Sunday, June 29, 2014

"Drop the Knife and See" - Or, you can take a girl out of seminary, but you can't take the seminary out of the girl...

Matthew 10:40-42
40“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

 Genesis 22:1-14
1After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” 3So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. 4On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. 5Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” 6Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. 7Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” 8Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.
9When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. 11But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14So Abraham called that place “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”

I think it’s important to read the Genesis text through the lens through which Jesus tells us to read all of our lives.  In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells us that whoever welcomes his followers, welcomes him and welcomes God. This all sounds nice. Doesn’t it? But then there’s that second verse - whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward - hmm. When I think about the “rewards” of the prophets, I think of persecution and exile and abandonment. I think of how Jesus says “prophets die in Jerusalem.” Not necessarily what I’d call a “reward.” And then Jesus goes on, “whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous...”

When I think about the rewards of the “righteous” - Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, and the Apostle Paul? I think about crucifixion, assassination, jail time, -- not exactly winning the Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. That’s not getting your thirteenth coffee free or an extra ten cents off a gallon of gas or bonus airline miles.

Nope. For Jesus, rewards are different. Rewards are hard. Rewards hurt. Rewards demand that we see the world a little bit differently from how Walmart or the Dow Jones Industrials or Monsanto views the world.

For Jesus, the reward is in the seeing. In the viewing of a “little one,” not as disposable, not as someone upon whose back we build our economy, not as someone whom we should see and not hear, but as the whole point of our existence here on this earth.

See these little ones, he says. See them. Really see them. See their struggle and heartache and mistakes. See their courage and see their determination. See their desire to live and be loved. See their thirst. And then give them something to drink.  If you see them, you’ll see me, you’ll see the one who sent me.

And the seeing is the reward.

When you see a little one - a child, a drunk, a family on welfare, a new mom in the throws of postpartum depression, an elderly woman who is in pain with every step, the rich CEO who stares out from his downtown high rise and thinks about jumping off the balcony, when you see them as God sees them, then you see God. And then you can’t stop seeing God in it all.

But we are so distracted by all the little “g” gods. The gods that tell us that we deserve a bigger house and a better job because we’ve earned it. The gods that tell us that the homeless guy under the bridge must have really screwed up to land himself there. The gods that tell us that if we buy our kids one more toy or buy ourselves one more car or put more money in the savings account or post one more piece of social commentary on facebook, that somehow we’ll be loved, somehow we’ll be known, somehow we’ll be able to see the face of God.

Oh yes. We see these gods everywhere. And I am so guilty of worshipping them. So often, more than once a day, I say to myself, “if I just had...”, “if only I could...”, and “why don’t they see...?”
And off I go, chasing another mortgage, another job, another discount, another piece of impossible to assemble Ikea furniture that will help me better organize all my stuff.

But the thing is, those gods don’t see me.
I keep hollering at them, calling to them, giving them my time and my money and my energy and my very spirit. And all I get from them is a passive indifference and a ridiculous desire to shout louder, to wave my arms harder, to fill my calendar up and bounce all the checks.

We run after these gods, chasing them and doing what they say. and then we are left with nothing but the next chase.

We accept what they tell us.
That pesticides in our food is the only way we can feed a growing world.
That politics will always be corrupt.
That that drunk on the sidewalk will always be drunk.
And that jail is good, and keeps us safe from bad guys, and doesn’t just make more criminals.
That war is inevitable and that there is a way to make it “just”
That child sacrifice is ok. That child sacrifice, if god is the one who asks it of us, is really the true voice of God, and is just a “test” and if we pass it, God will love us more.

But a close reading of this Genesis text, this classic text of what Christians call the “Sacrifice of Isaac and what many Jewish traditions call the “Binding of Isaac,” suggests that this is not at all what is going on here. And a close reading of the text with the echo of Jesus’ reminder of God’s true rewards bouncing in our ears tells us that there’s more to this text than God’s cruel demand for child sacrifice and God’s last minute rescue in the form of a ram and an angelic voice from heaven.

But you need a little context, and you need to pay attention to a little bit of the Hebrew that this text is written in. So, bear with me a second.

First, during this ancient era of Abraham and Sarah, Patriarchs and nomads, in the Ancient Near East, child sacrifice wasn’t unheard of. In fact, it was downright common in times of crisis among most of the belief systems in the Western Semitic World.

Second. There are two words for “god” used in this text, from two different sources. One is “Elohim” which is literally, “gods,” lowercase g, but is often used for “God” - as in the one true God of Israel. You only know the difference between the two according to how it is used in its context. Mostly, this name for God is used in what scholars call the “E” source - a very old source for the Hebrew Bible.

The other word for God is, in Hebrew, “yod heh wah heh” - or “Yahweh” - which was never to be spoken out loud in reverence for God’s true name. This name for God is often used in what scholars call the “J” source. But whenever you see it, unlike Elohim, you know for sure that the writer is talking about the one true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

What’s so fascinating about this text is that “Elohim” is the name used for God throughout most of this text. It is Elohim who tests Abraham, it is Elohim who tells him to sacrifice Isaac, and it is Elohim to shows Abraham where he is to go to perform the sacrifice.

And when they get to the top of the mountain, and Isaac dumps his load of firewood and asks Abraham what the heck is going on, where is the sacrifice --The ram, or the dove or the sheep or the goat? -- Abraham says that Elohim will be the one to provide the sacrifice. When they come to the place that Elohim had shown him, Abraham built and altar there and laid down the wood and bound his son to the altar and Abraham reaches out with his knife to kill his son...
Oh yes. Abraham is very devoted to his elohim.

But then an angel of Yhwh calls to him from heaven, calls Abraham out by name, and Abraham hears the messenger of Yhwh say, “Don’t touch that boy!’ For now I know you fear Elohim.”

Ok. I can’t help myself. One more geeky Hebrew reference. The word for “fear” and the word for “see” are very similar. So similar, in fact, that they were also used synonymously, or often mistaken for each other, and often used as puns to show how closely related to each other they were.

For now I know that you “fear” Elohim - you see Elohim. You know the difference between gods and the one true God, your Yhwh.

In essence, God says, “You thought you were following me. You thought you were doing the right thing in sacrificing your son, showing that you love me more than you love the most precious thing in this whole world. But you were following the commands of yet another god. You were buying what they were selling. You were striving to do it all right according to some other code, some other set of rules, some really popular perspectives during your time. You were listening hard and paying attention, but you were distracted by all the voices of the dominating narrative - the voices of your culture and your land and the people around you who said that sometimes God demands blood, sometimes God demands sacrifice of innocents, God demands the death of the very thing that helps you see God in the first place.
Even though you were trying to love me, you were overwhelmed by all the shouting and distraction that is your world and your culture and the demands of the powerful.

You love me. I can see that. But you do not know me. You do not see the real me. The real Yhwh. You do not know what real power is. You do not know what real reward is.

Come and see. Come and see the real me. Come and see that I’m not like other gods, who demand sacrifices of the things that enable you to see the real me. That’s not how I work. That’s not who I am. Come and see.”

And here’s the thing. The text actually says this. A more literal translation of verse 14 is not “So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of YHWH is shall be provided”
BUT rather:
“So Abraham called that place “Yahweh sees,” which is said to this day, “on a hill, Yahweh is seen.”

Let’s see this story anew. And by that I mean, let’s see this story back in history, in its context, in its radical and impossible attempt to redirect us away from violence and substitutionary atonement.

This is a story of grace. Of love. Of mutual seeing. Abraham thinks he is following God as he trudges up that mountain to sacrifice his son, but the real miracle is that he sees the true God before he has a chance to follow through with what he thinks he should do. He receives a vision on that mountain. A vision of God that is totally different from the visions of his culture, of his upbringing, of the dominating religious traditions of his land.

Isaac is one of the little ones that Jesus is talking about. And so is Abraham. And so are we. God does not command sacrifice. God tells us to give water to all of these little ones. To us.

God is found in the water and in the seeing of this. In the understanding that God does not delight in sacrifice, but in the doing of God’s will, in the unbinding of the oppressed, in the unbinding of Isaac, in the standing up against the voices of the dominant narrative of power and culture and money that says that our worth is in the size of our house or the number in our pews or clicks on our websites.

No. It’s in the water. In the cups of cool water that we give. And in the cups of cool water that we receive. In the dropping of the knife. In the picking up of the bread.

In the seeing of the true God who provides and loves unconditionally, demanding not that we sacrifice our children and our hearts and the things that give us true peace and joy and comfort, but in the offering of cool water to our souls, to our children, to our neighbors, to the folks with whom we think we have nothing in common, to the beggars on the streets and the struggling suburban housewives and the CEOs that we think have it all but are really quite lonely and quite thirsty.

Abraham’s story doesn’t make any sense - a story of a god who says, “prove that you love me by killing an innocent.” 

Unless. Unless you are seeing the way Abraham has learned to see - maybe for just the half second that enabled Abraham to stay his hand. Unless you are seeing the true God. The true YHWH. The God of the Resurrected One who can turn even the most broken of relationships and the most misguided of theologies that God requires violence, into a call for justice, a call for peace, a call to bring cool water to littlest ones throughout all the world.

Abraham’s story is one of seeing - for just half a second - the one true God.

And it doesn’t make any sense, unless you are seeing the world the way Jesus has taught us to see. Unless you see that we all belong to God’s family - as broken and distracted and obsessed with all the false narratives of redemptive violence and financial security and the power of the popular. Unless you see that we are all thirsty for a cup of cool water, and that we all have a cup of cool water to give away. Unless you see - even for just half a second, even just long enough to stop yourself from doing something destructive - you see God for who God truly is, the one to redeems, who loves unconditionally, who offers grace upon grace upon grace, who offers us peace from all this striving and struggle and self-doubt. Come and drink the cool water. Come and rest in God’s grace. Come, taste and see that God is GOOD. That is your reward.

Thanks be to YHWH.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Storm Cellars and the Burning of Reason: A Half-Baked Pentecost Sermon

 Acts 2:1-21
1When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes 11Cretans and Arabs — in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
14But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17  ‘In the last days it will be,God declares,
     that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
          and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
     and your young men shall see visions,
          and your old men shall dream dreams.
18  Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
          in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
               and they shall prophesy.
19  And I will show portents in the heaven above
          and signs on the earth below,
               blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20  The sun shall be turned to darkness
          and the moon to blood,
               before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21  Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

Lately, my four and a half year old son, Jonah, has been fascinated by tornadoes. He wants to read all about them. He wants to watch all the YouTube videos. He wants to know what to do when one comes, and he’s checked out all the picture books from the library. He’s trying to wrap his head around this concept of tornadoes. The destruction. The rushing wind. The swirling rain. The thunder and lightning. Where do they happen? When? Why? ALWAYS THE "WHY?"

Now, I have always had a deathly fear of tornadoes. I grew up in the heart of Indiana, after all, and the tornado siren went off every Friday at noon to test the system and make sure everything was working properly. We’d have tornado drills every quarter in school. The warning buzz would go off right in the middle of the recitation of our multiplication tables or our spelling bees and we’d push our chairs into our desks, line up at the door, and walk single fire down to the basement, where we’d breathe in the layers of floor wax and the mildew of  the concrete walls while we tucked our heads into our knees and wrapped our hands around our necks, waiting for the all-clear. Every time it rained, I’d turn on the weather channel and watch the dial travel around the radar, meticulously mapping every shade of green and yellow and red as it travelled across the screen.
I was terrified of tornadoes.

I had every scenario planned. I cleared out paths to the basement. I knew what to do if we were in the grocery store. What to do if we were in the car. Where to go if we were at the park and what to do if we were in a school gym.

But my worst fear -- now, imagine this coming from a seven-year-old brain -- what if there was a tornado coming, and the house caught on fire? Do we go outside? Do we go down into the basement? What would we do? Where would we go?

So maybe this is why I’m struggling so much to write this sermon on this Pentecost weekend. We’ve got both -- the rushing wind and the fire. What should we do? Where should we go?

It’s wild and swirling, and I don’t know if I should run outside away from the heat and call the fire department or grab my transistor radio and take cover in the basement.

Like our disciple friends in this passage who are hunkered down and waiting in fear, I’d like to just crawl in a ditch and wait for the trauma to pass by.

But like our disciple friends, I don’t think I can hide from the Holy Spirit any more than they can. They are gathered together in the upper room, reeling, once again, from the curve ball that Jesus has thrown at them.

Think about it. Jesus has come. He’s preached and loved and healed and reprimanded and loved some more. Then he’s gone and pissed some people off and gotten himself killed. Then, whiplash! He’s back again. Raised from the dead. 

But almost as quickly as he has returned, he is gone yet again, sucked up into the sky like the rooftops during a tornado.
But he has promised to send The Holy Spirit, The Comforter, to come and give them power and enable them to witness to the whole world about him.
Well, gee. Thanks, Jesus. No offense, Jesus, but this sounds a bit like a consolation prize. “I’m gonna be gone -- The one you’ve grown to know and trust and believe and love. But don’t worry! I’ll send this spirit-thing and that will comfort you!” Well, Jesus, frankly, I’d rather have you around, not some ethereal, intangible spirit-wind-business that will supposedly make me feel better that you’re not here.

So I don’t blame the disciples for being hunkered down together in their safety bunker, trying to stop the vertigo from their experiences of the last three years.

They are trying to wrap their heads around some kind of conclusion. Certainly this is the end of something. They are waiting for the Comforter, but they are in this kind of in-between space - Jesus is gone, but the Comforter hasn’t yet arrived.

And frankly, the Comforter’s arrival isn’t all that comforting.

There’s the rushing wind. The tongues of fire. The speaking all at once in languages they didn’t even know. A sound so loud that all the Jews gathered for the Festival of Weeks come together in one place to see what the heck is going on.

This is my worst nightmare. Tornadic winds. Fire. Crowds of people I don’t know saying things I don’t understand. All in one place.

What’s the right escape plan for this? Where’s the storm cellar I can run to? How do I get out of this unscathed?

Well. I don’t think we can.

At least, not with our reason completely in tact.

When I asked my son, “Jonah, why are you so interested in tornadoes? Are you scared of them? Do they make you worried?”
And he just said, “no, I’m not scared. I’m just insterested in them.” (That’s how he says “interested”)

He wants to learn everything he can about them so that he can understand them. He wants to know enough about them so that it makes sense, so that it fits neatly inside his little brain.

But there is just so much we can’t understand about this whirlwind of Spirit forcing its way through the disciples’ upper room and forcing them out into the world.

So much in this text makes little sense.

Jesus is gone and the disciples are back in hiding. Well, that makes sense to me.

But, rationally, reasonably, what should happen next is the entrance of “still, small voice” that came to Elijah, or maybe an orderly council meeting, or a diplomatic system of voting about what the disciples should do next. Maybe there should be a methodical, single-file departure of the disciples down into the square, ready to defend the story of Jesus with rational arguments and well developed precepts.

But here comes the Spirit, meant to comfort, meant to console, meant to encourage, but it comes not in the form of a gentle breeze, a flickering candle, a warm blanket or a hot meal, but in the form of a violent wind and tongues of fire.
And suddenly they all start speaking. All at once. All in different languages.
And nobody gets it. They are “amazed” and “perplexed.”  “What does this mean?” they all ask.
“They’re all drunk” they say.

And ready to defend himself and his friends, Peter attempts to make their defense. And in probably one of the greatest non sequiturs ever used, he says, “we’re not drunk, for it’s only nine o’clock in the morning!” As if that proves something.

Maybe it just shows too much about who it is that I spend my time with, but I have known plenty of people who have been drunk at 9 o’clock in the morning.

So even when this text is trying make sense, it doesn’t make sense.
This text is all whirlwind and flame and wildness and chaos.

And this is the birth of the church.

The Spirit flows. It is poured out.
And the Spirit fills. It is in every nook and cranny of that house, and then it spills out into the streets.
And the Spirit lands upon our heads in the form of a flame, burning through our reason, burning through our rationality, burning through our need to make things tidy and safe and reasonable. Burning through our desire for escape plans and storm cellars and bomb bunkers and fallout shelters.

Now I’m not saying that we should reject reason altogether. The earth is round, and it revolves around the sun, and it is most certainly more than 6,000 years old. There is an important place for science and reason and rationality.

But on Pentecost, these flames dance above our heads, into our minds, and leave us completely perplexed. Leave us a little fearful. A lot bewildered. Unsure of everything except one thing: we are forever changed. We can’t go back to the upper room, or to the basement, to the storm shelter or the simplicity of knowing and understanding it all.

The comfort of things making sense has been replaced with The Comforter, the one who tells us, “no, I’m not going to keep you safe, at least not safe like you know it, not safe in a basement curled in a ball waiting for the storm to pass. No. You are the wind. You are the one whirling and swirling and changing things. You are the ones bringing comfort to the lost, hope to the hopeless, overturning the tables of injustice and entering into the chaos of community and food and difference and prophesies.  You are the hands and feet of Christ. You are the Church. The Very Body of Christ.

This is the birth of the church. The body of Christ here on earth.

I work with a lot of homeless folks and people living on the margins at The Table, our community meal that’s served twice a week at Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community.
One day, one of my favorites, we'll call him Bill, came up to me, and with his soil and tobacco stained hands, gives me a still-crisp, carefully folded 20 dollar bill. 

Bill is homeless. Bill gets a shower once every two weeks and lives under a bridge and travels from church, to soup kitchen, to food bank to get one meal a day.

Bill does not have 20 dollars to give.

This is a dumb idea. This is not a fiscally sound thing for him to do. This may be one of the reasons that he’s sleeping under a bridge tonight.
And I tried not to take it.
I handed it back to him and told him that he didn’t need to do this. That we love him and we knew he needed to use this on himself, for the things he needed. But he insisted.  

He needed to be able to give something back. He needed to have something to offer us. He needed to tell us how grateful he is that we’re around.

This is the birth of the Church, the Body of Christ, here on earth. Not the reason and the rationality, the councils and the meetings, the committees and the bake sales and the capital campaigns and safety of the upper room. But the tired homeless man with PTSD and days of dirt caked under his fingernails handing over twenty bucks that he really doesn't have.

When he did that, the church was born all over again.

 And this birth happens every time we do things that don’t make sense, every time we enter the storm in the name of love, every time we sacrifice something for the sake of Christ’s body.

We can’t get a grip on it, it doesn’t make any sense, and it’s completely terrifying. We will worry what Rich will eat tonight. We will worry about whether or not these buildings will stand. We will hire "hospice pastors" and sell off church property and argue about the quickly dwindling endowments. We will want escape strategies and understanding and contingency plans.

But then the Comforter will come rushing in, crushing our expectations, leaving us wondering “What does this mean?” and burning through our stiff-necked, hard-headed need for reason. The Comforter will come and unite us, shake us up, tell us that even when we think we have been abandoned, we are not alone. This same Comforter who tells us to enter in to the whirlwind and the rain storm and the crowd of foreigners - even to give away our last 20 dollar bill, or to accept that 20 dollar bill, teaches us that this is the way to proclaim that God is alive, that God is love, that God is here. 

This Comforter will not leave us abandoned. Changed, yes. Challenged, absolutely. Tired and sore and drenched from the rain, for sure. With weak minds that fail to comprehend and fully understand, full of questions and doubt and "What does this all mean?" definitely. 
But never alone.

Thanks be to the Spirit.