Monday, August 25, 2008
By Dr. Richard Guentert
Having moved beyond the “mirages” of the wilderness to Horeb’s “mountain-top ecstasy,” Moses finds himself in one of life’s recurring quandaries . . . What do you do when you are literally “between a rock (Mt. Horeb) and a hard place (the wilderness)?” How do you handle life when it means functioning somewhere between ample stress and ambiguous outcomes?
In the “burning bush” encounter he begins to hear sounds emanating from, of all places, a shrub. (Now, many of us have been to Disney World and heard “It’s A Small World - music” emanating from plants, trees and landscaping everywhere. But in this pre-scientific, pre-technological world context, sounds from a bush are unheard of, and totally awesome.)
The Divine Visitation plus The Voice presents Moses with a curiosity, an invitation, a directive, a tribal genealogy and a bad case of stress. The Curiosity: Moses says, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up?” The Invitation: God called to him out of the bush, “Moses! Moses!” The Directive: “Come no closer. Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place you are standing is holy ground.” The Tribal Genealogy: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” The Bad Case of Stress: “Moses hid his face for he was afraid to look at God.”
What gets revealed is a compassionate God who has observed the Hebrew people’s misery and heard their cry – a divine being who is capable of intimately knowing their suffering, acting for their deliverance, and promising them “a good and broad land, flowing with milk and honey.” The puzzling part is that their promised paradise is presently somebody else’s property – it belongs to “the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.” That means the Hebrews can only get out from under being a conquered/enslaved people, by conquering/enslaving another people. God has offered an awkward solution to their one problem by presenting them with another. And isn’t that often the way it is with spiritual journeying . . . you keep finding yourself struggling with alternative conundrums – all along the way – between ample stress and ambiguous outcomes.
God’s plan is to send Moses to confront Pharaoh, and deliver the message, “Let My People Go!” But Moses retorts, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt.” In other words, Moses underestimates his capability; he underestimates his authority; he underestimates his qualifications; he underestimates his mandate. And this is likely where you and I most identify with this ancient patriarch of the faith – in our proneness to underplay our role in the promising possibility God has in mind for us.
So, do you suppose this is one more example of our sinfulness – our promptings to underestimate – both ourselves and others? And if so, might we just as well confess that this characteristic of “underestimating” is actually a sin? I wonder! And the sneaky thing about it is the subtle way we carry it off as the exercise of “humility” – when in fact it is a shrinking away from the responsibility God places upon us to act with courage and audacity in the face of wrong, evil and injustice.
It is the sin of underestimating ourselves and others that prompts us to say, “I can’t!” “I’m not competent, capable or experienced enough!” “I don’t have the resources to carry it off!” But to underestimate is to discount God’s confidence in us and in humanity. To underestimate is to discount Christ’s abiding presence. To underestimate is to discount the Holy Spirit’s empowering charisms & charisma.
Those who underestimate betray a lack of confidence in the accumulated resources and giftedness of the community of faith around them. And it culminates in a failure of faith, a failure of hope, and ultimately in a failure of nerve. It results in low-balling our expectations, in down-sizing our dreams, in shrinking our ambitions, in trimming back our enterprises, and in “settling” for second-best.
The text concludes with God disclosing the empowering name: “I am who I am!” – the real power of which is to be noted in the footnote to the NRSV translation. The Hebrew text is just as accurately translated, “I will be what I will be!”
Master chess-players have already figured out their opponent’s options four to six plays ahead into the game. So we should not be surprised that the God of the Hebrews has the capability to “become” in any way necessary, as the creature and the Creator move in partnership into their new future together. A God who can say “I will be what I will be!” is a transformable God for a transformable people – even though the future from the human standpoint is filled with ambiguous outcomes. And the Promise that can counter all our proneness to “underestimate” is that the One who was with the Hebrew people through all their wonderings and their wanderings is the God who is with us, as well.
Further resources for exploring this unholy habit of “underestimating:”
The Psalm 105: 1-6, 23-26, 45c text is full of arguments countering any propensity to underestimate – especially the power of remembering how God was with them in their previous history.
The Romans 12 text offers an “attitude adjustment” for us when we are tempted to underestimate. See verses 11 and 12. “Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in the Spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.” These are the spiritual resources that counter any temptation to disparage our capabilities in the face of God’s call.
The Matthew 16:21-28 text gives us a powerful illustration around this theme of underestimating. In verse 21 Jesus outlines both the suffering of his passion and the resurrection promise. But in the midst of Jesus’ candidness and confidence comes Peter’s cold water. He underestimates the depth of Jesus’ commitment and conviction. He underestimates Jesus’ rationale and resolve. So in verse 23 Jesus indicates that this “underestimating” is not only detrimental, it is satanic! It is a stumbling block. And it is wrong-minded!
The doubting and fearful Disciples, gathered later on in the Upper Room after Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, had the audacity to underestimate the power of God to bring life in the face of death, and hope in the midst of despair.
When one continually underestimates themselves, they end up going through life with an accumulation of regrets – and blaming life for it – kind of like the fellow described in the following lyrics from a C&W ballad.
I could’ve played in the majors,
but I had some bad luck
Well that’s not exactly it,
the truth is I sucked.
So I drank me some whiskey,
and I smoked cigarettes
’Cause it takes out the sting
of those former regrets.
I’m sad and I’m tired,
I’m angry and numb
I’m three-quarters prisoner
and I’m two-quarters dumb
I’m half of the man that I wanted to be
I wish life would stop kickin’
the [crap] out of me.
(Lyrics from a country western song by Thom Schuyler called “3/4 Me”)
The Olympic Village was a community of people who refused to disbelieve or doubt the possibility of breaking records. Not one of them got there by underestimating their capabilities, or the resources that surrounded them in their family, coach, community and peers.
“Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit. We are all the same in this notion: The potential for greatness lives within each of us.” Wilma Rudolf (the first American woman runner to win three gold medals at a single Olympics, 1940-1994.)
A strong counter to the practice of underestimating what God can do in and through us is found in the text to the hymn, That Cause Can Neither Be lost Nor Stayed. It is a is a powerful antidote to the negativity of disparaging and minimizing our contributions. The text can be found on page 604 of Chalice Hymnal
From the culture of history, art, music and theatre comes the musical production called Les Misérable, about underdogs who believe so much in the virtue of a cause that the size of the foe is inconsequential . . . resulting in a complete refusal to underestimate the power of a liberating idea.
“People underestimate their capacity for change. There is never a right time to do a difficult thing. A leader’s job is to help people have a vision of their potential.” John Porter
“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” Leo Buscaglia, U.S. author & lecturer (1925 - 1998)
The Labor Day weekend is a significant moment to encourage folk not to underestimate the weight, worth and magnitude of their labors. What they do for a living makes better the world around them. It is important. And to underestimate that importance is to undervalue their vocation
Taking on great efforts like combating racism, starting new churches, and undertaking flood recovery projects requires indomitable spirits. None of these are tackled by folks intent on underestimating themselves, others, the church, or God.
Thursday, August 14, 2008
Our text begins with the startling news that there arose a king who did not know Joseph. He didn’t bother to learn his history. What’s up with that? Didn’t he ask? Didn’t anyone think it was important to tell him his history? When leaders don’t know history, disaster follows. If he knew about Joseph, he would have learned that the only reason that he had a country to govern was because of the Israelite, Joseph, who saved the whole nation from famine. No Joseph and his Israelite God -- no Egypt, no kingship, no one would be around to call him Pharaoh, he’d be called dust.
If he had known about Joseph, he would have known about Joseph’s God, who works through human beings to save life, to bring blessing. He would have known that God takes the evil that people do in this world and always brings something good out of it. Because Pharaoh did not know, he made bad decisions that brought a heap of trouble on his head. The lesson from the beginning of the text is pretty clear. Don’t be a know-not. Know. Know your spiritual history. Know this God who works through human beings to save life and bring blessings upon people. Know the story. Know that you are a child of God meant for better than what sometimes you act like.
Pharaoh looks around and notices there are a lot of Hebrews. “By golly, it won’t be long before there are more of them than there are of us. Then what? They might take us over, with their language, their culture. That wouldn’t be good. I better use all the power of my government to stop them.” So, he decided to oppress the people instead of finding ways to build on common interests within the country.
Pharaoh turned the Hebrews into slaves, making their work hard and bitter. They built storehouses for the superabundance of Egypt -- as if to rub their noses in it. “We are powerful and great and rich, and you get beaten and have to build the places to store our extra riches.” But they cried out, stripped of everything human, to the God of Joseph. “God remember us. Have you forgotten us? Where are you? Come, save us. Do something.” Although Pharaoh forgot about God, God did not forget about his people. God does not forget. God remembers God's people especially in their time of trouble. God heard their cries. And Yahweh did what God always does when there is trouble. God worked through human beings to make a difference. And as God always does, God worked through those people everyone would consider the most unlikely to make a difference.
He sent midwives. Midwives were thought to be somehow cursed, not blessed by God. They couldn’t have children so God must not favor them. That was the thinking. So God chose midwives maybe to show that isn’t true.
Pharaoh decided it was time for a little population control. Back then they didn’t have fancy maternity wards and OB/GYNs. But they did have midwives. Pharaoh ordered midwives to kill any male children at birth.
Pharaoh was fearful about what might happen to him and his country so he acted with malice and terror and violence. The midwives, the text says, feared God. Fear of God doesn’t mean that if you do something wrong, you think God is going to zap you. Fearing God in the Bible means reverence, awe, respect, and worship. Their fear leads them to love life, to save it, to even put their own lives on the line. Pharaoh’s fear is self-centered; the midwives fear is self-giving.
The midwives defy Pharaoh. Obviously, they would have been killed if Pharaoh knew. It is the first recorded act of civil disobedience. They followed a higher law. They wouldn’t give in to what was expected of them. These women are our spiritual ancestors. Don’t be a not know on this. The Bible will have nothing of us being patsies in this world.
We are to stand up and defy the powers because we are not inwardly motivated, but outwardly motivated.
Defy those who try to pressure us into silence when they are corrupt.
Defy that which is hateful and wrong.
Lovingly defy those who would try to squeeze you into their mold.
The midwives refuse to kill the babies. They make up some funny story about Hebrew women being tougher than others so that they already deliver their babies before they can arrive on the scene. “Sorry boss.” And so, these two women saved a generation. They saved the big brother of Moses, Aaron. Aaron turned out to be Moses’ spokesperson and was key in leading the people out of Egypt. No midwives, no Exodus, no ten commandments, no basis of western civilization, no Judaism, no Christianity. They saved it all.
God blessed them and produced life in their barren wombs. This is one of the great themes of faith in the Old Testament. God produces life and vitality in places thought barren and dry. God a barren place in your life? Remember your spiritual heritage, don’t be a know not.
The names of these women are mentioned. Puah and Shiphara. They are named but the particular great Pharaoh is not named. I like that. The great king is not named but the ordinary women heroines are named. In the Bible’s logic, these two women are more important than all of the Pharaohs remembered in the valley of towering pyramids put together.
Puah and Shiphara. Their names are strange in Hebrew, translated into English the names mean: Beauty and Splendor. Whenever women are named in the Old Testament it means something. Here in this story we are told that Beauty and Splendor saved a whole generation. Why do you think this story about Beauty and Splendor defying authority and saving a generation are told about in the Bible? Do you think it is just a history lesson? By no means. It is about us. People who will stand up to what is wrong, and put themselves on the line for others have souls filled with beauty and splendor.
Alexander Solyzenietzen who survived some of the ugliest things that have ever happened to human beings in the Russian Gulag said that “Beauty will save the earth.” He was not talking about anorexic, airbrushed, digitally and siliconically enhanced super-models on the covers of magazines. He was talking about simple acts of self-giving in a fearful world.
Beauty is the compassion of making sure others feel welcome. Splendor is the kid who decides not to pick on the new kid just because everyone else is. Beauty is the person who calls you to account. Splendor is the person who devotes his life not just to making as much money as you can, but to make as much meaning as you can.
Hear the words that Nelson Mandela quoted in his inauguration speech to a people who had been put down and oppressed and depressed for generations.
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous” Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."
You are meant to shine. So often we let powers smaller than a king keep us down. We are afraid of what others might think if we put our wildest hopes and dreams and noblest ideals into action. They might think we are nuts. They might laugh. They might ridicule us. We might fail. We might succeed and be lonely anyway. But remember no matter what, you are the child of God. You are meant to shine, to be beautiful and live with splendor.
In this old world, God keeps on working through ordinary folks like the midwives and you and me to bring life, to bring beauty, to bring splendor in a world that forgets about God. There is a new generation that needs to learn who they are. Our children need to know they are part of this story. We need to learn it so we can teach it to them. We are midwives of hope. Hope to a new generation. So that our children won’t be know nots. So that they will know that God does not forget.
Like Moses being plucked from his basket in the river, God has plucked us from the waters of baptism, not only the assurance that our own life has been spared - but to fill us with God’s spirit and to make us living reminders of a God that does not forget. God does not forget the oppressed. God does not forget the forsaken. God does not forget the lost. God does not forget the broken. God does not forget the sin-sick. God has raised us up to keep God in the face of every person that would dare to forget. Know it, remember who you are and rejoice.
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
These stories don't seem to fit well together, but they just may. Matthew's audience of early Christians are dealing with some complicated issues, about whether or not they have to follow the old Jewish food laws, and about whether Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians can eat together. These made for some complex tensions. Perhaps Matthew placed these stories together to respond to these tensions. (For more on this see: Preaching Through the Christian Year, Year A, pp 407-408).
It's easier to say what we believe than to practice what we believe. So for the early Christians it might have been easy to say that "God is the God of all" or "in Christ there is no Jew nor Greek" but putting these abstract thoughts into practice would have been much harder to do. Perhaps these stories are there to remind them that Jesus was more concerned about what comes out of the heart than about what rules you follow and that the first messianic proclamation actually came from a gentile woman. Reminders of things like these were almost certainly needed to help resolve issues of Church governance in the first century. They're also needed today.
When the earliest Stone-Campbell churches were formed, African-American worshippers had to enter the church by climbing a ladder from the outside. Then they were relegated to the balconies. Saying that Christ welcomes all to the table was perhaps harder for those early Disciples to say than to practice.
What are our challenges today? We say we are an inclusive church but we still wrestle with issues of exclusivity. We say we believe in the radically inclusive love of God but our congregations still have a nasty little habit of excluding people because of race, sexual orientation, or social status. Perhaps these stories of Jesus will be helpful for us to hear. Remember, to say something is very different than to actually believe it, and to believe it is very different than actually living by it.
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
Im not sure how much of this is me and how much of this is the Text and how much is just me at the end of a long camping season. 26 camps, a plane flight that just would not work out to ICYF in California, 8 storms that interupted power twice, blew over 3 large trees, destroyed all 3 of my well pumps at the same time (meaning no water for camp) and so much more -- This was my summer. Infact the water emergency was the reason for the lateness of this entry...
Now I cannot let you all think that it was a bad summer because it was great summer. But in good midwestern (perhaps just being a minister) fashion when campers, counselors or other guest would ask how it is going in the middle of one of those chaotic moments, my response was, "Things are OK." While my mind was internally racing to find a way to fix the next problem so that what people experienced at camp would seem spiritually enriching and NOT chaotic. And most of the time, with the help of the summer interns, and the rest of the staff I mangage to do that, but on occassion late in the summer I sometimes slip and tell people what happens behind the scenes and not always nicely... That is when I know I need a vacation...
In last weeks Gospel text Jesus has just heard about John the Baptist death ( The person who baptized him) and he attempts to get away but the people follow and he heals them and feeds them. And if thats not enough to cause frustration his Disciples dont seem to understand at all. Now this week's text he finally does get away but only after sending his Disciples to the otherside of the sea while he takes care of dismissing the the crowds. Then after he does get away for a while to pray and be alone he notices that the Disciples are in trouble again and he heads out to help them.
In a moment of partial hope that things are getting better and the Disciples are getting it, even if just a little, Peter actually walks on the water... well at least for a while. Then Jesus has to come and pick him again. Jesus says, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" I can almost hear the frustrating tone to this message.
What is the message here... hmmm Maybe we all need a vacation now then to keep focused? As in the next couple of chapters Jesus is said to be trying to get away to rest . . . However, maybe there are times to challenge people to rise to the ocassion and walk on water. Maybe instead of not telling people all the things or just doing it yourself, there might be a time to challenge people to step up and take their faith seriously... Not in a frustrating, I need a vacation kind of way, but in a "I believe in you as leaders/followers who can change the world" kind of way!
I choose to believe the latter... Rise! Just the same I will go on vacation next week!
Monday, August 4, 2008
August 10: Bill Spangler-Dunning
August 17: Dan Mayes
August 24: Dave Clark
August 31: Richard Guentert
September 7: John Claussen
September 14: Dennis Sanders
September 21: Brian Kirk
September 28: Danny Bradfield
October 5: Andy Beck
October 12: Sharla Hulsey
October 19: Bert Burns
October 26: Suzie Moore
November 2: Josh Leu
November 9: Bill Spangler-Dunning
November 16: Dan Mayes
November 23: Dave Clark
November 30: Richard Guentert
December 7: John Claussen
December 14: Dennis Sanders
December 21: Brian Kirk
December 28: Danny Bradfield
January 4: Andy Beck
January 11: Sharla Hulsey
January 18: Bert Burns
January 25: Suzie Moore
February 1: Josh Leu
February 8: Bill Spangler-Dunning
February 15: Dan Mayes
February 22: Dave Clark
March 1: Richard Guentert
March 8: John Claussen
March 15: Dennis Sanders
March 22: Brian Kirk
March 29: Danny Bradfield
April 5: Andy Beck
April 12: Sharla Hulsey
April 19: Bert Burns
April 26: Suzie Moore
May3: Josh Leu
May 10: Bill Spangler-Dunning
May 17: Dan Mayes
May 24: Dave Clark
May 31: Richard Guentert
June 7: John Claussen
June 14: Dennis Sanders
June 21: Brian Kirk
June 28: Danny Bradfield
July 5: Andy Beck
July 12: Sharla Hulsey
July 19: Bert Burns
July 26: Suzie Moore
August 2: Josh Leu