Tuesday, May 21, 2013

All is Babel

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The scripture was Genesis 11:1-9:

Just like the other stories we have been covering in Genesis, maybe with the exception of last week’s passage about Sarah, this is another one of those iconic stories.  Perhaps not as well known as some of the others, the story of the Tower of Babel still has seeped into our consciousness.   We’re actually dealing with this story a little out of order, since what happens after this passage is that Abraham is called by God, but we covered that last week in looking at Sarah because of Mother’s Day and because this is one of the readings for Pentecost which we celebrate today. So I had to switch them up just a little bit.

The Tower of Babel serves as the last of the ancient histories in Genesis, before moving onto the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs.  In some ways this story  sets itself up as a grand from the first lines, in which we are told that “the whole earth had one language and the same words,” which I always wonder how that’s possible as I remember George Bernard Shaw’s famous quote that “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.”  This set-up also differentiates this story from those that have come before, and even to a degree from those that will come after with one notable exception, in that this is not about one individual but instead about everyone.  There is no one person singled out, like Adam or Eve or Cain or Abraham or Sarah, this is a story of communal sin or societal sin

Like the other stories of the ancient histories this passage serves as an etiology, that is it is a story that seeks to explain why things are, and so it seeks to tell us why if we all came from the same place, people are found in different areas of the world and why they speak different languages.  But just like with the other stories, this is of course much more than just a story of origins.  If that’s all it was we wouldn’t be talking about it all these millennia later, so what is it that makes this story important and what can we learn from it, and the story of Pentecost that we can apply to our lives today?

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Laughter of Sarah

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Genesis 17:15-19; 18:1-2, 9-15; 20:1-7; 21:1-7

A couple had two little boys, ages 8 and 10, who were excessively mischievous. They were always getting into trouble and their parents knew that, if any mischief occurred in their town, their sons were probably involved.

The boys' mother heard that a clergyman in town had been successful in disciplining children, so she asked if he would speak with her boys. The clergyman agreed, but asked to see them individually. So the mother sent her 8-year-old first, in the morning, with the older boy to see the clergyman in the afternoon.

The clergyman, a huge man with a booming voice, sat the younger boy down and asked him sternly, "Where is God?”  They boy's mouth dropped open, but he made no response, sitting there with his mouth hanging open, wide-eyed. So the clergyman repeated the question in an even sterner tone, "Where is God!!?" Again the boy made no attempt to answer. So the clergyman raised his voice even more and shook his finger in the boy's face and bellowed, "WHERE IS GOD!?"

The boy screamed and bolted from the room, ran directly home and dove into his closet, slamming the door behind him. When his older brother found him in the closet, he asked, "What happened?"  The youngest brother gasped for breath and replied, "We are in BIG trouble this time dude. God is missing and they think WE did it!"

Last week my lovely wife said, “You like to begin your sermons with jokes,” and I said that I did because it was the only way I could guarantee that people would laugh during my message, and laughing is important.  Aristotle actually said that he believed that what separated humans from the rest of the animals was our ability to laugh.  He said that when a baby first laughed, that we went from simply being humans to becoming human beings.  That laughter made us different that it made us who we are.  In Navajo culture, the moment when a baby first laughs is so important that whoever is the first one to make the baby laugh is required to throw a party for the child in celebration, and they hold a special place in that child’s life for the rest of their lives.  And babies and children laugh a lot, especially in comparison to adults, and there’s something special about a child’s laugh.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The High Cost of Child Care

Last week I wrote the last check I will have to write (hopefully) for childcare during the school year.  Once it was entered into Quicken out of curiosity I decided to see how much we had spent for preschool over the past seven years for my two daughters.  The total stunned me.

We have spent $85,050.  Yes, you read that correctly. We spent more than $85000 dollars to have our children taken care of during the week while we were working.  And that total does not include babysitting or meals, those were entered separately, that was just tuition. I should note that this total would be a lot higher had we not moved from New England two years ago, and it would have been lower if we had been in New Mexico the entire time. But our salaries increased and decreased commensurately.

We did not go with the least expensive preschools we could find, as we didn't want McDonalds to be the primary competitor for the labor.  But we also did not go anywhere near the most expensive places we could have gone. We were at the YMCA for a portion of this, and then in a private provider. This total would also be considerably more except that we did receive a scholarship for one daughter to attend a preschool at a church, and my youngest has been in a preschool program at the local elementary school part-time. So this total could be higher.

What this total represents for our household is basically a year's income for my wife and me.  I have written in the past about the high cost of preschool, about how important it is, and wondered why it was not more a part of the national dialogue. And the church is just as responsible for this lack of dialogue as there is nothing about addressing this issue in either the Book of Resolutions or the Book of Discipline.

At a time when there is a group set out to destroy public education as we know it, the education of our children, and its cost, must be addressed more. It is simply unconscionable that we are willing to spend more than $25,000 a year for a prisoner, and sometimes gleefully willing, but complain about the cost of education.  We are going to pay either way, and to me it makes more sense to pay the much smaller amount now, rather than paying for it later.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

On Not Interpreting Scripture

My wife and I are in the process of buying a house, and we had the home inspected this week.  It turned out that the home inspector was the son of a missionary, and considered going into the ministry until he was drafted, and was, in his words, "uncalled."  I'm just guessing from the conversation that he grew up on the conservative end of the church, although as an adult he did attend a United Methodist congregation.  But something he said during our time together struck me, although I can't remember what the context was that began it.

He said that one of the troubles in the church is in people "interpreting" the Bible rather than just reading what the Bible has to say.  I hear or read this a lot, most especially amongst conservatives; that we can't bring what we want to the Bible that we have to read and see what the Bible says not what we want it to say.  In some ways I agree with this, that reading ourselves into the Bible, or forcing the Bible to say things because that's what we want, is indeed a true issue to be aware of.

But the problem is that it is impossible not to bring ourselves to scripture.  It is impossible not to have certain lens through which we read scripture.  A comment I recently read by Burton Visotsky, a rabbi, gets to the heart of this for me.  He said "“We don’t have a lot of choice (in how we approach scripture) – the twentieth-century lens is the only one we have.  I study how the church fathers and rabbis read this story, but even as I do that, I’m keenly aware that I’m reading church fathers and rabbis through my twentieth-century lens."

I read scripture with the lens of a twenty-first century over-educated white American liberal heterosexual male who is married with two daughters who didn't grow up in the church.  Being cognizant of those things helps me to see things in scripture that I might otherwise miss, but if I am not cognizant of it than I force myself onto the text, because that is all I can bring to scripture, and assume that it is God speaking.  If I were single, or female, or uneducated, or not-American, or non-white, or if I had sons rather than daughters, I would read scripture differently.  There is simply no way to just read the Bible "as it is."  I cannot remove these lenses because they are who I am.

The problem I find though is that so many people are so unaware they even have these lenses that they therefore bring them to scripture without being cognizant of them and then are convinced that they are reading only "what the Bible says" and not what they want it to say.  Now I know that I want the Bible to say some things, and not say other things, but because I am aware of that I can struggle and be in dialogue and conflict with scripture, which is what has really been going on for millenia.

I can seek to understand the scriptures original context, but I can never read it as a 1st century rabbi or Christian, because that has never been my worldview and it will never be my worldview.  I can only read it as I am, who I am and where I am, and that will invariably impact my interpretation of the text.  I cannot ever not interpret.  But, it is then that I can truly engage in study of scripture and also truly engage in conversation with others who are different than me and who read scripture differently, which is really everyone.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Flood

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The scripture was selections from the story of Noah and the flood.

A story is told of a young boy who came home from Sunday school having been taught the story of Moses and the Israelites fleeing from Egypt and crossing the red sea.  His mother asked him what he had learned in class, and he told her: “The Israelites got out of Egypt, but Pharaoh and his army chased after them.  They got to the red sea and they couldn’t cross it.  The Egyptian army was getting closer.  So Moses got on his walkie-talkie, the Israeli air force bombed the Egyptians and the Israeli navy built a pontoon bridge so the people could cross.”  The mother was shocked.  “Is that they way they taught you the story?” she asked.  “Well no,” the boy admitted, “but if I told it to you the way they told it to us, you’d never believe it.”

You would be hard pressed to find a children’s Bible in which the Noah story, although greatly redacted, does not find a prominent place, including sometimes being placed on the cover.  If you go into a store that sells items for babies’ rooms, you will find plenty of items based on the Noah story.  But like the boy with Moses we too have completely changed this story around as to make it unrecognizable from what scripture actually says, in order to make it more palatable.  Even in Sunday school I’ guessing that your felt picture telling of this did not include the death of all humanity, except Noah and his sons, or the vengeful and angry God seeking out his retribution on mankind, and if some teacher were to do that I can only imagine all the calls of complaints from parents that the minister would received the next day.
Let’s be honest this is not a nice touchy, feely, cuddly story, full of cute bunnies, lions and giraffes.  When we really look at what this story is saying, this is the story of nightmares, and as I thought about sermons on the stories of Genesis, this is the one story that I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do with, or what I could possibly say, because it is a hard one and I’ll be honest I still don’t know what to make of it, but the bad news for you is that won’t stop me from saying something about it.
I think some of the hesitancy in trying to deal with this story is not just because of the destruction wroth by God, and we’ll get to that, because also because of the character of Noah himself.  We are told that Noah was the most righteous person of his generation, which sort of sounds good, but really it’s a backhanded compliment.  It’s like saying someone is the most honest politician.  When the competition is so despicable, what does that truly mean?  One of the things I have enjoyed about preparing for this series on genesis has been reading lots of Jewish commentators, after all they have been interpreting these passages for a lot longer than Christians have, and the rabbis have a nearly universal disdain for Noah.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Cain and Abel

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Genesis 4:1-22a:

Because of the events of two weeks ago I had considered moving this sermon up in response, but the simple fact is while the tragedy in Boston might have been big, it is unfortunately all too common of an occurrence.  We don’t have to watch the news for very long to find the story of someone killing someone else, or committing some other act of violence, because they were upset with the other person, thought they had been slighted, or the other person had something that they believed belonged to them, or that the other person represented something they despised and so it is with Cain and Abel.

There is conflict set to bloom right from the start of today’s passage.  There is quite a bit of information given about Cain’s birth, especially when we compare it to the birth of Abel, about whom all we are told is that he was born, and thus their struggling may have begun when they were infants.  Cain grows up to become a farmer, or agriculturalist, and Abel becomes a shepherd, or herdsmen, and thus begins the age old conflict that marks this as an archetypal story that continues to be played out.  This is the musical Oklahoma writ large, except without the singing cowboys, and no surries with the fringe on top.  And what begins the conflict initially seems fairly innocuous, as Cain decides to make an offering to God, although he has not been told to do such a thing.  Because Cain is a farmer, he brings God an offering of the fruits of the field.  I think it’s pretty amazing, that Cain, without being told to, would be willing to give up some of the harvest to thank God for the creation and for God’s faithfulness.  Presumably seeing his brother giving this offering, Abel then proceeds to give his own offering, but being a shepherd, be brings an animal.

God sees the offerings that are made, and he accepts the offering of Abel, and then we are told “but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.”  There is not an obvious reason why Abel’s offering is accepted and why Cain’s is not, but, of course, there is a lot of speculation.  Some say that Abel’s offering is accepted because it is a blood sacrifice, which were important in ancient religions, not just for Judaism.  From a Christian perspective this has a lot to offer for it for some  because of how some people view the cross, and Christ sort of being the ultimate blood sacrifice, although I do have to make not that this is not the orthodox position of the view of the cross, as the church does not have an orthodox position for this.  In addition, although it’s sometimes troublesome to look forward to scripture and apply it backwards, which we are going to do a lot of today, when the Israelites are given rules about how and what to offer to God, there are rules set up for making agricultural offerings, so it doesn’t seem to be that God rejects one and accepts the other simply because Cain offers fruit and Abel offers animal fat.