Marking the spot: Dreams and blessings for the journey

Text: Genesis 28:10-19     

Coming of Age Celebration

What do a baby doll, a Bible, a notebook, a water pitcher, a blanket, a red kick ball, and a communion cup have in common?  This winter I’ve been a guest in each of our elementary school age Sunday school classes.  Our Christian Education Commission asked me to talk with our young people about rituals in the church and why we do them.  Those objects are some of the props I’ve been carting around.

Many of these rituals are ones we share in common with other Christians.  In these classes we’ve started out by gathering in a circle around the red kick ball, which serves as our sun.  We talk about the liturgical calendar.  So far we’ve managed to circle through the seasons of the church year without breaking out in a spontaneous game of dodgeball, but there have been a couple close calls.  After the full circle we talk about Communion and baptism and what they mean to us.

We also talk about the different rituals they will experience as they grow up in this particular congregation.  We dedicate babies as a way of blessing families and committing to raising children as a community.  We give Bibles to second graders and encourage them to be in lively conversation with Bible stories.  Toward the beginning of high school we have a catechism class that gives a big overview of how Mennonites have understood Christian faith.  At the end of high school, we wrap you in a blanket that will be yours to take with you wherever you’re headed next.

Toward the middle of that progression, usually in your twelfth year, is this Coming of Age celebration.  It’s our way, as a congregation, of marking that major transition from childhood to adolescence.  We like to make a big deal out of it because it is a big deal.  Cultures around the world have found it vital, in their own way, to mark entry into this new stage of increased independence and responsibility.

I have to say this is the first time I’ve ever had one of my own children Coming of Age, so it makes me wonder if I am now coming of age as a parent – entering parent tweenagehood.

So Eve, Mira, and Ivan – Hello.  One of the ways you have helped design this service was by choosing the scripture.  We looked at a couple different stories and the one that you chose was this one about Jacob in Genesis 28.  Jacob has this strange dream about this stairway or ladder that goes between the earth and heaven.  During the dream God tells him that God will always be with him.  It’s such an important experience that Jacob marks the spot with a rock that he sets up as a pillar.  He even anoints the rock with oil, which I believe was Ivan’s favorite part of the skit.

So what does this story, this dream, this stairway to heaven, this rock, have to do with you?

One of the first things to note about this story is that it is a story about leaving home.  Jacob has lived with his mother Rebecca and father Isaac and his older twin Esau his whole life.  This is the first we know of Jacob setting out on his own, all by himself.  His plan is to go from Beer Sheba in the south, way up to Haran in the north, to meet with his uncle Laban and find a suitable wife for himself.  So Jacob is getting a little ahead of us since I’m not aware any of you are planning on leaving home or finding a spouse anytime in the next few years.

But in this stage of life we call adolescence, we begin the process of leaving home.  Even though you still have a number of years living with your parents, you’re already starting to peak out the front door and see what else is going on in the world.  It isn’t a physical leaving home yet, but there’s something within you taking place where your world is opening up much wider than just your home, just your family, just the familiar and comfortable world that you have known your whole life.

You’re starting that process of moving out into the world, and this is a good thing.  You’re welcoming relationships and experiences that you have apart from parents and home.  And there’s this sense of boundless potential that you might feel, wide open possibility, and that gives all of us who know you great joy when we think about that.

So we meet up with Jacob when he is leaving home.  And he’s in this in between place.  Not home anymore, in Beer Sheba, and not yet at his destination, Haran.  Maybe for you this is kind of like not being in childhood anymore, but not yet quite in adulthood.  You’re officially in between.  And in this in between land, Jacob comes to a certain place.  It’s getting dark, so he stops traveling for the day.  He looks around like any resourceful young person might do, and finds a good rock to use as a pillow, and camps out for the night.

This is a camping story.  Maybe we learn some things when we camp that we can’t learn when we’re safe inside our house with our comfy mattress and soft pillow.  Jacob is on a solo camping trip, but he soon finds out he is not alone.

It must have been a pretty cozy rock, because the next thing we know, Jacob is asleep and he’s having a dream.  And this dream becomes a key experience for him.

Now I have on pretty good authority that each of you are big Harry Potter fans.  And so, on the subject of dreams, you might recall that in the fifth book, The Order of the Phoenix, Harry keeps having this recurring dream about this mysterious corridor and a room where he is looking for something.  Harry’s mentor Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry, is concerned that the Dark Lord Voldemort might be influencing Harry through these dreams, getting into his mind when his guard is down, and so Harry is supposed to be doing some training and learning techniques for how to keep his guard up while he is sleeping.

Well in the Bible, it’s God who gets into people’s minds while they are sleeping.  It’s in people’s dreams, when their guard is down, that God shows up and has a chance to show them a path, a place, a possibility, that they might otherwise not be aware of.

Jacob is one of the early dreamers in the Bible, and then his son Joseph turns out to be quite a dreamer, and interpreter of dreams.  Daniel has dreams about God and also interprets the dreams of the king of Babylon.  Many of the Hebrew prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, have dreams, or visions – dreams during the day – where God gives them a picture or words to speak to their people.  And then in the New Testament there’s Joseph the Dreamer part II, this guy who gets a series of dreams telling him what to do about this situation with this woman named Mary he’s supposed to be marrying who is already pregnant and whose baby, who they’re going to name Jesus, is threatened by the somewhat Lord Voldemort-ish King Herod.  Throughout the Bible dreams are an important way that God speaks to people.

And so instead of learning how to keep your guard up during dreams, your mentors and teachers and parents and pastors will be encouraging you to let your guard down, to let these mysterious messengers of God speak to you.

Pay attention to these things you sense deep within you about what is wrong with the world, or what is wonderful about the world, places where you see beauty and joy and love, these pictures that you have in your mind.  Dreams at night or during the day.  This is part of the way that God speaks to you.

Jacob is in a vulnerable and even scary situation.  He’s not at home anymore and not yet at his destination.  He’s in this in between land, camping out by himself.  He drifts off to sleep.

And when he dreams, he sees this stairway connecting earth and heaven.  The point of this stairway, it turns out, isn’t so Jacob can walk up and take a peek around the heavens and see what things are like.  The point is for Jacob to see that these two worlds that we can so often separate in our minds, the world of people and places and things, and the world of the heavens, the spiritual world of God, to see they are connected.  This stairway has angels going up and down. And the word for angels means messengers.  There are messengers going between, so Jacob sees that the lines of communication are wide open here.  Even though he’s camping on his own in the middle of nowhere, God is with him.

This stairway is a symbol of that connection.  It fills in the gap.  Like in your house where the stairway helps you get up and down between the different floors, so you’re not stuck on one or the other.  You can be in the whole house.

One of the people who has done a lot of thinking and writing about the relationship between human development, different stages of life, and faith development is a professor by the name of James Fowler.  He says that one of the things that begins to happen for you right about now is the process of synthesis – of drawing together different parts, different thoughts, different experiences and perspectives.  Parts that may not feel all that related right now, but parts that you will begin asking how they might hold together.  How do this and that fit together?  How can this and that both be true?

A big part of this has to do with personal identity.  We have this new consciousness in our early teen years where we start asking who we are.  We start paying more attention to who others say we are.  We have different groups of people in your life, and some of them don’t overlap very much.  You have your life at home.  You have the relationships in your extended family.  You have this group of folks at church.  You have your life at school with teachers and friends and people who you’re trying to figure out if they’re actually your friend.  You have all these parts, all these different yous – and you start to wonder: Well…which me am I?  Am I who my parents say I am?  Who my friends say I am?  Who the people I don’t get along with very well say I am?  Who church says I am?  Who’s right?

A big part of your life for the next number of years will be working on how all these parts fit together.

Jacob’s stairway is a message that there is a connection.  All these parts that feel separate and disjointed and almost like different worlds, do fit together.  And, most importantly, God is in each one of those places.  It’s like different rooms and levels all inside the same house, and you’re free to move around and explore.

God shows up alongside Jacob and tells Jacob that no matter where he goes, God will be with him.  God tells Jacob that he will be blessed, and that others will be blessed through him.  And that’s exactly what Jacob needs to know for this journey.  He doesn’t know how things are going to turn out, but he goes with a blessing.  Even though he’s in this in between place, God is with him, Love with a capital L is with him, and all of these different parts somehow will fit together some day.

So that’s the dream.  Jacob wakes up.  This is a dream he’s going to remember the rest of this life.  He says, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it.”  This place is like the house of God.

It’s such an important experience that he decides he has to mark the spot.  This has to be more than just a memory in his head.  He needs something physical as a reminder, so whenever he sees that thing he can remember the experience.  And so, being the resourceful young person that he is, he decides that this rock which has been his pillow is going to be a multipurpose rock.  He sets it up as a pillar, puts some oil on it, perhaps in the same way he would have put oil on his own head each morning as a lotion.  He treats the rock, the visible reminder of those messengers connecting earth and heaven, like he would treat his own face.  It’s now a part of him.  It fits into the person he’s becoming.

In the next part of our service we’ll be giving you a physical reminder of this day.  You’ll each receive a notebook that contains blessings and personal words from your church family.  Just like God sent Jacob with a blessing, we want to give you our blessing for the journey ahead.


Through the Desert Goes Our Journey | All Saints/Souls | November 5

Text: Genesis 21:8-21, Revelation 3:7-13    


The Hebrew Scriptures trace the story of the people of Israel from their beginnings, into and out of slavery in Egypt, into and out of their desert wanderings, into and out of nationhood and kingship, into and out of exile, and the diaspora that follows.  This is the story of peoplehood into which Jesus and his early followers were born.  It’s the one that non-Jews like us get adopted into.  The story begins with a couple, Abram and Sarai, who miraculously have a son in their old age.  The lineage of the people of Israel is traced through that son, Isaac, the child of promise.

But one of the endearing and enduring features Scripture is that it also includes stories that don’t fit so well into that main narrative.  Some of them are even shameful, or at least embarrassing to tell. The story in Genesis 21 about Hagar and Ishmael is one of those.

Ishmael was the oldest son of Abraham, born through his slave woman Hagar.  It was Sara’s idea to give Hagar to Abraham.  Sara was unable to have children, and so a child through Hagar would serve as her own, giving her husband an heir.  When Sara does conceive in her old age, she gives birth to Isaac.  She quickly feels a rivalry between her and Hagar, her son and the older Ishmael.  Her solution is to have Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away, so Isaac can get the family’s full inheritance.  Abraham gets a message from God that, when it doubt, listen to your wife.  He gives Hagar and his oldest son some bread and water, and sends them away, into the desert, where they wander until they have nothing left to drink.  It must not have been much bread and water.

It’s not a very flattering story to tell about your revered patriarch and matriarch.

Hagar is unable to watch her son die.  She sets him under a shrub and then walks a ways off so she can’t see him.  This is how Genesis describes what happens next:  “And as Hagar sat opposite Ishmael, she lifted up her voice and wept.  And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar?  Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.  Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.’  Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water.  She went, filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.  God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness.”

As an origins story this works on a few different fronts.  It portrays the god who will be so closely identified with the children of Isaac as a god who sees and cares for the needs of those outside that particular lineage.  More specifically it is a story that honors today’s Muslims who trace their lineage through Ishmael.  And it humanizes the founding mother and father by telling a story in which they are, to put it kindly, not at their best.  If Abraham and Sara are saints, then there’s hope for all of us after all.

The last couple years we’ve tried something that I hope to continue for years to come: We use this first Sunday of November to highlight the story of one of our Anabaptist/Mennonite forbears.  Halloween gets most of the press, but historically the reason for the season is a little more substantive than pixie sticks and Kit Kats.  Although Kit Kats are a highlight.  The intergenerational neighborly sidewalk festival that is trick or treating on Hallow’s Eve is a prelude to something quite profound.  In the All Saints and All Souls observance that follows, we in the church remember the dead, especially those who touched us in life.  We open ourselves to the possibility that even those from whom we are separated by many generations are somehow present, even Abraham and Hagar and Sara.  We consider the mystery that in God all are alive.  And we’re comfortable acknowledging this means different things to different ones of us.

Two years ago we looked at the story of Anna Janz from the 16th century.  She died a martyr in her early 30’s, leaving behind a young son and a heart wrenching letter she wrote to him in her prison cell.

Last year we looked at Menno Simons, the man who put the Menno in Menno-nite, shepherding the young Anabaptist movement toward sustainability and peacableness.  .

Anna and Menno are pillars of the faith.  We remember them as heroes, perhaps even saints, although we don’t use that language much.

This year I want to take a different angle and tell a Hagar and Ishmael kind of story.  As we’ve been talking about sanctuary over the last month I’ve been mindful that most of the stories I’ve told have been from the perspective of providing sanctuary.  Saintly

So today I want to tell an unflattering story.  A story that, if it has been remembered at all, has been remembered with shame.  A story in which we are not the heroes.  A story in which we were not the providers of sanctuary but the recipients.

It’s the story of Claas Epp and a wayward group of Mennonites who followed him.   Interest in this has been revived in the last decade by a group that re-traced the steps of these events, discovered new things, and thus offered new ways to see the story.

It has been called the Great Trek.  It begins in Russia in the year 1880.  Mennonites had been invited to Russia about 100 years earlier, by Catherine the Great, to occupy farm land recently conquered by the Russian army.  But now they were facing forced military conscription.  Most of the Mennonite communities were responding by moving to the Americas.  But there was a group of families and leaders who felt it was a mistake to go West.  Their ancestors had always kept moving East to escape persecution.  They believed there was significance in heading toward the rising sun.  From the Ukraine, five wagon trains, about 200 families, headed east.  They kept going beyond the reach of the Russian empire into Muslim ruled territory in Central Asia. The trek would ultimately cover 2000 miles and land them in Uzbekistan.

There were unfamiliar with the land.  Much of it was desert, and they faced incredible difficulties.  Eventually they abandoned their wagons and mounted all that they had on camels to make it through the desert.  They often relied on the knowledge of the Muslim leaders they encountered and the hospitality of the villages where they would stay for winters.

Two years into the Trek, the largest wagon train settled and established four different farming villages.  Those who kept traveling were driven by strong apocalyptic beliefs.  One of the leaders in particular, Claas Epp, believed that Christ’s return to earth was imminent.  He believed it was the mission of this community to travel to the site where Christ would return.  They would present themselves as the bride, and rule with Christ in the millennial kingdom on earth.

Claas Epp saw their community reflected in the imagery of Revelation.  He believed they were like the 1st century church in Philadelphia, one of the seven churches addressed at the beginning of Revelation in the letters to the angels of the churches.  He often quoted the line from the letter addressed to Philadelphia: “See, I have set before you an open door.”  Claas Epp believed a door was being opened for them to trek toward the place where they would meet Christ.

They wandered in Uzbekistan for four years, looking for the proper site.  Claas Epp declared that March 8, 1889 would be the day of the Lord’s return.  When the day arrived the community waited with great anticipation.  When the day passed and nothing happened, Epp extended the time to 1891.  Just two more years, and then the end will come.  The Mennonites settled in the region, and when Christ didn’t return again, again, they continued to live there until fleeing Stalin’s forces 50 years later.

So that’s the story.  Up until recently little more was known than this sketchy outline.  Our un-hero Claas Epp has been remembered at best as the butt of a few jokes.  He does have his own Facebook profile where he occasionally comments about the end of the world.  At worst, he is remembered shamefully.  Or just not remembered.  Overall, he’s been someone about who we now say “I’m not with him.”  Someone who, like Abraham and Sara with Hagar, represents a time when the tradition was, to be kind, not at its best.

The reason this story is being reconsidered is that ten years ago a group of scholars, writers, filmmakers, and descendants of those involved retraced this journey.  They were looking for more details about what the trip was like and what may be learned.  Part of what made them especially interested was they felt there are aspects of the Great Trek that have particular relevance in our own setting, ten years ago and now, even this past week.  I had plans to tell this story well before a man born in Uzbekistan aimed his truck down a bike path in New York on Tuesday, killing eight.

What this modern day group of North American pilgrims to Uzbekistan discovered and experienced was rather remarkable.  From diaries that had recently resurfaced they knew that one of the wagon trains set up camp for nine months in the village of Serabulak.  Those original German-Russian Mennonites were of course trying to escape notice from the Russians.  They were greeted and taken in by local Muslim leaders.  Five of the Mennonite families had been given sanctuary within the mosque courtyard.  The locals had also offered their mosque as a place of worship for the Mennonites.  The Muslims would use it on their holy day, Friday.  The Mennonites used it on Sunday.  Several weddings and funerals were held in the mosque and 21 youth were baptized there.

While the investigative tour group was exploring Serabulak, they had a fresh encounter with the hospitality of the village.  They met with the local imam who allowed them to pray and sing inside the mosque.  They offered a gift to the imam so he would remember them.  In turn he offered them a blessing.  One of the pilgrims, Jesse Nathan, wrote this: “Astounding as this experience feels, it fits with what we’ve been discovering as we retrace.  These peaceful Christians built friendships with Muslims – Muslims, who in turn, shepherded the Mennonites through difficulty.  In exchange, Mennonites introduced tomatoes, potatoes, dairy cattle, butter, and cheese to Uzbekistan” (Through the Desert Goes our Journey film).

As they kept traveling and retracing the steps of the Trek they continued to discover that not only were the Mennonites remembered in the region, but they were remembered with respect .    In another of the villages the imam still does the annual springtime blessing of the crops on the land where the Mennonites lived because of the fruitful agriculture that thrived while they cared for it.

Maybe most surprising was that the people of Uzbekistan had no associations with the Mennonites as being a group getting ready for the end of the world.  We know that they were a group getting ready for the end of the world, but the way they related with their Muslim neighbors was one of making an investment in this world.  These Mennonite guests and migrants are remembered by the local residents for their nonviolent practices, frugal economics, and generous wages that they gave to those who worked for them (Mennonite World Review, July 14, 2008).

One of the group participants, a direct descendant of Claas Epp, felt her travels offered a reinterpretation of the open door.  She commented that this history could provide an open door to thinking about how Christians and Muslims relate to each other across differences and how the mutual respect and neighborliness that these group showed to each other could be a model for us.  (Through the Desert Goes Our Journey film). 

Maybe today it’s enough to remember that a little over 100 years ago, a group of theologically misguided Mennonites were given sanctuary in Uzbekistan.  It’s a story in which we are not the heroes.  In which God worked through Uzbek Muslims to welcome and shelter our people, and thus create the conditions in which we could be mutual blessings for one another.      

In a time when the children of Ishmael and the children of Isaac continue to be suspicious of each other and commit acts of violence against each other, we can remember that we are all children of Abraham.  There are times in our life together when we have been friends and a blessing to each other.  We can believe that God has set before us an open door, to live out the story of God’s reconciling love that is meant for all people.  Ultimately that is our story.


A 10 minute preview of the Through the Desert Goes our Journey documentary film can be viewed HERE.  The title song for the soundtrack won a regional Emmy.

“The Lord appeared to Abraham…” | September 10

Texts: Genesis 18:1-15; Luke 6:17-21

“The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.”  This is a story about an appearance, a visitation.  “The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre.”  And any story that features trees in the opening line is bound to be a good one.

It’s a good story for the moment we’re in, and for Christian Education Sunday.

Ask Mark, or anyone who’s ever served on Christian Education Commission, or anyone who’s ever been a teacher of any kind, and they’ll tell you that the work of education, the work of formation, is slow.  It’s gradual.  It’s cumulative.  The formation of our minds and hearts takes place over the course of years and decades.  It’s a journey, we like to say.    We when go off to Sunday school we know this is the kind of work we’re doing.

And yet…when we look back there are certain experiences that stand out as especially formative, sometimes life changing.  Sometimes something as simple as the right phrase, spoken by the right person at the right time when we were especially ready to receive it, can be a signpost we reference the rest of our lives.  Like that time my mom said to me sometime during my childhood growing up on the farm: “Joel, your brother and sisters bring stray animals into the house, but you bring stray people.”  So the seed of being a pastor was planted early.  Thankfully, I’ve since given up on saving stray people and am much more interested in enjoying them and, in the process, becoming a little more stray myself.

There are moments, phrases, experiences that stand out as formative.  Educational.

This is a story that invites us to consider those kinds of experiences.  It’s a story that has some similarities with the kind of experience we’ve had the last two weeks in opening our church as sanctuary.  It’s a story about an appearance, a visitation.

And it’s printed in your bulletins if you want to have the text in front of you.

Genesis 18: “The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.”

This is what the narrator tells us.  But there’s no hint that Abraham knows what he’s getting himself into.  It’s a hot day, and he has set up camp under the shade of some oak trees.  He’s sitting at the entrance of his tent, doing not much.  It’s a leisurely opening that also tips us off to something Abraham does not yet know: The Lord is about to appear.

What this actually looks like is described in verse two: “Abraham looked up and saw three men standing near him.”  What the appearance of the Lord looks like in this story is people, in the form of three travelers.

With this surprising leap from “the Lord” to three people, it was probably inevitable that later Christian tradition would read back into this Hebrew story a foreshadowing of Trinitarian theology.  God in three persons: Person 1: The Creator, Father/Mother, Boundless Source of all that is.  Lover.  Person 2: The Word, the Son, Beloved, that which eternally proceeds from the Source and bears its very nature.  Person 3: The Spirit, The breath, the gaze of Love between Lover and Beloved.  Together an endlessly creating, loving, self emptying and filling Whole.  Talk about something that takes a lifetime of slow growth to understand, there you have it.

The image on the bulletin cover is from the 15th century painter Rublev, considered the most famous of all Russian icons.  It is called The Trinity and is based on this story, the three visitors as angels sitting down for a meal under the oaks.  One of the beautiful features is the way the postures flow in a circle.  Follow the direction of their relationship, each leading you toward the next, and you join in the eternal flow.


But that’s a much later layer of interpretive tradition.  To Abraham they are three hungry travelers with dusty feet.

Upon seeing them, Abraham runs to greet them, bows before them, and in good Middle Eastern fashion, makes them feel like they’ll be doing him a favor if they only accept his hospitality.  Water for dusty feet, rest under the trees, and bread for the stomach.

They accept the offer.

From a leisurely opening, there is a noticeable change of pace.  Abraham runs to greet the travelers.  After they agree to stay, he hastens to find his wife Sarah who hastens to make cakes from the best flour on hand.  Abraham then runs to get a servant to slaughter a young, tender, choice calf.  This is the heat of the day, remember, and everyone is running and hastening.  This is a mad frenzy of hospitality in full motion.  Even the servant hastens to prepare the calf.  Abraham gathers all these things together, and brings them to the three visitors under the shade of the tree.

Deep breath.

This tale of hastening and hustling for hospitality, feels very much like the story of our last two weeks of speeding and sprinting for sanctuary.  Our visitors came in the form of Edith Espinal and her family.  Our short time frame between being aware of the need for sanctuary and the deadline to decide led to what has to be close to a church record for processing a major decision in a short amount of time.  I’ve said this a number of times now to different groups, and I can’t remember who even initially said it, or if it just emerged from group conversation, but during this experience I believe we’ve discovered a hierarchy of values.  A very high value is thoughtful or thorough process, and it serves us well.  An even higher value, it turns out, is protecting the vulnerable.  CMC hierarchy of values: very thorough congregational process (high).  Protect the vulnerable and process as you go (higher).  At least that’s the order for this experience.

So even though we did our best to gather multiple times for sharing information and questions and concerns before making a decision for sanctuary, we are still retroactively processing what it means.  This would be the case whether Edith were still here or currently living at home.  It has been two weeks of hastening and running, and planning and installing and arranging and plumbing and interior decorating and singing and welcoming and showing up in green shirts and keeping quiet and spreading the word and…being educated.  It’s been one of those experiences, and it’s hard to know what it all means when you’re still in it.

As someone in the privileged position of being able to witness much of this unfold in real time, it has looked like a series of miracles.  It has looked like people being the hands and feet of the Lord.  It has been an unanticipated Divine appearance.  The Lord has visited in the form of one person named Edith and five people named the Espinal family, and a team of supportive organizations, and 10 and 50 and 200 Mennonites, and many more community members.  And the cumulative effect is that we have sat together under the shade of sanctuary in the heat of the day.  Or should I say “are sitting together,” present tense.

Deep breath.

The visitors eat their fill, but that’s not the end of the story.  When the Lord appears, the story never ends where you think it might.  The visitors will not go before they leave a gift.

The next phase of this story starts in verse 9 with a question: “Where’s Sarah?”  And with that, our attention shifts from one partner, Abraham, to the other.  Sarah had been in the background, donating time and skills without visibility.  But the gift can’t happen without her.  Despite her being “advanced in age” which is a great phrase, by the way, for education Sunday.  I’m not old, I’m in the advanced class of aging.  Despite the opening of this story failing to mention that the Lord would appear to Abraham and Sarah, it is she who will be the bearer of the gift.

The gift, of course, is the promise of a child.  In a culture so focused on biological lineage and the worth of a woman tied up in how many children, preferably male children, she bears her husband, this means everything.  Without a child, the story ends for Abraham and Sarah.  In a broader sense, detached from mere biology, the promise means that something new is about to be born.  Something with a life of its own.  Something unexpected and even miraculous.  It’s akin to the New Testament experience of resurrection.  The trajectory of death gets interrupted, and in its place is a brand new life.  The visitors receive the gift of hospitality from Abraham and Sarah, and they leave a gift.

This story begins in leisure, transitions into running and haste, finds rest and sustenance in tree shade, and moves through doubt of something new being possible, and ends, with laughter.  The story is evenly split between focusing on Abraham and then Sarah, and half of the Sarah portion has to do with laughter.  There’s the laugh itself, the question about why she laughed, the denial of the laugh, and the delightful ending out of the mouth of the visitor, confirming the laugh.  In the words of the NRSV.  “Oh yes you did laugh.”

The child to be born will be named Isaac, which is the Hebrew word for laughter, and so the heavy focus on laughter – No I didn’t, yes you did, no I didn’t, Oh yes you did – becomes a playful prelude to an impossible pregnancy that will give birth to “laughter.”   Yes you will.

I wanted to pair this story with the reading of Luke’s beatitudes, and I’d forgotten that they also include laughter.  “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”

Our and Edith’s experience of sanctuary so far has included both weeping and laughter.  Edith was able to return home with a big smile on her face, but the immigration system is not as reliable as a promise from the Lord.  It’s much more of the back and forth no you can’t, yes you can for now, no you can’t, and less of the timeline for wondrous fulfillment that Sarah is given.

And yet, “blessed are those who weep now, for you will laugh.”

And blessed are those who like Abraham make haste to extend hospitality, for, like Sarah, they will give birth to new life.  What that life will be we don’t yet know.  It does appear to be already conceived and growing, a baby bump on the congregational body.  And, as we celebrated three weeks ago, we are 55 years old, so miracles do still happen.  But I better not endanger my wellbeing here by saying that those who are 55 qualify as being advanced in years.

As we enter a time of silent reflection, I invite you to do so with Rublev’s trinity painting in front of you.  It is the visitors who are the Lord who appear, receiving and giving gifts.  As you look at the image, allow yourself to move from one of the guests to the other, in that endless circle that the painter encourages through the postures.  And as you enter that circle where there is only love, consider how you are being drawn into the Divine life.  A life characterized by hospitality and generosity, a life where there those who weep are blessed.  A life with room for laughter.

After the silence we will sing Caminamos en la luz de Dios, We are marching in the light of God.  This is the song we sing to welcome newborn Isaacs into our congregation during child blessings.  It’s the song we sang this past Monday evening to welcome a visitor into sanctuary in our building.

Into / Out of the labyrinth | Lent 1 | March 5

Texts: Genesis 2:8-9; 15-17;   Matthew 4:1-11



If you’ve read the Lent devotionals, looked at the bulletin cover, or found the pattern in the hanging dots behind me, you’ve likely noticed a visual theme.  We’re using the labyrinth throughout Lent as a symbol of the Inward / Outward journey.

It’s an ancient design.  Not necessarily this particular one, but the labyrinth.  One site in northern India has a labyrinth pattern estimated to be 4500 years old.  A cluster of islands in northwest Russia have over 30 stone labyrinths that may be as old as 3000 years.

Greek mythology includes the story the part human/ part beast minotaur who wreaks havoc on the population until the great architect Daedalus designs and builds a labyrinth whose sole purpose is to contain the minotaur at its center.  The hero Theseus eventually enters the winding labyrinth and slays the minotaur.  Some labyrinths still portray a minotaur at the center.

In later medieval times stone labyrinths show up in regions like Scandinavia, frequently around the coast.  Fishing communities likely built these with the superstitious hopes of trapping harsh winds and trolls that may endanger a successful fishing outing.

Around the same time, the labyrinth was being adopted more fully as a Christian symbol of pilgrimage.  Labyrinths were embedded into the pavement of grand cathedrals.  Worshipers were invited to pray their way along the path, into the center, a place of holy encounter, and pray their way back out.  Some writings suggest that walking the labyrinth was an alternative option for those unable to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as Christian crusaders regained and then lost control of the Holy City to the Muslim armies.  There’s a real bright spot in religious history.

In the last few decades the labyrinth has made a resurgence in the Christian imagination.  Labyrinths are popping up in all kinds of places.  Maybe you’ve seen one and wondered what it was.  They’re used frequently at retreats as a more active prayer practice.  During my years at seminary AMBS decided to mow a labyrinth into a large area of native prairie grasses growing on the campus.  The labyrinth is a trending piece of spiritual technology, and we’re riding the wave.

One of the primary differences between a labyrinth and a maze is that the labyrinth has only one path, with no dead ends or false trails.  This is different than, say, the hedge maze at the Triwizard tournament that Harry Potter had to find his way through, the four contestants frantically darting through corridors, trying to avoid wrong turns and blast ended skrewts, and find the Cup.

If you put your finger at the bottom opening of the labyrinth on the bulletin cover, or if you do the same with your eye with the banner, and start to trace the line, you’ll notice there is only one way to go.  In a labyrinth the task is not to avoid getting lost, but simply to keep going.  If you keep going, you will make it into the center.  And after arriving, you will find your way back out, if you only keep going.

So why go on a pilgrimage like this?  Why go through this circuitous route when it would be much easier to walk a straight line into the center?  And, since when did anyone decide that the journey into the labyrinth was a good thing?  Aren’t there harsh winds and a minotaur waiting for you in the center?

The scriptures for the first Sunday of Lent speak about why such a journey may be necessary.

The reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is one of the opening scenes of the Bible.  It’s an origins story about who we are and where we come from.  In Genesis 2, the human is formed from the dust of the ground.  Shaped by the Lord God, Yahweh Elohim, breathed into being through the Divine breath of life.  The humans begin life surrounded by everything they need to flourish.  They live in a lush garden.  There are all kinds of trees planted by the very hand of Yahweh Elohim, producing different kinds of edible fruit.  Humanity starts out in a perennial forest garden.  The only hitch is that one tree from which the humans are commanded not to eat.  The tree of knowledge of good and evil.  Knowledge of good and evil could have a moral meaning, or it could also be an expression of comprehensiveness.  Like the “heavens and the earth” includes those two things and everything in between.  “Good and evil” could also mean those two things, and everything in between.  The tree of knowledge of the full scope of that which is knowable, all the way from the good, to the evil.

Now if Yahweh Elohim would have had any kind of parenting experience whatsoever, God would have known that as soon as you declare something off limits, you inadvertently and immediately awaken the very desire you are seeking to quelch.  I guess it might add a little extra incentive for obedience if you say, “On the day you do it, you will surely die.” In Genesis, God is learning right along with humanity how to make this whole creation thing work.  And so the stage is set.

We’re so familiar with the general outline of the story of the Garden of Eden that it’s easy to miss how surprising an origins story it is – one in which humanity is surrounded by abundance.  It seems much more intuitive to tell a story of scarcity.  These up and coming humans struggling against all odds in a hostile environment.  Scrounging for food, fending off wild beasts, never more than an annual cycle away from the threat of starvation or annihilation.  Within our own myths of economic competition and perpetual progress, it’s tempting to look back into the mists of pre-history and imagine that kind of continuous struggle for survival in which life, in the words of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Leviathan, 1651).

But Genesis proposes another scenario, another way to think about our origins, and thus our present predicament.  It’s a story in which the central question is not How will we have enough resources? but rather How will we use the abundance of our resources in a way that contributes to the flourishing of life rather than the destruction of life?  That’s an important enough point that I’m going to say it again.  In the biblical imagination, the defining question of human origins is not How will we get enough food and clothes and resources to survive?  Food is abundant.  Clothes are optional.  The defining question is What will or won’t we do with the many resources we do have?

One of those resources, of course, being the acquisition of god-like knowledge.

The Garden of Eden story famously hinges on the role of the serpent.  In later tradition the serpent  came to be conflated with the devil, but here it is simply described as more crafty than any other wild animal that Yahweh Elohim had made.  And that word “crafty” doesn’t have to be negative.  That word is elsewhere translated “sensible.”  In Proverbs it is most frequently translated as “prudent.”  Even Jesus said to be shrewd as serpents, but innocent as doves. Now the serpent was more “prudent,” “sensible” “shrewd”… “crafty.”  The Jewish Publication Society translates it as “subtle.”  The subtle serpent.

And the subtle/sensible/shrewd serpent says, No, you won’t die, you’ll become like God, knowing good and evil, the full range of knowledge.  And the serpent is right.  When they eat the fruit, they don’t die, at least not that day, as Yahweh Elohim had said.  And they do obtain knowledge.

And they get booted out of the perennial forest garden – and they have to start farming, struggling with the earth.  It’s the agricultural revolution that brought us refrigerators and DDT (See last week’s sermon).  Such far ranging knowledge.

And that’s the broad framework in which the drama of human history unfolds.  What will we do with our tremendous knowledge and god-like power?

And it starts to become more evident why a pilgrimage into the center of the labyrinth becomes essential.  Just because we have the basics of what we need to live, doesn’t mean we know how to truly live.  How to live in such a way that glorifies God and resists temptations detrimental to the flourishing of life.

Might this kind of pilgrimage be precisely what Jesus is doing at the onset of his public ministry?

Jesus has just been baptized, he has just been declared the Beloved Son of God, and the first thing to follow, Matthew says, is this: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”  Congratulations on your baptism.  In case you didn’t read the fine print, we’d like to inform you you’ll be spending the next 40 days in physical and spiritual anguish.

In so many ways, Jesus has all he needs.  He’s got Resources, with a capital R.  But Matthew, Mark, and Luke all agree that before he exercises any of this, he has to go into the wilderness, the place of physical scarcity – led there by the Spirit.  And in the wilderness, the question of the tempter, the devil, is not, do you have the power?  Do you have the ability?  But since you have the knowledge, ability, how are you going to use it?  What kind of power are you going to exercise?  Since you are the Son of God…

Jesus walks into the labyrinth, keeps moving up, down, around that singular path, and arrives in the center, in the wilderness, distant from the outside world but face to face with the most common temptations humanity faces.  In the center there is indeed a minotaur, of sorts, waiting for him.  Jesus faces these temptations in the wilderness so that when he faces them in the land of abundance, he will have already made his decision.

The temptations seem eccentric on the surface, but there is an interpretive tradition that links them very much with the human experience.  If you like alliteration, you can think of them as the temptations of possessions, pride, and power.

The devil first tempts Jesus, who hasn’t eaten for weeks, to turn the desert stones into bread.  In response Jesus says something to the effect of “Even if every single stone in this desert were a steaming hot loaf of bread, it wouldn’t be enough.  We don’t live just on bread, we are sustained by every word and that Breath of life that comes from the mouth of God.”  Even though one might have possessions, they need not define one’s life and worth.

And when the devil suggests that Jesus might leap from the pinnacle of the temple because he’s so special that there’s no way God would let him get hurt, Jesus rejects  that kind of prideful thinking.   Years later, back in a garden setting, he will pray that if it be possible for his life to be spared, that God would do so.  But not my will, but yours be done.  And there are no angels who intervene to stop the whole procession that leads to his state execution on the cross.

And when the devil shows him the kingdoms of the world which he will gladly hand over if Jesus will only genuflect before the altar of power dominance,  Jesus again rejects this offer.  He sends the devil away, angels come and attend to him, and he soon makes his way out of the wilderness, out of the labyrinth, back into the land of abundance.  Now finally ready to do his work.

The early church father Irenaeus wrote that the “The glory of God is humanity full alive.”

Lent is a time when we confess that we don’t know how to be fully alive.  We think we have some ideas, but we know enough to know we’re likely screwing it up.  We live in the land of abundance, we have tremendous knowledge, but it doesn’t fill out the full picture of how to live lives that bring glory to the Creator and add to the flourishing of life.

So we head into the labyrinth.  We take the inward journey, assured that this is not a trick.  There are no dead ends or false paths.  There is simply the road that leads to the center where we will encounter what and who we need to encounter.  What we need to encounter in order to come back out with a renewed sense of who we are, and the small part we play in the abundance of creation.  It’s a journey we take multiple times throughout life.

Let me end by saying that this journey can take many forms, but if you want a way to get together to pray with others, we will be meeting every Wednesday of Lent here in the sanctuary.  We’ll be teaching and practicing Centering prayer, a simple form of silent prayer.  And we’ll be praying from the Anabaptist Prayer Book which includes open spaces for voicing our concerns and intersessions.  We’re having these at 5:30pm with the hopes this can assist some folks in joining in route to their way home from work, and still have most of the evening to be home.

May you know that the Breath of Life, the Christ of Love, accompanies and sustains you on your journey, and may you be led by the Spirit to go where you need to go.





Surveying the land from eight angles | Lent 2 | 1 March 2015

Texts: Genesis 17:1-8; Mark 8:31-38

1.)  Promised land

When Abram was 99 years old, he was old.  The first time Al Bauman had a birthday when I was in Columbus I asked him how old he was, and he said, “Almost 100,” after which he went off somewhere to climb a ladder and fix something.  Al was joking, of course, but for Abram, this was no joke.  He was almost 100, the end more in sight than it had ever been.

You learn to let go of a lot of things by that age, I suppose.  A lot of friends and family you’ve outlived.  A lot of unfulfilled hopes.  If you don’t learn to let go, likely you don’t reach that age.  But Abram still hung on to one haunting concern, unresolved and now all but impossible to be fulfilled.  At a time when children, and sons specifically, were how you lived on after death – not just in perpetuating your own DNA but in whether or not your name was remembered and honored and carried forward – Abram and his wife Sarai were childless.  The entire story of the Jewish people, the foundation of the Christian narrative, is initiated by an impossible promise made to an aging couple – a covenant between Yahweh,  Abram and Sarai, who are renamed Abraham and Sarah to reflect the new future opening up in front of them.  They will have a son.  And not only that, but they will have land on which to grow.  God Almighty says, “And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now a migrant, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God” (Genesis 17:8).

2.) Our land

There’s something empowering about having access to land, even in small amounts.  Recently my mom noted to me how expensive land is getting to be, selling in their part of Ohio for around $6000 an acre.  I replied that this still sounds like a pretty good deal seeing as how we paid 10’s of thousands of dollars for the 50×150 ft. plot of land our house sits on.

As much as we shelled out for that, I seem to have a major internal hang-up for paying for much of anything when it comes to caring for our little piece of land.  Trying to convert a patch of yard into a garden takes lots of extra nutrients.  Having grown up on a farm, surrounded by an excess of cow manure, I still can’t bring myself to buy the stuff dried and neatly packaged at Lowes.  On more than one occasion we have sacrificed our vehicles smelling poorly for several days by hauling the stuff in garbage bags back from Mom and Dad’s.  This past fall I gathered about 30 bags of leaves from neighbors’ curbs to mulch and spread over the garden space.  Supposedly, under the snow, the soil is slowly getting richer as we speak, which is a nice thought on a winter day.  For a while in the fall we extended the area that our backyard chickens could roam and forage so they could tear up some of the sod where the bigger garden will be.  Not only is this a free service, but it’s better than free, since the grass and bugs they eat reduce the amount of supplemental grain they need.  Leaving little nitrogen droppings wherever they roam is another bonus.  But this meant we had to come up with a bigger fence to contain them.  Seeing no other way around it, we paid money for some fencing.  For someone who grew up with a big barn full of all kinds of discarded wonders, it seems like anything you need should just be lying around somewhere, or growing on trees, which, as it turns out, in some cases, it is.

3.) Not your land

There’s no direct reference to land in the Mark 8 reading, but it’s right there, just behind the text.  Jesus tells those around him that if they want to be his followers, they would have to deny themselves and take up their cross.  This must have been a startling thing to hear.  Crucifixion was a common – and public – spectacle in the Roman world.  Various ancient historians record incidents of mass crucifixions before and after the time of Jesus around Rome and Jerusalem.  It was so common and widespread that the vertical part of the crosses were almost certainly permanent fixtures planted in the ground.  The one carrying their cross on their way to that site would have carried the horizontal beam.  To say that crucifixion was excruciating would be redundant as that very word derives from the practice.  Dying on a cross was usually a matter of days rather than hours.  But the real purpose of the practice wasn’t for the one on the cross, but for those who witnessed it.  It was explicitly designed as a public deterrent against anyone who might be entertaining thoughts of following in the same way as the one up there.  It was visible and publicly known.  Its message was clear.  “Don’t let this happen to you.”  Rome had amazing accomplishments in architecture and culture and connecting disparate parts of the world through its roads, but it maintained control of the land by this reign of terror.  Every cross that lined those roads sang the same song: “This land is our land.  This land aint your land.  Don’t cause us problems.  And all will be grand.”

4.) Promised land II + a cute kitten

One can now hardly hear the story of Abraham being promised the land as a perpetual holding without pondering the turmoil of the last century that has taken place on that land.  It is now occupied by two peoples, both carrying deep wounds and trauma from violence directed against them:  The Holocaust for the Jews, with centuries of marginalization and oppression before that.  And for the Palestinian Arabs, the forced evacuation and continued occupation and destruction of ancestral land.

This past week a pastor friend who recently visited Israel/Palestine posted a picture on Facebook by the artist Banksy.  Banksy is a mysterious British graffiti artist, whose work has shown up in various public spaces, usually using dark humor to make a political point.  This particular image shows a neighborhood in Gaza reduced to rubble by Israeli bombing.  One of the few standing walls has a huge graffiti painting of a cute kitten with a pink bow around its neck, giving an adorable gaze to onlookers.  Banksy’s caption to the image says, “I wanted to highlight the destruction in Gaza–but on the internet people only look at pictures of kittens.”  Maybe it will take the creativity of playful artists to redeem our lands.

Banksy Gaza kitten

5) You are land

Along with water, which we considered last week, the Hebrews considered earth itself to be an essential part of what makes us human.  In Genesis 2 it is the ground, the Adamah in Hebrew, that is the raw material out of which the Creator forms the human, the Adam.  Adam, comes from, is inseparable from, the Adamah.  Lest humans ever think too highly of themselves, this reminds us that we are nothing more than a Hebrew pun.  Latin keeps the same connection.  “Humus” is rich earth, and we are humanus, human ones.  And we’re not the only dust creatures.  Animals of the field and birds of the air are also formed out of the same ground.  Lest we forget, our Ash Wednesday liturgy is an annual reminded to “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”  The mythologist Joseph Campbell has said, “If we think of ourselves as coming out of the earth, rather than having been thrown in here from somewhere else, we see that we are the earth; we are the consciousness of the earth. These are the eyes of the earth. And this is the voice of the earth.”

6)  Not your land II – the cross as a rope

Three weeks ago the Dispatch carried an article with this opening sentence: “The number of African-Americans lynched in Southern states in the 19th and 20th centuries is significantly higher than previously detailed, according to a new report.”

Other excerpts from the article: “Researchers said they determined that 3,959 black people were killed in ‘racial terror lynchings’ in the 12 Southern states with the most reported incidents between 1877 and 1950. The new number includes 700 people who were not named in previous works seeking to comprehensively document the toll, the authors wrote.”

“To be an effective mechanism for social control, lynchings had to be visible, with the killing being publicly known, especially to the target population.”

“It took little more than an allegation or a perceived insult to spark a lynching in some cases…and the lynchings themselves drew large crowds. James Cameron, who survived being lynched as a teenager and later founded America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, said he remembered seeing 2,000 white people gathered at his lynching, some with their children.”

7.)  This land is your land, this land is my land

In Mark 8, Jesus claims for himself the title of Son of Man, better translated The Human One.  The Human One invites those who would follow to carry their cross.  There’s a way of reading this that can lead to a form of self-annihilation.  Reducing one’s worth and value to nothing, forfeiting the goodness of life for some kind of sacrificial ideal.  But what is said alongside this seems to indicate that Jesus isn’t so much interested in those who die for their faith as those who live for their faith.  “For those who want to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for the sake of the Human One will save it.”  The point is to save life.  To move beyond an existence centered on self-preservation.  To finally come to see oneself as a part of something much bigger than oneself, caught up not in the ways of Rome or ethnic or national supremacy, but caught up in the very public and visible process of humanity, the earth-creatures – becoming more fully human through the way of the Human One.

Old Abraham knows he is about to return to the dust, and so becomes free to be utterly dependent on the promises of the Holy One, who declares that there will be a future.  Life and generations will go on, even if it is in a way the he can’t envision or imagine.

8.) Promised land III; Our land II; Not your land III; You are land II; This land is your land, this land is my land II

One of the most important things the Bible says about land occurs in one of the least read books, Leviticus.  There in the mix of instructions for ritual purity and priestly process, it has these words, proclaimed from the mouth of the Lord: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but migrants and tenants.”  This occurs within the laws of the Jubilee, designed to prevent land from becoming concentrated in the hands of too few, commanding that the land be redistributed every 50 years.  It would certainly be an interesting experiment in biblical literalism.  Simply put, the land belonging to the Lord means it doesn’t belong to us.  We can care for it, but, in the long view, we are migratory.  Jesus alluded to Jubilee multiple times in his ministry.  The underlying message is that the land is too valuable, too rich, too much a vessel of the kingdom of God, to be in the hands of only a few, whether defended by crosses or nooses or economic policy.  The land is the basis of wealth, and it continually produces things outside of the money economy.  Free leaves, and grass for grazing, that becomes manure that becomes all variety of trees and plants for food, and beauty, and the unmeasurable enjoyment of life for the human ones, the birds, and other creatures.

Taking the plunge | Lent 1 | 22 February 2015

Texts: Genesis 9:8-17;  Mark 1:9-15

Two weeks ago Katie G ended her sermon by introducing us to a phrase that comes out of music theory: “Participatory discrepancies.”  Participatory discrepancies are the human element  in community and specifically, singing and music making, when each voice participates through the same score on the page, but adds its own variance and unscripted nuances.  When we do it well, Katie noted, it can produce a meaningful disunity, which actually turns out to be a pretty good basis for community.

As someone not raised singing four part harmony, but who has spent much of my adult life only somewhat successfully trying to get up to speed on such things, I’m keenly aware of the participatory discrepancies I contribute to any song we sing, and am always a little surprised and grateful that the disunity turns out to be meaningful nonetheless.

And since we are in the mode of learning new vocabulary, I thought we could start the season of Lent off with another contribution, a phrase not completely unrelated to the previous one.  Ready for it?  Hermeneutical community.  The word “hermeneutics” contains the name of the Greek god Hermes who was a messenger between the divine and human realms.  Hermeneutics is the art of interpretation, how a text or story from the past carries its meaning, its message, into the present.  Since its beginnings, a stream of the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition has placed great significance on the hermeneutical community – the gathered body of believers who, together, do the work of interpretation in how we understand scripture and the life of faith.  The hermeneutical community seeks to avoid the danger of surrendering interpretation to a group of elites who declare truth from on high, to be accepted by all.  It also seeks to avoid the opposite danger of the private, isolated individual deciding for themselves what is right.

In the hermeneutical community it is understood that no one has the full truth, and that we arrive at a closer picture of the truth only by being open to the insights and counsel of others.  This shows up in our baptismal vows with a pledge to “give and receive counsel within the congregation.”  And within the hermeneutical community, there will always be participatory discrepancies.  Hermes runs back and forth between gods and mortals and it is up to all of us, together, to decipher his messages.

We, Columbus Mennonite Church, are a hermeneutical community, an interpreting community.  So I guess that means that if you ever take anything the preacher says as 100% pure truth, then you’re missing the point.  It’s a privilege to be able to help frame the conversation, but then it’s up to all of us to keep talking.

I introduce this phrase because throughout Lent we will be guided by the theme of Praying with Creation.  As it turns out, each of the weeks of Lent contain a reference to some non-human aspect of creation: Water, Land, Cattle, Serpents, Seeds, and Branches.  And we thought it might be fruitful to bring these things into the center of our Lenten worship.  So I suppose another name for the theme could be “Expanding the hermeneutical community.”  In other words, what does it look like when we invite water, and cattle, and seeds into the room with us to help us interpret what the Spirit might be saying to us?  Or, since they’re already in our lives whether we invite them or not, what does it look like when we acknowledge their presence and listen to what they have to teach us?

In today’s readings it is water that plays a prominent role.  In the Genesis flood story, it is water, water everywhere.  In the Hebrews’ mind, water was so essential to life that the beginning of Genesis doesn’t even bother including it among that things God creates.  It is there, pre-existent, before creation even begins.  “In the beginning, when Elohim created the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from Elohim swept over the face of the waters.”  Then God said ‘Let there be light.’  Ancient Hebrew poets and modern evolutionary biologists don’t always jive in their respective pronouncements, but they both seem to agree that water is something of a precondition for the existence of life on this planet.

We emerge from the primordial watery abyss, our bodies still 2/3rd water, still utterly dependent on 2 Hs + 1 O for our existence.

And Genesis 1 soon leads into Genesis 6-9.  Genesis 6:11 says that the earth had become corrupt, and filled with violence.  This makes God sorry for having made humankind, it says.  God’s heart is grieved.  Divine mistakes were made.  Homo sapiens are a failed experiment in self-reflective consciousness and free will.  They have abused their power and their knowledge and turned against one another, conquering and enslaving and murdering one another.  Violence and corruption fill the earth.

And so Elohim takes executive action and decides to answer with an even more violent act, the almost-nuclear option, using water now as a weapon against creation, tearing open the heavens and flooding the whole world, wiping out everything that breathes – almost – being careful to cause no extinctions, but quickly making every creature an endangered species, saved only by a massive boat, an ark built by Noah and his family, who are the only human survivors.

At the end of the rains, when the waters subside and the ark comes to a rest on a mountain, Noah sends out a dove, like a spy drone, to investigate this inundated earth to see if the ground is ready for them to leave the ark.  He sends out the dove the first time and it returns with nothing.  Noah waits seven days and sends out the dove again, and it returns with a freshly plucked olive leaf, a sign that the olive trees are no longer under water, a sign of creation extending the olive branch to humanity.  Noah waits another seven days and sends out the dove again, and it doesn’t return.  It has found a new home in this new world where all of the creatures will begin again attempting to live in balance with one another, and with the waters.

When they come out of the ark God forms a covenant not only with humanity, but, as Genesis 9:10 says, “with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you.”  God’s promise is to never again destroy the earth with a flood.  And the sign of the covenant, the reminder, is the bow in the clouds that appears at the end of a rainstorm when the sun comes out.  More than just a colorful decoration, the bow refers to that weapon, so common for all those conquering armies enslaving and murdering, slinging arrows at their enemies.  Even ancient deities were depicted holding a bow, ready to shoot any time, a sign of power.  But after the flood, God, Elohim, gives up the war bow, gives up using water as a weapon, and hangs the bow, unstrung, without arrows, in the air, pointed away from the earth.  It is a sign of the covenant of peace between the Creator and creation.

Of course none of this actually happened.

It’s just a story.  A story with so many impossibilities we can’t honestly take it seriously.  It’s a myth.  And not even an original myth.  The Babylonians, who the Jews lived among after they were exiled from their own land, had an even older flood myth that they told, which was adopted and adapted by the hermeneutical community of Jewish elders and editors composing their Scriptures – which, for us, is just the Old Testament.

Besides, there’s all kinds of loopholes in that Genesis covenant that aren’t exactly comforting.  Elohim won’t destroy the earth with water, but it never mentions anything about a meteor, intensive volcanic activity, or a pandemic.  Or even if the retired bow means that the Divine relates utterly peacefully with us, and that natural disasters are no longer to be seen as agents of heavenly wrath, the covenant doesn’t rule out us destroying the earth ourselves with whatever massive disaster we happen to trigger first.  A new book by New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History attempts to popularize what many scientists have been saying for decades, which is that we are in the midst of the sixth major extinction event in the history of life on earth, and that unlike the previous five, this one has the fingerprints of homo sapiens all over it.

My hunch is that rather than being culturally irrelevant, we will continue hearing more and more references to the biblical flood story as a myth that speaks to us in new and pertinent ways, adopted and adapted to the reality of our present situation, searching for an ark, a vessel of salvation, to keep the pulse of diverse life alive and thriving.  And no, I’m not just referring to Hollywood’s recent efforts to reimagine Noah through Russell Crowe – which I haven’t brought myself to watching yet.  Like any good myth, the important question is not whether or not it actually happened, but where and how it is actually happening, and how the hermeneutical community interprets what it sees and hears in light of the collective stories and wisdom we have inherited.

If we do allow water into our hermeneutical community, to speak its message and help interpret our present condition, we might have to confess that it is giving us all kinds of warning signs.     It could very well be saying the same message that John the Baptist was saying by the Jordan River – “Repent!  Change your ways.  Warning, warning.  Toxins.  Depletion.  Melting Ice.  The direction you’re headed leads to destruction.”

We come from the waters, are made mostly of water, need water to remain alive, and so it should come as no surprise that the main mark of our identity – the ritual act which tells us who we are – happens in the water.  “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

We cannot escape the waters, and so the waters become a place, an opportunity, for us to discover our identity.  We have forgotten who we are, that we are Beloved children of God, that we are a species gifted with divine attributes of creativity which can aid in the flourishing of life.  We have forgotten that the ancient dove has extended the olive branch and that there can be a fresh beginning.

Within our baptism, all of this is present.  The water, the dove, the Christ, the Lover and the Beloved.  It’s all there.  And we are there.  And we are claimed by the waters and the Divine Source of the waters.  And we give our vows, we make our covenant, to consciously live a life of peace and reconciliation within a community.  A community seeking to live out its calling of becoming the Beloved Community.  After his baptism the Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness where, as Mark says, he is among the wild beasts.  As if Jesus, now away from “civilization,” is re-learning the ways of the wild, listening for God amid the wildness of rock and wind and undomesticated animal.  It is only after this experience that Jesus begins his ministry, with the message, as translated by the Common English Version: “Now is the time!  Here comes God’s kingdom!  Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news! (Mark 1:15)

There is the possibility of baptism going the way of the Old Testament, something that probably meant something a long time ago but no longer speaks to us in the same way.  I would like to suggest that the opposite could be true.  We need to know who we are, to be reminded of where we come from, to be marked and called and claimed as Beloved children of God.  To have an event that we point back to and say “that’s who I am,” and to have that event take on more and more meaning as we walk down the path that it sets us on.

We are children of the water, children of the Source of water and all life, invited to live as if Now is the time, the kin-dom of God is here.  Good news.

Soul work | 14 September 2014

Texts: Matthew 18:21-22; Genesis 50:15-21

On Thursday I was part of a group of clergy who got together at First Congregational Church downtown to meet with four leaders from the Sandy Hook Promise organization.  There have been enough violent events in the last couple years to lose track of which was which, but you may remember that Sandy Hook is the name of the Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut where an awful and senseless act of violence was committed in December of 2012 by a troubled 20 year old young man.  To date, it remains the deadliest of all the school shootings in our country, and was targeted at the youngest kids.  From that tragedy formed the Sandy Hook Promise, a group of parents and concerned people who are mounting a national campaign to help prevent gun violence.  The executive director is a former employee of Proctor and Gamble.  He had a child at Sandy Hook who was not injured, but he personally felt a draw to redirect his vocation toward this work.  Their advocacy director told us briefly about his son Daniel, a first grader, who was killed that day – a compassionate little boy who would go sit by kids at lunch who were by themselves and who would pick up worms from the sidewalk and put them back in the grass.  The pain of the loss filled his voice as he spoke.

They are attempting to help lead a national conversation with what they call “the sensible center,” telling their stories and listening to others; taking a holistic, even generational approach addressing awareness and education, mental health, community connections, and ultimately, some policy changes.  In their research on social change, from civil rights to marriage equality, the common factor they have found is what they call “mainstream engagement.”  They believe policy is important but it starts with changes in mindset.  They noted that the biggest obstacle they face is people’s feeling of being “hopeless and helpless” in how to respond, something they openly admit they felt when they observed this happening in other communities, before it happened to their own.

They plan to have organizers based in Ohio for the next number of years.  The Sandy Hook Promise itself, which you can go online and sign is simply, “I promise to join other parents to encourage and support sensible solutions that help prevent gun violence in our communities and our country.”  One small thing they will be promoting that caught my attention, to give you an idea of how sensible their approach is, is a program they learned about in a Los Angeles neighborhood called “Know me, know my name.”  The idea is that when kids are surrounded by a community of people who know and call them by name it promotes community cohesion and mental wellness.  Pre-empting social isolation also pre-empts violence.  I know that the congregation where our Conference Minister, Lois Kaufmann attends, Assembly Mennonite, in Goshen, made a commitment many years ago that children deserve to be called by name and that adults would be intentional about learning the names of all the children in the congregation.  They have over 100 youth and children.  Maybe there’s someone here who wants to champion that at Columbus Mennonite.  Perhaps we’ve never thought of calling a child by name as an act of peacemaking, but the folks of Sandy Hook Promise would have us believe it is.

There’s a phrase one of my undergrad sociology professors introduced me to that has stayed with me: “Soul work.”  Soul work is the work we do within the lively ecosphere of our inner selves.  Soul work is what we do with our desires, our aspirations, our disappointments.  What we do with our pain.  Soul work is how our fears and our grief are transformed into something that is ultimately life-affirming.  Soul work takes place over a life-time.  It is good work and sometimes it feels like play and sometimes it feels like work.  It is the kind of work I observed in Daniel’s father and these folks of the Sandy Hook Promise.

Peter once came to Jesus and offered what he most likely believed to be a generous proposal.  “Master, if a brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive?  As many as seven times?”

Occasionally we have a worship service focused on healing, with the opportunity to receive prayer and anointing with oil for yourself or on behalf of another person.  Our texts, drawn from the lectionary, speak specifically about forgiveness, but I invite us to consider this in the broadest sense as it relates to healing.  Forgiveness can include a situation of being wronged by another person, but forgiveness is also closely related to all the soul work we must do with what life brings our way in order to face others and ourselves in a way that is ultimately life-affirming.  Forgiveness has a similar pattern as grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.  They both loop around among all these responses.  Forgiveness and grieving arise in situations as basic as life simply not working out the way we imagined it.

“Master, if a brother or sister sins against me, if life disappoints me, how often should I forgive?  As many as seven times?”

Let’s acknowledge up front that the concept of forgiveness comes with some baggage, an example being that most unhelpful phrase, “Forgive and forget.’  If forgiveness is equal to forgetting, then the degree to which we have successfully stopped remembering a painful incident is the degree to which we have forgiven.  The stronger that deadbolt is holding up in the compartment of our brain where we have put up a sign “Do not enter,” then the stronger our forgiveness.  Whenever we have thoughts of anger or depression or a sense of injustice about the situation then we have relapsed in our forgiveness.  If this were what forgiveness were all about it could be easily calculated and measured.

But if forgiveness has more to do with a new way of remembering, a different way of seeing a person or a situation, it puts it in a new light.  Rather than trying to forget, or focusing all our energy on changing the other, we first focus on changing our relationship to the situation.  This is soul work.  Our congregational Reconciliation Covenant has some helpful language here:  “Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, it simply means letting go of the desire that the person who has harmed us suffers.  This is the pathway to reconciliation, healing and return to right relationship.”  By the way, the Reconciliation Covenant can be found on our new church website.

Peter appears to be trying to quantify forgiveness.  How many times should I let a person off the hook before I really start counting it against them?  He has a pretty generous offer.  Seven times!  This is far more lenient than the three- strikes- and- you’re- out rule.  If we would take the three strikes, then double that, and then add one more for good measure then surely we are being merciful people.  Jesus answers with another figure.  “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”  There’s a translation issue where this could just as easily read seven times seventy, but the point isn’t to try and figure about whether Jesus meant we should forgive 77 or 490 times.  The point is to stop counting.  The problem isn’t that Peter has selected too low of a number, it’s that he’s chosen a number in the first place.  Forgiveness, Jesus seems to be saying, is not a calculation.  It’s not a matter of quantifying mercy.  It has no end.  Soul work goes on and on.

There is another story behind Peter’s seven and Jesus’ seventy seven that gives this conversation greater weight.  The story behind the story that Jesus might have been referencing here helps fill out how big a role forgiveness plays in the way that Jesus is offering.  Something fundamental to the coming about of a new creation, a new way of being human that begins to unwind the tangle of sin and wrongs that have accumulated over the millennia.  The story behind this story happens just after the creation and sets the stage for human history and putting it on a certain trajectory.  It’s a story we could call, “A brief introduction to vengeance, according to Genesis.”

Here’s how it goes:  After the human creatures leave the garden of Eden, there is immediate conflict between the two brothers Cain and Abel.  In Genesis 4, Cain, the older, brings his younger brother Abel out into a field, and murders him.  The portrayal of the first murder as a brother killing a brother is a way of showing that all murder is fratricide.  To kill another human being is to kill a brother or a sister.  God hears the innocent blood of Abel crying out from the ground and comes down to have a talk with Cain.  God asks, “Where is your brother Abel?” to which Cain answers, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” to which God could have answered, “Uhh..Yeah!”

At the beginning of Genesis, God seems to be learning right along with humanity about how all of this is going to work out.  These creatures God has created are turning on each other.  Now that Abel is gone and Cain is a known murderer, how can Cain be protected against those who want to take his life in avenging Abel’s death?  God’s idea is that Cain will be protected through the mark of increased vengeance.  God says, “Whoever kills Cain will suffer a seven-fold vengeance.”  So now the person who would kill Cain must recognize that the stakes have been raised.  None of this one life for one life business.  Cain’s potential murderer is putting himself and seven of his family members at risk of being avenged.  At first it appears that this deterent is working well.  Maybe the humans will realize that the cost of violence is too great and will live peacefully.  Cain marries, has children, and grandchildren, and there is no report of his life being sought by others.  But several generations down the road, just several verses after the declaration of seven-fold vengeance for Cain, we get an update on the direction things are going.  A descendent of Cain’s named Lamech, says this.  This is 4:23-24, “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me, If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-seven fold.”  Not seven I tell you, but seventy-seven times.  The logic of vengeance gets taken one step further in Lamech seeking to protect his own life.  If anyone were to seek his life, he essentially declares all out war on their family.  If seven-fold vengeance wasn’t enough of a deterent, then surely vengeance times seventy-seven is.  But as the story goes, soon the whole earth is filled with violence and God is sorry to have begun this whole humanity project in the first place.  The mark of Cain has failed to protect the human family from each other and has actually served to exponentially increase violence.  The story of vengeance seven times and then seventy seven times sets in motion one trajectory of human history.  A trajectory that is inherently self-destructive.  Soon enough God starts a parallel story with the calling of Abraham and Sarah.  Their mark, their mission, is to be one of exponential blessing.  Through this one family, all peoples of the earth will be blessed.  The story that was read about Joseph and his brothers, the last words of Genesis, provides something of an alternative ending to the logic of Cain and Lamech.  Despite the harm that has been done against him, Joseph releases any wish to harm his brothers, and instead accepts that he is his brothers and sisters keeper, inviting them to stay with him in Egypt.

So when Peter and Jesus converse about forgiveness seven times and then seventy seven times, we could read it as a commentary on Cain and Lamech.  One that stands in direct contrast to the logic of vengeance.  As if Jesus would like us to think of forgiveness as revenge in reverse.  One unending practice of seventy seven to undo the other seemingly unending practice of seventy-seven that has been passed down through generations.

We can think of what these parents of Sandy Hook are doing also as an act of reverse revenge.  It’s noble and incredibly brave, but my guess is that there’s also an element of them doing this for their own well-being and sanity, for the survival and healing of their own souls.  This is what their soul work looks like.  They are not forgetting, but just the opposite.  They are using the moral energy built up from a tragic event to respond in a way that is life affirming.

When I was looking ahead to this Sunday a few weeks ago I had no intention of it being so violent.  Sandy Hook and Cain and Lamech are extreme examples of the depths of pain humanity can inflict on itself.  I don’t share these to try and be overly dramatic or seek a cheap emotional response.  It was what this past week held, and it fit with the texts.

As we ponder our own soul work and the pains that we carry, and our desire for healing, I encourage us to consider these two different paths of 77 times.  Pain can have a way of compiling, accumulating, multiplying itself.  For some it builds up and explodes out as rage.  For others it builds up and gets smothered in as a form of depression.  Either way it can get passed along to others, even passed along generationally.  But there is another way.  It is the way of living Christ, Jesus alive as a healing presence who brings an entirely different kind of energy to our pain and disappointments and grief.  Christians have called it the power of resurrection, life springing up from death, and it a most holy Divine gift.  It is soul work, but it’s not the kind of work where you just grit your teeth and be stronger and try harder.  It’s much more akin to accepting that something dear to you has died, and then, when you are ready, being open to whatever new life comes your way.  The site of resurrection is not just a grave in Jerusalem.  Our lives, and our hearts become a site of resurrection.  This is a hope we carry with us, even if we only see it dimly.