Thursday, September 11, 2014

Reflections on the Holy Cross

Read the text here: I Corinthians 1:18-31
Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross
     It was a dark Friday afternoon and the Romans were again proceeding with the execution by crucifixion of 3 men they had determined were a danger to Pax Romana – or the imposed “peace of Rome.” Two of these men were “bandits,” which is the term the Gospels use to refer to those who are insurrectionists or, we might call them, terrorists. The other man was Jesus of Nazareth, a prophet who many had proclaimed as Messiah. Messiah means King to the Romans, so he was to be dispatched for there would be no Kings in Palestine except Caesar! The method of execution to be used would be crucifixion. Now, crucifixion had become a standard and we might even say favorite method of dealing with insurrectionists and troublemakers during the Roman occupation of Palestine. The Romans crucified literally thousands upon thousands over the years of the occupation. One historian – Josephus - recounts that after the sacking of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70 the countryside was littered with the crosses of crucified men. I will spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say that it was not a pleasant way to die. For the Romans, public crucifixion was effective because it maximized the pain and suffering and this then sent a message loud and clear – “Don’t mess with us!” If any of you saw the Mel Gibson film a few years ago you will remember how the crucifixion of Jesus was depicted. Crucifixion meant extreme pain, suffering, humiliation and degradation. The point was to terrorize the population into submission. If you were planning to oppose Rome this method of execution might give you pause in order to reconsider. To the peoples of Palestine living during the Roman occupation during the time of Jesus the cross inspired terror and fear and symbolized a horrible death. Everyone knew this.
     So with this in mind we can understand why the reaction of the disciples was less than positive when Jesus starts talking about being crucified and picking up your cross and so forth. Jesus tells his disciples in no uncertain terms that he will be going to Jerusalem to be crucified and tells them that they are to pick up their cross and follow him. The disciples are horrified. “Are you kidding me,” Peter reacts, “God forbid! May it never be.” We sometimes are a little critical of the disciples and especially Peter for this reaction – but can we blame him given what crucifixion meant at that time.
     What the disciples did not understand is that God seems to like turning things upside down; God likes to create beauty out of chaos; God can take the pain and suffering and extreme darkness and hate and alienation of the cross and turn it into love and grace. God loves to create surprises! There is an old Ken Medema song in which the chorus goes:
  Turn it over, turn it round, raise the humble and free the bound, down means up and up means down – this world looks different to ya when you’re flying upside down!
To the world the cross means pain suffering, humiliation and death – but God transforms this – God turns it upside down – because of Jesus the cross means forgiveness, grace, love and life – abundant and everlasting life! Let me repeat this – God takes a hated and feared symbol of death and subjugation and turns it into a symbol of love and life! Amazing!!! Our God is an Awesome God….
     So when Jesus tells his disciples to take up their cross and follow him – they are hearing pain and suffering – but Jesus means love and forgiveness and life. Jesus is saying “come on folks – pick up love, accept love, carry love, display the love which comes through me.”
     I think we sometimes still may hear those words like the disciples did. Sometimes I have heard people talk about this or that struggle in their lives as being their “cross to bear.” What they and we need to understand and accept is that this in only the first half of the story – the other part is God’s surprise: the cross we have to bear is Love and grace, which is showered upon us no matter what. God’s presence is with us at all times no matter what. And God’s call to us is for us to show this forth in our lives and ministry. We all live under the shadow of the cross of love; we all have been signed and sealed on our foreheads in Baptism with the cross of love!
     But we humans have a hard time accepting this. We like things to be in a neat organized box; we like to think we have God figured out. And earning God’s favor or climbing the stairway to heaven is more logical for many of us. It was during Martin Luther’s time too. As a young Augustinian monk Luther had the opportunity to go on a pilgrimage to Rome. While he was there he did all the usual pilgrimage things: he visited and adored the various relics such as pieces of the true cross of Jesus and he ascended a special staircase on his knees. All of this was believed to bestow a special blessing. But it left Luther feeling incomplete and unfulfilled. It just didn’t seem to him that adoring pieces of the true cross of Jesus was all that useful and besides, he later wrote, if you assembled all the pieces of the “true cross of Jesus” in one place it would provide enough wood for a forest. As he reflected on this experience later he concluded that being sealed by the cross in baptism was all the true cross of Jesus that was needed - because that cross meant we are sealed in God’s love and grace.
     So then what are the implications of this for us and our lives? We live in the shadow of the cross of God’s love; we have been sealed by the cross of love – what does this mean? It means it is our call to love as Christ loved us. It is not up to us to assume we have God all figured out and that God does things the way we expect or even like. Always remember - God likes surprises! It is not up to us to judge others and expect others to fit inside some orderly box we create. God’s job is judging - our job is loving and finding ways of sharing this love with others. It means that we are called to participate in and support the ministry of love of our church – the wider church, this parish and this congregation, and it extends into our daily lives as we encounter others in the course of going about our regular lives. It means that we are called to participate and support the ministry of love through our giving of our time, talents and treasure. It is not an option – it is a calling that comes from living in the shadow of the cross.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Reflections on the text – Genesis 45 - Joseph, Part 2

Read the text here: Genesis 45:1-15

“I Am Joseph”
We have come to the final installment in our summer series on the stories of Genesis.  Last week in the first part of the Joseph story, he heard how Joseph was favored by his father and had developed into something of a brat.  Jacob had shown his favor for Joseph by giving him a special long-sleeved ceremonial robe and Joseph begins to have and share dreams about how one day his brothers and family will all bow down to him.  Well his 10 older brothers (not including the youngest Benjamin who is only a small child) have come to hate Joseph and so out in the fields one day they attack Joseph intending to kill him, but eventually take the opportunity to sell him into slavery to some Ishmaelite traders, who then take Joseph to Egypt and sell him into the household of a high ranking official named Potiphar.  Initially Joseph does well, but he catches the eye of Potiphar’s wife and when he resists her seductions she has him framed and thrown into prison, where he languishes for years.  While he is in prison he entertains himself and the other prisoners (notably a baker and a butler from the Pharaoh’s household) by interpreting their dreams.  Later when the Pharaoh himself begins to have troubling dreams the Butler (now released) tells Pharaoh about Joseph who is then commanded to interpret these dreams.
Joseph tells Pharaoh that the dreams are a warning for all of Egypt.  There will be 7 years of abundant harvests followed by 7 years of famine.  And this warning allows you (“O mighty Pharaoh”) to prepare during the years of plenty for the famine.  Pharaoh is impressed and appoints Joseph to oversee the preparations for the famine.  Joseph has now gone from prisoner to a high-ranking official in the Egyptian government and he sets about the task of preparation.  When the famine finally hits Egypt is prepared and through the rationing that Joseph has instituted the people have food and are saved from starvation.
But meanwhile back in Canaan there have been no warnings and as a result the famine has hit with deadly intensity.  Jacob, who has never recovered from loosing Joseph and is still deep in grief, and his family is now facing starvation.  Having heard that Egypt has plenty of food the brothers decide to go to Egypt to try to acquire some food for the family.  Jacob approves this plan, but will not allow Benjamin to accompany the other brothers (By the way, please note - Benjamin and Joseph are full brothers, both children of Jacob and Jacob’s favorite and beloved wife Rachel).  When the brothers arrive in Egypt by some chance Joseph sees and recognizes them, but they do not recognize him.  Joseph gets quite emotional, but holds it all in check as he has the brothers brought before him and questions them about their intent, their family, and their father.  Joseph finds out that Jacob is still alive and that Benjamin is not with them.  At this point Joseph devises a detailed plan to test his brothers.  He holds one of them – Simeon – as a hostage as he sends the others back to fetch Benjamin. 
When Benjamin arrives with the others Joseph can barely contain himself, he excuses himself in order to weep.  And then he orders that a caravan of food be given the brothers, but he plants a golden cup on Benjamin.  He sends them back to Canaan but shortly sends the troops to arrest them for theft.  The caravan is searched and the cup is found on Benjamin.  Joseph states that he will release all of the brothers and the food and they can continue on their way, but he will hold Benjamin as a prisoner and a slave.  The brothers are shocked, and they plead with Joseph not to take Benjamin and both Ruben and Judah offer to take the place of the young man.  (Read Judah’s beautiful speech 44:18ff).  Joseph finally cannot contain himself any longer and he breaks down weeping.  He sends all of the Egyptians from the room and then he reveals himself to his brothers who are shocked and terrified. But Joseph greets his brothers warmly, he asks after their father and he forgives the brothers for their evil actions towards him.  “God used this for good, even though you intended evil.”  It is a beautiful scene of true repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation.
This is one of the most detailed and beautiful stories in the Bible.  It is worth reading chapters 37 through 50 (though the story really kind of ends in chapter 45).  There are many things that we can learn from this story.  Let me focus on two points:
First, I think it is very important to see that while God is in the background, God is not pulling the strings in this story.  God did not inspire the brothers to the violence they inflicted on their own brother and God did not manipulate events so that Joseph was sold into slavery.  God also did not send the famine.  God is not the great puppet master in this (or any) biblical story.  Rather, we see that God is fulfilling the promise that God will be present no matter what.  whether Joseph is languishing in the dungeon or supervising the rationing of food, God is present with Joseph throughout this story.  But, God also works through these events in order to save thousands of people from starvation and to finally bring about repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation by the end of the story.  This is how God works.  We learn from this story especially and we see throughout the Bible – especially in Jesus – that God works through human history – God works through people and events.  Even through evil, horrible and terrible events, such as the violence inflicted on Joseph, God is able to work through those events to bring good and redemption and grace.
Second, Joseph was dead to his father and his family – but in the end he comes to them alive.  And his resurrection brings with it forgiveness and reconciliation and abundant grace.  Jacob is finally able to resolve his intense grief; the brothers are able to finally give up the guilt and shame at the evil act they perpetuated on their own brother.  The darkness of alienation, violence and hatred do not have the last word for in resurrection we learn that reconciliation, love and grace are more powerful.  Does this sound familiar?  It should remind us of the cross of Jesus.  The cross is a symbol of the evil that humanity inflicts on itself – alienation, judgment, hatred and violence.  But the cross also reminds us that these forces of evil and darkness do not have the last word, rather God’s last word is resurrection which defeats all these dark powers with the power of love and abundant grace and forgiveness and ultimately peace. 
This story reminds us again that God is always present and at work among God’s people and that ultimately the power of resurrection overcomes all of those powers that seem so daunting.  This is a timely word for us, for certainly there is so much darkness and violence in our world.  The Joseph story points us to the cross and the resurrection of Jesus proclaiming that the powers of God’s love and grace will ultimately prevail.  Thanks be to God!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Reflections on the text – Genesis 37 – Joseph, Part I

Read the text here: Genesis 37
Read the Gospel here: Matthew 16:21-28

In the Pits
We have finally come to the final story in Genesis of Joseph.  This story will leave the people of Israel – the descendants of Abraham and Sarah in Egypt at the end and get us ready for the stories in Exodus.  But for now, let us remember that way back at the beginning of the cycles, in chapter 12, God spoke to Abraham and gave him a promise: 1. You will be a great nation, your descendants will be as numerous as the stars (repeated in chapter 16); 2. I will be with you and will bless you unconditionally; 3. All of this so that you and your descendants might be a blessing to others.  Then we saw how the stories that followed focused on and worked through this promise.  The stories of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac all centered around the 1st part of the promise, securing an heir to carry on the promise.  The Jacob, Esau, Rebekah, Laban, Leah and Rachel stories all focused on blessing, and the basic mistrust that all these characters had in God’s promise of unconditional blessing, which leads them to acts of betrayal.
Finally we have come to the Joseph cycle, and now the future is secured – the descendants of Abraham and Sarah are now plentiful, the issue of blessing has been resolved and we come to the final part of the promise – so that you might be a blessing to the nations.  And so chapters 37 through until the end of Genesis in chapter 50 will show us how this family is able to be a blessing to the nations, preventing famine and starvation.  But not through any direct effort on their part, but rather God uses them in this way despite their self-centered behavior.
When we first meet Joseph he is a spoiled brat.  He is his father’s favorite, not only because he is almost the youngest (his baby brother Benjamin is actually the youngest).  But he is his father’s favorite because he is the first son of Jacob and Rachel, and Rachel is now gone, having died giving birth to Benjamin.  (Note – despite the popular Weber/Rice Musical, Benjamin is not a part of the events in the first part of the story, he is only an infant or toddler).  Now, you would have thought that Jacob might have learned his lesson, after all he was his mother Rebekah’s favorite and his twin Esau was his father Isaac’s favorite and this favoritism drove a wedge between these boys and led to much suffering.  But Jacob seems to have learned nothing for he is repeating the pattern.  He dotes on Joseph even goes so far as to give the boy a special long-sleeved ceremonial robe (the “coat of many colors,” which is how it is described in the Greek translation of the Old Testament – the Septuagint).  For his part, Joseph flaunts this favoritism.  He is a tattletale, he has these dreams where he is ascendant over his brothers and he brags about them, he wears the robe everywhere.  And his brothers hate his for this.
And so, one day the brothers can take it no longer and they resolve to murder their brother, though eventually they see an opportunity to profit AND get rid of Joseph at the same time, so they sell him to Ishmaelite traders (do you see the irony here – Ishmael is actually Joseph’s great uncle, who was driven away by his great grandfather Abraham when Abraham decided to favor Isaac).  And the traders take Joseph to Egypt where he is sold to a court official named Potiphar as a slave.  The brothers then take the hated robe, rip it up and dip it in the blood of a goat and tell their father that a wild beast has killed Joseph.  End of problem!  Well, not exactly.  For the brothers still have to learn the hard lesson that Shakespeare teaches us in the play “Macbeth” – murder (even a faked murder in this case), betrayal and deception changes everything!  Life will never be “normal” again.  The grief of the father is overwhelming and will not abate, and this changes the relationships among the family forever.
Before he is sold the brothers jump Joseph, strip him of his robe, rough him up and throw him into a dry well – into a deep pit.  This pit then becomes a central symbol for the rest of the story.  The pit represents alienation, depression, darkness, brokenness and imprisonment.  And there are lots of pits in this story.  Joseph is thrown into the pit and then pulled out of it only to be sold as a slave (another pit!).  Eventually Joseph will again be thrown into the pit of the dungeon where he will languish for a while.  There he will meet others – a baker and a butler – who have also been thrown into the pit.  But the ones who find themselves in the pit for the longest time in this story are the brothers and Jacob.  For Jacob is in the pit of his own grief and he cannot climb out of it.  He is in the pit that he, at least in part, dug himself and he will eventually come to see this.  The brothers have also dug themselves a pit.  Through their murderous and callous betrayal of their own brother they find themselves in a pit that they cannot escape from.  Only Joseph can pull them all out of this pit.  And that won’t happen for a while.  In the meantime, they exist and discover that nothing is as it was, and that joy has gone.
Life in a pit is not an uncommon experience.  We have all experienced this, and perhaps we are still experiencing it.  Sometimes, like the brothers or Jacob, the pits are those that we have dug for ourselves and we cannot manage to pull ourselves out of them no matter how hard we try.  Sometimes, like Joseph we find ourselves fallen into a pit and cannot find our way out.  These pits of ours can be a variety of things – a traumatic event; a bad decision that has had far-reaching consequences; an act of selfishness or of unkindness or hate towards another; a slow disintegration of a relationship.  Sometimes the pit can be things out of our direct control – economic or money concerns; health problems and worries and on and on.  We can all identify any number of pits I suspect that we find ourselves in or have found ourselves in, and from which we need to be freed. 
But God does offer us freedom and liberation from the pits we find ourselves in.  Often this freedom does not usually take the shape of having the pit just disappear for usually we need to look at ourselves seriously and honestly and take responsible steps in order to move ourselves forward.  But God still offers us freedom, and a way out of the pits.  In the Gospel text, Jesus tells his incredulous disciples that picking up the cross is the way to find freedom, and grace.  This is not what they want to hear.  They want Jesus to just take care of it for them.  They want the pit to just melt away, but no Jesus makes it clear that it is not so easy.  God’s love is constant, God’s blessings are constant, but we have responsibility and an obligation.  We have to take responsible steps forward. God will not just zap the problems away and make everything better through a wave of the hand.  The cross itself reminds us of this. 
And so, as we pause here in the story wondering what will come of poor Joseph, and his father Jacob and his brothers – especially little Benjamin – it is good to for us to think about the pits in this story and take stock of the pits we find ourselves in.  And then look to Jesus and the cross and ask for healing and strength, wisdom and determination, trusting that God’s love, grace and presence will provide us with these gifts that will help us get out of the pits.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Reflections on the text: Genesis 33:1-11

Please note - I am replacing the Lectionary text appointed for Proper 14 with this text. This text is the climax of the narrative we have been hearing for the previous 3 weeks.  I will say that I think it odd that this text was not included in the series of texts appointed this summer.  Leaving the story and jumping to the Joseph cycle over this climactic story is kind of like following Captain Ahab on his quest for Moby Dick and then jumping to a new story just about the time that they lower the whaling boats.  So, here is the climax of the story: Genesis 33:1-11
Confrontation!
As morning breaks Jacob moves from his campsite and there he sees his brother approaching with 400 (armed?) men.  After the experiences of the previous night his fear and foreboding seems to have been replaced with a sense of inevitability.  He spent the night wrestling with an unknown and unknowable assailant and in the morning he has determined that in this assailant he has experienced and come face to face with God-Yahweh.  He is now resolved and moves forward intentionally towards the confrontation with his wronged brother.  He arranges his family by order of most importance – the slaves first with their children, then Leah and her children and finally Rachel and Joseph.  And then Jacob and his family move slowly towards Esau, Jacob bowing seven times during the approach (this being a tradition and expectation of court life when approaching a king or important and powerful person - this says something about how Jacob now sees his relationship with his twin brother). We are not kept in suspense for very long, for as soon as Esau sees Jacob he runs to him and embraces him, and the text tells us they hold each other and weep.
It is hard to find words to describe this scene.  It is a powerfully emotional scene. After the intensity of the loss and sense of betrayal back when Jacob first deceived Esau; after the intensity of Jacob’s fear during the build up to this meeting it is hard to find words to describe the intense emotion of the scene.  And this is true for the two men as well, for there are no words that pass between them.  There is only action – the action of repentance and forgiveness and it brings weeping – weeping of joy, but also weeping of sorrow and regret. It is one of the most powerful scenes in the bible.
Finally Esau looks up, the two men, presumably, compose themselves and only then does Esau speak and ask about Jacob’s family.  Then he asks Jacob what was with all the presents, “I have plenty of property, keep what you have” he tells Jacob.  But Jacob persists and Esau relents and accepts the gifts.  And then the scene is over.  Esau suggests they continue on together for a while, but Jacob gently refuses and they part.  And as far as the biblical narrative goes they never meet again.
It is important to note what is and what is not contained in this story.  It IS a story of forgiveness – intense forgiveness.  It is important to notice that Jacob makes no attempt to make excuses, or to seek any kind of self-justification.  His behavior from the beginning of this part of the story to its end reflects the actions of complete and honest repentance.  But this IS NOT a story of reconciliation.  This is not a story of a restored relationship.  Jacob and Esau may have put the anger, mistrust, fear and betrayal that had characterized their previous relationship behind them, but it is not forgotten.  There is no “forgive and forget” here in this story. 
What then can this incredible story teach us about God, relationships and forgiveness?
1. Forgiveness does not mitigate consequences.  There have been some terrible consequences to Jacob’s behavior towards his brother.  He may have successfully stolen the birthright, but it nevertheless resulted in his being a fugitive from his own home.  Afraid to return, he lived as an exile for 20 years.  It is true for us as well.  If you have been victim of a betrayal you might very well be able to come to a point where you can forgive your betrayer, but this does not mean that then there are no consequences for either of you.  There may in fact be serious, life changing consequences for both of you.  Forgiveness does not eliminate consequences.  Jacob’s life is forever, shaped by that act of betrayal, as is Esau’s. 
2. Forgiveness does NOT mean – “forgive and forget!”  Repeat: Forgiveness does NOT mean – “forgive and forget.”  This is not a biblical imperative or value.  How this attitude to the contrary ever developed I do not know.  But it is completely unbiblical.  The ending of this story makes it clear that there is no forgive and forget between Jacob and Esau.  They will never be able to restore their relationship.  But they can learn and grow and live the rest of their lives now knowing that they have made peace with each other.  When we forgive we too need to have learned and grown through the experience – and the same with the one whom we are forgiving.  This comes up all the time – but if forgetting is part of the equation then we will never move forward. 
3. Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation.  Jacob and Esau do not completely reconcile.  They do not restore their relationship.  We also may be able to come to a point where we can forgive a hurt or betrayal that we experienced, but it does not necessarily follow that we can be reconciled with the perpetrator.  Maybe, but it is a very different process.
After his night of wrestling with the mysterious assailant Jacob notes that he had “seen God face to face” (32:30) in his night’s struggle.  The experience of repentance and the forgiveness he receives from Esau prompts him to say this: “…truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God…” (33:10). True and honest repentance and forgiveness is a truly holy experience, through which we receive an experience of the Kingdom profoundly come into our lives.  There is a lot of confusion about the Kingdom of Heaven in our society, but the New Testament is pretty clear – the Kingdom of Heaven is not off in the future in some distant place removed from our earthly lives.  The Kingdom of Heaven is here and now, and to truly repent and to receive the gift of forgiveness is a gift of a “foretaste of the feast to come” when we shall experience God’s presence eternally.  True repentance and forgiveness is an experience of God – maybe that is why it is so hard, for like Jacob, we too often must wrestle, for it requires complete honesty – which is not always very easy!

Ultimately forgiveness is a gift from God.  Jacob and Esau could not do it alone and neither can we.  We need to pray for God’s help in being able to honestly repent and forgive others, and to forgive ourselves.  God is offering this gift to us abundantly and extravagantly, but too often we would prefer to turn our backs on the gift so we can continue to nurse the hurts, live with our constructed delusions and remain in the familiar surroundings of our prisons. But the gift God is holding out to us is the same gift that Jacob accepted: forgiveness.  For in forgiveness we will see the face of God.
The listen to the preached version of this sermon go to wartburgparish.com and look for the sermon on the media player entitled "Confrontation and Forgiveness."