Monday, August 28, 2006

I'm A Believer!

Text: Jonah 1:17-2:10
Ephesians 5:15-20

Let us all pause for a moment of gratitude, gratitude that lately God doesn’t seem to send storms and gigantic sea creatures to swallow us whole whenever we don’t listen. Because if God did, I would imagine that many of us wouldn’t be here right now, rather we’d be swimming around in the ocean, somewhere in the belly of a fish, perhaps trying to remember how Finding Nemo’s Dori spoke whale so we could converse with our new home.

I sincerely doubt that if we were truly honest with ourselves that any of us could say we never refused to do, go, or be what God called us to. Sometimes we feel that tug on our heart that tells us we should say something to that person speaking unkindly of another – even if we’d then be looked down on by that same person. Sometimes we feel pulled to offer our gifts in ways that make us nervous – perhaps to speak in front of a crowd when God has given us something to say but not extreme confidence to go with it. Sometimes we are called by God to give up our dreams of what our life will be and take on God’s dreams for us. And sometimes we don’t respond to the Spirit moving so within us. I would imagine that each of us could think of at least one time we chose to stay with what was known, what was comfortable and safe rather than risk the unknown with God.

To be honest – minus the fish, Jonah’s story really isn’t all that out of the ordinary. He was a man who was happy to be God’s servant – as long as God asked him to do things he approved of. Jonah had no trouble speaking to the people Israel the word of the Lord when it was a positive proclamation. 2 Kings attributes Jonah as the one who prophesied that God would restore Israel’s borders which had been overtaken by her enemies. He doesn’t seem to take much issue proclaiming good news to people he knows. But pronouncing God’s judgment upon a bunch of heathen strangers? No thank you, I’ll go to Tarshish instead. Jonah will trust and follow God, but only so far, and Nineveh, well, Nineveh goes beyond the boundaries of what Jonah is comfortable with.

And so even though God has called him to go somewhere, to speak the word of the Lord, Jonah refuses and tries to flee from the presence of God. Jonah has trouble seeing beyond himself and into God’s will and vision for the world. He’s comfortable with what and who he knows – this strange land with strange people – he doesn’t understand how they could be part of God’s vision.

As I said, other than what happens while he’s in the midst of fleeing from God’s call, Jonah’s story isn’t very unique. Many of us can probably identify with not fully trusting in God’s vision for us. Not fully believing that God’s will and not ours is what we should spend our energies understanding. I know I can. I also wonder if perhaps many of us can identify with Jonah’s fish experience. Not a literal fish, of course, but that moment, that experience, that encounter that makes you take notice, that causes you to say in awe and wonder “I remembered the Lord.” Sometimes our fish comes to us in tragedy, sometimes in a joyful moment. Sometimes we know that we’ve been swallowed right away, sometimes it takes us a few days, or weeks, or even longer to notice that where we are. This morning I’d like to tell you about my encounter with a big fish.

Like Jonah, I’ve had some interesting encounters while I’m in the midst of traveling. My mom worked for Continental Airlines for several years and so – thanks to her benefits – I got to fly more than the average bear. That means I got to have more than the average number of plane conversations – you know, those hour long conversations where you reveal your inner most soul but may not exchange names. Of course, given my answer to the “so, what do you do” question, I also have other than average kinds of conversations. When people find out you’re in seminary or a minister – a visible change comes over them. Sometimes they shut down completely, sometimes they feel the need to confess, sometimes they want to engage me in deep theological conversation – which gets really interesting because when I fly thanks to Dramamine, I’m very drowsy and perhaps more than just a little loopy.

Two days before I left for Ethiopia, I had one of those interesting conversations while I was flying back from my sister’s graduation in Wisconsin. My row mate was a man named Tom – exceedingly cheerful and interested in discussing everything from our families to the hot topics of our time. Not surprisingly what I do and where I was going in two days came up. When Tom and I talked about my upcoming trip to Ethiopia, I expressed my fears about our group’s safety. I had been – I’ll admit – obsessing about that topic for a few days. A few weeks prior I had read about a bus about 80 km from one of the town’s we were going to drive through had been ambushed and 15 people were killed. While in Wisconsin I heard about some other turmoil ending in bloodshed. Tom’s response to this was: don’t worry, you’re going to God’s work and God will keep you safe. And, well, if your worst fears come to be, you’d still be with God and all would be alright.

There was something about his carefree, “it’ll be fine” attitude that just bothered me. It was as though he thought I’d have some sort of invincibility cloak because I was on, as Elwood Blues would say, a mission from God. But as we continued to talk, I realized that wasn’t what he was saying, not exactly. His attitude was more that whatever might happen to me, I would be doing God’s work and be with God and that was all anyone could ask for.

Talking with Tom, I realized that I wasn’t entirely sure if I believed that. It sounds like a great outlook on life, even possibly good solid theology, but I struggled with it. There’s this expression you may have heard, let go and let God. I have confession. The Let go and Let God always bothered me just like Tom’s perspective on life. Because letting go means YOU don’t have a plan and you’re just asking for trouble. Let go means YOU aren’t in control.

Let me make another confession – as a good eldest child, I like control. And when I’m out of it, when I can’t see what’s going to happen next, when I can’t develop plans or strategies, I, well, I panic just a bit. I’m a lot better about this control thing than I used to be but I really like to be able make sure I can foresee what’s going to happen and plan for it.

When it came to Ethiopia, I couldn’t exactly plan for what I was going to find, didn’t have much control over the next three weeks of my life. I couldn’t plan and I wasn’t willing to believe that whatever happened, it would work God’s kingdom, toward God’s purpose. Somewhere deep down inside, I’d like to believe God’s purposes can only be fulfilled if I live a great, long, happy life. That since I had gone along with God with this whole minister thing, since I let God make that decision for me, the rest of my life should go closely according to my plan. That, that would work out really well for me.

Jonah certainly seemed to along the same mindset. He was okay with being called to be a prophet but he didn’t want to be stretched to what he didn’t know, to what he couldn’t foresee. It wasn’t until he was riding around the inside of a big fish that he started to conceive that God was the one in control of his life, that he remembered God and lifted his voice in prayer. I know that three is a popular biblical number – it just sounds good, three days and three nights – but I find it intriguing that it took three days and three nights for Jonah to make this prayer.

If I had been swallowed by a giant fish, and found myself alive and not being digested, I would think one of my very first actions would be to get down on my knees and pray to the Lord who made me saying “you are awesome, please save me, I’ll do whatever you want” over and over again.

That it took three days just speaks to how dense we can be. Tom probably looked at me just the same way I’m looking at Jonah. Amy, you’re in the belly of a fish – don’t you see that God is in charge and in God you should trust. Don’t you believe in God’s vision for you?

I wanted to believe but it’s scary. God’s vision for us is scary because it’s not our vision, it may not fit in with what we had planned. But what’s more, because it’s God’s vision and not ours, we cannot see all of it, we cannot always see how it will work, cannot foretell the outcome of following this vision. God’s vision extends beyond this time and place and we as humans cannot hope to comprehend it all.

As I was preparing to go to this foreign land, I really wanted to believe that all would be okay – at least in God’s terms even if not my own. I wanted to believe and so God sent me a fish, a man named Tom. Tom put these thoughts into my head and as I finished packing, those thoughts just took root. I couldn’t escape the feeling that I just need to trust God to see me through, to catch me if I fell. I needed to believe that if I focused on the will of God, if I allowed myself to be filled with and guided by the Spirit, that God would always be with me. I needed to believe that even though I can’t see beyond the horizon, God can. Believe and trust no matter what, I would be with God. And that would be all I need.

A funny thing happened as our team was at the airport on our way to Ethiopia. As we stood in line preparing to go through security, I was trying very hard to focus on this trust thing and not obsess over the fears that kept rattling around in my head. As I was trying to put my fears aside, I heard a voice call my name. I turned to see who had called and there was Tom, standing in the same line a few people down, a huge smile on his face. I don’t know about signs – that’s another sermon – but I took this encounter as that final kick in the pants - notice it took me only two days and nights. Upon seeing Tom again, I gave into that desire to trust in God, to believe in God’s promises. I gave in and it felt great!

Now, not all my fears were gone, but I didn’t operate out of my fear, didn’t let it keep me from going where God called me. Because I was not absorbed by my fears, I could fully engage in all around me, could be who God wanted me to be while I was there. I crossed over from where I was comfortable – odd to say that fear was comforting but it was – into the unknown of just trusting God completely and found myself so much more comfortable.

We may be grateful that God doesn’t send literal storms and big fishes, but we should also be thankful that different kinds of storms and big fishes enter our lives and shake us up. Thankful that God doesn’t let us flee without putting up something of a fight. Thankful that even it takes three days and three nights – or longer – God is going to stick with us until we understand the will of the Lord. Until we give into it, give into God. Until we shout with greater excitement and joy thank Donkey did in Shrek, “I’m a believer!” And brothers and sisters, I am!


Thursday, August 24, 2006

A Love Letter

Dear Covenant,
Have I told you lately that I love you? Because I do! Last Tuesday, Aug 15, marked the 1 year anniversary of me being your Associate Pastor. It has been a year beyond expectations for me – I couldn’t have asked for a better first year as a minister. Whenever I speak with one of my peers from seminary, they always remark on just how happy I sound. And there’s a reason for that – you! Over the past few weeks, I’ve been doing some reflecting on what about this community that I love so much. Here are just a few of those things.

I love how you warmly welcomed me and accepted me. With notes of encouragement and galas of welcome, with food and entertainment, with smiles and hugs, you have made me feel loved. You have also let me love you right back – which isn’t hard at all to do!

I love your giving nature. When there is a special offering, we always have such a wonderful response. When we need volunteers for anything, you are there. When I need another set of eyes and ears, you offer honest and reflective thoughts.

I love your differences. This church is not comprised of people who all think alike or act alike and thank God for that! We have a range of different ways of celebrating and worshiping God, have various ways of thinking about theology, and we don’t let any difference get in our way of loving each other and the God that has called us together.

I love your willingness to try new things. Over the last year I have had the opportunity to see and support new programs in throughout the life of the church, new ways of worshipping, new ways of (as we used to say in seminary) “being Church.” I have rarely heard the proverbial “but we’ve always done it this way” and that has been a blessing. You’re open to where God made lead you – both individually and communally.

I love so many more things. I love the hugs I get after worship, I love getting to be silly with the youth (and some of the adults!). I love running into you wherever I go, from the grocery store when I’m shopping to the coffee shop when I’m working on a sermon. I love that some of you tease me about my dancing during worship – and that some of you join in. I love getting to know you and I love that I have so much more of that in my future.

In case you didn’t get it the first 50 times, I love this church and I look forward to many more years of ministry together.


Thursday, August 17, 2006

Ethiopian Reflection - June 16

I got a decent night’s sleep last night – not perfect, though. I woke up with Muslim call to prayer at 5am and didn’t go back to sleep after that. This morning for breakfast we went to Motera Motel and I enjoyed my first macchiato and sadly my first “cooked in oil” food. The eggs I had tasted fine on the way down but left a filmy feeling in my mouth and a queasy feeling in my stomach. Cooking oil is actually rancid butter – didn’t know that until after we ordered. Liz found out the hard way – ordering French Toast just soaked in the stuff. Oh, my stomach churns just thinking about it.

On the drive over to the Hilton Hotel to exchange money, we had more people at our windows. That’s starting to make my stomach churn as well, though in a different way. We aren’t going to give them money – in part because we might get mauled (for more money) and because it’s hard to assess real need in a place so poor. The people at the window make my stomach churn because of the way I handle it. Jeff will just say “no, no” over and over – my strategy, ignore them altogether. The rough faces, deformed hands, children’s eyes – I ignore. Don’t look, don’t make eye contact, don’t acknowledge their existence in any way. That’s what bothers me so much. Here are the least and the lowly, and I turn my head. It’s not that I want to remain unaware of their plight, that I want to avoid seeing such poverty so close – that hasn’t been a problem for me so far. It is so much more that if I looked at them, told them “no,” I would have to see either the disappointment or a refusal to give up or–sometimes–anger. And so I don’t acknowledge those who stand at the car and I feel horrible.

On the way back from lunch we drove through a good deal of Addis – or at least it felt that way. So many buildings, all smushed together, many made of metal sheeting, many looking so much worse for the wear. During our drive around town, we also noticed needs of both sheep (and maybe goats – I can’t tell) and even Brahma cows. They seemed to know where to go, crossing the street as a group, guided by a shepherd. We also saw donkeys carrying large bags on their backs – I never knew that was really something people did.

When we got back to the compound, we headed over to the Bethel Makane Yesus School. There we met with Ato Teferra, the principle. He told us some interesting information – for example, the government does not allow religion taught in any schools, even private schools like Bethel. That floored me. Public I could understand, but private? Teferra took us on a tour of the school – we visited both kindergarten classes and grades 1-4. Oh, those kids were precious! They (almost all) sang “This is the Day” among other songs. The older kids we got to ask questions. I had the best time being silly with them (surprise, surprise) – asking them about their favorite and least favorite subjects. I have decided that a child’s giggle is a universal sound.

After our touring of the school and some time of rest – thank goodness for rest! – we went to an Abyssinian restaurant. There was lots of good national food and fun traditional dancing. Well, we enjoyed the dancing. Our hosts laughed hysterically at some of it. After dinner and dancing, it was time for bed!

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Obade, Obada, Obadiah! Lalalala, Obadiah

Texts: Obadiah 1-15; Luke 6:27-31

Have you ever had a day where you just know you shouldn’t get out of bed? Not because you’re too tired or your bed is too comfortable, but because something is telling you, don’t do it, because somehow you know, you just know that this day isn’t going to be any good.

I don’t know if Edom got the message or not, but this nation should have definitely just stayed in bed. Because as soon as Edom got up, even before he had poured his first eye-opening cup of coffee, somebody is knocking on his door. Knocks like a prophet. Knocks like Obadiah. Obadiah doesn’t just gently tap, he pounds his heart into that door. Because Obadiah has been brought to Edom’s door by a vision searing his eyes, the word of God burning his tongue.

“Edom, Edom, the day has come. It is time to hear your ruin pronounced.”

Edom might just shake his head and go ahead and pour that cup of coffee. Ruin? Who in the world would bring ruin upon his head? Who could? Edom had good reason to feel so confident, to say in his heart “who will bring me down to the ground?” Edom was better off than many nations. More than enough food and water, easily defendable. On this country’s land, there were highlands which rose southeast of the Dead Sea in 3 great steps of sandstone cliffs to a height of more than 5, 000 feet; there was a maze of mountains, cliffs, chasms. It would take a lot to bring Edom low. Someone, some nation, would surely think twice – if not more – about attacking Edom.

Many would not blame Edom ignoring Obadiah at his door. Edom is a great nation and Obadiah, who does he represent? Israel? Well, as Edom has seen first hand, Israel was just overtaken by another country called Babylon. The people were taken into exile or sold into slavery – only the stragglers remained behind, stragglers like this prophet Obadiah. Would he be the one to bring Edom down? He and what army? Israel was scattered, nothing was left of this once great nation.

Obadiah won’t be ignored, however. He keeps pounding away because he does not come representing Israel – he has come representing the God of Israel, Adonai. He has come as his name suggests, as a servant of the Lord, a Lord who has some words for Edom.

“Though you soar aloft like the eagle, though your nest is set among the stars, from there I will bring you down.” Maybe those words got Edom’s attention, made him put his cup of coffee down and actually listen to the words from the intent man knocking at his door. But if those words didn’t catch his attention, surely the next will. Obadiah paints an ugly picture for Edom. Everything Edom has will be lost – the wisdom traditions Edom is known for, all treasures, the holy sites, all understanding – everything will be lost, not to strangers but to those once called friends. Not even a remnant will be left behind.

Why does Edom receive such a proclamation? Because Edom three times wronged the Lord and the Lord’s people. As Obadiah reminds Edom, it is for the slaughter and violence done to Israel that shame will cover him. For Edom has taken treasures of Israel, captured the Israelites and sold them into slavery. This is the first wrong. But Edom did not attack Israel, make war against the nation for want of land or goods. Edom watched while the armies of Babylon moved in, watched as Babylon destroyed the temple, scattered the people, and then and only then, did he swoop down from his lofty perch, not like an eagle, but like a vulture. For Edom is a scavenger, picking Israel clean of any goods Babylon left behind, cutting off the fleeing Israelite’s path of escape, capturing them and handing them over to the highest bidder. Nothing but the bones of Israel remained after Edom came through. This is the second wrong.

The third wrong is perhaps the greatest wrong of all. Edom wasn’t just some well-to-do nation, a bully that kicked Israel when he was done. Edom was, is, Israel’s brother. For just as Israel was once called Jacob, Edom was once called Esau. Jacob and Esau, brothers, twins.

Instead of helping his brother, coming to his aid, Edom gloated, rejoiced even, in the day of Judah’s distress. And so Obadiah is here to tell him, that the day of the Lord is near. The day when the nations, Edom’s allies and confederates who have sat down at table and broken bread with him, the day when these nations turn on Edom and driving HIM from HIS home. That day is near.

For as Edom has done, so shall it be done to him. You reap what you sow, this is a familiar concept to us, familiar to people all around the world, people of all different faiths. “Your deeds shall return on your head,” Obadiah tells us. The Hindu tradition of karma tells us that “you do good things, good things will happen to you - if you do bad things, bad things will happen to you;” Wiccan tradition holds to the law of three – whatever you put out into the universe, good or bad, you will receive them three times as much.

I know I have been caught when I stubbed my toe right after I had perhaps not such a nice thought, saying “okay, God, you’re right, I’m sorry,” as though my negative energy was brought back down upon me in the form on an injured tow. Even though intellectually I believe God has better things to do than make me stub my toe, I have inherited trace elements of a belief in a cosmic reward and punishment system, as Proverbs says – “the righteousness of the blameless keeps their way straight but the wicked fall by their own wickedness.[1]

But I dismiss my injured appendage as God’s punishment, dismiss this worldview being so encompassing, because it is a worldview that does not always seem to hold true. This is the same observation made by the writer of Ecclesiastes. “There is a vanity,” Qoheleth says, “that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous[2].” Or in other, more popularized words, bad things happen to good people.

Having just witnessed a horrible thing, the destruction of Jerusalem, the utter desolation of his people, having just experienced immense loss himself, Obadiah, this servant of the Lord, perhaps can appreciate Qoheleth’s viewpoint better than most. Divine retribution cannot be the only statement Obadiah is making in his proclamation. When he says “as you have done, it shall be done to you,” he is pronouncing the reality of the world which God created. There is another Hebrew tradition, found in other prophets like Hosea, that says the punishment is in the thing itself. Edom’s punishment is found in, is a result of, Edom’s actions. In God’s created world, when you break covenant with your brother, those you consider friends will see no problem in turning on you. The truth is, once friends start turning on friends, family on family, then it’s all down hill. The cycle of destruction will continue, one country attacking another, one brother attacking the other. It will continue until somebody stops it, until someone breaks the circle of hatred.

This cycle of violence, of hatred and animosity, this is what Jesus is addressing when he says “do unto others as you would have them do to you.” Jesus tells his followers, tells us to love our enemies, not just love them with some sort of passive love – but an active love. One that has us pray for our those who have hurt us, bless them, do good for them. For it is only when we offer our other cheek when someone strikes us instead of striking back that we can break the cycle.

Someone has to be the first one to step back and offer the olive branch, offer their cheek, otherwise generation after generation will practice evil, will curse, will wish ill on those they consider enemies.

As followers of Christ, we have been given the daunting charge to be those someones. We are called to end the cycles of bitterness and animosity in our own lives, in all parts of our lives. When someone makes a snide comment to us at school, we are called to not offer one back, as witty as it may be. When someone at work takes advantage of us, we are called to not do the same if given the opportunity, no matter how far ahead we may get. When someone we love, we trust, causes us pain, we are called to not intentionally hurt them back, no matter how much it may make us feel better in the moment. We are called to forgive as we long to be forgiven.

We all know when we offer our other cheek, we risk getting slapped again. But if we do not risk it, we will find ourselves trapped in an endless cycle of ugliness that I can’t imagine anyone would want to be a part of.

We also know that when Christ calls for us to love our enemies, he isn’t calling us to love just for ourselves or even for OUR enemies. Christ calls for us to forgive, to love, to do good, for all. We are called to be an example, that those around us might see how we offer love in the face of hate, blessings in the midst of curses, good in the face of evil, that they might see the power of Christ’s love lived out through us and find themselves changed, moved toward this way of living. Instead of perpetuating a cycle of hatred and bitterness, we are called to strengthen and spread a cycle of love and grace.

For some of us, loving our enemies may seem particularly daunting. Many of us have been hurt by people in ways that seem unforgivable. Over the years I have heard more than one person comment on turning the other check, saying “but Jesus really didn’t mean in this situation.” I don’t know what Jesus really meant, but knowing his ministry and message, I would imagine that whatever situations we think Jesus wouldn’t want us to turn our other cheek, that those are the ones in which we need to the most. That those situations are where we might be surprised and moved by the power of love has.

Love can overcome hate, goodness can overcome evil and the players in Obadiah’s prophecy are proof of that. While the relationship between Edom and Israel in Obadiah’s time remind us of how hatred and violence can be cyclical, the relationship between their forebears remind us that even what seems unforgivable can be forgiven, that love not hate leads to prosperity.

For in Jacob and Esau, we have a relationship torn apart by animosity and bitterness AND a relationship renewed by forgiveness and love. When Jacob tricked Esau out of his birthright and their father’s blessing, Esau wanted to kill him – this is why Jacob left his family’s land and went to his uncle Laban – where he would grow in wealth and wives. When turmoil at Laban’s brought Jacob back to his homeland, Esau brought four hundred men with him – men who certainly weren’t there as welcoming party – to meet is brother. Upon hearing this, Jacob does not raise up his own troops, arm his men, he sends gifts. When the brothers finally do met, Jacob brings only his family, he leaves himself vulnerable to Esau’s wrath, and bows before him seven times. And Esau, Esau who lost everything to his younger brother who was always mom’s favorite, Esau runs up to meet him, embraces him, kisses him, and the two brothers, reconciled, weep together. Their reconciliation strengthened their families – when they did go their separate ways again, it wasn’t because of hostility but because together the two families were so prosperous that the land could not sustain both.

While later in generations Edom forgets the covenant with Israel, here Esau and Jacob remember what it is to be brothers, what it is to be children of Abraham, the light to the nations. They both offered love to the one who caused them much pain, they both broke the cycle of bitterness and promoted one of forgiveness. Esau and Jacob remind us that rancor truly can turn to respect, animosity to affection, loathing to love. May we remember their story, may their story be our story as we are like Esau and not Edom, may we trust in the power of God’s grace and do unto others as we would have them do to us. Amen.

[1] Proverbs 11:5
[2] Ecclesiastes 8:14