Sunday, 29 September 2013

The Great I Am

In the ongoing saga of God’s people we’ve pressed fast forward several hundred years. Let me tell you the best TV dramas can’t hold a candle to our Holy Scripture! Here’s what you missed. Jacob married both Rachel and Leah, escaped from under the thumb of his corrupt father-in-law Laban who made him work for seven long years to marry each of his daughters, set up house and home in the promised land, his sons had a family feud, plotted the death of their brother Joseph their father Jacob’s favourite son. The brothers decided instead of killing Joseph to sell him into slavery in Egypt where he finds favour with the King by interpreting his dreams and sparing the people of Egypt from famine. Joseph eventually gets reunited with his brothers and father when they come to Egypt to escape famine. 
For generations God’s people stayed in Egypt until we hit todays reading. The people were groaning under the weight of slavery because there arose a Pharaoh who no longer remembered what Joseph did for them. It was a terrible time and they cried to God for help. For the people of God it was like God had forgotten about them because they suffered so long and God seemed like God was silent. Our reading says, “God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.” (Exodus 2:24 – 25) But it is not like God forgot in the same way you forget a set of keys or forget to buy milk on the way home. God is not like that. 
One commentator said that when the bible says, “God remembered” it is like a director saying, “Action!”  What does God do? God called Moses. Remember him, the one who is rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter from river. Moses was tending his father-in-law’s sheep when he comes across a bush that burns without being consumed. A sign that perhaps this isn’t going to be an ordinary day. Standing on this holy ground, God calls Moses and asks him to take off his shoes. Then God says, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; …and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of the land to a good and broad land flowing with milk and honey.” (Exodus 3:7 – 8) 
And then God asks Moses to go to Pharaoh and lead the people out of Egypt. Moses gives every possible reason why he can’t do it. 
“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11)
“If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘what is his name?’ what shall I say to them? (Exodus 3:13)
“But suppose they do not believe me or listen to me, but say, “The Lord did not appear to you.” (Exodus 4:1)
“O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” (Exodus 4:10)
“O my Lord, please send someone else.” (Exodus 4:13)
Moses is just like us isn’t he? Sometimes we hear the voice of God calling, nudging, inspiring us to do something and we put God on hold, we ignore the feeling, we don’t answer, we doubt our ability or we just plain don’t want to do it and say as Moses did, “O my Lord, please send someone else.” And we can’t blame Moses either.  God wants him to do nothing less than go and talk to Pharaoh, liberate the people of Israel and lead them to a promised land which by the way is already occupied by other peoples. Nothing to it right?  I understand why Moses said, “O my Lord, please send someone else.” I’m sure I’ve said it to God a time or two when I feel God that God is calling me to something too difficult or too challenging. 
Here is the thing about God – the beautiful and amazing thing about God. God is always with us. No exceptions. Every objection, every excuse offered by Moses is met by some version of the promise that God is with us helping us do all that God asks. The fourth century theologian Augustine is said to have written the phrase, “Without God I can’t and without me God won’t.” That was certainly true with Moses and it is still true today. I know that just Miriam, daughter of Paul and Carol, wife of Scott, mother of Will and Carrie who was so shy she refused to talk to people and once hid in the closet for hours because she was too afraid to go downstairs and to talk with guests my parents had invited over, would not could not stand here each week and do what I do. But Miriam who finally had to admit, had to accept that God called her to do this work can. 
God calls us to be God’s love at work in the world. There may be questions, we may doubt our abilities but God is with us each step of the way. That is the promise that God gave to Moses and it is the promise that God gives to us. And when we, like Moses, wonder who it is that calls, we get the same answer as Moses did, God says, “I am who I am.” (Exodus 3:14) Biblical scholars can’t even really translate the word used here for God – it is as though God cannot be contained or defined by language. Yet, it says all we need to know about God whose name is as mysterious as the God who loves us and calls us into being. 
The “great I AM” who called Moses takes on human flesh in Jesus. In our gospel reading today Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8: 58) Jesus says, “I am the light of the world; I am the true vine; I am the good shepherd; I am the way, the truth and the life.” Jesus, the great I am in human flesh shows us the way of love and he invites us to follow in that same way. 
Moses stood on holy ground, and found every reason in the world not do as God asked but with God’s help, by God’s grace Moses lead the people out of slavery and toward that promised land of milk and honey. Moses never set foot in that land of promise but he still went on the journey that God called him to. The same is true for us in our Baptism. God calls us to into a lifelong journey with God’s transforming love as our guide. We, like Moses, don’t know if or when we will reach our destination but we trust in God’s promise to be with us. The great I Am is always there calling our names, inviting us, nudging us to be God’s hands and feet at work in the world. Amen. 

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Jacob's Ladder

Human beings are complicated. We are a strange mix of our family backgrounds, genetic predispositions and then there is that last unknown piece that makes each one of us completely unique. As humans beings we are made to live in relationships with others. We become part of families – whether they are chosen families or the ones you were born with. Families can be blessings nurturing us and sheltering us from the storms of life. But they can also be hard places filled with division. The bible does not shy away from telling us that it isn’t easy being part of a family.  We need to look no further than our bible reading for today. Talk about complicated. A divided family with the mother and son actively working against father and son. 
The problems started early. As Rebekah waited for the birth of her sons, she could feel the two brothers were battling in her womb. In chapter 25 of Genesis, it says, “The children struggled within her; and she said, “if it is to be this way, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. And the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger. When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob.” (Genesis 25:22 – 26) 
It almost seems as if the war between Esau and Jacob was destined to be. The bad family dynamics that started with Abraham and Sarah and their son Isaac continues into the next generation. Isaac who was their laughter in their old age was also the child that Abraham bound to an altar to sacrifice. That moment may have been God’s yes to life and no to destruction but it also had to have a lasting impact on Isaac to be at once cherished and disposable. 
That theme wove its way into his family. Isaac loved Esau who was a skillful hunter and a man of the field and did not pay much attention to Jacob who was a quiet man living in the tents. Isaac loved Esau and Rebekah loved Jacob (Genesis 25:28) Isaac cherished one son and the other was disposable. Jacob knew that as the second son he had nothing so one day when he was cooking a stew and his brother Esau came in from hunting starving, he demanded that Esau sell him his birthright for a bowl of stew. 
We expect our bible characters to be good, noble and upright people. We expect that they will have good values, people we’d like our children to emulate. A word to the wise, don’t let your children pick Jacob. He’s a liar and a cheat – and yet somehow not only did he find his way into the bible but God gave him a new name, called him Israel and he is the father of the twelve tribes of Israel—the father of God’s chosen people.
After Jacob conned his brother into giving him his birthright he conspires with his mother to deceive Isaac into giving the wrong son the blessing. Poor Isaac whose eyesight had dimmed had no way of knowing that Jacob would put on his brothers clothes and lie to get the blessing. And you may be wondering what the big deal is about the blessing. He already has the birthright. There is more than one blessing to give, right? But Isaac can’t give another. Blessing in the bible is not like saying, “Bless you” when someone sneezes. It means something, there is power in the words spoken. The blessing has a permanent and lasting effect. If you have ever received a blessing and not just after a sneeze you might have an idea of what they were talking about. A blessing in its deepest form is when someone surrounds you with prayer. 
When I was at Greenbelt this summer, the last thing we did in our small group was to pray for one another. I’ve said prayers and had people pray for me before but somehow this was different. I have struggled, and will continue to struggle no doubt between the balance of the needs of my family and this the needs of the church. It is hard. But when Marcie prayed for me it touched a place in my innermost being that moved me to tears. It was as though in that moment I was blessed with the ability to meet this struggle head on and to do it with grace. Blessings are powerful. Isaac knew it. Rachel knew it. Esau knew it. Jacob knew it. 
Which makes it the bigger crime over cheating Esau out of his birthright for a bowl of stew. I’m guessing that Esau knew in the back of his mind that he may not have his birthright but he will get his father’s blessing. You can understand why Esau why he wanted to kill his brother. Jacob needed to flee before his brother killed him. With his mother’s help he leaves the land of his birth and his brother’s wrath. Tired from running, he finds a piece of land and lays down to sleep. Jacob is alone in the wilderness with no place to call home. He cannot return to the land of his birth, he does not know how he will be welcomed by his mother’s family. He is all alone and in a mess.

Choir Sings vs. 3 In the Quiet Curve of Evening
3 In the mystery of my hungers,
in the silence of my rooms,
in the cloud of my unknowing, you are there.
In the empty cave of grieving,
in the desert of my dreams,
in the tunnel of my sorrow, you are there.
You are there, you are there, you are there.

With a stone for a pillow Jacob falls asleep begins to dream. There is a ladder set on the earth and the top of it reaches to heaven. All night, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And then God stands beside him and says, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in your and your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you.” (Genesis 28: 13 – 15) 
When Jacob wakes, he is afraid and amazed, he says, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28: 17) Amazing story isn’t it? Jacob cons his brother, lies to his father and has to flee from his homeland to escape his brother’s wrath. He finds himself in a strange place lost and alone. And God chooses this moment to stand beside him. God blesses Jacob and promises that his descendants will be many and that thy will be a blessing to the world. 
That’s the power of God’s grace. It doesn’t matter that Jacob was a liar and a cheat. It doesn’t matter that he made a mess of his life. Because God takes all that we are and sets us on a new path. This is God’s story with humanity. God comes to us. God uses us just as we are.  God does not seek out perfection. God seeks out human beings flawed and imperfect and uses us to show the good news in the world. God is at work every day taking our messes and making something new. God did it with Jacob and God can does it with us. God walks with us each day, standing beside promising never to leave. Amen

Sunday, 15 September 2013

The Binding of Isaac

This is a terrible story.  Child sacrifice is not something that we want to hear about and we don’t expect to hear about in the bible. As a mother, as a human being I just don’t understand why God would ask Abraham to take his son, his only son, the son whom he loves to be sacrificed. And Abraham, how does he even take Isaac with him or look Sarah in the eye as he takes their son, the son they longed for, whom they called Isaac which means laughter because he was God’s gift in their old age. How? Somehow he does. And somehow this terrible story called by Christians “The Sacrifice of Isaac” and by Jewish people “The Binding of Isaac” marks a turning point in the story of God’s people. As narrative, it is superbly told – building the tension with every word. 
Why is it in the bible? A little context helps. The world then as now can be a terrifying place where awful things happen. Turn on the news any night of the week and the horrors will flash before your eyes. The terrible thing that was happening in the world where Abraham lived was child sacrifice. It may not have happened everyday but Abraham would have heard about neighbouring peoples who believed their gods needed to be appeased by the sacrifice of a firstborn for land or some other reason.  It is possible that God’s request did not sound to Abraham like something out of character for a god to ask of his follower.
It is also possible that Abraham knew that God would not follow through on this request. There are some clues along the way. When Abraham turned away God was waiting. When Abraham and Sarah doubted God’s promise would ever come, God blessed them with Isaac. When there was trouble as he and Sarah wandered in the desert it was God who provided for them. 
If you look at the creations stories of the different religions in Abrahams’ day, the story of the God of Abraham is the only one that doesn’t involve violence. Many of the creation stories involve the world coming into being through the destruction of the other god. We heard it last week, the creation story in the bible is peaceful. No one dies to create the world rather God speaks the world into existence and gives the gift of life.
Maybe on the day when God calls for Abraham and he says, “Here I am” Abraham knows something about the nature of God that allows him to go along with God’s horrific request. Abraham sets off with two helpers and when they draw close to the Mount of God, Abraham tells the two helpers to wait for him here and says, “We will come back to you.” (Genesis 22:4) Not I will come back to you. We will come back. Another clue, Abraham gets Isaac to carry the wood and the bible says, “he himself carried the fire and the knife.” (Genesis 22:6) Abraham is being a careful and prudent Father – like somehow this is going to work out. He carries the dangerous stuff the fire and the knife and Isaac the wood. 
Another clue, when Isaac asks his Father where the lamb is for the burnt offering, either Abraham is an exceptional liar or he trusts implicitly in God’s goodness. He tells Isaac, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering.” (Genesis 22:8) God will provide. It hasn’t been an easy road for Abraham up to this point but God has always provided. God called Abraham to a life of wandering but he was promised a land, of being the leader of God’s chosen people and offspring – as many as the stars in the night sky or grains of sand in the desert. 
It doesn’t make what God asks of Abraham better but somehow if Abraham trusts that God will do the right thing then it makes the story a little more palatable. Abraham then takes his son and sets the altar, and binds his son and has the knife in his hand when a voice calls out, “Abraham, Abraham.” And Abraham says, as he did earlier, “Here I am.” And the angel says, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” (Genesis 22:11 – 13) Abraham then sees a ram caught in the thicket, he frees his son Isaac and they worship the God who provides and sacrifice the ram. Abraham then calls the place, “The Lord will provide.” (Genesis 22:14) because here God provided. 
In many ways “The Binding of Isaac” is a much better name for this story because the real story is not the sacrifice of Isaac because that didn’t happen. The real story is that when Isaac was bound, God said “no” to sacrifice, “no” to destruction, “no” to death and “yes” to life.  Did Abraham know this about God? We will never know. But we do know that again and again God’s loving kindness wove its way through Abraham’s life. 
 And God has been saying yes to the fullness of life ever since that day. God will provide, not for our wants but for our needs. The other day I was listening to the Weekend Arts Magazine. Chrisy Holmes was interviewing one of these new age gurus of positive thinking. The guy believes that if you think positively about all the things you want it will happen. There is nothing wrong with positive thinking. What I’m troubled by is the false promise of positive thinking. They tell you that if you focus all your energy on increasing the size of your bank account, or imagining your personal success or focusing on losing weight that it will happen. But there are people who for all their positive thinking are hungry and do not have even the basic necessities of life.  If the power of positive thinking fails them, what then?
So when I say that God will provide I’m not talking about providing like the false promises of the gurus of positive thinking. God is not like that – we don’t always get what we think we want with God. God provides in for our deepest needs and offers the gift of life, of wholeness which is so much more than a full bank account or the perfect life. 
God makes all things new by taking our real human flaws and out of them making good things happens. God makes all things new by providing for what we need before it is on our lips.  Nadia Bolz-Webber in her book Pastrix writes, “Grace isn’t about God creating humans as flawed beings and then acting all hurt when we inevitable fail and then stepping in like the hero to grant us grace – like saying, “Oh, its OK, I’ll be a good guy and forgive you.” It’s God saying, “I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word. I am a God who makes all things new.” (Pastrix, page. 60.)
The Psalmist says it so well:
So my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices;
for my body shall also rest in safety.
For you will not surrender me to the Grave,
nor suffer your beloved to see the Abyss.
You will show me the path of life.
In your presence is fullness of joy;
and from your right hand flow delights
for evermore. (Psalm 16)
When the way forward seems confusing or uncertain, we need to trust God’s grace. In the face of seeming impossibilities we need to believe that God will provide. After all, the God who provides the ram in the thicket, is the God who sends us Jesus. Jesus is the ultimate no to death and yes to life.  In him all things are made new – including us. And God’s grace frees us to follow in God’s way all the days of our lives. Amen. 

Sunday, 8 September 2013

We've done it before, With God's help we can do it again

Here we are at the beginning. John writes, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being was life.” (John 1:1 – 4) The writer of Genesis says “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”  (Genesis 1:1 – 2) In both of these readings God speaks the world into being. It is a beautiful way of describing not only the gift of creation but a reminder that all things start somewhere.

We are in a beginning of sorts – not as grand as the beginning of creation. But September with all it flurry of activity feels in many ways like a beginning of a new year. There are lots of things starting, new routines that need to be established, new schools, new teachers, new activities. We are no different in the church. After the hush of summer we ramp up with our activities – Sunday School, Bridge, Messy Church and the start of all the group meetings.         We are in a beginning in another way too. Next weekend we are gathering to talk, to pray, to discern where and how God is calling us to live out our faith in this time and this place. We know that we cannot continue as we have in the past – finance, aging infrastructure and congregation size are all part of the reason. So we are at the beginning of this new journey of discovery of what the future will hold for us as a congregation.

Beginnings are exciting – they are full of possibility. One of the reasons I always loved September was because you always got new school supplies. I loved the new notebooks that you get to start – clean crisp pages with no mistakes or messy writing or doodles on the side of the page. For a moment perfection is possible – even though we know it is not attainable.

Beginnings are also scary and stressful. There is the unknown – what will the teacher be like? Will I like him or her? What kinds of new challenges am I going to have to face? And it is a scary thing for us as a congregation to be looking to the future not knowing what it holds for us. The start of anything is stressful because every new beginning means an ending to something else. For us it means celebrating, remembering all that has brought us here today, faith, resilience, God’s grace but it also means letting go of how things have always been done and being open to new possibilities and new ways being a church family.

Nadia Bolz-Weber in her new book Pastrix writes, “Smiley TV preachers might tell you that following Jesus is about being good so that God will bless you with cash and prizes, but it’s much more gruesome and meaningful. It’s about spiritual physics. Something has to die for something new to live. Death and resurrection – the recurring experience of seeing the emptiness, weeping over our inability to fill it or even understand it, and then listening to the sound of God speaking our names and telling God’s story – is a messy business.” (14 – 15)There is nothing neat or easy about creation. Our story, God’s story is all about death and resurrection, beginnings and endings.

In the beginning... filled with possibility and uncertainty...  God stepped out into the chaos, the Bible says into the formless void, and puts an end to the chaos by starting the work of creation. The gift of light and dark, the gift of waters above, the waters below and all vegetation, the gift of day and night away to mark time, the gift of sea creatures and birds of the air, the gift of all living beings, the gift of human kind – male and female made in the image of God. And then God looks at creation declares it “very good.” Then God rested.

In the beginning with all its possibility and all its uncertainty is happening all the time.  We read the creation story and it’s easy to believe that it is a one-time event. With the work of scientist we know that creation did not happen literally in six days but on an ongoing process. The work of creation is not finished and God is continually creating and making all things new. Nothing reminded me of this more profoundly than the birth of my children. With their first cries, I cried with joy at the beauty of this tiny baby placed in my arms.  A miracle, a gift from God and a reminder that the story of creation goes on.

Scientists are always learning new things about the universe and how it functions.  The creation story helps us to remember the many gifts that God gives us, that we are made in the image of God and that we are called to live in relationship with God and all our neighbours – even the things that slither, buzz or bite.

I was listening to CBC’s Quirks and Quarks yesterday, and they were talking about how sometime this month the sun is going to flip its polarity. This process happens every so often and often causes increased electrical storms when the transition is happening. But isn’t it amazing that the sun that we depend on for warmth, the constant in the sky and source of that all important vitamin D – is constantly shifting and changing. It is nothing short of miraculous. Every time we look at the world around us, the sun, the moon, the stars, the animals, the birds, the sea, the ponds we are reminded that God is not finished with us yet.

That is true in our personal lives and it is true in the life of the church. At the start of something new it is normal to be uncertain and nervous. On his first day of school, my son Will who was unsure how he would cope, knowing his comfortable routines from grade one were gone, that he must go and face the first day of grade two with all its changes and uncertainties,  came running downstairs.  He said to me, “Mom, I’ve done it before and I can do it again.” Smart guy – he knows he’s not sure about what the day will hold but he knows he can do it. He knows that because he faced challenges, nervousness and new beginnings before and learned through those experiences that he has abilities and resources - which run deeper than situations - to overcome fear to step into all the possibilities of grade two.

As this congregation through prayer and conversation looks to the future we have a choice to make. We as a congregation, as a people of faith can choose to give into despair, we can choose throw our hands up in the air and give up believing that the church of Jesus Christ is dying.

Or we can choose to remember that God has guided us and sustained us over generations and through many changes – leading us to renewed life. We can remember God’s abundant blessing, “It is good.” We can remember that in Jesus the promise new life rises from death on the cross. With every ending there is a new beginning. It is a time of uncertainty and possibility. Let us stand at this beginning and say, “We’ve done it before and with God’s help we can do it again.”  God is not finished with us yet. There is life to be lived. There is gospel to be proclaimed. Thanks be to God. Amen