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Who Is God? Who Are We?

2018-09-24

 

We People of the Promise. And when the promise comes to pass—when God delivers God’s people—that is a moment you do not soon forget.

Hence our reading for this week: the story of God’s deliverance of Israel at the Red Sea.

Exodus 14:1-14, 19-29, 31 

Then the Lord said to Moses: 2‘Tell the Israelites to turn back and camp in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon; you shall camp opposite it, by the sea. 3Pharaoh will say of the Israelites, “They are wandering aimlessly in the land; the wilderness has closed in on them.” 4I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, so that I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army; and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.’ And they did so.

5 When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, the minds of Pharaoh and his officials were changed towards the people, and they said, ‘What have we done, letting Israel leave our service?’ 6So he had his chariot made ready, and took his army with him; 7he took six hundred picked chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt with officers over all of them. 8The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt and he pursued the Israelites, who were going out boldly. 9The Egyptians pursued them, all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, his chariot drivers and his army; they overtook them camped by the sea, by Pi-hahiroth, in front of Baal-zephon.

10 As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the Lord. 11They said to Moses, ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? 12Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, “Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians”? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.’ 13But Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. 14The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.’

19 The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. 20It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.

21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. 22The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. 23The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. 24At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. 25He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, ‘Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.’

26 Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.’ 27So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. 28The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. 29But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. 31Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.

This is a powerful piece of Scripture –a decisive moment disclosing who God is and who God’s people are.

But first let’s set the stage.

Last week we read a snippet of the story of Joseph -sold into slavery by his jealous brothers and, by the end of that passage, imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. But Joseph’s fortunes took a turn. From his prison cell, he ascended to 2nd in command of Egypt. Then, from his position of privilege and power, he delivered his family from a famine and resettled them in the land of Egypt.  That brings the Book of Genesis to a close.

Exodus, the second book in our Bible, opens with ominous words:  Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And what had been Israel’s deliverance from famine becomes a bitter oppression, as the Hebrew people are enslaved. The opening chapters of Exodus recount some of the best-known material in the Bible: the birth of Moses, his miraculous deliverance from genocide, his childhood in the palace of the Pharaoh, his exile, his call, and of course the Ten Plagues and the great contest with Pharaoh.

Finally Pharaoh lets the people go. But as we pick up the story this week, Pharaoh has had a change of heart. He leads his army out to check the flight of the Israelites and drag them back into slavery.  The people have a moment of doubt but God delivers them in the best-known miracle of the Bible: the parting of the Red Sea waters. Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.

This story can serve as a great example of why we read any of these stories. It is a story that tells us who God is and who we are.

Who is God? This story may offer THE biblical answer to this question. In the first volume of his Systematic Theology, the late Robert Jenson put it this way: God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt. This is to say: we do not worship “any old God”; we worship a very particular God, whose character is rendered by a specific story. Much of the Bible is concerned with getting clarity about the identity of our God and distinguishing our God from all of the false gods clamoring for our allegiance.

So: who, exactly, is God? Drawing just on this story, we could answer that question in a number of ways: God is the deliverer. God is savior. God is the one who takes the side of the oppressed against their oppressors. God can be trusted.

And who are we? The same stories that tell us who God is disclose our identity as well. In this story we are delivered. We are saved and set free. We are afraid and at times unable to trust in God’s deliverance. But at the end of the story we are the ones who trust and believe in God.

Who is God? Who are we? It takes a lifetime to truly answer these questions. But we don’t have to do it alone.

See you in church!

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People of the Promise: Bad Theology Edition

2018-09-17

 

We are People of the Promise. But the promise of God is a peculiar thing. It can lead you to some unexpected places. In Joseph’s case, the promise seemed to put him in prison. But God wasn’t finished with Joseph yet.

Genesis 39:1-23

Now Joseph was taken down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. 2The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man; he was in the house of his Egyptian master. 3His master saw that the Lord was with him, and that the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hands. 4So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him; he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had. 5From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field. 6So he left all that he had in Joseph’s charge; and, with him there, he had no concern for anything but the food that he ate. Now Joseph was handsome and good-looking.

7And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, “Lie with me.” 8But he refused and said to his master’s wife, “Look, with me here, my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my hand. 9He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except yourself, because you are his wife. How then could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” 10And although she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not consent to lie beside her or to be with her. 11One day, however, when he went into the house to do his work, and while no one else was in the house, 12she caught hold of his garment, saying, “Lie with me!” But he left his garment in her hand, and fled and ran outside.

13When she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled outside, 14she called out to the members of her household and said to them, “See, my husband has brought among us a Hebrew to insult us! He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice; 15and when he heard me raise my voice and cry out, he left his garment beside me, and fled outside.” 16Then she kept his garment by her until his master came home, 17and she told him the same story, saying, “The Hebrew servant, whom you have brought among us, came in to me to insult me; 18but as soon as I raised my voice and cried out, he left his garment beside me, and fled outside.”

19When his master heard the words that his wife spoke to him, saying, “This is the way your servant treated me,” he became enraged. 20And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined; he remained there in prison. 21But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love; he gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer. 22The chief jailer committed to Joseph’s care all the prisoners who were in the prison, and whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. 23The chief jailer paid no heed to anything that was in Joseph’s care, because the Lord was with him; and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper.

The Narrative Lectionary moves fast. We have covered a lot of ground in the past seven days. Last week we heard how God made a promise to Abram and Sarai. That promise (eventually) came true: they had a son, and then he had two sons, and then one of those sons had twelve sons of his own, including Joseph, the main character in our text for today. He is Sarai and Abram’s great grandson.

 

Joseph is one if thee best known characters in Genesis, maybe even in the entire Bible. (Thank you Andrew Lloyd Webber). Joseph is a dreamer. God gives him visions of the future, a future in which he will turn out to be a very important person. But Joseph is also…a brat. His father loves him best, and he knows it. (That is why his dad gives him the Technicolor Dream coat). His father loves him best and his brothers know it too. Irritated, jealous, they take away his coat, they throw him in a pit; they think about killing him but sell him into slavery instead. That is how Joseph ends up in Egypt.

 

Potiphar, an office of Pharaoh and captain of the guard, buys Joseph and makes him a household slave. It is an important position and he does well in it. But Potiphar’s wife feels frisky. She tries to hook up with the handsome Hebrew slave, but Joseph refuses. So she accuses him of assault and has him put in prison.

 

But God is with him there as well. In prison he prospers –as much as anyone can prosper behind bars. And God is not finished with Joseph. In so many ways, the best is yet to come.

 

The promise will take him all kinds of places.

 

Theologically, the entire Joseph story challenges us to come to a little more clarity about our own theology of providence. The story is pushing a particular point of view: Everything happens for a reason.  The family squabbles get Joseph sold into slavery…and then prison…but then prison sets him up to attain a high position in Pharaoh’s administration (there is joke about politics to be made in here somewhere). Joseph wields his political power to help Egypt survive a famine and, eventually, to rescue his own family from famine.

 

So the story seems to say: Everything happens for a reason. As Joseph he says to his brothers in the very last chapter of Genesis: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” (Genesis 50:20).  

 

But here is my question: What if I don’t but it?

 

Because I don’t.

 

If you have never read it before, please set this blog post aside and go read Kate Bowler’s New York Times Op-Ed “Death, The Prosperity Gospel and Me.” Go read it. I’ll wait.

 

Done? OK.

 

Professor Bowler’s story is a pretty good rebuttal to the everything-happens-for-a-reason theology of the Joseph narrative.  (Indeed, she went on to write an excellent book entitled Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved.

 

I take the Bible seriously, but that does not mean I subscribe to everything in its pages. Everything Happens for a Reason is Bad Theology (capital “B,” capital “T”). Thankfully, we don’t have to read much farther into the Bible to find something better. In Exodus we will hear about a God who does not cause the suffering of God’s people but who hears it and responds to it by delivering the people.

 

That’s more like it.

 

See you in church!

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Job Opportunity

2018-09-12

Plymouth is seeking the perfect applicant to fill its Transition into Ministry (TiM) program coordinator position. To read the full job description, click here. Applications are due by Sept. 25, 2018.

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The Journey Is Our Home (Genesis 12:1-9)

2018-09-10

 

We are People of the Promise. God makes promises to us and that shakes things up. It sets things in motion. When God comes making a promise, you know your life will never be the same.

Just ask Sarai and Abram.

Genesis 12:1-9

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

4So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. 5Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan,

6Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. 8From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. 9And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.

The Bible begins BIG, with a series of epic stories about world history: Creation, Fall, Flood, the Tower of Babel. You could call it myth; Karl Barth preferred the term saga. It is pre-historical. The characters are broadly drawn and events take place on an enormous stage.

But something shifts in Genesis chapter 12. Instead of saga, we get…something else. Not history, strictly speaking, but what Hans Frei called “realistic narrative.” (More about Frei and his theological project here). The focus narrows considerably: from big stories about world history to something smaller and much more human –a melodrama.  Rabbi Burton L. Visotsky once described Genesis as “an ugly little soap opera about a dysfunctional family.”

He has a point, but I want to quibble with one word in that description. Genesis it isn’t ugly, not exactly; it is just so very human.

The soap opera starts here, in Genesis 12, with the very human figures of Abram, Sarai and Lot. They are residents of Haran, a large city in northern Mesopotamia (probably modern day Turkey). Abram (later Abraham) is often remembered as the founding figure of the three “Abrahamic” faiths –Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But he is an ordinary person living an ordinary life –until God shows up and stars making promises.

The promise comes abruptly –without warning or prelude. “The lord” tells Abram to leave his home and his family for a location to be named later (“the land that I will show you.”).  If he does this, God will do three things in return:

  • “Make of you a great nation.”
  • “Bless you and make your name great”
  • “So that you will be a blessing.”

Less poetically, God will give him land and kids, the two things that matter most in this patriarchal milieu. (Dwight Schrute would agree).

So Abram goes. And right away we learn a fun fact: Abram is 75 years old. Now, of course, in our highly advanced society 70 is the new 30, but before modern medicine 75 is…not young. (Especially for someone still hoping to have children). But anyway, they go and everywhere they go they worship “The lord”

Just a couple quick thoughts as we prepare for worship this weekend:

  • I keep putting “The lord” in quotation marks. “Lord” is a term that has fallen out of favor in progressive in some progressive Christian circles. (For example, Womanist biblical scholar Wil Gafney explains that “the gospels use “lord” (capital L) as a religious title for God and therefore Jesus, but it is also the title of slave masters, which is why I don’t use it in my prayers.” But in the Hebrew Bible, when the word appears in small caps (“lord”), we are dealing with something else. This is the New Revised Standard Version’s translation of YHWH, the divine name thought to be so sacred that it cannot be pronounced. For God to appear as YHWH suggests an intimacy to this relationship –Sarai and Abram relates to God on a first name basis.

 

  • The promise, as defined in Genesis 12, is a little off-putting. What God promises Sarai and Abram is, in effect, other people’s land. This has caused problems right down to the present day. (To put it mildly). As we read this text, we must be careful not to construe God’s promise as something that entitles us to what rightfully belongs to anyone else.

 

  • God’s promise sets things in motion –an unsettling thought! Before the promise, Sarai and Abram were stable, situated, rooted. After the promise, life is much less settled and much more interesting. The nomadic existence of the matriarchs and the patriarchs of Genesis offers a powerful metaphor for the life of faith. So in Theology of Hope, Moltmann approvingly quotes Victor Maag: “Nomadic religion is a religion of promise…The gods of the nations are locally bound. The…God of the nomads, however, is not bound territorially and locally. [God] journeys along with them, is…on the move.” And Moltmann goes on to develop this insight in a fascinating way: The future is not mere repetition of the past but an invitation to something genuinely new. The life of faith is a journey into something we have not yet known or seen.

 

The Journey is Our Home.

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People of the Promise

2018-09-03

Happy September and welcome back to the blog! Join me here each week for reflections on the Narrative Lectionary text. Together we will get ready to get more out of worship.

First, let me say a little about the fall. We are People of the Promise, and that will be our focus for the next several weeks. It is going to be an extraordinary season in the life of our church. We will celebrate 25 years as an Open and Affirming congregation. We will continue to live into our new commitment to Anti-Racism (including hanging the Black Lives Matter banner for 10 days in October). And the new FocUS gatherings will invite us into new conversations about who we are and why we are here. We will grow closer to one another and (I hope) more faithfully follow our call to grow in love of God and neighbor.

But what does any of this have to do with being People of the Promise?

All this fall, the Narrative Lectionary will lead us through stories about God’s promise: Noah and the rainbow, the call of Sarai and Abram,  the dreams of Joseph, the deliverance at the Red Sea. When we worship together, we will be repeatedly reminded that promise is the way God works in the world; promise is the process God prefers.

We will begin with the sign of God’s promise: the rainbow

Genesis 9:8-17

8Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9“As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

 

12God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”

 

 17God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

 

Noah and the Ark. A strange story, a familiar story, a story that concludes with the sign of the rainbow.

 

Noah’s flood comes in the opening chapters of Genesis, where the focus is on the history of the entire world and the medium for the message is mythology. The word “myth” is not meant to be pejorative. As a recovering religion major, I am using it in a neutral sense.

 

Consider Merriam Webster:


1a a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon

  • creation myths

b parableallegory

  • Moral responsibility is the motif of Plato’s myths.

2a a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone; especiallyone embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society

  • seduced by the American mythof individualism
  • —Orde Coombs
  • the utopian mythof a perfect society

b an unfounded or false notion

  • the mythof racial superiority

3a person or thing having only an imaginary or unverifiable existence

  • the Superman myth
  • The unicorn is a myth.

4the whole body of myths

  • a student of Greek myth

 

When I say that Noah’s Ark is a myth, I am using definition 1, NOT definition 2b. To say part of the Bible is “myth” is to say that it does not present itself as historical but rather as a story of timeless truth. So our friend Marcus Borg liked to say that a myth was something that never happened and is always true.

In this case, the story is so traditional that you can find it outside of the Bible. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a Mesopotamian poem that is far older than the Book of Genesis. It includes the story of Utnapishtim, a righteous man who builds a ship so that he, his family and animals can survive a worldwide flood.

So is this an instance of sacred plagiarism?

I don’t think so. The author(s) of Genesis take this ancient story and adapt it to make a profound theological point. Chapter 9 is making a statement about the character of God: God has decided to never again destroy the earth. Yes, we are sinful. Yes, we are violent. Yes, we may deserve to be punished for our sins.

But God is going out of the revenge business. The rainbow reminds us this is so. (Most biblical scholars believe that the rainbow is thought to be God’s weapon, now forever hung on heaven’s mantle. God the Warrior has officially retired).

Walter Brueggemann puts it this way: “What has changed is not anything about humankind or creation or waters or floods. What has changed is God. God has made a decision about the grief and trouble of his own heart.” (Interpretation, p.83).

From now on, God will bear with and work with us and refuse to give up on us until we get it right.

We belong to a God who promises to stick with us until we get it right. That is what it means to be People of the Promise.

See you in church!