Sunday, August 31, 2014

Working with God by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Patti Lusher)

For many years I served with the official United Methodist groups that review candidates for Ordained Ministry. Candidates would come before us, having written theological statements, sermons, etc, and we would interview them. We would always ask them to tell us a story: What is your call? How did God call you to be a pastor? What are you called to be and do as a pastor? A common answer went something like this:
When I was in high school I was active in my church youth group. Some people in my church said they thought I was the kind of person who could be a pastor one day. I didn’t see it. At church camp when I was a senior, during one of those end of the week camp fire worship services, I felt I heard God calling me to be a pastor, but I said, “No way, you must be talking to the person sitting next to me. I’m not cut out for that.” Then I went to college and studied business and I partied. I joined a fraternity and did not go to church much. I got a good job at a bank. But it was just a job. All along in the back of my head, I would remember that call from when I was in high school, but I kept ignoring it.  I got married and when we had kids we decided to go back to church.
I joined a study group at my church and I started volunteering at the afterschool program, playing basketball with some of the boys and mentoring them. I was asked to teach a class on budgeting but I was also able to talk about my values and how I live them out in business. As I talked about how I have to trust God through tough times, I heard it again: God said, “Will you trust me now, and answer my call to be a pastor.” God told me that I could be someone who could help people make the connections between their daily lives and how much God wants to be a part of their life. So I decided to put my trust in God and finally answer the call to be a pastor. I could not resist the call any longer.  Here I am.
You see, all of us who are pastors, we are just people, like all of you. No better, no worse. We have just answered the call to be employed full time in our ministry. And many of us resisted that call for a long time before we finally said “Yes.” We resisted because we know we are just like you. We don’t feel special. We don’t feel good enough to be a representative of God. When we hear God asking us to do something, we say, “Are you kidding? Surely you have someone better than ME for the job.” But we are all God has. God made us, and if God calls us then we must be good enough.
Today’s story from Exodus is about the call of Moses. You will remember from last week that the baby Moses was a Hebrew baby born in Egypt. His people had gone there during a famine. They became slaves to Pharaoh. But Pharaoh became concerned that the Hebrews were becoming too numerous so he took action to kill all the boy babies. Moses’ mother and sister, along with the brave midwives Shiphrah and Puah, went around Pharaoh to spare Moses and in fact he was adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised as her own son. Much time has passed now when we pick up the story. Moses has fled Egypt and gone to live in another country, Midian, and he has taken a wife. But his people are still back in Egypt, living under the tyranny of Pharaoh.
When we pick up Moses’ story, he is herding sheep for his father-in-law. He happens to be on a mountain called Horeb, also known as Sinai, which you may recall will play an important role in the story later. This is known as the Mountain of God. Moses comes upon a bush that is on fire but is not consumed. He is amazed. Then things get really interesting because he hears the voice of God speaking to him from the bush. God says: “This is holy ground. Take off your shoes.”  It was a common practice to take off your shoes when entering a holy place. Moses then also turns his face away because God is too much to behold. A mere human being cannot look right into the face of God and live.
God says to Moses: “I have seen the suffering of my people in Egypt. I hear their cries to me for help. I know their pain. I have come to help them.” That’s great, right? Then God says, “And I’m sending you to do the job. You are going to lead the people out of Egypt and into freedom.”
“Right,” Moses says, with great hesitation. “And how the heck am I just going to waltz into Pharaoh’s court and do this? He is not going to listen to me.” (Oh, and by the way, I forgot to tell you, the reason Moses left is because he had murdered an Egyptian overseer who was being cruel to a Hebrew slave. This did not score him any points with his adopted father.) Moses says: “I am not your man.”
God says: “I will be with you. It will be fine. And one day soon you will come back to this mountain to worship me with your people.”
Moses starts giving objections for the next couple of chapters in the Bible. He is not eloquent. The people won’t listen to him. But he starts with this one: “If I tell the people their God has sent me, what will I say is your name?” God responds with one of the most famous and enigmatic lines in the Old Testament. “I-AM-WHO-I-AM. Tell the People of Israel, ‘I-AM sent me to you.’ This has always been my name, and this is how I always will be known.” (Exodus 4:14)
Perhaps you have heard that one of the names for God is “The Great I AM” and you wondered where that came from. Now you know. Professor Gene Tucker offers a couple of explanations for what this might mean. First of all, it relates to the word for God in Hebrew, Yahweh. The Hebrew “Yahweh” can be translated “I am” or “I will be what I will be.” It is also possible that God is answering in the way a parent answers the question of a child who says “Where are you going?” The parent simply says: “I am going where I am going.” God says: “I am God, I am who I am. Enough said.” Tell them, “The great ‘I am’ has sent you.” What more could they need to know?  (Source: Preaching Through the Christian Year A, by Fred B. Craddock et al, Trinity Press International, Philadelphia, 1992, p. 410).
After Moses goes through a series of objections, God finally wears him down, and Moses returns to Egypt. But it takes some work on God’s part to convince Moses to answer the call. It seems funny looking back. We all know Moses as a great leader. He will be the one who stands up to Pharaoh and says “let my people go.” Moses receives the Ten Commandments from God. We see Moses as a strong leader but in this story, he seems so unsure of himself.
Gene Tucker gives us some insight here. He says there is a pattern in the Old Testament with people who are called to be leaders for God. So many of them resist. They all seem to have a sense of “unworthiness or inadequacy.” It happens with Gideon, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. Tucker writes that “The resistance to the call is related to the experience of the Holy” (421). It’s not that they are especially timid or shy. Anyone feels unworthy to act on behalf of God. (Ibid.) Think about it. You find yourself in the presence of God, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, and God says, “I have chosen you to carry out my task on earth. I see something that needs to be done. I want to do this thing so I am going to have YOU do it for me.”
Really? Only the most arrogant and self-centered person is going to feel worthy enough to act for God, and God is not going to choose someone who is arrogant and self-centered. God is going to choose someone who is humble and who puts their trust in God.  But somebody who is humble is going to think, “I am not worthy.”
Tucker reminds us that even though God is the one who makes the promise to free the people, a human being is needed to carry out the will of God. The person can “continue to question, resist or choose to obey the will of God” (ibid, p. 421). This is the free will of the human. We are not God’s puppets. We get to choose.
Moses chooses to say “Yes” to God. Moses answers the call to be a worker in God’s scheme to free the people from the tyranny of Pharaoh. Moses has his doubts about his ability. He is not sure the people will respond to his leadership. He feels ill equipped. He feels humbled as he stands before God. But he is faithful. He puts his trust in God and he commits to become a worker for God.
We call this finding one’s call, or vocation, and saying “yes” to that call. Your call as a follower of Jesus may or may not be identical to your job for employment. For a pastor such as those I told you about at the beginning of today’s message, the call, or vocation to be a pastor is also one’s employment.
Other people may have a job for pay, such as working in a factory, or being a teacher in a school. The way you respond to God’s call in your life can still get lived out in your daily life, but it is not so obvious as someone whose job is to work in full time ministry.
Let me give you an example. I’ll talk about someone I will call Sandy. Sandy started out working as a teacher. Sandy loves kids. She is a natural teacher: in school, Sunday School, or after school tutoring, you name it. She relates to kids and makes learning fun. Somewhere along the way, Sandy stopped teaching. She worked in a medical office. Then she thought about being a massage therapist. She became part of a study group in her church, a group where the members really dig deep with one another. They commit to having a daily prayer practice so they can listen to God. They write a spiritual autobiography and share with one another. Then they go through some exercises in order to try to discern what their call is.
Sandy comes to class one night, the night they are going to talk about call and says: “I have had an epiphany (a sign from God). I am a teacher. It’s the thing I was put on this earth to do. Teaching is the thing I do best. I don’t know why I ever quit. I love children and I’m a great teacher. I can show my compassion as a Jesus follower when I teach. I can live out my values when I teach. I am going back to teaching.”
The members of her class said: “Thank goodness, you finally figured that out! We had been wondering how long it was going to take you to see that was what God was calling you to do. Of course you are a teacher! We see it in you every day.”
Teaching was Sandy’s vocation. She was born to teach. She was given the gifts to teach. God blessed her to be a teacher. And she was finally in a position to hear God’s call and to say “yes.”
So how about you? What is your call? What are your particular gifts and why did God put you on this earth? Some of us are called to be pastors, or teachers. Some of us are called to be prophets who speak the truth to power. Others are filled with empathy and meant to sit with the sick and be the healing presence of God for them. Still others have the strength of clear thinking and organization, you help groups of people take good ideas and put them into action to make the world a better place. Some people have the strength of positivity, which helps you always look for another way to do things or to look for the best in people. Others have the strength of learning. You are able to take in new ideas. These are all things that can be used to serve God in some way. Our call or vocation, again may or may not be related to what we do for pay. We may live out our call at work or during our leisure time.
When God called Moses, God identified that Moses could be a good leader. He could lead. He could stand up to Pharaoh and he could convince the Hebrew people to follow him. Moses may not have seen this strength in himself until God pointed it out, but God said to Moses, “You have what it takes, and when you need help, I will send others to help you.”
If I asked your best friend what strength you have, what would your friend say? That strength is what God has given you, and that is the strength you can use in living out your call. We all have a calling. God calls us to be something or do something to make this world more of what God created it to be. We can change the world. So I urge you to claim your call if you have not already. Take some time today or this week. Talk to someone you trust about what your call is. Or write it down on a piece of paper. I believe God put me on this earth because…. And finish the sentence. God is calling you. Ask God to reveal that calling to you. And when you hear that calling, be bold, and answer God. Say “Yes.”

To help you in discerning your calling, identify what your strength is – tell one other person near you, and write it on a piece of paper and put it up here.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Midwives: Creative Resistance by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Patti Lusher)

Shiphrah and Puah are two of my sheroes of the Hebrew Bible. Often times we do not get the names of insignificant characters in the Bible, such as servants and slave women. Surely a couple of midwives among the Hebrew slaves would not ordinarily be deemed worthy of name recognition in the book of the Holy of Holies. But there they are in black and white: two brave women by the names of Shiphrah and Puah. I hope you will remember their names because they stood up to a tyrant.
Let me just give a little background material here. Last week we wrapped up the book of Genesis. Joseph and his brothers had settled in Egypt. As was promised by God, these grandsons of Abraham and Sarah had many children, as many as the stars in the sky. It did seem as if God’s promises were coming true. Except for one problem: they find themselves living as slaves in Egypt, under the oppression of an evil Pharaoh. Exodus, the second book in the Bible, is the story of God’s people delivered from slavery into freedom, to live in the Promised Land. Moses will be their leader.  You’ve probably all heard of Moses.
Our story for today starts with Pharaoh being all bent out of shape because the Hebrew people, Joseph, his brothers and all their children, are growing too numerous. Pharaoh is afraid that they will outnumber the Egyptians one day and if there is war they will join the enemy side.
As Gene Tucker writes, Pharaoh tries two tactics to get control of the Hebrews.  Both are predictable of a tyrant, and both of them backfire. (Source: Preaching Through the Christian Year A, by Fred B. Craddock et al, Trinity Press International, Philadelphia, 1992, p. 410). First, he makes them slaves and forces them to work on his construction projects. But the harder he makes them work, the stronger they become and the more babies they keep having. So then he takes steps to kill the boy babies. Now, this really does not make sense if he wants to have a steady stream of workers. But tyrants do not always think things through (ibid). Just look at China and their decision to limit families to one child. Some of the families chose to keep a son and they abandon daughters to orphanages. Now they have a disproportionate number of heterosexual men compared to heterosexual women to marry them.  But I digress.
Pharaoh is trying to slow down the population growth. So he gets this idea. He calls the midwives Shiphrah and Puah in to his court. He tells them:
“When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the sex of the baby. If it’s a boy, kill him; if it’s a girl, let her live.”
17-18 But the midwives had far too much respect for God and didn’t do what the king of Egypt ordered; they let the boy babies live. The king of Egypt called in the midwives. “Why didn’t you obey my orders? You’ve let those babies live!”
19 The midwives answered Pharaoh, “The Hebrew women aren’t like the Egyptian women; they’re vigorous. Before the midwife can get there, they’ve already had the baby.”
20-21 God was pleased with the midwives. The people continued to increase in number—a very strong people. And because the midwives honored God, God gave them families of their own.

You see, Shiphrah and Puah had their own way of dealing with a situation. We have all been in situations when we are backed into a corner. We feel powerless. We don’t have any control in a situation. Someone else has all the power: our boss, our parents, the government, the principal or our teachers; the institution; some system in which we find ourselves. We either toe the line or we get into big trouble. To “toe the line” comes from an old practice in schools where there would literally be a line on the floor and students would line up with their toes on the line for roll call. In modern usage it has been used in politics to describe someone who keeps in sync with their party and does not stray from the party’s position on certain issues. To “toe the line” means to be loyal. For the midwives, “toeing the line” could have been a matter of life and death. Following the orders of the Pharaoh could have been punishable by death. 

But scripture says that Shiphrah and Puah had too much respect for God, and therefore too much respect for human life. They were midwives!  They were also loyal to life; their job was to help mothers bring babies into the world. How could they possibly bring harm to those same babies? So they had to think of a creative way to resist Pharaoh’s instructions. Voila! It came to them. “Oh Pharaoh, we wanted to be obedient to you, but these Hebrew women are so strong, they had their babies without even calling us.”

But Pharaoh would not give up.
22 So Pharaoh issued a general order to all his people: “Every boy that is born, drown him in the Nile. But let the girls live.”

The twists and turns of this story continue. Because you see, the point of this story is to show how God worked to protect Moses. God brought Moses through miraculously so that he could be God’s servant to save these people.  God would do anything to save Moses.

And this is how it happened: 

·      Moses was born.
·      Shiphrah and Puah disobeyed Pharoah and did not kill Moses.
·      Moses’ mother hid him for 3 months. She knew there was something special about him.
·      Then she put him in a basket that would float. That was a huge step of faith.
·      She put him in the river where Pharaoh had told the people to throw all the boy babies.
·      Moses floated down to where the daughter of Pharaoh and her friends were bathing. (Moses’ sister was watching to see what would happen).
·      The princess knew this was a Hebrew baby but rather than have it killed she took the baby as her own.
·      Moses’ brave sister asked the princess if she wanted one of the Hebrew women to nurse her baby, and she said yes
·      So the sister went and got her own mother who then got to care for Moses as his “nurse” for a while longer. 

This is a story of brave women who used their creativity to outwit the tyrant. At so many turns in the story, they could have, and perhaps should have, thrown up their hands in defeat, but they did not. They put their trust in God and God showed them another way. And because they did, Moses’ life was spared. He grew up to be a great leader for God. We will learn more about Moses in the coming weeks. But you probably already know that he is the one who will go to Pharaoh on behalf of God and say: “Let my people go!” Eventually the people will find their freedom. 

But before Moses can lead, these brave and creative women work around Pharaoh and his tyranny. Shiphrah and Puah, Moses’ mother and sister, and even the Princess, Pharaoh’s own daughter, recognize evil when they see it. Like so many people before them, and so many people after them, they could feel backed into a corner by what seems to be the power that Pharaoh holds. But rather than being discouraged and defeated, they decide to look at the situation and say to themselves: “Is there another way? Can we find another creative way out of this situation?” And every time they find another way.

You see, this is what happens when we line ourselves up with God. We see things that we would not otherwise see. We find solutions that were not there. We find ways to topple tyrants. We defeat evil and we are set free. 

Because this is Gay Pride weekend I want to tell you another story about finding another way. Some of you may know it. The story is of two women who loved each other:  "Edie" Windsor and Thea Spyer who were residents of New York, married in Toronto, Ontario, in 2007. They had been together 40 years. (source: Two years later, Thea died and left Edie her entire estate. “Windsor sought to claim the federal estate tax exemption for surviving spouses. She was barred from doing so by Section 3 of DOMA (codified at 1 U.S.C. § 7), which provided that the term "spouse" only applied to marriages between a man and woman. The Internal Revenue Service found that the exemption did not apply to same-sex marriages, denied Windsor's claim, and compelled her to pay $363,053 in estate taxes” (ibid). 

Now, by this time, Edie was 80 years old. I don’t know about you, but if I were 80 years old, and had lived for 40 years with a partner in a country where I was told that my relationship was sinful, that being homosexual was deemed a psychiatric disorder by the medical profession for much of that time, and I had lived through decades of discrimination from my neighbors on every level, I would not be ready to take on the Federal government, especially the IRS. I would feel about as helpless and defeated as the Hebrew women living as slaves under Pharaoh in Egypt. I guess Edie Windsor has the same sort of spunk as Shiphrah and Puah because she was not willing to accept the tyranny of DOMA without a fight. 

She filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, Section 3 in particular, which restricts “U.S. federal interpretation of ‘marriage’ and ‘spouse’ to apply only to heterosexual unions” (ibid). After a lengthy court battle that made its way through the District Court in New York and the Second District Court of Appeals, the case was heard by the Supreme Court. “On June 26, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 5–4 decision declaring Section 3 of DOMA to be unconstitutional ‘as a deprivation of the liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment’” (ibid). 

“As a result of the Windsor decision, married same-sex couples—regardless of domicile—have tax benefits (which include the previously unavailable ability to file joint tax returns with the IRS), military benefits, federal employment benefits for employees of the U.S Government and immigration benefits” (ibid). 

We do not yet have marriage for all in all 50 states, but we are well on our way. “Windsor noted in a statement that when she and her partner met nearly 50 years earlier that they never dreamed their marriage would land before the Supreme Court ‘as an example of why gay married couples should be treated equally, and not like second-class citizens.’ Noting that her deceased wife would be proud, Windsor added, ‘The truth is, I never expected any less from my country’” (ibid).

You see, Edie Windsor believes in freedom. She believes that good can triumph over evil and that justice will triumph over inequality. When she was backed into a corner, she did not give up. She took on the laws of the most powerful nation in the world, and she won. Because of her, we all win. 

Edie is like Shiphrah and Puah and like Moses’ sister and mother. They are all people whom, when presented with a challenge, find a way. They do not give up. They do not back down. 

How about you? Are you ready to put your trust in God, and look for a creative solution when you are backed into a corner? When you feel discouraged and defeated, will you remember these brave women, and take another look at the situation? There is always another way – God’s way. Let Shiphrah and Puah be your sheroes. Be creative. Be bold. Look for good and don’t give in to tyranny. Never give up. Amen.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Joseph Forgives His Brothers by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

Today we wrap up the book of Genesis with an amazing story (Genesis 45:1-15 from The Message for those following along from the internet). We learn that God can take the wretched actions of human beings and can turn them into something beautiful.  Only God can do that.

This transformation happens when someone puts their trust in God. You see, God takes our human brokenness and turn it into something good. That is God’s way – making imperfect things perfect again – healing our rifts – making us whole. 

To understand this transformation we have to go back to Genesis 37. There we find a Joseph telling his older brothers (who already don’t like him much) about a dream. “’We were all out in the field gathering bundles of wheat. All of a sudden my bundle stood straight up and your bundles circled around it and bowed down to mine.’…. His brothers … hated him more than ever because of his dreams and the way he talked” (Genesis 37:5-8). He is prophesying about a day when he will be a ruler and his brothers will come to him begging for help.

Now if you were here last week you will remember that Joseph’s brothers threw him down into a well and then sold him to a caravan of travels who would take him to Egypt to be traded into slavery in Pharaoh’s house. They let his father think he was killed by wild animals. The joke was on them. Because of his talent for interpreting dreams he rose in the ranks of Pharaoh’s staff. When a famine struck many countries around, he had become Pharaoh’s #2 man. People in need of food, would come to Egypt seeking food and Joseph was the one they would come to see. 

One day, you guessed it, his own brothers showed up in his court, begging for grain, for their people were starving to death back home. That is where we pick up the story today. His own brothers do not recognize him. He clears out the room, leaving only himself and his brothers. 

He says: “I am Joseph. Is my father really still alive?” But his brothers couldn’t say a word. They were speechless—they couldn’t believe what they were hearing and seeing.
4-8 “Come closer to me,” Joseph said to his brothers. They came closer. “I am Joseph your brother whom you sold into Egypt. But don’t feel badly, don’t blame yourselves for selling me. God was behind it. God sent me here ahead of you to save lives. There has been a famine in the land now for two years; the famine will continue for five more years—neither plowing nor harvesting. God sent me on ahead to pave the way and make sure there was a remnant in the land, to save your lives in an amazing act of deliverance. So you see, it wasn’t you who sent me here but God. He set me in place as a father to Pharaoh, put me in charge of his personal affairs, and made me ruler of all Egypt.
9-11 Hurry back to my father. ….
14-15 Then Joseph threw himself on his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept….

Joseph’s brothers go home to get their father and the family all comes and settles in Egypt. When their father dies the brothers get worried that Joseph will seek vengeance for how the brothers had treated him all those years ago. But Joseph says: “’Don’t be afraid. Do I act for God? Don’t you see, you planned evil against me but God used those same plans for my good, as you see all around you right now—life for many people. Easy now, you have nothing to fear; I’ll take care of you and your children.’ He reassured them, speaking with them heart-to-heart.”  (Genesis 50:19-21)

You see, Joseph trusted God from the very beginning. So when the time came to make peace with his brothers, he did so, because that is what God would do. Now if I had been his brothers, standing there before Joseph, I would have been terrified. I mean think about it. They have traveled hundreds of miles, and here they are standing before Pharaoh’s #2 man, sort of like the Prime Minister. They ask this guy for food so they can take it home to the father, their wives, children, and servants – so they can survive the famine. And then lo and behold they find out the person they are asking is their little brother Joseph, the one they hated, the one they threw down a well and sold into slavery. Talk about karma coming around to bite you.  If I had been one of those brothers, I would have been thought, there is no way on earth that Joseph is going to give us food.

But you see, the brothers had lost touch with God. They were not living in the way of God. They were not trusting God. 

Joseph, on the other hand, was connected to God. He had found some maturity while in Egypt too.  Let’s be clear, Joseph had done some stupid things too. He knew that God would not want him to stay in conflict with his brothers. God would certainly not want him to cause his family to starve when he had the means to help them.  Remember these are the descendants of Abraham, the chosen people.  In fact, God had turned the evil acts of his brothers into something good. Because Joseph was in Egypt, he was able to save his beloved father and his favorite brother Benjamin from death; so he also saved his other brothers. He did the right thing. He reconciled with his family. 

Now I have a modern day tale of someone who trusted God and made peace with some people. I’ll call this guy “Mike.” Mike grew up in a religious family. His grandfather was a pastor in one of those really conservative denominations. During the Great Depression his grandfather made quite a few personal loans to churches and even some colleges in this denomination. They were slowly paying them back. Now, Mike was gay and did not hide it. He came out at the age of 16, around 1990. He was immediately kicked out of the church he attended with his parents in Missouri. The elders believed being gay was wrong and good Christian people can’t be gay. So, fast forward in the story about 20 years. Mike’s parents have both died. Then his grandfather dies, and Mike learns that he has inherited, along with his aunt and some other, the notes on these loans. He is one of the trustees who will receive the payments on the loans. Guess which church is on the list of debtors to Mike now? The church that kicked him out when he was a teenager. 

So Mike, like Joseph, has a decision to make. How will he treat those who treated him so badly, twenty years before? He went to meet with the pastor (who was not the same as the one who kicked him out) and with the elders (who were the same one who kicked him out). He said to them, “Now that my grandfather has died, I am the one you owe all that money, but I am going to forgive your debt.” All they could do was say “thank you.” What could they do? They had been shown forgiveness and generosity by the man whom they had judged unchristian and kicked out of their church. Mike took their bad behavior, and when the opportunity came along, he used it for good. He trusted God. He took the high road. He followed the way of Jesus. 

Now we don’t really know the rest of the story. We don’t know how those elders processed Mike’s act of generosity and forgiveness. But this is my hope. My hope is that at least one of them went home and talked to his wife. I’m not sure but I’m pretty sure in a church like that all of the elders are men. And I’m hoping the conversation went something like this:

Husband: You remember Mike? Charles’ grandson?
Wife: Oh, yes. I remember Mike. He was that gay boy.
Husband: Well he inherited the church’s note when Charles died.
Wife: Oh mercy.
Husband: Well you are not going to believe it, but Mike just came to see us and forgave the whole debt.
Husband: You know, John and Sue, down the street have a gay son too. He brought home a boy from college with him. They say the boys are really happy. And you know Mike seems to have grown up into a really fine man.
Wife: But the Bible…
Husband: I know that’s what the preacher says, but the preacher isn’t right about everything. That Mike, he could have been so mean to us. What he did today was a good thing.

I wonder if that sort of conversation happened around the dinner table in the homes of Joseph’s brothers when they sat down with their wives. “After all we did to Joseph. He could have let us starve, but he forgave us. He just said, ‘God made everything work out.’ Joseph was so kind after we were so cruel to him. I want to do better with my life because Joseph was so gracious.”

You see, transformation happens to us, when we put our trust in God, and when we live in the ways of Jesus, the ways of forgiveness, compassion, kindness, gentleness, patience, self-control and joy. 

So, what about your life? Do you have some old hurt, or some long-standing feud with a family member or former friend? Could you give that situation over to God? You might be waiting, like Joseph and Mike, for an opportunity that God will bring along for reconciliation. Or you could be pro-active. You could just call them up and offer some act of kindness or healing to the relationship. Make a peace offering of some sort. 

Now, you don’t have to be friends with everyone. But if there is some situation that is causing you anxiety, and you can be proactive about restoring peace, then peace is always a good thing. And again, when an opportunity arises to see someone who you would consider an enemy because of something they have done to you, I would ask you to remember these stories of Joseph and Mike. Take a deep breath, and ask yourself, “What is the way of God in this situation? Is there a way to be generous and gracious and take the high road?” Is it time?

When we receive forgiveness it is a wonderful thing. So, when the time comes along that we can give forgiveness to another person it also feels good. God can take our mistakes and turn them into something beautiful and good.  Amen.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Joseph’s Family Drama by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

I wonder, do you have any family drama? Being a pastor, I get to know families, and so I get to learn about family drama. Most often it comes up when I am meeting with a family to plan a wedding or a funeral. Interesting isn’t it? That a happy event brings out the worst in people? Lots of drama happens out of a wonderful event.  And when a loved one dies, and our emotions are raw, well, I guess it’s no surprise that the family drama is in full force at the funeral home. 

People start fighting over who is going to get what stuff. Or they start telling stories about old family hurts and stuff that we thought was well behind us is still right there with us. It was right under the surface waiting to cause trouble. Let’s face it, when you gather all the family together, folks that don’t get together that often, all the years and generations of trouble, and you pack them into one room, well, something is bound to erupt.  

One of the reasons I love to preach on the Old Testament is because it is filled with raw family drama: lying, cheating, sibling rivalry, and today we get brothers who hate each other they almost kill one and then they just settle for selling him into slavery to a far away land and letting their father think that his beloved son is dead. Nice family! 

In worship, we watched a video made recently asking people today how they get along in their families.   We’ll post a link to it on the Village web page and Facebook page, but the short summary is:

·         Many admitted that there are MANY problems in their family

·         Everyone seemed to think their parents had a favorite

I am the youngest and I can attest to the fact that the older siblings often feel that the younger gets off easier. I think parents just get more relaxed in their parenting the longer they do it and so the older ones just think the younger ones have it easier. 

We know here at The Village that there are no perfect people. It follows that there are no perfect families. Each family is dysfunctional in its own way. Now, my husband Kurt’s family is like the Waltons, or the Huckstables. I could not think of any more current shows because these days we just get things like Modern Family and the Simpsons on TV – you know, real, crazy families. We are more realistic now. Not like the Waltons and Huckstables where everything was sweetness and light.

 In Kurt’s family there are no divorces, in 2014. We have a family Christmas gathering every year (Christmas on Walton Mountain Kurt calls it) with no fights and no drama. Seriously. But even his family has some challenges (Kurt who is blogging today won’t be dishing on any Grandparents, Aunts, Uncle or Cousins on line.  But No Perfect People is true about all of us). I’ll let him tell you about that after the service. 

No family is without problems. From the beginning of time, it is the nature of human beings to have conflict. The story of Joseph and his brothers is a great example. It is such a great story that Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice wrote a Broadway Show about it: “Joseph the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Jacob, now called Israel in this story, because he is the father of Israel, (remember all those descendants as many as the stars in the sky), does appear to be a father who plays favorites. He loves Joseph. He gives him this coat. The translations describing the coat seem to vary: maybe it was really colorful. It definitely had long sleeves. Long sleeves represent royalty and someone who does not need to work in the fields, contrasted with a sleeveless tunic worn by a working man. 

We skipped one part of this story in our reading for today. Joseph had some dreams and told them to his brothers. He tells one of the dreams to his brothers the next day: “We were all out in the field gathering bundles of wheat. All of a sudden my bundle stood straight up and your bundles circled around it and bowed down to mine.” His brothers, really liked that and said, “So! You’re going to rule us? You’re going to boss us around?” He was also a bit of a tattletale.

As you can imagine, this did not score him any points with his older brothers. He was also a tattle tale. He would report back to dad on how his brothers were doing tending the sheep (Genesis 37 from The Message paraphrase for those following along on the internet):

18-20 They spotted him off in the distance. By the time he got to them they had cooked up a plot to kill him. The brothers were saying, “Here comes that dreamer. Let’s kill him and throw him into one of these old cisterns; we can say that a vicious animal ate him up. We’ll see what his dreams amount to.”
21-22 Reuben heard the brothers talking and intervened to save him, “We’re not going to kill him. No murder. Go ahead and throw him in this cistern out here in the wild, but don’t hurt him.” Reuben planned to go back later and get him out and take him back to his father.
23-24 When Joseph reached his brothers, they ripped off the fancy coat he was wearing, grabbed him, and threw him into a cistern. The cistern was dry; there wasn’t any water in it.
25-27 Then they sat down to eat their supper. Looking up, they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites on their way from Gilead, their camels loaded with spices, ointments, and perfumes to sell in Egypt. Judah said, “Brothers, what are we going to get out of killing our brother and concealing the evidence? Let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let’s not kill him—he is, after all, our brother, our own flesh and blood.” His brothers agreed.
28 By that time the Midianite traders were passing by. His brothers pulled Joseph out of the cistern and sold him for twenty pieces of silver to the Ishmaelites who took Joseph with them down to Egypt.
29-30 Later Reuben came back and went to the cistern—no Joseph! He ripped his clothes in despair. Beside himself, he went to his brothers. “The boy’s gone! What am I going to do!”
31-32 They took Joseph’s coat, butchered a goat, and dipped the coat in the blood. They took the fancy coat back to their father and said, “We found this. Look it over—do you think this is your son’s coat?”
33 He recognized it at once. “My son’s coat—a wild animal has eaten him. Joseph torn limb from limb!”
34-35 Jacob tore his clothes in grief, dressed in rough burlap, and mourned his son a long, long time. His sons and daughters tried to comfort him but he refused their comfort. “I’ll go to the grave mourning my son.” Oh, how his father wept for him.
36 In Egypt the Midianites sold Joseph to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, manager of his household affairs.

Next week we will learn that it was important for Joseph to be in Egypt. God used the brothers’ horrible actions for good. For today, our story stops there. 

The interesting thing about this story is God’s absence. We don’t often read very far in the Old Testament without hearing something about God. Remember, these are God’s chosen people. This is the story of the people who are to inherit the land, and settle. They are to have children and grandchildren. They are to thrive and they are going to love God and love them.

But in this story, God is quiet. Pastor David Lewicki writes about God’s silence in the story: 

“… while no family I know is like Joseph’s, every family is weakened by the things that weakened Joseph’s: generational dysfunction, parents working out their unresolved issues in the lives of their children, and by love unevenly—even unfairly—apportioned. Here’s another thing true of most every family I know: in the midst of family struggles, it’s hard to tell if God is even paying attention.

Lewiki goes onto to say this: 

“Whatever the situation with your family—whether you are Joseph in the pit, a brother standing on the edge looking down, or Jacob, receiving back the bloody coat that you never should have given—this story asks… no, it pleads with you to trust. Trust that God’s silence in your family is not the same as God’s absence. Trust that God has chosen this family to be the bearers of God’s blessing, not only for this family, but for your family, and for the whole world.

Every family has a blessing, but right now, the blessing seems far from this family. Could it be that this family has drifted away from God?  Have they forgotten they are God’s chosen people.

Now, here is the thing. When we feel separated from God, it is not because God has left us, it is either because we have left God, or because God is quiet. But God never leaves our side. God never leaves us.  By the actions in this story, it appears that many of the family members have fallen away from listening to God. Because who would listen to God, and who would say a prayer like this: “God guide my actions today, and let me live in your way” – and then do the things we read about in this story.  Do you think these people were listening to God? 

Would God have a parent show favoritism? Would God have one child, who is almost a man, tell his siblings: “I will rule over you”? Would God bless the plan of some brothers to throw their annoying younger brother down a well and then sell him into slavery? No.

What about us and our families? I wonder if we could take a fresh look at some of the conflicts that we experience in our own families: sibling competition, fighting about how to care for elderly parents, child custody after a divorce that becomes using the children as pawns in adult conflicts, using guilt as a manipulator to get our parents or our children to do what we want…I could go on all day with the list.   But you can just fill in the blanks with your family conflicts.

We can’t control the actions of other people. And that is beyond frustrating. Trust me, I know. It is really frustrating.  All we can control is how we act, and how we react to the actions of others. That’s all we have control over. And we can choose to let our actions and reactions line up with the ways of God. To do that, we need to stay in touch with God. 

When family conflicts are out of control, one really great move is to pray. (By the way, Praying is always a great move.) Pray for yourself and for all the persons involved, even the ones who are making you crazy. It can’t hurt and it might just help the situation. Ask God to come into the situation. Ask God to be present and you can ask God to not be silent. And then be quiet and listen to God. 

As you pray, you might ask yourself, what is the way of God in this situation for me? How would God call me to act? You might want to meet with a trusted friend who also listens to God, and ask them: How do you think God would act in this situation?

I don’t have the sense that Joseph and his brothers were listening very closely to God during the time of this story. I wonder how things might have gone differently for them if they had. 

So, we know there are no perfect families. We know that. But there are families who listen to God. My prayer is that we are church of families that listen to God. We won’t be perfect, but we will know that God is with us. And trust me, when we know God is with our families, we will be blessed.