Alpha, Omega, and Everything In Between ~ Wandering with The Law

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Deuteronomy 6:1-9

In 1897 master painter Paul Gauguin painted a massive piece – roughly 4 1/2 feet by 12 1/4 feet! – in oil on canvas entitled, “Where Do We Come From?  What Are We?  Where Are We Going?”  You can view the artwork here.

In this piece Gauguin explores the many stages of life.  Reading the piece from right to left we first greet two women and a baby, characterizing the infancy and fragility of life but also the promise and hope of new life.  A man sits near them providing a caring and watchful eye as they women ponder the future.

In the center of the piece there are many scenes: a youth picking a fruit symbolizing exploration and the search for resources to sustain life while a child eats fruit already harvested.  There are animals representing companions that we have in the world and an idol statue, which for Gauguin, represents the presence of the spiritual and the sacred in humanity’s midst.

At the left we see a woman crouched and frail, preparing for death, and she is accompanied by a young woman as her caregiver in her final days.

From life to new life – where we come from, what we are, and where we are going.

The Deuteronomist (the writer of Deuteronomy) offers a Scriptural narrative for the Israelites of where they come from, what they are, and where they are going at the conclusion of  chapter 6.  It writes,

When your children ask you in time to come, “What is the meaning of the decrees and the statues and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?” then you shall say to your children, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.  The Lord displayed before our eyes great and awesome signs and wonders against Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household.  [The Lord] brought us out from there in order to bring us in, to give us the land that [the Lord] promised on oath to our ancestors.  Then the Lord commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our lasting good, so as to keep us alive, as is now the case.  If we diligently observe the entire commandment before the Lord our God, as [the Lord] has commanded us, we will be in the right.  (Deuteronomy 6:20-25)

From this Scripture passage we can answer about the Israelites the questions Gauguin posed in his painting title:

1. Where did the Israelites come from?  God brought them out of slavery in Egypt.

2. What are they?  They are God’s chosen people – from the time of Abraham and Sarah to their present to their future, which is our present, to our future, which is another generation’s present, and so on for eternity.  They, and we, are God’s chosen people.

Where are they going?  God is preparing them to enter the land God has prepared for them – the Promised Land.  And in giving the people this land, God asks for obedience to God’s law in return.

Coupled with the Law is the giving of the Shema.  The Law provides instruction for righteous living, which will lead to fruitful, enjoyable lives.  The Shema is a call to obedience to the Law and therefore to the life it will yield.  The end of Deuteronomy 6 explores for readers what God has already done for the people, reminds the people of God’s continuing presence, and foreshawdows what is to come.

God knows the answers to the three questions.  In time, as God always has, God will reveal in entirety those answers to us.   For now, may we find contentment in knowing that God has brought us this far, that God has chosen us – we are God’s and God is ours – and that God will surely lead us where we are headed next.

Prayer: We Travel toward a Land Unknown by Thomas Troeger                      (from Borrowed Light, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, page 44)

We travel toward a land unknown – God’s word our only chart – and breathe in the wind that has swept and blow from that land to the human heart, and on the wind we hear the sound of Miriam’s dance by the sea, and we dance with the slaves whom Pharaoh bound but the Lord of hosts set free.

Then where our freedom first was won we settle down to stay, but find that the journey has just begun, that the wind blows another way.  And on the wind we hear the song of Moses, David and Ruth, who are giving us strength to right the wrong and to speak and do the truth.

And when we think the journey’s end is very near at hand we learn that the road has another bend and we’re far from the promised land, but then the wind returns and lifts our heart and our strength and our soul, and we’re filled with the steadfast Christlike gifts that reveal again our goal:

We travel toward a land unknown but all along the route we’re thanking our Lord for the wonders shown and the faith that has conquered doubt.  Give thanks the wind is blowing still, and pray that the church may be blessed with the vision and grace and strength of will to be faithful on its quest.

Alpha, Omega, and Everything In Between ~ Emancipation

Sunday’s Text ~ Exodus 14:19-22, 27a, 29-30a.

This week we study (what I think) is one of the most well known stories in Scripture – the Exodus – where the Hebrews get the heck outta…Egypt.

The main character of the Exodus story is

God!

With Moses as a close second.

Tangent – one Sunday morning I was teaching the story of Moses and the burning bush during the children’s moment in the worship service.  I asked the children what was so special about the burning bush, and one of my favorite kids – a boy (now highschooler!) named Larry – said, “Miss Sarah, the bush was on fire!”  “And…” I said with much anticipation, “And,” Larry said, “it was blue!”  The bush.  Was blue.  Thank you, Prince of Egypt.

Okay – end of tangent.  Back on track.

A central scene in the Exodus narrative is the plagues.  The Egyptian countryside – people, animals, terrain – experienced the full force of God’s strength, power, and presence through the plagues.

Did you know there are multiple recordings in Scripture of the plagues that ravaged Egypt?  10 plagues are reported in Exodus while Psalm 78 and Psalm 105 both report 7 plagues…but not the same 7 plagues (check it out!).  Old Testament theologian (and one of my favorite seminary professors!) Dr. David Petersen believes the plagues listed in the Psalms are earlier traditions.  There was a time of great fluidity in the traditions of the Exodus story as they were shared (and modified) through oral tradition (telling the stories over and over again before they were written down) and that the plague story’s “final draft” is what appears as an account of 10 plagues in Exodus.

The 10 Exodus plagues increase in horror as they play out:

1. Plague of blood – a nuisance rather than a threat to life.

2. Frogs – the smell of dead frogs remains in the land.

3. Gnats – at this point Pharaoh’s magicians could no longer reproduce the plagues proving that God’s plagues trump their magic.

4. Flies – the Land of Goshen, another name for Israel, is spared from the plagues.

5. Animal pestilence and disease – food supply and ability to work the land is severely compromised.

6. Skin boils – makes the courtiers unable to appear before Pharaoh.

7. Hail – this is the worst storm that God could have sent and it could have wiped Egypt off the earth, but God let them live.

8. Locusts – the Scripture reveals no one had ever seen anything like this.

9. Darkness – it is a darkness that is tangible; it can be felt.

10. Death of the first born – this is not limited to human offspring, but animal offspring are also taken; this plague is a response to the death of Israelite babes at the hand of Pharaoh.

Can you imagine being a witness to these events?  God told Moses that Egypt would see God’s wonders and surely all of Egypt – even proud Pharaoh – saw them.  The plagues got Pharaoh’s attention and at the conclusion of the 10th plague, he told Moses to take God’s people and go.

Reflection: If God reached out today in a grand scale akin to the plagues (and I think I am not alone in hoping this display would not be so horrific) or even as God did with Moses and that “blue bush,” would we pay attention?  Would we respond to God’s call?  In the case of the call of Moses at the burning bush, would we submit to be led, go, and lead as God calls us?  In the case of the God calling Pharaoh to release the Hebrews through the words of Moses and the display of the plagues, would we hear God’s words and respond to God’s signs or ignore it all?

For me the plagues display that God will go to great lengths to get our attention and draw out God’s desired response…but even though God will go to great lengths, God should not have to go to great lengths.  Moses and Pharaoh eventually paid attention.  We need to pay attention…but not eventually.  We need to pay attention immediately.

O God, enhance and keen our awareness of you that we may respond quickly and in manners, behaviors, and actions becoming of your will.  Amen.

Alpha, Omega, and Everything In Between ~ We Are Family

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Genesis 15

(Yes, the whole chapter.  You can do it!  I believe in you!)

This week we will study the Scripture that sets everything into motion for humanity becoming God’s family.  Yes, God created us and claimed us as God’s creation but in Genesis 15 we begin to see the transition in our relationship with God from Creator/creation to God the Father and Mother/sons and daughters.  And it begins with Abram.

In Genesis 15 God promises two gifts to Abram.

Gift #1 – God reminds Abram that progeny is coming, which is something God foretold in Genesis 12.  Abram and Sarai will have a child, an heir of their own.  Not a slave, not some second cousin twice removed and then reinstalled.  “No one,” says God, “but your very own issue shall be your heir” (v. 4).  God then takes disbelieving Abram outside of his tent to look at the millions of stars in the heavens and confirmed for Abram that as numerous as the stars in the heavens, so shall his descendents be.

(And they are.  Remember that old song Father Abraham had many sons, many sons had father Abraham (well…I wish the song were more inclusive…Abraham had sons and daughters…but that is a discussion for another day!) it is true!  Abraham and Sarah became the forefather and foremother of three great religious traditions – Judaism, Islam, and Christianity – that are full of great, faithful people.  We three traditions may not outnumber the stars presently, but over the numerous generations, I am sure we could give the stars a run for their money!)

Gift #2 – God promises and gives Abram land – land in Canaan – the place where God brought Abram up out of the Chaldeans.  God wants Abram to possess it.  And again, Abram doubts.  As he doubted that an heir would come as he and his wife are well beyond child-bearing years, he asks how he will know he possesses the land?

So God shows Abram.  By hosting what my husband so eloquently called “A Holy BBQ.”

Elements one needs for a BBQ – meat and flame – both of which are present in the latter half of Genesis 15.

Now, in all seriousness, what we are invited to experience as we read this text is a very old and somewhat obscure ritual act that in fact binds two parties together.  As I reflect on the description of the act, I can’t help but think of birth.  Blood is shed in the process of giving birth and flame or fire is an agent used to purify and cleanse.

What does fire create?  Fire creates dust and ash.  Remember the conclusion of Genesis 3?  God tells Adam in disciplining his disobedience, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (3:19).  Humanity was birthed from dust and ash; to it we will return.  And here, in Genesis 15, we have another image of humanity being birthed, from blood and fire, dust and ash, but this time the intimacy in which we know God and are known by God is heightened, strengthened, extended.

We are God’s own.  God is ours.  It was the promise God made to Abram long ago.  It is still our promise today.  We are family.

Reflection: What has been your experience of being claimed by God?  Not just as God’s creation, but as God’s very child?  Do you relate to God as father or mother?  Do you relate to God as one but not the other?  How do you feel about this sort of intimate, close, personal, near relationship with God?

Alpha, Omega, and Everything in Between ~ The Fall

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Genesis 3:1-13

This week we Fall.

Temptation enters creation – temptation leads to sin – sin leads to separation from God – sad times.

There have been discussions about sin since the dawn of time – literally!  – and the world of sin is a very dark place.  Sin is a slippery slope on which our feet have very little traction.  We are not in a place to get out of sin on our own.  John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, knew this as he argued against ruling Pelagian thought, which stated that through humanity’s own devices we can save ourselves from sin or secure our own salvation.  Wesley believed there is nothing that humans can do, no work that humans can complete, to secure their own salvation.

BUT!  We can walk and work alongside God to secure our own salvation, and this is possible because God first acted in giving us grace.  In Wesley’s participatory system of working out one’s own salvation, individuals have the choice to either accept or deny God’s grace because, for Wesley, grace never compels.

The Wesley Brothers – John the great sermonizer and Charles the great hymn writer (who wrote sermons from time to time) – referred to a person who is still in the darkness of sin and not yet conscious of God’s grace working in his or her life as a “sleeper.”  Yes, they are awake and function in life; they eat, they work, they watch movies, they may even worship, but as they are not personally aware of God’s grace-filled presence, they remain asleep.

(Take a brief stretch break…we are about to jog through some Wesley Brother sermons!)

In his sermon “Awake, Thou That Sleepest” Charles Wesley describes the “sleeper” as one who sleeps “that deep sleep of the soul into which the sin of Adam has cast all who spring from his loins; that supineness, indolence, and stupidity, that insensibility of his real condition, wherein every man comes into the world, and continues till the voice of God calls him” (I.1).  Charles, like John, believes that the sleeper remains in this state of “darkness” where the sleeper “has no knowledge of [him or herself]” until the sleeper hears “Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead” (I.1 and II.1).  This summons to “awakeness” is God acting in prevenient grace – that grace that goes before us and stirs us to awareness of God through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Once awakened from “darkness,” Charles believes the sleeper recognizes that “God is light, and will give [Godself] to every awakened sinner that waiteth for [God]” (III.2).

In “The Spirit of Bondage and Adoption,” John furthers Charles’ understanding of how prevenient grace stirs the slumbering sleeper.  While asleep, John writes the sleeper “remains a willing servant of sin, content with the bondage of corruption; inwardly and outwardly unholy, and satisfied therewith; not only not conquering sin, but not striving to conquer, particularly that sin which doth so easily beset [him or her]” (I.7).  Nevertheless, through grace “God touches the heart of him that lay asleep in darkness and in the shadow of death,” which awakens the sleeper and enables the sleeper to recognize his or her present state of bondage due to sin (II.1).

God touches the heart.  God has already touched the heart through grace.  This leads to a stirring of God’s presence in our lives and leads us to call out to God to save us.  God acts – we respond – and together we work out our salvation.

So though we are fallen, we are not casualties to sin.  God always has a plan and invites us to join in the work.  And in doing so, we recover the imago Dei – image of God – in which we were and are created.

Reflection: Can you recall when you became aware of God’s presence in your life and you called out to God?  Share your story with someone this week.  Ask them if they have experienced their own awakening by God.

Pray for those in our community who are seeking to name and discern that which stirs them that they may come to know and be in relationship with God.  Pray for the “sleepers” that they will recognize the present presence of God in their lives.  And pray that you remain aware of God’s presence and follow God’s leading.

Alpha, Omega, and Everything in Between ~ Creation

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Genesis 1:26-31, 2:4b-8, and 18-22.

This week we begin the sermon series The Alpha, Omega, and Everything In Between: The Bible in 12 Themes.  Through the next 12 weeks we will explore one of (what I believe) are 12 major themes in Scripture…beginning with Creation!

(Well…we had to start somewhere…we came from here…so here we go!)

The Bible includes two Creation stories, which we will explore in worship this week, but these are not the only stories existing of how things “came to be.”

Jews, Christians, and Muslims agree that God’s hand brought forth creation.  This creation was and is ex nihilo meaning God created from nothing.    These three faith traditions – we of the table fellowship traditions – share this beginning in our religious roots.

Some people ascribe to The Big Bang Theory – not the entertaining sitcom – but the cosmological model of floating space particles heating/expanding then cooling/contracting leading to an event my Gramps so eloquently summarizes as “Bang! and then it happened!”

Still there are other creation myths and explanations of how creation came to be offered to us.  There are creation myths that offer explanation from the stance of creation from chaos, earth diver, emergence, and world parent.  There are many other creation myths offered to us by specific cultures, traditions, and contexts.  These myths have been formed and reformed over time as many of them – including our Biblical creation tales – began in oral tradition, meaning they were told orally to numerous generations – adding and subtracting portions along the way – until they were written down.  And even then some additions and subtractions continued!

While in school I enjoyed studying these different creation myths and my favorite was the Enûma Eliš from Babylonian mythology.  You can find the whole text of this creation epic here. This story has many similarities with what we know of the struggling for hierarchy, status, and power between the gods in Greek and Roman mythology.

In short, Tiamat, the primordial goddess of the ocean, is torn in two by her rival, Marduk, who wanted to be the supreme king of the gods.  With her broken ribs Marduk inserted the firmament or dome that separated the sky from what was beneath it.  The creation myth states that the tears Tiamat cried in her demise was the source of the first water on earth.  Then Marduk sought out Tiamat’s lover, Kingu, and slaughtered him.  His blood was then mixed with the clay of the earth and from that humanity was created.

(I wonder why this hasn’t been made into a movie…could be a blockbuster!)

Our creation stories are peaceful.  Yes, God is bringing order to what might have been chaos, but it was done peacefully, and hopefully.  God called it good and all of it very good!

Reflection: Could you imagine the impact on the world if the Babylonian creation myth – or some of the others that are equally brutal – were true?  That blood, tears, and agony were the life-force of creation?  How do you think that would change how we relate to one another, to our environment, to our God?

Yes, sometimes there is blood, tears, and agony in creation and as we join God as partners in creation.  We know God eventually shed God’s own blood in Jesus for creation.  But I do not believe that blood, tears, and agony is the telos or the end goal of creation.  The end goal of creation is life – pure and everlasting life – that God gifted to humanity in the act of breathing, crafting, and loving us into existence.  The final word was, is, and always will be life, which was given to us in creation.

Purpose of The Sunday Stiletto

Morning Blog World!  Morning Reeves Community!  Morning All!

That covered my bases right?  Right.

This blog is the result of a late night brainstorm.  Don’t you love those?  Almost as exciting as the shower brainstorms.  You know the ones I am talking about.  But great.  Now we have that awkward moment where we have tangent-ed from our task and are thinking about brainstorms in the shower.  So…back to task!

The Sunday Stiletto.  What’s it’s purpose?

In the grand design, it is to be a way for me to connect with my congregants (and others!) on the Scripture I am studying in preparation for Sunday’s sermon…which I will most likely preach…while wearing stilettos.  Huzzah!  Included in each post will be tasty morsels of sermon-goodness that you can chew on throughout the week (wow…from shoes to eating all in two sentences…it’s the simple joys in life…) as you prepare for worship.  I invite your comments, reflections, questions.  Your offerings will help me in my preparation!  I love the idea of sermons being a collaboration of many voices: from the Scripture, from the Spirit, from you, from me.  How beautiful!  So let’s speak…or type…or simply read and pray together.

Together we will stride towards the reading, hearing, and living of the Scripture on the Lord’s Day and everyday!  Choose any footwear you desire for this journey into God’s Word.  As for me, I’ll be the one in stilettos!