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Straight Roads

posted Dec 10, 2018, 3:45 PM by Cameron Hubanks   [ updated Dec 10, 2018, 3:49 PM ]

Luke 3:1-6


Perhaps you’ve noticed that people think in amazingly varied ways.  Just when I think I’ve got someone figured out, they do something that blows my mind.  


Long ago I learned that one of the secrets of building deep and satisfying relationships is the capacity to be curious rather than knowing.  The “knowing” person assumes that he understands pretty well how most people think; what they want; how they’ll react.  The “curious” person assumes that people are fascinating and often unpredictable; she relates with people in ways that demonstrate eagerness to understand what they want and how they’ll think and how they’ll react.


I want to be the curious person and not the knowing person – but it’s hard, to be honest.  It is deeply ingrained into almost all humans to assume (without really thinking about it) that most people will naturally think about things pretty much as I do.


Years ago, I was serving a church and a situation arose that prompted me to ask the congregation for a significant change in our terms of employment.  There was one member of the Church Council who was convinced that this suggested change was a very bad idea.  It happened that he worked from a public location and many church members regularly passed by his desk.  As they would pass by he’d engage them in conversation about this matter.  He’d shared his deep concern and ask what they thought.  Most (apparently – obviously I only knew of these conversations from what others reported to me) nodded politely and moved on.  This church member left these many conversations pretty deeply convinced that nearly all the church shared his concern.


The matter was ultimately to be resolved by a vote at the Annual Meeting.  This member (with whom I maintained a decent relationship) came to me before the meeting and in an oddly conspiratorial tone whispered to me, “I hope you’re preparing yourself.  Your proposal will never pass.”


But when the votes were counted, the proposal passed.  Not unanimously, but neither was the vote close.  It was something like 48-4.  I happened to get a look at the Council member’s face when the vote was announced.  He was stunned.


Did this make the Council member a “bad person?”  Not at all.  He and I continued to work together and do so quite well.  But the story illustrates very well the difficulty of separating one’s own strong feelings from the assumption that everyone else must feel pretty much as I do.


The fact of the matter is, people very often DON’T see things the way I do.  The astute person recognizes that and adopts curiosity as their primary learning mode rather than certainty.  The wise person is much more into asking questions than in announcing facts.


What might any of this have to do with Advent?  Perhaps this:  Whether or not Advent is perceived as something to be eagerly desired or something to be wary about depends a lot on perspectives so personal as to be hard to predict.


Last week after worship one of our faithful members wondered whether the sermon was my version of “fire and brimstone.”  Well…. to be honest I hadn’t thought of it that way…. not at all.  But upon reflection I think that member was right, and I’m grateful for the question.  It helped me learn something about myself.


Here’s the danger about any one sermon – it’s never the entirety of the Gospel.  Any single sermon is almost always like that ancient story that most of you have heard many times – the story about a committee of blind folk who were taken to experience an elephant and then asked to describe it.  One of them – the one who felt its trunk – said that an elephant in like a hose.  Another had embraced a leg and that one said an elephant is like a column.  Yet another had leaned against the animal’s side and he was quite confident that an elephant was like a wall.  The final member had handled the elephant’s ear and she reported that it was exactly like a carpet.  If there were more members, they might have grabbed the tail and described it as a rope or felt a tusk and described it as a spear.


An elephant, of course, is like all of those things.  But an elephant is NOT entirely like any one of them.  That’s part of the danger of preaching (or many other complicated things) – no single sermon fully contains the Gospel.  In fact, any single sermon – taken out of context of years of sermons – probably distorts the Gospel.  


So, let me repeat my Advent question:  Is it good news or not such good news that God just might show up when we are least expecting her?


The answer, as you’ve all figured out, is that it depends.  In the case of the crossing of the Red Sea, the unexpected coming of God was very good news for the Hebrews, but not so much for the Egyptians.


In today’s short text we are introduced to the most famous Advent preacher of all times – John the Baptist.  John went about the countryside outside Jerusalem behaving oddly and preaching provocatively.  Most of what we hear from John’s mouth sounds like black and white certainty – though late in his life he reveals a moment of deep (and I think, endearing) uncertainty, when he sends a messenger to Jesus asking whether he was the one for whom they were waiting, or whether they needed to keep looking.


Why did this matter to John?  Because John was the remarkable leader who knew that life was not about himself.  Over and over again, John insisted that his message was about “the one to come” – it was about Messiah – it was not about John.   Here in Luke 3 we are introduced to John’s preaching with a metaphor from civil engineering.  It’s actually a quote from Isaiah.  In ancient days as well as today, mountains and valleys are lovely to behold, but they are impediments to travel.  Today, thanks to Alfred Noble and his invention of dynamite and thanks to heavy machinery builders like Caterpillar and John Deere, high ridges can be cut through and deep valleys can be filled and level roads can be built to facilitate travel through the mountain and over the valley.  Such a road can be made straight and level – as opposed to a road which would otherwise be crooked and steeply sloped – and therefore difficult to traverse.


In a nutshell, here’s the point:  Has life ever been difficult for you?  Are there days – maybe even yesterday, or (God-forbid) perhaps tomorrow or next week when a crisis will erupt in your life or in the world generally and you will need God?  On our better days, we all know that a life of fullness and meaning cannot be lived by oneself.  We need others – we need God.  The fact is, we need God every single day – though when things are “okay” it’s easy to forget that.  And the fact of the matter is this: without fail, God wants to help.  God is never reluctant to care for God’s beloved – for you and me.  God wants to come to each of us and to be exactly – not necessarily what we want – but exactly what we need.  But sometimes there are mountains and valleys that stand in the way of God getting to us, and those mountains and valleys are – as it turns out – of our own making.  To put it bluntly – God can rarely get to me, unless I let God in.  God can rarely serve me and show his love for me unless I let down my defenses and open myself to God’s care and grace and love.  


That, perhaps, is what Advent is about.  Advent is about tearing down mountains and filling valleys so that God can come to me and provide care and grace and power and whatever else I need to live life to the fullest.  These mountains and valleys take many different forms – they may be pride, they may be busyness and work, they may be unfortunate histories, they may be wealth, or grief or pleasure or numbness.  Almost any human experience can be a barrier to the coming of God.  God wants to come to every human – but God mostly gets to those who tear down mountains and fill in valleys – whatever those barriers might be.  


Perhaps this season of Advent is a time when God is inviting each of us to take stock of our lives and figure out what might be blocking us from a deeper experience of God.  And then, whatever it might be, we must ask for God’s help in dynamiting the barrier and ask for God’s help in taking the dynamited debris and use it to fill in valleys.  


It’s never exactly easy to do this, but let me assure you, neither is it impossible.  For with God, nothing is impossible!


I started by suggesting that it’s dangerous to assume we know how others are thinking – none of us can know for certain whether our friend longs for God or dreads the thought that God might come.  Perhaps we can start by longing for the good God of life to get into our own lives and to change us.  Perhaps that’s the necessary starting point.  And when that happens – who knows? – God may use us to get to others!  It spreads, you see!


Come Lord Jesus.  Come!  Amen.


Between a Rock and a Hard Place!

posted Dec 3, 2018, 2:26 PM by Cameron Hubanks

2 December 2018  --  Exodus 14:5-29


“Get out of jail free” is a tempting offer.  As a pithy enticement it has its origins in the game of Monopoly.  Among the various Chance cards one might draw is the valuable “Get out of Jail Free” card.  


Wouldn’t it be nice if those facing a human predicament could just flash a “Get out of Jail Free” card and be on their merry way?


In a day when complicated truths are depreciated in favor of simplistic sentiments that can be tweeted in no more than 280 characters, the notion that some reality might be impossible to so simplify is viewed by some with dismissive disdain.  In the face of an explanation requiring patient thought, there are many today who roll their eyes, and turn away.  If it can’t be simplified, it must not be true.


In the face of this dumbing-down impulse there stands the one and only God whose love and patience and grace may be free, but is assuredly not simple.  


As we’ve been working our way through the “Big Stories of the Bible” we’ve encountered some pretty unpleasant stuff.  Adam and Eve defy God by eating from the one tree explicitly forbidden to them.  Cain kills Abel in a fit of jealous rage.  Noah watches from the vantage point of a floating barn as the rest of humankind goes to a watery grave.  Isaac’s sons conspire together to rid themselves of their bothersome little brother Joseph by selling him in to slavery.  (At least they didn’t acquiesce to the suggestion that he be killed!)  There is a high point when Joseph graciously saves those same brothers by interceding on their behalf with his boss the Pharaoh – but generations later all their descendants live in slavery under a different Pharaoh who has no memory of Joseph and the way his foresight and managerial skills saved all of Egypt.  


In the face of all this tragedy, one could be forgiven at wondering whether maintaining faith in a good and powerful God is a sensible proposition.  At least we are excused for wondering what in the world God might be up to.


Does it make any sense to commit oneself to a God who doesn’t snap her fingers and make everything good and easy and pleasant?  Why doesn’t God print up a large pile of “Get out of Jail Free” cards and dispense them freely to cancer patients and people in degraded marriages and to parents with ungrateful children and to children with abusive parents?  Why doesn’t God solve global climate change and why does God permit strong nations to advance their own welfare over those which are weak?  Why, why, why?  


I’ll tip my hand right off the start:  I don’t really know.  Lest you imagine that I raise these imponderables because I have a brilliant solution ready to announce at the conclusion of a fifteen-minute sermon – I need to acknowledge that I have no such magic card up my sleeve.  These questions are hard – they are unspeakably hard.  Countless humans of good will and of imaginative intellect have struggled with these questions for thousands of years.  Not yet has a twitter-worthy answer been found.  Not surprisingly, there are many women and men who have jettisoned their faith in anger and perplexity at this state-of-affairs.  


But in the face of these realities, there are stories of faith and salvation.  Some of them are Biblical stories.  Others are everyday stories of grace and kindness and love and patience.  Among these stories are those of the famous, but there are also those of the “un-famous.”  These stories confront us with people who refused to deny the problem of evil, and yet remain committed to the age-old suggestion that there exists a good and powerful God.  


It is precisely that God that we meet again in today’s story.  From the perspective of the underdog, today’s story is happier than some of those other stories, but it is not necessarily any more comforting for you and me.


A refresher:  After Moses encountered God in the bush that burnt but was not consumed, Moses gulped and did the assuredly absurd thing that “I AM WHO I AM” asked him to undertake.  He went back to the land of his upbringing – to Egypt.  He went back to his adopted family – the household of Pharaoh – to the place where he was nothing more than a wanted fugitive – a murderer.  And he went back to the people of his birth – the Hebrew people – people who viewed him with jaundiced eyes and suspected he had sold out to those who enslaved and misused them.  


Not only did he do the absurd thing of going back but he returned carrying an absurd message.  To Pharaoh the message was, “Let my people go.”  To the Hebrews it was, “Follow me.”  How likely was it that either would really listen to him?  Not very!


But he did it.  Without belaboring the story, Pharaoh eventually (with an expletive, I’ll bet!), told the people they could go.  And the people – many of them, I’d guess, against their better judgement – followed Moses toward a destination that seemed absurdly distant and impossibly unattainable.  But like people of all ages who live in misery and discontent – they allowed themselves a moment of hope and set out on a trek that was about as improbable as any trek could possibly be.


Almost immediately the entire project went (figuratively!) south.  No sooner had the people mobilized themselves and set out, when Pharaoh and his court came to their senses and changed their collective mind.  Letting the slaves go, they realized, was economic suicide.  They couldn’t do this.  Consequently, elements of the army were mobilized – the best charioteers where scrambled and a chase commenced.  Talk about a one-sided scenario!  This was a bit like the horrendous show-down in Tiananmen Square in Beijing almost 30 years ago.  Tanks against the unarmed.   We remember the image of the single man who stood resolutely against an ongoing tank.  What we don’t remember so clearly is the powerful evidence that many died on that horrendous day.  


And it looked like it would be precisely the same for the Hebrews.  Unarmed slaves against highly trained charioteers looks like the making of a massacre.  


And it was a massacre – but not of the Hebrews.  As the slaves looked ahead and saw a body of water they could not cross and looked behind and saw the military machine of their oppressors, they knew they were finished.  With anguished cry they called out to Moses – accusing him of enticing them into certain death.  And I’m pretty sure it was with a large dose of his own uncertainty and fear and anger that Moses called out to God – to I AM WHO I AM – the one who had invited him into this classic mess of being between a rock and hard place.  


We all know what happens next – God tells Moses to hold out his staff and the water divides and the people cross on dry land.  And not only that, but when Pharaoh and the murderous charioteers follow, the waters reclose, and they are destroyed.  


For a day, at least, the people celebrated.  There was dancing and singing and celebration – celebration that only those who face certain death and come through unscathed can really know. 


Today is the first Sunday of Advent.  Advent is hard for people.  We tend to think of it as a four-week warm-up for Christmas.  Clearly Advent and Christmas are related, but the relationship is complicated.  What Advent is saying is actually well illustrated in the story we’ve just rehearsed.  What Advent seeks to remind us is that God is coming and depending on whether you are an Egyptian or a Hebrew, having God show up can mean two very different things.  


For those in need, God showing up is the best of all possibilities.  God hears the cries of the downtrodden and sooner or later God acts to bring justice.  But the downtrodden are often beat down by somebody else and the arrival of God is probably not good for those currently on top.  One of challenges of preaching a story like this in the context of 21st Century America is figuring out who are the Hebrews and who are the Egyptians.  


Which takes me back to the matters I mentioned in starting this sermon.  It’s easy for almost all people to imagine that God ought to take my side and make things go well for me.  I suspect that’s what the Egyptians thought – that they were good people and surely God (or the gods) would bless them.  As it turns out, God saw things differently.


I’m not God.  I don’t know for certain how God sees me, or you, or this nation, or any other nation.  What I do know is that God is passionately in favor of kindness and justice and mercy and love.  What I know for certain is that Advent reminds us that God comes – often when God is least expected – and that God looks to find justice and grace – God looks to find those who are lost – God looks to find those in need – and then God acts.  


In a different part of Scripture we are reminded that God’s ways are not human ways – that God’s hands are not tied by human conceptions (or misconceptions) of what God ought to do, or ought not do.  


Advent, I think, should be a time for humbly admitting that we understand God far less than what we sometimes think.  Advent should be, I think, a time for opening our eyes and our hearts to however God may choose to come.  


If we do, I think we will meet God.  God might come exactly as we’d hope – but it’s equally possible God might blow our minds by doing something utterly unexpected.  Sometimes we sing, “Where He leads me, I will follow.”  Let’s gulp and mean it.


Welcome to Advent.  Come, Lord Jesus.  We’re not sure how you’ll come, but we’re doing our best to be open and ready.


Come, Lord Jesus.   Amen.

The Economics of Church

posted Nov 27, 2018, 3:44 PM by Cameron Hubanks


When you ask non-churchgoers why they don’t go to church there will always be one response high on the list of reasons – “They’re always asking for money.”


Have you ever noticed how troubling are the words “always” and “never?”  Have you ever heard a loved one begin a complaint, “You never….” or “You always….”?  Have you ever begun a complaint by saying, “You never….” or “You always….”?  Sadly, most of us have.


There’s an obvious problem with “always” and “never” – hardly anything is “always” or “never” true.  When we begin a complaint with one of those words, our conversation partner can almost always (smiley face!) imagine a time when she or he didn’t…. or did!!  Instead of initiating a helpful conversation, the charge of always or never mostly conjures up an objection.  “Why just a month ago, I remembered to put my dirty dishes in the dishwasher!”


Good, honest, interesting conversations rarely use the words “always” and “never.”  Almost and never aren’t good conversation starters…. They are mostly conversation enders.


Here’s a fact that’s “almost always” true:  Most churches aren’t “always” asking for money.  In fact, I’d suggest that most churches don’t talk about money enough.  After all, we live in a culture that is saturated in messages about wealth.  Some of it is straightforward (like advertisements for investment firms) and some of it is oblique (like the famous person who wears clothing you or I could never afford.  The kind of car you drive, the house you live in, the nature of your job – all of these things convey messages on multiple levels – and one of those levels is always about money and wealth.  


It doesn’t matter if we wish it weren’t this way – try as we might, there is a money element to almost everything we do.


And if church is the one place where we do our level best to avoid money talk – we send an inadvertent message that I think is very dangerous.  When in church we fail to talk about money, we leave the impression that God is not interested in money.  And nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, God is very interested in money – or to put it more precisely, God is very interested in how each one of us uses our money.  


Of course, it is true that God doesn’t “need” my money.  God is spirit and exists in a realm apart from material need.  In a genuinely true sense, God already owns everything that exists – from the Milky Way to the coins in my grandson’s piggy bank – God already owns it all.  


That being so, what causes God to be interested in money?  If God is beyond envy, what motivates God to care?  


I think there are at least two reasons why God cares:


  • God cares because God is worried that we’ll love the things God has made more than the God who made them.  God isn’t worried about this because God is petty and insecure – God worries about this because having made us and loved us, God knows what is best for us.  God wants you to be joyful and fulfilled and God knows that too narrow a focus on money will not bring you joy – it will mainly bring you fret and anxiety and lust and depression.  God wants you to be free from fret and anxiety and lust and depression.  What God wants for you is joy, and God seems to know that less preoccupation with money serves to raise the odds that we’ll experience joy.
  • There is a second reason why God cares about how we think about and how we use money:  God aches for those who hurt.  God aches for those who are poor and who live in danger of violence and who are ill and who don’t know opportunity and privilege in the ways that most of us do.  Sharing with these folk for whom God especially cares is one way to get better lined us with the mind of Christ.  Though it may not seem intuitive, It seems that sharing is another way to find joy!


The text we heard this morning might be just a bit perplexing.  It’s actually a part – a relatively small part – of a much larger conversation between the Apostle Paul and the believers in Corinth.  In a nutshell, that larger conversation goes like this:  In a prior letter Paul had laid out a crisis that the followers of Jesus who lived in Jerusalem were facing – a life-threatening crisis of famine and persecution.  He asked if the Corinthians would share from their abundance for the welfare of folk they’d never met and would never meet – and they said they would.  But time went by, and they didn’t.  Paul had made this same request of others – and some of those were less wealthy than the Corinthians and those others had already come through with generous offerings.  But there was nothing from Corinth.  Finally (in frustration, I think) Paul has it out with these folk – folk who owed their very faith to the sacrifices he had made on their behalf.  


It matters to know that the church in Corinth was blessed in many ways.  The members possessed a variety of talents and spiritual gifts.  They were – many of them – materially wealthy.  But it’s also clear that they were a contentious group.  They fought among themselves and divided themselves into factions and sects.  In many ways it seems they were smug and self-satisfied.  But it’s not clear that this was a church marked by joy.  


Earlier I made the assertion that God cares a lot about how you and I use money.  I draw the conclusion mostly from the frequency with which Jesus and the prophets talk about wealth and wealth-related questions.  But even though money and its use gets talked about a lot in the Gospels, there isn’t a highly developed, coherent theology of money to be found in the Bible.  We are, it seems, asked to study these questions diligently and draw conclusions together about how to use money in faithful ways.  


That being so, you can expect that I will talk about money regularly – not all the time – but more than just rarely.  And even though there isn’t a ready-made Biblical theology of money, there are strong hints here and there that point us toward joy.  Here’s one of them – it’s from Jesus and his so-called Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel – “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”


During the 2000 presidential campaign, Al Gore tried to quote this during one of the debates.  He didn’t quite get it right – saying, “Where your heart is, there your treasure will be also.”  That might be true (I think it probably is), but that’s not what Jesus was saying.  Jesus was saying, whatever you choose to make your economic priority – that’s what you’ll come to love.    If you make your house your priority – that’s what you’ll love.  If you make low taxes your priority – that’s what you’ll love.  If you make your family your priority – that’s what you’ll love (which is a tricky one – but we won’t unpack it today).  And…. if you make God your priority…. that’s what…. that’s who you’ll come to love.  And in loving God with passion and conviction and steadfastness…. comes joy.  


In a few minutes we’ll make a short time of silence to give you opportunity to mark down your intention for financial support of Zwingli Church during 2019.  Since God rarely (if ever) shows up on our doorsteps to ask for support, giving to one’s church becomes a proxy for giving to God.  It’s not exactly the same thing, but it’s close.  


(An aside – a better proxy, perhaps, per the text we heard from Matthew 25 last week, in the context of Native American Sunday is this: when we give to the poor, we give to Christ the King!)


My appeal to you today is not mostly that Zwingli Church needs your money so badly – my appeal is that we all need to give.  We need to give enough so that it’s noticeable.  When I calculate my yearly budget, the amount that Ruby and I designate for “charity” is one of the bigger categories.  It’s the not the biggest, but it’s close.  And over our 27 years of marriage, the money we’ve given away adds up to a stunningly large number.  


And even though I can’t prove it, I think that giving has mostly resulted in joy, and gratefulness, and greater dependence on God.  


I don’t believe in the so-called “health and wealth” Gospel.  I don’t believe you will make more money just because you give to God, and I don’t believe you will necessarily be healthier because you give to God.  Here’s what I believe – that giving generously to God has turned my heart more toward God and more toward that which God loves than what it otherwise would have been.  I think that’s been good for me, and so I share that with you with the strong suspicion that it might also do the same for you.  


Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  


Amen.


Excuses

posted Nov 12, 2018, 8:55 AM by Cameron Hubanks   [ updated Nov 12, 2018, 8:57 AM ]

11 November 2018   Exodus 3:1-15

EXCUSES

So…. it’s not an everyday thing to be spoken to from a burning bush, right?  

And given the circumstances, Moses might be forgiven for a bit of hesitancy at what the voice asked of him.  

Two weeks ago we considered the bravery of Shiphrah and Puah – the two midwives who slyly wriggled away from Pharaoh’s demand that they engage in the horror of infanticide and kill baby Hebrew boys at the occasion of their birth.  

Pharaoh’s hideous demand partly serves to highlight the bravery of these two women and partly it serves to set the context for the birth of Moses. 

As it turns out, Moses was born in perilous times.  Moses was born in a time when a powerful man thought he’d make himself more secure by attacking folk with nothing – folk who possessed nothing that might threaten the Pharaoh – nothing, perhaps, except a driving will to live and to make something better for themselves and for their children.  

It is in that context that a woman of the tribe of Levi (we aren’t even told her name) gives birth to a beautiful baby boy.  She knows the animus of the powerful Pharaoh, but she is a mother and she loves her child and she is driven protect him whether it was legal or not.  

For three months she hid him, hoping against hope that somehow the obscenity of the peril that she and her child faced would somehow pass.  But of course, it didn’t.  And as the days passed and as it became harder and harder to conceal the child, her desperation (and, it seems, her creativity) grew.  We are told she devised a plan.  She obtained a papyrus basket and plastered it with tar.  She made a mini-ark – a vessel of salvation!

The mother of the infant was observant, and she was bright.  She knew that a young and wealthy Egyptian woman regularly walked along the backwaters of the river near their home.  And so she set the child afloat and instructed her daughter to hide nearby.  Sure enough, the wealthy young woman came by and saw the tiny vessel among the reeds and heard crying and had her servant retrieve this odd object.  The woman – a daughter of Pharaoh, as it turns out – took pity on the child.  And as the baby’s mother and her daughter had undoubtedly planned, the young girl stepped forward at that moment and offered to locate a nursemaid to care for the child.  And so the baby’s mother was hired to care for her own child. 

Eventually Moses went to live with his adoptive mother.  He became a man of privilege – pampered and educated just as a son of Pharaoh would undoubtedly been raised.

The baby’s name, of course, was Moses – which sounds like the word to pull out of water.  

One day the young man Moses went out to the labor camps and got a first-hand taste of the life which by accident (or the grace of God) he had been spared.  And while watching the abusive technique of the Egyptian slave master, his blood boiled, and he struck the Egyptian and killed him.  

Moses had thought his impulsive act had gone unseen, but that was not the case.  There were Hebrew slaves who had seen what had happened and the next day he was confronted by a couple of his kinfolk.  These Hebrew slaves undoubtedly saw Moses not as kin, but as oppressor, and Moses panicked and ran for his life.  He realized now that his murderous action made him a pariah to all.  His own people did not embrace him and surely when Pharaoh learned what happened, he would exact his own brand of harsh justice. 

Eventually Moses settled in the semi-wilderness of Midian, far from Egypt.  There he found both work and a wife – and in the same household – the household of a priest named Jethro.  

This is the backstory to this morning’s text.  You see, the voice from the bush that burned but was not consumed was responding to the groans of the Hebrew people back in Egypt.  This is, Scripture teaches us, what God always does.  The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob – and Jesus and Paul for that matter – though they are still far in the future – is a God who aches for the poor and abused – for those who are in peril.  It was true then and it is true today.  And though God’s ways may sometimes seem to be slow and even ineffective – God invariably acts on behalf of the poor and dispossessed – a fact the wealthy and privileged ignore to their own peril.

And so God reveals Godself to Moses and commissions him to be the agent of the salvation for the Hebrew slaves.

There is no small element of irony in this, of course.  Does God fail to grasp that Moses is no hero to either the slaves or the Pharaoh?  Of course God gets this.  In some strange way, I think God choose Moses PRECISELY because he was so obviously ill-suited to the job.  Or maybe not – maybe Moses’ history – his understanding of privilege and power and influence – made him precisely the person God would need to set the Hebrews free.  

This text is full, of course, of meaning for us, the reader.  If we had time we could consider the meaning of holy ground and the symbolism of God instructing Moses to remove his sandals.  We could easily spend a sermon or two on God’s name as revealed here – I AM WHO I AM.  And then there are the fascinating details – why does the bush burn but never be consumed?  

But I think we do best to nod knowingly at Moses’ reluctance to embrace God’s commission.  C’mon God, if Moses does agree to return to Egypt, isn’t he likely to meet a violent end?  I think we are expected to realize that answering God’s call here is dangerous and more than slightly absurd.  

Had we more time we’d delve more deeply into this, but here’s the upshot – after offering several excuses why God was barking up the wrong tree (or out of the wrong bush), Moses did as God instructed and eventually God used Moses to set the Hebrews free.

I can only speculate on the fears that Moses needed to confront as he prepared to take on the responsibility to which God had assigned him.  It is true that Moses had lost his native people and his native land – he had fled Egypt under duress in order to save his own skin.  But Moses had landed on his feet – so the speak.  He married well and had a steady job for a man of influence and respect.  And then comes God the one and only – God the living God – and turns Moses’ newly settled life on its head.

It may be tempting to read a story like this as extraordinary.  It may be that the magnitude of the task laid at Moses’ feet was remarkable – but I am convinced that it is nothing but ordinary to expect that then and now God calls the baptized – everyone of us – to accept challenges that we fear and that we know we are unequal to.  This is precisely the way God works.  Over and over again we encounter this same story – God asks folk to do things just a bit too difficult to reasonably accomplish.  It is a Biblical pattern, and it is pattern among people today.  

God hears the groans of the poor and the sick and the despised just as clearly today as God did in ancient Egypt.  But instead of resurrecting Moses to carry the message of liberation, God is turning to you and to me and challenging us to embrace a challenge that is, by rights, just a bit too big for us.

Will we respond?  Can we gulp (as I’m sure Moses did!) and after offering our excuses, stand up straight and respond – as Moses eventually did – “God, if you think I can do this – if you think we can do this – then with your help, we’ll do it.”

It’s scary and it’s dangerous.  It’s also exhilarating and liberating.  By God’s grace and with God’s help let us be people who carry the liberating message of the Gospel to those who need to be freed and to those who need to do the freeing.  

God help us.  Amen.

The Joy of Letting Go

posted Nov 6, 2018, 5:13 PM by Cameron Hubanks   [ updated Nov 12, 2018, 9:13 AM ]


“There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death.”

Proverbs 14:12



On Wednesday afternoon the confirmation class and I were engaged in a survey of 2000 years of church history at the speed of an Indy-race-car.  I’m not sure they were getting much out of it, but in the back of my mind I was relating it to today’s sermon.


Just as a fish has no conception of life outside the water, so humans have only a very limited capacity to really grasp what life is like for those with experiences dramatically different from that of our own.  And it is especially difficult for us to grasp what life might have been like for people who lived long ago under circumstances far different from our own.  


Our survey of church history came to a breaking-point at an easy-to-remember moment for all of us – Ulrich Zwingli!  Most people have likely never heard of Ulrich Zwingli, but for members of this congregation, at least, his name rolls almost thoughtlessly off our tongues.  I’m told some of you are even descended from Zwingli!  


But how many of us really have any conception of the church in Zwingli’s time?  Remember, Zwingli was exercising his church leadership 500 years ago.  500 years is a very long time – it’s at least 20-25 generations ago!  


You and I, by the accidents of birth, live in a time when Western culture and society carry what seems a distinctly Christian flavor.  And that’s at least partly true.  Our culture and society have indeed been shaped – for good and for ill – by approximately 500 years of Protestant influence.  It’s no accident, of course, that the number 500 years is the same number of years that have passed since Zwingli led the church (and the government, we should hasten to add) in Zurich, Switzerland (and before that, in Glarus, which partly accounts for his widespread fame among Swiss immigrants in our immediate area).  


It's debated whether or not Zwingli really ran the government in Zurich, but it’s clear that he at least exercised out-sized influence over both religious and political affairs in his time.


Was that good?


That question probably has no clear-cut, yes-or-no answer, but it does demand thought.  You see, the church long before Zwingli already had experience with possessing and wielding political dominance.  For the first 300 years of its existence, the church was either ignored, or else actively persecuted by the political authorities of the day – the Roman Empire.  It had not a bit of official influence.  And nonetheless, during those 300 years of being either ignored or persecuted, the church grew at a mind-numbing rate.  We need to understand that when Constantine decided to become a Christian in 312 CE, it’s not likely that he did so because he’d had a vision of the truth of the Christian Faith – it’s far more likely that he did so because by then so many people in the Empire had become followers of Jesus that he knew he needed to get lined up with the people, because fighting the faith was a losing proposition. 


To put it bluntly, for nearly 300 years the Empire tried to extinguish Christian Faith.  By the time of Constantine, it had become crystal clear that persecution of the church as a means by which to destroy it had failed.  


What does any of this have to do with our text?  Just this:  The very things that made Christianity so amazingly attractive when it was dangerous to be a Christian began to be tamed and domesticated once Christianity was no longer an illegal faith and instead became the official religion of the government.  


I think one of our challenges as followers of Jesus in the 21st Century is to acknowledge that much of faith in our day has been tamed and domesticated.  The audacious teachings of Jesus have been watered down and/or ignored.  We think that the dominant values of society and culture are Christian, when it is far more likely that human values have seeped into the church and made us indistinguishable from what it means to be “good citizens” of the nation.


Almost 30 years ago, two at-the-time unknown American church leaders wrote a provocative little book – “Resident Aliens.”  Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon suggested that a devious thing had happened to the church in the United States.  That instead of making society look like the values of Jesus, the values of culture and society had leaked into the church and the church mostly looked like America rather than vice versa.  


If there is any Biblical text that demonstrates how tamed and domesticated the church has become, it is one like this one from Luke 6.  


Blessed are you who are poor.  Blessed are you who are hungry.  Blessed are you who weep.  Blessed are you when folk hate you and exclude you and defame you.  Love your enemies.  Do good to those who hate you.  If someone abuses you, turn to them the other cheek.  If someone is begging from you, give them even more than what they are asking for.  Lend generously to others and if they are unable to repay, chalk it up to God’s account.  Do not judge and do not condemn, because the standards by which you judge others will be the standards by which you will someday be judged.


The text ends with the simple point I want us to all go home wondering about:  Give just as generously as you can figure out how to do.  The image clearly presupposes that Jesus’ hearers already know that they are supposed to give.  But that when they do, they are calculating how to make their gift look bigger than it really is.  Jesus’ teaching presupposes a primitive agricultural culture.  It assumes that all his hearers know that you can measure grain generously or with a “thumb on the scale” (so to speak).  Maybe the best we can is imagine what every cook knows about measuring brown sugar.  If you want your cookies to turn out, then a cup of brown sugar means a packed cup of brown sugar.  Your cookies won’t be quite right if you stir up the contents of the canister and then fill the cup (apparently all the way) with that loosely packed sugar.  No, you need to press it down with the heal of your hand to be sure the cup is heavy and dense with the brown deliciousness of that molasses-infused material.  


That’s how God wants us to give.  Generously and with abandon.  And not grudgingly, but with joy.


But why?  What does it matter that we give?  Just this:  if we give more than what we think we can really afford, we will be pushed to wonder whether it really does all belong to God and whether God will really take care of us if we risk generously caring for others.  


When I was about middle-school-aged (we didn’t call it middle school in those days, of course), I got my first job for pay – cutting the grass of some of our elderly neighbors.  For most of those lawn-cutting jobs, I was paid the princely sum of $4.  It really did seem a lot of money to me!  I remember so clearly getting paid after the first job was completed holding those four one dollar bills in my hand and hearing my Mom remind me, “Remember, 10% of that belongs to God.”  


Now in fact, it all belongs to God, but that’s a different (if important) point.  I was (mostly) a compliant child, and so dutifully I added together my weekly earning earnings and calculated 10% and put that amount in the church offering plate.  And more or less I’ve done so ever since.  I realize you don’t see me put a check in the offering plate, but you should know that my bank and the US Postal Service are good enough to cooperate so that a contribution to the church shows up in the church Post Office box once a month.  Ruby and I have other significant giving commitments, but all told, we continue to give away about 10% of our income.  


Is 10% some sort of magic amount?  It is not.  I want to be very clear about that.  This is not about some kind of rule or law.  But when I say that, I also want to be clear that the image of giving in a way that exemplifies packed down brown sugar is important.  I think every Christian – whether more wealthy or less wealthy, needs to regularly and systematically give away enough of our income so that we notice the impact that giving has on our budget.  If what we give has no more impact on our personal finances than our coffee spending does, than it’s probably not nearly enough.  


We do so not to earn God’s favor.  That idea is obscene.  We give because God is a giver and out of love and gratefulness we want to be a bit like God.  We give because humans – you and me – are all too likely to imagine that we run the show – and when we give away just a bit more than what we think we can reasonably afford, we are pushed to wonder whether we really do trust God to take care of us.  


Give and it will be given to you.  I think this means, give and you will be taken care of.  By God.  Period.


Amen!

Profiles in Courage

posted Oct 30, 2018, 5:18 AM by Cameron Hubanks   [ updated Oct 30, 2018, 5:19 AM ]

Profiles in Courage


Those of you having attained a “certain age” (that is, at least as old as me!), know that the sermon title this morning – Profiles in Courage – is not at all original.  In 1957, then U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy released a book of 8 senatorial profiles – 18th and 19th century political leaders who had the courage to go against popular opinion in the country and prevailing sentiment in their own parties – to take political stands which they believed to be morally essential.  In each case, this stand had a cost – usually loss of election.


Our text this morning presents us with a far more ancient example of political and social courage – the determination to do right even at great personal risk.  It is unfortunate that the names of Shiphrah and Puah are probably unknown to even one percent of Christian church-goers, for these two women exemplify the sort of moral integrity and determined toughness to stand in the face of pressure to conform and instead live according to their deepest values.


Come with me into a rehearsal of this story.


In our year-long series of the “big stories of the Bible” we’ve come to the place where the descendants of Abraham – the one to whom God had promised posterity and blessing – have achieved one of those promises (they have multiplied greatly – there are many of them), but certainly not the other (instead of experiencing blessing and being a blessing – they are slaves).  


A quick review:  Abraham and Sarah eventually became parents to Isaac.  It was an untimely birth in all imaginable aspects – Sarah had deemed the promise of a child in her old age to be so absurd as to have laughed when God repeated the promise to her husband, Abraham.  And to Sarah’s profound credit and gracious humility, when the child was born – when she was 90 years old! – she named him laughter!  A name, I think, of delightful consequence.  For certainly she and Abraham laughed with delight at this child’s birth, but it is plain that with this name she was poking a bit of fun at herself.  It is easy to imagine that every time she stepped out of their tent to call the boy in for a nap, or for a meal, and called “Isaac” (which sounds like the word for “laughter”) she would be reminded of her own laughter at God’s promise and probably wince a bit and say to herself, “By God’s grace I will be more faithful – I will be more trusting.”  I think there is a reminder here to each of us to be more humble in recalling our own failures to truly trust God – rather than our smarts, or our wealth, or our heritage.


In any case, Isaac grew and eventually he and his wife Rebekah had twins – the famous siblings Esau and Jacob.  Jacob, it is clear, was a scheming scoundrel, but God loved him in spite of his failings, and eventually he (by his 2 wives, Leah and Rachel, as well as the two servants of his wives) – gave birth to twelve sons (and, we should add, at least one daughter – an apparently ravishingly beautiful girl named Dinah, whose story is tragic, but we haven’t time for that today).  I’ll leave it to you to speculate on the family rivalries, jealousies, and intrigue that result when one man has children by two wives AND additional children by the servants of those two wives.  In any case, eventually the majority of those 12 sons sold their second youngest sibling into slavery.  Joseph – the one sold into slavery – was perhaps insufferable, but he was also smart and resourceful and at least eventually learned to depend on God.  Again, to make another long story short, Joseph ended up in Egypt where his intelligence and skill at interpreting dreams caused him to become a top aide to the Pharaoh.  In that position, he eventually became the savior of his family – of those very brothers who sold him into slavery.  One of the most famous lines of Genesis is uttered by Joseph when his brothers learn that the one they treated so horrifically bad is the one who has saved him.  They expect retribution and instead Joseph says, “You meant it for evil, but God used it for good.”


So, in the midst of a terrible famine, Joseph (and the Pharaoh he served) welcomed his father and brothers and their wives and children and servants to Egypt and to salvation from starvation.  And all of them – 70 souls in total – were welcomed as honored guests.


But things change over time.  Eventually Joseph died and so did the Pharaoh for whom he had worked.  And as generations passed the leadership of Egypt passed to a Pharaoh who had no memory of Joseph.  All he knew was this horde of despicable shepherds who lived on the wrong side of the tracks (out in Goshen).  These Hebrews bred like rabbits and while the Egyptians were delighted to take advantage of them and use them as forced labor for their public-works projects and over time eventually abuse them and dominate them so that eventually they were nothing more than slaves.  


But even though they were enslaved, still they had more and more and more children.  Pharaoh – being a shrewd man – worried that this horde could become unmanageable.  He worried that some foreign enemy might conspire with the Hebrews and there would be an uprising with devastating consequences for political and social stability in his realm.  So, a plan was devised – kill all the male children.  This act of savagery would demoralize the people and it over time reduce the potential for armed rebellion and there would still be young women to work as slaves.  


It’s an obviously cruel plan – a genocidal plan, to be honest.  But Pharaoh was undoubtedly a ruthless man with little concern for niceties like morality, respect and justice.  And of course, like all despots, Pharaoh would need the cooperation of “smaller people” to implement this plan.  This is, of course, the way it always is with ruthless and murderous leaders.  They rarely dirty their own hands with their immoral plans, they call on those who adore them to blindly follow orders and do the necessary evil.  In Pharaoh’s case, he decided to implement his plan through the midwives who attended to Hebrew women in the final days of their pregnancies – through Shiphrah and Puah.  


But Pharaoh didn’t count on one important thing – that there might be folk in his realm who answered to a higher authority than to the leader of the country.   It turns out that Shiphrah and Puah were not willing to disobey God in order to obey the Pharaoh.  When called to account, they invented a laughable little story – the Hebrew women aren’t wimps like your women, Pharaoh.  By time we get to the pregnant women, they are already nursing their little ones – boys or girls.  


Here in the first chapter of the second book of the Bible we encounter one of the most repeated themes of the Bible – that God loves and looks out for the powerless and that those with power are called to care for and protect those who will otherwise be used and abused.  


A few months from now we’ll encounter a story from the beginning of Jesus’ own ministry where he announces that the core of his ministry of salvation is the offer of relief to those who are sick, who are blind, who are imprisoned, who are lame, who are poor.  It is probably the central statement of what Jesus is all about – about offering life to those who suffer – those who suffer at the hand of disease and disaster AND those who suffer at the hand of the powerful.  


There is a foolishness that circulates among church people in our country – a foolishness which suggests that there are things the church ought keep silent about – things like money and social issues and politics.  I understand how controversial these things are, but the idea that the church should shy away from them in essence neuters God and relegates God to the sidelines of that which we know are really the important questions of life – questions of wealth and power – questions of social justice and moral values. 


When we began this series on the “Big Stories of the Bible” we began with creation.  Which begs an uncomfortable question:  How much of the universe did God actually create?  Did God only create the parts of the universe that are nice and not very controversial?  Does God have opinions about money and power and the ways people use and abuse other people?  It’s pretty clear that God created every single aspect of the universe – every single aspect of human endeavor – and that when the church closes its eyes to certain aspects of common life, we betray our unwillingness to follow God into the really important questions of life.  It is clear that God has strong feelings about the use of wealth and about social justice and how the powerful either empower the weak, or else keep them powerless and unhealthy and enslaved.  If God has strong feelings about these matters, then so must the church and so must we.


Shiphrah and Puah are first in a long line of Biblical characters who challenge us to consider our own response to the orders of those in power over us.  Do we answer first of all to them, or to God?  When justice and fair-play and kindness and respect are diminished, are we willing to say, “In the name of God, we disagree – we dissent.”  At personal risk, Shiphrah and Puah did precisely that – they said to Pharaoh, “We cannot, and we will not obey you.”  


Centuries later the Old Testament prophets hammered the people of Israel for their fawning over and trust in wealth and power rather than in the gracious God of oddly-construed power and of love and of seeming weakness.  Centuries after the prophets, the apostle Peter stood before the religious and political authorities of his day and in the face of their demand that Peter and his colleagues be silent, Peter said, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”


For generation after generation over the centuries this same question has remained:  Will we – like Shiphrah and Puah – be radical in following and obeying God – even at personal risk?  By God’s grace, that is exactly what we will do.  


God help us.  Amen.

Covenant

posted Oct 7, 2018, 10:59 AM by Cameron Hubanks   [ updated Oct 30, 2018, 5:19 AM ]

Excerpts – Genesis 6-9

 

Covenant

 

“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion." "Ooh" said Susan. "I'd thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion"..."Safe?" said Mr. Beaver ..."Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.”

What I’ve just read you is a quote from a very famous work of literature for adolescents – it’s an excerpt from the first book of the seven-volume work by C. S. Lewis – The Chronicles of Narnia. If you’ve never read these books, don’t let the fact they were written for young people put you off – they are as much for those of us who are older as they are for those who are younger!

 

In “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” – the first of the seven books in the Narnian cycle – a trio of siblings are inexplicably transported into Narnia through a wardrobe in the home of a professor who was a friend of their family.  Many things are strange in Narnia – including the residents (mostly talking animals), and the weather.  When the children first visit Narnia one of the occupants sadly informs the children that in Narnia, “it is always winter, but never Christmas.”  A sad state of affairs, wouldn’t you say?

 

Without going into great detail, suffice it to say that the God-figure in Narnia – the representation of Christ, to be more precise – is a lion named Aslan.  It is this lion – Aslan – that is good – but not necessarily safe.

 

C. S. Lewis didn’t spell out the precise Biblical stories which caused him to characterize God as a untamed lion, but it isn’t hard for me to imagine that the story of Noah might be one of them.  

 

In Sunday School you and I likely learned this story.  But perhaps we didn’t learn it quite right.  For example, I learned that while Noah was building the ark, he had to endure the merciless ridicule of his neighbors.  Would it surprise you to know that not a word is to be found in the Biblical texts of any of Noah’s neighbors and what they might have thought about the boat he was building? 

 

What the text DOES say, and which was less emphasized in my Sunday School, was God’s reason for directing Noah to build this massive barge/barn (for that’s what it was – a floating barn).  The text is clear:  Humankind had become relentlessly evil and God rued the day of human creation.  The language of the text strikes my ears as odd – what it literally says is that God repented of creating humankind.  We typically associate repentance with remorse for sin – but to repent literally (and merely) means to “change one’s mind” or “to turn around.”  The English translation of what was going on with God is poignant:  “God saw that the wickedness of humankind was great….  The LORD was sorry that he had made humankind…. It grieved him to his heart.”

 

And so, God decided to start over.  The decision of God to start over should give us considerable pause.  There are two dangers to avoid here:  The first is to imagine that God was outraged – out of control – and in God’s anger God decided to pursue a plan of mass destruction.  By this way of thinking, God is given to blind and destructive rage.  But that isn’t what the text says – what the text says is that God was sorry… that God was grieved to his heart.  

 

The other error, of course, is to dismiss this cataclysmic decision of God as some sort of mythical overstatement.  The danger here is to domesticize God and to imagine that a God of love would never – could never – take serious action against evil.  Remember Aslan – he’s no tame lion!

 

I think we must handle this story with care.  We must be careful not to make it say more than it does, but neither must we be inclined to have it say less than it does.  The text says that God was grieved to God’s heart and that God consequently destroyed all life save Noah and his family.  The text does not say that God acted in out-of-control rage – but the text does say that God acted resolutely and with horrific consequence.  

 

Like the stories we have already considered in this series – Creation, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel – this story is myth.  Not until we get to Genesis 12 and meet Abraham do we encounter a story that clearly contains elements of literal and historical reality.  

 

But that admission is not to say that this story is consequently untrue.  I am convinced that this story – like the ones we’ve considered for that past three weeks – is profoundly true.  There are countless examples of instances where the human community has come to understand a profound truth and has created story as the vehicle by which to teach that truth.  No human knows the mechanism by which God created, but we are convinced that God did create.  No human knows whether two humans named Adam and Eve ever lived, but we believe that somewhere along the line of divinely directed evolution, our ancient ancestors learned the difference between right and wrong and unfortunately often chose the wrong.  We sadly acknowledge that jealousy and rage too often control the human spirit, resulting in murder and war and class-violence of many sorts.  

 

Similarly, there is every reason to nod our heads knowingly and sadly at the suggestion that human wickedness might be so profound as to tempt God to start over.  

 

At least I find no surprise at that concept.  Here’s what I find astounding:  that God would survey the wreckage of “starting over” and vow never to do it again. That’s amazing, at least to me.  I would think that in the wake of genocide after genocide – most notably in recent history, the holocaust of Jewish genocide in Nazi Germany – that God would be tempted over and over again to start over and over again.  But the story – the true myth of Genesis 6-9 tells us that God started over once and vowed never to do it again.  Noah and the animals were released from the floating barn and God placed a sign in the sky by which God would be reminded of God’s promise to find a new and different way to call humankind to repentance and new life.  Instead of destruction of the creation, God would give God’s self for the redemption of humankind.  

 

Now to be clear, our text today doesn’t draw the conclusion I’ve just drawn.  The text merely tells us that God is done with wholesale destruction. But God has continued to speak and eventually – in the fullness of time – God sent God’s son – Jesus – to invite humankind into a new and restored relationship with God.

 

It seems to me that the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – that story symbolized by this table (gesture) – is a continuation of the story of Noah and the flood.  It is a subsequent chapter in God’s determined intention to bring humankind back into the kind of relationship with God that God has always desired from the day of creation.

 

So next time you see a rainbow, keep this story in mind.  The rainbow – according to the story – is only partly for us.  The rainbow is mostlyC for God.  The rainbow reminds God that God has foresworn destruction as a means by which to reform humanity – and that God’s decision to become human and live among us is the evolution of God’s passion to call humankind – you and me – to a right and loving relationship with God.

 

I think that’s amazing. I think that’s Good News.  Thank you, God.

 

Amen.

 

 

Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

posted Sep 30, 2018, 10:22 AM by Cameron Hubanks   [ updated Oct 30, 2018, 5:21 AM ]

Genesis 4:1-16



Fratricide is an ugly word… an ugly concept… an ugly reality.  


Fratricide, of course, is sibling murder.  We might prefer to imagine that no family could be so screwed up as to become the seedbed for murder.  We might prefer to imagine something so distasteful as murder would only happen among those who are strangers.


But after the seemingly innocuous sin of eating the forbidden fruit, the next sin described in the opening chapters of the Bible is brother killing brother – fratricide.  


The story starts with nary a hint of what is to come.  It starts with an act of love – Adam and Eve have sexual relations, the result of which is a child – the first child – Cain.  And soon after that (it seems) there is another child born – Abel.  Two brothers.  Perhaps they and their father might go into business together – Adam and Sons, Inc?  


It would have been nice, but we know the story doesn’t unfold that way.  Instead we are told that Cain and Abel choose different professions.  Cain tills the ground – a truck farmer, perhaps (minus the truck, obviously!) and Abel is a rancher – a herder of sheep.  


It seems that our ancient ancestors have been religious from day one and so, we are told, the day came when both Cain and Abel brought sacrifices to the Lord – to YAHWEH.  And immediately, trouble is afoot, for, we are told, God has regard for Abel and his sacrifice, but not for Cain and his sacrifice.


In the church of my upbringing, we were confident that we had this sorted out:  God wanted a bloody sacrifice… not one of fruits and veggies.  But the text does not say that, and I think we err if we draw that conclusion.  The text is certainly open to many questions, but assuredly the text does not lay first emphasis on the sacrifices.  The text lays first emphasis on those bringing the sacrifices.  It is ABEL (and his sacrifice) whom God approves.  It is CAIN (and his sacrifice) whom God does not approve.  Did Abel bring his sacrifice with joy and with generous abandon and with gratefulness to God?  We aren’t told, but it’s possible.  Did Cain bring his sacrifice with resentment and a begrudging spirit and did he make his sacrifice as small as he thought he could get away with?  Again, we’re not told.  But there’s something about Abel and his spirit of which God approves and something of Cain and his spirit of which God does not approve.  


And Cain, we are told, was angry – very angry.  And it seems that a conversation ensued between God and Cain and nowhere in that conversation does God advise Cain to swap some of his fruit for one of Abel’s lambs so that he might offer a “better” sacrifice.  No, God merely advises Cain to “do well.”  And if he “does well” God assures him he will be accepted.  This is certainly not about the makeup of the sacrifice.


But what comes next is stunning.  And it is, I am sorry to report, remarkably and tragically human.  Cain invites Abel into the field – apparently one of Cain’s vegetable fields, and while out there – away from any witness, I suppose – Cain rises up and kills his brother.  


It seems that there is an ancient and very human delusion which imagines that if the supposed source of our discomfort can be eliminated – all will be right.   Cain kills Abel and imagines things will now be okay.


Think about this for a moment:  In killing Abel what is revealed about Cain’s thinking?  At least this:  That the source of Cain’s trouble with God was NOT Cain’s own stinginess and resentment, but his brother’s generosity.  


There follows another interaction between Cain and God, but before we go there, I think we must stay for a moment in the depressing reality of Cain’s thinking.  Cain’s thinking boils down to something to which we are nearly all subject – the idea that my own unhappiness is due to someone else – someone else who is somehow different than me.  Imagine all the human suffering and violence and war that has been kindled by the inability to accept that we are not all alike.  Whether the difference is skin color or relative wealth, or gender identity, or national origin, or political affiliation, or whatever else (and unfortunately, the list of differences that gnaw at the human heart is LONG) – much of human alienation arises from the unwillingness to accept difference.  


Three days ago much of the nation was transfixed by the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing in which on the one hand an allegation of serious misconduct was leveled and on the other hand a protestation of innocence was uttered.  And this nation is today torn between the two.  


I do not possess sufficient insight to know which to believe (though, like nearly everyone else, I have my opinion) – but I know the issue matters.  I know that for far, far too long (most of human history, to be blunt) women have been devalued and treated as property by men.  It is, I suppose, not surprising that those males who imagine that women exist principally for the enjoyment of men would be angry and resentful that women are beginning to claim their own legitimate place as equals to men in every respect.  Which is a variation of what was going on with Cain.  Cain found it impossible to accept that he was not entitled to God’s approval – that there was a difference between him and the spirit of his sacrifice and that of Abel and the spirit of his sacrifice that disqualified him from God’s approval.  Cain could have chosen to learn from God’s critique, but instead he imagined that the problem was Abel and Abel’s different sacrifice, so he killed him.  Ever since that day humans have been tempted to imagine that if only everyone were exactly like me, all would be well.  


But when God created humankind, he created us alike in some ways – we all have 26 pairs of chromosomes, after all – but in other ways we are very different from each other and so far as I can tell, God delights in those many differences and we would do well to learn to do the same.   In a nutshell, instead of being angry and threatened by the ways in which we are different from each other, God seems to invite us to be curious about and enriched by our differences.


After the murder, God again has conversation with Cain.  Cain makes to evade his guilt – Am I my brother’s keeper? – he protests when God inquires as to the whereabouts of Abel.  


Cain’s question is, in fact, profoundly important.  It is a question with which each of us must grapple.  Are we the keepers of our sisters and brothers?  


Maybe the phrasing of the question is prejudicial.  Maybe we are not each other’s “keepers” – but perhaps in asking the question that way Cain was revealing something else amiss in his heart.  No, Cain was probably not Abel’s “keeper,” but he was his brother.  He was related to Abel in a way that should have implied respect and care and even love.  Instead Cain despised his brother and ended his life.  Are we the keepers of our sisters and brothers – even those who look differently than do we?  Does skin color matter to God?  Does sexual orientation or identity matter to God?  Does God care more deeply for Americans than God does for Hondurans or Mexicans.  We all know that God loves all people precisely the same – that in fact, there is a special place in God’s heart for the poor and dispossessed.  Consequently, as followers of Jesus we are called to question certain orthodoxies of nationalism.  A politician may perhaps assert, “America First,” but can a Christian?  I think not.


No, we may not be the keepers of our sisters and brothers, but we are – in Christ – assuredly connected with all of God’s beloved children and God is almost certainly watching carefully to see whether we love our neighbors – those we know and those we will never meet – as intensely as we love ourselves.  


The story of Cain and Abel is tragic, and it is frighteningly contemporary.  


By God’s grace may we together have the courage to be followers of Jesus – people who love even when we disagree – people who show respect even when we do not understand – people who protect those who have little ability to protect themselves.  


Did we imagine that God’s call to the Christian life was a call to something easy?  I think not – we are called to something consummately hard.  By God’s grace let us accept this hard challenge and rely on God’s Spirit to live in ways that bring a smile to God’s face.


Amen!


Zwingli United Church of Christ

Paoli, Wisconsin

30 September 2018

Genesis 4:1-16


Adam & Eve: A Story of loss and hope

posted Sep 25, 2018, 12:05 PM by Cameron Hubanks   [ updated Nov 7, 2018, 6:28 AM ]


Here is a prayer that perhaps you’ve heard before:


“Merciful God, support us all the day long of this life full of trouble, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed and the fever of life is over and our work is done.”


This is one of several standard prayers used at the committal service of one who has died.  It is both sad and hopeful.  After all, nearly no one needs convincing that life can be full of trouble and that life can be feverish in its demands and in its unrelenting challenge.


For thousands of years life has been this way.  The challenges of life that you and I and others we love struggle under have burdened humankind since the beginning of human consciousness.  But why?  


If life is nothing but a biological accident, then the question of struggle is meaningless and pointless – but for people of faith – for you and me – the reality of evil challenge our faith.  The fact that life is hard laughs at our belief in a good God – it mocks the assertion of Genesis 1 that God created a universe that was – and is – good.


Theologians have a big fancy word for this challenge – Theodicy.  Theodicy is the theological study of the problems that naturally arise in believing in the existence of a good God in the face of the evident reality of evil.  The word itself is of fairly recent origin (1710), but the problem of reconciling the existence of a good God with the reality of evil is ancient.  Perhaps the oldest book of the Bible is the story of Job – which in a nutshell is the story of a good man who suffers almost unspeakable evil.  


It is easy to imagine that in ancient days – long before even Job came on the scene that our human ancestors sat around the evening fire after a long day of hunting – a day in which one of the most beloved members of the community had died in the inherent danger of the hunt – and together they wondered why life was this way.  


So…. it’s almost always useful to know where a journey is headed before setting out, right?  If a sermon is a journey – and that’s one way to look it – then you need to know that I do not have the answer to the problem of evil.  The ancients who sat around that campfire on the day of that disastrous hunt didn’t have the answer, the philosopher who coined the word theodicy didn’t have the answer, and neither do I.  


But here’s what we do have – we have a story that offers not a solution, but an origin.  And in that story there may even be found a glimmer of hope.  Let’s take a look at it.


The text we heard this morning from Genesis chapters 2 and 3 are not a continuation of Genesis 1 – they are a different account of the creation.  The first chapter tells the story from a grand and overarching perspective.  Genesis 1 teaches us that the whole of the universe is of intentional origin and is good – very good.  The first story teaches us that there is a God who is the origin of all that is and that you and I are both privileged to be a part of that creation and are called to responsible living within God’s good creation.


But Genesis 2 and 3 tell the story from a very different perspective.  If the first story lays out the order and grandeur of the creation, the second forces us to deal with the messiness and the grief of actual life.  


Today’s story starts with a garden – we know it as the Garden of Eden – and it is an idyllic place.  It was in this garden that God places the man and the woman and charges them with its upkeep and maintenance.  In return, the garden will supply their needs.  


A brief aside:  We live in the day of “#MeToo” – a time of growing awareness of the pervasive realities of everything from gender inequality to sexual abuse/violence.  This coming week in the context of the on-going Supreme Court confirmation hearings we are going to be inundated with competing narratives about relationships between men and women.  We will be exposed to deeply divergent perspectives about privilege and voice and being heard and seen and believed versus not being heard and seen and believed.  These questions matter to people of faith.  There are some who imagine that Genesis 2 actually establishes a hierarchy of gender.  After all, the woman is made from the man – from his rib, we are told; doesn’t that imply some sort of priority?  We’re not going there today, but because this question is so current, I need at least to say that so far as I understand this text, it does NOT establish the kind of hierarchy that some imagine it does.  Or to put it differently, this text might legitimately be read to offer some insight into the origins of the age old “battle of the sexes” but I am far from convinced that it tells us anything about what God intends for relationships between women and men.  More on this on another day.


Today we are addressing brokenness, pain and trouble – or to put it theologically, we are talking about sin.  The story in a nutshell goes this like:


God created a garden of perfection and gave Adam and Eve the run of the place.  God asked several things of them – to name all the creatures for starters.  But more to the point, God asked the man and the women for loving obedience.  God asked our ancestors to give up any illusion of deity and to trust instead in God’s provision and God’s goodness.  And as the ancient storyteller crafted the story, the choice was made real in the form of a tree which bore appealing fruit, but which was off-limits – the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  We’ve no idea how long this state of affairs lasted.  The story might be read to suggest that the crisis occurred on Monday or Tuesday of the first post-creation week, but I think it’s equally possible that Adam and Eve lived for ages in this state of innocence and bliss.  What we are told is that one day the serpent planted doubt in Eve’s mind.  Don’t fall prey to the temptation to imagine that this was because Eve was more suggestible.  In any case, Eve (after exaggerating the nature of the prohibition God had placed on them – God didn’t say they couldn’t touch it) ate of the forbidden tree and invited Adam to do the same, which he did.  And in this moment of disobedience the two DID become like God.  For the first time they were self-aware – self-aware of their own nakedness, for starters.  Aware for the first time that they had something to hide.  And hide they did.


And so, in the evening when God habitually came to garden for fellowship with the two, they were not to be found.  Can you imagine trying to hide from God?  It’s almost comical, no?  But before you laugh too heartily, remember, this isn’t just a story about Adam and Eve – this is our story – yours and mine.  Perhaps we do well to insert ourselves into the garden and wince a bit as we bring to mind the times and the ways when each of us is given to hiding from God.  


The mop-up of the story is a recitation of transition from Eden to now.  In the garden, the work of humankind was a pleasure – today it is drudgery.  In the garden the man and the women co-existed in blissful partnership – today we struggle to respect and honor each other in our respective identities.  In the garden it seems childbirth was a breeze – outside the garden we’ve needed to invent Lamaze and anesthesia.  


There’s so much more that could be said about this story, but I want to end with two observations:


First of all, it is natural and permissible to wonder why God gave the woman and the man the freedom to disobey.  Because I am not God, I do not know the answer with certainty, but I have the same guess that many thoughtful people have offered from time immemorial – that God created us in God’s own image not to be robots, but to choose to love and obey God in the dangerous arena of true freedom.  The suggestion here is that love is really only love when one can say no.  Is it heartbreaking to know that in giving us freedom, God opened the door to alienation and war, to famine and violence, to disease and abuse?  Of course it’s heartbreaking.  But we cannot know the alternative.  Perhaps the only alternative was not to create at all.  I choose to trust the goodness of God and to place myself in the hands of God.  I choose to recommit myself to the arduous task of resisting the temptation to make myself God and instead to let God be God.  


And secondly, the story contains an odd and tiny little note of hope.  When God speaks to the serpent there is a strange little prophecy.  God tells the serpent (who we are not to imagine as snakes generically, but as anything and anyone who tempts us to make ourselves into God) – God tells the tempter that he and the offspring of the woman will one day have it out.  That there will be a knock-down, drag-out battle.  And in the end, the offspring of the woman will again be hurt by the tempter (the serpent will bruise the child’s heel), but ultimately the child – Eve’s progeny – will crush the head of the tempter.  This odd little prophecy is not explained here, nor anywhere else.  But many have found a word of hope here.  In the New Testament we are offered the intriguing suggestion that Jesus Christ is the 2nd Adam.  So, perhaps the promise here is that generations later the 2nd Adam – Jesus Christ, Eve’s ultimate son – would indeed have his heel bruised by the tempter (the crucifixion), but in return the tempter would suffer a fatal blow to its head.  In some metaphorical sense, might this not be the resurrection of Christ…and eventually of all of humankind?  That the promise here is that the broken state of affairs that began in the Garden, will finally one day be set to rights through the gracious and loving choice of Jesus to die for us.  


Because this story is myth and metaphor, it is full of potential meaning.  Why for example, did God banish the man and woman from the Garden?  Is this punishment?  Or is it for their own good – that they not eat of the tree of life and live forever in this broken and hope-challenged state?  Again, we aren’t told, but I find the idea fascinating – and hopeful.   


I’ve said only a beginning of what might be said about this story.  I hope you will keep at it.  Perhaps this is the place to wrap it up for now:  This is a sad story of loss and broken promise – but in it are the seeds of restoration and hope.  By God’s grace let us find and live in that hope.


Amen.


Zwingli United Church of Christ

Paoli, Wisconsin

23 September 2018

Genesis 2:4-25 & 3:1-24  (PTB #2)


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