renewable energy for your congregation

a presentation for the South-Central Synod of Wisconsin, ELCA

Good morning, grace and peace be with you, a big howdy, and thanks for being here. I’m Nick, a pastor at Advent Lutheran, one of the two partner congregations of Madison Christian Community—or the MCC as we shorthand it—not too far from here on Old Sauk Road, just past West Towne Mall. I’m excited to be on the Caring for God’s Creation team from the South-Central Synod of Wisconsin that put this event together (and took off from the City of Middleton to have I think the first ever religious body resolution in favor of Carbon Fee & Dividend), and I’m also on the board of Wisconsin Interfaith Power and Light, for an extra shout and to continue holding the religious perspective and in a larger-than-Lutheran way.

In some regard, it may seem obvious to have somebody like me on this panel. Here we are in a Lutheran church. I’m an official Lutheran character as clergy. And this stuff is important to me.

But in another regard, I don’t fit in this mix of really astute and important folks you’re hearing today who know their stuff and find ways to make it happen. Neither can I compare with those at the tables in back, or your own capabilities and connections and success stories and bigger dreams. But I’d also say that makes it really, really fitting for me to be up here, to remind you that this isn’t about me.

Let me begin that by explaining that my congregation, the MCC, had solar panels long before I arrived. In fact, they were working on this nearly half my life ago. So I want you to hear that I can’t take any credit. I wasn’t the driving force. I didn’t have the expertise or know-how or insight or well-researched position. I wasn’t a motivator or techie or fundraiser. I’m here entirely as a tagalong, riding on coattails of this wonderful stuff, a Johnny-come-lately who can’t claim it, even while standing up here celebrating it all.

I admit that proudly. It may be your role, also. Or you may be the sort of person who makes it possible for other schmoes like me to stand up and cheer and celebrate. It’s the nature in our congregations, at least, and may be in other places as well.

With that, I’ll also clarify that this isn’t primarily a program I can offer. I’m not up here for a how-to manual on preparing to do renewables in your congregation. I’m not the example for your pastor needing to be a real green eco-freak to make this happen. There’s no magic recipe. Instead it’s always about the random coincidence of possibilities that converge in their own time and place, dependent on its own moment. You may like to term that God’s plan or fate or just happenstance, but regardless that’s what I’m here to attest to. So I’m going to zero in and tell the MCC story, and declare from the get-go that in practically no way will it match your story.

In our case, the question came up maybe 17 years ago. Environmental conservation had long been part of the identity. Our purpose statement now describes it as “living faithfully and lovingly with God, neighbor, and creation.” It was a congregation who built on donated farm land, and wanted to keep that connection, so for 50 years has hosted community gardening. For about 40 years they’ve worked on restoring native prairie on old farming soil, which (by the way) benefits carbon sequestration. They tried to embody this stuff as part of the pervasive Spirit of who they were.

They’d also done good like upgrades in lighting, moves many of us have made through CFLs and toward LEDs. They’d done audits and energy studies. That reminds us these efforts are multi-pronged. It’s not just the glamorous stuff, but the zillions of small bits toward what needs to be done.

Adding solar panels at the MCC came because of a passionate individual. That person has been long gone. It wasn’t the pastor. Staff was supportive, but I want you to hear this wasn’t possible because of an official leader or paid person.

We’re now on a second set of panels. The first set was decided on mostly because of affordability. That meant it was a small demonstration project. Again, we celebrate this in many and various ways. It’s not just equating with taking X numbers of cars off the road or powering so many hundred homes. The demonstration project was along a busy street where 10-20,000 cars per day would see it. Incidentally, that became not just an advertisement for renewable energy, but a huge banner of community recognition and reason people decided to join our congregation. It spread to members’ home systems and to other congregations who came for tours and such.

The first small set of panels were removed for a re-roofing project (and were subsequently donated to another congregation). That started a two-year conversation on what to do next. Though for the sake of the climate and planetary wellbeing we’re urgently needing to make these transitions as quickly as possible, I have to remind myself it still can be worth the time. At the MCC, that involved cost-benefit analyses, discussions in annual meetings and adult ed sessions. There were lots of options, not only on bids for how many panels and where to place them, but also if it would be better to invest the money in a community-buy—here or in Africa or whatever—or whether it was feasible at all. Again, it was driven by an eager set of regular folks and right circumstances, including the retired maintenance manager Tom who relayed all this to me.

In the end, they decided to proceed with an 18.6 kilowatt system, more than seven times what they previously had. The cost was going to be about $60,000. Sort of like the RENEW Solar for Good fund, Focus on Energy came up with a $10,000 grant. The remaining $50,000 still seemed like a steep amount, especially for those of you who know how tight congregational finances often are. But in this case, the capital drive raised it in less than two weeks. That’s one of the most exciting parts of this story to me, that people were excited and eager and found ways to offer support that they otherwise wouldn’t have.

So a little over a year before I finally arrived, the new solar array went up. It has been practically maintenance-free. It cut our electrical usage by 37% (and electricity bill) in the first year. It’s got this great software especially for us geeks that shows when a vacuum cleaner turns on or a cloud comes by and tallies our savings and our expenses, both worth watching.

Maybe as one more aspect of the multi-pronged necessity and our ways to plug in (for a little pun): when the panels first went up, we used to sell back to the energy company at the same rate we paid to buy electricity, but the politics of the Public Service Commission have meant we now have a lower, regressive rate of return. So it’s not just those with the chutzpah to push for solar panels, but in small choices we make and where we put our money and how we vote and advocacy efforts.

I’ve more than expended my expertise, so I’ll stop there for now. Thanks.

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lectionary 28b creation care commentary

22nd Sunday after Pentecost in 2018

 

Isaiah 53:4-12

Psalm 91:9-16

Hebrews 5:1-10

Mark 10:35-45

 

From top to bottom this week, the lectionary readings seem ready-made for sacrificial substitutionary atonement. This is the view that Jesus died for your sins, that his righteousness is offered as recompense to cover the debt of your sins, a sense of justice that must be retributive, and—most centrally—that a perfect Father demands satisfaction so that you need not be condemned eternally, but since somebody’s gotta pay for it Jesus died vicariously in your place. Built partly on one reading of the Christ Hymn of Philippians 2:5-11, God the Father sends the Son expressly for this purpose, and Jesus was so obedient to this command that he suffered even to the point of death on the cross. (I would say that’s a misreading, much preferring the sort of perspective that it is about love for humanity, like partially described here from David Fredrickson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=146.) This substitutionary satisfaction view has become the dominant sense (in American Christianity, at least) of the whole reason for Jesus. It has even become the default understanding, where any other theological perspective is inherently viewed with suspicion.
As a reader of a care for creation commentary, I suspect that you might not fully endorse such an atonement theory. In a model that mainly deals with eternal consequences, life in this world is mainly relegated to a tally sheet, keeping a record of how well you’ve done, or noting that no matter what you’ve done, meaning this eschatologically significant rupture of relationship with God. Given that it deals with and focuses on Jesus’ death, it seems to be a matter for after-life and doesn’t seem to connect much to actual relationships and interactions of our lives on earth now. For that regard, I’d simply guess that most people invested in caring for creation are not as directly concerned with Jesus paying for our sins. (Maybe someone could do a survey to find out just how much those two categories mix?)

 

So what are we to do with these readings, if they seem to scream a perspective of internal, spiritualized ledger sheets? Here’s some of the litany for the week:

–Jesus said, “The Son of Man came…to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45)

–He “was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole” (Isaiah 53:5)

–He was “stricken for the transgression of my people” (Isaiah 53:8)

–“It was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain” and “make his life an offering for sin” (Isaiah 53:10)

–“The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (Isaiah 53:11)

–Jesus “was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:7-9)

 

So how to confront these readings, or how to hear them in a way that isn’t about Jesus forced to serve as a vicarious satisfaction in substitute for you and your death demanded by a vengefully righteous God? Is there room for care for creation, or is that all is lost and we must look to heaven (or, perhaps more palatable to us, the new creation yet to come)?

 

In his review of the alternatives to this dominant atonement theory, Mennonite and nonviolent theologian J. Denny Weaver points out “In ‘God of the Oppressed,’ James H. Cone, the founder of the black theology movement, pointed out that the dominant Anselmian doctrine posed atonement in terms of an abstract theory that lacked ethical dimensions in the historical arena. Consequently, it allowed white people to claim salvation while accommodating and advocating the violence of racism and slavery” a criticism also leveled by feminist theologians, among others (“The Nonviolent Atonement,” p4). This begins to take seriously our human relationships and God’s actions in society, even as we who care for creation insist that this must be broader even than some multiracial and gender-inclusive anthropocentrism.

 

One way to approach these readings comes from Girardian theologian James Allison, who has posed the question “Who sacrificed who to whom?” The answer should not be so directly presumed that God insisted on killing Jesus for God’s own sake. Humanity was and remains too steeped in the practice of doing violence to each other. The death of Jesus, in this Girardian view, was a rupture designed to break the perpetual cycle of scapegoating and violence. Allison, who takes seriously the notion and practice of sacrifice, can remind us that this is about life being able to continue on, about God entering the creation and being restored in right relationship. (For some of those historical reflections on sacrifice, where it is clarified that in traditional sacrifice God was sacrificing God-self for the sake of humanity and creation, a “divine movement to set people free,” see this essay: http://www.jamesalison.co.uk/texts/eng11.html.)

 

In spite of how readily these Bible passages might be enlisted for the purposes of the retributive violent atonement models, it also is readily apparent that the goal is about life. It is not a story of a God whose will is suffering or punishment or death. Rather than terms or pain, notice Isaiah’s efforts for healing, wholeness, prolonged days, and life. One phrase in particular that jumps out is “by a perversion of justice” (53:8). Clearly any of the suffering or pain cannot be seen as right, the afflictions and oppressions cannot be labeled as divinely intended, when that is a perversion of justice. It is when the system is broken that pain and suffering prevail, not by the system God designed and intended and planned.

 

I’m averse to saying that we have to learn the perfect submission or that our suffering will make us perfect in that way that Hebrews perceives it. But the brutality of Isaiah may make more sense through a perspective of self-sacrifice. It seems vitally significant that suffering is not something that one is told to endure, but that one chooses for oneself. This is not the oppression of groups of people explained away, the abuse done in relationships excused, the subjugation and disregard that takes advantage of others. No one may be told to suffer, to confine them by telling them to learn obedience to that way. Rather, this is chosen. Following Cone’s criticism mentioned above, rather than masters justifying their enslavement of others, this voluntarily takes the place of a servant. This is a slavery opted into for the sake of love and in service of life. With Isaiah, the prophet sees himself as the suffering servant (and is not predicting the fate of another, much less saying what God will do to Jesus).

 

Here is one explanation from Terence Fretheim: “At the very least, we must say that the suffering of the servant is reflective of the suffering of God; in the giving up of the servant for the world, personal self-sacrifice is seen to define God’s purpose here. But even more, as the servant is the vehicle for divine immanence, we should also say that God, too, experiences what the servant suffers. This consequence is something which God chooses to bring not only upon the servant but also upon [God]self. While God does not die, God experiences in a profound way what death is like in and through the servant. By so participating in the depths of the death-dealing forces of this world, God transforms the world from within; and a new creation thereby begins to be born.” (“The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective,” p164-65)

 

For this perspective of God’s efforts for life over death, one of the most useful aspects of this Gospel reading is as a corrective to the dominant and domineering readings of Genesis 1 that give license to the abuse of creation. When God offers the instruction for the humans to “have dominion over the fish of the seas and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Genesis 1:28), dominion has much too frequently been interpreted as permission to do whatever we want. I believe it is helpful to consider the word “dominion.” It ties to the Latin “dominus,” for Lord.

 

Similarly, the word in Genesis 1:28 in the Septuagint or Greek version of the Old Testament includes Kyrie—which we know from “Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy.” Although the term Jesus uses is the exact same word (katekyrie) for “lord it over,” we can see that he advocates and leads us into a very different kind of dominion. Though we might be more apt to be “like the nations” (in Jesus’ phrase from Mark 10:42), our own practice of lordship should not be to “lord it over” as tyrants, but should follow the model and example of the one we name as Lord. As disciples of our Lord Jesus, we see that dominion is about service, that greatness is found in being a “slave of all” (10:44). That is more representative of the kind of God we have. God is not one who is so far above us that we must fear threats. God is not so distant from us that we can’t even begin to hope to be so proper and holy that we could gain proximity. Our God comes to strive on our behalf, to offer God’s own self for the sake of our lives and ongoing goodness of creation.

 

Since this is what it means not just for John and James but also for us to be associated with Jesus, to share his baptism and receive from his cup, then we find our place separate from the “great ones” (with the depictive Greek phrase “megaloi”) who claim authority over others. It almost can feel like a Godzilla, stomping through the city and across a landscape, leaving a wake of destruction, entirely careless for what it has abused. We, instead, are called to serve, even to enter into the suffering Jesus has been describing and is moving toward in Jerusalem.

 

This is likely what is meant by the term “ransom,” in a paradoxical or ironic way. Similar to Luther’s paired theses in “The Freedom of a Christian,” that a Christian is “totally free master of all, subject to none; and totally bound slave of all, subject to all,” Jesus frees you in order to serve. “The term [‘ransom’] referred to the price required to redeem captives or purchase freedom for indentured servants” (Ched Myers, “Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus,” p279). Jesus frees you from slavery to the tyrannical overlords, in order that you may be slave not just to their whims but “slave to all.”

 

Further, we recognize that sometimes giving life should, indeed, be perceived as in line with God’s will. Parents give up and restrict their opportunities and options on behalf of their children. A firefighter will freely risk her own wellbeing, maybe even sacrificing to save others from a burning building. As a dog owner, I know that it means I’m up in the middle of the night and out for walks in the cold. As a gardener, I’m rubbing sore back muscles and fighting sunburn and swatting mosquitoes so that I can care for those vegetables and flowers. Some labor is referred to as “punishing,” even though we might only be subjecting ourselves to the work. That seems a better and more life-giving view, and more appropriately tied to a God who created and sustains out of love, than one of obedience and being stricken for transgressions.

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Hannah’s Prayer & Song

sermon on 1st Samuel 1&2

 

The prayerful lament of a vulnerable woman. And then it turns to praise.

I wish this turning could be more broadly true in what have been especially sad and hard days for vulnerable women. And although this Bible reading isn’t directly able to be extrapolated and applied to all vulnerable people, still I believe and expect that the fundamental message of the story is, indeed, for all.

We heard a rivalry, between two women, perhaps an unfortunate breakdown in what could’ve been mutually understanding and supportive. Hannah, whose name means “favored,” certainly seemed out of favor. We heard her taunted and ridiculed and ostracized, yes bullied, for her infertility and lack of children, by one whose name means “fertile,” Peninnah.

That situation is a miserable, lonely place to be in our time, but, as we’ve continued to hear, in this ancient culture it was downright dangerous. Even more than now, having a child was clearly a status symbol for a place in society and expectation of women. But it was also sustenance. Where we cite a statistic that it costs $233,000 to raise a child to age 18*, the focus in Hannah’s time would have been the opposite, that food and shelter wouldn’t have been available to her without a child. She faced that vulnerability.

That’s bad enough. Worse is that Peninnah taunted her about it.

Her husband would seem to be better. He really favored Hannah, so much as to give her the double share. But still he didn’t seem to grasp her sorrow or difficulty. He asked, “am I not more to you than ten sons?” Not very empathetic, and, as commentators point out, it would have been more caring to have said, “Hannah, you are more to me than ten sons.” At any rate, no matter how much he loved her, it didn’t really resolve it.

Then there’s the religious official, Eli. When Hannah was in distress, he responded with presumptuous accusation. Ironically, Eli accused Hannah of being drunk, even while she’s promising her offspring wouldn’t drink.

Finally, there’s God. Though the reading says God has closed Hannah’s womb, we might try to say that infertility isn’t the will of God. But we also have to expect that the response to infertility needs to tell us something about God. And, more broadly, what happens when we are amid suffering and longing and life not being what it should? When traumas linger? Where is God in that?

Here Hannah prayed, sharing her problem. Now, we should notice that there’s no magical incantation or special words. She prayed good and strong and didn’t tiptoe around it, pointing out her misery and asking God to be attentive to that. She trusted that God doesn’t want us to be miserable, with faithful expectations that, when we’re down and out, not only should God want to do something about it, but God can! “Don’t forget about me, God!” It’s just a version of “Lord, in your mercy, you hear our prayer.”

One other comment on Hannah’s petition. She made a promise about this child she hoped for, but it’s not best to hear that as bargaining, that she’d make the boy into a priest as payment back to God for giving her offspring in the first place. God isn’t in the business of making deals, of being connived, of any tit-for-tat relationship, in being our God only in response or reciprocation for our pious promises.

Still, we might well note that God did respond. We would typically say God answered Hannah’s prayer. That makes us think she did something right, to get what she wanted. Or it makes us wonder what we ought to be doing differently when our prayers aren’t answered, when problems remain, or we continue to feel ostracized, or when our place of vulnerability remains so tenuous and scary. If something worked out for Hannah, we want it, too.

We’d prefer to have it be so simple as getting just what we want, like she apparently (eventually) did. We’d like it to be that our vulnerabilities are removed and we’re instantly strengthened. We’d wish to switch directly from lament to praise. We’re good at spotting injustice, especially when we’re suffering it, and we’ve got no good reason to be patient with it. We want the secret code words of right prayers. I realize all that.

I’m sorry for those ongoing hurts. I’m not explaining them away, since they won’t just go away. But we do need to see and believe God does something. So when we turn to Hannah’s song, we may recognize we aren’t left out. We are already contained in this story. Hannah sings our situation, even if not the exact circumstances.

I know to start that is a dissatisfying answer for your individual pains and hopes for wholeness. But let’s carry forward to notice that Hannah’s song is barely about her. She mentions those who had been childless, but she certainly doesn’t gloat in the birth of her own son, but rather says braggadocio has no place anymore. In fact, it’s a remarkable song because it situates this one birth amid a much larger scope of amazing work across humanity and creation, of feeding the hungry, of ending war, of wealth no longer lording it over others, of bringing justice and integrity and honor to those who had been ashamed and dismissed.

These are powerful words, that our God of reversals is working a revolution in society. Exchanges of fortune fill these words, of the lowly lifted up and the high brought down (whether this is a vision of equality and sharing or a vision of changing places, of the 1% no longer having their turn, of those who lived in palaces being out on the street and the homeless moving in). However it may come, this proclaimed godly way is not the way of our world.

Further, we also notice this God of reversals is not our normal conception of God. Even the sense of God is flipped when these words apply across all of our perceived hierarchies. This reversal strikes God’s own self. I said before that God isn’t into bargaining, but our God, especially as most clearly embodied in Jesus, does strike a deal and go into a free trade in what Luther termed “the happy exchange.”

The Mighty One takes on the form of weakness, the eternal becoming mortal, and the one who is greatest and Lord of all comes to serve. With the song of Hannah, this God not only moves you up a ladder of societal stature, but gives you the riches and entity of God’s own self. God takes your sadness and gives you joy, your tears and gives you laughter. God takes your loneliness and gives you community, even with God’s own presence. God takes your vulnerability and gives you strength and standing. God takes your misery and fills you with promise, takes what it wrong and makes it right. God takes your shame and exclusion and gives you honor and calls you favored, just like Hannah. God takes your uncertainty and gives you faith. And all this is most clearly and emphatically true because on the cross Jesus takes your death in order to give you life. These are the happy exchanges, where God takes you and says, “All that I have is yours.”

Yes, these are powerful words. And not just words Hannah claimed for herself. This isn’t a self-congratulatory hymn celebrating that she is so blessed. It’s not about her happiness or relief at becoming a mother. These powerful words are also more than for her time and place, of her nation moving from fragmentation to unity.

We’re recognizing in this service that one of the most famous echoes of Hannah’s song came from the mouth of young Mary, the Mother of our Lord, before his birth. It was true for her. And in him—in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection—we came to know and trust these happy exchanges that God is working.

But this wasn’t about one mother 3100 years ago or an ancient faraway people. Neither was this about another mother 2000 years ago who could’ve been shamed or killed. It wasn’t for her son’s efforts against an empire.

Continuing forward with these powerful words, I learned this week that Mary’s song was banned by the Guatemalan government in 1980’s because it posed a threat to the military order they were seeking to impose.**

And so we keep singing them. These words continue to announce, to celebrate, to spread. They are words that echo across and through our world today.

And they are words for you, for your life. Even while you remain with your hurt and your worry, as society around you seems to still stifle your concern and preclude your place, as it feels yet so far from any resolution, as you can hardly envision a good way forward, still this revolutionary and loving word is for you, that God is turning the world around, that you will not be left out, because our God is always on the side of life, even to the point of God’s own death. That is how our God most certainly turns vulnerability to power and lament to praise and you to what you should be.

 

Hannah’s song:

My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God.

My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.

2There is no Holy One like the LORD, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.

3All bragging must cease. Boastful arrogance must come to an end.

The LORD is a God of knowledge, who weighs all mortal deeds.

4The bows of warriors are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.

5Those who were full have hired themselves out for crusts of bread,

but those who were hungry are satisfied.

The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.

6The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up again

7The LORD makes both the poor and the wealthy, who brings low, and also exalts.

8The Lord lifts up the poor from the dust; and raises the needy from the ash heap,

to place them among the mighty and promotes them to seats of honor.

9The LORD lights the ways of the just, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness;

for not by might does one prevail.

10The LORD’s adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High thunders against them in the skies.

The LORD will judge the ends of the earth.

The LORD will give strength to the king and exalt the power of the anointed one.

 

* https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2017/01/13/cost-raising-child

** cited in Wisdom’s Feast: An Invitation to Feminist Interpretation of the Scriptures, Barbara E. Reid, p57

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lectionary 27b Care for Creation Commentary

20th Sunday after Pentecost in 2018

 

Genesis 2:18-24

Psalm 8

Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12

Mark 10:2-16

 

Sometimes the lectionary offers passages that seem tailor-made for reflecting on creation care, on God as Creator, on how we worship with other creatures and share our place on this planet. It can feel almost as if the periscope is intentionally cut from the broader cloth of Scripture exactly to reveal and highlight these possibilities and connections.
And yet sometimes even that perfect garment is obscured by a single stain, no longer offering precisely fit clothing, but only drawing attention to one small bit that threatens to overwhelm all the rest.

 

For this Sunday, the readings include humankind of all genders and ages, placed intentionally and with delightful expectation amid the birds and animals, both wild beasts and domestic companions. The readings envision the migration of whales and bustling coral reefs. They declare the repetitive praise in the glorious display of the God who made this: “O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth” (Psalm 8:1 & 9)! They foster an opening for classic Christian reflection on the Trinity and the second person as the Word that spoke creation into being, as Hebrews declares it is the Son “through whom [God] also created the worlds” (1:2).

 

And yet for those many opportunities to celebrate majestically how we and our faith relate to “all” the earth (a view of creation in the Psalm that not only encompasses everything on this globe but also includes the praise of the stars—see verse 3), the possible connections are probably immediately subsumed in the thoughts of a congregation when Jesus has to address the question about divorce. It’s intended as a “gotcha” question, a wedge issue, putting Jesus on the spot. But it also ricochets and reverberates through lives today, bearing lots of weight on “what does God think about divorce?” That complexly includes both the pressures for one who may feel a helpless victim cast off and one who may live with guilt for having caused a fracture, or—most likely—all these conflicting emotions within individuals.

 

So it seems that the task with this set of readings is how to be able to consider the question and answer about divorce without totally losing the opportunity to consider and celebrate wider creation. Thankfully, it seems that the texts themselves offer exactly that path forward.

 

For the starting point, it could be helpful to reflect on how we consider ourselves, including our very identity as humans created by God. We have been conditioned to view marriage—and meaning in this way marriage between a man and a woman—as the standard in society, and also as prescribed by God. Yet when we look around our congregations, we should quickly realize that this is not wholly normative, nor should it be definitive of what it means to be human.

 

Amid the congregation on a Sunday morning, there will be babies, infants, and toddlers, those celebrated in the Psalm as having mouths that serve as a bulwark “to silence the foe and the avenger” (v2). However we interpret that—whether their loud crying drives away violent hoards or that God is operating through them even without study and wisdom and strong speech—we must note that these youngest among us are potent and to be cherished as they are.

 

We next hold onto the end of Jesus’ words of blessing for children (again, at risk for getting lost as a cuddly little addition after the difficult divorce discussion); clearly we can’t say that the youth among us are only waiting to grow up and when they get married then they’ll really be doing what God wants. Just the opposite, Jesus says the adults among us need to become like children in order to belong to the kingdom of God.

 

As we look at adults around us, we’ll realize there are adults living vibrant lives as part of our congregation and community who are sustained by a wide variety of relationships other than marriage. We recognize and celebrate these wonderful humans who may have always been single, who are widowed, or who are divorced.

 

With that, we’re also overdue as Christian community to notice and celebrate the relationships that aren’t the stereotypical marriages of male and female, husband and wife. In fact, we won’t be able to understand Jesus’ perspective on divorce unless we see more than old cultural presumptions.

 

The best place to start for that (with a trajectory toward addressing Jesus’ statement on divorce) is to look at the Genesis passage as accurately as possible, while refusing the old cultural presumptions that either have arisen from that reading and come to define our cultural perceptions or, in the reverse form, have imposed the biases of our society into the reading and handed it on to us in its current form in most versions of Scripture.

 

Here’s an effort at a better translation to depict the relationships Genesis is actually striving to portray:

Then Yahweh God said, “It is not good for the earthling to be alone. I will make a fitting companion for it.” So from the earth Yahweh God formed all the various wild beasts and all the birds of the air and brought them to the earthling to be named. The earthling gave names to all the cattle, all the birds of the air, and all the wild animals. But none of them proved to be a fitting companion. So Yahweh God made the earthling fall into a deep sleep, and while it slept, God divided the earthling in two, then closed up the flesh from its side. Yahweh God then fashioned the two halves into male and female, and presented them to one another.

(Genesis 2:18-22, translation a compilation from Inclusive Bible, Phyllis Trible’s God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, p78, and Nick Utphall)

 

This passage has wordplay throughout in the original Hebrew: God took earth and made an earthling. For that, the first word to know is adamah, which means earth. The second Hebrew word is already familiar to most: adam. But it’s not a proper name, “Adam,” the way it has been often communicated. Neither is it at all helpful to translate it as “man,” (compare, for example, the New Revised Standard Version which substitutes “man” immediately in verse 18). That fails to portray the creative work of God sculpting us from natural, earthly materials and disconnects the human from the humus, separating us from the land as our origin. Too often, that pre-eminence of “man” has further gone on to be applied in putting men (meaning males) first, before all the rest.

 

Since the King James Version at least, that male-centered application of this passage has dominated and become an enormously influential example of how patriarchal structure and sexist presuppositions warp our understandings of God, the Bible, and ourselves. Translators did their own picking and choosing to invent things that weren’t in the Hebrew. Right away they started putting in the word “man,” and eventually there gets to be a capital-A guy named Adam. In that telling, after this primal version of masculinity is done tilling up the land and categorizing the beasts, he goes on a hunt for a wife as a helper. She gets subordinated as being made from a small piece of her husband.

 

Notice the striking difference from the above version where it is not an etiology of how a man finds a domestic servant to do laundry and make supper, but as human beings being the most fitting companions for each other. A paraphrase of the point of Genesis might be that while a dog may be man’s best friend, that pales next to general human relationships. From what was originally a gender-neutral passage about our connections to earth and the goodness of shared companionship with each other, it has been instead twisted it into a domineering masculine blueprint which, by the end of the next chapter, is applied to blame females for all evil and brokenness.

 

That cultural circumstance is also some of what Jesus was trying to address. Note well that this was not simply a question about when a relationship faces difficulties or fractures. In that society, divorce could only be initiated by the male (see, for example, Deuteronomy 24, with some of the language from Moses about “a certificate of divorce” as mentioned in the Gospel reading). So this was a question about men having more power, being able to dismiss a wife simply at their own choosing.

 

Jesus refutes that by telling us to take the relationships more seriously. This is weighty and difficult to address in a congregation, because there will be some who have been hurt and feel wronged by a divorce, even as there are others whose wellbeing was significantly aided by a divorce. This isn’t simply a question “Is divorce allowed? Is it good or bad?” It’s an answer from Jesus that says our relationships—particularly our closest relationships where our love is most especially practiced on a daily basis—are not to be taken lightly. These relationships are fundamental to our very nature as creatures of God, as human beings. In that way, though it may be most particularly and commonly known in a congregation as heterosexual married partnerships, this value of human relationship should be taken seriously and mutually, and not simply set aside with selfish license.

 

Again, here we come around to note especially that in our time it does not do well to preach this as a passage as an endorsement of heterosexual marriage or binary gender identity. If anything, it is highlighting that males with “hardness of heart” have laws set up to stop them from taking advantage of and oppressing women or those who are extra vulnerable and at risk. But in a fuller expression toward the positive commitments to loving relationship, it is well worth including all gender expressions and all marriages and partnerships.

 

From there, we may also expand the perspective beyond marriage. Perhaps that is where we can tie back in children mentioned in the next part of the Gospel, since children were as vulnerable as women in ancient society (such as the standard of Old Testament justice being defined as caring for widows and orphans). And then we may expand to the mutual relationships with other creatures, as these were made from the same earth as the earthling to be “helpers and partners” (Genesis 2:19, 18; note the same terms used eventually for the fellow human being as the most fitting companion).

 

That may well be enough to address, but the 2nd reading allows still further or varied consideration. The phrase in 1:3 that the Son is the “exact imprint of God’s very being” may call to mind the creation declaration in Genesis 1:27 that “God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God they were created, male and female” (a phrase quoted by Jesus in the Gospel reading). If Jesus reveals for us the exact image of God, then we’ll first of all not be able to take it as an endorsement or definition of heterosexual marriage. We probably would, however, take it as a clear vision of sacrificial, self-giving love.

 

Though Hebrews ventures into yet another small bit threatening to overwhelm the rest in the pronouncement about being made “perfect through sufferings” (2:10), for now let’s avoid the question of redemptive suffering or particular substitutionary atonement theories. In these verses of Hebrews, that suffering mainly stands over and against the risky view extrapolated from the Genesis creation stories or Psalm 8 (as cited in Hebrews 2:5-8) that we humans want to be domineering and in control. Instead, with the mention of suffering and following Jesus’ Gospel model of taking the relationships seriously, we observe that the love in any of these relationships – with close humans, in marriage, in family, with children, in caretaking for domestic animals and livestock, in being responsible for the identities and wellbeing of other creatures on land, air, and sea – the giving of love in these relationships means giving ourselves away.

 

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Intended for Good?

a sermon on Genesis37&50

 

Bad stuff that turns out okay.

As we skip from the start to the conclusion of this story of Joseph and his brothers, we could be tempted to say that no matter what happens, it all works out in the end. In fact, I do frequently say something like that as a word of hope in a God of new life and resurrection. But with this narrative, let’s go tentatively and not leap to the conclusions.

As the story begins, we meet Joseph who is the 11th son of Jacob or Israel. From last week’s story of Abram waiting for God’s promise of a child, eventually Isaac, that son of laughter, was born. He and his wife Rebekah had twin sons, and Rebekah’s favorite was also favored by God. That was Jacob, a cheater and thief. He didn’t only struggle to steal from his older brother, but also from God. That wrestling for blessing late one night got him renamed Israel.

Obviously we know Israel as the nation bearing his name, a nation sometimes claiming to be right with God even as they continue wrestling with their brothers and sisters and neighbors. They took the name Israel since that became the identifier for the family of God’s people. We learned last week that God’s intention to bless all nations and peoples was through one specific person and family, Abram and his descendants. In today’s story, this Israel or Jacob has twelve sons and a daughter (from multiple mothers, and Joseph’s mother died in childbirth). Those 12 sons by next week will have grown and expanded into 12 tribes of Israel, 12 big extended family groups.

But before we worry about the family dynamics among hundreds of thousands of relatives, in today’s story we’ve got problem enough with just the close family, the brothers with each other and sons with their father.

Commentators like to point out that Joseph is a jerk. He’s a tattling younger sibling. He’s the favorite and he knows it and wants to rub it in. He dreams that his older brothers and even his father will bow down to him. And he tells them about it. He may have poor social skills or be a stereotypical younger child who can get away with too much.

Some older siblings would react by offering a hurts doughnut or a dutch rub or a wedgie, or would ditch the twerp and pedal away faster on bikes, leaving the whiner crying in the dust. Maybe since Joseph had gotten more on their nerves, or things were rougher in this family, the brothers decide to get rid of Joseph by killing him. Murder. Fratricide, like the first death in the Bible.

Again in the stereotypical way, the oldest sibling is the most responsible and concerned about parental response. Reuben tries to plan so he doesn’t have to answer to an angry father about why and how he let his littlest brother die.

A creative middle child has the entrepreneurial mindset to realize they can both be rid of him and make some cash on the side, so they sell him into slavery in Egypt, which I suppose we take as the less-worse of options, the lesser of two evils, maybe.

Joseph is sold to a high-ranking official, but that official’s wife tries to sexually assault Joseph. In what is much too rarely the Bible’s story (or any story), the vulnerable person escapes, and yet, as is more commonly the case, the victim is blamed nevertheless, and in Joseph’s case, it lands him in jail.

Eventually around more dreams, he is able to tell Pharaoh there is going to be a time of great harvests followed by a time of famine. So Pharaoh puts him in charge of all the crops and essentially all the Egyptians to sell them food when the hard times come.

These Egyptians aren’t isolationists. When disaster strikes and others also are starving, they are ready to help (again, at a cost). This includes Joseph’s brothers who come to ask for assistance. They have no idea their brother is alive, much less that he’s the second-in-command in Egypt, living with a new identity.

Joseph doesn’t quite welcome them with open arms. He does help with some food, but also plays tricks on them and is conniving and demanding. We can’t quite tell if it’s just in jest or if he’s vindictive and resentful of how they treated him, whether or not that would be reasonable and fair.

Eventually he comes clean, reveals that he’s Joseph. He’s weeping. They rejoice. It’s all such a happy family reunion at that point, overcoming decades of separation and worse.

Still, the brothers are fearful. Fearful enough that their worry comes up twice. Once in chapter 45, and then again in the part we heard today, later on after their father has died. They’re still trying to fabricate lies for things to turn out better for them, not to address straight on what they’ve done wrong.

And we might wonder whether Joseph would hold them to account, if he would recount the litany of his sufferings, if he would use his newfound power, if the expectation would be retributive justice. But Joseph forgives them. Suddenly he releases them from responsibility or liability for what they did wrong.

It’s easy to have this enshrined by Scripture and stand on its own, but I want to hear it differently and tentatively by making it more generic. Here’s a retelling for our ears:

A younger sister was disregarded by older siblings, and they found a way for her to satisfy their appetites of bad habits requiring hard cash. Her fate of human trafficking was the same as so many hidden others, modern day slavery, abandoned in a foreign place where she didn’t even know the language.

Because of her youthful good looks, multiple times her boss tried to harass, touch, grope, even rape her.

Rather than finding justice, she was the one who wound up in prison, where others forgot about her and she was left under a too-long sentence. Still, on her eventual release, unlike many, she managed to reintegrate and even move up in society, but with a role that made awful demands on people while claiming to help them—extorting their money, extorting their lands, eventually extorting their very lives into the confinements she had escaped.

Even her own family, when they came looking for help, she extorted their kindness, their regard for each other, making a mockery of their identity and making them bow and grovel.

But! it all turned out in the end.

See, we have to wonder at the sudden end and shouldn’t rush to God’s resolution. After all, whether the version from Genesis, or the updated retelling bringing it into a reality we know more about, these may feel more like real life, at least theologically, than last week where the voice and promise of God was loud and clear. We shouldn’t skip to the ending, as we’re left wondering: how do we attribute an invisible silent God’s place?

In this whole saga we heard, God isn’t mentioned until things turn good. But Joseph even there only raises the backward question that the role of God is to punish but that he can’t. So through this whole thing, do we expect that God is absent or negligent in the harder times? Or why do we give God credit especially for the good? Maybe we hold this as Don Tubesing shared in preaching a couple weeks ago, that we can’t see it as it’s happening but can later look back and see the “thin silver thread” running through it all, even when everything seemed lost and gone. That’s also a task and a vision we can only accomplish ourselves. We can’t tell others what the meaning was, or how to relate their difficulties to God.

But still, if God doesn’t get mentioned at all until the end, we wonder through it all, from back at the start, did God give Joseph the dreams, even while offending his family? Or was it just his subconscious at work?

Did God design for all the horrendous details, just to put Joseph through it to lead eventually to something else? Was the rotten stuff warranted because it turned out better? Wouldn’t we flee promptly from a God who used any means to justify an ends?

Or did God just manage to take what was available and turn it nevertheless to good purposes? Using imperfect materials and dull tools and the lack of clear blueprint that so often exemplifies our lives, if we’re God’s instruments, God’s stuck with not the sharpest knives in the drawer. That feels the most obvious to me, that a good God continually strives ahead in spite of our sin and stubbornness and suffering.

Was the alleged happy ending that Joseph helped save people from starving? Or more narrowly that he forgave and was reunited with his family? Both could be God’s work, of feeding the hungry, and of reconciling relationships.

And what about that not really being the end, with the ongoing hard edges, that everything isn’t fixed and made right, that by the time we turn the page into Exodus, this pleasant family get together will have resulted in the enslavement of the Israelite descendants and killing of their children. That will further result in the harm of many Egyptians and their livestock, including deaths of all the firstborn. And we might have to say it eventually results in the injustices perpetrated by Israelis against Palestinians.

In many and various ways, Scripture does assert that God is working for the good, that indeed “goodness is stronger than evil” (ELW 721), that our fallible wills will not inevitably lead to destruction, that God leads to new creation through God’s promising ever-resilient and tenacious will, always finding a way forward.

Sometimes we glimpse or taste that ourselves, as we share in a moment of healing or a change of heart or happy surprise or experience the power of forgiveness for new beginnings, as grace leads us home.

Sometimes we have to say it’s more than we individually know, that the arc of the universe is long but it does bend toward justice, that we can see the Promised Land, even though we may not each get there. There is that kind of larger hope, hope for our children, hope for our nation, hope for humankind, hope for the planet.

And then there’s even something beyond that, that death can never prevail against the God of life, even though sometimes that means God’s good work is not accomplished in this life but must wait for resurrection.

When we’re faced with hardships like human trafficking and sexual assault and exploitation and extortion just to be able to afford not to starve, when we’re faced with fractured families that may be downright dangerous or may just be the usual kind of frustrating and doing all sorts of wrong to each other and mourning loss of family members, when the story may be a long, long way from finished, we’re left to ponder how God is involved, whether God works with us to make things right, or we work without God, or God works in spite of us. Given the bleakness of the story, I can’t but hope in the biggest possible God with the most potential, even if it is yet to come.

I also know that I can’t muster that hope on my own. That, as the twisty pondering questions of this sermon have indicated, if I’m left to myself, then I don’t know where to locate God. I don’t know what’s right. I don’t know whether to hope or fear, press ahead or retreat, ask forgiveness, praise, or lament. That is why I’m here in worship, with you. That is why I need gatherings like this, for reassurance.

In one small way of that, I’ll tell you that except for the next song, the rest were chosen by Sybil Klatt as hymn selector. You can tell mine is more dour. She had upbeat and trusting choices, confident in a God who is with us and seeks our good in spite of too  much evil and sorrow around us. Today, because I’d spent a week struggling with where God was in this reading and where God is in my life, in your lives when you need God, in our desperately needy world, this week I needed Sybil and her hymns to help reinforce my faith and hope. Thanks Sybil. Thanks all for hanging in there as this community sustaining promise and hope and pointing to God together.

 

Hymn: God, When Human Bonds are Broken (603)

 

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Seeing Stars

a sermon on Genesis15:1-6

Look to the Stars

As one facing childlessness, this reading of Abram feels burdensome to me. Why no child, God? God clarifies and repeats a promise. But, I have to ask, how does Abram encounter that promise and what actually is God’s promise today?

We’re beginning a second year of the Narrative Lectionary for Bible readings. Last week, we heard generally about earth and generic earthlings. Now the story takes a very different turn, from a broad statement of all creation and all humankind to this particular story, one person instead of the whole human family, one individual leading to universal benefit.

In a significant way, this is the start of our story, past the background stuff. (Though we might make the same point when we get into Exodus in a couple weeks. Or you probably even feel more that way when we get to Jesus and the New Testament in December.)

Still, for origins, you might know that the three great monotheistic religions trace back to Abram, whose relationship to God has been formative to Christians and Jews and Muslims, even as we emphasize and understand that differently. With over 4 billion combined adherents, over half of the world’s population, that is a big number.

But it feels hasty and unsatisfying to chalk that up as if God can hang up a “mission accomplished” banner after four millennia and say that the spiritual heirs of Abram have now spread out like the dust of the earth.

For one thing, it doesn’t address my own personal concern. Nor does it address Abram’s, which is the point of hearing and living again into this story.

To know the fuller narrative, Abram first appeared at the end of chapter 11. Barely has his family tree been named when we’re discovering it’s going to end up a stump. Four verses after he’s introduced, we’re told he’s unlikely to have any children, and not just because he’s already 75 years old.

But by the start of chapter 12, God is making promises to Abram, and keeps reiterating them, about the heritage for Abram’s offspring. Eight times in the following chapters, God voices reassurance of making good on this promise, even when everything seems directly to contradict it.

Now, for Abram the issue was different from how I consider it. For Abram and his time, a child meant life by offering necessary support in old age, that culture’s kind of social security. Descendants were also their version of eternal life—not that I personally would continue to exist, but that something of him would live on in future successors. This is also how God’s work would proceed, through the course of family generations and on in the Bible’s story.

But if the first problem was that this promise seems absurdly impossible, then a second problem is that it’s awfully gradual. We’re already three chapters along at today’s passage, and God is reiterating the promise a third time, and Abram is having to protest, to question, to raise his doubts: Hey God, you keep talking about this, but (in case you hadn’t noticed) I don’t have a lone child, much less plural like the sands of the beach. Right now my hired help is the closest thing I’ve got, and that doesn’t sound like what you keep yakking about.

This chapter reinforces that God will be responsible for making it happen, but it doesn’t move any closer to fulfillment. In the next chapter and eleven years later, Abram does have a child, but this won’t be the one who counts for the promise. It’s another thirteen years when Abram is 99 years old before Isaac is born, a name that means “he laughs.” It almost seems that the laughter wouldn’t be about joyful birth, but a disbelieving scoff that it actually happened, or even a sarcastic chuckle from God, smirking “see, I told you so.”

Abram continues mostly as the focus until he’s laid to rest in chapter 25, then remains the bedrock or roots or seed of this whole story. For the rest of the Bible, one of God’s main identifiers will be “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” the first three generations of this myriad.

So there’s the sweep, but still, for the particularity today: even as God repeats promises, Abram doubts. We shouldn’t picture a patiently persevering patriarch of the faith. It’s not that he can stifle his concerns and assume God will work it out in God’s good time. It’s not that he has the self-confidence and fortitude to take matters into his own hands.

Perhaps, hear this passage with resounding grinding disappointment. Hear it as one who can only see literal dead ends, who simply doesn’t believe it can be possible. Hear it in the peculiar phrase Paul uses for Abram much later in Scripture, that he could only “hope against hope” (Romans 4). Hear it as prayer with nowhere else to turn. And maybe it’s fitting that Abram ends up looking up at the night sky, because he’s sure stuck out in the dark.

These are horribly hard moments when even the littlest things seem like an impossibility, when anything is too much to hope. It’s not just Abram. It’s life’s immobilization. That no matter how hard I try, it won’t work out. Things just don’t go how you want. That we don’t know what to do, so why bother. That progress is preposterous.

In such moments, I need to compliment Abram for voicing his grievance. I mostly end up wordless, with my head in my hands, tears in my eyes, staring out the window and unsure not only what I could do about it, but unsure of my very self. Abram at least can argue with God and not let a bland platitude pretend to be a promise. He won’t stand for God saying, Oh, Abe, Don’t worry. Everything’s gonna be alright. It’ll work out.

Abram’s objection meets God’s exact identity: God always keeps God’s promises. And so it is good to know those promises. God clarifies and repeats. And God clarifies and repeats. And clarifies and repeats. Because we need to keep hearing it, especially when it is incredible, unbelievable, too good to be true, more than we can hope.

Still, I can’t but wonder if God goes a little overboard this time, telling Abram to go out and count the stars. When Abram is concerned about having no children, this is a ridiculous reply, a depiction reinforcing how outlandish God’s promise is. I gave it a shot this week on a clear evening. From my house, even with city lights and trees in the way, I could count 68 stars, plus two planets and an airplane. Setting aside if the extra planets and plane might mean a couple pet dogs and an aardvark, 68 stars says 68 offspring promised to a guy who had none. Figuring that Abram didn’t have to deal with light pollution, around 4500 stars are visible to the naked eye in a night sky. Or we might take the 100 billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy. Or maybe God intended a full insight into the septillion or so stars in the universe. Clearly ludicrous to be transferable to God’s promise.

So does Abram take this as good news? Pretty much every commentary I read found encouragement for old Abe, that he had a nightly verification of what was in store. That’s optimistic analysis. From the shoes of a doubter, I wonder if he was feeling his nose rubbed in it. For 24 years, a nightly reinforcement that not only didn’t he have innumerable progeny, but had zilch. So is God sufficient? Abram seems assuaged by the end of the passage. How about you?

I admit this is a weird way to start this year of the Narrative Lectionary, and a weird way for the Bible’s story to get going. It certainly doesn’t mesh with instant gratification or our analytical minds looking for proofs and verification. We want results and we want them now. This isn’t satisfying. For all the confident reassurances, it doesn’t exactly feel very confidently reassuring. I admit that, while refusing to let God’s Word become a little pep talk so that you can go back out there from the sidelines and feel better. Maybe we do celebrate the eventuality of abundant goodness.

But for the most part, we have to recognize that all we’ve got is the promise. Faith. Trust. This is a desperate hope, a blind confidence, believing without seeing. This is a God who offers you the stars as reminder with diddly squat as factual evidence. This is a God in Jesus who says that his presence with you and everlasting life for you is in a bite of bread that’s gone long before you get back to your seat, much less feeling very tangible when you go back out to face fears and real doubts in these hard days. This is a God who continues to accept your concerns and frustrations and wonderings, who fully knows your struggles and sorrows and yet decides to work within those limitations and to reiterate goodness for you. God clarifies and repeats. Clarifies and repeats.

So what is this promise? Abram was supposed to go out and look at the stars and think about having children. But I can’t claim that applies from God to me. I can go out and look at the stars as a reminder that God keeps God’s promises. That ultimate promise is life. And God refuses to have that interrupted or disturbed by any circumstance, by your place in the generations, by foolishness or old age, by family trees or stumps, by lightyears of distance and continuums of spacetime, by apparent impossibilities, by our dim understandings, by doubts or disagreements, dead ends or even death, a promise of life that can’t be beaten by hurricane forces or rigid oppressions or sad endings, by the too-slow turn of history, or even by the too common Monday morning blues and frustrations of the week. That is the promise of life from God that Abram came to count on and is for me, for you to hear and hold and maybe deem right. And so again God clarifies and repeats.

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