Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Genesis18:1-15, 21:1-7 "Is Anything Too Hard for God?"

Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7
         “He who laughs last, laughs longest.”  “Laugh and the world laughs with you; cry and you cry alone.”  “Laughter is the best medicine.”  “Laugh to keep from crying.”  “A good laugh and a good sleep are the best cures for anything.”
         We live in a world that embraces laughter.  After all, we have birthed the likes of comedians Charlie Chaplin, Robin Williams, Steve Martin, John Belushi, Lily Tomlin, Phyllis Diller, and Carol Burnett.  We laughed our way though films such as “City Lights”, “Mrs. Doubtfire”, “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” and “Animal House.”  We nurtured our laughter (canned and real) on Saturday Night Live, I Love Lucy, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In, and The Gong Show.
         Yes, we live in a world that embraces laughter – except when it comes to church and religion.  Then we seem to turn our backs on it and tumble into stiff-necked seriousness and endless frowns.  A good number of the folks “out there” beyond these four walls think that we “in here” are all about appeasing a God who is just itching to find an excuse to smack us down and smite the world.  And, besides, who wants to spend a summer Sunday morning being reminded of one’s folly, shortcomings, and endless sins?  No wonder our churches are so empty!
         Seriously, how are pastors usually portrayed in literature and films?  The ones who are not pushovers and doormats are characterized by their grave solemnity and distasteful disdain for and impatience with the human race. 
         People “out there” often presume that a pastor’s favorite sermon topic is like that of the Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards who told his fear-filled and quaking Massachusetts congregation in 1741:  The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked.  His wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire.”  That sermon is appropriately entitled “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” and, I suspect, involved a lot of agitated hand gestures and pulpit whacking.
         And yet, the Bible is full of laughter.  The Psalmist sings of it.  Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy.”  The author of Ecclesiastes reminds us that laughter is part of the rhythm of life itself.  “For everything there is a season:  A time to laugh…” The Apostle Paul refers to joy/laughter as one of the gifts of the spirit, and Jesus speaks of it in some translations of the Beatitudes as the reward for those who weep. 
         And then, of course, there is the story of Sarah laughing her head off in the family tent when she eavesdrops on those strangers come to call who share the news with her husband, Abraham, that she will bear a son. 
         It all began under the oak trees of Mamre on a sultry afternoon when the desert sun shone down mercilessly.  The only thing to do on a day like that was to take a nap until the evening breezes came.  And that was exactly what Abraham was doing when God appeared to him. 
         Even though Abraham was known to have had conversations with the Almighty previously - on the topic of land (how God/Yahweh would give him some) and descendants (how God promised a son to carry on the family line – a promise that had thus far gone unfulfilled), Abraham did not recognize his God before him now. He saw only three strangers, one of whom had apparently nudged his outstretched foot, disturbing his pattern of gentle snoring.  Abraham lazily opened one eye, and then sat bolt upright. 
         Travelers in the heat of the day like this? Folks walking in the blazing desert with no shade to speak of?  Now that was laughable, if not downright foolhardy. 
         Abraham struggled to his feet – his ancient knees creaking and popping - as quickly as one could expect a 99 year old man to get upright.  He rocked side to side to stretch his back – the old lumbar region was acting up again.  Once up, however, it took only a fraction of a second for all of Abraham’s Bedouin upbringing to kick in, and hospitality to become the instant norm. 
         “Come. come closer.  The shade of the oak trees is cool, and here you are traveling in the heat of the day. Take a load off. Let me get you something to drink. You must be thirsty. Can you stay for dinner?”
        Barely waiting for an answer, Abraham hustled them under the spreading oak trees out of the sun.  He then moved as quickly as his old body would allow him to the cattle pen where he oversaw the slaughter of a calf for dinner – but not before he had stuck his head in the kitchen where Sarah already busied herself. 
         “Psst!  Sarah!  Hurry. Get three cups of our best flour; knead it and make bread.  We have guests.”
         Sarah finished up the hummus she had started earlier in the day, sighed as she put olives in a cut glass dish for the strangers, and then dutifully baked her bread. 
         A few hours later, the makeshift feast was ready.   All in all, it was a pretty good spur-of-the-moment dinner.  There was the fat and tender roasted calf steaks, milk, curds, and Sarah’s offerings of bread, hummus, and olives.  Abraham and the three strangers enjoyed it under the oaks, picnic-style, while Sarah did the dishes inside the tent.
         She was not really eavesdropping, but she could not help but listen when she heard her name spoken.  I mean, who would not be a wee bit curious?  You see, one of the men asked Abraham, “By the way, where is Sarah?”
         “Oh,” Abraham replied, a bit surprised that anyone should wonder about Sarah in the first place.  It was not that Abraham did not think of his wife fondly.  It was just that he did not think that much about her at all.  She was always around – his best friend really.  Maybe he did take her for granted sometimes, but, well, if a woman’s place was in the home, where did these strangers think she would be? 
         “She’s there in the tent doing the dishes,” he replied a bit testily.
         It was at that precise moment that one of the strangers, presumably speaking on behalf of all of them, made his outrageous declaration out-of-the-blue.  “I’m coming back about this time next year. When I arrive, your wife Sarah will have a son.”
         Now, Sarah just so happened to have been standing inside the tent behind the man who had spoken, so she heard every word.   Menopausal Sarah snorted with disbelief and whispered to herself. 
         “An old woman like me? 90 years old?  Get pregnant? With this old man of a husband?”         
         Or – as another translation paraphrases it, “Now that I am old and worn out, can I still enjoy sex?  Will I now – after all these years - be gushing with pleasure?  And besides, my husband is older than I am.  Can he even still have sex?” 
         Sarah thought of her show white hair, her wrinkled skin, and the arthritis forever creeping deeper into her joints.  And then she thought of Abraham’s shock of gray hair, his wrinkled skin, and bad back, and arthritic knees.  She shook her head and could not help but again snort with laughter – the laughter of cynicism, of promises unfulfilled, of dreams long gone, of disbelief. 
         The stranger who had spoken heard her muffled guffaw – and maybe sensed a bit of the pain that lay nestled within it.  He called her bluff and asked to whomever might be listening, “Why did Sarah laugh saying, ‘Me? Have a baby? An old woman like me?’  
         The stranger paused for a moment, and the silence deepened as silence does just before something important is revealed.  “But I say,” he went on. “Is anything too hard for God?”
         Called out of her hiding, Sarah denied the whole thing.  She lied and said, “Who?  Me?  I did not laugh.”
         The stranger smiled and gently replied, “Yes, you did. You laughed.  But that is OK.  God is about laughter.  God is about joy.  God is about promises fulfilled and dreams come true.  Is anything too hard for God?  You watch.  You will be laughing again in a year’s time.  You will look into a baby’s eyes, and you will laugh.”
         And Sarah did – but that second time she laughed with joy.  She laughed until the tears rolled down her face.  She laughed in faith this time - faith in a God who is so good, in a God who keeps promises, in a God who dreams dreams that one day, when we least expect it and in ways we might never expect, come true.  And Sarah insisted that the baby be named Isaac, which means “laughter” in Hebrew – because, well, because:  Is anything too hard for God?
  Be careful how you answer that question, of course!  As Mennonite Ben Patterson blogged:  Answer yes (God can not do everything) and the world is shut down, the universe is closed, and God is no longer God: benevolent, maybe; kindly and concerned, perhaps; but as powerless as we.
Answer “No, there is nothing that is too hard for God,” and you and the world are in (God’s) hands and the possibilities are endless. (God) is radically free to keep (God’s) promises, despite the odds against it.”
         Personally, I think God loves a good laugh, a good joke.  I think God loves putting something over on humanity, tossing something into the mix that is so outlandish, so incongruous that we almost can hear God snorting with mirth in the background. 
         The best example, of course, is as Episcopal priest Jonathan Currier reminds us:  Frederico Felini could not have come up with a stranger cast than the oddball crew God chooses to star in the story of salvation…Think of Peter, the bumbling, big-talking, backwater fisherman who became first among apostles and bishop of the church at Rome.  (And, of course,) any God who chooses a carpenter from the one-horse town of Nazareth as the redeemer of the universe certainly has a sense of (laughter).”  And let’s not forget Sarah – and the magical night she must have had with Abraham – two old codgers once bound for the old age home now choosing the color (it’s gotta be blue, right?) for a nursery.
        “Is there anything too hard for God?”  No – I do not think so – with one proviso.  You see, I think God calls on us to play a substantial part in realizing our hopes and dreams – and the hopes and dreams of the world.  After all, Abraham and Sarah had to disappear into their tent for a night of bliss in order for Isaac to be born.  It did not just happen. 
         It is like the story of a very religious man once caught in rising floodwaters. He climbed onto the roof of his house and trusted God to rescue him. A neighbor came by in a canoe and said, “The waters will soon be above your house. Hop in and we’ll paddle to safety.”
         “No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure God will save me”
         A short time later the police came by in a boat. “The waters will soon be above your house. Hop in and we’ll take you to safety.”
         “No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure God will save me”
         A little time later a rescue services helicopter hovered overhead, let down a rope ladder and said. “The waters will soon be above your house. Climb the ladder and we’ll fly you to safety.”
         “No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure God will save me”
         All this time the floodwaters continued to rise, until soon they reached above the roof and the religious man drowned. When he arrived at heaven he demanded an audience with God. Ushered into God’s throne room he said, “God, why am I here in heaven? I prayed for you to save me, I trusted you to save me from that flood.”
         “Yes, you did, my child,” replied God. “And I sent you a canoe, a boat, and a helicopter. But you never got in.”
         Our God is a God of laughter.  Our God is a God of the improbable and the impossible.  Our God is a God of promises fulfilled and dreams come true.  But our God is also a God who expects us to participate in the creation of our blessings.
         Like Sarah, we have all suffered crushing disappointments. Like Sarah, we have waited for dreams that seem to have long since faded. Like Sarah, we easily resort to cynicism. 
        But, like Sarah, may we still find it in us to laugh – at the enormity of it all and the incongruity of life.  May we be like Sarah and find it in us to laugh at that niggling hope and tiny bit of endless faith deep within us that maybe, just maybe, our hopes and dreams will one day, with the help of the God of laughter coupled with our own faithful action, be made real. 
         And then we, like Sarah, will have our answer to that ancient question:  “Is anything too hard for God?”


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Genesis 1:1 - 2:4 "In the Beginning - and Now"

        This is the story of the beginning, our beginning.….First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don’t see…..God stepped out on space, and God looked around and said, “I’m lonely — I’ll make me a world.”
         Before it was anything else, earth was a soup of nothingness ….a bottomless emptiness….. an inky blackness…..As far as the eye of God could see, darkness covered everything, blacker than a hundred midnights down in a cypress swamp.
         God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss…like a mighty eagle, like a mother hen guarding her nest.  It was the same Spirit that fluttered down as a dove was said to have fluttered down at Jesus’ baptism.  It was the same Spirit that drove Jesus into the wilderness for 40 days to figure out the role God called him to play in making God’s sacred dream for the world come true.  It was the same Spirit that blew out windows, created little eddies of dust and debris, and went on to envelop the apostles in that upper room in Jerusalem at Pentecost.  It was the same Spirit that has, at one time or another, breathed itself into each and every human heart – even yours, even mine.  God’s Spirit.        
         Then God smiled, and the light broke, and the darkness rolled up on one side, and the light stood shining on the other, and God said, “That’s good!”
         We all want to know where we came from.  We all want to hear the stories of our beginnings, stories that give shape to who we are today and guidance on who we should be in the future.  These stories are where we find our roots and our wings. 
         The tale we just read in the very first book of the Bible is one of two in our Holy Scriptures that seeks to spell out how it all began, spell it out in a format and in language that would have been familiar to the first ancient listeners sitting around their campfire in the cool of the evening asking life’s most persistent questions. 
         The first thing these early listeners would have realized when they heard this story is that it – their story, our story – this tale of the beginning stood in stark contrast to other creation tales bandied about in ancient days.  One might even say that, as UCC pastor Kathryn Matthews writes, their story, our story is “a counter-cultural protest of the people of Israel against the creation story of their Babylonian captors.
While their oppressors saw the origins of the universe as violent and bloody, the Israelites told their children a different story, a story rooted in goodness and blessing.” 
         Lutheran pastor Kathryn Schifferdecker puts it this way.  Their story, our story “does not describe the world of ancient Near Eastern creation myths, where the gods have to defeat the sea or the sea dragon in order to create the earth. There is only one God in Genesis, and that God is the Creator of everything, including the sea monsters themselves. There is no chaos-monster in Genesis 1 that must be defeated.” 
         Ours is not the story of a cosmic clash between good and evil.  Rather it is the story of what goodness and love can do.  And so, throughout our narrative, we are reminded that the earth and all that is in it is good.  Before original sin, then, there was original blessing.
         Our story is an example of beautiful theological poetry proclaimed from the heart, poetry that, in the end, is about our God who is so good.  It is an example of mythology at its best. 
        The author’s purpose is neither to outline history nor to claim the story as a scientific theory.  The purpose is to offer in beautifully imaginative language a reflection on creation and the nature of its creatures (including us).  But mostly it is a poetic homage to the God whose love lies at the heart of all creation and who is so good.
         Contrary to what the flat earthers and religious fundamentalists who insist that all of this magnificent creation occurred in six 24-hour days about 6000 years ago will proclaim, this passage was never meant to be taken as literal fact.  Its truth lies far deeper and is far more complex.  Light came from the deepest night, and order emerged from chaos. 
         Love and blessedness prevailed – not just at the very beginning but forever and always.  You see, God separated the water under the sky from the water above sky.   “Water-beneath-Heaven, gather into one place; Land, appear!” And there it was.  God named the land Earth and the pooled water Ocean.
         God spoke: “Earth, green up!”  Then the green grass sprouted, and the little red flowers blossomed, the pine tree pointed his finger to the sky, and the oak spread out his arms.  And God said, “That’s good.”
         God spoke: “Lights! Come out! And God set that sun a-blazing in the heavens. And the light that was left from making the sun God gathered it up in a shining ball and flung it against the darkness, spangling the night with the moon and stars. And God said, “That’s good.
         God spoke: “Swarm, Ocean, with fish and all sea life!  Birds, fly through the sky over Earth!”  Fishes and fowls and beasts and birds swam the rivers and the seas, roamed the forests and the woods, and split the air with their wings. And God said: That's good!
         God spoke: “Let us make human beings in God’s image, make them reflecting God’s nature so they can be responsible for the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, the cattle, and, yes, Earth itself.”  So God created human beings; God created them godlike, reflecting God’s love and goodness.
         Imagine:  The great God Almighty who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky, who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night, who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand; This great God shaped us – male and female - in God’s own image; Then into us God blew the breath of life, and we became living souls.
  And God blessed us and gave us one command: “Be responsible. Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air, for every living thing that moves on the face of Earth.  Be responsible.” And God said one more time, “That’s good.”
         Be responsible:  Those are powerful words. And with them the earth has been entrusted to us (you and me).  We are answerable not only to God, but to one another, to our children, to all the generations yet to come.  Because we are made in God’s image, we are to act as mirrors of God.  So the command to us is this:  Be responsible as God is responsible.  Love the world as God loved the world.
         Unfortunately, to date we have done a pretty effective job of abdicating our responsibility in the name of unbridled economic growth, religious fundamentalism, and political expediency.  I am not a scientist, but I will side with the over 97% of reputable scientists who say that we are in the midst of an environmental crisis.  Call it what you will – global warming, climate change, climate dis-regulation. We are in the midst of a crisis, and we humans are a root cause.  It is not a liberal plot.  It is not a Chinese hoax.  We consume more than we care.  We take more than we share.  We feel entitled to far more than our due.
         Listen to this assessment of the situation:  “For us, it’s not a political issue but a moral and spiritual issue.  We are working for the future of our children.” One would hope that was the enlightened vision of our own leadership here in the US.  Unfortunately, it is not.  IT is a quote from the Minister of Science and Technology in India.
         What will Maine be like when we no longer have maple trees to tap for syrup in the spring?  What will Maine be like when most of our children will contract lyme disease at some point in their lifetime – but that will be the least of our tick-borne disease worries?  What will Maine be like when the Southwest becomes a desert wasteland?  Will we welcome the great migration northeastward to Maine where there is water?
         We may argue with enormous intensity about whether the earth was created in six days or a billion years, but, when we do, we miss most important point in this creation story.  As Kathryn Matthews blogged: “We were created, by whatever process and whatever length it took, by a gracious Creator, in love and goodness, and we are called to care for this earth, this good creation, not to dominate or abuse it. We are responsible for its care.” 
         We need to wake up and face the world that we have made – and take responsibility not only for what has happened, but also for what will happen in the years to come.  That is a given.  That is God’s command to us:  Be responsible.
         Some of us will take on big responsibilities.  Others of us will make a small contribution to change.  However, all of us are called to, as Unitarian Universalist pastor Barbara Merritt notes, called to use “whatever resources we have to work at becoming better human beings. Caring for the planet, caring for our neighbor, and caring for our own soul: there are many paths that can help us to focus on what ultimately matters.”        
         But how do we do that?  How do we take meaningful responsibility – especially when we are tired, overwhelmed, confused, discouraged, and maybe even feeling a little out of our depth? 
         There is a story of a father walking with his small son when they encountered a large rock in the road, blocking their path.
         The father instructed his child, “Use all your strength, and move that rock out of our way.”
         The small boy pushed it, leaned against it, rocked it, yet the boulder remained firmly where it originally lay. In tears, the boy said, “I can’t move it at all!”
         The father replied, “You didn’t use your full strength.”
         The boy objected, “Yes I did!”
         The father, answered, “No you didn’t. You didn’t use me. Your strength includes the one who walks with you.”
         Together, they easily moved the rock away.
         And so it could be for us – here in this church – if we are a group of like-minded people who are committed to living as we were created – in the image of God.  We do not have all the answers, and we will not be able to move all the rocks in our path.  But surely we will recognize that we are on this precious planet together, committed to that call first uttered in the very first chapter of the Book of Genesis:  Be responsible.  We are to mirror the goodness of God in the way we choose to live.
         That is what the Spirit is calling us to do - as individuals and as the Christian church.  It is not a subject for theological speculation.  It ought not be fodder for a political debate. 
         We face a series of profoundly moral questions that we need to answer before it is too late. What does it mean – practically - to be made in God’s image – to mirror the Holy One?  What does it mean – practically - to be responsible for the world and all its creatures?  What does it mean – practically - to be a caretaker of the earth and not a consumer?  
         Our younger son once asked me about his relationship with his serious girlfriend:  “When do you move,” he queried, “from things being about “me” to being about “us”?”  Good question about serious personal relationships but also a good question when it comes to our relationship with the earth and its creatures, when it comes to defining our responsibility! When does it move from being about “me” to being about “us”?
The retelling of the creation story at the beginning of this sermon draws for The Message translation of the Bible and "The Creation" by James Weldon Johnson.