No Longer a Trickster – Sermon

In honor of the day for tricksters; First preached at Christ Church, Cooperstown NY, around October 2010.

“Then the man* said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,* for you have striven with God and with humans,* and have prevailed.’” Genesis 32:28

Names today aren’t quite as socially important as names were in Old Testaments times, but we understand how meaningful it is to name a child after a loved one or to carry a name that holds a particular weight. My middle name is “Rose,” which is also the name of my great-grandmother, who is one of the people most dear to my mother—my great-grandma Rose is still alive, so I take it as good luck that I, too, carry her name. In today’s Old Testament lesson, Jacob’s name is changed after a great struggle.
When Jacob was born, hanging on the heel of his older twin brother Esau, he was named as “the one carried on the heel” which was a figure of speech in ancient times for “supplanter” or “deceiver.” Jacob sure lived up to this name, stealing the blessing meant for the first-born son from his brother by tricking their father, and later, stealthily building up his flocks out of his father-in-law Laban’s animals, agreeing to be paid only in livestock. In ancient literature, and even in some stories today, there’s a character role that Jacob is fulfilling in Genesis—he’s the “trickster.” This sort of character shows up in Greek and Roman myths, in Native American myths, and even in children’s stories. The “trickster” is a rule-breaker, but he does it purposely, to get ahead of the game. A trickster doesn’t have a black-and-white conception of right-and-wrong, but instead tends to judge situations based upon his personal interest at the time. In stories about animals, the fox and the wolf are often cast as tricksters, like in Little Red Riding Hood, where the wolf pretends to be the girl’s sick grandmother. Jacob is part of this family of trickster characters, which makes his name especially appropriate, and which makes his re-naming in our lesson so important. After Jacob outsmarts his father and brother in obtaining the special blessing, he leaves town. That’s the last time he sees his brother before the meeting talked about in the passage this morning.
No wonder Jacob was so nervous. He’d grown up enough in the interim, having been tricked himself by his father-in-law, to understand the import of what he had done to his brother as a young man. Unlike most tricksters in ancient literature, though, Jacob exposes that he has a sense of right and wrong. This is one way that shows how the stories in Genesis are different from classic ancient literature—our trickster has a heart, and struggles with himself. The Bible’s famous trickster isn’t like other tricksters; while this was a story that would have been familiar to ancient people, they would have been able to identify Jacob as the trickster immediately by his behavior, if not just his name, they also would have seen that this wasn’t the way a trickster was supposed to act. A trickster doesn’t ever grow a conscience—the point of being a trickster is to always be a bit of an outsider, albeit a financially successful and very clever one. In this story, we see as we do many times in these patriarch narratives that God uses deeply faulted people—real people. We know that God uses people like us, God uses US, to enact His will in this world.
Let’s look more closely at the re-naming piece now. In verses 22 through 30, Jacob is wrestling. We find out at the end that he’s wrestling with God. This trickster doesn’t want to continue in that life-path, but it’s hard to derail years of clever circumventing of the rules. Jacob is wrestling with getting off that train, so to speak, and setting a new course for the rest of his life, starting with facing his brother again. This intimate look at Jacob’s rough night give us a window into our own struggles—just as Jacob wrestled with God over his knee-jerk tendency to promote himself at other’s expense, we have inner struggles. We tend to have short tempers or tell lies much faster than the truth, or struggle with addiction or faithfulness to our spouses—those habits that we try to hide from others. These trappings of faulted human life are the sort of thing that we might wrestle with God about at night, like Jacob.
In the morning, we see, Jacob is given hope—God not only blesses him, but changes his name. What a startling and freeing step for Jacob—to no longer hear “deceiver” any time his name is spoken, but instead to be reminded that “God strives” each time he’s called. In verse 28, “the man” blesses and re-names him, dubbing him “the one who strives with God.” The newly-minted “fighter” fords the river to face up to his brother, knowing that God has blessed him.
In chapter 33 of Genesis, directly following this story, Esau and Israel come face-to-face. For a moment, let’s think about what Esau must have felt, having been warned the day before that his younger brother was approaching. They hadn’t spoken since decades earlier when wily Jacob had taken Esau’s rightful older-brother-blessing. Indeed, Esau’s last recorded words, in chapter 27 of Genesis, verse 41, were “Now Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him, and Esau said to himself, ‘The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob.”” Of course, their mother intervened and Jacob survived and fled, but that had been the tenor of their last interaction. As they approached each other, Esau knew nothing of the night before, he didn’t know that Jacob’s name was no longer “deceiver,” but “the one who strives with God”—the one who, by God’s grace, becomes a man of character.
In chapter 33 of Genesis, verse 4, “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” Esau, though he had known his brother better than anyone as children, knew that during their time apart, Jacob may have changed. Esau let go of his violent, rightly-placed anger during the intervening decades and gave Jacob space to be a new person when they met again. Esau knew that God could change Jacob, just as Esau surely had been changed, and so, when they met again, instead of continuing with the plan he’d had years ago, Esau didn’t assume that he knew Jacob and could predict the way he would behave based on their past. Esau looked to the future and was open to be blessed by the new family member that Jacob, now Israel had become.
Israel teaches us that no one is stuck being a trickster for his entire life, and Esau teaches us that the greatest blessing among friends and family is being given the space to develop from being a trickster to becoming one who reminds us that God strives. Amen.

A Spiritual Brunch, for Saturday Morning

“Now may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will, working among us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

-Hebrews 13:20-21

Fumble! (too soon, Duke fans?)

Only about 30% of people even make New Year’s Resolutions anymore.  Of them only 20% manage to make a lasting change, having kept their resolution for 2 years (newrepublic.com).  On this, the third day of the new year, we’re probably already struggling with the resolutions, or intentions, or goals we’ve set for ourselves in this auspicious year of 2014.

What happens in our minds when we fumble?  When we eat  that extra helping of dessert we didn’t really quite mean to eat, or binge-watch shows that make us feel like we’d like to dip our minds in some bleach; what we say to ourselves when we fail?

Most of us (me, for one!) live under a very stressful fallacy that we can perform perfectly.  That we really can not-fail, not-fumble, not-trip-up.  We fail.  To focus on failure and on shortcomings can be debilitating.  What if we brushed the mistake off instead, took a deep breath, and bravely turned around to do something else?  So much energy is wasted in lament and guilt and self-punishment–what if we learned that we would indeed fumble and that when we fumbled, we should simply pick up the ball and try again (I think that football analogy doesn’t quite work…)?

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

“It was God, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”

Gospel Lesson: John 1:1-18

Epistle: Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7

In the 1950’s, there was a missionary named Jim Elliot who felt called by God to go to Ecuador to minister to native peoples there.  Along with his team, he started to build relationships with a particularly remote tribe—first dropping gifts from their missionary plane, then working toward introducing themselves, continuing to clear the way with more presents to show their goodwill.  Finally delegations from each group met.  On this big day, Jim took a photo from his pocket to show the tribespeople that the missionaries were friends with a member of their tribe.

Having never seen a photograph, they assumed that Jim had eaten brother, since he had taken the likeness of this person out of his body to show them.  They murdered Jim and his companions immediately.

I wonder if we sometimes make the opposite mistake about Jesus.  I wonder if we take Jesus to be just a picture of God—only an image or likeness, but not really God himself.  They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, but if I had my choice I’d take the thousand words every time—there’s so much more to learn from studying a description of someone than reducing a whole person to a single photograph.

Our Gospel passage today is bursting with poetic description of God; it harkens to another description of God elsewhere.

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”  That description goes on to reveal that God created humanity “in God’s image”—which means that we ourselves are a sort of photo in some way—and when God created humanity, he furnished a place for his people to live and provided for their every need.  You know this story—here’s where the montage of Adam and Eve frolicking and eating and naming animals fits in—and then something goes wrong.  (you can imagine the sound of  a pin dragging against vinyl) Adam and Eve decide that God may have been lying to them after all, and they test the truth God had told them—whether it really did matter so much how they lived.

Now we really learn something about God: that evening, arriving for their daily walk, God calls out for his companions, his cherished creatures.  They’re hiding—they know they shouldn’t have tested God and shouldn’t have doubted that God was telling the truth, but they really would rather not face up to it.

We’re not that different, are we?  Instead of recognizing our crookedness, we bury it and move on.  I read a story this week of a professor who, when his desk got too full of letters to be answered and tasks to complete, he’d spread out an edition of the New York Times and then start over as if his desk was clean.  We paper over our sins, too, instead of owning up to them before God.

On that evening, God knew exactly what had happened and where his creatures were; he could have come rushing in, screaming, demanding that they leave immediately, as if he was a righteous landlord.  But that’s not the description of God that we’re shown here at the very beginning of Scripture.

Scripture begins with a God that is so full of love that he dreams each of us up out of nothing.  Then, when each of us, as we all do, decides to test out whether God is really telling the truth, he gently asks what it is that we’re doing—giving us a chance to tell him the truth and to own up to our schemes.  We grab a New York Times, or a fig leaf, to try to cover up the mess we’ve made, even though God can already see the mess.  The God who’s described here in the pages of Genesis is the same one described in the first verses of the Gospel of John—the God full of grace and full of truth.

Being full of grace and truth sounds lovely, but I argue this morning that it makes God very off-putting.  That same professor didn’t cover his desk with a newspaper just once, but did it habitually—when he finally died, they dug down many layers of newsprint, finding all sorts of unpaid invoices, unanswered inquiries, and unfinished assignments.  Can you imagine the horror he might have felt if this practice had been discovered and challenged while he was alive?  God knows all the layers of newsprint we’ve used to paper up our lives.  Even when I’ve lost count of the path and number of lies I’ve used to cover up various deeds—done and left undone—God knows each and every one.  God is full of truth, and that sounds kind of terrible.

Thomas Keating, a 20th century monk, says that when it starts to dawn on us just how many layers of deception we’ve built our lives on, we think we’re getting worse, but truly, we’re just realizing how bad off we always were, and that, he says, is an enormous grace.

We look up at God from the bottom of our crumpled-paper and sticky-sin lives, and he reaches down and scoops us up in his hand, brushing away the debris.  This is grace.  While truth is hard, I think grace might be harder.  The law, our epistle says, was our disciplinarian before Christ came.  The law, or rule-following, lets me continually hit myself against a wall when I do something wrong.  I punish myself and pay for the wrong I’ve committed.  All the time, I’m trying to be dependent only on myself.

This isn’t how we were made to be, though.  We were made to be in the midst of God’s grace and truth.  God’s grace is the hand that comes down to the cave of our sin and scoops us up and out of it—we don’t have to run ourselves against a wall, we don’t have to sit in the dog house for months on end; we’re forgiven.  The hard part is to accept God’s grace, to live as if we are truly forgiven, not punishing ourselves any more, but acknowledging honestly the shortcomings we suffer.

I’ll close with a bit of a poem by W.H. Auden:

Well, so that is that.  Now we must dismantle the tree,

Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes —

Some have got broken — and carrying them up to the attic.

The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,

And the children got ready for school.  There are enough

Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week —

Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,

Stayed up so late, attempted — quite unsuccessfully —

To love all of our relatives, and in general

Grossly overestimated our powers.  Once again

As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed

To do more than entertain it as an agreeable

Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,

Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,

The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.

The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,

And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware

Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought

Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now

Be very far off.

 

God is full of truth—he knows what’s under your newspaper.  God is full of grace—he brushes away all the debris by his death on the cross and resurrection.

Will you accept his hand?

Despair & Dashing Babies Against the Rocks

Two of the most infamous psalms in Scripture are 88 and 137, so it seemed like an especially brilliant idea to tackle them both in one go during the 35 minutes alloted for Sunday School (usually it’s more like 45 minutes, but the preacher went long…).  Here are a few notes from our class’ wonderings and wanderings:

Though these two prayers have no particular relation to each other, put together, they have something specific to teach; Psalms 88 & 137 take God seriously in a way that we are often unwilling to consider.  When a child is clearly upset but says, “No, nothing’s wrong!!” she’s distancing herself from you.  She won’t allow herself to be made well or to be changed.  Prayer, real talking to God in despair and in anger requires that you be ready for God to act, to transform you and the situation.  To share your sadness and anger with God, you must admit that you are sad and angry, and to admit that you aren’t in control and aren’t able to help yourself means you are humbling yourself.  It’s significant that in this depression and anger, these composers turn to God; they’re hurt and broken by the world, but they cling to God by continuing to offer prayers.

One woman said, “Whenever I want to pray about something that makes me angry or hurt or sad, I say to myself, ‘well, I should trust more.  I should not let this get me down–then I can pray about it.’  But the truth is that these psalms show us that we should approach God just where we are.”

Psalm 137

1 By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
3 For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

4 How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
6 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.

7 Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!’
8 O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!

 This shocking ending is both negative (rare in the psalms) and gruesome.  It’s been composed after the fall of Jerusalem, during the Babylonian exile (v.1); the composer is ridiculed by his captors for his hope of restoration.  The first section (vs.1-3) narrates the scene, the second bit (vs. 4-6) pledges loyalty to Jerusalem, and in the last section (vs. 7-9) the psalmist details to God exactly what he thinks is an appropriate payback.  In the ancient world, it was a practical military policy (albeit an especially cruel and not-always-enforced one) to kill the babies and children of a people group in order to wipe out that nation’s existence and legacy.  Pharoah did it to the Hebrew people in Egypt, which is why Moses was hidden as a baby and sent to sail down the Nile.  The writer desires for all of the Babylonian culture, all its legacy and mark on the earth, to be wiped out.

Well, there’s no country called Babylon anymore, so maybe the psalmist got his wish.  I think there’s more to be mined here than that: looking at the psalm again and thinking about it from a perspective of “good guys” and “bad guys” or perhaps even “God’s people” and “the Evil one,” what is the Scripture saying to us?  We live now in the midst of evil, strangers in a strange land; this place is not our home.  We endure violence and struggle against our sin.  But someday, we will struggle no more, and we will endure no more evil; happy shall be the one who roots out the progeny of evil, killing off all hints of evil, burning away all darkness–rooting out its very babies, that it has no future.

Psalm 88

 A Song. A Psalm of the Korahites. To the leader: according to Mahalath Leannoth. A Maskil of Heman the Ezrahite.

1 O Lord, God of my salvation,
when, at night, I cry out in your presence,
2 let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry.

3 For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
4 I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;
I am like those who have no help,
5 like those forsaken among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
for they are cut off from your hand.
6 You have put me in the depths of the Pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
7 Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves.
Selah

8 You have caused my companions to shun me;
you have made me a thing of horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
9   my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call on you, O Lord;
I spread out my hands to you.
10 Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the shades rise up to praise you?
Selah
11 Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
12 Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?

13 But I, O Lord, cry out to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14 O Lord, why do you cast me off?
Why do you hide your face from me?
15 Wretched and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.
16 Your wrath has swept over me;
your dread assaults destroy me.
17 They surround me like a flood all day long;
from all sides they close in on me.
18 You have caused friend and neighbour to shun me;
my companions are in darkness.

A pscyhologist was in the class and she observed, “This sounds like clinical depression.  The words that are used, the way it’s described–it’s practically textbook.”  She is exactly right; the psalmist wants to have hope, but can’t muster it.  There is nothing but darkness.  We have friends and loved ones who suffer depression, some of us have lost people to the illness.  Here in Scripture is preserved one experience of depression, perhaps to let us know that this may be a part of life on earth.  This sort of brokenness may not be solved on this side of Heaven.  We must admit that not all will be made well in advance of the end.  The psalmist reminds us of something very important in verses 10-12: “Do you work wonders for the dead?” he asks; “Is your steadfast love declared in the grave?” he challenges.  In Jesus Christ, and in the salvation God offers us through him, yes–God does work wonders for the dead; indeed, his steadfast love is declared exactly in the grave.  This does not provide a cure for depression, but we are given hope of healing, whether in this life, or the life to come.

One Sure Thing

20130906-105958.jpgLast weekend, I was in Cooperstown, New York. This is the place where I learned what it was to be a parish priest, where I fell in love with the vocation, and where I’ve been stretched and challenged within an inch of my life to do my best at that job. The places (geographically) where great pain is experienced and lived through are sites of enormous comfort. When I return to Cooperstown, or Grand Lake, or Durham, I feel like the rocks and trees and wooden siding of buildings understand me and are full of those powerful memories–they’re witnesses to the battles fought.

People are witnesses, too, of course, and they can be a comfort, but there’s something about buildings and mountains and lakes and particular bits of earth (on which one stands and remembers a vantage point) that is somehow deeper, perhaps because of their stability and unchangingness. The unsettling thing is that even cities, buildings, and bits of earth change. You remember your backyard growing up as a place of great meaning, but when you return to your childhood home decades later, it’s almost unrecognizable–the trees have grown so that the sun is not at all the same, the new owners have re-modeled the flower beds; it’s not the same place anymore, the place you knew is lost.

God promises, though, that he is the same yesterday, today and forever. In this week’s Epistle lesson, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, we hear the witness of faithful people in the past who believed and trusted that, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (v. 8). This is what the church’s Gloria Patri says (“Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever, amen.”).

The first part of Hebrews 13 recalls Abraham, Joseph, and the prophets by their faith-filled acts: Abrahahm “show(s) hospitality to strangers, for by doing that (he) entertained angels without knowing it” (v.2); Joseph was first sold into slavery, then was imprisoned unjustly (v. 3) but didn’t turn away from God because of his circumstances; and the prophets, fairly described as “those who are being tortured” (v. 3) exactly because they refused to turn from God–to renege on God’s promise of being unchanging himself.

“Let marriage be held in honor by all… for he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.'” (vs.4-5) The witness of Christian marriage is an effort at humans committing–in God’s strength–to be faithful to each other despite changes in themselves and their circumstances. This is the commitment that God makes to us–that he will never leave or forsake each of us, that he will be with us when we have no home like Abraham, or when we are isolated like Joseph, or when we are being persecuted like the prophets. God remains the same, even when we change and when our worlds change.

“Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the hours of this night, so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

(BCP service of Compline, pg. 133)

Singleness & Marriage – Trinity Cathedral Young Adults

This subject matter deserves all kinds of reflection and discussion (which is why it’s taken me a week to even make a draft of this post…), but in the interest of trying to say something rather than nothing, here’s a little recap of our conversation at Trinity last week, some passages we considered, and a video to stir into the mix as well.

Thinking about singleness and marriage brought up discussion about divorce, loneliness, cultural perceptions and expectations about marriage, singleness, and divorce, and concerns about intimate relationships in the church community.

Our conversation about loneliness considered technology’s impact on our culture, especially our close, or intimate, relationships; this video supplements the discussion we had very well.

With respect to marriage and divorce, we talked about the sacramental commitment made during a wedding service, and how little this covenant is discussed and emphasized in our culture–perhaps taking marriage less seriously than we ought is part of the reason for our divorce rate (though, we noted quickly, the covenant takes two people, and sometimes one is much more commitment to the sacrament than the other, and also that because we are imperfect humans, we can and do hurt each other beyond the point of relational repair sometimes, which causes divorce too).  (a sermon from last year on the subject)

Finally, and perhaps most fruitfully, we talked about how counter-cultural the church is and ought to be with respect to community.  Our blood relations aren’t our be-all, end-all “tribe” if we are Christians; our brothers and sisters in baptism are our family.  They are just as important as any person who happens to share our genes–it’s a truth that tended to mean a lot to those of us at the event who either didn’t have much family left, or didn’t have family nearby.

In sum…

We wondered:

How does being a Christian affect your life as a single person or as a married person?

How is the church counter-cultural when it comes to community?

What are we made for, as humans?

We looked at:

Matthew 19, Mark 10

Genesis 2

1 Corinthians 7

(what do YOU think?)