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.


All the Children of the World: A Sermon for June 7, 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday June 7, 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.

 

Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.

Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight,

Jesus loves the little children of the world.

 

This is what the faith communities that raised me taught me about race:  Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.

Those faith communities also taught me that my job was to be like Jesus, so while I don’t remember them every saying so explicitly,  to follow Jesus meant to love people, regardless of their skin colour.

Jesus loves everyone, so I am supposed to love everyone. Sounds simple enough, except it isn’t.

The faith communities that raised me never taught me HOW to love all the children of the world and sometimes, implicitly or explicitly, they taught me that Jesus might love all the children of the world, but he also loved me just a little bit more than the red, yellow and black kids.

And it wasn’t just those faith communities that taught me this. Colonial thinking and white supremacy were everywhere I went – my school, my  TV, the institutions that governed my life. It was the air I breathed, and so I didn’t notice it.  It felt normal.

It felt normal to think that my point of view was the best point of view – as long as a white man didn’t have a different one. Race is one piece of a complicated puzzle. It felt comfortable to think that my ideas were the best ideas and if I thought it was helpful and loving… well then it was.  I didn’t need to ask the people who were the recipients of my help what they thought, I just needed to sit back and bask in their gratitude.

It felt normal, but it wasn’t true. My worldview was rooted in colonialism and white supremacy.

Growing up thinking I could abstractly love other people without learning how to do so practically has hurt me and others.

It’s Trinity Sunday 2020 and a lot is going on right now. It’s tricky to preach on a Sunday dedicated to a doctrine and not a story from the life of Jesus, but I think that if ever there was a time to declare that we believe in a God who is both a mystery and a relationship, that time is now.

There are three plants that many indigenous people describe as three sisters: corn, beans, and squash. These plants share a lot in common: they all require sunlight, soil and water to grow, but they are also very different, with distinct qualities and strengths – it is easy to identify which plant is corn, which are beans, and which is squash.

You can plant each separately, but if you plant them together, they grow interdependently – the corn serves as a strong, solid base and also as a trellis for the beans. The beans fix nitrogen in the soil that the corn needs to grow, and the squash surrounds both plants acting as a ground cover to help retain moisture and protect against weeds

If you grow them together they become strong, interconnected plants and yet they never become the same plant –the beans retain all of their beaniness, the squash its squashiness, and the corn retains all of its corniness.  They remain separate, yet deeply inter-connected, things – each growing stronger, and healthier because of their connection with each other. They do not lose their individuality, and yet they are connected to each other in a profound way, and they make each other better.

That’s not a perfect image for the Trinity - there is the whif of heresy in it – God is one and three, not just three, but it is a good image for how we should model our lives on the relationship God has with themself.

We are all unique individuals, made in the image of the triune God, and we are at our best when give of our best, for the betterment of others.

I don’t always give my best for the betterment of others. Oftentimes, I get more than my share and do nothing about it. I benefit from a racist system and I am a recovering racist.  I have a lot of work to do.

But rather than offer an extended confession here or tell you about all of that work, I’m going to tell you three stories in the hope that they may spark good questions and good conversations as we go forward together.

There is an excellent documentary on Netflix about Toni Morrison called “The Pieces I Am,” and in it Toni talks about her interest in asking the questions, “How does a child learn self-loathing? Where does it come from? Who enables it? How does it affect us? And what might be the consequences?”

She said she wanted to read a book about that and no one was writing books like that so she needed to write the book that she wanted to read.

That book was “The Bluest Eye” and the idea for that book began with a story from her own childhood.

She was walking down the street with a close friend talking about whether or not God existed.  Toni said God did exist, the friend disagreed, and not only did she disagree, she had proof that God didn’t exist!

Toni’s friend said that she’s been praying to God for two years for blue eyes but God didn’t answer her prayer, so obviously God did not exist.

Toni says she remembers looking at her friend who was very, very black and very, very beautiful and thinking, “How painful. Can you imagine that kind of pain? About that, about colour? So I wanted to say, you know, this kind of racism hurts. This is not lynchings and murders and drownings, this is interior pain, so deep for an 11 year old girl to believe that if she only had some characteristic of the white world, she would be OK.”

Toni talks about a master narrative that’s imposed by people in authority on everybody else. As an example, she pointed out that the most prized gift a little girl could receive for Christmas was a doll with white skin and blue eyes . There’s a story there, a story that tells little black girls, “This is beautiful, this is lovely, and you’re not it.”

 

***

 

About 10 years ago I volunteered at the first event held by the Truth and Reconciliation commission here in Winnipeg. I did a number of things, but my main job was to provide support to elders at the press tent.  There were lots of places where survivors could tell their story away from the media cameras but it was understood that if you came into this particular tent, you would be filmed, interviewed etc.

I held shells and feathers and purses. I got water bottles and chairs when they were needed but mostly I stood silently and listened to people tell their stories.

Most people who spoke shared from places of deep pain. I will never forget the sound of them keening and wailing.

I won’t forget the anger either.

It all made me uncomfortable and it would have been easy to say, “I will listen when you calm down, are less emotional, behave in ways that make me feel more comfortable,” but I understood that the expressions of pain, and of anger are essential to the healing process and it was not their job to try and make me feel comfortable.

One story in particular has stayed with me.

An older man came forward and began to talk about what is was like to be taken from his family at a very young age, as he spoke, he seemed to become that child. He talked about the strangeness of the school and how at that school he learned that there was a God who both loved him, and hated every single thing about him – his skin colour, his language, his way of being in the world.

He was allowed to go home for the summer but at the end of the summer, the officials came to take him back to school.

He told us that he dropped to his knees and began praying fervently to God. “Please Jesus,” he begged, “if you let me stay with my family I will be a good boy. I will do everything you want me to do just please Jesus, please, let me stay with my family.”

It didn’t work, he was sent back to school.

 

***

 

About 10 years ago or so I attended a workshop with the goal of helping settler people and aboriginal people become better neighbours.  It was mostly led by indigenous people and the participants were largely white church leaders.

In one session, we began to talk about the possibility of including some elements of indigenous spirituality in our church services – what if we included smudging for example? Was that a good idea or not? How would that work? How would we explain it to people? There was a buzz of excitement in the air as people began to discuss the possibilities until one of our teachers, who was also a pastor, called us to silence and said, “Back off. These are not your questions to answer. They’re ours as indigenous Christians and we need to be given the space to answer them ourselves.  For too long, we have been trained to view the white person in the room as the expert and to defer to their opinions. For too long, you have been trained to believe you are the expert in any room you enter.  It needs to stop. Back off.”

God is a mystery. God is a relationship.  We call this mysterious relationship the Trinity. My colleague Scott Sharman wrote such a succinct summary of doctrine of the Trinity that I am going to quote him at length.

“One of the mysteries we are invited to learn from the concept of Trinity is about the coinherence -- the overlap, so to speak -- of persons. The three persons of the Godhead share one and the same essence. We can say, therefore, that Divinity is so perfected in love that the three persons are not in fact able to be divided from one another at all, even if they are still rightly able to be distinguished.

From this it follows that if we, as human beings, are created in THIS image, we have the basis for some pretty radical conclusions about social justice: We are called to be persons who come to understand ourselves to be so deeply interconnected with all others that the idea of using someone's race (or gender, or sexuality, or anything else) as a reason to hate or exclude them from us becomes nothing less than a form of theo-anthropological heresy.

Another principle we can receive from Trinitarian thought is that the persons of God are mutually kenotic. In other words, they exist to give themselves over entirely for the sake of the good and glorification of the others, even at personal cost.

Here again, if we, as human beings, bear THIS Divine mark in us, than our lives ought also be marked by a willingness to give ourselves away in compassion for everyone else; especially those who are neglected, excluded, and oppressed; even when facing up to this reality is hard.

I think it comes down to this – Scott says -: One of the best ways to honour the great mystery of the Triune God is to put it into creaturely actions -- to tell the truth about racism in our midst (and all the other isms that keep people apart), and to pour ourselves out to dismantle systemic abuses...”

God is three in one, one in three, an interconnected, indivisible relationship.

We are made in the image of God, and we can be like that, but all too often we are not like that.  The events of the past little while, from the pandemic which has exposed a myriad of inequalities, to the violent and unnecessary deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Chantel Moore, and many others.   We are interconnected, but those interconnections are not always for our mutual good and glory.  Too often some of us rise by pushing others down.

And it’s making us all sick.

The faith communities of my childhood taught me that Jesus loves the little children, all the little children of the world, they did not teach me how to love them too.  They didn’t teach me to listen, to learn, to ask, “What do you actually need?”

That’s the work I am trying to do now, in relationship, with our God and with each one of you. Because there is a better, more beautiful, more God-honouring way to live, and we all have a role to play.

May we all take the next necessary step, and then the one after that.

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


Repeat as Often as Necessary: A Sermon for Sunday May 24, 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday, May 24, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. During these unusual times, you can join me 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 our sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

On Thursday we celebrated the feast of the Ascension.  If you’re a linear thinker and have been following the lectionary, you have experienced some whiplash when you heard today’s gospel reading. On Thursday, we remembered the story in Acts when Jesus ascends to heaven, and then today, we jump back in time to just before the crucifixion.

For those of you who might need a brief refresher, the story of Jesus’ ascension is found at the beginning of the book of Acts. Jesus has been resurrected and reunited with his disciples and has spent forty days with them.  This is why we celebrated Ascension Day on Thursday not today.  I find it hard to believe, but this past Thursday was forty days after Easter.

So Jesus has been with his disciples for forty days and now they ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

The text doesn’t say this, but I wonder if Jesus’ heart sank as he realized they still didn’t understand. Did he feel like a failure? Did he wonder if he should hang around a bit longer and try to explain everyone one more time?

Because it seems to me that every time Jesus tries to explain what he is planning to accomplish, the disciples listen, nod their heads and then go right back to their original paradigm.  “That’s all really cool Jesus, but now we’re going to take back our kingdom, right?”

We can only guess what Jesus is feeling based on what he says which is something like, “Stop obsessing over dates and times, that’s God’s job, not yours,” and “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  (8)

And then, we are told, “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (9)

Jesus disappears and now all the disciples are staring up into the sky unable to believe what has just happened. Then two men in white robes appear and ask, “what are you doing staring up into the sky?”

I imagine it was actually a terrifying and confusing moment to experience, but as a reader, I find it hilarious to imagine all these men with shocked looks on their faces staring up into an empty sky, and then, startled by the question from the men in white, trying to explain what they’ve just experienced.

We know that gradually the disciples did begin to make sense of all of these experiences, but it didn’t happen right away.

And that may be in part because of all the ways their lives keep changing over a short period of time.  Constant change is exhausting, disorienting, disheartening. We don’t tend to do our best thinking in those sorts of circumstances.

From the time they first met Jesus they began to develop a set of expectations – a set of expectations we see in their question to Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

Those expectations were dashed when Jesus was crucified. Jesus was gone, dead, and before they could even really wrap their head around that reality, Jesus was alive again. And through the next 40 days they began to hope again, began to imagine a future with Jesus again, and then, in a moment, he’s gone.

They had developed a sense of what it meant to be a follower of a physically present Jesus, but they did not yet understand what it would mean to follow Jesus without actually being physically present with Jesus.

It was possible that the whole movement would fall apart at that moment, but it doesn’t. In fact, as they begin to figure out what it means to follow Jesus Christ without the physical presence of Jesus Christ the movement strengthens and grows rapidly.

When he was physically present with them, Jesus kept trying to explain things to his followers and they kept missing the point. It was only after he ascended that they began to reflect on all the things he had said and began to make sense of them.

I wonder why they didn’t do that work when Jesus was present but I suspect that oftentimes, we avoid difficult questions until we have no choice but to answer them.

Right now, we’re all having to figure out what life looks like without what was once a central focus of our lives of faith – gathering in this building.  What does it mean to live a faithful life without that experience?

What might we have been missing, what tough questions, or God filled experiences might we all have been avoiding when we had public worship gatherings readily available?

Jesus has never needed a Sunday worship experience in order to connect with his people.  We’ve always known this; we haven’t always practiced it.  We have vast riches of ways to connect with God from walking outdoors, to journaling, to the rhythms of contemplative prayer practices like the examen or evening prayer.

What might we discover – or - rediscover in this time so that not only are we able to feed our souls now, but, when public worship does resume again, that we will see it as a beautiful addition to an already full banquet table, instead of the only thing on the menu?

I wouldn’t have wished a pandemic on anyone, and the possibility of new fruit doesn’t diminish how bone shatteringly hard this experience has been and continues to be but I hope we will continue to ask the questions anyway.

The disciples and the stories of the early Jesus movement that we find in Acts give me hope that if we choose to engage this time with curiosity, we may emerge with a richer and deeper and more balanced understanding of what it means to be followers of Christ.

Engaging this time with curiosity doesn’t have to mean doing more, it doesn’t have to look like productivity, it doesn’t have to look like adding 10 new contemplative practices to your day.

But it could mean stopping to notice what you’re feeling, what you’re experiencing, and to say, “Huh, that’s interesting. I wonder what that’s about.”

So that was Thursday and today is Sunday and the lectionary jumps back to an event that happens before the crucifixion.

As part of our daily 5pm online prayer service, we read the gospel for the coming Sunday and through that I am reminded of how different it is to read silently and to read something aloud. I am hearing the cadences of John’s gospel in a new way as I try to wrap my tongue around his words on a daily basis.  It’s one of my “huh, that’s interesting discoveries.”

John’s writing style is very different from say Mark’s. John’s writing style is particularly difficult to read aloud – if he’d invited me to edit his gospel I would have said, “John, you are way too wordy.  Try to say what you mean in a single sentence, instead of repeating it with only slight variations over three or four sentences.”

But he did not ask me.

And it seems that the creators of our lectionary also thought John could use an editor because they made the rather unusual choice to end our reading less than halfway through Jesus’ prayer. I wonder if they looked at the second half of the prayer and thought “this is all rather repetitive. Let’s just end it partway through.”

The prayer is 25 verses long, but our reading ends at verse 11.

Chapters 14-17 of John’s gospel are known as Jesus’ farewell discourse. In these chapters we see Jesus spending time with his disciples trying to prepare them for his death.

Which is no easy task.

In one of my favourite scenes from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, two characters are talking about the death of their mothers.  One character asks the other, “Was it sudden?” And the response is, “No, and yes. It’s always sudden.”

Death, even one you think you are prepared for, is always sudden.

But Jesus is trying to prepare them. He is doing his best to make sure they have everything they need to walk through the dark and confusing times they are about to encounter.

And as part of that process, Jesus prays.

Jesus was a person of prayer and so it’s only natural that he would end these discourses with prayer. This prayer is, as prayer always is, a conversation between the pray-er and God.

But Jesus is also aware that he has an audience and so this prayer works on two levels – as a conversation with God, and as good news for the disciples.

Later, when they begin to think back on this time and remember what Jesus told them, they would also remember the words of this prayer.  A prayer that says things like, “They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.” (6)

In dark moments, when they begin to doubt, they can remember Jesus’s affirmation that they belong to God and have been faithful to God.

This idea repeats throughout the prayer, the disciples belong to God.

God didn’t really need this reminder, but how comforting this repeated idea must have been for the disciples in moments of dark and doubt. May it be a comfort to us as well – we are God’s people too.  We belong to God.

I said earlier that this prayer is repetitive, but I think that is part of its brilliance.  In its repetitiveness it begins to take on the cadence of a chant or a mantra or a Taizé song.

There are some things we need to be told more than once – especially during hard times.  I need to be told over and over and over again that I belong, that I matter, that I am loved.

And this is what Jesus does, he says the same thing, with only slight variations over and over again – you belong to God.

I’d encourage you to read the entire chapter this week, read it as a prayer, read it more than once.

The entire prayer ends, “I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (26)

This is my prayer for all of us this week. May each one of us know that we are filled with God’s love, and may that love pour out of each one of us throughout the coming week.

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


Sifting and Sorting: A Sermon for Sunday May 10, 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday, May 10, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. During these unusual times, you can join me Monday-Saturday 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.

Psalms tend to be relational. That’s part of their appeal for use in prayer. Tonight’s psalm, Psalm 139, describes a particularly intimate relationship between God and the psalmist. God is addressed as Yahweh, which was Israel’s personal name for God. (1,4)  In just the first six verses, God is addressed as “you” ten times – “you have searched,” “you know,” and so on and the psalmist also refers to themself thirteen times, “when I sit down and when I rise up,” “my thoughts,” “my path.”   (Nancy deClaisse-Walford)

Walter Brueggemann has observed that, “The Psalms are prayers addressed to a known, named, identifiable You. This is the most stunning and decisive factor in the prayers of the Psalter.”  In Psalm 139, as in many others, there is both a “known, named, identifiable You,” and a known, identifiable “I.”

This is not a song about abstract ideas.  This psalm is inherently relational, describing the relationship between the You and the I, between God and the writer of the psalm.

About halfway through Psalm 139 the psalmist asks a question, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?”

The answer?

Nowhere, because God is everywhere.  The imagery used – heaven, Sheol, etc. is meant to tell us that no matter how high, or how low, or how far away the psalmist travels, there is nowhere that God is not present.  Even if the psalmist were to “take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,” God is there. (9). God is present in the light of day and the dark of night. God is everywhere.

In another psalm, Psalm 121, this idea reappears when the psalmist says “the One who keeps watch over Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.” (St Helena’s translation)

Many of us have come to find this idea really comforting thanks in large part to Alana Levandoski’s song setting “God who watches over you.”

About 10 years ago now, I was part of a community that purchased a large home in the hope of being able to provide housing for people who were experiencing homelessness.

As part of that process we gutted the attic to create additional bedrooms and before we put up the drywall,  we prayed together in that space and then we went around writing blessings all over the beams.  One person wrote, “He who watches over you will never slumber nor sleep” over all the spaces where we knew beds would eventually go.”

The experience and the choice of that scripture passage were so beautiful to me that I posted the pictures on Facebook and showed them to friends.

One friend, commenting on a photo of a framed-out bedroom asked me why anyone would have chosen to put that particular phrase over someone’s bed. I tried to explain what a comfort the idea was and how we were trying to prepare these spaces to be a place of safety for people.

She listened and she said, “Well I guess, given your explanation, it could be comforting, but I think the idea of someone watching me the whole time I’m sleeping is incredibly creepy. I guess it all depends on who’s watching.”

Fair point. Context is everything.

If we understand God as good and loving, then knowing God will always watch over us is a comfort.  If we view God as judgmental, always watching in order to zap us when we misbehave, then it’s more than creepy, it’s downright terrifying.

The psalmist doesn’t portray God as creepy or terrifying, instead the psalmist indicates that knowing that God is everywhere inspires a sense of awe.  They say, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.” (6)

They can’t explain it, but they believe it. They’ve experienced the inescapable presence of God and it fills them with awe.

The Psalmist also tells us that God isn’t simply always present watching us dispassionately and trying to guess what we’re thinking, always trying to determine our motivations from our actions.  God is also not watching, somewhat bored, because God already knows exactly what is going to happen. Rather, God is engaged in an active process of searching, and knowing.

The Psalm opens:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.

The Hebrew verb translated as “you discern,” (zrh) is the same word used to describe sifting wheat from chaff.  (New International Biblical Commentary)

I’ve never sifted wheat from chaff, but I have sometimes sorted rice or lentils or beans. I love the feeling of sticking my hands deep into the bucket and seeing what I pull up.  It’s an active and ever-changing process. Just when you think you’re done, you dig a little deeper and discover there is still more sorting to be done. Similarly, God’s knowledge of us is not static, it is an active process.

Through this process God knows us so well that God knows what we’re going to do and say before we do and say anything.

The psalmist continues:

You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.

When you hear, “You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.” How does that make you feel?  Do you feel protected or stifled?  Do you imagine God’s hands feel comforting, or oppressive?  Does it feel like a weighted blanket that provides comfort and helps you sleep soundly, or does it feel claustrophobic, like you have no room to move or breathe or be.

Being known is a vulnerable thing, especially if we aren’t sure we can trust the other person.

The Psalmist believes that ultimately God can be trusted, that God is worthy of knowing and being known by.  They express a sense of comfort that no matter where they go God’s “hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” (10)

I agree that God can be trusted and is worth getting to know, but I also understand that many, many people have been taught such an unhealthy understanding of who God is that they won’t be able to make that leap.  I also know that sometimes, what I believe in my head has a hard time sinking down into the rest of my body.  My brain may say “God is trustworthy,” and yet I still hesitate and doubt.  My brain may say, “God loves you,” but my heart says, “That can’t be true, you are fundamentally unlovable.”

Be gentle with yourself if that is your experience.

Understanding who God really is is a process that takes a lifetime. It is a process of learning and unlearning but I do believe that ultimately the process and hard work will be worth it. Finding someone you trust to help you sift and sort your understanding of who God is an invaluable part of this process. Send me a message if you’d like some help figuring out how to begin.

And don’t expect to figure it all out right away.  In fact, don’t expect to figure it out. Be very wary of people who believe they have everything figured out, who believe they have nothing new to learn about God.

Just a God is described as continually getting to know us by sifting and sorting, this is also how we get to know God.  If we actively engage in the process, if we dig our hands in the wheat, then our understanding of God’s character will continue to change and grow.  God doesn’t actually change, but our understanding will.

It won’t necessarily look like a radical shift but it will shift. There is always something new we can learn about God.

It’s hard though, and our own perceptions and expectations often get in the way. That’s at least in part what’s happening in today’s gospel reading. The disciples have such a fixed idea of who they think God is, that they fail to recognize God even when God is sitting right next to them.

Thomas and Philip and many others spent extended periods of time with Jesus and yet they were still confused about who he is.

At one point Philip says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied,” to which Jesus replies, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?” (8-9)

Jesus goes on to explain that to know Jesus is to know God, they are indivisible, interconnected, they are one and the same.

Can you picture the disciples scratching their heads while trying to understand what Jesus is saying? These are the sorts of mysteries that take a long time to sink into our understanding and even then, the best we can usually do is say, “It’s a mystery, I don’t have to be able to explain everything about it in order to know that it is true.”

Jesus then moves on to explain how to identify a person who believes that Jesus is who he says he is.  Jesus followers will not be identified by their ideas, they will not be identified by their ability to correctly rattle of a list of doctrines or dogmas. The sign that a person knows Jesus, is not what they believe, it’s how they behave.

Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” (12)

To believe in Jesus is to behave like Jesus. Take for example the parable of the two sons in Matthew.  In that story, one son says he will do what his father asks of him, and doesn’t. The other son says he will not do what his father asks him to do, but then he does.  Which one does Jesus say did God’s will?  The one with the right words or the one with the right actions? (Matthew 21:28-32)

The one with the right actions. “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and, in fact, will do greater works than these…”

How does our behaviour demonstrate what we actually believe?  Where are there consistencies, and inconsistencies.

First, I want to suggest that one of the primary behaviours someone who wants to follow Jesus needs to adopt is the ability to admit when they have missed the mark. There is a reason that in our prayer of confession we say, “the people we can’t quite manage to be.”  Because we’re going to mess up.  Perfection is not the goal, humility and awareness are. We are trying to model our actions on Jesus’, but we won’t always get it right, and we should freely and humbly apologize whenever we miss the mark.

I think our current times provide us with an opportunity to better align our beliefs and our behaviour in a particular way.

We can, like the psalmist, develop a greater awareness of God’s constant, consistent presence in our day to day lives.

I know technically we’re in the season Easter but it still feels very much like Lent to me.  Lent is a season that encourages us to ask, ‘What can I learn about myself and about God by removing something from my life?”

A lot of things have been removed from our lives lately, it hasn’t entirely been by choice, it’s sort of a forced Lent, but we can still learn from it.

This building and the gatherings we hold inside it have never been the only places that we could encounter God.  How might we continue to exercise our ability to encounter God in all things and all places in this time when we cannot gather to experience God’s presence in this space?

I know many of you are asking these questions already and it’s been delightful to hear stories of how you are encountering God in your day to day lives. In caring for each other, in quiet times, in nature, in preparing food.

I hope you’ll continue to do this or be inspired to try.  Like with our physical muscles, the more you practice awareness, the stronger your ability to be aware will become.

And as always, be gentle when yourself when God feels far away or entirely absent. Sometimes we just can’t access that sense of God’s presence even when we believe deeply that God is indeed present.

God is always present whether we know it or not, whether we can access that sense of awareness or not. Be gentle with yourself in those times when you just can’t sense that God is there and savour the moments when God feels so nearby that you can God hand on your shoulder.

May you seek and find God in unexpected places this week.

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