Sunday, August 31, 2014

Meditation on our Calling

Text: Exodus 3: 1-15
Today we celebrated the conclusion of a discernment process that identified a ministry in support of the LGBTQ community as our first focal ministry. The particulars of this signature ministry have yet to be determined, but a congregational conversation during our post-worship luncheon generated many ideas consistent with our guiding principles for doing justice:  Instead of a sermon, I share a guided meditation and commentary on the Hebrew Bible story.

GOD CALLS US TO HOLINESS           Exodus 3: 1-6     
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. 3Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” 4When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” 5Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

I’m removing my sandals.  Because we are on holy ground. Children, if you want to take off your sandals, you may. Grownups may do so, too, as part of this meditation on feet freed from sandals:

I invite you to stand up now. Stand on your good, strong, beautiful feet—young and tender feet; old and aching feet; feet decorated with nail polish or callouses. Bend down and look at your feet and be thankful for the places they have taken you.  Look up, stretch, and be thankful those feet have rooted you to this good earth even as you have stretched for things above. Join your hearts now with friends who now find standing to be extremely difficult. Stand up with the laborers we celebrate tomorrow who have stood for fair working conditions and refused to be slaves to modern Pharaohs. Stand up. Firm. Immovable. Stand on those good feet with faith in God’s loving kindness. And refuse to tread on others. Amen.

In the Hollywood version of this part of the Moses story, the burning bush usually upstages God. Let's pay attention to what God is saying. God speaks three times in this story.

1.      God first speaks to Moses by calling Moses by name (Ex. 3:4). There may be sacred work to be done in this world that has your name on it. It's for YOU to do.  This important work may not be accomplished without you. Our recent discernment process assumed that we as a congregation would hear a special calling to serve our larger community in a way that others are not undertaking. We, a predominantly straight congregation, are feeling drawn to support Mobile’s LGBTQ community in part because we think other churches are not stepping forward to do so in a focused way. Our LGBT-affirming focus will not prevent us from continuing to support other worthy organizations and causes.  It will, however, help us prioritize for the immediate future.

Let that thought inspire us without making us self-congratulatory. Thank God we are not the only church in Mobile that welcomes LGBTQ folks. Our host church is warmly welcoming. As are a few others. But Open Table aspires to be very intentional about using our progressive theology to offer an inclusive Gospel (good news). We may begin some new project supportive of existing LGBT organizations or launch a completely new initiative. We hope to engage decisively, bravely, strategically but work with others humbly whenever we think we’ve heard God call our name.

2.      The next words God utters are “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Ex. 3:5).

Taking off our shoes is a to sign of respect and a means of cleanliness in some cultures—especially in the Middle East and Asia. When some of us would visit Open Table’s Iraqi friends, Moona and Talal, we would remove our shoes before entering their apartment. A spiritual disposition that treads gently into new territory is one admire. A spiritual disposition that treats the other as sacred is one I want to develop.

But taking off sandals also has political implications in this story. One biblical scholar reminds us that sandals, usually made from animal hides and plant fibers, were not always worn by the poorest in the land, and some artfully decorated sandals could denote social status. Taking off our sandals connects us all on our most basic level—a holy act.  Interestingly, “Sandals discovered in the tomb of Tut-ankh-Amon bore the image of foreign captives upon the insole, proclaiming with the king’s every step Egyptian royal power over the peoples and nations his armies had subdued.” As he walked, he crushed the conquered all over again. One thing we do in worship is to acknowledge we are NOT God, and we do not want to behave as Pharaoh. Our role is to liberate rather than oppress.(Anathea Portier-Young in "Commentary on Exodus 3: 1-15"

3.      The third time God speaks to Moses (Ex. 3:6), God says, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” After we remove our sandals . . . after we press flesh to sacred earth, a spiritual act . . . after the unshod community feels both humility and empowerment. . .  we may hear God speak God’s name. God first reveals Godself to Moses in the same way I first encountered the Divine: through family. The God I first worshiped was the God of my mother and grandmother and greatgrandmother. I suspect that’s how you first experienced God, too. 

How is it possible for us to name what is Holy and beyond our knowing? We start by recognizing that others who came before us had a similar experience.  We follow those who’ve taken off their sandals.  But we don’t follow unthinkingly as oppressors would want.

GOD CALLS US TO END OPPRESSION           Exodus 7-12
7Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” 11But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” 12He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

SUNG RESPONSE        “Here I Am, Lord”

1.      How can we discern if the voice calling us to action is God’s?
2.   What are you feeling as we commit to an intentional focus for our community engagement? 

WE CALL GOD “I AM”                                      Exodus 3: 13-15
13But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’“ 15God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.

SONG                        “Bring Many Names”     

Sunday, August 24, 2014

"Who Do You Say That I Am?"

Text:  Matthew 16: 13-20

“Who do you say that I am?” asked Jesus.

The Apostle Peter replied: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 

Actually, that’s the answer Matthew’s Peter reaches. Luke and Mark put slightly different responses in Peter’s mouth. Those of us who read Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God recently should not be surprised that the answer to that important Christological question has always been answered—and understood—variously. For instance, Ehrman has been explaining to us that the terms messiah and Son of God, which are at the heart of Peter’s response, did not originally denote divinity.  (Of course, then we have to parse out what we mean by “divinity.”)

I’m thankful that, based on today’s Gospel reading, Jesus encourages us to find our own individual answers to his question. Peter’s response does not have to be mine. My answer today may not be my answer tomorrow. Folks who work hard to find an honest answer to the question of Jesus’s identity often later change their answers. For instance, Brian McLaren identifies no less than seven Jesuses he has known and loved: the conservative Protestant Jesus, the Pentecostal/Charismatic Jesus, the Roman Catholic Jesus, the Eastern Orthodox Jesus, the liberal Protestant Jesus, the Anabaptist Jesus, and the Jesus of the Oppressed (p. 49ff).[i] A song by Angela Kaset likewise recalls several Jesuses she’s known—in a song she calls “Jesus With the Light Brown Hair.” As you listen, try to count the number of Jesuses she names.[ii]
. . . . 

Getting anyone’s biography right isn’t easy. Over 15,000 biographies have been written about Abraham Lincoln. Why? Because the authors who wrote biographies 1 through 14,999 apparently didn’t get them right.[iii]

My husband spent a number of years researching the life of former Alabama governor Big Jim Folsom. George interviewed dozens and dozens of people for the Folsom biography. He visited every county in the state. He read countless newspaper articles of the period and steeped himself in the history of Alabama politics and culture. He visited Folsom in his home and interviewed family members. Fortunately for his biographer, Folsom was an unusually unguarded subject—so guileless (or crude) was our former governor that he once paused while walking with George along a city sidewalk in Cullman and relieved himself in the nearby flowerbed. Despite Folsom’s “candor” and George’s careful research and analysis, George would be the first to say that his take on Jim Folsom’s life was partial, at best.[iv]

Countless books about Jesus have been written. Yet we know little for certain about this historical figure—who, by the way, granted no historian an interview. The four canonical gospels are the earliest extant sources of information. But they often have conflicting information, were not written by persons who actually knew Jesus, and contain little that can be corroborated by nonbiblical sources. Besides that, the Greco-Roman idea of biography was very different from modern biography or history. What we read in each of the four gospels in the New Testament is a transmission of stories and sayings about Jesus that developed within particular communities to meet their needs and concerns. Each has a theological rather than historical agenda.

Even when we apply modern historical/anthropological/sociological approaches to the study of Jesus, we reach varioust conclusions. Which is a problem for folks like us who have boiled down our definition of Christian to “someone who follows in the ways of Jesus.” How are we to “follow” such an elusive Jesus?  How do we imitate one whose historical imprint is strong yet hazy? Some traditionalists say that’s reason enough to let the Church Fathers, who arm wrestled over the creeds, fill in the gaps and tell us more about Jesus the Christ than the historical record reveal. I do appreciate the brilliant minds from the past who, in search for meaning and coherency, debated doctrine into existence. I do. But I’ve concluded Jesus will never be found definitively and fully in either the biblical record or the church’s traditional teachings. 

Have you seen the cartoon of the woman answering the front door to find two men wearing white shirts, ties, carrying Bibles. The bubble over their heads shows them asking her, “Have you found Jesus?” Not a very funny cartoon. Until you look more closely and see that the frame includes the entirety of the woman’s living room where a pair of feet shod with sandals protrudes from behind the living room curtains as well as a sliver of a long robed figure peeping out the side. “Have you found Jesus?” Well, sometimes it feels as if he IS hiding.

How can we possibly answer the question Jesus posed to Peter: “Who do YOU say that I am?”

Bart Ehrman, as a historian, concluded that Jesus was a first century Jewish apocalyptic preacher and healer. Period. I, as a person of faith, care both about the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. To me, Jesus is more than that preacher/teacher/healer from long ago.  To me, Jesus is in some sense alive in my life. 

Okay, I’ll admit it.  Like the woman in “Jesus with the Light Brown Hair,” I probably love Jesus in part because I learned to love him early. 

And it’s not that I now think Jesus can serve as a cipher who means nothing so that he can mean anything we need him to mean.

But I recognize in the Jesus of history—insofar as history can tell us—some winsome example of what we are capable of being. 

Yet he’s more than mere model or inspiration (in the ordinary sense of that word).  Because attached to the historic Jesus are spiritual practices and ethical teachings and beautiful theologies that have nurtured and transformed countless lives. And the Christ of faith continues to call us to faith—though not to have faith IN Jesus but rather have the faith OF Jesus. To live that trustingly.

Though terrible things have been done in the name of Jesus, the Christianity he never intended to invent but which nevertheless does spring from him, is a religion—or a way of life—that at its core attests to a universal Force for life and love and traverses the human-divine divide. Something powerful happened after Jesus’s death that so altered his previously clueless followers and others that they were willing to give up their lives to adhere to selfless love. Because the way of Jesus is marked by a cross, his followers remember to stand with victims and cultivate peace. The teachings of Jesus were not unique, nor were his sacrifice and suffering. But a sacred energy for transformation, begun in his earthly life, continued in some mystical, holy way after his death and continues today. Because of Jesus, I see glimpses of a “kingdom of heaven”—to use Matthew’s term--even as I admit my own subjectivity.

As today’s Gospel reading suggests, when we live in God’s kingdom—that alternate way of living—we’ve found Jesus. When we’ve found Jesus, we receive the key that unlocks the kingdom. But even Jesus couldn’t put words around this notion of an alternate realm. According to Matthew’s Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is like, well, uh . . . a mustard seed, a bit of yeast in some dough, seeds thrown upon various soils. Who can understand such metaphors?

And who can imagine why Jesus hands the key to this realm over to us?

I’ve shared with you before more measured words about Peter's Christological claim (see, for example, But this morning I am challenged by Peter’s succinct and ardent declaration. So I say today that Jesus is, for me, the path for my life, the symbol for all that matters, the magnet that draws me toward the good and the true, the one who points me Godward. He is all that I really need and all I hope to become.

[i][i] McLaren, Brian.  A Generous Orthodoxy. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004.
[iv] Sims, George E.  The Little Man’s Big Friend: James E. Folsom in Alabama Politics: 1946-1958.  Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1985.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

From Teller of Dreams to Listener of Dreams

Today's worship service focused on the Joseph saga found in Genesis 35-50.  Part 1 was a reading of Genesis 37: 1-28 followed by questions for reflection.  Part 3 was a reading of Genesis 41 followed by prayer stations around the theme of forgiveness. In between was my retelling of Genesis 39-40, which went something like this:

Young Joseph seemed a self-centered braggart, pampered by father Jacob, the star of his own daydreams and nighttime dreams.  He had no idea his older brothers rolled their eyes as he regaled the family with his dreams of grandeur around the breakfast table. He ignored the jokes his brothers cracked about his flair for fashion and that beautiful robe—puh-lease! He was oblivious to their complaints about the piddle-y household duties he performed while the burly bros tended sheep. His preening, petted, self-centered self got on their last nerve.  You’d have found him obnoxious, too.  Handsome and charming, yes.  But what an ego. Yet this self-involved young man matured through hardships to develop a capacity for empathy and forgiveness. He developed from a boy who dreamed of self-glory to a man who implemented a dream to serve others. But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Here’s part 2 in Joseph’s story: 

Overnight he found himself sold as a slave in Egypt to one Potiphar, an officer of the Pharoah. But according to those who first told this story, the Lord was with Joseph because even in the worst of circumstances, everything he did prospered (39:3).  Potiphar soon promoted the clever young man to overseer of his house and lands.  Unfortunately, Joseph impressed not only Potiphar—but also Potiphar’s wife.  So handsome was Joseph that Potiphar’s wife tried again and again to seduce him. One day, when “Mrs. Potiphar” and Joseph were alone in the house, she grabbed him by his robe. Fortunately, he escaped the temptress-- “a common motif in the classic hero quest”[i]. Unfortunately, the garment came off in her hand.  (Don’t you wonder if that kind of wardrobe malfunction happened often in the days before zippers, buttons, and belts?) The rejected woman screamed, accused him falsely, then held up his robe to support her accusation.  Joseph was thrown into prison. 

But God again was with Joseph “and showed him steadfast love” (39:21).  Soon Joseph impressed another authority figure, the jailer, who put Joseph in charge of the other prisoners “because the Lord was with him and whatever he did the Lord made it prosper" (39:23).

Joseph continued to pay attention to dreams.  He’d been fascinated by his own—though his family had not.  In jail he heard dreams of fellow prisoners and helped others find meaning in them. One of those fellow prisoners was the cupbearer of the king, who would, Joseph predicted based on the cupbearer’s dream, be forgiven by the king and restored to his former position.  Joseph asked the cupbearer to put in a good word for him when he got out of jail.  But the cupbearer forgot about Joseph—for two long years. 

Until one day Pharoah awoke from a disturbing dream and asked his court to find someone who could interpret dreams.  The cupbearer remembered Joseph then and told the king who summoned Joseph from jail to hear the dream.   
Pharaoh said to Joseph, “In my dream I was standing on the banks of the Nile; 18and seven cows, fat and sleek, came up out of the Nile and fed in the reed grass. 19Then seven other cows came up after them, poor, very ugly, and thin. Never had I seen such ugly ones in all the land of Egypt. 20The thin and ugly cows ate up the first seven fat cows, 21but when they had eaten them no one would have known that they had done so, for they were still as ugly as before. Then I awoke. 22I fell asleep a second time and I saw in my dream seven ears of grain, full and good, growing on one stalk, 23and seven ears, withered, thin, and blighted by the east wind, sprouting after them; 24and the thin ears swallowed up the seven good ears. But when I told it to the magicians, there was no one who could explain it to me.” 25Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, “Pharaoh’s dreams are one and the same; God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do.” (40: 17-25).

Do you remember how Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dream?

CONGREGATION FILLS IN THE DETAILS about seven years of good harvests followed by seven years of famine (40: 29-32).

Joseph didn’t stop at interpreting the dream. He also suggested a fairly detailed plan to minimize the disaster it predicted and to care for all.  The gist of his plan was this:  in these next seven years of good harvests, one-fifth of the produce of the land would be stored in anticipation of the seven years of famine yet to come. He advised Pharoah to appoint a man “discerning and wise” to be in charge of OPharoahcare.  And Pharoah responded, “You’re the man.”  

In this way Joseph became the second in command in all of Egypt.  He became powerful and wealthy, married an Egyptian, had two sons, and when the drought came, as Joseph rightly predicted, it was he who eventually held the fate of his brothers in his hands.  For you see, the famine spread to other lands and Jacob’s sons in Canaan, hearing Egypt had a surplus, traveled to Egypt to buy grain. Since Joseph supervised the selling of the grain, he saw and recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him.  He devised a clever and complicated test of their integrity and their love for the youngest brother, Benjamin.  As he’d foreseen all those years ago in a dream, the brothers bowed down to Joseph.  When the brothers traveled back to Canaan and returned with young Benjamin, the scene was set for a tender reunion when Joseph disclosed his identity. And wept.  And wept.  There's relief and joy for the forgiver as well as for the forgiven.

Mercy grew in the heart of a young man who learned not only to dream dreams but to listen to and support others' dreams.  Empathy formed within one who'd been pampered but became prisoner. Through God's grace he and others prospered.

[i] Enright, Louise qtd. in Helpmakes, Harlots, and Heroes:Women’s Stories in the Hebrew Bible. Alice Ogden Bellis.  (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994, 93).