Monday, June 09, 2008

Movin' On

The Rev. Linda Campbell Proper 5A : Genesis 12: 1 – 9; Romans 4: 13 – 25; Matthew 9: 9 -13; 18- 26 “Movin’ On”

One voice: Father Abraham has many sons.

Many Voices: Black ones and white one,s yellow, brown, and red ones.

All: We all claim Father Abraham!

One voice: Mother Sarah has many daughters.

Many Voices: Poor ones and rich ones; young ones, retired ones.

All: We all claim mother Sarah!

One voice: I have a story, you have a story, and God has a story.
Look for yourself in the story of Father Abraham.

Many Voices: And Mother Sarah.

All: And all people of faith!

(from 21st Century Africana Worship Resource, United Methodist, by Safiyah Fosua)

My eldest son moved this weekend – from Oakland to San Rafael. He’s taken a new job – and instead of commuting, he chose to move. As any one who has moved homes knows – it is semi-ordered chaos. The last few months have been spent searching Craig’s List for the new home, and then packing. My son’s new home is small – tiny, actually. And his old home was large and spacious. Anyone else down sized their living situation? I have! And it isn’t easy! It takes a lot of work to downsize. You go through books and dishes and clothing – many times over, figuring out just what you need and want – and, the biggest chore of all is figuring out what to do with the rest of it!

When Abraham came home from the fields one day with the news that they were moving, I have no idea what Sarah did with all her belongings. Unlike the move from Oakland to San Rafael, brought about by a great job, Abraham and Sarah’s move was completely counter-intuitive. They were wealthy citizens of the established, prosperous urban cultural center of Ur. Plus, they were elderly.

What ever possessed them then to pack up and move?

One word - God. God – who rather routinely messes with the way thing are, the way things have always been, the way things have always been done.

These two elderly people way, way, back in the day, became the archetype of faith. They gave up the way things were because God called them. That God called them to journey into something new and strange and unknown must have been difficult – but there also must have been something so irresistible about God’s call – that Abraham and Sarah found themselves willing to move beyond three very human, very powerful and very deep-seated fears—

fear of the unknown; fear of others who are different, and fear of impotency or powerlessness in the face of the impossible.*

Who knows why God spoke to Abraham? But God did – and Abraham responded. And as he followed God without knowing where he would end up or what his life would be like - he became the very archetype of faithful living.

First, God called Abraham to leave his home and, with it, everything that was familiar: "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you" (12:1). So, Abraham gathered up his immediate family and left – setting out for a place he’d never been to, on a route he didn’t know. He and Sarah left all that was familiar – their comforts, their extended family and friends, all the regularity and rhythms of their lives. Abraham and his wife exchanged their clarity about their place and their purpose for a future of genuine and profound not knowing. They journeyed from what they had to what they did not have. They journeyed from the known to the unknown, and from everything that was familiar to everything that was strange. The apostle Paul was so struck by this obedience to God’s call that he wrote about Abraham in his letter to the Hebrews: "By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home (in the Promised Land) like a stranger in a foreign country" (Hebrews 11:8–9). “In his journey into the unknown, Abraham embraced ignorance, relinquished control, and chose to live with confidence in God's promise to bless him in a new and strange place.”* (Journeys with Jesus, Dan Clendenin)

But to do so, Abraham had to leave behind a small minded, parochial vision. God told this wealthy, but obscure, Semitic nomad, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” God narrowed his promise down to this one person – in order to open out again into all the families of the earth. And that meant that Abraham had an even longer journey to make than the physical one. Because in addition to parting with their home and their possessions, Abraham and Sarah had to part with their prejudices and assumptions. And that is not easy.

Prejudices and assumptions are most often hidden from us – we don’t even know they are there, until we are put into some situation in which they come blazing out, or someone tells us about them. I recently completed an anti-racism training with the Diocese. It is required for all clergy. None of us likes to think of ourselves as racist- but the truth is, we are. We cannot help it. Racism is not just about prejudice – it is about imbalance of power. And the truth is, it is often hidden from the people who don’t actively experience the consequences of it.

Is racism the only “ism” scar that runs deep throughout us? By no means. But it is a window through which we can clearly see the truth that “our common tendency is to fear the other, to suspect and marginalize the strange, to dismiss all that is different from who and what we know.” And almost all of the time – we don’t even know we are doing it.

We find subtle ways to dismiss what does not please us, and to get rid of what offends us, whether that is ideas or people. Eugene Peterson, in his book Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places says that it is common to “construct religious clubs instead of entering resurrection communities..” (Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, 2005) The truth is we dismiss difference under a variety of guises – “we want to stay small” “we like doing things this way” “we are traditional” “there’s no need for anything to change.”

If this is uncomfortable – it is meant to be. Since I arrived at St. Alban’s, I have heard these very phrases and sentiments more times than I can recount. At the same time that great pride is taken in being tolerant and welcoming, there is an underlying message that could be called parochial. Is this particular community unusual in that regard? Absolutely not. It is a very human tendency that all groups have to want to stick with what has given comfort, to some, in the past.

Thankfully, God keeps knocking at the door of the religious clubs we construct –calling us out, out, to enter God’s resurrection community… - a community that includes people and music and cultures and worship and outreach and neighbors who look and act different.

Resurrection, by it’s nature, is messy and rarely follows the rules. The dead, after all, are supposed to stay dead. But then, God raised Jesus from the dead. People in their 70’s are supposed to stay at home and they’re not supposed to become first time parents! But Abraham and Sarah left the comforts of home for the rigors of crossing into the Negev. And while they laughed good and hard when God said they were going to have a baby- they did, exchange their impotence and powerlessness to faith that God could, quite literally, make something out of nothing. And sure enough, after a few false starts, they indeed have a baby – Isaac – the son of God’s promise.

What amazing ancestors we have! What a pattern they’ve give us for a full life! When and if God taps you on the shoulder – do you hold your life lightly enough to leave behind the comforts of the known, to become a sojourner who is open to real difference – and to believe in the impossible?

Like Abraham and Sarah, St. Paul also lived lightly. He could do this because as he wrote to the Romans, he followed a God who "gives life to the dead and calls things things into existence that are not in existence” (Romans 4:17, 21).

Where is your story in this story? Where is St. Alban’s story in this story? I don’t know – but I do know that when God calls you out from comfort and the known into the unknown and the different – you don’t go alone. The God who calls you, and who blesses you, can be counted on, not only to do what he has said, but to have the power to do all that he has promised.

Praise be to God.

Resource: * “The Journey Without, The Journey Within: Ignorance, Inclusion and Impotence”, The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself, Daniel B. Clendenin, Journey with Jesus Foundation, 2008

Thursday, June 05, 2008

All God's Critters Got a Place in the Choir

All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir!

The Rev. Linda Campbell

Proper 4A

Genesis 6 – 8; Psalm 46; Matthew 7: 21 – 29

A couple weeks ago, I went with Penny James to take her ailing dog to the vet. The decision was made to put the dog down – and so Penny and her son stroked their beloved companion and said good bye. I was there to be the priest – so I didn’t cry – but when I got home, I immediately called my own son – to remember with him when we put our cat down. I know that all of you who have loved animals can understand the depth of emotion that our animal friends evoke in us.

Many of you have seen the video that Miriam Peterson produced about animals. The genesis of that film was the question that we began the 5 PM service with – For what do you hunger? I invited people to write a letter that would just be between them and God. Miriam shared with me that writing this letter to God put her in touch with her hunger for the wellbeing of all animals – especially of the polar bears who are threatened with the loss of their habitat and food because of the rise in the earth’s temperature.

This hunger – for the wellbeing of animals as well as people – puts Miriam very close to God’s heart. We often forget that the creatures of the earth are included in the covenant of God’s everlasting care. But if we actually understood things that way – wouldn’t we work hard to repair the damage we have done?

God goes to a great deal of trouble to carefully instruct Noah to take every kind of animal with him:

“and of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive. Also take with you every kind of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them.”

At the end of the story, God makes a covenant with Noah and with every living creature that is with you. If God goes to all this trouble to save every creature, and make a covenant with All life – then it’s time to sit up and take notice!

The truth is that when we care about creation. When we care about global warming. When we care about recycling. When we care about energy use and energy policy. When we care about pollution. When we care about animal neglect and cruelty and factory farms – these aren’t just hobbies to make us feel warm and good about ourselves. And the truth is, they are not simply about our own survival. When we care about these things – and commit to do something about it - we keep our side of a covenant made between God and our particular Judeo Christian branch of the human family a long time ago. It was and it is a covenant that includes "every" one of us, "all" of God's precious children – including us, even when our own sinfulness and wastefulness and ignorance threatens the survival of others.

So who are we? And what are we doing here? We are stewards. We are here to tend the garden of creation. That is the job description that God gives humanity at the beginning of the Bible. The 1st Chapter of Genesis calls human beings into stewardship. This is what it means, fundamentally, to be a human being. Tend the resources. Tend the plants. Tend the animals. Tend the air. Tend the water. Tend the land. And above all else, tend each other.

So that’s the 1st Chapter of Genesis.

But then there was sin in the Garden of Eden. Then Cain killed his brother Abel – the first murder but not the last. “And from there on humankind just went on breaking and destroying what God had made until by this – the 6th chapter of Genesis, that we read today - God ran out of pity. It is a rather fast catastrophe” isn’t it – to go from “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed it was very good” to the 6th verse of the 6th chapter: “the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” And so, the Flood almost wipes everything out.

It’s a frightening story isn’t it! Noah and the Ark is a favorite theme for decorating nurseries with –and yet, if you think about it, this is a whoppingly scary story of the near destruction of all creation by an angry God! I don’t want to get stuck on the “angry God” aspect of this story. Yes, there is a problem with a God who would destroy so many people and animals. But “The truth is that the Flood characterizes a destiny that the human community has unleashed upon itself.” (Towner) not that God did from the outside.

Because the larger truth of the story is not about God’s anger – but about God’s mercy. God is determined that, despite the violence and destructiveness of these human creatures, everything won’t be lost. Hope and mercy will have their way. And so, God gives very careful and detailed instructions for the Ark. Through a remnant of humanity, God provides for the salvation of all kinds of flesh and plants.

God and God’s salvation are the point of this story. God who feels compassion every single time our actions seem to call for complete and utter despair about God’s broken and ignorant and destructive creation – especially the human part of the creation. Mercy. Hope. Compassion. These remain. And when Noah and his family and all the animals step out of the ark onto barely dry land, God welcomes them. God makes a covenant with this fragile company of beings to accompany them into the future in a world that will never be perfect. The ongoing story of creation right through to the cross of Christ is that God has opened his very own heart to being affected and moved by what we do and do not do.

Barbara Brown Taylor, one of my favorite preachers, says this about God’s covenant. God’s covenant, she says, “includes all the species disappearing daily off the face of the earth. They are all of them our covenant partners – heirs of God’s promise just like we are – and those of us who understand our kinship with them tremble to think what we have done, killing off those to whom God has promised life….We too are allies of creation…wounded by the brokenness we see around us, the brokenness in which we ourselves participate. We are both the breakers and the healers…

It is still raining, you see. In our own time, the ark does not look so much like a barn floating on a choppy sea. It looks more like a blue-green ball bobbing on the dark ocean of space…If we go on perishing, it may have less to do with divine fiat than with our own amnesia. We have forgotten who we are and what we are supposed to be doing. (But God remembers the covenant he has made with us) – and desires that every living creature who rides this ark with us may share the unmitigated joy of walking down the rickety ramp to plant a foot, a paw, a hoof on dry land” (Gospel Medicine). (Parentheses mine)

Resources and quotes from:

Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine

Samuel: online commentary by UCC: