Thursday, July 31, 2008

Much to Do

On the Churchy side:

We are in the midst of getting moving here at New Church (when WILL I come up with a better name for these folks? How about.... St. Sociable? My God. That's it. St. Sociable.)

We are in the midst of getting moving here at St. Sociable. Getting moving on financial matters (questions such as, how shall we do better at raising our annual budget from Living Giving rather than Dead Giving?). Getting moving on developing a New and Improved and even Smart and Fun website. And, getting moving on figuring out Who we are and What our mission is. (That last is surely both the hardest and the most important.)
For the last eleven months I have been doing the following: getting to know people, listening, moderating, visiting, showing up, pastorally caring, sharing my talents, preaching the Word... the good stuff, the stuff I love. Now I get to begin pushing, prodding, asking the hard questions, making the hard suggestions, trying to figure out whether St. Sociable really wants a pastor or a chaplain. Still the good stuff, but the stuff that is far more challenging for me and for them.

In the Home Realm:

I had sworn I'd use the time of my children's absence to do some organizing, some cleaning, some spiffing up. And by God last Saturday I re-organized my downstairs (except for the CD's, a truly huge and overwhelming task). So, 2/3 of the downstairs. The papers are filed or recycled. The printer has its own place on a table created specifically to hold it (instead of floating around forlorn in a box, to be plugged in at the dining room table on occasion). My living room looks as if mostly grown up people live in it. Makes me happy.

However, much as I have b*tched and complained about my children's lack of organizational skills or even just plain slovenliness, I am now a Humbled Pooh with regard to these issues. You see, I come home, and the house is lovely and clean, just as I left it. And there are no children there. So that's how that feels.

And, on the Children's Front:

Petra's flight lands at JFK mid-Saturday afternoon, and Larry-O drives in from Vermont on Monday or Tuesday. The following Sunday the three of us drive south to be with Grandpop for a week at the shore. I'm glad. I miss them, the dears. I really do. They've been having all these adventures without me.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Cost of Deception: a Sermon on Genesis 29:1-28

Love Genesis though I do, I admit I'm looking forward to getting back to Jesus next week. I miss him!

This sermon was named early in the week. The name was not so appropriate to the final product. Ah well...

Sermon Series: Family Stories
Sermon: “The Cost of Deception”
Genesis 29:1-28
July 27, 2008

“Sisters, Sisters, there were never such devoted sisters…” Anyone remember Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen singing that song together in “White Christmas”? The song is actually a very clever examination of both sisterly love and devotion on the one hand, and competitiveness and rivalry on the other. In other words, it captures the relationship perfectly. The song begins by emphasizing the way in which the sisters are inseparable, dependent on one another, looking out for one another… and then throws in just a little vinegar to cut all that sweetness: “Lord help the mister who comes between me and my sister/ and Lord help the sister who comes between me and my man!” It seems apropos, as we think about Rachel and Leah, not to mention Jacob and his brother Esau, to recognize that all these things… love, devotion, competition, rivalry… can exist side by side, in the same relationship.

We have stories of sisters and brothers today, the relationships of siblings. And by way of background for today’s story, which focuses on the sisters who would marry Jacob, it might be good to remember a few salient points about Jacob and Esau, too. Jacob and Esau are twins, who begin their life by battling it out in their mother Rebekah’s womb. That battle is still raging in the background of today’s story. God speaks to Rebekah, revealing to her that the younger of the twins will be the dominant one, served by the elder, a reversal of the social customs of the day. True to the oracle, Jacob, the younger, is born gripping the heel of his first-born brother. His name, Jacob, means, literally, “he grasps the heel,” or “he supplants,” or even “he deceives.”[i]

Jacob lives up to his name. First, he uses his skills in the kitchen to trick his brother out of his birthright. Esau comes in from the field one day, famished, and Jacob agrees to give him a bowl of the fragrant lentil stew that is bubbling over the fire… but only if Esau will pay for it with his inheritance, the double portion inheritance that belongs to the firstborn. Esau takes the deal. Later as their father Isaac is nearing the end of his life, Jacob, with the help of his mother, manages to steal Isaac’s special blessing for the firstborn. Jacob layers on animal pelts, in an approximation of his brother’s hairy physique. The old man, his eyes dim so that he cannot see, falls for the disguise, and bestows the one-of-a-kind, one-time-only blessing on the younger son. When Esau learns the news, he is enraged. He vows to kill Jacob. Jacob runs, sent by his mother to the home of her brother Laban. En route, he has a remarkable dream of angels, a stairway to heaven. It confirms what was told his mother before he was born: deceiver or not, God’s special blessing is upon him.

Then we arrive at our passage today. The first part of the story is picturesque, a fairy tale.
Once upon a time a strong prince came to a magical well where sheep were watered. The stone covering the well was so enormous it could only be moved by all the shepherds working together. The prince saw a beautiful princess at the well… she was so beautiful he fell in love at first sight, and kissed her, weeping for joy. His love was so strong it enabled him to move the enormous stone, to uncover the well, and to water her flock. They went to see the king, who was overjoyed at the love match. The end.

Well, not quite. Very quickly it dawns on us that all is not well in the familial relations between Jacob and his father-in-law-to-be. At the end of the first part of the reading, Laban declares to Jacob, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh!” These words ring in our ears from the story of the first man and woman in the garden, how perfectly suited they are to one another, how closely related they are. And we can hear these words as Laban’s ringing endorsement of his nephew. Or… we can hear the tiniest hint of warning. If Laban is perfectly suited to his nephew, might that mean that the deceiver has at last met his match?

The next hint that all is not well comes in the question Laban puts to Jacob: “Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing?” It’s odd to follow a statement about what close kin they are, bone and flesh and all, with the clear expectation that the younger man should serve the elder. If a warning bell goes off for us, it clearly doesn’t for Jacob. ‘Jacob loved Rachel,’ Genesis tells us, ‘so he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.”’ And the love match appears to be sealed.

One of the things we’ve been talking about in our bible study is how very complicated is the task of translating scripture from its original language. This passage gives us a wonderful illustration of how different scholars can arrive at very different translations. On verse 16, they agree. In both the NRSV (which we have read this morning) and the NIV, verse 16 reads: “Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel.” No translation problems there. Then, consider the same two sources in their translations of verse 17:

NRSV: Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful.

NIV: And Leah’s eyes were weak; but Rachel was beautiful of form and face.

Two very different translations. Here’s my translation: “And Leah [had] tender eyes but Rachel was beautiful of form and beautiful of vision.” I have to concur with the translation that makes an unfavorable comparison between Leah and her sister. Leah, let’s not forget, the elder sister, and Rachel, the younger.

Can you sense disaster on the wind? Because it’s coming. Jacob does something few of us 21st century people can conceive: he works seven years for the sake of the person he loves. In our world of instantaneous communication and even more instantaneous decisions regarding all kinds of intimacy and relationships… seven years. It’s hard to imagine. At the end of which, thanks to the ancient custom of the bridal veil… in case you were wondering how it was possible…thanks to that ancient custom, Jacob is able to be tricked into marrying, not the object of his devotion but her older sister, the one with tender eyes.

The deceiver is deceived. The trickster is tricked. The younger brother who supplanted the older brother finds that the younger sister whom he loves has been supplanted by her older sister, to his great dismay. And Jacob agrees to another seven years of labor for his love.

It’s hard to read this story without recognizing the truth of the old saying, “What goes around comes around.” Jacob hurt his brother and father desperately. I dare you to not be moved by the description of Esau in chapter 27. He cries out, “with an exceedingly great and bitter cry.” He’s devastated. And there’s nothing that can mend what he has lost… in the strange biblical mathematics of father-to-son blessings, there is only one blessing, and it is gone, and it cannot be called back or re-given or in any way fixed. Esau suffers as a result of Jacob’s deception.

And now it is Jacob’s turn to suffer. Imagine Jacob’s distress on the morning after his wedding, when he realizes the true identity of the woman at his side. And we can only wonder what Rachel and Leah feel and think about all this. The women in this portion of the story are more acted upon than acting, and they are silent about this turn of events. But imagine the suffering of the sister whose wedding night has been stolen from her. Imagine the humiliation of the sister who is sent into the tent of the man she knows does not love her. Is there anyone in this story who is not a victim, in the end?

Sisters, brothers, parents, children, husbands, wives: they are all in this story, and they all do extraordinarily unkind things to one another throughout. But the message of that song holds true: love and devotion and rivalry and competitiveness can exist side by side in the same relationships, in the same people. Is there any hope in this story? Where is God in all this?

God is in our ability to love one another, and to forgive one another. This week I attended two wonderful meetings in which the brother of one of our members made some proposals and suggestions to help Our Church with our stewardship, our membership and our website. “I love my brother,” he told us, “and I want to help this church that he loves.” Who knows what elementary school was like for these two, whether anyone ever short-sheeted anyone else’s bed or worse. In the fullness of maturity, the love remains, even, blossoms. The same holds true for Jacob and Esau. Later in Genesis, Esau and his army will catch up with Jacob, who sends his family on to safety and stands alone to face what he assumes will be his brother’s vengeance. When Esau sees him, we are treated to one of the most emotional family reunions in all of scripture. Instead of pulling out a sword and dispatching him, Esau falls on Jacob’s neck, weeping. All is forgiven.

As for the sisters… Even Rachel and Leah, who have to do what none of us will ever have to do (thanks be to God!)—share a spouse—come to a kind of truce in the end, working out their domestic details with wit and wisdom. Anyone who has ever read Anita Diamant’s lovely book, “The Red Tent,” will remember that she portrays the bond between the sisters as stronger than the ability of any man… even their husband, even their father… to separate them. God is present in their ability to love and support one another.

God is also, throughout these family stories in Genesis, in the last place we would expect. God is with the underdog. Last week, God was with the Egyptian slave-girl, Hagar. Here, God is with the character who has to have been voted “Least Likely to be God’s Favorite,” Jacob. God is in the unexpected place, with the unexpected person. When we are tempted to believe that one of our sisters or brothers has it all over us, really seems to “get it,” is the teacher’s pet of spirituality or intelligence or charisma or grace—it would be good to pause for a moment to remember Jacob. Jacob, the Deceiver, the Trickster, who nevertheless is singled out by God for great things. Not because he, Jacob is so good, but because God is so good.

God is so good. I suppose that might well be the thread running through all these family stories of Genesis. God is so good. God puts a rainbow in the heavens, not to promise that we will be safe forevermore, but to promise that God will not set out to destroy us, no matter how bad we get. God is so good. God walks the covenant line with us, promising to be with us, forever, come what may. God is so good. God lifts up the slave and the fatherless child, the rejected, the outcast, promising to be with them, offering water and hope. God is so good. God chooses the least likely, someone just like we are at our very worst, to be the carrier of grace. God is so good. God helps us find forgiveness somewhere in the corner of our most brittle, angry hearts, helps us figure out how to live together in peace and love. God is so good. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Terence E. Fretheim, “The Book of Genesis: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. I (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 520.
Image: Chagall's Meeting of Jacob and Rachel

Saturday, July 26, 2008

If It's Saturday...

... then Petra must be in France. She took an overnight sleeper-Ferry to the coast. First stop: Normandy.

I miss her something awful.

This fall Petra turns 16, and is therefore eligible to get her learner's permit.

You know, and drive a car.


I had a dream this week that she got her permit. But something weird was going on. For one thing, she was strangely short... shy of four feet tall. As if she were 7 years old or so.

Other weird thing: she was driving a tricycle. This was, evidently, the vehicle for which she had the learner's permit.

And I? I was following her around saying, "You know, Petra, you can't go anywhere alone. Mommy has to go with you. Do you hear me? Mommy has to go with you!"

One week to go.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

London Calling

Actually, the Isle of Wight.

Who knew that on this trip Petra would:
  • Abseil down the outer walls of Penrhyn Castle?

  • Learn to chop a piece of wood in half with her hand, karate style?

  • Learn how to sail a boat?

  • Learn how to windsail?

My girl is "a little homesick," but otherwise sounds great.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Dispatches from Exile: A Monologue of Hagar the Egyptian

Sermon Series: Family Stories
Sermon: “Dispatches from Exile”
Genesis 21:8-21
July 20, 2008

I can see it in your eyes: you are wondering what on earth my story is doing in your holy book. It’s a good question for you to ask yourselves: why is the story of this woman included? This woman who is a foreigner—an Egyptian, no less!—this woman who is a slave… or, was. What does her story have to do with us? You may well wonder. What have I to do with you?

I was born a slave. That is the usual way, though some become slaves because they are in debt, and others become slaves through warfare. Being a slave in the household of Hebrews is all I have ever known. But even though I was a slave, I knew I had a proud heritage: I was Hagar, the Egyptian. I was taught how to braid my hair and to apply kohl to rim my eyes, so that everyone who looked upon me knew: I had my own heritage, one which had nothing to do with this family who claimed ownership of me.

When I was thirteen I became a handmaiden to Sarai, the lady of the house. It is better to be a lady’s slave than any other kind… that is what my mother told me, before she died. In the tents, one doesn’t have to worry about sunstroke or being carried off by passing raiders. “Handmaiden” is a pretty way of saying that I managed all the aspects of Sarai’s life that were not so pretty. I cleaned up after her, her clothes, her possessions. At times, I even bathed her. If she did not wish to see her husband, she sent me with the news. As she became older I was often asked to rub her aching back or her sore feet. When I would do this, she would talk to me, almost tenderly. She would reminisce about her childhood, and tell me about the extraordinary promises, the enormous family and the great parcel of land, her god had promised her through her husband. I would try not to laugh… she was far, far past the age of bearing children, and her wistful dreams of babies seemed like nonsense to me. But she was my mistress, and I certainly never mocked her. I almost began to feel sorry for her. When she would speak tenderly to me, it was almost like having a mother again, for a little while.

One day Sarai called me to her tent. I could tell something was different. Instead of giving me a task, she had me stand in front of her, and she told me to turn, this way and that. She was looking very intently at me, appraising me, as if I were some kind of salable commodity… which, of course, I was. My heart began to beat hard and fast in my chest. She is going to sell me, I thought. I have displeased her in some way. “Is there anything I can do for you, my mistress?” I asked. Without a word she sent me out again. In my anxiety, I thought of my mother, but she was dead and unable to comfort me. I learned soon enough what was to happen. Sarai had gotten tired of waiting for her god. She brought me before the master, Abram, and told me that I was to go with him to his tent. You must understand, I was not consulted. I was told. This decision was of no concern to me, except that I had to obey my mistress’s wish. Apparently Sarai had decided that her house could be better built up by me than by relying on the long overdue promise of her god. My body was to be used, to bear her a child.

No one wants to be a slave. It is not a desirable state of affairs. But most days I am able to work hard, hold up my head with dignity, and know that at the day’s close I will have a meal and a place to lay my head. My life is still somehow my own, even though I am owned by another. But now… now my life was not to be my own. I was to be no more than a vessel, a container, like the pot one uses to draw water from a well. I went with the old man, my hands and knees shaking, trying not to weep.

After a few weeks had gone by I went to the cook and herdswomen, and told them my suspicions. They confirmed for me that, yes, I was seeing unmistakable signs. I went to my mistress with my news. I shall never forget the look in her eyes, a look of utter triumph. Well, I thought. This pleases her. She ran to the old man, to tell him, and they called for a feast. I served them their meals, and slipped away to sleep, so tired.

I will confess this to you: Being the vessel to carry the child was not what I expected. I had heard women complain about feeling sick and sore, and so I was prepared for unpleasantness. But what no one had told me was how marvelous, how miraculous the feeling. As the weeks passed, my body changed, and I was fascinated. The other slave women began to compliment me… my skin was shining, my hair was glossy. I, who had never commanded any notice, was told I was beautiful…not by Sarai, of course, or by her husband. I was told by my people, the other slaves. And I reveled in it. I had never before felt so powerful. I carried in myself a prize… a prize that was growing with each passing day, letting the world know of its presence. A prize my old mistress was unable to get for herself.

I realized there was something wrong one day when I brought Sarai a meal. Her eyes followed me carefully as I entered the tent. I bent to place the dish in front of her, and she swatted it away, lamb and grain scattering on the ground. “Mistress, what is wrong?” I asked. Before I understood what was happening, she had advanced on me, and replied with a sharp blow across my cheek. I stumbled backwards, putting my hand to my face, and she hissed one word: “Out.” I knew better than to speak again, and I ran from the place.

The next days and weeks were much the same. I was unable, completely unable, to please my mistress. I brought her food and it was too cold, too hot, spoiled. I brought her clothes and they were wrinkled, stained. I cleaned, and I did that poorly. I broke things, I lost things, or perhaps I had stolen them. Each episode ended with her hand on me, blows to my face, my arms, my back. Finally she grabbed a camel’s whip that had leaned outside her tent and lashed it at me. It tore through my garment and cut my legs. That was when I ran.

We were encamped at that time in the hill country, south of the land of the Jebusites. After less than an hour of walking I was in true desert country… nothing but scrub bushes and the occasional snake as far as the eye could see. But I did follow a kind of whispering sound to a spring, and I collapsed there, my back aching, the sand stinging the wounds on my legs, the bruises on my face and arms still tender to the touch. At last, the unwept tears came, and once they began, I howled. So this was my end… to die in the desert, with the prize still inside me, my own dream of this baby unrealized, thwarted. There would be no prize-baby to nurse, no grateful family stroking me and thanking me. I had found my way to the only place a slave is truly at home: in exile, far away from comfort, safety or love.

I must have drifted off to sleep, because a terrible, tearing thirst awakened me. The spring rustled beside me, and I groped towards it, leaning to cup my hands, and drank all the water I could. Then I leaned back and looked at the stars glistening in the desert sky. The whispering of the spring grew still louder, until I realized it had taken on the sound of a human voice.

“Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” An apparition stood before me, a figure that moved and swayed. I was not alarmed. My people speak with the dead all the time. I assumed it was my mother.

“I’m running away,” I whispered, barely loud enough for me to hear myself. “From my mistress, Sarai,” I added, a little louder.

The apparition said something shocking, and completely unacceptable. “Return to your mistress, and submit to her.” I leapt to my feet. This was not my mother. I opened my mouth to hurl every curse and insult I could imagine, but was stopped. The apparition… which was, apparently, quite solid after all… reached out a brown, wavering hand, and placed it on my belly.

And I knew in an instant all sorts of things. I knew that the god who had made promises to Abram and Sarai was now making promises to me, too… a promise that my children would be so many they would be beyond counting. A promise that the child would live. A promise that his name would be Ishmael, God hears. Sh’ma, Yisroel. Hear, O Israel. The Lord your God the Lord is one. Ishmael. God hears.

God heard my weeping. God heard my howling. God heard the altercations between my mistress and me. This God of Abram and Sarai’s… could this be that God? The God who hears?

You know the rest of the story. I returned to my mistress and lived in an uneasy truce with her for another 14 years, until her own child… yes, her God had fulfilled that unlikely promise after all… we remained with her, my son Ishmael and I, until her son had reached the age of safety, three years, after which the baby has a real chance of living to adulthood. And then… we were not needed any longer. Neither the prize nor the vessel was wanted in the household of Abram and Sarai.

Into exile we went. But also, into freedom. The apparition came again, assuring me that the promise still held for me, for us. And here we are, and all the things the apparition said to us are true. My son is a fighter, he lives by the bow. I am raising him to be an Egyptian, but I don’t think any one nation can hold him. He is free. And if Sarai’s god tells the truth, he will be a nation every bit as great as the child of her flesh.

Do you still wonder why my story is in your holy book? You, who have been enslaved in Egypt? You, who have seen strife amongst your own kin? You who know what it is to be afflicted, and to have God meet you at a spring and offer you water and hope? We are not so different, you and I. Our stories are two sides of the very same coin. We both have the ear of the God who hears. We both have our beloved children, children of promise. You can’t tell your story without mine, and I can’t tell my story without yours. We are not so different. In fact, I begin to suspect we are the same, one family, whether we realize it or not. Thanks be to the God who hears. Amen.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Traveling, Age 14

Near the end of my freshman year, a group of French students from my high school traveled to France for a week. I think the only reason my mom let me go was that my brother was also on the trip--he didn't take French, but his girlfriend did. I barely saw him while we were there.

We began our tour in Anger, in the Loire Valley, touring chateaux and wineries. My memory of it is of drizzly, grey, chilly weather, and equally chilly roommates... I really didn't much fit with the girls. (Come to think of it, I've never gotten along very well with roommates, except for my husband, and we all know how that worked out. Note to self: talk to therapist about this...) A picky eater, none of the food agreed with me, and I couldn't get my hands on a Tab to save my life.

The chateaux were gorgeous and impressive, but forbidding. I do remember getting excited when we saw a large statue of Joan of Arc in the middle of a square somewhere. But I mostly felt out of sorts and alienated.

At last we drove into Paris. Night was falling, and the city of lights lived up to the promise of its name. Driving towards it on our large motor coach, I felt a stirring of anxiety and unmistakeable excitement. It was alluring, like a beautiful woman decked out in jewels. It was like a slightly illicit invitation. It terrified me. I was enchanted.

We got to our hotel, and at last I was able to try calling my mother. We spoke for a minute or two, and then the line went dead. I burst into tears, and sobbed for about five minutes. Then I went with my three roommates to the cafe for dinner. My memory of that night is that the trip transformed from black and white into color.
For the next four days I gobbled up everything I could about Paris. I loved it. I was not homesick, I was thrilled-- beyond thrilled. I felt suddenly grown up and sophisticated (ironic, since every time I've been in Paris since I've felt the consummate fat, ugly American). I shouted over the sound of music at a disco, a conversation with Sister Linda, my French teacher-- while I drank a vodka and orange juice and she had a rum and Coke. I flirted with French boys. I danced. We went to a production of "Moise et Aaron" at L'Opera, my unforgettable introduction to Schoenberg (unforgettable for the fatted-calf orgy scene as much as the 12-tone music).

When I got home, I was 14 lbs. thinner. This made my mother cry. It pleased me.

I wonder what adventures my Petra is having today?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

She's There

Call came at 4:22 this morning. They landed at Shannon, Ireland. Now she's off to see these:

And this:


Monday, July 14, 2008

Petra's MySpace Song

Have I mentioned that I love this girl?

There She Goes!

There she goes
There she goes again

Racing through my brain
And I just can't contain

This feeling that remains

There she blows

There she blows a
Pulsing through my veins

And I just can't contain

This feeling that remains...

As I type this, Petra is putting the finishing touches on her packing. She is on her way, today, to Europe for three weeks. She is a Student Ambassador for a venerable educational program that first, provides kids with an extensive learning process stateside, and then ships them all over the world to engage with people of different cultures. Petra is going to (in order) Ireland, Wales, England, France, Belgium and the Netherlands, as a part of a delegation of 40 teenagers.

In preparation for this she has learned a lot about one aspect of one host country, she has presented her learning to the group and heard their presentations, she has read widely, she has engaged in group-building activities. And she has shopped.

I should say, we have shopped. The dress code for this particular group prohibits jeans and shirts with writing on them. It is not an exaggeration to say that, until about a week ago, that pretty much described Petra's entire wardrobe. No longer. Thanks to two trips to Target and the kind folks at CitiBank, Petra is now outfitted with colorful polos and t-shirts, walking shorts, khakis, new underwear, socks, a baseball cap, and two adorable hippie-ish skirts. She's ready, clothing-wise.

And she's ready in every other sense. Guess who's not ready? That would be mom.

I have visions of planes falling out of the sky. I have fears that this precious life that I have been so privileged to nurture will be snuffed out, and that her last emotions on this planet will be terror. This is my particular neurosis, I realize, but. Don't we all assume we're safe, charmed? Don't we think that if we are good, if our kids are good, they'll be safe?

I don't believe that any more. Last night I prayed, "God, I know I have no right to ask you to keep her safe. Children all over the world have terrible things happen to them, all the time. I have no right to expect special treatment, But I am asking that. Keep both my children safe." (Larry-O is in Beautiful Green Mountain State for three weeks, taking a class).

So. Here we are. She's nearly 16. She's brilliant, accomplished, creative. And I can't protect her.

The title of this post, and the song lyrics above, are from a song Petra and I first heard together, watching the remake of The Parent Trap (speaking of not being able to protect your kid.... poor Lindsey!)... When you hear it, the twins are arriving at camp (each unbeknownst to the other), and you just know they are going to have an adventure. That is what I wish for my girl: an adventure. Go, Petra!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Waiting on a Promise: A Sermon on Genesis 15, 1-21

Sermon Series: Family Stories
Sermon: “Waiting on a Promise”
Genesis 15:1-21
July 13, 2008

We never should have known his name. He should have been like the rest of his contemporaries… shadowy, anonymous figures from thousands of years in the past… unimaginable, utterly foreign, even, if we think about it, barbaric. He wore roughly woven garments and animal pelts. He wandered, a nomad, with the other members of his clan—wives, concubines, slaves, animals. He took these animals, from time to time, and ritually slaughtered them, presenting their parts as a burnt offering to his god, a god not acknowledged, at that time, by most of the known world. Nothing about him distinguished him from the other thousands of men who walked the earth when he did, with the exception of one crucial detail: that little-known and little-worshipped god took an interest in him, singled him out, and made him a promise of blessing. We should never even have known his name. He should have vanished like mist from the Susquehanna River at dawn. Instead, fully half of the human beings now living on this planet, more than three billion souls, consider themselves to be his spiritual (and, in some cases, actual) offspring. Instead of his being relegated forever to the thick darkness of the irretrievable past, he is very much alive, very much in our midst. We remember him. We invoke his name. We call ourselves “Children of Abraham.”

He literally wanders into the narrative of beginnings, Genesis, and at the moment he enters, the story changes radically. Before Abraham comes on the scene it is a book of deep myth and wild ancient tales, just-so stories recounting God’s relationship with human beings writ large: God creates. Human beings mess up God’s creation. Floodwaters rise and towers fall. God copes with the disappointment, sadder and wiser, and decides to make of one man and his family a special project. Before Abraham, Genesis gives us stories that answer children’s questions such as, Where did we come from? How did we get languages? Why do people get married? At his entrance, these are set aside for the particularity of one family, a family saga that rivals anything on television, scripted or reality. Abraham enters the narrative of Genesis and the story gets interesting, because we know these people. .

We meet him when his name is still Abram… a name meaning, “father of people”… and when we meet him, he is already the age of a grandfather or great-grandfather. But he is no father, he has no children. As often is the case in the bible, the blame is pinned on the woman. His wife, Sarai, is barren, we are told, she has no children. And immediately after we learn this, we hear God make the promise. It is a three-fold promise: land, descendants, and a name that is a blessing. And it is a promise that comes with a command: Get up and go. Leave behind everything and everyone you know. God orders Abram and all his retinue on a journey of unknown destination. In light of what we know about Sarai, God promises the impossible.

No sooner does God promise the impossible than the promise is put in jeopardy. Sarai and Abram are traveling in Egypt, and he does about the least chivalrous thing imaginable: in order to avoid being killed for his beautiful wife, he persuades her that they should travel masquerading as brother and sister, an arrangement that almost guarantees her abduction by the next powerful man they meet. The beautiful Sarai is taken into the Pharaoh’s harem. But God, having made a promise, is determined to protect that promise, and so lets Pharaoh know (by means of plague and pestilence) that something is amiss. Pharaoh is a smart guy, and soon Sarai and Abram are reunited. Abram, interestingly, comes out of the story richer—he gets a payoff of more flocks, more personnel.

Their story continues in this vein for a time. God reiterates the promise, but no child is forthcoming. Abram’s nephew is taken captive in a local war, and Abram takes a contingent of several hundred men to rescue him, suddenly a geriatric war hero. He has a strange encounter with a king named Melchizedek. All the while, the promise languishes in the background of the story. Abram and Sarai are still waiting. Until today, until this passage. And we begin to get a sense of how these things work with God.

“Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield.” God begins with a word of encouragement. Which is a good thing, because Abram has been waiting a long time for this promise to materialize. And Abram replies to God in the tones and cadences of an old friend. “But God,” he says. O Lord God. What will you give me again? My days are unrelentingly childless. I have chosen my favorite slave, Eliezar of Damascus… he doesn’t really have the right coloring and his people tend to be a bit chubby. But O Lord God. He is my child, best I can tell. He is my heir, unless something else happens. What will you give me again?

God in reply takes Abram by the hand, figuratively speaking. God tips Abram’s chin up so that he can see more than the desert sands and the odd scorpion scuttling by beneath his robes. It must be night, because God has taken Abram star-gazing. This would be a kind of star-gazing none of us can imagine. We are like my mother, who, because she was a near-sighted child, and had no eyeglasses, thought for years that “stars” were a kind of metaphor for how pretty the sky was. Someone finally put a pair of glasses on her when she was about 13, and, even from the streets of South Philly, the heavens exploded for her, into wonder and beauty, greater than she’d ever imagined.

We’re like that, in this world of light-pollution. We can’t imagine the number and variety and depth of the stars that Abram saw when his chin was tipped up, like a little child receiving a peck on the forehead from his grandfather. He was the Hubble Telescope. God showed him all this, pried open a little place in Abram’s mind and heart to let this splendor in, and said, There. It will be a little like that. And Abram’s now-opened heart and mind softened just a bit, and a tear glistened in the corner of his eye, and he believed. He believed.

I am God, God reminded Abram. I am God. Remember what I like? And Abram did remember that God liked the sacrifices of those animals he possessed in such abundance, and so, when it was morning again, the old man went about the quiet, bloody business of slaughtering them. He laid them on the ground, the halves across from one another, except for the birds. He ran back and forth, flapping his arms, so that vultures would not take the feast for themselves.

In the ancient world, when one made a covenant, a solemn promise, one bound it by symbols that spoke loudly of life and death. In fact, in the Hebrew, the idiom is not “to make a covenant,” but rather, “to cut a covenant.” The severed animals invoke a wish, much along the lines of “cross my heard, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.” Those taking part in the solemn vow would walk between the pieces of the animals, saying, in effect, may this happen to me if I violate this covenant. My word is good.

But it was not Abram who walked between these animals. It was God. Once again, the day ended, and what would have been a dark night grew still darker—thick, terrible darkness, the kind that causes dread to seep into the heart, because we fear nothingness more than anything. Abram fell into the darkness, into a deep sleep, which God made even more terrifying by dire predictions. You will have your children, God said, but it will not go easy for them. You say a slave is your heir? All your heirs will be slaves. They will be slaves, but it will be my good pleasure to free them after a time. And they will be even richer than you are now. But sleep, child. Sleep, because there is something I must do.

Here’s what the text of Genesis says: “When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.” [Gen 15:17]. It was God. It was God who walked through the severed animal gauntlet. It was God who said, in effect, may this happen to me if I violate this covenant, if my word is not good. A God who expresses a willingness to die…Why does that sound so familiar?

And yet… and yet… even then, the promise is not fulfilled. This passage does not end with Sarai giving birth… she does not give birth ‘til another dozen or twenty years have elapsed. The passage ends much as it begins: Abram and Sarai are still waiting on that promise.

But something has changed, something has shifted. Abram has learned what it is to continue to be in relationship with God when things are not going as planned.

First, God is present to speak words of comfort and consolation. When we are lost, when we are baffled and sore and cannot imagine why it is God has allowed us into whatever tangled situation we are in, then it is a good time to listen for God’s words of comfort. In my life they came to me through Psalm 147: “The Lord heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” Yes. I heard those words, and even though I was still bleeding and battered, something told me I could trust them.

Then, God is there to reiterate the promise. It’s always good to try to re-examine whatever it was we thought God had guaranteed us. In Abram’s case, there has been no misunderstanding. But sometimes in life, there is. Back in June my daughter sang a Woody Guthrie song on Children’s Sunday, a song called “God’s Promise.” The song begins by God clarifying what has not been promised.

I didn't promise you skies painted blue
Not all colored flowers all your days through
I didn't promise you, sun with no rain
Joys without sorrows, peace without pain.

All that I promise is strength for this day,
Rest for my worker, and light on your way.
I give you truth when you need it, my help from above,
Undying friendship, my unfailing love.

Strength, rest, light, truth, help, friendship and love… In the gospel according to Woody, these fall within the category of irrevocables, non-negotiables. We can count on these.

Finally, God promises something extraordinary, something I think we can safely say no other god promises. God lays God’s life on the table. God walks the covenant line. Greater love has no man or woman or child or God, than this: I will keep my promise, or I will no longer be God.

When we are waiting on a promise to materialize, God surprises us, sometimes, by clueing us into something: it’s not the promise that is so important, it’s the relationship. Abram, disappointed, bones creaking, vigor vanishing even faster than his credulity where God is concerned, nevertheless stays in relationship with God. He stays connected. He talks to God as an old friend. He allows himself to hear God’s words of comfort. He allows himself to trust that this crazy God who lays the divine life on the line might just be trustworthy. We can do those things. We can stay in relationship with God, listening for those words of comfort. We can continue to listen hard. We can remember the floating, fiery presence of God, walking the covenant line, and we can trust that this God will go to any lengths to stay close to us. Thanks be to God. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

A Race to Judgment: Sermon on Genesis 9:8-27

Last Sunday I began a four-week series, "Family Stories," focusing on that crazy, dysfunctional crowd we all know and love from Genesis.

This is one of those instances in which a sermon title really didn't end up "working" with the finished product. I dislike having to come up with titles so early in the week!

This is also an instance of a sermon that felt better in the anticipation than in the final analysis. Ah well...

Sermon Series: “Family Stories”
Sermon: “A Race to Judgment”
Genesis 9:8-27
July 6, 2008

As our country celebrates Independence Day this weekend, I think most of us are feeling that this is an historic year for citizens of the United States, in ways that are both exhilarating and troubling. On the one hand, we have just come through a presidential primary season in which the two final candidates for one major party were a woman and an African American man, and in which the final candidate for the other major party is a distinguished Senator and Viet Nam war hero. In terms of Presidential politics we would seem to be in a watershed year, breaking barriers of race and gender, and welcoming our veterans home at last, no matter the outcome in November. On the other hand, a glimpse at any newspaper or time spent listening to radio or TV news reveals that we are in a phase of great economic anxiety and upheaval: the mortgage debt crisis, foreclosures, the escalating cost of energy including the gasoline we pump into our cars, the concurrent spike in cost for everything that requires transporting, including food… all these signal difficult times for many Americans. Exhilarating and troubling.

Our scripture passage this morning could also be described as both “exhilarating and troubling.” Today begins a four-week sermon series, “Family Stories,” focusing on the tales of our ancestors in faith from the book of Genesis. Today’s passage begins as what is perhaps the best-known story in the Old Testament is coming to an end, the story we know as “Noah and the Ark.” As we come upon Noah and his three sons, the floodwaters have receded. The animals have filed out of the ark and are, presumably, roaming the countryside, searching for new habitats in which to settle. After months upon months in the ark, the family is released at last from something which must have felt like a kind of prison, even though it saved their lives. And at this moment of release and restoration, God speaks these words of wondrous promise and comfort:

I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. ~ Genesis 9:13-15

Imagine: not only release, but the promise that God will never again be the purposeful agent of destruction of all living beings. As sometimes happens in scripture, we are startled by an image of God that seems very human… almost penitent, remorseful. In both English and Hebrew, “bow” can mean an implement of war (bow and arrow) and an array of color in the heavens following a rainstorm. God promises solemnly, with the beautiful image of setting the divine bow in the clouds, that God has set down the implement of war. The almighty promises not to use it against living beings again.

Exhilarating! Release, restoration, renewed commitment. But the verses that follow can only spell trouble. Noah, a man of the earth, plants a vineyard and gets drunk on his own wine. As he lies uncovered in his tent, his son Ham enters and sees him. There is a strong prohibition in scripture against this very action, uncovering the nakedness of one’s parent. It carries a sexual connotation, to be sure, and the prohibition is an instance of what can be called “placing a fence around the law.” We do this all the time. Take speed limits, for example. What is the driving force behind speed limits? We do not want people to go 150 miles an hour, and then get into accidents that might injure or kill them or others. We place a fence around that undesirable, extreme result by instituting a speed limit, which, hopefully, will keep people far away from that bad outcome. In scripture, if the strong prohibition is against sexual contact between parents and children, then a fence is placed around that law, by forbidding the children to even see the nakedness of the parent.

Ham violates this law, we don’t know how, exactly, and he immediately tells his brothers—perhaps to help them to avoid doing what he has done. The brothers take great pains to cover their father, to restore his modesty. When Noah awakes, he knows what has happened, and he pronounces a curse on Ham’s descendants beginning with his son Canaan.

[Noah] said, “Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” He also said, “Blessed by the Lord my God be Shem; and let Canaan be his slave. May God make space for Japheth, and let him live in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave.” Genesis 9:25-27

This is so startling, coming as it does immediately after God’s offer of the bow of peace to all living beings. That it is a curse leveled on Noah’s own descendants makes it all the more horrifying. Notice that he doesn’t directly curse his son, the guilty party, but rather curses his grandson and those who come after him. To consign one’s own family to slavery is a shocking act, a repulsive act.

What is really going on here? There are so many ways we could think about this story, so many ways of trying to understand it. Taken at face value, it would seem to be the story of a family that has responded to long months of stress by descending rather severely into dysfunction, with boundary violations and recriminations and long-lasting damage to the entire family system. Taken at face value, if all Ham has done is to wander accidentally into his father’s tent, the enormity of his father’s anger would seem to be displaced… perhaps it is not safe to be angry with the God who has destroyed all living things, but it is safe to turn on one’s children. These are all possibilities. But there is much more to this story than the “plain-reading” of the text.

If we look at the historic and biblical context, it suggests we employ a technique of asking, who benefits from such a curse? When the people of Israel have been singled out as God’s particular and chosen people, guess who will be among their chief enemies? The leading contenders have to be the Canaanites and the Hamites. The Canaanites inconveniently inhabit the land that God promises to the Israelites. And “Ham” eventually becomes synonymous with “Egypt”—Egypt, where the Hebrew people will eventually themselves become slaves. There is motive for the Israelites to preserve a story that condemns these hated enemies to slavery.

We can look also at this passage as it has been used, its history of interpretation… again, asking, “Who benefits from this understanding?” And the sad, devastating truth is that this story has been used throughout history to validate the practice of slavery, particularly of people of African descent. “Children of Ham” was eventually used in scripture to describe people from Egypt and Africa. Even to this day, there are people who still harbor enough hatred and resentment to invoke this curse.

There is still another way we can read this passage. We can read it in the context of the full witness of scripture. This is a strong Presbyterian tradition: we use scripture to help us to interpret scripture. And the strong, full witness of scripture cries loudly and passionately against the institution of slavery. The stories of Exodus portray a God who hears the cries and moans of people who are held as slaves, and that God acts with a mighty hand to free them. In this context, the so-called “curse of Ham” shrinks in significance, and we are able to see it as it is: the lashing out in anger of a man against his own kin, without the blessing of God to back it up.

The Presbyterian Church is part of a Christian tradition that refers to itself as “the church Reformed, and always reforming, according to the Word of God.” As another Reformed tradition has expressed this idea, we try never to put a period where God has put a comma. We recognize that God is still speaking to us. This is a principle that was affirmed by our earliest ancestors in faith in what would later become the United States. John Robinson was the pastor to the first pilgrims to travel to the New World on the Mayflower. As his congregation prepared to make the dangerous journey to religious freedom, he preached a sermon in which he told them: “There is yet more light and truth to break forth from God’s Holy Word.”

Today, this year, I believe we can be proud to be both Presbyterians and Americans, even as we live together through times of change and anxiety in church and society. In every age, our church struggles faithfully to hear how scripture is speaking to us today. 1967 was the year in which demonstrations against the war in Viet Nam drew tens of thousands of participants, the year in which the Beatles released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band,” the year in which Israel fought in the Six-Day War, and the year in which, in the case “Loving Vs. Virginia,” the US Supreme Court affirmed the rights of couples to marry, no matter their race. In that same year, responding to the Civil Rights movement, our church ratified a new creed. As we read this small portion of the Confession of 1967, we can give thanks to God for God’s word heard fresh each morning. As we remember this odd and little-heard story of Noah and his sons, we can know that God’s promise of life still stands for our own broken and hurting families. As we remember how Christians of one era honored the fullness of the witness of scripture, we can give thanks that we too have the opportunity and the freedom to do just that, each and every day. Thanks be to God. Amen.


From the Confession of 1967

God has created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family. In his reconciling love, God overcomes the barriers between brothers [and sisters] and breaks down every form of discrimination based on racial or ethnic difference, real or imaginary. The church is called to bring all [people] to receive and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church, and the exercise of political rights. Therefore, the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it. Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize their fellowmen, however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008


... from a nasty case of food poisoning, I'm pretty sure.

Ate dinner out with loved ones. Precisely four hours later descended into the depths of nastiness. (Had to cancel my Monday bible study. One participant suggested I could offer myself as a case study in certain things Jesus says about the lukewarm believer. I declined.)

My ribcage hurts.

And I don't want to say G'day to a steak any time soon.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

The Summer of Cahoots

Someone I love hoped I was having a chill Fourth of July Weekend.

Well, here's how it's been going.

On Friday I made brunch for Petra, Larry-O and BFF. It was lovely, though it did entail getting to the grocery store by 7:30 in the morning. I attempted to replicate a salad from a cool little West Village cafe I discovered the last time I was in the Big Apple, and I pulled it off, if I do say so myself.

Then, I tried to start my sermon. I got precisely one paragraph written. It was not a bad paragraph. It remains in the final draft. But I'd hoped for more.

At 6 PM Petra and I began singing for our nearly-monthly gig at a local Art Walk. This is something we've been doing for nearly a year, and it's been wonderful. Except... lately, she's also singing with her pal, J., and I think the patina has begun to wear on the excitement of getting to sing with mom. I notice that when she and J. are singing (at this same event) they announce it with a Faceb@@k event, and scores of teenagers show up to cheer and stamp for Petra and J., and to listen politely to me.

The Ex-Mr. Mags showed up on this occasion, (without his GF), and singing songs like "Hallelujah" and "If You Go Away" (two of my signature pieces) felt somewhat odd. But Petra and I sing well together, it's getting tighter every time. I just think her interest is elsewhere.

Petra and Larry have formed a strong bond this summer. It stirs up vague and unsubstantiated memories of college chemistry... covalent bonds? When electrons are shared by more than one element? Can't remember much, but I remember about these bonds being strong, tough to break. Petra and Larry seem to be constantly in the throes of some joke or other, to which I have not been admitted. They are in cahoots, all the time, day and night. It's sweet and charming and I feel left out.

They are growing up. Have I mentioned this? They are almost done, Larry especially. He's 20. There's not a damn thing I can control any longer (and I do love control, or its illusion).

After singing we came home and I made hamburgers and corn on the cob and we fell asleep in front of "The Darjeeling Limited."

Yesterday we dealt with a mysteriously shattering window on Larry's car, and Petra and I volunteered at the Box Office for this summer's Gilbert and Sullivan show (in which none of us is taking part), and I made us all (P, L, B and me) a kind of stir fry, salad and more corn. Oh, and homemade chocolate/coffee ice cream, left over from the 4th). Then we watched "In Bruges." We stayed awake.

Why do I love movies about hit men?

Oh yeah, and I finished the sermon (sort of). And now... well, look at the time!

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Unbloggable... For the Most Part

I have had several moments in ministry in the past week during which a little part of my psyche whispered "Blog this!"

Problem is, I can't. I was discussing this with a non-blogging minister friend over lunch yesterday. So much of what we do falls into the realm of pastoral confidence... even things that one wouldn't think fall into that category. Pastoral confidentiality is not all about someone knocking on the door of my office with a tearful confession of adultery or murder (which has never happened to me, at least not so far). It's not about secret abuse or second families. It's the mundane, though beautiful moment of real intimacy... when you are permitted to share real life with people, not even as an "expert" of some kind, but just as... a presence. A witness.

I've been a witness this week, to several families in varying stages of grief.... but is even that too much to reveal? My lunch companion said, "Being a minister is an isolating experience. There's a lot we have to carry around, a lot we really can't tell anyone, if we're going to honor that confidence." I think she's right. And I think I'm bad at this. I want to share these precious, fleeting occasions with someone... with you, with my colleagues and friends. But what I have agreed to be is not a conveyer of information, but a witness.

So that's what I'll do.

The church I serve has a cemetery. Walking through it on Saturday, I was overwhelmed by the history of the place-- more than 200 years, all told (though less than 200 since becoming officially a part of the Presbyterian stream). Those stones... they are witnesses, too, like the stones in Joshua. "Tell your children that God did this mighty work in this place."

Have I mentioned today how much I love my work?