Monday, July 28, 2014

Neither Here Nor There

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Genesis 28:10-19a:

One of the things I like about the Bible is that, for the most part, it does not try and hide the skeletons that are in the closet, they are there for everyone to see, warts and all.  In the gospels, the disciples just never seem to get it, one of them betrays Jesus and all the others flee at the end, and Peter, the seemingly key disciple, through his impetuousness constantly getting into trouble and putting his foot in his mouth.  There are three major patriarchs in the Book of Genesis, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Indeed, God will sometimes be referred to as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac or the God of Jacob. Abraham twice lies in order to save his own life and says that his wife Sarah is not his wife but instead his sister and as a result, Sarah is taken into two different harems.  But that seems like nothing compared with Jacob, who is probably the hardest of the three to talk about because to use some church appropriate language, Jacob’s a scoundrel, but he’s not even really a lovable scoundrel.

Last week we heard about Abraham sending his servant back to his native land in order to find a wife for Isaac.  That wife is Rebekah, and in passages that we skip, Rebekah and Isaac have twins.  Esau is the first of the twins to be born, but as Esau is born, his younger brother comes out holding onto his heel, and because of this he is named Jacob which means something like “usurper” or “overtaker” or “grasper.”  And so it will be as when they grow up with Jacob becoming a con-artist, someone who takes as much advantage of situations as he can to get what he wants. Esau is the one who goes out does the hard work, whereas Jacob wants to stay close to the house, and he’s definitely a momma’s boy.  One day Esau comes in from the fields, and he finds Jacob in the house having been cooking some stew, and Esau basically says he’s so hungry he could eat a horse, and so Jacob tells Esau he can have some food if he’ll turn over his birthright, which Esau does.  Now we can certainly question what Esau is thinking here, but it begins to indicate how Jacob is going to go about things.  But then, under the direction of Rebekah, who seems to favor Jacob over Esau, Jacob tricks his father Isaac into giving him blessing to him rather than to Esau as the first born son. 
Now the story of the trickery over gaining a blessing and the birthright, should remind us of the finagling that Sarah does in order to get Isaac the blessing and inheritance as the second born son, by expelling  Ishmael into the wilderness, which is where we find we also find Jacob.  Except Jacob is not in the wilderness because he has been expelled, but instead because he is fleeing for his life.  When Esau hears what Jacob has done in stealing his blessing, Esau plots to kill him, and so Rebekah tells Jacob to go back to the ancestral land, her land, to find himself a wife, and so Jacob flees into the wilderness, which is where we find him.

Although Jacob now has both the first born birthright and blessing, these don’t mean anything to someone on the run, someone running for their life, and for the first time, maybe in his life, but certainly in the narrative, Jacob is alone.  He is not at home and he is not where he intends to be, and he is certainly nowhere where he ever imagined he would be, maybe he’s even beginning to think about the type of person he is, although I think that’s probably a stretch as we will see, but Jacob lays down in the middle of nowhere and goes to sleep, and to show how desolate his existence has become we are told that uses a rock for his pillow, not the most comfortable of equipment.  And yet it is here that Jacob encounters God.  He is not in the family land, where he is heading, nor is he in the Promised Land, where he is fleeing from.  He has neither what he had or what he will get.  He is neither who he was nor who he will become, he is in other words neither here nor there.   He is between places.  He wants to be better and more important than he is, and he wants to be someplace else, he is between two worlds and yet that is where he encounters God.

But, when we look in scripture we find that this is not unusual as it seems that people encounter God more often when they have left their normal lives, when they are in the wilderness either literally or metaphorically, and so it is here with Jacob.  Jacob does not encounter God at home surrounded by family, he encounters God out in the wilderness.  Traditionally we know this story as Jacob’s ladder, but that’s really incorrect.  Instead, the word here for ladder is best translated as staircase or ramp, but Jacob’s ramp just doesn’t have the same ring to it.  Now here is a picture of the famous Ziggurat of Ur, which is in modern day Iraq.  The soldiers going up the stairs give you a sense of the dimensions.  A Ziggurat, which is obviously a manmade structure, is where the gods of the ancient near east were said to have lived.  People would go up the stairs to the top in order to commune with the god they were worshipping.  This is probably what Jacob is dreaming about, and that’s what the word here would indicate, but there is a key difference between what Jacob dreams and how a Ziggurat was understood.  The gods of the ziggurats did not go up and down the steps, the way the angels do, not does the god come down to the ground.  The god who lives on the ziggurat stays at the top and if anyone wants to have a conversation then they have to go up to the top.  But notice what happens in Jacob’s dream.  God does not stay at the top of the staircase; instead God comes down and talks with Jacob.  That would have been a truly remarkable idea in the ancient world, just as the idea that God is not stationary would have also been extraordinary, but what God says to Jacob is that God will go with Jacob and bring him back.  God is not limited to a particular location.

Now the reality is that while we may acknowledge that God is everywhere, we often don’t live like it.  We come to church on Sunday in order to “get close with God”, but then when we leave here we act as if we leave God behind.  Never interacting with God until we come back here again next week.  Or worse, we leave not just God behind but our faith and beliefs as well.  I once worked with someone who constantly acted unethically, and when I called her on it she said she said her confessions each night so she had nothing to worry about.  That is leaving god behind and going out into the world and then coming back to where you think God resides and acting as if they two places are not connected.  It also says that we can deal with God where and when we want, and perhaps God is not present in those other places.

Sometimes this is so we can ignore God’s strictures in our lives, but often it’s because we don’t think that God wants to deal with us, and so we think if only I were a little better then God would like us and would want to love us, or we want to put off dealing with God until something else happens.  As soon as I stop drinking or doing drugs, as soon as I stop feeling so depressed or miserable, as soon as I stop mourning, as soon as I feel ready then I will be ready to encounter God, because then God will be willing to love us.  The problem with that is that just like with Jacob, God cannot meet us where we want to be, or take us for who we want to be, God can only meet us where we are and as we are.  God did not wait for Jacob to reach his destination, or to become a better person, to become less of a scoundrel, instead God encounters him where he is not where he wants to be.

Noted Christian author Tony Campolo recounts a time in which he had gone to Honolulu to speak at a conference.  His first night there, Campolo woke up at 9am his time, although unfortunately it was only 3am in Hawaii.  Knowing that he wasn’t going to be able to go back to sleep, he decided to walk to a small diner nearby that was open all night.  At 3:30, he says, a loud, provocatively dressed group of prostitutes came into the restaurant at the end of their night.  Their crude and loud talk made Campolo uncomfortable, and so he prepared to leave, but as he did so, he heard one of the women say “tomorrow’s my birthday.  I’m going to be thirty-nine.”  Her friend responded, “So what do you want from me, a birthday party?  You want me to get you a cake and sing you happy birthday?”  “Come on” the woman said, “why do you have to be so mean?  I was just telling you, that’s all.  I don’t want anything from you.  I mean, why should you give me a birthday party?  I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life.  Why should I have one now?”

When Campolo heard those words, he made a decision.  He stayed in the diner until the women left.  Then he said to the owner, “Do they come here every night?”  “Yeah,” he said, “you can set your clock by it.”  “What’s the name of the woman who said she was having a birthday,” Campolo asked?  “That’s Agnes” he said.”  “What do you think of us throwing  a party for her – right here – tomorrow night?” Campolo asked.  A smile crossed the owners face, and he said, “That’s great!  I like it!  I’ll even make the cake.” (SLIDE 6, CAKE)  At 2 the next morning, Campolo went back to the diner.  He put up decorations and a big sign that said Happy Birthday Agnes.  The workers at the diner had obviously gotten the word out, because by 3:15 just about every prostitute in Honolulu was crowded into the place.  At 3:30 sharp, the doors swung open and in came Agnes and her friends.  Campolo had the entire group scream “Happy Birthday, Agnes.”  Agnes was so stunned, that a friend had to hold her up, while everyone began to sing Happy Birthday.  When the cake, covered with 39 candles, was brought over, Agnes began to cry, and before the cake was cut she asked if she could take the cake down the street to show it to her mother and then come right back.  The owner said that would be fine, and Agnes walked out with the cake.  When the door closed behind her, a silence filled the diner.  Campolo broke the silence by saying, “What do you say we pray?”  He said it probably seemed strange for an entire room of prostitutes to bow their heads in prayer, but that’s what happened.  Campolo prayed for Agnes and the other prostitutes in the diner, affirming that they were beloved daughters of God, with great value, worth and promise.  When Campolo finished praying, the owner said “You never told me you were a preacher.  What kind of a church do you belong to?”  In a moment of divine inspiration, Campolo said “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.”  And the owner said, "No you don't. There's no church like that. If there was, I'd join it. I'd join a church like that!"  The owner had certainly never heard the story of Jacob

Jacob did not plan on meeting God where he was, and I am pretty sure that Agnes never thought she would meet God at 3:30 in the morning either.  In fact, I am pretty sure that Agnes, and every other prostitute in that diner, probably thought they were unworthy of God’s love and that they would not be welcome in any church that they walked into.  How many others like Agnes are out there?  People who are hungry for the word of God, people wanting to be told that they are beloved children of God and that God loves them and cares for them and wants to be in relationship with them, but are afraid to allow God to meet them where they are and are even more afraid of how they might be received if they are to walk through those doors?  Are we a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning? Are we a people that believes in a God who not only throws parties for prostitutes at 3:30, but that loves them as beloved daughters?  Are we a people who can encounter God at 3:30 in the morning in the middle of nowhere?  Because I would be willing to bet that Campolo had an encounter with God that morning just like Agnes did.  I know that there are lots of people in this community, and maybe even some of you here today, who believe that God cannot have a relationship with them, that they are not ready or worthy, but God cannot meet us where we want to be but only where we are, but there are only two ways they can know that.  One is for us to tell them, and the second is for us to welcome them with open arms when they walk through the door.  When asked why he was having dinner with prostitutes and tax collectors and other sinners, Jesus said “those who are well have no need of a physician… for I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Rev. Geoff McElroy, a United Methodist pastor in Georgia, says “Jacob’s vision at Bethel speaks to one of the core beliefs of biblical faith: the Creator God, the God of Israel, the God of the covenant is not a God that abandons or ignores but is a God who is ever-present. Even in the dark times of life, when the biblical writers speak from their own places of abandonment and exile, there is usually a conviction alongside their laments, a conviction that God is somehow, someway still present and at work, that the promise still holds.”

Jacob is the ultimate scoundrel, fleeing for his life, and is on his way to someplace else, but he encounters God in the in between, he encounters God in the neither here nor there, and God tells him that not only is he important but that the promises of Abraham will continue through him.  We have a message for the world.  We are here to proclaim the gospel, that is literally the good news, but we also need to remember that God can only meet us where we are and as we are.  All of us know people who are desperate to hear the word of God, and so my charge to you this week is to talk with just one person this week and to tell them that God wants to have a relationship with them, that God loves them and that we love them and want to have a relationship with them, that we are here not because we are perfect, but because we are imperfect and that God cannot meet them were they want to be but only where they are regardless of where that is, so invite them to join us next week to hear another message about one of the ultimate con artists and his literal struggle with God, and it’s a message I think they might like to hear.  And then here is my next charge, we need to be ready to welcome them as another child of God with whom God wants to be in relationship.  May it be so.  Amen.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

When God Doesn't Speak

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The passage was Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67:

We are told at the beginning of Genesis, that in the beginning that the earth was formless and darkness covered the face of the deep, and then what happens?  God says, “let there be light,” and there was light.  So we are told that simply by speaking that God is able to create, and in fact in the first creation story, everything is created simply by God talking.  Indeed, the central declaration of faith in Judaism “Hear, O Israel…”  Not peak, or believe, but instead listen.  “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is one.”  For us as Christians speaking and language are just as important, because we are told that at the beginning of the Gospel of John, that in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God.  And who is the word?  Jesus.  So God talks creation into existence and Jesus is the word, and a God who emphasizes this is not a distant transcendent God, but instead an imminent God who is involved in our lives, and we also see that witnessed to in scripture, especially in the stories of Genesis.  God talks with Adam and Eve, and God talks with Cain, God talks with Noah, God talks with Hagar and of course God talks with Abraham.  God talks a lot with Abraham.  In every step of Abraham’s story not only is God present and active, but God is telling Abraham what to do and what God is going to do in return.  God is asking things and making promises.  God is intimately involved in everything that is going on in Abraham’s life, and yet in the passage we just heard, which is the last significant story of Abraham, God does not speak.  Now after the past two weeks in which we have heard God tell Abraham that he should listen to the voice of his wife Sarah and expel Ishmael and Hagar, and then last week when God calls for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac perhaps we are a little relieved that God is not talking or asking anything.
Rebekah and Abraham's Servant at the Well
by William Hilton

Today’s passage is a nice little story.  A simple story of a servant going to get a wife for his master’s son.  It has a nice beginning, a good middle and even a happy ending because we are told that Isaac loves Rebekah.  A nice simple passage which transitions us from the story of Abraham into the story of Isaac.  But it’s not like this is an insignificant story.  This sets up the rest of the Book of Genesis and the creation of what will become the nation of Israel, and yet in striking contrast to everything that has come before, God is not a primary character.  While it’s assumed by the author that God is involved in this process, God does not interact with anyone.  God does not have a dialogue with Abraham about what he needs to do or with the servant about what to say or where to go.  Nor does God talk with Laban, Rebekah’s brother who conducts the negotiations for marriage, nor does Rebekah hear from God telling her that this is the plan she is to follow, that everything will be okay and she should go with the servant.  Throughout this entirely long story, God does not speak.  Not once does God become openly involved in the plot.  Not once does God utter anything to anyone to let them know that what they are doing is according to divine plan.  God is strangely silent.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Stupidity of Black Out Rules

Today is the first day of the All Star break in which there are no baseball games being played, and that means that tonight, just like every other night, I won't be watching the Arizona Diamondbacks playing. But, the difference between tonight and every other night during the baseball season, is that normally I can't watch the Diamondbacks not because they aren't playing, but because they are blacked out where I live.

For those unfamiliar with what that means, in an agreement made between the owners in the dark ages, they agreed to divide up the country geographically giving teams the broadcast rights to large swaths of territory that they then control whether their game can be shown there or not.  This might make some sense in the Northeast, but in the west it's totally insane.

When I lived in Boston I understood why I couldn't watch the New York feed when the Yankees were playing the Red Sox.  That makes sense because the Red Sox want me to watch commercials for Boston, and make them money, rather than making the Yankees money.  But I could still watch the game!  And when the Yankees were playing anywhere else I could watch the Yankee feed.  But that is not the case with the Diamondbacks.
MLB Broadcast Black-Out Map*

Why?  Because the Diamondbacks "broadcast territory" includes all of the state of New Mexico, and so we are perpetually blacked out.  I can't even watch them when they are on ESPN.  They are always not on television, because heaven forbid that I might decide to go to the game, but then decide not to because I can watch them on TV instead.  Now to demonstrate the stupidity of this rule.

We currently live in Albuquerque.  If I suddenly had the urge to go to a game I would either a) have to drive seven hours to get there, or b) drive to the airport and catch a 1-hour flight to Phoenix.  The current airfare to do that on Southwest would be $493, round-trip.  So if I wanted to take my whole family, we would spend $2000 on airfare for our last minute decision, not counting the cost of the tickets, food and transportation.  Not really going to happen.

But, you might say, it's at least possible, and yes it is, so let's broaden it out a little bit.  My last church was 45 minutes from the Texas border.  So to do that same scenario, we would have added another 3 hours driving to get to the airport in Albuquerque, or 2 hours to go to Lubbock, plus an extra $100-$150 more for the plane ticket, and it was still blacked out.

Now here is the bigger problem for the Diamondbacks, and really for MLB as a whole.  I want my daughters to be baseball fans.  We get the MLB package so that we can watch as much baseball as we can, and in particular watch all the Yankees games, which we do.  I was born and grew up in Phoenix, and even though I left before the Diamondbacks existed, they are still my "hometown" team.  It would be nice for my daughters to have a rooting interest for them, and maybe even become fans, but you know what, they never will be because they never, ever get to see the Diamondbacks play.  Ever.

That means that when we are planning vacations, they are never going to say, "hey, let's go to Phoenix to see the Diamondbacks play."  They are never going to ask for any Diamondbacks jerseys, hats, socks, lunch bags, etc.  Which means the Diamondbacks are never going to make money from us, and my daughters are never going to be fans of them. But they do talk about the Yankees and ask for those things, why?  Because that is who I root for and it is the team they see all the time.

I heard yesterday that the average age of baseball fans is 53.  If the MLB want to make fans of a new generation, one of the things they need to do is to abolish the stupid way they televise games, because most people are not like me, they are not paying to have access to nearly every MLB game being broadcast, and so children are not seeing these games, and unless the live in the immediate vicinity they are not watching the games of teams that might mean something to them.

*You might notice that I am also blacked out from Rockies games, but I don't care about the Rockies, although maybe I would if I could see their games.  In my last church I was also blacked out from the Rangers, so even though I was minimum 8 hours from any of these teams I could not see them.  And if you live in Vegas, forget about seeing anyone.

A Passing Faith: The Sacrifice of Isaac

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Genesis 22:1-14:

I know this is not going to come as a surprise, but men and women are different; this does not mean that one group is better than the other, just that we are different.  As a general rule when women talk about highlights that are not referring to what they watched on ESPN the night before and when a man says he is going to hang a rack in his house, it probably has more to do with a dead animal than with spices.  Or as Dave Barry has said, something appropriate for today’s passage, “If a woman has to choose between catching a fly ball and saving an infant's life, she will choose to save the infant's life without even considering if there is a man on base.”  We are different.  Now there are many debates about who wrote particular books or passages of the Bible, with some scholars looking for clues that might indicate that one of the authors may have been a woman.  I think that we can unquestionably solve the debate about today’s passage.  This story could have only been written by a man, simply for the fact that there is not enough information given.  He is a masterful storyteller, there is no question about that, but even as a man at the end of this story I want to ask questions in order to get more information.  Was Abraham’s conversation with God really that short?  Did he not ask more questions?  What did Sarah say?  Did she even know?  What were the servants thinking when Abraham and Isaac went up on the mountain?  Did Isaac really just go along with no resistance?  Did Abraham have no doubts whatsoever about carrying out this request out?
The Sacrifice of Isaac
by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

The beginning of this story tells us two important things.  The first is that God is testing Abraham.  We know this and God knows this, but Abraham does not.  That means that Abraham has to take everything that God is telling him to do seriously.  The other thing we are told is that the test happens, “after these things,” and so what were those things?  The first is that Abraham was called by God, and this actually mirrors today’s passage, because God calls Abraham, and says “Go.”  And where is he to go?  To the land that God will show him.  Abraham’s faithfulness to God and God’s faithfulness to Abraham also begins with this call.  Abraham pretends that Sarah is his sister rather than his wife, in order to try and save his life, thus not trusting in God, and he does this twice.  He and Sarah go around God in order to get an heir to fulfill God’s promise of descendants more numerous than the stars, by taking Hagar, his slave, and having a child with her, who is Ishmael.  Abraham argues with God in order to try and save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.  He and Sarah have Isaac, and then in the passage we heard last week, Sarah demands that Abraham expel Hagar and his son Ishmael into the desert, which he does.  What we see in these stories is that God has always been faithful to what God has promised to Abraham, even when Abraham has tried to play around with how those results are going to come about, and as that statement implies, Abraham has not always necessarily been faithful to God, or at least has not always trusted God to do what God says will happen.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Hagar: The Handmaid's Tale

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Genesis 21:8-20:

The story of Hagar and Ishmael is one of those troubling stories we find in the Bible, and yet one with which we don’t often deal.  In fact, I would be willing to guess that many of you had never even heard this story before, and have certainly never heard this passage talked about in church.  Even the reference materials I have been using, both Jewish and Christian, don’t cover this story, but I think we ignore it at our own peril.  As troubling as it is, and make us question Abraham, the father of the faith, and wonder why he ever went along with what he did, it is included as part of the story of faith for a reason for what it teaches us about God.
Hagar Offering Water to Her Son Ishmael in the Desert
by Charles Lock Eastlake

But before we get into that, we need to go backwards to remind ourselves of what has already happened to get us to this point, or to learn the story if we don’t know it already.  Abraham, although he is still named Abram, as it will be changed later, is called by God and told to leave his ancestral lands, and to go to the land God will show him, and he is told that God will make of him a great nation, and that his offspring will be more numerous than the stars, and so Abraham and his wife Sarah, get up and leave and go to the land of Canaan.  And then lots of things happen, but Sarah and Abraham remain childless, the promise not fulfilled, and so Sarah decides to take things into her own hands, or someone else’s really, and offers Abraham her slave girl to impregnate, so that Sarah can claim that child as her own.  You can find this in the 16th chapter of Genesis.

Now you may have heard Hagar referred to as Sarah’s handmaid, which is how some versions translate it, but the New Revised Standard Version translates correctly that Hagar is a slave, an Egyptian slave, and I think that is important to point out and to remember because that means that Hagar has no say in what is going to happen to her, her life is controlled by her owners, Sarah and Abraham, and there is something else striking in both this story and the passage we just heard, and that is that Sarah and Abraham never refer to Hagar by her name.  We only know her name because the narrator and later God use her name.  Sarah and Abraham only refer to her as the slave girl.  And so Abraham takes Hagar, and to put it bluntly, he rapes her.  That’s certainly not how we think of it, and if you can think of another word to call it I’m open to hearing it, but let’s be honest, Hagar has absolutely no say in what takes place, even if Hagar were to say no, it’s still going to happen.  Although this would have been acceptable practice in the ancient world, it does not change the reality of the situation.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

State Of The Church: A One Year Reflection

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Joshua 24:1-15:

It is just one day over a year ago that I stood before you on my first Sunday here at Mesa View.  I know some of you were upset to see Pastor Tom go, others were excited to have a new young clergy here, although some of you probably said I think I have shoes older than him.  It’s been quite a year, and so I thought I’d take today and do a sort of a state of the church address.  This congregation was officially founded on February 8, 1987, although they began meeting the year before in Rev. Chuck Bader’s, the founding pastor’s home.  In those 28 years, we have had only five pastors, including me, and even more amazingly, according to the records I have, we have sent out 12 people into the ministry.

Just like this past year, this congregation has seen some tremendous highs and lows.  We have seen a large drop in attendance over the past 8 years, but we are not alone.  In conversations I have had with the pastors at the two churches closest to us, we figure that between the three of us we have lost a combined 800 in worship attendance over the past 8 years.  That’s not good, but it also gives us tremendous opportunities, and I have some good news and some bad news.  The good news is that things are not as bad as they might have been perceived, and the bad news is that things are not as bad as they might have been perceived.  That’s the bad news because it’s a lot easier to just find a buyer for the property and close the doors then it is to say that this is God’s church and that we are going to make our stand here to make new disciples of Christ for the transformation of Taylor Ranch and the world, because that takes work.  But here is the good news; we’re in a lot better place than we were a year ago.

When I started I was given a sheet of paper that showed us owing $64,000 in bills.  We were several months behind on some of the bills, and Roger Sargent and Mark Stilwell were doing their best to try and keep everything together, and to keep the lights on.  Kim Short who is the director of our preschool came in and needed to buy some stamps, and JJ had to call Roger to make sure we had enough money in the bank to cover that.  The good news is that we are not there anymore, but the bad news is that we are not out of the woods yet.  We knew that the summer would be a lean time, and it has been.  But except for two checks to the conference that are sitting in the office, we are caught up on all of our bills, although we need a good offering today in order to make our next mortgage payment on Tuesday, but we will make that payment.  We have cut somewhere between $20-25,000 in expenses out of the budget, and we are working hard at increasing the income side of the budget