Thursday, August 28, 2014

With Sober Judgment

Exodus 2: 1-10
Romans 12: 1-8
Sometimes you have to take action and do the right thing without too much forethought, that is trusting that you will do the right thing.  You just never know how you might impact a life or lives.  A couple of years ago I was walking up towards the train platform in Stratford.  A woman was in front of me dragging along a suitcase.  We were approaching about a ten step stairway and I thought to myself, ‘Hmmm, I wonder if she needs help’.  With that a business man zoomed by me and without breaking his stride walked by her, picked up her suitcase and carried it up to the top of the stairs and then continued to where he was going. 

He didn’t stop and ask if he could.  He didn’t stop and wonder if she needed help.  He didn’t even turn around to be thanked.  Of course she needed help (I would have too!).  The point is he acted immediately and without hesitation whereas; regrettably I was more cautious and didn’t act.  It was a missed opportunity for me to help someone and, more importantly, for someone in need to be helped.  Sometimes you have to take action and do the right thing risking vulnerability, without second-guessing yourself or asking permission.  Because it is the right action to take at the time, and you have used your best judgment.

But this was a small missed opportunity in the scheme of life as compared to the opportunities that present themselves for examination in our scripture today.

I could have very easily entitled this sermon ‘Five Moms and a Baby’ since there are five prominent women who take the opening two chapters of the Book of Exodus by storm.  There are the two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah and then three unnamed women of which we will hear more about in a minute.  All heroin’s in her own right.  All took a course of action that would change the events of the people around them.  May their eyes and hearts be blessed for their trust and courage.

The Book of Exodus opens with a new King arising over Egypt.  He could care less about Joseph, the favored of Jacob’s twelve sons.  In fact Joseph and his whole generation were dead.  This was bad for the Israelites who, by now, were tipping the population charts in their favor. This did not make for a happy Pharaoh so he made their lives miserable, more miserable than usual. Forced labor, imposing menial and backbreaking tasks, Pharaoh was ruthless.

So he orders the midwives of the Hebrew people, Shiphrah and Puah, to murder all of their male children right after birth.  But they did not.  They loved God, they feared God and they let the little boy babies live. 

Pharaoh yelled, “Why did you do this?”.  They pleaded, “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women”.  “The Hebrew women give birth too fast before any respecting midwife can get to them.”  Sneaky?  Yes!  The truth?  No!  Did they save lives?  Most definitely!

Shiphrah and Puah stood up to the mighty Pharaoh with their civil disobedience, and then blessed by God they had families of their own and the Hebrews became even more prolific and strong.  They exercised sober judgment and upheld what is right and good no matter the cost to them. 

But as we see Pharaoh continued on his murderous rampage even with what Shiphrah and Puah did and life dragged on for the Hebrew people and the baby boys were still in danger.  Let’s pick up Exodus the 2nd chapter and back to the Hebrew people.

Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman.  The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him for three months.  When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river.

His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.  The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it.  When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. ‘This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,’ she said.

Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, ‘Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?’ Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Yes.’ So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.’ So the woman took the child and nursed it.  When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son.  She named him Moses, ‘because’, she said, ‘I drew him out of the water.’

Enter three more women, all unnamed.  There was the mother of Moses who, later in chapter 6 is named as Yocheved.  There was Pharaoh’s daughter who was the Princess and then there was Moses’ sister whom we later know to be Miriam.  But for now, we don’t know anything of these women.  All we know about is their motherly acts toward this little baby boy.  It doesn’t matter whether one was the birth mother and the others adoptive mothers, all, in some way acted as a loving mother to Moses and secured, unknowingly, the future of the Israelites.

God had a very large stake in our story from Exodus.  God’s providential handprints are all over this story of mothers – birth mothers, adoptive mothers and siblings who chose to seize the moment and act in a ‘Godly’ manner.    They are the ones who will love and nurture Moses, the eventual leader of the Israelites who will eventually bring them out of slavery into the Promised Land. These women were open to promoting goodness and love and they too, like Shiphrah and Puah exercised sober judgment for this future leader.

It was Moses birth mother who unselfishly let him float away so that he could have a chance at life. This is a decision made with compassionate judgment and love for the good of her child. 

It was his sister who so lovingly protected him and watched out for him when his own mother couldn’t be there.

It was Pharaoh’s daughter who was able to nurture him and provide for him, and who was compassionate towards him. Through these women God’s compassionate and maternal nature is shown.  It is through their openness and decision in a very unusual circumstance that these life-changing actions were taken. 

They sacrificed much and gained so much more that affirms the creative presence of God in this world.  Oh that we all could make decent decisions that uplift God’s truth and love and that God’s presence may be sensed and understood.

Sound judgment is what the Apostle Paul urges those early Christ followers in his Epistle to the Romans:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.  Romans 12: 1-3 

He then punctuates this passage with the body of Christ.

What he is saying is to not do or think what most of the world would do, or say, or think about situations but let God be the one to guide you and change the way you think and act about what is happening in this world and around you.  Let the precepts of God be your guide when making decisions in how you will act out your life.  Sober judgment doesn’t mean thinking to the extreme right or left building up barriers and walls that are impermeable but to make judgments that are well thought out and well reasoned even though you have considered all of the facts. 

My friends the world is in dire need of people who will think and act equitably without choosing sides that mostly serve (knowingly or not) to harm others.  The events of these past couple of weeks in Ferguson, Missouri have greatly troubled me.  As you know I am from St. Louis a place that has had a history of racial tension from the 20th century because of Missouri roots in the Midwest and the South.  I remember watching the protests during the busing desegregation and seeing the ‘white flight’ from urban St. Louis to the surrounding county townships in the 1970’s.  Like many urban areas it can be a place where fear overrides justice and anger quickly retaliates.  Where sounds judgment flies out the window. 

Ferguson challenges us on many levels as a people of faith to examine racism.  Not every action is racist, to be sure, but hatred and fear do lie at the root of many actions and decisions, which destroy opportunities for compassion, empathy and justice making. 

But beyond that, beyond the universal condemnation of the actions of Ferguson, what?

We must start with our own examination of institutionalized attitudes of racism, or any ‘ism’ for that matter, racism, sexism, homophobia, you name it, it doesn’t have to be any of the ‘politically correct’ ‘isms’.  We can only begin with our own hearts and minds and our own honest inner dialogue of what we are afraid of, what makes us feel uneasy.  What fear inhibits clear thinking?  What prejudice curtails reasoned judgment?

If we say we are a part of the body of Christ then we have a stake in our brothers and sisters in Ferguson, Missouri and we must do our utmost to carry out God’s commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves, which includes slow, deliberate, and sober judgment in all of our actions.

Let us today pray for peace and reconciliation in our own hearts so that we might show some degree of understanding and love.  And let us pray for peace and reconciliation in others hearts also so that shalom, wholeness and healing may begin.

Monday, August 4, 2014

From Dawn Until Dusk

Genesis 32:22-31
Have you ever had a night where you tossed and turned, back and forth until the once silky sheets that were so luxurious now seem to wrap you up and suffocate you like a mummy? And maybe you know what’s keeping you awake and maybe you don’t.  Could have been that extra piece of chocolate on top of the coffee you had earlier in the day.  Or maybe you’re worried about the mortgage payment that’s due in a couple of days.  Or maybe it’s something that you just can’t let go of. 

Sleepless nights are inevitable.  Even my dog has had sleepless nights where he whimpers and is up and down, up and down. We’ve all had them and probably we’ll have a few more before we move on.   

Our friend Jacob has had a couple of restless nights not to mention an active nightlife, which could lead to some sleepless nights.  With two wives who kept him busy plus their handmaids, who we know were also active in the propagation of this family, he didn’t get much sleep. 

Then there was that one night where Jacob is on the run from Esau and he stops for the night and puts a rock under his head to sleep.  And when he slept he dreamt of angels floating up and down a ladder all night long. Yep, Jacob’s nights were anything but restful.  But there was one more….

After Jacob meets his wives Rachael and Leah, after he is given their handmaids Zilpah and Bilhah, they had many children between them.  Jacob prospers and he was with his Uncle Laban for 20 years but towards the end there was strife in that relationship.  So they made a treaty with one another and Laban goes home and Jacob picks up and continues his journey.

Now Jacob has some important work to do.  Remember that he was on the run from Esau, his twin whom he duped twice out of a birthright and a blessing, when he when he got sidelined for those 20 years with Laban and made a family.  So he sends messengers ahead of him and his clan to brother Esau.  He waves the white flag and sends ahead his message of ‘truce’ hoping that he will find favor in Esau’s sight. 

But the messengers come back with news that isn’t what he wanted to hear.  Esau is coming to see Jacob, that’s the good news.  The unnerving news is that he is bringing 400 men with him.  Yikes!  He assumes that they are going to attack so he divides his company into two companies, just in case one is decimated and then he prays!  ‘I’m not worthy of your love; deliver me from the hand of Esau because I am afraid.  You promised to make my offspring as the sand of the sea…. so help!’  He’s finally beginning to rely on God.  And he tells the women and children and troops to go on ahead.

So here we find our scripture for today.  You know the Revised Common Lectionary gives us the ‘Cliff notes’ version of this ancestral saga but ‘Cliff notes’ sometimes don’t make sense without context. 

That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”

But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

The man asked him, “What is your name?”

“Jacob,” he answered.

Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”

Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”

But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.

So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip.

The striking part of this scripture is that Jacob is alone and it is at night.  And the person that Jacob wrestles with is not able to triumph so he breaks Jacobs hip.  But the dawn prevails and Jacob engages his night visitor in conversation in this dawning light.  ‘Bless me, otherwise I will not let you go.”  But the man asks a counter question, ‘What’s your name?  Your name will not be Jacob but from now on it will be Israel.’  Then the man blessed him right there on the spot and was gone.
Marc Chagall

Then the sun rose and Jacob limped off.  But he was different than before that night, a change in him has taken place and now he is ready to meet his brother Esau after many years.  Transformation happens with the dawning of a new day.  It is that moment, after you have been awake for a considerable amount of time, that when you look outside the light is different and you realize that the dawn is coming.  Objects are no longer just black silhouettes against a midnight blue sky but they begin to take shape because light is casting its first rays upon creation.  Morning has broken and your restlessness ceases because you get up to face the day.

Many folks like to psychoanalyze this scripture saying that Jacob was wrestling with his inner demons and such, but that is inadequate, the fact is Jacob is awake, he never falls asleep, it’s not some dream that he is having. It is a struggle more than of just conscience.  He is fully engaged in a physical struggle.  And Jacob stands his ground and faces his God who chooses to come to him at this critical juncture in his life and be physically present too.    

With this match perhaps God is sharpening Jacob’s faithfulness for more serious challenges that are ahead of him.  Who knows, we don’t know God’s intention.  All we know is that God is in the middle of Jacob’s struggles and in the end Jacob is blessed because of it.
New Testament scholar Richard Pervo reflects on Jacob’s struggle saying, “What kind of God will get into a night time brawl with a mortal and come out no better than even?, the kind of God we need.”  We don’t need a God who ‘bests’ us.  We need one who will be with us, the prophet Jeremiah reminds us, “I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare, not your harm.”

Our struggles are neither orderly nor tame and God seeks us out and wrestles with us to ready us for the challenges ahead.  Our deepest struggle sin life do no lack divine presence, God is always there.  In fact we need to remember that God is there in our most restless nights.  Here we can ask those painful questions.

And while we may not be given answers – Jacob didn’t get answers; Job didn’t get answers – we know from this text that God is with us pronouncing blessings, which is to say extending us grace.  God’s steadfast love in the darker times of our lives.

So the next time you lay down to sleep and you toss about like a tiny ship in the sea remember that you are seeing God face to face in your encounter.  God is wrestling WITH you and your trials.  And when dawn comes, as it always does, walk away with the knowledge that you have been blessed.