“Winners or Losers? Reflections on Vocation” A Sermon on Genesis 32:22-31

What are we to make of this strange story in which Jacob wrestles all night and gets a new name? I think it tells us something important about who our God is and about the identity of God’s people. And I want to reflect on what this story tells us about our own identity and vocation as Christians.

The first thing to notice is that whenever somebody in the Bible is given a new name it is best to pay attention. A new name signifies a turn, a change, a new chapter in the person’s life, and a new calling. A new name means a New Being.

So, for example, Abram becomes Abraham as God calls him to keep the covenant of promise. Saul becomes Paul on the road to Damascus and is changed from being a zealous persecutor of the church into the Apostle to the Gentiles. Fisherman Simon becomes Peter, the rock on which Jesus will build his church.

And in today’s story Jacob’s name is changed to Israel, becoming the namesake of God’s people. He will now be the bearer of the ancient Promise to Abraham, and in time his twelve children will become the twelve tribes. Before this night of wrestling there was no Israel, when day breaks Israel becomes a new reality.

But before we explore Jacob’s new identity as Israel let’s fill in the back-story of his old one. If you start watching Game of Thrones in the fifth episode it is best to learn what happened in the previous ones. Making the necessary changes in the analogy that is what we need to do here.

So who is Jacob? I have already said that Abraham was his grandfather, and Isaac was his father. Rebekah was his mother. He was a twin and his brother was Esau, who is a very important part of this story.

You may recall that Jacob was a pretty competitive guy from the get go. His wrestling days began in the womb, and when he was born he was grabbing on to his twin’s heel trying to be born first. But Esau was born first and as the oldest was the favorite of old Isaac. But that didn’t stop Jacob from trying to take his place.

Why is brith order important to our story? Because according the ancient laws of primogeniture the first-born son was the heir. This convention was to keep brothers from internecine warfare over who would inherit.

So by the natural order of things Esau would be the heir to the promise given to their grandfather Abraham and their father Isaac. But throughout the Bible we see again and again that God doesn’t have to work within the natural order of things.

You may recall the story of how Jacob got Esau to sell his birthright to him for a bowl of lentils (if you grew up with King James it was “a mess of pottage.” Esau came in from hunting and was famished and Jacob was eating this nice red lentil soup, and Esau traded his birthright for it. Every since, to sell something “for a mess of pottage” has become proverbial for giving something valuable away for something not valuable.

A little later in the story Jacob tricked old blind Isaac into giving him the blessing that should have gone to Esau by dressing in Esau’s clothes, which Isaac recognized by their smell. It was this last trick that so enraged Esau Jacob had to run out of town for his life.

You may recall that on his first night on the lam Jacob fell asleep with a rock for a pillow and he saw a ladder up to heaven with angels ascending and descending. Here in the Berkshires we all know about Jacob’s Ladder and Jacob’s pillow. It was probably more like a ramp or a ancient ziggurat, but Jacob’s ladder it will ever be.

Not a very nice picture of Jacob so far, his resume is not a great character reference.  We see that Jacob’s old identity included being a striver, a schemer and a scoundrel.

Today’s story is much later in Jacob’s life. He has gone up to Canaan and made good, taken a wife (two in fact) and prospered in business with his uncle/father-in-law, Laban, who Jacob also fleeces to become quite prosperous.

Now he is going home, a rich man with large herds and a big family, to face his brother Esau for the first time since he ran away. What will happen? Will Esau receive him? Or will Esau take revenge. He doesn’t know.

So that night Jacob and his retinue crossed the River Jabbok, and then we have this strange line in the story: “Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.”

What are we to make of this? Like many stories in Genesis it is spare and raises more questions than it answers.

Who was the man? The author of this story, whom scholars call the Yahwist, no doubt had ancient oral traditions from across the generations to work with. Perhaps in pre-monotheistic days this story was about a river god or demon that Jacob needed to best to get across the stream.

Was it an angel of God, or God himself? Or was it Esau in some form as Jacob’s reckoning with him looms? We can’t be sure. The text implies that in some way or another Jacob was wrestling with God, and it came to a draw. Jacob came out of it with a new name and a new vocation, but also wounded. The man threw his hip out of joint and he would forever walk with a limp.

What we do know that in the hands of the Yahwist this story is profoundly theological. Jacob certainly commands our attention, but the real focus of the story is Jacob’s God, the one who overturns conventions to carry out the divine plans and purposes, who overturns the world’s normal notions of wisdom and strength. If Jacob is a scandal to conventional ideas of ethics and morality it is because his God is a scandal.

Because the people this God chooses to further his intentions for the world are frequently not those that the world either admires or esteems. The Apostle Paul knew this when he wrote to the church in Corinth, “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Cor. 1:27-29)

This is the topsy-turvey world of the Bible where the first are last and the last first. We see it, too, in the ministry of Jesus who holds up the poor, the meek, the mourners and the persecuted for special place in God’s affections.

The Yahwist’s theological insight into Israel’s election and vocation was that they weren’t particularly special or heroic but merely chosen. Just as Jacob was a bit of a hot mess, but still God wanted him, so Israel across the centuries would be a far from perfect people as they tried to live out the covenant and be faithful to the promises of God.

And when we take a cold hard look at the church we must confess we too are not always the best and brightest, the strongest, purest, wisest people God could choose. But this great story we are a part of is not mostly about us, it is about the God who chooses us and calls us by name and says “Follow me” and live as I have lived and love as I have loved.

On this 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation we do well to recall the Reformers’ insight into the ambiguity of the human condition in their axiom, Simul justus et peccator, which means we are, at the same time, made right with God and remain sinners.

When the church remembers that we are redeemed sinners rather than haloed saints we are wise about the power in our weakness and the weakness in our power.

We can contrast this with a pervasive notion that you can divide the world into “good guys” and “bad guys” and the good guys are defined as those who look and think like us and the bad guys are the others.

The demonization of immigrants and Muslims, to take one example, is a failure to recognize their common humanity with ours as children of God. There was another bombing of a mosque yesterday in Minnesota!

This binary labeling of people as either “winners or losers” marginalizes all who don’t fit the litmus test of wealth and status that so many cherish. Wealth and status are a big spiritual problem for us Americans as you will recall from my sermon last years about how we have too much stuff.

When wealth and status elbow out decency, honesty and compassion, then permission is given to hurt and harm those who don’t measure up, and sadly we are seeing this in today’s America.

On July 13, the day after it was revealed that Donald Trump, Jr. and other top Trump campaign advisors had met with representatives of the Russian governmenet to get dirt on Secretary Clinton, Michael Gerson, a young Opinion Writer for the Washington Post, wrote this:

He (the President) did not attend the meeting, but he is fully responsible for creating and marketing an ethos in which victory matters more than character and real men write their own rules. Trumpism is an easygoing belief system that indulges and excuses the stiffing of contractors, the conning of students, the bilking of investors, the exploitation of women and the practices of nepotism and self-dealing. A faith that makes losing a sin will make cheating a sacrament.

But lest we point out the speck in Trumps eye and ignore the plank in our own we must confess that religion has too often been used as a tool to label the winners and losers, the worthy and the unworthy, the somebodies and the nobodies. When we in the church accept this we undermine our own Gospel.

Because our God is a God who lifts up the nobodies of this world, who exalts the humble and meek, who loves the poor, embraces the outcast, and welcomes the stranger.

In Jacob God chose a flawed, imperfect human being to carry the promise. And again and again across the generations it is not the powerful or the famous that are chosen, not the ones the world counts as winners, but the losers.

And in this glorious paradox of power in weakness and weakness in power it seems to me we see a prefiguring of the crucified Christ, our Lord and Savior, the suffering servant by whose “wounds we are healed.” Amen.

(I preached this at South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, on August 6, 2017. Print by Leon Joseph Florentine Bonnat, 1876. For an audio of this sermon go here.)

Norwood Days: We All have to Start Out Somewhere

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe all have to start out somewhere.

I was reminded of that today when a friend sent me a funny clip about church from Saturday Night Live and I immediately recognized that it had been filmed at the little church I grew up in.

I had seen rumblings about this on the Norwood Facebook page, that there had been a film crew at the Church of The Holy Communion, a beautiful Episcopal church in Norwood, a small town in Bergen County, NJ.

Both my parents were raised in Congregational churches (and my Mom was for a time a Methodist), but when my Mom beat the dust of the Midwest off her heels and moved to New York City she became an Episcopalian. Both my parents were, for a time, librarians at General Theological Seminary, an Episcopal school in the Chelsea section of Manhattan.

They lived on the Upper West Side when I was born, which is how I came to be baptized at the Cathedral of St John the Divine, which if you’re keeping track of things like this, is the world’s largest Gothic cathedral.

Before I started school we moved to Closter, New Jersey, a little town in Bergen County across the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan. My Dad was a commuter at the time, working downtown as the photo and caption editor for the Religious News Service, the public relations arm of the old National Conference of Christians and Jews.

While in Closter we attended the little church in Norwood, where my brother Bill was baptized, a very early memory of mine. My father, never baptized, was then a grumpy agnostic, and from him I learned to take both faith and doubt very seriously. My mother was devout and active in the church.

We moved to Norwood when I was in fifth grade, and then were within walking distance of our church.

I am sure there was sin, gossip, and the sundry pettiness that plagues every congregation of humans, but I felt loved and accepted there, and the fact that I ultimately became a Christian minister speaks well of their care and nurture for and of me.

The rector was a gentle, ancient man, Mr. (always “Mr.” as he was low church) John Foster Savidge. He had an odd way of speaking that I assumed was some kind of special ecclesiastical patois. Only years later did my Dad tell me he had CP and a resulting speech impediment. He was very kind to me, and one time when I was about 11 he came to call and neither of my parents were home. He treated me with great respect and dignity, and told me about his trips to England. Years later I had my own times living in Oxford and Cambridge.

His successor was The Reverend Robert Maitland, who was ironically more blue collar but also more high church and always “Father” Maitland.

It was under his care that I was confirmed. He was a very down-to-earth guy, much a contrast from the patrician Mr. Savidge.

When I was in high school my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer. In those days cancer was an unmentionable and few adults talked to me about the prospect of her impending death. One was my beloved basketball coach, John Shine, and the other was Father Bob Maitland. He took me to lunch at the Red Coach Inn (any Bergen County folks remember that?). He showed me what a minister could be.

My Mom did die during my first weeks at college at the age of 53. Fr. Maitland presided at the service at the Church of the Holy Communion, to a packed house as only those who die too young can bring out. I was having none of this God who snatched away the most important person in my life.

But years later after a long and arduous faith pilgrimage (which is another story for another day) I came back to the church and to a calling as a minister, although in a different franchise.

So the Church of the Holy Communion remains one of my landmarks, a holy place. And since I always (usually) love SNL the confluence of these two made my day.

The little clip was a trip down memory lane. I took voice lessons from the organist, Walter Witherspoon, and saw the organ near where I stood for my first recital. I saw the lovely stained-glass windows. I wrote recently about the window dedicated to a  Sunday School classmate of mine who died in a sledding accident when I was in the second grade.

It has been years since I have been back there, but I thank God for the place and the people, mostly now in the church triumphant, that were there in my growing-up days.

“What do you know about being God?” Reflections on Job

Blake“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” – Job 38:4

My friend Andy and I had just finished a prayer for the needs of the world when we started lamenting how endless those needs always are.

“If I were God . . .” Andy said, and stopped himself. “Always be suspicious,” he said, “of any sentence that begins, ‘If I were God!'”

We were not the first people to question the troubling gap between what we believe about our God and the immense suffering in our world. The Bible is full of just such questions.

Some of the very best of these questions are found in the Book of Job, which is the story of a good man enduring unbearable suffering. Job desperately wants to know why? His three “friends” offer him their pious answers, which are variants of “You had it coming!”

Their view that suffering is always deserved lingers: “What goes around comes around.”

But what if it isn’t true? What if the divine mystery is more complex than that? What if bad things do happen to good people? What if the punishment doesn’t always fit the crime? Read more. (From my Daily Devotional for today)

“Behind Locked Doors” A sermon on John 20:24-29

caravaggio_-_the_incredulity_of_saint_thomasThe Second Sunday of Easter, traditionally called “Low Sunday,” is a tough Sunday for a preacher for a number of reasons.  First of all, the context of our preaching can be a bit discouraging. We have fewer than half the people we had last week, and I always preach better for some reason when there are more people present. It must have something to do with group dynamics. Easter is always a high holy day in the church, a bright and festive day, and though the church in theory believes that Easter lasts for the Great Fifty Days, the second Sunday is, well you know, Low Sunday.  Plus I am always exhausted and worn thin after Easter.  But having said all that let me make a confession: I like low Sunday.

 I like it for two reasons. First, the folks who come on Low Sunday tend to be the faithful core of the congregation and I feel I don’t have to explain so much of the Gospel to you. To use Eugene Peterson’s helpful distinction, on Low Sunday there are more pilgrims and fewer tourists. I say that not to disparage religious tourists, God knows we have all been that at one time or another. God meets us where we are and even spiritual tourists need God’s mercy and love. My point is just that hardly anyone feels a pressing social or cultural need to get up and come to church on Low Sunday, so those who are here tend to be serious about what we are doing here, and I appreciate that, since I am serious about what we are doing here.

But the second and more important reason I like Low Sunday is that it speaks deep truths about how the risen Christ comes to us. Low Sunday is sort of a down and out Sunday, and the Lord Jesus seems to appear especially to the down and out. If you read the stories of the resurrection appearances it is startling that without exception the disciples are doing nothing especially religious when Jesus appears to them. They aren’t praying or worshipping. In Luke they are walking on the road lamenting what had happened, or they are fishing, having given up their discipleship to return to their day job. Here in John’s Gospel on Easter night the disciples are in a locked room, hiding in fear.

And it occurs to me that is the church’s natural state: a bunch of scared people locking out the world. You might argue that the disciples are not yet the church, until Jesus comes to them and gives them the Holy Spirit (John’s version of Pentecost) and you would be right.  The church without the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit is just a bunch of quite literally dispirited people hiding in fear from real and imagined enemies.

And that is one of the reasons I like Low Sunday. The disciples are so obviously failures at being disciples and so they share that in common with us. It’s Easter and they don’t even know it. They have nothing to offer as the church, no vision, no energy, no courage, no conviction. They are hiding. They are afraid. As far as they know Jesus is dead and done. The shepherd has been struck down and the sheep have scattered.

They should have believed the witnesses. Peter and the beloved disciple have been to the empty tomb. They have told the disciples what they have seen. Mary has told them she has seen the Lord. They should have believed, but they didn’t, and yet Jesus still comes to them.

So this isn’t a story about the disciples or doubting Thomas so much as it is a story about Jesus. We always want Jesus to meet us at our best, to help us to improve us, but instead he meets us at our worst, and he doesn’t care about improving us. He comes not to offer improvement, but resurrection. He comes not to bring the world as it is, only “better oiled,” but a new heaven and a new earth.

And so he comes to these dispirited disciples hiding behind locked doors, and he comes to us hiding among our manifold fears and anxieties. He comes among us and finds us worrying about our money and our health and our future, worrying about our image and our reputations. He finds us ready to hide behind locked doors to keep the world out.

He finds us afraid that we will be found out, that it will become known that we are not as courageous, virtuous and committed as we have led people to believe. If people really knew how self-centered and selfish we are; if they only knew that we can be stinkers and schemers, can act dishonorably and shamefully, childishly stubbornly. If they only knew.

But Jesus does know and still he comes among us and stands there with his wounded side and those dreadful broken hands and says “Peace be with you.”  And if that isn’t good news, I don’t know what is.

And then he says something most astonishing: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” There must be some mistake. He can’t mean us. We are hiding in fear behind locked doors. But there is no mistake. And this is the beauty of the church. We are the ones he sends, not the virtuous, the strong, the wise, the courageous. No, he wants us, sends us, foolish men and women, and slow of heart to believe.

And Thomas missed it and can’t buy it, can’t believe it. They said, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in  the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” So there!

And Thomas is the church, too. Practical, not given to flights of fancy or imagination. Thomas is the church in all its stubborn, hard–headed practicality. He had been a disciple, sure, but look what happened to Jesus. It was time to get back to reality, back to basics, back to practicalities. Show me or I won’t believe. And once again the good news of Low Sunday is Jesus comes to Thomas, comes to the church in all shortsightedness, in all its stingy fearfulness, all its ingratitude. Jesus comes and says, you want to see, see, you want to touch, touch.

That’s the beauty of Low Sunday, the real Easter story is not so much last week among the lilies as it is here among the few of us who have gathered to hear how the church began with these fearful disciples.

And if we can dare to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, can we not dare to believe that he can raise us too, not just when we die or at the resurrection of the last day, but now, raise up a church, a people who on their own are dead or as good as dead, afraid and hiding, but who when he comes among them are raised to life, raised to become the church. To love as he loves, to forgive as he forgives.

On Wednesday I dragged myself to come to church to two committees meetings that met at the same time.  When I came in there was one person at the first meeting, and when I went down the hall there was only one at the other.  There were some important things to be done by each committee, but it was not to be done that night. On the way home I was complaining a little bit to the Lord, and I thought, well, people are busy, and they are volunteers, and its Easter, and finally I said, Lord, if you want something to happen here, you better do it, because we are not up to it on our own. And then I had my sermon. Of course we’re not up to it on our own. What was I thinking? We never have been and we never will be. But still he comes among us, still he sends us, still he calls us to be the church.

And then I had two funerals, one Friday and one yesterday, and at those funerals I saw the faces of the people as I told them the good news of the Resurrection, the good news of the Gospel, the Good news of Easter, and I thought, yes, this is the church. This is why we’re here, this is what we are here to do. To be witnesses to the risen Christ. To tell people he lives, and we can live too with him.

So I may feel a little low this Sunday, and you may feel a little low this Sunday, and this Sunday may feel a little low this Sunday, but the Risen Christ comes to meet us when we’re low, in fact, more likely than when we’re  not, and when he comes he bids us peace and send us out in the power of his resurrection. We’re coming out of our locked doors. We don’t need to hide. There is nothing to fear. Because it may be Low Sunday, but its still Easter.  Amen.

(I preached this sermon on April 30, 2000 at First Church of Christ, Congregational, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts)

(Painting: Caravaggio)

Doubting with Thomas: Ruminations on John 20:24-29

“How can I believe in God” asked Woody Allen, “when just last week I got my tongue caught in the roller of an electric typewriter?” Allen is humorously raising the question of how a good God allows bad things to happen.  He raises the question about religious knowledge when he says, “I am plagued by doubts . . . if only God would give me some clear sign; like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank.”

That makes us laugh, but who among us has not been troubled by questions and doubts at some time in our life. I think that the story of “doubting Thomas” is probably in the Gospel of John because, even in the early generations of the church, faith in the Risen Christ was not an automatic thing. Faith was hard to come by and hard to keep in those days just as it is today. So Thomas is a stand-in for all the doubters then and now.

The problem was that Thomas was not present the first time that Jesus came to the disciples, and he won’t accept their claim that Jesus is alive unless he can see him with his own eyes and touch him with his own hands.

The disciples had been hiding. They had bolted the door and were listening for the dreaded sound of footsteps on the stair when suddenly Jesus was among them. He stood there in their midst and he told them to breathe in his breath, his holy breath and spirit, so that they could go out into the world again and perform his holy work.

Thomas is told of this event, but he says that, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.” And a week or so later Jesus does appear to them again and this time Thomas is there, and he sees Jesus and touches the wounded hands and side, and only then can he say, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus replies to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not see and yet believe” which refers to every generation since then which cannot see Jesus but relies on the testimony of those like John and Mary Magdalene who did see.

And yet often we remain like Thomas. We do need some evidence. Roughly two thousand Easters have taken place since Thomas’s day, two thousand years’ worth of people proclaiming that the tomb was empty and the dead Christ alive among us to heal, sustain and transform. But in one sense it is not enough. If we are to believe in his resurrection in a way that really matters in our lives and in the life of the world, we must have some experience of it.

And so it is that when and where people believe in the resurrected One, they have in some sense seen him, or at least known him, sensed him. If we are not to see him and touch him as Thomas did, we still must know him.

For now as then, it is not Jesus’s absence from the empty tomb that convinces us, but his presence in the midst of us.  Easter is not the celebration of the absence of his body from the tomb, but his living presence with us now.

So how do we know him when we can’t see him or touch him? In Luke’s Emmaus story the disciples knew him in the breaking of the bread, and we still know him in the supper he told us to continue in memory of him. And it is not just his memory we know but his real presence.

We may know him in the Word while reading the story in the Bible or hearing a sermon. We may know him in moments of prayer, in moments of deep need or dark despair, or in moments of great joy, such as a baptism. We may know him in service with others, in the joys and challenges of living in the church, which is his body. We may know him by a sick bed or in the hour of trial over a life-changing decision. There are many ways to know the risen Christ, but touching the wounds of his body, as Thomas did, is not one of them.

So we walk by faith and not by sight. Our faith lives among our doubts. “Doubts,” says Fred Buechner, “are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it alive and moving.” It is often our doubts that get us thinking and moves our faith to a more mature level. In some real sense we never stop being Thomas the doubter.

Life is complex and mysterious, many questions and concerns do not lend themselves toward easy answers. Yet it is precisely there in the complex world where faith must live if it is to be faith at all and not mere wishful thinking. But that is precisely where we still meet the living Christ, in the real events and commonplaces of daily life. An apocryphal gospel that didn’t get into the canon supposedly written by Thomas himself depicts Jesus as saying, “Cleave a piece of wood and I am there. Lift up the stone and you will find me there.” Which is to say there is no place on earth or in our lives too remote or outlandish for the One who came to save us all.

So we must again and again look for the risen Jesus in the ordinary day to day events of our lives. And we look for him amid our doubts. Unlike Thomas we do not get to touch him. But we can know him, and in the end we really do walk by faith and not by sight. But our faith in him is not blind faith. Faith is trust, and we generally trust only those whom we have experienced as trustworthy.

If we believe that Jesus is alive it is because at some time in our life he has made himself known to us. If we have not touched him, he has touched us, so that we have been able to say, as Thomas did when he touched that wounded side and held those ruined hands, “My Lord and my God.” Amen.

(This is an excerpt form a sermon I preached on April 14, 1996, entitled “We Walk by Faith.”  Picture:  Caravaggio, The Incredulity of St. Thomas)