Monday, July 28, 2014

Cooling Trend

I heard on the radio today that the temperature will be 105, and then we will experience a cooling trend this week:  103, 101 and 99.

I don't think those words mean what they think they mean.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sermon; Proper 12A; Genesis 29:15-28

Think back two weeks ago to when we were first introduced to Jacob.  I said that there was an overarching theme of struggle and conflict in his life.  His life began in conflict when Rebekah was told by God that the children she was carrying were two nations struggling against each other.  It continued as the boys grew up and Jacob swindled Esau out of his birthright, and when he deceived Isaac into giving him the family blessing.  We got a little break last week when, on the run from his murderous brother, he rested in the wilderness and dreamed a powerful dream.

Today Jacob is once again in the midst of conflict.  The Lectionary does a poor job of filling in this part of the story, so let me give you a general overview of what's going on.  On the run to Uncle Laban from his brother Esau, Jacob arrives at a covered well.  He meets some shepherds and asks about his uncle.  He then sees Rachel coming to the well with a flock of sheep and, wanting to impress the young lady, he uncovers the well and waters her flock.  Rachel, without a nose ring, goes and tells her father about the visitor.

Jacob and Laban strike a 7-year deal for the transfer of property; but those years pass like a few days because Jacob is in love.  On the wedding night, however, Laban pulls a bait and switch, sending Leah in to be with Jacob instead of Rachel.  After Jacob finds out, Laban gives him Rachel in return for another seven years of labor.

The story continues on to include Leah struggling to earn Jacob's love, Rachel and Leah engaging in an ever-escalating fertility war, Jacob and Rachel blaming each other for her infertility, some kind of sheep rustling or swindling, Rachel's theft of Laban's household idols, a final confrontation between Jacob and Laban, and a tense reunion with Esau.

As his story is recorded, Jacob lives most of his life in conflict.  Why is that?  You could say it's because he's a trickster and swindler who has a habit of making people angry with him.  I once worked with a sales person who had that affect on people.  You could say that a life of conflict was his destiny as God foretold to Rebekah.  Or you could say that when God calls you into relationship, or into the family, things are never easy and just might get more difficult.  And while that last one may be true, I don't recommend using it as an evangelism tool.

Nevertheless, this is exactly what happens when we are called by God.  We are asked to love God more than the world, which causes conflict.  We are asked to love those whom the world hates, putting us in conflict.  We are asked to pick up our cross in a willingness to sacrifice our self for the goal of “on earth as it is in heaven.”  Following God, following Christ, being led by the Spirit puts us in a position to be at odds with the world.  Jacob is following God's promise, and he's at odds with everybody.

This story not only reaffirms that a calling by God can and will put us in difficult places at times, but it also asks us to examine the person of Jacob.  Although God has a part in his life, although God has said the promise would run through Jacob, and although God told Rebekah he would be one of two struggling nations, the fact remains that Jacob was indeed the stereotypical politician.  He was always looking out for himself.  He was always trying to find loopholes and deals.  His life was one of scandal and deception.  And yet . . .

And yet, God is willing to work with and through that person.  We need to remember that God often works through the lowly, the oppressed, the scoundrels and others whom polite society tends to shun.  This does not mean that we don't need to have standards of behavior, nor does it mean that we can act like jerks while saying, “God is working through me – deal with it.”  But it does mean that we need to work to find where and how God is working in the lives of others rather than looking for ways to control them or run them out of town.

Finally, this story today shows us that God doesn't much care for how we've always done things.  Jacob, remember, is the first character to overturn the earthly system of primogeniture.  Now he is confronted face-to-face with that very system when he is given the older Leah in favor of the younger Rachel.  But, as Laban says, “That's how we do things here.”  And Jacob is offended when he has to play by the same rules that he broke.

Jacob is more than offended, though.  Jacob, like us, is forced to work with and through earthly systems created to maintain the status quo.  Jacob is forced to work under a system that strives to keep power in the hands of the powerful.  Jacob is forced to live in a system that values the Always-And-Forever-Amen traditions of the tribe over and above the benefit of the people for no other reason than that's how we've always done it.  Even so, God inserts himself into the story and uses a bad situation for ultimate good – just like he will do with Joseph a little later on, and just like was done when Jesus was nailed to a cross.

God has a plan and a promise to keep.  That plan and that promise will be fulfilled even when God has to work through difficult situations, difficult people and people we don't expect God to work through.  That plan and that promise will be fulfilled even when we create earthly systems and traditions that work to deny equality and keep God under our control.

Maybe the lesson we can learn from Jacob isn't that we can be faced with difficult struggles when God calls us, even though that happens.  Maybe the lesson isn't that God uses all sorts and kinds of people to accomplish his goals, because we know he does.  Maybe it isn't even that God's purpose will be accomplished in the end, because our faith says that is true.

Maybe the lesson here is for us to examine how we do things and try to make it a little less difficult for God to fulfill that plan and keep those promises.  Instead of holding onto those Always-And-Forever-Amen traditions because we've always done it that way. forcing God to work through our barriers and objections, we should be willing to evaluate, modify, change or keep traditions based on how we might make life easier for God.  That could be everything from the change that left the altar rail open at Communion to who we welcome and who we allow to become members and leaders of the parish.

As we move forward with Jacob and his struggles and conflicts, let's ask ourselves this question:

Are we working to maintain our earthly systems because it's easier for us, or are we working to establish Kingdom goals on earth as it is in heaven regardless of what it costs us?


Thursday, July 24, 2014

Perfect Day

So today was the perfect day, weather-wise anyway.

I woke up to a 47 degree morning and a slight chill in the air.  The high for today will reach 85.

Today was pure awesomeness.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sermon; Proper 11A; Genesis 28:10-19a

Last week we heard the story of Jacob and Esau.  Esau, being the first-born, was entitled to all the honors, rights and privileges of that position.  It was Esau who was to receive the lion's share of the family inheritance.  That is, until he sold that right to Jacob for a bowl of stew and Rebekah and Jacob contrived to trick Isaac.

Thus begins a life of conflict for Jacob.  We learned that it was God who was responsible for Jacob's plight when it was prophesied to Rebekah that she was carrying two nations, the elder of which would serve the younger.  This is God's way of breaking down earthly values and barriers that live and thrive on systems of inequality in favor of Kingdom values that work to respect the dignity of every human being.  Just because you are born into the right family, in the right order, with the right skin color and right parts should not mean you have more value than those whose differences are distasteful to you.

God is trying to do away with earthly values in favor of Kingdom values.  And this causes conflict.  It caused conflict between the brothers and Esau responded by plotting to kill Jacob.  And it causes conflict today when one group of people looks to help others who are themselves abused and oppressed by those who believe they should have the lion's share of rights and benefits based on nothing more than birth place and skin color.

But today we have a break from all that conflict.  Today we and Jacob are between conflicts.  Jacob has managed to escape from his murderous brother, but has yet to encounter his double-crossing uncle.  And today, instead of wondering where God is in this story, we might be wondering how this story can possibly apply to us today.  Let's see if I can offer something.

To recap – we got to this place today because of Rebekah.  Not only was she a driving force in getting Jacob to impersonate Esau, she is also the reason Jacob left town.  She tells him that his brother is plotting to kill him and that he should leave.  She also suggests to Isaac that he send Jacob away to find a wife.  Isaac follows her lead and sends Jacob away, reiterating God's promise to Abraham of land and children.

We know Jacob is fleeing from a major conflict with Esau.  We also know that Jacob is running right into another major conflict with his uncle Laban.  We know this, but Jacob doesn't.  Like two weeks ago with the servant and Rebekah, sometimes we can't see the guiding hand of God until after the event.  Sometimes we have trouble seeing our wilderness experiences as a movement toward God instead of a fleeing away from something else.  There seems to be a fine line between flight and pilgrimage.

Much later, the Israelites will flee from Egypt into the wilderness.  While God and Moses see this as a pilgrimage (learning to become independent, learning self-rule, learning to walk with God, learning to live into the promise), many Israelites saw it as a flight from a frightening known into a more terrifying unknown.  People do this all the time: flee from something without acknowledging or even recognizing that they may be on a pilgrimage.

Whether we see this as a flight or as a pilgrimage, Jacob is in the wilderness.  He is alone.  He is vulnerable.  And he is definitely not in control as he so often seems to be in other places.  He may be wondering how he got into this mess and may even feel abandoned by the God of his father.

It is here that God visits Jacob.  After falling asleep for the night, he has his famous dream of angels traveling back and forth between heaven and earth.  The NRSV says that God stood beside him and reiterated the promise made to Abraham of land and children.  God also says he will be with Jacob always and until the promise is fulfilled; also telling him that he will bring Jacob back to this place.

It's here that Jacob makes the move to a life of faith.  He responds to the dream by building a monument, anointing it and naming the place Bethel, or, “the house of God.”  Jacob moves from a life of fear (fleeing for his life) to a life of faith (living in pilgrimage).  And in a section of Scripture the lectionary doesn't give us, Jacob makes his own vow to God.

So, what does this story have to offer us today?  What might this story of a runaway conman tell us about our own relationship with God?

First, it's important to look forward.  Looking back can be helpful in that it can tell us where we come from and where we've been.  But it just might be that we look back in fear.  Do we look back only to see what we are fleeing from?  This story of God and Jacob reminds us to look forward.  It's in looking forward that we can make an intentional movement toward a God-given objective.  And even if we find ourselves in the wilderness, looking forward allows us to see it as a pilgrimage rather than a flight.

Second, this story reminds us that God is with us.  God told Jacob, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.”  This very thing is restated in Matthew as Jesus' last words to his disciples:  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

Finally, this story reminds us that this place is Bethel.  In the place where Jacob met God, in the place where Jacob moved from fear to faith, in the place where God reiterated the promise, Jacob erected a memorial and named it Bethel, house of God.  Eventually Jacob and his descendants would return to that place and it would become one of the most important holy sites in all of Israel.

In our own lives we may be between conflicts.  We may be running from something, or we may be on the verge of a pilgrimage.  If, or when, we find ourselves wandering in the wilderness, it's important to remember that God is with us, even to the end of the age.  And it's important to remember that this is a holy space, a place where we encounter the living God.

What this story can tell us is that this is Bethel, the house of God.  May God be with you wherever your journey takes you, and may God bring you into his house once more.


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Proper 28 -- Revised

The Collect for Proper 28 reads in part:  Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life.

I gave the presentation on Rules 2 & 3 last night at our football meeting, and I opened with this:

We give thanks for the caretakers of this game who caused these rules to be written for our learning:  Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace the proper signals and ever hold fast to the 'All But One' principle.  Amen.

Can't take ourselves too seriously, now can we?

Monday, July 14, 2014

This has been surprising

So once we got into the Season after Pentecost, or Ordinary Time, the RCL kicked over into its two-track system.  Track 1 being the semi-continuous track where Year A (this year) generally runs through the major stories of Genesis and Exodus.

When we moved over to that format, I decided that I was going to preach on the Genesis readings.  It's been different for both me and the congregation.  It's been kind of fun.  It gives me more material on which to preach instead of trying to come up with yet another sermon on the parable of the sower.

However, something that has caught me by surprise is the number of people who have come up to me and said, "I've never heard that story before."

And remember, we're talking MAJOR stories here: the banishing of Ishmael, the binding of Isaac, Rebekah's nose ring, sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau and others.  We aren't talking about the stories of King Amraphel, the covenant between Abraham and Abimelech at Beer-sheba, the sons of Keturah, or even of Rachel stealing her father's idols here.

On the one hand, I'm surprised that people aren't familiar with these stories.

On the other hand, it's probably a good thing I decided to preach Genesis.

It looks as if there's a lot of teaching yet to be done.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Sermon; Proper 10A; Genesis 25:19-34

Today we begin a four-week journey with Jacob.  As we make our way through these stories, keep in mind this recurring theme:  conflict.  It seems that Jacob's life is nothing but conflict.  There's conflict between Jacob and Esau, Jacob and Laban, Jacob and Rachel, and Jacob and God.  If all of these stories revolve around conflict, we might be asking ourselves, “Where is God in these stories?  Where is God in the conflict?”

This life of conflict is not, however, the sole result of Jacob's actions.  All this conflict was set up by God before Jacob was even born.  Pregnant Rebekah is having a difficult time and goes to God to find out why.  The answer:  “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided . . . and the elder shall serve the younger.”

In other words, God predestined Jacob for a life of conflict.  When I say that, some people might hear (either through their own biases or by reading into my words) God as a cruel puppeteer who delights in controlling our every movement.  But the reality is that today's story affirms a basic and uncomfortable reality about God, and that is that the call of God leads not only to blessings and well-being, but the call of God also leads to difficulties, conflict and hardship.

God called Abraham into a new way of being, into a new relationship, and promised him land and children.  That call was not without its difficulties and conflicts – think back to the banishing of Ishmael and the binding of Isaac.  And now with Jacob, as the promise of children begins to be fulfilled, we see conflicts with his brother, uncle, wife and God.  Just because you are called by God doesn't mean life gets easy.  If anything, it might get more difficult.  And if you are thinking that this proves the God of the Old Testament is a mean old man, then let's put an end to that thought right now.

At every Eucharist, at every Morning Prayer, and maybe every day in your own prayer life, we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  Have you ever actually prayed those words, or do you let them roll off your tongue without much thought?  What would it look like if the Kingdom of God manifested itself here on earth?

As it turns out, the Jacob story shows exactly what it would look like if the Kingdom of God were to manifest itself here on earth, and that's why there is so much conflict and strife.

In ancient societies, and all the way up through today in some societies, the first-born male received the lion's share of rewards.  He received the title, the greater portion of inheritance, the blessings and on and on.  Among other things, it kept society orderly.  It allowed for the smooth transition of property.  Everybody knew what to expect.  Disputes were minimized.  Of course it didn't always work out, but in general it gave structure to society.

The inherent drawback of the system, though, should be self-evident.  If the first son receives the blessings, what do sons two, three and four receive?  And that doesn't even address the issue of daughters.

This system, called primogeniture, was probably devised by tribal, clan or territorial leaders looking to ensure their family remained in control after they died.  This system, devised by men here on earth, reflects earthly values and concerns; it does not reflect Kingdom values.

This system which protects societal order and giving distinct advantages to some, destines others to a life of denial and disadvantage.  It is a system which favors the status quo and places more value on the luck of birth than on the value of a person.  By necessity, the right class of people have all the rights, while the wrong class of people are expected to take what is given to them and like it.

And this is where the conflict comes in.  Rebekah is told by God that the elder will serve the younger.  Jacob, the second born with no rights or blessings of his own, manages to get those rights and blessings given to him by his older brother who doesn't think twice about their meaning.  He despised them.  He doesn't value them because he believes the system won't fail him.

But God has other ideas, and it is God who upsets the primogeniture system, throwing Jacob into conflict with Esau.  It is Esau who escalates the conflict by threatening to kill Jacob because he now hates Jacob for having what he had.

Again, this is not just an Old Testament thing.  Look at the Magnificat: He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.  The earthly systems that allow and provide for a privileged few to receive power and blessings, while also destining others to a life of disadvantage and curses, is not a Kingdom system.  Any system which promotes advantage/disadvantage must be dismantled.  God does it through Jacob.  Mary sings the Magnificat.  Dismantling those earthly systems in favor of Kingdom systems puts us in conflict with the world around us.

Thy will be done.  People have value because they are people, not because they were born first, or to the right class.

God has a heart for the lowly and dwells there.  We heard this in last week's gospel: The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”  Earthly systems segregate people on a variety of issues, all with the goal to determine who is in and who is out; who is blessed and who is cursed.  Jesus came to eliminate those earthly systems of segregation and usher in a Kingdom system of all.

This conflict that originated with Jacob and looks to overturn earthly systems of inequality in favor of a Kingdom system that favors a fair balance for all, this conflict of Thy will be done, is not just one that God is involved in.  We also are involved in this conflict.  You want to be a disciple?  Pick up your cross, because this world will hate you for following the one who is trying, through us, to dismantle inequality.

If all you see in this story is a Wascally Wabbit of a man who cheats his older brother out of a birthright and blessing, you're missing the point.  Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Where is God in this story?  The same place God is today – working to upset the earthly systems based on advantage/disadvantage in favor of establishing a Kingdom system that welcomes all people equally.  This is a conflict of Jacobean proportions with God as a driving force.  And if you pay attention, you will notice that we are called to be right in the middle of it.