Sunday, April 05, 2020

Sermon for Palm/Passion Sunday, "The Stones Cry Out," Luke 19:29-40

Sermon 4/5/20

Luke 19:29-40

The Stones Cry Out

I don’t usually give a message on Palm/Passion Sunday. My preaching professor in seminary, the late Dr. Charles Rice, always said that the combined events of celebrating the Triumphant Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem with palms and Hosannas and of remembering the Passion of Jesus Christ by concluding with the telling of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion was enough. The text preaches itself, he said. We don’t need to add more words.

Over the years, I’ve found his words to ring true, and because of the vividness of the readings, and the juxtaposition of the crowds yelling, “Hosanna, God save us!” at the start of the worship service and then yelling, “Crucify, Crucify him!” by the end, I’ve found Palm/Passion Sunday to be one of the most meaningful worship services of the year. And so I’m not really giving a sermon today either, I promise! But these days are unique, and call for just a little contextualizing, I think. The events of Palm Sunday and of the Passion of Jesus are as compelling as ever - they still stand on their own. But I want to help focus our attention. 

In the lectionary calendar, the three-year schedule of scripture readings for the church, this year would have us focusing on Matthew’s account of what we call the Triumphant Entry of Jesus to Jerusalem. All the gospel of accounts of this event are similar, but unique. Donna Peck pointed out at our online BIble Study, for example, that Luke’s account never uses the word “Hosanna,” which is certainly something we associate with Palm Sunday. “Hosanna” means “God, save us!” and we could certainly resonate with such a plea today. In fact, Luke doesn’t even mention people waving or laying down branches. Instead, he talks about folks spreading cloaks on the road. But I chose for us to read Luke’s account particularly because of the conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees at the end of the text. 

In Luke’s account, as Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a colt, a young donkey, a crowd starts to gather. Jesus knows he’s heading toward his painful death on a cross, but the people don’t know that, and at this point, the crowds are excited to see him. It turns into an impromptu parade of sorts. They throw down their cloaks for him to ride over, treating Jesus as they’d treat royalty. And they start to praise God. Luke tells us they say, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Again, the first part of their chant is something meant for a king, words from the Psalms meant for a festival day. The crowds are greeting Jesus like a king, but Jesus arrives on a donkey, not a war horse. (1) The second part of their greeting to Jesus echoes the words from Luke’s gospel that the angels sing when Jesus is born: “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Luke reminded us when Jesus was born that Jesus is no earthly king, born in a palace surrounded by luxury. Jesus’ authority, his reign, is one of true peace. 

The Pharisees are upset by this demonstration. They say to Jesus, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” We don’t know exactly why they want to settle the crowds. We suspect they’re jealous of Jesus’ popularity, threatened by his clear authority that seems to overlook their wisdom and leadership. But I think they’re also afraid: Jesus being greeted as he enters Jerusalem like some sort of king, even if Jesus wasn’t asking to be so treated - well, that would draw a lot of unwanted attention on the people - both from the Jewish King Herod, seen as a puppet of Rome, and from the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate. Jerusalem was occupied by the Roman Empire, and such an event like this was dangerous. No one wanted the Roman authorities to get more involved in the lives of the Jewish people than they already were. 

But Jesus responds to Pharisees, “I tell you, if these people were silent, the stones would shout out!” Those words are words found in the writing of the prophet Habakkuk. Habakkuk was writing during a time of great distress in Israel’s history. The Assyrians were destroying city after city, and the people lived in fear. Habakkuk cries out to God, “How long? How long will we cry for help, God, and you won’t listen?” Habakkuk waits for God’s answer. 

God does answer, and God makes it clear that every injustice the people have suffered at the hands of enemies - God has seen. God promises that their deliverance is coming. They have to wait, but deliverance is coming, and God sees all that is happening. It is God who says to Habakkuk, “The very stones will cry out from the wall, and the plaster will respond from the woodwork.” God says that even these inanimate objects are crying out at the injustice and pain and hardship that has been visited on God’s people. And God hears, and responds. (2) 

So when Jesus uses these words from Habakkuk, he’s telling the Pharisees that in the face of injustice and oppression, like the Jews of Jesus days were experiencing from the Roman Empire, nothing can stop people from crying out from deliverance. And if the people’s voices were somehow stopped, then even the rocks would take up the cry instead. And when the people cry out, when the rocks cry out for deliverance, for help, when they’re crying out, “God save us!” whether it is with Hosannas and palm branches or with cloaks laid on the ground and stones crying out instead of human voices, God hears. God listens. And God promises deliverance will come. 

Friends, in these days when we can’t gather together for worship like we so long to do, we feel deep sadness that we’re not together, waving our palm branches. I miss the children parading in the sanctuary. I miss hearing your voices singing with ours. I miss you. But in these days when we cry out, “How long, O Lord?” know that God hears. God listens. Nothing will stop God’s work of deliverance, of justice, of peace from unfolding. Nothing stops our cries from ringing in God’s ears. Even when our voices weary, the stones will cry out. And even if the church building is empty, God’s heart is full of God’s people. And Jesus, and his reign of true peace, will not be thwarted. Nothing can get in the way of God’s saving, life-changing, world-changing love. 

In just a little bit, we’ll hear again the Passion story. We’ll hear of Jesus’ arrest, and trial, and crucifixion. And for a moment, it will seem like death has won. Like good loses in the end. Like Jesus has been silenced. But we know that’s not the end of the story. I tell you, even the stones are shouting out. And God is listening. Amen.  

  1. Haslam, Chris, “Comments,” Revised Common Lectionary Commentary,

  2. Claassens, Juliana, “Commentary on Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:2-4; 3:17-19,” The Working Preacher,

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, "Liminal Lent: Ruth & Naomi," Ruth 1:1-2:12

Sermon 3/29/2020
Ruth 1:1-2:12

Liminal Lent: Ruth & Naomi

Today is the last Sunday in Lent before we move into Holy Week, and so it is our last week to focus explicitly, at least, on this theme of Liminal Lent, even as we suspect our global liminal season will last for some time yet. As a reminder, or for those of you who are joining us for the first time today, liminal literally means threshold, and is meant to refer to the in-between-ness we experience sometimes, that place between endings and beginnings, the seasons of transition when we’re between there and here. We’ve been spending this Lent studying stories of liminal seasons in the Bible, because even though these in-between, liminal seasons can be disorienting and uncomfortable, they can also be seasons when it is easier for us to hear and respond to God’s call on our life. 
Today, we turn our attention to the book of Ruth. Ruth is a short book of the Bible, and I encourage you to give the whole book a read this week. We’re told at the opening of Ruth that during the time when Israel was ruled by judges - before the people clamored for a king - there was a famine in the land. So a certain man from Bethlehem named Elimelech goes with his wife Naomi and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, to live in Moab. Maybe there was rumor that Moab had food to spare? For some reason, Elimelech thinks things might be better in Moab. Moab, which in present day is where Jordan is located, was a neighbor to Israel, and sometimes relations between Israel and Moab were good and sometimes they weren’t so good. At any rate, Moab had its own culture and religious practices - they weren’t part of the covenant between God and Israel. Mahlon and Chilion both marry Moabite women. 
At some point, Elimelech dies, and then both Mahlon and Chilion die, leaving behind their wives, Orpah and Ruth. This happens over some length of time, but the cumulative result is still devastating to Naomi. As a widow with no living sons, Naomi is in a precarious, vulnerable position socially and economically, and so are her newly widowed daughters-in-law. In the culture of the day, women didn’t inherit - men did. Naomi needs to figure out how to survive. And so she decides that the best thing to do is to return home to Israel, because now she’s heard that God has “considered God’s people” and given them food in Israel. And she’ll send her daughters-in-law back to their families in Moab, where they can try to start over and perhaps marry again. 
At first, both Orpah and Ruth protest leaving Naomi. They care for her - she’s family, and they’ve been with her for years. Naomi pushes, and eventually Orpah concedes and departs, but Ruth persists. She makes a declaration: “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die - there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” These are words of covenant, a beautiful act of commitment, of love. In fact, they’re often read at weddings. With these words, Ruth commits to the Jewish faith, making the God of Israel her God too. 
So Ruth and Naomi return to Bethlehem. Naomi tells people to call her Mara, which means bitter, instead of her own name, which means pleasant, because she feels that God has dealt bitterly with her. She says, “I went away full, but God has brought me back empty.” Have you ever felt like that? I think our liminal seasons might often find us feeling that way at first. A season of life has ended, and we feel a deep sense of loss. Significant parts of Naomi’s identity - she was a spouse, a parent - they’ve been snatched from her. And although she’s returned home, Moab was her home for many years. 
Ruth, of course, has suffered her own losses. She’s lost her husband, and now she’s in a new country, a place she’s never been before, far from her family of origin. But she immediately sets about trying to care for Naomi. Ruth asks Naomi to send her to glean in the fields of a kinsman of Naomi’s, a man named Boaz. Ruth clearly knows the law of Israel. There are provisions in God’s commandments that say farmers are not to gather every last bit of food to harvest from the field. No, whatever is left behind in the harvest is to be offered to those in need to glean. The vulnerable are protected in this way. And so Ruth goes to glean in the fields of Boaz. Once there, we see that Boaz repeatedly shows Ruth hospitality: He makes sure she is protected from anyone who might bother her. He makes sure she has water to drink and food to eat. Boaz follows the commandments for hospitality to strangers, for care of the vulnerable, for welcoming foreigners. But he doesn’t just follow the letter of the law. He acts with loving-kindness, with compassion, with care. And he lets Ruth know that he has heard about Ruth’s acts of loving-kindness too. He says, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!”
Eventually, after our text concludes, Boaz and Ruth marry. We sense genuine relationship between them, but Boaz also acts, again, to follow the commandments of God, which include provisions for caring for widows like Ruth by connecting them to family again through marriage where possible. And in the surprising and unsurprising ways of God, Ruth eventually becomes the great-grandmother of a man named David, and an ancestor of Jesus. A foreign woman, a widow with many losses, far from home, becomes part of the genealogy that shapes Judaism and Christianity. 
There are so many opportunities in this story for people to justifiably take other paths, choose other actions. In the face of loss, Orpah returns home to her family. Her actions weren’t wrong. No one would have faulted Ruth for doing the same. But she chooses to stay with Naomi, to care for Naomi, to stick by Naomi’s side in this liminal season. Naomi, in turn, despite the bitterness she feels, cares for Ruth, and makes her people, her connections, her country Ruth’s as well. Boaz could have ignored Ruth - just another person come to glean in his fields. That would have been generous enough. But he sees how faithful she has been, and seeks to be a vessel through which Ruth experiences God’s blessings. 
We’ve been having our weekly Bible Study online for the past couple of weeks, and I think we’re getting the hang of it. It’s open to all - Wednesday night at 6pm over Zoom, and again, you can find the link to that in our email newsletter or on our facebook page. We had a great group this week, and we spent time studying the scriptures from Ruth for worship today. After class, Karen Brungard messaged me with something she’d been thinking about. She said that in thinking about Ruth and Boaz, she realized that each of them chose to do what was right, but unlike some more dramatic stories in the Bible, neither Ruth nor Boaz recounts God speaking to them directly. That’s such a good insight. I found Karen’s observation reflected in some of the commentaries I read this week too.Kathryn Schifferdecker writes, “God does not speak from burning bushes in this book; nor does God divide the sea. Instead, God acts through circumstance, and through the faithfulness of ordinary human beings. God’s [loving-kindness] is embodied in human action.” (1) Although we don’t hear God’s voice directly in Ruth and Naomi’s journey, we see God at work through Naomi releasing Orpah and Ruth from staying with her, and through Ruth choosing to go with Naomi anyway, holding fast to a faith she had learned from Naomi and her family. We see God at work as Naomi sends Ruth to glean in Boaz’s field, trusting that Boaz will be observing the law that has bound the Israelites to God for generations. She does this even though she feels like God has dealt her a bitter hand. In spite of her pain, she acts with the loving-kindness God calls her to show.  We see God at work as Boaz welcomes Ruth, a refugee from another country, without hesitation, again, something God’s commandments champion: welcoming the stranger, demonstrating hospitality. We’re following Ruth and Naomi through the most painful season of their lives, marked by loss and upheaval, the death of spouse and children, the loss of country and home, with widespread famine just the icing on the cake. And in the midst of such potential for ongoing devastation, we see in the book of Ruth faithful act after faithful act, not because God breaks forth from the clouds and makes grand pronouncements, but because of the everyday faithfulness of people like Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz.
God acts through the faithfulness of ordinary human beings. God’s love, God’s compassion - the qualities and character of God are embodied in human action. I know in these hard days, we’re listening for the voice of God. That’s always a good idea! But we don’t need to wait until God’s voice bursts forth from a burning bush, or a dove comes down from the sky, or any other dramatic sign. We already know what God calls us to do in this season: we love God and we love neighbor. We try to reflect to others the heart of Jesus. What we can do is seek to understand what that love of God and neighbor looks like in our unique experience. In this liminal season of pandemic, when we don’t get to welcome visitors into our church buildings, what does it mean to provide hospitality and welcome the stranger? In this season of pandemic, who is most vulnerable? If we can’t invite those who are hungry to glean in our fields, what other ways can we serve right now? If we can’t gather physically around those who are grieving, whose worlds are turned upside down, what other ways can we show our support? If our love and commitment can’t be demonstrated in literally journeying side by side right now, how can we join together in a journey of the spirit? Sometimes, most times perhaps, God isn’t calling us to dramatic gestures that will make headline news and win us accolades. Most times, God isn’t calling us to be Moses, leading a nation, or Joseph, becoming right hand to a king. Instead, most days, God just calls us to be faithful. To persist in doing what is right, what is loving, what is just, what is full of compassion. Ordinary faithfulness changes lives and changes the world just as certainly as extraordinary gestures.  
God is faithful to us, even in, especially in these days when we are anxious and afraid. And knowing that we are gathered in by God, under whose wings we come for refuge, we can be faithful to God and to one another too. In these days, friends, may God bless you for your faithful deeds, for your loving-kindness. May your days be full of blessing from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge! Amen. 

(1) Schifferdecker, Kathryn M., “Commentary on Ruth 1:1 - 4:22,” The Working Preacher,

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, "Liminal Lent: Joseph," Genesis 39-40

Sermon 3/22/2020
Genesis 39 & 40

Liminal Lent: Joseph

I know some of you are joining us online for worship today who haven’t been with us throughout our season of Lent, so for you and as a reminder for others, I want to explain our worship theme. Our theme this Lent is “Liminal Lent.” Liminal means literally “threshold.” Think of crossing the threshold of a doorway. For a moment, when you cross over, you’re in two places at once - one foot in one room, and one foot in the next room. But you’re also not fully in either room. You’re in the in-between place. That in-between place is liminal space. And liminal space then also refers to time periods, seasons in our lives when we’re in-between, in transition, that time between endings and beginnings. We chose that for our worship theme here in Gouverneur because we’re in a liminal season as a congregation and as a denomination, and even the church as a whole is in a liminal season. But as things have unfolded, we suddenly also find ourselves in a national and global liminal season. We are in transition, in limbo, in this strange place that seems a bit unreal, where we are all trying to figure out what to do in this time in between. 
Sometimes it is actually easier in the liminal seasons of life to hear what God is saying to us. That seems to be the case in the scriptures. So many folks in the Bible experience significant liminal seasons, and in those in-between days, God is with them, redirecting their path. So each week in Lent, we’ve been studying a liminal story from the Bible. And this week, we turn to Joseph. Joseph’s story in Genesis takes up most of the last several chapters, starting at 37. Since we’re interested in the liminal season for Joseph, we’re focusing on the middle of his story. But it helps to know a little bit of context. Joseph is the son of Jacob and Rachael. We talked about Jacob several weeks ago - he’s the wily trickster who uses deceit to grab his brother Esau’s birthright. Jacob ends up having twelve sons (and a daughter) with his wives and their servants. But Joseph is the favorite child, because he’s the firstborn of his favorite wife, Rachael. Yes, Jacob had favorites. Joseph, growing up as the favorite, is a little full of himself, telling his brothers that he’s had dreams about how he’ll be greater than all his brothers, ruling over them. In turn, his brothers of course aren’t thrilled when they know that they’re only second-best in their father’s eyes, and so they plot to kill Joseph. They decide at the last instead to sell Joseph to slave traders and just make it look like Joseph has been killed by a wild animal. And that’s how we land in at the start of our text for today. 
Last week we talked about how long Noah and his family were in the liminal season on the ark - over a year. But Joseph’s middle time - from the time that he’s sold by his brothers to the time before he’s reconciled with them - this season in his life is more than 20 years long. Twenty years! Today, we’re looking at two arcs in his liminal season. After he’s first sold as a slave, he winds up serving in Egypt, in the home of Potiphar, who was the captain of the guard for the pharaoh, the king. And we hear right in verse 2 of chapter 39, that even though Joseph is a slave, God is with him and God lifts him up despite his circumstance. Joseph excels in his role and is given as much status and success as is available to him. He finds favor with Potiphar, and Potiphar makes him overseer of everything he owns. We read that because God is present with Joseph, God blesses what Joseph does, which in turn means that God blesses everything of Potiphar’s. So Potiphar gives Joseph more and more responsibility. 
But then Potiphar’s wife, whose name we never learn unfortunately, she begins to pursue a sexual relationship with Joseph. Joseph refuses. Joseph says doing so, breaking Potiphar’s trust in this way - it would be a great wickedness, and a sin against God. She persists, and pursues him day after day, until one day he actually has to run away from her when she grabs on to his garment. When she realizes, at last, that he won’t relent, she uses his garment to set Joseph up. She accuses him of raping her, and Potiphar has Joseph thrown into prison. It seemed like Joseph was finding his way to a new normal, but once again his world is toppled. First a slave, now a prisoner. Still, even now though, we read, “The Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love.” Even in prison, where Joseph is housed with others who are connected to the pharaoh, Joseph finds favor, prospers. The jailer gives Joseph more and more responsibility, and the text tells us that’s because God is with Joseph. Whatever Joseph does, God makes it prosper.  
Some time after he winds up in prison, two of Pharaoh's servants land in prison too - the cupbearer to the king, and the chief baker. Joseph is charged with serving them, and they are in custody for “some time.” One night, both the cupbearer and baker have dreams that trouble them because they don’t understand them. When Joseph sees that they are downcast, he asks after them and they say, “We have had dreams, and there is no one to interpret them.” Now, Joseph’s dreams were what started him off down this path to begin with. If he hadn’t told his brothers about his dreams that he would one day rule over them, they might not have been so moved to anger that they did such harm to him. But still, Joseph offers his ability, because he sees it not as his own talent, but God speaking through him. “Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me.” Joseph hears and interprets both dreams - the baker will lose his life, but the cupbearer will be restored to his position. When Joseph gives the cupbearer the good news about what his dream means, he takes a moment to plead his own case too: “Remember me when it is well with you; please do me the kindness to make mention of me to Pharaoh, and so get me out of this place. For in fact I was stolen out of the land of the Hebrews; and here also I have done nothing that they should have put me into the dungeon.” Everything that Joseph interprets comes to pass. The baker is hanged, and the cupbearer is restored. But the cupbearer doesn’t remember Joseph. He forgets him. He won’t remember Joseph for two more years in fact. And so for today, at least, we leave Joseph in prison. 
I was struck, reading this text, that I can get lulled into thinking that Joseph has it easy. I know that sounds strange - he is sold by his own family as a slave, after all. But Joseph always seems to land on his feet. He’s the favorite child. He’s a slave, but one who becomes successful. He’s a prisoner, but one who is given status and position. Eventually, although we don’t read about it today, he gets out of prison, and becomes the pharaoh’s right hand, second in power over the nation. Even when it’s bad, it’s good for Joseph! But I was struck by his pleading words to the cupbearer: “Remember me, please do me kindness, get me out of this place! I was stolen. I’ve done nothing, and yet I’m in a dungeon!” Joseph has reason after reason to despair, and in this moment, we see that pain that he carries breaking through. Joseph might land on his feet, but he gets knocked down over and over. He gets the carpet pulled from beneath his feet over and over. Joseph is constantly building a new normal, thriving in his new circumstances, only to find his situation changed yet again. 
Maybe you’ve felt a bit like that in these past couple of weeks. I know I have! I know all of us have been trying so hard to adjust to every new reality that comes our way. Take extra precautions? Sure, we’ll wash our hands more, try to elbow bump instead of hug, keep everything extra clean. Ok, no gatherings of over fifty? No problem - we’ll worship online, have school online, work online - but we can still have our smaller group meet. Ok - no small groups either? Stay at home? Ok… we can do that… For how long? How long? It is hard to regroup again and again. We’re trying to keep it together. We’re trying to make the best of every new situation. But I know that I’ve seen more than one person hit a wall this week, when the enormity of our changed world hits them. I know I had my own meltdown this week, when I was feeling like I just could not keep up with the speed at which I was being asked to adapt. It’s ok to feel like that, friends. It’s ok to have those times when it is just too much, and you can’t hold it together anymore. If you read through some of the psalms in the Bible, you’ll find that the writers had no trouble falling apart and crying out to God: How long can we do this, God? Help! It’s ok to fall apart with God always. Like Joseph, we cry out: “Get me out of here!” And while the cupbearer might forget Joseph, God never forgets us
That’s a theme that runs through this text: wherever Joseph is, God is with him. Whatever is happening to Joseph, God is working out blessings in Joseph’s life in the midst of struggle. That doesn’t mean that bad things don’t happen to Joseph, obviously. Joseph endures trial after trial. But God is always with Joseph, and God always blesses Joseph in the midst of tragedy. God takes our brokenness, our pain, our suffering, and draws out goodness, love, and life. Please hear me: I don’t believe that God causes tragedy and struggle in order to prove a point to us. But I believe God is with us, brokenhearted with us in the midst of pain, and always seeking paths of blessing where it seemed no way was possible. What signs of God’s presence have you seen in the past weeks? I encourage you to share them now on our livestream feed, to write them in a journal or notebook each day and read over when you need reminding, to share these signs of God’s presence with others when they need encouragement. “But the Lord was with Joseph, and showed him steadfast love.” And God is with us. God’s steadfast love is with us always. 
I’m struck by - moved by the fact that Joseph continues to use the gift he has for interpreting dreams even though it was the very thing that landed him in the mess he’s in. His vivid dreams and interpretations drove a wedge between Joseph and his brothers, but he didn’t withhold using his gift when the need arose while he was in prison. I think that was an act of bravery on Joseph’s part. And he could be brave and courageous because he knew his gift was from God, that it was God working through him. If God was working through him, how could Joseph hold back? The baker and cupbearer need a dream interpreter, and Joseph offers himself without hesitation, because he knows God is at work in what he can do.
I’ve been moved by the way people are offering their gifts in these days. Teachers are offering help and tutoring for parents trying to help their kid with the science lessons they haven’t done in decades. People who love to cook are sharing the best ways to make use of a limited pantry stock. Artists are sharing their paintings. Poets are gifting us with words that help us make sense of our experiences. Musicians are filling our world with song. Volunteers are continuing to grocery shop and run errands for those who can’t. Healthcare workers and custodians and restaurant and grocery workers and other essential employees of all kinds are going out when others can stay home. People are making calls and writing cards. Sewers are making facemasks. Comedians are making us laugh. Folks are reading bedtime stories online to share with children. People are leading dance classes and fitness classes for all. It’s incredible to see people sharing their heart and soul to build each other up. Friends, you are gifted. God has put something in you that the world needs so badly. And when you share it, you aren’t just sharing yourself, you’re sharing the love of God. Someone is in need of just the gift you have to share. 
I wish that we weren’t experiencing this crisis. I grieve for the many kinds of losses we’re facing. But since we are here, I am thankful that God is here with us too. Since we are here, I’m thankful that God loves and comforts me when I hit the wall and cry out, “Get me out of here!” Since we are here, I’m thankful for the gifts God has given me to share, and the gifts that God has given you to share, because they’ll help us get through. May you feel today and each day God’s steadfast love, for God is with us always. Amen. 

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, "Liminal Lent: Noah," Genesis 6:11-14, 17-22, 7:1-2, 17-24, 8:1-14

Sermon 3/2/2020
Genesis 6:11-14, 17-22, 7:1-2, 17-24, 8:1-14

Liminal Lent: Noah

I’ve struggled this week with my sermon. In part, I’ve struggled because Noah’s Ark is a hard story. Even though we love the imagery of all the animals together on the pretty boat, such that it is not uncommon to find children’s nurseries decorated in ark themes, such that you can buy a “Precious Moments 2 by 2 Noah’s Ark Night Light” set, what precipitates the need for an ark, of course, is the destruction of most of humanity and creation by God. Oof. Corrupt and violent adults, yes, but also their children and infants and all creatures too. What sense can we make of that? What hope can we find in that? 
And then, of course, I’ve struggled because, in some strange connections to our end-of-the-world kind of scripture text, we are experiencing our own world-changing event right now in this coronavirus, COVID-19. Schools are canceled and events are canceled and trips are canceled and some places are canceling worship services and people are panic-buying everything, sensible or not, and people are being asked to work from home, and as always, the most vulnerable in our society are the most at risk both from the virus itself and from the devastating impacts of a world that runs on commerce grinding to sudden halt, and people are scrambling to make plans for childcare, and plans to buy food and pay bills, and we’re afraid to cough or sneeze lest people start avoiding us, and even when you are a person who keeps their cool most of the time, it’s been hard not to be anxious and worried and if nothing else, at least inundated with news about the virus, overwhelmed with information and opinions and warnings. Who has time to think about a sermon in the midst of that, right? 
Remember, though, that our theme in worship this Lent is Liminal Lent. Liminal, remember, is a word that literally means “threshold,” like a doorway, and it refers to that in-between-ness of being not quite in one place or another. Not quite in the room you left or the room you’re entering when you’re in the doorway. Liminal time and space is about the in-between times, the seasons of transition between this and that. And our focus is on how God speaks to us in liminal seasons. That’s why I chose Noah’s Ark for this sermon series when I was planning, and chose specifically not for us to read about what leads up to this story, and not to read about the beautiful, rainbow-marked covenant God makes with all creation at the end of the story, but to instead focus on the middle of the story. The transition time The liminal season, where Noah and his family and the creatures he takes with him are most definitely in the “in between,” in between the world they once knew and whatever will come after. And so, I think Noah and company is just the right story for us to hear, because our whole world suddenly seems to be in a liminal season. 
So, what can we learn from the middle of Noah’s story? I think for me, at least, one of the first things I had to learn, or perhaps remember, when I was reading these texts, is that the flood isn’t just forty days and nights like we often think of it. Yes, the actual torrential raining part is forty days. But Noah and his family are on the ark for a long time. The whole story of Noah takes up several chapters in Genesis, and even just this middle section is quite long, isn’t it? If you add together all the stretches of time mentioned in these chapters, Noah and company are on the ark for a little over a year! This is a long liminal season. There is a lot of waiting involved. And what particularly strikes me in the text is the part near the end when Noah opens the window and sends out the raven. They are so close to being able to get off that boat, but they’re not quite there yet. They have to wait for the land to dry. We read, “He waited another seven days,” and then again, “Then he waited another seven days.” How difficult must it have been to wait, still, when they felt they were so close to the end of this liminal season? 
Remember, we’ve talked about how tempting it is to jump ahead when we’re in a liminal season. People, we tend not to like the middle place, the transitional season, the in-between time. And so sometimes, we want to rush ahead to the finish, to wherever it is that we feel like we’re on solid ground again. I think about my attempts at creative writing when I was younger. My old brother Jim is an excellent writer, and for years in a row he won the local short-story writing contest for his fiction entries. I loved his stories. And I wanted to be just like him in everything, so of course, I tried writing stories too. I wrote a nice, detailed beginning in my stories, if I do say so myself! But I had trouble with the middle. I didn’t have patience to develop my story. I couldn’t wait to get to the ending. And so I’d short-change the middle - which is of course actually the heart of the story - to wrap things up neatly. But the end of a story isn’t meaningful or satisfying without all the hard work of development that comes in the middle! Or I think of my early attempts at gardening. I really wanted to grow carrots. And I knew how long they were supposed to take to mature and be ready for harvesting. But I was so impatient - and I just wanted to peek a little and see how they were doing. Surely it wouldn’t hurt to pull them up a little and just check, and then push them back into the soil, right? Turns out, you can’t constantly uproot a plant and expect it to keep growing! In the in-between times, friends, we have to wait. And sometimes wait and wait and wait some more! Life unfolds in God’s good time, not ours. I promise, jumping ahead will not get you the results you’re hoping for. If you find yourself in a liminal season, and you know that it is not yet time for the next step, wait with God. Ask God for patience. Wonder what God is teaching you in a season of transition. Listen for God’s voice. And wait. 
I think we can also learn about being willing to be foolish for God. Some years back, the movie Evan Almighty came out, a follow up to Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty. In Evan Almighty, actor Steve Carrell plays a modern-day Noah. He’s newly elected to Congress, and looking to change the world, but he’s also looking to get ahead, to make a name for himself. And then he’s told to by God to build an ark. He doesn’t get an explanation, just a command that he slowly, reluctantly, bit by by starts to follow. Everyone else thinks he is ridiculous. They mock him. They shun him. But he holds firm, and eventually, through a strange series of events, his building the ark helps uncover corruption in his community. The movie is a comedy, but it points to a good question: Do we follow God even when it means everyone else will think we’re being foolish? Noah’s actions must have seemed quite foolish to those around him. But Noah was righteous - that means he had a “right relationship” with God, that he let God’s ways be his ways. And so Noah and his family are the ones who enter into a liminal season, a season of uncertainty, of unknowing, a season of seeming foolishness. And they are the ones who are part of a new covenant with God. 
Being willing to be a fool for God is a theme we find in the New Testament, in the writings of the apostle Paul. He says that he and his co-workers are fools for Christ. “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,” he says, “but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." The idea that being put to death on a cross could be an act of strength and power seems foolish. But we know that it demonstrates the world-changing love of God. I was thinking of a t-shirt I had in high school that I loved. (Steve, it would be right up your alley.) It had a group of colorful fish all swimming in one direction, and then the ichthus, the Christian fish symbol, swimming in the opposite direction. And it said, “Go against the flow.” Sometimes - maybe even much of the time, following Jesus means going against the flow. It means being a fool for Christ. It means building an ark when it is dry, dry, dry. It means launching into a liminal season of unknowing, just to follow God, when you have firm ground beneath your feet right where you are and leaving that firm ground seems ridiculous. 
We also learn that in a liminal season, when we seem lost in the middle of nowhere, God remembers us, always. At Bible Study this week, that’s the phrase in this text that stood out to Amber Ormasen: “But God remembered Noah.” Noah and his family might have felt forgotten on the earth come the 5th month of being on that ark. But God does not forget us, or forget our plight, or forget what we need, or forget where we are or where God is taking us. Even when we feel lost and adrift, God knows where we are. 
I think it can be easy to focus on the destructiveness of the flood in Genesis, and all the people lost. But I don’t think that’s meant to be what we take away from the story. Instead, I think we’re meant to see that when God could have chosen to completely abandon the experiment of creation altogether, God decided that humanity and creatures and creation should continue on, that God could try with us again. And even after that, after the flood is over, God decides never to take the same path again to confront our sinfulness. Biblical Scholar Patricia Tull writes, “What if God saw the mess humans made and decided to stop forgiving? What if God, grieved at human violence, tried one solution that turned out not to work either ethically or practically, and then tried something else, deciding never again to give up on humans, but instead to take a long, patient, forbearing path with us? As a result of this choice, the story implies, divine grace surrounds us. It’s the air we breathe. We have never known a moment in which God did not forgive evil, sustaining us on pure grace; no moment when we weren’t, on some level, getting much better than we deserve. And we can’t take that for granted.” (1) God remembers us. God loves us. God doesn’t give up on us. If you’re feeling lost and adrift, please know that God knows just where you are in the midst of the waves around you, and that God will bring you to the dry land. But in the meantime, until the ground is ready for you, God will be with you on the ark, in the waiting, in the transition space, in the liminal season, in the uncertainty, an anchor in the chaos. 
These are liminal days. Most of us have never experienced a season quite like this. What do we do in this strange time? We wait on God, here in the middle. We commit to being fools for Christ, loving and serving others when the rest of the crowd tells us to think only of ourselves. We trust that God remembers us always, and in just the right time, will plant us back on dry land. Thanks be to God. Amen. 

  1. Tull, Patricia, “Commentary on Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18; 8:6-18; 9:8-13,” The Working Preacher, Emphasis mine.

Sunday, March 08, 2020

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, "Liminal Lent: Adam & Eve," Genesis 3:1-13, 22-24

Sermon 3/2/2020
Genesis 3:1-13, 22-24

Liminal Lent: Adam & Eve

Our worship theme this year is Liminal Lent. I got to talk with folks who attended Ash Wednesday worship about what this theme means, and then last week we had the joy of welcoming Woven & Spun to our worship service, and so some of you haven’t yet had a chance to dig in to understanding what this theme is all about. So, I’m going to share with you a bit of what I shared with folks on Ash Wednesday, so you know why we’re talking about this liminal thing this season. At the recommendation of our District Superintendent Mike Weeden, I recently read a book called, How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going by Susan Beaumont. The subtitle of the book is: Leading in a Liminal Season
Liminal means “threshold.” Think about the doorway into a room. As you step over the threshold, you are in an in-between space, not fully in the room you’re leaving, and not fully in the room you are entering. You’re in both places at once, and not in either place fully. That’s liminal space. The in-between. On your bulletins is a liminal image - a trapeze artist. They’ve let go of the first trapeze bar, and are headed for the next one, but they’re not at either place yet. They’re in-between, in midair, neither here nor there. It takes a lot of courage to be in the middle space, but they can’t get to the next bar unless they let go of the first completely. They have to be in liminal space. Adolescence is liminal space - a time between childhood and adulthood. Not yet able to be independent entirely, but too old to be dependent entirely. Young people are in liminal space, a season where there is such vulnerability, such intensity, such possibility and challenge, because they’re in a prolonged state of liminal space
Our focus this Lent is about finding God when we’re in these in-between places. We don’t always like being in liminal space. It’s uncomfortable, not knowing whether we’re here or there, ending or beginning. Hanging out in a time of transition is hard. But it is also a time, liminal time, when it might be easier for us to hear what God’s trying to tell us. And so, this Lent, we’re focusing on being in this liminal space. In her book Beaumont writes: “All significant transitional experiences … follow a predictable three-part process. Something comes to an end. There is an in-between season marked by disorientation, disidentification, and disengagement. Finally, and often after a very long and painful struggle, something new emerges.” (2) We’re in a liminal season here at the church. We’re in that strange time when we know that my time as your pastor is coming to an end, but not yet. Some might call it “lame duck” season, but I think liminal time is a much better descriptor! And as a denomination, and as the church universal, there are ways in which we are in a liminal season. Transition time. And so this Lent, we are looking at stories from the Bible where people are in liminal seasons, in transition times like we are. And as we study their stories, we’ll be looking for guidance for ourselves about living as liminal people. 
Today, we start with Adam and Eve. Some of you might remember that we just read this passage together back in December when we were working our way through major themes in the Bible. We spent a week talking about creation, and we heard Adam and Eve’s story then. But this week, our focus is a bit different. We’re looking for how Adam and Eve experience liminal space, and what that means for their relationship with God. I have to admit, when I first thought about Eve and Adam and liminal space, I was thinking particularly of their time after they are expelled from the Garden of Eden. What do you know about what the Bible says happens to them after they leave Eden? We don’t know much at all, actually, except that Genesis tells us they have children, they live out the rest of their days, and they eventually die. I was thinking of their time outside of Eden as a liminal season, at least at first, in their lives. But midweek, I had a change in perspective.    
This week at our Lenten Bible Study, our weekly gathering for soup, communion, and study, (you’re invited: 6pm in the Fellowship Hall - come join us!) I introduced a spiritual practice for reading scripture called Lectio (or Lex-ee-oo) Divina. Lectio Divina means “Sacred” or “Holy Reading,” and it’s a practice of studying scripture that dates to the early medieval era. The practice was developed by a monk in the 12th century named Guigo II (Gwee-Go). He based the practice on Jacob’s Ladder, with four steps of reflecting on scripture meant to draw us closer to God - reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation. At each step, we’re meant to feel God more deeply in our hearts and imagination. In Lectio Divina, you read or listen to a scripture text multiple times in a row. Rather than a traditional Bible Study where you might research the context and try to answer questions about the text, Lectio focuses on letting the text speak to you. You listen for a word or phrase that stands out to you, for what God might be saying through that word or phrase, and then for how God might be calling you to respond to what God has said. 
So, this week, we tried using Lectio Divina as we read the text from Genesis 3. When I’m busy imparting information about a text in Bible Study I don’t always get a chance to reflect on the text on my own. I’m too busy trying to guide the conversation. But I found, through this process, that I was able to participate more fully. I was drawn to the phrase, “Their eyes were opened.” That’s what the text tells us happens when Eve and Adam eat the fruit at the serpent’s prodding. At the second reading, when I was listening for what God was saying through this word or phrase, I started thinking about whether there was a difference between actively opening our eyes, or the more passive “their eyes were opened.” I think we often view the phrase “open eyes” as a good thing. Is it ever better to have our eyes closed? We often use that phrase to suggest willful ignorance about something. Why would we want to have our eyes closed, to be ignorant, when we could choose knowledge? Is there a reason why having our eyes closed is better? 
At the third reading, I tried to listen for what God was calling me to do in response to my wondering. This Lent, as I’ve shared with some of you, my discipline has been a fast from unnecessary spending. I’ve been limiting my spending as much as possible to gas, groceries, and giving. (Oh yeah - paying my bills too!) I think it is so easy to be a careless consumer. It takes about 2 seconds to order anything I want on Amazon. And I want to store up treasure with God, instead of treasures on earth. As part of my discipline, I’ve been trying to notice whenever I wish I was spending money on something during Lent, and I’m writing it down. I’m trying to pay attention to what triggers my desire to spend money on things I don’t really need. And what I’ve noticed mostly is that social media - Facebook and Instagram - those are big triggers for my desire to spend and buy and accumulate. I see pretty pictures of things on Facebook, and I want. When it comes to staying faithful to my Lenten discipline, then, perhaps “eyes opened” isn’t what’s best. Perhaps closing my eyes to what’s distracting me from my desire to draw close to God in Lent is better. I’ve found myself being more mindful of how I spend my time on social media. 
Another thing that came to mind was my own prayer practice. Sometimes, when I’m praying, I like to cover my eyes with my hands. It can be hard, I think, to drown out all the competing voices for our attention to enter fully into a place of prayer, of conversation with God, of listening quietly for God’s voice. And so when I can, I put my hands right over my eyes when I pray. Something about that gesture keep me focused on what I’m doing, and less distracted by what’s happening around me, or the million thoughts running through my mind. I like to think I’m an excellent multitasker, who can do two things at once and boost my efficiency. Our culture encourages us to try to do this - watch TV and browse the internet and carry on a conversation and check emails and answer texts all at once. But most studies show that everything we’re doing suffers a little bit when we multitask, because nothing is getting our full attention, and many things, important things, actually need our full attention. And sometimes, I think, I try to make nurturing my faith, my relationship with God, one more thing I can multitask. I can’t. So I heard God telling me that sometimes closing my eyes is a way to tune out the noise and focus on what is most important. Reminding myself that I don’t have to give space to everything in my life that asks for attention. My relationship with God needs my first, best attention.  
I thought, too, about my desire to know the answers. I’ve talked with you before about how that’s been a growing point - and sometimes a point of struggle in my faith. I like to know the answers. Sometimes, I find uncertainty and ambiguity to be quite stressful! I have to tell you - while I was waiting to find out whether I was accepted to school this fall or not, I was pretty stressed. I found a website for graduate students, with a whole online forum full of students waiting to hear about whether or not they’d gotten into school. There was even a chat thread specifically for students applying to religion programs. Definitely liminal space - in-between space - for all of us. At first, finding this online community helped me. I knew more about when I might expect to hear news about my acceptance - or not - to school. But eventually, I wondered if it was helping or hurting. Because I started checking the forum kind of obsessively, to see, again, if anyone had posted news, if anyone knew anything else. I couldn’t wait for the not-knowing to be over, even, I felt, if the news was going to be bad news. I just wanted to know
For Adam and Eve, I finally started to see that Eden itself is their liminal space. The Garden of Eden is the place where Adam and Eve are asked to just be, to just live. It’s this space that’s between the act of creation, and the rest of existence as we know it. This paradise is  liminal space. But in this space, Adam and Eve don’t know everything. And eventually, their not-knowing causes them to act in ways that hurt them, even while bringing them knowledge. 
In her book, Susan Beaumont writes that our natural impulse when we are in liminal space is to either go back to the solid ground we used to know - we see this in Exodus when the Israelites want to go back to Egypt, even though they were slaves there, because at least they knew how things would go there - or the impulse is to leap ahead too quickly to the future, where questions might be answered. (3) The leaping forward seems like a good idea, but it often means skipping over spiritual growth that only happens when we stay in the liminal space. Listen to what else Beaumont says: During seasons of liminality, “an organization is remarkably susceptible to false leaders and prophets … Tricksters are attracted to the chaos in liminal seasons … People look for someone to follow … Enter the trickster.” (17) Experiencing the discomfort of not knowing everything, Eve and Adam listen to the trickster in their midst. They get the knowledge that sounds so appealing. Their eyes are opened. But what their eyes are opened to see and their minds are opened to know are also the very things that end up putting distance between them and God. God still walks with them, but they never live with God in quite the same way while on earth.  
When we’re in liminal space, we might be tempted to jump ahead, trying to get back in the know because of the discomfort of the space in-between. I think, for example, of how we’ve all wondered about who will be the next pastor here. I’ve been asked about that a lot, and I have a whole list of things to talk about with the new pastor, and I, in turn, have asked our District Superintendent more than once about the timeline - when will we know? But truthfully, we have plenty of work to do right now in this place, this season, even in the midst of unknowing. Beaumont says that one of “the most difficult aspects of liminality is that people … tend to think of it as undesirable … People often frame the liminal experience as organizational failure.” (12) When we’re anxious to simply move forward, rush into the future, we sometimes “wrestle our way toward a new beginning.” That approach, she says, “may provide a false sense of propulsion” but it doesn’t truly impact liminal space. It just masks it, even prolongs it. (21) “A new beginning happens,” she says, “when the people are spiritually and emotionally ready to move out of liminality and into a new chapter of life.” (18) And that will happen, as all things do, in God’s right time. 

This Lent, as uncomfortable as it sometimes is, let’s stay right here in this liminal space. There’s plenty that God has tasked us with in this season. We won’t want for work to do, and we won’t be without God’s presence - God is here too. There is much about the future we don’t know. But we know what we need to: our task, as always, is to love God and neighbor. And maybe in a season when it feels like our eyes are closed, we can better focus on those tasks, tuning out everything else, and giving God our first, best attention. Amen.