Monday, September 29, 2014

God's Verbs: Seeing, Hearing, Knowing, Caring; From Exodus to Resurrection

I'm doing a little reorganizing in my writing/sermon preparation life.  As a general rule, I'm now going to try to start my week with this blog and end it with a congregation specific blog for Heritage folks.  Between the two will be two Bible studies: the Brown Bag Bible Study at lunch time on Mondays and the Wednesday Vesper Service Bible Study.  This process will provide me with some really good opportunity to both write about what I'm thinking and to process it that way; and to hear what others think and are asking about the passage(s) in question.

If you would like to follow the second blog, it will be titled Prelude To Sunday and you can find it at the new Heritage Baptist Church website

http://www.heritagebaptistannapolis.org/home.html

This week we begin a study of the book of Exodus that will carry us up to Advent.  The Exodus story became the primary story that shaped the identity of Israel.  Exodus language recurs all throughout scripture in both the Old and New Testaments.  One will have difficulty reading scripture and avoiding its presence.

At the end of Exodus 2, after having described the dire straits into which God's people have fallen, we're told that "God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them."  Interestingly, the same verb translated here as "took notice," is translated in 1:8 as "did not know" as in Pharaoh did not know Joseph.  It could also be translated "cared about."

When, in Exodus 3:7, God speaks to Moses out of the burning bush, God will say, "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters.  Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians....." and v. 9, "The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them."

A paraphrase of these verses might read, "I have seen the oppression, I have heard the cries, I notice these things and I care about my people; so now I have come down to deliver them."

But that same paraphrase might also be read, "I have seen the oppression, I have heard the cries, I notice these things and I care about my people; so now I have come down to deliver them.

Both readings are true.  Both speak to a reality about the nature of God.  When no one else heard, or noticed, or cared....God did.  When no one else would, or could, come and liberate this people....God did.
The verbs, the action here, all belong to God;  to God who hears the cry of the oppressed; who sees the oppression, who cares about what is happening, who comes to set free the captive.

Every Pharaoh, every tyrant, every dictator, every oppressor needs to hear this story.  They may think that no one is watching, no one is listening, no one cares.....but God is, God does, and God will respond.  

We need to hear this too.  Every one of us who pays no attention to the cry of the oppressed:  to those Christians being murdered by religious radicals who shame the true followers of Islam with their behavior; to the cries of children being detained because they seek a better life across our border; to the silent screams of victims of sexual and domestic violence.....God is listening, God will come, God will liberate....."then will He say to them, 'I was hungry and you gave me food, I was naked and you clothed me, I was homeless and you took me in.  If you did [or failed to do it] to the least of these, you did it [or failed to do it] unto me."

The story of God's involvement, from Exodus to Resurrection is the story of God hearing our cries of pain and need and leading us our into new life:  from the slavery in Egypt, to the slavery of African slaves in the south, to the sex slaves in this country and around the world.....God hears.  And God will lead out has God has done in the past.

There is a frequently quoted 'rule' among those who deal with criminals that "the most reliable predictor of future behavior is past behavior."  According to this way of thought, drunks will drink, offenders will offend, and killers will kill.

What would happen if we applied that predictability to God:  God will see, God will hear, God will care, God will come, God will free, God will save, God will redeem, God will grant new life.

Those are God's verbs.   And they don't stop.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

My Love/Hate Affair With Old Testament Characters

Over the past few weeks at Heritage Baptist in Annapolis we've been looking at some of the stories of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs that come to us in the book of Genesis.  During this time I've discovered some things about myself....not all of them happy discoveries.

These characters put me on the defensive.  I had to admit this when I found that week after week I was having to re-create my sermon titles because my original ones were far to snarky.  A good example is this week's sermon on Joseph that I had originally titled Just Cause You Have The Coat Doesn't Mean You Have The Class. Really?!?  Now the original point I was going to be driving at was that Joseph, in his early life didn't have the maturity to understand the meaning of power that he was intuiting (or was hearing from God, take your pick...maybe it's both) he would one day have.  And that's a reasonable read on this passage.

What slapped me in the face though was my own attempt to distance from a character so like myself.  My own young adulthood arrogance (hopefully I'm mellowing with life's scars and experience) was so strong that one female friend (thank God she stayed around to become a friend) said that her first instinct when we met in a seminary class was to throw a shoe at me.  So here's Joseph, seeped in his own arrogance, pronouncing his dreams with a "Look....look....see what I'm going to be?!" kind of quality and strutting back and forth in his ornamental robe.  I want to grab him by his multi-colored lapels and shake him.  Because I know where he's headed.....not just because I already know the Bible story, but because I know my own story.  And it's really uncomfortable.

For Joseph it will take years spent as a slave and some time in prison before he gets his head on remotely straight.  And even after that, he will make a serious blunder in his desire to please the Pharoah that will set up the slavery of the Hebrew people years later.

So find a way to be honest with myself about how these characters (unfortunately Joseph is not the only one who reaches up from the Biblical page and grabs me by the tie) impact me....and to be honest about it from the pulpit.

The second task, it seems, is to bridge the gap between my experience of Joseph and the truth I believe to be present: which is that many in my congregation experience him the same way.  I will have, in Sunday's congregation,  friends who are in recovery from various addictions.  The phrase "hitting bottom" is a common one in 12 Step programs; and Joseph's need to "hit bottom" before he could become who God meant him to be will ring true with them.  But what about others? 

Tied closely to this is the fact that here at Heritage we are exploring the question what is God's dream for us at Heritage? as we move through my Interim here and the congregation goes through the transitional stage of preparing for the next phase of it's life.  Is there a warning for us as a congregation in this story?  Is it possible to become so focused on ourselves in the dream that we miss that it is God's dream of how we will be used to represent God in this time and place? 

These are some of the challenges this text is throwing out.....and it's only Tuesday.  Tomorrow night is our Wednesday night study of Sunday's scripture, and who knows what will come out of that.

The truth is that when I read a lot of scripture I feel like Luke Skywalker when Yoda sends him into the cave.  He battles Darth Vader there and cuts off his head.  Taking the helmet off the severed head he confronts his own face.  In depth Bible study is not for the faint of heart.  But here is also the good news....Good News.....Gospel:  In being willing to see myself in the Biblical story I also discover God's great love for the characters in the story; wounded, flawed, and scarred though they be.  I see that it is not my 'dream' that guides the universe, it is the 'dream' and hand of a loving God whose fidelity is definitive and whose will will not be thwarted.  I rest in this Grace and Power and risk being seen as I am; loved as I am; redeemed as I am.

We'll see where we're going by Sunday.  Perhaps you'll come and join us.

Shalom,
Stephen

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Living Into God's Dream For Us

I have come to the conclusion that I spend waaaay too much time thinking that things are about me.

That voice you hear in the background going, "No Duh!" is my wife.

But seriously; this struck me particularly in preparing for last Sunday when we looked at Jacob wrestling with God at Peniel.  It seems to me that the story makes no real sense, has no real life lesson for us, until we quit thinking about it as Jacob's story and focus on it as God's story

When we think of it as God's story of how God has pursued, and continues to pursue Jacob; as the story of God's maintaining God's fidelity in spite of Jacob's shortcomings and trickery; then the story becomes a lesson for us in the lengths to which God will go to be faithful to God's promises.  God will seek to find ways to reach us through the various relationships and experiences of our lives.  God will even jump us in the middle of the night.....but God will not force us.

Which brings us to this week and this week's scripture.  Revelation 22:1-5 is the rebuilding of the Garden from Genesis.  God brings creation to a new place.  There are trees with leaves for the healing of the nations.  Water, always a precious commodity, flows through the middle of the City of God....available to all.

This vision, given to John while in an altered state of consciousness on the Isle of Patmos, is the sharing of God's dream for creation; a dream that will finally come to fruition one day.

In the meantime, we are called to be seeking that "Thy kingdom come and Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."  This means that we are called to be imitating that big Dream by living out the here and now Dream that God has for us in our particular time and place.  It is the story of God's Dream, God's Desire, God's Loving Fulfillment.....how will we live into it?

When I take the focus off of myself, and put it onto God's Story, God's Dream and how I can best connect to, and be part of, that Story, that Dream.....that is when I truly find myself.  For we were all made in the Image of God to be partners with God in the stewarding and redeeming of creation.  Apart from that we are not ourselves, not who we were meant to be.

So this week we'll start asking "What is God's Dream for Heritage Baptist?"  What part of God's Big Dream are we being called to make a reality in this time and place?  What is God showing each of us: individually and collectively about that Dream?  Am I willing to give my time to this Dream?  My money? My prayers?  My creativity?

I want to end by quoting part of a song that I heard years ago by Reuben Walton:

The dreams we share today O Lord
Are only a shadow of Your dreams for us
Only a shadow of Your dreams for us
If we but follow You

Shalom