Sunday, August 31, 2014

Pentecost 12A

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 and we might turn a noxious shade of green.

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

And life is good. Egypt is a thousand miles away and he’s a different person now. He’s embracing the simple joys of life among the sheep. He loves his wife, and it looks like he’s finally found himself. He settles into this easy existence.

But that’s when God shows up and takes it all away. Again.

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 venture?

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 pharaoh and overseeing a prosperous economy, and God saw in him a natural leader who could speak with conviction and strength?

Was it because Moses knew his one-time brother Rameses 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. After all, you have to fight strength with strength, right?

At least that’s what it looked like on paper. Moses’ record of accomplishments was impressive. He had a first class education. He knew the Egyptian mind, and could speak the language. He knew how their system work, and could navigate their politics masterfully. He was immersed in Egyptian culture and knew their history. 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.

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

Moses was caught between wanting 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.

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 had asked him to do the impossible.

He was conflicted and scared. Stuck in an outrageous situation with no means of escape.

And this is where 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 movie has it wrong. The movie makes 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 couldn’t have cared less about Moses’ record of achievement. God dismissed everything we look at when we choose a leader.

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.”

If you know the story you’ll know that 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 recognition for this liberation.

So maybe that’s the good news in this story. Since we’re not in charge of results, we can live in the freedom of knowing that 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. God uses battles and lost to win God’s war.

It is in your falling that you rise.

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

It’s your scars, not your strengths, that qualify you for this ministry of rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep. It’s your wounds, not your wins, that allow you to walk into peoples’ hurting lives. 

It’s the parts of your that others put down that God lifts up. It’s those moments when you’ve taken up your own cross with Jesus, and followed him into your own grave of fear, hopeless, and grief.

Moses could have traded on his inside knowledge of palace politics, he could have devised an action plan based on his experience in pharaoh's house to launch an attack against those who would enslave his people.

Instead, Moses found out that God can use the stuttering tongue of a murderer to achieve liberation for God’s people. Moses found out that records of achievement aren’t what God is looking for when God chooses someone for a job. Moses found out that earthly accomplishment is nothing but a flimsy veneer, a smoke screen thinly hiding our own insecurities when God stripped Moses of everything he had, his status, his success, his swagger, all his worldly power, and in their place, set in Moses' mouth God’s simple words of freedom.

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 brought you to your knees.

It’s not your achievements that qualify you for ministry in the church, but the wounds and scars that you try to cover up.

It’s not the easy successes or simple wins that put you on the front lines of God’s healing work, but it’s your failures and 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 moments of a memory that you’re ashamed of,
the stumbling blocks at your feet and the doors slammed in your face,
the scraped knees and the bruised hearts,
the crushed dreams and the thwarted ambitions,
the squandered past and future denied,
those times when you’ve landed face-first in the dirt and wondered if you’ll ever get up again, and God says, “Yes. This is someone I can work with. This is someone who knows what life is like. This is someone who’s fresh from battle and is living to tell about it.”

If God can use a stuttering murderer to speak an entire nation into freedom, God can and will use YOU. God will place words of liberation in your mouth when you recognize the suffering of others.

God puts God’s message of a new tomorrow on your heart to those who can’t see a future. God puts in your eyes the vision to see the path that leads from slavery into release from the chains that keep those stuck in the tyranny of a painful past.

It may not be a burning bush you see, but God calls you to be a healing presence. God is calling you be a liberation agent to those who are in bondage to sin. God is calling you to speak God’s message of a new and abundant tomorrow to those who can’t see that life can get better.

You are Moses. God only uses those scarred and bruised by life to bring salvation and freedom to the world.

And God sends you out, God arms you with one simple, four-word message: Let my people go!

May this be so among us. Amen.

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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Pentecost 11A

What a short memory they had.

“Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph...” the bible tells us. It’s a different book, but the story continues. How could Joseph be erased from memory? What Egyptian could forget Joseph? And so quickly. And if Pharaoh chose to forget who Joseph was, why didn’t anyone remind him?

Certainly they couldn’t forget that Joseph was the one who saved Egypt from starving to death. Surely they remembered that it was Joseph who managed the Egyptian economy so effectively that vanishing resources wouldn’t affect their prosperity.

But they forgot him.They ignored his achievements. And instead waged war on his legacy by enslaving his kin who came to live with him.

Pharaoh looked out his window and he was afraid. He was afraid that the Israelites - Joseph’s family - were growing too numerous, large enough to become a threat to his empire if they got their act together, organized themselves, and rose up against him. 

He was afraid that it would be him who would go down in history as the one who destroyed Egypt’s greatness. He was afraid that he would look weak when put up along side the great rulers of the past, rulers who made Egypt what it was.

Pharaoh ruled out of fear. Not out of a vision of a better tomorrow, or hope for a more abundant future. For him strength meant dominating others, oppressing and enslaving those under him, forcing them to build large cities to match his enormous ego. Ruthlessly starting wars with other countries simply to steal their riches.

People were just instruments to create his vision of himself, they were to be used to build his greatness, then be tossed away.

He ruled out of fear because he forgot Joseph. He forgot his peoples’ story. He forgot how this lowly slave from another country was lifted to the highest position he could attain in order to save a country that was could have been destroyed by drought. He forgot what God had done for them. And he put himself in God’s place.

He forgot his story.

But in his defense, that’s easy to do. Especially when we don’t KNOW our story. When we stop telling it.

I heard a lecture recently about a poll taken last year involving the biblical literacy levels of average churchgoers, asking them basic biblical questions.

The answers were depressing for any pastor. Many could not identify David as king. Some said that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. Others believed that “Christ” was Jesus’ family name and not his title. Some said that they would go to heaven when they died because they are “basically good people” and not because of what Jesus had done for them.

Furthermore, they mis-identified popular aphorisms as biblical passages. These ones especially are most often mistakenly named as scripture:

“The Lord helps those who helps themselves,” they say with great piety. But of course this was said by Benjamin Franklin, not Jesus or Paul or Isaiah.

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,” some utter as if it were biblical wisdom, but is actually a Chinese proverb and not from scripture.

“Neither a borrower nor lender be,” they hum with their best English accent which, but not realizing what is apparent to anyone who took grade 12 English that the quote is by Polonius from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and not a biblical proverb.

People didn’t know their story. And if they didn’t know their story how could they live it when they left church each Sunday.

And I suspect many of us would have similar problems telling our story to others let alone living it in our lives. Even among church folks, our story is less and less familiar.

I say this NOT to point the finger at anyone. It’s a different day than it was 20, 30, 40 or more years ago. Church used to be the social centre of peoples’ lives. It was the moral and spiritual gathering place for a society who had a silent agreement with the church, who was to play a significant part in people’s personal development.

But some say that churches abused this responsibility. And instead of being a place where people received love and and forgiveness, church became a place of rules and regulations. 

Instead of learning about care for others, justice for the oppressed, peace between enemies, healing for the sick, or resurrection for the dead, church became a place where power over people’s lives and behaviour was more important that setting people free in Jesus’ name.

As a pastor, most of the angriest anti-church people I encounter are those who’ve been hurt by the church. A brutally strict pastor who demanded rote bible memorization. A Sunday School teacher who yelled at her class and ordered her students to sit up straight and do what they were told. The oppressively boring confirmation classes that droned on for hours. The condemnation of other religions as “satanic.” Threats of eternal torture presented as “good news.” A place where people hate sin more than they love forgiveness.

When people lash out at us Christians, it’s often because of what we’re doing wrong rather than what we’re doing right.

Non-believers lash out at us when we try to dominate society and dictate to people what they should believe and how they should live. 

Non-church folks lash out at us Christians when we spend more time judging and condemning rather than loving and forgiving. 

Non-Christians lash out at us when we forget to live OUR story, and put religious language on the dominant culture’s - or Pharaoh’s story.

We think that if we occupy places of power than we can change the culture. If we elect the right people than we’ll take a leap forward for the kingdom of God. If we enact a specific political agenda, then we can force others to live according to our values.

We confuse what the world calls “power” with what God calls “power.”

God’s power is different. God’s story is not about wielding worldly authority. Just ask Pharaoh. He learned that lesson the hard way.

When Pharaoh forgot God’s story, God inserted Moses as a reminder. Moses was sent to be part of Pharaoh's family NOT because God wanted a good and righteous man in a position of power to rule over the nations. That’s not what happened because that’s not what God is interested in. Moses became part of the royal household to humble it, and to tell a different story.

Of course we know that the story took a long time to tell, and Moses often leaped between narratives. And it wasn’t until Moses returned to Pharaoh decades later after living a completely different life, with nothing in his hands but his shepherd’s staff and God’s power, to prove to Pharaoh the strength of God’s story.

But Pharaoh couldn’t hear it. He clung to that old story of power and empire and domination and oppression so tightly, that he lost a generation of Egypt’s first born.  He clasped his hands around that old story of anger and violence and selfishness that too many mothers buried too many sons because of it.

He grabbed hold of that old story of enlarged ego and unrestrained ambition until his actions affected him personally. Until finally, he had to admit defeat, he understood his story brought death, where God’s story brought freedom.

What’s YOUR story? How is YOUR story playing out in your life? What is driving YOU? How does your story and God’s story connect?

Is it a story of selfless service, giving to others without of thought to yourself? Or is it a relentless pursuit of prosperity, putting values aside and striving to get everything you ever wanted?

Or is it somewhere in between? A mixture of self-serving ambition and care for others. Perhaps even at the same time. Maybe forgetting which story is which.

That’s why we gather here each week. We Christians tell and live a unique story. We come to church to hear that story again and again and again and again and again, until it becomes part of us. 

You may not be able to quote the bible chapter and verse, and you may have forgotten everything you learned in confirmation, but I’ll bet that your life bears witness to God’s love in ways you don’t even recognize. I’ll bet you are living God’s story in ways you can name, and in ways you don’t even see.

That’s because God’s story is within you. God planted it there and watered it in baptism. You live God’s story because it is God who tells that story through you - and through us, together.

Of course, there are moments when we put up a fight, when we cling to that old story of selfishness and ego, of anger and violence, hurting those around us, hurting the world God made, and hurting ourselves.

And when we do, when we forget our story, when we insert ourselves in God’s place as chief-storyteller, God humbles us, calls us out, and reminds us of God’s story, where we all play a role in God’s story of freedom and forgiveness. God’s story of care and healing. And we then again live that story.

It’s a story that God has given YOU, a story that God put on your lips when you offer words of encouragement and forgiveness. It’s a story that God puts in your hands when you help someone up when they fall. It’s a story that God puts in your heart when you reach out in compassion.

It’s a story of generosity to those in need. It’s a story of be-friending those without a family. It’s a story of welcoming new faces.

It’s a story that Bryn has just been baptized into. It’s a story that God has included him in. It’s a story of life and love. It’s a story of abundant futures and vast possibilities. It’s a story of renewal, where God will use Bryn’s giftedness for service to others. It’s a story of healing and justice. It’s a story of freedom from whatever chains will threaten to weigh him down.

It’s a story that he might forget. It’s a story that WE might forget. But God certainly doesn’t. Despite our forgetfulness, God keeps telling that story over and over and over and over and over again, until we become that which we hear and receive, and the story ends when we join the chorus of those who are numbered within the narrative, the great company of storytellers, those whom God has drawn together to share how God has told the story through them, until all people reach that happy ending, and all voices join together in the finale of joy and peace.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Pentecost 10A

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 was their father’s favourite. He had privileges that they were denied.  And he rubbed their noses in it.

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, preparing him for a life that would not be available to them.

So, to get back at him, Joseph’s brothers picked up some beer money by selling him to the Ishmaelites, who then auction him off to an Egyptian military officer named Potiphar.

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 Canaan, 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. 

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 suddenly meant nothing. All the memories of betrayal and abuse came flooding back.

Why did they have to appear in 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 knock on his door and bring with them the ghosts of the past?

As Joseph stood there, looking 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 up from the pit where his brothers dumped him. His mind probably leaped to that moment when his hands and feet were in shackles and he was 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 life 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, was all he could see. Everything else; success, fame, prosperity, love, all disappeared. And all that remained was rage.

He’s not alone. 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 of painful pasts that accompany people into the present.

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

And when I hear those stories, it’s not the painful experiences 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 people’s relationships, people’s choices, even people’s physical health.

People then become defined by their pain. Their identity is overwhelmed by the trauma of the past. They feel shackled by their guilt or the harm they experienced. 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 suffering. We all hear voices of earlier loss or rejection or failure or pain. 

And 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. It becomes lodged in our DNA, which we unwittingly then pass on to the next generation.

No matter how much you try to hide it, no matter how much you try to tell yourself the past is 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 your tears after someone criticizes you.

Your past is there when you ignore wonderful opportunities lying at your feet.

Your past is there you meet accomplishment and success with guilt and shame rather than with joy and celebration.

Your past this there when you greet other people’s wins with jealousy and anger rather than praise and admiration.

Your past is 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 engulf 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, if he resorted to violence born from rage to exact his justice, he’d be no better than they were, he’d be allowing their actions to diminish him.  He would become one of them. 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. He got himself back.

I say that this moment was probably one of the hardest of his life because, too often, the anger and bitterness of past injustices that you hold on to do more harm than the injustices themselves. The voices of pain, suffering, abuse, failure, 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 realized that the story CAN change and DOES change, and IS changing. He 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. It was the story that grabbed hold of his life, and helped him see the world with fresh eyes.

The story that Joseph was now living is a story of creation rather than destruction. It is a story of mercy and forgiveness rather than anger and revenge. 

It is a story of hope for tomorrow, peace between enemies, and strength in adversity. It is a story of abundant tomorrows. It is a story of life rather than death.

Joseph realized that God’s story was already working within him. He saw that God’s story is stronger and bigger than any other of their stories. 

God had brought Joseph and his brothers back together so they could live as a family and learn something about themselves and about God. God brought them together so that they could see the world refreshed by the story that is being lived out in their lives. 

God wouldn’t allow any injustice to define them. God wouldn’t allow any betrayal from keeping them from being who God wanted them to be. God wouldn’t allow any anger or bitterness or abuse to keep them from living the vision that God had for them.

God was bigger than their past. God was bigger than their betrayal. God was bigger than their pain. God was bigger than their anger.

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, the failure, 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 of healing, of forgiveness, of peace, and of joy.

God is telling a story of possibility, of hopefulness, of second chances, of open doors, and pregnant futures.

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 tomorrow. 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 failure 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 defeat, over any conflict, and over any abuse.

God has given you this power, the power of the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of Life, because you belong to God. God is writing the story of your life.

And God’s great and glorious future, where the ending meets us in eternity, rests inside of you and in front of you, greeting you with love. 

May this be so among us. Amen.

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Sunday, August 10, 2014

Pentecost 9A

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 from the Old Testament, 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 imagined. Which makes me wonder where God best work is accomplished.

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 tears. The stuff of good novels 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 maturity. hovered around Justin Bieber 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 self-centredness made his brothers wanted to smack that arrogant smirk 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.

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.

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

It didn’t help that their father Jacob didn’t hide the fact that Joseph was his favourite. And gave him a expense cloak to prove it, a coat in which Joseph rubbed his brothers’ noses.

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 attempted rape, he takes charge of the prison, tending to other prisoners’ needs, telling them God’s future for their lives. Good and bad.

And when Pharaoh’s nightmares taunted him, displaying a vision of both abundance and famine, Pharaoh’s 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 the rest of the world 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 takes a dive 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 he has never met, but whom they produce.

When Joseph finally reveals 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 what I’ve become. You’ll suffer for what you did to me.”

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

To identify himself to his brothers he uses his plain, simple, bare, peasant, 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 what God is doing within and among us.

When you are at work, at school, sipping coffee at Tim Horton’s, making decisions at the board meeting, hustling on the soccer field or skating at the hockey rink, or worshipping 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 faithfulness.

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 robes and job title, 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 through those doors, then tightrope the fine line between working with culture and not letting it define you. 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.

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. And that work continues.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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Sunday, August 03, 2014

Pentecost 8A

Jacob was on his way home. He simply wanted to make things right. Guilt-ridden over the way he treated his twin brother Esau for stealing his birthright and snatching the blessing from their father Isaac, Jacob just wanted to say sorry for everything he had done to them.

He wanted to apologize for betraying his brother and humiliating his father. He wanted to apologize knowingly hurting those closest to him. He wanted to apologize for destroying the family.

God had asked him to return home and ask forgiveness from everyone he had harmed. While it wasn’t his idea, Jacob knew it was the right thing to do.

And he was going to do it himself. He didn’t ask God to solve his problems for him. Nor did he ask God to protect him against his brother Esau. Nor does he devise yet another clever trick to fool his brother into forgiving him.

Jacob merely prays for the strength to do the right thing. He prays for the courage to reconcile with his brother. He prays that he will have what it takes to set things right between him and Esau. Jacob simply prays that Esau will find it within himself to forgive his brother.

And it is at that moment, that moment in prayer, that Jacob is attacked. It’s night, the stars are hidden behind the clouds, and so Jacob can’t see his attacker. He has no idea who just jumped him. All he can feel is a sharp jab to his hip, knocking it out of its socket. They fight all night and Jacob could barely stand the pain.

Then the attacker says, “Let me go, the sun is coming up.”

But Jacob says, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”

Interesting request.

Does this mean that Jacob knew his attacker? From whom is he looking for a blessing?

It’s hard to say. No one really knows who this attacker is. Some say it’s an angel. Perhaps even Esau’s guardian angel. Others say it’s a demon out to prevent Jacob from reconciling with his brother. Still others see him as the personification of the dangers lurking in the darkness. And yet others say it’s God.

But I like what Rabbi Harold Kushner says. Rabbi Kushner notes that Jacob is alone. And that the attacker is exactly as strong as Jacob. No stronger, but no weaker. Which is why they can’t beat each other and they last all night.

The rabbi says, “The attacker, the angel, is Jacob’s conscience, the part of him that summons him to rise above his bad impulses. The struggle is between the part of him that wins by cleverness and fraud, and the part of him that feels summoned by God to climb a ladder to heaven, to become someone exemplary.” (Kushner, Living a Life That Matters p. 26)

In other words, Jacob is at war with himself. Yes, he is clever and gets what he wants through craftiness and deceit. He’s smart. Perhaps too smart. And he’s proud of his abilities because they have given him the life he’d been looking for, and helped him walk the path that God put in front of him.

But he also knows the cost his cleverness and deceit took on his relationships with others. Especially with his brother Esau and his dad Isaac. He regrets what he’s done to them. He feels cut off from his family. Estranged from his past. He’s lost. Without a history. Without a home.

So Jacob finds himself wrestling in the dark with an adversary that is his equal, because that adversary is himself.

“Then the man said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So the man 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.’

This fight was with himself. This battle was between his past and his future. This adversary was the competing impulses that turned every decision into a war.

What Rabbi Kushner doesn’t notice, however, is that it was God who put Jacob in all those impossible situations, knowing that the only way out of them was deceit and cunning, because those were the tools that Jacob was born with, those were the skills that God had given him..

Jacob clearly was the right person to receive the birthright, the inheritance of land and leadership, from their father Isaac, but Esau was the first born, and not up to the task. And since the birthright went to the oldest son, Jacob had to manufacture a way to obtain what was legally his brother’s, but divinely appointed to Jacob.

And Jacob, with his mother Rebekah as an accomplice, needed to receive the blessing from his blind father Isaac, so they schemed to steal the blessing away from Esau, the official passing of the reigns of authority, to Jacob and not Esau. So Jacob tricked a blind old man into giving to him something meant for someone else. This was the only way he could do the work that God had given him to do.

So, Jacob had been wrestling with God long before the midnight encounter at Jabbok. He’d been wrestling with God since before he was born. God wasn’t making it easy for Jacob to receive his destiny as the one to be called “Israel.” Jacob was always at war with himself, and with God.

“You have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” And he could also add, with striven with yourself and you have won. 

But that win came with a cost. Jacob was left with a limp that would remain with him for the rest of his life, reminding him of that night, reminding him of the battle between his worst instincts and his best self. Reminding him of his shameful past, which prepared him for his future. But also reminding him that he can be hurt by life and he can survive.

His limp, which would follow him for the rest of his life, was why he was now “Israel,” meaning “one who has striven with God” would be a constant reminder of the cost of being chosen by God.

This is a new day for Jacob, now called “Israel.” With a new name comes a new life, a new identity, a new way of seeing the world and his place in it. It was an affirmation of the victory of his better self over his worst impulses.

God had given him the name Israel, perhaps in admiration, and maybe even as a reward. Because in losing that battle, Jacob had won the war against himself.

I think that’s a war that we all fight. We all live in constant struggle, battling between our worst impulses and our best selves.  Sometimes, like Jacob, we can’t tell the difference between the two. Sometimes, like Jacob, we wrestle with God’s call on our lives.

We wrestle with our past. We wrestle with lost dreams and blurred visions. We wrestle with disappointment and discouragement. We wrestles with circumstances not of our own making but beyond our control, circumstances that take us down a path wouldn’t have travelled if it were up to us.

We wrestle with an accident or an illness. A downturn in the economy. The collapse of a marriage. A surprise trip to the doctor’s. Or an unwelcome visit with the funeral director. And you can feel the pain run down your leg from your hip socket, and you know that it won’t go away. It will always be with you. You will walk with a limp for the rest of your life.

So you find yourself wishing, wishing you could go back and make better decisions. You wish you would have taken a different road. You wish you had more courage, and less regret. You wish you could re-live those life-altering moments so you could create a better outcome. You wish you could stop the pain before it started.

I think we all make those wishes. Especially when we throw God into the mix.

We wish that being a person of faith were easier. We wish faith was something we could simply get up and do, much like brushing our teeth or eating breakfast. We wish we could see God’s plan for us and lives so clearly that we could follow it and never doubt nor stray from that path.

We wish that our best selves drove our lives and our choices all the time. But we know that we are - at best - a muddle of mixed motivations. And we trust that God works within us and through us, as our lives go in directions we don’t expect. But have outcomes we would never had anticipated.

My divorce is something that neither I, nor Rebekah, nor God intended when we got married. But the divorce experience has taught Rebekah and I the power of a reconciliation that allows us to part ways blessing each other’s future.

A friend’s cancer came as a shock. While it was a treatable form of melanoma, he said it helped him to see the world with new eyes. The disease opened to him the generous preciousness of life. He actually calls his cancer “the gift” because, he says, because of his cancer, he’s become more loving, and can live in joyful gratitude for whatever time he has on this planet.

The marriage and sexuality debate in our ELCIC has created division and acrimony. But it also gave us the opportunity to learn how to disagree as Christians, and to show the world a different way of disagreeing, a way of disagreeing that is marked by compassion, grace, and healing.

I’m sure you all have your own stories. Stories of victory from failure, and life from pain. Stories of survival.

Maybe you’re still waiting for the victory, maybe you’re still wrestling. Maybe, for you, it’s still midnight at Jabbok. But that means that you’re still fighting, and that means that you haven’t given up. The sun will rise and a blessing will be given.

This is why you can be called “Israel,” you - ALL of you - you who have striven with God and with others and you have prevailed.

This is why you can be proud of your struggles. This is why you can be proud of the journey your life has taken. This is why you can be proud of your bruised and battered heart. Because you have striven with God and with life, and you have survived. You have prevailed.

I know that you have prevailed because you are here. You are still walking the path that God put in front of you. You are still following the voice that calls your name. You are still communing with God among fellow survivors.

Like Jacob, you may walk with a limp, but that pain is a constant reminder of your victory, that you haven’t given up. That pain is a constant reminder that God can create something new and beautiful out of the ugliest circumstances. That pain is a constant reminder that you are stronger and better because of your battles. 

You may walk with a limp that life gives you, but that limp is a constant reminder of your strength, a constant reminder that God will raise you up from any defeat, and at the end, God will give you - and all of us - the final blessing.

And may this be so among us. Amen.

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