There is No Going Back: A Sermon for September 14, 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday September 14, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. During these unusual times, you can join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church's FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.

 


May the words of the mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Last week’s reading from Exodus ended with the celebration of the first Passover - if celebration is the right word for a night where the Israelites gathered in their homes and reminded each other of their shared history and God’s provision while all around them Egyptian households were discovering and then grieving dead children.  I imagine the Israelites were terrified the entire time and the wails of the Egyptians provided an eerie soundtrack that was impossible to block out.

And now the Egyptians want the Israelites to leave, to get out as quickly as possible.  They want them to leave so badly that they willingly give the Israelites everything they ask for – silver, gold, clothing. (12:35) In Everett Fox’s translation it says,  “So they did strip Egypt.”

Egypt is stripped of all its wealth, from their first born children, to their gold.  They are more than ready to get rid of the Israelites.

So the Israelites leave, and God is with them.  We’re told:

The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.  (13:21-22)

But then the Egyptians change their minds and they set out after the Israelites. The Egyptian army had horses and chariots and quickly caught up to the Israelites. (14:5-9)

And when the Israelites see Pharaoh and his army approaching, they think of all the miraculous things God has done and they are confident that God will continue to care for them.

No, of course that’s not what happens.  They get scared, they complain, and they look for someone to blame.  I’m guessing at least most of us can relate to that. And keep in mind, this isn’t an ordinary day, they have been travelling day and night since they left Egypt, and none of us are at our best when we’ve experienced trauma and are exhausted.

Moses bears the brunt of their complaining. They blame him, not God saying, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? … it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”

Moses, who was also exhausted and must have been hurt by this onslaught of criticism buries his hurt and sarcastic responses and instead replies, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” (14: 10-14)

As the Egyptians approach, the pillar of cloud the Israelites have been following moves from in front of them to behind them so that it is between the Egyptians and the Israelites. (19-20)

So if the Israelites look one way, they can see the pillar of cloud and behind that, the Egyptian army, and if they look the other way, they see a large body of water.

In the translation we read tonight this body of water is just referred to as “the sea” and you may also have heard is called the Red Sea, but Everett Fox notes that scholars have also suggested it could be translated as “End Sea” or “The Sea at the End of the World.”  Which is lovely and evocative.

The Israelites are at the end of the world as they know it.  And then Moses “stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind at night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.” (21-23)

The sea splits in half exposing not just mud, but dry solid ground that they can walk on, and the Israelites cross the sea to the other side.

Seeing God’s power the Egyptians initially decide to retreat, but then they decide to also try to cross the sea and continue their pursuit but the waters close in around them and they all drown.

And then we read, “Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.  Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.” (30-31)

The people saw what God had done, they believed in both God and God’s servant, Moses, and, they celebrated. They sang joyous songs of praise.

This story is troubling, and I can’t interpret my way out of the discomfort I feel about a story where God saves a bunch of people by killing another bunch of people. I have tried, but I can’t bend the text into a story that I’m more comfortable with. But there are a few things that at least help me engage with this story.

First, sometimes things are troubling. I don’t like it, but it’s true, and it’s healthy to acknowledge that.

Second, the stories we read in scripture were written for a purpose. Their purpose is not simply to chronicle facts as accurately as possible. Oftentimes they are more concerned with what is true, than with what is factual. In this case, a key purpose of this story is to remind the people of Israel who they are and who God is.  And God is the all-powerful, liberating God who can free enslaved people, spilt a sea in half, and vanquish anyone who seeks to do them harm.

And while I value human life, and think it is troubling whenever a human life is lost and even more troubling when people celebrate the loss of that life, I also know that as a privileged person, as a person from the dominant culture, I may want to identify with the Israelites, but in reality I’m a lot more like the Egyptians. And as such,  I need to be careful about my inclination to police the Israelites’ behaviour.  In fact, I want to carefully examine that inclination so that I can recognize and check it not just when I am interpreting a scripture passage, but also when I am interpreting the news or my neighbour’s behaviour.

This moment, this the Israelites have just been miraculously and dramatically saved from death moment. This moment of, the Israelites have been freed from centuries of oppression moment. This is not the moment for me to jump in and start telling the Israelites what to do or how to feel.

There are times to step back and be quiet, and this is one of them.

In the Talmud, one of the sacred texts of the Jewish tradition, there is a story that provides helpful commentary on these events.  The Egyptians have been drowned, the Israelites are singings celebratory songs, what is God up to?

We’re told that when the angels see the Egyptians are drowning they also begin to sing joyful songs, but God silences their songs with this rebuke, “How dare you sing for joy when My creatures are dying” (Talmud, Megillah 10b and Sanhedrin 39b).  God lets the Israelites sing and does not rebuke them, but God silences the angels. Maybe God understood that the Israelites needed “to give voice to the huge relief of finally being redeemed.”[1] But God does not celebrate, and God does not allow the angels to either.

Here's another part of the story I want us to consider.  This story ends with the Israelites celebrating that they are no longer slaves and that the Egyptian army has been defeated.  They praise God and celebrate their newfound freedom.

However, it won’t be long before they once again begin to grumble and complain. It won’t be long before they will once again say that life was better in Egypt and they wish they could return.

I can only imagine how frustrating this was for Moses.  While it was God who freed the Israelites from slavery, Moses was a key part of that plan. Moses took risks, worked hard and sacrificed a lot in order to help his people.  He left his family and the life he had built in order to return to Egypt and do this work and now the people are complaining and blaming him.

And I imagine in his anger he might have thought, “Really? Really? You would prefer to return to Egypt and be enslaved. Well I’m sorry I left my family and the good life I had created for myself to help you. I’m so sorry that you’re no longer Pharaoh’s property that he can use and abuse however he likes.

And what do you mean, go back? There is no going back. The Egypt we left no longer exists, and in its place is an impoverished people, living through a collective trauma without a leader. The Egypt we remember no longer exists.”

And then possibly, after he’d cooled off a bit, had a nap, acknowledged the hurt those complaints had caused him he might have thought, “They can’t possibly want to return to Egypt. What is really going on here?”

I’m not sure what’s going on for the Israelites but change, especially abrupt change, is hard. Not knowing what is going to happen next is incredibly hard. It’s easy to look back and re-tell the story of your past when you feel like this; remembering only the good and forgetting all the bad.  It’s easy to feel nostalgic for that re-written version of your past and long to return to it.

The Israelites cried out to God when they were enslaved. They begged for freedom. They believed God’s promise that they would one day live in a land flowing with milk and honey.  They forgot to ask how long it would take to get there.  They forgot to think about what life would be like in the time after enslavement but before they reached their new home.

Today’s story shows us three phases in the Israelites’ journey.  Enslavement. The crossing of the sea. The celebration on the other side.

Knowing, as we do, that it won’t be long before those joyous songs will become a chorus of complaints, what can we learn from their experience in the hopes that we won’t repeat it in our own lives?

My hunch is that the question that will get each one of us to that answer is this, “What should the Israelites have left behind at the water’s edge?”  And by extension, what do we need to let go of?

This is not a one for one comparison, but I hope you’ll indulge me for a moment.

Enslavement. The crossing of the sea. The celebration on the other side. Disillusionment.

Our lives before March 2020.  Lockdown.  This wilderness wandering time as we wait for a vaccine.  The unknown future.

What do we need to let go of so that, when that time comes, we will be able to celebrate with everything we have without moving swiftly into disillusionment and complaint?

Because I do believe with all my heart that this situation -this pandemic -won’t last forever.  But I also believe, that there is no going back to the way things were.

I’m not certain what I need to leave by the water’s edge. I’m certain that for most of this pandemic I’ve been so busy focusing on trying to survive in the present moment that I haven’t taken the time to stop and reflect on that question. But I need to. I need to sit by the water’s edge and lament, and grieve, and lay some things down before I get back up and begin this next part of the journey.

Because there is no time machine that can take me back to February 2020 or hurtle me forward to a future where COVID doesn’t exist.   And I’m alive right now and I don’t want to miss the gifts that this incredibly hard wilderness time will also surely bring.

When God sends quail -and they will -I want to experience the joy of that unexpected gift. When God sends manna - and they will – I want to feast.

And when I finally arrive in that promised land, that land flowing with milk and honey, I want to know with every fiber of my being that there is absolutely no place I’d rather be.

And I want the same thing for each and every one of you.  So weep, lament, reflect, and leave whatever it is you need to leave at the water’s edge, and then let’s continue to journey forward in this wilderness time together trusting that God is and will be with us each step of the way.

In the strong name of our Triune God who creates, redeems, and sustains. Amen.

 

[1] https://www.thejc.com/judaism/features/why-did-we-sing-when-the-egyptians-drowned-1.54039    Thanks to the folks at Pulpit Fiction for bringing this to my attention.  And I looked a couple of times but couldn’t find an author to credit for this article.


The Body of Christ Has Always Been Virtual

Author’s notes: This is the third installment in an occasional series.  You can find the first one, where I reflect on what the movie Dirty Dancing taught me about returning to in person worship, by clicking here.

Four years ago, I met Deanna A. Thompson at a writing workshop.  Consider this reference to her excellent book The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World to be a footnote to this entire piece.

 

 

“Christ has no body but yours….”  Attributed to St Teresa of Avila

 

“The Body of Christ is happening virtually whether or not the church acknowledges it.”  From a conversation between Deanna and an unnamed seminary professor.

 

“The church has not been unwilling to make do with less than fully-embodied theological exchange in the past. Why should we be less brave now?”  Jason Byassee[1]

 

Deanna Thompson was skeptical of technology and proud of it. She didn’t have a cell phone, her kids didn’t have cell phones and she was proud of it.

But then she was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.

Her brother offered to create an online social network through CaringBridge so that even when they could not be physically present with her, her friends and family could continue to connect with and care for her.

Through that experience, Deanna experienced a conversation and shifted from being a digital skeptic to an evangelist.   She describes this shift in her book The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World.   In addition to being an evangelist for Christ’ Virtual Body, Deanna is also a theologian and so her book is both a memoir and a theological exploration.  It is well worth reading.

One of the ideas that struck me from Deanna’s book is her explanation that the church has always been virtual.  After Jesus’ ascension, his followers became his representatives here on earth.  We became Christ’s body. People are supposed to see Christ in us.

While face to face interactions and Agape meals were surely hallmarks of those early Christian communities, Jesus was not present in bodily form and in most cases, neither were the earliest church leaders.

People didn’t need to wait for Peter or Paul to appear on the scene in person in order to begin.  And they didn’t need to wait for Peter or Paul to be present with them in person in order to learn from those leaders and grow in their faith.   They received letters.  Paul’s primary ministry was a virtual one.

If you look at the Bible, the last section is filled with these letters. Not all of them written by Paul, but all of them written by people who were not physically present to the people they were writing to.  We also know that the letters we have retained in the Bible represent only a small percentage of the letters that were likely being written at the time. (We don’t, for example, have the letters that communities wrote to Paul, only his responses.)

The same is true of later church leaders. We don’t interact with them face to face, we don’t have records of their spoken interactions, we have their letters, we have their written prayers. We have their virtual communication with the body of Christ.

My role as a priest can trace its origins back to this virtual body.  As the church began to institutionalize and grow the Bishop couldn’t be everywhere at once so he (and it was always a he at that time) was present with communities virtually through representatives who came on his behalf bringing bread and wine the bishop had blessed previously.   When I preside at worship, I still do so as a representative of my bishop.

Throughout my life I have had strong connections to the universal church and Christ’s virtual body.  My faith is strengthened by people I will never meet in person, many of whom died long before I was born, but who wrote of their experiences with Christ in ways I find compelling.

When I left home for university I knew that my church family back home prayed for me regularly. Those prayers and the cards and letters I received meant a great deal to me.

When I was ordained, friends I know mainly from online interactions participated in the livestream of my ordination and gifted me with a beautiful green stole.  I think of them every time I put in on and feel their love and support.

And while I miss worshipping in person with people and want to be able to do so again, I am increasingly being convicted by just how much of my privilege is reflected in that longing. For most of my life attending in person worship has always been my choice. I have never experienced any real barriers to attendance. But now, on a regular basis, truths are being made visible that had previously been invisible to me. They were always true, I just didn't notice them. My experience is not everyone’s experience.  In person worship has never been accessible to everyone. For some people it’s geography, or the weather, or disability, or race, or age, or gender, or sexuality or a combination of factors.

Last week I received a note from someone who told me that they have never felt more connected to God and to the church than they have since worship shifted to being online.  It was not the first, and likely not the last note I will receive expressing that sentiment.

My hope for the future is for a church where we consistently seek to connect people to God and remove barriers that prevent people from doing so.  I hope for a church where worship will be offered both in person and online, and where both will be seen as good and valuable.  I hope for a church were our worship will strengthen our sense of connection with the person sitting next to us, the person commenting in the chat section, and the saints that have gone before us. I hope for a church where we will increasingly recognize that we are all part of Christ’s body.

This week I received a letter in the mail from a dear friend I haven’t seen in several years. My name and address were written on the envelope by a shaky hand.  This senior gentleman is both monk and a priest who has been a supporter of my ministry since we first met.  I ran my hand over the writing on the envelope and kissed it before I opened it. It contained a prayer and a blessing for me as I navigate priestly ministry during these difficult times.  And while I long to see him in person and hold his hand, I do not believe that his blessing is any less powerful because it arrived in the form of a letter.

He asked me if we were having “alive” services and when I write him back I will tell him, “We most certainly are! They’re all online and they are lively. Here’s the link, join us for worship anytime. And thanks for sharing the link to your services, it has been a gift to be able to participate in them.”

The body of Christ is a virtual body. Thanks be to God.

 

[1] https://faithandleadership.com/jason-byassee-virtual-theological-education


Turn To The Side: A Sermon for Sunday August 30, 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday August 30, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. During these unusual times, you can join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church's FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.

 


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Last Sunday Moses was a baby in a basket and in tonight’s lectionary reading he is married and living in Midian. So, once again, we have some catching up to do.

Baby Moses was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter. His sister Miriam sees the rescue, thinks quickly and convinces Pharaoh’s daughter to hire Moses’ biological mother Jochabed to care for him. This raises all sorts of questions about identity and Moses’ childhood that the text does not answer for us.

Does Moses know he is adopted? When does he find out? Does he know Jochabed is his biological mother? Does she teach him anything about Israelite culture or does she keep his heritage a secret in order to protect him?

We simply don’t know. What we do know is that by the time Moses is a young man he is living as an Egyptian - he has not been enslaved and people identify him as an Egyptian based on his appearance. He looks like and lives and walks like an Egyptian. At some point he has learned that he is not an Egyptian, his is an Israelite, and he has come to care for his people.

His care causes him to act rashly. He sees an Egyptian man strike an Israelite man and Moses looks around, thinks the three of them are alone, and then he kills the Egyptian and tries to hide his crime by burying the body. (2:12)

But the murder does not remain a secret and Moses flees for his life to the land of Midian. (15). In Midian he meets his wife, Zipporah, and settles down there.

This is how we come to find him at the beginning of today’s reading, tending the flocks of his father-in-law Jethro. (3:1)

Then we are told that:

“After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. 24 God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 25 God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.” (2:23-24)

And this is where tonight’s reading picks up the story.

Moses is out looking after he father in law’s sheep, and he leads the flock “beyond the wilderness” to “Horeb, the mountain of God.” (3:1)

While he is at Horeb, an “angel of the Lord” appears to Moses in a “flame of fire out of a bush.” The bush, we are told, was “blazing,” this was not a small spark or tiny fire. And miraculously, the bush was burning, but it was not burning up. (2)

When Moses sees this burning bush, he says, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” (3)

“I must turn aside.” I hadn’t noticed this detail until this week. The bush is not directly in front of him, he has to turn to the side to look at it. He has to stop, and take notice.

I’ve always just assumed that this burning bush was so big and so unusual and so right up in his face that he had no choice but to take notice, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. He has to turn to the side to notice it.

I wonder how many other burning bushes he passed by before this one caught his attention. I wonder how often we rush right by burning bushes in our own lives because we’re too busy to stop and turn to the side.

In a few weeks, we’ll be offering an online book group. There is still time to sign up, you can email me for more information. We’ll be using Barbara Brown Taylor’s book An Altar in the World, a book in which she discusses a myriad of ordinary ways that people can connect with God in their everyday life. It’ll be more than a discussion group however, we’ll be discussing the book via Zoom and then meeting up in smaller socially distanced groups to practice what we’re learning about. In the second chapter, The Practice of Paying Attention, BBT, as she is known to her friends, writes about this event in Moses’ life:

“The bush required Moses to take a time-out, at least if he wanted to do more than glance at it. He could have done that. He could have seen the flash of red out of the corner of his eye, said, “Oh, how pretty,” and kept right on driving the sheep. He did not know that it was an angel in the bush, after all. Only the story¬teller knew that. Moses could have decided that he would come back tomorrow to see if the bush was still burning, when he had a little more time, only then he would not have been Moses. He would just have been a guy who got away with murder, without ever discovering what else his life might have been about.

-BBT continues -What made him Moses was his willingness to turn aside. Wherever else he was supposed to be going and whatever else he was supposed to be doing, he decided it could wait a minute. He parked the sheep and left the narrow path in order to take a closer look at a marvelous sight. When he did, the storyteller says, God noticed. God dismissed the angel and took over the bush. “When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’”

Moses chooses to pay attention and this gets God’s attention.

There is this interesting thing that we’ve seen happen numerous times over the past few months – a figure will appear that is described as an angel or a messenger and then later, our human character will identify this figure as God. Different things are happening in different stories but in this one, I like the idea that we begin with an angel who appears as a burning bush and then, when Moses chooses to stop, God tags the angel out and talks to Moses directly. Perhaps the angel exits exhausted thinking, “Finally! I thought he’d never stop and listen.”

However it happened, God is now in this bush calling out to Moses and telling him to “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (5)

Moses is now in the presence of the god of his ancestors, his Israelite ancestors, and he hides his face in fear. (6)

In the DreamWorks movie about Moses’ life, Prince of Egypt, they choose to say that Moses did not know about his Israelite heritage until shortly before he kills the Egyptian. As such, he knows little about his people’s way of life, about their beliefs and practices or about their god.

In the film – which I highly recommend - Moses asks the burning bush, “Who are you?” He really doesn’t know the answer and when God replies he is the god of Moses’ ancestors, Moses’ face registers shock, delight, and excitement. He doesn’t know this god, but he wants to.

God says to Moses, “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 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…” (7-8)

I imagine Moses took this in as good news, very good news even. The next part of God’s plan, however, sounded like very bad news.

“I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” (10)

You can almost hear the record scratch at this point. Liberating the Israelites? Good. Expecting Moses to lead the way? Not good. Not good at all.

Moses argues with God. The lectionary actually cuts off our reading halfway through the argument – it’s a long one.

Moses says, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” and “But suppose they don’t believe me or listen to me?” and “I’m horrible at making speeches.”

Basically Moses is saying something like, “God we just met and I’m confident you’ve pick the wrong guy,” and God being way more patient than God needs to be, listens and responds to each one of Moses concerns saying essentially, “I picked you, you are the right person.”

Moses challenges God five times and each time God is not deterred.

I’m not sure about you, but this is some highly relatable content for me in two main ways. First, I argue with God all the time. All the time. I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. Sometimes I even think I win.

And second, I can identify with Moses’ conviction that he is the wrong person for the job. God must have made a mistake; God really should choose someone else.

I identify with Moses’ question, “Who am I?” His, “Why me?” His, “Surely there is someone else who would be better for this job!”

As part of this exchange, Moses says, “If the people ask me your name, what should I tell them?” In the version we read tonight, God’s reply is translated as “I am who I am.” (13-14)
In his commentary on this passage, Everett Fox makes a number of interesting observations.

For example, have you ever wondered why Moses is fixated on figuring out God’s name? Earlier in this story, when Moses wonders who God is and God says, “I am the god of your ancestors,” that’s enough for Moses. Why does he now need some other name?

Fox observes that “In the context of Egyptian magic, knowing the true name of a person or a god meant that one could coerce him, or at the very least understand his true essence. [Moses] foresees that the slaves will want to be able to call on this power that has promised to deliver them.” (270)

Moses doesn’t yet understand how this god, the god of his ancestors’’ works. He is drawing on what he was taught about gods in his Egyptian home. He is looking for a magic word, a magic name, to help him better understand who he’s dealing with. Or possibly he is looking for a magic word that will help him gain some control in the situation, some sense of safety.

But he doesn’t get what he wants. “I am who I am” is a pretty strange name.

Drawing on the work of other scholars, Fox suggests that a better translation of God’s name (ehyeh asher ehyeh) than “I am who I am” would be “I will be there.” God’s name therefore reassures Moses, can later be used to reassure the Israelites, and by extension each one of us, that God is with us.

Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, God promises “I will be there.”

Listen to how this sounds in Fox’s translation, a translation where he is working to make the English sound as close to the Hebrew as he can. As part of that work, the name Moses becomes Moshe.

This is God’s response when Moses, Moshe, asks what God’s name is:

God said to Moshe:
EHYEH ASHER EHYEH/ I will be-there howsoever I will be-there.
And he said:
Thus shall you say to the Children of Israel:
EHYEH/I-Will-Be-There sends me to you.

As the story continues and Moses offers up additional arguments, God counters with his name “I will be there.”

For example, when Moses says he’s a poor public speaker, in Fox’s translation, God replies:

“I myself will be-there with your mouth and with [your brother’s mouth]and will instruct you as to what you shall do.”

God is saying, “You are never alone.” I am the God, who by my very nature will always “be there.”

Slavery is evil. The Israelites suffered greatly and spent generations wondering if God was ever going to come save them.

We should be careful not to equate our current situation with theirs – it’s not a one to one comparison. At the same time, I imagine many of us can relate to the sense of despair that comes when we are suffering and God seems absent.

The world seems so heavy and dark right now, and not just because of the weather. It can be easy to wonder if God will ever hear our cries of pain and despair.

I can’t fully explain why I believe this, but I do. Wherever you are and whatever you are facing. God is there. Even when God feels absent, God is there. I don’t know why God feels absent sometimes, it’s on my list of things to ask her when we finally get to sit down for coffee.

I do know that sometimes, God feels absent because we’re too busy to notice God’s presence. We walk right by the burning bush. We don’t stop and turn to the side and encounter God in a tangible way.

This week, if you think you see a burning bush. I hope you’ll stop. I hope you turn to the side. And I hope you’ll be pleasantly surprised when you do.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Women of Valour: A Sermon for Sunday August 24, 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday August 23, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. During these unusual times, you can join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church's FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.

 

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

We’ve now moved from Genesis to Exodus. From a book that tells the origin story of the people of Israel, to a book that tells the story of how they sought freedom from slavery.  Exodus. Exit. Us.

A lot of time has passed since Abraham and Sarah scratched their heads at how God could create a great nation without providing them with even a single child.

Now their descendants are so numerous that the king of Egypt views them as a threat.  Enough time has passed that this new Pharaoh could not reasonably be expected to know Joseph personally, but he does seem to be willfully ignoring his own history.

We don’t know why he views the Israelites as a threat. Is it simply because there are so many of them? It is because they are different and he fears difference?

Whatever the reason, Pharaoh convinces his people that the Israelites are dangerous, that they cannot be trusted, that they are a threat to the safety of the Egyptian people.

He says, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” (8-10)

Are they really more powerful? If so, how do the Egyptians manage to enslave them? Pharaoh doesn’t offer any proof to back up his statements. This seems like the case of a corrupt leader cultivating a fear of immigrants,  a fear of the other, in order to secure his own wealth and power.  This seems like fake news.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The Egyptians do what Pharaoh wants and enslave the Israelites and, we are told, “They were ruthless in all the tasks they imposed on them.” (14). The Israelites suffered, but their numbers also continued to increase. (12)

Pharaoh continues to view the Israelites as a threat and he decides that the solution to this threat is to control their numbers by murdering all newborn Israelite boys.  Girls - less valuable, less of a threat - will be allowed to live.

But Pharaoh miscalculates, because the greatest threats to his plan are two women, Shiprah and Puah.

Pharaoh orders them to continue to assist the Hebrew women when they give birth, but to kill every boy who is born. The adult women remain valuable, the boy babies, aren’t.

Shiprah and Puah are described as Hebrew midwives in our English translation of the original text, but it’s not actually clear if they were Hebrew women who were also midwives, or perhaps Egyptian women or women of some other unnamed ethnic group who focused their midwifery practice on helping Hebrew women.  Are they insiders helping their own people or allies? We don’t know, we just know they are fiercely committed to saving lives.

Shiprah and Puah do not directly challenge Pharaoh’s orders, to do so would likely have resulted in their deaths, but they also do not obey him. They let the boys live.

Why? Because they feared God. (17)

Not fear in the sense of the terror.  Fear in the sense of awe and respect that led them to act courageously because they wanted to align their actions with God’s will.

This is a story of genocide. It is really difficult material but I wish I had the time to write a novel or make a movie out of this story because I have a lot of questions, and it would be fun to be able to explore them in a creative medium.  Yes, that is in fact my idea of fun.

I don’t know of any novels or movies that explore this story in depth, but if you want to read a great book that asks and answers a lot of these sorts of questions, you should check out Womanist Midrash, which was written by Dr. Wil Gafney. You may recall I also referenced Dr Gafney’s work in last week’s sermon.

So back to my questions.

First,  the text has established that the Israelite people are already so numerous that Pharaoh believes they are a threat and that sense of threat increases as the Israelite population continues to grow. It’s unlikely that Shiprah and Puah are the only midwives who help Israelite women give birth, they’d need help. In Womanist Midrash, Dr Gafney describes Shiprah and Puah as the heads of their midwifery guild.[1] Perhaps there is a whole host of women working to subvert Pharaoh’s plans under Shiprah and Puah’s capable leadership. This resistance requires more than simply helping baby boys be born.  It’s not enough to simply be preoccupied with ensuring a baby is born if you haven’t thought about how you are going to care for it after it’s born

So what are they doing with all the male babies? How are they hiding the fact that boys continue to be born?

Are they, perhaps, disguising at least some of the newborn boys as girls?  Are they just pretending that there is something in the water and while lots of babies continue to be born they’re all girls?

It’s fun to think about.

I suspect they employed a whole host of methods, but there are two that we are told about.

First, it’s important to note that in order for Shiprah and Puah to lead a resistance against the Pharaoh, they need the support and buy in of the Israelite people. Everyone has a role to play if they are going to be successful. Imagine them, perhaps, presenting a newborn boy baby to his mother and saying with a wink, “It’s a girl!” And the mother looking at her son, nodding in agreement and saying, “It sure is!”

Moses’s mother Jochebed was an active participant in the resistance. Risking her own life and that of the rest of her family, she hid her infant son for three months -how she managed to hide him we don’t know, but she did.  Eventually, she knew she couldn’t hide him any longer and so she puts him in a waterproof basket and places him in the river. (2:1-3)

What a horrifying choice for a mother to make. If my child stays with me, he will surely die. If I stick him in a basket on the river, he might die, but maybe, just maybe, something miraculous will happen to him.

And a miracle does happen. Pharaoh’s daughter rescues Moses, adopts him, and is in fact the person who gives him his name. Moses means “I drew him out of the water.” (2:10). Presumably his own mother had given him an appropriate Israelite name in those first three months, but that name has been lost and Moses’ Israelite heritage erased, at least for now.

In this part of the story we add two more women to the resistance, Moses’ sister Miriam and Pharaoh’s daughter. Miriam carefully watches her brother float down the river and then bravely negotiates with Pharaoh’s daughter to arrange for own mother to care for the child. Pharaoh’s daughter seems to be aware of the resistance and defies her own brother by adopting this Israelite baby.

Clearly, not every Israelite boy who was born during this time could be floated down the river and adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. What happened to the other baby boys?

Maybe some of the mothers managed to hide their sons as daughters, maybe some other baby boys were adopted by wealthy Egyptians, but not all of them. Some baby boys were being raised as boys by their families.  And Pharaoh notices.

So Pharaoh summons the midwives and asks them why they disobeyed his orders.

Shiprah and Puah use Pharaoh’s own racist attitudes against him claiming that it’s not their fault that some baby boys remain alive because, “the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” (19)

Cameron B.R. Howard notes that, the Hebrew word translated as “vigorous” shares the same root as the word “life.”  So the language is playfully reminding the reader that “the Hebrew women are full of life. Their identity resists death.”[2]

It’s true that these women are full of life and actively resisting death, but Shiprah and Puah are also lying to Pharaoh. Israelite women aren’t just popping out babies with a startling speed.

They’re lying. Which is interesting, because even though we all know Christians lie, if you’ve spent even a small amount of time in the church you know that we’re not supposed to lie.  So why are we still telling this story in our churches?

We don’t have time for a deep dive into the history of Christian ethics this evening, but Shiprah and Puah show us that sometimes it’s OK to lie.  People have faced this ethical dilemma throughout history,  but one specific example occurred in World War 2.  Yes, it is wrong to lie, but it is more important to protect human life.

So, if you are hiding Jewish people in your attic and a Nazis official bangs on your door and asks if you are hiding Jewish people in your attic, you lie. You say, “No,” with a clean conscience.

Shiprah and Puah are not punished by God for lying. And, even more intriguingly, they are not punished by Pharaoh for disobeying his orders. These are two fiercely brave and powerful women.

The text says, “God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, [God] gave them families.” (20-22)

It’s an interesting way to word this blessing. God gave them families. God did not give them husbands. God did not give them to men as wives as if they were property either. That’s not the blessing. Dr. Gafney notes, “there is no mention of men in their lives, even if they are married; they, not their husbands or other men, will be the heads of their households.”[3] This is a story of matriarchs.

That is a blessing made explicit by the text but there is an additional blessing implicit in this text.

We know their names.

We can say their names. We can remember these heroic women by name.

Shiprah, which means “beauty.”

Puah, which likely means “girl.”

In her book The Year of Biblical Womanhood Rachel Held Evans wrote about the echet chayil, the woman of valour found in Proverbs 31. Since the release of the book, this phrase has become a rallying cry used mostly by women to encourage other women.  “Echet chayil!”  we’ll cry or type into the comments on a social media post. Well done, woman of valour!

Shiprah and Puah. The other unnamed midwives. Jochabed. Miriam. Pharoah’s daughter. Echet chayil. Women of valour.

We are living through times when we are reminded on a daily basis that our choices impact the lives of those around us. Every day we make choices that help, or hurt, other people.  In the systems we participate in that support racism, misogyny, and classism.  In smaller individual choices like buying local or social distancing or wearing masks not to protect us, but to protect others.

May we choose well, may we make choices that, as our baptism vows say, “respect the dignity of every human being.”

May we be inspired by the fearless examples of Shiprah, Puah, Jochabed, Miriam, and every mother in this story who risked her life to save a child’s life.

Echet chayil. Women of valor.

In the strong name of the triune God who creates, redeems, and sustains. Amen.

 

[1] P. 89

[2] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2169

[3] Pg. 91


I have a confession to make...

Author's notes: This is the second in an occasional series.  You can find the first one, where I reflect on what the movie Dirty Dancing taught me about returning to in person worship, by clicking here.

Cathie Caimano, who I reference in this article, provides amazing resources for the church and I highly recommend you get to know her and her work. Click here to learn more about Cathie.

 

I have a confession to make: I get nervous when people say the word “obviously.”

Usually whatever they say next is not obvious. At least not to me.

I’ve been hearing that word a lot lately. Oftentimes it’s in a discussion about online church or virtual worship.
“Obviously,” they’ll say, “online worship is inferior to in person worship.” Or perhaps they’ll take it even further and say, “online anything is always inferior to being in person.”

Before we go any further, can we all admit that we’re currently engaged in a very privileged conversation.? My ability to write and distribute this and your ability to read and engage with it is a function of our privilege. Let’s have the conversation but let’s also try to check our privilege whenever we can.

There have always been people who have not been able to consistently access in person worship. Prior to COVID when online worship options increased exponentially, that meant they either never had a corporate experience of worship, or that experience was online. What are we saying about those people and their experiences when we say that online is inferior?

I’ve also had some horrible in person interactions in my life, and some amazing virtual ones. I don’t think one way of interacting is better than the other, they’re just different.

COVID is forcing me to think about these things in new ways. Now there is a team sharing the work, but for months I led online services seven days a week. I never imagined a world where that was possible. Where I would sing into my computer. I did not want to be a televangelist when I grew up.

But I’m also so grateful for the connections and the deepening commitment to a regular prayer practice that online worship is creating for me and the community who gather every day. I’m learning to see the beauty and the power of building community virtually.

I need better language to explain my experiences. To help me understand what God is up to and to help me explain it to others as well and I’m writing this series of occasional posts to help me do just that. (You can find the first one on what Dirty Dancing taught me about in person worship by clicking here.)

I’m not writing to convince anyone who doesn’t want to engage in online worship that they have to, but if you fit in this category I do hope you’ll at least be willing to drop the “obviously.”

For today, let’s think a bit about the language we use. I use the term “virtual” but I don’t like it because the notion of inferiority is baked into the term. Virtual already sounds less than which doesn’t accurately describe many people’s experiences in the virtual world, including my own. Virtual bread is not real bread. But virtual community is real community.

Cathie Caimano helped shape my thinking when she pointed out to me that “online” is also an incredibly broad term. Saying you like or don’t like being “online” is the same as saying you like or don’t like being outside. It encompasses a whole lot of things. If you don’t like being outside, or online, what exactly do you mean? Which parts are you talking about?

Do you dislike sitting by a lake or walking in the rain or waiting for the bus? Do you actually dislike every single thing about being outside?

Similarly, being online could include emailing someone, talking to your grandkids on Facetime, watching a movie using a streaming service. Do you actually hate every single thing about being online?

For most people, the pandemic has increased our online engagement whether we like it or not. Church, work, and even doctor’s appointments now occur online instead of in person. The latest news from medical experts tells us that we can expect this to be our normal for at least the next couple of years.

The next couple of years.

This is hard, it’s so very hard and I never want to pretend that it’s not. But I also believe that it’s going to be harder for people who refuse to engage online.

Can we explore this new normal with curiosity? Can we be honest about what we miss about being able to gather in person whenever we want to while simultaneously asking, what are the gifts of being online?

Here’s one. In the time before, I knew someone who would often call me in crisis asking if I could meet with them that day. Because we both assumed the only way we could meet effectively was in person, in order to say yes to his request, I needed to have 3-4 hours available. Meeting meant I needed to drive to the opposite side of town, pay for parking etc. So more often than not I said no. I rarely have an open block of 3-4 hours in a day.

Now, thanks to Zoom, I usually say yes because I usually can free up forty-five minutes to an hour in my day. So this person’s access to pastoral care has increased dramatically as has my overall sense that I am doing a good job and not letting him down. Oh, and my carbon footprint and work expenses have also decreased dramatically.

It’s likely that if you are reading this you have the privilege to ask the questions, “What do I like or dislike about being online?” Not everyone does. For some people this pandemic means sheltering in place, alone with no way of connecting with others. As we think critically about the virtual world, we should always remember that we are in a place of immense privilege. Now more than ever access to the internet should be a basic human right.

But you’re here, so it’s more than likely that this week will find you online. Will you join me in a contemplative experience? Throughout the week take some time to reflect on your experiences of being online, with email, with the telephone, with online worship. What was lifegiving? What wasn’t? Jot those noticings down. At the end of the week, look at what you’ve written and see what you notice. Are there any themes? Anything to express gratitude for? Anything you might want to change?

What might we learn if we drop the “obviously” and engage online with curiosity?

I’m not sure, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

 

This was the second post in an occasional series.  Click here to read the next post.


Tried, Tested, and True: A Sermon for August 17, 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday August 16, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. During these unusual times, you can join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church's FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Last week’s episode of Jacob and Sons ended with Joseph being enslaved and taken to Egypt and Jacob sitting in grief because he believes Joseph has been killed by wild animals.

Once again the lectionary jumps over a large portion of the story and tonight’s reading doesn’t make sense without that context so let’s get caught up.

Immediately following last week’s reading we get an entire chapter where Joseph isn’t mentioned, instead we find the story of Tamar. Maybe next year we can do a summer series focusing on the stories of women in Genesis that the lectionary skips – there are quite a few of them – but tonight we’re going to keep our focus on Joseph. I would encourage you to read chapter 38 on your own however. It’s a fascinating story.

Chapter 39 picks up Joseph’s story after his arrival in Egypt. Joseph is enslaved by a man named Potiphar who recognizes Joseph’s leadership gifts and makes Joseph the overseer of his house. He doesn’t free him though; Joseph is still an enslaved person.

Potiphar recognizes Joseph’s leadership skills and his wife recognizes Joseph’s physical beauty. Joseph rebuffs her advances but she persists. Genesis tells us that: And although she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not consent...”

Day after day and then finally, one day she tries again but this time she also grabs hold of Joseph’s clothes. Joseph pulls away from her and winds up running away, possibly naked.

Which would be funny, if it wasn’t so terrifying. This is a story of an assault in the context of a clear power imbalance. The Collegeville Commentary points out that the roles are very clear here. Potiphar’s wife speaks “as a slave owner to a slave in her efforts to seduce him.” (v.7; p. 119). It’s very dangerous for Joseph to refuse to do as he is told.

With Joseph’s clothing as proof, Potiphar’s wife makes up a story, soaked in classism and racism, and accuses Joseph of assaulting her.  This episode echoes an earlier episode from Joseph’s life when his brothers use his coat to deceive their father and claim that Joseph has died.

Joseph winds up in prison where we learn that not only does he dream elaborate dreams, he can interpret them. This skill leads to a meeting with the Pharaoh where he interprets a series of dreams that have confounded all of Pharaoh’s other experts.

One of the things that is interesting about Joseph’s story is how we see God at work.  Unlike Joseph’s ancestors who spoke directly to God, we never see a scene where Joseph and God speak to each other. God is still present and active, but this is a different relationship.  When Joseph is brought to Pharaoh he makes it clear that he does not interpret dreams by his own skill alone. This is a gift that comes from God and Joseph’s interpretations are messages from God. (16). This sets him apart from all the other experts that Pharaoh has consulted previously.

And this should remind us that there is more than one way to connect with God. If you have never heard God speak to you using a literal voice, that doesn’t mean that God hasn’t spoken.

It’s also interesting to note that by trusting Joseph’s interpretation, Pharaoh is choosing to trust Joseph’s god over Egypt’s gods.

Pharaoh says, “Can we find anyone else like [Joseph]—one in whom is the spirit of God?” 39 So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is no one so discerning and wise as you. 40 You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command; only with regard to the throne will I be greater than you.” … “I am Pharaoh, and without your consent no one shall lift up hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.”… Thus Joseph gained authority over the land of Egypt.” (41:37-45)

Joseph was 30. He’d been enslaved in Egypt for 13 years by this time.

Pharaoh’s dreams predicted seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine. Joseph gets to work storing up food in the time of abundance to be used in the time of scarcity.  As a result, Egypt does not suffer when the years of famine come, but other people in the surrounding area do, including Joseph’s family of origin.

In the seven years of abundance, Egypt was able to store up so much food that not only is there enough to feed their population, they are able to sell the surplus. 10 of Jacob’s brother’s travel to Egypt to buy grain.  Benjamin, the youngest son and Jacob’s new favourite, stays at home with Jacob.  Benjamin and Joseph were Rachel’s only sons. (42:40)

When the brothers arrive in Egypt they meet Joseph but they don’t recognize him. Joseph recognizes them, however, and puts them through a series of tests.

He tests them, and the tests are grueling, but they are tests, meant to help determine what sort of people his brothers have become.  He could just have easily chosen to seek revenge. This part of the story could easily have gone, “And when Joseph saw his brothers starving and in need of food he remembered his own growling belly after they threw him into the pit and he turned them away and forced them to return to their own homes to die.”

But even though he holds the power of life and death over them, Joseph doesn’t leave them to die. But he also doesn’t offer than instant forgiveness and welcome them into his home with open arms.

He accuses his brothers of being spies, imprisons them and then agrees to release them on the condition that they return with Benjamin. Joseph keeps one of his brothers, Simeon, as collateral.  Joseph also orders his enslaved people to hide each brothers’ money in their sack of grain. When the brothers return home and discover the money they are confused and terrified.

When they return to Egypt they bring Benjamin, and twice as much money as the first time – the money they’d found in their sacks and money to purchase new grain. (42:28)

When they return home from this second trip, Joseph again arranges to have their money hidden in their grain sacks but he also has his own cup put in Benjamin’s sack. (44:1-2)

This time, the brothers are caught before they can leave, Benjamin is accused of theft and is sentenced to death. Now the brothers are truly terrified and Judah pleads for Benjamin’s life. (44:18)

The text gives us the sense that from the time the brothers first arrive in Egypt Joseph is watching everything they say and do, every gesture, every facial expression, trying to figure out what kind of people they have become.

Without even knowing they are being tested, the brothers pass each test. These men who chose greed over a human life when they sold Joseph, return the money they find in their grain sacks.

These men who cared so little for their brother Joseph’s life both returned to rescue their brother Simeon and plead passionately for Benjamin’s life.

Judah, the brother who first suggested they sell Joseph into slavery, now begs eloquently for Benjamin’s life offering his own in return.  He begs:

Now therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord in place of the boy; and let the boy go back with his brothers. 34 For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the suffering that would come upon my father.” (43:33-34)

Not only is Judah willing to trade his life for Benjamin’s, he seems genuinely concerned about his father. A concern that was lacking when he chose to sell Joseph and trick Jacob into believing his favourite son had died.

Additionally, although they do not recognize Joseph, they have not forgotten him. In all of their encounters with Joseph they have spoken through an interpreter, they don’t realize that Joseph can actually understand them. This allows Joseph to eavesdrop on their private conversations and this is how he learns that the brothers regret having sold him. Joseph is able to overhear their deep remorse and regret.  (42:21-23)

This is where today’s reading picks up the story.  The lectionary skipped a LOT.

Today’s passage, which is fairly short, is the conclusion to this whole story arc.  Basically, Joseph tells his brothers who he is, forgives them, and they live happily ever after.

The end.

Well not, quite, but you’ll need to read the rest of Genesis yourself to get the rest of Joseph’s story.

There are a few ways I’ve heard this story misused over the years that I want to highlight for us tonight.

First, we can learn a lot from Bible stories, but not every Bible story should be applied to every situation.

For example, this is not a story about a cheap form of forgiveness. If you’ve ever been pressured to forgive someone who abused you and Joseph is used as an example, ask this person if by forgiveness they mean rising to a position of almost unlimited power and then still spending years putting the person who hurt you through a series of tests before deciding they are truly sorry and offering forgiveness.

Because that seems to be the Joseph model of forgiveness.

We should also avoid using this story to try and imply that slavery isn’t really that bad. Or slavery isn’t always that bad.  It is. It is always that bad.

The brilliant Dr. Wil Gaffney writes, “the lesson of forgiveness in this passage is particularly poignant; combined with Joseph's rags-to-riches story, it is something like a fairy tale. Unfortunately, those lessons are entwined with a deeply problematic theological gloss: that the human trafficking in the story was a tool of God to save the lives of Joseph and his family from the impending famine, verses 5-8, justifying the actions of his brothers in selling him into slavery. While that narrative device makes for great theater in the story of Joseph, it paints an unrealistic glaze over the institution of slavery in and beyond the bible.

-Dr Gaffney continues -Joseph's experience of slavery in the narrative was one in a million and does not mitigate against the unjust dehumanizing institution utilized by the Egyptians and other ancient peoples including the Israelites, or American chattel slavery in North and South America and the Caribbean or the contemporary sexual trafficking of women, girls and boys. The claim of verse 8, "it was not you who sent me here but God" should perhaps be understood in this story as Joseph's perception of his circumstances and not as a broader religious sanction of slavery, human trafficking or any other social ill over which an individual triumphs. Joseph does what so many people do, which is try to make sense out of what he has experienced by drawing on his own limited understanding of God.”[1]

God does not speak directly in this story. This is Joseph’s interpretation of events. Throughout scripture we can see that if God needed Joseph to get to Egypt, he didn’t need to rely on Joseph’s brothers. God is more powerful than that. God did not need the brothers to abuse Joseph. That was their choice alone.

So we also can’t use this story to prop up the false belief that “everything happens for a reason.”  Even when Joseph is telling his brothers that God used the situation for good, he still maintains that it was his brothers, not God who sold him into slavery. He still put them through all those tests before he offered forgiveness. (5-8). There is a big difference between saying, “It’s a good thing you sold me to be used as a slave,” and “It’s a good thing we have such a powerful God!”

In the coming weeks we will see stories where slavery is shown to be evil, and where God is shown as a powerful liberator who breaks chains and sets people free.

But those are stories for another time.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1026


Which One Are You?: A Sermon for Sunday August 9, 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday August 9, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. During these unusual times, you can join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church's FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Last week’s reading from Genesis ended with a cliff hanger: Jacob made elaborate preparations to meet his brother Esau, a brother he hasn’t seen in over twenty years. A brother who wanted to kill him, but the reading stops before we find out if their reunion was positive, or deadly.

Today’s reading opens with “Jacob settled in the land where his father lived...” so clearly we’ve skipped over some of the story. (37:1).  First of all, you may recall that Jacob received a new name in last week’s reading, Israel, but here he is referred to as Jacob.  Both names will be used interchangeably in the next few chapters.

A lot happens in the chapters the lectionary skips over. When Jacob and Esau meet, it turns out that Esau’s anger has cooled and Jacob is welcomed home.  We also get stories of the birth of Jacob’s youngest son, the deaths of Rachel and Isaac, and two difficult stories about rape.

They are hard stories, and the lectionary skips over them but scripture itself includes them. Genesis doesn’t hide from us the fact that Jacob’s family is one filled with conflict and disfunction. Bilhah receives only a few sentences but Dinah’s story has an entire chapter dedicated to it. It’s a chapter that should contain a trigger warning but it’s also a chapter that allows many, many women to see their own experiences reflected in scripture.

But we are going to stick fairly close to the lectionary today. And when today’s passage opens, Jacob’s family has settled in Canaan.

Jacob does not treat all of his children equally, which is interesting.  Jacob’s parents played favourites, Jacob was his mother’s favourite, Esau his father’s. He knows the damage this can cause and yet he repeats the pattern. He makes it clear he has a favourite, Joseph, and to make sure that everyone knows that Joseph is his favourite he buys him a special coat.

We all know about this coat right?   Joseph’s amazing, technicolour dream coat?

“It was red and yellow and green and brown
And scarlet and black and ochre and peach
And ruby and olive and violet and fawn.. and so on.”

Or was it.  A coat of many colours is a great prop for a Broadway musical, but that’s not how it’s actually described in Genesis. The translation we read from tonight just says, “a long robe with sleeves.” (3)

The Collegeville Commentary says, “the actual meaning of the Hebrew word is uncertain: translations include a long-sleeved garment, one with many colours or special ornamentation, and one that reaches to the floor. (115)

So what do Biblical scholars do when they are not sure what a word means? They try to determine the meaning based on context and they also look to see if the word is used elsewhere and if that can provide some contextual clues.

Biblical scholar Austen Hartke[1] found that the word used to describe Joseph’s special garment (ketonet passim)  is also used in 2 Samuel 13:18.  In that verse, Tamar’s clothing is described using the same word as Joseph’s but 2 Samuel also includes a description of the garment.  We are told that Tamar is dressed this way because, “this is how the virgin daughters of the kings were clothed in earlier times.”

Wait. So Jacob gave Joseph a piece of clothing that was typically worn by the virgin daughter of a king? A garment tied to a specific gender and economic status?

Austen explains, “So what are we to make of the fact that this garment, the ketonet passim, is worn by only two people in the Bible: Joseph and Princess Tamar?  Theologians have been chewing this one over for hundreds of years and coming up with all kinds of answers. Some believe that the outfit must really be a gender-neutral children’s garment (but how do we understand the gender and status explanation in Tamar’s story then?), while others think that maybe men’s and women’s robes were so similar as to be indistinguishable (but then why the fuss over properly gendered clothing in Deut. 22:5?) In the end, all we know for sure is that this apparently beautiful and luxurious garment that serves as a mark of distinction for the virgin daughters of the king is the same garment with which the patriarch vested his favourite son.  If this is the case, the alienation and abuse Joseph receives at the hands of his brothers makes even more sense. As a person assigned male at birth, but who dresses in clothes associated with women, Joseph fails to measure up to expected gender expressions.” (68-69)

I suspect that Jacob’s children always knew that Joseph was their father’s favourite, and maybe they also always knew he was different but the coat made it impossible to ignore these things. The coat made what was implicit, explicit.  And we’re told that, “when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.” (4)

It’s not Joseph’s fault that he’s the favourite, but he doesn’t do himself any favours either.  He’s a tattle tale. We’re told that he went out with his brothers to care for the animals and returned home and gave Jacob a “bad report” about them. (2)

And that’s not all, Joseph keeps telling his brothers about his dreams – not his hopes and plans – his literal dreams, in a time and place where people took dreams seriously. Dreams which are fairly easy to interpret as saying Joseph is better than his brothers and will one day rule over them. (5-10) Our reading tonight jumped over these verses, but essentially, in addition to being their Dad’s clear favorite, and tattling on them, Joseph keeps telling his brothers that, according to his dreams, he will one day rule over them.

It’s almost like Joseph wants his brothers to hate him.

And hate him they do.

So Joseph stays home with his father and the rest of the brothers go to Shechem where they “pasture their father’s flock.” (12-13)  Jacob asks Joseph to go and check on his brothers, and Joseph agrees.

Joseph’s brothers have been moving with the grazing animals and are further away from home than he expected. This distance will make it easier for the brothers to carry out their plans without being caught.

Joseph’s brothers spot him long before he arrives and as they are watching him approach, they decide to kill him saying, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” (18-19)

Reuben however suggests a slightly different plan. Instead of killing Joseph, they could just throw him into a pit. And leave him.  It seems to me that the end result would still be the same -Joseph will die - and so I’m not sure why the brothers agree to this plan.

Perhaps they prefer the emotional distance that allowing their brother to die in a pit rather than killing him with their own hands allows. Or perhaps, in their anger, they prefer the additional pain and suffering this plan would cause Joseph. Not only would he die slowly, alone in a pit, he would also be denied a proper burial.

But whatever the reason, they agree to Reuben’s plan.

Reuben doesn’t want to kill Joseph. He only suggests this plan to buy Joseph some time. It seems that Reuben knows that he can’t stop his brothers from killing Joseph, 2 against 10 are really bad odds but he does think he’s capable of sneaking away from the group and getting Joseph out of the pit.

So Joseph meets up with his brothers, they strip his special coat off of him and throw him into a pit. We are given the additional details that this pit was empty and contained no water. (24)

And then the brothers go off to eat and while they are eating, Judah comes up with a new plan.  Why leave their brother to starve to death in a pit, when they can sell him and make a little money?  And that’s exactly what they do. They sell their brother to some passing traders for twenty pieces of silver and those traders take Joseph to Egypt. (28) This was a standard purchase price for an enslaved person between the ages of five and twenty. Joseph was seventeen.

It’s not clear where Reuben was during the time it took for Joseph to meet his brothers, be thrown into the pit and then sold into slavery, but when Reuben returns to try and rescue Joseph he discovers he is too late. (29)

Reuben tears his clothes in grief and returns to his brothers where he learns what happened to Joseph. He then resolves to keep the secret and participates in the rest of the plan with his brothers.

They kill a goat and take Joseph’s coat – the special one given to him by his father -  and dip it in the blood.  They return home and show the coat to Jacob, who recognizes it and assumes Joseph has been killed by a wild animal. (31-33)

Then the theme of torn clothing is repeated a third time as Jacob tears his own clothing, puts on sackcloth and we are told he “mourned his son for many days” and “refused to be comforted.” (34-35).

In the Ignatian tradition, there is a classic prayer practice called the prayer of imagination. This pray invites you to hear a Biblical story and imagine yourself as one of the characters.  It could be a main character, like Joseph, or a someone else, a figure in the crowd watching the events, one of the merchants who buys Joseph. Anyone. The idea is to enter prayerfully and imaginatively into the story and to encounter God in the process.

Can you find yourself in this story, and if so, where? Can you identify with Joseph? A seventeen year old kid who doesn’t fit in with his family? A family who hates his difference so much they do not care whether he lives or dies as long as they don’t have to deal with him anymore?

Can you find yourself in what it feels like to be alone in a pit? Feeling helpless, and hopeless?

Can you find yourself in Reuben, trying to save your brother while also avoiding conflict and failing at both? Or in that sense of having arrived a little too late to make a difference?  In that deep sense of “if only?”

Can you find yourself in Jacob’s grief at the loss of his beloved son?

Can you find yourself in the brothers’ fear of people who are different than you? Can you find yourself in their desires to wield their power and privilege in order to re-assert societal norms and the status quo?  In their desire to make themselves comfortable at the expense of someone else’s life?

This is where I find myself in the story today. Not in the voice of the brothers who came up with this plan or spoke loudly in favour of it, but rather in the brother who was too afraid to speak up and in their silence they implied that they agreed with the plan and in doing so, they allowed their brother Joseph to be sold into slavery.

This week I have been thinking about the ways I harm others with my silence. I have been thinking about my reluctance to speak up for what I know is right.  I have been thinking about all the times I disagreed with someone, but didn’t tell them, and so they were reasonably able to assume I agreed with their position.

It is scary to speak up. It is scary to be in a crowd and say “I disagree. This is wrong.” But it’s worth doing. Necessary even and so I’m beginning to gather my courage because ultimately, I want to be actively engaged in helping other people thrive, and I cannot do that if I stay silent when I know something is wrong.

Wherever you find yourself in this story as you mull over it this week, be curious about what God might be trying to show you, be gentle when this process touches wounds or deep pain, and be ready to be changed by what you discover.

In the name of the Triune God who creates, redeems, and sustains. Amen.

 

[1] Austen Hartke’s book “transforming” is exceptional both for its quality scholarship and his clear easy to follow writing style.  I highly recommend it.

 


A Blessing and a Limp: A Sermon for Sunday August 3, 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday August 2, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. During these unusual times, you can join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church's FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.

 

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

We are continuing our Genesis series this evening but the lectionary picks and chooses which pieces of the story to highlight so I’m going to start by filling in some of those blanks.

Last week we had the story of how Jacob married Leah and Rachel. This is followed by the stories of how his family continued to grow to include enslaved people, children, and livestock.  By the time we get to tonight’s reading, Jacob has become a wealthy man.

As his wealth and power increase, his relationship with his father in law Laban becomes more contentious and Jacob decides it is time to move.

These stories take place over about 20 years. Although we don’t get a long interior monologue detailing Jacob’s thoughts,  we know that he hasn’t forgotten his family of origin and in particular, his brother Esau.  Jacob chooses to return home, but he knows he cannot assume his return will be viewed as a good thing.

Nevertheless, Jacob decides to pack up his household and go home. This is not a simple journey or a simple reunion. Jacob left his home – fled actually – because his brother Esau has threatened to kill him. (27:41)  And Esau had good reason to want Jacob dead. Jacob had tricked him, stolen from him, and then fled.  Has Esau’s hurt and anger cooled over the course of those two decades? Or has it increased? Jacob has no way of knowing.  And now Jacob has to consider not only his own personal safety, but the safety of his entire household.

Amy Merrill Willis points out that pilgrimage stories, stories about journeys, are often stories of character transformation. Stories where the pilgrim is changed by the pilgrimage. How does Jacob change in this story? Does Jacob change in this story?

Jacob’s preparations to meet his brother Esau can be divided into four steps. At first we don’t see clear signs of transformation, we see signs of a man who is skilled in deceit and manipulation using those skills to protect himself.  But a hint of a change can be seen in the fact that Jacob is preparing to return home at all, he is moving towards conflict, not away from it.

First Jacob sends messengers to tell Esau of his plans to return and when the messengers return they inform Jacob that Esau is coming and he is not alone, he has four hundred men with him. Four hundred men. Esau is coming with an army. (6)

Upon hearing this news we are told that Jacob was “greatly afraid and distressed” which makes a lot of sense to me. (7) If I was Jacob hearing that Esau was coming with an army my anxiety would be through the roof. This sounds like all his worst fears are coming true, and Jacob begins to prepare for the worst case scenario.

Jacob divides his household into two groups in the hopes that at least one group will survive. (7-8)

Then he prays to God saying, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies.  Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. Yet you have said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.’”  (9-12)

I am always interested when a person’s prayers are recorded in scripture because they provide insight into that person’s relationship with God.

In this prayer, Jacob reminds God of the promises God has made.  You are the God of my family. You are the God who told me to return home. You are the God who said “I will surely do you good…” You are the God who made these promises to me and my family. Do not forget them, do not let me down.

Jacob also tells God that he is not worthy of God’s love and these blessings. He confesses that he is afraid and asks God to protect him and his entire household.

Jacob seems to understand that God’s promises and blessings are not contingent on how good a person Jacob has chosen to be. Jacob, a man who has both deceived others and been deceived, may feel shaky in his own worthiness, but he still has the confidence to ask God to keep God’s promises.

Jacob also seems to understand that God’s promises are not a force field that will automatically protect him from harm.  It is possible that God can keep these promises and that Esau will kill Jacob.  Jacob is afraid and he does not hide his fear from God.

After he prays,  Jacob selects an extravagant number of livestock and has some of his enslaved people take them to Esau as a gift in advance of his arrival.  (13-16) This is a gift meant to soften Esau’s anger but it’s not just a gift it’s a tactic. Jacob orders his enslaved people to divide the animals into groups with space in between each group and to take the animals out ahead of the rest of the household. They are like a series of shields. If Esau does not accept these gifts and still wants to kill Jacob, he will have to hack his way through all of those people and animals first.

After making all these preparations, Jacob sends his household ahead of him across the Jabbok, which marks their entry into Jacob’s homeland. He stays behind planning to spend the night alone.  (4-22)

Or at least I think his plan was to spend the night alone, but, as we learned in today’s reading, that’s not what happens.

But before we look at what happened to Jacob that night, I want to point out that Jacob’s decision to include a night of solitude and preparation is a wise practice, one that is good for us to emulate.

Too often we can get so wrapped up in the busyness of our lives, in the excitement and energy of preparing for an event, that we forget to prepare our own hearts. We forget to stop long enough to reflect on what has happened.

Too often we rush from one experience to the next without taking the time to stop and reflect on our experience. To internalize it, to learn from it, and to take that hard earned wisdom with us as we continue on our journey.

Building in time to stop and reflect is a good practice, but it won’t just happen. You have to work to intentionally build time to pause and reflect into your life.

In Jacob’s prayer that I referenced earlier, he says “for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies.”  “Two companies” refers to the two groups he has divided his household into in the hopes if one group is attacked, the other will be able to flee.

So much has happened since Jacob fled his home and first came to this place. Rather than rushing ahead, Jacob hits the pause button to reflect on all those experiences.

It is a good thing to do, but that’s not how Jacob winds up spending this night.

Rather than spending a quiet night alone preparing to meet his brother, Jacob encounters a stranger – the man is not identified – and the two wrestle until dawn.

We are not told who the person is, how he came to be there, or why he chooses to wrestle with Jacob.

Eventually, when he realizes he cannot defeat Jacob, the man damages Jacob’s hip and asks to be released from Jacob’s grip. Jacob has had a stubborn streak and a strong grip his entire life. You may recall that Esau and Jacob were twins and Jacob, who was born second, came into the world holding onto his brother’s heel. His name actually means “heel grabber.”

But Jacob’s stubborn choice to wrestle this man throughout the night, to grab hold and refuse to let go also strikes me as a sign of character growth.  Jacob has not typically chosen to deal with difficult things directly.  His tendency has been to avoid them by running away  or to deal with them in a deceitful way, approaching problems from the side instead of head on.

Jacob agrees to let go, but only if the man agrees to give him a blessing.

Then the man renames Jacob Israel.   The heel grabber has become “the one who wrestles with God.”  This new name, Israel,  is the name that one of the great nations promised to Abraham will use to identify themselves. They will become the “people of Israel” or “the Israelites.”

Then Jacob turns to this man who has wrestled with him all night, damaged his hip, and given him a new name and asks ever so politely, “Please tell me your name.” (29)

The man does not tell Jacob, now Israel, his name, but gives him a blessing instead and disappears.

Israel then names this place Peniel which means “the face of God” revealing that he knows that the person he wrestled with all night was God.

It’s an odd little story but it has so many resonances with our own lives.  I suspect that most, if not all of us, know what it is like to spend a sleepless night wrestling with a problem or wrestling with God.

Or maybe you were taught that it’s not OK to wrestle with God. Maybe you were taught to believe that your job was to submissively obey God without question. Be gentle with yourself if that’s how you were raised, but I hope you see in this story the good news that it is OK to wrestle with God and to refuse to let go until God gives you a blessing.

Amy Merrill Willis explains that, “The character of Jacob and the character of God are both remarkably displayed in this passage. God does not punish Jacob’s conflictive character, but challenges it and reshapes it so that Jacob is able to live into his promised destiny as Israel, which according to verse 29 means “one who strives with God and humans.” Jacob’s story is a much-needed reminder that in the life of faith, there is no one model to which we must conform and submit. God entertains all kinds of characters and personalities, even those who appear to be unconventional or irreverent by our standards.

Finally – Merrill Willis continues -, the story also challenges any attempt to domesticate God and make the deity fit into some easy mold, whether that is “the wrathful God” or the “God who meets my needs.” Jacob came away from the encounter with unbounded blessings, but he also walked away limping—a man permanently marked. It attests to the complex reality of a God who is intimately engaged with humans, who seeks them out, and blesses them, even it reminds us that this God is wily, unpredictable, and dangerous.”

What are you wrestling with this week? What blessing do you want to receive from God?  It is good to wrestle with God, it is good to refuse to let go until you receive a blessing.

But as you do be prepared to be changed. You cannot wrestle with God and stay the same. You will emerge from those encounters a different person – perhaps a person with a new name and a blessing, but also a limp.

Jacob now Israel limps away from this encounter with God a changed man. But those are stories for another time.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


I Carried a Watermelon: What Dirty Dancing Taught Me About Returning to In Person Worship

The first time I saw Dirty Dancing I was 12 years old.  The details are fuzzy – how did we get a copy of a PG-13 movie? – but I remember arranging a sleepover with a friend that began by babysitting a neighbour’s child.  We popped the tape into the VCR after the child went to sleep and stayed poised ready to jump and turn off the TV if they woke up or their parents came home early. We wanted to watch the movie, but we didn’t want anyone to know we were watching it.  As I Mennonite knew I needed to hide the film and I also I knew the title was a bit over the top, all dancing is dirty. Obviously.

My favourite viewing of Dirty Dancing happened in 2017. It was a special screening for the 30th anniversary of the film’s release. The theater was packed with fans. We laughed and shouted all the classic lines at the top of our lungs:

“I carried a watermelon?”

“No one puts Baby in a corner!”

My most recent viewing of Dirty Dancing was a few days ago.  Even though going to the movies is one of my all-time favourite things to do, I haven’t been since early March.  Movie theaters have only recently re-opened here with reduced capacity, extra cleaning, and the mind boggling request that we please remove our own garbage after the film. (Because even though I know people rarely do, I think this is something we should all have been doing all along.)

I bought my ticket online a few days in advance but I didn’t actually decide I was going to go until a few minutes before I got in my car. The ticket was only $3 and I gave myself a lot of room to change my mind at the last minute. A final check that confirmed they hadn’t sold very many tickets sealed the deal.

I could tell you a bunch of high minded reasons why I wanted to go, and they’d all be true.  I wanted to practice being in a public space before I returned to work. I wanted to know how I’d feel being in a room with strangers.

But I also just wanted to see a movie in a theater. To feel normal.

I saw a movie; it didn’t feel normal.

This was not a normal night at the movies because normal is gone, and I don’t think it’s ever coming back.  I’m sure we will find ways to enjoy movies and live theater  and worship together in person again but we’re moving towards a new normal, we’re not going back to our old normal.

Although this was not the theater’s fault, I found the entire process stressful, navigating new procedures, trying to social distance, being frustrated with every single other person in the theater who all seemed to have forgotten how to be out in public. All eight of them!  (Why are you taking a phone call on speaker phone? Why are you ignoring the arrows? Why are you breathing SO loud?)

When Baby arrives at Kellerman’s she’s on her home turf and the confidence shows. She knows this world, its rules and how to navigate that space. But when she enters the world of the Kellerman’s staff her discomfort is palpable. She has no idea what to expect or how to behave.

I resonate strongly with her sense of awkward uncertainty.  I don’t like situations I can’t control, situations where I don’t know the rules or what to expect.  That’s what this stage of the pandemic feels like to me. It’s more stressful than when we locked down.  Lock down had clear reasons and rules, this stage in the journey does not and it’s hard to know what to do.

I went to the movies. Did I have the time of my life? No.  I most certainly did not. But I was grinning from ear to ear underneath my mask when Baby finally nailed that lift so it wasn’t all bad.

Will I be back to the theater anytime soon?  I’m not sure. I can’t stay in my house forever but I also don’t think a movie, any movie, is worth putting myself or others at risk of catching COVID-19.

We need to find new ways to be together. We need to adjust to this new reality and we going to need to be gentle with each other in the process. A gentleness that includes reminding people when they are standing too close and graciously accepting correction when we’re the one at fault.

I haven’t worshipped with my congregation in person since early March. We haven’t set any timelines as of yet but I know we will worship in person again. In the meantime, the thought of it makes me anxious.  I don’t want to put anyone at risk. I don’t want to be that pastor on the news having to explain how we were ground zero for a new outbreak.  I don’t want to do any more funerals than I absolutely need to.

I also know that what we’re returning to isn’t what we’re hoping for.

Towards the end of the film, the owner of Kellerman’s gives a speech lamenting that things are changing and he doesn’t see a future for the resort. It’s not what the kid’s want anymore! I understand that feeling, and I do feel strong waves of grief when I think back on what it used to be like to worship in person with my beloved community.

But I also listened to Kellerman’s speech and thought, “The old ways only served rich white men like you. The system you are lamenting was racist, classist and sexist. Burn it down. Burn it all down.”

Burn Kellerman’s to the ground and build something better. As the church, let’s keep what has always been beautiful and true and let the other things fall away – let’s create worship that is not rooted in colonialism and white cis heteronormative patriarchy.  Let’s lament the past not only because we miss it, but because it contained so many lamentable things.

Anecdotally I’ve heard that when people return to in person worship for the first time they have all the feelings. They are scared, they are anxious, they are excited, they are thrilled to be together again, and then they often feel a lingering sadness that lasts for days.

A few people I know have articulated that – even though they knew that a return to in person worship was not simply turning back the clock to pre-COVID times, some part of them still hoped that it would be.  As long as they weren’t meeting, that hope remained, but the concrete experience of the new ways we gather in person squashed it entirely.  It is not the same.

I don’t think it’s all doom and gloom however. If we allow them to be, times of change can be great times of learning and growth.  My thoughts about the nature of online worship have changed dramatically over these last few months and I’m currently trying to put those thoughts into words which I will share will all of you as soon as they’re ready.

But here are just a few things I have noticed:

 

  • It’s a false binary to say in person worship is good and online worship is bad. We tend to know the pros and cons of in person worship from experience. We are only now learning the pros and cons of online worship.

 

  • Online worship has allowed people to be included who have typically been excluded. People with chronic illnesses that make it difficult to leave their homes, people in remote areas who can’t easily travel to church, folks whose legitimate fears of being poorly treated at church have caused them to choose to remain at home.  All of these people can now safely participate in services because they can participate from their home or their hospital bed and anything that is harmful to their person can end with the click of a button. They have the control now, and that’s a good thing.

 

  • Not everything about the way we used to worship was good. This is a great opportunity for us to rethink why we do what we do.

 

  • God has always wanted us to connect with them all day, every day. By placing too much focus on Sunday worship services we let some of our muscles develop and others grow flabby. We can use this time to exercise those other muscles in the hopes that we’ll emerge from this pandemic with a healthier, more well-rounded relationship with our Creator.

 

I went to a movie this week to dip my toe into the waters of public gatherings and then unexpectedly I find myself leading one of those gatherings tomorrow – a funeral. How will I feel about that experience? I have no idea.

But I’m going to mask up, carry a watermelon and try a new dance. I am going to step on someone’s toes, I won’t nail the lift.  It’s going to be hard and awkward and uncomfortable at first.

I hope we’ll learn these new dances together.  I hope you’ll teach me new things and forgive me when I stumble because even with all my Mennonite DNA, I believe that dancing is worth it.

 

This was the first in an occasional series. Click here to read the second installment.

 


The God Who Sees: A Sermon for Sunday June 21, 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday June 21, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. During these unusual times, you can join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church's FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.

 

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Last week Jamie noted that over the summer the lectionary has us reading a number of stories from Genesis and that it is his intention to focus on those stories when he preaches. I reserve the right to change my mind, but that’s my plan too.

He also called today’s reading from Genesis a “doozy,” which it is, and which might just be why I love it so much.

We can’t cover all the stories found in Genesis over the next couple of months, so I would encourage you to take some time to fill in the blanks by reading through the book on your own.  Even with just one character like Hagar, there is so much more to explore than what I am going to have time to say today.

Let’s start by highlighting a few things from earlier chapters of Genesis that I think provide some important context, starting at the very beginning.

Genesis 1:1 – “In the beginning God created…”

I don’t think it’s important to get bogged down in the hows of creation, but I do think it is important to regularly remind ourselves that this world and everything in it, including each one of us, was created by a good and loving God.

That basic understanding should be the foundation of all of our beliefs and our actions.

We are not cosmic accidents, we are God’s creation.

And so is everyone else.

It’s important and healthy to realize that you are unique and special in God’s eyes.

It is dangerous and unhealthy to think other people need to be considered less special as a result.

God’s economy doesn’t work that way. God’s economy is so much bigger than that.

And we see that reflected in today’s story.

Whenever I hear people say that they want a traditional Biblical marriage, I think of marriages like Abraham and Sarah’s and I think, “Really?”

Because that’s not a relationship I would ever want to emulate.

Let’s talk about Sarah for a few minutes. In that time and place,  Sarah would have found her sense of self and identity in her relationship to other people and in particular, in her relationship to her husband, and her children.

Her relationship with her husband is complicated.  Throughout their marriage, Sarah comes to learn that she is expendable and so she can’t just relax and trust that her position is stable. She can’t trust that she is safe.

Abraham has a bad habit of throwing Sarah under the bus, or under the nearest Pharaoh.  On several occasions, Abraham senses danger and his solution is to treat Sarah like a commodity.

She is more of a chess piece than a life partner. She is expendable.

Abraham’s abusive treatment of Sarah is traumatic and we see some of the manifestations of that trauma in her treatment of Hagar.

In that time in that culture you ideally wanted to have a large number of children. Children were a part of your workforce and helped ensure economic stability. If you didn’t have a large number of kids, you at least needed one son to be your heir. That was the bare minimum.

And for most of her life, Sarah has failed to provide that heir. She’s a failure.

Well, she is not actually a failure and if you don’t have children, you are not a failure either.

Society will constantly make you feel like a failure even to this day, but you are not a failure.

For most of Sarah’s life she does not have children and so for most of Sarah’s life she will be viewed by everyone around her as a failure. They will stare, gossip, and offer pitying looks.

They will say ignorant and hurtful things.

And Sarah will know. She will know that they think she’s a failure. She might even, having been formed by that society’s norms and expectations, agree with them.

So towards the end of her life Sarah makes a plan. A plan that may seem odd to us, but a plan that was perfectly acceptable in her time.

She finds an enslaved woman, named Hagar, and forces her to have a child with Abraham. A child Sarah can claim as her own.

This was a common practice, the biological child of an enslaved person was also the property of the slave owner. So Hagar’s child could actually become Sarah’s child.  Hagar is not meant to be this child’s mother, she is merely the container used to achieve Sarah’s dream.

If you have read the book or watched the HBO series, this is the root of the story of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Women and children tend to be treated like commodities in Genesis. It’s one of the most problematic aspects of the book. It doesn’t end with Genesis – think of the book of Job, in that book, all of Job’s children are killed towards the beginning of the story and by the end, he is given a bunch of new kids -  as if children are simply replaceable.

Everything goes according to Sarah’s plan – at least at the beginning. Hagar has a son, so now Abraham has a male heir.

And then the impossible happens, Sarah gives birth to a son and Sarah no longer views Hagar’s son as her own, rather she begins to see Hagar and her son as a threat.

Abraham decides to hold a feast to celebrate Isaac and Sarah’s insecurities begin to surface. She goes to Abraham and says, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” (10)

Abraham is “distressed,” but God tells him to do what Sarah wants and God promises Abraham that although his lineage will be traced through Isaac, Ishmael will also be blessed as the founder of a great nation. (13-14)

So Abraham sends Hagar and their son away into the wilderness.

Hagar carries Ishmael on her back  - which calls to mind modern day images of refugees fleeing persecution – and they travel until they run out of water. Then Hagar stops and, assuming they are both going to die, she puts Ishmael under some bushes and goes “about the distance of a bowshot” away from him so she would not have to watch him die. Then she “lifted up her voice and wept.” (17)

And while she is weeping she hears a voice saying, “What troubles you Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.  Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him. Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. And God was with the boy, and he grew up… He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.” (17-21)

God was with the boy.  God does not abandon Hagar or her son. God[1] remains with them.

Here is one more story about Hagar from earlier in Genesis.

Names are important. They shape how we see ourselves and each other.  Abraham and Sarah both received new names at one point in their lives – shifting from Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah.

People continue to change their names to this day for a variety of reasons, and the church has acknowledged this reality by creating a liturgy to bless a new name. If that is something that you would be interested in exploring, I would love to talk to you about it.

Hagar in our story isn’t just Hagar, she is alternately Hagar the Egyptian or “the slave.”  These names mark Hagar as both a foreigner and as Sarah’s property.

And so perhaps, Hagar, more than any person in this story understands the power of a name. She knows how being marked by her ethnicity and status in Abraham’s household has hurt both her and her child. She knows the dignity of the right name, and the damage of the wrong one.

Hagar and Sarah had a contentious relationship long before the events in today’s reading. Things became so bad when Hagar was pregnant that she ran away.

While she is alone in the wilderness, Hagar had a life changing encounter with a supernatural being.

Dr Wilda Gafney explains that “This messenger of God is a supernatural being. But there is more to this messenger; in 16:7, the messenger [] functions as God in disguise, or perhaps better, God in (human) drag. The holy messenger uses the first person in 16:10, speaking as God, and in 16:13 Hagar realizes she has seen God. (Womanist Midrash, 42)

During this encounter, God promises Hagar that she will be the mother of a great nation and tells her to return to the home of Abraham and Sarah.

After this encounter, Hagar gives God a name: The God Who Sees (16:13) and in doing so, she becomes the only person in the Bible to give God a name.

People in the Bible name other people and places and things, but only Hagar gives God a name.

Only Hagar.

What does it mean to be seen by God? What does it mean to be chosen by God?

Well first of all, here is what is does NOT mean.

It does not mean that because we are special other groups of people are less special. It does not give us the right to expect to be treated well at the expense of others. It does not mean that we don’t need to listen to other people or consider their needs and their perspectives when making decisions.

It’s pretty easy to find stories of people who want to proclaim that they are special and that their specialness implies that other groups of people are well, not special.

You could find examples of this in stories this week of some Manitoba churches who want to be exempt from current public health guidelines and in stories of an American president who chose to ignore local health guidelines in order to hold a rally.  You can see it in some of the unhealthier views of middle eastern politics.

The God Who Sees sees things very differently than we do. The God Who Sees is a God of abundance. The God Who Sees is a God who can declare a covenant with one group of people - calling them special and chosen - and simultaneously declare that others are special as well.  In God’s economy both Sarah and Hagar become matriarchs of great nations.

And because the God Who Sees is God, the math all adds up.  It doesn’t have to make sense to us, it just has to make sense to God.

Hagar’s story serves as a reminder to us to resist the false narrative that we are special and other people are not.

Hagar’s story is a reminder, a warning, a corrective.

This story should have been considered an embarrassing but ultimately unimportant one and it should have been edited out.

But the God Who Sees, saw Hagar, saw Ishmael, sees all the people who most of us refuse to see, refuse to listen to. The God Who Sees Hagar declares that her story matters. The story of an enslaved woman from Egypt matters. It will not be forgotten.

The Bible will continue to trace the story of a particular people who were chosen by God, the Israelite people, but that does not mean that those people, who we as Christians tend to think of as “our people,” have an exclusive claim on God’s love. It doesn’t mean that we can claim that God cares more for us or loves us more than God loves anyone else. God’s love is not limited, it never runs out.

God makes the same promise to Ishmael and to Isaac, and God keeps both promises. Both men become great nations. Both men experience God’s presence and blessing. (Amanda Benckhusen.)

Towards the end of today’s reading it says, “God was with the boy.” (20). God was with Ishmael.  God’s care and provision did not end when Hagar and Ishmael were cast out of Abraham’s family.

Kathryn M. Schifferdecker encourages us to pause and consider what Ishmael’s story tells us about God’s care and providence noting that there is a beautiful old hymn that reminds us of this truth, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.” “We cannot limit God’s mercy,” she says, “God hears the cry of the abandoned. God hears the cry of the outcast, and God saves.”

May we learn to see as the God Who Sees sees. May we try, in all that we do, to live into God’s wide, wide mercy and may it shape both our thoughts, and our actions.

In the name of our loving God Who Sees who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Amen.

[1] I was shocked when I heard the podcast of this sermon that I said “He” here as I work very hard to stop doing that. I don’t believe God is a “he” but the tapes of referring to God as “he” are clearly still there and impacting my choices. The work continues.