The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
July 25, 2021
Genesis 12:1-8; Revelation 21:1-7
Finally after a sermon on consequences, then idolatry, we have finally come to “covenant.” No offense to consequences or idolatry, but I have been looking forward to this one the most. The concept of covenant is essential to scripture and our faith as Christians.
Covenant is not a term we hear often in our daily lives anymore. Today we run into more contracts or agreements which are similar but are a bit more stark compared to how God uses covenants.
When we look at contracts today the reasons two parties come to a table to form a contract often include obvious or not so obvious personal agendas. These agendas usually put an individual's own interests ahead of the interests of their partner even though they have a mutual goal. That is why contracts include extensive outlines of who will do what and how and by when. We try to cover all our bases so our partner knows exactly what our expectations are. It is a happy day when both partners can truly help each other but there is always an edge of “if this stops being mutually beneficial the partnership will dissolve.”
Because that sense exists in our modern contracts, we usually include rules around what will happen if the partnership needs to end. We outline consequences of what will happen if someone does not do what they promised. This protects the interests that brought us to the table to begin with and makes sure we make it out of the partnership at least as good if not better than we started.
All of this means that the two partners can expect a relationship that sits on ice that could break eventually. Some partnerships develop great trust and true friendship. They learn to care for the other’s interests as well as their own and may even let the written rule bend a little when times get hard because they care about the wellbeing of the other. Yet even in these well made partnerships the contract sits somewhere in the back of the relationship ready to be pulled out when things need to be made right again.
We know contracts can change relationships immediately. It's why we caution college students about rooming with their best friends. It’s why we are skeptical of marriages with prenups. We know putting a legally binding contract between two people can fundamentally change the way they interact with one another. The people we read about in scripture felt the same way. They had seen landlords take advantage of tenets. They had seen one partner trick the other into unfair contracts. These traumas lead to a practice called the covenant of the pieces.
The covenant of the pieces ritual was a way for a partner to assure another that they were trustworthy and committed to the success of the partnership. The partner that needed to prove themselves brought an animal to a meeting place, cut it in half and spread the blood in the middle creating a path between the two pieces of the animal. One partner would walk through the middle on this “red carpet” declaring that if they do not uphold their end of the partnership they too could be split in half like the animal was. It was the ultimate “I swear on my mother’s grave” statement made to appease a skeptical partner. It meant the person who walked through the middle took on full responsibility for the success of the partnership.
It is a practice we see God invoke just a few chapters after the initial covenant with Abraham. In chapter 15 of Genesis, just three chapters after God’s first interaction with Abraham, we see Abraham become doubtful of the things God promised. Sarah still has not had a child and Abraham decides to declare Ishmael his heir thinking this is the only way to make God’s promise a reality. God shows up to say “NO.” Sarah will be the one to bear you your heir. Then God asks Abraham to prepare the ritual of the covenant of the pieces. God tells Abraham to bring a cow, a goat, a ram, pigeons and doves to create the covenant path.
Abraham thinks he is the one who is going to have to walk through the middle. He after all is the partner who has shown doubts so Abraham thinks God is asking him to prepare this path to prove to God he is willing to take full responsibility for the covenant. This act will mean that if he strays again and tries to pick a different heir God has the right to cut him in half like the animals. But when Abraham is ready to walk the path he falls asleep and God is the one who passes through the middle. God takes on the responsibility of the covenant.
For people who understood the covenant of the pieces ritual this would have been an astonishing twist. The weaker partner should have walked the path, but it is God, the stronger of the two who doubles down and clearly professes a commitment to the partnership. God takes Abraham’s place and accepts full responsibility for reaching the goals their partnership is working towards.
Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Sounds like another time in scripture where God shows up to take on the responsibility of the weakness of humanity and takes our place on the cross. God never changes. From the beginning of the covenant with Abraham to the new covenant declared by Jesus, God is the one who bears the full responsibility of our partnership. Knowing full well we will doubt, we will stray, we will not uphold our end of the bargain 100% of the time, knowing all this God repeatedly steps in to say, “I am still committed to our partnership.”
If God were a human, we would be screaming at them to stop making covenants like these. I would be advising God to set some healthy boundaries and begging God to stop letting their partners take advantage of God’s good will. If this was a human-human partnership it would be time for the partners to end the relationship. We simply do not have the mental or emotional resources to handle the kind of abuse that God brushes off daily.
Which is why when we realize we have let God down we often choose to abandon God altogether. It is hard for us to imagine God welcoming us back, forgiving us, and wanting to continue being in relationship with us. Yet that is what God does over and over in scripture and in the lives of people around us.
We can see how humans constantly and consistently fail to be good partners to God. Adam and Eve, Cain, the flood and Babel are all stories about humanity being terrible partners. In those stories, God steps in and corrects the course of human error on God’s own. God creates a new place to live for Adam and Eve when they fail. God admonishes and protects Cain when he fails. God sends a flood to reset the course of creation after humanity fails. God confuses language when the people of Babel fail. God takes full control and redirects humanity after each failure.
With Abraham we begin to see God enact a different strategy. Humans are obviously not responding well when God steps in to fix things so God thinks maybe humans will listen to other humans better. God chooses one particular human family to be the example for the rest. This family will show the rest of the world what it is like to be in partnership with God and will help direct humanity as a whole toward the kind of world God wants for everyone.
Abraham’s family grows and becomes Israel. The covenant is then extended to all the people of Israel. God doubles down on the covenant strategy and declares a covenant with the whole community. Then when that community becomes a nation under the rule of King David, God again renews the covenant. Extending the promises to all the people of that nation.
That is definitely the sugar coated explanation of the covenant partnership. We all know how well humanity keeps their end of the covenant. Abraham doubts God constantly as he waits for Sarah to bear a child. Abraham is not able to bear the blessings of God into the world perfectly. Israel worships other Gods and becomes experts at groaning about any minor inconvenience. They are not able to keep the law perfectly. King David, well he was not a perfect person and did not lead a perfect nation. They were not able to enact God’s justice perfectly even though they had become a great nation.
The covenant strategy should have been abandoned centuries ago, and yet God stayed committed to the success of the partnership. God stays true to the ritual of the covenant of the pieces and every time the partnership seems unsaveable, God recommits Godself to us and to the promises God has made.
These unfulfilled covenants between Abraham, Israel, and David are why we say Jesus is from the family of Abraham so that he can be the one family member who actually brings blessings to the whole world. We also point to Jesus as the faithful Israelite who kept the law perfectly. And Jesus is the King from the line of David to continue the work of justice that David was not able to fulfill. Jesus is the one who can and does uphold humanity's end of the partnership with God.
God takes on all the responsibility to fulfill the covenant when God comes to us as Jesus.
Our representative in the covenant is the one who is the perfect partner. Jesus makes it possible for us to work on being better partners without the fear of God revoking the covenant because of our inability. Jesus solidified the partnership and we are free to follow that example, hopefully getting better and better, closer and closer, to the goal of blessing the world and bringing about justice for all of creation, or as Revelation puts it, when God makes their dwelling place among us.
Our defenses should be sending up red flags by now because the covenant system that God keeps reinforcing is easily taken advantage of. We can recognize a poorly drafted contract when we see it. It is absolutely an arrangement that is easily exploited and humans have been exploiting it from day one (well, day 6 to be exact). It is true that if God takes on all the responsibility of the partnership, humans will bail on their responsibility.
But they were doing that anyway. God stepping in with massive redirections and resets was not changing human behavior. The exile from Eden, the flood, Babel did not fix our rebellion. and in addition to humans not behaving better, God was not feeling fulfilled by being our overlord. God wanted partners.
God got into a covenant knowing we were not ever going to be an equally responsible partner, but God can handle our shortfalls. What Jesus then tries to remedy is the shame and guilt we put on ourselves when we fall short. We expect the partnership with God to work like a human partnership. There is only so much a human can take from a partner before they have to dissolve the relationship and move on. The shame and guilt we feel when we are not good partners with God convinces us God will respond the same way the humans in our lives, and so we turn away and abandon God thinking that we don’t have a chance to fix the partnership.
Jesus is proof God wants us back in the partnership. The message of the cross drowns out the message of shame and guilt. We are not too far gone, we have not messed up beyond God’s good graces, God still wants to partner with us so that when blessings and justice prevail we can be a part of the success and share in the celebration when God lives among us again.
So, yes, the covenant God makes with us is easily exploited, but God knows what God got themselves into and they enter the covenant again and again fully and with great joy, because God wants partners and wants to share the victory with us. May we hold our responsibility better each day and never let shame or guilt convince us God wants anything else but to renew our partnership.
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
July 18, 2021
Genesis 11:1-9 ; Acts 4:32-35
Idolatry has gotten a bad reputation...Okay, now that I have your attention let me explain.
Making idols, or producing an image of a god, was originally a way for people to worship their gods as they traveled from resource to resource. When humanity was still largely nomadic tribes, they needed something that represented their gods that could travel with them. Small carvings in stone or wood served their purpose well. These statues bore the image of the god so they could worship wherever they were.
As nations arose that had static centers of power, leaders also wanted their people to worship their image and so they commissioned idols to be made to remind their citizens who was in power. The emperor or pharaoh would put these image-bearing idols strategically around their territory. This served to inform invaders who they would have to deal with if they crossed the border and reminded citizens whom they owed thanks for their safety and to whom they owed taxes too.
Idols were a way to distinguish who belonged to a community and who a person showed loyalty to. If you visited someone and they had a idol of Osiris you knew who they worshiped and maybe found fellowship with someone with a similar belief as you. If a home had the image of pharaoh on their front door, troops knew to pass them by because they were loyal citizens.
This kind of imagery is still seen today. We put our leaders on our money, we build statues to local heroes, and we hang flags outside our homes to show where our loyalties are. The images we surround ourselves with show our values, who we think deserves to be emulated, and gather around common goals. Idols are not innately bad. They are just images of the things we see as valuable enough to display prominently.
There is a reason idols have collected a lot of baggage over the years though. Some of the images leaders have used to inspire loyalty become symbols of the destructive values they encouraged. The swastika is an example of how an idol, one image that represents a leader and the values of a group of people, becomes a symbol of the hate and violence the people who flew that flag embodied. Idols are not bad, until they are used to stand for something evil.
This story in Genesis encourages us to examine what our idols stand for and what is being promoted by their use. In this story we meet humanity when they are still one community, a community that was able to imagine and invent incredible things. In fact, their newest invention is the brick. Before this new technology they were limited by stone. Stone is hard to build with. It needs to be found, moved, shaped, balanced, and placed just right among other stones to make a structure. Bricks though stack very easily. A person can make hundreds of bricks in one day and exponentially increase building potential.
The humans of Babel are so proud of this technology they decide to make a structure that will project who they are into the world. This tower will be the image of who they are, they are powerful and they are innovative. LOOK AT WHAT WE CAN DO!!!!
God however wanted the brick to be used in a different way. God is not opposed to the tower but God can see how consuming the project is going to get. The humans set their sights on heaven. An outrageous goal sure to fail and God knows they will never be satisfied with the tower's results. Once their eyes are set on making a tower that reaches heaven, it will become all consuming. All brick production will be directed to the tower. If anyone wants to use bricks for something else they will be denied access. It will become the focus of all their energy. They could be making stronger homes for their families, or a hospital, or a worship space, but instead humanity hoards the resource into one tower.
Collecting and hoarding resources is not what God wants for humanity. It is not how creativity is supposed to be used. God creates to increase diversity and humanity has lost sight of that by hyper focusing on the tower. God steps in to redirect their behavior. Their language is confused and they are split into groups that then find new places to settle down and create new communities. It is easy to imagine how one group might have taken the technology of the brick and built a great wall that can be seen from heaven. Another group may build a massive library filled with all the knowledge of humanity. Another group could have built a temple to honor God with the new technology. What was going to be one tower now becomes an incredible variety of structures equally as impressive and in line with God’s love of diversity.
God could see how entrapped humanity was going to get in the tower and God knew the potential this new technology had. God wanted to see what humans could do with bricks and so it took splitting us up for us to live into our potential. That is how idols become an issue when they become all consuming. When we hoard resources to feed the idol and turn all our energy to upholding what the idol stands for, we lose sight of potential diversity and new ways to use the resources available to us.
We have come up with a few more amazing technological advances since the brick. I wonder if any of you know what Coca-Cola, Listerine, Slinkys, Play-Doh, and Rogaine have in common. They were all invented with one purpose but allowed diversity to turn them into the successes we know today. Coca-cola was originally intended to help people with morphine addictions and now it's a favorite drink internationally. Listerine was originally a floor cleaner; now we wash our mouths with it. Slinkys were made to stabilise nautical devices until someone accidentally knocked it off the workbench and brought joy to everyone who saw it slink about the work room. Play-Doh was first made as a wallpaper cleaner and now it's stuck in all of our carpet, I mean it's been a childhood favorite toy for many generations. Rogaine was made to lower blood pressure, and while it did that, it also caused increased hair growth.
Imagine our world if any one of these inventors had hoarded their invention and focused all their energy on maintaining their original purpose for their new technology. Thankfully they listened to others and allowed for their vision to shift and diversify. They let others share their ideas and create the products we enjoy today.
When an idol is created it can be an image that rallies community and declares shared values. It can also become a distraction. When we become too invested in maintaining the idol and presenting it a certain way it limits the possibilities for new and better expressions of who we are. That is why this scene from Acts stands in direct opposition to what happened at Babel.
The early church is gathered and they collect their resources but instead of building something big and beautiful to declare to the world “here we are” they meet the needs of their community. They make sure everyone among them is fed. They house and clothe everyone in their community. Everything they have is shared amongst them. If someone is in more need than another, they make sure they get everything they need to be equal to the rest of the community. Nobody has more and nobody has less.
The Roman empire at first did not care what the Christians were doing. They assumed it would be attractive to the poor, soon run out of money and resources, and collapse under the economy of Rome. But it didn’t. And what was worse, it was attracting the rich too! They felt fulfilled by the message of gospel in a way their possessions and power had never been able to make them feel. The Christians kept growing and Rome got scared.
This was a really threatening structure to the empire. If these pockets of Christians could prove that a communal structure like this worked, it meant more pressure on Rome to provide similar social support. Roman emperors did not like the structure of shared resources because frankly it meant they would have less. This fear sparked the organized persecution against the early church. The violence of the colosseum all but wiped out Christians solely because their way of living was disproving the need for empire.
God’s idol was proving more enticing than the emperor's idol.
God’s idol is what the early Christians rallied around. They were committed to the image of God placed in each human being they met. Humanity was God’s idol. By caring for one another they were committed to presenting the image of God in the best way possible. Where they saw sickness they worked to bring health to that image of God. Where they saw starvation or thirst they worked to repair the person so they could better present the image of God.
It was a great offense to smash or deface the idols that bore the image of someone's ruler or god, and the early church took offense when they saw God’s image without proper nutrition, or when they saw God’s image naked, or when they saw God’s image being killed by unjust systems. God placed an image inside of every human that is the idol Christians work to honor.
It is an idol that encourages diversity and ensures equality. When I have something you need, I honor the image, the idol, of God in you by sharing my resources. Then when I am in need, the sharing comes back in my favor. It is a system everything in our world demands we reject because honoring the image of God in every person completely negates the ideals of empire. It is a system we have not yet lived into the full potential of but Babel is yelling at us through scripture in every language imaginable to keep working towards God’s diverse and innovative way of sharing. The tower will never do us any good. Hoarding resources will never be what God wants for us. When we have something of value we must fight the urge to build a tower for our own glory and instead break it apart and share it. Because our God’s image is inside humanity. We must open our eyes to where the image of God is being suppressed and choked out of existence and offer the nourishment it needs to survive.
Where the world creates idols that attract energy and resources, our idol lives in every human being we encounter. The empires of this world will fight against this way of living. They will try to isolate us, make us too busy to notice who is in need. They will make us afraid of the change that will lead to true innovation. The work of restoring God’s image in this world will be hard work, and we will do it anyway.
Until we are one in heart and mind and there are no needy persons among us. Amen.
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
July 11, 2021
Genesis 6:1-8; Romans 8:31-39
The passage from Genesis is hard to hear. God regrets making humanity. It hurts to hear our loving God come to this conclusion because we can relate to the mistakes these humans have made. If these people must face the consequences of their actions, we fear what consequences we will have to face too.
Our fear thrives off of the idea that God’s judgment is punitive. That every wrong step we make here has an equivalent punishment in the afterlife. We assume this is how it will work because it is how human judgment works. Crimes deserve punishments. The story of the flood and Noah is an example of how God’s judgment works. But it is only one of many stories that show us what to expect. Scripture tells us about Adam and Eve’s banishment from the garden, Cain’s punishment for killing his brother, Noah, and the flood and hundreds of other moments where we see how divine judgment works.
There are a lot of similarities in these stories, which is good news because we know they aren’t meant to be historical retellings of actual events. Their characters and actions are exaggerated to make the important parts stand out. When we see similarities surface within a writer’s works we can begin to piece together the deeper truths they want us to see.
The first similarity is their sin: the sin of abandoning the identity God gives us and making a new one for ourself. Adam and Eve, Cain, and Noah’s community make the same mistake. They try to make a new identity for themselves. Adam and Eve try to become God. Cain thinks his identity as the oldest and farmer makes him more important than his brother, forgetting that they are both God’s own and beloved. .
In the flood narrative we see this happen too. The author makes parallels between the heart of God and the heart of humanity. God’s heart looks at the state of the world and grieves. Human hearts look at the state of the world and plot and deceive. The hearts of God and human are supposed to be the same. The heart was understood to be the center of a person containing everything that made them who they are which included the image of God. If human hearts were not after the same things as God’s heart they had shifted their identity away from their center, away from the image of God, into something else. They no longer identified as God’s image bearers. They identified more with warrior, seducer, whomever they claimed they were. It was no longer their God-given identity.
The sin that God keeps trying to correct is the sin of not expressing one's God-given identity and instead choosing an earthly title or status marker to be the center of who we are. Losing touch with our purpose and being pulled away from the goodness God created us to be.
If we believe God’s judgment is punitive we will come to the conclusion that the consequence of these sins was the flood. The flood was a punishment of equal share with the sins of humanity. If the flood was meant to tell us about God’s judgment it should be the center of the author's narrative, however, very little time is spent talking about the flood itself. God’s main interaction is with Noah and the work they do together.
Noah and his family represent the truth of God’s judgment. It is not punitive, it is restorative. All of God’s action is centered on Noah; this is where we find God’s judgment enacted. God’s plan is to restore the original intent of creation. God looks at the world and sees the sins, but God also knows that somewhere in each person is the original created goodness. This is the second similarity we find in stories about God’s judgment -- restoration. Adam and Eve deserved death but God found a way to restore what could be restored here on earth and give them another chance. Cain murdered his brother. The equal punishment would have been death, but God finds a way to restore what could be restored here on earth and give him another chance. Through Noah, God proves again it is possible to shift one's identity back to the heart, the image that God made and placed inside them.
Noah is presented as blameless among the people. Scripture does not comment on if he is blameless among God. But if his future actions tell us anything, Noah was a sinner too. He just had a good reputation among his neighbors. So when God steps in and asks him to build an ark, Noah has a lot to lose. He will look like a fool to the neighbors who respect him. All the years of favors and dinner party schmoozing to build up that reputation will be gone. Noah has a choice. Double down on the identity he has created, or let God restore him to his created purpose. Noah choses to do the harder of the two; he listens to God.
The hard labor of building the ark slowly moves Noah away from his earthly identities. He depends more on God to provide and he reconnects with his identity in God as a beloved creation.
After the flood God admits that is not how God wants things to work in the future. No more stepping in and hitting the reset button. Humans are going to have to do what Noah did and work through their sins. They will need to learn how to confess, to ask forgiveness, and examine where their identity is invested during their life and work to center themselves on their God-given identity.
The world operates with this new covenant. A couple of amendments happen here and there, until we get to Jesus. Jesus' death and resurrection is the ultimate proof that God’s judgment is restorative. That every piece of God’s image gifted to us at our creation will return to God. Paul reassures the church of Rome NOTHING can separate US, our core identity rooted in God, the true US. Nothing can separate US from God.
Judgment is not something to fear, but something to look forward to because it means on the day we are judged, the things that make us truly US will survive. The gunk of sin we build around us will fall away, leaving us, that perfect creation God intended.
Let me show you this process of judgment another way.
When we are born we are created with a perfect heart. One God declares to be very good just like God declared it in the garden. It holds our gifts and passions, our capacity to love and the very image of God, all our goodness.
As we grow up we learn things about how God created us, we better understand what makes us unique. As we learn how our unique characteristics work we also find out they can be misused. We hurt others. We hurt ourselves. We support oppressive systems. We assume our race is the best one. We create cultural constructs that tell people they cannot be proud of who they are.
All this stuff becomes a part of us and threatens to pull us out of our center. We start to identify more with this outer mess more than the inner goodness. We say things like: “I am stupid,” “I am unlovable,” “I am never going to get better.” Our identity shifts away from God’s image and into the stuff. The sinful stuff that happens to us or by us.
God knows this is happening. God can see how our mistakes build up and cause us to forget who we are. That is why God looked into the world and grieved. He regretted creating humanity because he felt those pieces of God’s self inside all this and knew those good hearts didn’t deserve it.
God wants us to do the work of unburdening ourselves from these earthly things that try to convince us our identity is anything other than beloved masterpiece, God’s own image bearer.
But this is hard work! It would have been easier for Noah to keep his reputation, throw another party, and die with the rest of humanity. Separating ourselves from the remnants of sin is hard because it forces us to see how far we have let our identity shift. How comfortable we have become not expressing God’s image to the world.
When Amy Julia Becker, the author of “White Picket Fences,” joined us, she told us about how she slowly came to realize the problems her family reinforced by having a black nanny. She told us how deeply her family loved this woman and how she began to see how their love was not perfectly expressed. It was a painful realization. It redefined her entire childhood and family relationships. It was painful, but she committed to wrestling with her privilege. She still wrestles with the issues of privilege but she is less and less fooled to invest parts of her identity in things that are not God. She has privilege; it is a sin of humanity we do not choose to have stuck to us, but if we can endure the pain of divesting our identity from it now we save ourselves from the pain of it later.
Because it will be ripped away from us. God’s restorative justice is going to take all of this away.
Paul puts it this way in 1 Corinthians 3: 14-15: If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.
We are all heading for the restoring fire of God’s judgment. In that fire all this gunk made by sin is going to burn away and what remains will be how we all started. Nothing can separate this US from God.
But Pastor Bethany, if God is just going to burn it all away later, why should we work on the gunk build-up now? Why not wait and let God do the work? Because we often fall in love with this stuff: the power, the privilege, the reputation, the titles, We fall in love with our earthly identities and believe they are who we are. When we love these earthly identities too much it hurts to go through that fire to have them burnt away from us. If we can begin that work now, the process of God’s restorative judgment is easier. It also teaches us to trust the restoring process.
When I was younger, if I sat back on my knees they would lock up. It wasn’t painful for them to be locked but if I tried to straighten my legs the pain was excruciating. The first few times it happened it was a whole ordeal of adults trying to help, and me crying. It took forever to convince me to relax and let them pull my leg straight. The minute my leg was straight though, there was no pain at all. Like it never happened. Over time I learned this and I would feel my leg lock and I would calmly push past the pain knowing if I just got it over with I would feel so much better.
When God’s restorative judgment is passed, some things will be excruciating to have pulled away from us because we have invested too much of who we are into maintaining that identity. But the minute we are restored we will feel better than we have ever felt.
God’s judgment is not something to fear, it is something to look forward to. It is something we can welcome into our lives today and work to unburden ourselves now. Some of that work is going to hurt. When we realize we have misused our gifts and allowed the stuff to pull us away from our inner goodness, it hurts. It is better to begin that work now and stay aware of what our identity is centered on so that we can be God’s image bearers today. And we can be a little better at it tomorrow, and look forward to the day this work is over and we can be fully us, restored, and forever with God.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
July 4, 2021
Genesis 4:1-16; Romans 3:21-26
I would like to begin this morning by asking each of you to think of your favorite Disney or Pixar movie. Or if you don’t have a favorite movie with one of those two studios then to just think of your favorite movie. Close your eyes if you need to. Have one in mind? Good, then answer a single question about your movie of choice, does it contain a rescue of some sort? Is its premise that someone is in trouble, or gets into trouble, and someone else comes and rescues them? The rescue could be from a villain or an accident or simply from themselves. Ok, so how many of you have rescue as the theme of your movie? I asked you to think about rescue for two reasons. First, so that you would be aware of what a widespread genre this is in movies and literature. Second, I asked because the concept of rescue is at the heart of both of our stories this morning. Yes, they are both rescue stories, almost like Disney and Pixar, except with one great difference. And that difference is that none of the people rescued in our stories this morning deserves to be rescued. They are not innocents caught up in some villain’s plot. They are guilty as charged. In order to understand this difference in stories, let’s recap both of our lessons.
Story one is the famous Cain and Abel story. Cain is the older brother much beloved by his mother Eve. Abel is the second born and almost an afterthought…which I, as a second child, understand. Cain is a tiller of the ground, which means he works hard tilling, planting, harvesting. He is dependent on a multiplicity of factors, rain, sun, seed as he strives to feed himself. Abel on the other hand, is a shepherd who merely follows his sheep and can move them from pasture to pasture. As the story goes, they both bring an offering to God. Now we are not sure why they do this. There is no requirement as to what or when to bring an offering to God, or even a command to do so. The upshot though is that Abel’s offering, which is offered after Cain’s offering, is accepted, and Cain’s is not. The first son is not happy. In fact, he is furious, and his fury overtakes his reason. Even after God gives Cain a cryptic piece of advice about mastering sin, Cain plots and carries out the murder of his brother. The resulting punishment is that the ground is cursed, Cain is driven from the soil and made an isolated wanderer, likely to fall victim to the next “Cain” he meets. Cain’s life is now at risk, but only because he is guilty of premeditated murder. He does not deserve to be rescued.
Story two is a bit harder to wrap our heads around. This is the story the Apostle Paul tells in his letter to the church at Rome. I say it is a story because, even through the dense theological language, there lurks the story of a good creation gone bad because of Adam’s poor choice in the garden. Included in this story is the call of God to Israel as the community through which God will save this wayward creation, but also Israel’s inability to fulfill this salvation mission. The result of these failures is that both Jew and Gentile have allowed the preexisting conditions we spoke of last week (dissatisfaction, desire and deity), to direct their life choices in inappropriate ways. Dissatisfaction has led to anger and misery. Desire has led to theft, murder and war. Deity has led to the diminishment and enslavement of others. Therefore, just as Cain was guilty of premeditated murder, all human beings are guilty of premediated sins, which bring about harm rather than good. As Paul writes, “For there is no distinction since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” What this verse implies is that all human beings have sinned and so do not deserve rescue either. And yet, in both of our stories, God rides to the rescue.
God rescues Cain by placing a mark on him to protect him. God rescues humanity by sending God’s only Son Jesus into the world that Jesus might be a sacrifice of atonement for our sins. Why does God do this? The answer to this why can be summed up in a single word…grace. Grace, simply put, means unmerited favor. It means receiving a free gift that is undeserved and unearned. It means being rescued when we don’t deserve to be rescued. God does this because this is who God is. God is gracious. God is the creator who loves the creation and desires it be rescued and not ruined. God is the one who acts graciously from the beginning to the end of this book (the Bible). This book is in fact, the greatest rescue story ever told; a rescue story based in grace. And to add one more element of rescue to these stories, God not only rescues us “from” but God rescues us “for.” God rescued Cain from death and for being the creator of cities and civilizations. God rescues us from sin and for becoming a new community of love, peace, and justice. God rescues us from our preexisting conditions and for becoming a people of grace for others.
This morning, on the 4th of July I hope that you will take a moment to ponder the grace that we have received; the grace we have received in the lives offered for the freedoms that we enjoy each day. The freedoms that so many people over the almost 245 years of our nations have given to us that we have been given as a free gift. Then remember the grace that God pours out upon us each day, intending to rescue us from ourselves and for the renewal of the world. My challenge to you on this day is to spend a few moments of each morning, remembering the grace you have you been given, and asking yourself, where can I share this grace with others?
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
June 27, 2021
Genesis 3:1-12; Philippians 2:1-11
I want to begin this morning with three stories rather randomly chosen from this week’s news. They each come with a disclaimer that they are disturbing, yet they are necessary for our morning’s discussion. First, a survey was conducted this week of service workers; those people who serve us at Starbucks or in grocery stores. The survey showed that 50% of all service workers had been either physically or verbally abused over the past year. And this is one of the reasons that many of these workers are not eager to return to their old jobs. Second, in Arvada, Colorado a man named Gordon Beesley, who was a resource officer at a local school, had agreed to pick up a shift with the Arvada Police department. He responded to a call about a suspicious person and was killed as soon as he exited his car. The man who killed Beesley did so simply because Beesley was a police officer. Third, a doctor here in our area was arrested by the FBI for selling hundreds of thousands of highly addictive opioids, perhaps addicting thousands and killing some. If these stories, and the hundreds of others like them, don’t make us believe in the brokenness of the world, I am not sure what would. The question then becomes who is to blame?
If we are to listen to our tradition, the answer of who is to blame can be found in this morning’s story. The one who is to blame is the woman; the woman, Eve, who listened to the talking snake and ate the fruit. Within Christianity, this is called the Fall, meaning that moment when Eve ate, and the perfection of creation was broken forever. What I want us to do, though, is to rethink this interpretation. I want us to rethink it for three reasons. First, Judaism never refers to this story as the Fall. The Fall is a Christian invention used to create a narrative about sin. Judaism instead saw this story as a tale about all human beings, and not just about the first couple. Second, I want us to rethink this story because Eve was not alone with the talking snake. Adam was right there beside her. And for the first and last time in history he chooses not to “man-splain” that she probably did not want to listen to the talking snake. Finally, I want us to rethink this story because it tells us that there were preexisting conditions within the first couple that made them vulnerable to the talking snake’s offer. Let me repeat that, there were preconditions within the first couple that made them vulnerable to the talking snake’s proposal. And these preexisting conditions did not go away but are still with us today. These conditions make us vulnerable to brokenness as well. And we can find these preexisting conditions in verse six. “And the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise.”
The first preexisting condition is that of dissatisfaction. Let me ask, how many of you, during Covid, stood in the cereal aisle of the grocery store scanning for your favorite cereal, and then were disappointed when you the store was out; when they didn’t have what you were looking for. If you have, this is dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction is the condition that causes us to fail to see the abundance around us because we are only focused on a single thing. This is what is going on when the scripture tells us that Eve saw that the tree was good for food. I say this because the writer of Genesis is clear that the garden was filled with all sorts of fruit producing trees. Those trees would have met every physical need that the first couple had. They would not have gone hungry because God was providing for them. But none of those trees would do because the man and woman were dissatisfied with what was on the Eden shelf. And the thing about dissatisfaction is that it leads us to internal brokenness. When we are dissatisfied, we are never happy. We are never content. We are always upset, angry and irritable. It is as if we have a hole inside that can never be filled. And I would argue that it is dissatisfaction that is behind the physical and verbal attacks on service workers. People are dissatisfied with their food, or their fancy coffee drinks, and so they lash out…even when their food and coffee is being set before them. Dissatisfaction breaks humanity.
The second preexisting condition is desire. So, a second question for you this morning. Have you ever wanted something so badly that it was all you could think about, dream about, or talk about? If you have, then you know desire. Desire is at the heart of the first couple seeing the tree and saying, “It was a delight to the eyes.” A literal translation of the phrase “a delight to the eyes” is simply “lust” meaning that the woman “lusted” after the tree. This is what I mean by desire, that desire is an almost uncontrollable lust for something; an unrestrained need to possess something or someone; an unrestrained need for power or position. The problem with this kind of desire is that it leads to brokenness by causing us to do whatever it takes to possess the object of that desire. We will risk anything. We will sacrifice anything. We will lie, cheat, steal, or kill to have that thing that we so desperately want. And so, we not only break ourselves, but we break others. We break communities. We break families. We break relationships. Desire leaves a trail of brokenness everywhere it goes. And I would argue that it was desire that drove that doctor to sell the opioids. He desired more wealth, more status, more power…and so he risked everything including his practice, his family and his freedom for that which he desired. Desire can break humanity.
The third and final preexisting condition is deity. The final question for this morning: Have you ever been in a situation of conversation in which you knew that you were absolutely right, and the other person was absolutely wrong, and you felt justified in looking down on that other person from your lofty heights of knowledge? If you have, then you know deity. Deity is focused on the first couple looking at the tree and thinking, “It was desired to make one wise.” Wisdom in this context is not good wisdom, as in Biblical wisdom. Wisdom here is tied in with verse five where the talking snake tells Eve that the fruit of the tree will make her like the gods. Yes, the Hebrew is gods, not God with a capital G. In other words, it would make her equal to the god she knew, or in later times to the whole pantheon of gods. It would allow her to determine her own destiny. To see herself as greater than anything else in creation. And where this causes brokenness is when we catch a bad case of deity, we begin to look down on other people because we are greater than they. We can dehumanize them, oppress, and use them for our own ends. I believe was the cause of the death of Gordon Beesley. The man who shot him decided to play god because he, the shooter, knew that police officers ought to die and were lesser human beings. Deity breaks humanity.
The question then becomes, what can be done about these preexisting conditions? Is there a prophylaxis or vaccine that would prevent us from catching bad cases of dissatisfaction, desire and deity? The answer is yes, and it can be found in Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. It is to be injected with the mind of Christ. The mind of Christ can defend us against deity by making us humble. We see this humility in that Jesus did not see equality with God as something to be desperately held onto but instead humbled himself. Humility reminds us that we are not gods, but creatures dependent on the one who created us. The mind of Christ helps us desire through service, by taking the form of a servant just as Jesus did. By being a servant our focus shifts from what we want or desire, to what others need. Finally, the mind of Christ helps us overcome Dissatisfaction through sacrifice, just as Christ sacrificed his life for the world. In sacrifice we no longer focus on what is missing in our lives, but on self-giving for others. The gift then of the mind of Christ is that it allows us to become healers rather than breakers of humanity. It allows us through humility, service and sacrifice to begin to heal the wounds of humanity and our wounds as well.
My challenge for this week then is this, to ask yourselves, how am I vaccinating my life with the mind of Christ so that I can help heal the world?
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
June 20, 2021
Genesis 2:18-25; Philippians 2:1-11
I can remember the first time I saw a Cirque Du Soleil show. There was a time Cirque Du Soleil was just one traveling troupe that performed in parking lots under big top tents. When they would come into a city nearby my brother would buy us tickets and we would make a grand night of seeing the show. I loved the energy in the parking lot, the way they lit up the tent to make it visible from any angle. The people selling food and colorful brochures and the general joy of the crowd. We all knew we were about to see something amazing.
I can remember my first Cirque Du Soleil show because halfway through the first act as people flipped and flew through the air above me I glanced down at the floor and realized there was a whole different show happening out under the trapeze as well. Other performers were watching from the sidelines. Fully engrossed by the act currently performing as the audience was. They reacted with oohs and aahs like it was their first time seeing the show too. As the show went on I realized they were the following acts about to go on. And the acts that were done then switched spots with them and watched from the sidelines. The acts were switching places and swapping roles of performer and observer.
A year or two later I learned why the performers stayed on the sidelines. One reason was there was literally no backstage in a tent, but they also were there to spot the other performers and keep each other safe. I figured this out because an act slipped, missed a hand hold, and the person balancing at the top of the human tower came tumbling to the ground. Cirque Du Soleil does not use safety ropes, or at least they didn’t in the 90s. With grace and ease a couple performers from another act stepped forward from the side of the stage and caught the falling artist in their interlocked arms.
This is the structure God creates in our Genesis passage today. A structure of balance between being the main attraction and being a helping hand. It is the type of community Paul urges the early church to be as well.
Paul reminds the early church their place is to be Alongside one another, counterpart to each other in community. He uses language like being of the same mind but this does not mean agreeing on everything, it means being committed to the wholeness of the community together.
Paul uses Jesus as the ultimate example of how to keep the wholeness of the community as one's focus. Jesus could perform miracles, but he allowed the newly sighted person or the formerly paralized to be in the spotlight too. He allowed them to speak their truth as he slowly slipped away to the next town. Jesus could have easily, and with every right, taken the spotlight, but he knew the community would be better if they knew the stories of these other people too. Jesus lifted up humanity as a whole and made spaces for lesser heard voices to have their moment at center stage.
Paul is not creating a new way to be in community based on Jesus’ example, he is calling Christian communities back to the created purpose of a diverse humanity. There was a time when humanity was just one being, the Adam of Genesis 1, but then God saw that it was not good for the Adam to be alone, and so the ezer kenegdo was created and a suitable helper was made.
Before I get farther into ezer kenegdo’s creation I want to take you through this Genesis passage and touch on a few shortcomings of the English translation.
First: The “Adam” Pastor John pointed out last week is better translated as “humanity.” One being created entirely in God’s image. In Rabbinic tradition, The Adam contained both male and female characteristics, male and female soul types, and male and female body types. When Jewish readers heard, The Adam at the beginning of Genesis chapter 2 they did not attach a gender, it is all in one.
Then we hear that The Adam is in need of a helper. God says “It is not good for ha’adam (humanity) to be alone. I will make them a helper (an ezer kenegdo).” God and the Adam look for an ezer kenegdo (suitable helper). No animal created to this point fits the bill so God begins creating again. Humanity is put to sleep and their side is separated from themselves.
Here is the second place the translation we have in our pews fails to help us see the depth of what is happening. When we use “rib” it makes it sound like a small little thing was taken and a new person formed. The Hebrew word translated here as rib, in every other part of scripture is translated as side. God does not take a rib, God takes a whole side of humanity. This is an equal slice right down the middle to create two sides of humanity!
The Adam confirms the equalness of this dividing. When he wakes up, he suddenly is aware of his gender being in opposition to the gender of this being in front of him. He suddenly knows who he is because he is in the presence of his opposite. While before he had been the Adam he now declares he is “Ish” - he is man. And this new creature is “ish-shaw” woman. Ish and ish-shaw are now separate but related to one another because they are both originally from the Adam. The man continues to confirm the equal parts by saying not just bone of my bone, not just my rib, but flesh of my flesh. He recognizes their interconnectedness though separated more than they were before, they are still very much a part of one another. There is a strong relationship between them. They know who they are better because they see the opposite.
From what I know about God, I highly doubt we are looking at a creation of two options, just male and female. God just doesn’t work in neat lines like that. When God created animals he didn’t create a couple of options he created trillions. When God gave humans talents and passions, there aren’t two options or even two extremes on the same line, there are billions of combinations and expressions of talent, passion and personality; languages, races, nose shape, and colors. God does not create in simple mode, so I cannot accept that when God separates humanity into two sides that this was the one time in God's existence that God said, “two is enough.” God does not change, God loves the complex.
So if we are not looking at a straight line with two extremes, what are we looking at when God pulls these two sides of humanity apart? If you have ever seen that toy that starts as a small sphere, and then you pull apart two sides so that it creates a huge sphere, that is what I think it looked like when God created the diversity of gender. God grabed the two sides of male and female and unfurled a very complex structure.
Inside this sphere structure are millions of opposing points connected by a line between them. So the inside of the sphere is a complicated web of opposite gender identities. The minute God let go of the sphere it was impossible to tell which two points were male and female to begin with.
You might think, “we know what male is and what female is,” but we don’t. Not according to God’s definitions. We never get that definition in the creation story. We have our social idea of what makes someone male or female, but even within those expectations I think we can all identify something in us that makes us slightly less than perfectly male or female. The reality of the web inside the sphere is we don’t know which way is female and which way is male. We are all a little off of the expected gender norms. I hate snakes and love dresses but I also love football and hate pink, so where does that leave me in the sphere? None of us have any idea, we are all some combination of male and female and neither.
But when the sphere was first created it didn't matter anyway if you knew where you were in relation to the two random points God originally pulled apart. The only thing that really mattered was why God had pulled open humanity like this in the first place -- which was to create ezer kenegdos, suitable helpers -- someone to be a counterpart for another human.
Ezer kenegdo is the third translated bit that needs some unpacking. Ezer kenegdo is used in three contexts in scripture. One is here is Genesis to describe the reason God separates humanity. The second is to describe how God steps in to “help” us, and the third is to describe a military force. When ezer kenegdo is used to describe God, it is as an all powerful defender and champion. When ezer kenegdo is used to describe a military force, it is the company that steps in to save the battle from imminent defeat and whose lended strength wins the day.
Ezer Kenegdo is not a docile servant there to help when needed. This helper is a powerful champion for the cause of another. They show up at the exact right moment to clinch the victory. When God sees that it is not good for humanity to be alone, it is because God sees days ahead where we will need people to fight for us. This is why humanity is separated so that we can be each other's warriors.
Paul is reminding the early church of this created purpose. There are times we need to realize our battle is not the priority, and we humbly come to the aid of another who is struggling. If we are pulling too hard for too long on our end of the line, our counterpart on the other side of the sphere is going to get weak and that side of the perfectly round sphere is going to collapse. If we favor one end of the line over the other, the sphere stretches and warps.
In God’s plan we all have our time to be performers, and we all have a time to be observers on the ground ready to step in if disaster strikes. We are entrusted with a performance, an expression of God’s image that we show the world through our identity, AND we have a counterpart, an ezer kenegdo, that is also supposed to show their equal but opposite side of God’s image.
Life in community is then a balance of taking center stage and sitting on the sidelines. If we take up all the time in the spotlight and never fulfill our role as ezer kenegdo, the sphere warps farther.
We can clearly see how this has happened in our world when we consider gender. The sphere has collapsed on itself and created a binary that God did not intend. As humans we are uncomfortable with complexity. We want to classify and make patterns out of God’s complex structures. It is so much easier to see another human and say Male or Female rather than open ourselves up to the reality that it’s just not that simple.
What has happened is whole sections of our sphere are going missing because their humanity is denied. Their ezer kenegdo refused to stand up for them. The average life expectancy of a transgender female of color is 35 years. Many of these women are murdered before reaching the age I am now because people do not see them as valid humans and feel threatened by their insistence on existing. But I would argue they are more human than many of us will ever know how to be, because they have traversed the inner web and gone from one side of the sphere to the other. Imagine what wisdom they hold about what it is to be a human. Imagine what they can teach us about occupying our area of the sphere and how to more wholly express the image of God that we hold within us because they have experienced that image from different vantage points.
We have to balance our times to shine with our ezer kenegdo responsibilities. One thing that keeps us from being able to support our counterparts is knowledge about them. But we do have the world's knowledge in our pockets if only we can take a moment away from performing and be the spotter. If you don’t know what transgender means, google it. If you see a Pride flag and you don’t know what it stands for, google it. If the stonewall, pink triangles, or die-in don’t mean anything to you, please spend some time learning. www.history.com/pride has a great page of articles for Pride month.
We have forgotten to be ezer kenegdo and champion the cause of our counterparts. Our sphere has collapsed, which is terrible for our gender queer siblings, but worst of all it means we are no longer expressing the fullness of God’s identity as a community of humanity. We are favoring two parts of a structure that has billions of parts. We have to salvage this sphere and bring wholeness to humanity's expression of God’s image or else we may not recognize God when the time comes to meet them.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
June 13, 2021
Genesis 2:1-3; Mark 2:1-13
It was the late 1800’s and the session of First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham was in a tizzy. They were in a tizzy because one of their members was caught doing something that he should not have been doing. And this was not the first time either. This member had been caught doing this same horrible thing the year before and was warned that there would be dire consequences should he ever transgress again. And yet he did. Someone had seen him and reported him. The session knew what they had to do. The vote was unanimous, this member would be expelled from the congregation. What was his crime? What was the horrible infraction that he had the audacity to engage in not once, but twice? He was caught…wait for it…harvesting his wheat on Sunday. Yes, that’s right, this man was caught harvesting his wheat on the Sabbath; the Sabbath, a holy day on which no work was to be done. I have to say this is one of my favorite stories from the church archives because it is such a great parallel to this morning’s story in which the Pharisees get upset when Jesus’ disciples do their own reaping on the Sabbath.
Just so we are clear on the similarities, let’s take a moment to review our story from Mark which we read a couple of minutes ago. Jesus and his disciples are on the road. It is the Sabbath. They are hungry so they pluck some wheat heads from a field and eat them. For most of us this would seem like a rather innocuous action. But for the Pharisees, who were a group of Jews who spent their lives trying to be faithful to God through strict adherence to the Torah, the disciples’ actions were appalling. The Pharisees found the disciples actions appalling because the disciples engaged in more than ten percent of the works prohibited on the Sabbath. Let me explain. Over the centuries, to ensure that Jews did not break the commandment to honor the sabbath, 39 types of work had become prohibited. Among these prohibited work actions were reaping, winnowing, threshing and preparing a meal. The disciples managed to engage in four of these prohibited work actions. In order to understand all of this, we would have to go into a wheat field and try to pluck and eat grains of wheat. To do so really is work. Needless to say, the Pharisees had the disciples dead-to-rights. The question was, what would Jesus do about it?
The short answer is that Jesus did what we hoped he would do. He chastises the Pharisees for being legalistic and makes it clear that he has authority over what happens on the Sabbath…more so than the 39 prohibited work rules of tradition. Chances are most of us are thinking something like, “Go Jesus, go. You show those legalists what’s what.” Which is fine, except for one thing…which is…that we have in many ways thrown out the Sabbath altogether. Since there are no more legalistic regulations we have simply let the Sabbath slide. The problem with letting the Sabbath slide is that the Sabbath is baked into God’s recipe for creation. Not having the Sabbath would be like baking bread but not letting it rise before putting it into the oven. I say this because the Sabbath is the seventh day of God’s creative act. The Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments in which God commands people to honor the Sabbath. The Sabbath is one of the great issues with which the prophets deal in their critique of God’s people, meaning God’s people failed to honor the Sabbath. It seems then that with the Sabbath occupying such an integral place in the life of God’s people, perhaps we need to spend a few minutes reminding ourselves about the purposes of the Sabbath; that the Sabbath is a gift of God to help us.
The first way the Sabbath helps us is to give us rest; to give people a day off. What is fascinating is that the Christian church took a day that was intended for rest and turned it into a day for worship. Let me be clear, I believe that worship matters; that attuning our hearts toward God in corporate worship is part of what we are called to do as Jesus’ followers. Yet, the sabbath was originally intended as a day in which men, women, children, animals, and even the earth were to be given a chance to rest and refresh. It was intended to be a day that reminds people that rest is important; that life is not about endless work and drudgery; that life is not about endless accumulation. For many of us this call to rest comes as a challenge and a relief. It comes as a challenge because there is an unwritten rule that we are what we accomplish. That if we are not accomplishing something then we are wasting time. So, we work hard. We play hard. Yet ultimately all that hard work and play takes a toll. It comes as a relief because it says down time is good time. Down time is meaningful time. Therefore, Jesus could say that the sabbath was made for human beings because rest is in fact part of God’s purpose for the world.
The second way in which the sabbath helps us is to give us an opportunity to enjoy God’s good creation. Let me ask, how many of you have ever finished a project, looked at it, declared it to be good, and then just sat back and enjoyed it? If you have, then you have an image of what God did after finishing creation. God took time to enjoy God’s own creation. We can see this by linking the end of Genesis chapter one and these opening verses of chapter two. At the end of chapter one we listen as God declares all of creation to be very good, meaning that creation is well suited for its purpose of bringing forth the fullness of life. Then in chapter two, we are told that God blessed and hallowed the seventh day, meaning God set aside this day for the sole purpose of rest so that God could enjoy and appreciate all that had been accomplished. What then we are invited to do is to stand with God on the Sabbath and enjoy this good creation as well. We are to stand with God and appreciate the beauty and complexity of creation and as we do so, to give thanks to God for creating a universe that can be depended upon.
One of the great joys of living as long as Cindy and I did in San Antonio was having our pick of a wide variety of Tex-Mex restaurants. Some were standalone eateries, others drive thrus and still others were chains. On a regular basis we would choose one of our favorites and we would indulge our craving for enchiladas and tamales. Occasionally we would do so on a Sunday after church or in the evening. What we knew though was that there was one chain to which we could not go. And that was Las Palapas. We couldn’t go there because they were closed. They were closed because their owners believed in Sabbath. A sabbath for their employees. And on the sign out front of all their stores were these words, “Sunday, closed for faith and family.” I always admired that because it said that they understood Sabbath as a time to set aside working and striving and to simply rest and enjoy God’s good creation. So this is the challenge that I am offering to us all on this Sunday, to ask ourselves, “How am I taking the time for sabbath, to rest, to enjoy and to simply be in God’s presence and creation so I can be refreshed for the week to come?”
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
June 6, 2021
Genesis 1:26-31; Galatians 3:23-29
It is considered one of the greatest aspirational sentences ever written. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." This sentence is at the heart of the Declaration of Independence of the American colonies and is perhaps one of the most quoted lines from any document in the history of our nation. But as I said, it is aspirational, meaning the desire for equality is one to which this nation has always aspired but never fully lived into. This is not a criticism of our nation. It is not a criticism because there is no nation, organization or culture that has made this kind of equality a reality. What I mean by this is that if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that even if it is an oxymoron, there are some people who are more equal than others. Some people are more equal because of the families into which they were born, or the nation in which they were born, or the schools they can attend, or the experiences they can have, or their gender, sexual orientation, abilities, or skin color. There are countless life circumstances that prevent the aspiration of equality from becoming a reality…not only in the nation but in the church.
I say not only in the nation but in the church because the church also has an aspirational statement about equality in its founding documents. This statement is not simply found in Paul’s words to the churches in Galatia but in some ways is hardwired into our faith through the words we read this morning in Genesis 1. I say hardwired because these words calling God’s people to equality cover all aspects of human life. Let’s take a few minutes and see how Genesis 1 calls us to three distinct aspects of equality: the aspects of personhood, purpose, and provision.
The first aspect of equality concerns personhood. Listen again to verse 26. “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.’” At the heart of this verse is the word “adama,” which is Hebrew for humankind. It is a genderless noun describing the totality of human beings. It does not describe a man or a woman. And even though the passage continues by differentiating man and woman, the initial act of creation is focused on reminding God’s people that all human beings are equal because they are made in God’s image. Thus, there is equality in personhood, meaning that even when the world wants to claim that some people are more equal than others, God’s word shouts from the rooftops that this is not so; that every person is created in the likeness and image of God and so is to be treated as such.
The second aspect of equality concerns purpose. Genesis continues, “…and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” In essence what this portion of the verse tells us is that we all have the same purpose in life, and that is to care for and watch over God’s creation. I realize that the words “have dominion over” have been taken to mean domination, or the freedom to do whatever we want with God’s good creation. It has meant that humans have the ability to pollute the air and water, and to deforest the planet. The problem with that interpretation is that it forgets that to have dominion means to serve the one who created and owns creation. In other words, to have dominion means to steward this amazing world as if God were here personally overseeing everything. I like to think of having dominion as being a forest ranger, whose task it is to care for and nurture creation. Thus, every human being is equally responsible for acting on God’s behalf to care for the world and everyone and everything in it.
The third aspect of equality concerns provision. In verse 29 God says, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.” What this means is that all of creation and the goods in it are given to all people and not only to a select few. Of the three declarations of equality this is perhaps the most difficult to attain because human beings have long lived with the sense that what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is mine if I can take it from you. From the dawn of creation, human beings have lived with a mentality of scarcity, meaning that enough is never enough and so I need to keep taking for myself, my family, my people, my nation even when that taking impoverished others. Consider that the wealthiest 16% of the world’s population consume 80% of the natural resources. Or in this moment of Covid19, our nation is at a place where there are more than enough doses for all, and other portions of the world don’t have enough to vaccinate more than a percentage or two of their population. What Genesis makes clear is that this is not the way the world is supposed to be. There is to be equality in provision because the goods of this world belong to all humankind.
Where then does the call to live into these three aspects of equality leave us? And by leave us, I mean where does it leave the First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham, Michigan, Everybody’s Church? Where I believe it leaves us is that we are aspiring to be a community in which this Godly equality is not only aspired to but is being lived out. This equality can be found in our Inclusion Statement, “As Everybody's Church we strive to be a faithful, open and inclusive community. We welcome the full participation of all people of any ability, gender identity, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or any other life circumstance.” This equality can be found in our attempts to make our building energy efficient so as to minimize our impact on creation. This equality can be found in our mission work of sharing our resources with others. We are aspiring and working toward equality. The challenge I want to offer you this morning is this, to ask yourselves, “How am I working to make this world a place of equality in all that I do?”
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
May 30, 2021
Genesis 1:1-5; Revelation 21:1-5a
Some people believe that it began in 1859. Others say it began in the early 1920s. Regardless of when it began, the debate between evolution and creationism has consumed churches, school boards and state legislatures for the last 100 years. This debate could have begun in 1859 with the publication of The Origin of the Species, by Charles Darwin because the book introduced the concept that species evolve over time through a process of natural selection. Yet, initially, many Christians saw God’s hand in the process of natural selection and accepted that God could use evolution as a means of continuing creation. However by the 1920’s more conservative Christian churches rejected Darwin’s work. These churches insisted on a literal reading of the creation narrative, meaning that God created everything as it now exists in six, 24-hour days. This is what is called “Young Earth Creationism.” I mention this debate not because we will engage in it, but because I believe the entire debate between creationism and evolution misses the purpose of this opening chapter of Genesis. It misses the chapter’s purpose because this is a religious and not scientific text…meaning the chapter is intended to tell us some things about God and some things about us. It is not intended to tell us something about the physics of creation. And not only that, what we learn about God and ourselves from this chapter is essential to our understanding and living our faith. So, over the next few minutes we will look at four discoveries that this chapter contains that will assist us in our faith journey.
Discovery one is that life matters to God. Note I did not say that God is about creation. I said that life matters to God, which is what the first chapter of Genesis is about. It is about God bringing life into existence. If we were to have read the entire first chapter, this would have become clearer. Chapter One about the creation of plants of multiple kinds, of a wide variety of fish in the sea and birds of the air, of plants yielding seed so they can reproduce, of fruit trees of every kind, of swarms of living creatures in the sea and on the land, of birds, cattle, creeping things, and wild animals. And all of these are to multiply and cover the earth. And let’s be clear, God was not forced to create all of this. God was not under contract to create. God created life because life matters to God. This is why Jesus can later say that he came to bring life and life abundant. This is why Jesus can say that God is the God of the living and not the dead. This discovery is critical to our faith because it reminds us that all life, and not simply human life, matters to God.
Discovery two is that God is a risk taker. I realize that you might not have ever heard someone say that before. But if we take seriously that God creates life, then God is taking a risk in that act of creation. Let me explain. I have taken this poll before, but we will do so again, how many of you were children once? Ok, so most of you. When your parents gave you birth, or fostered you, or adopted you, they were taking a risk because sooner or later, you would learn the most powerful two-letter word in the English language, “no.” And as soon as a child learns that word and uses it, the child becomes a separate person, no longer attached to the one who created, fostered or adopted them. What this means in terms of God creating life, is that as soon as God created something, that something had the ability to say “no” to God. Rabbinic scholars like to point out that even before human beings said “no” to God, creation did the same. In verse 24 God says, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures…” Does earth do so? No, earth does not and so God must do it. In other words, like an intransient child, even creation was resistant to being directed by God. Even so, creation, creating life, was worth the risk to God. God cared about life so much that God was willing to risk hearing a “no.” This discovery matters to our faith because it says that God is willing to risk showering God’s love and compassion on all of us even if there are those moments we, too, say “no” to God.
Discovery three is that we are not God. I realize that for most of us this is not a new idea. In fact, few of us would probably think of ourselves as God or a god. But there is more to not seeing ourselves as God than merely comprehending the fact that we are part of creation and are not the creator. Even though we may not think of ourselves as gods, we often act like we are. What I mean by this is that we assume we know what is right and true in almost every circumstance. We think we know what the outcomes of all our actions and choices will be. We think that we can see into the future and that all our plans and dreams will come true. In other words, we act like we are God. Or if we do not do these things ourselves, we are more than willing to invest these god-like qualities in others. We are willing to give our allegiance to people and or organizations that claim to be able to save us. We are willing to treat others as if they are micro-gods rather than human beings. This is what happened with Hitler, Stalin, Pol-Pot and Jim Jones; meaning the outcome of such worship of creatures always ended and ends badly. This discovery is critical to our faith because it reminds us that our ultimate allegiance must be to God and God alone.
Discovery four is that we human beings are works in progress. This discovery is one that comes from the sixth day of creation, which is one of the two days of creation that is not said to be “good.” The other day not said to be “good” is day two, which is another matter. To say that something is good doesn’t mean that it is intrinsically good, or beautiful. It means that it is fit for its God given purpose. As we will discover, humanity’s purpose is to love God and neighbor, and to care for creation. By God not declaring human beings as being good, it is a sign that God is not sure that we will be able to fulfill our purposes. In other words, we are going to be works in progress. We are going to be willful creatures who may or may not ever fulfill our potential and purpose. We will always be somewhere on the learning curve of discovering who God desires us to be. Again, this is part of the risk God took in creating us in the first place; that we might not turn out as God intended and desired. This discovery is important to our faith because it reminds us that we are on a journey and that even when we fall short of what we expect of ourselves, or what we believe God expects of us, it is okay because God knows that we are works in progress. And so we are not to give up or be discouraged.
The question then becomes, how do we draw these discoveries together? How do we make sense of them for this day and all our days ahead? My response would be that we go to the very end of the scriptures, to Revelation 21:5 where we read God saying, “See, I am making all things new.” A better translation might be, “See I am constantly renewing all life.” In other words, God’s love for life, all life including human life, is so important that God does not sit back and simply observe what is going on, but that God is actively at work helping life reach its full potential. God is at work helping us reach our full human potential. The challenge then is for us to allow God to work in our lives. To allow God to be God and to renew and remake us with each passing day. Here then, is the question I would have you ask. “How am I allowing God to make me new with each passing day so that I might reach the full life God has planned for me?”
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
May 23, 2021
Habakkuk 2:1-4, John 14:15-17, Acts 2:1-4
I want us to try something before I begin. Ready?
[Silence - Count to 20]
Great Job! I wonder what that was like for you? Waiting is hard. Waiting when you don’t know what is coming next or how long you will be waiting is incredibly difficult. The Pentecost story largely depends on a time of waiting and yet we skip over that part every year. Heck, Acts basically skips over it too. Jesus tells the disciples he will send them the Holy Spirit; he ascends into heaven; the disciples get distracted trying to refill their committee of 12 people; and then boom, Spirit shows up.
It sounds like they all go down in one day. They got up that morning, had breakfast with Jesus and saw him ascend. Then over lunch, they decided who was going to take Judas’ spot and by the afternoon they had the Spirit. The timeline though is more likely that they waited for about 10 days for the Spirit. Scholars get to this length of time based on secular historical writings. The science is thin so we can’t know for sure, but the writings, some of them journals, talk about Jesus alongside descriptions of preparations for specific festivals. We know when Jewish and Roman festivals took place on a calendar so we can get a general idea of Jesus’ timeline too. Rumors of the resurrection are tied in closely with talk about the Festival of the First Fruits, and the Spirit shows up on the Festival of Pentecost which are 50 days apart. Acts 1:3 says Jesus was on earth after his resurrection for 40 days, 50-40 = our 10 days of waiting for the Spirit.
Like I said, all that is a flimsy case BUT I think the most compelling support for the Spirit showing up after a period of significant waiting is the fact that Jesus does not just hand the baton off to the Spirit.
It seems odd that Jesus wouldn’t make this important introduction himself if the Spirit was already nearly there. Like, “Hey guys, gotta go but I want you to meet this great friend of mine. We call her Spirit. She’s gonna take over for me. See you in heaven. Peace out.”
Quick detour to talk about why I use she/her pronouns for the Spirit. I know our English versions often use He pronouns when talking about the Spirit, but that was a choice translators made and I believe they chose wrong.
One, because there are two words that get translated into Spirit. One in Greek and one in Hebrew. The Hebrew word is “ruach” which is a feminine word. The Greek word is “Pneuma” which is gender neutral. SO anyplace in scripture that references the Spirit is either gender neutral or feminine and the only reason Greek speakers use “pneuma” is because that is the best word Greek speakers had to express the Hebrew understanding. They did not have a way to retain the feminine nature of the Spirit in their language. Much like we don’t have a perfect way to talk about gender neutral people in English. There is already a translation and a loss of specificity happening from Hebrew to Greek speakers.
Secondly, in the Greek there is a pronoun that gets used around the word “pneuma” which is “autos.” “Autos” can be translated as he, she, or it. When we make a translation of autos we need to look at who the word is referring to. When translators see it connected to pneuma they hit a dead end. There is no gender on pneuma there is no gender on autos. What do we do? Until 2004 when English translators chose to write he, they could have just as correctly chosen she or it. Bibles translated in the last 17 years have started making different choices but it is a hard thing to switch.
Thirdly, I see God being perfectly fine with feminine roles in scripture. Even a literal reading of Genesis clearly shows female is part of God’s image. PLUS there are tons of places in scripture that God is more than happy to be compared to female roles. Hens, bakers, breastfeeding, even Jesus says we must be born again in the Spirit, which is in Jesus’ context the work of a woman. I think Jesus understood the Spirit to be more feminine and that’s why he makes that metaphor about birth instead of using a metaphor connected to male work to describe the Spirit, for example, “one needs to be recarved in the Spirit.” Jesus knew the Spirit well and when Jesus talks about the Spirit and uses autos I think Jesus means “she.” So when I talk about the Spirit I use she/her pronouns.
There are lots of other reasons, but we need to get back to Pentecost and talk about waiting. Jesus does not choose to immediately pass the baton off to the Spirit. He ascends and forces the disciples into a period of waiting. We think this was about 10 days of not knowing when the Spirit would arrive, not knowing what it would look like for the Spirit to arrive, not knowing what would happen after that. They just had to wait.
The way you felt a few moments ago, as I slowly counted to 20, was probably similar to how the disciples felt waiting for the Spirit, and they had to endure it for 10 days. This forced waiting was an intentional choice that Jesus made. There must be something in waiting that Jesus wanted the disciples to experience first that made him choose to not make the introduction to the Spirit himself. Something that needed to be processed before they were ready for the Spirit to arrive.
While our little experiment at the beginning of this sermon gave us a reminder of what waiting is like, we know waiting better than we ever have. The past 14 months have been a crash course in waiting. The shared experience of waiting through this pandemic has given us a new understanding of the power in the wait and gives us an idea of what Jesus might have hoped would happen as the disciples waited for the Spirit.
The first thing we all did when we were forced to wait was dream. When we found ourselves with extra time, we dreamed about the possibilities. Posts about at home exercise were everywhere, we were dreaming of being healthier. People quickly found home projects they had always wanted to get to, they dreamed about unfulfilled potential. Hobbies were dusted off. We dreamed about who we wanted to be on the other side of the lockdown. We imagined coming out of the waiting a better version of ourselves.
For me that period of waiting lasted a month, maybe you did better than me, but the next stage was resting. What else did we have to do but rest. We vegged out on the couch watching whatever we could find on TV. Puzzles were suddenly sold out. Family conversations went long into the night. I even saw a video of a guy who spent all day doing whatever his dog did. When the dog looked out the window they looked out the window together. When the dog napped they napped. When the dog wanted to play they played. Resting while we waited for whatever was coming next took over our lives.
Then, and I believe largely where we are now, is analyzing. We first started analyzing how and why our lives had gotten to the place they were in February 2020. The packed schedules. The early mornings and late evenings. We looked at how normal had become normal and began asking should that be normal? Now as we see a light growing with every vaccine in an arm, we are analyzing what to allow back into our lives. Thinking deeply about what we have learned over these months and how to shape a life that includes the things we miss and the new things we love. How do we hold space in our schedules for the lessons we learned during rest? How do we make the dreams we dreamed a reality?
These three things, dreaming, resting, and analyzing are the power in waiting. We rush through waiting because it's difficult, because it makes us uncomfortable. I'm sure many of you were on the edge trying to anticipate when I would begin my sermon, getting anxious and maybe a little annoyed. When we talk about Pentecost we rush past the waiting that came before the Spirit because it’s not as exciting as flames hovering over someone’s head. We thought nothing was happening while we waited. There isn’t any story there. BUT there is.
There is so much in the wait. SO much that Jesus knew the disciples needed to wait before they were ready for the Spirit to arrive. While they waited they dreamed about how to get the message of Jesus out to the rest of the world. They dreamed about what a community fully committed to the teachings of Jesus would look like.
While the disciples waited, they rested. They no longer had to chase after Jesus and stay alert to the teachings.They could rest. And they could analyze the message. Really boil down the teachings to the core of what Jesus was saying. They probably retold their favorite parable, correcting one another, and had realizations about lessons they hadn’t quite gotten when it was first told.
Dreaming, resting, and analyzing made them ready to get to work the minute the Spirit arrived. They had the vision of the dream. They were well rested and ready to get to work. They knew the lessons and how to proclaim the gospel.
I want to try our waiting again. This time I want you to feel yourself going through each stage. I will give you a verbal prompt of when to switch to the next phase. Ready
Let’s dream: lean into the potentials we can only imagine (count of 10).
Rest: clear your mind, let your shoulders fall, unclench your jaw, relax your tongue (count to 10).
Analyze what lessons are within reach (count to 10).
Good job! This is just practice. We are still in the waiting period of this pandemic and so I challenge you to take the time to process through these stages of waiting. Do not rush through the gift of waiting and miss the power we can gain from it. So when this pandemic eases and life begins to spin again, we can be ready to live into the power that waiting has given us.