Repentance and Repair: Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18

February 21, 2016 – 2nd Sunday in Lent

Introduction: This story is about Abram who we will know later as Abraham. “After these things” refers to Abram’s nephew Lot and Lot’s people who were attacked and abducted by a coalition of kings who came from the east into the area Lot was living. Abram gathers his men, pursued Lot’s abductors and rescued Lot and all of Lot’s people.

[Read Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18]

There are lots of ways to read and interpret the bible. The way that is typically my default is to look at the text in its context. What has happened leading up to this particular story? What happens afterward? How does this story serve the larger story? Why did the biblical writers and editors tell the story this way? Why did they include what they did? How does this story contribute to the theological importance that the writer wants to communicate?

So I read back through the story of Abram that begins in chapter 11. And I like to look at what’s coming next—how is what happens in this story going to play out in what’s to come?

The story begins to gain traction when God calls Abram to leave the place where he has been living and to set out to a place that God will show him. God makes a promise to Abram: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”[1] And Abram set out.

Now Abram hears the promise of God a few more times but as the years roll on, he and Sarai continue to be childless. Eventually he assumes, what was traditional that without his own biological child the child of one his slaves will become his heir. But God has something else in mind.

One way this story in chapter 15 functions in the larger context of the biblical story is to raise our sights to how God is at work to fulfill the promise made to Abram. In every story in Genesis, there is great potential that God’s promise will be derailed. First with Abram, who has no heir and seems too old to become a father. Then with Isaac, with Jacob and with Joseph, the story is fraught with potential for God’s promise to reach a dead end. But every time, God makes a way when there seems to be no way. And one way this story functions in the bible is to assure us that God’s promises can be trusted.

But let’s hear the story in another way. And this is what happened to me after I thought I had my sermon idea all wrapped up earlier this week.

God makes a promise to Abram: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” And Abram set out.

Abram sets out as an immigrant. He had already left his homeland in Ur when his father moved everyone to Haran. This is not like when you get a new job in another city and you pack up your belongings and move across state lines. Abram is living in a time of tribal affiliations; where most people would be born, live, and die close to where they were born.[2] Every time he moved, he was going to a foreign community, a place where he knew no one and no one knew him.

I don’t know if anyone had documents in Abram’s day but he functioned as an undocumented immigrant. He had no credentials in his new place. He knew no one to work for. No one knew anything about him to trust him or his people. It was a severely risky journey Abram was embarking on to leave what was known and follow God to some place unknown to him and where he would also be unknown.

Miguel de la Torre, who teaches social ethics and Latin@ studies at Iliff School of Theology, says “The story of God’s people is the story of aliens,” refugees and immigrants, “trying to survive among unfamiliar people in a land that belonged to others.”[3]

Listen to what the lectionary left out of this reading.

[Read verses 13-16.]

[Read verses (pick-up on verse 18) 19-21.]

I don’t know why the lectionary left out those verses but it troubles me. Often the lectionary leaves out portions of stories that are troubling or violent or unsettling because they raise theological possibilities that we don’t really want to deal with. The story is cleaner if it’s just about God whose promises are true. I do believe God is faithful to the promises God makes. It would be hard for me to stand up here as your pastor if I didn’t believe that. And sometimes the story is more complicated.

A prominent story of Abram’s descendents is the story of land. For generations they will have no land. First as people enslaved in Egypt for 400 years. Then 40 more years with no land as they trek through the wilderness, having been led out of Egypt by God into freedom.

What we hear in chapter 15 is God will give Abram’s descendants land but the story also tells us that land is inhabited by others. And we know from the book of Judges that when the people of God cross the Jordan river into the land they believe God has promised to them, it is still inhabited by lots of other people who didn’t get the same message that their land would belong to someone else. There are battles and ambushes and death and conquest and pillaging before God’s people are fully able to lay claim to the land the bible says will be theirs.

Now maybe that’s just the way it is. But I suspect the lectionary leaves this part of the story out—in the English translation, it actually stops the story mid-sentence—I suspect it is because this part of the story is troubling. If all we’re thinking about is the fulfillment of the promise of God, then the story isn’t that troubling. But in this day and time, when we know there’s a long history of people who inhabit land being kicked out, relocated, marched, and murdered so that other people can lay claim to the land, I’m not sure we can leave this part of the story out.

This past Friday was Remembrance Day, the 74th anniversary of President Franklin Roosevelt’s executive order to relocate and incarcerate Japanese Americans during World War II. The order came after the nation of Japan attacked the U.S. at Pearl Harbor. More than 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry, the majority of them U.S. citizens, who lived on the Pacific coast of the United States were forcibly moved inland, without a hearing or a trial, to internment camps (also called concentration camps by some historians). Those who were incarcerated were allowed to take with them only what they could carry, leaving behind homes and businesses, farms, possessions and communities in which they were respected and contributing members.

After the war was over, individuals and families began to leave the camps to try to rebuild their lives at home. Former inmates were given $25 and a train ticket to their pre-war places of residence, but many had little or nothing to return to, having lost their homes and businesses after they were forcibly relocated.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed a commission to investigate the World War II internments. The Commission’s report, titled Personal Justice Denied, found little evidence of Japanese American disloyalty, concluded the incarceration had been the product of racism, and recommended that the government pay reparations to the survivors. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a law which apologized for the internment on behalf of the U.S. government and authorized a payment of $20,000 to each individual camp survivor. The legislation admitted that government actions were based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” The U.S. government eventually disbursed financial reparations to more than 82,000 Japanese Americans who had been interned and their heirs.[4]

In 1991, on the 50th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor Attack, President George H. W. Bush issued another formal apology saying:

“In remembering, it is important to come to grips with the past. No nation can fully understand itself or find its place in the world if it does not look with clear eyes at all the glories and disgraces of its past. We in the United States acknowledge such an injustice in our history. The internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry was a great injustice, and it will never be repeated.”[5]

I pray this injustice will never be repeated. In this election cycle and the mood of our nation, I do not feel hopeful.

This kind of injustice certainly happened previously in our country in what we call the Trail of Tears—the forcible removal in the 1830s of nearly 1250,000 Native Americans from lands they had lived on and cultivated for generations.[6]

It certainly happened previously, as historian Edward Baptist argues in his book The Half Has Never Been Told, about slavery and the making of American capitalism. It happened in “the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African Americans [who] made the United States powerful and rich”[7] but who were excluded from benefiting from their labor.

Most of us, like many others, are descendants of people who forcibly moved others off the land they had inhabited and cultivated. Colonialism and nationalism has a long, ugly history. Have these impulses and efforts been God’s direction or human justification? That’s a hard one to parse out in the bible. I think it’s clearer in the history of our nation as we look back on it but still hard to recognize in our own time because we are so deeply embedded in racist systems that shape our assumptions about the world and distort our views of one another.

Lent is a season of repentance. It is a season of acknowledging the distance between what God desires for us and where we actually stand. This is both an individual practice and a collective spiritual practice. How are we supporting, intentionally or unintentionally, a culture which privileges white people over people of color? How has the church—both our congregation and the larger church that we are part of—benefited from the systems which keep white privilege in place? What would it mean to repent of that?

If Lent is a season of repentance, it is also a season of repair. Repentance is not enough if we don’t make changes to stop the offending behavior. That’s where repair comes in. In a culture which privileges white people over people of color, what is needed to repair the damage that has been done? In a church that has benefited from systems of white privilege, what is needed to repair the damage that has been done? We can’t do this work alone because we can’t know the extent of the damage done to others without those of us who are white doing our own anti-racist work, otherwise, we may very well continue to damage others in our attempts at repair.

This often feel daunting to me—and I imagine it does to you as well. That is why we pray for God to have mercy on us and to show us the way. That is why we do this work of repentance and repair together so that when one of us loses heart, we may strengthen and encourage one another. That is why we keep reading the bible, including the story of Abram and Sarai, digging through the troublesome texts to hear God saying, “I will bless you…so that you will be a blessing.” May that be our Lenten prayer as well.

* * *

[1] Genesis 12.2, 3b

[2] Miguel A. de la Torre, Genesis, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011), 139.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Another form of reparation took place in 2008 when the University of Washington granted honorary baccalaureate degrees to the 449 Japanese American students whose education at UW had been ended by President Roosevelt’s Executive Order in 1942. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Day_of_Remembrance_%28Japanese_Americans%29 accessed 20 February 2016.

[5] The material on the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII is adapted
from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internment_of_Japanese_Americans, accessed 20 February 2016.

[6] http://www.history.com/topics/native-american-history/trail-of-tears, accessed 20 February 2016.

[7] Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, (New York: Basic Books, 2014)), xxi.

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Ash Wednesday – Isaiah 58.1-12

February 10, 2016 – Ash Wednesday

Tonight, after the service, when I go home and see myself in the mirror I will be startled to see a black smear on my forehead. “Oh yeah, it’s Ash Wednesday” I tell myself. That startle happens every year—I don’t expect to see that smudge.

In the Christian Year, we start our journey to Easter at Ash Wednesday. We tell the truth about ourselves and about the human condition. We are mortal. We are finite. We will die. Our bodies will disintegrate. As God made the first human being from the dirt, from the humus of the earth, so will we return to the earth. Not only in being buried in the earth but our bodies will become earth again.

This is a story we mostly do not want to tell nor do we want to hear. Atul Gawande, a surgeon and writer, in his latest book titled Being Mortal writes eloquently about how so many of us, including our doctors, do not want to talk about the end of our lives, even when we are there at the precipice of our lives.

But to talk about the end of our life—to talk about our death—is also to talk about our life.
After the death of someone she loved, artist Candy Chang created an interactive mural on the side of an abandoned home in New Orleans. The mural invited people to participate by completing the statement: Before I die I want to___________________. [i] You’ve may have seen this same mural on E Market Street. Chang’s mural idea has been replicated all over the country and all over the world.

I heard an interview recently with Chang and she said what surprised her was how her wall didn’t make people think about death as much as it made people think about life. “Thinking about death clarifies your life.”[ii]

And so our journey to Easter and eternal, abundant life, begins in death. And the road from death to life travels through the wilderness of Lent as we ask ourselves about our lives:

What kind of life do we want to live before we die?

Is the life I’m living rooted in my identity as a follower of Christ or is it rooted in something else? If it’s rooted in something else, what do I need to do about that?[iii]

What helps me live my faith—and what gets in the way?[iv]

In Lent, we traditionally focus on three practices: prayer, giving something up, and works of love. These practices, and a season of dedicating ourselves to them, invite us to remember who we are and how we are called to live. We are beloved children of God and we are called to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. We could also say we are beloved children of God and we are called to love God with our heart, soul, strength and mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

So let me talk about those three practices and suggest ways we might engage them as we move from Ash Wednesday through Lent.

Prayer. Prayer is an invitation to return to God with all our heart. It is an invitation to bring our whole selves before God. It is an invitation to be present and attentive to the presence of God.

How might you create space and time for this each day? You can start small. It’s always easier to create a habit with a small step than with a huge step. What if before you get out of bed in the morning you give thanks for the day ahead and invite God to be with you in the day? It might be taking five minutes at lunch time to pause and pray “thank you” and “help me” for whatever is happening in your day. It might be reviewing your day before you go to bed, bringing to God what you are most grateful for and what you are least grateful for.

And what if our Lenten practices were not only focused on what the Spirit is doing in our lives but also open to notice and pray with the suffering of our sisters and brothers? We can pray with the news, not turning away from one more shooting of an unarmed black man or another drowning of a refugee child, but paying attention and asking God to be present for people in places of suffering. We can take ourselves, our very bodies in which the presence of God dwells, to places where there is suffering and pray.

Another Lenten practice is giving something up. What do you need to give up to live the truth that you are a beloved child of God and it’s not anything you do or buy or say or have or put on that gives you value? What gets in the way of following Christ and how might you give it up?

This is more than giving up chocolate or alcohol. The early Christian mystic John Chrysostom said, “No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sign continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great.”[v] Chrysostom is saying the same thing the prophet Isaiah is saying. God is not interested in our actions that are only about ourselves. What God cares about is how we treat others, how we work for justice for all, how we provide for those who are most vulnerable and disadvantaged.

In his Lent message last year, Pope Francis said if we’re going to give up something, let us give up indifference toward others.[vi] Perhaps this Lent we practice relinquishing our privilege of not having to care about the lives of others. Or to give up turning away from what we don’t want to face in order to face it.

And the third traditional practice of Lent is doing works of love; the kind of actions that Chrysostom talks about—that benefit others. It seems to me that working to dismantle the evil of systemic racism is perhaps the most important work of love we can undertake. That, of course, is an enormous undertaking so we must find ways to chip away at it that we can actually do so we don’t grow discouraged and quit all together. One way we can do this is to build relationships with people who have borne (and continue to bear) the weight of the systemic racism.[vii]

Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson in a presentation at Yale told his audience “Rendering injustice visible is the proudest tradition of protest.”[viii] That sounds like the work of love: rendering injustice visible.

I can’t predict what praying, giving something up, and doing works of love will look like for you this Lent and how it might transform your life. I do know it begins with death. On Ash Wednesday. Because it is when we look at death that we gain clarity about our lives.

Even when it feels fearful and uncertain, we can begin with death and journey through the wilderness of Lent to the mystery of Easter trusting, as our confession says, “In life and in death we belong to God…With believers in every time and place, we rejoice that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[ix]

* * *

[i] http://beforeidie.cc/site/about/, accessed 10 February 2016

[ii] http://www.npr.org/2016/01/29/464424348/what-do-you-want-to-do-before-you-die, accessed 10 February 2016.

[iii] John G. Stevens and Michael Waschevski, Rhythms of Worship – The Planning and Purpose of Liturgy, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 54.

[iv] Ibid., 53.

[v] http://time.com/3714056/pope-francis-lent-2015-fasting/, accessed 10 February 2016

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] William Goettler, “Lent Is Where We Live” Journal for Preachers, Lent 2016, p4.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] A Brief Statement of Faith, PC(USA).

Transfiguration and Then What? – Luke 9.28-43

February 7, 2016 – Transfiguration Sunday

Introduction: Chapter 9 is a turning point in Luke’s story of Jesus. The beginning of the chapter has Jesus giving to his disciples power and authority over all demons and curing diseases and he sends the disciples out to proclaim the realm of God and to heal. The middle of the chapter is the transfiguration story. Then at the end of the chapter, Jesus will leave his ministry in the area of Galilee and be on his way to Jerusalem where he will meet controversy and conflict, where he will suffer and be killed and at the end be raised from the dead.

There are a lot of overlays in this story with other stories we hear in Luke’s gospel as well as the story of Moses in the Hebrew scripture. So as I read the transfiguration story this morning I will add a few comments along the way to help us hear the text in a larger context.

Read Luke 9.28-43.

v. 28: Begins with a reference to Jesus’ sayings. In verses 24-26. Jesus says, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” “What do you gain if you get all sorts of wealth but lose your true self?” and “The one of whom you are ashamed today may be your judge tomorrow.”[1]

v. 31: “Departure” literally is “exodus”[2] – invoking Moses and the exodus. The Exodus, of course, being the people of God leaving enslavement in Egypt through a wilderness journey eventually coming into freedom in the promised land. For Jesus it will be the journey through suffering and death to resurrection.

v. 34: Terrified: The only other place where this same Greek word shows up is chapter 2 when the birth of Jesus is announced to the shepherds. “Then an angel of the Lord stood before [the shepherds], and the glory of the [Holy God] shone around them, and they were terrified.”

v. 35: “My Chosen”: some ancient manuscripts of Luke 9 say “my Beloved.” You might remember a similar voice in a cloud earlier in the gospel when Jesus is baptized. The voice says, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus’ baptism and those divine words back in chapter 3 mark the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. Now, again, similar divine words mark the beginning of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. And, also like at his baptism, this experience happens while Jesus is at prayer.[3]

 

Author Lillian Daniel, writing about the Transfiguration said, “When people tell you that Christianity does not relate to their day-to-day lives, this is generally the kind of story they are referring to.”[4] So we have a challenge this morning! Let’s see if we can make some real-life connection with this story.

One thing that seems significant in this story is that the transfiguration happens in the midst of prayer. Luke says Jesus took Peter and John and James with him, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying the presence of God overshadows them. Jesus came close to God and God came close to him. Luke particularly makes a point that significant events in the life of Jesus happen when he is praying.

Now that word “overshadow” shows up only one other place in Luke’s gospel. It’s back in chapter 1 when the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will bear a child who will be the Son of the Most High. When Mary asks how she will be able to give birth to the child she is asked to bear, the angel says, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” It’s the same word for Mary as for Jesus, Peter, James and John: overshadow.

Writer Jan Richardson says, “When God shows up, God often appears in and through people: God goes not for architecture” that is, the dwellings Peter wants to make up there on the mountaintop,
“but for anatomy…God seeks to make of us a dwelling, a habitation for the holy”[5] in our bodies.

Mary, Peter, John and James, leave their encounters, their experiences of the Holy, “carrying something they had not previously known.”

In that overshadowing cloud, they hear a voice that says of Jesus, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Listen to him; don’t try to control the Holy—making assigned spaces for the Divine.

Peter wanted to memorialize this occasion. Make it something that he and others could come back to. But maybe when God overshadows you, when God dwells in you, there is no going back. Maybe there is only going forward.

Maybe there has been a time in your life where you came close to God and God came close to you. You carry the experience with you. And the Spirit keeps working on you. You don’t always understand it but as you keep living, maybe a little bit of illumination breaks in, bit by bit. You carry it with you, pondering it in your heart, like Mary did after the shepherds came and told her what the angels said about her baby. In the story of the transfiguration, Peter, James and John keep silent about what they have experienced and tell no one. Perhaps they are also pondering. Holding this mysterious experience in their hearts. An experience that will accompany them and lead them in what is to come.

A mysterious experience that begins in prayer.

The transfiguration is a significant turning point in Jesus’ life. If you remember the story of the Exodus—the Hebrew people fleeing Egypt to escape slavery, wandering through the wilderness for 40 years before crossing the Jordan River into the promised land—it was not an easy journey. It was long, it was arduous, it was filled with doubt and frustration and anger. The people turned against their leader Moses. They were so scared they wanted to go back to Egypt—the very place where they had been slaves.

So if you think about how difficult it was for the people of God to leave oppression and move to freedom, Luke is telling us Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem will also be difficult. It will include suffering and grief and anguish before he will be glorified. And in this moment on the mountain, Jesus is reminded who he is and what his life is about. There is no promise of an easy life but there is a confirmation of who God has created him to be—a confirmation for Jesus and for Peter, James and John.

Sometimes we think of “mountaintop experiences” as beautiful sunsets and an escape from the world. That’s not this story. Professor Paul Galbreath says this mountaintop experience was “preparation for and [a] recommitment to the nitty-gritty work of encountering the demonic forces that oppress, subjugate, and hold people captive.”[6]

And the very next day, Jesus and his disciples are met by a crowd of people, including a man whose only child is held captive by an evil spirit. Transfiguration doesn’t take Jesus out of the painful suffering of the world, it puts him right into it. And the disciples too.

We may feel a little funny talking about evil spirits but think about demons we know today: addiction, poverty, racism, sexism, heterosexism, xenophobia. These are certainly demons that “oppress, subjugate, and hold people captive”[7]—they hold individuals and whole communities captive.

Earlier in chapter 9, Jesus has given the disciples power and authority over all demons and to cure disease, but for some reason they are unable to cast out this demon and heal the boy. The story doesn’t tell us why. But it does tell us that Jesus can. “Jesus rebukes the evil spirit, and the demon exits the young boy as a sign of the power of God incarnate in Jesus Christ.”[8] The power of God the three disciples encountered on the mountain: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

So in this story we have a mystery encountered in prayer that prepares us to meet the suffering in the world through the power of God incarnate in Jesus Christ. It was true for the disciples then. May it be true for us today.

Lord God, you have called your servants
to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,
by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.
Give us faith to go out with good courage,
not knowing where we go,
but only that your hand is leading us
and your love supporting us.[9] Amen.

* * *

[1] Fred B. Craddock, Luke, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 131.

[2] Ibid., 134.

[3] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 152.

[4] Lillian Daniel, “Dazzling and Beloved” in The Lectionary Preaching Planner,” eds. Janna L Childers, Lucy A. Rose, Leonora Tubbs Tisdale and Beverly A. Zink-Sawyer, Nashville: Abingdon, 1996-2004.

[5] http://paintedprayerbook.com/2009/02/15/transfiguration-sunday-show-and-dont-tell/, accessed 6 February 2016.

[6] Paul Galbreath, “Homiletical Perspective – Luke 9.28-43a,” Feasting on the Gospels – Luke Vol. 1, Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 271.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Quoted in Heidi Neumark, Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003), p274.