Sunday, August 21, 2011

How We're Built

Genesis 37:2-11, 18-28

2 This is the story of the family of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father's wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. 3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. 4 But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him. 5 Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. 6 He said to them, "Listen to this dream that I dreamed. 7 There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf." 8 His brothers said to him, "Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?" So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words. 9 He had another dream, and told it to his brothers, saying, "Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me." 10 But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, "What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?" 11 So his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.

18 They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. 19 They said to one another, "Here comes this dreamer. 20 Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams." 21 But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, "Let us not take his life." 22 Reuben said to them, "Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him"--that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father. 23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; 24 and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. 25 Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. 26 Then Judah said to his brothers, "What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27 Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh." And his brothers agreed. 28 When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.

This Joseph story is fascinating. It is such a human story. It’s the story of every dysfunctional family - the story of every family, if we’re being honest. It’s the story of a bunch of almosts - people who are almost devils - people who are almost heroes.

We only get part of the story in this lectionary text. The full story of Joseph and his brothers encompasses the last thirteen or so chapters in Genesis. Interestingly, this text isn’t interrupted from other sources very much. Most scholars argue that the book of Genesis is made up of three sources: the Yahwist, the Elohist, and the Priestly. But this Joseph narrative, or novel, as it is sometimes called, is not a collection of these sources, nor does it have many interruptions from the Priestly, or Elohist sources. And some scholars even contend that this story comes from a source that is older than the Yahwist. It’s one long story, the longest continual story in all of Genesis. And an ancient one at that. So preaching on just part of the story has its challenges, and I encourage you all to crack open your Bibles and read the story in its entirety.

But there is a reason, I think, for us to focus on just one part of the story. This is the part of the story of Joseph that is all ugly. It’s all of the rising action with none of the conclusion. And the rising action continues even past our reading for today, complicating the plot and developing the characters all the way through the story’s arch. At this point in the story, there isn’t a single blameless person. No one is the hero here.

Jacob, the chosen father of the twelve tribes of Israel has manipulated his way into this birthright from the very beginning. In this part of the story, this chosen father of the Twelve Tribes of Israel spoils the child of his favorite wife, and doesn’t hide it from his other sons. He gives Joseph a long coat with sleeves, maybe multi-colored, but the Hebrew here is more accurately “sleeves.” It’s a coat made for a prince, a coat that would completely inhibit any physical work that needed to be done in the fields or at home.

And Joseph revels in his father’s treatment. He’s one of those stereotypical punk teenagers who knows all the answers and has it all figured out. He flaunts his dreams of future domination over his brothers, and has no problem tattling on his brothers when they step out of line.

And his brothers. His brothers are jealous bullies who beat up on Joseph, leave him for dead, sell him as a slave, and then lie to their father about it.

Even Reuben, the oldest, who sees the sin in all of this, who wants to save Joseph, doesn’t have the guts to do it.

And Judah restrains his brothers from killing Joseph, not because he cares for him, but because he knows that the bloodguilt that would result would haunt him and his family for the rest of their lives.

There isn’t any blameless person in this whole story:

But these are the people that God makes. This is you and me.

Find yourself in this story.

You could be a villain:

Are you Jacob, the one who has put his hopes on only one thing, neglecting your other responsibilities, blind to others who want and need your love? Blind to those who give you love?

Are you Joseph, maybe a little naive, flaunting your gifts and preaching your ideas at the expense of others?

Or are you one of the brothers, willing to sacrifice the life of another because you feel threatened by their potential?

You could be a victim:

Are you Jacob? Has the one thing you love most in the world been taken from you?

Are you Joseph? Have you been betrayed and hurt by those who you were supposed to trust the most?

Or are you one of the brothers, whose gifts have always seemed to be overlooked because someone else walks by with a sparkling coat and a flashy smile?

There isn’t a blameless person in this story. And there isn’t one person who is not a victim. Isn’t that like all of us?

Interestingly, God isn’t mentioned in this part of the story once. - Later, the narrator attributes some of the actions and outcomes to God, but the greatest reflection on God’s actions doesn’t come until the end of the Joseph narrative, and only in hindsight. It is after all the complications and actions of our protagonists, after all the deceit and corruption and pain has past, that God is finally given any credit for anything that has happened.

And yet, here it is, in our Bible. A story that somehow is supposed to point us towards God, or teach us something about God, and it doesn’t have God’s direct actions in it at all.

So the challenge is, can we see the work of God in the middle of the story, when things aren’t finished, when God seems absent? When the characters - even ourselves - are both villains and victims? Where is God when you feel like you’ve been thrown into a dry well? And when you feel guilty for throwing someone else into that well? Where is God when you’re in the middle of your story and there’s no evidence anywhere that God even cares? Where’s God when you’re in the middle of the storm?

Peter can do this, see God in the heart of the chaos. Sort of. He says in the middle of the storm, smack dab in the middle of Matthew’s Jesus narrative, in the midst of his fear and disbelief, “Hey, if it is You, in the middle of this crazy storm, in the middle of the sea, in the middle of all of this chaos, then I want to be with you.” And Jesus says, “c’mon.”

And when he forgets that Jesus is out there, when he sees the waves crashing all around him, when he feels like he is going to be swallowed up by all that’s around him, when he’s smack dab in the middle of that raging sea, that’s when he begins to sink. So even someone like Peter, who has Jesus right there, performing miracles right in front of him, even Peter still sinks.

So there’s Joseph, dumped in the cistern, sitting in that giant pit used to collect water for the dry season, and it’s empty. There is no water for the future. The land is dry. His brothers have abandoned him. You’re not going to last long exposed out there in the desert, alone. It’s a hopeless situation, and a prediction of how things will be in the land for a long time to come.

Both the Joseph narrative and the story of Peter on the water give us the opportunity to ask the hard questions. Where is God when the land is dry and your support system is gone? When the wind is against you? When you look for God but only see a ghost?

Where is God when you’re being sold out to insurance companies, and mortgage companies, and political systems that can’t seem to get their acts together in order to avoid a complete financial meltdown? Or when you’ve lost your job or your spouse or you’ve been the one to have left someone alone in the desert?

And yet...

Joseph dreams dreams he’s not “supposed” to dream. Crazy dreams that upend all of society’s expectations. Dreams that disrupt the balance. He’s the youngest; he’s not supposed to be the greatest. He’s supposed to get the dregs of his father’s inheritance, not become richer and more powerful than even his own father.

But in order to understand the impact of these dreams though, we need to rewind our psychology to a time before Freud, before Realism, before Modernity. Dreams in the time of the formation of the Hebrew Bible were more than just fantasies of the subconscious. Dreams were portents of the future, they came from God, and they had power.

Joseph predicts his rise to power. He predicts that his brothers and father and mother are all going to need him to save the day. He predicts that his life is going to be different from what it is now.

And we have that seed of those dreams throughout the rest of the story. It’s the promise that God won’t leave us, even when we’re in the pit, even when we’ve thrown someone else in the pit, even when we’ve cursed God and found that what we’ve loved has been torn to shreds. It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s something. And the dreams don’t really come to fruition in the way that Joseph expects. The way that they happen is far more humbling, far more life-changing, and far more transformative than any of our characters realize at the time that Joseph reports them.

But the fact that there were dreams, that there is a promise, that is what Joseph and his brothers and Jacob have to hold on to - even when they think Joseph is dead or sold off as a slave. Even when they no longer believe in the dream. Even when they never believed the dream in the first place. The dream is still there.

Those with great faith aren’t those who are sure of themselves or of the presence of God, or are certain things will turn out ok in the end. Those with great faith are the ones who can sit in the pit, sink into the water, and still stretch out their hands to God, or maybe just think about stretching their hands, or even wish they had the strength to stretch out to God. Those who stretch out their hands to God may not even be sure that someone’s going to be there to grab it on the other end. They don’t know if God is going to make everything right again. If you shout down to them as they sit at the bottom of that well and ask them if they even believe in God, they may not even answer. It’s a faith so deep in their bones that they may not even know that it’s there.

It’s like a reflex - something you can’t control anymore because you’ve practiced it and practiced it. It’s a faith that runs so deep that if one day you began to question everything you thought you knew, if you started to think that your faith is just a hoax of incredible proportions, you’d still live it out anyway because that’s just how you’re built.

Like Mother Teresa, who, even though, at the end of her life, questioned everything that her life had been based on, she still got up in the morning and prayed to a God she questioned existed. The believing of what is truth vs. what is false, the modern idea of “facts” versus “lies” - even though these are important questions - isn’t the faith; the persistence is. The shouting out to God even when you doubt God’s existence - that’s the faith. The remembering that there was once a dream - maybe it came long ago, and maybe you only remember it in pieces and whispers - that’s the faith. That’s the something deep inside of Peter, deep down in his bones that reminds him to call out, to reach up, to grab a hand.

And that IS how we’re built.

We are made by the creator, God’s very self. We have the essence of who God is deep in our flesh. When we breathe, we are in communion with God. When we enjoy a great meal with good friends, we are enjoying it with God. When we are hungry, or lost, or when we’ve just thrown our brother into a dry cistern, God is there. This is the beautiful and terrifying thing about the incarnation.

‘Cause when we throw our brother down there, we realize we’ve thrown God down there too. And when we’re the ones down there, when we’re in despair, hungering and thirsting for a God who only seems silent and distant, God’s there, too.

That’s why we come to church, why we listen to these stories. We come to be reminded that we’re not alone. We come to be reminded that the dreams were dreamt, the histories happened, that the God whose presence was felt two thousand years ago, and even further back in history, can still be felt today. We are both villains and victims, but we’re dreamers, too. And just remembering this, just remembering that there was a dream once, even when we feel so far away from it now, even if we can’t believe what it claims, we have enough to hold on to, to stretch out for. God has built us to have faith, deep in our very bones.

May we always remember that that’s how we’re built.

Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Mustard Trees

31He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches."

33He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened."

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

44"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

45"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

47"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind;48when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

51"Have you understood all this?" They answered, "Yes." 52And he said to them, "Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."

So every Spring, Dan and I continue our crusade to eliminate our need to do any sort of lawn care. Well, it doesn’t really start out that way. What really happens is that after a long winter of gray skies and frozen pizzas, we get this itch to plant things, to see stuff grow, to just walk out our back door and pick fresh raspberries and sun-warmed tomatoes - even eat them right off the vine. So each year, we set our sights on adding to our garden. Every May we move the t-posts and stretch out the chicken wire a little further to accommodate just one more tomato plant, and then just one row of asparagus, and then, heck, while we’re at it, let’s try blueberry bushes this year. Needless to say, we’re running out of lawn. The three strawberry plants we planted two years ago have now taken up the whole flower bed and wandered out past our fence and into the front yard. The raspberry bush we planted last year has tripled in size and sprouted up three new extensions. And we really only wanted one zucchini plant and one yellow squash, but when they come in packs of four, well, you might as well plant them all and see what happens. Well, what happened is that we’ve got a whole freezer full of shredded zucchini, and I’ve tried so many different yellow squash recipes that I’m thinking about trying yellow squash sorbet next.

But here’s the thing - we really don’t spend that much time gardening. Neither of us would describe our thumbs with any shade of green. We stick the plants in the ground, throw some worm castings over it, give it some water now and then, and get back to reading about Process Womanist Theology, or the “shared cultural milieu of the Gospel of John and the Dead Sea Scrolls,” and appeasing our toddler’s newest fascination with trucks and vacuum cleaners. We just let them go, and yet, and yet, they still take over our lawn and fill our countertops and freezer with produce. It’s overwhelming, really, but in a fun, melting-ice-cream-all-over-your-fingertips sort of way. And I’m sure our neighbors think we’re crazy, and maybe shake their heads a little at our tiny farm in the city.

And that’s sorta how I feel when I try to thread all of these parables together in today’s Scripture reading. The images and their implications are overwhelming, maybe even a little overgrown, and so much can be said about each parable individually that we could be here all day. But don’t worry, I’m just a seminary student, so I won’t make us do that.

Instead, what I want us to do is to hover over these stories, and see how they are all planted in the same field, how, when these parables are sewn together, or sown together, they make a kind of narrative, a pattern of responding to the kingdom of God that is both present here, now, as well as in the future. I want us to see the narrative arch that the writer of the Gospel of Matthew presents to us when we thread these parables together. The kingdom starts small, invisibly even, but when we see it, or when we know it’s there even if we don’t see it, our response should be one of both joy and discernment.

This list of parables is Jesus’ response to the disciples’ confusion. They don’t get why more people aren’t coming on board with Jesus’ message. As good, observant Jews, they’ve been waiting and looking for the Kingdom to come their whole lives, and now that it’s here, now that they see it and feel it and can almost taste it through their encounters with Jesus, they don’t understand why everyone else isn’t seeing it too. They’re trying to juxtapose two incongruous facts: the “smallness” of Jesus and the disciples’ ministry and the “great” expectations of the future - the fact that a scrubby son of a Jewish carpenter and his mentally unstable cousin - along with twelve or so equally scrubby fishermen, tax collectors, and joe six packs - are going to be the beginning of this paradigm shift that centuries of Jews have been waiting for. This collection of parables is an invitation to contemplate these two things - our present circumstances as well as our hopes and expectations of a future that God has promised us.

And of course, Jesus explains things in a way that turns everything on its head and, if we’re paying attention, completely confounds us. The kingdom of heaven isn’t going to come in a grand whirlwind or from a lightning bolt from the sky. No, Jesus tells us, the kingdom starts small. Its beginnings look insignificant, and maybe even a little precarious - like a mustard seed, like leaven. Through these series of parables, a vital truth is revealed about God’s kingdom - that, to quote Dale Allison, “a humble beginning and secret presence are not inconsistent with a great and glorious destiny.”

So, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field,” and “The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour.” When it comes to gardening, or making bread, or the beginnings of the coming of the Kingdom, it’s easy to screw it up. So much can so easily go wrong. That’s why we place ten or even fifteen tiny seeds into the peat pots in the spring, hoping to get one good tomato plant out of it. And if your water is too cold, your yeast won’t activate. But if it’s too hot, the yeast will die. If you accidentally forget about your sourdough starter, and find it dried up and crumbled in the back of your refrigerator, you have to start all over again. Someone can tell you that you don’t belong in a church, or that you’re not good enough, or that you’re not “spiritual” enough, and the hopes of the Kingdom could just whither on the vine.

And yet. In each of us is a part of the divine spark that sent entire planets into being. The end is held in the beginning. A little bit of the old leaven is needed to make new dough. And all the potential, the entire future of a tree is held within that one seed. Again, our buddy Dale Allison writes, “For Matthew, the kingdom exists now; and it is an ‘eschatological sphere of salvation, which breaks in, makes a small, unpretentious beginning, miraculously swells, and increases; as a divine “field of energy” it extends and expands ever farther.”

But let’s not forget about the scandal of it all. This is Jesus after all. Jesus not only takes the expectations of the Disciples and turns them upside down, but he completely reverses the clearly defined codes and limits of Jewish life. But for us to understand this, we need a little bit of a botany lesson as well as a little bit of an Old Testament lesson. According to Jewish codes in Leviticus, “You shall not sow your field with two different kinds of seed.” Seeds need to be properly separated. You don’t mix the wheat with the corn, or the barley with the oats. But the thing is, it is the nature of the mustard seed to spread and take over, to cross boundaries, to do what my raspberry bush is doing now by fraternizing with the tomatoes. If you tried to plant one nice, neat little row of mustard bushes, they’re so resilient and persistent, they’ll soon spread and take over the whole field. So hold that idea in one hand.

And in the other hand, consider that in the Old Testament, it’s trees, not bushes, that are symbols for God’s reign on earth. The book of Daniel, the book of Ezekiel and even Psalm 104 all refer to giant trees where birds find shelter and places to nest. “A tree in whose shade animals or birds find shelter and sustenance is an Old Testament image of a powerful kingdom sheltering the nations.” But Jesus changes this up. He says that this planted mustard seed “is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown, it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” Mustard plants don’t really become trees. According to Pliny the Elder, an ancient Roman botanist who wrote a Natural History - a sort of ancient encyclopedia of nature - most mustard bushes grow to be about four feet tall. These are bushes, not trees. So why does the writer of Matthew choose to call it a tree? Maybe Matthew was a horrible botanist who didn’t know his ragweed from his sea weed. Or, maybe, and perhaps more likely, Matthew, an ever careful writer, chooses the word “tree” on purpose, to emphasize that this is something that we’ve never seen before, something beyond our expectations. God’s kingdom is one made up of mustard trees. As Bernard Brandon Scott calls it, these trees are an “unnatural malformity of mythical botany.” And in these overgrown bush/tree hybrids is “recognition that God’s mighty words [and works] are among the unclean and insignificant.” It’s not a giant cedar or a majestic oak, but the tiny shoot of Jesse, a lowly carpenter’s son, a torn up man hanging on a cross of rotting wood, or a bush that barely grows four feet high - these are the ways the kingdom of heaven comes to earth.

The planting and growth of a mustard seed is a scandal on many levels. It’s a scandal for planting this seed where it will certainly “corrupt” the other fields, and a scandal for becoming a tree - something completely unexpected for such a humble plant. Or, think of the scandal, the shock on the faces of the disciples when Jesus suggests that a woman is one who can facilitate the coming of the kingdom in the simple and domestic realm of baking bread.

Jesus again restructures, adjusts, and sometimes even obliterates our expectations. The kingdom is like a seed, or the leaven needed for bread. We want the quick fix, the immediate answer, or if we have to wait, we at least want something majestic and lasting and big. But this isn’t how things work, says Jesus. The kingdom must be planted, and when planted, it is buried, it is hidden, and then it must germinate and grow. All of the potential of the kingdom is in that tiny seed, or contained in that yeast, and that potential is huge, life-changing, unexpected and welcoming.

The coming of the kingdom begins with a hidden presence, and it’s first growth is vulnerable, small, weak even...maybe even threatening.

But Jesus says to the Disciples - give everything you have for it anyway. And so we continue with our narrative of parables. If the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast tell us that the kingdom of God has humble, even scandalous beginnings, the parables of the treasure and the great pearl tell us to give up all that we have to attain it - even if it seems strange, or radical, or ridiculous or even a bit scandalous.

Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” Or again, it’s like “a merchant in search of pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all he had and bought it.” The value of the kingdom goes hand in hand with our appropriate response. Give everything you have, because it is worth everything you have.

And I can hear you all, right now. You’re thinking, “whoa, whoa, Jenn - I go to Sixth, I’m a Presbyterian, one of the “frozen chosen,” when did you get all Fundagelical on us?” Give up everything? That’s just irresponsible. That’s not only crazy; that’s just dumb.

But let’s stop and think about this for a minute. Don’t we do this all the time? Don’t we make decisions about what we’re going to give our lives to and what we aren’t? This is where our parable of the nets comes in. The kingdom of heaven “is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.”

Don’t we give our whole lives to our children? Or, wouldn’t we, if we were asked to? Don’t our jobs demand this from us, even if we resist? Don’t we watch television commercials and think, “If I just had that new car, or bought that kind of mayonnaise, or used that kind of deodorant or had that degree everything in my life would be so much better?” The question is, how do we sort through what is life-giving and what needs to be thrown out? Does what you give your whole self to give you your self back? Does it give back more? What is worth giving of our whole selves? And what isn’t? Jesus tells us it’s the stuff that surprises us, the stuff that seems a little bit scandalous, the stuff that seems hidden that will give us our lives back, and ultimately, bring the kingdom of heaven here on earth.

Jesus tells us that when we find that hidden, vulnerable, pervasive thing that brings in the kingdom, it’s worth everything we have, and that means making some choices. That means that when we gather up everything that life has to offer into our nets, we’re going to have to throw out the things that don’t bring about the kingdom. We must sort through what gives us life and what takes life from us.

Jesus says, the Kingdom is worth it, even when it’s hidden, even when it looks like a weed, even when it needs to be carefully tended to, even when it disrupts our neat little rows of order, control and routine. And when we give everything we have, we don’t leave with nothing. We leave with our arms full of life, nets full of fish, loaves and loaves of bread, and acres of mustard trees. And more than that. We leave with an idea of what we thought was impossible is now possible - bushes become trees, fields become treasure, a speck of dirt becomes a pearl.

Thanks be to God.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Get Out.

John 10:1-10

"Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers." 6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7 So again Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

Ok, true confessions. I have a line item in my monthly budget just for coffee drinks. Yup. I am ashamed to admit that I set aside a little bit of money every month for those gloriously overpriced steamed-milked, cardboard sleeved, caffeinated cups of deliciousness. And I’ve become such a coffee snob that there are only a few places that I will risk venturing to purchase these java delights, - and another confession - Starbucks is one of those places. Oh, Starbucks. And I know all the evils - the corporate dominance, the globalization, the oppressed coffee workers in El Salvador and Kenya. But, I justify to myself, if I’m going to spend five dollars on a cup of coffee, it had better be just the way I like it, every time. I have risked the hard-earned Lincoln-note for disasters called coffee, and I have learned my lesson - if you want to be safe, go where you’ve always gone.

And don’t companies and corporations rely on this? Isn’t that why chicken nuggets are always the same shape and when I say I’d like a “triple-grande-nonfat-one-pump-vanilla-caramel-macchiato,” it always tastes the same? And don’t we like that? Don’t we like that when we order a Big Mac, it doesn’t really taste like beef, it tastes like, well, a Big Mac? Don’t we like it when we know what to expect, know what will happen, and can invest in things that have guaranteed outcomes? Put your money in a Prudential account, because they are “like a rock.” Or if you want to know the “way forward” send your money to JP Morgan Chase. Don’t we like going into the same grocery store and knowing that our Cheerios will be right on the second shelf in aisle four, waiting for us? Don’t we come to this place, this sanctuary, often not really wanting to hear a new word from God, but wanting to have our own opinions reinforced? We feel comfortable and safe in our predictable, fenced in sheep pens.

I went to college expecting a predictable outcome. I’d put in four years, take out some loans, and come out with a degree that would get me a decent job that was also emotionally and spiritually fulfilling, pay off the loans, pay the bills, get dental insurance, and three weeks vacation.

A friend of mine voted for Obama, expecting an end to all war, expecting fully funded schools, and the eradication of all racially motivated police brutality.

Well. I ate the Snicker’s bar that “really satisfies,” and guess what, I got hungry again. I “obeyed my thirst,” drank a Sprite, and got thirsty again. I went to college, and then to grad school, and then to some more grad school, and here I am, still paying full price for my dental cleanings. We invested our money in JP Morgan and Citibank and The Bank of America, and we all know how that turned out. My friend who voted for Obama is so disappointed that he claims he will never vote for a mainstream party ever again. We believed the slogans, but they were - some of them quite literally - thieves and bandits, or maybe just people and corporations as lost and as hopeful and as naive as we are.

In our lectionary reading today, Jesus has just come back from breaking all the rules. Jesus tells the story of the sheep and the Shepherd in the context of being in trouble, big trouble. He has healed a blind man on the Sabbath, and the Pharisees are scandalized. He has debunked one of the most important precepts of the Jewish faith at the time. And what is the result? A man can see. The pious leaders are shocked. And everything is turned upside down.

The poor beggar is the one teaching the teachers, and the One who breaks the rules on the Sabbath is called “Lord.” Everyone believes that Jesus has gone off the deep-end, strayed far outside the normal constraints of his societal definitions.

And, Jesus, the one in big trouble, has the gall to step even further beyond the boundaries by being tough - really tough - on these Pharisees. He says to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” Now, it’s important to emphasize that Jesus is hard on the leaders, the ones with power, the ones who have the resources to define for all the Jews who belongs to the fold and who doesn’t. They are the ones who create the slogans and enforce the rules. And Jesus’ conflict with these powerful authorities - the powerful men who construct and enforce societal boundaries - is central to the plot of the Gospel of John. The Gospel of John focuses on the purposes of God, which include “the end of hierarchical and exploitative socioeconomic structures, which are replaced by communities of new power relations expressed in service and love.

This Gospel is about the end of all oppressive social structures secured by gender, ethnicity, cultural traditions and social status.” Jesus’ mission won’t fit into a slogan, can’t conform to a cookie cutter belief system, and demands a radical shift in our allegiance.

By Chapter 10, Jesus’ confrontations with the elite of his culture have reached a tipping point. “He attacks the Jerusalem leaders ... as “thieves and bandits” who steal resources from the people and threaten their well-being” “He challenges the leaders’ power and societal order secured in alliance with Rome”.

And how does Jesus explain his actions and his purpose? Through a metaphor, a story. We have a cozy sheepfold, surrounded by a fence perhaps, or more likely walls of stones, and enclosed by a gate. There’s a gatekeeper and a shepherd and sheep, and those who try to sneak in to the sheepfold by jumping the fence.

To those listening, as soon as Jesus said, “Shepherd”, Ezekiel 34 might come to mind. They’d set up a dichotomy between the powers of those who rule their present reality, and the Power of the One God who rules all. They would compare those with the power to define and construct their reality as Jews and humans, to the One who made The Reality itself. And Jesus is directly accusing these people and these social structures who are abusing their power of being thieves and bandits - of promising one thing, but delivering another, of taking more than their fair share of resources, and leaving the sheep with nothing. Thieves and bandits are those who deceive, who defy, who slyly convince, and maybe, just maybe, are those who do it without the sheep even realizing it. If the sheep take a moment to hear and recognize their voices, the sheep aren’t deceived; they know the sound of the true shepherd’s voice when they hear it. But, are these thieves so sneaky, so deceptive, and have access to advertising budgets worth billions of dollars, so much so, that the sheep are tempted to accept what they claim to offer without even having to hear their voice? Are we so used to expecting regularity and sameness, predictability and assurance, that we don’t even realize who we’re following? Who are our bandits and thieves in our day?

Who should we consider to be false shepherds in our lives? What are the Powers of our day offering us, and what do we believe because of their influence?

Jesus uses harsh language here. He calls them as he sees them, thieves and bandits. These are serious accusations. But I want to encourage you not to put words into Jesus’ mouth. Jesus does not call them evil; only deceptive. He does not call the situation hopeless, only pointless. The Powers that try to define our identity are only as powerful and as harmful as we enable them to be. To see this, we need to look again at the analogy.

The thieves and bandits enter the sheepfold, but there is no mention of them exiting or leading the sheep anywhere. In order for the sheep to go anywhere, there’s only one way out - through the gate. So the thieves and the bandits are stuck inside the sheepfold, with the rest of the sheep. Going nowhere. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a sheepfold; as a city-kid, I can tell you that I never have. But I do remember the yearly field trip that my parents would take us to the State Fair when we were kids, where farmers from all over the state would come to show their livestock. My brothers and sisters and I were in awe of the pigs and ducks and cows and sheep, and we were presented with a challenge that we were not used to dealing with - a veritable maze and obstacle course of mounds of hay, piles of wool, and well, let’s just call them warm land mines that would mark our tennis shoes as “city kids” for weeks after. And imagine the smells and sounds of these temporary homes for the livestock.

I’d guess that is similar to what a sheepfold would be like. But the sheep would be gathered together in one place, trampling what little vegetation there would be into a slush of mud. The sheep would feel safe there, but they’d hardly be nourished.

And that’s why the shepherd would open the gate and let the sheep out to the pasture to graze, get a little fresh air, encounter new things.

The thieves of our day would be just as happy if we never went out that gate - if we just spent our days looking down, pawing at the mud, and consuming plenty of red dye number 40 and mono-sodium glutamate.

But. The pasture is Out There.

Jesus says that he came to offer us abundant life - but that life is not in the sheepfold with the thieves and the bandits. It’s out there. Out there with the wolves, and the hot sun and the occasional thunderstorm. Yes. But out there with the cool breeze, the clean water, the nourishment that will bring us life.

There is pasture OUT THERE. Abundant life is OUT THERE.

The faith community at Broadstreet Ministry in Philadelphia did a strange thing when they decided to refurbish an old church in the middle of downtown Philadelphia. They tore out all of the pews, and put in chairs. They turned the chairs in the opposite direction - away from the pulpit and the choir loft - facing out - out towards the city - the place where the homeless sleep, where children go hungry, where gun violence destroys the future of their teens. But also where they met Andre, a formerly homeless man who now works in a halfway house to help others get out of homelessness. Also where the sides of buildings covered in murals attest to the creativity of Philadelphia’s people. Where Jesus has said there is life. They turned their chairs to face Out There.

We want to stay in here - where there are familiar slogans and the food tastes the same and everything is sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. Where we don’t have to do the work of defining ourselves - because the Powers of corporations and political structures and cultural assumptions will do it for us.

Do we want to be satisfied? Eat a Snickers bar. Do we want to feel “worth it?” Try L’Oreal products. Do we want to “get more?” Get a T-mobile cell phone. Do we want to feel valued among our peers? Get a PhD and a 4.0 or drive a Mercedes and make a six-figure salary.

And these aren’t inherently evil things. They’re just things that are tools, sometimes useful tools - but if we let them, they can claim to define us, claim to offer us things that they can’t really give us, and can make us feel complacent, completely content pacing our hallways, staring at the floor, wearing out the ground below us. That’s not life; that’s just existing.

Following God is not easy. There will be stones that trip us up, thorns that will tear at our ankles, and a wilderness that will make us seem lost. We’ll encounter painful relationships, we’ll fail, we’ll lose some money and trust someone we shouldn’t. But, God promises abundant life - not a safe life, not a secure life, not a comfortable life - a life of joy and belly laughs and deep deep feeling. And God promises to be with us through it all.

But in order for us to experience this abundant life, we have to step out of that pen and get into the pasture. May we all choose to follow the voice of the One who can lead us to an adventurous and abundant life.

Let it be so.

Thanks be to God.

** Quotations taken from "John: Storyteller, Interpreter, Evangelist" by Warren Carter

Saturday, January 22, 2011

That's Worship Too

Isaiah 58:1-12

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. 2Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.

3“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. 4Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. 5Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? 6Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

8Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. 9Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 10if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. 11The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. 12Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

Andre is a short man with high cheekbones that seem to get even higher when he smiles. He is missing his two front teeth. And he doesn’t walk, he struts, as he gives us a personal tour of Philadelphia. But this isn’t just a tour of the “Rocky Steps” and the famous “LOVE” sculpture. This is a tour of his neighborhood – the park benches he used to sleep on, the grates where he’d sneak some free air conditioning in the summer, and the tree where he’d stash his trash bag full of all of his worldly possessions when he’d go out for the day in search of work, a hot meal, a cup of coffee. For three months, Andre was homeless. For three months, he slept on the ground next to an abandoned building and a full dumpster, both teeming with rats. Andre is not mentally ill. Andre is not a drug addict or an alcoholic. Andre is not lazy or stupid. Andre just came under some hard times and found himself without support, without a home, a wanderer through the streets of Philadelphia.

The National Coalition for the Homeless estimates that 3.5 million people are homeless in a given year. That is the entire population of the state of Oregon. That’s enough to fill Heinz Field 54 times. But you all don’t need to know that. All of you are tremendously generous when it comes to donations to organizations that fight the global, macro issues of poverty. But what I want to talk about today is about how it can, and does, touch us personally, on a micro level.

It is a fact that most of us are all just two steps away from homelessness. We lose our job. We get a serious illness. A relationship falls apart. Our child needs special care. The stock market tanks and the monthly checks from our retirement get smaller and smaller. A natural disaster destroys our home and we forgot to mail that month’s insurance check. Just two steps, and we could be taming the rats by an abandoned building like Andre. Or living under our porch steps like our recent visitors, who spent last summer roaming from place to place in Pittsburgh, and then camping on our front porch at night. These are people with names and faces and stories.

Just two steps.

The Israelites in our reading today were homeless, too. They were in exile, told where they could live, what they could eat, where they could work, and how they should worship. But for these later readings in Isaiah, what is often called “Third Isaiah” by scholars, the Israelites had made it out the other side. They had come back home. They’d survived their homelessness. And things were starting to get back to normal. They were worshipping God just like their ancestors had been taught before them. They were fasting and honoring holy days, and they were starting trade again, building small businesses, planting crops, settling down. They had made it out the other side of their troubles and were on the upswing.

But there were still some problems. They were following the letter of the law, crossing every T and dotting every I in their worship, but strangely, God felt further away from them than ever. They were sacrificing and fasting, calling out to God and worshipping in all the “right” ways, and yet, God seemed to not be listening. It says that they “delight to draw near to God.” God says that “they seek me and delight to know my ways.” In a sense, in our terms, you could say that they were coming to church every Sunday, wearing their ties and their sport coats and forcing their feet into their fanciest dress shoes. They were writing checks to all of the right organizations. They were following the lectionary, and singing the traditional hymns, accompanied by a talented choir and a beautiful organ, and never ever letting the service extend past an hour and fifteen minutes. In a sense, they were just like us, and like us, they were asking “Where is God?” They were saying, “Look, God, we’re doing all the right things here, we’re doing what we’re told, and yet, You’re not fulfilling your end of the bargain.” What’s the deal? They are calling out to God. They are good people who want a true relationship with God; they want to do the right thing; they long for the love of God. These are good people. But God seems so far away. What’s the deal?

And God responds to them through the Prophet. God says, “Look, you’ve got this all backwards. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.” You’re forgetting the whole point of these rituals. These rituals are meant to remind you of where you came from. Rituals are a way to retell and reconnect to your story. Your rituals of fasting are supposed to remind you that you, too, were once homeless, you too, were once in bondage, and you, too, were poor and needy. We worship to reconnect to our story, and to reconnect to the God who brought us through the desert, brought us out of Egypt, out of exile, out of our homelessness, out of an abusive relationship or a bad job or an addiction - and out of our own personal and communal poverty. If you don’t remember your own story, then your rituals are meaningless. And when we remember our own stories, when we remember our own neediness, we will act in justice by serving the poor, feeding the hungry, loosing the yoke from the necks of those who pick our tomatoes, sew our clothes, dig out our coal. God tells the Israelites: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” Remember what Jesus tells us in Matthew 25, in the parable of the sheep and the goats. Remember that he tells us that when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, and visit the sick and the imprisoned, we do it to Christ himself. He says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.” Worship and Justice go hand in hand. They both lead us to the presence of God.

God doesn’t want us to just “throw money” at a problem, although money is sometimes necessary to solve problems. God wants us to remember where we’ve come from. God wants us to remember our story. Every person in this church has struggled in some way. We’ve all experienced loss. Maybe we’ve lost a job, or we’ve been disappointed by a friend. Maybe we’ve been unable to pay a bill on time, or we’ve had to ask a relative for help. God wants us to remember that like the Israelites, we are not that far from our own homelessness, either literal or figurative. Just two steps. And we must bring these memories into our worship. We must worship with the stories of God’s Grace in the Bible in one hand and the stories of God’s Grace in our own lives in the other.

Andre finally got out of homelessness, and he tells this story of when things started to turn around for him:

He was down to his last fifty cents. He says that he was so hungry that it felt like his stomach was gnawing at his spine. So he went to a corner drug store and bought some chips, and he sat down in Love Park to eat them. As he opened the bag, the pigeons and finches swarmed him. And he said to himself, “Heck no, I’m not giving you anything.” But one bird was insistent. Even after all the others had scattered, it looked up at him, pleading for a scrap. And finally, Andre relented. He gave the bird his last potato chip. And he watched as the bird took it into its mouth, and hopped over to a nest, where three tiny chicks were stretching their necks toward their mother. And just then, a hand came upon his shoulder, and he met the kind eyes of a woman who said, “I don’t mean to bother you, but I know where you can get a hot meal, if you’re hungry.” And she took him to a shelter where he ate, got cleaned up, and was given services that would eventually help him find a job and afford a permanent place to live. Now, he works to help others in transition out of homelessness. And when he is overwhelmed with the task, when he fears that he won’t be able to help one more person, when he is tired and worried about his own situation, he remembers his story. He remembers what his grandmother used to always say, “Feed the birds, and you will eat.”

God tells us this today, through the Prophet Isaiah. It’s just a simple gesture of a potato chip to a sparrow, or a hand on a shoulder. God tells us that true worship is remembering our story and then being present to others, offering them a chance to share their story. True worship is responding to God’s grace through greeting the homeless on our porch steps and in our neighborhoods, remembering their names, asking them if there is anything we can do for them, giving them a cup of coffee and sitting with them while they talk, or while they stay silent. When we worship, we should remember that the hungry have faces, have stories. We worship God when we listen to Andre’s story about feeding the birds. It is worship when we share our own stories of trouble and heartache and immense grace. God tells us that when we participate in the lives of the poor, the hungry, the naked and the homeless, God will be there, in our midst. When we serve the needy, “Then we shall call, and the LORD will answer; we shall cry for help, and God will say Here I Am.” God wants relationship, not posturing. And when we share in each other’s stories, we invite each other into the family of God, one where we are connected to each other in intimate ways, a family that will do anything it takes to help each other. May this New Year be filled with names and faces, worship and stories. Thanks be to God.