerous in any given culture, they become a perceived threat by the powers that be. 

In this case, the man in power is a king, Pharaoh, who has forgotten the important role that Joseph had in saving Egypt from famine. 

At first, this king enslaves the Israelites and forces them into hard physical labor.  But this did not stop the Israelites.  The text reads,

“But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.”

In his translation of the Pentateuch, Robert Alter points out that the imagery here is that of swarming.  The Israelites are industrious, even when oppressed, and they keep having babies, which makes the Egyptians very nervous.  So, the king develops a devious plan.

Pharaoh pulls aside the two head midwives and instructs them to kill all boys born to Israelites. 

If all Israelite boys are killed, then the people would not be able to reproduce, but the king could still have Israelite girls and women to do his bidding, at least for a generation. 

But what the king does not count for is the brilliance, nurturing spirit and outright trickery of women empowered to do the work of God.

The first women that rallied to save Moses did not even know Moses existed.  The two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, smile and nod before the king, agree to kill the male babies, and then leave his office and continue to do their job as they have always done it. We are taught in Sunday School to always tell the truth, but here Shiphrah and Puah lie heroically and gloriously in order to save the Israelite children.  When the king asks why they have not done as he instructed them, they completely play to his ignorance and stereotypes about the Hebrew women and tell him that they are like animals and don’t even need midwives when they give birth. 

These midwives remind us that morality is complicated.  Most of the time it is wrong to lie, but if you’ve got Anne Frank in your attic, or Rwandan refugees in your hotel, or escaped slaves in your basement, suddenly it becomes your moral duty to lie your head off. 

The midwives’ trickery keeps the Israelite children safe for a time, but the Pharaoh will not be stopped.  He invites the people of Egypt to participate in genocide-to kill every Hebrew boy they see.  We have seen enough genocide in our lifetime:  in Sudan, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia and for some of you in Russia and Europe to have some sense of how terrifying this must have been. 

The narrative lens focuses now and we go from fearing for all the Israelite babies to fearing for a particular baby, Moses, born of the tribe of Levi. 

Luckily, this is a boy with a very courageous mother and a very creative sister.  Mama Moses was able to nurse her baby for three months and keep him hidden, but she needed to do something drastic before Moses began to roll over or heaven forbid, crawl!  There is no hiding a crawling baby.  There is no one she can give him to where he will be safe, but there was a small chance he could be found by someone, someone who did not know his ethnic background, and that they would take him in and raise him safely.

So, Mama Moses puts her baby in a basket, waterproofs the basket, says her prayers and sends him on his way.  His sister, Miriam, has a little less trust in the universe and keeps her eye on her baby brother.  She follows him along the riverbank until he is rescued by who else but Pharaoh’s daughter!  Pharaoh’s daughter is no fool.  She immediately identifies the baby as a little Hebrew refugee, but that does not stop her heart from going out to him. 

If Pharaoh was not such a murderous dictator, I could almost feel sorry for him.  He is the man with the most power for hundreds of miles around, and yet, lowly women, Hebrew women, even his own daughter are aligned against him all to preserve the life of a child. 

In a wonderful twist, Miriam thinks quickly, and persuades Pharaoh’s daughter to let her find a wet nurse for the baby.  Miriam fetches her mother and so Moses’ mother gets to see her child grow, even if he is unaware of her identity.  Again, lies abound, but they abound in such a way that Moses grows up safely, and not only safely but with a deep knowledge of how the powerful Pharaoh thinks and works-perfect for a man who will one day need to confront him.

The five women who help Moses are acting out of human kindness and maternal drive to save one kid.  But in saving one kid, they are saving an entire nation!  By defying authority and risking their own safety, and doing what they think is right, they are setting in motion events that will liberate the Israelites from their bondage and in turn creating a story that will give hope to every generation that has been in bondage, particularly American slaves. 

Women-and men-are still in the business of rescuing children.  Last year, on an episode of, Oprah, I heard about the story of Lysa and Art TerKeurst.  Lisa and Art are the parents of three young girls.  One day Lysa went with the girls to hear a choir of Liberian boys sing.  After the performance, the audience learned that 12 of the 14 boys were orphaned and homeless after the recent war in their country.  They also learned that there were hundreds of more children in the same situation in their home country.  After the concert, Lysa had a long conversation with the boys and then called her husband.  She says,

“I had to get in the car and call him on the cell phone and say something like, ‘Hi, honey. Do we need milk? And by the way, there are two teenage boys from the other side of the world now calling me Mom.'”

Sure enough, the TerKeurst family ended up adopting two of the boys, but that is not where the story ends.  The TerKeursts live in North Carolina, and Lysa’s four best girlfriends were totally appalled by what seemed to be a spontaneous decision.  After all, who in their right mind suddenly opens their homes to teenagers from an entirely different culture?  Lysa invited her friends to a concert by the boys, and each one of her friends was so moved they each made the decision to adopt as well.

Yes, all five families now had taken in Liberian children.

And still, the story is not over.  After all was said and done FOURTEEN families in this North Carolina community took in homeless Liberian children.  They reached past their comfortable lifestyles, prejudices, and fear and opened their lives to the lives of others.

We don’t know what long term effect these adoptions may have on the boys, but we do know these families have given the children safety, security, education, love:  all the tools they will need to make a difference in the world. 

And they remind us to keep our eyes open, because we never know when we’ll have the same opportunity.

 


http://www.oprah.com/slideshow/oprahshow/oprahshow1_ss_20070129/6