Sermon: Hindsight

“Hindsight”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
August 10, 2014
Genesis 45:4-12, Romans 8:28, 35-39

Audio not available for this sermon.

I love the story of Joseph. It has been a favorite ever since I was first introduced to it in Sunday School as an 8 year old. I remember coloring pictures of Joseph and his “coat of many colors,” and being secretly thankful that I was an only child and thus not subject to being sold into slavery by jealous siblings.

​Joseph is Abraham’s great-grandson, born late into a very complex and difficult family. His father Jacob had married two sisters – Leah and Rachel. Rachel was his favorite wife and they had two sons. Leah, although she was unloved and unappreciated, had given Jacob six sons. According to the custom of the time, Jacob also had four children with his wives’ maidservants. All in all, there were twelve sons in this ancient blended family – the twelve whose names later would be given to the twelve tribes of Israel.

​Joseph and Benjamin, Rachel’s boys, were Jacob’s favorites. Favoritism seems to have been a family failing for Abraham and his descendants. Abraham chose Isaac over Ishmael; Isaac preferred Esau to Jacob; and now here’s Jacob doing the same thing, spoiling and petting the two younger sons, children of his favorite wife, over the other sons, who grew understandably jealous.

​When Joseph was about 17 years old, he must have been pretty obnoxious. He was a tattletale to his father about his brother’s poor skills as shepherds and he bragged about dreams he’d had in which his brothers and even his father were all bowing down to him. He must have been really arrogant because Jacob even scolded his favorite for his attitude.

​It all boiled over one day when Joseph, all dressed up in a fancy new robe his father had given him, showed up to lord it over his brothers while they were working. In their resentment and anger, the older brothers seized Joseph and put him in a pit to die. As they debated whether or not to kill him or just leave him there, a caravan of slave traders happened by and so they simply sold their brother into slavery, a seemingly wonderful solution. They’d gotten rid of the little pest, they had not actually had to spill his brotherly blood, AND they’d even made a profit off of him. They took his fancy coat with the long sleeves and stripes and dipped it in the blood of a goat, taking it back to their father as proof of Joseph’s unfortunate and untimely death. Jacob was inconsolable at the loss of his favorite.

Joseph, meanwhile, wound up in Egypt. First he was a slave in the house of Potiphar, an official of Pharaoh’s army. Potiphar’s wife took a liking to Joseph, however, and when he refused her advances, she had him thrown in jail on trumped up charges. While in prison, Joseph made friends with several prisoners who were well connected to Pharaoh, interpreting the dreams of two of them with great precision and accuracy.

Because of his ability to interpret dreams, after a number of years in prison, Joseph finally came to the attention of Pharaoh who’d been having some bad dreams himself. Because of Joseph’s ability to interpret the dreams he was able to save Egypt from the devastating effects of a famine, and Pharaoh placed him in a position of great power and influence in the Egyptian government.

Finally, in an incredibly ironic and satisfying twist of fate, Joseph finds himself in a position of power and authority over his own brothers who have come to Egypt looking for food for their starving families. The dreams of the arrogant boy come true when his family bows down to him. The same brothers who had thrown him into a pit and sold him into slavery are now the powerless ones, the ones in fear for their lives, and Joseph holds the power of life and death over them.
If all we had were these verses that we shared just a few minutes ago, it would seem that forgiveness came easily to Joseph, that upon identifying his brothers, he wept tears of joy, threw himself on them in a great big bear hug, and said “Forget about it!” Well, actually what he said was, “Don’t be distressed or angry with yourselves! God sent me before you to preserve life.”

​But Joseph doesn’t say these words of absolution when he first recognizes his brothers. Instead he plays a few dirty tricks on them. He pretends not to know them, he accuses them of spying, he throws them into jail for a few days, and he demands that after they take their grain home, they return to Egypt with Benjamin, their youngest brother. He even holds one brother hostage to guarantee their return.
When they finally return, only after all the grain has run out and they have no other choice, they bring Benjamin with them and Joseph has his own silver cup slipped into Benjamin’s bag, setting him up to be charged with stealing. And at that point, Judah, one of Joseph’s older brothers, who way back when argued for selling Joseph rather than killing him, pleads for Benjamin’s release for the sake of their father Jacob, who could not at his advanced age bear the grief of losing yet another son.

It is only then, with the life of his father on the line, that Joseph makes himself known to his brothers and offers reconciliation. Even though he knew who they were earlier, even though he was touched by their presence, and moved to private tears, he could not keep himself from toying with them, manipulating them, giving them just a little taste of their own medicine.

Joseph is no great paragon of virtue, any more than his father, or grandfather, or great grandfather were! He may have been chosen by God to be God’s instrument, but he is a very human instrument, as were his forebears. He is capable of deceit, of selfishness, even of cruelty. But you and I know that people can change; attitudes can change; understanding can change and we can have compassion for the weakness of others.

Over the years, Joseph has matured and so have his brothers. They have never forgiven themselves for what they did to him; the guilt of that selfish act has burdened them throughout their lives. They see their present situation as punishment for their sins. Because of what they did, they have had to watch their father grow old in sorrow, knowing full well they are the cause. They have come to love their younger brother Benjamin, even though he is Joseph’s full brother and only their half-brother. They don’t feel jealousy toward him as they did with Joseph; they are not in competition with him. They know how special Benjamin is to their father, and instead of resenting it, they want to protect that relationship; they are determined to save Benjamin. And Judah even offers himself in exchange for him. Their earlier fear and insecurity have been replaced by guilt and regret, and then by love.

It is their obvious change of heart that unlocks Joseph’s heart and enables him finally to let go of his anger, and to speak words of consolation rather than vengeance to his brothers. When he says “God sent me before you to preserve life,” he does not blame God for the actions of his brothers. He lays that squarely on them, when he identifies himself saying, “I am your brother Joseph, whom YOU sold into Egypt.” He does, however, affirm that God was able to use his brothers’ sinful actions for God’s own purposes. The brothers may have had one evil, selfish action in mind, but God was able to use their action to bring about good.

​In our reading from Romans 8 this morning, Paul says much the same thing. “All things work together for good to them who love God.” God can and does work in even the most dreadful of circumstances, often in hidden and unnoticed ways. And God’s ways are trustworthy and reliable, and will ultimately bear fruit. It doesn’t mean that the bad things aren’t really bad, or that they don’t really matter. Sometimes the bad is truly terrible and the good may seem powerless against that terrible reality.

Nowhere in Joseph’s story does it say that he was without anxiety or pain while in the pit thinking he would die or when he was forgotten in an Egyptian prison. Nowhere does Joseph say in the midst of his tribulation “everything is going to be just fine; this is all a part of God’s plan.”

He can only say, “God sent me” in retrospect, in hindsight. Only in looking back can he see that despite all the bad things he’s experienced, it is a good thing that he is in Egypt at that time, and that because he is there, he can make a difference. People will be fed. His brothers and his father will be fed. His family will not die. And the descendants of Abraham will continue to thrive.

In my own life I can recall things that have happened that have been terrible, but because of them, I have wound up in places I never thought I’d go doing things I never thought I’d do. Maybe you’ve had those experiences too, and have been able in hindsight to see the hand of God at work in the mess to bring something good out of it.

And for us as a church, there is no doubt that the fire last year was a bad thing. God did not set the church on fire to teach us a lesson or to give us a growth opportunity or to test our faith. The church bad wiring. But I don’t believe that any of us can doubt that God has worked to bring good things from the bad of April 15, 2013. In retrospect, we can look back over the last 15 months and see all kinds of evidence of good things, of
gracious things, of downright miraculous things. Paul is right; nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

In remembering the story of Joseph and his deeply troubled family, we are given encouragement that even in our own sometimes troubled and dysfunctional relationships, guilty fear can be assuaged; grief can be resolved; and revenge can become unnecessary because forgiveness and healing are possible.

Joseph’s story also reminds of God’s willingness to work in and through flawed, limited human beings in order to bring about God’s own purposes that are often unseen at the time and become clear only in hindsight. It’s amazing, isn’t it, that through people just like Joseph way back then, and people just like you and like me right here and right now, that the way of God is accomplished? Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon: Renamed & Renewed

Renamed & Renewed

Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine

Aug. 3, 2014

Genesis 32:22-31, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

 

This summer we have been spending time with our ancestors, getting to know the forebears of our faith a little bit more intimately perhaps than when we were first introduced to them in Sunday School, which is for some of us many years ago now. We are now visiting with the third generation – the grandchildren of Father Abraham; these are Isaac’s kids – the twins – Jacob and Esau. They are the Danny DeVito/Arnold Swartzennegger kind of twins — couldn’t be more different. Physically, Jacob is slight, stays close to home and depends on his wits to get by; Esau is strong and muscular and loves hunting and the outdoors.   Their personalities are different too – Jacob is calculating, always looking for the advantage, planning ahead and not adverse to manipulation and cheating to get what he wants; and Esau is blunt, straightforward, quick tempered, and pretty much lives in the moment without thinking of the consequences.

Because their parents played favorites, the boys grew up estranged. Jacob swindled Esau of his family birthright, which entitled him to a double share of the family inheritance. And later, he connived with his mother Rebekah to swindle the family blessing from his blind and dying father, Isaac. When Esau threatened to murder him for this betrayal, Jacob fled to his uncle Laban in Haran, the very place his grandfather Abraham and his mother Rebekah had departed from years before. In the twenty or so years Jacob lived there, he married his cousins Rachel and Leah, and eventually fathered thirteen children with them and their two slaves, Zilpah and Bilhah.

In a kind of poetic justice, Jacob met his match in his father in law Laban, who was as much of a trickster and conniver as Jacob was. Finally, it seemed best to leave his tense situation with his father-in-law and head back home. They had conned each other one time too many over the years, and their relationship was fast deteriorating. The only fly in the ointment to returning home, was his long lost and embittered brother Esau, who when last heard of was threatening murder.

Jacob sends greetings ahead to Esau, and the response is swift; Esau approaches with 400 men. Jacob is terrified, and prays to God for help for the first time in his life, but also hedges his bets in perfect Jacob style, sending gifts, or more realistically, bribes, hopefully to pacify his brother. As night was falling, he even sends the women and children and the rest of his caravan on across the river Jabbok so that they will be between him and the advancing Esau. Finally he collapses into a deep sleep, alone, powerless, and anxious – caught in the middle between Laban behind him, and Esau before him – no place to go, no place to run, no place to hide.

The last time Jacob was alone was when he was escaping from Esau’s wrath, and he dreamed of angel messengers ascending and descending on a ladder from the sky, and God gave him assurance that God’s intention was to use and bless Jacob’s life. I wonder if he even remembered that dream; it had happened so long ago. But God did not come to him in a bright dream this time. God came as an intruder, a heavenly stranger, who wrestles with him throughout the night until daybreak, at which point, the stranger cripples Jacob with a blow to his hip that disabled him with a limp for the rest of his life.

To his credit, Jacob didn’t wimp out in the middle of the struggle! He fought the stranger all night long, and near the end demanded that the stranger bless him. Instead, the stranger asks him his name. And here is the real crux of the story. Names in the ancient world are not simply names, they are descriptors, indicators of one’s character and nature. And Jacob’s name – literally means “heel” or “grasper” because he was the one who was grasping at Esau’s heel as they were being born. And he’d been grasping ever since – living by his wits, trusting no one, and proving himself untrustworthy over and over again. So when the stranger asks him his name, he is really asking him to confess – confess who he really is – confess his failures, his shifty deals, his compromised integrity, his shoddy character, his selfish misuse of his life and the lives of others all to get what he wants regardless of the cost. It is time for Jacob to come clean; time for him to confess who he really is – that he is a cheat and a scoundrel.

But once he does, an extraordinary thing happens. God refuses to accept Jacob’s confession as the end of the story, refuses to allow his name to be all there is to him. And instead, God gives him a new name – Israel – which has been interpreted to mean “the one who wrestled with God and humans and prevailed.” And with this new name God then blesses Jacob and sends him limping into a new future, marked almost immediately by the arrival of his brother Esau, who runs toward him not to kill him but to embrace him and to welcome him home.

For Jacob, this encounter is something like the encounter he has just had at the Jabbok. And he says to Esau, “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.” (Gen. 33:10). Jacob is a changed man – the young Jacob was a deceiver who took his brother’s blessing. Now he is the one who has wrestled with God and come to terms with who he is in God’s eyes. He could have sung, as the choir did earlier, “All is right that once was wrong; I’m finally home.” He can see God in the face of the one who was once his enemy, whom he fled so long ago in fear for his life.

Walter Bruggeman has commented that the healing and reconciling work of God happens in both vertical and horizontal directions.[i] The love of God alters our understanding of who God is and who we are; it changes our understanding of our core identity and causes us to realize finally that we are beloved children of God. And when that happens, something also changes in our relationships with other people. A new kind of love can flow through us. And the more we give ourselves to God the more we are able to perceive other people differently and value them differently.

One of the beliefs we have as Christians is, as Paul expressed in 2Corinthians, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away, see everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” (vv.16-18). And we remember this every time we gather together at the communion table, as we do today. Like Jacob, we say aloud our sins and shortcomings – and we are given a new name – forgiven, beloved child of God. And then we participate together in the meal of fellowship that Jesus instituted to remind us God’s reconciling work in Christ and encourage us to go forth to become reconcilers. It doesn’t mean that henceforth everything will be perfect; it certainly wasn’t for Jacob, as we will see next week. But it does mean that the God of Second Chances and New Beginnings goes with us, and will offer us opportunities again and again to find renewal, refreshment and reconciliation. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Walter Bruggeman, Genesis, 1982, 272.

Sermon: Family Values

Family Values
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
July 13, 2014
Genesis 25:19-34, 1 Corinthians 1:26-29

The honeymoon is over. Last week we recalled of the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah. It was a gentle hopeful story, where every wish of the servant matchmaker was answered, where the bride was eager leave home to begin her new life in a faraway place, and where her husband loved her and she brought him comfort after the death of his mother. It was a nice start.

A lot happened after that lovely wedding. Abraham died. In a conciliatory moment, Isaac and his estranged half-brother Ishmael met to bury their father together next to Sarah. Isaac prospered in material ways – with land and cattle much as his father had done. And like his father, he waited for children. And he waited. And he waited.

He prayed to God that Rebekah could and would bear children, and after twenty years of praying, his prayer was finally answered. But not before Rebekah prayed to God as well – questioning why, after waiting so many years, her long awaited pregnancy was so uncomfortable, so painful, that life seemed almost not worth living. Because she trusted God and was willing to share her distress with the Almighty, she was granted an oracle, a prophecy from God. She was told that more was going on than she could realize. These twin boys that she carried would be the founders of two different nations that would struggle against each other later on in life even as they had before their birth. And in the contest with each other, and the elder, in contradiction to the prevailing custom, would ultimately serve the younger.

When the twins were born, they couldn’t have been any different. Esau, the firstborn, was the larger baby for sure. He was ruddy and had a head full of hair. His brother Jacob, was born immediately after Esau, holding onto his brother heel as he entered the world, as if trying to get ahead and beat him into it. As they grew up, their personalities and talents differed. Esau loved hunting and the outdoors. Jacob, in contrast, was quiet and stayed closer to home. And consequently their parents favored one over the other – Isaac favored Esau because Esau was good at hunting game. Rebekah, on the other hand, was partial to Jacob. We aren’t told why, maybe as a newborn, he was smaller and needed more of her attention so she bonded more with him, or maybe it was because of that sense that he was meant by God for greater things that she’d become aware of before his birth. Of course neither boy knew of his mother’s strange experience because she kept it to herself.

Then one day, just an ordinary day by any measure, Esau came in from hunting and he was famished. And Jacob was alone in the tent, cooking a stew. It’s funny how things that change your life can happen under the most mundane circumstances. Esau was hungry; Jacob was cooking. That’s all it took. Esau saw an answer to his immediate problem, while Jacob saw an answer to his long range problem.

Esau was the first born, and by custom, at the death of their father, he would receive two shares of his father’s estate to his brother’s one. And he would also be given authority and responsibility as head of the family. His would be in a privileged position, and his first born son would inherit in the same manner after him. This social custom of primogeniture was and still is in some places, a foundational element in legal and social systems. Today we can see this tradition still active in royal families– for example, Prince Charles, Queen Elizabeth’s oldest child, will inherit the crown of England because he is her first born son, and after him, his first born William will take the throne. Recently the law of primogeniture was changed in England to allow the successor to the throne to be the first born child, regardless of gender; however, the birth of Prince George deferred any immediate problem when he became Will and Kate’s first child. Certainly Charles and William have lived since their first days with the knowledge that much will be expected of them beyond the living of their private lives. They know they have a responsibility to their country, to its government and to its people that will take precedence over any personal desires or wishes,

So that day when Esau came into the kitchen hungry, he had the responsibility of the family’s future resting on his shoulders. He would have known that just as surely as Charles and Will know it. And everything he did should have been done with that future in mind. But he’s hungry. And his immediate desire for stew on the table is more real to him than his future obligations. He obviously wasn’t aware that with great privilege comes great responsibility. Maybe he just thought it was already his, and he could do whatever he wanted to do without consequence.

But Jacob knows better, and this is his chance to improve his prospects in the world. Who knows what his motivation was. Maybe he’d been told by his mother that it was unfortunate that Esau was born first because he was big and strong enough to easily make his own living in the world, but Jacob was not as strong or active; he’d have a hard time and have to use his wits in order to survive in the world.

Whatever the reason, Jacob tells Esau he can have his fill of stew after he sells his birthright to Jacob. And Esau, exaggerating for sure, since he’s nowhere near starvation, says dramatically, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” And then Jacob makes him swear that this will be so. He does, and then gobbles down his stew and bread. The narrator says, “Thus Esau despised his birthright.” He shunned it; scorned it; rejected it; disregarded it – all for a plate of lentil stew and a piece of bread. He forfeited his future to quiet the rumbling in his stomach.

These brothers are really something, aren’t they? There’s one who would sell his future for a dish of stew; and the other who would withhold food from his hungry brother in order to get something he wanted that was not within his customary rights at all. So one is shortsighted and can’t see beyond his stomach, and the other, although far sighted, ignores the questionable ethics of his plan. These behaviors seem strange to us, unforgivable even, unless any of us has perhaps been tempted at some time or other by an immediate desire so overwhelming that we forgot our long term responsibilities. Or perhaps there were times we were tempted to be less than truthful or a bit manipulative upon occasion to get our own way. Have you ever justified, rationalized, or excused your behavior? I know I have!

And yet God chooses to work with people just like you and me, just like Esau and Jacob! Those who speak so reverently about upholding the “family values” found in the Bible, must not be familiar with the family of Abraham and his descendants. They present the Bible as a book about moral values and doing the right thing.

But that’s not what the Bible is about! It’s not a cookbook. It’s not a book of rules. It’s not Miss Manners for Believers. The Bible is God’s story, a story about a powerful and mysterious God who offers few explanations or justifications, and who continually creates, redeems, and sustains. It is about a God who can work with most anything or anyone to bring something good out of the worst of circumstances.

We don’t know why God chose Abraham and his descendants, but we do know it wasn’t because they were perfect in every way. They weren’t the strongest or the smartest or the bravest or the most honest by a long shot. And by choosing them, God’s purposes get all tangled up in their weaknesses, in their self-interest and self-seeking.[i] But God made a promise to Abraham, and God does not go back on God’s promises. That’s what the Bible is about!

Jacob has a faulty moral compass, he’s a rascal some would say – he’s not above lying, cheating, or stealing in order to get what he wants. Later on he’ll lie to his father, and then steal from his uncle. But God chooses to work with the unworthy, the unvalued and the powerless, even going so far as to choose a crucified messiah as the way to begin again.[ii] As Paul says in the passage from 1Corinthians that we heard earlier, “God choose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.” That’s what the Bible is about!

So today’s story tells us something about God and something about what it means to be caught up in the purposes of God regardless of our limitations or flaws. God blessed Abraham and his descendants to be a blessing to the world. And that was not an easy task for them, nor is it now for us. Because it doesn’t mean being chosen for a life of leisure or of plenty, but instead being chosen for a life that very well may involve a lot of conflict and a lot of change and a lot of sacrifice.

But it also means the opportunity for transformation and for blessing that arise from the conflict, change, and sacrifice. Jacob is blessed by God even as he runs away from Esau’s wrath and he learns over time – learns the hard way as most of us do – to trust God more than he trusts himself. And later, he experiences not only God’s grace and mercy, but also the forgiveness of Esau who has gone on to find peace in his own life.

God is the God of promise and the God of blessing. That’s what the Bible is about! If we only knew that! If we only could trust the promises and accept the blessing! But apparently there is no easy way to trust and acceptance. The road inevitably leads through questioning, conflict, and change as we first try and fail to do it by ourselves and in our own way, and only after those struggles, are we ready to receive the blessing that has been waiting all along and to accept our own birthright as the people of God. Amen.

[i] Walter Bruggeman, Genesis, 1982, 204.

[ii] Bruggeman, 209.

Sermon: Nuptials

Nuptials
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
July 6, 2014
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

Audio not available for this sermon. 

This summer we are remembering the foundational stories of faith found in the books of Genesis and Exodus. Some are dark and challenging, like last week’s story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac. And some are gentle and hope-filled, demonstrating great courage and love, like today’s tale of the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah. In all these stories, God has a way of calling very imperfect people to service, and making something of them in the process so that because of who they were – both in their strengths and in their failures – we are here today. Their failures are as significant as their strengths in shaping our faith history, and sometimes, maybe even more so.

These early stories begin with Abraham and Sarah, often called the Father and Mother of faith, because of their willingness to follow God’s invitation to leave their home and follow God’s lead, not knowing where they were going. Along the way, God made two promises to Abraham – about people and about land. God promised Abraham that he would have countless descendants, and God also promised that those descendants would be given the land of Canaan.

Interestingly, despite these grand future promises, by the end of Abraham’s life, his descendants are still easy to count –there are only two of them, and their existence is a miracle in itself. There is Ishmael, whom Abraham sent away with his mother Hagar and who could easily have died in the desert; and Isaac, whom Abraham had almost sacrificed to God in obedience to what he thought was God’s will, only to have his hand stayed at the last minute by an angel of God, telling him not to complete the act. For a man who was promised countless descendants, Abraham was not off to a fast start.

And he does no better with land. After the near sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham went down the mountain and back to his servants who were waiting for him, but no mention is made of Isaac, and it is thought by some that he did not return with his father. Couldn’t blame him, could you? And soon thereafter Sarah died at the age of 127. Again, reading between the lines, some have supposed that Sarah died of a broken heart after she heard what Abraham had attempted to do to her beloved Isaac on Mt. Moriah. Abraham mourned for Sarah, and, because of her death, he acquired his first piece of property in Canaan, a burial site, a cave called Machpealah.

At the end of his life, he has two sons from whom he is alienated and a grave — This slow and seemingly disappointing lack of progress could be an excellent opportunity for a sermon on “It’s Always Darkest Before the Dawn,” or “Nothing is Impossible for God” or “God’s Time is not Our Time.” However, we’ll hold those for another day!

Today’s story begins the saga of God’s promises in the lives of the next generation. Interestingly God does not speak in this initial story; nor does God intervene explicitly in any way. But God’s steadfast love for Abraham’s family is obvious in the way the story unfolds. It begins when the elderly Abraham realized that his time was short and he needed to arrange a suitable marriage for his son. We have to remember that arranged marriages were the custom of the time, and the bride and groom had little to do with the process, except to agree to it! Abraham wanted a bride for Isaac from his home town, not from among the Canaanites, and he charged his trusted servant with the task of finding the right woman for Isaac, preferably a cousin, as marriage between cousins was a desirable arrangement.

And so the servant set out for the city of Nahor, praying all the way that God would direct him to the right place and that he would find the right woman for Isaac. He was very specific in his prayers, as we are sometimes! He prayed that he would find her at the town well, and that she would greet him, offer him water, and offer water for his camels.

And sure enough, that’s just how it happened. Rebekah arrives, at the well, and the servant learns that she is the daughter of Bethue, son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, who is Abraham’s brother! Although, this is a story of faith and trust, but it is also not lacking in humor. The servant notes Rebekah is beautiful, a virgin, and also apparently quite strong, as well as friendly, because after offering the servant some water, she does indeed offer to bring water to his ten camels so that they can drink their fill.   And as I have read, one camel can drink as much as 20-30 gallons of water at a time. So you do the math – that’s a lot of water, but we are told “she promptly emptied her jug into the trough and ran back to the well to fill it, and she kept at it until she had watered all the camels.” (24:21)

For her hospitality and hard work, the servant gives Rebecca several expensive gifts, and asks if he might be able to spend the night at her home with her family. The servant is overjoyed with his good fortune because God has led him right to the door of Abraham’s nephew. And he quickly tells his hosts about his mission to find the appropriate bride for Isaac, how he prayed for a sign from God to show him the right woman, and how his prayers were answered by Rebecca’s appearance and welcome.

He wastes no time getting to the point by asking his hosts, “will you agree to what my master has proposed?” And Bethuel, Rebecca’s father and Laban, Rebecca’s brother, immediately answer that this proposal of marriage must be directly from God. Therefore, they say, “Rebekah is yours. Take her and go; let her be the wife of your master’s son, as God has made plain.”

After they had agreed to the marriage, the servant worshiped God, and gave appropriate gifts to the family. But, by the next morning he was ready to be on his way back to Abraham with Rebekah in tow. However, her family asked for the customary ten days to celebrate the betrothal despite the servant’s eagerness to get back on the road home.

Interestingly at this point, the family finally decides to ask the bride what she’d like to do. You might think that a young girl, knowing that she will be traveling a long distance to marry a stranger, might want a few more days with her family. She would surely appreciate the extra time to get ready for this journey of a lifetime since she probably would never return or see her family again. But surprisingly, she is ready to leave immediately, looking forward to her new life and what God has in store for her.

From her first entrance into this story, Rebekah has demonstrated her decisive character. She isn’t hesitant to take charge, and to initiate action, unafraid of challenge. She is quick to respond to a stranger’s request for a drink; sensitive to his animals’ needs; strong and determined as she runs back and forth to satisfy the thirsty camels. On her own, she invites the stranger with the camels and the gifts to spend the night at her home, perhaps sensing an opportunity for her family.

Rebekah has much in common with her soon to be father-in-law. As with Abraham before her, Rebekah ventures by faith far from her homeland and from her kindred. She, like Abraham will have a multitude of descendants. She seized the chance to become a part of Abraham’s family. With her strong will, she will shape its destiny in the next generation, as she advocates for her younger son, Jacob.

When Isaac finally appears in this story, Rebekah sees him wandering in the fields, perhaps still disoriented and grief stricken over his father’s near sacrifice of him and his mother’s death. He looks up and notes only a caravan approaching without attaching any significance to it. But Rebekah is alert, and she sees a man who might be her intended husband. True to character, quickly inquires about his identity and then veils her face in anticipation of their meeting.

The servant explains to Isaac all that has happened, testifying to God’s guiding presence in the encounter at the well. Isaac makes no comment and Abraham does not appear to greet his daughter-in-law. This this Rebekah’s story, and it ends with her meeting with Isaac, and the comment that Isaac loved Rebekah. In the patriarchal culture of ancient Israel, love was not considered a necessary ingredient in a marriage, but for Isaac, it is perhaps recompense for the loss of his mother, and his alienation from his father.

Unlike last week’s story of high drama, today’s story has a gentle and hopeful ending, saying Isaac took Rebekah into his mother Sarah’s tent and he was “comforted after his mother’s death.” (v. 67). After the loss of Sarah and his own near death experience, his grief is quieted, and the promise of life begins anew in the next generation. Rebekah is a strong young woman—much stronger than her husband Isaac. Because she was not afraid to offer hospitality to a stranger and to take the risk of leaving home in order to find a new home, she will become the matriarch of a new generation, and through her efforts, which interestingly will not all be above board, God’s promises to Abraham will be fulfilled.

Sermon: The Test

The Test
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
June 29, 2014
Genesis 22:1-14

This summer we are looking at our family tree – the one we share with our Jewish forebears, the one we share with Jesus. Between now and the end of the summer, we’ll be remembering some of the high points and low points of the significant lives in our family. Last week Jodie spoke of an invisible ancestor – Hagar, the servant of Sarah, Abraham’s wife. Hagar’s son Ishmael and Sarah’s son, Isaac were half-brothers, sharing the same father. Last week Abraham sent his oldest child away; this week he is told to kill his youngest. Reading the Bible is not for the faint of heart!

Some background might be helpful before we tackle what has been rightly called “a text of terror.” Perhaps you remember that years before, Abraham, received a message from God to leave his home, the only place he’d ever known, and leave his family, the only people he’d ever known, and go to a place only God knew where. He went, with no idea of his destination, taking his wife Sarah with him. Life wasn’t easy during the journey, and he got himself into all kinds of tight spots, sometimes lying to save his own skin. Right off the bat, in fear for his own safety, he lied about his wife Sarah claiming to the pharaoh of Egypt that she was his sister and offering her for the Pharaoh’s harem. Fortunately, the Pharaoh was not as ethically challenged as Abraham, and when he found out the truth, he sent Abraham and Sarah on their way after a good tongue lashing, and along with a number of fine gifts including some camels.

Another time, Abraham argued with God about the appropriate punishment for the city of Sodom. God intended to destroy every last person living there, but Abraham persuaded God that Sodom should not be destroyed even if only ten righteous people might be discovered living there. “Shall not the God of all the earth do what is right?” Abraham asked, as he argued in his attempt to save Sodom.

Later in their story, when God insisted once again that there was still time for Abraham and Sarah to become parents of a child of their own, they both practically fell down laughing at the improbability of that ever happening. Thus, in disbelief and impatience, Sarah urged Abraham to father a child with Hagar, Sarah’s servant, and soon thereafter, Abraham urges God to accept reality; Ishmael is the only heir he is ever going to have.

But, as they had been told, nothing is impossible for God, and sure enough Sarah produced a child at the ripe old age of about 90, and soon began to see Ishmael as a problem rather than a solution. She insisted that Abraham banish Ishmael and his mother from their camp and into what would be certain death in the desert. Abraham complied regretfully, and gave Hagar some bread and water to delay the inevitable for a little while.

Obviously, Abraham and Sarah are less than perfect examples of the faithfulness they are remembered for. While it is true that when God called, they answered the call, left home and set out in faith and trust for the place God would show them, in everyday living, things began to deteriorate – with the lying, and arguing, and laughing disbelief, not to mention, forcing Hagar to bear a child for them, and then, of all things, abandoning her and her child, Abraham’s son, to death in the desert.

It is with that very mixed history that our story for today opens. “After these things, God tested Abraham,” it says. “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Morah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” And what does Abraham do in response to such a command? Does he lie, as he did with the Pharaoh? No. Does he argue with God as he did about the destruction of Sodom. No. Does he fall down laughing at the preposterous suggestion the way he did when he was told he’d be a father? No. Does he consult Sarah on what to do? No.

His silence is deafening. And for that reason, rabbis through the ages have sought to insert some additional dialogue into the first verses of this text. They imagine it going this way – “Abraham,” “Here I am.” “Take your son.” “but I have two sons.” “Your only one” “This one is an only one to his mother, and this one is an only one to his mother.” “The one whom you love.” “I love them both.” “Take Isaac.”

And so Abraham, believing he has heard the voice of God commanding him to kill his son, sets out with Isaac, who carries the wood for his own funeral pyre on his back. It’s no wonder that preachers don’t like to preach on this passage, called the Akedah, or The Binding of Isaac. As one as put it, it is “far too terrible to use in an act of preaching. . . . We preachers must learn to speak of the demands of faith without resorting to stories that employ the abuse and murder of a child to make a point.”[i] I respectfully disagree, because if we don’t speak about it, our silence becomes a deafening as Abraham’s.

But it is no easy task. Sometimes we try to get around the horror of this story by suggesting that it was probably included in scripture as proof that the God of Israel, unlike pagan gods of the time, did not require human sacrifice. Maybe that was the motivating reason way back then when these stories were first told and then passed along from one generation to the next.

But as historically interesting as that tidbit might be, it is little comfort for us today in a society that would have Abraham behind bars or in a psych unit in a heartbeat if he tried such a thing. And it leads us to the misguided conclusion that these stories from long ago really don’t have anything to do with us today; they are dusty, ancient relics of barbaric bygone eras.

Sometimes we try to explain this story by pointing to Abraham’s unquestioning obedience to God in the face of the most awful thing that could possibly happen to any human being, the death of his child. The argument goes that God is totally other; we cannot control God; we cannot know all that God knows. And so, even though things seem terribly unfair and unjust at times in our lives, when seen from an eternal perspective, there is a guiding purpose that we finite humans are simply not able at the moment to understand. So we sing hymns like “we’ll understand it better, by and by.” And when we’re really grasping at straws and trying to make sense out of the inexplicable, we say really stupid things like, “God needed another angel.”

Others have looked past the child Isaac altogether, and said that he merely represented the promise of God; he was a symbol. And Abraham, being faithful to the end, was willing to trust that God would find a way to fulfill God’s promise. But can we reduce Isaac to a symbol? He isn’t an inanimate object; he is a child. He wasn’t simply an abstract promise; he was a boy. He wasn’t simply a means to an end; he was a human being. And we are all children of God, and scripture tells us that none of us ever is simply a means to an end.

Still others point to this story as a prefiguring of the crucifixion story, saying Abraham’s willingness to kill his son is a foreshadowing of God’s allowing his only son to be crucified for our salvation. Just as the ram was provided to save the life of Isaac; so Jesus was provided as the sacrifice to save our lives. This reasoning is flawed in a couple of ways.   First, it does a disservice to the power and validity of Old Testament scriptures by making them dependent on the New Testament for their ultimate meaning.  And second, it affirms that the primary reason Jesus died on the cross was because God put him there.

This affirmation calls into serious question the nature and character of God. What kind of God requires the death of a son to prove anything? But knowing what we do about God from other places in scripture – that God is love and that God’s mercy is boundless, that explanation sounds more like something we’d come up with than something God would do; we are the ones who sanctify violence as a redemptive tool I believe that Jesus gave his life willingly to demonstrate the forgiving love of God, not that God required it of him.

All this being said, what then are we to make of this story, this horrific episode in the life of our father in faith, Abraham? For centuries it has been told as Abraham’s successful passing of the ultimate test of faithfulness. But, for today, I would like to suggest something else. What if we are wrong in assuming he passed the test.

What if the real test was whether or not Abraham was willing to stand up, and say “No!”[ii]   It is clear that God wanted to learn something about Abraham. Abraham had failed to protect the dignity of his family members, first with Sarah in Egypt; then with Hagar; and then with both Hagar and Ishmael as he sent them away to certain death in order to placate Sarah’s jealousy that he himself had helped to create. Maybe God wanted see if Abraham would take the opportunity to redeem himself. He’d thrown Ishmael away. Would he do the same thing with Isaac? Would he realize the error of his previous behavior and this time, this time, say NO when told to kill his own flesh and blood?

But Abraham silently takes Isaac on the terrible trek to Mt. Moriah, without offering a word of objection, and when Isaac asks where is the lamb for the burnt offering, he evades the question by answering “God will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And sure enough – when God learns what God wants to know, God does provide the lamb. The angel of the Lord says, “I know that you fear God.”   If that’s what God wanted to know, then God got the right answer and Abraham passed the test because he feared God. But what if God wanted to know if Abraham loved God? Loved God in Isaac who was made in God’s image? Loved and trusted God enough to say “No.”

I have thought long and hard about this story this past week. And coincidentally or not as I thought and prayed about the story, about the cultural differences, about faith, about obedience, about the will of God, about fearing God and about loving God, in our own United Methodist Church an Abraham and Isaac story was playing itself out. Maybe some of you are familiar with Rev. Frank Schaefer, who in 2007 agreed to officiate at the wedding of his son to his partner. As a United Methodist Minister he was forbidden by our Book of Discipline to perform a same-sex marriage. But as a father, who had seen his son’s pain almost verging on suicide, had seen the discrimination he had experienced in his life, had spent hours encouraging and supporting him, and affirming God’s love for him, he could not then refuse his son’s request; it would be a denial of everything he had taught and of the God he believed in. And so he married the couple, not in the church, but in a restaurant; not in their own state, but in a neighboring state; not in front of his congregation, but in front of a few gathered family and friends.   He didn’t advertise what he did or seek publicity; he didn’t inform his congregation about it. It was a private family matter.

But a member of his congregation found out about the marriage and brought charges against Rev. Schaefer, who was then tried last November by a church tribunal, and given a 30 day suspension during which time he was told to reflect on his commitment to the Book of Discipline and his obligations as a representative clergyperson in the United Methodist Church. At the end of the 30 days, he returned to the court, and was asked if he was now willing to support and uphold the Book of Discipline in its entirety in the future. And he answered he could not do that, commenting honestly that no one can uphold the Book of Discipline in its entirety! He was then asked to surrender his ministerial credentials, and when he refused; they were taken from him.

He appealed the verdict, and an appeals court ruled this past week that the earlier court could not impose two distinct sentences – a suspension and a termination.   They ruled that someone cannot be punished for something he has not yet done. And since he had fulfilled the requirement of the first sentence, having served the 30 day suspension, they re-instated Rev. Schaefer as a clergyperson in the United Methodist Church retroactively to the last day of his suspension.

This verdict in no way settles the ongoing conversation, often argument, within our church regarding marriage and ordination of homosexual persons. And I don’t bring it up this morning as a part of that argument. I offer it as a real example, right here, right now, among people of faith, of a father, who had to choose when tested – he had to choose between the rules of our denomination –and granted, the Book of Discipline should in no way be confused with the word of God, although I think some people do — and his love for his son. When faced with this choice, he chose love, he chose his son. It wasn’t an easy decision; he made it knowing he would potentially lose his livelihood, everything he’d worked for, and be forbidden from following his call from God within our denomination to which he was devoted. Nevertheless, he would not sacrifice his son to be obedient to the rules. He would not bind his son as Abraham bound Isaac.

Seeing this juxtaposition of the ancient father and son and the contemporary father and son has given me much to think about. Our ideas about God have changed greatly since the time the book of Genesis was written. And while it is appropriate to fear God, I believe that fear should be grounded in awe, not in dread of punishment. And while we are at times put to the test – in fact life can seem to be one big test after another — I believe that God walks with us through “the valley of the shadow of death” and does not participate in setting up the conditions for our distress.

Furthermore, I believe we must be careful as we listen for the word of God to hear its challenge as well as its command. God gave us free will; God gave us reason; and God throughout scripture has close, loving relationships with those who ask a lot of questions. Whenever we think we are acting at the command of God, we have heavy responsibility to think and ask questions before we act. There is no doubt that God can ask of us things we never thought we would be asked to do, things that stretch us, take us way out of our comfort zones, and lead us into unfamiliar territory. But one thing I know for sure; God will not ask us to harm another human being physically, emotionally, or spiritually because all human beings are made in God’s image, and to kill another person is to kill a part of God.

God might very well, however, ask us to sacrifice ourselves on behalf of another – Jesus said, there is no greater love than when a person gives up his life for a friend. And we have seen examples of this – the stranger who donates a kidney, or someone who darts into traffic to rescue a child. Members of the police and fire departments are prepared to do this every day. And of course there is the most recent Medal of Honor recipient who threw himself over an exploding grenade to save the life of his comrade. We must remember always that there is a huge difference between offering our own lives and taking the life of another.

At the end of the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, after Abraham has bound Isaac and placed him on the altar, as he raises the knife to kill his son, an angel of the Lord calls out to him urgently, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him!” For many Jewish interpreters of scripture, the ram has been seen as the most important part of the story of the sacrifice of Isaac because it is the symbol of the fact that, in the end, God stopped Abraham from killing his son. God did not want Isaac to die. Because God is the God of life. God is the God of Love. God is the God of mercy. When Abraham failed the test; God did what God always does – God saved the Isaac, and with him God saved the promise. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] John Holbert, “A Nasty Little Bit of a Tale: Reflections on Genesis 22:1-14,” Patheos, June 22, 2014

[ii] Allen Pruitt, “The Binding of Isaac,” allenpruitt.wordpress.com, June 26, 2011.

Sermon: The Invisible Woman

The Invisible Woman

Sermon by Dr. Jodie Lyon

Genesis 21:8-21

 

As Lisa said in her introduction, I teach Christian theology at UGA. But before that, in my undergraduate days, I was an English major. A lousy English major.

When I say I was a lousy English major, I don’t mean that I skipped class a lot or that I didn’t read the assigned texts, or that I didn’t come to class prepared to participate in class discussion. I was indeed lousy in all those regards—I frequently skipped class, I often wrote papers and essays on texts I hadn’t read, and I never, ever participated in a class discussion unless my life depended on it. But that’s not what I mean when I say I was a lousy English major.

When I say I was a lousy English major, I mean that when I read novels and short stories and plays and poems, I rarely got out of them what a good English major was supposed to get out of them. I read for enjoyment, for plot. I can’t wait to find out what happens next, so I read very fast. I get bored with the descriptive parts of books, so I tend to skip over them. “West of the road were flint hills, grey and rugged, with tall watchtowers on their stony summits………” Blah, blah, blah. Quit describing the scenery, and get back to the story! And I forget details as soon as I read them, because really, how could it matter if the main character’s shirt was brown or gray?

My reading style is great if you’re reading a book on the beach, but not so great if you’re supposed to be reading a text to analyze it for symbolism, allusions, foreshadowing, and recurring leitmotifs. Reading as a good English major required me to slow down and ask questions of the text–to search for the deeper meaning of the story, to investigate the smallest descriptive detail, to pay attention to the characters and places that seemed irrelevant to me. It was too just too hard for someone who wants to simply find out what happens at the end of the book. So I was lousy.

Since I’m always looking to blame my shortcomings on someone else, I’ve decided in recent years to credit my poor English major skills to the church. After all, that I was how I was taught to read the Bible, more or less. Bible stories are stories with a simple moral, and we don’t need to overanalyze them.   Most of the details aren’t important. Don’t ask too many questions of the text. Just go with the simple moral, and move on.

I don’t think we mean to do this in the church; it’s just sort of a natural outcome of trying to teach a text full of stories to people of all ages. We start teaching Bible stories in the church to children, and when teaching to children, we need to simplify the story, to break it down to the bare basics, to make it a story with a simple lesson that we can impart to our kids. So we take the vast, sprawling story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac that spans 12 chapters of Genesis and reduce it down to something we can teach quite easily in a 15 minute Sunday School lesson on a flannel-graph board. This is a story about faith, and how you should trust God to follow through on God’s promises to you. Here’s the short, and to the point version: Abraham and his wife Sarah were promised a son, but they doubted God. Abraham and Sarah tried to take matters into their own hands, and Abraham had a son Ishmael with his wife’s servant, Hagar. But God eventually fulfilled the promise and gave Sarah a son, Isaac. Then Abraham proved he had faith in God by his willingness to sacrifice his son, his faith was rewarded, and his son was saved. So the moral of the story, boys and girls, is have faith in God and everything will turn out alright in the end.

Given the tendency we have to do this to Bible stories, perhaps I shouldn’t be as surprised as I often am, teaching undergraduates who largely come from a Christian background, that some of my students don’t even know who Hagar is. If they do know that she’s the mom of Ishmael, they might not know how she came to be the mother of Abraham’s first son, that she was an Egyptian slave woman who was given to Abraham by his wife Sarah.

I’m probably surprised by students’ lack of basic biblical knowledge because I grew up in a church tradition that expected me to know more than the simple moral of the story. I came out of the Church of Christ, the granddaughter of two preachers, and it was expected in the Church of Christ that you know your Bible stories. And that you know all the details of those stories since we were taught that the Bible was the inspired Word of God and thus worth paying attention to in all its minutia. But even then, though she was a part of the details of the Abraham story, Hagar wasn’t an important character in my childhood church. There was no need to focus any time or attention on her. She was not the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham, which was what the story was all about, after all. Abraham was the hero of the story, the guy who made the Faith Hall of Fame in Hebrews 11, and Hagar, well, if she was worth talking about at all, she was one of the villains of the story—a distraction for Abraham and Sarah, a speed bump on the road to Abraham having a real son and heir. Israel was not descended from Hagar and Ishmael, but from Sarah and Isaac. Acknowledge that Hagar and her son exists, yes, but then move on quickly to the real story.

So I’d never given Hagar much thought. Until this last semester. I’ve found that one of the things that frequently happens when you’re a teacher is that you end up learning more yourself than probably any of your students ever do. I was teaching a course on Feminist Theology this past spring at UGA, and I assigned a book by Womanist theologian Delores Williams entitled, Sisters in the Wilderness. If you’re not familiar with the term Womanist, it’s a term that is used by many black feminists to describe themselves. The term Womanist itself comes from Alice Walker, the woman most famously known for writing the novel, The Color Purple. [Lousy English major that I was, I did manage to read that one in college. And if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.] Many black women choose to use the term Womanist to describe themselves rather than the term Feminist not only because of the influence of Alice Walker on their way of looking at God & the world, but also because they insist that as women of color, they have unique challenges and experiences that separate them from white feminists. While both white and black women battle sexism, women of color have also had to fight racism and classism. And often times the discrimination black women have faced has come from white feminists themselves, as we white women have often been slow to recognize that our own fight for gender equality has often been a fight for white gender equality, not gender equality for all people.

Delores Williams’ book, Sisters in the Wilderness, is classic of womanist theology, but for some reason I had never read it before assigning it to my Feminist Theology class this past semester. [Probably because I’m a lousy academic.] In this book Williams compares the story of Hagar to the story of black women in the United States. Williams challenges her readers to view the Genesis story not through from the perspective of Abraham or Sarah, as we are used to doing, but through the eyes of Hagar.

When we look at the story from Hagar’s perspective, Williams says we should see that Hagar’s life involved slavery, poverty, sexual and economic exploitation, rape, forced surrogacy, domestic violence, abandonment, homelessness, and single parenthood. Have you ever noticed all of that in the story before? On one level, I had noticed those things before—as I said before, I grew up in a church that made sure I knew all of the details of the stories of the Bible—but on the other hand, I was completely oblivious to those things. For I never saw Hagar’s story for what it really was. I never named the crimes committed against her—rape, exploitation, slavery, violence. They don’t teach you that stuff in Sunday School. And most Christians would be reticent anyway to accuse the great Abraham and Sarah, patriarch and matriarch of Israel, with such terrible actions.

After reading Williams’ book, I felt guilty. Guilty that I had never noticed Hagar in the story before. I realized, reading this book, that despite my knowledge of the details of the Genesis story, Hagar had always been invisible to me. I never really saw her and I never really heard her.

I never stopped to imagine things from her perspective. How did it feel to be taken from her family and friends in Egypt to live in another land? What did she go through when she was told by Sarah that she was going to be given, sexually, to Abraham? What was going through her mind as she fled from Sarah’s mistreatment and then was forced to return? How did she handle the fear and grief that must have accompanied her as she sat in the desert, believing her son was going to die?

I’d never asked any of these questions when I’d read the text before because, well, honestly, I didn’t want to. Asking hard questions means that you end up with hard answers, answers you probably would rather not hear. It’s much easier to avoid asking them, so you don’t have to deal with the answers. It’s much easier to let the invisible people in the text, like Hagar, remain invisible, so you don’t have to wrestle with the tough issues that they bring up.

If you let Hagar speak to you, you realize that this story we all love so much, about how God blessed Abraham with many descendants and made him into a great nation, this story has a dark side. The dark side is that on their journey to the fulfillment of this divine promise, both Abraham and Sarah abused another human being. In order to get what they both so desperately wanted, a child, Abraham and Sarah used their power to exploit Hagar. They took her from her homeland as a slave, they took control of her body and impregnated her, they resented her, they abused her, and they abandoned her. I’d rather not see Abraham and Sarah in this way. I’d rather see them as flannel-graph heroes, wouldn’t you?

Perhaps we don’t see the story for what it really is because we’re so focused on the theme of faith. It’s not that we don’t notice Abraham and Sarah’s shortcomings in Genesis—we do. We talk about how Sarah laughed when Abraham was told she was going to have a son. We talk about how Abraham tried to pass off his wife as his sister, not once, but TWICE, because he was so concerned that harm would come to him. We talk about how instead of trusting God to provide a descendant, Abraham and Sarah took matters into their own hands and had a child by alternate means. We recognize that all this sin—let’s name it for what it is—takes place in the story, but when we read this story purely through the lens of whether or not Abraham and Sarah had faith in God or not, we read all these events as sins against God, not sins against others. They’re failures to trust God, failures to have adequate faith in God.

And that’s not a wrong reading. That is what is going on in Genesis. Abraham and Sarah don’t trust God for most of the story, and their failure to have faith in God’s promises results in many wrong turns on the path to God’s blessing. But this lack of faith results not only in sin against God, but sin against other human beings, and we can’t ignore this. It’s not just that Abraham and Sarah sinned against God, they sinned against Hagar. They abused her, exploited her, raped her.

We spent an entire day of class in one of my theology courses this last semester debating whether sin should primarily be defined as an offense against God or an offense against other human beings. The author we were reading wanted Christians to redefine sin as the harm of creation, rather than the creator, arguing that traditional definitions of sin ignore the real victims of human wrongdoing. I can see the author’s point—if I punch my husband in the face, who have I really sinned against? God, or him? Traditionally, Christianity has said I’ve sinned against God. My husband’s face is essentially collateral damage. But I would imagine that my husband would think that he is the real victim of my sin, and would rather I spend my time apologizing to him, not to God, as HE was the one punched in the face.

But while I think the author has a point, I don’t honestly care how we define sin. [Please don’t tell my students that, because it’s my job to pretend to care deeply about such things.] What I do care about is whether we recognize sin’s effects. Whether sin is primarily an action against God or creation is less important than admitting that sin profoundly harms other human beings, not just God. Abraham and Sarah’s sin harmed another human being, Hagar, and we ought to care not only about their lack of faith in God, but about their mistreatment of another person.

But let’s not miss the larger point of this story. The moral, if you will. Reading the Genesis story through Hagar’s eyes isn’t about criticizing Abraham and Sarah. If our reading of Scripture leads to the accusation and condemnation of other people, 99% of the time we’ve missed the point. The stories are about us, and the actions that are portrayed are our own. When people refer to the stories of the Bible as myths, they don’t mean that these stories are lies, falsehoods. They mean that these stories are meant to communicate to us profound truths about human and divine nature. We should pay attention to these stories because they tell us something not just about God, and people who lived a long time ago, but also about ourselves. In her book, Delores Williams asks us to see Hagar’s story for what it really is not so that we can throw stones at Abraham and Sarah, but in order to get us to see that this is not some terrible story that happened 1000s of years ago in the Ancient Near East. This story is part of our recent history and part of our present.

Williams uses the Hagar story to highlight the mistreatment of black women by white men and women in this country. The similarities between Hagar’s story and the story of black women in the U.S. are striking. Like Hagar, black women were torn from their families and friends and shipped off to foreign lands as slaves. Like Hagar, they had no control over their own bodies; they were used sexually by their masters and resented for it by their mistresses. They bore children that they had no legal right to, children that could be claimed by others or taken and sold at their masters’ whims. They were abused and mistreated by their mistresses out of jealousy and anger and pride. They often ran away only to be sent back to their owners to suffer more abuse at their hands. Like Hagar, they were often single mothers, worried about the very survival of their children, wondering if they would live or die, whether they would have to watch them die. And even today, Williams reminds us, black women are more likely to be the victims of poverty and single motherhood. They are more likely to be the victims of sexual abuse and economic exploitation. Black women may not be literally enslaved in our country anymore, but we are far from a state of true racial justice and equality. We need to see Hagar’s mistreatment in this story so that we can see the mistreatment of people today.

If we refuse to allow Hagar to be invisible, we also have to recognize ourselves in the story. It’s not enough to see Hagar and her abuse and recognize that there are many like her today. We have to see ourselves in the story, and our responsibility for injustice. Most of us in this room are not Hagar, we are Abraham and Sarah. We are the ones with power, with wealth, with privilege, who have to worry that our lack of faith in God may result in our exploitation of others. That along the path to getting the things we want and desire so badly in life, we may completely overlook the suffering of other people. That we may cause, directly or indirectly, the suffering of other people. We can’t let the Hagars of the world remain invisible to us because if we do, our own sin remains invisible to us. We have to see the Hagars of the world, their suffering, and our role in that suffering, and we have to repent of our blindness.

I told my Feminist Theology students at the beginning of the semester that learning about feminism is often an eye-opening experience. You learn to see pain, suffering, sin, and oppression where once you thought everything was fine. It’s a difficult experience, having your eyes opened to the problems of the world. Most of us would rather stay in our comfortable places and assume that life is good and fair and just. But it’s not. Many of my students began the feminist theology class believing that sexism was a thing of the past, something we’d solved before they were born. I challenged them to see the world as it really is, rather than as we’d like it to be, and to recognize our part in the perpetuation of gender inequality. But, when I warned my students that taking a feminist theology class might be lead to a new way of seeing the world, I forgot to heed my own warning. I didn’t realize that a simple story from Genesis that I’d read 100 times before would make me recognize my own sin in a new way. I didn’t realize that my whole life I’d been overlooking Hagar because it made the story simpler and easier to digest. And a whole lot less convicting. But I’m thankful that when I teach, I usually learn something too.

O God of Abraham, Sarah, AND Hagar, please help us to see the invisible people in our lives. Jar us from our complacency and our fixation on ourselves so that we can see others and their needs, and not merely ourselves and our needs. AMEN.

Sermon: Having Dominion

Having Dominion
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
June 15, 2014
Genesis 1:1-2:4

 

You know that one of my oft repeated themes in preaching is the belief that it’s not all about us. And that is a hard sell to folks who read the creation story as one which leads from the lesser to the greater, culminating in the grand finale on day six –the creation of human beings.   If we had just a tiny bit of humility, however, it could just as easily be argued that the creation story moves from the greater to the lesser. After all, what could be more magnificent and awe-inspiring than imagining the separation of light from darkness or the dry land from the seas? Or the creation of vegetation of every kind? Or the establishment of the sun and moon and the seasons of the year; or the huge variety of sea creatures and birds, cattle, creeping things and wild animals! In that context, human beings seem like a last minute add on.

And, in fact, if you remember Carl Sagan’s famous example, that’s exactly what we are. He said if we could squeeze the creation of the cosmos into a single year, then the Big Bang happened on January 1. The sun and planets came into existence on September 10. And human beings arrived on the scene at ten minutes before midnight on December 31, to be greeted by a vast and grand welcoming committee of plants and trees, great sea monsters and creatures of the deep, every winged bird of every kind, and of course the cows who were made just before us.

And yet we, the youngest of creation, have been given, according to scripture, the great responsibility of having dominion over all these who are older than we are, who have been around a lot longer, and who have, you might think as much, if not greater right to be here than we do! The problem, of course, if with that word “dominion.” We have forgotten what it means. We have forgotten its theological roots, and narrowed and shrunk it down to mean simply authority, or power over the earth. And unfortunately, you know what we do when we are given power, it often goes to our heads; we tend to abuse it.

Some think our current ecological crisis is rooted in this word “dominion” and the false religious teaching that God, in giving us dominion over creation, has made us “superior to nature,” and that therefore we can use it or abuse it for whatever whim currently attracts our interest.[i] Christian ethicists have debated over the ways in which people of faith have turned this divine authorization into carte blanche to do whatever we want to do without concern for the “collateral damage.” We don’t have to ask a deer if it’s ok to clear cut its habitat so that we can have another place for human habitats. We don’t ask the trees either if they’re willing to give their lives so we can live there in place of them. We don’t have to ask the fish for permission to drain the pond they live in, nor must we gain approval of a hillside before we cut off its peaks because strip mining is such a convenient and cheap way to remove its interior for our use of the coal buried within it.

And it is that kind of thinking that has brought God’s creation, entrusted to our dominion, to the point of great risk from our assaults on the environment just because we can. Say the phrase “global warming” or “climate change” and see what response you get. Of course it depends on whom you are talking to. Even though a government document entitled “Climate change Impacts in the United States” concluded that “summers are longer and hotter and extended periods of unusual heat last longer than any living American has ever experienced,”[ii] there are those who continue to believe global warming is a hoax, a liberal plot to impose governmental restrictions on a free market economy, and a threat to our American way of life, by which they mean, of course, an oil, gas, and coal-based way of life.

Recently I watched a discussion on PBS between Bill Moyers and David Suzuki – someone whose name is perhaps more familiar to Dave and Rebecca than to others of us. Dr. Suzuki is a Canadian scientist and environmentalist, long time host of a TV program “The Nature of Things,” and who has given his career to educating and informing the public about environmental issues. He said he used to think that if he could have a conversation with CEOs whose companies were having a negative impact on the environment, there could be some change, some meeting of the minds if the facts were laid out. They’re certainly not stupid, he said; they just needed to know the facts.

But that was before he met the owner of a timber company who said trees weren’t worth anything until they were cut down and used. In other words money – economics — was the lens through which he saw the value of the forest. The CEO had a responsibility to make profits for the company’s shareholders and anything that threatened productivity and profitability was to be opposed. So sadly, it is not a matter of understanding the facts; it is a matter of what one values most.

It is interesting that the words ecology and economy both come from the same Greek root word, oikos, which means “household.” Ecology is concerned with the well-being of individual members of the household; economy is concerned with the use or purpose of each member of the household, and both are concerned with how each contributes to the well-being of the whole. These distinctions have been the subject of theological treatises since the time of Augustine as theologians valued all types of creatures intrinsically for their unique goodness and also valued them instrumentally for the sustenance they provide to others. But above all, they valued the entirety of the physical world and saw it as a sacrament of the divine wherein the invisible God can be experienced and some of God’s characteristics can be known through the visible.[iii] In more recent times, however, we have removed God from the natural world, and no longer see the holy residing in it, finding it now only to be a tool given to us to use as we will for our own benefit.

And if we keep on as we have been doing, that benefit will be short-term because we will have sacrificed long term viability for short term financial gain.   Or as Dr. Suzuki put it, it is fine to have a goose that lays golden eggs as long as we keep the goose healthy; but once we’ve killed the goose, there will be no more golden eggs! We have to re-discover that sense of “oikos” or household. And we must regain once again the sense of the holy that surrounds us, and in which we live, and move, and have our being. The poet and farmer Wendell Berry has written “To live we must daily break the body and shed the blood of creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration.”[iv]

Perhaps we can begin this process by re-thinking the word “dominion.” It comes from the Latin word “dominus” which is also the word for “Lord.” It is a word that is used for God. Now my bible says that “God is love,” and throughout scripture we find references to God’s love for humankind and for creation. God’s first covenant after the Great Flood was made with all creation, not just with Noah and the human survivors. The most famous, of course, is John 3:16 “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son.” Notice it says “world” not human beings! God so loved creation; God so loved the earth! And in 1John we read “God is love and those who abide in love abide in god and God abides in them.” So it makes sense then, that if God is Lord and God is love, then we who are created in God’s image are also to be lords of love in relationship to that over which God has given us dominion.

And when you love someone or something, you don’t use it, you don’t abuse it, you don’t exploit it for selfish gain; you don’t take everything it has to offer and then cast it aside without looking back, and you don’t think of it as your possession.

Psalm 24, that we read responsively in our greeting, says “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” it has been entrusted to us, but it is not ours. We may think we’re the pinnacle of creation, but we’re still creatures – part of creation and in its welfare rests our own. And the God who loves us, God’s human creatures, loves all creation with that same love. Scripture says the one sun God made was for all creation; it shines down on everyone and everything, no matter who or what or where they are. The same is true of the rain – everything and everyone is refreshed. That’s how it is with God’s creatures. We are here because God made us and loves us. Therefore we are all to live in the light of that love. And we human beings – we have a great responsibility, made in the divine image – we are here to love as God loves.[v]

Barbara Brown Taylor illustrates that lesson whimsically by retelling the creation story from the birds’ point of view. “If birds could write books,” she says, “then their story of creation would no doubt read quite differently from ours.” In the first place, they’d probably make quite a bit out of that wind of God that swept over the face of the waters in the beginning. Humans think of wind when it hits their faces, and messes up their hair. Birds, on the other hand, know what it’s like to be a part of the wind, moving with it.

If Birds were writing the creation story, sea creatures would still arrive on day five; “pelicans would insist on that. Plus, it makes sense to work up from the depths of the sea to the vaults of heaven, filling creation with creatures as you draw nearer and nearer to God. [With that plan], land animals would come next – mice, chipmunks, goats, humans, camels – things like that — earthbound creatures that could not get off the ground for more than a second or two without coming right back down again – hard – on all those feet.

“Flying squirrels were pretty advanced, mountain goats were so-so, but people – well. It was really kind of pitiful watching them try – jumping off rocks, flapping their arms. Sometimes when they slept, you could see their limbs twitching, as if they were dreaming of flight. None of this was their fault, of course. Bird mothers taught their children never to make fun of land creatures. ‘God made them that way,’ the mothers said, ‘the same way God made you. Now go outside and fly.’”

It was on day six, according to the sacred book read in bird church, that God created birds in God’s image – “in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them – sparrows, ravens, wood ducks, and hoopoes—whooping cranes, turtledoves, mockingbirds and indigo buntings—all of them different and yet all of them alike, with two eyes, one beak, and those two marvelous wings – their daily assurance that the were made in the image of their Creator.

“This was not just God’s gift to them. It was also God’s call—to look after the sea creatures and the land animals as God would look after them – especially the people, who seemed in particular need of help. Humans knew about God’s wings, at least. They were not entirely insensible to the order of creation. Sometimes when they read from their own book, you could hear this wisdom of theirs clear as a bell.

‘Guard me as the apple of the eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings,’ they read from that book (Ps. 17:8). ‘Be merciful to me, O God . . . in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge . . .’ (Ps. 57:1). ‘How precious is your steadfast love O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.’” (Ps. 36.7). [And even Jesus, the greatest of all human beings, some thought, lamented over their waywardness and compared his love for them to the love a mother hen for her brood, calling them to safety under her outspread wings.]

“Who could read such passages without understanding that God was a bird – the Great Bird – who had made everything that was and called it good but who had loved birds so much that God gave them wings? So of course, the birds were glad to do what they could – waking people up in the morning with sweet songs, thrilling human children with their aerobatics and pretending to like the gummy white bread the children fed them down by the lake. . . .

“Sometimes, under special order from God, the birds made bread deliveries of their own to humans in the wilderness. A few of them even volunteered to become food themselves, when a whole crowd of people wandering in the desert said they were dying of hunger. The quail gave their lives to feed them—but really, what else are you going to do when you are the only creatures in all of creation made in the image of God? You love as God loves, right? You love what God loves because that is what your life is for.”[vi]

Amen.

[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, “the Dominion of Love,” Journal for Preachers, XXXI, 4, 2008, 26.

[ii] Quoted during Moyers & Co., PBS, May 10, 2014.

[iii] Jame Schaefer, “Valuing the Goodness of the Earth,” Center for Christian Ethics, 2012, 13-15.

[iv] The Very Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd, III, “The Star Thrower,” Washington National Cathedral, October 1, 2006.

[v] Taylor, 28.

[vi] Taylor, 24-25.

Lenten Devotional: Thursday, March 20

Every day during Lent, members of Oconee Street UMC will write a Lenten devotional and share with the congregation.

by Jodie Lyon
March 20, 2014

Genesis 32:22-32

I’ve never watched WWE SmackDown and those spandex outfits the high school wrestlers wear really bother me.   And yet, one of my favorite biblical texts is the story of Jacob wrestling the angel.  In Genesis 32, Jacob, the sly, smooth-skinned trickster, is fleeing his hirsute, always-gets-the-short-end-of-the-stick twin Esau, and stops to rest overnight at Peniel.  Then the story takes a sudden and bizarre twist.  Seemingly out of nowhere, a man shows up and starts wrestling with Jacob.  You can’t make this stuff up.  The two struggle overnight, and Jacob refuses to let the man go unless he blesses him.  Finally, after a long fight, the man relents and the wrestling match is over.  Jacob walks away with a limp and a new name, “Israel.”

I like this story not only for its completely absurd nature, but because of what it signifies about Israel’s relationship to God.  Israel becomes Israel in the midst of struggle with the divine. Literally, Israel means, “one who strives with God.”

Most of the biblical heroes talk back to God.  They object, they complain, they accuse, they criticize, they argue.  It doesn’t sound like the proper response to God Almighty, but it’s what the text tells us they did.  I teach religion and Christian theology at UGA, and I have a hard time getting my students—particularly my Christian students—to accept this.  When studying the book of Job, no matter how dramatically I read them Job’s bitter accusations of God, they’re still convinced that Job suffered in pious silence.  Isn’t that what a good, godly person SHOULD do?

I used to think so.  I used to think that faith was never arguing, never complaining.  It was passive acceptance of one’s situation in life, a faith that unwaveringly took the good with the bad. When contemporary Christians talk about “having a relationship” with God, it is usually this bland, submissive relationship that they describe rather than Israel’s “striving with God.”

What Christians don’t often realize is that strife can be a positive thing.  Robert and I got married this past summer, and we’ve made it a point in our marriage to fight when necessary.  That might sound strange, but we’ve both learned (the hard way) that a marriage worth fighting for is a marriage worth fighting in.  If we are really going to be in authentic, intimate relationship with one another, there will be times when we get mad, or hurt, or disappointed, and pretending everything is fine when it is not is unhealthy and detrimental to our union.  Love involves passion—not merely the passion of romance but also the passion of anger.  Working through our emotions, rather than ignoring them, leads to a stronger love and a closer understanding of one another.

I’ve come to believe that love for God also involves complaint, anger, disappointment, accusation, and sometimes a no-holds-barred wrestling match.  The first few times I wrestled with God, I was sure it was a result of a lapse in my faith and piety, but over time, I’ve come to recognize that it’s always led me to a deeper relationship with God.  A human love relationship isn’t easy, and neither is our relationship with God.  God disappoints us, frustrates us, and just plain makes us mad.  I have no idea why God calls me to do the things God does, and I’m quite vocal about it.  “I really don’t want to do that today, God, seriously.  I just can’t.  I have no idea why you asked me to do this in the first place.”  I say this out loud at least once a week.  But it’s through venting my frustration to God that I’ve come to know God, to trust in God, and to love God.  It’s through striving with God that we become God’s people, just as Israel did.

“God, give me a passion for you strong enough to love you fiercely and strive with you and for you.”