Monday, September 24, 2012

God's Plan, Our Choices (Sermon 9/23)

Genesis 15:1-6

            What is God’s plan? Many times, in some of the darkest moments of our lives, people (well-meaning people) tell us that God has a plan for our pain, that what has happened to us makes sense in a grand scheme, that we are not hurting in vain. Yet think about what that says about God: that God uses pain as a means to an end, to bring us where God wants us to be? That there is a long-range plan, full of illnesses and pains, which is how God is bringing the kin-dom into fruition? That the forces that oppose God, including cancer, chaos, and criminal actions, do not really have any power- though we go through the motions of renouncing them at baptism.

            If God’s plan for the world is down to the tiny details, what’s our part in it? Do we play a role? Are the encouragements in the creation story, the relationship that we see there between God, humans, and the rest of creation, is that a real relationship or just a backdrop while God moves us around according to a plan?

            If we take a look at Abraham’s story, we can see two things: one is God has a plan and two, people are participants in that plan. God’s plan for Abraham is no less than God’s plan for anyone of us- a future, hopes fulfilled, abundant life. God draws Abram out into the dark of the night and promises that, though currently childless, he will be a father to many generations. God has a plan for Abram’s future… including a name change, but God’s plan requires trust and faithful action on Abram’s part.

See chart above:

The chart moves from the idea that God has an over-arching plan, but we are called to respond, through the gifts of faith and free will. Consider the choices Abram/Abraham made. 

God helps those who help themselves: Hagar and Ishmael

Expedient Choice (ending up badly): Passing Sarah off as his sister

Faithful action: leaving homeland, creating Isaac, arguing on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, near-sacrifice

            Each of this situations arise from choices that Abraham makes, just like each of us find ourselves in situations because of our own choices. Occasionally, we find ourselves in situations, good or bad, because of someone else’s choices. As participants in God’s work in the world, as co-creators and communicators of God’s blessings (just like Abraham), we are continually called to think through who we are as people, as families, as a faith community, as a city/state/nation.

            The idea that God is micro-managing us and everything else leads to a kind of carelessness- a disregard for ourselves, for others, and for creation. The idea that God helps those who help themselves inevitably leaves someone out in the cold and, eventually, leaves many people feeling separated from God.

            Faithful living, on the other hand, is hard work. It comes from trust. Trust can only be based on a foundation of fulfilled promises, consistent action, and a reasonable expectation of future care. The Abraham story lets us see that we can only expect those things from God and not because of God’s reign in minutiae, but because God is the details of care, of peace, of justice, of community relationships.

            Because we see through scripture and through experience that we can trust God and that trust makes the foundation of our faith, which God graciously counts to us as righteousness. We get credit for the right response because of God’s history of faithful action to God’s people and through Jesus.

            God’s plan is always for creation in the way he explained it to Abraham- a plan for generations, a plan for descendants, a plan for a future hope and a fulfilled promise. God also graciously invites us into that plan, gives us the solid foundation of faith, and allows us the freedom of choice in how to respond. Do we deserve this? No. Did Abram deserve a special promise? Did Mary deserve to be chosen by God? It’s not about what we do, any of us, it is always about what God does. God’s plan always included the curious, the stubborn, the little, the lost, the least, you, and me. And that plan, into which you and I are invited, is always for hope, for justice, for blessing, for creation, for relationship, and for peace.


Sunday, September 16, 2012

Not Safe for Children (Sermon, 9/16)

Text: Genesis 6-9            

          In all the things I do for our children’s service, Heavenly Sunshine, one thing I never do is read the flood story. I do a lot of wild and crazy things, but I never read that story. I do not like presenting it as a story for children. It’s not a story about cute animals- it’s a story of the idea that the world went so wrong that God decided to undo creation. That’s not Vacation Bible School-friendly, that’s apocalypse. No number of cute songs or rainbows can make me okay with this story.

            This is an interesting perspective because most of us never hear about the flood again after our VBS or day camp days are finished. A few of us may have discussed Genesis as adults or once or twice heard a sermon on the flood, but so rarely. Who wants to talk about it? Who wants to consider that God, who was merciful to Adam and Eve and to Cain (after he killed his brother), decided a few generations later that things were so bad, they had to end.

            Things were so bad (how bad were they?) that Genesis 6:5-7 says: The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”

            What was the great sin of the time? As I thought about this story this week and wished I had anything else on which to preach, I read an interesting thought in a Torah commentary. A Torah commentary is a Jewish commentary on the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. This modern commentary sifts through thousands of years of Jewish scholarly thought and offers small nuggets to chew on regarding different texts.

            The commentary suggested that the early people- the pre-flood people- stopped valuing children. I am not saying this is what’s in the Bible, but when commentators through the centuries have read this story and the rest of Hebrew Scripture, one of the conclusions they have reached is that the destruction of the flood is attributed to a societal neglect of children.[1]

            Since Noah lived to be quite old, the Scriptural tradition understands that he did not have children until he was five hundred years old. (Remember one of the punishments that comes with the flood is that people will no longer live past 120.) Noah waited a long time to have children, possibly, because he did not think the world was a good place in which to bring children.

            A lack of spiritual and social role models, a failure to plan carefully for the future, a disregard for community support of parents, a breakdown of the societal institutions that offer support and structure for future generations… all of these might have been characteristics of that pre-flood culture (or a contemporary culture, come to think of it). Everyone did what they wanted, focused on themselves and their needs first, and failed to consider God’s preference, God’s desires, God’s commands toward relationship and fruitfulness- which means bearing children, supporting children, and being a part of a society that values children.

            To value children does not mean that everything becomes child-centric. Not everyone can or should have children, but we all live in a world in which children are affected by all kinds of decisions. Economic, political, spiritual, educational, environmental… if our thoughts are not on the impact of what we choose and how we choose it, then we have stopped considering the future generations, we have stopped valuing children.

            And so we have the story of the flood. A story told and re-told to make sense of a devastating event. A story that is filled with grief and anguish. Noah and his family surely had friends and neighbors who died, who were killed. A story in which God has regrets. A story that may have been repeated because in later generations, when the world seemed very upside down, people wondered how bad could it really have been before the flood?

            It is a story that is not for children because it can be understood to be about children. The later events of the Hebrew scripture are completely focused on children- on having them, on their struggles, on God’s promises of children. Even when we read about the time of slavery in Egypt, the Hebrew people were more focused on continuing to have and preserve the lives of children than they were on obeying the Pharaoh.

            At the end of the Noah story, God promises not to destroy the known world by flood again. Very shortly thereafter, Noah gets drunk and his sons get in trouble over their reaction. Despite the warnings of the flood, people didn’t change. Mistakes are made.

            Yet the story reveals God as resolute, as having made up God’s mind. The price of destruction is too great for a creator to pay. The pain of the loss is not worth the break in relationship. So God makes plans, plans for the generations, plans for hope and a future. There will still be judgments, but there will also be mercy. And there will not be massive destruction that comes from the hand of God as a judgment. God takes the long view and the long view includes many, many, many children.

            The question for us is do we have that same view? In a week with the death of a U.S. ambassador and many others, where are our values? Have we thought about children- about our children, about the children of our neighbors, about the children of the world? Do we trust enough in God’s promises of life and hope for all, in Jesus, that we make decisions based on the continuity and value of the people who are to come after us? Decisions about relationships, leadership, natural resources, or economics?

            The story wraps up neatly when we tell it to children, but for we who are older… it’s tough stuff. Maybe we avoid the flood story, not because of the deaths and the destruction and even what it makes us question about God, but because we can see that the same behaviors are rising, like dark water, all around us. 

           God will not forget God’s promises. Do we remember them? Do we care enough about those promises to be guided by the Spirit in all things, for the sake of children? Do we trust enough in God’s memory to believe that destruction has not been forgotten and that, if we are willing to see them, all around us are signs of renewal and creation? If not, maybe we should just leave this story to the kids.


[1] Artson, Rabbi Bradley Shavit. The Everyday Torah. McGraw-Hill, 2008. p. 10 f. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


I have been re-reading parts of Victoria Sweet's God's Hotel for two months now. I've maxed the renewal time of my local library and finally decided to buy my own copy. Though the book is about the last almshouse in the United States, located in San Francisco, it is about more than healthcare. I strongly recommend this book.

Sweet writes about the spiritual and emotional dimensions of caring for the chronically ill. She studies the work of Hildegard of Bingen and considers how the tools of ancient medicine apply to practice today. In a sermon here, I talked about Sweet's understanding of the difference between anima and spiritus.

She also details the tension between different factions in the hospital, between doctors and nurses, administration and city government, willing patients and resistant patients. Though many of the decisions for the future of the hospital are necessary, but lamentable- Sweet reflects on the writing of Florence Nightingale regarding the necessity of tension in medicine.

Nightingale wrote:

“A patient is much better cared for in an institution where there is the perpetual rub between doctors and nurses and nuns; between students, matrons, governors, treasurers, and casual visitors, between secular and spiritual authorities… than in a hospital under the best governed order in existence.” (Nightingale, Notes on Hospitals, 184).

Sweet interprets: 

“But then I remembered what Florence Nightingale had written about the struggle between medicine and nursing and administration. That struggle was irresolvable and should not be resolved, she said, because it was in the patients’ best interest. If medicine ever won control of the hospital, too much would be practiced on the patient; if administration, too little; if nursing, medical progress would be curtailed in the interest of the spiritual and emotional care of the patient.” (Sweet, God’s Hotel, 327). 

Part of the reason I've kept this book for so long is for the passages like this. I turn this over and over in my mind and I wonder about the necessary tension in the church. What is the critical balance between laity, clergy/rostered leaders, and administration/judicatories? How do we balance the interests of all and how do we discern to whom God is speaking and who thinks the sound of their voice is God speaking? 

There is also the balance between history, tradition, and spontaneity, between styles of music, prayer, and preaching, between interpretation, meditation, and contemplation. 

Some of the truly difficult work of the church is learning to live with the tensions, when to give and who should give, and how to move forward. And in all this, we must also remember not to let the work of the church interfere with the work of the Lord. 

Sweet, Victoria. God’s Hotel: A Doctor, A Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine. Riverhead Books, New York. 2012. p. 327, 372

Monday, September 10, 2012

A Prayer for Suicide Prevention

On World Suicide Prevention Day: 

God of all space and time,
There is darkness that exists which feels impenetrable.
Darkness that seems to overcome all light.
Darkness which swallows the will to live,
The desire to go on,
The possibility of grace,
The existence of hope.
There is darkness in this world, in some hearts, in some minds...
Darkness which makes a person feel separated from You and from Love.

You have created a light which no darkness can overcome,

But sometimes the darkness seems too great.

On this day, be with those who feel surrounded by darkness...
Who are afraid to speak of their plans,
Who are pondering in their hearts what seems the only end to their pain.

Be with those who have reached out, but not been believed.

Be with people who are left behind, who have questions, who blame themselves.

Send your Spirit of consolation and hope into the world on this day,

Turn up the Light of Love- burnish and banish the darkness,

Strengthen all to speak, to listen, to hold, and to share.

Holy God, we ask for the kind of peace- in hearts, minds, and all creation- that can only come from you.

Gracious God, hear our prayer.
And in your mercy, answer us.

Cross-posted at RevGalPrayerPals