Thursday, July 25, 2019

Exodus: Who Are We For?

I will say what is obvious about our Old Testament reading this morning, it is complicated.
If we read the story of the Israel being set free from bondage it would appear that God killed a bunch of Egyptians, and then his people picked up a tambourine and celebrated.
Isn't God a God of mercy and forgiveness?
Didn't Jesus teach us to "turn the other cheek", and "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." ?
How do we square that idea of God with the God we meet in Exodus who in the words of Moses and the people, "The Lord is a warrior, the Lord is his name....Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power- your right hand, O Lord, shattered the enemy "?

What is obvious from my reading this week is the rabbis have struggled with this same question.
One answer given in the Talmud was that God may have drowned Pharaoh's army, but God didn't like it.
On seeing the drowning Egyptians the angels were about to break into song when God silenced them declaring, “How dare you sing for joy when My creatures are dying” .
God may have to punish evil, but God would rather not.
I can understand this as a parent.
Wouldn't it be better if our children always did the right thing?
Isn't it better if we never would have to correct them, or punish them?
But sometimes we do.
God couldn't allow the Egyptians to keep enslaving the people of Israel.
God couldn't allow the Egyptians to slaughter God's people by the Red Sea.
God had to act.

And this leads me to the biggest problem we have when we read passages like this.
Social standing matters.
We have a hard time with the Old Testament (and really the entire Bible) because it was written for and by people who are on the margins of society.
The Bible was not written by Egyptians.
It was not written by the powerful rich empire.
It was written by a people who were enslaved, threatened, killed, and marginalized.
And we are the Egyptians.
We live in the richest country in the world.
We live in the country with the most resources.
We live in the country with the biggest military.
We live in the country that is the envy of the world.
We live in the country that is dominant in trade.

I think one of the problems we have is that we are rooting for the wrong team.
We feel bad for the Egyptians.
Forgetting that God gave them plenty of chances to let God's people go.
Forgetting that the people of Israel had already left Egypt.
Why are they going after them again?
Let it go.
Maybe because Empires can't.
We can't let anyone get the better of us.
We can't admit that our gods of greed and power are not as powerful as we thought.

Let us think about this in a different way.
How many of you have seen the 1980 classic movie the "Karate Kid"?
When you watch this movie you root for Daniel Larousa.
You see him get beat up and made fun of by the bullies.
They can't let it go.
They search him out and make fun of him or even hurt him.
So you root for Daniel to win and the for the bullies to get what is coming to them.
You don't root for Johnny and Cobra Kai.
And at the end of the movie when Daniel wins the Karate Tournament you  cheer, because they got what was coming to them.
That is this scene in the exodus story.

Israel had lived for years under the harsh oppression of the Egyptians.
They were not allowed to be human.
They worked 12 hour days in the hot Egyptian sun, making bricks.
They were fed just enough to keep them alive and working.
When Pharaoh thought that they might rise up against him, he had all the first born sons killed and thrown into the river.
We don't live in that position.
We are not met with daily indignities and evil.
But if we were and our oppressors were then defeated we would rejoice.
We would rejoice like they did at the end of Karate Kid.
In other words it is understandable why the people picked up a tambourine and begin to sing.
And they gave thanks to God for this victory.

What we also see in our reading this morning is that almost immediately things get complicated for Israel.
And almost immediately they forget to trust God.
And God gives a warning not to forget who they are, and where they came from.
In other words, now that you have your freedom don't become like the Egyptians.
Don't go around oppressing other people.
Don't forget that God got you here.
Don't forget to be merciful and loving.
Don't forget that God has been merciful and loving to you.

Because this is us too.
We forget in a second who we are, and were we come from.
Once the bully is gone it is our tendency to take on the bully tactics with others.

The freedom that God gives us is to be used for other people.
It is to be used to free others.
Last Sunday after worship I went to the "Never Again" rally organized by our Jewish siblings.
And one speaker after another remind us that we said after World War II, "never again".
Never again would we allow nationalism to blind us to hatred.
Never again would we allow the color of one's skin, the religion someone practiced, the person that you love be the defining factor in our world.
And yet, we fall so easily back into the mistakes of empires.
When we feel threatened we send out the cavalry, and then are surprised when our armies are drowned.

God has taught us a different path.
As we hear Miriam sing, "In your  Steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed; you guided them by your strength in your holy abode."
That is our only hope.
It doesn't feel like enough.
I mean Pharaoh has chariots, spears, and swords.
And I know that I too am not adequate to defeat the powers of the world.
But what we have is God.
God who has taught us about justice.
God who has taught us about love.
God who has taught us about mercy.
God who has given us freedom to love our neighbor as ourselves.
To love the stranger, the widow, the poor, the alien.

So who are we for?
Are we for the Karate Kid, Daniel Larousa?
Are we for Cobra Kai?
Are we for Egyptians?
Or are we with God's people.
Who are cheering for at the end of the movie?

I hope for us even though we live in Egypt we will still follow God.
We will not forget where we came from, who we are, who we belong to.
And we will follow all God's commandments, so that we can love our neighbors as ourselves.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

The God of Abraham: Grace

We have a tendency to read the Bible piecemeal.
We read a certain passage or hear a story and we don't read it in the context of the larger story.
Much of the Old Testament is like this for us.
It is why we think God is so mean in it.
This is why I choose today's story.
It falls in between the covenant relationship that God establishes with Abraham and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra.
When we think of Sodom and Gomorra we think about how awful it is that God would destroy those cities.
But we fail to see them in the context of the larger story.

Today's story of Abraham and his encounter with God is dripping with grace.
God appears to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre.
God appears as three men.
The Talmud, which are books that have Rabbis through the years debating the law and the meaning of the Torah, states that all three men came to Abraham for different reasons.
The first came to heal him after his circumcision.
The second came to give the promise of a child born to Abraham and Sarah.
And the third came to talk to Abraham about Sodom and Gomorra.
Healing, hope, and relationship.
Three important ways God shows us grace.

I get to visit lots of people who are sick.
When I interviewed to be your pastor I remember someone on the council asking me, "do you like to visit people in the hospital?"
Of course, I don't like it when people are sick, but one of the joys of being a pastor is being able to pray with people who are sick.
It is a joy to be able to give the comfort of our faith in times that are often scary and difficult.
It is an important part of being a pastor, maybe the most important part.
Of course, I am not the only one who does this.
I know many of you have visited each other while you were sick.
I have heard how you care for each other in those times.
It is important that we are like that first heavenly visitor to Abraham.
That we show up for each other when we are sick.
That we bring healing into each other's lives.
And it is important that we do it not only for each other but others too.
I have been in hospitals visiting parishioners and have ended up also being with other people.
Recently I visited with someone in the hospital.
After I left the person in the next bed said to the person I just visited, "That was a lovely visit."
God shows up for us when we are sick, just as God did for Abraham.

Abraham and Sarah had given up hope that they would have kids.
They were way too old for that.
And even back then they knew that giving birth was for young families.
It is understandable that Sarah laughs at the idea that she would have children.
But there visitor reminds them of an important part of our faith.
"Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?"
I am a realists.
I don't believe in fairy tales, and I don't believe that things just magically happen because we wish them to be true.
But I do believe in God.
I believe that God does things that are outside my ability to reasonably understand what is happening.
And it is important for us to remind each other of this.
It is important that even as we deal with the hard realities of life, that we are still able to remind each other that nothing is too wonderful for God.
That our hope is in God.
And this is the heart of the matter with grace.
Is that it isn't about what we do, it is about what God does.
Grace isn't that we try real hard and God does the rest.
It is the understanding that God does it all.
That without God there is no future.
Without God there is no baby.
Without God there is no hope.
God's grace is what helps us have hope.
It is what makes us believe in unbelievable things.
And maybe what is most unbelievable is that God would care at all.
Up to this point in the story Abraham and Sarah have not been the most faithful people.
They have tried over and over to have this baby problem solved.
They tried to come up with schemes and none of it has worked.
So the only thing left is to have hope that God will do what God promised.
God shows up for us when we are hopeless, just as God did for Abraham and Sarah.

Finally, we get to the part that I know you are all thinking about.
What about when God wipes out Sodom and Gomorra?
What I find most amazing about that story is right here.
God takes time to let Abraham plead for the people.
God lets Abraham have his say.
The Psalmist asks, "What are humans that you are mindful of them?"
What are we to the power of almighty God?
This whole thing doesn't work for God without Abraham.
And what is amazing is that Abraham understands the nature of God.
Abraham knows God so well that Abraham know God won't do it.
"Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?"
Abraham knows the heart of God, because they have such a close relationship.
And really that what this story shows us.
Is that God cares so much for Abraham that he wants to hear from him.

I have been praying a lot lately about the state of the world we live in.
It might not be the worst time to be alive, but like all times there are things about this world that just break my heart.
Today our government is rounding up people whose "crime" is not having the right documents.
My heart breaks for the families who are living in fear, for families that will be torn apart.
My heart breaks because there are people who will applaud, who will feel satisfaction without mercy for what will happen to undocumented people.
My heart breaks for the people who tonight will be staying in processing centers in El Paso and they won't be able to sleep because there is not enough room.
If your heart doesn't break too then you simply don't care about families, or at lest some families.
I pray a lot about these things.
And what I know for sure is that God hears my prayers.
God hears the prayers of the people of the world that live in fear of their lives and their families future.
God shows up for us when we pray, just as God did for Abraham.

That is the God of Abraham.
That is the God of the Old Testament.
A God who wants to hear from us, and a God that comes to heal us, give us hope, and be in relationship with us.
When we read the whole story this is the God we come to know just as Abraham knew God.

That is how God's grace is given to us through healing, hope, and relationship.
 This week I hope for you to be visited by God.
And that God will heal you.
God will give you hope.
And that in your prayers you will know that God cares about you, and wants to hear from you.
May the God of Abraham, our God, the God of grace be with you.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

God is Love: Creation

This Sunday we start a seven week series on the Old Testament.
A few people asked me why I wanted to do this preaching series.
I wanted to do it because people at Bible study asked me to.
Often times at Bible study I think that people have  the wrong idea about the Old Testament.
Usually someone will say something like, "Well that is the god of the Old Testament, and Jesus is different."
I can understand why people think this.
First, it comes from believing that Christianity is superior to Judaism, instead of understanding that Christianity is a continuation of Judaism.
That what Christians think about God is what our Jewish siblings think about God.
We share the same scripture because Jesus was Jewish.
A careful reading of the New Testament shows that Jesus really was trying to remind people of what God's original intent was, and not start some new religion.
That Jesus taught was the way that God wanted people to be.
A close reading of the Old Testament shows that what Jesus taught was not new, it was how God has been since the start of time.
Second, it comes from the belief that in the Old Testament God was meaner, and Jesus was nice?
That the god of the Old Testament loved to rain down fire, or drown those who broke the law.
This is wrong on two accounts.
First of all Jesus was just as harsh on those who were hypocritical.
Jesus stood in the tradition of other prophets who came to call God's people to repentance.
And Jesus could be just as harsh on people.
Second, the God we meet in the Old Testament offers just as much grace and forgiveness as Jesus.
Over and over God forgives the sins of his people, and tries again.
So this whole preaching series is an attempt on my part to say something that the Church has held true since the beginning.
We have one God.
We see that God in the Holy text of what we call the Bible.
The same God who we meet in the Old Testament, is the same God we know in Jesus Christ.

This is why we start with creation.
We will not talk this morning about whether the story of creation in Genesis is literal or a myth.
That is another topic for another day.
Instead, I simply want us to see what does the creation story tell us about God?
What does it say about God's character?
What does it tell us about the world that we live in?

We will start with what it says about the world we live in.
There is order to it.
The story we know in Genesis one is an orderly story.
God creates the world in order.
First there is light and darkness.
Then there are stars and suns.
Then water, and land.
Then creatures to inhabit them.
Then us.
Out of chaos God creates order.
This means that in the world there is order.
There is purpose in everything.
There is a reason mosquitoes exists.
There is a reason the platypus looks the way it does.
There is a reason why you and I are here this morning!
God created a world that has order and purpose and meaning.

The second thing about our world is that it is good.
"And God saw that is was good".
I can lose sight of this at times.
But the world is good.
It is full of life.
It is full of change, mystery, majesty, wonder, and holy things.
God made everything and blessed it.
On the fourth of July I was at my in-laws house floating on the lake by their house.
It was a beautiful day.
And as I floated I thought to myself God is good, to be alive is good.
Life is precious and wonderful.

But this doesn't answer a fundamental question.
Why did God create this world?
Let us this morning consider some options.
One of them is that God was simply bored, and God wanted to make things that would follow rules that God had thought up.
That what God wanted was obedient subjects to control.
This goes back to the idea that the god of the Old Testament was a tyrant who only cared about loyal subjects.
This is not the idea in the text.

God created life out of love.
God created life out of genuine desire to have relationship with creation.
God created life for us, for you and me, because God loves us and desires for us to trust God in all things.
Love is in the very nature and essence of who God is.
And it starts right here at the beginning of all things.
Instead of chaos, God gives us order, and goodness.

The truth of this is that life is a gift.
I suspect that we all know this on some level.
We know that to be alive today is a gift from God.
That every morning when we rise we give thanks to God that we have another day.
As people of faith we believe that the gift is given to us by God.
That God created this day for you, out of love.
And this is an important thing to remember.
God is not done creating!
God continues every day to create new things every day.
One idea of the creation is that God created the world and then stepped back and let it go.
We will see over and over that God continues to intervene in the world.
That God is always creating new things, and trying to get us back to this moment.
The moment where there is order in the world and it is good.
The moment when we are in a deep intimate relationship with our creator, the earth, and each other.
The moment before fear, mistrust, competition, lead us to bloodshed and the destruction of the planet and each other.

We still have moments.
I want to go back to floating on the water on the fourth of July.
When I said to myself God is good.
I meant all those things that in that moment I had a profound sense of God's love, that there was order, that this day was gift, and that it was good.
In that moment I was back when the world was new, when we trusted in the goodness of the world, and we were intimate with God.

Today as you leave church I hope you will have that same sense of the day.
That God has made this day for you out of love for you.
That life is good.
That there is meaning and purpose to life.
That God is not done creating, and that God is not done making this world better.
Maybe just maybe after leaving worship this morning you will say to yourself, "God is good"!