Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Power and Presence

Genesis 39:1-23
Shawshank Redemption is one of the top movies on my list of go to movies.  Andy Dufresne was a banker who was accused of murdering his wife.  Sent to Shawshank prison he maintained that he was innocent.  In once scene Andy goes into the wardens office and begins to play Mozart on a record player.  Then he locks the doors and plays it over the PA system so that all the inmates could hear the glorious voices of the singers and for one fleeting moment taste freedom.

Of course this act of defiance and beauty lands Andy in solitary confinement.  When he finally made it out he sat with his friends who asked how he made it through.  He said he had Mozart, Mozart was in his heart and his mind when he, all bloodied and pale, laid on the dark and cold floor of solitary.  Mozart got him through this time.  

When someone or something is in your head and your heart while in the deepest crevices of your life then you are offered a chance of survival.  No one can take that away from you.  Andy depended on hearing the music in his heart.  Mozart was with him.

In the past two weeks we learned that Noah was heir to the covenant of God, that Abram in his effort to move to parts unknown received God’s blessing and today we will come to understand the abiding presence of God through the story of Joseph, great grandson of Abraham, a man named Potipher, and his not so charming, opportunistic wife.

These are stories of intrigue, deception, conspiracy, steadfastness, and the human condition.  These stories are about how God seeks to be present and accounted for in all circumstances of life.

Now Joseph was taken down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man; he was in the house of his Egyptian master. His master saw that the Lord was with him, and that the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hands.

So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him; he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had. From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field. So he left all that he had in Joseph’s charge; and, with him there, he had no concern for anything but the food that he ate.

Now Joseph was handsome and good-looking. And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, “Lie with me.” But he refused and said to his master’s wife, “Look, with me here, my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my hand. He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except yourself, because you are his wife. How then could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” And although she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not consent to lie beside her or to be with her.
One day, however, when he went into the house to do his work, and while no one else was in the house, she caught hold of his garment, saying, “Lie with me!” But he left his garment in her hand, and fled and ran outside. When she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled outside, she called out to the members of her household and said to them, “See, my husband has brought among us a Hebrew to insult us! He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice; and when he heard me raise my voice and cry out, he left his garment beside me, and fled outside.”

Then she kept his garment by her until his master came home, and she told him the same story, saying, “The Hebrew servant, whom you have brought among us, came in to me to insult me; but as soon as I raised my voice and cried out, he left his garment beside me, and fled outside.”

When his master heard the words that his wife spoke to him, saying, “This is the way your servant treated me,” he became enraged. And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined; he remained there in prison. But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love; he gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer. The chief jailer committed to Joseph’s care all the prisoners who were in the prison, and whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. The chief jailer paid no heed to anything that was in Joseph’s care, because the Lord was with him; and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper.
 Image by Brian Spahr
Joseph!  What next?  What more could possibly happen to Joseph the favored son of Jacob?  Prior to this scene we see him hated by his brothers because he dreamt dreams of power and authority, and he had been given a very pretty colored coat to boot, they take it upon their jealous hearts to toss him into a pit.  But then, rather than let him die in the pit the sell him to the Ishmaelite who transport him to Egypt.  He was then sold to Potipher, an official of Pharaoh.  Human trafficking is as old as the hills; it’s one of the lower points in this human tragedy of Joseph which spirals even lower.

Yet Joseph was a good man and he does well so Potipher appoints him over his entire household.  Joseph had equal rights with regard to household authority even over Potipher’s wife, but he had no rights to her body, and he knew that.  She, of course, knew it too yet she actively pursued him.  And when Joseph wouldn’t capitulate she accused him of rape. 

So Joseph’s rise to power didn’t last that long before he descended back into the pit of despair once again and was jailed, falsely accused.  The difference between Joseph and others in jail is that Joseph had integrity, he says no and pays the price.   And the text says the Lord was with him.  The Lord was with him when he prospered and the Lord was with him in his prison cell.  The Lord was always with him.  Like Andy Dufrense with Mozart in his heart and mind, the Lord was with Joseph too in his heart and his mind.

God’s story is one that is not only a story about people thousands of years ago but it’s about us too.

God does not guarantee our safety, our health, but we do see that God is with us in the high and lows, the ambiguities and complexities of our lives, the places of imprisonment that you can’t crawl out of.  God’s presence is not a quick fix for all that ails you, it is not the miracle elixir that will cure your pain or take it away but it can give you great measure of comfort to know that you are not alone in any of the circumstances of your life. 

“The Lord was with Joseph” is a refrain that echoes throughout this passage, and that is our refrain too.  When you can’t see the light because the bills have piled up so high in front of the windows, the Lord is with you.  When depression threatens to take you way low, the Lord is with you.  When relationships go sour and aloneness prevails, the Lord is with you.  Always and forever, the Lord is with you.

We know that Joseph’s story doesn’t end in prison.  This dreamer and interpreter of dreams of extraordinary measure find favor once again in Pharaoh’s eyes. His patience is rewarded and he prospers.  He is reunited and reconciled with his family.  And God was with him throughout all of his life. 

May the covenantal God of Noah, the God of rainbow blessing to Abraham, and Joseph’s God of promise and presence be active in your life.

May the Lord be with you……………..And also with you!


Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Reboot and Redevelop

Genesis 6: 16-22; 9:8-15
This year I will be preaching from the Narrative Lectionary, which is a four year cycle of readings that shows the breadth of voices from the Bible.  Both the Old and New Testament readings are texts that proclaim what God is doing in human history. The stories tell of hope and disappointment, suffering and redemption….it is here we find God dealing with the complexities of human life. Stories from the gospels differ each year, avoiding repetition and highlighting what is distinctive about each gospel’s telling of the story of Jesus.[i]

Designed by Brian Saphr

We are familiar with the epic of Noah that spans a whopping three chapters in the book of Genesis.  From the ‘Arky Arky’ children’s song to Bill Cosby’s memorable Noah monologue and then the subsequent one, even funnier, to cute little replicas of the ark and pairs of animals, Noah’s ark is a beloved story of the Judeo-Christian faith.

But there are other flood myths that are critical to
other peoples identities too. Myths of great floods that wipe out civilizations are not new.  Navajo, Ojibway, Inca’s you name it, it seems most cultures have a story of a flood, brought on by a deity or deities, and some sort of vessel is built saving a remnant of the people. 

Most famous probably is the Epic of Gilgamesh  from Mesopotamia where, in his successful effort to find immortality encounters Utnapishtim who tells him the story of a great flood that the gods sent  to destroy all of the city and about how the god Ea (a yah) told Utnapishtim to build a boat and populate it with male and females animals.  Well it follows the story line of Noah to a certain point but there is no pretty colorful bow hung in the sky in the end.  It continues into a longer tale.

Today our scripture for reflection is from Genesis, the story of Noah, of God and a great big flood.  Somewhere between the beginning of Genesis where God created the earth and the heavens, the stars and the moon, the creepy crawly insects and animals, us humans in God’s image; male and female alike, and pronounced it all good, somewhere between that and the story of Noah things went horribly awry.

The people went bad and God got miffed. 

Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above; and put the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks. For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.

 And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive. Also take with you every kind of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them.” Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.

We could spend hours asking a few questions here but the big one, why in the world would our loving God do such a thing?  What was this divine God that we worship thinking?  Why would God do a major ‘reboot’ with creation like that?  Well we don’t know the mind of God if in fact we read the story in this way.  It appears that God changes, or our understanding of who God is changes.  And what we also see is that in this story of failure and crisis is that God’s relationship with Noah and creation deepened as God called Noah to repopulate the earth.  A broken relationship is restored and a covenant is made visible through one of the most beautiful acts of nature, a rainbow.   

Now if there wasn’t a big meeting after church about a topic near and dear to my heart I would love to explore more fully this beloved story that we tend to gloss over and make pretty for children.  What I want to take from this story is how God’s relationship deepened with humanity and how our relationship could deepen through redevelopment, and covenant.

You, as a congregation, are at an exciting juncture.  You have made the commitment to call a redevelopment pastor which indicates to me that you are wanting, willing, perhaps even longing to become something much more than who you are presently. 

Not that there is anything wrong with who you are presently.  No!  There is not.  I have experienced you in these last 20 months, almost two years, as a loving, giving, caring, and yearning congregation.  But I also sense that you are longing to ready yourselves and prepare for future generations to experience the love and acceptance that you have found here.  You are ready to be open to where God is calling you next and who God is calling you to be.

I believe that we, together, have already stepped onto that yellow brick road into the future.  The great ministerial conundrum of our day is what will the future church need to be, and that is our biggest question too.  What will we look like twenty years from now or even ten years from now and still be church and how do we position ourselves?  Inherantly redevelopment means change, to reboot the system so that the softward can be updated and enhanced. 

This is covenantal and sacred work.  These next four years will be holy territory that we will navigate together because of the call God has placed upon us together. 

And God will be with us.  God expressed covenant with Noah and God’s covenant of grace and mercy will be upon us too.  Let us open ourselves to all future possibilities.  Let us call upon our still speaking God to nudge us from complancey into the great and future church that we can be.


[i] http://www.workingpreacher.org/narrative_faqs.aspx

Friday, September 5, 2014

Yes Lord but first a few questions

Exodus 3: 1-15
Probably in 1957 or so my brother, ten years older then me, had a reel to reel tape recorder.  I don’t remember all that he did with it but I do remember that when one of his friends would come over they would play radio announcer and they would interview me, the pest.  I was probably around five or six years old. 

One day they asked a very simple question by all accounts, “Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?”  I didn’t know.  They chuckled.  I was embarrassed that I didn’t know and felt really slow of mind.  I wasn’t old enough to make the connection that it had to have been Grant, Ulysses S. Grant, who was buried in Grant’s tomb.  This incident, while has not sent me to the psychiatrists couch, has stayed with me all these years.

You have to admit, there are some very famous, perhaps some silly questions that have come down in life that we continue to reflect upon.

            What came first?  The chicken or the egg?
            If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear,            
                  does it make a sound?
            Where’s the beef?
            Pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon?
            Do you know the way to San Jose?
            To be or not to be?
            What is the meaning of life?

Questions are important! They bring clarity, they endeavor to look for profound meaning in life, they help you determine where you are and where you are going, they are critical to developing relationships.

In our scripture today Moses asks a lot of questions as his relationship with YHWY deepens. It is the old familiar story of the burning bush.  Last week we met Moses as a tiny baby in a basket and this week, well, he is all grown up.    A lot has happened to Moses in those years.  Remember he grew up in the house of Pharaoh, as an Egyptian. 

One day he goes out and sees the forced labor of his people the Hebrews and he is not happy.  Finally he’s beginning to live into his born identity.  He sees an Egyptian beat one of his people and he, in turn, murders the Egyptian.  But he was found out by one of his own and he flees for fear of his life, he flees from Egypt, from the forced labor camps of the Hebrews, and from Pharaoh and he finds himself in Midian.

It’s here that he meets his future wife Zipporah and they begin to have children.  The Israelites continue their agony in Egypt until the king died and God finally looks upon them, finally God hears their cries.  We pick up the third chapter of Exodus.
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”

When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:  This is my name forever,
and this my title for all generations.

The story continues from here, Moses is to go to the Israelites and let them know that God has heard them and that they will be delivered.  Moses doubts that they will believe him and God sends a sign by changing the rod Moses had in his hand to snake and back again.  That’s how he’ll convince the people. 

But even after that, Moses still doubts his leadership for the task and asks yet another question.  In essence, in this call story of Moses he asks five questions before he reluctantly takes up God’s call.

Why isn’t this bush burning up from all the flames?
Who am I to go to Pharaoh and do such a thing?
What if they want to know who sent me?
  He can’t just say that he’s working for a talking bush..[i]  he needed some credentials!
What if they don’t believe me?
And his last ditch effort question:
            How can I accomplish this for you God, I’m not a good speaker.

That’s a lot of questions that Moses asks of God in an effort to subvert God’s call.  But these questions are important questions between him and the great ‘I am’ because the answers reassure Moses that God will be with him, that God would not send him off on a wild goose chase and leave him flapping in the wind. 

I think we all have questions from time to time about our life.  Questions much more profound than ‘Who was buried in Grant’s tomb”.  It is these very questions that deepen our relationship and reliance on God.

It was the poet and author Rainer Maria Rilke who once told a young poet, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them….the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”[ii]

No doubt about it, Moses was called into the presence of God for a specific moment in time and to make a difference in the lives of his fellow Hebrews and he eventually said yes, but not without inquiry.  If you live and love the questions long enough you will eventually know the answer and understand the call that God has placed on your life. 

Being called by God most often doesn’t mean a life to ministry.  It means awakening to God’s love in the life you lead.  That is, I believe, fulfilling your potential, nurturing your gifts specific that God has given you.  God doesn’t want you to be anyone else but you where you are at the moment, with all of the questions that you can muster. 

It means being highly attuned to the presence of God in your life.  If you’re a poet then write your poems with the awareness of God’s love, if you’re a laborer then labor in God’s presence and it will make all the difference.

As Christ followers it means that we are called to exemplify God’s love and forgiveness, Christ’s unquenchable thirst for justice, and the Holy Spirit’s energy in our every day world and each day that we live out.  We are called to be.  And we are called to do.

Will you, through your actions, tell the Gospel that you have been called to tell?  Eloquent words are not necessary, just an open ear and lots of questions like Moses who heard God calling him through a talking bush.


[i] Karla Svomala, Associate Professor of Religion, Luther College, Decorah, IA.
[ii] Rainer Maria Rilke, ‘Letters to a Young Poet’.