Monday, July 28, 2014

Leah found love in unexpected places

Genesis 29:15-28, Lectionary 17 A, July 27, 2014

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
As the older sister, I grew up thinking that I would have first pick of a husband. I would dream of going to the well to find a handsome man - tall, dark, and single. Then we could raise a large family together and live happily ever after.

Certainly the middle part of that did come true for me. I did bear six strong boys and a beautiful daughter. They are my life. But my husband? All I wanted was his love, but it never came.

I blame it on my sister - in part. She and I wanted the same man. But it was my father who really made my life miserable. My greedy, two-timing father who couldn’t turn down a profitable deal if he ever saw one.

It all started that fateful day when my sister went out with her sheep. I guess she was destined to be a shepherdess; even her name Rachel means “Ewe.” Well, that day she came back to our home out of breath.

Rachel could barely speak she was so excited. “There is this man, at the well, His name is Jacob, he is my cousin, son of Isaac and Rebekah, and he wants to marry me! Daddy, can I? Get married?"

My father then was the one running to meet this relative of his, leaving Rachel with me. She was bubbling with excitement. I wanted to be happy for her, honestly, I did. Yet how could I not wonder where my husband was? Why couldn’t I find a distant relative desperate to marry me?

Then my father came in with Jacob, and I was struck with lust. He was smooth-skinned, with a deep complexion from shepherding. He was everything I and dreamed of for a husband, but he wasn’t mine to have. My father welcomed Jacob into the family, and he lived with us for some time, watching the family flocks.

After a month, my father asked Jacob what he wanted as wages for his shepherding. Without missing a beat he offered to work for seven years - seven years! - to marry my little sister. This hurt deep down, but I tried not to show it. Jacob was willing to work twice as long as expected to marry Rachel. He loved her that much.

Over the past month, I had gotten to know Jacob. I found him to be quite charming with his smooth talking. He flirted with me, giving me hope, yet he never stopped loving Rachel. Oh, how I wish he loved me!

Well, the deal was set, and Jacob continued to live near us as he tended sheep. He swooned over my little sister the entire time. Then the seven years were up, and Jacob was ready to marry Rachel.

So, my father set up a grand feast to celebrate this wedding. Our family and neighbors came and had a great, drunken time. According to tradition, my sister and I stayed home. I prayed with her as she nervously anticipated her first night with a man. 

When the feast was over an Jacob was ready to consummate the marriage, my father came home. I expected him to tell Rachel to get dressed in her gown and veil, but he called to me instead! He said that he would not let his young daughter get married before the older, so I would sneak into the bridal tent.

Me? Marry Jacob? Sure, I had one heck of a crush on the guy, but he only had eyes for my sister! Well, my father didn’t really give me a choice. So, I put on the dress and veil and did the unthinkable - I waked into the bridal tent.

I didn’t have to pretend to be Rachel. Jacob was so drunk and ready for sex that he took me without saying a word. I must admit, that night was equal parts sheer bliss and personal violation. These past seven years, all I wanted was to be Jacob’s wife, but not like this. Not by deceit.

When Jacob woke up the next morning, I pretended to be asleep. Hearing how he tore out of that tent, I knew that the damage was realized. I slipped on my clothes and snuck behind my father’s tent so I could hear their conversation.

Jacob cried out, “What have you done to me?!” Well, at least he didn’t (fully) blame me for this deception. He continued, “I worked for you for seven years so that I could marry Rachel. Rachel! How dare you give me to Leah?”

I have to say it: those words stung. I thought Jacob liked me well enough. I hoped that he could settle for me. No. I was not good enough for Jacob. He did not work for seven years for me. I was nothing to him.

My father, always swindling someone, got Jacob to agree to work for him for another seven years. Yet he did not have to wait that long to marry Rachel. Jacob only and to wait one week - one week for him and I to share a bed. How could I enjoy those nights knowing that he was just biding his time until he could be with his favorite, beloved Rachel?

Then he married Rachel, and he was elated. She was everything he hoped she would be, leaving me in the dust. I hoped and prayed that if only I could bear him sons, then he would love me. 

I did bear him sons - six of them in fact. Each time, I prayed that he would love me. Was one son enough to earn Jacob’s favor? No. Three? No. Six? No. Even after all this time, Jacob never loved me as much as he loved Rachel.

Jacob may not give me the time of day unless I am in his tent, yet the Lord was always there for me. I just know that it was the Lord who opened my womb so I could bear children. I never earned Jacob’s favor, but each of my children - all six boys and my daughter Dinah - showed me how much the Lord loves me. Each of my seven children, and the two from my maid, are blessings from God.

After my fourth son, I learned that I didn’t need Jacob’s love to make me complete. The Lord blessing me with children is enough. Sure, my sister and I continued to be jealous of each other - she because I had sons and I because she had Jacob’s love. 

Overall, though, I had found peace. Jacob may never have loved me, but at least he respected me. I raised eight boys and one girl, whereas my sister only had four. I must honestly say that I miss my sister now that she has died. Every night, I thank my Lord for my children, for the time I had with my sister, and yes, even for Jacob too. Amen.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Dreams of Jesus' love

Genesis 28:10-19a, Lectionary 16 A, July 20, 2014

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

Our first lesson today tells of the dream that Jacob had after he tricked his father into giving him the blessing. Jacob used a rock for a pillow and dreamed of a ladder reaching to heaven. Well, this week at vacation Bible school, Dr. Paws had her own experience of God. 

Dr. Paws left her home near the zoo and went to Zion. She came to the front pew of the sanctuary and almost immediately fell asleep! 

As soon as she closed her eyes, she experienced visions of some Weird Animals. She saw Axl, an axolotl salamander, who told her, “Even when you’re left out…Jesus loves you!” 

Axl showed Dr. Paws all that happened during the first day of VBS. He showed her children acting out how they sometimes feel lonely at school and at home.

Then those children were shown God’s love by crew leaders. They were not left out any more!

She saw children having Bible adventures by learning about leprosy and how people in Jesus’ time were often left out of the community. 

But Jesus couldn’t let people be left out! He healed them of their leprosy so they could be reunited with their friends. 

Axl even showed Dr. Paws the volunteers playing games! Certainly nobody at Princeton’s VBS was ever left out. 

These children clearly felt Jesus’ love, and they returned this love to all the volunteers.

Then Dr. Paws stirred from her sleep. Almost as soon as she moved, she fell asleep again. 

Fern the leafy sea dragon whispered in her ear, “Even though you’re different…Jesus loves you!”

Fern continued, “No matter how different you may look or feel, you are beautiful in God’s eyes.” 

The children learned that the Samaritan woman that Jesus met at the well was really different. 

All she wanted was to fill her bucket full of water, but Jesus offered her living water instead!

These kids are all different in many ways, in size and color, age and ability, yet God loves each one of them. 

Nothing, no difference or disability, can separate anybody from God’s love. 

Yes, even you. God loves you!

Dr. Paws awoke and looked for God, but she didn’t find him. She tried to watch for God, but before she knew it she was asleep again. 

Her visions intensified as she saw Milton, a star-nosed mole. He loudly proclaimed, “Even when you don’t understand…Jesus loves you!” 

Milton showed Dr. Paws how children can learn about God by reading the Bible. 

Then, when kids have an idea of who Jesus is, then they can experience Jesus’ love in their daily lives.

Just as Jesus washed his disciple’s feet, Milton showed Dr. Paws how these children had their feet washed too. 

After reliving this important moment from Jesus’ ministry, the children were surprised by the depths of God’s love.

Milton showed Dr. Paws how the children came into vacation Bible school alone and barefoot,

but they left hand in hand with new friends!

Now Dr. Paws was a little nervous about all of these visions that she was having. She wanted to hide, so she curled up behind the altar. Little did she know that the altar was the holiest place in the church!

God revealed Shred to Dr. Paws. This tenrec showed her that, “Even though you do wrong…Jesus loves you!” 

This day of VBS was not all fun and games. Before the kids could celebrate, they had to get sad first. 

They played the role of the crowd as they jeered at Jesus on the cross. 

Then they prayed as they waited for Christ to return.

Indeed Christ has been raised from the dead!

Now the cross is empty. 

We can all celebrate that Christ is alive full of love for us. This is the good news that Dr. Paws needed to hear!

Now unafraid of this God of love, she came out from behind the altar. She picked up the VBS music dvd and used it as a pillow. She had one more vision to experience!

This time, Iggy the frilled lizard came to Dr. Paws. He told her, “Even when you’re afraid…Jesus loves you!” 

These kids certainly did not look afraid when they learned about Ananias! They searched for this Bible character throughout the sanctuary.

On this last day of vacation Bible school, the kids couldn’t help but sing and dance to all of their favorite songs.

They enjoyed making crafts and learning about the many missions that they supported.

These children certainly were not afraid as they played games as they waited to switch classes.

Knowing how much Jesus loves them, they couldn’t help but smile.

And they are excited as they share that Jesus loves you too!

Gently coming out of her deep sleep, Doctor Paws was mumbling, “Jesus loves me…Jesus loves you…Jesus loves us…” 

Waking up, she realized how special this past week was for the thirty or so children who attended the Princeton Vacation Bible School. So excited about God’s love for everyone, she popped that DVD into the projector, turned on “Jesus Loves Me,” and danced along! Amen!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Jacob and Esau and Stewardship

Genesis 25:19-34, Lectionary 15 A, July 13, 2014

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

Jacob and Esau - the perfect example of sibling rivalry. The older twin, Esau, was a strong, hairy man, whereas his younger twin Jacob was smaller, cleaner, and conniving. They were destined always to be at odds. Even before they were born, they were fighting. Their parents didn’t help matters either. Isaac clearly favored Esau, and Rebekah clearly favored Jacob. When Esau and Jacob were not instigating fights, their parents were.

So when the boys became teenagers, it is no surprise that Jacob took advantage of Esau at his weakest. Esau must have been out in the field hunting for quite some time. He came home very hungry only to find his brother slaving over a bubbling pot of lentil stew. As soon as the stew’s wonderful aroma hit his nose, Esau knew he had to have some of his brother’s wonderful food.

Seeing his brother cooking when he was so hungry, he might have thought this was a blessing from God. Esau said, “I am starving! Serve me up a bowl of this wonderful red stuff!” “No,” Jacob said, “not unless you give me your birthright.” Well, maybe Jacob wasn’t a blessing after all.

Surely trading two-thirds of his father’s estate for a bowl of stew seemed a bit harsh, but what did Esau care? Maybe he thought this vow wouldn’t stick. He certainly must have been tricked by his brother many times before. Maybe he was blinded by his hunger. He had a one track mind, and he was focused on that wonderful-smelling food in front of him.

Jacob wouldn’t back down, so Esau did the unthinkable and traded in his birthright as eldest son for two portions of their father's estate - hundreds of thousands of dollars of property and business investments - for a simple bowl of food and a piece of bread.

On the outset, this may seem like a simple example of sibling rivalry, yet it had extreme consequences. Esau’s whole future changed that day. Any hope of his birthright coming back to him was squashed years later when Jacob tricked his father into giving him the blessing, too. Esau, the hardworking, dedicated son was no match for his treasure-seeking trickster brother.

Esau may seem like the model citizen, yet he always got the short straw. His brother never properly earned anything, yet he got it all. He got his brother’s birthright, his father’s blessing, two wives, and a dozen sons. He carried on his father’s name, not Esau. It is clear from the Bible that Jacob didn’t rightfully earn much of anything, yet God blesses him more than Esau. We would call this grace. 

As scholar Juliana Claassens writes, “There is nothing in Jacob's behavior that deserved God's favor -- actually God's favor comes in spite of Jacob's actions. This line of interpretation makes a strong case for God's grace -- a God who already is involved with people in their mother's womb, within the very messiness and conflict of relationships.”

It may not seem fair that we are descended spiritually from Jacob, yet it is fitting. We too are sinful people, tricking our way out of work. We do not deserve what we have. We have not earned anything on our own.

We do not deserve the jobs and homes that we have, yet God has blessed us.
We do not deserve the family and friends that we have, yet God has blessed us.
We do not deserve the church and faith that we share, yet God has blessed us.

Unintentionally, we follow Jacob’s example with stewardship. Before we give to the church, we ensure that our own rewards are tenfold more than the ten percent - or less - that we give. Isn’t this consumerism at its best? We think that we are getting the best bargain when we only put a few dollars into the offering plate.

But this isn’t how stewardship works. We don’t pay into the church so that we can reap the benefits of membership. We shouldn’t give because the church needs it; give because God has blessed us.
For all that you have and all that you are God has provided for you. Yet - here is the tricky part - we do not own anything. God allows us to steward, or take care of, all of God’s resources. Yet God does not ever transfer ownership to us.

We put in our hours at work and we receive a pay check, yet that money belongs to God.
We use our paychecks to pay our rent or mortgage, yet our home and property belong to God. The river on which we live and work is God’s good creation.

We care for our families and carefully choose our friends, yet God has put these people in our lives.
Even this church, including the building, the land, and the people inside it, are all God’s. 
Most importantly, our faith is provided to us by God, and we steward our faith carefully.
So, if everything we think we own actually belongs to God, how do we care for it?

Professor Charles Lane writes, 
“Since God is the owner of all that is, and since God is the source of all the abilities and resources that allow me to live a more than comfortable life, then there is no room left for me to imagine that I am the source of my good life. God is. 

“The proper response to the blessings of this life is not to pat myself on the back and try to find a way to get more stuff. The proper response is to give God the glory and the thanks and to ask serious questions about how I am called to use what God has entrusted to me.” p. 25
“No longer is the question, ‘How much money should I give to God?’ Now the question is, ‘How much of God’s money do I dare keep for myself?’” p. 29
“How much of God’s money do I dare keep for myself?” This is a powerful question. How we use all of our money - from our monthly expenses to our impromptu splurges to what we put in the offering plate - represents how we steward God’s resources. Everything matters, not just the ten percent, or five percent, or one percent that we return to God through the church.

Like Jacob, the younger, lesser brother, let us, a small seemingly insignificant congregation, rise above to claim our identity as God’s beloved. Let us show our community and the world who we are as God’s children. We will do this not just with our parking lot but with our words and actions. Let us share the love of God so that nobody can doubt how God blesses us to bless others! Amen.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Miracle Sunday Letter

People of Zion,
The Council has decided to hold a "Miracle Sunday" on July 13. On that day, we will hold a special offering to help cover the cost of the parking lot. As we approach this important date, please consider how you can contribute to this beautification project.

Together, we are stewards of the Zion church property. As stewards, we have decided to pave the parking lot. This will make our building more handicap accessible, and it will remove the nuisance of the gravel. We also will remove the tree that is in the middle of the parking lot, keeping the tree that is in the back corner of the lot. Sometime later, we hopefully will plant some new trees on our land.

With this new parking lot, we are investing in the future of this church. Our property will look more professional for many years to come. The cost of this investment is around $26,000. Some of us will be able to give more and some less, yet we can all work together to cover the cost of this parking lot

In addition to being stewards of our church property, we also are stewards of all that God has given to us, including our time, our talents, and our finances. Please prayerfully consider how God is calling you to participate in this Miracle Sunday.

Peace in Christ,
Zion Council

Monday, July 7, 2014

Engagements modern and old

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67, Lectionary 14 A, July 6, 2014

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

We live in a very small world. This weekend, I celebrated my grandparents 60th wedding anniversary. One of their friends told me that he knew exactly where Princeton, Iowa is. He worked on this very railroad. I never expected to make that connection!

Especially in our world today, sixty years of marriage is a huge accomplishment. My grandparents have stood by each other for better and for worse, for richer for poorer, in health and in sickness. When their health started to decline, they compensated for each other's disabilities. Even now in their retirement home, they do everything together. They share an apartment, they eat their meals side by side, and they go to events together. 

When I looked at their wedding photos, I admired how young and in love they were. Their wedding day looked to be just as enchanting as mine was. Of course their love developed and matured over time. Raising three children could not have been easy. They certainly enjoyed watching their grandchildren grow up, and now they have fun with their great grandchild, too.

With this celebration on my mind, I could not help but compare my grandparents to Rebekah and Isaac. This morning, we heard about how Rebekah and Isaac got engaged. Although I'm not quite sure how my grandparents got engaged, I am sure that they didn't go to a well to find each other!

We are pretty familiar with engagement stories. Some of us even have stories of our own. Even so, engagement stories in the Bible worked quite differently than our modern stories. If we look to our first lesson, we learn how Rebekah became engaged to Isaac. We might expect a romantic story of longtime love coming to completion in marriage, but we would be horribly mistaken.

Most of the stories that we hear are about a young man asking a young woman for her hand in marriage. This doesn’t apply to Rebekah’s story on two accounts. First, Isaac is no spring chicken - he probably was 40 years old at the time! Second, Isaac didn’t go fetch Rebekah. His father’s servant did.

Next, we would hope that the couple would get engaged in a beautiful location - maybe along a body of water or in a beautiful building. Instead, Rebekah meets Abraham’s servant at a well outside of town. This wasn’t exactly a romantic locale.

You certainly would expect that the couple at least knew of each other before getting married. Rebekah may or may not have known about Isaac, but she certainly wasn’t expecting to get engaged when she went to the well that evening!

This servant didn’t get down on one knee. He didn’t even tell her who he was. He simply asked for a drink. Then, when she offered to water his camels, too, she knew that he was the one for his master’s son. Watering the camels must have taken some time. Rebekah only had one water jug, but the servant had ten camels. Camels can drink gallons at a time! This would have given Abraham’s servant time to prepare what to say.

Men prepared to ask a woman’s hand in marriage often have wonderful speeches prepared. They confess their love and share how their girlfriends have changed them for the better. Abraham’s servant had no such speech to give! He simply asked, 
“Whose daughter are you?”

The average girl today expects to see a beautiful diamond ring when she is getting engaged. But for Rebekah, she received different sorts of rings - a gold nose ring and two gold bracelets.

Finally, you would expect that man on bended knee who is presenting a diamond ring to say the famous words, “Will you marry me?” Not so for Rebekah. She was not destined to hear words so romantic. Instead, when Abraham’s servant was ready to go, her mother and brother asked her with some disdain, 
“Will you go with this man?”

Yes, yes, she would go with this stranger. She would leave her entire family and everyone she knew, only taking her nurse and a few possessions with her. Then she went on the long journey to Isaac’s home. 

Certainly engagements in modern times can last for months or even years. Happy couples need time to prepare such an important ceremony and reception. Not so for Rebekah and Isaac. As soon as the caravan arrived, Isaac met a veiled Rebekah. Abraham’s servant explained all that had happened. That very day, Isaac and Rebekah were married. Although they certainly had their problems later in life, Rebekah and Isaac were able to live together into old age. 

Where is God in all of this? We often don’t think of how God brings two people together when they get engaged. Yet, the scripture here is clear. Abraham’s servant is praying to find a suitable wife for his master’s son. Before he can finish his prayer, Rebekah shows up. She is generous not only to give him a drink, but to retrieve enough water for his entire group of camels. Then she continues to be generous when she invites him, his ten camels, and his other attendants to stay on her property. 

Rebekah is the prime model of gracious hospitality. She cares for this servant and those with him before thinking of herself. She is willing to take a risk by leaving her home, journeying with this servant, and meeting her future husband in a new place. She will be the perfect wife for the son of Abraham. 

This certainly is nothing like the engagement stories of today. It even isn’t much like most arranged marriages. Yet it is a common story in the Old Testament. Often women find their husbands when they go to the well to retrieve water for their family. These women trust that God is involved in their matchmaking.

I don't know if my grandparents realized how God was involved bringing them together. Often we may not realize it either. 
Yet, God is there. 
In our special moments that we share with the ones that we love, God is there. 
When we celebrate engagements and anniversaries, God is there.
Most importantly, whenever we pray, God is there. Amen.