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Monday, February 26, 2018

Empty Pots and Soup of Stone

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Covenant Series; Year B; 2018
Mary, the Mother of Jesus declared God to be full of possibility even in seemingly impossible circumstances at the annunciation. The same God shows the full range of his mercy and steadfast love through a series covenants that are the focus of several of our texts this Lent. 
Today, in our first reading we read of what is known as the Abrahamic Covenant, which illustrates once again, that God is not only able but is adept at achieving the impossible and it is through seemingly unlikely events that God demonstrates God’s steadfast love and desire for God’s people.
In our reading today, Abram’s first response to God’s news that he will have descendants from his wife is understandable. He is 99 years old and likely sees himself as old, dried up, empty, and incapable of such a thing. Sarai is no spring chick either, about 90 years old, equally dried up, barren, tired.
What God promises is not, by anyone’s estimation or imagination, even possible – that the two of them would become biological parents. Abram immediately falls face down in shock and disbelief at the news. If we were to read on just one more verse, we would see his second reaction – laughter. I can easily get on board with both responses – shock and hysteria. For who wouldn’t be shocked at this preposterous idea?
Then, God goes on to rename the couple -  Abram will forever be known as Abraham, and Sarai as Sarah; this is not just whimsy on God’s part. Names are significant. As Christians, while baptism is a physical sign of our true identities, invisible apart from the moment it takes place, the names which are spoken in our baptism, are written down, in the book of eternity, along with another name which we all bear – “Child of God.”
Biblical passages in which God is said to know our names abound, and they tell us that God names us as creatures in whom God delights (62:4), as precious (Isaiah 43:4), and as utterly known and loved (Isaiah 49:1; John 10:14-15). Under God’s command, Abram, whose name means, “My father the God is exalted” is transformed into Abraham - “The father of a multitude”. Sarai, meaning “quarrelsome” becomes Sarah, meaning “Princess” perhaps referring to her role as the progenitor of a line of kings including ultimately, the King of Kings, our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Yet the biblical record reveals that even those two who are known as the father and mother of the faith were far from perfect, both before and after this covenant was struck. Yet God persistently takes imperfect people and uses them in remarkable ways, despite their imperfections, shortcomings, brokenness, dryness, and sin.
We, too, may see ourselves as sinful, broken, dirty, old, empty, or otherwise incapable, but God, who knows us to the depth of our souls, calls us beloved and casts his lot with us. God frees us and calls us to live into the name God has given us. Lent offers us the perfect time to turn, as Sarah and Abraham must do, and to reorient ourselves according to the name God has given us, and know ourselves as capable, by the grace of God, to live into that name.
The thing is, we are not always going to get it right. The covenant God sets before Abraham and Sarah and before us, is to “walk before God and be blameless.” Of course, we hear that word, “blameless,” and we might just as well fall on our faces and join in Abraham’s laughter. Because we perceive “blameless” to mean “perfect” and we know such perfection to be impossible.
But the text tells us that Abraham and Sarah have faith, which is the reason God chooses them in the first place, to be the parents of many nations. However, it doesn’t take long, if we look closely at these two, to see that they are not perfect. They do some awful things to their own family and tell big lies when it suits them. They are indeed faithful, but they are also selfish; at times they despair, just as we do.
But when God is looking to do something new, in this case to birth a people who will bear his mark and through whom all nations will be blessed, perhaps, more than any of Abraham or Sarah’s other characteristics, God is drawn to their barrenness; to their emptiness. An empty pot is an opportunity for God to fill and create vessels of hope and mercy for the world.
            There is an old folk story called “Stone Soup,” about a wandering soldier in post-war Eastern Europe, who came upon a village. Now, there was a great famine following the war, and food was so scarce, that people hoarded what they had, refusing to share even with friend or neighbor.
As the soldier approached, the villagers shuttered their windows and closed their doors, telling him, “There’s not a bite to eat in the whole province. Better move on.”
The soldier, however, responded that as a matter of fact, he had everything he needed and was just about to make some stone soup, which he would be happy to share with them if they were hungry.
With great flourish, he produced a large iron pot from his wagon, which he filled with water and placed over a fire he built up, high and hot. With great ceremony he pulled a large but ordinary-looking stone from a velvet bag and dropped it into the pot.
The villagers, curious now, watched from their windows or set themselves up in the town square. As they watched, he sniffed the aroma rising from the pot and licked his lips.
Taking a taste, the soldier declared the soup nearly ready, just perhaps needing a bit of salt and pepper to bring it to perfection. A couple of the villagers scrambled over to him, condiments in hand, which he dramatically tossed into the soup pot, and stirred.
“Ah,” he said to himself rather loudly, “I do love a stone soup. Of course, stone soup with cabbage – that’s hard to beat.” No sooner had the words left his mouth than someone approached hesitantly, proffering a large head of cabbage. Thanking the fellow, the soldier added it to the pot. Hunger overcame skepticism and the villagers began to anticipate a delicious and filling bowl of soup.
“I once had stone soup with cabbage and a bit of salt beef as well, and it was fit for a king!” the soldier mused aloud. Before long, the town butcher found some salt beef and handed it over into the pot.
In like manner, were potatoes, and then onions, then carrots, and finally some mushrooms and a few herbs located and added into an increasingly aromatic and delicious stone soup, which indeed, the soldier shared with the entire village. With the contributions many who saw themselves as poor and barren, the transition from empty pot to soup of stone to delicious, nourishing meal became a feast so that all were fed.
God is known to speak to and use barren vessels and out of them to serve a feast of grace. God uses the most unlikely of people and circumstances, to achieve God’s purposes. God uses imperfect, sometimes wayward thinking people and with them does great things – just look at Peter from the gospel today as another example of the way God creates and demands change – often, when we are completely barren, when we hit rock bottom and become immovable stones.
When we feel we have nothing to offer, when we feel that our pot is bare and dry, God sends the Holy Spirit among us and fills us up. When the pain of our barrenness is so deeply humbling that we feel we feel incapable of rising above it, God raises us up to new life and bring us to new places that we cannot imagine.
Our church has existed 96 years. Like Abraham and Sarah, we might be tempted to look around and to see ourselves as old, dried up, and incapable of life, of change, of producing good food.
But remember, God is about creating change – and God often does this best when with tired, old, and empty vessels. Look what happened with Abraham and Sarah. God commanded them to “walk before me and be blameless” – this is God’s way of telling them to have faith in him, to trust in him, to believe that with God, nothing is impossible. God invites us to do the same – to get out of God’s way, and
1.       Trust God that through the Holy Spirit, God will accomplish great things in us;
2.      Trust God to do this in spite of those parts of us which seem empty and incapable;
3.      Trust that God has a purpose for us, and promises to be with us in our journey;
4.      Trust that God always fulfill God’s promises.
Through our baptism and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, God blesses us in the name of Jesus Christ – sent as God’s love incarnate. It may seem preposterous to the world that God would die upon the cross to save us from sin-created emptiness. It may seem impossible that, once placed in a sealed tomb, Jesus would rise again to lead us all to new life. But that is exactly what God has done, and it is good news indeed for all of us who feel the depth of our sin, brokenness, and emptiness.
The appropriate response to this good news may be to fall on our faces, nose to the ground in submission to God’s will, and laugh with joy in God’s impossible life-giving gifts. The covenants of God transform us when in faith and trust in God, we work together to follow God’s commands.
Like Abraham and Sarah, like Mary, and like so many empty vessels whom God turned into prophets and saints, when we trust that God will bless our contributions despite our imperfections, in joy and faith we find that what seem like meager individual gifts, when added to the pot, make a wonderful, nourishing soup of faith and ministry for the collective good.
May it be so for our lives, our community, our church, and our world.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Blood Sisters, Blood Brothers, God's Abiding Covenant

2018 Lent I ~ Genesis 9:8-17

Throughout the Bible, from the very first word to the very last word there is one, incredible theme which is stated, alluded to, illustrated or pointing towards…and that is God’s redemption of all creation and all people is God’s burning desire and motivation.  And there are points throughout the Bible where the poignancy of this redemption story is more obvious or concentrated.
The story of Noah and the Flood is one of those places.
In the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible God established a pattern of initiating covenants — Divine promises to God’s people.  Each covenant is a little different, and each shows us important and transformational sides of the God of all life.  
            As we journey through Lent together this year, our first reading each Sunday includes one of five Covenants of God given in the Old Testament.  I thought it would be a good opportunity to examine these ancient promises of God and see what they have to do with us today.
            First we consider the question, “what is a covenant?” We might use words like promise, agreement, contract, or oath, to describe what that word means – but some of these don’t quite convey the true character of covenants, especially when God is involved.

            When I was a kid, I was fascinated with the concept of blood oaths. I read about them in books, and even saw people doing them in movies. It’s how you became blood sisters or brothers. Becoming blood sibling was to form a special bond or relationship of trust. You knew this person with which you shared the oath was someone who would keep your secrets. A promise made between you would be sacred, and a blood sister or brother would forever be a loyal friend to you. You would have each other’s back, through thick or thin.

The process for forming such a bond usually entailed a ritual that involved each person cutting a finger or hand until it bled and then both parties shaking hands or binding together their wounded fingers. The idea was that with the co-mingling of blood, the two participants were now inseparably bound together. (This was, of course, before the days of HIV and AIDS, and hand sanitizers, and the bodily fluid precautions that are now part of our everyday existence. So, Friends, do not try this idea out at home.)

The blood oath in the stories of my youth made a relationship sacred, for surely, nothing could break the bond true blood siblings. It signified that the promise being made was real and could be trusted.

At the same time, as participants in a covenantal relationship, we willingly yielded power and made ourselves vulnerable to the other person in the relationship. That’s what happens in covenantal relationships. We can think of marriage as an example of this.

            Our reading from Genesis this morning tells the story of the first covenant God strikes with humankind. The Noahic Covenant, as it is known, follows what we know of as the Great Flood – the flood to end all floods.  This world annihilating flood forces us to wrap our minds around the action of God that destroyed most of humanity, a Divine impulse which attempted to drown out evil and injustice in our world.

            If we go back a few chapters in Genesis, we discover the cause for the flood. In the beginning, God had created the earth, populated it with people and creatures of all kinds, and called it good. What God created was beautiful and bountiful and balanced. It didn’t take long however before that changed.

First, there was the tragic fall from grace through the introduction of sin in the Garden of Eden. Then, within humanity’s second generation, brother struck out against brother, introducing murder into God’s creation. And so it went, until by chapter 6 of Genesis, humanity had trespassed across every boundary that God had established in the beginning for the good of all creation.

            The ensuing violence increasingly corrupted God’s “very good” creation, sending it into a downward spiral of death and destruction and chaos, like the primordial chaos from which God had first created it. Finally, we read in chapter 6, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of their hearts was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). Wow. Let that soak in for a moment.
Every inclination of their hearts…” every inclination,
“…only evil”.

            Those words leave no doubt. How tragic and heartbreaking that the good order God created into the world was so destroyed by the workings of humankind.

            Then comes the verdict: “And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Gen. 6:6).

            After the flood, t’s easy to picture God, with head in hands, trying to make sense of all that had just happened.  In this reflection, or maybe even regret, God turns to Noah with a promise.
Never again will God use annihilation to solve a problem, never again will the creation be destroyed at God’s hands.  God will remember Noah and all the animals.  This remembering that God says over and over God will do, is not because God is feeling a little absent minded, rather God is turning with compassion towards Noah and all of the creation, just like the “do this in remembrance of me” that beckons us to the communion table. Remembering is a loving turn towards another.
This covenant between God, Noah and all of the creation is a promise.  Unlike most covenant, unlike the blood oath, where both parties give up something, promise something, nothing is asked of humanity, nothing is demanded; all is being offered.  

God initiates the promise, God is the keeper of the promise, God is remembering the people and all the creatures with this promise.  God is not only interested in remembering us, the fallen rebellious humanity, God is also moving toward the created world and keeping us in relationship with it.

In this covenant, God is not expecting perfection, which was possibly the expectation before the flood.  No, God has been transformed through the flood and the healing and now God commits to the future of less than perfect world. God will move forward with a wild and free creation and a wild and free humanity, God will remember us.
There is such healing power in turning from violence, turning from score keeping and who is right and wrong and welcoming another with warmth, compassion, and maybe a cup of coffee.  Sociologists may label this non-complementary behavior, but we, the body of Christ on earth know it as grace.  The undeserved, unwarranted love of God lavished upon us.
The same God who holds the power of destruction turned towards us, laid down his bow and cast it up to the heavens.  And every time that rainbow arches over the earth, God remembers God’s promise of mercy.
            The story of God’s rainbow covenant was recorded by the people of Israel while they were in exile from their homeland. Their world had been destroyed. They had seen the demise of their secure government. They had suffered chaos and upheaval as religious structures and practices dissolved. This story served to remind them of their relationship with God; and the assurance of their bond with a compassionate and merciful God brought renewal and hope.

            We might think of the ancient world’s slide into its own self-destructive ways. We might look around at our world today and wonder how much has changed. The recent past is full of the evidence of chaos that still exists in our world, and we might wonder if God is still heartbroken, still sad, still sorry for granting us life. Yet, in spite of the overwhelming presence of sin, chaos and struggle, God’s covenant abides.

In our generation chaos on the world stage has included World Wars, Holocaust, Nuclear warfare, genocide, famine and poverty. Ecological and natural disasters seem more commonplace than ever, with each season breaking records for the heating of the earth and oceans, historic storms, rising seas, and extinction or near-extinction of a range of creatures from the honeybee to sea animals feel the crushing weight of humankind’s footprint.

            Gross inequity of the distribution of resources and wealth among the world’s many people includes a widening gap between the rich and the poor.

            Our individual chaos results in relationships broken by death, divorce, illness of mind or body, addiction, and myriad abuses between people.

            Communally, the destructiveness of racism, xenophobia, bigotry, sexism, intolerance and self-serving disregard for the plight of the other reveals our resistance to God’s ways and drives God’s creatures further and further apart. And still, God keeps God’s promise, a promise that is extended through the cross of Christ.       

            In Jesus, God responds with a blood oath of sorts, but it is a one-sided promise. We hear of it every time we gather around the table and witness the deep abiding love of God broken and poured out for us in bread, and in wine. “After supper,” we hear, “Jesus took the cup, he gave thanks and he gave it for all to drink saying, ‘this cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin.”

            God responds with love and forgiveness in the midst of life’s chaos. In covenantal love, God reaches out to us despite the misery we bring upon ourselves, and in the midst of the chaos the world inflicts upon us.

Hearing the story of God’s first covenant with the People of Israel on the first Sunday of Lent, we begin our walk with Jesus toward Jerusalem, understanding in a deeper, fuller way, the God who sent him, the God whom he served.

            The rainbow bending over Noah’s ark with its doors wide open and spilling out pairs of animals into a new world is an image that reminds us not only do we remember God’s turn towards us, but God too remembers us, responds to our brokenness and rebellion with grace and mercy, and grants us a covenant, so the cycle of violence, destruction and sin might be broken.
In this covenant the whole earth is remembered, the whole earth is restored.
May we now strive to live as people of this covenant gift.  Amen!


Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Valentines and Ashes

Ash Wednesday 2018
What a strange day this day is, so full of contradiction. Let’s start with the fact that this Ash Wednesday is also Valentine’s Day. So, right off the bat, the contradiction leads to a choice: do we wear hearts or crosses of ash today, or both?
The hearts, of course, are a lot more fun to wear, as a symbol of love, they abound on this secular holiday that celebrates love and passion. The ashes? Well, the crosses of ash we will each be wearing shortly will lead us in solemn procession into Lent, but the thing is, they also attest to love – and to passion; for it is for the deep, passionate, consuming love of humankind that the cross bore our sins on the person of Jesus Christ.
Valentine’s Day lasts for one day, so fleeting a holiday is it. Lent comprises a whole season in the liturgical year; we will journey through Lent for the next forty days, not including the Sundays.
Valentine’s Day focuses on loving relationships, whether they be friend to friend, or lover to lover. Christians around the world participate in heightened practices of devotion during Lent; we think about our relationship with God, and consider how to make that relationship more central to our lives.
While Valentine’s Day isn’t nearly as significant, for our faith, as Ash Wednesday, it can, nonetheless, shed a new light on this important day that welcomes us into the season of Lent.
We largely know Valentine’s Day by its modern accoutrements:
Chocolate. Flowers. Hallmark.
But the history of the holiday—at least what is known of it—is quite different.
Valentine’s Day is the feast day for three different saints recognized by the Catholic church, all with the name of Valentine. All three were martyred—killed because of their faith.
            One of these saints, and probably the best known of the three, was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When the Emperor decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. The priest, whose name was Valentine, seeing injustice in the decree, defied the Emperor and continued to perform marriages for young couples in secret. When his actions were discovered, the Emperor ordered that he be put to death.
Another Valentine was purportedly killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons, where they were beaten and tortured. And a third man by that name is believed to have healed the blindness of the daughter of his own jailer, but when the authorities heard of it, they sentenced him to death.
So, the holiday that Hallmark has made all about love and flowers and chocolate and gifts really started with death. Three deaths, actually; each came on the heels of sacrificial lives, deaths that were caused by a Valentine’s commitment to living out his faith for the sake of the other, and for the sake of Christ. So, maybe Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday have more in common than it seems at first glance.
For Ash Wednesday, too, has its roots in death.
Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return are the words spoken to each of us as the cross is imposed in ashes on our forehead.
As Ash Wednesday leads our entry into Lent we, in the church, face the tomb, Jesus’ and our own, aware of our own mortality and sin…
…seeking forgiveness, and the promise of light on the other side.
The shape of the cross that is traced on our brows today is itself a symbol of death—and yet, the ashes we bear today are more than just a symbol. They are a reminder that one day, sooner or later, whatever riches we’ve built up, whatever accomplishments we’ve amassed, whatever memories we’ve created, however many hearts we’ve broken or mended, we will all meet the same end. Death, they say, is the great equalizer.
Like these left-over remnants of last year’s Palm Sunday, burned away to ash, we, too, will be smudges on the earth. So, there we are – ashes to ashes, beginning and end, stuff of creation and remnant of decay, even the ashes after which we name this day represent a contradiction – they speak of both life and death.
Our reality is that dirt and death, loss and sin and sorrow, are an integral part of our lives. Ash Wednesday names this truth through ritual that reminds us that we are made from earth and will one day return to earth; reminds us that our span of life on this planet is so very, very short.
This ritual, and these truths, help us ask important questions:
Am I really making the most of this limited time I have? Am I using the gifts I’ve been given to live in a meaningful way? Or am I frittering life away in shallow pursuits of temporal pleasures?
            And yet, the saving grace of this day is that the ashes with which we are marked aren’t only a sign of death.
Because our God is a God who creates LIFE out of dust. Indeed, God created the first human by breathing God’s breath into the dirt. And while these ashes are marked in the shape of the cross, an instrument of death, by the grace of our God, it is also a profound symbol of new life, for Christ has conquered death, sin, and the devil, once and for all time.
The ashen mark made on our brow is the same mark made, with oil, in baptism when we are blessed with the words “You are marked with the cross of Christ, and sealed with the Holy Spirit forever.”
By the cross, through the cross, with the cross, God’s promises and grace carry us from death to life, time and time again, as we daily die to sin, and are raised again to new life in Christ.
The disciplines of Lent are not, therefore for show. Rather, they invite us into a death of sorts—a death to self, a death to all our selfish desires and inclinations—that we may be raised to the kind of life God intends for each of us; the kind of life that truly is life:
            loosing the bonds of injustice,
                        letting the oppressed go free,
                                    sharing bread with the hungry,
                                                and caring for the homeless poor.
The kind of life Lent invites us to, is life is life lived in imitation of Christ—
Who loved the world so much that He died on the cross for you and me and all of creation.
            On Ash Wednesday, we take time to acknowledge our mortality and our sin, to admit and confess all the ways we fall short of the glory of God, and to repent, and change our ways. We bless these ashes, and wear them on our brow, to remind us that we, too, are part of the cycle of life begun by God.
            God, who does not leave us in the ashes, but renews us continually with creative, redeeming power, that we might more and more become the people God created us to be, that we might experience more and more of the Kingdom of God on earth.
Remember that you are dust, And to dust you shall return.
You are beloved dust that has been marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit forever, And thus is given new life,
Today, and everyday.

Let us pray.
In thy word, Lord, is my trust,
To thy mercies fast I fly;
Though I am but clay and dust,
Yet thy grace can lift me high – Thomas Campion, 1567-1620