Monday, August 29, 2011

God Calls....Sermon for Proper 17

Last week I preached about the Exodus text.
About Shiphrah and Puah, the two midwives,
who refused to follow Pharaoh’s orders
to kill the boy babies of the Hebrew women.
And about Pharaoh’s daughter who pulls a baby from the Nile,
embraces him as her son and names him Moses.

It was not one of my shorter sermons.

I decided last Saturday night
to try to write the essence of that nine page sermon
in haiku form.
Haiku, if you recall, is short three line generally non-rhyming poem--
5 syllables in the first line, 7 syllables in the second,
5 syllables in the final line.
You get the idea.
It’s short.

So here is what I wrote based on that Exodus text from last week:

Shiphrah and Puah
sparing babies Pharaoh’s doom.
Moses laughs down river.

A three line sermon.
Even when I read it slowly,
it’s only ten seconds.
For some of you that might be your sermon dream come true!

This week our lectionary continues the Exodus story.

This week’s old testament reading
is about Moses and the burning bush,
about answering a call from God.

I believe we are all called by God.
Not just Moses.
Not just those who have had burning bushes
flame before their very eyes.
Not just clergy.
God calls every one us
to do God’s work in the world.

What is this work of God?
For Moses it was leading the Israelites out of bondage.

For Peter and the first disciples
it was to try to make sense of what Jesus was saying to them
so that they could tell others.
Even when they didn’t understand it all,
they still knew it mattered.
And they felt called to share that good news.

God calls us to different work,
using our different and very diverse gifts.
Throughout theological history,
people have tried to give us some guidelines
on how to live a holy life,
a life that nourishes us with goodness
as our opening collect says this morning.

Paul’s letter to the Romans
tells us how we should go about doing God’s work.
You heard that list of things we need to do.

Sometimes I think we tune out Paul.
We start to read or to listen and our brain goes,
Oh goes Paul with his list of
oh don’t you wish you were as perfect as I am.
I don’t think that was Paul’s intent.
I think he’s just trying to help us brothers and sisters in Christ.

It’s probably a lot like preaching a sermon--
sometimes people will leave the services
and say, “Well, I know you were preaching to me this morning!”
Actually, about the only person I think I can preach to is myself.
But God opens our ears
to hear what we need to hear sometimes.

So I want us to imagine,
this portion of Paul’s letter to the Romans as a t-shirt.
That’s right a t-shirt.

Paul’s Top 20 List for following Jesus

(Now I am going to use the language from THE MESSAGE, Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the New Testament, but you can follow along with your scripture insert which has the New Standard Revised Version translation)

1. Love from the center of who you are. Don’t fake it.
2. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good.
3. Be good friends who love deeply.
4. Practice playing second fiddle.
5. Don’t burn out. Keep yourselves fueled and aflame.
6. Be alert servants, cheerfully expectant.
7. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder.
8. Help needy Christians.
9. Be inventive in hospitality.
10.Bless your enemies (no cursing under your breath).
11.Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down.
12.Get along with each other.
13.Don’t be stuck up.
14.Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody.
15.Don’t hit back.
16.Discover beauty in everyone.
17.If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody.
18.Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. That’s God’s job.
19.If you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink (your generosity will surprise him...)
20.Don’t let evil get the best of you. Get the best of evil by doing good.

It’s not a simple to-do list.
Perhaps there are one or two things that really called your name.
Maybe each of us only needs a top 2 or 3 things list.

Jesus kept it simple:
Love God. Love one another.

Paul is giving us some tips on how we live into that kind of love.

This kind of love is not easy.
It may cost us everything.
But it’s worth it.
It’s so worth it.

Now back to Moses and burning bushes and being called by God.
When you go through the discernment process
for the priesthood
you are asked (make that required)
to write a spiritual autobiography.
Depending on your age and your journey,
that can take pages and pages.

I had one of those pages and pages spiritual autobiographies.
But during that time of discernment,
I was still doing consulting work for museums
and was traveling--a lot.
One stormy afternoon I was sitting in an airport
waiting on a delayed flight.
To pass the time
I decided to write my spiritual autobiography--
the abbreviated version.
I had a little notebook and I decided it had to fit on one page.
Not quite a haiku--but short.

I don’t remember the whole thing--short as it was--
but here is how it started:

God called.
I was appalled.
I was resistant.
God was persistent.

God calls each of us.
We have to listen.
Maybe we hear clearly.
Maybe we see the burning bush on our first morning out on the mountain.
Or maybe it takes years.
But remember,
God is patient and God is persistent.

God expects something from each of us.
There is a holy way of living we are called to discover--
and to live.

We can try to line it out like Paul did--
our top 20 list--
or we can just try to keep it simple--

Love God. Love one another.
This love is costly. This love is difficult.
But it’s worth it.
It’s so so worth it.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Sermon for Year A Proper 16

The Help:
Shiphrah and Puah and Pharaoh’s Daughter

Some of you may have seen the movie THE HELP
that is playing in theaters now.
Some of you may have read the book by Kathryn Stockett
that inspired the film.
THE HELP is a story set in Jackson, Mississippi in the late 1960’s--
a time of strict segregation and rigid, sometimes punishing,
social norms.

THE HELP is the story of a diverse group of women--black and white,
privileged and unprivileged--
and their struggle --at least for some--
to do what they know is right--
but is also extremely risky,
To speak up and to speak out.
To shine a light into the darkness
and reveal injustice and oppression.

THE HELP is a well-told story.
But it is certainly not a new story.
Injustice and oppression have deep roots.
The Bible tells us so--
again and again and again.

Today we hear from the book of Exodus
about two midwives-
Shiphrah and Puah.

Those are not familiar names that just trip off our tongues.
I don’t know about you
but I don’t know anyone today who has those names.

That’s rather too bad.
Because these two women in the book of Exodus
are quite remarkable.
Exodus is a remarkable story.

In Exodus we come face to face with what it means to be an oppressed people.
We cannot read the text and deny
that some human beings
are willing to impose suffering on others.

Pharaoh, the king of Egypt,
is the king-pin of oppressors.
In ancient and in modern times,
one link that connects all oppressors
is that they are usually fearful people.
They do evil unto others before others might do evil unto them.

Pharaoh is afraid of the Israelite people.
They are a people who are doing just as God commanded in the book of Genesis--
be fruitful and multiply.

Pharaoh is afraid that these people are becoming so populous
that they may soon have enough people, enough strength
to overcome Pharaoh and his kingdom.

What if the Hebrew people align themselves with Pharaoh’s enemies?
Pharaoh has no intention of losing his kingdom,
his wealth, privilege and power.

Pharaoh is afraid.
So he sets out to take control.
Pharaoh says, Let us deal shrewdly...
(Never a good sign when someone says that in the Bible!)

And Pharaoh orders Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives,
to murder--
to kill any and every boy baby born to the Israelite women.

Pharaoh didn’t care about the girl babies.
Girls were nothing.
But boys?!!
Boys grow up to be men--
men who can take Egyptian women,
men who can align with Pharaoh’s enemies
and go to war against Pharaoh and the Egyptians.
men who know the benefits of power
and privilege.

Pharaoh has the solution.
Kill the boy babies.

Pharaoh is fearful of the Israelite people.
He sees that they are growing,
in number and in strength.
He also takes note that even under the oppression of slave labor
and harsh living conditions,
are not broken.
Pharaoh is not stupid.
He is paying attention.
He notes,
The Israelite people are more numerous
and more powerful than we [are].

This is terrifying when you are the person in power.

The text says that the Egyptians came to “dread” the Israelites.
That word “dread” is better translated
as “sick to their stomachs.”

The Egyptians are disgusted by the Israelite people.
They don’t see that they have anything in common with these people.
They don’t see the Israelites as human beings.

But the things that frightens Pharaoh the most
is that he knows he NEEDS the very people he loathes.

Pharaoh’s economy needs these immigrants.
Pharaoh is scared out of his wits by these people
yet he is even more scared
that he might lose them
and in turn, lose his wealth.

You see Pharaoh can’t fill his storehouses with grain
without the Israelites.

Pharaoh can’t continue his expansive building projects
without the labor of the Hebrew people.

So he devises this plan.
His plan is to kill off all the Israelite boy babies.
The women--who pose no threat in his mind--can still serve as slaves.
He just needs to be rid of those boy babies.

Only things don’t go as he planned.

Shiphrah and Puah do not do what the King of Egypt commands them to do.
And Pharaoh hears about this.
He summons the two women to come before him.
Can you imagine the fear those women felt
standing in front of this ruthless man?

But the midwives found their strength from a source unknown to Pharaoh.
The text says--
But the midwives feared God...

These two women
truly believe
that God is more powerful than even Pharaoh.

Who are these two women?
The text of Exodus says they are Hebrew midwives.
But we don’t really know if they are Hebrew women
or if they are Egyptian women--
appointed to serve as midwives to Hebrew women.

We don’t know.
Their names sound like Hebrew names--
but if they were Israelites
why would Pharaoh trust them in the first place?

What we DO know is that Shiphrah and Puah
feared God.

This is not the same type of fear that Pharaoh suffers.
Their fear means to be in total awe of God.
These two women believe--
and from their actions it seems they truly believe--
that no worldly king,
is more powerful than their God.

These midwives disobey Pharaoh and show mercy.
These midwives embody God’s mercy.

They do not see the Israelite women as “those people” or “the other.”
They see these women--and their babies--
as fellow human beings,
all created by one God,
all loved by one God.

But Shiphrah and Puah do have
a marvelously crafted excuse for Pharaoh.
They explain their disobedience
by describing the Hebrew women
as giving birth so quickly that they, the midwives,
don’t arrive until after the babies are born.

Too late for the delivery, too late for the cunning killing of the baby boys.

It is probably a believable story to Pharaoh
because it fits with Pharaoh’s mindset that the Hebrew people
are nothing more than animals.
They are not like Egyptian women who give birth normally--
taking hours and hours of labor.

So Pharaoh’s plan has gone awry.

But oppressors almost always have a plan B.

If the baby boys can’t be killed at birth,
then Pharaoh decrees that
Every boy that is born to the Hebrews
will be thrown into the Nile.

But interestingly enough,
the next person who disobeys Pharaoh,
is Pharaoh’s very own daughter.
(Don’t you just love God’s sense of humor?!!)

When Pharaoh’s daughter finds this baby floating in a basket down the river,
she KNOWS he is a Hebrew baby
But she takes the baby and has compassion.
She takes the baby as her own son
and hires a conveniently present Hebrew woman--
as his wet nurse.
Pharaoh’s daughter just happens to hire the birth mother of Moses.

An Egyptian woman and a Hebrew woman come together
on the side of hope and life.
Moses is the son of BOTH of these women.

God has a way of bringing together the unlikely.
God often uses those who appear to have the least power
to do the most good.

Pharaoh is a person with immense worldly power.
He lives a life based on fear, exclusion and loathing of others.
Sadly, this is a model followed by too many
and too much of the world.

If you can make people afraid, you can control them.
If you can pit one group of people against another,
you can likely control all the people.

If you can make one group of people think they are better
than another group,
if you can portray the “other” as disgusting, non-human,
you can stay at the top.

Bullying is a small-scale example of Pharaoh’s model of relationships.
Turn on the evening news or pick up the New York Times
and you can find example after example
of Pharaohs still actively at work.

But God offers another way.
Certainly, as Christians, we recognize Jesus as one who walked a very different
path than Pharaoh.
But God was already revealing the other way long before Jesus.
Look at Shiphrah and Puah and Pharaoh’s daughter--
compassion, inclusion and risk.

Throughout history there has always come forward
some one or some small group of people
who refuse to do what they know is wrong.

Someone steps forward--often risking their own well-being, their very life--
someone steps forward and offers another way,
a vision that speaks of God’s dream for the world.
A vision that is comprised of risk and compassion and inclusion.

When she opened [the basket], she saw the child.
He was crying, and she took pity on him.

This must be one of the Hebrew children...
and she took him as her son.
But the midwives feared God.
They did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them...

Regardless of the situation or the time period,
when you decide to face and oppose Pharaoh’s kingdom,
you cannot expect things to be easy.
You cannot even expect that you will come out alive.

It’s why so many of us do not take those risks,
do not stand up or speak out for what we know is right.
It is much more difficult to oppose oppression
when we are not the oppressed.
It is also difficult
when we have a lot to lose ourselves.
None of us dislike having a comfortable life,
having privilege and power.

But we need to look at the lesson offered by Shiphrah and Puah.
We need to live in awe of God.
Not in awe of any other human being or any system of power.

We need to live by the model of Pharaoh’s daughter--
willing to risk for the sake of compassion,
willing to open our arms and hearts
to those who are being shut out and shut off
because we know that is wrong.

As baptized Christians,
we have made a covenant with God to follow Jesus.
Jesus who said--
Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven
and whatever you loose on earth, will be loosed in heaven.

Life is not about just hanging around
waiting for the pearly gates of heaven to spring open.
What we do here on earth matters.
How we treat one another matters.

God gives us choices.
We can choose a path that offers life to all--
or we can choose a path that sacrifices some people--
in order that a few might live extremely well.

God gives us choices.
Mercy or massacre?

God gives us choices.
Jesus came to remind us again.
Choose compassion.
Chose mercy.
Choose life.

God HAS spoken to God’s people.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Haiku Sermon

A friend of mine started a Facebook group HAIKU FOR BREAKFAST. Being a haiku fan myself,and struggling to finish my sermon today, I decided to try writing the essence of the sermon in haiku form tonight. The text is Exodus 1:8-2:10. I'll post the nine page version of the sermon later tomorrow but here's the short version for tonight:

Shiphrah and Puah
sparing babies Pharaoh's doom.
Moses laughs down river.

You know. I really like the haiku version better than the nine page version.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The times they are a-changin'...

I often ponder change. I wonder why it is so difficult for some while others easily take the stance of "It don't bother me, Poppy." People leave churches where they have worshipped for decades--even generations--if something changes that they feel they cannot bear. It is usually not a major theological shift--it is usually something like the 7:30 AM Sunday Morning service is shifted to begin at 7:45 AM or someone moved the flag to a different spot in the church. I am also aware that sometimes people depart a congregation they have loved for very good reasons.

But the truth is: change happens. Constantly. Even the details, the every day little things in our lives, are constantly changing. This summer Tom and I attended some worship services at Montreat Conference Center (which is just down the road from where we live). We noticed that the younger ministers preached directly from their laptops or iPads--no written, printed out copies. I am not there yet, but I liked this a lot. Seems environmentally friendly as well as an expression of the immediacy of the text and the ability to change/edit rapidly.

I read this post by Tom Ehrich on Mary MacGregor's blog ( and now I pass it on. Both Mary and Tom's blogs are well-worth following. I like it how posts can pass along from blog to blog to blog (appropriately credited, of course!)--it seems a new way of sharing the good news, or as D.T. Niles put it, " beggar telling another beggar where to find bread."

Here's how Mary introduced Tom's post:

I have come to appreciate Tom Ehrich's blog 'Morning Walk Media' alot. Recently he posted the following article. I hope he doesn't mind me copying it for you all to read. It is about the things we often cherish or think are essential that are only a means to an end and are disappearing from our lives. This includes church buildings. I urge you to read it and consider the implications for you as a missionary leader. Here goes:

The Yawning Divide Between Pencils and IPads
by Tom Ehrich, Religion News Service

In preparing a commencement address this week, I decided to werite it on my new Apple iPad, sitting on a sofa beside a window, using an app called Quickoffice. Big deal, you say. But, think about it.

A month ago, I didn't own an iPad. I had never heard of Quickoffice. I had never imagined that a touch-screen keyboard could be satisfying. I carried 20 pounds of gear, files and books onto an airplane; now I tote around a 1.3 pound iPad.

In one month's time, everthing has changed. What's the point? The point is change-rapid change, change in even the most basic functions we perform, like stringing words into sentences. New gear, new media, new ways to express thoughts, to store and process images, share ideas, collaborate with others, and manage time. Of all the current tools I use in my work, only one, a mechanical pencil, was in my toolkit a year ago.

Is it all about gadgets? Not in the least. I read this week about a family that sold their property in Arizona and now just travel around in a Winnebago, doing their jobs by internet and laptops. Others live and work on boats or run businesses from coffee shops.

My list: no car, no checkbook, no landline telephone, no lawn mower. Much that I considered normal a few years ago isn't even part of my life now.

Churches are forming without buildings, pipe organs, stained glass windows, pews or wood-paneled offices. Bricks and mortar universities are moving online. Even dating has moved online.

The point isn't to extol technology, but to note that most of these changes will seem normal any day now. Former ways, it turns out, weren't essential. We want to fall in love, yes, but whether we do so at a church social, company picnic, group meetup, or is just a detail.

We need to eat, but whether we shop at a corner market, a huge Cosco or online grocery is just a detail.

We need to have faith, but whether we find it in a building with a steeple, a house church, or walking with a friend is just a detail.

A divide is openining between those who still consider the details of yesterday's normal to be necessary and those who perceive the details as optional. When something is necessary, you fight to preserve it. When it becomes optional, letting go is no big deal.

Church buildings, for example , feel like sacred space and a solemn trust to some people, who sacrifice much to preserve them. Others say, "So what? We can worship in a hotel ballroom, meet at Starbucks, study online, and find the sacred anywhere." The point is faith , not facilitites.

Sorting out these two perspectives is wrenching work, filled with misunderstanding, suspicion of motives, loss of employment, loss of certainty, loss of common ground for imagining basic things. These deep divides aren't about age or maturity, education or income, or intangibles like respect. It's more disposition than anything. It's like the gulf between ranchers and farmers a century ago over need for fences. There are elements of self-interest, but also different ways of seeing history, land, values and future.

The obvious answer is to coexist: some using pencils, some iPads. But when so much is changining, and details are in constant dispute, the bonds of community can get strained.

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York.. He is the author of "Just Wonder, Jesus" and founder of the Church Welllness Project. His website is Follow Tom on Twitter@tomehrich.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Orange is the New Black

I just finished reading Piper Kerman's ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK. I discovered it accidentally--yep, wandering around a bookstore (could somebody please pay me to do this??). I had never even heard of this book--once again, drawn to it by the cover art (thank you good graphic designers).

It is the story of the year that she spent in federal prison as a result of being young, stupid and carrying a large sum of drug money for someone she foolishly trusted. It's not so much the how of how she got to prison but what happens to her in the time spent there. If you have been misled to think that federal prison is only one step down from a country club, think again. This book will make you think again and again and again.

The relationships Piper forms with the other women in the prison and the deepening of her relationships with her family and friends outside the prison walls during this time are an interesting juxtaposition to one another. This book is also quite an eye-opener about our justice system, mandatory drug sentencing and the effects of that system on women and the children of incarcerated women.

I don't have any idea what it would be like to lose all my privileges and freedoms but this book gives a taste of that. Piper Kerman's story does not make excuses for what she did to wind up in prison but it is profound call for compassion for those who are imprisoned.

She's also able to write about this with wit and humor--otherwise i think the story would be one that is too hard to tell and even harder to read.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Sermon for Year A Proper 14

A day at the beach

I wasn’t feeling so well that morning.
I was tired.
My sons and their children went on ahead into the village
to buy some supplies for our long journey home.
I told them I would just wait for them to return.
So I sat down on the shore to rest for awhile.

I saw that man, the one they call Jesus—
he was down by the water
and his disciples were casting out to sea in their boat.
They seemed to desperately want him to come along with them,
to get into the boat--
but he kept shaking his head, “No,”
and pushing their boat out into the deeper waters.

And then he walked right by me.
He gave me a slight nod-- but didn’t say anything.
He looked tired.
He looked as tired—no, even more tired—than I was.

I saw him walking up the mountain alone.
I almost got up to follow him.
to see exactly where he was going.
He’s just that kind of person—
you just want to go wherever he goes.

But I didn’t go.
I was afraid.
What if my family came back looking for me
and I wasn’t there?

Plus I’ve heard stories that he often goes off by himself—
to be alone with God, to pray.
I understand that.

Alone time is hard to come by.
Life is so busy.
There are so many demands.
Somebody always seems to need something.

Just as I was beginning to enjoy MY alone time,
sitting there on the beach,
I heard faint shouts, carried by the winds coming off the sea.

I could barely see the boat
but I could see the waves—tipping that little boat almost upside down.
It looked like the men in the boat were doing everything they could
to bring that boat back in to the shore.

And then here comes Jesus,
Calmly walking,
coming down the same mountain path he went up,
his eyes fixed on that little boat.
He walks by me and right down to the edge of the water
and then—now, I am telling you what I saw that day—
he walks right out—onto the sea.
That’s right—he walks right onto the sea.
Not INTO the sea—but right on top of the water.

I know, I know,
You think I am just a crazy ol’ woman imagining things.
I was NOT imagining him walking on that water—
I saw it. I think I saw it.
Though, to tell the truth, I couldn’t believe it myself.
I gave myself a hard pinch—
just wanted to be sure I hadn’t dozed off and was dreaming.

He just walked across the top of the water.
The men almost had the boat back in to shore
and then they see Jesus walking on the water
And they stopped.
They were close enough then that I could see some of their faces— slack-jawed, mouths dropped wide open!
They were scared!

Except for that fellow named Peter.
He is something else.
He grew up with one my sons
and since Peter was a little boy
you could hardly contain him.
My boy Zach tells me Peter is wild for Jesus!
I don’t have any problem believing the wild part!

So next thing you know, Peter is jumping out of the boat
and for a minute
it looked like he was walking on water too!
But that didn’t last but a second—if it happened at all—
and it is a good thing Jesus can walk on water
or Peter would have drowned.

Next thing I know,
they’re all in the boat
and suddenly the sea is calm.
Smooth as one of the stones you pick up along the shore
and hold in your hand.

I couldn’t hear what they were saying,
but it looked to me like Jesus was laughing.
Not laughing in a mean way—
but the way we all laugh
when we find ourselves with those we love—
even when they drive us crazy.

I don’t know what happened to all of them next
because my family was there and we wanted to make it
a little ways down the road towards home—
before it got too dark.
We planned to stay the night with some cousins along the way.

I had trouble going to sleep that night.
I kept thinking about all I had seen—or thought I had seen.

I kept thinking about that little boat
being tossed around by those violent waves.

There are days when it feels like I am surrounded by water on every side.
And there is no way to cross over,
No way to find my way back to shore.
I sometimes feel lost at sea.

My life feels like that boat sometimes.
I feel battered by worries and fears.
I worry about my children and my grandchildren.
I worry about my husband who has been so sick this past year.

How will we live
if something happens to him or to my sons?
Life is bare bones enough right now.
Some days it’s hard to have any hope for the future.

Sometimes I feel that at any moment
our little boat could tip over
and dump us all head first into a storm of despair.

Laying awake in the dark
I kept thinking about this man Jesus.
Did I really see him walk on top of the water?
Was that real?
How is that possible?

I know, I know,
A lot of people do not like Jesus.
I’ve heard the talk.
They think he’s a bunch of hooey.
They think he’s dangerous.

But what I know I did see
was his hand reaching out to Peter and pulling him up,
pulling him safely out of the water
and into the boat.

I saw the storm stop.
I saw the sea become calm.

I don’t know what to think about this man named Jesus.
but I know there was something about his presence
that brought peace—even to the waves.

I know there was something about his presence
when he walked by me that day—
that brought peace—even to me.

He didn’t prevent the storm from happening,
but he sure knew how to calm the waters.

I know he was there
when those friends of his needed him.

And somehow…
somehow I think
he might just be there for me, too.
And maybe for you…
And you…and you…and you.
Somehow I think
he might just be there for all of us.