Sunday, June 24, 2018

Who do you think you are?

Scripture Job 38:1-11

38:1 Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind:
38:2 "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?  38:3 Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
38:4 "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.

38:5 Who determined its measurements--surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?  38:6 On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone  38:7 when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?  38:8 "Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?—  38:9 when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band,  38:10 and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors,  38:11 and said, 'Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped'?

When everything was going wrong - I’d lost my job, I was getting evicted, I had no where to go - I cried out to God and said, “Why me?  What have I done wrong this time?  I’m really trying to do all the right things.”  People said to me, “Read these very uplifting Psalms.  They will help.”  So I tried that, and the nice uplifting Psalms people suggested just made me more angry and more upset.  I wasn’t in the mood to listen to people saying how wonderful God was when I was in the depths of depression and despair.   I told my pastor and she said, “Read Job.”   So I did.  And OMG - Job was exactly what I needed.  I mean, compared to Job, I was doing very well indeed.  My problems were nothing, compared to his.

All those terrible things happened to him.  He lost everything - worldly possessions, family, health - even though he hadn’t done anything wrong.  And his friends all decided he must have been guilty of something or all these awful things wouldn’t be happening to him. They, of course, had no way of knowing that this was a test - because Satan didn’t think anyone would remain faithful to God unless they received rewards for their fidelity.   He was wrong.   In chapter 26, Job had finally had enough of his friends’ assumption that he must be guilty of something and he began to defend himself.  He listed all the possible sins and his innocence of each and every one.  He boasted of his generosity to the poor, of his care for the oppressed and the afflicted.  He spoke proudly of his devotion God and to his family.  When he finished (6 chapters later), having made it pretty clear that he believed himself to be totally righteous and blameless in every way, and never, by the way, blaming God in any way for his current situation, his friends had nothing to say, but another man, a younger one named Eliju, did.  He had sat there silently, listening respectfully, as his elders spoke, but when they were silent in the face of Job’s words, he called Job to account for having such pride in his own righteousness, exalting himself instead of God.  

And when Eliju was done God spoke, out of a whirlwind that suddenly appeared before the men, saying:
Just who do you think you are, Job?   You think you know so much about me and what I will and won’t  and can and can’t do  . . tell me, how did I contain the oceans?   And where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?   Was it you who caused the stars to sing, and the residents of heaven to shout out with joy?    I don’t think so.   You sit here bragging about your righteousness, about how good you are, about your obedience to the Law, as if it’s a big deal, somehow.  You brag about how faithful you are to me, your God, and I appreciate your fidelity, I really do, but let me tell you something, Job.  You are only doing what everyone is supposed to do - you are not all that and a bag of chips.    

There has been a great deal of uproar lately over the separation of children from their families when the family has been caught crossing our southern border illegally.   There have been demonstrations resulting in many arrests, including a number of my friends and colleagues here in the Northern California region and around the country.  There have been horrible things said on Facebook and other social media, and lots of “fake news” coming from both directions.  The cages holding children we have seen pictured are not in use by Immigration anywhere - they were pictures taken at a demonstration and then mis-used on Facebook.  The 2,000+ children being held in detention facilities have not all been kidnapped to help criminals cross the border.  Anyone trying to point out a middle path in the argument gets attacked from both sides of the issue - as has happened to me.  I have been called a hate monger from the right and a defender of immorality from the left, mainly because people made assumptions not backed up by the actual words I used.  This, by the way, is why I mostly just post cat pictures.  The middle position is rarely appreciated.  Both sides are happy to use scripture to make their points.   And I find myself wondering where “love one another”  fits in.  

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a lifetime United Methodist, a Sunday School teacher and leader in his local United Methodist congregation, and some years back even a delegate to the General Conference.  This week over 600 United Methodist clergy and laypersons have signed a letter charging him with: child abuse, immorality, racial discrimination, for his implementation of these policies, and “dissemination of doctrines contrary to the standards of doctrine of the United Methodist Church” for his citation of Romans 13.   I will point out that it is usually a bad idea to use one sentence which appears one time in one of Paul’s letters to defend anything. This is called proof texting and has been used to defend everything from slavery to the internment of the Japanese to jailing people for being gay.  It is an especially bad idea if you happen to be a Sunday School teacher, because you should know better.  For although Paul did say “obey your government” once (and not without some limitations as to what that obedience entailed), God said ‘take care of the widow and orphan and alien among you” repeatedly.  

Deuteronomy 27:19 says “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.” All the people shall say, “Amen!”

Jeremiah 22:3 Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place.  
Exodus 22:21 You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.

And yes, there is a difference between a resident alien and someone just arriving.   I think that detail may have been overlooked by some.  

Regardless - I believe it is wrong to separate children from their parents.  I have seen what happens to children here in the US who are removed from their parents and end up in the system for whatever reason.  Most of them end up in much better situations than those the immigrant children are living in right now. But no matter how good the living situation in foster care or whatever, they are still adversely affected by that separation for the rest of their lives.   I don’t have any solutions.  I’m not really sure why families without documentation can’t simply be returned back over the border when they are caught.  I’m not sure why the courts decided that it was unlawful to detain families together, as they did when the previous administration implemented that particular policy.  I’m certain  there are reasons I don’t understand, and may never understand.  I’m not sure what the absolute right way to go forward might be - right for the people seeking a new life, and right for the United States.  I’m simply going to pray for a solution that doesn’t include lifetime psychological and spiritual damage to the children involved.  And that doesn’t force women and children to return to situations where their lives are at risk daily.  I’m going to continue writing letters asking our leaders to find that solution - quickly.  

One thing I am sure of is that God will walk with us toward the solution, if we let him.  If we don’t decide we know more than God does. If we don’t decide that God loves some of us more than others.   If we don’t draw a line in the sand that makes coming together to find the best way forward impossible.   I am afraid we are really close to that point - the point where conversation is impossible, where listening to one another is impossible, where we have no interest in anything but defending our own rightness and our own righteousness . .  like Job.   And we know what God said to Job.  

I believe that we will find a solution if we work together, if we use our eyes and hearts to see Jesus in every person - not just the people we love, not just the immigrant children and their families, not just the people who agree with us.  But also those with whom we disagree, especially those in leadership, who themselves may well be hurting in these situations but see no other way forward.  We do not know what is in the hearts of others, but we do know that our Lord is present in each and every one of us.  

My brothers and sisters, please stand with me and sing:  "Open Our Eyes, Lord"  
Open our eyes, Lord. We want to see Jesus
to reach out and touch him, and say that we love him.
Open our ears, Lord, and help us to listen.
Open our eyes, Lord.  We want to see Jesus.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

I didn't do it!

Genesis 3:8-15 NRSV

3:8 They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.  3:9 But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, "Where are you?"

10 He said, "I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself."

11 He said, "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?"

12 The man said, "The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate."

3:13 Then the LORD God said to the woman, "What is this that you have done?" The woman said, "The serpent tricked me, and I ate."

3:14 The LORD God said to the serpent, "Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.  3:15 I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel."

When I was little, I was the good girl.  Not because I was so well behaved, but because I was really pretty good at getting my sister to do the thing.  For example, when I wanted a cookie I would talk my little sister into climbing up on the counter to get to the cabinet where Mother hid the cookies.  We invariably got caught - we weren’t exactly cat burglars - and my mother would be quite sure that I was involved, but it was always Patty who literally had her hand in the cookie jar.  Sometimes we would just try to look innocent when Mother discovered some mischief or other - like the time she walked into the kitchen and we were both covered in flour - but that pretty much never worked, because she knew us.  She knew that bag of flour didn’t just fall off the counter while she was on the phone.  Sometimes we hid, because we knew we were going to be in trouble, but she always found us.  And if one of us tattled on the other, that one got punished for tattling while the other got punished for the thing, so it didn’t really do a whole lot of good to try to blame each other for whatever.   

In today’s passage, God says, “Why did you do this?”  Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the snake.  “It wasn’t me - I didn’t do it! It was their fault.”  Well, Adam, yes.  You did do it.  And Eve, you did it, too.  The snake talked you into it, but you still did it.   God had been hoping that these two would be obedient, and satisfied with everything they already had.  I mean, they were in Eden!  Food fell off trees into their hands.  Nothing threatened them.  There were no dangers.  Only beauty surrounded them.  All they had to do was avoid the fruit of one tree.  But they decided that listening to the snake was a good idea, and so they ate.  They did the one thing they were’t supposed to do.  And then, they didn’t want to take responsibility for their behavior.  They wanted to shift the blame onto someone else.  So Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the snake.  And God punished them all - because they were all responsible.

A lot of bad theology has come out of this passage.  When I was growing up I was taught that women are inherently sinful - more sinful than men - because Eve was the first sinner and she tempted her husband to sin along with her.   He would have been fine if she hadn’t tempted him, so Adam’s sin is all Eve’s fault.  There’s a problem with this way of thinking.  For one thing, it takes all the responsibility away from Adam.  For another, this way of thinking allows people to  blame the victim in crimes such as rape.  “She must have tempted him somehow.  It’s the woman’s fault. It’s always the woman’s fault.”  The man’s unacceptable behavior is overlooked, while the woman has to defend herself.  We are still dealing with this in our justice system and in the way we talk about victims of abuse and sexual assault. It is changing, slowly, but we are still dealing with it. That is not what happens in this passage, mind you.  But it is a mind set that has arisen out of it.  

This passage is all about personal responsibility.    The snake said, “Hey, do this thing you aren’t allowed to do.” and they said, “Oh, ok.”  They could have said no.  They should have said no.  But they said yes, and then tried to put the blame for that first sin they committed somewhere else.  And I suspect that their punishment in part resulted from their second sin - the hiding and the blaming others.

And because they did this thing, because they ate the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we know the difference between those two things.   We know what is right and what is wrong.   We might not be born knowing these things, but we are taught the difference.  We learn from our families, from our teachers in school, and from church folks, what is the right way to live.  “Don’t bite your sister.”  (Yes, yes, I did.  While we were in the bathtub.  And I got spanked.  Never did it again.)  “Don’t take things that aren’t yours.”  “Be nice to other people.”   “Help others.”  

Zoe Thompson, you are about to be baptized.  As of today this knowledge of Good and Evil will become even more important to you.   In a few minutes I am going to ask you if you repent, really repent, of all the things you have done so far that you are not supposed to do.  I am going to ask you if you will renounce evil - if you will say no when someone wants you to do something that you know is wrong.  From this day forward, you are responsible for keeping those promises. From this day forward, you will be responsible for your own behavior - not blaming anyone else, but taking full responsibility for every thing that you do.   
Baptism doesn’t change us into different people.   It doesn’t make us perfect.  It doesn’t take away  What it is, is a commitment to do the right, be like Jesus as best we can, and take responsibility for actions.    We’re not going to be perfect, because we are human and we are prone to error. We are going to do things that are wrong, even things that we know are wrong.  And we will be forgiven - as long as we are honest with God, confessing whatever we have done wrong and making amends for our mistakes. 

Today, Zoe, you are making a commitment to God, to  yourself, and to this congregation, to be a Christian in every way - to dedicate yourself to Jesus and to the love of all of your brothers and sisters.  Today you become an adult in God’s eyes, and in the eyes of the church, for you are taking the biggest, most important step that we, Disciples of Christ, ever take - you are stepping into that baptistry a child and coming back out of the water a Christian, dedicated to living your life in Christ from today forward.   Come with me now, to prepare for your baptism, while the congregation sings “Standing in the Need of Prayer” from their hymnals page 579.

 (Disciples of Christ baptize by immersion.  A video of Zoe's baptism may be available on later today.)

Sunday, June 3, 2018

But I'm too busy!

Deuteronomy 5:12-15 NRSV

5:12 Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. 

5:13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  5:14 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work--you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. 

5:15 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.


Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you.    

We know that observing the Sabbath day is important.  Our very first example of Sabbath observance comes in the book of Genesis, when “God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.”  We really do think that Sabbath is important.   And yet, we don’t really observe it.  So, let’s talk about keeping Sabbath.

Sabbath (Shabbat in Hebrew) is Saturday, the seventh day of the week.   The Jewish people were really serious about doing no work on the Sabbath - many still are.  Even today rabbis continue to study and determine which things are and are no the kind of work one may not do on Shabbat.  Turning on electric lights, for example, is like lighting a flame, so that may not be done.  Putting in false teeth is still being debated.  (Leaving them in overnight is the preferred option.) There have been times when I was talking with my orthodox Jewish friend in Jerusalem early on a Friday morning and he will suddenly say, “I have to get off the phone.  Shabbat begins in 5 minutes.” Which means it’s about to be sunset in Jerusalem and he has to make sure whatever lights need to be turned on are on before the sun goes down, and that computers, phones and tv are all turned off.  His wife will have all the cooking for Friday night and Saturday done before sunset.  Saturday morning, he and his family will walk to shul (synagogue), which is no further than 2,000 steps or 2/3 mile from their home.  When they get back home, they might read Torah or play games with the children, but none that require work, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle or writing down scores.  They are serious about observing Sabbath.  

We don’t actually observe the Sabbath.  Rather, we worship on Sunday, which is called the Lord’s Day, because it is the day the women came and found the tomb empty - the day of the resurrection.  The earliest disciples went to Temple on the Sabbath, and gathered together on the 1st day, the Lord’s Day, to learn about Jesus and share a meal.  As the decades passed and more Gentiles joined the church, it simply became the norm for Christians to worship on the Lord’s Day.  So worship day and Sabbath aren’t really the same thing for most Christians - although our Seventh Day Adventist brothers and sisters do worship on the actual Sabbath.    What has happened, though, is we have kind of shifted what we mean by Sabbath.   There are a lot of people who believe that Sunday is the Sabbath.  It’s not.  But it is the day we, Christians, worship God.

There was a time in this country, not all that long ago, when churches had morning and evening services and everyone went to both.  When Sunday was dedicated to worship and rest and family time, and the acceptable recreations for Sundays including reading edifying books, family dinners, and playing games.   Most stores and businesses weren’t open on Sundays, although many restaurants were.  I remember when 7-11 stores were the only places open on Sundays.  Today, of course, malls and stores are open on Sunday, kids soccer leagues play on Sundays, and of course, major league sports of all kinds fill the airways. And that is partly because fewer people actually go to church today than did, say, in the 1950s.  And it’s partly why fewer people go to church than they did, say, in the 1950s.  I both love and hate that malls and stores are open on Sundays, because it’s convenient for me (after worship), but it also means that in many cases, people who might want to be in worship today can’t be, because they have to work.   (That whole soccer thing . . . I have a friend, a pastor, married to another pastor, whose daughter played soccer on Sundays instead of going to church.  I know, right?  But there wasn’t any other day to play, and she was really good.)  

I get my hair done at Urban Cuts, the new barber shop over on High Street, and the owner is very proud of the fact that he works 7 days a week.  He goes to the gym most days, and works the shop from open to close.   He’s about to get busier because he’s opening a new shop in the Hanford Mall, and he’ll be running back and forth between the two.  I keep telling him he needs to take some time to himself.  He says “I’m too busy to take time off.”  He’s young and fit.  He can do it, but still.    Even God needed a day off!

For you students, the ones who are heading off to college or graduate school, or who have jobs lined up and are ready to begin your career . . . take some time for yourself.  And before you say, “I’m too busy to take time off!” . . . I get it, I do.  Because I’ve been in college and grad school and holding down jobs while studying and writing papers and serving a church and coming home to a husband to cook and clean for and all of that. I graduated from seminary on a Saturday, was ordained the next day, and was on my way to my first church two days after that.  I did not rest in between (because I don’t think driving across country is restful), so I know it’s not easy.  But even God needed a day off. 

So many of you, here in this room, as so busy that maybe the only restful time you get is the hour or so you spend here on Sundays.  You have jobs and family obligations and volunteer responsibilities.  You spend all of your time and energy taking care of others, and when I ask you about taking some time for yourself, you tell me, “Pastor, I’m too busy.  I just don’t have time to rest.” But dang, people.   Even God needed a day off!

And then there are my clergy brothers and sisters, who work in the Lord’s vineyard every day, from before sunrise until they are ready to drop at night.  There is so much to do, so many to minister to, hungry to feed, naked to clothe, prisoners to comfort, so much suffering to help with, so many who need to hear the word of God at the lowest times of their lives.  They work and they work, and they never rest.  I admire them greatly, but I also confront them about their own health and well being.  “Take some time off,”  I say.  “When do you rest?” I ask.  They say, “I can’t take a vacation.  I’m too busy to take off even a day!” And they  tell me they have to work all the time, because Satan never rests.   And they ask me, when I tell them I am taking a day off, or going on vacation, how I can take time away from the Lord’s work.  My answer to them is twofold.  One, if they’re taking the devil as their model they are looking in the wrong direction.  And two, even God needed a day off!  God told us to rest, to take time from our work, even church work.  

God said, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  5:14 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work--you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.”  

It feels a bit awkward to read those words while acknowledging that I don’t follow this commandment, and that we would all probably find it way too difficult to spend an entire day every week doing no work, nor causing anyone else to work. (Like people working in stores and restaurants, for example - including internet shopping.)  I mean, I am the one who is supposed to tell you all to obey the Commandments.  But our world is so different today.  I know you don’t have a whole entire day to read the Bible and pray and meditate, listening for God’s words in response to your prayers.  I don’t have that, and those things are kind of in my job description.  But on my day off, like yours, there’s still laundry and shopping and doctor’s appointments and all of those other things to do.  (Of course, my friend in Jerusalem and many other Jews around the world, including the US, do manage it. . . )  

However, I can usually find an hour in my day.  Just one hour.  And maybe you can too.  And maybe during that hour you can take the One Hour Sabbath suggestion attached to your worship bulletin and do those things.  Christopher McCauley, who wrote that, is a spiritual director and was one of my teachers when I was studying Spiritual Direction.  I admire him greatly.   Keep in mind, though, that he is a contemplative.  His suggestions may not suit you.  And if they don’t, that’s ok.  Don’t try to do a form of Sabbath rest that isn’t restful for you.  If the suggestions there don’t work for you, maybe you can just turn everything off for an hour.  Read a book.  Go for a walk.  Play with your kids, or pets.  Do whatever brings you peace.  Whatever allows you to really rest.   Whatever allows you to find a closeness with God.  Take Sabbath time, keep it holy.  Don’t say, “I’m too busy.”  Because even God needed a day off.