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July 22, 2015, 8:25 AM

Choose This Day...


Joshua 24:14-15 (and the entire Book of Joshua)
14 “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
 
“Choose This Day…”
 
Every year clergy and elected lay representatives for all the churches in an annual conference, a geographical region overseen by a bishop, gather in one place for a three to four day session called, confusingly, an annual conference. During that time together, the people called United Methodist worship, study scripture, learn, vote on business, and come together in fellowship. One of the highlights, at least for me, is the ordaining of new clergy. It is a time when I not only celebrate this huge step in the life and ministry of my colleagues, but it is a chance to remember that moment in my life; what I vowed, what I am called to do. Even this year, when I couldn’t physically attend due to medical leave, I was there for those ordination moments via live streaming on the conference website.
 
At some moment during the conference gathering, prior to the ordination service, those being ordained are called forward before the entire gathered conference body to answer our founder, John Wesley’s historic questions: Have you faith in Christ? Are you going on to perfection? Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly to God and God’s work? There are 19 questions in all. These are the vows of ordination. It is a holy and important moment. Each answer contains God. “Are you going on to perfection? Yes, by God’s grace. Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly to God and God’s work? With God’s help, I am. In that moment each soon-to-be ordained individual confesses as they answer that it is only by the power and presence of God that these sacred vows may be upheld in any way.
 
John Wesley and Joshua have a bit in common. Both of them are adamant that the people of God make a serious and life-altering commitment, and are willing to drive this point home. This is the portion of the Book of Joshua we can handle. Joshua’s overseeing of this promise-making is a little rough, but he wants the people to understand the seriousness of this moment. “Choose this day whom you will serve…but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” It is probably the only passage we know reasonably well from this often neglected book. This, and the battle of Jericho…and the walls came atumblin’ down. But Jericho takes us into the first half of the book which we would rather not dwell on—conquest and warfare, the wiping out of a people to take their land. Those portions of Joshua seem so far removed from the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. Can’t we just forget about Joshua and take up the call to commitment from other portions of the Hebrew Scriptures—like the ones Jesus quotes in today’s gospel reading about loving God and neighbor?
 
No, we can’t.
 
It is the Book of Joshua that narrates the creation of the nation of Israel and brings the promise to Abraham closer to fulfillment. It is in Joshua that the rag-tag wanderers settle into the 12 tribes of Israel, establish their relationship with God, land, and one another. It is the people established in this book that lead to King David and down, through the generations, to Jesus. Instead of trying to dodge Joshua, or skim over it, or ignore it, we need to grab it with both hands and really try to see it and wrestle with it.
 
The core message of the Book of Joshua is—it has always been God! Everything from the call to Abraham, to the naming of Israel, to the deliverance from Egypt, to the journey through the wilderness…all God, always! Everything the people have is because of God, not because of anything they did, and so they must make God their everything. All God! It is easy to fall into the trap of reading Joshua as a history of the settlement in Canaan, however the book is being written as theology, a proclamation about God and God’s people, and a call to commitment. Read historically, we soon see all the contradictions. The book is not chronological, nor it doesn’t desire to be. It is not trying to be factual, it is trying to be proclamation.
 
The Book of Joshua is being put into a written form hundreds of years after the people of God settle in Canaan. The tribes of Israel are a small people surrounded by much bigger nations, with loud and vibrant cultures. These cultures have larger-than-life stories, legends and myths—fantastic tales about warriors and kings, gods and goddesses. The neighboring nations’ royalty encourage elaborate narratives of their battle prowess and power, stories of magic and might to ensure their rule. These stories are part of the nations’ identities, part of what forms them into a country and unites them. The people of Israel constantly struggle with temptation to believe these stories, to make them part of their identity, and to drift away from the covenant established with God.
 
And so, wise teachers take these foreign stories that are so appealing and use that style and metaphor to show the difference between the neighbor’s culture and Israel’s culture. In these fantastic narratives of battle—Jericho’s walls tumbling, the sun standing still, the fall of the city of Ai—it isn’t some king who saves the day. No supernatural warrior rides to the rescue. It is God, present with them, bigger than any king or ruler. God is at the center of their identity, and is the author of their lives. This doesn’t mean we, in the 21st century, are any more comfortable with war and violence. We are fortunate to live in a culture that isn’t ruled by violence, warfare and conquest on a day-to-day basis. However, we see the headlines where, even today, that is not the case. And for ancient Israel, warfare and violence were a real presence in their lives. The battle stories of Joshua are told to a people leaning away from God, drawn by fantastic tales, as a way of refocusing them on God, even as they serve as a reminder of the struggle their ancestors went through to be the nation Israel. These are stories on which to build the identity of a people—Yes, our neighbors have cool stories…but we have an awesome God!
 
The second half of the Book of Joshua moves away from the battle scenes and war stories, and begins to talk about land allotment. It is not exciting reading, with all those names and places. However, something amazing is happening. The beloved community is taking on shape and form. Every tribe is gifted with land, a precious commodity. Every family receives land as an inheritance, to be kept in the family for generation after generation. It is not reserved for the few and powerful, this is not Pharaoh’s Egypt. The land is for everyone. We know that in generations to come, Israel will often lose sight of this vision of all having enough, but here, in this moment, buried in the second half of Joshua, God plants the seeds of equality as a touchstone against which Israel’s future actions can be measured.
 
The book ends with the capstone moment in the last chapter of Joshua, “choose this day whom you will serve…” All of the Book of Joshua leads us to this moment, has proclaimed a way of life where God is always at the center. Israel does not rely on some king, does not worship a pantheon of bickering deities. Israel’s God is the one, true God, the steadfast God, the One who yearns for a strong and vibrant relationship with the people. Now, people! Choose this day whom you will serve! Choose God and live in relationship with the One who gifted us with everything we have. Yet Joshua cautions…this is not to be entered into lightly. This is a serious commitment, a whole life commitment. It is a marriage—there are expectations of committing your whole self, every moment of life, to this relationship. Here is the thesis of Joshua as covenant-- Everything we have is because of God, not because of us, are you willing to make God your everything, forever?
 
If we skip Joshua, we miss this radical call to whole-life commitment. Today we stand gathered in Shechem, by the oaks of Mamre where Abraham and  Sarah hosted God for a meal, where Jacob called his household to bury their foreign gods and give themselves to the almighty God—El Shaddai, Elohim, Jehovah…Yahweh. Joshua demands of us…choose this day whom you will serve. Everything we have is because of God, not because of us, are you willing to make God your everything?
 
Have you faith in Christ?
Are you going on to perfection?
Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly to God and his work?
Will you diligently instruct the children in every place?
Will you recommend fasting or abstinence, both by precept and example?
Are you determined to employ all your time in the work of God?
 
Choose this day whom you will serve…Thanks be to God! Amen.



July 15, 2015, 1:52 PM

Meeting Moses


Exodus 3:7-16
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. 10 So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” 11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” 12 The Lord 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.”
13 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 God’s name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.”[a] The Lord said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” 15 God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord,[b] 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.
16 Go and assemble the elders of Israel, and say to them, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying: I have given heed to you and to what has been done to you in Egypt. 
 
“Meet Moses”
 
The Exodus! It is the foundational story for Israel. All of Hebrew scripture, and much of the New Testament, point toward it. Even in Genesis, the great Exodus is foreshadowed. In one of their conversations, God promises Abraham that although his descendants would languish in Egypt for 400 years, God would lead them back to the Promised Land. At the close of Genesis, Joseph instructs his people, that when they are returned to the Promised Land, to take his bones with them when they go. This is God’s great work of liberation and the birthing of the nation God promised to Abraham long ago—the Exodus. And the figure at the center of God’s great work…Moses.
 
When I hear the name ‘Moses,’ one image instantly jumps into my head—Charlton Heston on the mountaintop, long beard blowing in the breeze, holding the Ten Commandments. If you are unfamiliar with the image, google it. It will pop right up. If I push past this image my mind pulls up the animated Dreamworks movie, “The Prince of Egypt,” with its fantastic musical score. The stories of Moses, interwoven in the Exodus, are beautifully visual and captivate our imaginations: the babe floating in the basket on the Nile, the bush that burns but is not consumed, the Reed Sea parting so the people may walk through on dry ground, the giving of those Ten Commandments. These stories create a larger-than-life prophet, wielding God’s staff and the signs and wonders. “Let my people go!”
 
Today, however, let us try to lay aside all these images from cinema and Sunday School and try to see Moses, and the Exodus, with fresh eyes. Let’s meet Moses.
 
The Exodus story does loom large because it is about so much more than the freeing of a group of people. This is the great narrative of God’s way breaking into the world and upsetting the world’s way. This is about the inbreaking of God’s kingdom, God’s commonwealth, the Beloved Community. Egypt becomes for us any nation or society or institution that seeks to set up a pyramid system. It is a system where the vast majority of power and wealth and resources reside at the very top in the hands of a very few. As the pyramid moves down, there are more and more people and less and less power, wealth and resources. At the bottom are the masses crushed by the systems that sits on their backs. Pharaoh becomes anyone who seeks to sit at the pyramid top and nurture the structure. Exodus is a warning and a reminder of the upheaval caused when God’s commonwealth, God’s kingdom, God’s beloved community is birthed. Everything is turned topsy turvy as the pyramid collapses onto the level plain.
 
The leaders who serve as God’s midwives in this birthing, the partners in this inbreaking, are ones that the world would never, ever hire (or even consider) for such a task. So who does God choose (we can revisit our providence discussion from last week another time)…who does God choose to stand up to the embodiment of this pyramid society, to rally a hopeless people, to wield God’s signs and wonders, to build a new society, to lead a 40 year road trip through the wilderness with 600,000 people, to receive God’s Law? Moses, an outsider.
 
The only mark Moses has that lets him in the door for this journey is that he is literally born a Hebrew, son of Yokheved and Amram. In the lovely twist of chapter three, Yokheved is hired by Pharaoh’s daughter to serve as Moses’ nursemaid, but it is unclear how much of his Hebrew heritage she conveyed to him. We don’t know how long she was able to stay with him. Was she dismissed as soon as he was weaned, or was she able to stay on as a nanny of sorts? But we do know that Moses is raised in Pharaoh’s courts, so in most ways he is not a Hebrew, for he has access to many privileges and luxuries of wealth and power. However, Moses is not an Egyptian. The princess easily recognized Moses as a Hebrew baby and scripture tells us he is aware of his ethnicity. Moses has a foot in both worlds—Hebrew and Egyptian—but belongs to neighter.
 
And then he becomes a criminal. In a fit of anger over witnessing a task master beating a Hebrew slave, Moses kills the task master and then flees for his life as a murderer. He comes to live with a pagan society, the Midianites, and marries into the family of the high priest—marrying someone who is both a pagan and a foreigner, frowned upon by the Hebrew people. And on top of all this, Moses has a speech impediment.
 
To an enslaved and despairing people God sends an unrecognizable redeemer. One who bears the name of their oppressor—the name ‘Moses’ is found in many Pharaoh names. One who is wanted for murder. One who married a pagan foreigner. One who cannot speak well in public. Can we imagine how he was received when he gathered the elders of Israel as instructed by God? “This is what you send us? Oy-vey!”
 
“Let my people go” echoes from the One deemed criminal by Pharaoh and viewed as an outside (at best) by his own people. The redemption of God’s people, the inbreaking of God’s way, the crumbling of Pharaoh’s pyramid, the birthing of the beloved community is brought about through God partnering with one who has never belonged. Liberation, transformation, redemption, and commonwealth-building is dangerous business. It shatters the status quo and it is work that is entrusted into unlikely hands. But whose hands would work harder to create a community of belonging than one who has yearned for such a thing. Moses only dreamed of truly belonging until God spoke from a burning bush and partnered the outsider for an amazing journey.
 
Pharaoh’s Egypt still holds sway in our world. God’s beloved community is still in the birthing process. We are reminded and warned…the pyramid will not last. Do not discount unlikely people. And understand, we are all unlikely people. Perhaps a bush burns in our midst. Thanks be to God. Amen.



July 7, 2015, 12:13 PM

God's Providence?


Genesis 50:15-21             
15 When Joseph’s brothers realized that their father was now dead, they said, “What if Joseph bears a grudge against us, and wants to pay us back seriously for all of the terrible things we did to him?” 16 So they approached[a] Joseph and said, “Your father gave orders before he died, telling us, 17 ‘This is what you should say to Joseph. “Please, forgive your brothers’ sins and misdeeds, for they did terrible things to you. Now, please forgive the sins of the servants of your father’s God.”’” Joseph wept when they spoke to him.
18 His brothers wept[b] too, fell down in front of him, and said, “We’re here as your slaves.”
19 But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I God? 20 You planned something bad for me, but God produced something good from it, in order to save the lives of many people, just as he’s doing today. 21 Now, don’t be afraid. I will take care of you and your children.” So he put them at ease and spoke reassuringly to them.
 
“God’s Providence”
 
When I was a child, probably early elementary age, a small circus came through my hometown. It featured human acts, not animal ones—jugglers, acrobats, trapeze artists, contortionists, and my favorite, tightrope walkers. I was mesmerized by the balance of this little girl, not much older than myself, who could walk effortlessly across that thin cable, back and forth, doing somersaults, carrying objects, sitting in a chair, standing on the shoulders of others. How I wanted to do what she did! The day after visiting the circus I searched the barn and garage for strong rope, and began stringing it up between objects. However, the same thing happened every time—the rope would sag under my weight. Nothing I did could keep the rope taunt enough for someone to walk on it.
 
And then one day I found it! I was walking across the barnyard to fetch one of the horses when my eyes fell upon the hay escalator, or more importantly, the steel cables that held the escalator firmly in place. Pulled tightly between earth and escalator, these cables could hold up a cow without effort! Eureka! I spent the entire summer perfecting my balance upon those cables. I never reached the expertise of the circus walkers I admired, but I was pretty good. I had found the firmness I needed to practice my walk because the cable was held firm in the tension of the two poles.
 
I frequently use this image of tightrope walking, of the tension between two points holding me up, when I enter into theological conversations.  It is tricky to speak of God in ‘either/or’ terms.  God seems to be more ‘both/and…and…and…and.’ We, as the people of God, need to embrace good theological conversation regularly. After all, theology literally means to speak of God, and when we speak of God with one another, most times, our understanding grows and deepens and expands. This week, as I prepared for Messy Church and this Sunday’s services, I kept coming across a theological term that is often spoken of in terms of ‘either/or,’ and might be less difficult if we could speak of it differently—and live in the tension between the points. Let’s talk about ‘providence.’
 
Providence is the idea of divine guidance. It is the theological concept that God is in control and guiding human destiny and all creation. It is reflected in such favorite hymns as “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah,” or “God Will Take Care of You.”
Be not dismayed whate’er betide, God will take care of you;
beneath his wings of love abide, God will take care of you.
 
It is the comforting power of Psalm 23—“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters…” It is the word used to describe God’s presence in the story of Joseph as events unfold to place Joseph in power in Egypt for the survival of Israel. Providence is the understanding that God has a plan for God’s creation, and is working toward the fulfillment of that plan throughout the course of history. This idea of God’s providence often creates those poles, those two points, that divide God’s people.
 
We have all heard the clichés from one side of the providence discussion:
            God must have had a reason…
            It was all part of God’s plan…
            It is God’s will…
            I want to know God’s will for my life…
            God will take care of you…
            It will all work out in the end…
Some people hears these phrases and finds great comfort. They feel it expresses God’s almighty presence in all things, and assures them that God is in control. These phrases, however, can lead to the desperate need to assign blame for catastrophic events, and to the horrible words from televangelists that blame tornados and hurricanes on groups they don’t like, and people they deem sinful. What happens when it doesn’t work out? What happens when it all seems senseless? How could 97 people slaughtered during worship in Nigeria be part of the plan of a loving God?
 
Others hear these phrases and run frantically to the other extreme, the belief that God does not cause events to happen at all—the popular two word phrase, ‘stuff happens (to paraphrase in a worship-friendly way).’ Many who find themselves in this camp do believe, however, that God is still present in the ‘stuff.’ Many even testify that God can work within the ‘stuff’ to redeem, restore, and reconcile. They believe that God can bring goodness to light even in the darkest moments. The words of forgiveness from the lips of the families of the Charleston victims to the shooter has been lifted up recently as an example of God working in the senseless violence of terrorism at Mother Emanuel. But are we willing to say that God is not in control? That God has no plan for God’s creation? What do we do with the beautiful words of scripture that attest to divine providence? Do we reject Psalm 23 and other comforting scriptures like it? Are we willing to say it is all coincidence and not see a divine hand at work?
 
Is there a way to walk firmly on the tension created by the two poles, the two points? Perhaps the story of Joseph shows us a way…
 
God is certainly active in the story of Joseph but not in the way God is with Abraham and Sarah, or in the Exodus that we will spend time with next week. God is moving behind the events that lead Joseph to Pharaoh’s right hand in Egypt. Last week we explored God’s desire for a beloved community, birthed by a barren couple, to serve as an example to all the nations. Abraham and Sarah answer God’s call and begin the work of God’s kingdom coming to fruition within God’s creation. Now God’s dream is in jeopardy—as famine looms on the horizon, threatening not only Sarah and Abraham’s grandchildren, but many people from many nations. According to Genesis, God does have a desire for God’s creation. God has a plan—for humankind to live as partner people, in intimate relationship with God, caretaking all of creation—the kingdom of God. But God is not a puppet master pulling the strings to force that commonwealth upon us. God issues invitations, opens opportunities, seeks to work within situations, if God finds willing partners.
 
God opens a door by gifting to Joseph dreams that have the potential to unsettle the status quo. These dreams given to Joseph have the potential to lead Joseph, his family, and the surrounding nations closer to God’s dream.  If Joseph believes these wild images of leadership, doesn’t just blame it on bad falafel, and acts upon them, the journey toward abundance, and not scarcity, begins. These smaller dreams, given to Joseph, to the baker and cupbearer, to Pharaoh himself, work to preserve God’s plan, God’s will, for God’s people and all creation—life in full relationship with God.
 
Joseph’s story is an artful narrative that depicts God as opening opportunities in which Joseph can act to help God realize God’s dream. It invites God’s people to recognize that God is indeed at work in the world, and not only as a booming voice, or in signs and wonders (as we will see next week in Moses’ story). God nudges, opens doors, invites and calls, points to opportunities within our own lives where we can partner with God in living the commonwealth here and now. Joseph’s story invites us to live in the tension of God’s Providence and God’s gift of free will, letting them form a firm foundation for our walk of faith. God does have a plan, a beautiful dream of the beloved community. And we have the freedom to be part of that dream, or not. God will not force us into God’s vision, nor punish us if we don’t follow where God wishes to lead us.
 
This in only the beginning of our conversation about providence, our ongoing dialogue about God and our relationship with God. There are so many more points creating a network of cables on which our faith is lifted up and held. God is not a micromanager, creating suffering and hardship for some and not for others. But neither is God hands off with the beautiful and diverse people God spoke into being and designed in God’s image. Theology takes lots of practice, to walk the tense cables of understanding, faith, and belief. Evangelism is to speak the good news of God, to share that good news with others. If we don’t practice how we speak of God, what we say may be the opposite of the good news we are called to share. May God bless our conversations—that we may speak and listen with grace.  Amen.



July 2, 2015, 10:17 AM

Beloved Community


Genesis 21:1-8
1-4 God visited Sarah exactly as God said; God did to Sarah what God promised: Sarah became pregnant and gave Abraham a son in his old age, and at the very time God had set. Abraham named him Isaac. When his son was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him just as God had commanded.
5-6 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born.
Sarah said,
God has blessed me with laughter
and all who get the news will laugh with me!
She also said,
Whoever would have suggested to Abraham
that Sarah would one day nurse a baby!
Yet here I am! I’ve given the old man a son!
The baby grew and was weaned. Abraham threw a big party on the day Isaac was weaned.
 
Luke 1:46-55
46 Mary said,
“With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
47     In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
48 The Lord has looked with favor on the low status of God’s servant.
    Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
49         because the mighty One has done great things for me.
Holy is God’s name.
50     The Lord shows mercy to everyone,
        from one generation to the next,
        who honors the Lord as God.
51 The Lord has shown strength with God’s arm.
    God has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
52     God has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
        and lifted up the lowly.
53 God has filled the hungry with good things
    and sent the rich away empty-handed.
54 The Lord has come to the aid of God’s servant Israel,
        remembering God’s mercy,
55     just as God promised to our ancestors,
        to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”
 
“Beloved Community”
Mary’s song has been on my heart a lot lately. Not the first half of the song, though it is lovely. No, the second half has been resonating in my heart these last few days, the part of the song about what God is doing and is about to do in Jesus. Mary sings of the holy commonwealth of God, the divine kingdom—what Martin Luther King, Jr. termed the ‘Beloved Community.’ She sings of the scattering of arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations, the pulling down of thrones and the lifting of the lowly. From her lips comes the image of the great leveling, a community where everyone stands on equal footing, on level ground.
 
These last few days (following the shooting in Charleston) pondering Mary’s song makes my heart hurt. Reading the powerful words from Martin Luther King, Jr., found on the front of your bulletin does the same:
Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant star of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty. –Letter from the Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963.
King dreamed of that kingdom, that Beloved Community, in 1963 and here we are in 2015 grieving the act of terrorism in Mother Emanuel AME Church! My heart hurts because I want that! I want to live in the kingdom Mary sings of. I want to belong to that community King preaches. I want that dream! NOW!
 
I know that Mary’s song is one of hope. She is literally expectant, birthing salvation and envisioning the commonwealth…but she is so young, so new. Her courage is breath-taking, but so is her innocence. Her words, in the echo of gunfire, seem naïve. She doesn’t realize yet all the resistance to the birthing of God’s kingdom. She hasn’t seen all the struggle for equality and justice that is ahead of her. She doesn’t know about all those who will fear this beloved community and lash out in fear, hatred and violence…but she will.
 
Her song ends, however, with someone who has more knowledge of this struggle. Her hymn closes with a couple who waited and struggled and despaired, who believed and doubted and hoped and feared—Abraham and Sarah.
 
Abraham was 75 years old, Sarah 74, when God issued God’s call—when God spoke into the darkness of their barrenness—and offered new life and the promise to build an alternative community through them. God invited them into a journey of faith to build a people living in community with God, to serve as a model for all peoples. And they accepted. They packed up and went.
 
It is no small thing, this blind journey Abram and Sarai embark on, leaving behind family, identity, security—all they had ever known. But the barrenness was that oppressive, they were that desperate. Millennia go community was everything, and a community built on the bonds of family was the most secure. Generations lived together for safety and security, but this was denied to Abram and Sarai. They had no heir, and therefore they had no future, no security, no continuation. Hope was hard to find. And then God spoke into this barrenness…”I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you. You will be a blessing. All the families of the world will be blessed through you.”
 
All that had been denied to Abram and Sarai, all they had seen others rejoice in, all they longed for as they watched from a distance could now be theirs! In following God’s call was hope and life in all its fullness. Without hesitation they packed up everything and journeyed to a new and strange land, to live as immigrants and strangers. They worshipped the Lord of Life and prepared to receive that promise…and they waited.
 
And they waited. And they waited. Life went on around them. Others welcomed new life into their families. Abram and Sarai struggled forward together, full of faith some days, full of doubt on others, through days of abundance, and through days of hardship. The barrenness persisted. Hope struggled to survive. When would the promise be fulfilled? When would they have what others had? When would they become God’s beloved community?! Is it any wonder that they began to question as the years passed and the possibility of reproduction seemed remote? Abram cried out, “My steward is my only heir!” Where is security in that? Sarai scornfully chuckled, “It has ceased to be with me the ways of a woman.” How could there be hope in that? Of course they laughed in disbelief at the growing impossibility of a child of their own. Ismael seemed a logical alternative.
 
But God renewed the promise again and again. God went so far as to rename them, taking a piece of God’s name and placing it within their own—Abraham and Sarah. “This is how much I am with you, my very name dwells within your own.” And each time, Abraham and Sarah squared their shoulders, took a deep breath, and continued onward with God toward the yet unseen beloved community. They chose to believe that in their future was a breaking point in the barrenness—that the exhausted present would give way to an abundant future. Twenty five years after the initial promise was made, when Abraham was 100 years old and Sarah 99, their disbelieving chuckles gave way to joy-filled laughter as Sarah gave birth to Isaac, whose name means laughter. Abraham and Sarah glimpsed that promised kingdom, they saw the advent of God’s beloved community, and they passed that dream onto Isaac. Isaac shared it with Jacob, and Jacob with his twelve sons. Generation upon generation passed on the vision of the commonwealth, and slowly it grew.
 
That commonwealth burst from the lips of Mary as she sang, it overflowed from Peter’s sermons. God’s kingdom lived in St. Francis, compelled Martin Luther, burned in John Wesley. God’s beloved community sang from Sojourner Truth, boomed in the cadence of Martin Luther King, Jr., shone in the compassion of Mother Theresa. And didn’t we see it on Friday (SCOTUS ruling for marriage equality)! Rainbows everywhere and tears of joy and thanksgiving! That beloved community took one step closer. Our children—Sarah and Landen and Tyler and Penelope and Gavin and Violet—will grow up with just the word ‘marriage,’ no qualifiers needed! God renews God’s promise to build the commonwealth through us. So we square our shoulders, take a deep breath, and continue on with God, trusting that God is working in the hearts of many even when we can’t see it. We believe there is a breaking point in our future because Charleston needs us. Baltimore and Ferguson need us. The immigrants on our borders and heckling the President in the White House need us. Full acceptance in the United Methodist Church needs us!
 
Sarah’s laughter echoes around us. Mary’s song is our song. “With all my heart I glorify the Lord! In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my Savior!” The Lord is looking on us with favor! We are the parents of justice! President Obama reminded us in his eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney Friday afternoon of the abolitionist hymn that once stirred hearts toward justice and angered those who stood opposed to full freedom:
            Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
            that saved a wretch like me!
            I once was lost, but now am found,
            was blind, but now I see!
We have work to do!



April 21, 2015, 11:04 AM

A Resurrection Event


Luke 24:36b-48    CEB
Jesus himself stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 37 The disciples were terrified and afraid. They thought they were seeing a ghost.
38 Jesus said to them, “Why are you startled? Why are doubts arising in your hearts? 39  Look at my hands and my feet. It’s really me! Touch me and see, for a ghost doesn’t have flesh and bones like you see I have.” 40 As he said this, he showed them his hands and feet. 41 Because they were wondering and questioning in the midst of their happiness, he said to them, “Do you have anything to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of baked fish. 43 Taking it, he ate it in front of them.
44 Jesus said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the Law from Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. 46 He said to them, “This is what is written: the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47  and a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48  You are witnesses of these things.
 
“A Resurrection Event”
(A huge thank you and acknowledgement to Rev. Dr. Nancy Hale, pastor at Broad Street UMC in Norwich, NY for her profound influence on me regarding body theology and for sharing same named chapter with me from her dissertation. Thank you, Nancy!)
 
It was a resurrection event…and I was honored to have witnessed it, to have participated in it. It happened on a Monday, in the Spring of my first year in seminary. There had been an incident on a college campus near the university I attended, a racial incident. It had upset the entire region; the cities in the tri-city area, the universities, and even the Divinity School. People were tense, distrustful. They pulled away from one another, retreating to the small groups of those like themselves. A few student groups within the seminary came together and decided this fracturing needed to be addressed directly, head on. We needed to be a united community again.
 
So, these few groups of students planned an event they hoped would be observed annually going forward, a week dedicated to Unity in Diversity. And the first activity to ‘kick off’ the week started at 10:00 am on Monday morning, in the student lounge (a space akin to our Embury Room). The entire Divinity School was invited to a time of story sharing—anyone who wished could stand and tell their story. Around 50 of us gathered in that space that Monday morning—mainly students. After some opening devotions and remarks, we sat in silence, waiting for that first brave soul to stand and to share…and she did. Slowly a young, African-American woman stood, and with a quivering voice, shared the pain of discrimination she had experienced in the community, on the university campus, and even in the seminary itself. I couldn’t believe these things had happened to her in 1990s America, and within a community of people who profess Jesus Christ.
 
She sat, and another minority stood, and then another and another. Slowly they shared their pain and their struggles and their heartbreak. As the telling continued, more and more members of the seminary community joined us, until the room could hold no more. Every flat space in that room had someone perched upon it and the door was crammed with people—students, faculty, staff. The dean joined us at some point and cancelled classes for the rest of the day, as the stories continued to flow. We heard from African-American students, Asian American, Native American, Latin American. We heard from women, from those told they were too old to return to school, from lesbian and gay students. And as the time continued, students who were privileged to have never experienced these discriminations stood. They apologized for their ignorance, for being so unaware of the pain experienced by their fellow students. They apologized for any way in which they contributed to the systems that hurt those gathered around them. They expressed their horror and their sorrow.
 
Something started to happen as we moved further and further into this sharing. People started to lean in closer to one another. Hands reached out to hold one another. Hugs were shared by friends and strangers alike. As the event reached its natural conclusion—3 hours after the advertised ending time—a member of the community stood up and testified, “This is it! Right here, right now! This. Is. Resurrection!! We are witnessing resurrection right now!” For ignorance had perished, and a lack of understanding had fallen away, and a piece of privilege had died. A new community rose in that space. New life! A resurrection event!
 
Chapter 24 of Luke’s gospel is the resurrection story, from the first verse to the last. The chapter begins with that beautiful Easter morning story—the women journey to the tomb, find it empty, encounter two messengers dressed in white who proclaim, “He is not here! He is risen, just as he said!” These women rush back to the disciples, gathered in the upper room, and share what they have experienced…and they are absolutely dismissed. The English translations try to soften the blow by stating that the disciples thought it “an idle tale.” The Greek is harsh and much less kind—the disciples thought the women’s story a load of crap.
 
The story then moves to two followers journeying back home, from Jerusalem to Emmaus. On the road a stranger joins them and expands their understand of scripture. At journey’s end, as the bread is broken, they suddenly recognize Jesus, and he is gone. They rush back to Jerusalem to share their experience with the remaining disciples, only to discover that in their absence, Simon too has seen the risen Christ. Which leads us to today’s reading, with scared and disbelieving disciples encounter the risen Jesus. I always thought the disciples a little dense when we get to this portion of chapter 24. The women told them that Jesus rose from the dead. The Emmaus disciples testified to seeing him. Simon proclaims Jesus alive. And yet, when Jesus appears in their midst, they tremble, terrified, and believe him a ghost. Jesus must jump through some hoops to prove to them that his alive and physically present—“Look at my hands and my feet! Do you see the nail holes? Here, give me something to eat. See, I am real!”
 
But then I realized…bodily resurrection is hard to wrap our heads around. It is hard to conceive. We have inherited century upon century of philosophy, ideology, and schools of thought that teach otherwise. Long before Jesus, Plato spoke of the flesh as a shadow on the wall, and that one day we would bask in the full light of the spirit. In the early church, the ideology knows as Gnosticism swept the Roman Empire, teaching that flesh was evil, and only the spirit is pure and to be desired. One day we would rise above this ugly flesh and be pure spirit. Even today there are many spiritualisms that value the spirit above the body. We have trouble with this ‘body’ stuff. Even when we might stop to consider the idea of a bodily resurrection, we grab Isaiah’s visions of the lame able to walk, the blind to see, the deaf to hear. We imagine having these perfect bodies, bright, shiny and new. How quickly we forget the risen Christ, holding out scarred hands and feet, showing a wounded side.
 
Does it matter if we believe in a bodily resurrection? Yes, I think it does, especially if we wish to live as a resurrection people right here, right now. For, you see, part of being that resurrection people is the death of privilege, and that is a very embodied thing.  Whether we like it or not, we are a physical creation. Jesus became human to connect with us. We were lovingly molded by our Creator out of the very fabric of this world. Do we dismiss our physical frames so quickly…then it is a privilege that we can do so.  Perhaps we have not heard the stories from the lips of those who yearn for a time when they can live in their bodies and not have those bodies fail them, again and again. Perhaps we have not heard the stories of those labeled as ‘disabled’ who long for a time when they will be seen as whole and wonderfully made just as they are, no labels attached.
 
If we dismiss a bodily resurrection, we risk dismissing those who yearn for privilege to die and for new life to dawn, physically within and around them. We miss the stories of those who yearn for ‘spouse’ to not assume opposite gender, for romance not to be reserved for heterosexual stories. We miss the stories of those who long for beauty to be a universal concept, and not a standard against which people are measured. We miss the stories of those who dream of a time when uniqueness is cherished, weirdness is loved; a time when the stray threads on the tapestry of the community are not snipped but admired.
 
We can be that resurrection in action! We can be witnesses of resurrection in our midst, right here, right now! We can be a resurrection people when ignorance perishes, lack of understanding falls away, and privilege dies! It can happen! And it begins by creating a space where the voiceless are given voice and we all seek to listen…a Resurrection Event. May it be so! Amen.

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