Directing Creativity: The Story of Joseph

Sunday, August 20, 2017 || Proper 15A || Genesis 37-47

In honor of holding a Godly Play storyteller training here at St. Mark’s this weekend, I’d like to take today’s sermon to tell you a story. It is an old, old story, one which we heard the end of just a few minutes ago. We heard the beginning of the story last Sunday, and then we skipped the long roller coaster ride in the middle. It is the story of Joseph from the book of Genesis. The story of Joseph teaches one thing above all. It teaches that God’s directing creativity can work through any earthly situation, good ones and bad ones, joyful ones and painful ones. Continue reading “Directing Creativity: The Story of Joseph”

God’s Presence: A Letter to My Children

Sermon for Sunday, July 20, 2014 || Proper 11A || Genesis 28:10-19a

godspresenceDear Baby Boy and Baby Girl,

Right now you are still in Mommy’s tummy, but only for a few more days. The doctors tell us everything is going well, and they are really excited that you’ve managed to stay inside as long as you have. As for Mommy and me, we can’t wait to meet you, now that you’re big enough to live out here in this messy, yet beautiful world. But before you arrive, there are a few things I need to tell you. You probably already know everything I’m about to say (you being so close to God and all), but at times, like the rest of us, you will forget. That’s why I’m writing this letter to you. It’s not just for you, but for me, and for everyone who hears it, as well.

This morning at church we read the story of a fellow named Jacob who camps out one night under the stars. Maybe we’ll do this someday, too, but Daddy doesn’t really like camping so you’ll have to persuade me. Anyway, Jacob dreams that angels are connecting earth to heaven, and he hears God speak promises to him. “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go,” says God. God had said something similar to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham, but before then people didn’t understand that “all of God was in every place.”* Instead, people thought there were all sorts of little gods who lived inside of things like rivers and mountains. They couldn’t take those little gods with them when they traveled. But Abraham left home and discovered that God was already present wherever Abraham went. It was a wonderful and staggering notion.

In fact, my children, even though thousands of years have passed since then, this notion is still so wonderful and staggering that even today we have to remember over and over again that all of God is present everywhere we go. When Jacob wakes up the next morning after his vision of God, he says, “Surely the LORD is in this place – and I did not know it!” I’ve said the same thing many times when I didn’t expect to find God only to be surprised when God showed up.

You two are smart, so you might be wondering why we have so much trouble noticing God’s presence even when that presence is everywhere all the time. Well, that’s the rub. The very constancy of God’s presence keeps us from noticing it. Let me tell you a quick story to illustrate this point. Mommy’s been having me read you guys a story every night recently, so I hope you like it when I tell you stories. Here goes: A long time ago our ancestors didn’t live in towns with grocery stores. They didn’t even have farms to grow vegetables and raise cows. (What sound does the cow make? Moo! You got it!) Instead, they had to go out into the dangerous wilderness to search for food. There were certain animals in the wilderness searching for food, too, and our ancestors were on their menus – animals like lions and tigers and…well, you get the idea. Our ancestors started noticing rustling in the underbrush and new odors coming to them on the wind. These changing signals warned them when they were in danger. The people who were best at noticing the changes in their environment flourished and passed their instincts on to their children.

We still have those instincts in us. Mommy and I passed them on to you. While we don’t usually have to worry about animals that have us on their menus, we do live in a world where things are changing all the time. Keeping up with everything that’s changing takes nearly all our attention. And so we forget to focus on the one thing that remains constant through it all, and that is the presence of God.

This is what I wanted to tell you in this letter, children: Sometimes you have to fight against your instincts. Sometimes you have to shut out all your distractions – all the change swirling around you – and just be. Just sit in a comfortable chair like your Daddy. Just lay on the ground at night under the stars like Jacob in the story. As you lay under the stars remind yourselves that you are in God’s presence. Acknowledge that it can be hard to notice because God’s presence is so constant, and we aren’t wired to notice constancy. But God knows this. God knows our instincts tell us to perceive change instead of constancy. That’s why God gave us the gift of memory.

As you lay under the stars reminding yourselves that you are in God’s presence, remember also that you were in God’s presence even when you didn’t notice it. Look back over your day or week or month or lifetime and start to uncover the footprints of God’s presence when you least expected to find it but needed it most.** You’ll be surprised to discover all the subtle and startling ways God was moving in your lives in the past. Doing this work of reflection will then help you see those same patterns of God’s movement in the future. And the more you do this work, the more readily you will notice God’s movement in the present.

I know it will be a long time before you, Baby Boy and Baby Girl, will have the ability or need to do this reflective work. But this is where the other facet of God’s presence arrives. Right now you two are reminders of God’s presence for your Mommy and me. As each day rolls into the next and your birth approaches, we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is present in our lives because God has given us the gift of the two of you. The fact that God has also given us a beautiful community in which to raise you makes God’s gift even more wonderful and staggering.

Being a reminder of God’s presence in the life of someone else will not only make that person’s life better, it will also help you discover God’s presence in your own. When you serve as such a reminder you trick your instincts into thinking God’s presence is one of the things that is changing, which helps you notice it. But what’s really changing is you. As you grow up, you will have the opportunity to be signs of God’s presence in so many ways. Grab hold of those opportunities with both hands and with your heart. Never let a chance to serve God by helping someone pass you by. Never assume you are too small to make a difference because assuming that makes you much smaller than you are. Know that you began your lives as reminders of God’s presence, and you will continue to be your whole lives long.

Your Mommy and I love you very much, and we can’t wait to meet you. In a few days, we’ll be in the hospital. We’ll be waiting for you. And then, suddenly, you’ll be there. And when I hold you and smell the tops of your heads and touch you to my skin, I will know that I am in the presence of God through God’s gift of you, Baby Boy and Baby Girl. We are in God’s presence all the time, yet we rarely notice it. But on that day, I will say, “Surely the LORD is in this place – and I do know it.” May you have many days when you can say the same thing.

With all the love in my heart,

Daddy

* Quoted from “The Great Family” Godly Play story by Jerome Berryman (my favorite story to tell)

** Borrowed from my father. It’s his favorite thing to say.

The Transfer of Shabbiness (May 2, 2013)

…Opening To…

Come, then, Lord my God, come and instruct my heart where and how to search for you, where and how to find you. Where shall I look for you, Lord? (St. Anselm)

…Listening In…

God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them. (Genesis 1:27; context)

…Filling Up…

This misguided transfer of shabbiness from myself to God is difficult to suspend. Human nature dictates that we narcissistically use ourselves as the measuring sticks by which other things are evaluated. Our ability to reason, manufacture tools, and put our thoughts into speech elevates us above other animals. We then use these factors to order other species by “intelligence.” Chimpanzees eat using rudimentary utensils. Dolphins communicate with their cackling code. Therefore, based on the anthropomorphic scale, these creatures are closer to our presumed preeminence.

But the scale works the other way, as well. Our penchants for betrayal, mistrust, indifference and our well-rehearsed disregard for the welfare of others knock a bleaker set of notches into the measuring stick. When the gut-twinging question surfaces – “Why do you care about me, Lord? – these regrettable attributes emigrate from our world and narcissistically modify our understanding of God.

Having thus remade God in my own lamentable image, the collision in my gut worsens. The Cosmic Creator looks down and sees a bunch of tiny grasshoppers, so why should that God be bothered? The Intimate Companion is probably just as apathetic and self-centered as I am, so why should that God care?

Do you see the twisted, oxymoronic reasoning that leads to these conclusions? The gut-twinging question appears when I notice my own laughable insignificance. At the same time, I use myself as the measuring stick for which to assess God’s motivation to care about me. This logic definitely deserves the red FOOLISHNESS stamp.

You see, when the prophet Isaiah expounds on God’s greatness and ineffability, he is not extolling God’s distance and isolation. Instead, he is warning people not to engage in the foolish business of looking for God in the mirror. The Holy One says, “To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal?” The answer is quite obviously a resounding “NO ONE!” When you escape the twisted logic that seeks to anthropomorphize God, you are one step closer to resolving the gut-twinging question – “Why do you care about me, Lord?”

(We have reached the turn. Stay tuned for the good news! To be concluded tomorrow…)

…Praying For…

Dear God, you made me in your image, not the other way around. Help me return to you from the self-centeredness that can dominate my life. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, comforted by the faith that your foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and hopeful that I might let your foolishness educate me.

God as Instrumentalist (May 1, 2013)

…Opening To…

Come, then, Lord my God, come and instruct my heart where and how to search for you, where and how to find you. Where shall I look for you, Lord? (St. Anselm)

…Listening In…

On the day the Lord God made earth and sky… the Lord God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land and blew life’s breath into his nostrils. The human came to life. The Lord God planted a garden in Eden in the east and put there the human he had formed. (Genesis 2:4b, 7-8; context)

…Filling Up…

The second chapter of Genesis presents another view of the same creative God found in the first chapter of Genesis. God is not standing at the podium, waving a baton as the performing forces of creation harmonize the music of life. In the second story, God, rather the being the conductor, is the instrumentalist: God plays each violin and French horn and clarinet. “In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens,” says Genesis, God bent down in the dust and formed a human being. Then, into his nostrils, God breathed the “breath of life.” When the human became lonely, God put him to sleep, and out of the man’s own flesh God created another human being. As the story continues, the man and woman heard God “walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze.”

This movement and participation in the creation, this intimacy, speak of the God who eventually becomes incarnate as the word made flesh, Jesus Christ. This is the understanding of God that Joan Osbourne wonders about when she sings: “What if God was one of us…just a stranger on the bus trying to make his way home?” This is the understanding of God that the old hymn describes: “And he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own.”

The tension between our understanding of God as “Cosmic Creator” and as “Intimate Companion” brings us back to the gut-twinging question: “Why do you care about me, Lord?” In those moments of existential angst, the Cosmic Creator easily trumps the Intimate Companion because the former seems so much bigger, holier, more powerful. When my gut compares the two, the latter seems somehow lessened by my own shabbiness.

(Stay tuned to hear about the misguided transfer of shabbiness! To be continued tomorrow…)

…Praying For…

Dear God, you breathed life into me and by your Spirit you gave me breath. Help me to use the inspiration found in that breath to work for the coming of your reign here on earth. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, comforted by the faith that your foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and hopeful that I might let your foolishness educate me.

God as Conductor (April 30, 2013)

…Opening To…

Come, then, Lord my God, come and instruct my heart where and how to search for you, where and how to find you. Where shall I look for you, Lord? (St. Anselm)

…Listening In…

God named the light Day and the darkness Night. There was evening and there was morning: the first day. God said, “Let there be a dome in the middle of the waters to separate the waters from each other.” God made the dome and separated the waters under the dome from the waters above the dome. And it happened in that way. God named the dome Sky. There was evening and there was morning: the second day. (Genesis 1:5-8; context)

…Filling Up…

Of course, there’s no reason why God should care about a messy, little thing like me. To think God does is truly first-rate foolishness.

The prophet Isaiah doesn’t help matters. He says, “It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing… To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One.”

There’s a tension in our scriptures — a twofold presentation — about how God relates to us that feeds the pulsing in my gut. The dual stories of creation in the opening chapters of the book of Genesis illustrate this tension. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…” says the first verse of Genesis. The narrative goes on to tell how God spoke creation into being. Creation was ordered: light separated from darkness, day from night, land from sea from sky. God orchestrated the emergence of life and proclaimed the creation “good” and, indeed, “very good.”

This ordering, this filling the void with matter and energy and life and light, speaks of the Cosmic Creator, whose voice and arm stretch into the vast expanse of eternity. This is the understanding of God that Bette Midler promotes when she sings: “God is watching us from a distance.” This is the understanding of God that the Enlightenment era Deists caricatured as a great Watchmaker, who set the gears running and then left well enough alone.

(Stay tuned for the second Creation story! To be continued tomorrow…)

…Praying For…

Dear God, you ordered creation, making all the things that are visible and invisible. Help me to participate in all the good, life-affirming things that your Creation has to offer. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, comforted by the faith that your foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and hopeful that I might let your foolishness educate me.

“W” is for Word (March 15, 2013)

…Opening To…

If we would follow Jesus we must take certain definite steps. The first step, which follows the call, cuts the disciple off from his previous existence. The call to follow produces a new situation. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship)

…Listening In…

But the word of the Lord came to [Abram], “…No one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” (Genesis 15:4-5; context)

…Filling Up…

This Lent, we are exploring our faith by running through the alphabet. Today, “W” is for Word. The word “word” crops up over and over again in the Hebrew Scriptures (commonly called the Old Testament). Take Abram for example. God has promised him offspring of his own, but his wife is well past childbearing years, and she ain’t getting any younger. Feeling desperate, doubtful, defeated, Abram questions God. And at that moment, the “word of the Lord” comes to him and gives Abram the strength to believe that God will fulfill God’s promise.

You may ask: “How can mere words give Abram such strength? What if the promises are empty? Where’s the action to back up the talk?” Okay, so translators do the best they can to render the original languages of the Bible into English, but sometimes a Hebrew word is just too deep and complex for a single English word to suffice. In these cases, the English is like looking at a picture of a cake. The Hebrew is like taking a big bite of the cake itself.

Such is the case with the word “Word.” In Hebrew, the “Word” is not simply speech or writing on a page. The “Word” happens to people. The “Word” is an event, an encounter, an action that calls for further action. In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, God spoke creation into being: “God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light.” The Word of the Lord happened, and, as a result, creation came into existence. When the Word of the Lord happens to Abram, he finds the strength to go on trusting God in spite of all the reasons why God’s promise seems preposterous.

The Word can happen to us in this same way. In an encounter with the Word, we are aware that God continues to speak us into existence. And from existence into service. And from service into love. And from love into the transformation that happens when we follow Jesus Christ our Lord. You see, when the Word happens to us, we are changed. We may be changed minutely or momentously, but we are changed. We may be changed slowly or suddenly, but we are changed. We are changed into better lovers of God, better servants of other human beings, and better human beings ourselves.

…Praying For…

Dear God, you speak creation into existence and your Word sustains all life; help me to listen for that Word in my life so that I may be changed. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, trusting that you never leave me, trusting that you are above, below, behind, before, beside, and within me.

The Word “Believe” (September 17, 2012)

…Opening To…

Oh, help me, God! For thou alone
Canst my distracted soul relieve.
Forsake it not: it is thine own,
Though weak, yet longing to believe. (Anne Brontë)

…Listening In…

[The LORD] brought [Abram] outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:5-6; context)

…Filling Up…

For several years now, I have tried to reserve the word “believe” and use it only when I’m talking about God. This is tricky because practitioners of modern English rarely treat the word with that kind of discretion. Every once in a while, a conversation partner asks me some variation of the following question: “So, do you believe in _______?” Unless the fill-in-the-blank happens to be God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit, I either ask for clarification or say “no,” which generally elicits a quizzical look and a raised eyebrow. Here’s an example.

Other person: “So, do you believe in the Bible?”
Me: “Um…what do you mean?”
Other person: “Ya know, the Bible – do you believe in it?”
Me: “You just asked the same question. Still don’t know what you mean.”

In the end, I find that I have to explain that I try to use the word “believe” only when talking about God. It’s tricky to reserve a word like “believe” for God because the word is so commonplace. But its commonness is a result of the word “believe” becoming watered down and losing its definition. Indeed, “believe” is somehow now synonymous with “think something is okay.”

This week, we are going to explore the word “believe,” and work to reclaim some of its meaning and weight. In the verses from Genesis above, the word is powerful. God just told him that he and his wife Sarai would be parents, despite their old age. God promises Abram that he would be the founder a huge family. Abram believes God, and this belief changes Abram’s life. Be conscious of the next time you say the word “believe”: does the context surrounding the word have the power to change yours?

…Praying For…

Dear God, you have given me the gift of believing that you are present in my life. Help me to live that life in a manner that displays the joyful, generous, and welcoming affects of that presence; in Jesus Christ’s name. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, knowing that you are the foundation of all truth. You believe in me, which allows me to believe in you.

Offering This Breath (September 7, 2012)

…Opening To…

Give yourself fully to God. He will use you to accomplish great things on the condition that you believe much more in His love than in your own weakness. (Mother Theresa)

…Listening In…

The LORD God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land and blew life’s breath into his nostrils. The human came to life. The LORD God planted a garden in Eden in the east and put there the human he had formed. (Genesis 2:7-8; context)

…Filling Up…

We began Monday talking about offering ourselves to God. This is a wonderful thing to do, but it’s also rather vague. So on Tuesday we went smaller and talked about offering this year: our goals and our plans for the foreseeable future. Then on Wednesday we talked about offering each day as a gift back to God who gave it to us in the first place. This brings with it a change in attitude: not my, but we (God and I) are going about this day together. Yesterday we went smaller still to each action and talked about the challenging practice of offering our actions to God before we take them.

With each day, our offerings got smaller, and I think, more difficult to give. It’s really hard to remember to give each action to God. What’s harder still is offering what we are talking about today: each breath. We’ve already given our lives – that is, the totality of who were are. This is offering on a macro scale. But offering each breath moves such giving to the micro scale. Like days tumbling out into years, our breaths tumble out into our lives, so focusing on each breath is another way for us to give ourselves to God.

But what does it mean to offer each breath? Seems a little too poetic to be practical, right? At first glance, perhaps, but consider this. “Respiration” is the act of breathing. The “spir” in the middle of the word also finds a home in “spirit,” as in Holy Spirit. This is not a coincidence. When we offer our breath to God, we participate in the life and movement of the Holy Spirit. With each breath, we inhale and exhale the grace of God given via the Spirit.  When we breathe in, the Spirit nourishes our souls just as the oxygen nourishes our cells. When we breathe out, the Spirit rushes forth from us to come in contact with all those we meet.

Therefore, every word we speak is borne on the wind of Holy Spirit. Doesn’t this thought make you want to train yourself only to speak the truth in love, only to allow words that build up to leave your lips? When we notice the truth of God animating us through our breath, we remember just what God made us for: to love God and neighbor and to bring God’s kingdom a bit closer to earth.

So the next time you breathe (and I bet you just did), remember the Holy Spirit is moving through you.

…Praying For…

Dear God, you breathed life into the first human in the garden and continue to breathe life into me. Help me to live out my life remembering that you are sustaining me and calling me to follow you more closely. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, hopeful that I will have the desire and grace to give myself to you.

“W” is for Will, Word, and Why (March 23, 2012)

…Opening To…

For me, kind Jesus, was thy incarnation, thy mortal sorrow, and thy life’s oblation; thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion, for my salvation. Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee, I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee, think on thy pity and thy love unswerving, not my deserving. (Johann Heermann, from The Hymnal 1982)

…Listening In…

Abraham remained standing in front of the LORD. Abraham approached and said, “Will you really sweep away the innocent with the guilty?What if there are fifty innocent people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not save the place for the sake of the fifty innocent people in it? It’s not like you to do this, killing the innocent with the guilty as if there were no difference. It’s not like you! Will the judge of all the earth not act justly?” (Genesis 18:22-25; context)

…Filling Up…

This Lent, we are exploring our faith by running through the alphabet. Today, “W” is for will and a few other words that start with “W” (There are so many!). Many of the characters in the Bible (like Abraham in the passage above) and many of us struggle with what might be termed “divine inscrutability,” that is, our inability to understand why God does what God does. Two approaches spring from this inability. One accepts the inscrutability, saying, “We’ll never know why God does what God does.” The other attempts to explain it, saying, “It’s God’s will.”

Of course, saying “It’s God’s will” is paradoxical – it claims knowledge of God while springing from an inability to explain God’s actions. The “It’s God’s will” approach can be very damaging to people asking the “why” question. Often it is used as a platitude or defense mechanism. Yes, the will of God certainly exists, but we neither know it nor is it the organizing principle by which we live.

The organizing principle is, instead, reserved for the “Word” of God. (“Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being.” (John 1:3))  This Word is both the foundation of existence and the incarnate being of Jesus Christ. Affirming this premise does not answer the “why” question, but rather supersedes it with the person of Christ, who is present with us in our pain and suffering. The inscrutability of God is maintained because we can never fully know God, but our “why” questions are answered by a relationship with Jesus Christ (rather than an explanation).

…Praying For…

Dear God, when I struggle to understand the “why” of my life, help me to seek both solace and direction from the “who” of my life, your Son Jesus Christ, in whose name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, counting myself blessed that you would choose to make me the person I am and love me into the person I am becoming.

“V” is for Vow (March 22, 2012)

…Opening To…

For me, kind Jesus, was thy incarnation, thy mortal sorrow, and thy life’s oblation; thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion, for my salvation. Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee, I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee, think on thy pity and thy love unswerving, not my deserving. (Johann Heermann, from The Hymnal 1982)

…Listening In…

When Jacob woke from his sleep, he thought to himself, The LORD is definitely in this place, but I didn’t know it. He was terrified and thought, This sacred place is awesome. It’s none other than God’s house and the entrance to heaven.  After Jacob got up early in the morning, he took the stone that he had put near his head, set it up as a sacred pillar, and poured oil on the top of it. He named that sacred place Bethel,though Luz was the city’s original name. Jacob made a solemn promise: “If God is with me and protects me on this trip I’m taking, and gives me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and I return safely to my father’s household, then the LORD will be my God. This stone that I’ve set up as a sacred pillar will be God’s house, and of everything you give me I will give a tenth back to you.” (Genesis 28:16-22; context)

…Filling Up…

This Lent, we are exploring our faith by running through the alphabet. Today, “V” is for vow. How often in our lives do we vow something? We might give assurances that we’ll get the paperwork done or promise to pick someone up after school, but we don’t “vow” to do these things.

Vows don’t happen too often – the solemn vow during the marriage service is the only one I can think of off the top of my head. Witnesses swear to tell the whole truth in court; government officials, new citizens, and military folks pledge to uphold the Constitution or obey officers. These are as close to “vows” as people make outside of the covenant of marriage. But the “solemn vow” of marriage is unique in society, and that makes it all the more special.

A vow is in a category by itself. It is neither time nor place specific. It covers more than the limited scenario during which one might make a promise. Indeed, a vow is not a promise, but the framework on which promises are hung. The vow in the marriage service begins “In the name of God.” The vow would mean nothing if God were not part of it. Just as the vow is the framework for all promises, God is the framework for the vow.

Have you ever vowed something? If so, how did the vow change your life? Was God a part of the vow? If not, how could you invite God to help you fulfill it?

…Praying For…

Dear God, you are the source of all trust and confidence, and the foundation of all promises and vows. Help me to be unwavering in my fulfillment of every promise and vow I make. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, counting myself blessed that you would choose to make me the person I am and love me into the person I am becoming.