My People

Inspired by Ruth 1:1-17

Last week you read the story of Moses getting the Ten Commandments and today we read about Ruth. There are a few things that happened between those two stories. After Moses gets the Ten Commandments the rest of the book of Deuteronomy goes into all the other laws and regulations that they were expected to keep, because they didn’t stop at just ten! There was lots of fine print at the bottom of those first Ten Commandments! About another twenty chapters worth! Anyway, they wander the desert for a while and Moses dies without crossing into the Promised Land, that land that was promised to Abraham long, long before, or, for us about a month ago when we read that story.

With Moses dead, Joshua is appointed their new leader. He is the one to finally take them back to their homeland. And that’s putting it lightly, because what ensues throughout the book of Joshua is story after story of their conquest of this land because, surprise, people are living there now, it’s been a while since they’ve been home. So, what we get are basically a dozen violent chapters of them brutally taking back this land by force, and then ten chapters of how they divided it up among the twelve tribes. The book of Joshua is not exactly full of children’s bedtime stories. So, they have their land, they’ve become a fairly good-sized nation with a powerful enough army.

Now, you’d think the next logical step would be to crown a king but they consider God to be their king and instead they raise up these temporary leaders whenever there is a crisis, and these leaders are called Judges, which is what the book of Judges is all about, where we get are some fascinating stories with characters like Deborah, Gideon, and Samson and Delilah. And this is the time period that we also get this little house on the prairie story of Ruth, who gets a whole book dedicated to her, a short book but a whole book just for her. And she deserves it. But the context that this story falls in is just as important as she is, and here’s why. I believe, that God’s people during this period had lost their way once again.

Because that’s what we do right? We lose our way, God finds us once again, points us in the right direction, and before we know it, God finds us in a ditch somewhere in Donner Pass to bail us out yet again. But the reason why that context that I shared is so important is because they had just conquered this new land, and were now trying to keep it, and were so focused on claiming territory, and keeping outsiders out, that they forgot who they were, children of God. How do we know this? One, because of their behavior, and two, because they blamed their behavior on God. When I mentioned that they violently took their homeland, I wasn’t kidding. They were downright genocidal. And what did they say, God made us do it. Convenient.

Did you notice how I, all of a sudden, started talking about God’s people in the third person? Right around the genocide comment. As I was writing this the other day I noticed that I did that without even thinking about it, but the reality is, I should be saying we, not they, because this is our story too, a story that we, unfortunately, continue to play out, again and again. But, we know that God would not command acts of genocide, right? Please tell me that we can all agree on that. So, when we read stuff like that in scripture, we immediately know, that something else is going on here. Something is amiss.

And so, in the midst of all this violence and land grabbing, we get this little story, about a little family of farmers, and a little lady named Ruth, who has a great big lesson to teach her people, us. And this story, I believe, is a corrective to the narrative that is happening all around her, this narrative of us and them, of insider and outsiders, this narrative of those people vs my people that is being spread throughout the land. And Ruth comes along with a different narrative, that is just as counter-cultural today as it was then. So let’s dig in a little deeper. Like many great stories, this one begins in tragedy. Ruth’s family goes through hell. So much death in such a short amount of time. Something I know many of you know something about. All the men in her family die, and in that culture that could easily be a death sentence.

Naomi, the matriarch of the family, decides that this could not be the fate of her daughters-in-law. Not only were they still young but they had family back home in their native land that they could return to. Naomi had no one. Why should they suffer needlessly? Not only that but she was in the throes of grief. And what do so many of us do in times like that? We say things like, “I’m fine.” When we’re anything but. Or, “I’ll be ok.” When we have no idea if we will be. Or, “Don’t worry about me.” When we can barely dress ourselves, let alone get out of bed. We distance ourselves because we don’t want to bring others down with us. And that’s where Naomi was. So she tries to convince her daughters-in-law to leave her and make a new life of their own, to go restart back in their homeland.

She convinces one of them but Ruth wouldn’t budge. Ruth has a solid case to leave Naomi behind, guilt-free. Naomi is making it so easy for her to do so! Ruth wouldn’t budge. No one would judge her for walking away, it was the expected thing to do, that was the way of things! Ruth wouldn’t budge. As soon as she is done weeping in Naomi’s arms, she utters what may be the most endearing, loyal, loving, words of commitment that the world may have ever heard before, and maybe since. “Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.” I can’t imagine more powerful words of commitment. And I honestly don’t know why we don’t use those words as wedding vows.

In those words, Ruth completely redefines the phrase “my people.” She completely turns that concept on its head. By the world’s standards, Naomi wasn’t her people. Naomi’s God wasn’t her god. Naomi’s family was not of her blood. Naomi’s culture, Naomi’s food, Naomi’s clothing, Naomi’s dialect, Naomi’s politics, not of those things were Ruth’s! All the things that we take for granted, that give us a sense of home, of safety, of the familiar, of comfort, Ruth was willing to sacrifice for the one thing that none of those things could offer—love, and not just any kind of love, but faithful love, covenantal love, in Hebrew it’s called “hesed.” It’s difficult to translate into English. It’s the kind of love that causes you to redefine who you consider to be “your people.”

That’s some powerful love. We’re not talking about your everyday, run of the mill, sugary sweet, warm fuzzy kinda love. No this kind of love changes you, changes you, to your very core! Changes the very fabric of what makes you who you are! It changes you to the point that you may be unrecognizable, unrecognizable to the people who you once thought were “your people” but now realize that you had a whole family outside! That is the kind of love that causes Ruth to unlearn everything that she had learned about how the world works, how love works, especially the nationalism that Naomi’s people were currently engaged in. And here comes this outsider, Ruth, to remind God’s people of who they were. Imagine that!

But let me be clear about this kind of love, it’s not gonna be very popular, it’s not gonna win you a bunch of new friends, people aren’t gonna bust the doors down to get in here and hear about this kind of love. In fact, it’s gonna lose you some people, but I don’t need to tell you all that. This kind of love that Ruth teaches us is just too powerful for some to handle. And to be fair, Ruth didn’t even know how powerful this stuff was! Let me read you the opening verses of the Gospel of Matthew, “A record of the ancestors of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham:

Abraham was the father of Isaac. Isaac was the father of Jacob. Jacob was the father of Judah and his brothers. Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar. Perez was the father of Hezron. Hezron was the father of Aram. Aram was the father of Amminadab. Amminadab was the father of Nahshon. Nahshon was the father of Salmon. Salmon was the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab. Boaz was the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth.”

Matthew goes on through Jesus' family line, which without Ruth, would not exist. This is what made up the savior of the world. And when Jesus story was told and they heard the name Ruth, you better believe that remembered hesed, the faithful love of this once immigrant farm girl, who reminded God’s people of who they were, of whose they were, with a love so faithful, it changed her and those around her, all the way down her family line to Jesus. That’s the stuff that he was made of. That’s the stuff that we are made of. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Great I Will Be

Inspired by Exodus 1:8-14, 3:1-15

First things first, how did we get here to the story of the burning bush from last week’s story of lil’ Heal, aka Jacob, wrestling with God? Well, Jacob had a ginormous family with his wife Rachel, and his other wife Leah, and his concubine Zilpah, and his other concubine Bilah. Twelve sons in all! And it’s one of those sons, Joseph, that gets the largest story arc in the whole book of Genesis, and whose story is vital to know for our story for today. In short, Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery out of jealousy and he ends up in Egypt where he becomes the most powerful leader, second only to the Pharaoh.  Then the whole region, from Egypt to the promised land where Joseph’s brothers and their families still live, suffered from a horrible famine.

It was so bad that people came from far and wide to Egypt to buy food, which the Egyptians were able to sell due to Joseph’s wise leadership. Joseph ends up forgiving his brothers for selling him and asks them all, including his father Jacob, now known as Israel, who was still alive, to join him in Egypt, and that’s what they do. And they all live happily ever after. Well, that’s the way the book of Genesis ends but that happiness doesn’t last and that’s where we jump into the story.

Many generations pass as the Israelites remain in Egypt, so many generations in fact that Joseph is eventually forgotten. The Israelites grow in number. They become so big that they become a threat to Egypt and endure harsh treatment in order to keep them under control. And the Israelites find themselves in slavery, just like Joseph’s story in Egypt began.

Meanwhile, Moses is born during this time of Israelite slavery. And in a series of unfortunate events, which we don’t have time to get into today, he finds himself a fugitive who escapes Egypt and ends up in a land called Midian, just outside of Egypt. And it is there that he makes a home and plants some roots. He gets married to a woman named Zipporah, the local pastor’s daughter, and starts a family with her. They have a son and name him Gershom, which means immigrant, because that’s how Moses saw his life there in Midian. But it really seems like he was able to put his troubled past behind him. Things were going great, everything was coming up roses for him and his little family…and then God had to show up!

Ain’t that always the way? You’re just minding your own business, life is going good, you’re just trying to live your best life, and then God shows up and asks you to actually do something! And it’s always something that you really don’t want to do! Well, not always but it feels that way sometimes. Now, mind you, things were going good because of God in the first place but how quickly we forget such details, right? And then when God asks us to do something we all of a sudden turn into spoiled brats! It’s like coming home after a long day at work and asking your teenager to get off their phone or their XBOX and take out the trash or do the dishes, do something! And they whine and complain and act like it’s the end of the fraking world!

In all fairness to the teenagers of the world, as adults, we know that behavior doesn’t end when we turn twenty, right? Come on, let’s be honest here. We all turn into spoiled brats when we’re asked to do something we really don’t want to do. And it doesn’t matter who’s asking, does it! Granted, some of us adults are better at pushing through those bratty tendencies. If you’re one of those could you please share with me how you do that after worship?

Anyway, speaking of brats, Moses encounters a talking bush that just happens to be on fire but is not being consumed. That sounds more like a Monty Python bit. But the voice is the very voice of God. And, like always, God has a something for him to do. We should know by now that when we hear God’s voice to just put our heads down and pretend like we don’t hear anything, right!

But Moses answers, and with that answer sets into motion a story like no other, a story filled with plagues, and armies, and death. Which is why I always recommend to just put your head down and pretend like you don’t hear anything! And what follows in this conversation with the talking bush is actually quite comical. Moses tries everything he can think of to get out of this. God asks him to go and get God’s people out of slavery and Moses gives him a million and one reasons why that was the worst idea in the history of bad ideas! You see, Moses was one of those brats that’s just too smart for his own good! His reasons for not wanting to do this are actually quite good and reasonable, if God was just any old parent. But alas, God is God, and so, no excuse that Moses comes up with is gonna fly.

And it all boils down to one thing, God’s name. Have you picked up on a theme here over these past few weeks? Names have been crucial to each and every story since we started back in the creation story of Genesis 2 a month ago. The animals and humans were given names in that first story. Then Isaac was given the name “laughter.” Then Jacob was given the name “Heel” only to have it changes to Israel, which means “Struggle” which becomes the name of all of God’s people. Moses names his son “immigrant.” And I wonder if all of these stories, and the others that we didn’t get a chance to read but whose stories are filled with meaningful names, were all leading up to this moment, when God reveals God’s name. As if to say, now that we know who you all are, this is who I am.

Now, I don’t want to bore you with a bunch of Hebrew but the exact meaning of God’s name here isn’t as clear as we’d like it to be. Scholars have been debating this since the moment it was first written down a few millennia ago. Part of the problem is that the Hebrew language didn’t include vowels, just consonants; which, I know, is hard for our western minds to wrap around but it worked for them. So, in Hebrew, God’s name just shows up as the consonants YHWH, the root of which is the verb, to be. And so, most translations of the Bible have translated that as I Am who I Am. Which, kinda sounds a bit snarky, doesn’t it? Like God doesn’t really want to answer Moses’ question.

However, there are other translations of God’s name. One is, “I will cause to be what I will cause to be.” But my favorite is, “I will be who I will be.” I like that one for a number of reasons. I love the future tense of that one. It’s as if God is assuming a future with us. I mean it’s one thing to know that God is by your side right now, and that’s good news in and of itself, but a whole other thing to know that God will be by your side in the future. And if I was Moses, I can’t imagine needing to hear something more than I would need to hear that.

Moses doesn’t know what’s ahead if he accepts this mission from God, but he’s no dummy either. He knows there’s gonna be trouble ahead, which is why he didn’t want to go in the first place! But God knew the trouble that lay ahead, and that’s why God’s name, I will be who I will be, is going to be so needed for Moses in the days ahead, and not just for Moses but for all of us.

My friends, I wish I could stand up here and tell you that God isn’t going to ask you to do anything difficult. I’m sure many of you have already found that out on your own. And I wish I could stand up here and say that God wouldn’t ask you to do something that you couldn’t handle. But I’m sure many of you have already figured out that that kind of bumper-sticker theology doesn’t amount to much when your hair’s getting singed by yet another talking bush in the middle of your road.

But here’s what I can tell you, there are actually three things that are certain in this life: death, taxes, and God asking you to do things that you don’t want to do, things that are difficult, even too difficult! But here’s my challenge to you, here’s what I want you to hold on to, as tight as you can, for that next time you encounter the voice of God: the future tense of God’s name, I Will Be who I Will Be. I Will Be. Though the great I Will Be may ask you to do difficult tasks, in each of them is a promise that is buried in God’s name—a promise to go with you, to be with you, to be. Thanks be to the great I Will Be. Amen.


Inspired by Genesis 32:9-15, 22-31

“The greatest lesson of this chapter, the lesson that kept hitting me, as I read it over and over again, was the stupidity of fighting God. God has made a universe that reflects His nature and is built on His law, and a man is a fool to live against the grain of that nature and that law. For a man to live in war against his Creator is stupidity.”

I hope most of you know me well enough by now to know that I did not write that! That was from a sermon back in 1973 by a guy by the name of John MacArthur. Had I been there that day, as an adult, because I hadn’t even been born yet, but if I had, he would have lost me immediately. I mean, I don’t need to come to church and be called stupid, I might as well just stay home if that’s what I want! And before you judge my family for that, keep in mind, you have not seen me at home! Seriously though, that sermon I quoted from is everything that is wrong with the church, both then and now. And it’s not just a handful of bad pastors to blame but churches too.

Our whole religion has had a bad habit of presenting ourselves to the world as if we have all the answers, that we know everything about God and faith, so much so, that a pastor can feel justified in calling a church full of people stupid. Because here’s the thing, who doesn’t struggle, struggle with faith, struggle with the faithful, struggle with the Bible, struggle with themselves, struggle with God? I hope you didn’t call me to be your pastor because you thought I don’t struggle with God and that I have this whole faith business all figured out! If so, I might as well hand in my resignation now! But I think I know you well enough by now to know that wasn’t the case, that you called me to walk with you, no matter where it may lead, even down a path that struggles with God.

There are a lot of things that I wish I was an expert in, there’s a lot of things that people assume I’m an expert in but am not, but one thing I can unequivocally claim to be an expert in is struggling with God! If you need an expert in that, I’m your guy! If they gave degrees in it, I’d have a PhD! This is why I love this story of Jacob and the wrestler. But first, how did we get to this point in the story from last week’s story of Sarah’s laughter? After Sarah had her son Isaac, she and Abraham had quite a few adventures. Sodom and Gomorrah, kicking out Abraham’s other son Ishmael and his mom Hagar, Isaac almost got himself roasted on an altar by his dad before God intervened and saved the boy, and Sarah eventually died first, at the ripe old age of 127.

Meanwhile, Abraham found Isaac the woman of Isaac’s dreams in Rebekah and blesses their marriage before he dies at the age of 175. Then Isaac and Rebekah have their firstborn, a set of twins by the name of Jacob and Esau. Jacob literally begins his life struggles right out of the gate. When he and his brother are born, Jacob comes out with one of his hands tightly grasping his brother’s heel, as if he was trying to be the firstborn even within his mother’s womb, but that was not meant to be.

And because of all that, they named him “heel.” That’s what Jacob means, “heel.” Can you imagine going through your whole life with a name like that? It certainly makes you wonder about the whole nature vs. nurture dichotomy, because Jacob struggled his whole life, but did they cause that or was that inevitable? But we can talk about that some other time. Point is, Jacob struggled, his whole life.

He was a momma’s boy to begin with, and we all know how unpopular that makes a boy among his peers unfortunately. His brother Esau was just the opposite. Not only was he his father’s son but he was big and strong and a hunter! The author goes so far as to point out just how hairy he was, even makes his hairiness a plot point in the story! Esau is painted in such a way by the author that you can practically imagine the testosterone dripping off of him!

He’s everything the stereotypical father could want in a son. Jacob, little Heel over there, not so much. He was small, smooth-skinned, was a great cook, and he loved his momma. Too bad he wasn’t born in the twenty-first century, lots of people are looking for a guy like that to make him their significant other! But alas, he was born in a backward time, like many of us were.

All this is to paint a picture for you of a man who just couldn’t catch a break. Life dealt him a hand that led to a struggle of some kind at every turn. And as such, he felt that he needed to take matters into his own hands if he was gonna have any kind of success in life, even if that meant cheating his way through. And that’s exactly what he and his momma did. In what is a very strange plot twist, lil’ Heel and his momma trick Esau into selling him his birthright, meaning that Jacob now gets all the rights and privileges of being the firstborn.

Now, that doesn’t mean much in our society but in theirs, that meant you got the entire inheritance! As the holder of the birthright, everything your dad owned upon his death would then be yours, no questions asked. So, when Esau finds out that he was fooled, he’s furious! So, Jacob runs away.

Then, in what is yet another strange storyline, Jacob marries Leah, so that he could marry the real love of his life, Rachel, I’m not even gonna get into that, you can read that one for yourself, but what I can tell you is that Jacob’s struggles continue to follow him. They end up having a huge family, and in spite of all his struggles, they do pretty darn well for themselves. And that’s when Jacob decides to go home, and that means facing his brother.

And that’s where we jump into the story. Jacob prepares to meet his brother like a spouse trying to make up with their spouse by bringing home flowers. I don’t buy my wife flowers nearly as much as I should but when I do it’s always an interesting experience. Have you ever seen someone standing in line at the grocery store with flowers in hand and wondered, “I wonder how bad they screwed up at home?”

I’ve actually been asked that! But you can tell by the kind of flowers, right? If they have a bunch of carnations, well, apart from not knowing how to buy flowers, you know they didn’t screw up that bad. But if they got roses! You know it was bad! And if they got more than a dozen? Whew! You better say a little prayer for them! That’s basically what lil’ Heel is doing at the beginning of our story. He sends his brother Esau a gift, a huge gift, to try and soften things up a bit before he gets there. Meanwhile, Jacob finds himself alone, not a minor detail, and we have a scene that is really at the heart of not only Jacob’s story, but all of God’s people. He encounters a wrestler, out of the blue, without any segue into this scene. He wrestles with this stranger all night 'til dawn.

We’re never really given a clear answer as to the identity of this stranger. Over the past few millennia, scholars have said it was God, some have said it was an angel, some have said that it was his brother Esau, I myself wonder if it wasn’t himself that he was wrestling with. I think any and all of those possibilities are full of fruitful paths to travel down. I wouldn’t tell anyone they were wrong for believing any of those to be true. However, the one that I personally hope is the right one, is that Jacob’s mysterious wrestler was God, and here’s why. During this encounter, the wrestler changes Jacob’s name, Heel, a name that has been a thorn in his side his whole life. And what is it changed to? Israel, and the root of the name Israel is, you guessed it, “struggle.”

He goes from lil’ Heel, to lil’ Struggle! But instead of it being a sign of disgrace, it’s a badge of honor, as the mysterious wrestler said, because Jacob has “struggled with God and with mortals and won!” This new name, not only becomes Jacob’s new name, but becomes the name that God’s people will go by to this very day, Israel, the ones that God struggles with. And again, it’s not a source of shame, but a badge of honor. Whereas the god’s of their neighbors wouldn’t bother to waste their time wrestling with foolish mortals, Israel’s God, our God, will take the time to wrestle with us, even 'til dawn, if it means we’re gonna come out on the other side of that match, better, closer, maybe even more mature for the struggle.

Struggling with God is a sign that things are right with God, not wrong! Struggling with God is healthy, and faith-strengthening for us, not detrimental, not a sign of weakness! And it most assuredly is not a sign of stupidity! But rather, maturity. It’s like having that first fight with one of your best friends. If you two can get through it, past that first fight…friends for life right! That’s when a friendship ascends to a whole new level doesn’t it? Why would it be any different with God?

So, I think, as we talked about the other night at Faith & Froth, that this is one of the places that Christian churches have really faltered in years past. We have egotistically presented ourselves as people who have all the answers, never struggle with our faith, know everything there is to know about God, and when people have wrongly assumed that we are also “better behaved” than they are, we don’t correct them, we just let them believe that.

But what if, we were just open and honest with people, right out of the gate, about our flaws, about our struggles, about our divine wrestling matches, about our infighting, about everything? Why not? They’re gonna find out these things anyway if they spend more than a day with us! Why not be as transparent as Jacob’s name, Heel, as Israel’s name, Struggle. What if, instead of naming our churches names like Faith, or Bethlehem, or St. So and So, we gave them names like, Please Don’t Make Us Change Lutheran Church, or Our Budget Could Really Use Your Wallet Lutheran Church, or St. Struggles-A-Lot Lutheran Church.

Aside from turning a lot of heads, I think transparency like that has the potential to be a refreshing word of grace for so many people who avoid church like the plague for fear of being judged by us. So, hear me when I say, whether this is your first time here or you’ve lost count how many times you’ve been here, if you struggle, with faith, with scripture, with God…it’s OK! That’s the way it’s supposed to work! Nothing’s wrong with you or the church or with God. My hope and prayer for the church is that we can be open and honest about that with others and wear it like a badge of honor, as if it was our name. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Inspired by Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7

So, I was on Facebook and I was reading what other pastors were saying about our story for today. They were going on and on, as pastors do, all about Abraham. They were debating things like, “Was Abraham being authentically generous here to these travelers, or did he know that they were divine all along?” On and on they debated questions like this. Abraham this and Abraham that! I almost chimed in and then I remembered how futile it usually is to debate with someone online, especially a pastor. They’re the worst! But here’s my problem with all their arguing and debating. I think they’re focusing on all the wrong things! Or should I say, the wrong person, because I think, the real star of this story is, Sarah. Not Abraham! But before we get into all that let me catch us up a bit.

As some of you will remember from last year, the Narrative Lectionary gives us the highlights, and as such it skips a few stories along the way. This is a birds eye view of the Bible. So last week we read the second creation story and this week we’re reading about Sarah. That means that we skipped fifteen chapters worth of stories. Some of those we read last year, and some we will read in years three and four and some we will just skip altogether because again, this is a birds eye view.

But, every week I will attempt to give you a quick synopsis of how we got to this point in the story from the previous week’s story. So, since the creation story, humankind fell into sin and got kicked out of the Garden of Eden, which quickly led to The Flood and destruction of most of the Earth. Then there was the Tower of Babel story before briskly moving to the story of Sarah and Abraham.

They are basically the first First Family, our original faith ancestors that began this journey with God. And they began as outsiders of the Promised Land, from a land called Ur, until God promised them a land of their own, also known as Canaan. And not only were they promised land but they were promised descendants. This promise really hit home for Sarah, as she had been unable to have children. And this is what makes our story for today so profound, and, as you’ll see, quite comical. They had other experiences too in between this initial promise and today’s story, like escaping a famine by moving to Egypt for a while where Abraham lied and told them Sarah was his sister causing a plague on the land, not to mention Abraham taking matters into his own hands and having a baby with one of their servants!

So, a lot has already happened in their life together, and by this point in the story where we jump in, not only was Sarah still unable to have a child of her own but they were both around a hundred years old! Which is partly where the humor comes into this story. They have been holding on to this promise for a long time now, so long that they had probably forgotten about it! I mean, if you were a hundred years old you would be completely justified in thinking, “Well, maybe I misunderstood the promise.” or “Maybe God was being metaphorical.” Whatever you might be thinking, no one, including God, would blame you for giving up on it. Little did they know however, that God had not forgotten the promise that God made to them so many years before. And that’s where we jump in.

I’m not going to go into who exactly these travelers were, we can talk about that in the Fireside room after worship if you’d like to join us, but Sarah and Abraham encounter a most unusual trio of travelers. It’s unclear whether Abraham recognizes who they really are but that really doesn’t matter because the way that it reads in Hebrew, God came with a message. After Sarah and Abraham finish showing them their generous hospitality, God not only tells them that the promise hasn’t been forgotten but even gives them an update on the timeline. God says that this time next year God will return and Sarah will have a baby boy. And that’s when Sarah, who was in the background this whole time, does the unthinkable…she laughs at God!

Now, over the past few millennia, theologians have shamed Sarah for this, describing her as being disrespectful, as doubtful, as unbelieving, and worse. However, in just the chapter before, God reminds Abraham of this promise and what is Abraham’s response? The author writes that he, and I quote, “fell on his face and laughed.” He literally was ROTFL! Who knows what ROTFL stands for? That’s right, rolling on the floor laughing! That’s the shorthand that you can use online when you want to share just how funny you think something is! It’s the shorthand for the emoji that you have on the cover of your bulletin. And God’s response to Abraham’s laughter was the same as God’s response to Sarah’s laughter. There was no judgement, no condemnation, no scolding, not even a slap on the wrist!

I imagine Abraham with a confused look on his face as he watches these two go back and forth, while he switches places with Sarah and moves to the background of this story. Here’s why I love this story so much. I think we have an unhealthy relationship between our faith and our humor. For Christians in particular, there seems to be this divide between laughter and playfulness, and our relationship with God, and I’m not sure where that comes from, because it’s not the case in other religions.

One of my favorite Gods, other than our own of course, is the Hindu God Krishna. Talk about some fascinating reading! Look him up online sometime and you will be in for a plethora of amazing stories, and also an insight into how that faith sees God and humans interacting. And my favorite story from their scriptures is a story about Krishna stealing the clothes from some gopikas, or the local young milkmaids.

So the story goes that Krishna was an extremely playful, outgoing young boy who caught the eye of every young girl in the land. They were infatuated by him but they also recognized his divinity as well, a fact that he was well aware of and even took advantage at times. Like this one time when he noticed that they had all took their clothes off to bathe in the river. So what does Krishna do? Takes their clothes, climbs a tree, and puts their clothes in the branches!

They notice and are horrified! They beg him to give them their clothes back but he refuses because he thinks it’s hilarious! Now, to our western ears we might think of this as sexual harassment but that’s not what this was at all as Krishna was still a young boy. So, the interpretation of this story goes something like this. Krishna knew that the gopikas suffered from a debilitating shyness. They were very spiritual but the one thing that kept them from being enlightened, a Hindu’s version of salvation, was this shyness. And so, this was Krishna’s way of getting them to come out of their shell. Of the two hundred gopikas that he stole clothes from that day, seven of them came out of the water and as soon as they did, they were instantly enlightened. That was Krishna’s gift to them. But they first had to play along with this game of his.

Now, why did I tell you this story and why is it one of my favorites? Because the Hindu religion has something that I am envious of. Their faith allows for playfulness, allows for teasing, allows for laughter with, and at, the divine. The closest thing we have come to this are those little statues of Jesus playing soccer!  I mean, come on! They have an element to their relationship with God that I find very lacking in our own.

Which is why I love this story of Sarah’s laughter so much. She had a relationship with God that allowed for laughter, that allowed for laughter of the absurd, even when that absurdity was coming out of the mouth of God; a relationship that allowed for playfulness, coyness, sass, and a bit of teasing thrown in as well; a relationship that allowed for smirks and side eyes. And all of this without threat or fear of condemnation or shame or scolding.

Fast forward a year and Sarah is nursing a new baby boy whom they name Isaac, which means, “he will laugh.” She was literally nursing laughter. Our reading ends with some very profound words from Sarah. She says, “God has given me laughter. Everyone who hears about it will laugh with me.” My friends, our God’s promises are sometimes laughable, absurd even! Maybe they’re absurd to God too!

No matter, God invites you to laugh at them. God’s promise to love you no matter what? Laughable! No matter what you’ve done or said, or what you haven’t done or said, God loves you anyway? Laughable! You go right on ahead and laugh! As long as you make others laugh at those promises too. Laugh and spread that laughter until the whole world is laughing at God’s promises! As long as those promises are getting spread. Laugh! Amen.

Almost Paradise

Inspired by Genesis 2:4b-25

Today we begin year two of four of the Narrative Lectionary, journeying once again through the great stories of the Bible, with our reading from the second chapter of Genesis. Last year we began with the story of the Flood and so you might be wondering why not just start at the beginning, with chapter one. Well, there’s a reason for that. Each year consists of readings from a different Gospel from the end of Advent through Easter, last year we read through Matthew, this year will be Mark, then Luke, then John.

And so, each year the Hebrew scripture readings in the Fall are chosen based on which ones match best with the Gospel that is going to be read that year. Why, because for Christians, particularly us Lutheran variety, see the Gospels as core to our Biblical understanding, they are the heart of the entire Biblical narrative. The Gospels are the lens by which we love the Hebrew Scriptures.

Today’s reading from Genesis may not be as familiar to you, especially because it is not found in the Revised Common Lectionary, that’s the other collection of readings that many churches have used, including Bethlehem before me, for over a quarter century now. Not only that but when you think of the Creation story, most people think of the first chapter of Genesis, the one that begins with “In the beginning.” But this story that we have before us today is a completely different story all together. It’s not a more detailed look at the first creation story, the way many Biblical literalists would have you believe. No, this is a different narrative of how creation was created.

Just take a look at a few of the details and you’ll see. For instance, rather than a blank canvas with nothing but a void and darkness, this story begins with the earth and heavens already in place. Rather than animals being created before humans, a male human is created. Rather than both the male and female humans being created together, the female is created last, after the animals. Those are just a few of the glaring differences in these two stories. What fascinates me, is that our faith ancestors were ok with that They were ok with there being two separate and contradictory creation stories in the same Bible, and there’s no reason we can’t be ok with that too. If you want to hear more about that, this is one of the many topics we will talk about at Faith & Froth this month!

But let’s dig into this story further. Like the first creation story, this one is rich with vivid imagery, giving us lots of different things to chew on and process. One of things that really stood out to me this time, even though I’ve read this story countless times, is how almost perfect creation is portrayed. You heard that right, almost perfect. When we think of those first days of creation we often think of the Earth being a veritable paradise, where no one and no thing is left wanting for anything.

Many of us have this idea that it was the closest thing to heaven that the Earth will ever see until we get to the real thing. But if you look closely, that’s not at all how this author describes those first days of creation. By the way, not only was this written by a different author than the first creation story, it was written much earlier. Scholars believe that this one was written during King David’s reign, while the first one was written much later during the Exile. But I digress.

Let’s take a look at just how imperfect this perfect creation was. First, the author mentions that there was no vegetation. Why? Because there was no one to farm the land. Whoa! Hold on a sec! God expected us to work…in paradise!? Who thought that was a good idea? Had I been that first human I would have been asking to see the manager immediately! However, that’s the way this author saw the world. Yet, another difference from that first creation story. So, the land is left wanting, without a farmer. Next, is this reference to the tree of knowledge of good and evil. If creation started out as a perfect creation, why would this tree even need to exist? Next, the author mentions that there was no rain, so creation begins in a drought.

So, God finishes creating the Earth, all of its vegetation, one human being, and says something quite striking, especially for those of us who know the first creation story. God says, “It’s not good…that the human is alone.” But those first three words, “It’s not good” are what really stand out. The first creation story, in just the previous chapter, had that repeated refrain, “it was good.” God created light “and it was good.” God created dry land “and it was good.” God created vegetation “and it was good.” God created sea creatures, birds, land animals, humans, and after each one that author proclaimed that “it was good.” Not this time. This time, it was not good. Creation was lacking in some way, in many ways. And not just with the human being alone, but the land had no farmer, the animals had no names, the sky had no rain clouds!

Nothing was operating as it should be, nothing was operating at all really! Everything was there, but nothing was operating together. There’s the key word, together. You see, creation was left wanting by design. The world was created perfectly imperfect. Let me explain. And I’ll explain using a concept from the world of philosophy no less, a concept called Synchronicity. Synchronicity is when things work together in a beautiful, synchronous dance that leaves no one or no thing in want, sometimes in very obvious ways and other times in very mysterious ways.

Carl Jung called it the “togetherness principle.” I like that description the best, because that was the missing ingredient in this creation story. Everything was present but separate, rather than working together to care for each other’s needs. It was almost as if there was a switch that God just hadn’t yet flipped on. And what was that switch? A woman! God made a woman and then all was right in the world. The end. Amen! I wish it was that simple! However, it sure does read like once the female human was created, everything just started to work together, Synchronicity had been found, the Togetherness Principle began to operate.

Now, I’m not saying that women are the answer to everything, although that was the case in my life. But the point here is, creation is not operating at full efficiency, if we are not working together to care for each other’s needs. And who do I mean when I say we? I mean every one and every thing. From people of different faiths, colors, cultures, and places, to animals and plants, and even the air and the water and the earth.

Every thing and every one has been created to work with each other, to care for each other, to dance with one another—all in one great big synchronous life together. Creation was designed to need all it’s different parts needing each other to work together, in order to reach the perfection that it was created to be. It was created perfectly imperfect, almost paradise.

I invite you to ponder the many ways that our world is out of sync, and how we can help to bring that synchronicity, that togetherness principle back into reality, and as such, becoming a coworker with God in this continuing saga of creation. We will be doing just that today at two o’clock at our meal packaging event. Feeding the hungry is precisely this togetherness principle put into action. I’ll leave you to think of other ways to do so. Maybe we’ll even do it together someday. May God bless our work together, as we spread a bit of paradise wherever and whenever we can. Thanks be to God. Amen.