Sunday, August 28, 2011

Pentecost 11A

Don’t you wish it were that easy? Wouldn’t it be nice to have such clarity? Wouldn’t you want to have such a moment of certainty that you knew - for sure - what God wanted for you and your life?

Hearing directly from God is something I think we all yearn for. We long for certainty in a world of doubt. We try to hear God’s clear voice in our noisy and chaotic lives. And so we might look at this burning bush episode with envy.

For those of you who don’t know the story, or haven’t seen the movie or the cartoon, there is Moses, having just murdered some poor soul in Egypt, escaping to Goshen, finding a wife, having kids, and getting into the farming business with his father-in-law Jethro.

And that’s when Moses sees this burning bush, but does not become consumed by the flames. So he has to check this out because his eyes seem to be lying to him.

And that’s when Moses meets his God. And tells Moses that the cries of the oppressed Hebrew slaves in Egypt. And so God is sending Moses back to Egypt to rescue the thousands, if not millions, of slaves under pharaoh’s rule.

That’s quite the task. And Moses wonders if he’s up to the job.

Why did God choose Moses for this adventure?

Was it because Moses grew up in the imperial household, and knew all the power players?

Was it because Moses assembled a killer resume while in Egypt, building huge cities for his pharaoh, and God saw in him a natural leader who could speak with conviction and strength?

Was it because Moses knew that his one-time brother intimately, the one who now occupied the throne, and so Moses could exploit Rameses weaknesses to achieve freedom for their people?

That would make strategic sense given that pharaoh’s army was the strongest in the world, and his reach could summon a force greater than the mind could grasp. If God’s people were to be freed from this tyrant, they needed a leader equal to the task. And Moses looked like that leader.

At least on paper. His record of accomplishments was impressive. He had a first class education. He knew the Egyptian mind, and could speak the language. He was immersed in Egyptian culture and knew their stories. He looked like the obvious choice.

But if you read between the lines on his resume, you’d see a different Moses. A Moses who was conflicted. He was a man caught between two worlds. The Egyptian world he was adopted into. And the Hebrew world he born into, and later embraced.

He was caught between wanting to follow God’s will into Egypt to rescue his people, and living the comfortable life he had built with his wife and family in Goshen.

He was caught between want to do the work that God put in front of him, and knowing that he was wanted for murder back in Egypt, and would probably be tried and executed upon stepping on Egyptian soil.

For Moses, his path was anything but clear.

So maybe that burning bush episode is anything but something to envy. That encounter probably sent a shiver of fear down Moses’ vertebrae. His life as he knew it was over. He couldn’t pretend he didn’t hear from God on that mountain. And he couldn’t erase from his mind the fact that God asked him for the impossible.

I’ve always had trouble with the way they show this story in the movie. Charlton Heston’s Moses seems so earnest, so sure of his path, so spiritually elevated, that he doesn’t experience the conflict of his impossible situation. His character is so far removed from most of what we see and hear and feel about God, that I find it hard to relate to him.

That’s why I think the movies have it wrong. The movies make it look like Moses was chosen because he is such a strong leader and faithful servant of God who, may ask the occasional question, but nonetheless knows clearly that he’ll do whatever God asks him to do.

That’s why the movie gets it wrong. I think God chose Moses, not for his strength, but for his weakness. God wasn’t interested in Moses’ resume, God didn’t care about his knowledge of palace politics, God ignored Moses’ culture, education, and breeding.

God chose Moses because Moses was a stuttering, fearful, murderer. The only power that God would equip Moses with was God’s power. God stripped Moses of everything Moses had, and asked Moses to walk into enemy territory unarmed, but with one simple, four word message, “Let my people go.”

It takes a while, and a lot of pain and suffering on both sides, but pharaoh finally gives in. God’s people are free. Not because of Moses’ brilliant tactics, but because of the simple power of God’s message. “Let my people go.”

Of course we could say that Moses also had visible signs and wonders, and even the power over life and death, at his disposal. But we remember that Moses was only a vessel, or a mouthpiece. Moses could claim no credit for what God achieved. Only God could claim credit for this liberation.

So maybe that’s the good news after all. Since we’re not in charge of results, we can live in the freedom of knowing that our failures don’t meaning anything in God’s scheme. In fact, God uses your failures to create miracles. God uses your weaknesses to bring strength. You uses your hard fought battles to win God’s war.

It is in your falling that you rise.

And Doug and Lorraine, you continue in Moses’ footsteps. You will walk into the imperial halls of suffering and grief, armed with nothing but the word and promises of God. You will enter the fortress of despair and depression as mouthpieces of God’s liberating healing. You will confront the empire of pain and death with words of God’s freedom.

Doug and Lorraine, it’s your scars, not your strengths, that qualify you for this ministry. It’s your wounds, not your wins, that allow you to walk into peoples’ hurting lives.

Just like Moses, who could have traded on his inside knowledge of palace politics, who could have devised a plan of action based on his experience in pharaoh's house, realized that such a plan wasn’t God’s way of bringing healing.

Instead, Moses found out that God can use the stuttering tongue of a murderer to achieve freedom for God’s people. God stripped Moses of all his worldly power, and placed in his mouth words of liberation.

And that’s the same for all if you. It’s not the battles that you won that give you wisdom, but the battles that you’ve lost, and take a part of you down with it.

It’s not your achievements that qualify you for ministry in God’s church, but the wounds and scars that your wear so openly.

It’s not the easy successes or simple wins that put you on the front lines of God’s healing work, but the failures and the fights that authorize you to speak God’s words of freedom to those who are trapped in their own personal bondage.

Your most powerful work rises out of your pain. God looks down into the deepest, darkest, parts of your lives, the parts you’d rather keep hidden, the parts of your that you’re ashamed of, the parts of you that keep you from growing fully into who God wants you to be, and says, “Yes. This is something I cam work with. This is someone who knows what life is like. This is someone who came back from the battle and lived to tell about it.”

If God can use a murdering stutterer to speak an entire nation into freedom, God can and will use YOU.

It may not be the burning bush you see, but God calls you to be a healing presence in the world. And God only uses those scarred and bruised by life, to bring life and salvation to the world.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Pentecost 9A

They probably didn’t know what was going through his head. They don’t recognize their own brother even when he’s two feet away from them. And Joseph stands in front of his brothers, who have no clue who he is, wondering what he should say.

It had been decades since his brothers’ jealousy had driven them to sell Joseph into slavery. He’d been their father’s favourite. He had privileges that they were denied. When they were out in the fields, working their fingers to the bone under the scorching Canaanite sun, Joseph was inside reading books, learning languages, being taught skills that his brothers wouldn’t dream of having.

And those familiar with the story know that Joseph, as a slave, worked his way through the ranks of his master Potiphar’s household until Potiphar’s wife tried unsuccessfully to seduce him. She accuses him of trying to attack her, and Joseph is thrown in prison for seven years.

Even though Joseph gets out of jail, and had risen to highest position anyone could attain in Egypt except for Pharaoh, I would guess that his mind occasionally turned back toward Canaan, his home. He missed his father Jacob, whom he loved deeply. But I can only guess the level of hatred he felt for his brothers.

As Joseph’s thoughts turned toward home, he probably assumed that he’d never see his father again. After all, Jacob was already pretty old when Joseph last saw him.

And he also probably assumed that he’d never see his brothers again. He’d never have the opportunity to get back at the brothers who took everything from him.

But that life was a million years behind him. Or at least it seemed like it. Joseph had a new life. He had a wife and family. And he had an important job saving Egypt from starving to death. And he was successful beyond anything that anyone could hope or imagine. He was living a good life doing meaningful work with people who loved him.

So, when Joseph saw his brothers appear at his door asking for food, all his comfort and success all of a sudden meant nothing. All the memories of betrayal and abuse came flooding back.

Why did they have to come into his life again and open old wounds? Why did they have to come and remind him of everything he had lost? Why did they have to come and bring with them the ghosts of the past?

As Joseph stood there and looked into his brothers’ eyes, he probably wondered what to do next. His mind probably leaped to the moment so many years ago when the looks on his brothers’ faces told him that they were no longer his family but his enemies. His mind probably leaped to that day when he was staring down into the pit where his brothers tried to dump him. His mind probably leaped to that moment when he found himself in shackles and sold to the highest bidder.

His mind probably leaped to the humiliation of forced servitude, the rage over wasted years in prison, the despair of losing everything he had, home, family, a future that was of his own making, not a future thrown upon him.

His mind probably leaped to the injustice and the betrayal of his past.

Joseph probably fantasized of this moment, the moment when he could take from his brothers everything they had taken from him.

What would the revenge be? Would he provide a quick ending to their betraying little lives. Or would he draw out the pain over time, allowing their cries of agony to nestle warmly in his vengeful ears?

As Joseph stood there, all the anger and hatred of his past came flooding into his present. His was a story of jealousy and betrayal. Of family dysfunction and sibling rivalry. It was a story that he thought he had left behind. But at that moment as he looked into his brothers’ eyes, that story, the story of his past, consumed him.

The stories of the past are hard to escape. In my job I see this all the time. I hear lots of stories. Most of them painful.

I hear stories of abuse, be it physical, verbal, sexual, or spiritual abuse. I hear a lot of stories of grief. I hear lots of stories of rejection, of loss, of failure, of guilt, and of shame.

And when I hear those stories, it’s not the painful acts or traumatic events themselves that strike me. But what strikes me is how those injustices follow people throughout their lives. They’re like shadows hovering over peoples’ relationships, peoples’ choices, even their physical health.

People then become defined by their pain. Their identity is overwhelmed by the trauma of the past. They feel shackled by the harm done to them. They feel trapped in a cage of suffering, from which they don’t know how to escape.

It’s something we ALL struggle with. We all struggle with past trauma. We all hear voices of earlier loss or rejection or pain. We call carry within us, the burden of bearing someone else’s painful past. So that their story becomes our story, which we then share with others.

No matter how much you try to hide it, no matter how much to try to tell yourself it’s behind you, no matter how much you ignore it, it’s there.

Your past is there in the way you misconstrue a simple comment made by friend. Your past is there in how you overreact to bad news. Your past is there in tears after someone criticizes you.

Your past is there when you ignore wonderful opportunities lying at your feet. Your past is there you met accomplishment and success with guilt and shame rather than with joy and celebration.

Your past there when you look in the mirror, and all you can see is someone else’s negative opinion of you. Your past is there when the power of the previous years overwhelm the possibilities you see for the future.

As Joseph’s feet were fixed in place, and he was looking into his brothers’ unknowing eyes, I can only assume that his first, gut reaction, was to reach for his sword and cut them down where they stood.

But first reactions aren’t always the best reactions. And Joseph realized that no matter what they did to him he did NOT want to give them any more power over his life. He did NOT want their actions to define who he was. He did NOT want anger and bitterness to control his behaviour.

If he gave into revenge, he’d be allowing their actions to diminish him. And they would, once again, victimize him. And he was no one’s victim.

His brothers may have been responsible for his past. But they will NOT be responsible for his future. He would NOT give them that power.

I would imagine that that moment with his brothers, was the hardest moment of his life. The moment he turned from angry victim to forgiving brother. And at that moment of forgiveness, he got his family back.

I say that this moment was probably one of the hardest of his life because, too often, the anger and bitterness of injustices of the past do more harm than the injustices themselves. The voices of pain, trauma, abuse, and grief caused by others can be like voices shouting in our ears, drowning out any word of healing that you want to hear.

The story of guilt and shame, abuse and rejection, betrayal and loss, can overwhelm you, and wonder if your life will ever be any different.

But this is when Joseph suddenly realized that the story CAN change and DOES change, and IS changing. He suddenly realized that his story and his brother’s story wasn’t the only story. There is also God’s story. And that is the story that Joseph realized he wanted to live.

The story that Joseph now lived was a story of creation rather than destruction. It was a story of mercy and forgiveness rather than anger and revenge. It was a story of hope for tomorrow, peace between enemies, and strength in adversity. It was a story of life rather than death.

He realized that God’s story was already working within him. He realized that God’s story is stronger and bigger than any other their stories. God had brought Joseph and his brothers back together so they could live as a family again. God wouldn’t allow any injustice to define them. God wouldn’t allow any betrayal to keep them apart. God wouldn’t allow any anger or bitterness or abuse to keep them from being a family.

God was bigger than their past. God was bigger than their pain. God was bigger than their trauma.

And today God knows your past. God knows what has been done to you. God knows the pain, the injustice, the abuse, the grief, the rejection, and the loss.

And today God is saying that your past does NOT control your future. God is saying that the story of your painful yesterday is not the story of your healthy tomorrow. God is telling a different story in your life. God is telling a story of hope, of healing, of forgiveness, of peace, and of joy.

Your future is before you. And it’s not just your future. It’s God’s future. Your story isn’t finished. The pain of your past does NOT have power over your future. Your future belongs to God.

Someone else’s opinion of you is NOT your reality. God decides who you are, and God has declared you to be a beloved, forgiven, beautiful, and free child of God.

Your future will not be perfect. Your future will not be without pain or illness or grief. But God has given you power over anything that life throws at you. God has given you power over any betrayal, over any injustice, and over any loss. God has given you power over any rejection, over any conflict, and over any abuse.

God has given you this power because you belong to God. God is writing the story of your life. And God’s great and glorious future rests inside of you.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Pentecost 8A

Where does your life and faith connect? Is your faith something that you reflect upon only at church? Is your religious activity limited only to these four walls? How does what we do “here” impact what you do out “there?” Or even, more to the point, where is God’s best work being done?

In this story, known as the “Joseph saga” (Most of you know it as “Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”) the line between the earthly world and God’s world mists over to the point of being indistinguishable. God seems freer than what we might previously have thought. Which makes me wonder where God best work is actually being done.

On the surface this looks like a story of hard work paying off, with a little forgiveness and reconciliation thrown in to jerk a few theological tears. The stuff of good movies and snappy musicals.

But we have to look deeply into the details to see what God might be saying to us.

It starts with Joseph.

Joseph was the guy you hated in high school. You know the one I mean. The Golden Boy, the Favoured One, who was good at everything. He was captain of the football team and he dated the head cheerleader.

He won math awards, edited the school newspaper, played Hamlet in community theatre, sang solos at Christmas, and couldn’t decide whether he’d be a brain surgeon or a rocket scientist when he grew up, so he decided to do both. And you just knew he could pull it off.

You couldn’t stand him. Not just because he was better at everything than you were. You didn’t like him because he liked himself so much. His arrogance was breathtaking.

And he enjoyed showing off. But his Emotional I.Q. hovered around Charlie Sheen levels.

Joseph was oblivious to his brothers’ scowls. He didn’t notice their clenched jaws and furrowed brows. He simply didn’t see how badly his arrogance made his brothers wanted to smack that arrogant smug right off his conceited mug.

It’s no wonder that his brothers wanted to get rid of him. Joseph made them look bad. Really bad. And he flashed his egotistical white teeth while doing so.

You couldn’t accuse Joseph of putting on a show. He knew himself. He knew he was talented. He knew that he could succeed at anything he put his mind to.

Even his fantastical dreams stroked his ego. Some said his dreams were God’s dreams that lived inside him. Others believed he simply dreamt what he wanted his life to be. Maybe it was both.

But Joseph also knew what his values were. He may have been a conceited jerk but he knew what was expected of him.

When his brothers betrayed him and sold him into slavery, he worked hard in his master’s house, being promoted again and again until he ran the whole household, landing a fancy-schmancy new royal suit to wear. As far as slaves went, he reached the top.

But he knew that success in an imperial household meant less than the values his parents taught him about God.

So, when his master’s wife tried to seduce him, trying to use her power to fulfill her lustful desire, she can only grab his royal clothes, ripping them from his body, but leaving empty-handed. The clothes do not make this man. It is God’s dream living inside him that makes him who he is. And no earthly power can take that from him.

When he’s thrown in jail on the trumped-up charge of adultery he takes charge of the prison, tending to other prisoners’ needs, telling them God’s future for their lives. Good and ill.

And when Pharaoh’s nightmares taunted him, displaying a vision of both abundance and famine, his own imperial priests are stymied.

So Pharaoh was forced to turn to the prisoner Joseph to tell him God’s future. Joseph told Pharaoh what the dream meant: that there would be seven years of prosperity followed by seven years of famine.

Apparently, Pharaoh was impressed. The criminal becomes the ruler. Second in command. Only Pharaoh is greater. He is no longer Joseph. His name is now Zaphenath – paneah meaning “revealer of secrets” Or some say it means “God speaks: he lives!”

Zaphenath – paneah gets a shiny new chariot and a wife out of the deal. Not to mention a really cool job: saving the world’s only remaining superpower from starving to death.

This is where the line between God’s people and others blurs. Joseph doesn’t just get a great job with excellent benefits. He joins the inner-circle of the power elite.

He exchanges his Hebrew name for an pagan Egyptian one. And to keep his job he at least needs to pay lip service or ceremonial tribute to Pharaoh being some kind of divine being, if not a god. A definite no-no he learned in Canaanite Sunday School.

When Pharaoh’s dream comes true, and the economy goes south because of a famine, Joseph’s brothers come looking for food. Those who’ve seen the musical know what happens next.

Without revealing his identity, Joseph accuses his brothers of spying and stealing. He demands to see his younger brother. Whom they produce.

When Joseph reveals finally himself to his brothers, it’s interesting what he DOESN’T say. He doesn’t say “I am Zaphenath – paneah. The prince formerly known as Joseph.” He doesn’t say, I used to be one of you puny little people. Now look at me. You’ll suffer for what you did to me.”

Joseph isn’t hung up on titles or royalty. He knows who he REALLY is. And royalty means nothing to him. He’s bigger than that.

To identify himself he simply uses his plain, bare, Hebrew name. “I am Joseph,” he says. They thought he was dead. But he’s alive and saving the world through his work in Egypt.

His brothers were surprised. Not just because their brother is alive and successful in Egypt. But because of what God allowed to happen in order to keep the world from starving to death.

God wasn’t afraid to use Joseph to help save pagan Egypt from famine, and through Egypt, the whole world known to them. God wasn’t afraid to let Joseph become everything God despised in order to make it happen.

God wasn’t afraid of the cruelty of betrayal or the injustice of false imprisonment.

God wasn’t afraid of the pompousness of royalty, or the abuses of empire, or the idolatry of the Egyptian religions.

God’s only priority was rescuing people from being destroyed. And God trusted Joseph to do the rescuing because that’s who God chose to do that job.

God chose Joseph even if Joseph blurred the lines between faithful obedience and rank idolatry. God chose Joseph to help save a people who would not recognize God as God, a people who still maintained their own idolatrous religious practices, a people who ignored the massive miracle that God worked among them.

God chose Joseph because God trusted Joseph to use his gifts for God’s saving purposes.

And God trusts YOU. God trusts YOU to use YOUR gifts for God’s saving purposes.

When you are at work, at school, at Tim Horton’s, at the board meeting, on the soccer field or hockey rink, or at church, God trusts that YOU know who YOU are, and that you’ll be able to use your gifts for the life of the world.

God trusts that God’s dream lives inside of YOU, and you will live God’s dream with a joy and passion that can only come from God.

In your everyday, moment-by-moment encounters with life; at work, at school, with friends, among family, God trusts that YOU will use your gifts and live your faith in all that you do.

Even when others don’t recognize it. Even when you fail. God trusts you enough to pick you back up and use your failures for God’s gracious purposes, to minister to others in every corner of your life.

Me, I’ve got it easy. I can always hide behind my collar and people know what to expect from me. Whenever I’m tempted by the world I can simply put on my church clothes as a shield against those things that threaten to diminish me as a Christian. I can clothe myself with the institution, and hide within the safety of the church’s four walls.

You don’t have that option. You are Joseph. Yours is the greater witness. You’ve got the hard job. You have to walk the fine line between working with culture and not letting it define who you are. You have to work in a “me-first” world without submitting to its selfish temptations.

And it’s not easy. Because sometimes that misty line between God and world disappears completely.

But while you have to live in the tension between God’s world and our world, you also get to see where God is doing things, you get to see where life, joy, beauty, justice, and compassion are lived and celebrated. You get to see where the free and active God is working outside the safety of church walls.

You get to see what God is up to because you are making it happen. You are God’s hands, feet, voice, and heart,

Your life is your Christian mission. Your ministry starts just as soon as you walk out the door and into the rest of the world. We gather here together to remember who we are, to remember our story, so we can live that story in our lives.

Some say that we should be doing more - as a church - to engage the world, to be more active in outreach to our community, to be a larger Christian presence in a broken and hurting world.

And in many ways, those who say that are right. Being a Christian community means working as a group to share God’s love and mercy with those who desperately need it.

But I think that you’re already living your Christian mission. In your everyday encounters. In the way you use your gifts to enhance the life of those around you. In the small occasions of grace where words of hope and healing are heard and received.

That’s YOUR mission. That’s where God’s best work is being done.

May this be so among us. Amen.