Sunday, September 28, 2008

Rocks - September 28, 2008

Exodus 17:1-7

Audio Version

For the last 11 years, an anti-lawsuit group has held "The Wacky Warning Label Contest" to show the effects of lawsuits on warning labels.
A warning sticker on a small tractor that reads "Danger: Avoid Death" took home the top prize in 2007.
Second place - for a label found on an iron-on T-shirt transfer that warns: "Do not iron while wearing shirt."
Third place - a label on a baby stroller that featured a small storage pouch that warns: "Do not put child in bag."

Life can be pretty silly …
And sometimes very hard …

Instead of faith, hope and love,
It’s nope, nada, nothing.

Tough times …

One of the most fascinating parts of my work over the years – talking with people who’ve come through hard times –

A striking similarity to what they say:

“Don’t know how I did it.”
“Didn’t think I’d make it.”
“The worst time of my life.”
“Thank God for friends who stood by me.”
“And God was there.”

The faithfulness of God in the worst of times …
That’s what the Exodus stories are all about …
God is present in the worst of it …

We will make it!

Surviving in tough times …

People around the world have been encouraged by the Exodus stories …
The Civil Rights movement – Let my people go!”
Free at least, free at last, thank God Almighty, free at last.

Hang in there.
Don’t give up.
God has the last word.
We shall overcome.

One of the fun things with a story like this … take a few pieces … hold them up to a bright light … sort of like looking at a piece of cut glass – turn it this way, turn it that way; each turn catches the light differently … a unique pattern of glass, color and reflection …

Let’s take a few pieces of the story and see what happens.

The first piece that caught my attention: the whole congregation of Israelites”– they were in it together – strength in numbers, standing together, side-by-side; arm-in-arm …

Now think back for a moment.
A story like this was told in hard times …
When hard thinking and hard hearts can rip life apart.
What happens to a family when bills mount up, things go wrong, issues erupt … what happens? … folks turn on one another … words grow harsh … things said that shouldn’t be said …
The Hebrew story tellers knew that the community of faith could fall apart in a heartbeat … wrangling and blame would inflict permanent damage … so they told stories, stories of hanging together in hard times … they didn’t paint an impossible picture – no, it’s filled with reality … thirst, anxiety, squabbling … but if you listen carefully to the story, it’s all about making it, leaving no one behind, finding a way … even in the wilderness.

“The whole congregation” – standing together …

I’ve noticed that here at Covenant.
Powerful and good.

We’re a team.
We’re a church.
We’re the whole congregation of Covenant on the Corner.

We’re Democrats and Republicans and Independents …
We’re hawks and we’re doves …
We’re conservatives and we’re liberals …
We’re all over the map …
The very center of it all, Jesus Christ.
His cross lifted high!

The ultimate expression of God’s love and grace.
Forgiveness and mercy.
Faith, hope and love.
For you and me.
For all the world!

We’re a team.
We’re a church.
We’re Covenant on the Corner.

The next piece:

They journeyed by stages, just as the LORD commanded them.

Stages … one step at a time … one day at a time.

We get up in the morning, and wonder if we’re going to make it.
Plans and hopes lay like dust on a coffee table …
We get outta bed, put left foot ahead of right foot …

Barbara Kingsolver writes:

In my own worst seasons I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again [High Tide in Tuscon, p. 15].

By stages … one day at a time.

The next piece is hard to grasp: As God commanded.

How in the world do we know what God commands?

Women and men of faith agree …
We come to know God in stages … fits and starts …

When we come to know God, the result is a profound humility …
“I don’t know” is a good prayer.
“I don’t know” is a good answer to many of our hard questions.
“I’ll do my best; I’ll give it a shot; I will try to love.”

Getting to know God … lots of questions.
Questions are the fuel of truth.

Truth requires questions, lots of questions …
When we ask questions, and keep on asking, truth continues to grow.

The Bible produces tons of questions, questions that turn the mind over … like a gardener turning the soil prior to planting …

Questions are the fuel of truth!

How do we know what God commands?

We spend time with Jesus …
With the woman at the well …
Zacchaeus up a tree …
Blind Bartimaeus …

We can watch Jesus overturn the tables …
Challenge the teachers …
Raise hard questions in his hometown, questions so disturbing, they tried to throw him off the cliff.

How do we get to know God?

Sit down with a group of fellow travelers and read the Text together, pray together, ask lots of questions, but do it together … the whole congregation … yesterday at the Acts 16 workshop, a good phrase: the chemistry of the company … together, we’re stronger, better, brighter.

We’re going to do “chemistry of the company” in a few weeks … we’re going to study the Bible together.
We dive into the deep end of the pool … sputter and flounder … but we’ll learn how to swim … we’ll learn how to ask good questions ; we’ll help each other… and lo and behold, we will get to know God.

Years ago, I learned a little mantra:
To know God is to love God.
To love God is to serve God.

The Hebrew people wanted to remember that.
They wanted their children to know it.

Are we any different?

There is water in the rock.

Amen and Amen!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Bread - September 21, 2008

Exodus 16:2-15

Audio version.

Is there anything better?
Fresh baked bread?
The rich smell of grain and yeast …

Step into a bakery early in the morning …
Bake a loaf of bread at home …

Slice off the heel, slather it with butter – um uh … that’s really good! A little peanut butter, and some raspberry jam; now that’s even better!

Bread …

The Wonder Bread of the Fifties … you can roll it up in a ball and throw it at the wall, and it’ll bounce.

Can’t do that with whole grain bread … sturdy and crunchy it is … and good for ya’, too.

Bread …

Every good romantic movie has a scene with a fresh baguette, a bottle of wine, and a wedge of cheese … on a candle-lit table … dreamy-eyed lovers …

And who can forget pictures of starving children barely able to grasp a crust of bread …

Give us this day our daily bread … said Jesus.

The disciples knew exactly what Jesus was saying … the story to which Jesus was pointing … the Exodus story, the story of bread in the wilderness … manna it’s called … a flakey crust found in the morning … tons of it … enough for everyone … when the people first see, it they exclaim, What is it? … and in Hebrew, that sounds like manna? What is it?

What is it? remains a question for biblical scholars and biologists … google “manna” and read about it in Wikipedia … and you’ll get all sorts of answers for what it might have been.

But let’s back up for a moment …
Let’s see if we can shake the cobwebs of literalism from our brain … and read the story as we might read Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

Was there ever a Captain Ahab?
Or an Ishmael?
Or a great white whale pin-cushioned with harpoons and twisted in rope?

No, it’s just a story.
But what a story it is.
Ahab’s obsession.
The whale had taken his leg.
And now, the only thing that counts is revenge.
Obsessed to the point of insanity.
Ahab drives his men and takes the ship on a perilous journey …
Nothing else matters … a man consumed by revenge.

It’s just a story, you say.

But what a story …

Like a mirror … there’s nothing in a mirror except our reflection … but what a gift the mirror is … the pants and shirt don’t go together … there’s a wisp of hair out of place … hmmm, I’m getting a little bulgy around the waist …
A mirror tells us a bit about ourselves …
And so does a good story.

To see something we might otherwise miss …

Melville’s story is a mirror … we find ourselves in it … and who hasn’t been an Ahab now and then … obsessed with something that hurt us; a person who insulted or cheated us …

Great stories help us see who we are.

Let’s just say for a few moments that much of the Old Testament is a collection of stories … tall tales - metaphors, allegories, fables and fiction …

For some, it’s important that these stories be literally true.

That a whale actually swallowed Jonah …

Or, as someone asked,
Is Jonah the tale of a whale, or
A whale of tale?

Let’s take a look for a moment:

Who hasn’t been a Jonah now and then?
Running from life, running from responsibility?
Running from God?

Ya’ can run, but ya’ can’t hide!

Not even death covers Jonah’s tracks.
Jonah prefers death to life. That’s how hard he’s running from God. When the storm hits, Jonah volunteers: “It’s my fault. Throw me into the sea. You can sacrifice me.”
So the crew heaves Jonah overboard.
But a whale takes a gulp, and you know the rest of the story.

God saves Jonah.

In the guts of a whale.
Puked up on the beach a few days later.
It’s not easy for God to save us.
Nor easy for us to be saved.
A story played out a millions times a day …

It’s a whale of tale … all about grace.

Let’s think for a moment …
Much of the Old Testament as we have it today was put together during the Babylonian Exile … and in the difficult years that followed.
The Hebrew people were strangers in a strange land… Jerusalem in ruins … the temple destroyed …
Babylon the winner.
The enemy victorious.
People wondered: Did Yahweh fail?
Are the gods of Babylon bigger and better?
Did we hang our hat on the wrong peg?
Did we bet on the wrong horse?
Did we misunderstand something?

The 1997 film, Life is Beautiful … about a young father and his little boy in a Nazi concentration camp … sad and wretched, but the father tells his boy, “This is game we’re all playing. We’re going to have fun.”
He shields his boy from the horror of it all.
Just like a parent anywhere.

If much of the Old Testament was written when the Hebrew people had little to go on …

They told stories of better days and grander things … they told stories about people like Abraham and Sarah … and great kings like David and Solomon … and heroes like Gideon and Deborah and Esther.
They told funny stories about talking donkeys and crazy Samson.
They told creation stories … formation stories … victory in the midst of suffering … God’s special interest in them … and not even the gods of Babylon are going to deplete our character, destroy our identity, quench the fire of hope. We will not give up, nor give way.

When our people were in the wilderness in a far away place, in a time long ago, it was wonderful … it was a game … we were hungry, so God gave us manna in the morning, every morning … except the Sabbath … because we don’t work on the Sabbath … it’s our day of rest, because God rested on the Sabbath Day.

It was really something to see … there it was in the morning … we had no idea what it was, so we called it manna.
Amazing stuff: we could kneed it and press it; we could bake it and boil it; we ate it hot, we ate cold – we made dinner with it, and we snaked on it.
But we couldn’t save it.
We couldn’t put it away for a rainy day.
If we tried to stash it, it got wormy.
It turned ugly.
Except the day before the Sabbath – then we collected enough for two days, and then it didn’t get wormy.
It was a miracle.

Can you see a child’s eyes open wide in the telling of such a tale?
Can you see the parent’s heart lifted a little bit in telling the story of long ago days when God did miracles?
And maybe the child will believe … take heart and grow strong.
One day we’re gonna get outta here, and our children will carry on, and they’ll carry on with faith, hope and love.

Bread …

Give us this day our daily bread.

Teach us how to pray, said the disciples.

Have you noticed - prayer is the way we see life?
It’s been said, “Look at someone’s checkbook, and you’ll see how they live.”
Listen to someone’s prayer, and you’ll see how they look at the world.

Our Father who art in heaven …
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.

How do you see life?
Is life a gift, a wonder, a miracle?
Even when life is hard?
When you’re stuck in the wilderness?
When you get up in the morning, is there manna for you?
Do you have the eyes to see it?
Can you see the gift close at hand?

How do you see yourself?
Guided, protected, sustained?
Even in the worst of times and places?
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.

These stories were composed in the toughest of times, by parents who love their children, by pastors and preachers (priests and Levites) who had a vision of life.
I want to pay attention to these stories.

These are stories to shape the soul … mold our character … living-giving stories … energizing stories to keep us going when the going gets tough … to get us up and out when the spirit wants to crawl into a hidey hole and never come out again … stories to give the soul a song; cheering our spirit and putting a little lift into our steps.
There’s manna out there.
In the wilderness.
There’s grace to be had.

Give US, our daily bread.

I would rather Jesus had said, “Give me MY daily bread.”

But Jesus puts us into the human community … we’re all in this together …

When the human community is broken; when some have a lot of bread, and some hardly have any.
When gaps open up between races, between religions, between nations, between rich and poor, evil marches into the gaps, into those empty places - a demilitarized zone; a no-man’s land … evil takes root undisturbed; fear and anger grow into hideous forms …

The manna story tells us something profound – there’s enough bread for everyone … enough to go around …

Those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed.

There will always be enough … enough to go around … enough to satisfy …

To counteract the primal temptation – the original sin, the original lie: There isn’t enough, and you’d better scramble for it now when ya’ can, and if you don’t get it, someone else will. Grab the apple now before anyone else does!

Haves and have-nots …
Winners and losers …
Management and labor …
Immigrant and native-born …
First world, second world, third world …
The division of the human community …
Too many gaps …
Too many places for evil to grow …

Those who collected more than they needed, it turned rancid and grew maggots …
Greed …
I want it now, and I want a lot of it.

Barbara Kingsolver writes:

Want is a thing that unfurls unbidden like fungus, opening large upon itself, stopless, filling the sky. But needs, from one day to the next, are few enough to fill a bucket, with room enough to rattle like brittlebush in a dry wind [High Tide in Tucson, p.13].

It takes a lot of discipline to manage our wants … because our wants are reinforced ten thousand times a day … want is the energy of the world economy … want is the dark angel of war!
Flip want over like a pancake, and we find fear and resentment on the bottom side … the haves fear and resent those who have not, and the have-nots fear and resent those who have.

Fear and resentment are the acids that corrode the souls of persons and nations.
Fear and resentment might have overwhelmed the Hebrew people … but they told stories of God’s kindness and mercy … they wanted their children to be free of these demoralizing emotions … they wanted their children to be confident and courageous.
So they told stories …

Remarkable stories to remind us … we are recipients of grace …

Give us this day our daily bread.

And don’t forget to share.

Amen and Amen!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Escape - September 14, 2008

Exodus 14:19-31

(See Prayer for the Prayer of the Day)

Good morning … welcome to Covenant on the Corner!

I’m glad to be here, and I know that you are, too.

A Kindergarten teacher was observing the children while they were drawing. She would occasionally walk around to see each child's work.
As she got to one little girl who was working diligently, she asked what the drawing was.
The girl replied, "I'm drawing God."
The teacher paused and said, "But no one knows what God looks like."
Without missing a beat, or looking up from her drawing, the girl replied, "They will in a minute.

We’re all drawing God-pictures!

I met a young man the other day who said to me, “I grew up with a harsh God – rules and requirements, and if ya’ didn’t do it right, God would get ya’ in the end.”

“So I’ve chosen another God.”
“The nurturing, loving God … that’s the God I believe in and honor, and it’s made a huge difference in my life.”

We’re all drawing God-pictures!

What’s your God-picture like?

In the bulletin, 4 images:
Straight line,
Curlicue …

If you were going to choose one of the four images for your God-picture, which one? … or is there another image you’d prefer?
give it some thought for a moment … which image seems good to you? As a God-picture.

We’ll do a little work here this morning …

Turn to your neighbor - share the image you’ve chosen … and why?

[Pause … … … … …]

Like the little girl in school, we’re all drawing God-pictures …

The Bible is a virtual museum of God-pictures …
From Genesis to Revelation … God-pictures …
Straight lines, curliques, boxes and circles … every color in the rainbow and then some …
Genesis, Deuteronomy … Leviticus … Job and Psalms … Ezekiel’s wheels and Isaiah’s “peaceable kingdom.”
Matthew and Mark … Paul and Peter … Hebrews and the Book of Revelation …

I have my favorite God-pictures … I bet you do, too.

I like the picture of God out for an afternoon stroll in the Garden of Eden …
God telling Moses how to get water from a rock …
God visiting us in Bethlehem … a little cradle boy who one day carries a cross …
And I like the God-picture in Revelation – when God puts it all back together again!

The Bible is like a visit to LACMA… different galleries, different periods of time; different artists … different styles; different techniques …

Some pictures are hard to look at: the brutal destruction of Canaanite towns …
But right next to it hanging on the same wall, Jesus and the woman at the well.
Some pictures I understand; some elude me.

This morning, we’re in one of the galleries … the Exodus Gallery …

I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me.

The Exodus Gallery …
One room of many …

Let’s back up a bit and review …
Last week, a question:
What should God do with us?

What should God do with you?
With me?

God learned the hard way – violence doesn’t work.
The flood failed.
The world was no better off, not one bit safer, after the flood.
All of that shock and awe didn’t work!

So what’s God to do?

God decides to work with the world as it is …
To work with us, not against us … work in partnership, accepting our limitations; the way we do things … sometimes doing things very well, and sometimes capable of hideous behavior.
But God works with us as we are.
In the hopes that we can all build a better world together.

So what’s God to do?

God creates a people in the midst of the nations … a people with sensitivity … guided by the Ten Commandments … not better than anyone else; not bigger and tougher … just different …

Starting with Abraham and Sarah, God creates a family.
And the family grows … strives and struggles to figure it out.

Famine drives them down to Egypt, and there they stay … to become slaves of Pharaoh, for 400 hundred years …

What’s God to do?

God raises up a leader … Moses by name … a Hebrew baby rescued from the reeds and raised in Pharaoh’s palace … in a moment of rage, Moses kills an Egyptian overlord and then runs for his life to the desert of Midian, where he becomes a successful shepherd …marries and settles down.

What’s God to do?

A burning bush on the hillside … Moses steps over, and before he knows it, God says, Take off you shoe Moses. Kick back and relax. We’re going to be here for a while.

Moses, I want you to go back to Egypt … lead my people to freedom.

So Moses, albeit reluctantly, takes up the mantle of leadership and returns to Egypt … but no smooth sailing for Moses.

Because Pharaoh doesn’t like what Moses suggests.

Pharaoh has a dream … a sense of the world and how it ought to be … Pharaoh sees himself as divine, and Egypt is a divine power … the world belongs to Egypt … Egypt, love it or leave it!

What’s God’ to do?

Plagues come and plagues go … finally the trump card: the death of the first-born – Pharaoh relents and lets the people go.

But buyer’s remorse sets in … Pharaoh calls up the army and off they go to bring these runaway slaves back to Egypt.

And when Pharaoh’s army arrives, the Hebrew people have their back to the sea.


Ever feel trapped?

Trapped in a crummy job.
Trapped in a destructive relationship.
Trapped in self-defeating behavior?
Trapped in an unpredicted turn of events?
Trapped in someone’s gossip?
Trapped in childhood memories?
A father who drank too much and raged and rambled …
A family member a little too friendly with you …
You were too tall for a girl, and too fat for a boy … and you’ll never forget the withering remarks and scalding jokes …


Ugly feeling.

We’ve all been there.
It’s a part of life …

So what do you do when you’re trapped?
Let’s look at the story again.

The situation appeared hopeless:
Pharaoh threatening …
The sea ahead too deep to cross.
No way through.
No way out.
Yet at the last moment, salvation.

Why did God wait?
Right down to the wire.
The last tick of the clock.
No more timeouts.

I don’t have an answer for that.
Maybe an answer isn’t needed.
What we have is a promise.

I am with you always!

I will never leave you or forsake you.

I am at work in all things for good.

The Exodus story is a story of hope and encouragement.

The seas part and the people are safe.

And you’re safe, too.
There is always a way through …
Under or around …
There’s always a way …

Sometimes God waits to the last moment to make it clear …
Patience is everything …

When you find yourself trapped, remember the Exodus story.

God is a God of escape!

You will be safe!

Amen and Amen!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Costly - September 7, 2008

Exodus 12:1-14

Dreams are the energy of the future!

Bill Gates thought it possible to put a computer in every home … John Kennedy said we could reach for the moon … the Wright Brothers believed we could fly.
They all changed the world with their dreams.

Dreams are the energy of the future.
We’re all dreamers …
We dream of a hammock in the mountains … or the day we’re given the corner office.
We dream of romance and wealth.
We dream of winning the lottery, making it big, getting to the top of our mountain!

Every dream costs something … maybe just a few moments of downtime before the next appointment … or maybe the dream will be a life-time adventure.

Our new series - all about dreaming …
Dreaming of a better world …
Freedom and hope …
Everyone welcome … safe and sound …
Love abundant … shelter for all.

That’s the Exodus dream …
A big dream.
As large as heaven.
Large enough for the whole world … all things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small … for God so loved the world.
God’s dream.
Our dream.

To be God’s people!
To be the church of Jesus Christ … Covenant on the Corner, a Presbyterian Congregation rooted and grounded in Scripture and committed to worship & justice.
We dream the dreams of God.

We rest our chin on our hands and we dream away.
We read the newspapers with God’s heart.
We think with the Gospel.
We dream of the world put right.

Where swords are beaten into plowshares, and we study war no more.
A world where Zacchaeus is welcomed.
The leper embraced.
Children blessed with a chance for life.

Jesus invites us into the dream … “Come and follow me,” said He.
We’ll feed the hungry and clothe the naked.
Visit the lonely and care for the wounded.
We’ll not only give someone a fish, but we’ll teach them how to fish.
We’ll speak truth to power.
Bring light to darkness.
Salt the earth with the love of God.
Bear our cross and carry the name of Jesus.
There’s much to do … and some of it is very dangerous.
Sin is real.
Golden calves all over the place.
Darkness is plentiful.

A young couple preparing for their wedding met with the pastor … they said, “We’d like you to leave out the for poorer, sickness and death parts – they’re a little dark” [Christian Century, Sept. 9, 2008 – from the New Yorker Collection].

Well, things are little dark … and sometimes very dark.

Who can ignore the sounds of war … the cry of a child alone and frightened … a despairing mother who can only watch her child succumb to a fever … a man out of work … a child forced into prostitution … human trafficking … the haves afraid of the have-nots; the have-nots angry at the haves … economic systems, political systems, out of whack.

God’s people never shy away from harsh realities.
We don’t have all the answers … so we ask the questions: What’s right? What’s just? What’s decent and kind?

So let’s get to work.
Let’s dream God’s dream!

Jesus began His work with a dream:

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The poet Langston Hughes wrote [“Dreams”]:

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

Jesus held on to the dream … when the disciples missed the point again and again.
Jesus held on to the dream when He stood in Pilate’s courtroom … while the crowds clamored for his death.
Jesus held on to the dream when they beat Him within an inch of His life and marched Him off to Calvary.
Jesus held on to the dream when they nailed him to the cross.
Jesus held on to the dream until it was finished.

To sign on with God is to dream big.

And the bigger the dream, the greater the cost.

Everyone in this room knows costly dreams.

A young gymnast dreams of Olympic Gold … gets up at 3:30 in the morning five days a week to train before school … sprained muscles, countless failures, … and then trying again, until she starts to get it right, and then train some more, because getting it right isn’t good enough … something more is needed to get the gold. Costly!

A family dreams of having a child … biology throws up a stop sign … so they embark upon a long and difficult journey seeking the help of science … costly!

Or they travel across the oceans to adopt a child … costly!

A young man dreams of setting the world right and joins the Peace Corp … costly!
A young lady dreams of defending the rights of inner city mothers … college and law school; bar exams; more debt than you can shake a stick at … grueling hours on the street … late-night hours of preparation. Costly!
A young writer wants to write the novel of all novels or the script that’ll set Hollywood on its heels. How many rejection notices? How many unanswered emails? Sitting in front of a computer; hours of research – honing the words and fine-turning the story. Costly!

Even the Mamas and the Papas had their “California Dreaming” …

all the leaves are brown
and the sky is grey
I've been for a walk
on a winter's day

I'd be safe and warm
if I was in L.A
California Dreamin'
on such a winter's day

From the moment Adam and Eve plucked the fruit and turned the world upside down, God has been dreaming of a world put right-side up.

But putting things right is very hard.
Ever try putting toothpaste back into the tube?
Or putting together a plate smashed on the floor?
Putting the world back together again is no small task.

In one of the most poignant moments in the Bible, God declares,

What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?
What shall I do with you, O Judah?
Your love is like a morning cloud,
like the dew that goes away early (Hosea 6:4).

What should God do with the world? … with you, with me?

Like a frustrated parent, God got angry one day, a wait-until-your-dad-gets-home kind of anger …
I’ll flood the world.
I’ll wash ya’ right outta my hair.
I’ll be done with ya’, once and for all.
Let it rain, let it rain, let it rain.

I’ll save Noah.
I can do something with that man.
So build me an ark.
Take up the animals, two by two.
You can start a new world for me Noah.

When the rains finally stop and the waters dry up,
Out comes Noah and the animals.
Fresh start … new day.

Noah plants a vineyard.
Why not?
Pick the grapes … make some wine … get flat-out drunk.
Makes a fool of himself.
Ham laughs.
Shem and Japheth see it differently.

Family divided …
Tower of Babel …
Hatred … war … pride … death.
The flood failed!

What’s God to do?

God dreams a little bit more …
God pays Abraham and Sarah a visit … psst, can I have a few moments of your time?

New family … new nation … for the sake of the world.
Big dream.

But dreams rarely have a smooth trip …
The bigger the dream, the more obstacles to climb …
Dreams bump into dreams …

God’s dream … Pharaoh’s dream.

And if you’d asked anyone at the time, “Who’s got the best dream?”
How do ya’ think they would’ve answered?

Of course, Pharaoh’s dream is the right one.
Look at the power, look at the glory.
Look at the big buildings – the pomp and circumstance …
Success on every hand.
Of course, Pharaoh has it right … not the rabble in the streets, not the Hebrew fieldhands, nor their traitorous leader, Moses.

Dreams bump into dreams …
Barak Obama has a dream and so John McCain …
Sarah Palin has a dream and so does Joe Biden …
Wall Street has a dream and so does the John Muir Society…
D. James Kennedy had a dream, and so did William Sloane Coffin.

Ante-bellum Christians in the South had a dream and so did Abraham Lincoln …
General Custer had a dream and so did Sitting Bull …
Ghandi had a dream and so did the British Empire …
Hitler had a dream and so did FDR …

Dreams bump into dreams sometimes.

God’s dream bumped headfirst into Pharaoh’s dream …
“No way” said Pharaoh … “over my dead body.”

Nine plagues to set the stage …frogs and flies … hail and locusts … just to name a few …

But nothing moved the heart of Pharaoh … because God hardened the heart of Pharaoh … God took a hard heart and made it harder … flint hard, steel hard, as hard as hard could be.

And then the final plague … the death of every first born in the land … and Pharaoh relented – “Get outta here,” said Pharaoh, “and be quick about it.”

And what did God do?
God led the people to the edge of the sea … and hardened Pharaoh’s heart even harder … Pharaoh had second thoughts; buyer’s remorse … called up the army and the chariots, and off they went to take the Hebrew people back to Egypt.

Pharaoh in pursuit … the sea in front … all seems lost … but you know the rest of the story …

Why the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart?

So the Hebrew people would know for sure that God set them free, not Pharaoh …
I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, you shall have no other gods before me.

If there had been any doubt about it, the Hebrew people would be telling their children about Pharaoh’s kindness.
Pharaoh saw the error of his ways and granted freedom to us.
Statues of Pharaoh erected in the town square … troubadours singing songs about Pharaoh’s goodness … children sent to expensive schools in Egypt.

The dream would have been lost.

Dreams are lost in the chaos of history.
Folks give up a hundred feet shy of the summit.
It’s tough to keep going against the odds … tough for you, tough for me … and tough for God, too.
There’s always an easy road.
Easy answer.
Easy way out.

How easily the dream could have been gobbled up by Egypt.

Egypt was no slacker.
Remember Pharaoh’s earlier edict? – kill all the male Hebrew babies to control their population.
Egypt was a land of armies linked with religion, and religion linked with power.
Egypt was a formidable enemy.
It wouldn’t have taken much to quench the fires of freedom.
To sink the dream.
Lose the goal.

God had to do some terrible things …

No pleasure in God’s heart on Passover night.
No pleasure when the angel of death marched through the land of Egypt, passing over the homes with the blood of a lamb smeared on the doorframe.

Throughout the land, a cry went up … the firstborn in every household … in every barn … everywhere … from palace to dungeon, from frogs to dogs … the firstborn was dead.

Out of such horror, the Hebrew people are on their way … the dream survives for a few more generations … and grows as it goes … often in danger of being lost; saved again and again by God … and men and women of faith who stand by the covenant, remember the dream, keep it alive – put their lives on the line for it; defend and promote it …

And then something happened in God’s heart … a little more dreaming … on a cold wintry night in a tiny little town called Bethlehem …

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given [Isaiah 9:6].

And thirty-three years later, God’s firstborn Son dies … Behold, the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world.

On Calvary’s Cross … it is finished, says Jesus … the dream turns a final page …

No more lambs to be slaughtered.
No more land to be defended.
No more temple to be protected.
No more distinctions … in Christ, a new world, a new family, a new day.

The boundaries pushed to the widest horizon.
Redemption and Life.

What’s your dream today?
Every dream is costly.
The bigger the dream, the greater the cost.

Stay with it.
Believe it.
Trust it.
And keep on going.

Because God knows all about big dreams, and God will stand with you.

Amen and Amen!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Facing the Fire - August 31, 2008

Facing the Fire
Exodus 3:1-15; Matthew 16:21-28
Wendy S. Tajima

Good morning! I appreciate your welcome, and the opportunity to speak here. I’ve visited your church a few times for the Presbytery—in fact, I was presented to the Presbytery right here, and I was impressed with the beauty and spirit of this place. Pastor Tom and others have been especially helpful and welcoming to me as I prepared for today, so as one who guest preaches quite frequently, I thank you for being well-organized and gracious. Actually, I think that’s what we Presbyterians strive to be, isn’t it—well-organized and gracious.

I also appreciate the beautiful liturgy for Labor Day, the history of it and its relevance today. To a large extent, today’s lectionary passages relate well to Labor Day, as we consider our work, and the need not to be exploited for our work, and the call to be open to a higher purpose for our work, as we offer our time, our talents, and our very selves to God’s plan of salvation for this world.

And Labor Day also tends to mark the end of summer and the beginning of the school year. But I have to say, it’s been a very busy summer! At San Francisco Theological Seminary, where I work, we have had many transitions this summer. For a year now we knew that Dave Tomlinson and Elizabeth Nordquist would retire after many years of dedicated service to SFTS and the wider church. Dave’s office as Vice President of the Southern California campus is now occupied quite ably by a mutual friend of ours, Dr. Judy Siker. I’ve enjoyed getting to know her as she begins this new ministry, and she speaks of you with appreciation and affection. There were a couple of surprises, however, as our President went on a five-month sabbatical, so Dave Tomlinson is now acting President, and the person who recruited me to work at SFTS, Kyle Matsumoto Burch, has left the seminary, so I am now the Associate Dean of Enrollment for both campuses, but based mostly here in Los Angeles. We are also bringing on a new senior director of alumni relations, Dr. Peter Kim, also based in Los Angeles, which means that SFTS now has a significant leadership core based in Southern California—but that we are also making weekly trips to the Northern campus in Marin.

But as I get used to this weekly 400-mile commute, I also find myself marveling at the exciting times in which we live. Consider the month just ending—first we had the build-up to the Summer Olympics, with the protests and the worries and the analysis. Then, we had the Olympics themselves, with who knows how many world records and new stars, and new sports. And as soon as the Olympics flame died down, the Democratic Convention got fired up, with more star power—and much better organization—than I thought possible for the Democrats. Not to be outdone, John McCain teamed up with Sarah Palin to give us perhaps the biggest surprise in presidential politics, at least in anyone’s memory.

Possibly your lives have been just as full, either with work, or world interest, or worries. What with mortgage and job fears, rising costs for staples like food and gasoline, and the watch of yet another major hurricane hitting Cuba and the vulnerable underbelly of the United States, there is much to keep ourselves wary. And with family, friends, work, church, and volunteering, there is much to keep ourselves happily busy. And sometimes, our very full lives make us too busy for God.

Consider today’s Old Testament passage, that very familiar story about Moses and the burning bush. Moses definitely had his hands full already! He had his identity issues, raised as a cross-cultural adoptee, cared for by Pharaoh’s daughter but painfully aware of his Hebrew heritage and the brutal manual labor for which his people were enslaved. As an alien residing in a foreign land, Moses had a passion for justice and liberation for his people, leading to a violent outburst against an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave. Moses killed the Egyptian, and then fled from the law to Midian, where he married Zipporah and worked tending to his father-in-law’s flocks. So it was as a displaced sheepherder, who married and fathered a child while hiding from the law—who, by the way, was a poor speaker—that Moses faced the fire of God’s call.

So we can see that when God called Moses, God didn’t pick the most perfect or holy person to act on God’s behalf, and God didn’t wait for Moses to simply his life and make room for God. So perhaps it’s not surprising that Moses responded to God’s call in very human ways. . . . The first thing Moses did was to take notice. Now we can say that God wasn’t very subtle with Moses, speaking through a bush that was blazing, yet not getting burned up. But it’s remarkable how many signs we can pass up if we’re busy or self-absorbed enough! But Moses did take notice, and after God explained how God had been watching, hearing, feeling, and preparing to respond to the cries of misery of the Hebrew slaves, Moses had two basic questions:

1. Who am I that God would call me to such a great task?
2. Who is this God who has the special effects covered, but is showing some questionable judgment turning to a guy like Moses?

Personally, when I consider this story as a model for God’s call to us, I have to laugh at God’s non-answers to Moses’ questions. God’s answer to Moses’ question “Why me?” has nothing to do with Moses or his qualifications; instead, God says “I will be with you, and just to prove that I will be with you, you’ll know when you’ve completed your assignment that I was with you.” Likewise, when Moses asks God’s name, God answers with “I AM WHO I AM” (or, “I WILL BE WHATEVER I WILL BE”), a play on the name Yahweh.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t find this much to go on. Moses is supposed to leave his family, go back to face Pharaoh, who has a warrant out for his arrest, and in the name of “I AM” secure the release of the Hebrew slaves! The only assurance he has of success is that when he’s done he’ll be able to look back and see the hand of God guiding and protecting him, and God does mention God’s long-standing covenant with the children of Abraham.

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus presents the call to his disciples in even more challenging ways. Not only are we to be willing to leave family and job behind, Jesus challenges his disciples to let go of all worldly attachments, even suggesting that they must be willing to suffer for the call, by denying themselves and taking up their cross to follow Jesus. Even Peter’s desire to keep Jesus safe from harm is chastised by Jesus, saying “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me, by focusing on human things over divine things.”

By the way, it’s interesting to note that in the Greek language of the New Testament, the word that is translated as “life” in the statement “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” also means “soul” or “self.” So Jesus may not be asking us to be suicidal, but to give to God our own preconceptions of who we are and what we need—to live as if we believe that God Knows Best.

Now for some of us that may sound like suicide, especially for those of us who have enjoyed past success, having learned to focus on the gifts and parts of ourselves that the world values, values like competitiveness and ambition, looking out for Number One, individual achievement in wealth and education, and conformity in race, class, and beauty. Now we’re being asked to let go of ourselves, our sense of what’s possible, our fears of what’s not possible, and let God work through us without interference, or getting our buy-in by telling us what’s ahead. All God asks is that we trust God enough to allow God to work through us in ways that are unknown to us—because God can do what we cannot conceive of ourselves, as God brings us into God’s plan of salvation.

Does this include you? Might God choose to work through you in wondrous ways, just as God chose a stuttering fugitive from justice like Moses or the comedy of errors that were Christ’s disciples? I’m here to say yes, God does include you, and you are called— to more than you can do for yourself, to more than the world says you are, to a higher purpose than the tasks readily at hand. May you be bold in responding to God’s call, not out of pride, but a humble acceptance of God’s better judgment. We can do God’s will, just as Moses did God’s will, not because we can, but because God is with us, and will always be with us, even in the fires of awareness an doubt and beyond.

Thanks be to God! AMEN.