Wednesday, June 25, 2014

“God Opened Her Eyes” (Genesis 21:8-21)

They say that jealousy is a green-eyed monster . . . ask Hagar and she would probably affirm that statement.  Hagar had a pretty good thing going on as the maidservant to Sarah, the wife of Abraham . . . life was good and the people she was working for were good people, except for the fact that Sarah could not bear children.  This had been an unspeakable sadness in the relationship between Sarah and Abraham, but Abraham did not care because he loved Sarah.  But it was a real bur in Sarah’s saddle that she could not produce an heir for her husband.  Unbeknownst to Hagar this would be where she begins her adventure with the green-eyed monster.

To remedy the problem Sarah convinced Abraham that he and Hagar should work on having a child . . . which apparently they both whole-heartedly agreed to.  The result?  Hagar got pregnant . . . a child and heir would be born.  Everyone seemed happy . . . at least for a while.  But one does not have such an intimate affair without developing some feelings and soon Abraham was treating Hagar as more than a maidservant . . . Hagar was moving up in the world.  Sarah noticed and it did not make her happy . . . she was getting jealous.  In her jealousy she has Abraham throw Hagar out . . . Abraham, being the good and dutiful husband realizes that if “Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy”.  So, Hagar got the boot and was out on the street.

Of course when things seem their worse there always seems to be a second chance in these stories.  An angel convinces Hagar to suck up to Sarah and patch things up . . . all the while the angel is also telling her that God had plans for this child, that the child would be named Ishmael and a that he would be the first of a multitude of descendants.  So, Hagar went back to Sarah, apologized, kept her distance, and got her old job back.  Ishmael was born a few months later.  One would think that life was pretty good after all of that . . . that everyone was happy.

But the green-eyed monster never really goes away completely . . . it usually crawls off in hibernation until it is awaken once again.  Which happens.  Sarah, the one who could not give birth to children, becomes pregnant and eventually gives birth to a son name Isaac.  This is the child which is destined by God to be the father of a great nation.  Everyone, especially Sarah, is quite happy . . . life is great.  Life is great until one day she discovers Ishmael playing with Isaac.

That is when everything hits the fan . . . the slumbering green-eyed monster is awakened . . . and, life gets really difficult for Hagar and Ishmael.  Sarah begins to think that Ishmael is going to mess up everything . . . that Isaac is going to have to split his inheritance with Ishmael.  Again, she nags Abraham to get rid of them both . . . to kick them out . . . to banish them.  And, again, to keep the peace, Abraham kicks them out and sends them on their way.

Kicked out of house, home, and community Hagar wanders the desert with her son.  Things begin to get bleak as they run out of food and water.  It is not looking good for Hagar and Ishmael . . . the end is near.  Sensing that she could not bear to watch her son die, she places Ishmael under a bush and goes off to cry.  While crying she encounters the Lord . . . and, God personally takes care of the business at hand.  God promises, again, that Ishmael would be the foundation for a great nation . . . God assures Hagar that the boy is not going to die . . . and, reiterates that God personally will see to it all.  Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well.

As the story goes, God fulfilled all the spoken promises.  Ishmael does not die.  He does become the foundation of a great nation . . . and, all is good.  Everything works out for Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac . . . we are here today in part because of it.

Now, this story is not so much about jealousy—that green-eyed monster—that can wreak havoc on the lives of people, though it could be.  Sarah seems to be a textbook example of jealousy at its best or worse.  No, this is not a story about jealousy . . . it is a story about how God opens our eyes to God’s presence in our lives.

I doubt if any of us would want to be in Hagar’s shoes.  She gets a pretty bum deal in the whole thing.  Yet, as we heard the story, we also heard how God had stated from the very beginning that God would take care of everything . . . that God would be with them all.  Also listening to the story one would think that no one seemed to get that.  Instead it seemed that everyone belly-ached and moaned and groaned about how difficult life was and how much it sucked.  That all seemed lost . . . especially for Hagar and Ishmael.

I have always liked that statement about the darkest hour is always before the dawn.  It seems like everything bad happens in the dark.  Hagar would say her life looked pretty dark.  Yet, the sun rose and the dawn broke, shedding light into the reality of God’s presence.  The writer of the scripture reading stated that God opened her eyes so that she could see.  True it was to see a well, but it went deeper than that.  Her eyes were opened to see that God was with them . . . always with them . . . and, that God would never abandon them.  It took the darkness of the situation for Hagar to see the light of the Lord.

So it is for us as the children of God . . . we need to have our eyes opened.  Lots of us just seem to cruise through life when things are going well . . . life is good; but, boy, when we hit a few bumps in the road and things get tough . . . we wonder.  We wonder if we will survive.  It gets pretty depressing and dark in our lives . . . we worry . . . we get anxious . . . we complain . . . we whine.  The darkness overwhelms us and we cannot bear to witness our lives dying.

Yet it is the darkness and difficulty of the situations that opens us to the presence of God in our lives . . . that makes us turn to the one thing we believe we can trust.  It is the light of God that breaks through the darkness to remind us.  It is the light of God that allows us to see.  God is with us . . . God is with us every step of the way through life and beyond.  God will never abandon us.  Sometimes God uses the difficulties of life to open our eyes so that we might see.  May we all open our eyes and see this truth.  Amen.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

“Agree With One Another, Live in Peace” (Matthew 5:38-48)

Twice now I’ve purchased an airplane ticket to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and booked myself at Pendle Hill Retreat Center, which is owned and operated by the Quakers.   Pendle Hill is intentional about community.  To be intentional means to plan and develop, as opposed to “see what happens.”
What’s the draw?  

*there’s green space for breathing

*there’s a walking trail for wandering and wondering

*there’s a quiet space for worship--to connect with the Spirit in good company

*flowing from that connection with the Spirit is hospitality; comfort for the stranger

*also flowing from that connection with the Spirit is a safe place for soul to show up--no setting each other straight; no fixing---everyone reaching for the presence of the spirit—everyone equal, everyone “ok”

*the food is organic and as local as possible – “a ministry of love and concern for your health”

*the buildings are beautiful but simple

*the coffee pot is always on

*the art building is well-stocked with paper and clay and paint, encouraging creativity and a deepening connection with the soul

*communion happens around the table at mealtime—a time of deep listening to the persons at the table—sometimes there are lit candles; there’s always flowers

*silence is a welcome gift so that one can hear God
*retreats are scheduled to help people love their life, or their work, or the life of their neighbor, or the presence of God; to teach us how to be better citizens of the world and to advocate for the least of these, OR peace.

At Pendle Hill the soul is safe from judgment; the body is safe from unhealthy food and constant sitting; and the mind is treated to beauty be it through words, demeanor, art, or nature.

The same could be said for a visit to a monastery, a monastery being an intentional community; a community focused on the presence of God, on care of the soul, on beauty, and on kindness.

Both are refreshing because they are SAFE places to explore being human, being ME, in relation to God and neighbor.  It’s okay to be on a journey and not to have arrived—to ask questions—to be messy—to grow and grow some more.

In his letter to the church at Corinth Paul offers a similar vision to the new congregation; a congregation that found themselves embroiled in meanness.  In our lesson today Paul is saying to the Corinthian congregation “Do the work of being a safe place for ALL people.”

The Corinthian congregation had grown to be quite contentious.  Many of the members thought they were better than others—many thought they were better than Paul.  An air of superiority permeated the congregation and it let out a really big stink.  So did the air of inferiority.  There was division.  Think about it.  An air of superiority creates a separate category; inferiority. 

We are not strangers to this kind of thinking; the United States is superior to any other nation, single or divorced is an inferior marital status; youth is superior to old age; the Builders are the Greatest Generation; children are inferior to adults; men are superior to women; my knowledge of scripture is right and yours is wrong: undocumented workers are inferior to documented workers,  and so on.  I think all of us could find ourselves on the short end of some stick. 

So at Corinth there was pain and many people left the church and rightly so.  It wasn’t healthy.   Insults abounded everywhere.  Persons invaded the lives of others instead of focusing on their own abilities and inabilities—you know—the log in their own eye before removing the speck in another. 

Who wanted to hang around and be ignored, or debased?  Especially since “in Christ there is no east or west; no south or north.”

Perhaps God had left the Corinthian congregation as well.  I have a valued friend who has the gift of discernment—the ability to see what’s running the church—love—or something else.  She’ll often say, “God left that church a long time ago.”  How do we know when God has left a church?  According to Paul it’s when the people find themselves embroiled in meanness, when things fall into disrepair, and when cheerfulness is difficult to come by.

How do we know when God is present?  God is present when people are in agreement, or at PEACE with one another.   It’s not when people think the same—it’s when people think like Jesus—and find GOD in human diversity.   That’s when the Spirit hums “surely the presence of the LORD is in this place.” 
Peace means WHOLENESS; unity.  When we greet one another in a holy embrace, or with respect; when we understand everyone belongs…God is present.

“Peace”,  the New Testament teaches us, “is another way to be WITH each other, as opposed to distanced and fractured or angry or mean or returning an eye for an eye.” It’s Jesus’ way.  Jesus instructs his listening audience in Matthew 5:38-48 (Message) :

Love Your Enemies

38-42 “Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, gift wrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.

43-47 “You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.”

Do we hear that?  To be children of God is to be FOR everybody, including our enemy; including people who aren’t FOR us. 

But how do we get there?  How do we get beyond the division to that peaceful place where everybody belongs?  How do we get to that place where we don’t think and act in terms of SUPERIOR and INFERIOR?  How do we think and act like Jesus?  

A few years ago a Quaker by the name of Parker Palmer wrote a beautiful little book titled A Hidden Wholeness. In this book he offers several insights:

First, there is no quick fix wholeness.  It’s intentional.  It’s daily.

Second, more people suffer from low self-esteem than arrogance.  More people are distanced from their soul, their inner teacher, their inner light, their Holy Spirit within—“our counselor and friend” as Jesus says.  Counselors, we understand, both embrace and correct—tell the truth.  We can’t be well when we are separated from the source of abundant life or unwilling to look at the truth.

Silence is necessary for soul to show up and to hear God.  So are small groups, a resistance to fixing people or demanding information about other people (gossip) or meddling in other people’s lives, as well as an ability to wonder about how other people arrive at their understandings instead of judging them.

Humility is also necessary to living in harmony—a willingness to admit to ourselves and others, “I don’t know.”  An attitude of “I don’t know” is a sign of enlightenment.
When I was a freshman in high school our English teacher introduced a short story with two characters; the white man and the red man (excuse the language, 1972 was a long time ago.)  The red man draws a circle on the ground and says, “This is how much the red man knows.”  The white man draws a larger circle around the smaller circle and says, “This is how much the white man knows.”  The red man draws yet a larger circle around the two and says, “Ah yes, but this is how much they DON’T know.”

As we listen to a little bit of what Parker Palmer offers us around Paul’s invitation to “live in harmony”, we realize it’s so different that the world most of us experience…

      Ears attached to ear pieces in order to hear ipods…
         Eyes absorbed in texting, and facebook posts…
                Lots of people in one place, but not fully present…
                 Constant doing…
                       An attitude of “I know.”
                          Violence and revenge.

Our world is so immature.  As a society, what are we?  Maybe 16 years of age?  If you hit me I’ll hit you back.  It can hurt to live here.  “Get things in order,” Paul says to the Corinthians, “you’ll like your church so much better.”

What do you think he means by “get things in order”? How do you and I begin to “get things in order”?

I am reminded of the story about the Elephant and the Blind Men:
Once upon a time, there lived six blind men in a village. One day the villagers told them, 

"Hey, there is an elephant in the village today."

They had no idea what an elephant is. They decided, "Even though we would not be able to see it, let us go and feel it anyway." All of them went where the elephant was. Everyone of them touched the elephant.

"Hey, the elephant is a pillar," said the first man who touched his leg.

"Oh, no! it is like a rope," said the second man who touched the tail.

"Oh, no! it is like a thick branch of a tree," said the third man who touched the trunk of the elephant.

"It is like a big hand fan" said the fourth man who touched the ear of the elephant.

"It is like a huge wall," said the fifth man who touched the belly of the elephant.

"It is like a solid pipe," Said the sixth man who touched the tusk of the elephant.

They began to argue about the elephant and everyone of them insisted that he was right. It looked like they were getting agitated.

A wise man was passing by and he saw this. He stopped and asked them, "What is the matter?" They said, "We cannot agree to what the elephant is like." Each one of them told what he thought the elephant was like. The wise man calmly explained to them, "All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all those features what you all said."

"Oh!" everyone said. There was no more fight. They felt happy that they were all right.
The moral of the story is that there may be some truth to what someone says. Sometimes we can see that truth and sometimes not because they may have different perspective which we may not agree too. So, rather than arguing like the blind men, we should say, "Maybe you have your reasons." This way we don’t get in arguments.
Prayer:  Peaceful God, bless us with a heart that embraces everybody.  May we be humble enough in spirit to say “I don’t know,” and gracious enough to say to our neighbor “Maybe you have your reasons.”  We’d love for our church to be a safe church.  Amen.

(This sermon was preached by Reverend Dana Keener at Central Christian Church on June 15, 2014.)

Sunday, June 15, 2014

"It Was Good--So What Happened?" (Genesis 1:1-2:4a)

Having lived nearly six years now in Montana, I'd have to say that God got it right . . . it is beautiful . . . it is good.  That is what God said after each step of creation . . . after the first day God said it was good . . . after the second day God said it was good . . . on down the line to the sixth day.  Then on the seventh day God rested . . . basically kicked back and enjoyed the creation.  And, who would blame God?  Who wouldn't bask in the beautiful of creation with awe-inspiring wholeness and holiness?  It was good!

So, then, what happened?

What happened to God's creation?  Oh sure, it is beautiful here where we live . . . but, at the same time I think that we are all aware of scars and blemishes in God's creation.  We have heard and read the stories about global warming . . . how humanity's use of God's resources--like oil, gas, coal, and other minerals and fossil fuels--has created this issue of global warming that is causing all sorts of problems with the environment and weather.  Humanity creates a lot of waste and we seem to be creating it at a faster rate than we can figure what to do with it.  Humanity has not been good stewards of creation.  This is not good.

That is just one issue with God's creation--the environmental issue, but there are other issues.  There is the issue about abundance . . . especially when it comes to food.  It seems in God's creation there was plenty of food to cover everyone . . . no one would go hungry; yet, today, we see wide spread hunger in the world.  It seems that some folks have food while others do not.  Enough food is grown and produced in the world today . . . probably in the United States alone . . . to feed the world's population.  Yet, people are dying of hunger as food is used as a political weapon or an economic form of greed to make some people and companies rich beyond any of our wildest imagination.  In the creation story this was good . . . in today's reality, it is not good.

Plus there is the issue of God creating humans . . . humans in the image of God . . . proclaiming them good; but, things are not so good with humanity either.  On the world stage we see that there are wars being fought around the globe . . . wars between countries, wars within countries between their own people, and we see the constant threat of war.  We see terrorism and that no nation or individual is immune to the whims of a terrorist.  We see the violence of the world around us . . . people killing people, people shooting up schools, people treating others terribly.  We see that there is not a high value for human life . . . people fighting for God-given rights of life, liberty, and justice only to be beaten down.  Yet, in the creation story humans were created in the image of God . . . God declared it to be good; yet it is not so good.

In the creation story God created and everything that God created was good.  The scriptures proclaim it, we echo it . . . so, what happened?  I only shared three examples of how far from God's creation the human race has seemed to drifted away from this wonderful gift of creation . . . how far humanity has attempted to conquer and master God's creation to make it its own.  How we have kind of screwed it up because we have forgotten that it is all a gift . . . a gift that we have been called to be good stewards with to accomplish God's will.

That is probably our own fault, too.

I probably did not need to read the full passage of this morning's reading because I think that most of you know the story of God creating everything.  I think that you all probably know that it took six days to create with the seventh day being a day of rest--or sabbath.  I think that you all probably remember that with each piece of creation being created that God declare it to be good.  And, I think that you probably also remember that we--humanity--was called upon to have dominion over it all.  That is the creation story that most of us remember . . . and, with literal interpretation of that word in the passage we find that we can pretty much do whatever we want to do with this gift.  Yet, that is really not true.

The Book of Genesis actually has two stories of creation.  The second story of creation follows the one we heard this morning . . . it is the story that includes Adam and Eve.  Because the style and wording is completely different than the first one, we often mistake it as a sub-story . . . a secondary story . . . that falls under the original story.  But, it is not.  It is a creation story that comes at this gift of creation not as an issue of domination, but as one that calls upon the human race to work in partnership with God in being good stewards of all that creation represents.   The tone of this second creation story is different than the first . . . it calls for stewardship of all that God has created so that all can prosper and receive the blessing of the gift.

Now, we could lay all the blame on Adam and Eve for committing the first sin . . . but, their sin was not in taking a bite out of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge . . . their sin was in choosing to take the easy way out.  Instead of patiently waiting for God to bring this knowledge to them, they chose to take a bite out of the magical fruit and instantly gain that knowledge.  They did not have to work at it . . . they did not have to learn it, one bite and they had it all.  As humans we have been doing ever since . . . we have always been seeking the easy way out.

Being good stewards of God's creation is hard work.  Ask any rancher or farmer you know and they will tell you how difficult it is to be good stewards of the land and all that it produces.  To do it right it takes a lot of hard work.  

Same goes for relationships no matter what level we are talking about.  Relationships are hard whether they are between two nations, two communities, or two people . . . relationships are hard.  They are especially hard if we are going to talk about them being the sort of relationships that were shown to us in Jesus and his life.  Relationships take a lot of time, energy, and work at understanding others who are created in God's image but do not look or act like us.  It is hard work.

Yet, we live and exist in God's creation . . . and, from our little corner of the world we can affirm that it looks and is good.  And, we need to remind ourselves on a daily basis that it is good . . . and, that it is a gift . . . a gift from God.  As a gift from God we are to use it in such a way that God's will is done . . . that it is clean and safe to last another million years . . . that it is plentiful in all that it produces to feed all of God's children . . . that it is honored and loved as it was created by God--especially those of us in the human race who are created in God's image.  That it is used to bring about the will of God . . . to bring all things back into relationship with one another and God.  To become the kingdom of God.

It was good then and it still can be good today.  It will take some hard work, but it is work that is worth the effort.  And, it begins with each of us as individuals.  Let us be stewards of God's creation . . . God's gift to us . . . and, let us bring about the kingdom through hard work and love.  Amen.