Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Yikes! Sodom and Gomorrah, Incest, Deception, and God's Promises - Genesis 18, 19, 20 and 21:1-7

I read today's chapters in Genesis and thought YIKES!

This is some of what I mean when I tell my confirmation students that the Bible is not rated G.  Or even PG-13.

Sometimes - like today - I'm not sure it would get an R.

Today I read about God's judgement on Sodom and Gomorrah.  How the men of Sodom wanted to rape the men (God's messengers, aka angels) staying with Lot.  How Lot offered them his virgin daughters instead.  Not exactly a candidate for father of the year in my book!  The men then trying to break in by force until the angels blinded them.

Even though the citizens are reprehensible and judgement is looming, Lot and his family can't bear to leave.  They dally and the angels have to drag them out of the city.  Lot's wife can't stand it and looks back, only to be turned to a pillar of salt.

Yeah.  We know this story.

But it gets worse.

Lot takes his daughters and settles way up in the mountains.  They are so remote that there is no one for his daughters to marry,  (Lot's still deficient in parenting responsibility)  So they get dear old dad drunk, and sleep with him to get pregnant.

Abraham has his own failings.  He's afraid that the men of the town of Gerar will find his wife so beautiful that they will kill him to get her.  So he says Sarah is his sister (true, but not the whole truth) the king of Gerar takes her as a wife.

Fortunately God steps in, and Sarah is kept from the king's bed by God's hand.

Mind you, Abraham has already pulled this trick before - with Pharaoh.  Not his finest moment - again.




Then I read the last part of today's reading - Issac is born,  This child is the beginning of the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham - to bless him and make his descendants number the stars and through him to bless the nations.

And I went back and re-read the first bit of today's reading- where the birth of Issac is again promised, this time with a date given. (Abraham and Sarah have only been waiting on God's promise of a son for about 20 years!)

And then it hit me - God keeps God's promises.

God promises....humans do horrible stuff....God keeps God's promises.

Even when we lie and deceive.

Even when we get so focused on ourselves that we ignore the needs of others.

Even when we longingly look back at those less- than-savory things.

Even when we reluctantly heed God's call.

Even when we can't or don't believe that God will actually follow through and do what God promised.

Even when..... (fill in the blank)

Even when we do not keep ours.

Takeaway for today

  • God keeps God's promises

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Remembering and Promises Genesis 7, 8, 9, and 1 Chronicles 1: 8-23

There's a lot of repetition in this story.  Bible scholars say that's because there were two different traditions - Priestly and Jahwistic - that told this story slightly differently.  Instead of telling one story and then the other, like the creation accounts, the writers did a mash-up of the two traditions.  So there's a lot of repetition (and some differing details).

The story of Noah's Ark is pretty well known.  We decorate our nurseries with cute boats and a cuddly old man (and sometimes his wife) and those adorable pairs of baby animals.  And the rainbow.

Let's not forget the rainbow.

It's an odd choice for a children's tale.  All humans (except for 8) drown in the flood.  All the animals (except for those on the ark) die.  Everything is destroyed in a cataclysmic rainstorm.

I bet there was lots of thunder and lightning.  Scary thunder and lightning and dead things floating in the water.

This is not a great bedtime story.

But then we read "God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and livestock with him (8:1)."  God remembered.  And God made the wind blow to dry up the waters.

God remembered.

God re-membered.

God brought everyone on the ark out and re-membered them - made them members again of God's creation.

And God made a covenant -a sacred promise - to never destroy the earth by flood again. And God placed a rainbow in the sky, so God would remember...

That rainbow which delights us is not to remind us of God's promise. No.  It's to remind God of that promise!


No matter how bad things get, God will remember that we are God's children - prone to sin, but dearly loved by God nonetheless.

And that's a pretty good story for bedtime and every time!

Takeaway from today:

  • God loves humankind and all creation - warts and all
  • God promises to always remember us with love

Friday, January 2, 2015

Starting and Starting Over - Genesis 4-6, 1 Chronicles 1:1-4

It doesn't take long for humans to find trouble.  Adam and Eve start a new life outside of the Garden.  They are fruitful - they have sons.

And where there is more than one child - there is sibling rivalry.

Abel was a shepherd and Cain was a farmer.  The time comes to bring an offering to God, Abel's offering is accepted, and Cain's is not.

Why not?  I'm not sure.  But Bible gives us a clue.  While it just says Cain brought an offering, Abel's offering is the best of the firstborn.  Can we extrapolate that Cain's offering was not 'first fruits', not the best of the harvest?

Cain tries to slide by with any old offering.  But God calls him on it.

Instead of repenting (and bringing an acceptable offering), Cain lashes out against Abel, killing him.

It goes down hill from there.  To the point that by the time of Noah, God is ready for a mulligan.  God looks on creation, looks at God's beloved humans - made in God's own image - and it breaks God's heart (Genesis 6:6).

God's heart breaks.

And God has compassion on creation, on humans.  God charts a new course.

It takes washing the world with a flood.  And it takes the obedience of Noah and his family.

Which we'll read about tomorrow.

Takeaways from today's reading:

  • God always encourages us to be our best, to do our best.
  • Humans have a tendency to do just the minimum to get by.
  • God has such love for us and all creation, that God's heart breaks for us.
  • In the face of human sin, God chooses to find a way to bring us back.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Let's start at the very beginning.... Genesis chapters 1-3

Let’s start at the very beginning.  That’s a very good place to start….[i]
The ancient Hebrews would agree.  The beginning of their Scriptures begins with Genesis – a Hebrew word meaning “origin” or “beginning.”  To make sense of their story, of their relationship with God, they needed to start at the beginning.
We need to start at the beginning too.  Humans have always tried to explain where everything comes from.  There are lots of stories of how the earth began - ancient myths, the Biblical accounts, scientific explanation.
I was in 3rd grade when I first heard about the theory of evolution.  In the 60's they weren’t teaching evolution explicitly to 3rd graders, but my Sunday school teacher was extremely upset that we might believe this evil theory instead of believing what the Bible clearly said – that the earth was created in six days and on the seventh day, God took a nap.
I didn’t really understand all the fuss.  I was wise enough in 3rd grade to know that God could do anything, and could do it any way God wanted to.  I figured that since the Bible also clearly said “that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day (2 Peter 3:8),” whether each day in Genesis chapter one was a 24 hour day, or thousands of years wasn’t really important.  After all, God could have created the world in 6 seconds if God choose to.  I wasn’t so sure about the whole humans-evolved-from-a-monkey stuff, but I figured that probably wasn’t important either.  I knew that God created me and loved me. That was all I needed to know.  God could explain the rest all when I got to heaven. 
Ah, the faith of a child!
Fast forward about 30 years.  I was on the confirmation teaching team at Zion Lutheran in Lima Ohio.  I was talking to our new pastor before the first class in our Bible year.  Of course we were studying Genesis.  I casually mentioned that I had no problem with evolution (citing the above reasoning) – after all the order God created the world matched the order evolution stated. 
Not so, said Pastor Kent.  There are two accounts of creation – Genesis 1:1-2:4a and Genesis 2:4b-25.  And the order things were created in those two stories is different.
It was? 
How had I never noticed it before? 
I had to check it out.  I made a chart – and sure enough, the order of creation IS different in the two biblical accounts of creation!  Go ahead – check it out.  I’ll wait…

So - which account is true?  
They both are! 

I teach my confirmation students that the Bible is not about the ‘how,’ it’s about the “Who” (thanks Pastor Kent!).  Put another way, it’s not a book of science – it’s a Book of Faith.  Those ancient Hebrews,when explaining how everything came to be, told two different stories of the beginning.  Both were important statements of faith to them.  Both said something vital about God, and us, and the world. 
The first account tells us something about God.  God is the Creator – of heaven, of earth, of water and land, plants and animals and humans –everything that is seen and unseen.[ii]  The second account tells us something about God and us.  We were created to be in relationship with God – and through God in relationship with each other and all creation.  These two stories set the stage for the rest of the Bible.

There’s one more story in today’s reading:  The Fall.  Serpent tempts woman, woman gives fruit (The Bible never says it’s an apple!) to man. Humans covet God’s wisdom - relationship with God is broken.  God asks what happened, man blames woman, woman blames serpent – relationship with each other and creation is broken.  Sin enters the world.
The last time I preached on this, I noticed something.  God says they can eat from every tree in the garden but one - The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  But there’s another big, capital letter tree in the garden – The Tree of Life.  Adam and Eve can eat from that tree, but they don’t.  They choose the fruit that brings death. 
Why didn’t they eat from the Tree of Life? 
Does this story teach us that God gives things that lead to life, but humans so often choose those things that lead to death?

Looking around our world, I’d have to say yes.

Take-aways for today:
  • ·     God made everything.
  • ·     Everything God made is good
  • ·     God made humans to be in relationship to God
  • ·     Left to our own devices, humans will choose death over life
  • ·     Sin is broken relationship with God, which also breaks our relationship with each other and creation

How will God redeem this beautiful mess?

[i] Opening lines from “Do-Re-Mi” from the Sound of Music.
[ii] From the First Article of the Nicene Creed

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Mary's reflection on the flight to Egypt

It’s terrifying to attract the attention of a king.

Especially a king like Herod.

I don’t blame our visitors.  Strangers from Persia, it’s no wonder they didn’t know who they were dealing with when they went to Jerusalem asking to see the new born king of the Jews.

They couldn’t have known what lengths Herod would go to maintain his power.  This is a man who had his sons murdered.  Who ordered the death of his most beloved wife because he was afraid of her schemes to put one of her sons on his throne.

The throne he held courtesy of the Romans.  For he was no Jew.  He was not in the line of David.  Hearing that there was a king born in the line of David must have terrified him.

I admit it.  I was na├»ve too.  The danger in the angel’s words never occurred to me.    “Son of the Most High, God will give him the throne of David” – how did I miss in those words the challenge to the powers that be!  I guess I just thought that God would keep us hidden from notice until Jesus was old enough to reign.  It’s hard to think of swords and blood and death when you’re feeling that first kick, when you’re consumed by labor pains, when your newborn nestles in your arms.

But there were swords and blood and death.  As we fled to safety, warned by angels, soldiers devastated Bethlehem.  How many dead?  How many mothers and fathers died protecting their children?  How many men gave their lives in a vain attempt to fight off this invasion of their homes?  Had the soldiers crept quietly into town and tore people from their beds, herding them into the center of the village like so much cattle to be slaughtered?

All because one small family attracted the attention of a terrifying king!

I had a lot of time to think on that long journey to Egypt.  We would find a welcome in one of the Jewish communities on the banks of the Nile, far away from the reach of this deadly king.  Egypt meant safety for us.  

The irony was not lost on me.  We were fleeing to Egypt.  Odd that this place of safety for us is the same place of slavery and danger we remember each Passover.  There was a terrifying king then too – a king who feared Hebrew babies enough to send soldiers to rip them from their mother’s arms as soon as they were born.  It was a land of swords and blood and death that we left behind for the land God promised to us.  And now, Joseph and I, to save our son, are fleeing the Promised Land, desperately trying to outrun death.

The news of the massacre caught up to us on the road.  I fell to my knees at the news, crying out in anguish.  I thought of the women I chatted with at the well every morning, of their toddlers playing next to Jesus as we talked together, worked together, relaxed together.  My family!  My friends! 
I clutched Jesus close to me as I cried – as if I could protect him from danger and tragedy.   And I wept, for the children, just as Rachel wept for her children as they went into exile.

The sorrow followed us.  We lived quietly in Egypt.  We were safe, but for how long?  The sound of soldier’s feet sent me scurrying to grab my son, to hide him once again.  Joseph was careful - traveling to a far off city each time we needed to exchange Magi gold for the smaller coins peasants like us could be expected to have.  We never talked about Bethlehem, saying we were from Nazareth.  It was true, even if it hid the terrible truth.

We never talked about angels, or dreams, or shepherds, or Magi.  Except very late at night when we could whisper in each other’s ear, confident that Jesus was safely asleep, and there were no other listening ears to betray our secret. 

Finally, Joseph had another dream.  Herod was dead and it was safe to return.  I dreaded it.  How could we go back to our home in Bethlehem, with our strong little boy, knowing that the children he once played beside were dead?  It was a relief when Joseph told me about another dream, instructing us that the danger was not past- Herod’s son was just as terrifying as his father – and we should return to Nazareth instead.   

It was a relief, filled with dread.  Is this what our life will be like?  Always looking over our shoulder for danger? 

It’s been quiet since we returned to Nazareth.  Of course, Nazareth has always been a quiet village.  Slowly, we have relaxed our guard, let go of our fears.  It’s only late at night, when I dream about Bethlehem’s children, that I relive the terror.  And I fear for him.  What will happen when he is old enough to claim his throne? 

Last Sabbath, the portion read in synagogue was from the prophet Jeremiah -  the same words that came to me when I first heard the terrible news from Bethlehem – Rachael weeping for her children for they are no more.  That day, prostrate in the dust, crying inconsolably, I could not remember the rest of the prophet’s words:  Thus says the LORD: Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work, says the LORD: they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future, says the LORD: your children shall come back to their own country.

I looked from the women’s section over to my son, worshiping next to Joseph.  Hope for the future – that’s what God has promised.  That’s what this boy fast becoming a man will bring – hope for the future.

For now, he is the living, breathing proof that God had not forgotten us, that God is with us today.

It is enough.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Taking the Little Things for Granted: a reflection on Giving Thanks

There’s so much in life we take for granted as we go about our daily lives.  Until something stops us in our tracks and makes us take notice.

November 4th was an ordinary day that stopped me in my tracks.  My husband collapsed and had to be life-flighted to Sioux Falls.  The fear, uncertainty and confusion of those first few days really put in focus what’s important.  Those days showed me just how often I take the many blessings I have in my life for granted. 
A few days before, I would almost carelessly kiss my husband goodbye before I went out to do some visits or to go to a meeting.  Suddenly the memory of that morning’s kiss became precious.  The simple act of making lunch for him that afternoon was transformed from chore to gift.
 I had a lot of time to think sitting at his bedside about all the things I had to be thankful for:  our life together, our children;  the myriad little things that make life full of joy – a crispy starry winter night, a sunset, our pets;   the congregations who have called me to be their pastor and the wonderful communities which welcomed us and now showed so much love and support in our time of crisis;   the EMT’s and paramedics, doctors and nurses and all the hospital personnel who gave my husband such good care.

Fear and confusion gave way to giving thanks for the smallest improvement - that he started responding to pain, that he opened his eyes, that he was able to talk, that he began to regain strength. 

I had a lot of time on my hands, sitting at his bedside.  I passed the night watches reading.  I had just starting reading “The Year of Living Biblically; one man’s humble quest to follow the Bible as literally as possible.”  One of the things that really stood out to me was his encounters with giving thanks.    He had been raised in a non-practicing Jewish family and had never really prayed before.  So he found daily prayer difficult and awkward.  There were two kinds of prayer that worked really well for him – praying for other people, and praying for his blessings. 
As he began to daily give thanks, he noticed that he became “obsessed with gratefulness.”  He began giving thanks for the smallest, most ordinary, things.  That his wife left the door unlocked and he didn’t need to dig for his keys.  That his young son was sitting on the floor, eating pineapple.  He says, “I’m actually muttering to myself, ‘Thank you….thank you…thank you….’  It’s an odd way to live. But also kind of great and powerful.  I’ve never been so aware of thousands of little good things, the thousands of things that go right each day.”
    That resonated with me, sitting at my husband’s bedside, giving thanks for each breath he took.  These last few weeks for me have been emotionally draining, even terrifying at times.  But they have also been curiously filled with thanks.

Was it that thanks that got me though? 

In the Bible, there are Psalms of lament.  These are songs of deep anguish, heartbroken cries to God.  Songs that contain the most desolate of human emotions. But something curious happens at the end of those laments.  These psalms end in praise and thanksgiving – an outpouring of trust in God, the giver of blessings.  It’s like the psalmist is saying, “God, I have seen your many gifts to me, your outpouring of grace and mercy in the past.  And I also know that someday I will be able to thank you again, no matter what I am going through now.  So I’m going to start thanking you right now.”  For the psalmist, giving thanks is an act of faith.

Last week, I was reminded of the mission trip to Nicaragua I went on last summer.   The people I met had very little in the way of material things.  But they had absolute confidence in God’s loving care and daily blessing in their lives.  Is that what it looks like to live as the Apostle Paul teaches us in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18  “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

We’re at the time of the year that we focus on giving thanks.  After all, today is Thanksgiving.  But what if we practiced Thanksgiving every day?   What if we lived in a way where we are continually aware of all our blessings, big and small, going around muttering, “Thank you…thank you…thank you”?

What if we took time every day to notice all those blessings we normally take for granted?

I pray for God’s blessings to you and your family on this day of Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Knowing the Whole Story

I’ve been working my way through the TV series “How I Met Your Mother.”  For those who have never seen the show, it’s about a man, Ted, telling his kids the story of, well, how he met their mother.  But the story starts way before he actually meets her….there’s nine seasons, and she doesn’t appear until the last one.
Now, I’ve watched an episode here and there throughout the nine seasons, but I never really watched much of the show, until I decided to watch the whole thing from start to end on Netflix.  About halfway through the series, I discovered something interesting.
There are little inside jokes, and symbols that a casual viewer would not understand.  For example, in the very first show, there’s a blue French horn.  I won’t say too much about this French horn - no spoilers here.  But the blue French horn shows up here and there during the series.  It becomes a metaphor for Ted’s love for Robin (a girl he meets in the first show who ultimately becomes a major character in the show).    Or when they do a flashback to their college days, if you see someone eating a sandwich, well… let’s just say it’s a very different college pastime that Ted doesn’t want to tell his children about.
I like the consistency of the story line – the episodes build one on another.   They do a good job of filling you in on what’s come before, especially if it’s important to the storyline of the particular episode. But to really enjoy the story, to really understand what’s going and, to get the full impact, you have to watch the whole thing.  From the beginning.  In order.
It got me thinking about the Biblical story. How long has it been since you’ve read the entire Bible, cover to cover?  When you sit in church on Sunday morning, or you read your devotional book, do you remember the story that surrounds the small snippet of scripture you get that day? It can really made a difference!
I decided once to read my way through the Bible.  Now I’ve done this several times, but this time was different.  Instead of reading chapter by chapter, I decided to read the stories in their entirety.  I read Genesis 1-3, creation and fall.  I read Noah in one sitting.  I broke Abraham into a couple of sittings – it’s a long story!  And so on.  Joseph, Moses, Wilderness.  Yeah, Leviticus and Numbers were pretty hard to read through, but soon I was entering the Promised Land with Joshua.  Settling the land with the Judges.  Following young David’s rise from shepherd to giant-slayer to king.
I was humming along pretty well, but then I got to the books of Kings and Chronicles.  Those books overlap, telling the same story from different viewpoints.  Fortunately, my study Bible had a chart of how the stories overlapped.  Plus it had another chart that had which kings were in power when the prophets were preaching.  Since I was reading the Story in the order it happened, I read about a king – say Ahab or Josiah, then I read the preaching of the prophet that was working at that time.
Let me tell you – I had read the prophets before, but it had never meant as much as it did reading the prophet in conjunction with the king.  When I read the words of the prophet God sent to preach at that place and time, I knew what exactly what was going on in Judah and Israel.  It made so much more sense!
When we hear the Story, the whole Story in it’s context, we understand it better.  When we immerse ourselves in the Story, we get those inside joke and metaphors.  When we hear John say to his disciples, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29), we hear as John’s disciples would have:  this is the Passover Lamb, the sacrificial Lamb that saves us from death and brings forgiveness.  
We hear when you read John 3:16, “For God, so loved the world” – this world that God created and called good, loved and provided for; this world that God cleansed through the waters of the flood and then promised never to destroy again, but instead started working through Abraham, the children of Israel, the line of King David, to bring a Messiah, his son, whom he sent to save that world that God so loved.
I encourage you, as we get close to the end of the year and the time for resolutions, to find yourself a chronological reading plan, or even a chronological Bible (I recommend the NLT One-Year Chronological Bible).

Spend a year immersed in the Story.  God’s Story.  The Story that gives us life.