Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Sermon: Genesis 28

September 22, 2013 
18th Sunday after Pentecost
Narrative Lectionary, Year 4 

Preaching text: Gen. 28:10-22  Pent 18  9-22-13

Wow—Jacob is in TROUB-LE!
Well, in this part of the story we find him sort of in-between troubles.Before this, he has made some bargains with his twin brother, Esau, that have resulted in Jacob receiving Esau’s birthright and place as firstborn; and has tricked his blind father into giving Jacob the blessing that belonged to the firstborn son.Esau is beyond angry, and has sworn to kill his brother when their father dies. Their mother, learning of this plan, plots for Isaac to send Jacob away to find a suitable wife from their own people—and assuring he is safely out of range of Esau’s wrath.  So when we find him in this lonely place, he has fled from a vengeful brother upon the death of their father, leaving a beloved mother and home behind. He is going to seek out his uncle who will hopefully give him a home, a job, and a wife, and, well… that all happens, but not quite as easily as anticipated.

But for now, Jacob is here—in a deserted place. Really all we know about it is it is a good place to stop for the night and rest. He is alone, it’s night, he’s in the wilderness. So he “makes camp” by which is meant he pulls up the nearest rock and rests his head on it and goes to sleep-- a miracle in itself, given the circumstances.

Jacob dreams while he sleeps: he sees a stairway or a ladder between himself and heaven. Angels are going up and down the stairway. God is at the top, and God speaks to Jacob in this dream: “I am the God of your ancestors—your grandfather Abraham and your father Isaac.” And God reminds Jacob of the promises God has made in choosing Abraham’s family to be God’s family: I will give you land—the very land you are lying on—and countless descendants; and you will be a blessing to all the people of the earth.  This is the covenant God had made with Abraham back in chapter 15—now God renews that covenant with Jacob. And Jacob wakes up and realizes God is in this place—this deserted, lonely, dangerous place is a place of God. He takes the rock-pillow and makes it into a rock-altar, and names the place Beth-El, house of God. And he promises to be faithful to God, to worship God, and to make a ten percent tithe to God.

Jacob is one of those unlikely heroes of the Bible. He has gotten himself in trouble—he is destitute, homeless, placeless, family-less, clueless—at this point he couldn’t look less like a chosen person of God than he does. And it’s all his own fault! He isn’t that easy to live with, as we have seen, and he managed to irritate his family enough that even they don’t want him around.

Jacob is in no-place; but he is in the perfect place to find God.  Or to be found by God, rather. He has hit bottom. He is at point-zero. He has nothing to lose, nowhere to go but up—and God sends angels to bring his attention “up” this staircase to find that God is there.  Please notice—despite the song you may know, the angels are going up and down the staircase; not Jacob. This “climbing out” is not something we have to do—all Jacob is doing is sleeping, lying on the hard ground, literally on a rock. It is the message of God, the grace of God, the presence of God, that does the work of coming down.

When we are lost or outcast, God comes down to find us there.
When we are alone and lonely, God comes down to find us there.
When we are cut off from others and in danger of forgetting who we are, God comes down to find us there.
When we deserve all the misery that surrounds us, God comes down to find us there.
When we don’t know where we’re going or what to do next, God comes down to find us there.
This deserted place of Jacob’s is an in-between place; he’s no longer where, or who, he used to be; he isn’t yet where, or who, he’s going to be.

It doesn’t take very long for this in-between to crash into our innocence; most of us have known it by now. But this is just the place God promises to meet us. The God in whose image we are formed; who knows us by name and knows us as child of God; the God who will not let anything take us away from God--will not let the nothingness of these dark places take us, either. Jacob did not see God when he lay down to sleep—I expect he did not look for God because he did not expect God. No one expects God in the low places, in the lonely times, especially when we know we don’t deserve God. No one expects God in a place of suffering. But that is precisely when and how and where God shows up. When Jacob stops running for a moment; when he puts away his fear long enough to sleep, when he stops tricking people and just sits with himself and who he is for a moment, then his eyes and heart are clear enough for him to see God—in a dream. But Jacob does not dismiss it as “only” a dream –when he awakes, he is sure that God has been there, that God IS there, in this place.  God has not been absent; only Jacob has not realized God was there.

Some people don’t like the Bible, especially the Old Testament, because it’s too messy.  It’s complicated. We can’t understand it. We want a happy ending. But the Bible is a real story for real people. We are messy and complicated and hard to understand, and our days end up average, if we’re lucky. I need to know that God is paying attention and can see around the mess. I need to know that God knows when I’m in trouble, and will at least visit me there in the trouble if not get me out of it. I need to crash Jacob’s dream to be reminded that God is in this “place”, even, or especially, the places I don’t want to be, which makes them holy places, houses of God. Jacob’s life doesn’t get much easier from here on out--he doesn’t change his conniving ways, either. But he does remember that God is with him.

God is in this place, and all your places, whether you know it or not. Thank God for those angels who remind us, awake or asleep, of God’s presence and promise.

Sermon: Lessons from My Dog

September 15, 2013

Preacher: The Rev. James C. Bouzard, campus pastor, Christ Chapel, Texas State University

Song at opening: God and Dog by Wendy Francisco

We got her through Facebook; a friend of a friend saw a puppy alongside the road, clearly abandoned, and how anyone could do that, I don’t know, but the friend of a friend scooped her up into safety, put her picture on the Internet, and next thing you know, we have a dog. I grew up with dogs, but this is the first dog we’ve had in our home after thirty years of marriage, and the first dog my wife has ever had.  Her name is Frida (the dog, not my wife) and she has brown hair and weighs around 15 pounds.  Again, I’m referring to the dog and not my wife.  The vet said that biologically speaking, Frida is probably some kind of dog, but wasn’t willing to commit much beyond that.  But we’ve had her for three years now, about the length of time for Jesus’ ministry.  To be sure, Frida’s accomplished considerably less than our Lord in that time, but the anniversary of her arrival has got me thinking on matters canine domesticus, and in particular what I’ve learned with regard to the spiritual life from my dog.  And it turns out I’ve learned a few things, some of them possibly useful even to those of you who are not dog-blessed. 

First, you may have noticed that I’ve never said we own a dog.  Yes, we are responsible for the vet bills and we buy her food and provide her an endless supply of tennis balls and chew toys, but we don’t own her.  That would be to mischaracterize the relationship; one doesn’t own a companion, after all, one has a companion.  And that’s what Frida is; a companion, a word that means, “breaks bread with.”  Com means “with,” pan means “bread,” and ion… well, that means ion.  Now we don’t literally break bread with her.  That would be silly, as she can’t even hold a fork.  But we have an appreciation for each other and prefer each other’s company over being apart.  I express that preference by tapping the seat and having her sit next to me as we watch America’s Got Talent.  She expresses her preference by greeting me every time I come home with an enthusiasm normally reserved for returning prisoners of war.  It begins with a slight tremor, then the tail starts wagging, then her whole back half, and then the whole of her goes into full wiggle mode with energy enough to alter weather patterns.  Then there’s the jumping up and down and barking and licking and sheer joy.  And that happens if I’ve been gone all day, or if I’ve just been in the backyard pulling weeds for an hour.  I know dogs can’t tell time, but it gets a bit ridiculous except for this.  Look around you; these are your companions on the journey, the journey of being a follower of Jesus Christ.  God has called you together, whether you always like each other or not. I don’t ever remember Jesus saying, “Like one another.”  He said, “Love one another,” a much harder thing, because it means remaining companions through thick and thin, even as Frida remains my companion despite the loss of several pairs of shoes, two phone chargers, three ballpoint pens, four Christmas ornaments, half-a-dozen pencils, and a small stack of photographs which she thought especially delicious.  You are companions by the call of Christ, whose first disciples didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but who nonetheless broke bread with the Savior, who saw it fit for all of them, even the one who betrayed him, to eat together as companions.  Now I am not suggesting you adopt Frida’s style of welcome; it would scare off visitors if you all went into full-wag mode every time you saw each other.  But I’m mindful of those people I don’t see for a week or month or so, and then fail to tell them it’s good to see them.  So I’d challenge you to do that; see each other as companions and speak to each other that way;  I dare you to even say the truth; not just it’s good to see you, but “I love you.” 

Something else I’ve learned from Frida is gratitude, gratitude for companionship, for life, for food; especially for food.  That dog has been on this earth for just over a thousand days, and not on one day has she been full.  Maybe it’s because of those first few days alone on the road, or maybe it’s just the nature of dogs, but she loves her groceries, and people groceries most of all.  We sit at our supper table with her at her feet, waiting for us to drop something, or just waiting for that moment she hopes will come, that moment that almost always comes, that moment we are finished and allow her to well, pre-rinse our dishes.  I know, it’s gross, but the point is hope.  She hopes for a feast; she doesn’t get it, but she’s happy with just the little bit left on the plate.  Which reminds me of when Jesus was asked by a Syrophoenician woman to heal her daughter, and he responded in what seemed a particularly callous way; “It’s not right to throw food that’s meant for the children to the dogs.”  In other words, Syrophoenician woman, you who are foreign, outside the house of Israel, not of the chosen people; it is not right that you should be granted healing that is meant for the family of God.”  To which the woman replied, “Yes, but even the dogs get the crumbs from the Master’s table.”  And amazed at her faith, Jesus cured her daughter at once.  She would not be deterred; his words only delayed what she knew would not be denied; crumbs of mercy was all she asked for and all she needed.  And that is all we dare ask for, I think; crumbs of mercy, for we too lack any merit of our own.  We can’t claim sinless lives, righteous deeds, blameless ways.  We can only hope for crumbs, but you know we are given so much more; that is the way it is in the presence of one who took five loaves and fed five thousand.  We hope for crumbs and we get a feast, Christ’s very self in bread and wine, and with it forgiveness, assurance, and peace. 

So Frida’s taught me gratitude and hope; she’s also taught me a lot about friendship.  Jesus once said, “Greater love has no one than this; to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  Frida would do that for me, I believe.  I wouldn’t do that for her; I’ve got a wife and family that need me way too much, but she would for me, and that makes her friendship all the more special.  She’s a happy dog, as long as she gets to hang around with me.  If I’m busy around the house, she’ll  follow me from room to room.  If I’m sick, she doesn’t mind just laying next to me and pass the hours.  If I miss taking her for a walk, she doesn’t get mad at me.  She’d prefer the walk, of course; her motto is, “It’s a great big world, but somebody’s got to sniff it.”  So we go on walks and we try to be patient with each other.  I’m patient with her in that I let her smell just about every mailbox that we pass; she with me when I yank her leash to keep her from eating a hamburger wrapper.  Other dogs – well, they are a definite reason to bark her head off, at least until they get close enough for a proper hello.  People, on the other hand; Frida figures everybody is a friend and that everybody wants to pet her.  Everybody deserves  a joyful greeting and should be thought of as family first, not strangers who have to prove themselves.  And this, I would suggest,  is a Christ-like attitude we should remember.  We would do well to consider the other not as a stranger first, a threat or a problem, but as friend whose name we’ve yet to learn, or even a long-lost member of the family your finally getting to meet.  Would that attitude change the dynamics of a Sunday morning here?  I suspect it would in just about every church.

Frida’s tried to teach me other lessons less spiritual in nature, such as “The cat is fun to chase.”  Oh, and “The doorbell on some commercials sounds exactly like ours, which is therefore all the reason needed to bark like a madman.”  And “Dirty socks are much tastier to chew up than clean ones, but either will do in pinch.”  I’ve managed to ignore those lessons, but I am open to learning more.  I dare say that I’ve a deeper appreciation for the wonder and mystery of creation.   I now marvel at the interesting dance through time that brought wolves from the forest edges to the fire ring to this day when a most un-wolflike 15 pound fuzzball hops up on the couch and demands a tummy rub.  And I know that I will learn more about love as the years go by and someday I will learn about loss, loss too sharp for a dog, just a dog.  But this I believe; that the One who thought up the dog will one day keep the promise made in Christ and greet us at the Feast of victory, where we will eat and rejoice and there at our feet will be my Frida and your dog and all of creation, whole and restored. 

Sermon: Matthew 14

September 8, 2013 
Preaching text: Matthew 14:22-33  Theme story  

When I prepare a sermon, I start with a prayer: God, what do you want to tell your people this week with this story? These bible stories are old, after all; some of them are so outdated they don’t even make sense in our context. And some of them we know so well we don’t even hear them anymore, but we tune out as soon as we hear enough to know we’ve heard it before. Yet, here they come again—year after year the same stories. So, it’s a real question: God, what do you want to tell your people this week with this story? 

This story was chosen as a “theme story” for Living Word at the leadership retreat last May.
What do you think? 
What does God want us to know this week as we hear this story? 
How do you think it’s appropriate for Living Word at this time in our history?
We are starting to uncover some of the complexity of any Bible story. It’s often “not about this, but about that”--what we think we see at first glance is just something to get our attention so we stay with it long enough to see a deeper meaning.

This story has many things going on:

1--Jesus’ authority is being established as he demonstrates power over nature—he just multiplied one picnic lunch to feed thousands of people, then he walks on top of the water in the midst of a storm that has seasoned fishermen terrified, then he calms the storm. [That part is a good reminder for us to “expect the unexpected”]—God is bigger than our fears, and bigger than our hopes and dreams. 

2. --Peter is an interesting character.
He is the one who speaks when they all cower in fear at the sight of the “ghost”. “Lord?”  Clearly that voice was not the one he was expecting. “If it’s you, command me to come to you, walking on the water.”
One of my friends paraphrases this conversation: Peter says, “Lord, if it’s you, command me to do something stupid”, and Jesus replies, “OK, do something stupid.” Really, walking on water? We often make a point of Peter’s trust here. We know, and he knows, he cannot walk on water, but since he steps out of the boat, even though we all know this, we attribute this to trust that Jesus will make this happen. But Peter doesn’t get very far before his brilliant idea is shown to be, well, the stupid thing it is. He starts to sink! Which may demonstrate the fine line we all are called to walk, between trust and stupidity. Maybe Peter’s trust is not about staying on the water, but trust that Jesus would rescue him when he fell—still a point worth making.
3--Which is probably the more important thing to note about this story: Jesus is there.
Jesus is with those he has called, and he saves them from trouble—not only Peter, but all of them. The waters of chaos are churning all around them. The sensible people stay in the boat and try to keep it from tumping over. Jesus walks through the chaos, has a little fun with Peter in an amusing interlude, but then calms the storm. That is an image I can hold on to; I’ve been through some storms myself, glad that God was there to hold me all together. 

So this story is a little about Peter, but it’s more about Jesus, and who God is and how God is known in Jesus. In the midst of a stormy sea, the disciples—who have left Jesus only hours before-- don’t recognize him by sight. They probably can’t really see him—it’s dark and stormy and they’re not looking for a pedestrian on the waves. But they recognize him by his voice and his words. If we were listening with Hebrew ears, we would know the words, too—“It is I”, Jesus says— the same words God said to Moses in the burning bush, “I am”. These 2 words let the disciples know who’s walking on the water-- the Jesus they know, and a new side of Jesus: the Son of God. They’re a little slow, but they’re starting to figure it out. The one who controls nature, the one who knows them and meets them where they are, the one who is nameless but who reminds them “I am”--this is the God of heaven and earth, coming to them from heaven and walking on the earth, and even on the sea. The storm calms when Jesus gets in the boat, and the people in the boat repeat what Jesus already said: “You are the son of God.”

So there are a few good take-aways from this relatively short story.
*God is the God of heaven and earth--definitely more than we are—more powerful, more present, more creative, more compassionate, more.
*God knows who and how and where we are, and comes to us marvelously in Jesus. Even when God has to walk through the chaos of our lives to get to us, God is here.
*God does not rescue us from being stupid. I think that’s why we need to pray so much. But God is with us, even in our stupidity. That’s what we can trust. Peter nor Jesus ever walks on water again, so apparently that is not a goal to be achieved. But they do walk, together and often, proclaiming the kingdom and being the presence of God. We do not need to test God, to see if God will save us from our stupidity—that is not trust. But in our better moments, we do recognize God among us and desire to walk with God.

So, the great thing about a Bible story, and the reason you are still coming to worship to listen to the same Bible stories you already know, is that God indeed has something new to say through the same old stories. Let this story dwell in you. Ask new questions about this story, and about who you are in this story. God is doing something new, something surprising, perhaps. Maybe what we’re called to do at Living Word is not to do something impossible, like walking on water; but to be willing, like Peter, for Jesus to surprise us again—that is an act of trust. 

Sermon: Luke 23-24

September 1, 2013
Preaching text: Luke 23:50-24:12

So, we have finished reading the entire gospel of Luke. We have been looking for some key characteristics that set Luke apart:
 --the focus on food—getting it, growing it, sharing it, eating it, and the promise that there will be enough for all;
--the stories and parables told by Jesus, painting a picture of what the kingdom of God looks like—and we see that our world often does not look like that; 
-- the characters in Luke’s gospel  from the margins, children, women, the poor, lepers, Samaritans-- various outcasts who are raised up as examples of faithfulness.
 And we see Luke’s Jesus interacting with all of them, Jews and Gentiles, saving the world through every choice and action he makes through his life. 

So today we hear the story of the Resurrection—a key story, but Luke’s version has a twist: Jesus does not even appear. In fact, Jesus is absent in a disturbing way; the only hint of him being here at all is a corpse. Luke’s resurrection story isn’t much about Jesus at all—it’s mostly about the reaction of some of his faithful followers to his death and his resurrection. And these followers are the women from Galilee—once again, Luke pulls characters in from the margin and makes them the center of attention.

The women in the story—several of them—have followed Jesus on this dangerous journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. (This is a good reminder for us that when we hear the word “disciples” we must think beyond those 12 men who were chosen earlier in the book.)  We don’t know where the men are at this time, but the women watch Jesus die, watch a member of the Jewish council take his body, watch him being laid in a tomb. When Joseph leaves, they pick up the job and go to prepare spices for a proper burial.  When they return to the tomb after the Sabbath, they find it empty—we knew that would happen; didn’t they?—and the memory of what Jesus had taught them along the way from Galilee to Jerusalem suddenly makes sense.Betrayal. Crucifixion. Rise again. That’s what he said. And here it is. They run to tell the 11 disciples (Judas has already hanged himself, remember) and everyone else what happened. BUT--The men think the women’s story is nonsense, idle tales, and they don’t believe it. It is hard to believe—people do not live again once they are dead. Peter gets only this small role in Luke’s resurrection story: he jumps up and runs to the tomb to check it out for himself, then returns home, wondering what had happened. If he had listened to the women, he wouldn’t have to wonder—they already told him!

For me this raises the question: to whom do we listen when it comes to the gospel? Who has the authority to tell us something “true” about God? The men didn’t believe the women—was it because they were women? There are so many different voices talking about God these days—in every form of media: TV, radio, internet, Twitter, Facebook. Which voices do we believe? Which stories are idle tales? There are some we “trust” to carry this message, and some we do not. Does it matter who the messenger is?

I do not think the disciples’ unbelief came from the messengers being women, not here in Luke’s gospel. If they’ve been with Jesus all along, then they do have credibility with these men. I think it’s the message, not the messengers: They probably weren’t believed because the story they told was just plain unbelievable. We still hear that argument against God today—“I just can’t believe a loving God would allow all those things to happen”, we hear—“those things” in the Bible like  sacrifice &war & conniving & betrayal ; and those things today like famine & hunger & poverty & violence & war and conniving and betrayal. It doesn’t make sense, as the story of the empty tomb did not make sense. Yet we are sent out by Jesus himself to tell this unbelievable story. What are we supposed to do with that?

I guess this is where Peter comes in. The women tell what they have seen, or not seen—why would they not?  They can hardly believe it themselves. Peter doesn’t believe them, but something stirs in him—wonder, curiosity, restlessness. He knows, too, what Jesus said about being raised on the third day. He has pieces of story and memory floating around his heart and brain as the women do. By the end of the gospel we don’t know how Peter puts it all together or what he does with it. But we do know the women said something,  and that may be what’s important. If they had not said anything, Peter would not be curious, would not have run to the tomb, would not be wondering what happened. In our culture, most people have bits and pieces of the Christian story floating around their hearts and minds; it’s in the air around us. People may not have read the whole gospel of Luke, but they know some of the pieces of the story as it permeates our culture.

We don’t know how people will put those pieces together—how the Spirit of God will put those pieces together in and through someone. But there do have to be some pieces there to work with. This story is ridiculous, unbelievable from a practical standpoint. It is “an idle tale” from the ancient world that doesn’t make much sense in our post-modern world. But we who know the story, who have been gripped by the story, know it doesn’t need it to be sensible—it needs to be true. Our world needs this story to carry the very presence of Christ, the very love of God made real in Jesus, into our time, our place, our world, our conversations, our lives.

So it doesn’t matter who you are as you tell the story—whether you hang out on the margins or seek the center of attention, whether you are male or female, whether you’ve journeyed from your beginning, joined along the way, or only figured this out later. But the story needs to be told! “Remember Jesus”, as these dazzling men tell the women.  Remember what he did, what he said, and go tell others! You may not be believed—it’s a risk. But you must tell, so others can be curious, can wonder, so God will enter that wonder and put the pieces together.