Genesis Wisdom; From Prison to Palace, Rev. Connie Frierson


Genesis 41:9-16

       Then the chief cupbearer said to Pharaoh, “I remember my faults today. Once Pharaoh was angry with his servants, and put me and the chief baker in custody in the house of the captain of the guard. We dreamed on the same night, he and I, each having a dream with its own meaning. A young Hebrew was there with us, a servant of the captain of the guard. When we told him, he interpreted our dreams to us, giving an interpretation to each according to his dream. As he interpreted to us, so it turned out; I was restored to my office, and the baker was hanged.”

       Then Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and he was hurriedly brought out of the dungeon. When he had shaved himself and changed his clothes, he came in before Pharaoh. And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it. I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” Joseph answered Pharaoh, “It is not I; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.”
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Genesis Wisdom; From Prison to Palace
 
         For the next three weeks we will be studying the trials and tribulations of Joseph. There are so many ups and downs in this life that it reminds me of the penny dreadful, “The Perils of Pauline.” You don’t have to be a bible scholar to know about Joseph. If you have ever seen Joseph and His Technicolor Dream Coat, by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, you know this story. This is Joseph, the dreamer, the favorite son of Jacob. This is Joseph of the coat of many colors. This is Joseph who was thrown into a pit by his brothers and sold into slavery in Egypt, who was a successful overseer in Potiphar’s household. This is Joseph, who was wrongly accused by Potiphar’s wife and thrown into jail. This is Joseph who interprets dreams of Pharaoh’s butler and Pharaoh’s baker in jail. And as we come to today’s text this is Joseph who has been languishing in jail waiting for more two years for Pharaoh’s butler to remember he owes Joseph a favor.  This is Joseph who interprets the dreams of Pharaoh and is wildly successful as Pharaoh’s administrator.  This is Joseph who needs to both forgive and save his brothers.

            About 14 chapters, and a quarter of all the stories, in Genesis are all about Joseph. So the Joseph story is like a novella tucked inside Genesis.  Why is so much space allotted to Joseph?  His long life incorporates so many of the experiences in our own lives.  Joseph seems so supernatural in his grand abilities and dark suffering. But in some ways Joseph is really a regular Joe.  Our lives incorporate all the highs and lows that Joseph experienced. We know ups and we know downs. We know how it feels to be a brash ‘know it all’ teenager. We know about families that don’t understand us and or that betraying us. We know about working hard and having some success. We know about hard time in pits of grief and loss. We know about prisons that keep us stuck.  I can almost hear God calling to us, saying, “Pay attention!  There is a wisdom in this life that can teach you how to live your lives.”

            Today we are going to start right in the middle of this long story. The middle is an odd place to start. Let me explain. Right in the middle of this story is a HINGE. At the start of our passage Joseph is in jail in Egypt. So he is not only a slave. He is a slave in jail. For all his dreaming, Joseph doesn’t know what will happen next. He is still in jail, still waiting, still faithful, but still profoundly uncertain. But something is about to happen. The MIDDLE is where we are starting because the middle is right where lots of us are. Every one of us is in the middle of something; The Middle of School, The Middle of Life, The Middle of a Project, The Middle of Recovery, The Middle of Family Strife, The Middle of Sickness, The Middle of Learning.  Unless you were born this very morning or are 100% certain you are dying this very night, you are in the middle. Every one of us has a history and every one of us has a future. So we are all in the middle.  The middle is just another word for right now, another word for the present moment. God wants to be with us right in this moment, right in the middle. 

            So what can Joseph teach us about the middle?

First if you are in the middle of suffering. Don’t waste it.  You will be tempted to waste it. You will be tempted to lay on your bed and turn your face to the wall. You will want to waste your suffering because you are wasting away. Don’t do it! When Peter was cast into jail in Acts 12, what did he do?  He prayed.  When Paul and Silas were cast into jail in Acts 16, what did they do? They sang. When Joseph was stuck in jail what did he do?   He talked to his fellow jailbirds. He interpreted the dreams of the baker and the cupbearer. He let God use that place of suffering. There will never be a moment in the future or the past that will motivate us more to search and to find God as the moment of suffering.  That is why Peter prayed as though he had a doctoral degree in divine petitions. This is why Paul and Silas sang with all their heart and soul. This is why Joseph was keen to hear and sense God in the midst of the dreams of others. Suffering hurts. But suffering helps us to focus all our heart and soul on our deep needs. It is in suffering that we stretch and reach out and reach up. Suffering that you don’t learn from is just suffering. Such suffering is pure waste. Let the suffering grow your faith. The point of the cross was that Christ suffered.  But through that suffering new possibilities were born. Suffering was transcended. The cross led to the resurrection. It was that way for Jesus and it can be that way for us.

            This reminds me of a story. A farmer had a dream in which God told her to push against a gigantic rock in the back 40 of her farm.  The farmer understood that this dream really was from God. So day in and day out, after her other chores, she would go out to the rock in her field and push and push against this rock. Every night she returned to her farmhouse worn out and sore and then goes back out again the next day. After years of this the woman became tired and started to doubt.  So she did the wisest thing she knew. She brought her doubts to God in prayer.  And in prayer God answered her saying, “I asked you to push the rock, to be obedient and faithful. I never told you the rock would move. But look at you now. Your arms and legs are muscled and strong. You have a strength now you never had before.”  Never waste suffering. If you are pushing against a rock, let that make you stronger.

            Second, prepare for next opportunity. Joseph learned important lessons in humility in his time in slavery and imprisonment. He went from a brash, thoughtless 17-year-old to a 30 year old with wisdom.  His experience prepared him to rule and to forgive. Joseph prepared for the opportunity in any basic way he could.  If you remember in our scripture, it says Joseph washed and shaved before he went before Pharaoh.  Don’t you think that is weird? Why would such a thing be recorded in the biblical record? But this funny little detail is telling us about Joseph’ willingness to reach out to his captors and enemies. In the Hebrew culture beards were a mark of veneration and manliness. But hair on your head or your face wasn’t cool for Egyptians, especially Egyptians at court.  So with a simple act, Joseph appeared in a way that was polite and acceptable to Egyptians.  Joseph prepared himself so that Pharaoh could hear him.  We can do the same things. Do we insist on things that may us comfortable in worship or in dress or in culture, just because it is what makes us happy. Do we ignore the sensibilities of other in the culture? Do we insist that other bow to our whims and not we to theirs?  Understanding what is essential and what is merely cultural claptrap is one way to prepare for the next opportunity.

            Preparing for the next opportunity comes in many forms. Nelson Mandela prepared for a free South Africa years before it came into existance. For 27 years Nelson Mandela was in jail. Yet at the end of his time in prison, he became the single most powerful man in South Africa.  To an outsider it might look like nothing, but for 25 years, Nelson Mandela broke rocks. Outside the cells of the prisoners in a barren courtyard would be placed a pile of rocks.  Some prisoners would daily sit at there rocks and burn with rage. Some would sit in self-pity and despair at the cruelty of it all.  Nelson Mandela, broke rocks and thought about how to unite a country, how to forgive each other, how to end apartheid.  Third, be God focused. At this hinge of Joseph’s life, Joseph has learned wisdom and humility. In his interactions with Pharaoh, Joseph again and again points to what God will do. Not what Joseph will do.  God will interpret the dream. God has sent the message to Pharaoh.  God has revealed this to future. This was not how Joseph was when he blabbed his glory dream to his brothers and his dad at seventeen. This was not how Joseph was just two years ago.  When Joseph interpreted the Cupbearers dream, he quickly recounted his own story and asked for a favor.  Here Joseph focuses on what God is revealing to Pharaoh.  He allows his own problem to be secondary. He doesn’t use this time to promote his own justice. He doesn’t listen to Pharaohs dream and then immediately jump in with his own cool dreams.  The focus on what God is doing overshadows his own story.  By focusing on what God is doing, God invites Joseph to be part of this saving of all Joseph’s family.

            This is a crucial vision test, if we are to do God’s will, to be God empowered, we need to have our eyes on the right goal.  With everything we do in our person life or in our church life, we need to start the discussion with “What is God calling us to do?”  This is a radical departure from our myopic selves. We too often focus on what we like, what makes us comfortable, what we have done before. 

            Joseph has an amazing story. He has youthful flaws, bad luck and ultimately a chance to serve and to save. He went from a pit to a prison to a palace.  What we lose sight of is that each of us have an amazing story.  God wants to work in and around the beginning and middle and end of our lives in the same way God works with Joseph.  Perhaps our lives have slightly less Broadway appeal, but the most important ways God can wants to be invited to live with us at all these learning moments. 

            Our churches have Joseph stories too.  Hopeful brash beginnings, some difficult and painful middles and lots of work to be done so that our churches become places that restore families, promote forgiveness and feed hungry souls and mouths. So our task as a church is the same as our task as individuals.  1- If we are in tough times then don’t waste them.  Figure out how mistakes and disasters can help us grow up. Don’t waste the suffering. 2 - Prepare our church for the next opportunity.  Are there ways we need to clean up to prepare for what’s ahead? Or can we pray and discern together while we are pounding those rocks. Finally, number 3 - Be God focused. Let’s get the focus off ourselves.  God’s focus often brings blessings of growth, but seldom for growths sake.   As a church the focus is on where God is leading, helping, saving, growing.  We join in God’s work, not hijack the process for ourselves.  The Joseph story has one really great surprise.  It wasn’t about Joseph at all.  It was about what God does – delivers, redeems, frees, forgives, feeds.  I think that is a great place for a church to be.  Amen.
 

Genesis Wisdom: Babel


Genesis 11:1-9
August 10, 2014

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

            I used to have a girlfriend who did something I found intriguing. I remember coming over to her place one time while she was on the phone. She opened the door, welcomed me in, and continued her phone call. Oddly, she barely said anything on the phone other than, “Uh-huh. Oh! Yeah. That’s interesting.” This went on for about thirty minutes. At one point I had to ask her a question, so I waved and asked if I could interrupt. She put the phone down on her shoulder and started quietly talking with me. She not only answered my question, but then started talking to me about our plans for the next day. During our conversation she would periodically put the phone to her ear and say, “Uh-huh.” or ”Hmmmmm.”

            I asked her who she was talking to, and she whispered, “Oh, it’s just my mom. She’s telling me something about pools and her neighbors.” The phone call went on for another hour as her mother kept talking, and she just listened. When she was done, I asked her, “What was your mom talking about?” She said, “Oh, she calls me every other day and just tells me about everything that goes on. I just listen to her as she babbles on. I actually get a lot done while she talks. I don’t’ pay attention to half of it, but as long as I say something every once in a while to let her know I’m still on the phone, she’s fine.” She was remarkable because she could listen to babble for long periods of time.

            Two weeks ago my family got back from a two-week vacation in Europe. It was one that we had been planning for many years. We spent one week in France and one in England. While in France we rented a car that took diesel gasoline. The problem with diesel cars is that not every gas station sells diesel gasoline. I know this intimately because my car right now is a diesel car. They get great gas mileage—up to 47 miles a gallon on the highway—but I have to plan ahead to find gas stations when traveling outside of the local area.

            While traveling in the Loire Valley, Diane looked down at the gauge and said that  tank was getting low. We needed to find gas soon. Unfortunately, as hard as we looked for stations, we had a hard time finding a station that sold diesel (or “gazzole” in French). Eventually we found a station in the small town of Bleré in the Loire Valley. It was an automatic station outside a closed supermarket. I tried my special European credit card, the one with a chip that had been accepted everywhere, but it was rejected. I tried over and over, but nothing. I tried my normal credit card. It was rejected. What were we going to do? We weren’t sure we had enough gas to search for another station.

            Finally, a woman and her young son pulled up to get gas for themselves. I said to her in my poor French, “Parlez vous Anglais,” or “Do you speak English?” She said, “Non, not very good.” So in my broken French I asked her to help me. She tried, but no matter what she did the card wouldn’t work. She called over an older man she obviously knew, who was walking by. I asked him, “Parlez vous Anglais,” and he said, “Non!”

            The woman explained to him what was going on, and he grabbed the credit card out of my hand, and in rapid French said to me something that sounded like, “Vous benez pontez sani blue paté laxez von pastole, blah, blah, blah.” In other words, I had no idea what he was saying, but that didn’t stop him. He just kept talking to me in French. It was obvious he was chastising me for apparently not doing it right. He put the card in while he talked, and it was rejected. He did it again, and it was rejected again. I tried to grab the card while saying, “Il ne travail pas,” which I think meant “It doesn’t work,” but he just slapped my hand away and tried four more times. Finally, he then gave me back the card, threw up his hands, and in rapid French said something that I took to mean “Yeah, it doesn’t work,” but there were a lot of extra words. He then said something rapidly to the woman and walked away.

            Finally, I managed to ask her if she would put the gas on her card, and I would give her 60 euros to cover it. She graciously helped me. When I got in the car, Diane asked me, “What were you talking about so much. We all in here laughing because all we could hear from you was “Non, non, non!  Oui, oui, oui! Non, non! Oui, oui! Non, non, oui, oui, oui!”  I told her what had happened, and I said, “That guy was no help at all. He just kept babbling and babbling, and I couldn’t get him to stop.”

            That word, “babble,” comes from our passage this morning, which said, “Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth.” Actually, the name of the tower, “Babel,” was a shot at the Babylonians, whose land (what is now Iraq) was littered with old, broken towers called ziggurats. The Hebrews hated the Babylonians, so they made them the star of this story of God’s displeasure.

            The story itself is a really weird story because it almost seems like it has no point, other than maybe an anthropological/historical one explaining why everyone speaks a different language. It pops up in the Bible out of nowhere, sandwiched between the story of Noah and his descendants, and the story of Abraham. Some suggest that the reason it is there is to answer the question, “why do we all speak different languages?” I used believe that, but I did so because I had more of an anthropological/historical view of the Bible. In my 20s I believed that the Bible made up these stories to answer historical questions that the people didn’t have true answers for. So, for instance, I believed that the creation stories were trying to answer historical questions in the absence of historians and scientists.

            Now I know so much more about the Bible than I did then, and I’ve come to realize that the Bible wasn’t written to answer historical questions. It doesn’t not answer historical questions, but teaching history isn’t the point of the Bible. Learning history is a modern pursuit, not an ancient one. The books of the Bible always answer questions about God, humans, and life. That’s the focus.

            When reading the Bible, it’s always better to read it as God’s guidance telling us about life, rather than reading it as a book trying to tell us about history. The Tower of Babel is not necessarily a story about what actually happened in history. It’s a story about how we are called to live out our stories in the midst of a confusing life. The story, like the Bible, answers spiritual questions, such as “where is God? Does God care about me? Can I trust God? Why is the world so difficult? How do I find peace in my life.” The Tower of Babel especially gives answers those last two questions.

            This passage makes a very strong point, which is that while we may yearn for peace, but we aren’t necessarily supposed to be completely at peace, or at least not at peace on human terms. We may have a dream that one day all would be united, speak one language, and live in harmony, but what if that’s not entirely God’s vision for us?
           
            What if God’s vision is not that we live in a place where the lion and the lamb live together in perfect harmony, but that we have to work and struggle for unity, never quite reaching it, but always pursuing it?  What if God wants us to struggle for harmony and peace—to forge it on the soil of disappointment and turmoil? What if God wants us to forge peace on the ashes of failure, when we finally reach a point where we can forego truly human paths to peace, and finally accept God’s path to peace?

            Think about this story again. Why does God destroy the tower? God says, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” It would be easy to interpret this passage as God fearing that humans will now compete with God, but that’s a misinterpretation. The point isn’t that they will compete with God. The point is that they will substitute themselves for God. They will become so enraptured with their own accomplishments and feats that they will begin to worship themselves. They had already built a tower glorifying their own human power. And in the process they were becoming less than human because to be human means to be spiritual, too. They no longer needed the spiritual if they were gods.

            In so many ways the problems present in this story are reminiscent of the problems that plagued humanity prior to the Noah story, and of the problems that existed in Sodom and Gomorrah. In those cases people worshipped human lust, desire, and power. In this story people were worshipping human ambition, accomplishment, and power. And in both cases they were forgetting that they were created for God’s purposes, not their own. They were scattered, and the tower was broken, so that they now had to struggle with differences and diversity of ideas, language, and perspectives. Any peace and harmony they achieved would have to be struggled and yearned for, but it would also lead them to rise above merely human attributes. They would have to tap into God’s way to peace, which comes through love and compassion, not human accomplishment and achievement.

            Babel’s kind of peace is one built on sameness that creates blandness. God’s peace is built on creativity that creates uniqueness. So, within the story of the Tower of Babel there are lessons.

            One lesson is that the more people think as one, the more arrogant they tend to get, and try to force everyone else to think what they think. Babel is a tower of arrogance, striving to compete with God, and to make themselves gods. This arrogance is the problem of every dictatorship, every political movement, and every attempt to force unity upon people based on human terms. Hitler tried to create this kind of unity based on Aryan supremacy, and in the process created a war that killed over 50 million people in Europe (an extra 10 million died in the South Pacific theater). Stalin tried to force a communist unity on Russian, and killed over 25 million people through execution and gulag concentration camps in order to accomplish it. Mao tse Tung’s Chinese communists killed over 15 million people. Human terms for peace and unity often result in many deaths of oppression.

            Every movement that demands one perspective, or obedience to one way of thinking, eventually creates a false peace. But that doesn’t stop humans from demanding one point of view and ideology to follow. Whether we are talking about the Tea Party, Unions, many religious denominations, capitalists, communists, or atheists, all demand fidelity to one idea and one ideal. They pursue the power of one point of view.

            What I find to be the brilliance and genius of democracy is that for it to operate properly it requires people to engage in the struggle of compromise. Peace isn’t built on one idea that everyone must adhere to. It is based on the ideal of willingly putting aside a striving for unity solely on my terms, in order to achieve a unity based on compromise and community. This is much closer to what God calls us to as Christians. We are not called to one theological belief system. We are called to work together to achieve God’s peace by forging relationships of love despite our different beliefs, perspectives, genders, ethnicities, nationalities, and realities. God’s peace comes not through the achievement of a human Babel, but through unity gained by the struggle to embody God’s compassion and communion.

            I think the closest to this ideal I’ve seen embodied is the Seeds of Peace International Camp in Maine (www.seedsofpeace.org). For over 21 years this camp, and other programs that have sprung out of it, have brought together teens from different sides of warring areas, helping them to forge friendships that spread seeds of peace in conflicted areas. They have brought together Protestants and Catholics from Northern Ireland, Palestinians and Israelis, Greeks and Turks, Pakistani and Indian and Afghani, and so many others. They bring them together for a summer, teaching them to work together through outdoor activities, and learn each others’ perspectives through discussions and classes. The camp has been remarkable because it has led teens to forge peace through struggle, a peace that is closer to what God wants than to what humans strive for. And if you watch a video of the camps, you find people of completely different warring factions becoming friends with each other.

            We are meant to struggle together to come together, not to come together by thinking as one. We are called to live as one with our differences. That’s God’s goal. It is what you see here at Calvin Church. We are not people who completely think alike. We are not a people who look alike. We are not people who live alike. But we are a people at peace because we have sought God’s way over a purely human way. This is what the apostle Paul calls being “one in the Spirit,” rather than merely of one mind.

            Human peace is built on being of one mind where we all think one set of thoughts. God’s peace is built on being of one Spirit where we are united in God’s love, despite our uniqueness.

            Amen.

Genesis Wisdom: Sodom & Gomorrah

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Genesis 18:20-33
August 3, 2014

Then the Lord said, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.” So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord.
Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” Abraham answered, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” Again he spoke to him, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” He said, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.

            I’ve always found our passage to be fascinating for so many reasons. First off, it’s not the kind of conversation we would imagine ourselves having with God. We would be much more formal. Abraham’s pretty gutsy. He really challenges God to not do what God had decided to do. Second, it suggests that Abraham knows more what’s right than God. Who is he to second-guess God? That takes courage.

            I also find the passage fascinating because of what it says about our relationship with God. It shows a deep part of what our relationship with God is supposed to be like. To put it bluntly, we are supposed to bargain, beg, and befriend God. Often our prayers lack passion. They lack zeal. They lack intensity. I suppose that part of the reason for that lack is the church’s fault. For centuries church prayers have been so formal, so flowery, and so poetic that many people wonder if our prayers much match up. The fact that we pastors are basically professional pray-ers makes it difficult for non-clergy to believe that God listens to amateurs. But God does, and Abraham is the proof.

            What amateur prayers offer that professional prayers often don’t is a passion that binds us to God, like Abraham’s did. Too often we clergy don’t prayer with passion. And the story of Abraham begging for Sodom is one of passion and zeal.

            The passage is part of a larger story. God has just told Abraham and Sarah that, despite their old age, they will have a son. God then has to leave to lay judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah. Both have been terrible places of sin. Abraham apparently accompanies him because he is there to beg and bargain with God over Sodom’s fate. Abraham has a vested interest in Sodom. His nephew, Lot, lives there with his family. Lot is a good and righteous man, and his family is good. The problem is that Sodom is like an ancient Las Vegas. What happens in Sodom may stay in Sodom, but God is ready to permanently lay waste to Sodom as a result. I suppose this means that there are at least ten righteous in Las Vegas. Sodom is a vile place where people give into their most base appetites, desires, and urges.

            So Abraham begs: “What if there are 50 righteous people there. Will God spare it? What about 45? 40? 30? 20? 10?” God agrees not to destroy it if ten righteous men are found. Angels go to Sodom to test the city. When they appear, the men of the city want to brutalize them. Lot protects them, and in the end the angels offer to help Lot, his wife, his daughters, and their husbands and fiancés to escape.

            Unfortunately, this passage often gets misused by Christians caught up in our culture wars. They use the passage to make their case against homosexuality, but that’s not the passage’s point. Sodom isn’t destroyed because it is filled with homosexuals. The problem of Sodom and Gomorrah was the same problem cited in the Noah story. The people had ignored God, and had devolved into people living at an animal level. They are all about power, satisfying desires and urges, and living at the beck and call of their instincts. They have no desire to transcend their animal nature to open up to the spiritual.

            The men of Sodom didn’t want to rape the angels because they were homosexuals. They wanted to rape the angels for the same reason men are often raped in prisons. It’s a way to get people to submit to the alpha male’s dominance. The men of Sodom wanted to brutalize the angels because they saw them as threats. They were animals trying to make these unwelcome visitors submit. God destroys Sodom because it has become a place where people focusing only on satisfying their passions, their desires, their lusts, and their dominance, not on God. What it shows is that this kind of selfishness and the brutal need for power is an age-old problem.

            The key to understanding this passage, and to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, is not so much a moral lesson, but a spiritual one. Like much of the Bible, it is a story about our relationship with God, and on how to bind ourselves to God. And within the story are a number of important lessons from this passage.

            First, Abraham’s focus was on others, not himself. This is really important because it says something about how and what we pray for. Often our most passionate prayers are just for ourselves. We pray with passion for our needs, our desires, and our dreams. Abraham is mostly praying with that passion for people he doesn’t even know, and who would brutalize him without thought if he visited them. He’s not just praying for Lot because he knows that Lot can leave the city. He was praying with passion for people who were reprehensible and terrible. Abraham truly incarnated God’s love, and this is what made him great. He was passionate about what was right for others, not just himself.

            Second, Abraham was persistent with God. Too often we aren’t. When our prayers aren’t answered right away, we give up and take it upon ourselves to do what needs to be done. Abraham is like a pit bull. He won’t let go: “what about 50? 45? 40? 30? 20? 10?” That’s a model for us. Just because our prayers aren’t answered quickly doesn’t mean God doesn’t answer. Only half of our prayers’ purpose is to get us to get God to answer. Another half is that when we pray persistently, it binds us even more to God in the same way that pursuing a loved one binds us more that that person.

            Finally, God works in God’s ways, not ours, to ultimately achieve what we want. If you look at this passage on its surface, Sodom’s destruction either means there weren’t ten righteous men, or that God decided to destroy it anyway. That’s not actually the case. In the end, God didn’t save the city, but God did try to save the ten righteous. If you count up Lot, his wife, his daughters, and their husbands/fiancés, they come to about ten. And the angels tried to usher them out of the city. The three husbands/fiancés decided to stay, and Lot’s wife didn’t follow the instructions of the angels, but God tried. God may not answer just how we want, but God always answers at the deeper levels to what needs to happen. So God didn’t save the city on behalf of the ten righteous people. God tried to save the ten righteous people.

            The wisdom of this story is a wisdom that says that when we are passionately connected to God, our lives are saved and safe. The question I’d like to have you reflect on is this: How passionate is your connection?

Amen.

Get Out of the Boat, by The Reverend Connie Frierson


Matthew 14:22-33  - Jesus Walks on the Water
 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’

 Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’

GET OUT OF THE BOAT
 
        This time of the year and the scripture today got me thinking about the ocean.  I love the ocean.  I can stare at it and listen to the waves for hours, even days. And if I could swing it, I would spend weeks and weeks by the ocean.  Do you remember how it is to be at the edge of the water? I can. I love those moments when you screw up your courage to get into the water. You know it is going to be a cold shock to your system. But the water and movement are going to be such a delight.  So you hover there, with what? Fear? Trembling? Anticipation? Excitement?  Maybe a little bit of dread? Do remember those moments when you either dive or jump or you inch by inch wade in?  Some of you may be waders and some of you might be jumpers.  But those moments are moments of truth. They are crucial pinpoints in time, when we go forward, plunge, dunk, and wade. Or we don’t. We may decide to stay on the shore. Sit in the beach chair. Or play it safe and passive.
         Today’s scripture is about just such a moment. Of course it seems that anything with Jesus is heightened and deepened.  So instead of wading into the water, Peter is walking on water to meet Jesus. And all of this is heightened by awe and fear as they recognize in Jesus, divine power.  But that moment, that instant as Peter stood on the edge of the boat might be a little like our childish experience on the edge of the ocean.
         You all recall what happens when as children we took the plunge?  We were thrilled and chilled and buoyant. I recall how delightful the ocean was. Once I got in the water the perspective was completely changed.  I could be a fish or a porpoise. The world was much different and it looked more like this. Once you are totally in the water the limits of the old world are changed.  This is true of Peter too as he walked mysteriously buoyed up.  This can be true of us too.  We can live and work and walk in a new and fearless perspective.  How great would it be to let go of all our land bound dreary fears and concerns and worries.  How great is it to have those times when we are living in deep trust with a God who wants to take our hand.  Where by the very power of God’s love and gaze we are buoyed up.
         But then Peter looked down and let fear rule him and he sunk till Jesus grabbed him. This reminds me too of what happens so often as we struggle in our spiritual life.  When we let fear rule us and we sink.  I have another moment from childhood at the beach that seems to speak to this moment.  So I’ll ask you to remember the time that you suddenly became afraid of the water or all the things that could be in water.  Do you remember?  For me it might have been 1975 when Spielberg’s Jaws came out.  But I think it was a little earlier, when something skimmed past me in the water and I was 13 or so and suddenly conscious in adolescence about how dangerous the world could seem.  Or maybe it was because that was the summer after my dad died.  We all learn to view the world and the ocean as dangerous and by extension all of life as dangerous and so we don’t plunge in. This was Peter’s issue and this is our issue. But if we are going to do something dynamic and real with our church and our faith and our lives, we need to make this plunge.
         We need a resurrected life, a deep trust and a God point of view. One thing that got me thinking about this is something called the “blue ocean strategy.”[1]

According to W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne, authors of Blue Ocean Strategy, the business world is divided into red oceans and blue oceans. In red oceans, companies try to outperform their rivals through head-to-head competition. They fight like sharks for the same limited profits, and their cutthroat competition turns the ocean a bloody red. In blue oceans, on the other hand, companies expand beyond existing boundaries, or they take their business into whole new areas. Competition becomes irrelevant because the rules of the game are still in the process of being created. Long-term success comes not from fighting competitors, but from creating “blue oceans”— untapped new market spaces ripe for growth.
         This is true in business, but it is also true in faith, in our individual faith and our church as a whole.  We need to be blue ocean Christians and a blue ocean church.  Could we jump into life and worship and maybe create whole new form of outreach? This church, this community and this world are ripe for growth. The problem is that we are stuck in red ocean thinking. —If we think that we’re in competition with other churches in our area, that worship only occurs at 11:00 on a Sunday, or that there are just not enough people out there who need the good news of Jesus Christ, then we are stuck in a red ocean mindset. 

         Jesus has a blue ocean strategy. Not in terms of business plans, but in terms of stepping into wholly uncharted waters. He turns away from the best practices of the scribes and the Pharisees, and takes his ministry in an entirely new direction. Jesus is anti-establishment, unconventional, and counterintuitive, outside the box. In the red ocean of first-century Palestine, the rule was, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But Jesus creates a blue ocean of “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44). Red ocean: Blessed are the strong. Blue ocean: Blessed are the meek. Red ocean: Blessed are the rich. Blue ocean: Blessed are the poor. Red ocean: Blessed are the warmongers. Blue ocean: Blessed are the peacemakers. Red ocean: Blessed are the satisfied. Blue ocean: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst. In the red ocean of scribes and Pharisees, godly people did not pollute themselves by eating and drinking with certain people. But in the blue ocean of Jesus, it’s a mark of honor to be called “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (11:19). 

In the red ocean of religious regulations, you were forbidden to pluck heads of grain on the Sabbath. But in the blue ocean that Jesus enters, famished disciples are free to forage, because “the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath” (12:1-8). 

In the red ocean 5,000 hungry people cannot be satisfied with five loaves and two fish. But in the blue ocean that Jesus creates, all of them eat and are filled. (14:13-21). 




         We have examples of a blue ocean faith right in our midst. One of our members Rich Gigilotti came to the session of Calvin with a passion and an idea that expands what church usually does. The idea is to engage in a new kind of mission, an after school program called Encompass Point. This program turns a red ocean experience into a blue ocean grace.  Unsupervised Teens are the most at risk in one particular time frame, the after school releases them and before parents are home from work.  This is the time when most drug or alcohol use is consumed. This is the time when teen crime happens. This afterschool gap is a dangerous time.  So Rich has created a program for Calvin to help in a concrete way and a relational way. What if we turned this dangerous time into a time or fun, and learning and friendship and safety?  We have Kathy Efau and Kim Boyd home from the trip to Ghana, a mind blowing and world-expanding trip.  How can a trip abroad do anything for the growth of the church here?  Well if you want to see the truth of Jesus statement, “Blessed are the meek and the poor.”  Then go see the meek and poor and witness the tremendous and dynamic power of their faith.  And then bring that desire of God’s power right back here.  These are women who have seen and experienced blue ocean Christianity.  These are two examples of what happens when you hear Jesus call to you and you jump out of the boat and to jump right into the blue ocean.
         Let’s look at our scripture once again from a Blue Ocean viewpoint.  Jesus steps out onto a deep blue sea after a wild and windy night. I know many of you are laboring away in some small boat in a large stormy world. You are working hard. The wind and waves are against you. When morning comes, you slump over your oars, discouraged, exhausted and seasick. 

Suddenly Jesus appears, walking on the water. You’re shocked, surprised, stunned ... even terrified. Is it a hallucination? A ghost? A god? Certainly nothing human can walk on water. But then Jesus says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” (14:27). 

Jesus invites you to step into this blue ocean with him, and so you carefully put a foot out. You begin to make your way across the waves, but the wind suddenly whips up and startles you, and you begin to sink. Jesus reaches out, catches you, and chides you gently, “You of little faith, why did you doubt? (14:31). 

To succeed with a blue ocean strategy, you have to trust the power of God.  If you are called you can be held and supported, encouraged and blessed. 

        
         The Ocean is out there. 
If we dare to make such a move, we’ll discover that Jesus is way out ahead of us. He’s anxious to release us from outmoded rules and fears. He’s hoping to connect us with people who may never hear his story unless it comes to them through our words and our deeds. All this begins with our response to his invitation, “Come.” All this comes to life as we tap into God’s power, and trust Jesus to lead us across the deep blue sea. Then we’ll be a church that walks on water. 


 



Amen.


[1] Homiletics Online, A Blue Ocean Strategy, Aug. 7, 2005

Wrestling Untill Dawn, by Rev. Connie Frierson


Genesis 32:22-31  Jacob Wrestles at Peniel   NRSV
 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.



         I love this story of Jacob wrestling with the man, or the Angel, or with God, all the night long by the river.  This story springs to life for me. It is the archetype of the spiritual journey. It is an epic soul deep myth that reveals God, humanity, ego, past, pain, wounds, healing and transformation.  It is amazing what one long night of struggling with God can do. Jacob stopped for the night on his way home to a brother who understandably wanted to kill him and at the dawn he has a life long limp and a new identity. 
 
I’m not the only one who loves this story.  Lots of people identify with it. Artists have painted this image of a man wrestling with an angel of God is a 1000 different ways. It is a testament to the depth of this story that each artist interacts in a different and unique way. Here is a painting by Rembrandt.   Notice that it doesn’t seem like much of a fight from the angel’s point of view. While Jacob might be striving and pushing for all he is worth, the angel appears to be embracing not wrestling. From the angel’s point of view this is more a divine hug than a battle for supremacy.  Next is a painting by Chagall. I love the divine whimsy of this painting.  Jacob is purple with passion as he runs headlong to head butt the angel.  Here is a painting by a Dutchman, Bartholomeus Breenberg.  It seems to be all about the landscape and not by the tiny figures. Maybe he was making a point about the Glory of God’s creation. Gauguin puts giggling maids in the foreground, who aren’t in the biblical stories. But for Gauguin anything done that isn’t viewed or applauded by girls isn’t worth doing. Gauguin was always one for the ladies.  Edward Knipper is a Christian artist whose pictures hand in the Billy Graham Library and the Vatican.  This is perhaps my favorite.  The cubist element show such fragmented energy swirling around Jacob.  Next we even have this story recreated in Legos. This is a story we can put ourselves into and some people put the story on their bodies in tattoos.  This is indeed one of the most important stories in the Old Testament about our relationship with God.

         But in order to get the most from this Jacob vs. Angel Smack Down, we need to understand a little of Jacob’s back story.  The very name of Jacob, describes Jacob. Jacob means heel grabber or supplanter, or even cheater, deceiver, schemer, and crook.  Jacob was the second born twin. From birth Jacob was wrestling and wrestling dirty for power and wealth. It is said that he grabbed his brother’s heel as Esau was born. Later Jacob gets his hungry, brawny, dimmer brother to give him is birth right, his inheritance, for a bowl of stew. Then Jacob connives to trick his aging, blind father, Isaac, to give him his brother’s blessing.  Jacob pretends to be Esau. Isaac isn’t sure who this is and asks, “Who are you?”  Jacob replies, “I am Esau.” And steals his father’s blessing. After all those shenanigans, Jacob has to run away from home, or his brother Esau will kill him. He runs away to his uncle Laban, an even greater trickster and the cheater. Jacob gets cheated in the marriage mart. But eventually he does well and now, years later, he is on his way home to make up with his brother or be killed by him. 
         These are all the events that lead up to this one night alone on the banks of the Jabbok River. On this night Jacob is about to go home. He is trying to make it up to his wronged brother. He is going back to repent and face his sins against his brother. He may well be facing death as word has reached him that Esau is riding with 400 men to meet him. So Jacob has sent this wives and maids and children and flocks and men across the river and is alone on this pivotal night. You can see that Jacob has a lot to wrestle with on this night. He has a lifetime of bad behavior to mull over and tomorrow it may all come home to roost. There is nothing like mortal danger to bring about some deep reflection.  Someone once said that God whispers to us in our pleasures but shouts to us in our pain.  It is into this time critical and painful night that Jacob wrestles with God. 
         So what can we learn from this story?  First, it is critical to get alone with God.  We have a culture that thrives on distraction. More than any other times before, we never have to be alone with ourselves or our thoughts or our God.  We have media, music, iPods and cell phones, the web at our fingertips. So we need never have quietness.  Even in our spiritual life, we can out source our spiritual growth. Now it can be my job or Graham’s job or your spouse’s job, or your favorite radio or TV preacher or guru to grow your relationship with God.  All these sources can help. But at the end it is necessary for each person to as Paul writes, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12).  Our relationship to God grows in community. But our relationship with God also requires one on one time. When you are alone with God you can answer the question Jacob answered. Who are you?  What is your name?  We can be honest about ourselves and then we can have a real start with God. 
         This brings us to the second lesson. Use your real name as you wrestle with God. The mysterious man in the wrestling match asks Jacob what his name is.  Why did he do this? God had been pursuing Jacob for years. God is all-powerful and all knowing. Why ask?  God is calling Jacob to relive the last time he asked for a blessing, when he stole his brother’s blessing.  When Jacob masqueraded as Esau to receive his father’s blessing, Isaac wasn’t sure this was Esau. Isaac asked, “Is this you? Esau?  And Jacob lied and pretended to be someone he was not.  So this agent of God asks Jacob’s name.  Jacob answers the truth, that he is Jacob, the schemer and grabber and cheat. There is always a humbling truth to be face, an embarrassing reality about who we are and what we have been. The blessings that God wants to bring to us can only be given when we start with truth.
         Wrestle until dawn. Be persistent.  Jacob wrestles all night.  I used to watch my son wrestle in school.  The wrestling matches consist of 3, 2-minute rounds.  Wrestler pushes and grabs and grapples for all they are worth for 2 minutes.  Then they restart and go again, and then again.  In all that is 6 minutes. Now in a hard fought match each wrestler is giving it his all for that eternity of two minutes.  But getting to the bottom of whom we are and who God is, takes longer than 6 minutes.  Too often we are dabbler and not serious searchers.  There is a quality in Jacob that will not let go that we need to emulate. We need to hold fast, return again and again in prayer, silence and practice our faith.          
         There is a woman who reminds me of Jacob; who had Jacob’s persistence, who met God alone and without distraction, who didn’t hide behind any false self as she wrestled with God.  This woman is named Jeanne Safer.  Jeanna is a therapist, a PhD and an author. One of her particular areas of study and therapy are conflicts between siblings.  So perhaps that is what leads her to think about the Jacob and Esau story more closely. But one day Jeanne was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia.  She had been feeling tired. She had no energy.  She had been bruising easily. But one day as she watched a bruise bloom in seconds on her arm. She got herself to a doctor. The doctor immediately ordered blood tests and she could tell that the diagnosis was really serious.  She had almost no platelets in her body.  She didn’t know it but she was one small bump away from uncontrollable hemorrhaging. The treatment started immediately. She was put in the hospital for one month of round the clock intravenous medical intervention and then one year of outpatient chemotherapy, one month on, one month off.  She gave herself over to the medical treatments but she understood that she had to fight for her self in a different way.  As she was admitted to the hospital for this grueling intervention, she redecorated her hospital room. She put one of her favorite rugs over the TV. So she wouldn’t be tempted to zone out, she kept books and images of faith around her. She would take grueling walks down the hallways. She passed windows that opened up into look at brick walls of other wings of the hospitals or bare, brick lined air shafts. But at the end of one hall there was a window that showed one tough, tenacious weed.  She wrote that a dandelion would be exotic compared to this scraggly weed.  But she thought of herself as that weed. The image that she would not let go of was of Jacob wrestling with the Angel of God.  She would not let go until she got her blessing from this suffering. Whatever happened until she had her blessing, whatever that blessing would be.
         When we do these things, when we get alone with God, bring our real selves and call ourselves by our real names, when we persistently wrestle for a blessing, then God does indeed bless us. But that blessing often means that we are forever different.
Jacob received a new name.  Name changing is profound, Abram became Abraham, Simon became Peter, and Saul became Paul.  The point of this entire struggle isn’t that you walk away your same old self, but with a bonus in your pocket. Meeting God and receiving God’s blessing changes us.  Jacob became Israel. And Israel limped forever afterward.  When we meet God in our wrestling we come away with a true knowledge that may make us less in the eyes of the world.  Israel came to know that he was dependant on God.  People who meet God generally realize that their illusion of self-sufficiency strength was just that, an illusion, a lie we tell ourselves.   Young Jacob walked without a limp and caused havoc wherever he went.  But Israel can walk confidently and humbly leaning on God. 
         So as I look out today. It would be best if we all had a little hitch in our giddy-up, a little dependence on God’s spirit, a leaning in humility our God.  If you wrestle for a blessing you will come away with a new name, beloved of God.
Amen