Tag: Genesis

Hardness of Heart

Genesis 2:18-24 'Things are going great with Mark although he can be a little possessive.'
Mark 10:2-16

Picture Jesus’ time: no female owns herself. She is the property of her father until he sells her into marriage. Then she is the property of her husband until he dies, and now she is the property of her son. If ever she has no man to claim her… she is free property. Anyone can take her. Make her a slave. Abuse her. Force themselves on her. Women weren’t their own people. Not fully human.

In the story of Naomi and Ruth, the women have lost all their men. Opah goes home- hoping her father or brother will take her in. Ruth refuses to leave Naomi as defenseless, unowned, widowed property. Ruth goes with Naomi to protect her. Boaz is a literal life-saver to the women because he orders the farm hands not to ‘bother’ Ruth as she picks up the dropped wheat to feed herself and her mother-in-law. Then he saves them again by marrying Ruth, and restoring Naomi and Ruth into a house where they always have protections.

Women were property. Like glorified prized cattle.

When King David sees Bathsheba, he wants her. So he arranges the death of her owner, her husband, so that he can take her as his own.

When King Herod sees his brother’s wife Herodias, he wants her. So he orders his brother to divorce Herodias — to throw his property to the curb — and then Herod takes her as his own property.

Moses told men they could throw out their women, divorce them, but if they did, they needed to give the women the protection of a piece of paper saying ‘I am divorced.’ so they could find a new man to take them in not as slaves, or as concubines, but as wives who are cared for and protected.

Nowhere but in Rome was there the tradition women could initiate divorce. Even then, the men retained the children and house in any divorce.

In ancient Israel however? Women weren’t allowed. They were property and did not own themselves or their bodies.

There were two major schools of thought regarding divorce at the time: the Hillel school who said you may divorce your wife for any reason at all – including things like she burns dinner or has gotten wrinkles. And the Shammai school who said you may only divorce your wife if she commits adultery. Both didn’t consider a wife able to divorce her husband. A husband could commit adultery and burn dinner and get wrinkles.

Keep all this context in mind when you hear Jesus speak against divorce. Also keep in mind that Jesus’ cousin, John, was murdered because he spoke against King Herod’s divorce.

This is why today’s reading is called a “test.” The Pharisees are not testing if Jesus knows scripture, but rather, testing to see if he would speak out about King Herod and get himself killed just like John the Baptists did. They are also testing to see if Jesus would support the Hillel or the Shammai school – and alienate one or the other set of scholars.

And Jesus replies to their test of ‘is divorce lawful?’ by saying: your hard hearts are why Moses said you can give a certificate to a woman and divorce her. Hard hearts separate us.

Jesus recalls Genesis, and that in the very beginning God created us to be in relationship. Remember that Adam was lonely. God offered Adam all kinds of animals, but Adam was still lonely. So God made Adam another human. This other human wasn’t called wife, or property – but someone God called an equal! “Helper” and “partner.” The two humans are happy as one another’s aid. Indeed, there was no concept of marriage for Adam and Eve because that’s a set of rituals and vows we made up. God sets us up to be in relationship – to be one another’s helpers and partners. Sometimes this looks like marriage, but sometimes it is friendships, and families, and communities, and sometimes it is two strangers.

Later, alone, Jesus is asked again about divorce. And this time, Jesus gives agency TO WOMEN – women, who have no status – and says it doesn’t matter if a man or a woman tosses out the other… the result is the same. Hurt. Broken community.

Jesus once again brings our attention to children. Consider children in divorces. At the time, children had no protections at all. If mom is out on the street without a male to protect her, give her food and shelter, how much worse is it going to be for the kids? If a dad has a hard heart, and tosses the mom out, how much evil has he done to the kin-dom of God? Jesus asks us to think about if our actions are promoting community.

In our community, our country, our faith, there is so much stigma against divorce. And it comes from these scripture passages we’ve read today. “They are no longer two, but one flesh!” “What God has joined together, let no one separate!”

And I agree with the passages, but not always as they are applied. I believe that yes – No King should force you to divorce your love, especially so that the king can then marry your love. No state should outlaw homosexual unions. Marriage in Jesus’ time and in our time is about a set of rights and privileges. Better tax rates. Who can visit whom in the hospital. Who is permitted to raise children and who isn’t. When people are in love, and God unites them as one – let no human separate them.

But the reverse is also true. No King should force you to marry someone. Oh we did arranged marriages a lot in the time of kings and queens! And no state should force you to marry the one who assaulted you, or is the parent of your child. Marriage never has the prerequisite of love and kindness. Historically, marriage is about money.

Sometimes, we join into a marriage with love and kindness, without a power focus, but it doesn’t stay that way. We are human. We are post Adam and Eve. The marriage can be a harm for the people in it and the community. Therefore, what humans have brought together – let God separate. Sometimes, divorce is the kindness thing that can happen to a couple.

And it will hurt. There’s never a good time for divorce. There will always be hurt, especially if there are children involved.

But only hardness of heart keeps a bad marriage from divorcing, and letting everyone nurse their wounds, seek healing, and begin life again. And only hardness of heart keeps good marriages from happening, and letting all celebrate the love God has given them.

Jesus’ time is not our time. But our issues are often the same. How do we navigate our human laws with divine will? How do we create a world where everyone is not alone, but in relationship with a helper — or two or three or a whole church-full of helpers? How do we lovingly care for those who are married, divorced, single, separated, partnered, widowed, with children or without children?

Who are our neighbors, and how to we serve one another as neighbors and invite one another into healthy, wholesome, helping relationships?

May we never let the hardness of our hearts get in the way of God’s will of love for all. Amen.

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Bickering Siblings

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16hijab
Romans 4:13-25

Let me read to you something. It may sound a little familiar. It may sound a bit strange.

(Surah 45-67): The Angels said, “O Mary, God gives you good news of a Word from Him. His name is the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, well-esteemed in this world and the next, and one of the nearest. He will speak to the people from the crib, and in adulthood, and will be one of the righteous.”

She said, “My Lord, how can I have a child, when no man has touched me?”

He said, “It will be so. God creates whatever He wills. To have anything done, He only says to it, ‘Be,’ and it is.”

And [God] will teach him the Scripture and wisdom, and the Torah and the Gospel.

[The] messenger [,Jesus, said] to the Children of Israel: “I have come to you with a sign from your Lord. I make for you out of clay the figure of a bird; then I breathe into it, and it becomes a bird by God’s leave. And I heal the blind and the leprous, and I revive the dead, by God’s leave. And I inform you concerning what you eat, and what you store in your homes. In that is a sign for you, if you are believers. And verifying what lies before me of the Torah, and to make lawful for you some of what was forbidden to you. I have come to you with a sign from your Lord; so fear God, and obey me. God is my Lord and your Lord, so worship Him. That is a straight path.”

When Jesus sensed disbelief on their part, he asked, “Who are my allies towards God?”

The disciples said, “We are God’s allies; we have believed in God, and bear witness that we submit. Our Lord, we have believed in what You have revealed, and we have followed the Messenger, so count us among the witnesses.”

They planned, and God planned; but God is the Best of planners.

God said, “O Jesus, I am terminating your life, and raising you to Me, and clearing you of those who disbelieve. And I will make those who follow you superior to those who disbelieve, until the Day of Resurrection. Then to Me is your return; then I will judge between you regarding what you were disputing. As for those who disbelieve, I will punish them with a severe punishment, in this world and the next, and they will have no helpers. And as for those who believe and do good works, He will give them their rewards in full. God does not love the unjust.”

This is what We recite to you of the Verses and the Wise Reminder.

The likeness of Jesus in God’s sight is that of Adam: He created him from dust, then said to him, “Be,” and he was.

The truth is from your Lord, so do not be of those who doubt.

And if anyone disputes with you about him, after the knowledge that has come to you, say, “Come, let us call our children and your children, and our women and your women, and ourselves and yourselves, and let us invoke God’s curse on the liars.”

This is the narrative of truth: there is no god but God. God is the Mighty, the Wise.

But if they turn away—God knows the corrupt.

Say, “O People of the Book, come to terms common between us and you: that we worship none but God, and that we associate nothing with Him, and that none of us takes others as lords besides God.” And if they turn away, say, “Bear witness that we have submitted.”

O People of the Book! Why do you argue about Abraham, when the Torah and the Gospel were not revealed until after him? Will you not reason?

Here you are—you argue about things you know, but why do you argue about things you do not know? God knows, and you do not know.

Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but he was a Monotheist, a Muslim. And he was not of the Polytheists.


These are the translated words of the Quran. Like our own Gospel, the Quran says Jesus was born of the virgin Mary. Like our own Gospel, the Quran says Jesus healed the blind and the leprous, and brought the dead back to life. Like Gospels we have dropped over the centuries, the Quran says Jesus made a bird out of clay and had it fly. Like our own Gospels today, the Quran says that Jesus was taken up into heaven and is with God.

Like the Jewish Torah, and the Christian Old Testament, the Quran says we are made by God out of dust. Says there are no gods but God, alone. This is called monotheism. Mono-one. Theism. God. One God. We are monotheists. Not polytheists. Not many-gods.

When the Quran says “O People of the Book,” it is speaking to us. To all the children of Abraham. Not his physical children – but the children our own Paul writes about to Romans: Abraham’s spiritual children.

Just like Paul, the Quran points out that Abraham followed and believed God long, long before there were the faiths of Judaism or Christianity or Islam; therefore, long before there was a Quran or Bible or Torah.

But he submitted. To submit is to be muslim. Muslim means a person who has submitted to God. In English it means a particular faith. But it has two meanings in Arabic – the faith, but also what it literally means – to submit.

Much like we are all democrats because we are all part of a democracy. Democrat, however, has two meanings: one – a person is part of a democracy. The second, a person is part of a particular political party in the United States of America.

Abraham couldn’t be Muslim-the-Faith because the Quran and The Prophet Mohammad had not come to be. But he could be Muslim-the-person-who-submits-to-God. Because, as all three faiths of the Book read, Abraham did submit.

You’re a democrat-the-government-citizen because you’re an United States citizen. I don’t know which party line you vote with, if any, and that is none of my business.

So why do we feud so much? Why do today’s Jews and Christians and Muslims bicker although we are all faith siblings? All brothers and sisters through the faith of Abraham, and all brothers and sisters literally because we all know, and affirm, God, God alone, creates all of us?

Because most of us don’t care about nirvana.

Here me out – I challenge any of you here to get into an argument with me about how to achieve enlightenment, and how to step out of samsara and into nirvana. Whatever position you take – Mahayana, Theravada, Vajrayāna or Zen – I’ll take a different one and we can debate.

No one?

The truth is, here in Saint Michael’s United Church of Christ, we don’t care much about Buddha or Bodhisattvas.

But we care an awful lot about what someone says about Jesus and God.

We’re not invested into koans and tantras and the holy books of Budhism.

But we’ve staked our whole lives and afterlives on the Bible, and our prayers, and traditions, and rites.

We argue with our siblings because they are the most like us. We argue with our siblings because we share the most interests, investments, and the most is at stake.

We argue with Jews and Muslims and especially other Christians because these groups are most like us. What they say, and how they say it differently, we greatly care about.

This is as true today as it was in the past when the words were set in the Surahs of the Quran translation I read; it is as true as when Jesus walked and said a prophet is never accepted in his home town. It is as true today as when the ancient Israelites and Samaritans – both ancient Jews to anyone else but themselves – argued. As true as when Sarah tossed out Ishmael and his mother because she didn’t want them around herself and her son… as true as when Cain slew Abel.

We fight – we hate – the people who are most like us because in those few, few ways we are different SO MUCH is invested, risked, and at stake.

Paul, writing to the Romans, was trying so hard for the Roman Christians and Roman Jews to see each other as family. You’re not enemies! You’re siblings! Of the same faith of Abraham. The mono-theists, the One God, faith. He goes over laws – laws like the law to have circumcision, or to keep Kosher, or to keep Saturday or Sunday as the Sabbath, and says – if laws are making you lose faith, give them up!

We are alive in faith, faith gives us life. Faith – submitting to God, and trusting God will do as God promises – even if it looks impossible – keeping this hope against all hope – KEEP FAITH! Laws are good. Jesus said he came to fulfill the Laws and Prophets, not abolish them… but, in today’s language, if the Kings James Version is too difficult to read, get a different version of the Scripture. If Sunday Morning is too early for you to praise God, find another service time. Another church. Maybe not a church – praise in your house or car or with your friends over coffee. KEEP THE FAITH! The how and where and rules – the traditions – are good, but FAITH is what is essential.

What about our heads? All three books – The Torah, the Bible, the Quran – mention we ought to be covering our heads. No one here is wearing a hat. Why not?

Because, somewhere, our ancestors debated this. Our ancestors changed. They decided the FAITH was more important. The FAITH, the following, the trust, of God – than whether or not they covered their heads.

But other ancestors have chosen to keep following that law out of faith, out of submission, to God. And I’m not just talking about Muslima women who wear hijab; or Jewish men who wear yamakas, there are plenty of Christian churches and denominations where scarves still cover heads.

If Paul were writing to us, I think he’d write – don’t argue over whether or not to cover your heads. Argue – are you being faithful to the one and only God? Are you loving your neighbor? Are you loving God?

When we say things like “Don’t shop there, they jew you.” Or call someone a “towel-head,” we are not loving our neighbors. We are hating them.

When we refuse to speak with our siblings, out of fear, our of ignorance, out of hate – we are not being faithful to God who calls us to be the allies, the disciples, the-ones-who-submit to God who calls us to live our faith and preach to all nations.

When we believe that God of the Old Testament, YHWH, El-Shaddai, and the Lord, the God of the New Testament and Allah, are different gods… we forget our faith. We forget Abraham. We forget mono-theism. We forget there is but one god, and that is whom all of the faith children of Abraham are following.

One God. Understood differently. My perspective on my mom and dad is different than my brother’s perspective. But they are still the same mom and dad.

One God. Related to differently. I like doing crafts with my mom. My brother likes fishing with my mom. Still the same mom.

One God. We’re not the same religion. There are profound theological insights and beliefs that differ among us. I am not my brother. He is not me.

But we have the same parents.

And Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have one God. We are all siblings. Bickering siblings, different siblings, but siblings.

Since I razzed on Buddhism a little, I want to end with a Zen Buddist passage… a nun who one day approached a great patriarch to ask if he had any insight into the Nirvana sutra she had been reading.

“I am illiterate,” the man replied, “but perhaps if you could read the words to me I could understand the truth that lies behind them.”

Incredulous, the nun responded, “If you do not know even the characters as they are written in the text, then how can you expect to know the truth to which they point?”

Patiently the patriarch offered his answer, which has become a spiritual maxim for the ages: “Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger.”

We don’t worship the Bible. Jews don’t worship the Torah. Muslims don’t worship the Quran.

We all worship the Truth, which is God. The Truth – who is larger, brighter, truer, and beyond what our words, traditions, or experiences can capture.

We all worship God.

And we are all siblings.

Amen.

A Rainbow of Hope

169c6430c0941b6d00f7885d2bb1d7f0--noah-ark-art-partyGenesis 9:8-17
1 Peter 3:18-22

Noah’s story is a strange one. I usually hear it in one of two ways. The first way is the cute animal ark story. In this, a zoo of animals ride a boat with little smiling Noah under a rainbow. You see it on nursery walls and stitched on baby blankets. Aww – giraffes and lions and zebras! It’s the story we sung for our children’s chat today.

The other way I hear Noah’s tale is as an awful story about God’s wrath and how terrible the Old Testament is. In this version, one day, God lost God’s temper, and so in a fit of rage, drowned every man, woman, child and even all the animals. Then God felt bad, and so like any successful abuser, lured God’s victims back with gifts and apologies until God lost God’s anger again in a generation or two.

Both of these versions of the Noah story the Bible doesn’t contain. The one handed to us to much more nuanced, and can’t be summarized neatly into either a story of wrath or of cuteness.

The story begins with how the world has gotten worse and worse. Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and were banned from the perfect garden. Then their son Cain murdered his brother Abel. And Cain’s son murdered another man. And chaos and violence and rape spread across the face of the earth as humans did.

Genesis 6:5 “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” Humans had become evil, all the time. The following verse reads, “The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.”

It doesn’t read that God was wrathful and angry. Not that God wanted to punish humanity. But rather, God regretted. God was sorry. God’s heart was heavy and troubled. God was sad. Not angry.

Genesis 6:13-14a – “So God said to Noah, ‘I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth. So make yourself an ark.” God sought out the man who still honored God, who was not 100% evil, and before the evil could overcome him and his family, God told this guy God’s plan to save the world from absolute evil. God will make a new creation… but will save humanity, imperfect as it is, and give it a fresh slate to try again.

Genesis 6:17b-19: “Everything on earth will perish. But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark—you and your sons and your wife and your sons’ wives with you. You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you.” Everything will die, and the evil will be washed away. But the seed of life that is still good – Noah’s family, these animals – will be released back into the world to cover it with goodness instead of evil. And a covenant — a promise — will be made. God says God will make the covenant, but does not tell Noah at this time what it will be.

So Noah builds the ark. And God God’s self seals him and the animals and Noah’s family into the ark (Genesis 7:16b). And we’re told that for 40 days it rained; and for 150 days the world was flooded. And still longer it took until the waters were down enough that Noah was able to leave the ark. Remember he send out a dove, and it comes back without anything. Noah knows there is no where to land, nothing growing. Later the dove is sent out and it comes with an olive branch – a sign today of peace! – and lastly the dove is released and it doesn’t come back. It has gone on to live in the recreated world.

And God tells Noah to leave the ark then, Genesis 8:17 “Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you—the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground—so they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number on it.” Does that sound familiar? In the Creation stories, God tells the world to do the same: be fruitful and multiply. Here, in this new creation, God tells them the same.

Then Noah makes an altar, and thanks God. God smells the cooking meat on the altar and says, “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.

As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest,
cold and heat,
summer and winter,
day and night
will never cease.”

In other words – God knows we’re sinful. From childhood we start lying, harming ourselves and harming each other. God knows this – but accepts it. God will not destroy the world because of the sin of humanity. Whenever God intervenes again, it will be in a different way. God will recreate and redeem us from evil — the evils of our own hearts even — in a different way.

God tells Noah that we may eat all plants and all animals now – but that God will demand an accounting of our lives. And will demand an accounting of our animals’ lives. How have we treated one another? How have we been stewards of the earth and siblings to each other?

Noah’s ark story ends with God’s rainbow and God saying, Genesis 9:12-16 “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”

I’ve heard it said before that the rain bow is like a bow — what you use with an arrow. And when a bow is hung up, like a rain bow, it is a sign of peace. God’s bow – God’s violence – is hung up. A new way of dealing with evil on earth will have to be used, now.

I’ve also heard of rainbows being like a bridge, connecting heaven and earth. It symbolizes how we affect one another. What happens in heaven changes things on earth, and what happens on earth changes things in heaven. God promises to keep that in mind, and to be with us working together.

In our communion, we ask God to make God’s church — which is all of us — a rainbow of hope in an uncertain world. When there are clouds, and doubts, and flooding rains… we are the rainbow that says this will not last forever. There is still hope. Even in the most violent, most awful, most terrifying situations… what is will not always be. We can keep hope.

We know humanity needed saved again. And again and again. And God intercedes in and finds new ways to address the evil.

Consider Moses. Just like Noah, water is used to save Moses from evil, but the water doesn’t cover the earth. But just like Noah, Moses is saved by an ark. (That’s the word used for his little basket!) And like Noah, Moses is given a new covenant… this one not sealed with a rainbow but written on stone tablets and seal with blood of an animal and put in — here’s that word again! — an ark. This ark is to carry the tablets and be the movable house for God.

And consider Jesus. Like Noah, and like Moses, water plays a major part in Jesus’ life. The water of baptism. The water turned into wine. The water Jesus stills and walks upon. There is no ark in Jesus’ story, and Jesus doesn’t refer to himself as an ark… but he is, in a way. He is protecting, carrying, humanity from evil and into the newest creation of God. Jesus does tell us the newest covenant is sealed not with stones or animals or rainbows – but with Jesus’ own blood: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”

When God saves us from evil the next time around, we are saved through the covenant in Jesus, and sealed with the water of baptism and Holy Spirit.

The first letter of Peter writes to the struggling persecuted church to remember their baptisms. It’s not a bath for dirt. It does not make you stop sinning. It is an appeal to God to remember our covenant, and an appeal to us to remember our covenant. We are one people, many persons, but one people – belonging to one God. And it is together we’re all going to make it. Even those people who died in Noah’s days, says Peter, after disobeying God all their lives, even they – although dead – are offered to repent, apologize, and return to God through Christ.

In other words, says Peter, there’s hope. Even for the dead, there is hope of new life, new creation, new reconciliation and relationship with each other and with God. This is the covenant of Christ. A covenant of hope.

You don’t hope for things you have. You hope for what you don’t have. You don’t hope for sun on a day that is sunny. You hope for sun on rainy days. Rainbows of hope are visible only with storm clouds. Christ’s resurrection hope is only possible if Christ has died, and if we, too, physically die.

The hope is that the story of Noah doesn’t end with an ark. It continues. It ends with a rainbow, a promise, a new covenant.

The hope of Christ is that the tomb is empty. This symbol – a cross – is not just a reminder of our mortality, and of Christ’s death – but it is an EMPTY cross. Nobody hangs here. This is a cross of hope. There is more. The story continues. There is a resurrection.

And we need this hope, now. Our country is deeply divided. We’re told by our Federal Agents that this division, which has always been there, was exacerbated by another country.

The evil inclinations of our hearts were always there. The inclinations to distrust one another, to fear one another, to HATE one another. Those inclinations were incited, and we fell for it with glee. With glee, people passed on hate messages. With glee, we heard only the news we wanted to hear. With glee, we believed only what we wanted to believe. And with glee, we turned our own neighbors, our own brothers and sisters, into our enemies.

Lent is a time of making amends. A time of reflecting on our own sins, and building bridges – rainbows of hope – connecting ourselves to each other.

Lent is a time to reflect – what messages are we sharing? Are we seeking common ground and seeking the common good, or are we focusing on our differences, and focusing on just assisting ourselves?

Lent is a time to pray for forgiveness. A time to remember who we have issue with, and seek them out, to offer the olive branch of peace.

Jesus told us that a house divided soon falls in on itself.

Rebuild your house.

Rebuild your burned bridges.

The storm is happening, but we can be the rainbow of hope in this uncertain world.

Amen.

Dancing in the Spirit

Genesis 1:1-5water
Mark 1:4-11

Water throughout the Bible –

In the beginning – our translation today says a wind from God sweeps over the face of the waters. But this could also be translated as the spirit of God hovered, the breath of God danced, the soul of God fluttered.

Much like a dove’s flight.

A dove’s flight tells Noah when the waters are receding.

The Spirit, like a descending dove, alight upon Jesus at his baptism in waters bringing God’s personal words of love.

Water in the Bible is the source of life. Out of water, God brings forth peoples and animals, plants and insects, birds and fish. Out of water, to this day, we are born from our mothers. Water is life.

Water is cleansing! Water is used as a holy bath before approaching the temple of God. Water is used to cleanse hands before prayer, and feet upon entering houses, and, of course, our baptisms.

Yet, water is also death. The Red Sea parts for escaping Moses, but it comes back together to kill the Egyptians. Noah and his family survive the flood, but that flood kills all other humans and animals and life.

Hand in hand, life and death, water is given to us.

Baptisms are the same water. The water God first made, and the water that Jesus walked upon… but also the water that makes up blood, spilled on battle field after battle field, city after city, and upon the cross.

Water changes, is renewed, but remains the very same water, same molecules, through all time. Through rain and snow, through rivers and underground creeks, through oceans and through the organs of animals and leaves of plants. I’m sure you’ve heard the joke that we’re drinking dinosaur pee. We are. But we’re also drinking the water that Abraham gave to visiting strangers – angels! – and the water God gave to Hagar and the water that anointed Jesus.

Water is death and life. Water is full of billions of previous creature’s lives and it enables the current life of billions of creatures.

The spirit of God dances throughout it.

When we are baptized, we are baptized not just in the name of God, Christ, and Spirit… but we are baptized into the DEATH of Jesus.

Symbolically, we drown. We go down. We die. We return to water, or rather, return the waters God gifted us.

Symbolically, we cease.

Spiritually, the old us DOES die.

And in the baptism, with coming up, with drying off the water, we are baptized into the LIFE of Jesus. A new life. Reborn. Reborn of not just water, but also the Spirit of God.

Symbolically, we have over come death.

Symbolically, we have emerged back into the world anew.

Spiritually, we are a new creation.

In baptism, we die and conquered death. We follow Christ to the grave and beyond. We see and affirm that nothing can separate us from the Love of God. We see and affirm the Spirit that dances all through creation also dances within us. We see and affirm the way of Christ is one of life and death, joys and sorrows, mixed blessings, muddy waters that are hard to discern and crystal clear waters that refresh us again and again. We see and affirm we are followers of Christ.

We see and affirm we are the children of God, loved, beloved, and with whom God is well pleased.

Rejoice in your baptisms! Remembered or not. Rejoice in other’s baptisms! Seen, or not. Rejoice in the baptisms that have happened, are happening, and will happen – for the Spirit unites us all as one in holy rites such as these.

Amen.

Jacob’s Ladder

Genesis 28:10-19ahandful-of-dust
Romans 8:12-25

Jacob is running from Esau. Remember? We read last week that he tricked Esau out of Esau’s blessing and portion of the family’s inheritance for a bowl of soup, and then by preying on their blind father. Now the twin brother intends to get the blessing and inheritance back… via murder.

It’s honestly a rare funeral where there is no argument over inheritance. A rare funeral where this sibling or that cousin hasn’t swindled their relatives, lied to the deceased, or outright stolen. Jacob and Esau, and their parents Isaac and Rebecca, have a family just like ours.

And like our own, the peacekeeper just wants everyone to get along. With Isaac passed away from old age, Rebecca wants her two sons to just love each other… even though she helped their bitter rivalry along by favoring and aiding one boy in his tricks. Now in her old age, she doesn’t want to lose all her family. So she warns Jacob about Esau, and tells Jacob to go to her brother’s house and live there until Esau calms down.

I mean, he can’t keep a grudge forever, right? She figures her sons will feud a few months, and then it will all be over and the family will be reunited.

Sadly, it takes years and years… and Rebecca passes away before she ever sees Jacob come home again.

Our reading today finds Jacob on the run from his home to his uncle’s house. He’s in the middle of no where, no man’s land, and stops to sleep out under the stars. He has nothing but the clothes on his back and his walking stick. So he uses a rock as a pillow.

And as we read, he has a vivid dream.

In his dream, Jacob sees a ziggurat, a steeped pyramid, a ladder, or a staircase connecting heaven and earth. Angels go up and down it from heaven and to earth and back again. But God stands BESIDE Jacob. This is the first time Jacob has had any sort of religious experience. And God tells him I am the Lord of your father, and your grandfather. And I am the Lord of you. All the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. Blessings, scattered all over the earth like how dust gets everywhere. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go… I will not leave you until I have done what I promise.”

And Jacob wakes up – and proclaims – surely the Lord is in this place! This is Bethel, which means, House of God. And he puts a stone there, and consecrates it, and it becomes a place of worship.

The silly young man. Jacob thinks the PLACE is important. God says the person is. Jacob only focused on the ladder. But God was BESIDE Jacob. And God said, I will go with you wherever you go. Surely God was in that place, just as God is here, but God is with us everywhere too. Still, we like to think of God in one place. Back then, in Jacob’s time, this idea that gods are tied to the land was so ingrained it was believed that if you left your city… your god didn’t go with you. Your god was stuck in the city. So God proclaiming to Jacob that God isn’t limited by boundary lines is pretty radical. But we still, today, have a hard time remembering God isn’t just in the House of God, isn’t just in church… but everywhere.

There are no godless places.

I’ve heard people say they don’t need to go to church because they can feel God in beautiful sunrises and in the peaceful croak of bullfrogs. They see God in the smile of strangers and the laughter of children.

I don’t think any church-go-er doesn’t know God in these situations, also. We all know and remember God in such beauty.

It’s those places we like to call godless where we need help. It’s in those internal woes and deep sorrows where its hard to find God. If God is everywhere, then where is God when things aren’t great?

Our second reading tells us the world is in pain. This we know. Paul says you and I are called to address that pain and be blessings. Creation awaits for God’s Children to show, to reveal, God. Creation has been told God is everywhere — in the beautiful and in the ugly — but it’s our job to help creation see how God doesn’t abandon us.

Like dust, we are blown everywhere. Like dust, sticking to everything. Like dust, covering all people without preference. Like dust, a scattering of blessings and reminder of God’s love for us in all situations.

God will not leave us, no matter where we wander. No matter where we’re forced to go. God is with us. Even homeless, even on the run because we’ve cheated family, and using a rock for a pillow…. God still seeks us out.

It’s… just so hard to remember.

And that’s where Bethel comes into play. When so many need churches. When communities are needed most. We seek these places out where others have felt God to try to feel God’s presence ourselves. We need these holy places not because God isn’t everywhere, but because we need to feel God, need a sanctuary, a place of rest, a place where the dusting of blessing is apparent.

Chapels in hospitals. Churches in cities and rural roads. Places where we have set a stone and invited people to remember… God is beside us.

Paul writes that as we groan and seek relief, we can rest in these places and with each other in hope. We are people of hope. People who live into God’s promises. And one of those promises is to turn our first fruits into huge harvests of goodness.

First fruits – the first part of a harvest – is not always the best veggies. I know the first tomato of the year I really look forward to… but it usually is a tiny little thing. The second or third tomato is proper for a sandwich. And the first egg my pullet lays is a tiny little misshapen thing. And our first attempts to go out of our comfort zones and be kind to others might be horribly awkward.

But God is taking these. Taking every little offering of kindness, and turning that kindness into miracles.

I think of it a bit like Jacob’s ladder. No one climbs a ladder in one leap. It is rather one little step at a time. So, too, none of us can change the world over night. We take little steps. But those little steps build and build and build.

Then when we gather back in after a week of little steps, we take pause here at church and look at how far we’ve come. We take hope. What looked like drops of goodness in to an impossibly thirsty and hopeless world has actually been a shower of blessings. When we felt like we were just a single mote of dust, we have actually been a part of God’s lavish garden.

When we felt all alone, we actually walked with God and with other people the whole time. you might think you can only affect your own little life, but what you do spreads everywhere. Every little deed counts.

Surely God is in this place. Surely God is everywhere. Surely God is in heaven and on earth and everywhere in between and right beside us. Surely God will not leave us and shall fulfill all of God’s promises. Surely we are beloved children of God, called to bring blessings to all the Earth.

Amen.

Working Smart, Working Hard

Genesis 25:19-34fac_wycliffe_open
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Picture a church lit by beautiful stained glass windows and decorated with statues and glittering images. The pastor preaches from the pulpit, but you cannot understand a word he says. You’re told he is telling the stories in the windows and alcoves. But what he’s actually saying you have no idea. They are magical, holy words. The words of Latin, which only educated people know, and in which Holy Scripture is writ.

But the words are so powerful that if the pastor misspeaks them, it is said God will send lightening down and strike him dead. And the words are so powerful all by themselves that people take them and use them for their own magic. Hocus Pocus – you know this is a holy word. The Father says it often.

The Father finishes the Latin and moves into your own language for the sermon… presumably, it is based on what you just heard. But you don’t know.

… Its this phenomenon John Wycliffe had issue with back in 1376. Wycliffe, like Jesus, and like the prophets, communicated that physically hearing the words of scripture and faith is not enough. You also have to understand them.

If you can’t hear them spiritually, understand them deeply, struggle and debate, love and use them… then the words are just noise. Seed that never bears fruit. Wycliffe wanted the Bible translated into people’s common tongues. He wanted them to know hocus pocus isn’t a magical word, but how people heard the poorly pronounced Latin words for ‘Hoc est potus [meum]’ “This is my body,” He preached all people needed to have access to the scripture.

Hundreds of years before, others had argued for this too. We need to not just know other’s understandings of scripture, but struggle with it ourselves, too. So long before Wycliffe, scripture was translated into common languages for people – but over the centuries, scripture became solidified as the Latin version only, and no one but the educated spoke Latin anymore. Many people had forgotten it’s all our jobs to listen deeply to scripture, and to come to the message. It is the meaning, rather than the particular words, that is important.

But anything not Latin, back in the 1300s, was considered not true scripture.

People who followed Wycliffe’s way of thinking got called Lollards. A word for mutterers. And were called heretics. And burned at the stake.

In our reading today, Jesus translates the message of the prophets and God’s words into people’s common lives. He was called a heretic. And hung on a cross.

Today – people still fight over what translation of prayers, and scripture, to use. One of the biggest fights is over the King James Version. Is it the only authoritative, only true, version?

 

What version of scripture you consider authoritative matters. If only the KJV will do, then you’ll have to accept that unicorns walked the earth with Jesus. If you’re okay using more than one translation, to try to get at the various meanings of ancient words… then you’ll have hard work, but you’ll also have smarter work. Then you’ll know the word some Bibles have as unicorns others have has aurochs and we know as… really big cows.

On the flip side, if only our NRSV is authoritative, who is his ‘Holy Ghost’ we sing to in our doxology? That word is Holy Spirit in the NRSV.

So which Bible is authoritative to you? Which one do you trust?

Red letter Bible?
King James?
New Revised Standard Version?
Common English Bible?
The Message?
Does it have to be a printed version, or is online okay? On a phone okay?

They all have pros and cons to their translation and transliteration. All of them make choices in translating old, hard words that may only appear once and have no context for us to know what it means. Is it debts or trespasses? Holy ghost or holy spirit? All of them also make assumptions about what their words mean to you or me.

For instance… my grandpa might ask you for a poke. What does that mean to you? Click a button on Facebook? Stick your finger into his belly? Or hand him a grocery sack? If you had to translate Grandpa’s request to someone… which one of those would you pick?

Those who provide us even the Latin Bibles have to make those choices… Let’s say you’re translating the Bible and come to the word describing Mary… should you say virgin, silly, child-like, naive, young, unwed, girl…? All of them are legitimate translations.

Even those listening to Jesus today had to decide what he meant with his words.

And this is why Jesus so often doesn’t just say something, but then demonstrates it too. And today he tells others to do the same: listen to understand, and then act on what you hear.

Wycliffe listened to scripture with an ear for action. Scripture said to spread the Good News to all. It said God’s Word is a lamp to our feet. And he took action to be sure all had access to this news and a lamp. His followers made secret and illegal copies of the Bible written in English. And this, along with the same happening in Germany for the Germans, led us to the Protestant Revolution. Led the church into multiple reforms where you can hear God’s Word in your own tongue in almost every church regardless of denomination. Led us to remember… the words themselves aren’t magic. The message is.

Before today’s reading, Jesus has given the Sermon on the Mount… and this is its conclusion. He says: I have told you all these things. I have said them. Now… who has really heard me and will go and produce fruit? And who will start… but for this reason or that, not finish?

Who heard the words, and got lost in nitpicking just who is my neighbor and just who gets to be called the meek…

And who heard the words, and said: care for others, and be humble and kind.

And who heard the words… and went and cared for others in humble and kind ways?

It is those who took what was understood, and did more kindness, that produced 30, 60, or 100 times more good in the world.

Did you hear about the care chain in Indiana on Father’s day? A woman looked in her rearview mirror at McDonalds and saw a man who had four kids in his van. She decided to pay for herself and him at the window, and told the cashier to wish the man a happy father’s day. The father was so impressed and happy that he paid for the people behind him, too. This went on all day! The only reason this chain stopped was because the place closed! One good deed produced the fruit of an entire days’ worth of good deeds. And each one of those people’s moods were lifted, encouraged, and they left telling others of the goodness that surprised them. And everyone’s days were better and more loving because of it.

The words I say and the words we read and hear today are important, but are seed on rocky soil if they don’t land in your fertile hearts and lead to more good words and more good deeds.

The Genesis story of the twins Esau and Jacob touches a little on this.

Both boys have grown up hearing from their mom and dad about the promises of God. Both have heard how God is making a nation out of their family and how God’s blessing is passing down generation to generation. And both have been told how the older boy, Esau, is the one Isaac is passing down the bulk of his land and the blessing of God to.

The words are just words. Neither boy has seen God in action yet. The words fall on Esau and he doesn’t do anything with them. They are just stories. The words fall on Jacob and he does something – he envisions the future and he works for it. He believes in God’s promises.

And so, Esau gives up future promises for the immediate gratification of soup now. And Jacob believes in future promises, takes Esau’s birth right, and waits decades to see these promises come through.

Do you believe in God’s promises? Do you believe enough to take action on them? To risk your immediate benefits for long-term benefits?

Do you work hard – toil – at life or do you work smart – trust – God ?

The words we use are often forgotten. But the deeds we do are remembered. Carl Bueher and Maya Angelo said: “They may forget what you say – but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

So… embody your scripture. And know your scripture enough to embody it. If it’s in a language too complex, get a different version.

So that, the words of God are more than just words, but a way of living and acting you can count on for your whole life.

Amen.