Thursday, January 22, 2015

In The Beginning - Week Four: "Sibling Rivalry"

This week we are concluding the sermon series that we've been working on for the past several weeks, a sermon series entitled, "In The Beginning."  The idea behind this series was very simple:  This new year isn't just a chance to make a new resolution, it's a chance to be a new creation.  And in order for us to learn what it means to become a new creation in this new year, we decided to go back to where everything started--back to the beginning, and the first four books of Genesis.

Our focus this week is on the first few verses of Genesis chapter 4 and the story of Cain and Abel--perhaps the most famous story of sibling rivalry in the history of the world.

I was an only child so I never really had to deal with sibling rivalry.  The only person I had to be jealous of was myself--which might seem crazy on the surface, had I not been such a smug little so-and-so growing up.  I tell you when my mom showed me favoritism over myself--it really chapped my hide.

But I do have three boys all of which are several years apart, which guarantees that there will be some seriously annoying moments between older and younger brothers.  Let's just say that our family has had more than our fair share of broken Lego creations, maimed action figures and deleted video game files to last a lifetime.

I was doing some research this week into famous sibling rivalries and found some interesting ones.  There's the story of Eppie and Priscilla Lederer, more famously known as Ann Landers and Dear Abby--advice columnists and dread rivals.  When Eppie Lederer became Ann Landers and assumed some serious popularity, Priscilla took on the persona of Abigail van Buren (Dear Abby) to compete with her sister.  She even went so far as to offer her advice column to newspapers at a reduced rate if they refused to run her sisters.

Then there was the horrible rivalry of Oscar winning actresses Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland.  When Joan Fontaine won the Oscar for best actress in 1941 she snubbed her sister who tried to congratulate her, and in 1946 when Olivia de Havilland won she did the same.  Fontaine later wrote about how she was always made to feel like a loser in their family and even suffered physical abuse, broken bones at the hands of her jealous sister.

Believe it or not, Walt and Roy Disney were rivals.  Walt was the younger of the two and the creative genius behind the company that bore his name.  Roy was always second banana even though he would outlive Walt and would run the company for years after Walt's death.  Walt once said about a decision he made against Roy's wishes, "When we were children and slept in the same bed, I used to [pee] all over Roy.  I [peed] on him then, and I am [peeing] on him now."  Only he didn't use the word pee.

More recently, Liam and Noel Gallagher from the rock band Oasis engaged in bitter arguments often fueled by drug use and alcohol that were mostly legal but often turned  physical regarding the future of their band.  In Britain they are widely known to be two of the worst sibling rivals since King Lear's daughters.

So what does this look like when it unravels completely?  What does it look like when people who should get along don't---and perhaps even turn against each other for good?

It looks a lot like the places in our world where there is strife, inequity, war, poverty, starvation, oppression... I could go on.  Fear, hatred, jealousy...  these are powerful emotions that can cause a world of hurt.

Why do people hate one another?  What's at the very core of it all?

I think the answers to those questions can be found in the first few verses of Genesis chapter 4
1 Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” 2 And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. 3 In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. 6 The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”
8 Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. 9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother's keeper?” 10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood is crying to me from the ground. 11 And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand. 12 When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” 13 Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. 14 Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” 15 Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him. 16 Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
So I have to say this.  When I was a kid I was always confused by the first line of this passage.  "Adam knew his wife."  I would always think, "It's kind of obvious that he knew her, right?"  I had know idea it meant that Adam knew his wife, knowwhatimeannudgenudgewinkwink...

But I digress...

Cain and Abel begin by doing very different things.  Cain tills the ground and Abel keeps flocks.  But they both decide to bring offerings of gratitude in worship.  There is no indication whatsoever that this is a sacrifice--it's a freely given offering of thanks.  The Bible says that Abel brought "fat portions" or in a more accurate translation, "the choicest of the firstlings."

And then it says something else.  "For his part" or in the Hebrew gam hu.  The way that the ancient rabbis translated this was to say that in addition to his own offerings, Abel also brought himself.  He offered the best of what he had to offer, and he also offered himself.

The Scripture said that God accepted Abel's offering, but didn't accept Cain's.

So what happened to Cain, why didn't his offering get accepted.  The ancient rabbis who wrote about this story said that in part it had to do with his motivation for the offering.  Sure, it was out of gratitude, but the key phrase for them was "in the course of time" which appears at the beginning of that part of the story.  They say that this line actually refers to Cain worrying about the future, and the end of his life so he comes to offer God an offering.

There's also some great teaching from the rabbis on how Cain took on the role of tilling the ground and trying to bring life from it as a way of replacing his parents lost dream of Eden.  In other words, he was trying to remake Eden, to do it on his own terms.

The rabbis also believed that the way Cain knew his offering wasn't accepted was because fire came from heaven and consumed Abel's and not his.  There's nothing in the text to indicate this happened, but it is part of the ancient commentaries on this passage.

When Cain gets upset about the perceived inequity of everything, God says to him "What's your damage, Cain?" or more literally translated, "If you take yourself to the House of Study, no harm will come to you."  That sounds pretty strange, but it actually speaks to the heart of what God wanted Cain to know--he had a choice.  He had a choice as to how he responded to God's favor of his brother over him--favor that had come because of the way Abel had approached the whole thing with a pure heart.  Cain could dedicate himself to being in relationship with God and repairing his selfishness, or he could keep going and possibly end up in destruction.

Cain, as it turns out, chose destruction.  He kills his brother in a fit of rage, and then buries his body to hide the crime. God shows up, however, and spoils everything for him.  "Where is your brother?" he asks, which in the Hebrew actually could translate, "Where is the brotherly affection that you claimed you had?"  "Am I my brother's keeper?" Cain replies angrily.

Then God says something fascinating.  "Your brothers blood cries out to me from the ground."  We tend to think that our actions against our fellow human beings have no consequences beyond the doing---but this story tells us otherwise.  All of Creation is connected--it is all good.  God's DNA, his Holy Spirit energy, His Creative Word through Christ is embedded in all things, including us.  Violence has cosmic implications.

Further, the retort that Cain offers up, "Am I my brother's keeper?" also has cosmic implications.  The answer is obviously, "Yes! Of course you are!"  All homicide is fratricide--murder of the brother.  And those who deny their responsibility for their brother are as guilty as those who commit the act itself.  This was an important teaching for the Jews who endured the Shoah or the Holocaust. Millions of people stood by and watched as 6 million Jews were exterminated.

So...  what does all this mean.  It means simply this:  At the very core of this whole story is the question of the right worship of God.  In other words, how you view God, directly affects how you view your brother.

Despite the many examples of brutality, violence, horror and hatred throughout the centuries there are so many stories to the contrary.  For every moment where we see Cain, there are other moments when people act more like Abel.

During the Nazi scourge of Europe, Jews were being deported from each of the countries that were conquered by Germany.  France was no exception, and in most cases the French were seemingly ambivalent to the plight of their Jewish neighbors.  Except for one town: Le Chambon sur Lignon.  The citizens of Le Chambon rus Lignon were responsible for saving over 5000 Jews from concentration camps during the Nazi occupation of France.  They didn't have meetings about it, they didn't plan things as a group.  They just started doing it, and soon the whole town was in on it.  They believed firmly the sign that hung above the gate to the churchyard in the center of town, "Love One Another."

In 1920 just after the national elections a riot broke out in Ocoee Florida.  The riot occurred because a black man had registered to vote.  The ensuing violence ended in the destruction of nearly all of the homes occupied by Ocoee's black citizens and the murder of over fifty of them in cold blood.  But there were many white families who defied the crazed hatred of the inciters of the riot, and who hid black families in their own homes, saving their lives.

Just a couple of weeks ago during the terror attacks in Paris, a young Muslim man who worked in the Jewish grocery store that was attacked by Muslim extremists risked his own life to hide Jewish shoppers in the freezer so that they wouldn't be harmed by the terrorists.

What made them do this?

I believe it comes down to a simple question:  "How do you see God?"  Do you fear God as a God of judgment, vengeance and anger?  Do you dread God like Cain did?  Do you see God as a being who is ready to smite you at a moment's notice for all of the mistakes you've made?  Do you see God as a gleeful judge who can't wait to sentence millions upon millions of people to eternal torment?

Or do you see God like Abel?

Do you see God as loving and full of grace?  Do you see God as worthy of your very best, of your whole life because God has plans for your future that are full of hope and promise?  Do you see a God like the one that Jesus taught about--a God who is not willing that any should be destroyed, but that they would all come to be his children?

Because I guarantee you--the way you see God directly affects the way you see your brother or your sister.

I know that it doesn't feel like it sometimes, but another world is possible.  I want you to hear that again... Another World Is Possible.  And you can be a part of that new world, that new creation.

Jesus told his followers, "Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father who is in heaven."  Let your light so shine... It's up to us in the end.

We have choice.  We can see God as a tyrant who wants blind obedience and who stands in judgement of us--coercing our love with threats of eternal torment.  And when we embrace this view of God it creates an "us" and "them" out of people who either agree with us or not.

Or we can see God as loving, forgiving, eager to be in relationship with us and for us to be at peace with all we come into contact with--to shine our light so they will see God.  Because when you truly see God in this way, every single person you come into contact with has the potential to be a disciple, a fellow believer, our brother or sister.

This year, beloved, isn't just a chance to make a new resolution, it's a chance to be a new creation... and to be a part of God's crazy beautiful plan to save the world.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

In The Beginning - Week Three: "Falling and Rising"


This week we are continuing our sermon series entitled, "In The Beginning," a study on the Creation account in Genesis that is meant to help us prepare for the possibilities and potential of this brand new year.

As we've discovered, making and keeping resolutions for a new year can be a tricky proposition.  Very few of us actually keep the resolutions that we make.  In fact, I would venture to guess that several of you---other people--have already broken resolutions that you made so hopefully on January 1st!

To that end, we've identified a theme to this series that we've been coming back to each week:  This year isn't just a chance to make a new resolution, it's a chance to be a new creation."

Last week we left the story of Creation at the conclusion of Genesis chapter 2 and the introduction of two trees and a choice.  Genesis chapter 2 tells us that God placed two trees in the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  In the story, God tells the first humans not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, but gives them no prohibitions agains eating from the Tree of Life.

We always have a choice, don't we?  We can choose to live, to truly live.  Or we can choose to not live fully, which can lead to death or worse.  We can choose to see the world through the lens of hope, or we can choose to be cynical and hopeless.

Here's the thing... Choosing to be hopeful doesn't mean that you are blind to the hopelessness in the world.  Choosing to focus on beauty doesn't mean that there isn't ugliness in the world.  In fact, as we discovered last week, the beauty sometimes helps us clearly distinguish the ugliness that needs to be transformed.  Choosing to see the goodness in the world doesn't mean that we can't see that the world isn't as it should be.

So, with that in mind let me ask you a question... "What breaks your heart about this world?"

Is there something about this world that just brings you to tears, or to your knees?  Is it when you realize how many children are dying of hunger all around the world? That most of the world's population doesn't have clean water?  Human trafficking, drug addiction, extreme poverty?  Maybe what breaks your heart is that there are people who need to know Jesus, but there is no one to tell them how much he loves them... or they have been so hurt by supposed followers of Jesus that they won't listen...

What breaks your heart about this world?

And this leads us to another, deeper and more difficult question... "How did the world get that way?"

Lots of Christians would answer that question by pointing to Genesis chapter 3.  "There!" they'll say, "This is where it all started!  This is where Adam and Eve messed up and got us into this mess."
And this is why we are going to dig around a bit in the story itself--so we can see what the Bible has to say about what many Christians call "The Fall."

3 Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.

The serpent in the ancient world was often a symbol of death, wisdom, fertility, health or chaos.  There was an ancient Sumerian god, whose stories would have been contemporary with the Genesis account that was in the shape of a serpent.  In the Gilgamesh epic, another contemporary story with the Genesis account, a serpent snuck up and ate the life-giving plant that Gilgamesh, the hero of the story, retrieved from the bottom of the cosmic river.  Jewish interpreters have also seen the serpent as a spirit of rebellion or temptation.  It's interesting in the story that neither Adam nor Eve seem too surprised that the serpent could talk.  

He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” 2 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Here the serpent contradicts God's words.  He tells Eve, "You're not really going to die.  All God wants to do is to keep you from becoming like him.  He told you that to scare you."  What the serpent doesn't say is that there are lots of ways to experience death--the death of hope, innocence, and the like.  

6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise,[b] she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.

Immediately, Adam and Eve are aware they are naked.  It's like when your kid is like four years old and they don't care whether they have on pants or not and just run around the house when you have visitors.  But all of a sudden they get a little older and start hiding when they can't find their pants.  

8 And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

The "cool of the day" is also an ancient Akkadian term.  Akkadian is an ancient language that was written and spoken during the time that the Genesis account was being passed down from generation to generation.  The term "cool of the day" also could mean "storm," which has to do with impending judgement.  

9 But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”

This could also mean, "What has driven you from me?"

10 And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” 11

When the man says, "I heard the sound of you," that could also mean "I obeyed you, don't do anything harsh!" Which is completely a lie.  

He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of 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 of the tree, and I ate.” 13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

Everyone wants to play the blame game here... more on this later. 

14 The Lord God said to the serpent,

“Because you have done this,
    cursed are you above all livestock
    and above all beasts of the field;
on your belly you shall go,
    and dust you shall eat
    all the days of your life.
15 I will put enmity between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring[e] and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
    and you shall bruise his heel.”
16 To the woman he said,

“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
    in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be for[f] your husband,
    and he shall rule over you.”
17 And to Adam he said,

“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
    and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
    ‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
    in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
    and you shall eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your face
    you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
    for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
    and to dust you shall return.”
20 The man called his wife's name Eve, because she was the mother of all living. 21 And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.

We need to point out something very important about this passage.  There is no indication that there is a permanent rupture of God's relationship with humans here.  In fact, God goes on to clothe them, and care for them.  If we continue reading, we discover that the humans are cast out of the Garden of Eden and are not allowed to return.  

Additionally, we need to ask if being "cast out" is a punishment or merely a consequence of their new awareness--an awareness that resulted in their loss of innocence and their willfulness.  Being cast out of the Garden means that there will be pain in childbirth for the woman, hard work and toil for the man, struggle to live, awareness of death... lots of awesomeness.  

This was never God's intention for those created in his image.  Which leads a lot of people who read this story to say things like, "It's all their fault!"  

Which leads us back to the whole "blame game."

In the story, Adam blames Eve and then he blames God.  "The woman did this---the woman you gave me.   I was fine before she showed up!  Listen, she's cute and all---but don't hang this on me, bro.  If it wasn't for her, I would have been just fine."

Then Eve blames the serpent.  "Are you kidding me?  I was just being a good wife and helper.  This serpent came up to me and told me a bunch of things that weren't true---how was I to know it was lying?  I mean who doesn't trust a talking snake, am I right?"

Things sort of unraveled from there over time.  Lots of ancient biblical interpreters placed the blame for the fall of humankind squarely on Eve's shoulders.  John Milton, the author of Paradise Lost, blamed Eve then blamed Adam for listening to Eve and for not throwing Eve under the bus sooner.

Now we all blame these two people---even people who don't really believe this story.  IF things hadn't gotten screwed up THEN we wouldn't be in this mess NOW.

So where do you place the blame?

Do you blame Adam and Eve for all of the things that are wrong in the world?  Do you place the blame on all of those other people who don't believe like you do, because clearly if they did--the world would be just like the Garden of Eden again.  Do you blame the Democrats?  The Republicans?  Do you blame Muslims? Christians?  Jews?  Do you blame the news media?

Where do you place the blame?

Let me tell you something that may sting a little to hear... God knows, it makes me feel like I'm scraped up and being doused in Bactine...

If you're blaming things---you're not changing things.

You can read the story in Genesis 3 and throw up your hands and say, "If this is what I have to work with, then what's the point?"  You can keep on blaming things---or you can decide to start changing things.

Let's go back to the question we asked earlier:  "What breaks your heart about this world?"
Only let me add another question to that question:  "What are you going to do about it?"
Are you going to keep blaming things or start changing things?

If the idea of children starving in this world breaks your heart, you can keep on blaming the system, lack of awareness, people who don't want to see the problem---or you can stop blaming things and start changing things.  Every week we feed people in our community.  We hand out sack lunches so that those in need can have something to eat when they go home at night.  Once, when we first started this program, one of our volunteers handed a sack lunch to two little girls.  The older girl turned to her sister and said, "We can eat tonight."

If the idea of people who are lost and far from God breaks your heart--you can keep on blaming the church for messing up the Gospel, your schedule for keeping you from being more available to share the Good News---or you can stop blaming things and start changing things.  A lady who comes to our weekly meal and clothes closet told my wife Merideth that when she first started coming here, she was wounded and hurt and not in a good place with God.  She sat next to a man one day who began sharing the joy of Jesus Christ in his life with her.  She took the first step back, and then another, and then another... On the day she told my wife this story she wrote our church a check for $20.  This check for $20 was like $20,000 to some of our church members.  But all it took was one guy, to take five minutes out of his day to share the good news with someone far from God.

I could go on and on.  If broken families break your heart, you could keep on blaming things or start changing things.  There are so many ways you can volunteer, give and lend your time, talent and treasure to help strengthen families at our church.  Maybe it's time to start.

Does your heart break for the poor?  For single moms?  For children who are failing in school? For at-risk kids, who the system has given up on?  For the sick and dying?   You can keep on blaming things or you can start changing things.

This year, my brothers and sisters isn't just a chance to make a new resolution, it's a chance to be a new creation.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Adventures in Perpetual Education

This past June I graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary with a Doctor of Ministry degree after spending three years of reading, writing, sweating, researching, more sweating and even more writing before finishing my dissertation/project.  So why am I back at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary this week taking another class?

Well, it's not because I enjoy freezing my tuckus off in 16 degree weather.  And it's not because of the Primanti Brothers sandwiches--although they do stand for a pretty good argument.

I am, in fact, taking a weeklong seminar with the goal of obtaining an Executive Certificate in Religious Fundraising from the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving, which is part of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University.

In English:  I am learning how to develop generosity in church congregations, and to develop my own leadership skills when it comes to stewardship/giving/fundraising in faith communities.

As part of this certificate, I not only have to complete the weeklong seminar (4 eight-hours, plus an evening workshop), but I also have to design a workable, sustainable, measurable stewardship/giving/fundraising program.

The training that I am receiving as well as the guidance that I'll get from the Lake Institute for the development of my project will be a huge benefit to my church, and hopefully to the members of my congregation.  I'm learning a great deal personally about what it means to live a generous life, and I am also learning how foster a culture of generosity in my church.

Honestly,   religious fundraising, stewardship and the like are the kinds of things that typically don't get covered in seminary, and were not part of the seminars I had for my doctoral work.  I am so grateful to be able to spend the time this week learning how to be a better pastor, leader, and under-shepherd.

And the Primanti Brothers "sammiches" are a bonus.

Friday, January 9, 2015

In The Beginning - Week Two: "Creation Part 2"

This week I'm going to be continuing the sermon series that I started at the beginning of January--a sermon series entitled "In The Beginning."  It's the beginning of a new year, with new possibilities, and this should give us a tremendous sense of hope.

But sometimes at the outset of a new year we find ourselves torn between our longing to be better people and the reality that most of our efforts fall short.  In the end, we tell ourselves, we won't keep that new year's resolution.  We'll mostly do what we always do, and things will mostly be what they've mostly been.

Still, there is a longing deep inside each of us that we can't shake--a longing for a world where the same old same old doesn't really exist.  We long to be better people, for sure.  We want to be thinner, smarter, more efficient, better-connected, more patient, grace-filled, full of energy, you name it.  We want to be better husbands, wives, children, sons, daughters, church members, citizens...  The list is long.

We want these things from a place deep within us that we are often afraid to access.  And most of the time we don't know why we want them, and we seldom trust those longings because the same old same old tends to betray them.

But what if it could be different? What if we saw the new year not as a chance to make new resolutions, but as a chance for new creation?

Let me share with you a mystery--The Mystery of the Freakishly Amazing Transformed Chalkboard, to be exact.

Each week, two students at Columbus College of Art and Design have been causing an artistic riot of sorts. The anonymous students, who refer to themselves as Dangerdust, sneak their way into a classroom every week and create impressive artwork using only chalk. The two seniors, who both major in Advertising & Graphic Design, prove that they are truly passionate about their major with their magnificent masterpieces.

You can read the whole story and see the masterpieces here:

How amazing is that?  Think about how long it took to make each of those works of art.  And the joy that it must have brought the artists to do it each week, knowing how surprised and delighted that everyone who saw their work would be.

Not only are the works of art beautiful---so is the idea itself.

I have a question for you.  Why do we know beauty when we see it?  What is it about the things in life that are truly beautiful that makes us not only recognize them, but feel our souls tingle with energy in their presence?

Here's another question on top of that question.  What is it about this extravagant use of creative energy that makes us feel so flipping good?  Dangerdust created something in chalk.  This inherently is a bad idea when you create art because chalk has a tendency to get erased.  They didn't seem to care.  When you realize that they didn't care--that they created their art despite what might happen to it later... dang, it makes your soul tingle doesn't it?

Which leads me to my last question, which sort of relates to that the last one. Why does this also make us just a little bit sad?  Maybe it's just me, but when I see those incredible works of art in chalk, and I realize all that went into them and why---I feel a tinge of sadness in the midst of my soul tingling.  Why?  Is it because I realize how temporary things are?  Do I struggle with my own mortality as I look at them?

Or maybe looking at these beautiful works of art, so lovingly and joyfully created--makes me realize that the world isn't as it should be.  Because sometimes the only way to know something isn't right, is to be shown how it should be.

The world isn't as it should be...  That's a bit of an understatement, isn't it?

Why isn't it, though?  Is it really as simple as what most Christians say, "Because Adam and Eve sinned---everything is messed up for the rest of us."  Is it really the fault of two people?  Or if you subscribe to the not very thoughtful notion that the woman in the story caused the whole thing and the guy just sort of went along--is it really Eve's fault?

So why is it that we don't just resign ourselves to this notion and accept our fate?  I guess that many of us do, but for the most part there are a lot of us humans being out here who hold out some measure of hope that maybe things won't always be so screwed up.  Which leads us to also ask, "Why do we long for the world to be--as it should be?

I think that the answers to these questions--and a good deal more--can be found in the Creation story in the first few chapters of Genesis.

Today we're going to be taking a look at a few passages from Genesis chapter 2:

2 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. 2 And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. 3 So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.  

7 then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. 8 And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9 And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat[d] of it you shall surely die.”

18 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for[e] him.” 19 Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed[f] every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. 

20 The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam[g] there was not found a helper fit for him. 21 So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22 And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23 Then the man said,

“This at last is bone of my bones
    and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
    because she was taken out of Man.”
24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. 25 And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.

There are so many things that we can draw out of this text--it's full of awesome. But we're going to keep focused on a theme that I think is threaded throughout the story.

At the outset of the chapter we see that God has completed Creation with the cessation of work--in other words, the way we know that God's done is because God stops working and rests.  Which brings in a very important idea that many Jewish scholars have debated over the years.  In the Hebrew mindset, the true completion of the work of Creation didn't happen when God stopped working, it happened when God created the Sabbath.

The resting deity in ancient cultures was a sign that things were--at least for the moment--as they should be.  But the Hebrew approach to the Creation story is completely different than their Mesopotamian neighbors.  The God of the Hebrew people rests with complete intentionality not just because God did something, but because of what God wants God's people to do, namely rest.

And this isn't just about not working, or taking a day off--it's so much more.  It's a lifestyle.  It's a mindset with shalom the peace of God at the center of everything.  When there is shalom, the world is as it should be.  The Sabbath reminds us of this, and gives us a sign and symbol of the kind of world God intended.

God left Creation incomplete, not quite finished.  This doesn't mean he left it in a bad state, far from it.  We established this last week when we discussed the word "let" which was full of pregnant possibility.  God's intentions have always been for God's people to join him in the continuing work of creation.  And it was for this purpose that God created humans in his image and not other creatures.  God created humans to be filled with worth and dignity because God created humans in God's image.  This stands in sharp contrast to the ancient gods of Israel's neighbors.

Further, this God who left things incomplete so that humans would join him in the joyous act of creation.  It says in the text that human beings worked in the garden, only this kind of work wasn't the sort of back-breaking, soul-stealing work that left you beat up and used up---this was "good" work, the kind of work that was fulfilling, that made a difference, that the humans in the story found to be filled with joy, satisfaction and dignity.

And, as if that wasn't enough, God created humans to be together. All kinds of things were good about creation, but God at some point in this story says that it's not good for man to be alone, and so God created a partner from the very substance that he created man.  And the language here is the language of a wedding and of God presiding, officiating, if you will, at the wedding of the first human beings.

God created human beings not for his amusement, nor to serve him.  The gods of the ancient world reveled in their power of humans, who were little more than pawns and more often than not merely servants, toiling and slaving away for the pleasure of the gods.  According to the Creation account, God created humans for relationship--with one another and with God.  Their role was not one of servitude, but of priesthood.  The priestly role of human beings was to point to God, glorify God and then tend and maintain a space for worship--namely the world that God created as God's "sanctuary."

So we have a good creation... a good world... a good God... a good garden...

What could go wrong?

It's at this point in the story that we read the description of the two trees in the Garden of Eden:  The Tree of Life and The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  You get the sense when you read about these two trees that something is about to unfold--that there is some cosmic struggle about to take place... and you would be right, if you sense this.

There are other trees of life in other accounts from the same era as the Genesis story.  The ancient Gilgamesh Epic describes a life giving plant on the bottom of a cosmic river.  The story of Adapa, another ancient Mesopotamian epic describes a tree that gives eternal life when the fruit produced by the tree is eaten.  Then there is the ancient Egyptian story of Amun-Re, who created a tree with eternal life-giving fruit---so the tree of life here in the Genesis account is almost certainly not alone.

But there's something very different about this tree, which we'll see shortly.

Let's take a look at the second tree... There doesn't seem to be any other contemporary stories that contain a tree like the one described as the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  A better translation of the words describing this tree would be "The Tree that Gives The Capacity to Judge."  Or as I would translate it, "The Tree That Makes You Lose Your Innocence."  One bite of the fruit of this tree gave the person who ate it carnal knowledge--awareness of their bodies, their sexuality and how twisted all of that could become when innocence is log.  It also made the person who ate from it aware of their mortality, the brevity of their life and also acutely aware of the pain that our brief lives can bring, and the drudgery of work that has no purpose.

Here's the thing.

That tree--the one that opened your eyes to how ugly things can get--was the only tree that God told humans not to eat from.

The other tree--the one that would give you eternal life with one bite--was not included in the initial prohibition.  In other words, God basically told humans.  Don't eat from the tree that will twist all of the goodness that I've created in you.  You can eat from the other tree, though, the one that gives you life.

It's like God is saying, "Choose life or choose death.  Choose beauty or choose ugliness.  Choose fulfilling work or choose to toil in vain.  Choose holy, intimate relationships or choose cheap and tawdry sex.  The choice... is... yours..."

Here's the thing, the reason why you recognize beauty when you see it... The reason why you feel the joy of doing really good work that fulfills you and makes the world a better place... The reason why you admire creativity and long to create...

Is because you have a memory of the garden.

And the reason why you feel sadness at the loss of things, when the world changes, you grow older, your kids grow up and move on, your body betrays you... The reason you feel the pain of a world that isn't as it should be... The reason why you toil sometimes in life and feel no satisfaction from your work...

Is because you have a memory of the garden.

This story, isn't a story about how things happened---it's a story about how things are happening.  Every single day of your life you have the choice that God gave humans from the beginning.  Choose life or choose death.  Choose intimacy or cheap sex.  Choose fulfilling work or choose to toil in vain.  It's your choice.

You have a choice on how you view the world.

You can view it with the innocence that comes from complete and total faith in a good God, who created a good world so that his very good creation, human beings, might thrive and live in loving relationship with God and one another.

Or you can view it with a lack of innocence, filled with bitterness and cynicism.  You can decide that the way the world has become is more powerful than the way the world should be.

This past week heavily armed gunmen charged into the offices of French newspaper Charlie Hebdo,  executed 12 people and injured a dozen or more.  They have been determined to be Muslim extremists who were angered over cartoons that the newspaper had printed of the prophet Mohammed, Muslim terrorists and extremists.

The worldwide reaction to this unspeakable tragedy were swift.  But none were more effective than the army of cartoonists around the world who took up their pencils and began to draw.  Hundreds of internationally known political cartoonists waged a counterattack against the violence the Muslim extremists had inflicted upon their own.

And they created beauty--which, as it turns out, is infinitely more powerful than ugliness:

You have a choice on how you view the world.  The terrorists chose one way, and the artists chose another.  The terrorists

You have a choice every single day on which tree you will choose to pick from and eat.

So this year will you choose to live a life full of wide-eyed wonder, hope and innocence or will you live a life full of cynicism, negativity and joylessness.

This year isn't just the chance to make a new resolution.  It's a chance to be a new creation.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

In The Beginning - Week One: And God Said

I was looking for some information on New Year's Resolutions on the interwebs and I found one linked to  It touted the top New Year's resolutions that people make--quitting smoking, losing weight, starting a new career, furthering education  and the like.  It also provided links for each one of those resolutions to government websites where you could find help on how to keep those resolutions.

Tax payer funded help---to keep your New Year's resolutions...

Perhaps a less cynical person would see this as a creative way for the U.S. government to connect people with government services that might help make their lives better.

Unfortunately, I am not that less cynical person.  As I read through the site, I was reminded of that old punchline, "Hi, we're from the government and we're here to help you."  How bad have things gotten in our society when you have to go to the government to help you keep your New Year's resolutions?

Pretty bad, I'd say.

No one really keeps their New Year's resolutions.  No one I know anyway.  Okay--I don't keep my New Year's resolutions.  Happy?  Still, there must be a bunch of people like me for the government to think they have a potential client base to draw from.

I overheard some folks in our church talking about this the other day when I was eavesdropping in on their conversation.  One person said, "I don't even bother making New Year's resolutions.  You shouldn't have to have a New Year's resolution to do something--you should just do it."   I admire that kind of spunk and spitfirededness.   Sadly, that kind of attitude is much more theory than practice for most of us.

Clearly, we need a new approach to the whole New Year's resolution thing.

Maybe the reason why we have such a hard time keeping our New Year's resolutions is because our sights are set too darned low--we're only focusing on making ourselves better, and generally on our own terms.

What if we approached the new year a completely different way.  What if we approached the new year not as just another chance to make new resolutions--or not make resolutions, whatever the case may be--but as a chance for new creation.

There is something deep inside each and every one of us that longs for this--that longs to not just develop better habits, lose weight, quit smoking and such, but to become a new creation.  And further, to not just make ourselves better, but help make the world a better place.  To take what's broken in our world and re-imagine it, re-new it and re-create it.

There is an artist named October Jones, who had to commute on a train every day to and from work.  It was boring.  No one really speaks to anyone on the trains in big cities.  You keep your head down, listen to your head phones, read your paper or go to sleep.  Not October.  He creates cartoon heads and puts them on real people.  How?  Check out this story:

Here's a deep and abiding question or two:  "Where do our creative impulses come from?  Where do we get our impulse to create?"  Where did October Jones get the idea to turn a boring, mindless, soul-sucking exercise into something creative and vibrant?

Why do we watch shows where people take old, nasty houses demolish them inside and out, and then turn them into homes where most of us could imagine our selves living?

Why do we make New Year's resolutions, or at the very least view the new year as a fresh start, a new beginning so that we can undo all the mistakes in the previous year... reverse time so to speak... do things differently with a second chance?

I think the best place to begin---is in the beginning.  Genesis chapter 1, to be more precise.  I am not going to reprint the entire chapter, just a few of the verses...
1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.
6 And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” 7 So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. 8 God called the vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.
9 And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good.
To begin with, according to the text, things were "formless" and "empty." The Hebrew words here also connote "waste," "useless," and "confused."  Then God creates.  The Hebrew word in Genesis 1:1 for create is bara which is used uniquely to describe the kind of creativity that is reserved for the divine.  In other words, only God could pull of something like this.

What we need to know, first and foremost, is that Genesis is not a guide to cosmology.  Even ancient rabbis knew this.  The overriding theme, the concern of the book is a moral one--the relationship between God and humankind, particularly those who would be called children of God.

When the scripture tells us that "God said," that's not a cosmological statement--it's a theological one.  The ancients were concerned to note that God created the world with his words.  He announced his divine intentions by speaking, shattering the cosmic silence and beginning what would eventually create order out of chaos.

Because God "said," it personalizes it.  This was not an accident.  It may have been a "big bang," but it was the big bang sound of God's voice expressing God's intent desire to create.  This was not the act of an indifferent being, but one who was intimately involved in creation.

In the ancient world, something was thought to exist when it had a role to play in the world, when it had purpose.  The way to identify that role was to name whatever it was that was being spoken into existence.  And the only way to name something was to use words.  For the ancients, the fact that God spoke, imbedded meaning in everything.

The text also describes God as saying "let" quite often.  "Let us create..." "Let there be..." and so on.  The use of the word let here implies that the act of creation is not completed.  God is leaving room for creaturely response as God creates.  God is imbedding all of creation with the potential to continue the act of creation.

Additionally, God calls his creation good, which implies that reality itself is imbued with God's goodness and the potential inherent in this fact.  Simply put, God planted God's DNA in all of creation--including you, and me.

There's something else going on in this short but powerful passage.  The name used for God in this text is Elohim, which is actually a plural noun. In other ancient cultures the use of this term for a deity implied that there was a boundless creative potential in the deity--the ability, desire and skill to create in unimaginable ways.  The ancient Israelites incorporated this term to describe the unnameable God above all gods--the God whose creative impulses knew no bounds.

And then if that wasn't enough--rabbis who have studied this passage over the years have written about the importance of the first word used in the passage--b'reishit. This word is the first of seven words in the first verse, and it actually doesn't begin with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, it begins with the second--the word bet.  The letter bet is closed on three sides and open on one--with the open side pointing forward, if you will.  The rabbis said this indicates an open ended story--that looks forward and not backward.

So what does all of this mean--to you?

It means that the Creator of all things is the kind of Creator who cares deeply about Creation--so deeply that this Creator imbedded himself into every aspect of it.  And this Creator was so full of creative potential, with the boundless energy and imagination to create that this Creator created all things with the potential to create and re-create and he gave his greatest creation, human beings, the ability, the desire, to inherent gift to create with him.

The reason why you enjoy watching television shows about old houses being made new... The reason why you desire to be a better person every time you ring in a new year...  The reason why you want the world to be a better place... The reason why you start to tear up every time you see that commercial about abused animals with the Sarah Machlaclan song playing in the background...

The reason why you want to see all the ugly, hard, horrible things in this world made new...

Is because you were created to want it.  This is who you are.  This is what you were meant to do.

What would this look like?

This new year, instead of focusing on how much weight you want to lose, why not aim higher?  Lose weight, for sure, but use your time, talent and your treasure to help feed people who can't afford a decent meal.

Instead of focusing on how you want to read more and spend less time watching TV, why not aim higher?  Read, for sure, but use your time, talent and your treasure to pour into the lives of children who are having a hard time learning to read.

Are you starting to see it?

You were meant for so much more than self-help.

Don't get me wrong, you should care for yourself and the mind, body and spirit that God has given to you.  But that shouldn't be you only concern because if it is your only concern, you are denying the very creative spirit of God within you.

This new year is not just a chance to make new resolutions, it's a chance for a new creation.