Proper 11(A): If the Lord Tarries and the Creek Don’t Rise

Proper 11(A): If the Lord Tarries and the Creek Don’t Rise

Genesis 28:10-19a

By: The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram

2020 is not the year that we lost control. 2020 is the year that we lost the illusion that we were in control in the first place. The comforting habits we had formed were disrupted. The plans we had made were gone. While this felt new, like we had just now been tossed into a sea of uncertainty, the truth is that the plans we made were always conditional; the daily norms were always just for today and maybe until something changed again.

I’m reminded of the colloquialisms of my elders in the faith: “If the Lord tarries…” or “God-willing and the creek don’t rise.” I’ve wondered before if this strand of my forbears’ faith was rooted in pessimism or whether it was realism—after all, the old country Baptists that trained me up as a child had seen some things. They had seen sickness, war, and poverty up close and personal. Not only did the Bible tell them God was going to return someday, triumphant over these big worldly sins, but they had seen death enough to know on a deeper level than naive optimistic Hannah that no day, no moment was guaranteed. If the Lord tarries… maybe we’ll have that big party or event or vacation. Or maybe there won’t be any tarrying and our plans will go out the window.

In 2020, a new generation of folks are learning that plans and habits are conditional, and this is disorienting. This disorientation has real effects on our mental and emotional health. Lest you think I’m glorifying the Christian version of non-attachment that puts an asterisk on every single hope for earthly joy, I’m actually very concerned that living life in a constant state of perceived threat takes a toll on a person. My own family lineage has anxiety interwoven with the Baptist faith—both passed on to us through generations of the faithful who were God-fearing and world-fearing simultaneously.

What I see in the texts for this week, then, is assurances to an anxious people about who God is. To Jacob, God said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac.” God goes on to say to Jacob in his dream, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”[1] When Jacob awoke, he exclaimed, “”Surely the LORD is in this place–and I did not know it!”

God is in this place. God is with us, wherever we go. This theme continues in the 139th Psalm: “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.” In a time that seems uncertain because of pandemic and unemployment and persistent racism, God insists on God’s presence, and the psalmist testifies that there are no limits to this presence. I am particularly struck by the line, “If I make my bed in Sheol” as it implies my own agency in the building of the bed in the place of death, and yet, still God is there. Because there are various human contributions to the pains and sufferings that are being felt on a global scale, this assurance that God does not abandon us even when we’ve made our own bed in Sheol is specifically reassuring. I do not know what 2021 brings, but I know that here in this moment, as bad as it is or as anxious as I am, God is here.

Even the other psalm, Psalm 86, praises God as “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,” which is another message of hope in the face of human-exacerbated crisis. I often imagine God as the parent who cares for all people (Wisdom of Solomon 12:13) but possessing more wisdom and perspective than we have in our youth. And so, this image I have for God as parent is compassionate for the mistakes we make along the way even while pushing and teaching us to do better. Likewise, the Romans text names us as children of God who call out to God as Abba, a term of parental endearment.

Where can the beloved toddler go where their parent will not be with them? What could the child do to cause the holy parent to abandon them? Our plans are on shifting sand, and even our human relationships with parents sometimes fail us, but God does not. Whether the Lord tarries or not, God does it with us, side-by-side. That is good news in 2020.

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The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram

The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram serves as the Director of Religious Life and Chaplain of Franklin College in Franklin, Indiana. She grew up in non-denominational evangelical land and is now an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. She earned a BA from Anderson University, a Master of Theological Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, and a PhD in Religion and Psychological Studies from the University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology. Her areas of interest include education, practical theology, and escaping overthinking by baking, crafting, and watching TV.

 

[1] Right now, my spirit is stirred by these assurances of who God is, but a different part of me wants to preach a sermon called, “The Father Dreams, Too,” since often it’s Joseph who is considered the dreamer and interpreter of dreams. Jacob’s got some big dreams himself though, both this week and in a couple weeks depending on how you interpret his wrestling with an angel.

Proper 10(A): No “Us” Versus “Them”

Proper 10(A): No “Us” Versus “Them”

Genesis 25:19-34

By: Colin Cushman

This passage involving Jacob and Esau, and the birthright traded for pottage, is one of the famous stories of the Genesis tradition. However, while this is quite familiar passage for those of us steeped in the Bible, there are definitely parts of it that we pay attention to and parts that we gloss over. I would like to poke around those murky areas to see what they can teach us, specifically about our relationship with the Other.

From the very beginning of this passage, we see that we are talking about how groups of people relate. Notice, for example, verse 20. Twice within the course of one sentence, the author here reiterates that Rebekah, a major matriarch of The Chosen People, is a foreigner. She’s an immigrant who married into the family. We cannot tell the story of our sacred history without including the story of immigration and inter-racial marriage. The passage insists that we must recognize the role of the foreigner in making us who we are today. Adopting this perspective then opens up a significant theme in our passage: foreigners and relationships between peoples.

Take, for example, the oracle given by God in verse 23. God makes it clear that this story is not just an anecdote about two individual people. It about nations and their relationship with one another. We are talking about groups of people and how they interact with one another.

And what group of people are we talking about? Well, obviously Jacob is Israel (as his later name change makes clear). In verse 30, we learn, in a rather ungainly construction, that Esau here really is referring to Edom (the neighbor to ancient Israel). So the author tells us that there are two people groups: Israel and Edom. Except, in reality, there might not be. The thing is, as we learn more and more about the region from archaeology, we are learning that, as a matter of fact, Israelites and Edomites were not all that different from one another. As much as the powers that be wanted a clear-cut, nonporous line demarcating who is really an Edomite or an Israelite, in reality, there were a bunch of different families and tribes, all of whom were operating more or less independently, and they may or may not have wanted to be lumped into that label of “Edomite” or “Israelite.”

The story serves an etiological function: it explains why things are the way they are. What is the situation that it is explaining? It’s not immediately clear. Were the “modern day” (at the time of writing) serving under Israel? Did Israel see them as inferior to themselves? If so, this story would give justification for this ethnocentric view.

Interestingly, though, scholars think that the name and nation “Edom” did not actually originate from Esau, as claimed here, but was pre-existent. However, right around the time that this story was being written down, the nation of Edom was consolidating and becoming an actual nation, so it was very important for the Israelites to clarify who was and wasn’t actually an Israelite. Thus, we have a story that is actively and intentionally involved in the process of boundary-defining and community-constructing, specifically designed to explain who “we” are and why we’re better than “them.”

Even if this story is telling about the inferiority of the Edomites, though, it certainly does not appear to be the standard criticism leveled against Esau. He seems much less of an evil person who rejects all that is of value, and more of a bumbling, idiotic drama queen who makes stupid decisions.

Take for example this anecdote with the food in verses 29-34. Esau comes home from the field hungry. Presumably, dinner would be served soon enough—he belongs to a rich enough family. However, this is not good enough for him. In a fit of melodrama, he claims that he is starving to death. Jacob seizes on his hyperbolic state to con his brother out of a massive amount of money and the spiritual blessings due to the favored child.

Esau came in starving. He saw a pot of red food. What would he have assumed other than that this was a rich, protein-filled meat stew? What other foods are red? But instead of at least getting a fancy meal for his birthright, he learned too late that it’s simply red lentils.

And yet it doesn’t particularly seem to matter to him! Examine verse 34. The writing style is much different. We’re just given a rapid-fire list of actions, as if Esau were rushing through them as fast as possible. He doesn’t even understand the import of what he just did. He doesn’t have regrets. He’s just hungry and will do whatever he needs to satiate that hunger.

We learn that Esau is not good at weighing options and that Jacob is a con man. And yet, somehow, out of all of this, we are apparently supposed to choose Jacob (=Israel) as the good guy, whereas Esau (=Edom) is deserving of our wrath. (That is certainly what the Hebrew prophets choose, as they direct a disproportionate measure of God’s wrath toward Edom.) Even this anecdote, which is supposed to be another brick in the pedestal elevating Israel as the superior nation, fails to do so and simply muddies the ethical water.

These kinds of stories are the kinds of tales that groups throughout the ages have told to prop up one group above another. These stories function to try to create firmer and firmer boundaries between the self and the Other. They try to erase the existing similarities, which muddy the boundaries between “in” and “out.”

In our current historical moment, in which we experiencing the blossoming of xenophobia and nationalism, it is worthwhile noting that, even in the sacred stories we create about “us”—who we are, where we came from, why things are the way they are—these stories are inextricably linked to the presence of “them.” As much as we try to define ourselves as a self-contained entity, the inherent interconnected nature of the very identities that we are constructing betrays our project. As many non-western folks throughout the ages have insisted (against the values held sacred by western individualism), we are inextricably bound together in a network of mutuality (to paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr.). No matter how much we think that ”we” as a people are better than “them,” we can never lose sight of the fact that our very nature is intertwined with theirs.

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Colin Cushman

Colin Cushman currently is the camp director at Camp Indianola in the Seattle area. He has previously worked as a pastor at local churches. He loves teaching the Bible and helping people to find meaning from even the most obscure parts of the Bible.

 

Trinity Sunday(A): Origin Stories

Trinity Sunday(A): Origin Stories

Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Psalm 8; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20

By: The Rev. Andrew Chappell

In his introduction to Genesis, Theodore Hiebert shares that the writer’s goal “was to make sense of the world [the Hebrews] knew by explaining how it came into being. They came to terms with who they were as a people by explaining their own origins in that world.” (The CEB Study Bible, 1 OT) Thus, Genesis 1:1-2:4a begins the Torah with a story detailing a very harmonious and beautifully-structured creation, not unlike the structure of Israel’s religious life, with a goal of articulating the climax of creation: the Sabbath (2:1-3). If a Hebrew child were to ask a question about the Sabbath, a teacher might have pointed to this very story and said, “It is at the foundation of who we are and who God is.”

Origin stories are important to us. Any K-12 education in the US comes with a history of how we became who we are with imagery of revolution, slavery, women’s suffrage, and civil rights. Popular culture is filled with origin stories. How many times has modern America witnessed Peter Parker bitten by a radioactive spider? (I honestly don’t think we can take another one!) Sometimes, when an adopted child grows older, they have questions about their parentage, leading to a search for answers.

In all of these things, one idea comes to the surface: knowing more about the beginning may shed light on the present. And in that manner, Genesis 1:1-2:4a sheds light on the very beginning of the Sabbath, the imago Dei, and the responsibility and stewardship of humanity over creation, ideas that have ever-present meaning for the modern reader.

The Psalmist demonstrates the concern with origins in the first praise psalm, which is a celebration of God the creator. The psalm carries with it the origin-centric understanding of the imago Dei when it declares, “You’ve made [human beings] only slightly less than divine, crowning them with glory and grandeur. You’ve let them rule over your handiwork, putting everything under their feet” (8:5-6, CEB). It seems that the very beginning of humanity and scripture still plays an important role in Israel’s present at the time of Psalm 8, and in the Christian lectionary today. From the start, humanity has been created in the image of God, to partner with God in bringing order to the chaos of the world and to care for creation and creature alike in harmony.

The origin of the Jewish people plays a role in 2 Corinthians when Paul writes to the community, “Put things in order, respond to my encouragement, be in harmony with each other, and live in peace.” (13:11, CEB) Why is this the call upon the life of the early Christian? It most certainly has some root in the creation story above. The harmony-bringing of God is still the call of humanity. The 2 Corinthians’ charge also has its beginnings in another origin story of sorts.

In Matthew 28:19-20, the resurrected Jesus gives a mandate to his disciples that is the origin of most church vision statements and the historical evangelism (good and bad) of the global church: “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you.” (CEB) This disciple-making — rooted in obeying Jesus’ commands — is rooted in his summary of the law: love God and love neighbor. But the origin of this understanding comes from the Torah, from Genesis, and from creation, when from the natural outpouring of God (who IS love) came creation, humanity made in God’s image, the structure of religious life, and the task to bring harmony and care to creation and to one another. And all of that has great implications for who we are today. Our origins matter. And this is our ultimate origin story. So how will the knowledge of our beginning influence how you live right now?

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The Rev. Andrew Chappell

Andrew has been in ministry since 2008 and currently serves as the Associate Pastor of Northbrook United Methodist Church in Roswell, Georgia. Andrew has degrees in Religious Studies and Telecommunications from the University of Georgia, and an M.Div. from Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Andrew loves listening to records, watching Seinfeld, and beignets from Roux on Canton.

Lent 2(A): The Dance

Lent 2(A): The Dance

Genesis 12:1-4a

By: The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen

When I think of traditional Lenten themes, I think about penitence, repentance, self-reflection, self-denial, and meditations on mortality. While I whole-heartedly support these traditional themes of the season, taken alone, they can be a real bummer. Yes, we should remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return, but that does not mean that we are to sit around moping until the end arrives.

One way to reinvigorate our Lenten disciplines might be to expand our practices to the role of blessing. While practices of penitence, repentance, etc. allow us the self-reflection necessary to be in right relationship with God and to hear God’s call, today’s story of Abram shows us how that self-reflection can lead to a life of blessing.

If we look at the narrative arc of Genesis up to this point, it has been one of disobedience, destruction and curse. Adam and Eve are expelled from paradise and cursed. Cain slays Abel and is cursed. The people reject God, so God curses them with a flood. The people build a tower in Babel, and God curses them.

Finally, we come to today’s lesson about Abram, and the narrative shifts from cursing to blessing. Other than a genealogy, this is our first introduction to Abram (later Abraham). God calls Abram to leave his native land in a threefold litany of departure: “Go from your country [land], your kindred, and your father’s house” (Gen 12:1 NRSV). Furthermore, God tells Abram that he will lead him to a new land in order that God “will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Gen 12:2). God does not make Abram and his descendants a great nation to the end that Abram have power and dominion, but in order that Abram and his descendants “will be a blessing” (Gen 12:2). Through this give and take of inward reflection leading to outward movement, we see God, Abram, and the world engaging in an intricate dance of blessing. When Abram follows God’s call into new and scary places, God blesses Abram in order that Abram might bless the world.

Remembering that this story of Abram comes after the many stories of disobedient humanity and God’s curses on the disobedient, I would highlight the willingness of Abram to listen and respond to God’s call. In Genesis 12, we have not yet been told that Abram is a righteous man, but his ability to hear and follow God’s call demonstrates his righteousness.

An ability to listen and respond to God lies at the heart of our Lenten disciplines and begins the dance of blessing. Practices of prayer, fasting, and self-denial focus our hearts on God’s call. Through self-examination and repentance (metanoia—turning back toward God) we realign our lives with the path that God has laid for us. Through these practices, we, like Abram, can move out from our comfortable places of home and church and into the world where we can both share God’s blessing with others and be blessed in return.

The dance goes something like this:

  • God calls
  • We respond
  • God carries us into new territories
  • God blesses us through others
  • God blesses others through us

This dance of blessing lies at the heart of God’s covenant with Abram, and it is the blessing that Paul finds in the cross of Christ, particularly in his Epistle to the Romans, which we will read much of during Lent. Through Jesus, all the Gentiles are brought into the family of Abram, whose primary purpose in life is to bless. A sermon built upon today’s lesson from Genesis provides the opportunity not only to create a Lenten discipline around blessing, but to illuminate the difficult readings found in Romans in our Lenten lectionary. [1]

How might we as churches, communities, and individuals take our Lenten practices of self-reflection and transform them into ways of blessing the world? If we take Abram as our example, it means that we must leave our comfortable places of our own neighborhoods and families. It means going out into new territories where we might be cursed by others. God’s promise—the same promise God makes to Abram—is to journey with us.

Into what uncomfortable territories might we journey this Lent? How might God bless us, and how might God use us to bless others?

[1] Much of my thought on Paul and Judaism comes from Mark Nanos. For further reading, I suggest his commentary on Romans in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 2nd Ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017) and his book Reading Paul Within Judaism (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017).

 

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The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen

The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen serves as Associate Rector at Trinity Episcopal Parish (Trinity and Old Swedes) in Wilmington, Delaware, working alongside English and Spanish-speaking congregations. Prior to ordained ministry, Charles spent over a decade working in the professional theatre world as a director, actor, and puppeteer. His love of story informs his passion around biblical studies and sharing the Gospel of Christ.