Archive for September, 2012

Breaking the cycle

We’re reading about Joseph this week, and the way that Joseph’s choice to forgive in Genesis 50 broke the cycle of envy and revenge in Genesis.  This quote from Brian McLaren – in a CNN blog post about Islam-Christian relations – drives home the need to break the same cycle today.

No one can serve two masters. You can’t serve God and greed, nor can you serve God and fear, nor God and hate.

The broad highway of us-them thinking and the offense-outrage-revenge reaction cycle leads to self-destruction. There is a better way, the way of Christ who, when reviled, did not revile in return, who when insulted, did not insult in return, and who taught his followers to love even those who define themselves as enemies.

To choose the way of Christ is not appeasement. It is not being a “sympathizer.”

The way of Christ is a gentle strength that transcends the vicious cycles of offense-outrage-revenge.

You can read the whole article here:  http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/09/15/my-take-its-time-for-islamophobic-evangelicals-to-choose/ 


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The Story, Week 3

Living Plan B:  God Still Provides

Genesis 17:1-8, 15-22, 21:1-7 and Hebrews 11:8-20


I saw a quote on Facebook this week:

‎”Sometimes, in order to be happy in the present moment, you have to be willing to give up hope for a better past.” – Robert Holden

That seems to be where we are in The Story this week.  Where we ended last week:  Plan A…the perfect world in which God walked and talked with God’s people…has been destroyed by sin.  Now what?

We find ourselves living in Plan B…it seems we have to give up hope for a perfect world, a better past…things will never be quite the same again.  Sin is not without consequence.

But – that the story continues at all this week tells us, right off the bat, that sin doesn’t get the last word.  God doesn’t give up… God is merciful enough to keep at it, try again with us.

Trying again – God’s Plan B.  Like a parent or a teacher who has had a particularly rough time with a child.  You step back, take a deep breath, walk off the frustration, or anger, or disappointment – and then try again.  You’re not going to give up because of one argument, one rough night.  You regroup, and try again.  You go for Plan B.

God’s plan B takes shape through one particular family who is “blessed to be a blessing.”  In the Bible, blessings are always given in order to be shared.  As if God is thinking:  if I can get just this one to trust me, then they can carry my words and my blessing to others.  It only takes one.

The story that began with a cosmic account of creation…and continued through a flood that destroyed all…Now, the camera zooms in until one man, one family fills the whole screen.  The story continues with a man named Abram, his wife Sarai, and in time, their children and grandchildren.

Abram and Sarai are not likely candidates for God to choose.  For one thing, they are old.  Past their prime.  And even once God addresses that problem, and Sarai bears a promised child – there are other problems – little things like lying, and fighting, and stealing, and doubting.

Abram and Sarai certainly do not have a perfect family – not much better than the one we’ve already seen, in fact!  Instead of one brother murdering another (Cain & Abel), we have one brother stealing from another (Jacob & Esau)!  So how is it that Plan B does not, also, end in disaster?

The basic truth is this:  Plan B doesn’t end in disaster because it doesn’t depend on them.  It depends on God.

Plan B, for God, comes in the form of a covenant.  A covenant is not like a contract.  A contract is void if either party fails to fulfill the terms of the contract.  If you do A, I’ll do B.  But a covenant – a covenant remains in effect no matter what the other party does.  If I covenant to do something, I am bound to do it – regardless of what you do.

There are consequences to breaking a covenant, of course.  And Abraham will feel those consequences ripple through his family life when he fails to trust God and tries to set off on his own.  But the consequences – the curses of the covenant – do not free the other party from upholding their end of the covenant.  God will still be faithful.

So God makes a covenant with Abram and Sarai.  It’s a covenant that reminds us of the original plan of God.  Remember in the Garden of Eden, when God walked and talked with God’s people?  The perfect combination of place, presence and people.  When that original plan was destroyed by sin, the place was abandoned, God’s presence removed, and the people were scattered – both physically, from the garden, and also emotionally, from each other.  Place, presence and people were all broken by sin.

Now, by covenant with Abram and Sarai, God promises place, presence and people again.  God promises to give them a land in which to live – a place.  To be with them as they go, and bless them when they arrive – God’s presence.  And to provide for them a child, who will produce descendants as numerous as the stars – God’s people.  God’s Plan B restores place, presence and people

For Abram and Sarai, God’s covenant begins with another p-word:  Promise.  It begins with a promise to an old man, well past childrearing years, that his wife will bear a son who will become father of many nations.  It’s a promise that doesn’t make sense.  Isn’t rational.  But they believe it, if a little skeptically.  They trust that it might come to be, this to-good-to-be-true promise.

But then, time goes by.  They begin to wonder if they imagined it all.  The promise has to be repeated, over and over again.  Abram isn’t sure.  Sarai isn’t sure.  Doubt creeps in, and then outright disbelief.  But even then, in their better moments, they trust enough to act on the promise and see where it will lead.

Where that promise leads, first, is to a foreign land – a land far from home and family.  It hardly seems like the place where they will find God.  And yet, that land that becomes a place of blessing for them.  Abram grows wealthy – so wealthy he has to split the wealth with his nephew Lot and go separate ways so that their wealth can continue to expand.  Abram receives much blessing from God.  It is a place where Abram and Sarai experience God’s presence.

But they do not receive, yet, the fulfillment of the promise of people.  Material wealth isn’t the totality of God’s blessing.  God promises Abram – and us – more than that.  God promises people with whom we share life, and love.

Abram struggles to sustain belief over the years.  Can you blame him?  He was something like 75 when he first heard God’s promise that he would be a child.  Hebrew numbers aren’t totally clear to us, but it seems as if some decades pass – perhaps 25 years or more – and Abram still doesn’t have the promised heir.  Their longing for a child remains, and grows.

Those years aren’t all patience and perfect trust on Abram’s part.  There is compromise – I’ll sleep with Hagar.  And jealousy – send her away!  And lament – plenty of lament.

Lament, Scripture seems to tell us, is how God’s people often respond when God’s promises seem unfulfilled.  Lament gives us a way to keep our relationship with God alive in difficult times, when we feel desperate or angry or despairing.

So Abraham laments:  “God, where is the son you promised?  God, how shall I know that you will do what you say?  Why should I believe you now, after so long?”

But even in the midst of lament, the covenant serves as an anchor.  God has promised.  God continues to reiterate the promise.  God gives Abraham reminders along the way – the stars in the sky.  A new name.  Tangible things that remind Abraham every day of God’s promise yet to be fulfilled.

And in time, the longed for child arrives.  Isaac – son of laughter, his name means.  A child who brought such joy.  The promise that God will restore God’s people just might come true afterall.

Or – will it?  Just as we – with Abraham and Sarah – begin to believe that God’s Plan B actually might work out for the best – there comes that troubling story of sacrifice.

I don’t know why God asks Abraham to sacrifice his long-awaited son just as he reaches adulthood.  I don’t understand why such a violent act should be lifted up as an act of faith.

I wonder, quite frankly, if Abraham heard right.  He already took things into his own hands with Hagar, and that didn’t go so well.

Maybe this is another example of Abraham trying to do it his way.  Perhaps his well-meaning desire to please God led him to over-zealous faith.  Don’t we see that today?  People who believe they are acting in the name of God, when their actions seem so contrary to godliness, to the rest of the world?

Like some of you, I simple don’t know what to do with this story of Abraham and Isaac up on a mountain.  It does not make sense to me that a loving, merciful God who knows the number of hairs on our head would ever ask for our intentional violent death.

I don’t get it.  But I don’t have to get it.  What I do know is this:  Abraham did his very best to follow God, even when it didn’t make sense.  And God provided a way forward that did make sense.

And that, I think, is the heart of the matter.  When we’re living in Plan B – as we all are, this side of the first human sin – then sometimes the way forward won’t be clear.  Sometimes the right thing isn’t obvious.  Sometimes, even when we want to please God, we just won’t know how.

In those moments, I think, we pray like crazy and then take a step forward.  Not because “God helps those who help themselves.”  That isn’t in the Bible, despite the frequency with which we quote it.  What is in the Bible is this:  “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28)

Whether Abraham heard God correctly or not, he acted out of faith and trust that God will provide.  Sometimes we become paralyzed by our own perfectionism, frightened to do anything for fear of doing the wrong thing.

This story frees us to make the decision we need to make as best we can, and then trust that God will take care of the details.  I think the heart of Abraham’s faith, for which he was commended, lies in his willingness to step out when the path ahead wasn’t visible.  To trust that God would provide.

And the good news is that God did provide exactly what Abraham and Isaac needed in that moment.

Perhaps Abraham had heard God calling, and because he obeyed, God rewarded him by sparing Isaac’s life.  Or perhaps, Abraham hadn’t heard quite right – but God honored his whole-hearted desire to obey by righting the wrong and bringing good out of it anyway.

We’ll never know which it was, of course.  Either way, God provided.  And I believe he did so not because Abraham had perfect faith, but because he acted, however tentatively, on whatever faith he had.

What we know, and trust, and believe, with Abraham, is this:  God is still with us as we live Plan B.  And God will provide for our needs.  Because God has promised to work for good even through our faltering attempts at faith.  Thanks be to God!

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Hi, ya’ll.  Feels like Sunday was a year ago.  But it’s only Tuesday.  Here’s the first sermon of our 9-month journey through Scripture.

“Living Plan B”

Text:  Genesis 1-9; The Story, Ch. 1.


It’s here!  All summer, we’ve been preparing for The Story…today we begin.  And what better place to begin than…in the beginning!  The Bible’s version of “once upon a time…”

What follows “In the beginning…” are some of the most familiar stories in Scripture – Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark.  Most of us know them well.  Even people who claim no religious affiliation at all decorate their nurseries with Noah’s ark themed bedding!  These beginning stories are, in some ways, part of our collective conscience.

And yet – they raise a lot of questions.

Why, for example, are there two creation stories?  (Did you notice there were two?  And that they don’t agree?)

The simple answer is that two different authors wrote them, at different times for different reasons.

The first story – Genesis 1 – is a carefully crafted, beautifully poetic prelude to the story of God and God’s people.  We might say it is the series pitch for a new television series.  It introduces a world so dramatically different than our own:  a perfectly magical place in which progress exists without pollution and expansion occurs without extinction.  It’s the perfect setting for a love story between Creator and creatures to unfold.  The stage is set.

And that’s as far as Genesis 1 goes – just far enough to grab your attention and get you to tune in for the first episode of this drama.  And that first episode begins in Genesis 2.

But before we jump ahead, let’s look a little more carefully at Genesis 1.  It is immediately obvious that this series pitch has been carefully scripted.  It follows a beautifully lyrical pattern:  “And God said…and it was so…God saw that it was good…and there was evening and there was morning, the [first, second, third…] day.”  There is a symmetry and rhythm to the story that speaks of the intentionality of its author.

And what is the author’s intention?  Most scholars agree that Genesis 1 was written as an introduction to a history book – the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible that tell the history of the people of Israel.

It is likely that this history was drawn together by an editor – traditionally, Moses.  Moses probably didn’t actually write the history, but gathered oral traditions, genealogies, and political records into a single anthology.  And when he did so, he provided an introduction to the anthology, an interpretive lens through which those sources ought to be read.

That interpretive lens is the creation account in Genesis 1.  It reflects the worldview of the Hebrew people at the time of Moses.

Their understanding of geology, for example, would have been land suspended between two waters – a dome of water above, from which the rains fell down, and a dome of water below, from which the oceans and the streams bubbled up.  So on the second day in Genesis 1, God separates the waters from the waters – and then, on day three, dry ground emerges from the lower dome of water, creating land and sea.  The account isn’t intended to teach science, but it is consistent with an ancient scientific understanding of how the world worked.

Similarly, on day four, sun, moon and stars are created.  Light has already emerged on day one – not inconsistent with what we call the Big Bang Theory (the scientific version, not the television show!).  Later, on day four, particular lights are placed in the upper dome to give light to the earth.  In an ancient world where many people worshipped the sun and moon as divine beings, the Biblical story tells us that sun and moon are part of the created world.  They are not divine, but made by the Divine!

Such details would have been especially important to Moses as he wrote a history explaining Israel’s religious identity.  They were a monotheistic people – believing in one God – while most of their neighbors would have believed in many gods.  Why would an author go out of his way to describe each detail of creation in step-by-step fashion?  To make clear where the line between Creator and creation lies.  To introduce them to the Creator God.  Genesis 1 introduces a larger history of a particular people by teaching them their creaturely identity and their relationship to their Creator.

So if Genesis 1 is the series pitch, that introduces the whole story – what about Genesis 2?  Why do we need it?

Well, Genesis 2 is the opening scene of the first episode of the series.  That premiere episode begins with creation, continues with rebellion, and ends with un-creation or de-creation, in the form of a flood.  It extends from Genesis 2:4 through Genesis 9.

We have in the opening scene a careful introduction of the main characters.  The focus here is on relationship – on God’s relationship with human beings; on human relationships with the rest of the created world; and on the relationships among human beings.  There is less attention to when and how creation occurred, and more attention to who was involved.  The cameras zoom in on divine-human encounters in the garden and the conversations that occur between them.  When the raw footage reaches the editing room, it is the development of relationships that determine the order that the clips are spliced together, rather than the chronology of it all.

And so we have seeming inconsistencies with Genesis 1 – but we also have a beautiful, tender account of a loving God who breathes his own breath into dust of the earth to form a living being that bears the divine image.  We have a man longing for companionship, who finds his beloved in another being so like him and yet so distinctly, wonderfully different.  And they together share a vocation and a life-purpose of caring for the land and the animals and the whole of creation.

It is a perfect world.  God talks with them in the garden that is theirs to enjoy.  They are together in every way and unashamed.  Life is good!

Perhaps this is when we cut to a commercial break – or jump off the couch to grab a bite to eat.  And when we return, things have taken a dramatic turn for the worse!

As we enter the third chapter of Genesis, Eve speaks to a crafty serpent, and Adam is with her as they choose to listen to his voice over God’s voice.  The actors decide that they can write a better storyline themselves, and they try to take over the director’s job.

And from there, it all falls apart.  This first episode, that opened with so much promise, ends with a reversal of all the good that has already happened.

The seven days of creation began with God calling forth order out “formless and void” waters of chaos.  Now, in Genesis 7:10-11, the waters spill over their boundaries and the earth becomes, again, “formless and void,” engulfed by water.  The flood is a de-creation, a reversal of the creation event.  We are back where we started, in utter darkness.

And the credits roll on episode 1 of this series.

And at this point, we might think – why bother with this?  Its one thing for a story to draw us into suspense and tug at our heartstrings, but must it end so bleakly?  Why bother to tune in to see what comes next?  The beauty of this perfect world that so captured our imaginations has already been destroyed.  We didn’t even get to linger there for few episodes before it fell apart.

Why bother with this story at all?

The “why bother” is answered by the shimmering colors of a rainbow breaking through the darkness as the credits close.  The Creator God who was merciful enough to clothe Adam and Eve in their shame was also merciful enough to save human and created life.  And now, that God makes a promise in the form of a rainbow that destruction is not the end of the story.

Why bother with this story?  Because it is our story.

We find ourselves in it.  We recognize ourselves in Adam and Eve, who want what they can’t have and who know right from wrong and still choose the wrong.  Isn’t that us?  Don’t we do that?

Why bother with this story?  Because the rainbow gives us hope that God blesses Plan B’s.  Most of us don’t have the good fortune to live “Plan A” our whole lives.  Things happen.  We make decisions that muck up the path God planned for us.  Other people make decisions that get in the way.  Simply put:  sin messes up “Plan A.”  And hopes are dashed, we feel lost and alone.

The next episodes of this series – Abraham, Joseph, Moses – are all about learning to live Plan B – and C, D, E and F.  They are about seeking God when we feel abandoned and forgotten; about forgiving ourselves and others; and about trusting in a merciful God when we live in an unyielding and unmerciful world.  About following God while we live Plan B.

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I preach from extensive notes, not a full manuscript.  I’ve filled in the gaps here and there so that the ideas flow on screen, but please excuse the grammatical short-cuts.  Writing the spoken word is not like writing the written word!

I am highly indebted to Rev. Adam Hamilton for parts of this message.  While I never use a sermon that is not my own word-for-word, I have relied more heavily than usual on his insights.  To listen to HIS sermon on this subject, go to:  http://www.cor.org/worship/sermon-archives/show/sermons/Making-Sense-of-the-Bible/.  It is well worth the time!

And here is my sermon:  “Many Stories, One Story, God’s Story”


What is the Bible?  Lots of answers…

  • Best-selling book of all time
  • Ink on a page
    • 375 mL of ink printing 777,692 words on 875 pages – give or take a few!
    • A Library – a collection of 66 books, divided into two “testaments” (witnesses), each with their own unique point of view and occasion for writing
    • Yet…One Story

Lots of ways to read that one story…

You can legitimately read the Bible as ancient mythology, for example.  Genesis is often read alongside Gilgamesh, for example.  Interesting parallels…thoughtful reflection on human experience of life…

Similar…study the Bible as a historical document.  Then you’ll find that the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts are remarkably well preserved.  There are thousands of copies of the Old Testament, and perhaps as many as 25,000 of the New Testament – but only about 650 copies of Homer’s Iliad, the next most well-preserved ancient literature.

Reading the Bible as literature or as historical document is legitimate; it is both!  It was written by human authors in particular times and places, and can be studied just like other literary work might be studied.

But…reading that way isn’t really Christian.  It isn’t contradictory with Christian reading.  But it doesn’t require any commitment to the text other than as interesting writing.

So how do we read the Bible, as Christians?

  • Like an owners’ manual.  The acronym:  Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.

Problem – Bible doesn’t really work that way.  If we’re expecting simple step-by-step instructions for life’s difficult moments, we’ll be disappointed.

  • Like a Magic 8 Ball.  The old joke about playing Bible Roulette:  Open your Bible randomly to a page, and read wherever your finger falls.
    • Judas hung himself.
    • Go thou and do likewise.

Probably not the best way to read the Bible!

  • Like a textbook.  Does the Bible contain historical information?  Sure.  But its emphasis is more on why events in history occurred, rather than how they happened.  Biblical authors were not writing with the intention of teaching historical fact or scientific theory, and we shouldn’t expect all the details to be spelled out as if they were.  There is much in the Bible that is fully consistent with what we know of history and science, but there are also inconsistencies that might be attributed to literary genre, cultural context and scribal liberties.  These do not negate the truth of the Bible.

All of these are valid ways of reading the Bible, at some point in our lives, and for particular reasons.  They aren’t wrong.

But we want to read the Bible as more than just ancient mythology, historical document, owners’ manual, answer guide, or textbook.  How, then, do we read it?

We read it as ONE STORY.  One story that sweeps across history that changes the world.  All the particular stories – of Abraham, Moses, David, Paul, Peter, even Jesus – all of those stories point to the overarching story of God and what God has done.  They are all humans who appear as supporting characters in God’s story – not the other way around.

God’s story – as told in…

66 books

1189 chapters

31,173 verses

…and written over 1400 years

by more than 40 individual authors

It’s a big story!  But I told our confirmation students last spring, it’s a story we can summarize in 30 seconds.

It starts with God – a God who has so much love to give that creation spills forth, so that God has something to love.  And that creation culminates in the creation of men and women, people made in the image of God, to love and be loved.

So the story begins with God and God’s people, together.  God takes afternoon strolls through the garden with them!

And then…and then sin gets in the way.  Adam and Eve choose to go against God, to separate themselves from God.  And the result is that they are ashamed to be seen by God, to be known.  They are cast out of the garden, away from God’s presence.  God and God’s people are torn apart by sin.

The whole rest of the story – from the third chapter of Genesis clear through Revelation – is God doing WHATEVER IT TAKES to be with God’s beloved people again.  The Tabernacle and then the Temple allow God’s presence to be near – but still separate from the people.  Prophets speak of God – but there is still a barrier.

And then, finally, God removes that barrier once and for all.  God takes on flesh.  Comes to people as one of them – Immanuel, God with us – Jesus.  And Jesus takes on all the pain and the suffering and the sin that separates us from God, and at his death the Temple curtain is torn in two – the barrier is removed.  There is a way for God to be with God’s people again!

And now we live toward the time, at the end of time, when there will be no more sorrow, no more tears, no more pain to separate us from God’s presence.  The veil that was torn will be removed completely, and God will be with God’s people again in a gleaming new city of God.

That’s the Biblical story – a story that gives life and changes the world.  God’s story.

Story – narrative – “has a capacity for embodying complexity…for holding in tension competing ideas…and for transformation…”  (Between Two Horizons, Green & Turner, p 17).  It isn’t as black-and-white as an answer guide, or as obvious as a well-written instruction manual.  But stories can hold truth in a way that lists and bullet points can’t.

We live in a polarized world.  We don’t need more “basic instructions for living” or more sound-byte ideology.  What we need is narrative – sustained attention to a story that can draw together the disparate, divided poles of our lives, our country and our world.  A story that has room enough for rich and poor, Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, to find meaning in its pages.

I believe that the Bible is that story that speaks to us across cultural divides, economic disparities, and political disagreements.  I believe it is a story that provides meaning and context for the best moments of our lives, the worst moments of our lives, and the mundane moments of our lives.  I believe it is a story in which we encounter God.

So I invite you to read that story with me…and to read it in three ways:

  1. Seeking to submit to the text.  Understanding that it will – should – can – change us.  Challenge us.  Call into question our assumptions.  Make us think differently about ourselves, our world.
  2. Keeping the whole story in mind.  There will be parts we don’t understand or just plain don’t like.  Apparent contradictions.  Seemingly unnecessary violence.  Parts that seem discredited by today’s scientific understanding.  I don’t believe we should ignore those things.  We’re not asked to read it uncritically, but thoughtfully.  Wrestle with the difficult parts.  Read one part in light of another.  Realize that some parts may only make sense when the story reaches completion at the end of time.
  3. Acknowledge that it is God who speaks to us in this story.  As such, it is “able to make you wise for salvation…God-breathed, useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training and righteousness, so that the people of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work”  (2 Tim 3:16-17).

Scripture is God-breathed – some translations, inspired by God – this is the only place in Greek literature where this word is used.  It appears as if Paul made it up to explain the unique way that God speaks to us, inspires us, shapes us.  God spoke and we were created…through God’s words we continue to be created, molded, formed into the people God desires us to be.  Thanks be to God!

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