Sunday, September 24, 2017

God is Here

Genesis 27 & 28

Rebekah waited a long time for children… and when she was pregnant, they were twins. In Genesis 25, we hear this:
The children struggled together within her; and she said, ‘If it is to be this way, why do I live?’ So she went to inquire of the 
Lord. That’s right, she went directly to God, herself.
And the 
Lord said to her, ‘Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.’ 
Wait? What?
For those of us who believe that the primary work that God does is to bring people together and reconcile them to one another across tribes, these stories from Genesis can be difficult. Abraham sent away one son and nearly killed another. Now, we have two of his grandsons, twin brothers, seemingly fated to be in relentless struggle. In those moments of crisis when we, like many followers of Jesus over the years, think “What does this mean?” It sometimes helps me to hear these stories as descriptive rather than prescriptive. People divide themselves into tribes and groups, and these stories try to imagine back and back to answer “Why is it like this?” But… it’s not necessarily ever that the endings are predictable. People create hierarchies and structures and institutions in an attempt to keep things under control, predictable… and neither life nor God fit into our human-made categories.

So here, we have the big, big story of twin brothers (and two nations)—Esau and Jacob, Edom and Israel.
We heard just a little of the story in the skit. For those who don’t know the story well, the brothers are very different. Esau is hairy and a man of the wilderness and a hunter. His father, Isaac, loves the game he hunts and all that he provides. Jacob is a "an ordinary, quiet sort of person"[1] and likes to stay in the tents. He stays home while his brother adventures out, and his mother loves her youngest, wholesome son. So, we have a family divided by different practices and different ways of being…and different loyalties.
There is another scene that happens before the blessing scene we heard this morning—Esau comes in from hunting one day and he’s famished. Jacob is cooking a stew and Esau wants some. Jacob offers to sell him stew for his “birthright,” a double portion of inheritance. Esau is so hungry, he accepts… and so he’s blamed in the story for despising his birthright (or taking it too lightly—after all, he sold a double-inheritance for a bowl of stew). I might question why Jacob wouldn’t just give his brother some stew? But the storyteller is always trying to help us understand… God chooses to do something with Jacob, the youngest, not the oldest… not the adventurer, but the homebody…

So with that set up, Isaac is growing old. His senses are failing him. He can’t see. He tells his oldest son to go out and find some game, cook it, and bring it back because it’s time for him to pass on his blessing. Esau obeys. Meanwhile, Rebekah overhears the plan and she and Jacob work together to deceive Isaac. She cooks his favorite stew out of two young goats. He puts the goatskin on his arms (because Esau is hairy and he’s not), and brings the stew in, greeting his father as if he’s Esau. To give Isaac credit, he knows something’s up. He knows Jacob’s voice when he hears it, but it’s unthinkable that a son would steal a blessing. But when Jacob asks multiple times, Jacob says he’s Esau, he’s got the stew (in record time?), Jacob’s arms are hairy as a young goat… so Isaac blesses him. Then Esau comes back, comes in with stew and a blessing, and Isaac trembles violently—no one likes knowing they’ve been taken advantage of—and Isaac does not feel he has any blessing left in him for his oldest son. Both men are angry and full of blame, but Esau is mad enough to kill his brother. Rebekah overhears this plan as well, and so she makes a way for Jacob to leave. She doesn’t like Esau’s Canaanite wives, nor does Isaac. So, they tell Jacob to travel to find a wife from their own family (this was acceptable at that time), and Isaac blesses him to go and to one day to come back. Esau overhears, and so he chooses a third wife from among the grandchildren of Abraham (Ishmael’s relatives), trying still to please his parents.

Meanwhile, Jacob leaves. Jacob, the person who has always stayed home, goes out into the wilderness for the first time. He stops for the night and uses a stone for a pillow, and that night, he has a dream. In that dream, there is a ladder and there are angels going up and down… but then, God appears right beside Jacob. In spite of Jacob’s ordinariness, in spite of his lying to his father and grasping for a blessing, God promises to Jacob—in the same way as God promised Abraham and Isaac—that beyond his wildest dreams, God would be with him wherever he goes and will bless him (making his descendants, his tribe numerous), so that all people would be blessed through him, and that God would bring him back to this land, saying, “I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

Jacob wakes up, filled with a sense of awe. He says, “’Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’”
Again, in response to God’s big and vast promises, a person (this time, Jacob) responds to the immensity with specificity. God says, “I will go with you wherever you go,” and Jacob responds,
“God is right here, right here—I didn’t even realize it.”

Jacob can’t understand the vastness of God’s promise. Jacob has always been the one who stayed at home, who is rooted firmly in one place. So, he connects God’s promise to this place, to the very rock that he put his head on for that dream-filled night.  Here’s what the story says next:
So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Beth-el.... Then Jacob made a vow, saying, ‘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, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, 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 can’t quite believe the fullness of God’s promises… God promises to be everywhere, and Jacob responds with a house for God built right here… God has offered more than Jacob could believe, more than he could have asked or imagined. And Jacob imagines that he can somehow contain God. Still, God’s promises hold strong.

We dare to believe that we can speak to God the way that Rebekah did. We’re courageous to believe that in spite of our fears or our anger, our disbelief, our lying, our cheating, the promise that God gave to Jacob is for us, too. We dare to believe that in spite of all the never-ending ladders we imagine we need to climb to get to heaven, that actually, God appears right beside us, saying:
“I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Until everything is complete, I will never leave you… what a promise!
In one month, we’ll be witnesses as several youth stand up to Affirm their Baptism—a day we call Confirmation. And I think it’s reassuring to know that whatever you do and wherever you go, God will not leave you until God has completed what God has promised you. Just as that’s true for our 14 & 15 year olds, that's true for each one of you, of any age… that God sticks with you through the very end… and in faith we believe, even beyond the end as we know it.

Jacob’s story goes on. The trickster gets tricked… Jacob has to navigate many twists and turns in his many years away from home, but he ends up with 12 sons, that’s a number that the ancient Hebrews considered complete. He was incredibly skilled at breeding and raising animals—and became incredibly powerful. Over and over, his neighbors wanted to make sure that they were in good with him because they sensed there was a power with him that was not his own.
Much later, Jacob does return to his homeland. At that time, he even reconciles with his brother, Esau, and together they bury their father when he dies at the ripe old age of 180.
The struggles do not end—after all, he had 12 sons, there was bound to be competition.
But over and over, God kept God’s promise… Until everything is complete, I will never leave you.

Today, God is here, not just because this is a beautiful church, built by people who like Jacob wanted you to look around and sense God in this particular place… God is here, and not because we are so good.
But God is here because God shows up beside us in the wilderness places of life.. And here, just where you imagine God could never be, God promises to be with you now and through everything that is to come. God gathers us in & through & across our tribes and groups, with all our significant differences, and is still making us one body in Christ. Hopefully, that fills us with some measure of gratitude and a sense of enough, but if the stories are not enough, then we have this too—the table, where Jesus promised God will always meet us—over and over, week after week, until everything is complete.                 God is here, God sustains us, and God goes with us wherever we are.


Sunday, September 10, 2017

Better Together

The Creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2                                                          
God’s Work, Our Hands Sunday

On Wednesday evening this week, in spite of some communication gaps and general confusion, most of our Confirmation families got together and shared a meal – this year, we have 17 kids in Confirmation (!), a peak year for us for the foreseeable future. I shared why it’s important that we get together and what we’ll be doing this fall. We spoke our summer highlights into the room (with some sadness that summer adventures and summer schedules are past for now), and we blessed each other before we left…. Or I should say, before some very high volume foosball and ping pong got underway. One mom told me later that her 6th grader LOVES confirmation.

On Thursday night, 14 of us gathered at the invitation of the Isaiah Core Team to tell our stories of pain in our present everyday life— people shared experiences of racism, the expense of health care, the broken systems we have to address mental illness and addictions, financial fears when money is very tight, and fears about deportation of our neighbors, fears about the health of the earth in a season when one record hurricane follows another in just over a week…we told our stories around the circle and noticed the big picture stories that the dominant white culture of the U.S. holds up. The lies are powerful—there is not enough to go around, you better protect what you have & make sure you have enough for you & your family because that’s all on you, you better not tell about your pain because people are not compassionate–your pain will be your fault. We noticed how these lies keep us isolated, unconscious to how much we share, and how very interconnected we can become… but that there’s power in recognizing our connections.

Then, on Saturday, some of us gathered in the morning to work outside in Peace garden, preparing the ground for new plantings in the spring along the west side of the building. Others practiced Cambodian music upstairs. Still others prepared fleece for our blanket tying service project—one of three projects we’ll do together after worship. On Saturday evening, we gathered for our fourth Second Saturday meal and story—this time, featuring Thaly Cavanaugh’s marvelous Cambodian meal and her story of her journey from Cambodia to Minnesota, a story of deep suffering and incredible resiliency.

Sharing food together, singing together, sharing work, sharing our stories, sharing our highs and lows draws us closer to one another and helps us to notice the presence of God in new ways, not only as we gather, but as we are sent into our daily lives.

Behold, a new creation! Everything is becoming new…
This year, we are trying something new in worship—it’s called the Narrative lectionary—and what that means is that we are going to try to get more deeply in touch with God’s big story, God’s big narrative, as we read stories from the Bible together. We start today with stories of Creation from the first chapters of Genesis, and each week this fall, we’ll move through stories from the Hebrew scriptures (sometimes called the Old Testament), so we can get to know them better… again or for the first time.
We don’t necessarily assume that we all know these stories. A pastor or seminarian told me a story of sharing with church people that there was more than one creation story in the Bible, and this was totally new to them.
Over the years, there have sometimes been arguments about whether the creation really took place in seven days… and here’s what we learn about that argument today. Not even the Bible tells the story in just that one way. Genesis one paints the story of creation in seven big days. Genesis two describes it as happening all at once. The stories are not about literal details… the stories of creation are about God’s presence in everything that happened, whether it was a day or a million years. I think that the people who told these stories, passing them on from generation to generation, and much, much later, who wrote them down… wanted to communicate these things:

God was involved from the very beginning. Remember God’s Spirit, hovering over the void, the empty universe, the face of the deep, the watery nothingness? Even way back then before everything we think of as something… God was.
The storytellers of Genesis wanted us to know:
God loves to create something from nothing. We know this… but this story paints it in beautiful detail. The beautiful creation wasn’t created from the violence and jealousies of gods. No, from the cosmically big to the tiniest part of creation, God creates beautiful variety… and calls all good. And there was evening and there was morning, and each day… some more was created and blessed.
OR according to that second, all-in-one version of the story, God creates Adam (the earth person, the one formed from the ground, and isn’t satisfied until God surrounds the human with food to eat, a tree of life, creatures to be in relationship with… and finally a partner).
And God thinks this whole creation, the work and the rest, is good.

You might notice that on your bulletin cover, there is word art. Typically, this type of word art is generated by a computer program that measures frequency—how often the word shows up. But, on this example, if that was the case, some of the words would be different sizes.
God, absolutely should be the biggest. In just these two chapters of Genesis, God appears 42 times! But the word “over” is nothing like that often. Yes, God’s Spirit hovers over the deep and in the storytellers’ view, the sun and moon are over the day and night. But all in all, over shows up just 10 times. What shows up more? Earth = 26 times. Day = 16 times. Water = 12 times. Good = 11 times. And one of those times… very good.

So, if I were going to design the word art for the cover, the biggest words would be God, earth, day, waters, good… and doesn’t that have a different feel? I think you’ll find that as we get deeper into the stories that point us to God’s big story this season, the way that we’ve sometimes taken in these stories, in the middle of all the stories we live everyday—has trapped us in cycles of thinking we are alone, we are powerless, we are sad, lonely, and fearful all by ourselves.
But God’s story is trying to communicate something so different to us—that God created us from the very beginning in community and that we are better together. We are stronger the more deeply we realize our ties to the whole creation. We have the opportunity for more hope and solidarity, for purpose and meaningful work, when we listen to one another and see ourselves as partners. And… yes, this creation bit is all God’s good work, but God wants our participation. Or as our church names it on this day, it’s God’s work using our hands.

So whatever you have brought of yourself to worship this Sunday, remember we are better because you are here. That’s the way it’s been since the very beginning when God was creating all things new… and that’s the work that God is still doing, drawing people together because we’re better together, and through the Holy Spirit—that same Spirit that hovered over the deep in the very beginning—God is still calling & strengthening us to be God’s creative partners through all the twists and turns of daily life.

How will God use your hands, your feet, your story this week? Who knows…

But watch for it… because that’s how God works—in and through, over and under—we’ll practice here after worship: putting together Kids Kits and tying blankets for children who have experienced disasters in their communities and moving out into our own neighborhood to lend a helping hand. But what we practice here is just to reaffirm that this is the work we’re called to each day as we walk with the One who is making all things new.