Proper 15, Year A, 2008

Here we are.  We have arrived at the end of Genesis.  Well, not the real end of Genesis, but we have gone as far as the lectionary is going to take us. I encourage you to go back and re-read Genesis in its entirety.  The lectionary does not cover every story and has a particular habit of editing out sexy stories.  The stories that are not covered by the lectionary are the juiciest, most interesting stories in the book!

And of course, a lot happens in Joseph’s life between last week’s reading-when he is thrown into a ditch-and this week’s reading.

When we last encountered Joseph, he was a victim of terrible violence by his brothers.  We might come to today’s text expecting him to still be in that victim role, but instead he is an incredibly powerful figure, the right hand man of the Pharaoh.  How did he get here?

Joseph’s story takes up several chapters in Genesis, but the nutshell is this:  Joseph gets sold to a man named Potiphar in Egypt, earns his respect and ends up running his household.  Potiphar’s wife keeps coming on to Joseph, which completely flusters him.  Eventually she gets so frustrated that she accuses Joseph of rape even though he has always refused her advances and he is thrown into jail.  However, his integrity is so strong that the warden of the jail ends up using Joseph to manage the prison.  Two members of the Pharaoh’s court are thrown into jail and Joseph befriends them.  They each have weird dreams, which Joseph interprets correctly.  One of them gets killed, the other goes back to work for the Pharaoh.  The Pharaoh has a weird dream.  The former prisoner recommends Joseph and so Joseph is invited to meet with Pharaoh. 

When Joseph and the Pharaoh meet, Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream to mean that Egypt will experience seven years of plenty and seven years of famine.  He recommends to Pharaoh that a person be appointed to start saving food during the time of excess so it could be used during the famine.   Pharaoh appoints Joseph to be that manager.

Joseph, a foreigner, who was thrown into a pit, has ascended to the highest levels of the Egyptian government.  Time and time again, he has shown wisdom, integrity and competence so profound that no matter his position in life, those in power around him rely on his solid advice and management.  Joseph, who could easily live his life with a victim’s mentality, instead makes the best of every situation he is given and is rewarded at every turn.

Now, Joseph is no saint.  When his brothers come from Canaan hoping to buy food from the Egyptians, he does not reveal his identity right away.  In fact, he sends them all the way back to Canaan to pick up Benjamin, his full-brother.  He continues to toy with them for a while, even hiding a silver goblet in their bags and accusing them of stealing it, but eventually he reveals his identity and forgives his brothers.

Joseph is able to transcend a self-identity of victimhood because he sees God’s hand at work in the circumstances of his life.  In our passage today, Joseph tells his brothers,

I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 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. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God.

Joseph is able to move past what his brothers have done to him because he has seen God’s work in his life.

And where Joseph is a victim from Canaan who trusts implicitly in God, in our Gospel reading today we have a victim from Canaan who teaches God something new!

The Canaanite woman in Matthew’s gospel is an outsider, just like Joseph was an outsider.  She has three strikes against her:  she is poor, she is not Jewish, and she is a woman.  But her outsider status is not going to stop her. The Canaanite woman has a daughter tormented by a demon.  While at first, the Canaanite woman adopts the posture of a victim-she pleads and begs and asks for mercy when Jesus dismisses her because she is not Jewish– she rises to the occasion in a spectacular way.  Joseph transcended his victimhood by his great integrity.  The Canaanite woman transcends her victimhood by standing up to Jesus and expanding his vision. 

Up until this point, Jesus thinks he is being sent to the people with whom God has already made a covenant-the Hebrew or Jewish people.  But then he encounters this woman who won’t take no for an answer. 

This woman’s love for her child, and complete belief in Jesus’ ability to help her, helps Jesus understand that his mission on this earth was not just to reach out to the community with whom God had already covenanted, but also reach out to all people.

When Joseph and the Canaanite woman were able to look beyond their own hurt and face their circumstances with honesty and courage, they ended up not only helping themselves, but helping entire nations of people!  While circumstances in their lives would have easily allowed them to define themselves as victims-they instead choose to turn the tables and use their circumstances for good.

Last Saturday, I had the pleasure of participating in the building of Region XV’s Habitat for Humanity house.  Habitat creates a partnership between their staff, volunteers, and future owners of their homes to build affordable homes for people with low incomes.  The person who is going to live in the home does 200 hours of physical labor on the home, as well as paying a down payment and affordable mortgage payments.

As you can imagine, I felt more than a little awkward standing on the open second story of a home trying to help frame a wall.  Everyone around me seemed really strong and competent and I felt silly as construction phrases I did not understand flew between the different volunteers.  I noticed one other woman who looked as out of place as I did and began a conversation with her.  She was a very elegant woman in her forties or fifties with short dark hair, a stylish top and a quiet manner.  Through conversation, I learned that she was going to be the owner of one of one of the homes on which we were working.  I asked about her background and she told me calmly that she was a refugee from Afghanistan.  She had been a schoolteacher and her husband had been a banker and when the Taliban took over, her husband, as an agent of the government, was murdered.  She took her three children and fled to Pakistan and then moved to the United States.  Her English is incredibly strong  for someone who has only lived her a few years, but it is not good enough for her to teach, so she is a housekeeper at UVA.

What struck me most was how calmly she recounted her tale.  I have heard more histrionics from fellow seminarians who did not get into a class they had hoped to take.  Heck, I’ve heard more whining from myself when I’ve broken a wine glass!

I haven’t been able to get this woman out of my mind and so, as I was thinking about Joseph and the Canaanite woman, I’ve been thinking about her, as well.

I think, as a culture, we are very, very pampered.  Yes, we still get hurt.  We can experience great tragedy.  We can be victimized.  But, on the whole our lives are so much safer and healthier than anywhere else on the planet.  And yet, we love putting ourselves in the role of victim.  We love blaming a lack of success on a bad boss, or bad parents, or a bad high school experience.  When a politician gets outed for having a scandalous affair, they paint themselves as victims of the press. There are entire morning television shows that are based on people screaming at each other about who has victimized whom the most.

And here we have a man thrown into a pit, a woman begging for her child’s life, and a woman whose life was shattered and they have nary a whine between them. 

What do they know that we don’t?  Maybe what they know is that we are more than what happens to us. We are persons who are made in the image of God and redeemed by the sacrifice of God himself.  We are persons who have enormous power-the power of the Holy Spirit, the power of prayer, the power of community.  That power is not just for our own use, but is to better the world around us-whether saving a community from famine; opening God’s grace to gentiles; or saving our children from a dangerous future.

We’ve seen that power in action as we’ve read about the patriarchs and matriarchs of Genesis and we’ll continue to see that power work as we move to the book of Exodus, which traces what happens to the Jewish people once they settle in Egypt.  


Proper 14, Year A, 2008

As we have been studying the family of Abraham over the last few months, you might have noticed a few patterns emerge.

All three generations of women struggled with barrenness and then were blessed with children.

All three patriarchs go on some kind of journey.

And, as we see in our passage today, every generation had serious problems with sibling rivalry.

Patterns like these are important to notice-both in Abraham’s family and in our own.

There is a movement within family counseling called Family Systems Theory. This theory argues that the behavior of people is just as motivated by their social systems-family, friends, work-as by any psychological problem and that the best way to treat a person’s problem is to examine the system in which they live.  Often a problem that presents itself is actually a symptom of a larger problem in the family system itself.  By examining patterns in your immediate family, and even patterns that presented themselves two, three, four generations back, a person can gain enormous insight into their current behavior and problems.

The identified patient is the person in a family about whom other family members are worried. Say, for example a teenager has become withdrawn and started drinking to excess.  The teenager would be the identified patient.  A family systems therapist would involve the entire family in counseling and it may very well turn out that the problem originates with parents who are fighting a lot and who, themselves, turn to alcohol as a release. Without treating the whole system, the problem would not be solved.  Occasionally, this identified patient can also become the family’s scapegoat.  Rather than seeing a family member’s behavior as a call to examine the system, the family blames the individual for all the family’s problems.

Since we are introduced to three generations of the Abrahamic family, they are a wonderful laboratory for us to explore family systems theory.

In today’s passage Joseph is definitely the scapegoat.

When we meet Joseph in this passage he is seventeen years old.  Remember Joseph is the 11th out of 12 brothers-and the firstborn of Rachel’s two children.  The text reveals that Joseph is Jacob’s favorite son and that his brothers resent this about him.

Our lectionary conveniently leaves out the part of the story where Joseph really gets under his brothers’ skin.  Joseph has a series of two dreams.  Now, according to the text these are not dreams or a vision from God, just dreams.  After the first dream, he rushes out to the field, where his brothers are all working their tails off and says something that sounds roughly like this:

“Hey!  Hey you guys!  Guess what?  Wow, are you guys already up?  Well, I’ve just been sleeping in a little and I had the craziest dream!  I dreamt we were binding sheaves of wheat in the field and then YOUR sheaves of wheat started bending down to MY sheaves of wheat!  Isn’t that funny!”  Our identified patient has a serious case of enormous-ego-itis.

The brothers did not care for the image of deference in Joseph’s dream, and so did not appreciate him recounting another dream days later.  This time the conversation went something like this:  “Hey!  Guess what?  I had another crazy dream!  This time the sun and the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me?  How about that?”

Oh, Joseph is pushing buttons right and left.  Even his father, Jacob, gets annoyed and rebukes him.

A little while later, Jacob sends Joseph out to the field to check on the brothers who are tending the sheep  (Remember Rachel’s nice sheep?)  Now, the brothers are working hard and dressed appropriately.  Joseph, on the other hand, is dressed to the nines, wearing the ornamented tunic his father has given him.  This tunic is the visual symbol of how much more Jacob values Joseph than the other children.  Imagine if your father gave your sibling a new BMW for college graduation, when you were given a set of suitcases.  Joseph’s cloak makes his brothers feel terrible.   Joseph’s cloak makes his brothers feel angry.  Joseph’s cloak makes his brothers feel murderous.

And so, the brothers decide to rid themselves of this family scapegoat that, they think, has caused so many problems for them.  Reuben, the responsible firstborn, convinces his brothers to throw Joseph, alive, into a pit, rather than killing him.  And then, all of a sudden a group of Ishmaelites arrive and the brothers (or a group of Midianites–the editing is funny here) sell Joseph to them. 

Now, who are the Ishmaelites? 

The Ishmaelites are the descendents of Ishmael, who was exiled with his mother Hagar by Sarah, Joseph’s great-grandmother.  So, Joseph is being exiled and sold to the family that was exiled from Joseph’s family three generations previously.  See what I mean about family patterns being significant?  The connections boggle the mind!

We have found another family pattern-that of exile.  Ishmael and his mother are exiled, Jacob is sort of exiled and now Joseph is exiled. 

This is a family that cannot deal with dissent and conflict in a healthy way. Instead of fighting matters face to face, this is a family that sends away the scapegoat, the “problem”. If Reuben had been even more concerned about what was going on in his family, and if they lived 4000 years later than they did, instead of compromising on selling his brother, he might have invited everyone to sit down with a family systems trained therapist and have the family look together at this pattern of exile.  They might have gone out and interviewed members of  Esau’s family and found out what their experiences of conflict had been like.  They might have asked their dad how it felt to have to run away after stealing Esau’s birthright.  They might have asked the living mothers-Leah and the two maids-what it was like to fight for the attentions of Jacob and ask them why Jacob seemed to favor Rachel so much.

And in the midst of those conversations, they might have come to understand all the factors that shaped their father’s choices and favoritism.  They might have learned how Jacob’s betrayal of his brother haunted him every day until he and Esau reconciled.  They might have realized that their problems were not Joseph’s fault, but a result of a long and complicated family history.  They might have even included Joseph in on the conversation and hoped that the knowledge of his family’s history might humble him a bit.

In our own lives, if we want to understand why we keep dating the same kind of person, or why our parents never seemed to understand us, or why our little brother just can’t hold down a job, doing some investigative work with our family of origin may be extremely helpful.

All that family and emotional work is great for us, but good family connection and understanding just ruins a narrative!  Where would the Sopranos have been if Tony had just sat down with his mother and worked out all their issues?  What fun would Batman be if Bruce Wayne came to peace with his father’s murder?  The television show Brothers and Sisters would not exist if it weren’t for generations of bad behavior and miscommunication!

And, of course, if Joseph had not been exiled, Joseph never would have moved to Egypt and had his great adventure.  And next week we’ll see that even without a single hour of family therapy, Joseph and his brothers still managed to have a spectacular reconciliation.

Proper 12, Year A, 2008

Today, we get to Jacob’s love story, which ends up being a story about Esau! Remember that Jacob’s mother has sent him to her homeland to meet her brother’s daughters and to stay clear of Esau, the brother that Jacob has betrayed.  Well, Jacob can run from Esau, but he cannot hide from conflict and strife.  As Jacob finds out when he meets his uncle, Jacob does not have the lock on trickery in his family! 

Before our passage today, Jacob reaches the well of the town. (Remember we’ve already learned that the well is the place to meet the ladies in the Bible.)  He sees Rachel the shepherdess from afar.  The scripture reads, “And it happened when Jacob saw Rachel daughter of Laban his mother’s brother and the sheep of Laban his mother’s brother that he stepped forward. . .”  Jacob’s story is not entirely romantic.  Yes, he seems enamored of Rachel, but he is just as enamored of the sheep-which represent Laban’s wealth.  Marrying Rachel will make Jacob’s mother happy and will make him a wealthy man.

But Jacob has one serious problem.  Rachel, like Jacob, is a second born.  Jacob has been subverting “the way things ought to be” for years now.  He has stolen birthrights and blessings and he has run away from the consequences.  Yet, here we find Jacob again, eager to bring his subversive behavior to his extended family.  Well, unfortunately for him, Laban has a lot more in common with Rebekah than Isaac.  Laban is sharp as a tack and ruthless to boot.

Jacob offers to work seven years to earn the right to marry Rachel.  And after all that time when the wedding day finally comes, Jacob discovers he’s been had.  Laban has substituted his weak-eyed oldest daughter, Leah, for his beautiful second born Rachel.  Jacob still gets the sheep, but he doesn’t get the girl.

Jacob has finally been out-trickstered.  For seven years he has worked his tail off, and the whole time Laban coolly watched him, knowing marrying Rachel was not in the stars for Jacob.  But Jacob is persistent, and he loves Rachel and commits to working seven more years to earn her hand in marriage.

Can you imagine what family dinners were like with this group?  Poor Leah gets stuck married to someone who does not love her.  Rachel and Jacob long for each other but can’t do anything to change their situation.  And you know Laban is the kind of father-in-law who presides over dinner looking entirely amused by the whole situation.  Their households must have been filled with tension.  In fact, Jacob has not been able to relax since his betrayal of Esau.  Nothing works smoothly from that moment on.

Even after Jacob marries Rachel, their domestic life does not settle down into harmonic bliss.  How could it? Two sisters are suddenly pitted against one another for the affection of one man and the power of being the favored wife.  (I love my sister, but I’m not about to let her share Matt with me.) The sisters go through years of painful reproductive tensions as they try to out-breed each other so that they can “win” power over the other.  Like Jacob’s grandmother Sarah, they even throw their maids at Jacob until between the two wives and two maids, the family has twelve sons and at least one daughter between them. 

Finally the tension of still living with Laban becomes too much and after Joseph, the 11th of the 12 boys is born, Jacob gathers his flocks, wives, and children and puts some space between himself and Laban.  Naturally however, in that parting was a bit of trickery on both sides and so the parting is very filled with tension.  At one point, when Jacob hears that Laban is coming after him, he tells his wives they have the option of going back to their father’s land.  Finally, FINALLY, their complicated family bands together as the women speak in unison and say

Do we still have any share in the inheritance of our father’s house?  Why, we have been counted by him as strangers, for he has sold us, and he has wholly consumed our money.  For whatever wealth God has reclaimed from our father is ours and our children’s and so, whatever God has said to you, do.

For the first time, we get to hear what Rachel and Leah think about this whole situation.  The only dialogue we’ve heard from them is related to their competition to have children.  Now, they are given the opportunity to have a voice and to finally express their frustration and their anger at having been sold to Jacob by Laban. 

This family is tired.  They are tired of the conflict between Jacob and Laban.  They are tired of the conflict between Rachel and Leah.  They are tired of the conflict between each of the wives and Jacob. 

The three band together and begin. . .you guessed it. . .a journey.  And we know enough about Genesis now to know that if a character is on a journey, we ought to pay attention because something big is going to happen. 

Remember, that all the years of conflict, all the years of discontent and emotional discomfort began with Jacob’s betrayal of Esau.  So, it makes sense that they should end with Esau, too.  And while the editors of the lectionary don’t include Jacob and Esau’s final confrontation, I think the whole arc of Jacob’s story is leading us to that climactic event.

While Jacob, Rachel, Leah and their family are on the journey, Jacob gets word that Esau is in the neighborhood.  Not only that, but that Esau has 400 men with him. 

To say that this makes Jacob nervous is a giant understatement.  Esau owed Jacob some serious payback and Jacob is fully aware of the risk of meeting with his brother.  So because Jacob is very, very brave he sends the following people in front of him:  the slavegirls and their children, then Leah and her children, then Rachel and Joseph.  Only then does Jacob present himself to his brother.  I’m not sure what Jacob is doing here.  Maybe he’s trying to say, “Look at all these cute little children I support!  If you kill me they will suffer.  You don’t want little children to suffer, do you?”  When Jacob and Esau finally meet face-to-face, Jacob bows down before him seven times. 

Years of tension and fear coalesce into this moment, but Esau does not take his revenge.  Instead, Esau throws his arms around his brother and weeps.

All of Jacob’s story has been leading to this moment and Jacob is met with such grace and forgiveness that he no longer has to strive and struggle.  In fact, in many ways the reconciliation is the end of Jacob’s story. We hear more about him, yes, particularly when Rachel dies in childbirth shortly after the reconciliation, but the focus of the narrative shifts to Joseph, Rachel’s first son.  The reconciliation is so powerful that Jacob can literally stop-stop manipulating, stop tricking, stop running-and can enter his old age with some dignity.

In our prayer book, one of the possible offertory sentences, based on verses in the fifth chapter of Matthew reads, “If you are offering your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come offer your gift.”

We are invited to join Jacob and Esau in the work of forgiveness and reconciliation. We are asked not to receive Eucharist when we are harboring resentment or a grudge or are in the middle of a feud.  And that is not to punish us, but to give us a motivation to reconcile.  Because when we are not reconciled with someone we love, nothing feels right.  And let me say that I am not naïve, and I fully understand that there are times when a violation is so deep, or someone is so entrenched in patterns of bad behavior that reconciliation is not even an option. However, at the very least, for everyday grudges and misunderstandings and trickery, we are called to seek reconciliation. 

Forgiveness and reconciliation is extremely difficult work, but it is the exact work Christians are called to do.  We are uniquely positioned to forgive and seek forgiveness because we have each experienced the profound love, grace and forgiveness of Christ.  Like Jacob, we each know what it means to be fully accepted by God, warts and all.  We know what it means to be offered a second chance, to have our slates wiped clean.  Thus, we are able to take a deep breath, swallow our pride and offer that chance to others.

And if you have not experienced that grace of God; if you have not had a moment of awareness of Christ’s forgiveness, know that God waits for you.  He waits to show you love so deep and wide that it can forgive any harm you have caused another and make you feel so accepted and whole that you could even forgive those who have hurt you. After all, our God is a God who could love Jacob.  He’ll definitely love you. 

Proper 11, Year A, 2008

Preaching on Genesis this summer feels a little bit like preaching about a serial soap opera. 

Last time we met Jacob, he had just stolen his brother’s blessing.  Will Esau kill him or will Jacob get away?

However, passages like this week’s remind us that Genesis is not just about family drama-the Book of Genesis is about God’s utter commitment to developing a relationship with the human family.

Before we get to Jacob’s life changing encounter, though, let’s recap where we are. 

Last week we talked about how Jacob was a manipulative, greedy creep who stole both his brother’s birthright and his father’s blessing.  The implications of this were that the second-born Jacob usurped the role properly belonging to his older brother Esau.  Esau was not happy about any of this, and threatened to kill Jacob. 

What we did not talk about last week was the fact that in the midst of all of this, Esau got married to a Hittite woman.  The Hittites were the local girls.  The families of Rebekah and Isaac were miles away and apparently Rebekeah did not care for these local girls too much! The last verse of Chapter 27 reads, “And Rebekah said to Isaac, ‘I loathe my life because of these Hittite women!  If Jacob takes a wife from Hittite women like these, from the native girls, what good to me is life?'”.

Hee!  Now, I know none of YOU feel that way about your daughters-in-law, but I’ve heard that this feeling may not be isolated to the fine women of Paddan-Aram, like Rebekah.

Rebekah’s irritation is relevant to us today, because instead of just telling Jacob to run to the  hills to escape Esau, Rebekah tells him to run for the hills in the direction of Paddan-Aram so that he can go to Laban’s house and meet a nice girl.  Rebekah once again exerts her power over the men in her life to simultaneously save her son’s life and get a daughter-in-law she can live with.  I love the character of Rebekah, but I don’t think I’d want to serve on a committee with her!  She is a tough cookie.

So, Jacob takes off in the general direction of his uncle’s house.  He travels all alone, which is unusual for Genesis, where people usually travel in family groups or at least have some servants with them.    He is isolated, maybe lonely, hopefully feeling some measure of remorse.  He is journeying to an unknown future and has put the relationship with his family in jeopardy.  Jacob, for all his bravado and manipulations of the past, is probably feeling as vulnerable as he has ever felt in his life. 

He is alone, the sky is growing dark, so he pulls up a stone for a pillow and goes to sleep.  Remember, Jacob is not a spiritual guy.  We have no previous indication that Jacob was interested in God at all.  Though Abraham and Isaac were both faithful in their way, Jacob seems pretty dis-interested in following God. 

Jacob may not be interested in God, but God is very interested in Jacob.

After Jacob falls asleep on his hard pillow, he has a dream.  This dream is trippy.  In the dream, he sees a big ladder that stretches all the way to the heavens.  Angels are floating or walking up and down this ladder and then, before Jacob has time to absorb these wild images, God speaks.  God identifies himself as the God of Jacob’s father and grandfather.  God then goes on to repeat the promises he has made to Abraham to Jacob:  Jacob will be the father of a great people who will stretch all over the earth.  Jacob will own land.  The families of the world will be blessed through Jacob’s family.  And finally, God will not leave Jacob until his promise is complete.

Jacob is not the only person over the course of time to whom God has presented himself through dreams and visions.  God interjecting himself into our subconscious when we least expect it is one of the ways he communicates to us. 

The great theologian Augustine tells of his conversion experience in his great book of Confessions.  Augustine was a lot like Jacob, actually.  He was famously self-absorbed, and got into a lot of “romantic” trouble to boot.  God intervened in his life in the following way:

“Such things I said, weeping in the most bitter sorrow of my heart.  And suddenly I hear a voice from some nearby house, a boy’s voice or a girl’s voice, I do not know:  but it was a sort of sing-song, repeated again and again, “Take and read, take and read.”  I ceased weeping and immediately began to search my mind most carefully as to whether children were accustomed to chant these words in any kind of game and I could not remember that I had ever heard any such thing.  Damming back the flood of my tears I arose, interpreting the incident as quite certainly a divine command to open my book of Scripture and read the passage at which I should open. . . .So I was moved to return to the place where Alypius was sitting, for I had put down the Apostles book there when I arose.  I snatched it up, opened it and in silence read the passage upon which my eyes first fell:  Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities, not in contention and envy, but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ and make not provision for the flesh in its concupisecenses.  I had no wish to read further and no need.  For in that instant, with the very ending of the sentence, it was as though a light of utter confidence shone in all my heart, and all the darkness of uncertainty vanished away.”*

And if you think these kind of experiences are relegated to great theologians of the 400 hundreds, think again.  Anne LaMott, a hilarious and insightful writer struggled with alcohol, drugs and relationships throughout her early adulthood.  One day, in the midst of a very dark time, she had the following experience:

“After awhile, as I lay there, I became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner, and I just assumed it was my father, whose presence I had felt over the years when I was frightened and alone.  The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there-of course, there wasn’t.  But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus.  I felt him as surely as I feel my dog lying nearby as I write this. 

And I was appalled.  I thought about my life and my brilliant hilarious progressive friends, I thought about what everyone would think of me if I became a Christian, and it seemed an utterly impossible thing that simply could not be allowed to happen.  I turned to the wall and said out loud, “I would rather die.”

I just felt him sitting there on his haunches in the corner of my sleeping loft, watching me with patience and love, and I squinched my eyes shut, but that didn’t help because that ‘s not what I was seeing him with. 

Finally, I fell asleep, and in the morning, he was gone.”**

Jacob, Augustine, Anne LaMott:  all three had memorable, personal, transformative experiences with the living God.  Each of them experience God’s personal, intimate desire to be in relationship with them and to heal them. All three of them go on to become faithful followers of God, who do their best to live in such a way that is pleasing to God. 

What is wonderful, is that none of them lose their identity and character when they begin following God:  Anne LaMott continues to be creative and irreverent, Augustine continued to be passionate and articulate.  And Jacob. . .well, Jacob continued to be a bit of a pain in the neck.  For whatever reason, our lectionary cuts our reading off a few verses before it actually ends.  After Jacob has this profound encounter with the God of his fathers, he gets all excited and marks the spot, but then he goes on to say:

“If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, 21 so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God, 22 and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you.”

 Jacob cracks me up.  He has a profound, personal encounter with God and then tries to bargain with God!  Instead of just thanking God  and moving on, Jacob tells God that if God gives him food, and clothes and safe travels then the monument he builds will be God’s house and then Jacob will give a tenth of all he has to God.

I don’t know if God has a face, but I would have loved to see God’s face when Jacob came back with a counter-offer to God’s promise!  I picture God rolling his eyes, shrugging his shoulders and shaking his head a little, “These humans. . .”

Lucky for Jacob, God seems to take Jacob’s response with a grain of salt and continues to show faithfulness to Jacob and Jacob’s descendents.  God reminds us, through Jacob, and Augustine and Anne that his faithfulness to us is not our behavior, our attitudes, our nice-ness.  God pursues us and wants us for his own no matter how disordered our lives are.  He chases after us, and reaches out for us and reveals himself to us even when we are least expecting it and not at all prepared.

The idea that we could be adequately prepared to meet the living God is pure arrogance.  Thank goodness He comes when we’re not ready, or we might never encounter him at all!


*Augustine, Confessions, Hacket Publishing Company:  Indianapolis/Cambridge, 1993, p. 146.

** Lamott, Anne, Traveling Mercies, Anchor Books:  New York, 1999, pp. 49-50.

Proper 10, Year A, 2008

Ah, siblings.  Those members of our family that we do not choose and yet with whom as children we are forced to co-habitate.  Siblings can be our best friends or can undermine us our whole lives.  They can support us in times of trouble or disappear when the going gets tough.  Siblings can compliment us one moment and take the wind out of our sails the next.  No one knows us like a sibling.  No one else has shared our family stories, and yet an adult sibling can feel like a stranger.  But one thing is sure, very few tales of siblings tops the epic battle of Jacob and Esau.

Even before they were born, Jacob and Esau were doomed to be opposed to one another. Our reading today picks up at the 19th verse of the chapter, but the very first verse reads like this:

Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. 2 She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah. 3 Jokshan was the father of Sheba and Dedan. The sons of Dedan were Asshurim, Letushim, and Leummim. 4 The sons of Midian were Ephah, Epher, Hanoch, Abida, and Eldaah. All these were the children of Keturah. 5 Abraham gave all he had to Isaac.

Yes, you heard that right, Abraham disinherited all his children but Isaac.  They had not betrayed him.  They had not done anything wrong.  And yet, perhaps out of an understanding of God’s promise, perhaps out of guilt for what happened on Mt. Moriah, Abraham leaves all that he has to Isaac.  Already, one generation before Jacob and Esau seeds of sibling dissension are sown. 

To further complicate their relationship, when Rebekah is pregnant with the twins, she receives a vision that tells her that instead of the elder son being the big shot, as was the tradition of the times, the younger son was going to usurp the elder’s role. 

And thus, the environment that would lead to trickery and stupidity and unfairness was born.  In my family, fairness was incredibly important, so I find this story very stressful!

I grew up with one sister, Marianne, whom many of you have met.  She is three and a half years younger than I am, and if we had one tenet growing up it was the importance of being fair.

My parents were very clear that they loved us equally.  If I was their favorite twelve year old, then she was their favorite eight year old.  If I got a portable stereo for my tenth birthday, she got a portable stereo for her tenth birthday.  My sister and I took this to heart.  Every year, the Easter Bunny visited us and left a trail of jelly beans from our beds to our Easter baskets.  Now, our beds were different distances from the baskets, and so we ended up with uneven numbers of jelly beans.  To solve this terrible crisis, we would pool our jelly beans, divide them by color, distribute them equally between us by those colors, and give any leftover flavors and all the licorice jelly beans, to our parents.

You might say our interest in fairness was even a bit compulsive.

And while Marianne would occasionally bribe me with small amounts of cash to make her bed for her, neither of us would have thought to deceive the other of any family rights or inheritances.  We would have thought it mean. . .even un-Christian.

Yet here we are, with one of the seminal families of the Bible.  Here we are with Jacob, who will become father to the twelve tribes of Israel.  And it turns out that Jacob is a sneaky, advantage-taking, conniving meanie-pants.  Jacob is not fair.

Jacob did have a little help getting this way.  Instead of his parents banding together, they each chose a favorite child. It is almost as if they did not have any copies of Dr. Spock lying around from which to learn! Isaac chooses Esau, the hunter as his favorite..  Rebekeh chooses Jacob, the gardener.  Maybe Jacob is not manly enough for his dad.  Maybe his dad just does not know how to love two sons equally since he never had it modeled for him.  Whatever the case, the boys grow up in opposition to each other.

And then one fateful day, Esau is reallllllly hungry.  Did Jacob know his brother was always starving after a hunt?  Was it just happenstance that Jacob was cooking this flavorful red lentil stew when Esau returned from the field?  We’ll never know.  What we do know is that Esau is willing to sacrifice his birthright for a hearty meal.  He might not be the brightest bulb in the drawer.  The words used to describe the way Esau eats are words normally used for how animals east.  Esau is portrayed as a dense, unthinking pig of a man. 

By giving up his birthright, Esau is giving up the right to lead his family after his father dies.  He is also giving up a double share of his family’s inheritance.  Jacob’s actions are certainly manipulative, but Esau was just as responsible for the choice as Jacob! 

Where Esau really gets the short end of the stick is when it actually comes time for Isaac to give his blessing.  Jacob has already won the birthright, but he wants his father’s dying blessing, too.  Isaac has become blind in his old age, and asks Esau to go and hunt some game and fix him a nice stew and then Isaac will bless him.  Esau goes off to hunt, but Rebekah, who prefers Jacob, has heard this whole exchange.  She finds Jacob, tells him what is going on, and then instructs him to get two goats from the flock so she can make a stew.  She quickly makes the stew, dresses Jacob in Esau’s clothes, and has him wear the goat skins so that he feels furry to blind Isaac.  Isaac is fooled, and blesses Jacob, who he thinks is Esau.  When poor Esau comes back from the field, he asks for his blessing, but Isaac only had one blessing to give.  When he hears this, Esau cries:

‘”Do you have only one blessing, my father? Bless me, even me also, O my father.” So Esau lifted his voice and wept.’

Have you ever heard of anything more heartbreaking?  The desire to be blessed and loved by our parents is deeply rooted in us.  Not receiving that love can cause a lifetime of struggle and regret.  Esau is deeply, deeply pained by the whole experience.

Esau does not take the slight lying down.  He immediately concocts a plan to kill Jacob and Jacob gets out of town fast!  The next few weeks we will track Jacob on his long journey.  Will he live?  Will he be killed?  Will he fall in love with a pair of sisters?  Only time will tell.

In the meantime we’re left with the struggle of why meanie Jacob gets to be the heir and the father of the twelve tribes of Israel?  We’re left with questions about why God doesn’t choose the most fair and honest among us to lead. Why is God not fair?

We’ll be struggling with the question through the rest of Old Testament, I’m afraid.  God has a bad habit of choosing people that do not meet our criteria.  He chooses leaders who are scrawny, and unfaithful, and murderous.  He chooses leaders that are more passionate than pious, more clever than kind. 

But God does not let those leaders stay that way.  I promise you that Jacob will have some profoundly transforming experiences over the next few weeks.  God’s willingness to choose broken, imperfect people to do his work is really good news for us.  It means even on our grumpiest, most mean spirited days, there exists the possibility that God will use us for good.  This also means that God is not done with us.  Even if we’re wounded souls whose parents chose our sibling over us, or vice versa, God will push us and deepen us to face all the hurt of rejection, but then to grow as a result of our experiences, rather than staying mired in resentment.

To do God’s work we may, like Jacob, need to get out of Dodge, and out of the way of the family that we have hurt.  Or, like Esau, we may need to leave town and get a little space from a family that failed to live up to expectations. 

There is a time for reconciliation, and we will get to see Esau and Jacob’s reconciliation in a few weeks, but there is also a time to flee our families of origin and explore our identities as individuals God has made, rather than staying entrenched in family dynamics that are hurtful.

And if you make a journey like Jacob’s, watch out!  God may use you to create something larger than you could ever have dreamed.


Proper 8, Year A, 2008

What in the world is happening?  What was good is now evil.  What was clear is now blurry.  The stars might as well have fallen out of the sky.  The ocean might as well have reclaimed the land.  Everything is wrong and disoriented and awful.

God has asked Abraham to kill Isaac.

Not only has God asked Abraham to kill Isaac, when God gives Abraham the instructions to do so, God seems to have forgotten who Abraham is.  Robert Alter, an Old Testament Scholar, points out that we seem to be hearing one side of a two-sided conversation. The Hebrew reads, “Take pray, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac. . .”  And you can almost hear Abraham saying, “But I have two sons.  What about Ishmael? I love both of them.  Oh, you mean Isaac.”  From the very beginning of the conversation Abraham is disoriented, we the readers are disoriented, the whole world seems disoriented.

After all, we’ve just spent several weeks with Abraham and Sarah, a rare opportunity to spend more than one Sunday on any particular Biblical character.  We have journeyed with them.  We have joyfully and with trepidation followed behind them as they took the risk to follow God in the first place.  We have waited, and waited, and waited with them for the birth of their long-promised child, Isaac.  And when Sarah and Abraham were finally blessed with the squirming squealing newborn we laughed with them in astonishment that God’s blessing actually came true, despite the incredible odds against that blessing.

Now should be the time for celebration.  Now should be the time to raise Isaac into a responsible young man.  Now should be the time of passing the torch from one generation to the next.  Instead, God seems poised to rip the promise he has made right out of Abraham’s faithful hands. 

Strangely, Abraham does not even argue.  And Abraham knows how to argue with God.  In fact, in Chapter 19 of Genesis, Abraham goes head to head with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  God wants to destroy the cities, but Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family live there.  Abraham bargains with God until God agrees that if even ten people in the city are righteous, he will not destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.  The argument finally resolves when God enables the righteous Lot and his family to escape, and then destroys the city.  Abraham may not have affected the ultimate outcome, but he did learn that he is allowed to argue with God.

But now, when his son’s life depends on it, Abraham does not argue.  Abraham is silent and obedient. Abraham splits wood, gathers a cleaver and some rope, calls to Isaac and begins the journey up the mountain.   They must have left early in the morning, maybe even before Sarah awoke.  I imagine she would have had a thing or two to say to Abraham if she knew what he was doing.

We are not given any information about Abraham’s thoughts or emotions during this test. We don’t know if he really believes he is going to have to kill Isaac or whether he trusts God to find another way.  All we know is that he makes the trip, reluctant step by reluctant step.  We know he piles the wood, binds his son’s arms and legs, and lifts his cleaver.

What we have here seems more like a script from a horror movie than a biblical passage.

When we talk about God in the Church, we have a tendency to focus on the love of Jesus or on the power of the Holy Spirit.  We talk about intimacy with God, tenderness, grace, acceptance.  We talk about God in ways that make us comfortable.  We think about God in ways that do not challenge the ways we live. Because God has been mediated through Jesus, we forget that God is a consuming fire.  We forget that God is powerful and that the sacrifice God wants is us, and as we say in the Eucharistic prayer, “our selves, our souls and bodies.”

But God is a consuming fire. God’s love is powerful and devouring.

And it is this love that motivates God to test Abraham.

God has taken a big risk with Abraham.  He has staked a future with Abraham and his offspring.  This did not work out well with Adam and Eve.  Even Noah dissolved into a drunken mess after awhile.  God is trying one more time and he wants to make sure he gets it right.  So, he tests Abraham.

God wants all of Abraham.  He wants all of Abraham’s passion and love and commitment.  He wants Abraham’s devotion so much, God is willing to see if he will sacrifice his very future, his beloved son, his promised blessing, to prove that devotion.

God tests Abraham to make sure he is the kind of man that will follow God in any situation.

And Abraham passes God’s test.

And we are left feeling ambivalent and uncomfortable because in passing God’s test, Abraham showed his willingness to commit a horrible act, an act so abusive and traumatizing that we cannot fully celebrate Abraham’s success. 

We do not know exactly how we are supposed to interpret this difficult passage. We do know that Abraham saw God in a new way after the test, and in fact the words see, eyes, and look are peppered throughout this passage.  Moriah even means “he sees”.  Abraham’s trip up the mountain was a transformative experience for him as well as for God.  Abraham learns that God will provide for him even in the moment of greatest need and God learns that Abraham will be faithful to Him even at great personal cost.  Yet still, we feel tension.

And perhaps we are meant to remain in that tension. Tension helps us not get too comfortable with God.  Tension prevents us from taking God’s will for us too lightly. Tension prevents us from us taking God’s sacrifice too lightly.

After all, Isaac’s horrible story sheds light on another Son who traveled up a hill, carrying the very wood on which he would be killed.

Perhaps this story helps us remember that other story, the story we honor with Easter bunnies, pastel dresses and decorated eggs.  This story helps us remember Jesus’ story was filled with fear and dread, too.

Perhaps Abraham’s story reminds us that though Abraham passed his test, as a human race we were unable to remain faithful to God.  But God was willing to make the same sacrifice he asked of Abraham.  And that sacrifice was brutal and cruel and bloody.  Perhaps, as we imagine the pain Abraham experienced, we are to discern a bit of what God experienced when his own Son was sacrificed.  God was willing to give us all of himself, so that we could be in relationship with Him.

In any case, this passage reminds us, as Charley told us last week, that grace is not cheap.  Discipleship is not easy.  A relationship with God demands that we give to God all that we consider most dear, even at great personal cost.


Proper 6, Year A, 2008

Sarah had waited twenty-four years.  Twenty-four years have passed between last week’s passage and this week’s passage.  Sarah has been following Abraham around a quarter of a century, waiting to see what God means by his blessing.  Years after the original promise, not long before today’s reading, God told Abraham he would have as many descendents as there are stars in the sky, but still Sarah has not gotten pregnant.

For years Sarah has lived with this hope, only to see her hope dashed over and over and over again.  First, each month that came had the disappointment of a monthly flow visibly reminding her that she was not pregnant.  Now, she is years into menopause, well past the hot flashes and mood swings, and her hopes of becoming pregnant are completely encased in the cement of cold, hard reality.

Sarah has tried to be obedient to God.  She has maintained Abraham’s household.  She has followed him to places she would never go of her own accord.  Sarah even tried to arrange for Abraham to have a child through another woman, her servant, Hagar.  But, as you can imagine, surrogacy did not turn out well.  Sarah soon could not take the painful sight of another woman happily playing with Abraham’s child, and banished them both.  Sarah has tried to be open to God’s blessing, but reality has crushed her dream.

So when Sarah welcomes a stranger into her home and goes out of her way to prepare a lush meal for him, and then overhears this stranger making bold claims about Sarah’s reproductive future, well, I think the visitor was lucky all Sarah did was laugh.  We don’t know if Sarah knew the visitor was God.  But we do know that she laughed.  And we know that laugh was not rooted in joy, but in deep disappointment and disgust that this visitor would so casually claim Sarah would bear a child. This laughter bore the pain of twenty-four years of doing what God had asked of her and seeing no blessing in return.  This laughter bore the pain of her own, personal desire to be a mother, which had been dashed month after month.

To add insult to injury, the stranger tells Abraham that Sarah will bear a child in “due season”.  Due season? Sarah is in her nineties, for crying out loud.  Due season would have been twenty-four years ago when God began making these promises.  Due season would have 50 years ago, when Sarah was still in her thirties and had the energy to deal with child bearing, nursing, and rearing.  “Due season” has come and gone a looooong time ago.

We know, ultimately, that Sarah does get pregnant.  But that pregnancy does not come for THREE MORE CHAPTERS. Our lectionary reading transposes her pregnancy to the end of this passage, but a lot more goes down in Abraham and Sarah’s life before they are blessed with Isaac’s birth.  There are many stories in the Hebrew Scriptures of barren women miraculously becoming pregnant, but Sarah’s story is the only one of these stories in which the time between God’s promise and the ultimate pregnancy is so agonizingly long. 

Remember, Sarah and Abraham are the first couple with whom God is exploring this new covenant.  He has committed to being their God and they have committed to being God’s people.  And what does God do to celebrate this relationship?  (Besides asking Abraham and all the men in the family to get circumcised, of course.)  God asks them to wait.  He asks Abraham and Sarah to follow him and trust that he will provide an heir, and not only an heir, but a nation of descendents that will be God’s chosen people for thousands of years.

This waiting is not unique to Abraham and Sarah.  Waiting is a profound part of the experience of being in relationship with God.  Abraham and Sarah had to wait a quarter of a century to get pregnant.  Job had to wait for answers from God.  The Israelites had to wait forty years to finally arrive in the Promised Land.  Even Jesus’ disciples had to wait three days between Jesus death and his resurrection. 

God calls us to keep following him, and calls us to wait.  And this waiting can cause us terrible suffering.  Those who struggle with infertility, waiting month after month suffer deeply.  Those who wait to find work as the economy struggles, suffer.  Those who wait to heal suffer.  Those who wait for true love suffer.  Those who wait for their sons, daughters to return from war suffer.  Those who wait for grief to subside suffer. This suffering can feel incredibly painful and very personal, but it is important to remember that the suffering of waiting is not a punishment or a rebuke.  In Paul’s letter to the Romans today, he calls us to:

. . .boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,  and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,  and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

When I was a child and had to do something I did not want to do, my father would always tell me, “It will build character, Sarah.”  The word character sours after while, when building character means making your bed, being nice to your sister, staying late to help clean, working on your science project instead of going to the circus when your sister gets to go to the circus with your most hilarious family friend who does magic tricks with his hat. (Deep breath)

But I digress. . .

I don’t know about you, but to me, character and hope do not seem like related words at all.  Character is a stodgy word, and hope is a lofty word.  Character is about hard work and discipline and hope is about dreaming and longing.  Character is about being firm and grounded and hope is about taking big emotional risks.

So, why does Paul link these words to suffering?  How does our waiting give us hope? 

I think the imagery we discussed last week-the imagery of our lives with God as a journey is helpful here.  After all, when we wait, we are not just sitting on our couches holding perfectly still waiting for God to show up.  No, when we wait, we wait actively: going to work, loving our friends and families, and most importantly staying connected with God.  When we wait, whether we wait patiently, eagerly, or bitterly, we pray about that waiting.  We ask God.  We beseech God.  We may rail at God.  But in the waiting, in the praying, God is at work in us, maturing us, developing us to be the people he has designed us to be.

Oftentimes we have transformative experiences while we wait.  We may discover our friends’ deep love for us when we wait, or feel the deep presence of God while we wait.   And when we feel the deep presence of God, we realize that God loves us in a profound way, and that love and that sense of God’s immanence gives us hope.  Paul’s passage is not about pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, but about the intense, personal, transformative experience of suffering in the light of God’s love for us.

Paul suffered. He was shipwrecked.  He was imprisoned.  He was blinded for a time. He had some unnamed “thorn” in his side.  Paul knew what it was to wait for God, to wait for answers.  Paul knew first hand that the suffering he encountered during his long journey of faith was transformed by God into something enriching and life giving, even before his problems were resolved or God’s answers were revealed.

Some who suffer, like Sarah ultimately rejoice.  In the 21st chapter of Genesis we read: 

The LORD dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”

Sarah’s bitter laughter is transformed back into the joyous laughter of delight, and she even names her son Isaac, which means “He will laugh.” 

But not everyone who waits receives the object of their desire.  Even for those who get bad news, whose longings never disappear, who still ache with desire for some unmet need, even these people are offered the hope that comes from an intimacy with God.  This hope is not an easy hope.  This hope is born of stodgy, sturdy words like suffer, endurance and character.  This hope is hewn out of the rough wood of prayer after unanswered prayer.  This hope is borne from open raw hearts meeting the living God, and being filled with God’s spirit. 

This hope is Sarah’s hope, and Paul’s hope, and Job’s hope.  This is the hope of the grieving disciples.   This hope is your hope, all of you who wait, and all of you who yearn. 

And this hope will come. It is God’s promise to you, and as surely as he granted Sarah a child, he will grant you this hope.


Proper 5, Year A, 2008

Not very many heroes of epic novels or movies get to stay in one location.  Odysseus, Lawrence of Arabia, Huck Finn, Frodo, Marlow, Dante, Dorothy, Nemo, even the quirky family from Little Miss Sunshine!  All of these characters go on a journey.  Their journeys may be long or short, traumatic or hilarious, sacrificial or selfish.  For each character, the journey is an important, transformative experience, as important, if not more important, than the goal itself.

Journeys are important because they get us out of our normal rhythms.  When on a journey, you do not come home and crash in front of the TV every day, or have the same conversations with your same neighbors day after day.  When you’re on a journey, you don’t even have to show up for work in the morning.  There are no cubicles, reports, or emails on a journey.  A journey bursts us from the constraints of our routines and obligations and opens us to new experiences and new sense of our own identity.  During a journey we find out if we are flexible or rigid; adventurous or timid; brave or fearful. 

Perhaps this is why, throughout God’s history with his people, as soon as he calls us, he sends us on a journey.

You might have noticed over the last few weeks, that in our lectionary we have begun hearing the stories of Genesis, the first book of the Bible.  Genesis is full of stories of people on the move, doing God’s work.  Today, we hear the story of Abram, the father of  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  His faith in God would establish the three largest religions in history.

When I went back to Genesis to remind myself of Abram’s story, I had thought I would find out some backstory.  I wanted to know whether Abram and God had any previous encounters, whether they had several conversations before our passage today. Surely, God had been slowly preparing Abram for the life-changing encounter they have in today’s passage.

But it turns out that Genesis tells us nothing about Abram’s personal history with God.  The only information Genesis reveals about Abram before our passage today is that he was the son of Terah, a descendent of Noah and that Abram had a wife named Sarai and a nephew named Lot.

This lack of information makes Abram’s willingness to leave his home and journey off to the great unknown even more powerful.  Abram does not argue with God, he simply packs up his things and goes.  However, if you read the text carefully, you’ll learn that Abram does not follow God’s directions perfectly.  God tells Abram to leave his kindred behind, and instead Abram takes his nephew Lot with him.  Even now, we get a sense that Abram is not a complete pushover and that his relationship with God will not be a simple one.

This ambiguity-this not quite so obedient obedience-is a great introduction to Abram’s journey and the rest of Genesis, really.  God does not choose cookie cutter people to do his work.  You do not have to be sweet and passive and perfect to do God’s work.  In fact, I can’t think of one character in Genesis who is unblemished in some way.  To follow God, all you have to be willing to do is to hear God out and then take a risk.

And what a risk Abram took! 

Imagine-Abram had no context-no Bible stories, no history of God’s faithfulness on which to draw when he made the decision to follow God.  All he had was a family story about his great, great, great, great, great-grandfather Noah and how God preserved his family in the midst of an incredible flood.

But Abram is able to take this family history, and this incredible personal experience of God, and use them to give him the courage to break out of his routine, to burst out of the confines of how he perceived himself, his family and his culture and take a risk to go on what will be an incredible journey.

God promises Abram land and blessings, but for God, the land was not the point.  For God, I think, it was important to send Abram on a journey so that as Abram traveled, Abram could learn to trust God more and more.  I don’t want to spoil anything, since we’ll talk more about Abram’s journey the next couple of weeks, but Abram encounters all kinds of crazy challenges and abundant blessings as he journeys with God.  Abram learns about himself and what it means to have faith in God by journeying away from his ordinary, day-to-day, life.  Abram even gets a new name-Abraham-to mark God’s role in his life. 

What would God need to do to break us out of our routines?  I shudder to think how I would react if God told me to hand over my laptop, my closet full of clothes, and my nice rented house and go wander across the country.  I don’t think I would be as amenable as Abram.  I think I would ask lots of whiny questions, like:  How am I going to eat?  What do you want me to do?  What should I pack? Could I at least have a GPS?

God may not call us to literally leave home like he called Abram, but he still does call us to go on a journey of faith with him. Thinking of our lives as a journey rather than a series of responsibilities gives us a framework to understand our lives in a new way.  A relationship with God is never static.  As we experience each new day of our life, God calls us to journey along with him and to keep our eyes open for what he is doing in the world and how we might fit into that activity.  Occasionally, following God’s journey for us may lead us to do something radical-to travel somewhere we’ve never been, or to talk to someone who has nothing in common with us.  God’s journey may lead us to fight for the disenfranchised or to care for the poor.  God’s journey may lead us toward forgiving someone or even reconciling others in conflict.

Wherever our journey leads us, we can be sure that we will encounter many adventures along the way.  And those adventures will stretch us and shape us into the people God has dreamed we can be.  Thanks be to God.

Proper 8, Year C, 2007

What a year of transitions!

Perhaps over time I will learn that every year is full of change, that we don’t really stand on solid ground, but on sediment that is constantly shifting.  However, this year has seemed particularly full of transition.  We elected, and then greeted, a new bishop.  The presidential race is in full swing, with dozens of men and at least one woman gunning for the most powerful office in America. 

And personally, for us at Emmanuel, we have lost many of the Saints that led this church for the last fifty years:  Kate LaRue, Peggy Flannagan, Ned Morris, Mildred Lapsley, Zan McGuire, Kitty Shirley, David Smith, Louise Ellinger, and Theo Earp.  I have listened to one interview conducted by the Heritage committee for their oral history project, and I was so moved to hear stories of the men and women who served this place twenty to thirty years ago on the vestry, through altar guild, singing in the choir, teaching.  Their service was a continuation of the service of those before them, and we carry their work on now. 

The work of the church is never ending, and though we don’t often take time to reflect on it, the work we do is always a direct result of someone else’s hard work.  Our Sunday School and nursery would not be functional if not for the years of service of the Christian Education committee before I came.  Chuck would not be here if Mr. Marston and Mr. LaRue had not poured their hearts into this place. 

In the Christian story, generations are always passing the torch, one to another.  Sometimes that goes smoothly. . . and sometimes there are some bumps in the road!

Today, we’ll look at three such stories-the transition of leadership from King Saul to King David, the transition of leadership from Elijah to Elisha, and finally the transition of leadership from Jesus to the Church.

The transition of leadership from Saul to David is a worst-case scenario.  If you’ll remember from reading the 1st and 2nd books of Samuel, Saul was the first king of Israel.  God did not want the people of Israel to have a king, but they whined because they wanted to be like all the other countries around them.  The whining finally got to God, and he granted them a king.  Saul was a great king.  He was tall and handsome, very smart and had innate leadership skills.  The problem was, he was such a good king, he forgot to rely on God.  He ignored the prophet Nathan’s instructions once and that was IT.  God wanted him out.  For God’s second try as king, he chose David.  David was not anyone’s first choice for king.  He was scrawny, a shepherd, and. . .a musician.  But God knew that David loved God with all his heart. God wanted him as king..

But you know, it’s hard to let go of power.  History books tell us it took years for Nixon to fully understand that he was no longer president.  For a long time, he would sit in his office at home and command his staff as if he were still the leader of the free world.  While some find it easy to retire, others, especially if forced out, have a really difficult time letting someone else take over.  Saul was one of these guys.  He knew David was next in line to be king, but he was not going to go down without a fight.  He fought the transition so hard, it ended up killing him-he died on the battlefield.  Saul did not need to die that way.  He and David did not start out as enemies-in fact, Saul’s son Jonathan, was David’s best friend.  Saul could have resigned his post and then acted as an advisor to David, or taken up gardening, or some form of ancient golf.  Instead, he gripped on to his power, his authority, and it ruined him.

Do we ever cling to power?  Letting go of a position of authority can be very painful.  My father retired two summers ago after being principal of a particular school for five years.  Watching his successor undo much of the good foundation he had laid at the school, was terribly frustrating to my dad.  He had to consciously let go and distance himself so he wouldn’t go crazy worrying about the students and teachers under this new administration.  We cling to power, not just for power’s sake, but because we think we can do a good job, a better job than the next guy, but sometimes God is calling us to let go and to move forward in our own lives. 

The transition of power from Elijah to Elisha is a very different story.  If the story of Saul and David is on the very human and very sad end of the spectrum, the story of Elijah and Elisha is over here on the over the top, almost ridiculously spiritual side of the spectrum.  Elijah was a stormy old prophet.  He ushered in a drought to punish the nation for idolatry.  And he was constantly shouting prophecies of dooooooom.  Nevertheless, Elisha thought Elijah was the bees knees.  In our story today, he is following Elijah around like Elijah’s biggest fan.  Even when Elijah tells him to get lost, that he’s going to be taken up into heaven, Elisha won’t leave.  He admires Elijah so much, that he wants to inherit a doubleshare of his spirit-he wants to be able to carry on Elijah’s prophetic ministry with the same energy and vigor as his mentor.  When Elijah is finally taken up into heaven, Elisha tore his clothes into two pieces and placed Elijah’s fallen mantle on himself-symbolizing the transition of leadership.

Taking over leadership from a successful leader is scary stuff.  It can be tempting to hero worship our predecessor and lose ourselves in their style. And while we can certainly learn from other leaders, it is important to retain a sense of our own identity.  While Elisha did inherit Elijah’s spirit, Elisha was a very different kind of prophet.  Instead of heralding doom, Elisha showed people God’s power by being a wonder worker.  He worked miracles for his nation and for individuals.  (He also killed two kids who made fun of him for being bald-but that is a whole other story.)   Elisha was able to inherit Elijah’s spirit, while remaining true to himself and the gifts God had given him.

Finally, the transition of leadership between Jesus and the church is most like what we experience today in the Church.  Jesus had spent three years leading and teaching his disciples.  He knew his death was going to come, and come soon.  He had changed Simon’s name from Simon to Peter because Jesus knew that Peter-which means rock-would become the rock of the new church.  You and I know how that transition went.  Before Peter could become Peter of the book of Acts, in which he is a wise leader and administrator, he first had to be Peter the impetuous screw up.  Before he could become the Peter who would guide the church, he had to be Peter who would betray Jesus three times.

Peter, James, Paul and the other leaders of the early church had to deal with all sorts of problems as people figured out what it meant to follow Jesus, and they did not handle every situation perfectly.  Like us, sometimes they fought, or hurt each others feelings, or spoke without thinking.  Also like us, they knew they could solve these problems by remembering how Jesus handled situations and by asking the Holy Spirit for guidance. 

I know it is hard to believe, but I have made some SPECTACULARLY stupid decisions as I have ministered here.  You are not so lucky as to get to hear these stories in this sermon, but it is sufficient to say I can relate to Peter’s moment of “Ooooh.  I’ve really screwed up.”  Like Peter, I have had to take a deep breath, ask for forgiveness, and then move on, hoping I have learned something!  I’m sure none of you can relate! 

When we are baptized, we each become a leader in the church.  We each become a minister.  We all will face times in our life when we have to let go of our power to let someone else step up.  We will also face times when we realize that WE are who God wants to step up, no matter how underqualified we think we are!  We will also all make mistakes as we attempt to lead and need to be forgiven.

The good news, is that God will also bless our leadership.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit we will be able to accomplish more than we ever would on our own steam.  The trick is to remember Saul and not be tempted to do everything on our own!

Our great leaders at Emmanuel whom we have lost this year had their leadership blessed by God and all of here in this room enjoy the benefits of their hard work.  As we take over their responsibilities, their areas of leadership, may be also be blessed.


Proper 14, Year B, 2006

Someone in your home is baking a loaf of bread.  For an hour now the warm fragrance has drifted around corners and under door frames and over tables to tease you with its inviting scent.  Despite Dr. Perricone’s warnings about the dangers of simple carbohydrates, you know that when the loaf of warm bread is ready to be sliced, you will be first in line to cut off a large piece, slather it in butter, and slowly savor the way it melts in your mouth.

As you put the bread in your mouth, digestive enzymes begin working, breaking the bread down into smaller, more manageable pieces.  As the bread travels through the stomach and intestines, it is further broken down and becomes fuel and nutrients. Much of the bread literally becomes part of you, providing the energy for your day and some nutrients to help your body function.  Once the bread passes through your mouth into your stomach, eating the bread shifts from a sensory experience to a primal, biological one.

We are disconnected from the nutritional importance of bread, but for many around the world, that piece of bread would literally give them life.  That piece of bread, with all of its nutrients and carbohydrates would fill their bodies with energy, boost their immune systems, and give them hope.

Thousands of years ago, wandering in the desert, God’s chosen people also needed bread.  They had been walking for years, without regular food and drink, and were exhausted.  To make sure they relied completely on him, the only food they received was directly from God.  When God did choose to provide food for the wandering Israelites, he first chose to shower them with manna, a mysterious, heavenly food that resembled, of course, bread.

This manna fed the wanderers, but did not ultimately satisfy them.  After a few hours of eating manna, they were starving again.  And when they became hungry again, God’s generosity completely slipped their mind and they began complaining almost instantly. But still, the manna sustained them for many years.

Finally, after 40 years of wandering and complaining, the Israelites entered the promised land.  The land was rich with food-fruit, vegetables, meat, and ingredients for all the bread they could bake.  The Israelites needed the manna no longer. 

Fifteen hundred years passed, and even though the Israelites complained about the manna while they were in the desert, as a people they never forgot about it.  Manna became a symbol of God’s faithfulness, and the importance of relying on God, rather than your own resources. 

Do you remember two weeks ago, when the gospel reading was about the feeding of the 5000? (Yes, yes you do.)  This is the passage in which Jesus miraculously turns a few fish and a loaf of bread into an abundant feast.  The people who experienced it were amazed, and told all their friends. 

Once Jesus gets off the mountain, people start following him, hoping for a repeat performance.  Maybe they are curious, maybe they are hungry, but they want to see the magic man make some bread!

Immediately before our passage today, Jesus makes a speech to them, explaining that they are looking for the wrong thing.

Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.

They go on to ask for a sign, for Jesus to prove that he is special. 

So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you. What work are you performing?  Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'”  Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe.

Jesus is redirecting their curiosity and question.  He is saying to them-if you focus on the bread, you’re missing the whole point!  Neither the manna, nor the feeding of the 5000 are about bread, they are about God-about God’s abundance and faithfulness.  These miracles are about God’s love for his people and the way God looks after us and provides for us.

Jesus is the height of this provision and love.  Jesus is explaining that he has been sent as a new kind of bread-a bread that never runs out, that never will leave us, and that gives us not only life-but life eternal.

Manna and other kinds of physical bread, no matter how miraculous-or delicious–will never satisfy us, never fill up all the places in us that are broken, lonely or grieving. 

Physical bread cannot give our lives meaning, show us avenues of hope, or help keep us off our high horses. 

God sends Jesus to feed us, to be our fuel, to give us the nourishment we need to live lives that are pleasing to God. 

At the Eucharist, we consume the body and blood of Jesus.  Early Christians were accused of being cannibals because of this.  As Episcopalians, we believe that the bread and wine we eat and drink, doesn’t actually turn into flesh, but does contain the full presence of Christ.  When we consume them, we consume Christ.  Just as a warm slice of bread breaks down and becomes part of us, somehow at the Eucharist we consume Jesus, Jesus becomes part of us, becomes incorporated into our mind, and heart, and hands.  As he becomes part of us, we become part of him.

The Eucharist is more than ritual and tradition.  The Eucharist is more than remembering.  During the Eucharist, we take Christ in to our very being, not only our spirit, but into our flesh.  And so the Bread of Life lives on in us, and we in him.