Monday, June 23, 2014

Yes! Yes to both of you!

Genesis 21:8-21, Lectionary 12 A, June 22, 2014

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
Kakenya Ntaiya grew up in a Maasai village in Kenya. She recently gave a TED Talk where she described something of her childhood. Even in our modern times, in her village boys always become warriors, and girls only become mothers. She didn’t have any choices in her life. As a young girl, she was already engaged to be married. Whenever this boy walked near her home, her mother would say, “Your husband just passed by.” 

Kakenya’s village expected her to grow up to be a submissive wife and mother just like all of the other girls that she knew. Yet, her mother hoped that she could become more than just a mother. Kakenya’s mother had a hard life, and she knew that education was the way out of the system. Kakenya wanted to please both her village elders and her mother; she hoped to grow up to be a wife and a teacher.

When Kakenya finished the eighth grade, she participated in a weeklong celebration where one of the women from the village cut off her clitoris. Then she was left to bleed until she fainted. She was lucky to survive at all. 

Then in high school, she met a classmate who had spent some time in America. He encouraged her to do the same. So, Kakenya worked hard to persuade the male elders of her village to support her. In the end, she did go to college in America, and her eyes were opened. She learned that female genital mutilation is illegal in Kenya. She discovered how closed minded her village was. She learned that the world was full of so many opportunities.

There are always multiple ways to resolve an issue, yet we can’t always see every solution. The elders of that Masai village were not able to see any other future for Kakenya except as a wife. So also, Sarah could only see one possible way for her son Isaac to inherit his father’s property: Ishmael had to go.

To Sarah, Ishmael was a constant reminder of her impatience. Ishmael was how she refused to wait for God’s blessing to come true how God intended. But now that God fulfilled that blessing through Isaac, Ishmael was standing in the way.

It seems that as soon as Hagar conceived, Sarah regretted what she had done. Sarah was supposed to consider Ishmael as her own son, but she never did. She could barely handle the boy growing up in her household. She only let Hagar and Ishmael stay because Abraham had no other heir - until Isaac came along ten years later. 

Once Isaac survived his first three years, his family was fairly certain that he would live into adulthood. Abraham had a feast when Isaac was weaned, a celebration that Isaac had already lived through the most dangerous years of his life. Now that Isaac was the one true heir, Sarah could no longer stand the sight of Ishmael. In her mind, there could only be one person to carry on Abraham’s name. 

To Abraham, the situation was completely different. For Abraham, Ishmael was not just the son of a slave, he was Abraham’s son. Ishmael was not a second-rate citizen. Abraham loved his firstborn son just as much as he loved Isaac. 

For Abraham, he didn’t care that his sons had different mothers. He didn’t care that they were born ten years apart. He didn’t care who would inherit what. They were both equally his sons. Why couldn’t they both inherit his name and God’s blessing?

Sarah put Abraham in a really hard place, forcing him to choose between the sons that he loved equally. Sarah wanted Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away, even though she was the one who created this mess in the first place.

To the question of inheritance, Sarah decided, “Only one. Only my son.”
Abraham concluded, “Why not both? They are both my sons.”
Then God entered the debate and said, “Yes! Yes to both of you!”

Isn’t it funny how God can do that? In a situation where only one of two options seems possible, God is able to make them both work. God told Abraham to follow his wife’s orders. God did intend, after all, for Isaac to inherit Abraham’s blessing. 

Yet, God will also make Ishmael great. Only God is able to take what we screw up and make it work. God may not have intended for Ishmael ever to be born, yet God will honor him for the son of Abraham that he is. 

So, Isaac will inherit God’s blessings and become the father of the Jews. Yet Ishmael will also lead a great nation and become the father of Islam. God is able to take a difficult decision out of Sarah and Abraham’s hands and turn it into something good. God’s love extends beyond God’s chosen people to embrace all who live. 

Maybe God had a hand in Kakenya’s life, too. Her village elders only wanted her to become a wife and mother. She wanted to become a teacher. In the end, Kakenya never married. She had seen too much of the world beyond her village to blindly submit to a man. But she couldn’t stay away from her village either. So, she started a school for girls. 

Her goal is to teach these young women so that they will never be forced to submit to the traditions of her village. Now, there are 125 girls studying in that village. Those girls will never be mutilated, and they will not be married when they are twelve. They will be able to dream big and then achieve those dreams.

Even though Abraham followed Sarah’s will in the end, he did so knowing that both of his sons would become great. God told Abraham that Ishmael would leave a legacy that nobody could forget. Abraham fostered love and respect in both of his boys, just like Kakenya is fostering courage and knowledge in her students. 

Kakenya challenges us to do the same. We are not confined to the only solution put before us. Kakenya says to us, “Be the first because people will follow you. Be bold. Stand up. Be fearless. Be confident. Move out.” If we can change the life of one child, then we can change the life of a community. And if we change the life of the community, then we can change the world. May God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit help us make this a reality. Amen.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Creation Truth

Genesis 1:1-2:4a, Trinity A, June 15, 2014

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

C. S. Lewis described the creation of Narnia using these words: (From The Magician’s Nephew, Harper Collins reprint, 1994): 

In the darkness something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing… Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise [Digory] had ever heard. (p. 106)
Then two wonders happened at the same moment. One was that the voice was suddenly joined by other voices; more voices than you could possibly count… The second wonder was that the blackness overhead, all at once, was blazing with stars. They didn’t come out gently one by one, as they do on a summer evening. One moment there had been nothing but darkness; next moment, a thousand, thousand points of light leaped out. (107)
The voice rose and rose, till all the air was shaking with it. And just as it swelled to the mightiest and most glorious sound it had yet produced, the sun arose…You could imagine that it laughed for joy as it came up. And as its beams shot across the land the travelers could see for the first time what sort of place they were in. It was a valley through which a broad, swift river wound its way, flowing eastward toward the sun. (109)
Polly was finding the song more and more interesting because she thought she was beginning to see the connection between the music and the things that were happening. When a line of dark firs sprang up on a ridge about a hundred yards away she felt that they were connected with a series of deep, prolonged notes. (115)
Now the song had once more changed. It was more like what we should call a tune, but it was also far wilder. (121) Can you imagine a stretch of grassy land bubbling like water in a pot? For that is really the best description of what was happening. In all directions, it was swelling into humps…And the humps moved and swelled till they burst, and the crumbled earth poured out of them, and from each hump came out an animal. (122) And now you could hardly hear the song…there was so much cawing, cooing, crowing, braying, neighing, baying, barking, lowing, bleating, and trumpeting. (123)

C. S. Lewis’ description of the creation of Narnia is beautiful, but is it true? The obvious answer is “No, this story is not true.” How can a piece of fiction be true? Now here is where we differ. I fully believe that a piece of literature can speak a word of truth about our society, about human nature, about us without being historically accurate. 

For, as Fred Buechner once wrote, “Truth is what words can’t tell but only tell about, what images can only point to.” (Telling the Truth, 17) Narnia, although a fictional tale, points to God like the Bible does. Narnia may be a made-up place, yet it holds more truth for some children than even the Bible. I learned about Christianity from the Chronicles of Narnia long before I could understand the complex stories in the Bible. 

What truth does this creation narrative hold? C. S. Lewis describes the beauty, majesty, and wonder of the creation of the world in ways that we often miss in the Bible’s creation narratives. The song that Aslan sings mysteriously captures the awe of God speaking things into existence. This narrative shows how intimately God was involved in the creation of the natural world.

What about our own creation narrative that we heard this morning? Is that true? Many of us do believe the answer is, “Yes,” but we interpret that “Yes” in different ways. Some people in our country believe that the entirety of the Bible, including this passage, is 100% historically and scientifically true. They believe that our world was created in six 24 hour days and is only a few thousand years old. 

I don’t believe that this is what the authors of Genesis intended. Although much of the Bible is centered in historical fact, it was not written to be a history book. Instead, the Bible was composed over centuries as faithful people told and retold their stories of faith to inspire the faith of others. The writers share honest, down-to-earth stories about how they experienced God in their lives. Like we do, the stories that the biblical writers record are interpretations of what actually happened.

The fact of the matter is that the Bible was written, edited, and handed down for centuries before the Enlightenment. These ancient people did not have modern understandings of science or history. They had no way of knowing that the Earth and the universe are billions of years old. They had no way of knowing that dinosaurs once roamed the earth. They didn’t even know that there was land on the other side of the world. 

So, is the creation narrative in Genesis 1 historically accurate? NO! 
Is Genesis 1 scientifically sound? NO! 
Is Genesis 1 true? YES! 

Genesis 1, although a myth, shows us the power and grandeur of God. In this story, we hear that God is able to create something out of nothing. Nobody but God can do that. In Genesis 1, we hear that God existed long before us, that God chose to create us. In the Bible, we learn that our God is powerful enough to create the world, yet intimately cares for each created being.

Our God carefully, deliberately created the world so that we and all creatures can live and flourish here. God created light and dark, sun and stars, plants and water, animals and humans. And with everything that God created, God saw that it was good. We are good to God. We were created in God’s image, set above all other animals. God has entrusted the world to us so that we might care for it. 

Overall God has loved creation deeply. God forgives us when we falter. God takes our broken bodies and makes us whole again. God came to earth as Jesus Christ, dying so that we might live. God continues to intimately care for this world through the Holy Spirit. 

We would never have been born if God the Father had not created us. We would never be able to experience heaven on earth without God the Son giving himself for us. We cannot flourish on this earth without God the Holy Spirit active in our lives. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Tatter Tales

1 Corinthians 12:3b-13, Pentecost A, June 8, 2014

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

People who tat often feel like they are alone in this world. Tatting is a dying art, so the few who do tat are spread across the world. A lady from North Carolina taught me how to tat, but for years, I have not been able to tat in person with anybody else. I have missed the companionship of those who do the same craft as I do. I have longed for the chance to ask questions, for others to show me how to do new techniques in person. Tatting, although a beautiful art, is also a lonely art.

Although we gather every week to worship together, sometimes the life of faith also seems like a lonely endeavor. Some of our deepest questions stay tucked inside, never coming out. Sometimes we carry our deepest burdens alone, unsure how to share them with others. We pray, yet how do we experience God? Sometimes God’s presence eludes us, no matter how hard we look. Christianity, although a powerful faith, can feel lonely.

Every week, we confess our faith by reciting a creed. Today, we will hear the confirmands say, “I believe in God, the Father…I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son…I believe in the Holy Spirit…” By the very nature of this Apostle’s Creed, by saying, “I believe,” we think that we each have to believe that each phrase of this creed is factually true. We think that if we say these statements without believing them, then we are committing some sort of sin or heresy, but this is not true.

We may live in an individualistic society, but we participate in a communal church. We are not alone in our faith, and we are not alone in our doubts. When we confess the creed, we as individuals do not need to believe every statement. Instead, we as a community believe all of this to be true. When we as individuals have our doubts, we lean upon this community of faith to lift us up. Those sitting next to you will believe for you until you are ready to hold your own. Then you will hold the faith until others are firm in the faith.

Tatters don’t have this. There are online communities for those who tat, on Facebook, Pinterest, and blogs. At these places online, crafters can share patterns, ideas, and techniques. We can encourage others online, but we don’t have the sort of connection to hold each other up in our worries and our fears. 

Recently, there were some discussions on copyright issues on the Tatting Facebook group, but some people felt bullied and attacked. So, they left. They were not supported by this online community, so they chose to leave. Tatting communities do not have the same connection as churches do. Christians, on the other hand, do have the Holy Spirit. 

When we keep the faith for each other, we do not do it of our own will. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” (12:3b) We cannot believe or confess our faith without the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit works through us to give us faith. Without the Holy Spirit working in and around us, we would not have a church.

Confirmands, think back to last year. We learned that Martin Luther said this as well. In the Small Catechism, he wrote, 
“I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith… This is most certainly true.” 
(Third Article of the Creed explanation) Here, Luther says that we cannot believe in God without the help of the Holy Spirit.

Recently, I had the opportunity to meet some people in Chicago who tat. They each had at least an hour’s drive. Some came from Southern Wisconsin, others from Central Illinois, and some from Chicagoland. I drove the longest distance to get there. These ladies are all wonderful people, and I had a great time. For three hours, we gathered around a table at the Hinsdale Oasis. These ladies have been tatting much longer than I have, and they have connected in exciting ways. Because of our shared craft, we all had something to talk about. Our friendship begins with our tatting, and it grows from there.

These friendships that we form inside and outside the church are important. In these communities, we have opportunities to lift up those who are hurting and rejoice with those who are well. Yet our most important relationship is with God. Our creeds explain who God is (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and what God does for us (creates, saves, and sustains).

There is another dimension of faith that is so deep and compelling that it is faith in God. This is the relationship that we have with God. This is also a gift of the Holy Spirit, enabling us to trust God with our deepest concerns. Whenever you are troubled, whatever ails you, you can bring it to God. 

This relationship with God also is not personal but is communal. We form our relationship with God here, in this church, through worship, study, and service. In the Word and Sacrament, God comes to us, loving us, forgiving us, and healing us. This church, where we uplift each other in faith by the Holy Spirit, is a gift from God. We could not do this alone. We could not interpret scripture, share the sacraments, nor be the body of Christ in the world without each other. 

When we are most aware that we are not alone is when we receive communion. So, confirmands, after you four confess your faith and claim your role as children of God, we will share communion with each other. We will kneel before the altar and receive the body and blood of Christ. In the act of communion, we together form the body of Christ and claim our unity in faith. We join the great cloud of witnesses who also have shared Holy Communion. We can do all of this because of the Holy Spirit working in and through our lives. Thanks be to God! Amen.