Monday, October 30, 2017

10-29-17 “A Way Out of No Way: Blessing”

10-29-17  “A Way Out of No Way: Blessing”

   We are only introduced to Abram and Sarai in the last couple of verses of the preceding chapter. Abram is one of three sons of Terah, and Sarai, the wife of Abram, we are told is barren. The fact that this bit of information is shared with us before we know anything else about this couple signals to us its importance.  
Barrenness, or infertility, in the patriarchal culture and thinking of that day was not the fault of the men, it had to be something wrong, a withholding of blessing or even a curse, accorded to the women. 
This is important to how the larger story will play out. 
That introductory section at the end of chapter 11 tells us that Terah, Abram, Sarai, and Terah’s grandson Lot, had all previously left the place known as Ur of the Chaldeans, in what we now know as Iraq, and traveled to a place called Haran, on the border of modern day Turkey and Syria. 
And it is here, then, that the message in chapter 12 is given to Abram.

   “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you.” 
Notice, this statement is not phrased in the form of a request. God doesn’t say, “Would you please leave your land, your family, etc.,” or, “I’d like you to consider leaving your land…” No, this is neither a request nor an invitation, but a command? Much as God didn’t suggest to Noah six chapters earlier that he might want to consider building a boat, God doesn’t suggest to Abram he might want to think about moving. I suppose it’s kind of like when the Bishop calls and tells a pastor that he or she is moving from Toledo to Marietta. While it doesn’t actually carry the same weight as a command from God, although it certainly feels that way, it doesn’t really come in the form of a request or an invitation either.

   “Leave your appointment, your church family, and your friends, neighbors, and community, for the new appointment that I will show you.”

   As an itinerant elder in the United Methodist Church we serve at the pleasure of the Bishop, so if the Bishop and the Cabinet feel a pastor is needed somewhere else, off you go. When I was with Kmart they didn’t call it itineracy, they referred to it as being relocatable, but it amounted to the same thing. In my 19 years with Kmart I served in 13 stores in 3 states, but only relocated 3 times - from Bloomington, IN back to Terre Haute where I had attended college; from Terre Haute to Princeton, IN; and from Princeton to Columbus, OH in 1985. 
I was almost sent from Columbus to West Branch, MI at one point, but I did tell them “no way,” and we worked it out. 

   Leaving everything we know can be unsettling. 
Packing up, physically moving to a new city, finding a place to live,  childcare in a new place where you don’t know anyone - it’s really hard. I was in my 20s when all of this moving was going on - in our scripture passage today Abram is 75 when his “itineracy” begins. 
Think about that, those of you are who are not too far either side of 75 - if God commanded, didn’t invite or request but commanded, you to pack up and move to Whoop-ti-do, KS or Hole-in-the-wall, AK, what would you do? Would you dare tell God “no way?” Abram, at least as the story is told in Genesis, didn’t bat an eye. He packed up, trusting in what God had told him, and moved on.
   As theologian Daniel Clendenin considered it, 
   “[Abram] left in faith, not knowing where he was going, or even why he was going, except that God had commanded him. He defied both the inner propensities of human nature and the outer pressures of cultural conformity that call us in the opposite direction. 
We like to journey from the unknown to the known. 
We want to move from what we do not have to what we think we want and need, away from the strange and the unpredictable and toward the safe and the secure. Unsatisfied with mere promises, we demand absolute guarantees. While we demand clarity and act timidly, [Abram] acted whole-heartedly without absolute certainty.”

   Rather than certainty, though, this passage generates questions for us. Why did God choose Abram? 
And why did God command Abram to pack up everything and go to a new place so far away? Why not pick someone closer? To answer these questions we must 
first consider what had gone on up to this point. 
You’ll remember that last week we considered all that had happened in Genesis 3-11 - from Adam and Eve in the garden to the Tower of Babel - through the lens of how sin and evil had spread. 

We looked most closely at the story of Noah and the Flood, but we considered in all of these stories how the prior pattern of humanity’s sinful act (A) being met with a speech from God (B), followed by some sort of punishment (C), and then God’s showing mercy to them (D) had not stemmed the flow or expansion of sin, that the people soon fell into their same sinful ways once again. 

And as theologian Mark Throntveit points out,   
“We [see] how ineffective punishment was. 
Even after the destruction of the flood, the people responded to their second chance by falling into the same old sinful patterns . . . except, in the last story [the tower of Babel] (11:1-9) where there is no concluding act of mercy. The previous stories had ended with a description of God's dealing with the fear of the protagonists. Adam and Eve were ashamed, not because they had disobeyed, but because they were naked (3:7), so God clothed them (3:21)… [But] at the end of the Tower of Babel story, the people, who feared being scattered . . . are scattered by God (11:4, 9)!”

   So in Genesis 12, God changes course, moving from punishing all the earth for sin, to establishing a relationship with one individual to see if that might work better. That individual is Abram. 
Where in Babel “the people had sought to make a name for themselves (11:4), God chooses Abram and promises to make his name great (12:2), thereby dealing with the people's fear but redirecting the action so that the emphasis falls upon God's gift rather than human accomplishment.” God’s gift.
   So God chooses Abram and Sarai, a childless couple who are not spring chickens as we would say today. 
Why choose them? Well, working with a young couple hadn’t worked out so well in Genesis 3 had it, so why not go for a more mature pair?  Is Abram somehow "special," or "better," or "more religious" than other people? 
No, there’s nothing in the story to indicate that. 
While Israel, the eventual descendants of Abram and Sarai, at times did understand God's choice in this way, the prophets regularly push back against and reject this understanding, pointing out that God tells Israel that they are not the only recipients of God’s gift of divine grace. 

The prophet Amos writes
Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel? says the LORD. Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir? (Amos 9:7) 

   Amos is saying that Israel, and thus Abram, is not superior to other peoples; God has granted salvation, has “brought up,” the prophet says, other peoples and nations as well.But they are loved by God - as others are loved by God - and like them are given a gift.
   And Amos is not the only prophet to make this point. 
In Deuteronomy, Moses attributes God's choice of Israel solely to God's love, not to Israel's worthiness:

It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the LORD set his heart on you and chose you -- for you were the fewest of all peoples. 
It was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt (Deut 7:7-8).

   And Throntveit continues, “God chose Abram, and thus, Israel, to be the way God would bring all people back into relationship, all those who had been so rebellious in Genesis 3 through 11, as God says in 12:3: ‘in you all 
the families of the earth shall be blessed.’” 
Thought of another way, Israel is set apart from, not set above, the other nations in order to fulfill this particular calling of God. 
And Throntveit continued, “This quest for relationship is the purpose that drives God's choice, God has called Abram into service, and he will become the means by which God's ultimate purpose for the salvation of all will be realized.”
   This is the new way that God is creating a way out of no way; or in the case of what we witnessed in Genesis 3-11, out of humanity’s having said, “no way!” God begins by calling Abram. 

But it’s important to understand the nature of this calling. 
It begins with a command: 
“Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. “

Then it moves to a promise, a two-fold promise actually, a promise to Abram and a promise about others:
“I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. 
I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing. 
I will bless those who bless you,
    those who curse you I will curse;
        all the families of the earth
            will be blessed because of you.”

So, it’s a calling, followed by a command, but it’s not yet a covenant. A covenant is like an agreement, or a treaty, or even a contract. In a marriage covenant, spouses promise to be faithful to each other. If you take out a loan, the bank gives you money and you promise to repay them. When you buy a house, the mortgage is a contract and becomes your responsibility. 
In Genesis 12:1-3, God began a relationship with Abram, promising him that he would become a great nation, that he would be blessed, and that all nations would be blessed through him and his descendants; but the relationship is not yet a contract, treaty, agreement, or covenant - it’s a promise. The unusual part of this relationship is that God doesn’t ask or require anything of Abram in return! No obligations are placed upon him because this relationship emphasizes God's commitment and promise to Abram, not Abram's promise or commitment to God. The pattern presented here (command, promise, and response) shapes the rest of Genesis. God's promises will be repeated in fuller detail throughout Genesis, to the soon-to-be renamed Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, but they are first presented here.And if we notice nothing else in this passage, it’s important to notice the ordering of what takes place here: command, promise, then response. The whole intent would be altered if the response came before the promise. Then the promise would be a reward, something Abram earned for something Abram did. But here we see how the promise is something God will do for Abram, there are no conditions placed on Abram, no agreement, no reciprocity. The major theme of Genesis 12-50 is how God overcomes obstacles (usually Abraham if you remember the details of his longer story!) in order to keep these promises. Abram doesn't make promises to God, God makes promises to Abram... and God keeps them! This emphasis on God's promise, however, does not eliminate Abram's response. 

   In the second half of our text (12:4-9) we read that Abram "went, as the LORD had told him... and journeyed on by stages toward [Canaan].” In undertaking this journey, Abram demonstrated his trust in the God who had made such wonderful promises to him, without a shred of assurance or negotiation, other than God's word alone.  
  And as Clendenin suggests, 
  “The story of God's call upon [Abram’s] life is one that's repeated to each one of us today. It’s a call from God that subverts conventional wisdom, though, and so it can feel counter-intuitive. It's a call to move beyond three deeply human and unusually powerful fears: ignorance, the fear of the unknown that we can't control; inclusion, the fear of others who are different from us; and impotence, and fear of powerlessness in the face of impossibilities.”

   First, God called Abram to leave everything familiar: "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you" (12:1). So that’s what Abram did. But this is about more than a change of scenery, “for the longest and hardest journey is not the journey without but the journey within. However daunting and strange Abram found the geography of ancient Canaan, it paled in comparison to the geography of his human heart.”
   In leaving Haran, Abram left behind all that was familiar, all that he knew, retaining only his memories. 
All that he knew, all certainty, he left behind for a future of “genuine and profound ignorance. Abram journeyed from what he had to what he did not have, from the known to the unknown, from everything that was familiar to all things strange. Thus the New Testament commends his subversive obedience to God: ‘By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country’ (Hebrews 11:8–9).” As Clendenin describes this decision, this transformation, 
 “In his journey into the unknown, Abram embraced his ignorance. He relinquished control. He chose to trust God's promise to bless him in a new and strange place. But this required a second choice on his part. 
He had to leave not only his geographic home, he had to leave behind his narrow-minded, small-minded, parochial vision, the tendency in all of us to exclude the strange and the stranger. God gave a staggering promise to this obscure nomad: God would make him the patriarch of all the world.”

   So God’s attempts in the opening chapters to work with all of humanity are reversed. God engages an individual, Abram, and through that one moves to the universal, promising the one that he would be the blessing to all, the father of all nations. From the particular to the universal, God’s promise progressively expands. In this one individual person God embraces all of humanity. 
   While God embraces inclusion, as humans we tend to go in the opposite direction, to fear the other, to suspect and marginalize the strange, to dismiss all that's different from who and what we know. 
Clendenin though, suggests that God is having nothing to do with this kind of segregation, saying,  
   “God called Abraham and now us to a universal and inclusive embrace of everyone and ‘all peoples on earth.’ In Romans 3:29 Paul asked a provocative rhetorical question: is God the God of Jews only? Jews, of course, identify Abraham as their founding father, Christians trace the lineage of Jesus Christ back to him, and Muslims revere him as a friend of God, a father of the prophets, and an ancestor of Mohammed (Koran 37:109). In his singular journey, then, Abram instigated blessings to the world.”

   And in the journey, with God’s help, Abram overcame a fear of ignorance as well as of inclusion, but what of impotence - both literal as well as metaphorical. 
You see, Abram and Sarai were well past child-bearing years. To be more than just a symbolic father and mother of all nations was going to require something more, something they were powerless to change. But God rebuked them: "Is anything too difficult for the Lord?" (18:14). And so Abram made a counter-intuitive choice; he believed. He believed that God had the power to do what God had promised. He trusted that God is, as the apostle Paul would later write, “a God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were" (Romans 4:17, 21). That is to say, Abraham moved beyond his fear of powerlessness, of impotence, to trust that God could, quite literally, make something out of nothing.

And Clendenin concludes from all this, that 
“When God called him, Abram subverted conventional wisdom and moved beyond understandable human fears — ignorance, inclusion, and impotence. 
Instead of lamenting his ignorance and the loss of control, he embarked upon a journey into the unknown. Instead of fearing inclusion of the strange and the outsider, he gave himself to God's promise of a universal blessings for the whole earth. In the face of his own profound impotence, he believed that God could do the impossible.” 

   Abram believed the promises of God, not because they made sense to him, but because he trusted his heart when it came to God. His response to God’s command and God’s promise came, not as a result of a bargain, or an attempt to negotiate or earn a blessing, his response to follow God’s command was born of a heartfelt love and trust for God. We follow God’s commands to give, to pray, to serve, not in order to earn God’s love - we cannot earn what is freely given. No, we give of ourselves, our gifts, our time in response to God’s love. And that response begins in our hearts. It begins when we turn our hearts to God, accepting the love of God’s grace that is freely given; when we trust in God’s promise that God will provide a way out of whatever burdens or imprisons us, even when every sign seems to indicate that there is no way out. God keeps God’s promise. The blessedness that God promises to Abram and for his descendants comes to us not because of who we are, or what we’ve done, or whether we believe this doctrine or that dogma, but because God’s love knows no boundaries. 
It is a blessing given for all peoples. 
God’s love called Israel up out of Egypt, the Philistines up out of Caphtor, and the Arameans up out of Kir; and likewise it calls us, as well, to make the journey that Abram made. Maybe that’s not an physical relocation as was the case with Abram and Sarai, but as Marcia McFee reminds us,   
“We take the first significant step on our journey with God when we accept a blessing that we believe is too large for us to deserve, and a responsibility that we feel is too large for us to fulfill.”

   Our responsibility, like God’s promise, is two-fold. 
First, in response to the love God has given us as revealed in Jesus Christ, is to live a Christ-like life, what we referred to in other series as a cross-shaped life. 
It’s no easy thing to do, but as Scripture reminds us, all things are possible through Christ who strengthens us. And that means loving one another as Christ loved. It means being a forgiving person and a generous person. It means loving God, loving neighbor, and even loving enemies. No easy task. 
And second, our responsibility is to share God’s love with others, to be a witness to God’s love in our lives by how we share God’s love with others. Whether that witness is given in word or deed, it is our responsibility to share God’s love with all God’s children, in all times, in all places. 

   In the midst of his journey, Abram receives yet one more promise from God: "To your offspring I will give this land" (12:7). God's original purpose for all is now focused in this one individual who willingly trusts himself to the uncharted waters of God's future. Next week we will explore how that promise plays out in Israel’s future. Amen.


Monday, October 23, 2017

10-22-17 “A Way Out of No Way: Saving”

10-22-17 Sermon  “A Way Out of No Way: Saving” 

Patterns tend to catch my attention
  • Patterns in clothing - notice how some patterns in clothing people wear on TV seems to messes with the camera?   They don’t broadcast well
  • Patterned tie on a patterned shirt with a patterned jacket - too much for me - becomes a distraction
  • Numeric patterns on odometer (photos, texts) - I do this a lot
   In school, we learned to do math problems and to diagram sentences by learning to recognize, understand, and then predict patterns. Learning our multiplication tables was largely about recognizing and remembering patterns.
   In literature, we learn to recognize the patterns of basic story structure, and in poetry, we learn to recognize rhyme schemes and meters, which are repeating and predictable patterns.

   And we see predictable patterns represented in nearly all parts of our popular culture too don’t we, even as those patterns sometimes change. For example, think of early pop rock music of the 1950s and 1960s, where nearly any song we heard on the radio was under 3 minutes or it didn’t get air time. And there was a very predictable pattern to that music - vs 1, chorus, vs 2 chorus, bridge, vs 3 chorus, end. And other than the fact that songs are longer now mostly, that pattern still largely holds true.
   Think about TV shows, whether it’s Gilligan’s Island or NCIS, we know that week after week the storyboard of the show has the stars going through some kind of dilemma, maybe even life or death, but they inevitably find a way out of whatever predicament they were in - otherwise the pattern of a weekly television series doesn’t go on. 
   On our vacation last week Lynn and I listened to two different audiobooks while we were making the 12+ hours drive to and then back from Rhode Island. 
The first one we listened to was very good and really not too predictable, which kept us very engaged. The second one, though, fell into such a predictable pattern that we could easily guess what was coming next well before it happened. We finished listening to it though, not because it kept us engaged or enthralled as much as to see if our predictions about where the story was going actually panned out. And they mostly did!

   In fact, nearly every aspect of human life and all of creation is built largely around patterns, whether it be animals like this or the DNA that is the foundation of the cells that make up our body and all living things, whether it’s the light that comes from the sun as both waves and particles to provide life on our planet, or the gravitational pull of the moon that guides tidal forces, patterns are elemental to life and survival.

   Thanks to modern weather technology, such as weather satellites and radar, weather patterns are mostly predictable cycles or patterns, although hurricane season this year has challenged expectations. If doppler radar had been around in Noah’s time, the severe weather warning would have been intense. God tells Noah how to get ready for the deluge and he sets to work, making a way out when it seemed like there was no way out. 
   It’s been said that we don’t really come to know God until we have some reason to trust God - that God seems almost unreal to us until we encounter God in some way, in some situation, that forces us to rely on God. 
But scripture provides us with certain patterns, certain reoccurrences that affirm our ability to trust that God will provide for us, that is, to trust in God’s providence. God’s rainbow covenant in the flood epic provides a baseline of trust, if we allow it to, that we need to start a journey and process of self-discovery that will lead us into a renewed life built on a trust in God that will allow us to live our whole lives, our full selves, in love with God. 
   That journey to trust that God will provide begins with our understanding of God, and in how God is revealed to us both in scripture and in the person of Jesus Christ. In fact, the stories in Genesis 3-11, following the two creation accounts in chapters 1 and 2, serve not as history lessons for us, but rather as attempts for peoples and developing civilizations to answer basic questions for themselves about things such as where did all this come from? why does childbirth bring such pain? why do people speak in different languages? why do bad things happen? and so on. 

   As theologian Mark Throntveit points out though, in discussing how the opening book of the bible frames these stories, 
In Genesis…these stories have been refashioned to present us with a picture of humanity repeatedly shattering the relationship with God established in creation; as such they depict the spread of sin. 
All five stories share a pattern in which a sinful act (A) prompts a speech from God (B), curse (C), and a merciful act (D).”
And he diagrams this repeating pattern as it occurs in each of the five major stories in this part of Genesis:

Adam & Eve 3:1-24
Cain & Abel (4:1-16)
The Flood (6:1-8:22)
Canaan Cursed (9:20-27)
Tower of Babel (11:1-9)

   And he shows that in the story of Adam and Eve, eating the fruit is the sinful act (A, v. 6) that prompts God's reprimand (B, vv. 14-19) and banishment of the human couple from the garden (C, vv. 22-24). 
Since Adam and Eve worried about their nakedness, 
God made skins for them to wear (D, v. 21). 
This last step is important for the relationship, for then as now, when young children are punished it is important for parents to reassure them that “Mommy and Daddy still love you!” 
   And so we see that ABCD pattern repeat itself in each of the five major stories of Genesis, with a couple of notable exceptions. And this repetition of pattern in these stories ties them to one another and suggests that they be read together. And as Throntveit points out, When we do, we notice that the pattern breaks at the very end (D in the Tower of Babel); there is no concluding merciful act. We also see that the Flood narrative dominates the center. It has its own distinctive structure” or pattern in the heart of all of these stories.

A God resolves to destroy (6:11-13)
     B  Noah builds ark (6:14-22)    
            C  God orders Noah, "Enter the ark!" (7:1-9)
                  D  Flood begins (7:10-16)
                        E  Flood prevails 150 days covering the mountains (7:17-24)
                             X   God remembers Noah (8:1a)        
                        E' Flood recedes 150 days revealing the mountains (8:1b-5)
                  D' Flood ends (8:6-14)
            C' God orders Noah, "Leave the ark!" (8:15-19)
     B' Noah builds altar (8:20)
A' God resolves not to destroy (8:21-22)
   And when we recognized this pattern, this arrangement in the story then we see that, much as the beloved hymn says, “in the end is our beginning,” “the end (A') echoes the beginning (A), the next to last element (B') echoes the second element (B) and so on. 

   When we compare the matching elements three things become more clear to us in the pattern:

  1. The progression in the top half of the structure, from God's decision to destroy all flesh to their destruction in the flood (A to E), reverses the process of creation in Genesis 1. There, creation was portrayed as a process of separation and distinction; here, God removes those separations and distinctions. For example, in the creation story God placed a dome in the sky to separate the waters above from the waters below (1:6-8); now God opens the windows of the heavens, thus removing that separation (7:11).     The previous distinction between the water and the dry land (1:9) was removed when the "fountains of the great deep burst forth" (7:11).                                                                                                                                                           The sequence of destruction mirrors that of creation: first the earth was destroyed, then birds, domestic animals, wild animals, swarming creatures, and people (7:21). When we arrive at 7:24 we recognize that the story has gone full circle, returning to the watery chaos with which God began in Genesis 1. If Genesis 1 depicts God's grace in "The Creation," Genesis 6 and 7 depict God's judgment in "The Un-creation!” So that’s the first thing we notice.
2. The second is this: if the progression in the top half of the structure, from A to E, depicts God's Un-Creation, the parallel movement from E' to A' depicts God's "Re-Creation." From the receding of the water (E') to the end of the flood (D') to the command to leave the Ark (C') to the building of the altar (B') to God's decision never again to destroy (A'), every element of the first half of the flood story is reversed in the second half.                            This suggests that God's judgment is matched by God's mercy. A second indication that this is a re-creation story in which God undoes creation in order to start again is found in the command to Noah: "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth" (9:1), which is the same command given to Adam and Eve (1:28).

3. Thirdly and finally, in the center of the narrative we read that "God remembered Noah" (X, 8:1a). In our baptismal liturgy, built around images of God creating out of the chaos of the water, of God saving humanity from the flood waters, of God’s Son being birthed in the water of a womb, out of these words and images we are reminded that here, as God remembered Noah, God also remembers us. 

   In the celebration of the sacrament that we will share in just a few minutes, we remember and celebrate that God remembers baby Harry, and that God remembers you, and that God remembers me. The waters of baptism remind us that in the midst of all that occurs around us that leads to either creation or uncreation, in this moment, in these waters, God remembers us. When we celebrate the remembrance of our baptisms, it is a reminder that God continues to remember us in the present moment. When we say the words of the Thanksgiving Over the Water in the baptism liturgy, we are reminded that God remembers us. But it is a remembering that is more than just an act of mental recall. When something is dismembered it is taken apart, it is separated. Re-membering, then, is a bringing together, a rejoining. 
Regardless of what went before, regardless of what comes after, we are re-membered, brought back together, by the God and with the God who creates all things, who breathes life into all things, who saves all things. Even as God separated the waters above from the waters below in the Genesis 1, scripture reminds us that the rainbow helps God re-member, that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Nothing.

   Perhaps, Throntveit suggests, “that is why the flood narrative appears in the middle of this collection of myths and stories in Genesis 3-11. Following God's initial blessing to be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth (Gen 1:28), the progression of sin begins with the parental sin of Adam and Eve (Gen 3) and proceeds through the brothers Cain and Abel (Gen 4) to the whole world (Gen 6).” 
   “God's "un-creation" and subsequent "re-creation" of the world, indicating God's intention to give humanity a second chance,” a way out when no way seemed apparent, “initiated with the same blessing to be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth (Gen 9:1), the world reverts to the same sinful progression of parental sin (Noah's drunkenness, 9:21), followed by sin involving the brothers Shem, Ham, and Japheth (Gen 9:23-27), and culminating in the world-wide sin of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11). Since this old pattern of sin reasserted itself immediately after God's merciful re-creation, it seems that neither God's judgment shown in (A--E) nor God's mercy shown in (E'--A') are able to stop the spread of sin!”
   But even when it appears again that there is no way out of this cycle, this repeating pattern, God, again, creates a way out of no way. Do you remember the first pattern we looked at - the ABCD pattern? 
In the last story in this series of stories, the Tower of Babel, (Gen 11), the pattern was incomplete - there was no D, no saving act of mercy given at the end of that story. But one of the reasons patterns are established 
is to get our attention when they break down. 
By omitting God's merciful act in Genesis 11, the author presents a stunningly different divine plan for restoring relationship with humanity, for re-membering what humanity had dismembered. Instead of working with the whole human race in acts of judgment or mercy, God chooses one human representative and blesses him into relationship about which God says, "in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Gen 12:3). That chosen one is Abraham, and it is to him that we will turn next week. Amen.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

10-1-17 “It’s Your Choice,” 4th in the series “There Is UNITY in CommUNITY!”

10-1-17 Sermon  “It’s Your Choice” the fourth in the series “There Is UNITY in CommUNITY!”

   Do you ever think about how many choices you make in any given day? I think the number would be mind-boggling if we actually counted. I means it begins with if or when to get out of bed, doesn’t it? 
And then it just continues throughout the day.
We choose what to wear in the morning - and what we wear in some ways determines how we feel about ourselves and how others feel about us
   We choose what, when, and where to eat - whether to eat healthy foods or unhealthy foods, and how much. 
We choose whether or not to watch TV, and if so then what we watch or don’t watch - what channels we watch, whether we watch comedies or dramas, whether we watch broadcast stations, public stations, cable stations or streaming tv.
   We choose how we spend our days - even if our workday is primarily spent at a job it’s still our choice of jobs, of workplaces, even of whether to go to work that day or not.
   We choose our attitude - whether we feel happy, or angry, irritated or motivated; how we feel about something is a choice we make - a choice about how to respond to stimuli or circumstances around us. 
We often don’t think of it that way, but at its core, how we feel emotionally is a choice we make. Nobody can make us feel anything - it’s always a choice we make. We choose our friends - who we’re friends with, how close we are with those friends, how much we trust those friends, how much time we spend with those friends - all choices. And we choose whether or not to be in community - it’s our choice as to whether we seek out community or engage when community seeks us out, or whether we reject or neglect community, possibly ending up a social cast away.

We can live in isolation like Tom Hanks in the film “Cast Away,” with his volleyball turned companion Wilson, or we can live in, be a part of, surround ourselves with community. And then even what kind of community becomes a choice. Do we choose to be with live people or is our community on Facebook or social media? Is Facebook even a real community? 
   These are all choices we make…every day, all day. 
And all of these choices, to one degree or another, require some kind of preparation - some understanding of what’s expected, what could happen, what involvement or inclusion in that community means.
   Some people choose to drop out of community, out of relationship for whatever reason. They’re there one day and then just kind of slip off the face of the earth in manner of speaking. We sometimes lose touch with people after major life changes happen, someone moves, career changes, children are born, someone dies. Or sometimes we’re in the middle of a larger community and never really connect with some of those on the edges. The apostle Paul reminds us, though, in Ephesians 6:18, of the importance of community, he writes, 
Offer prayers and petitions in the Spirit all the time. 
Stay alert by hanging in there and praying for all believers. (Eph 6:18 CEB)

   Another translation puts it this way, “Keep each other’s spirits up so that no one falls behind or drops out”.  Sometimes we feel like dropping out, like throwing in the towel, like going off to some dark corner alone. 
But this verse is clear that community is vital in our lives. We all need people to have our spirits lifted. We need encouragement and support from others. 
We need the hope and companionship that others provide for us, just as we provide that for them. The human creature requires that kind of social interaction to walk with us through difficulty, hardship, and hurt so that we can be healthier in our lives, our families, our churches, and our communities.

   And while Paul’s message is pretty clearly about community, we don’t often think of the passage from Exodus that we read in quite this way, in terms of community, of relationship. But Lori Wilhite and Brandi Wilson, in their book Leading and Loving It, share an interpretation of this story that really speaks to our need for community. They write, 
   “The Israelites were camped out in Rephidim, where there was no water to drink: a dry and dusty place where the people were “tormented by thirst” until the Lord instructed Moses to strike a rock so that water would gush forth and provide refreshment for the people. 
In that place, with only the Lord’s provision to sustain them, the warriors of Amalek attacked. Joshua, following Moses’s command, chose men to go out and fight the army of Amalek. 
And Moses was moved to stand at the top of the hill, gripping in his hand the staff of God that had provided the people with water to quench their thirst.
   While Joshua was waging war against the Amalekites on the battlefield, Moses, Aaron, and Hur were waging war in their own way. Verse 11 says: 
As long as Moses held up the staff in his hand, the Israelites had the advantage. But whenever he dropped his hand, the Amalekites gained the advantage. 
Moses’ arms soon became so tired he could no longer hold them up. So Aaron and Hur found a stone for him to sit on. Then they stood on each side of Moses, holding up his hands. So his hands held steady until sunset. 
As a result, Joshua overwhelmed the army of Amalek in battle.”

   And then these two offer up some insights about that passage that we might overlook. “First, God is the provider of water when we are thirsty. When your soul is parched, when your spirit is weary, when you think you can’t stand the desert one more minute, God can and will work miracles, sending water gushing forth in a fountain to fill you and soothe you. [God] can open fountains where we least expect them. [God] gave the Israelites a constant, abundant supply of water. [God] will provide for your tired soul and provide abundantly.”
   “Secondly, God is the provider of victory when we are attacked. Our attackers may not be horse-riding, armor-bearing, sword-wielding armies. The battles may be with familiar faces armed with well-aimed verbal blows [at] committee meetings, or the darker spiritual battles fought in and around us. 
Either way, God is the provider of victory. 
And look carefully; don’t miss this. God is also the provider of friends to literally hold up our arms when we cannot anymore.”
   Paul, throughout Ephesians, in one way or another, points out to us the importance of being in community with one another, but also of being community for one another, even those who are currently outside of our community. We are so blessed, within the walls of this church, to have this church family, this grove of redwoods who literally hold us up when we need it. 
But there are people we know, friends, family, co-workers, who don’t have that - who would give anything to be a part of a loving, supportive, community like this one. We live in a world today where anything and everything can be potentially divisive or hurtful. What Paul referred to as the “powers and principalities,” the institutional forces of sin and evil in the world, seeks to drive us apart from one another, to divide and conquer as it were. And Paul calls us, as a community, to rise up and gird our loins, if you will, to stand against this power of evil in the world.

   This last reading in our series on Ephesians gives voice to our sense that many of the problems our neighborhood, our world, and that we ourselves face are beyond our capacity just to roll up our sleeves and muscle our way to a solution. We cannot fight this fight alone, and we cannot fight it without preparation. Throughout Paul’s letter, he writes of sin as an overarching power, a force of evil, rather than as a type of human action, as merely the things individuals do. And that’s an important distinction. When we think of sin as merely what an individual does, whether it’s taking the Lord’s name in vein, killing, adultery, or whatever, then the onus is placed on a person. And our natural inclination as humans, rather than seek or surround that person with community, is to separate from them, to keep our distance, to ostracize that “sinner” as “other,” as “them.” And that’s exactly how the “powers and principalities” that Paul describes, want us to think about it - divide and conquer - because if we think about it that way it enables the powers to thrive while keeping resistance in the community in check. 

   But Paul writes in Ephesians 6:12 “Our battle is not against enemies of blood and flesh.” That is, our battle is not against one another, it’s not a battle against other people, other groups, other races, cultures, or societies; this is a spiritual battle against the forces of evil, the powers of wickedness, the domination system that epitomizes the forces of sin and evil in the world today. And we’ve talked about these forces, these systems before: racism that seeks to divide us along racial lines, consumerism that seeks to separate us along economic lines of “haves” and “have nots” while also lulling us into a sense of false security of “stuff,” nationalism that seeks to present a “my way or the highway” face to the rest of the worldwide community, and so many others. 

When the biblical image of the powers and principalities is examined, it shines a revealing light on our modern landscape. We discover the frequent fallenness of money, sex, fashion, sports, and religion in our culture. 
We see how we’re encouraged by subliminal forces to turn a blind eye to things like chronic brain injury in football players because football is a billion dollar entertainment industry. We see how fortunes are made and political careers maintained through military spending on weapons systems that even the military says it neither wants nor needs, and amid constant saber rattling and war waging by political leaders who never served. We learn that investing in the stocks of companies that market to human vices, like smoking, drinking, or gambling can earn us higher returns than with what is referred to as “socially responsible” investing. Which in turns begs the question, what should a Christian’s 401(k) or 403(b) look like?
   In unmasking the powers, one thinks of segregation, apartheid and racist systems that seek to systematically disadvantage and even eliminate people based on the color of their skin. We uncover sexism and misogyny that subjugates and seeks to control, demean, even traffic in women as either inferior or as nothing more than sexual objects intended for male pleasure, striving to keep women out of places of power and denying equal pay for equal work. And it reveals even more: the Mafia, slow responses to addiction in minority communities, governmental support for totalitarian states, a culture that glamorizes celebrity, militarism and the “military-industrial complex” that President Eisenhower warned us about, attempted bribery of legislatures through large campaign contributions, and of genocide ignored. 
These kinds of systematic, institutionalized separation and depersonalization tactics create a long line of faceless, defeated, and eventually angry folk who think of themselves as nothing more than a Social Security number or faceless cogs in a machine. One thinks of Nazi or white supremacist philosophy, unbridled nationalism, violence, hunger, obscenity, addictions, nuclear weapons, tobacco companies and more. The powers and principalities are extensive,  they’re everywhere, they’re sly and underhanded, and it’s in their best interest to drive wedges within our communities, because a divided people are much easier to control and manipulate than is a united community. 

   So Paul tells us we must be prepared, we must put on our metaphorical armor. Christian life, individually or collectively, means persevering in the still-contested arena of human life, standing firm when we would prefer to fold or flee. Ephesians tells us that God’s own armor is available to us; that we have God’s own protection as we stand against the “powers of this present darkness.” 
The armor is all defensive, with the exception of the side arm “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” The “armor of God” consists of the resources that are available to us in the battle against the powers of evil. These resources are identified as truth, peace, and faith. How can these resources help us as Christians?

   First, we are truthful people. Our witness has integrity because it points to the truth. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), and Jesus confessed to his disciples, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). The truth of the gospel is that we are all God’s children, all part of God’s beloved community, and that God’s grace extends to all of us. But often we’re tempted, or persuaded by the powers, to tell only a portion of the truth, or to distort that truth for some purpose that seems justifiable to us in the moment. 
However, truth is always the most powerful weapon; in time, lies and falsehoods come to light and the truth is disclosed. Those who speak the truth, through words and actions, even when that’s not what people want to hear, possess great power in confronting evil. Lies have a life-span, it is said, but truth endures.

   Second, as followers of Jesus we are a peaceful people. The prophet Isaiah announced the coming of the “prince of peace;” Zechariah spoke in the Gospel of Luke of a child who would “guide our feet into the way of peace;” and the beatitude of Jesus states simply, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” It seems paradoxical to speak of peace as a weapon, and yet God always uses peace and love to overcome violence and hatred. The cycle of retribution and vengeance—responding to evil with evil—is not the will of God. Some are quick to throw out, “but the Bible says ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ forgetting that Jesus said, “but I tell you, turn the other cheek,” and “go the extra mile.” In fact, it has been said that, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth produces a people who are blind and cannot eat!”

   Third, we are a faithful people. 
“We are justified by faith,” Paul writes (Romans 5:1). 
“By grace you have been saved through faith,” we read earlier in Ephesians, “and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). Faith is our belief and our trust in the truth of God’s love, it’s both intellectual knowledge and emotional risk. Faith is hearing the word of God and obediently trusting and following in its meaning. Only faith allows us to trust in the unseen providence of God, which works within human events and beyond them. Only faith allows us to trust in the unmerited grace of God, which works alongside human efforts and in spite of them!

   We are in a battle, but it should not be with one another, but rather with the powers and principalities, the spiritual forces of wickedness, sin, and evil. And we do not dare engage in that spiritual warfare unequipped. We have been trained in the knowledge of truth, in the practice of peace, in the wisdom of faith. The “whole armor of God” includes each of these resources. Without any one of them, we place ourselves in danger. With the whole armor of truth, peace, and faith, we can “stand firm,” not against, but alongside, one another in community and with those for whom we battle whose voices go unheard in society. 

   Every Christian comes to a moment in life when it is necessary to make a decision to stand firm. 
We face a choice that seems like a compromise to us. 
We encounter racism in the workplace and choose how or whether to respond. We are exposed to values in the culture that are at odds with how Jesus taught us to be and choose whether to stand firm or to “go along to get along.” We’re faced with situations that tempt us into putting some other god or idol ahead of our Creator and we have to make a choice as to what god we will really worship. We need to set boundaries for ourselves and for our children because they’re facing many of the same choices we are, and many that we’ve never faced. 
There are pressures in every facet of life that threaten to knock us off course.

   If we are going to stand firm, we will need a strength that comes from beyond ourselves. Our friends in Alcoholics Anonymous refer to this as a “higher power.” We call this higher power, “God.”
 In the Letter to the Ephesians, the Christians are urged to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.” The challenge for the Christian is to stand firm, to engage in acts of spiritual resistance from the forces of evil that surround us on all sides and come at us from seemingly innocent or unsuspecting places, or from places that claim to be “on our side” but at their core are only out for themselves. The comfort to the Christian is that God provides us with a way to do this and with the people to support us. God equips us with the armor. 
We become aware of the armor that we need, of course, as we read scripture, “the sword of the spirit, the word of God.” We can only know ourselves—our strengths and our weaknesses, our gifts and our limitations— by reading the scripture and by praying with and for one another. We can only know our world—its beauty and its terror, its goodness and its evil—by reading the scripture and by praying with and for one another. We wouldn’t go into warfare without knowing as much as possible about our own resources and about what we face. In the same way, we proceed in the spiritual life only as we avail ourselves of the resources God has given to us, and these are revealed to us in the Scriptures, they are modeled for us in the sacraments, and they support us in the unity of the community who support us, who hold up our arms when we can no longer do so.  

   As followers of Christ, we are often in the arm-holding business. As our spouses or partners deal with loss or struggle, we lift their arms. As our children experience their first breakup or when the stress of hours of homework takes its toll, we lift their arms. 
When our friend has just discovered that their spouse has been unfaithful, or debt is about to drown a woman in our Bible study, we hold up their arms. We support the arms of our coworker who just got that dreaded phone call from the doctor, and the arms of a church member who is being strangled by depression. And the list could go on. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are arm holders.
   But the passage in Exodus begs the question: 
Who is holding up your arms? 
Who is joining you in your pain, struggle, hurt, and weariness? 
Who is grabbing hold of your exhausted hands and helping to lift them to the Lord?

   Paul gives us the answer. It is in the unity found in community that we find our arm holders. It is in the unity of the community that we hold up the arms of others, that we support others in their faith journeys and in their battles against the evil that shows up like a mythical snake in a garden, promising life but delivering death. As Paul tells us, “our battle is not against enemies of flesh and blood.” Do not let evil, in whatever form it presents itself, seek to separate you or anyone else from the beloved community of God. 
But rather, as people of truth, of faith, and of peace, as followers of Jesus the Christ, be a beacon of love and light to the community in all that you do and in all that you are.  Let us live truthfully, peaceably, faithfully. 
Let us hear the word of God and obey it. 
And let us choose to live into the unity that God provides in the community of God. It is our choice. Choose wisely. Amen.