Bargaining with God

Genesis 15:1-18

When Abram and Sarai are in their 70s, they get amazing news from God. This aging, childless couple is going to become the source of a great nation, in a land that God will show them. Through them, God will bless all the families of the earth.

Abram and Sarai carry this incredible promise with them as they follow God’s call on a big adventure, travelling from their homeland to Bethel, and from Bethel to Egypt, and from Egypt back to Bethel. They hold onto this promise as they establish a home in Bethel, building their wealth, and waiting. They treasure this promise year after year after year after year, and still: no baby. No nation. No blessings.

Then the word of God comes to Abram in a vision, as we heard in the reading this morning. God says: “Do not be afraid, Abram; I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”  But by this time, Abram has a question. “God, what will you give me, for I continue childless… You have given me no offspring.”  God reassures Abram that he will have a child, and tells him: “Look towards heaven and count the stars… so shall your descendants be.” Apparently, looking up at all the stars God created is persuasive, for the scriptures tell us that Abram believes God; and that God reckons it to him as righteousness.

As the story continues, God goes on to reassure Abram about the second part of the original promise: the land Abram’s people will live in. God says, “I am the one who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.”  But again, Abram has a question. “O God,” Abram asks, “How am I to know that I shall possess it?”  God explains that Abram’s offspring will be slaves in a foreign land for four hundred years, but later come to claim the land. Then God establishes a covenant with Abram, that his ancestors will inherit the land.

I wonder how Abram feels, after this second encounter with God, about the bargain he has made. 

Abram does not seem to hesitate at all, if you go back to chapter 12, when God first makes grand promises and asks great things of him.  But by the time God checks back in, in the scriptures today, many years later, things have changed. Abram’s simple trust and absolute faithfulness to God’s call have been strained. It has been so long. So, Abram dares to ask questions. “What will you give me, for I remain childless?”  “How am I to know that I shall possess it?”

God reassures Abram that the promises She gave him are true. And, according to our biblical text, those promises ARE true. And yet, the promises are not true in quite the way that Abram probably assumed. Abram and Sarai will bear a child – but only after years of uncertainty, conflict, and grief. Their descendants will inhabit a great land – but only after hundreds of years of slavery. 

Abram and Sarai receive great promises, they embark on a journey with God. But God’s point of view, God’s sense of time, are so much grander than Abram’s.  Abram has an awful lot of waiting to do, before the promises are fulfilled.

Have you ever felt that something was owed to you? Something promised, and not yet fulfilled? Something delayed, perhaps beyond your lifetime? 

This week the news broke about a college admissions scandal. Extremely wealthy parents have been paying to cheat the system, so that their children might enter elite institutions. Of course, as many folks point out, this is only part of a much larger problem. Wealthy parents have always used money to gain access for their children in schools and beyond.  Most of the ways we do it are even legal: extensive and expensive preparation, massive donations, and personal connections.  What’s more, most of the kids who receive this kind of boost already have other unfair advantages, like white privilege.

It’s easy to look at this admissions scandal and wonder: what could these parents have been thinking? I can’t imagine bribing my kid into college (maybe I’ll change my mind about that in 10 years or so). But if I’m honest, I’m familiar with the very seductive feeling of wanting my kid to have the best. I want my children to have every good thing. I am thrilled by the quality of daycare and public education available here in Concord, even as my conscience struggles with the imbalance between opportunities here, and elsewhere.  I don’t really know what I’d be capable of, if they had a need I couldn’t meet legally, and ethically.

There are some things we want so much that logic, and even ethics, do not always have the final call in our reasoning. The things we want may be good things, or bad things, or somewhere in between.  They may be things we want for ourselves, or things we want for those we love. Regardless, sometimes our desire is so fierce that we are overcome by a sense of personal entitlement.  It seems like the world owes this thing to us in particular, or even, that God owes it to us. This conviction leads, sometimes, to crime; sometimes, to perfectly legal manipulations of the system; and sometimes simply to a corrosive conviction that we are being cheated out of something we deserve.

Most of us know this experience on some level: unfulfilled desire, ambition, longing. It’s a more complicated question, though, to ask what we really deserve, or what we’ve really been promised, by God or by anyone else. That requires teasing apart layers of harmful privilege and entitlement or personal desire from more admirable longings that are often tied up in the same issues: longings to be loved, to be valued, to be treated with justice, and to protect ourselves and those we care for.

I’m not sure it’s wise to make bargains with God. If I do this, then you’ll do that. If you’ll do that, then I’ll do this. God’s so much bigger than us, so hard for us to understand.  Would we really get what we expected out of the deal? I’m not even sure that God does make bargains; maybe we just sometimes think that we’ve made them with her.

Putting our trust in God, as Abram did, is not so much about striking a bargain. It’s more like participating in a relationship. When we’re in a relationship, we sometimes need to clarify expectations, and renegotiate responsibilities. Sometimes we even get really mad, or need to take a time-out. The important thing is staying in conversation, as long as we can be safe doing so. Most of the adult people of faith I know have had to have some serious talks with God, somewhere along the way.

Abram, who we come to know as Abraham, is a hero in at least four faith traditions. He’s an example of what it means to trust God.  He keeps following God, even though he’s not really sure what God’s promises will mean for him or his descendants. There’s room in his relationship with God for disappointment and pain, wonder and awe, trust and doubt. Abram just stays in the conversation with God, no matter what happens.  He sticks with God, as God sticks with him.  Abram teaches us that faith in God can bless a life, and that God’s blessing can passed along, again and again, generation after generation, even amidst the great injustices and uncertainties of life.

Please pray with me.

Holy God, help me sift through the longings of my heart, the desires of my mind, to better distinguish what yearnings lead me towards you, towards justice, peace, and healing for all of your creation. Where beautiful longings cannot be met, grant me comfort. Where good yearnings must wait, and wait, and wait, and wait, stay with me. Where my desires can prompt actions towards positive change, empower me. Where my desires are instead graspings for power, privilege, security, only for me and mine: teach me to let go, and put my trust in you instead. Amen.

A Community Garden

Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Luke 4:1-13

Gnarled Tree Roots — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded that we are dust, and to dust we will return. Our human bodies, in other words, are earth; as we know also from the second story of Creation, in which God forms us by hand from clay.

We are dust; we are earth; we are clay. Our bodies are like little plots of land, temporarily assigned to us by the organizer of an enormous community garden.

Have you ever spent time in a community garden, one of the ones divided into little individual plots? In warmer weather, I often walk through the one on the side of Cousins’ field, a few blocks away from here. I love seeing how different each section of the garden is. Some folks have elaborate fencing, while others seem unconcerned with protecting their borders. Some folks lay down straw between their plantings, others woodchips. Some use black plastic to keep down the weeds. Some folks fill their whole plot with tomato plants, so that by August there are an unbelievable number of heavy, red tomatoes sagging on the vine; almost too many to pick, even on a few square yards of land. Other folks plant a great variety of things: eggplants and zuchinnis and pumpkins, several kinds of lettuce, a selection of herbs, borders of colorful flowers, and accents of whimsical garden decor. Some plots show the marks of a meticulously ordered mind, and dedicated daily care, while others are beautiful in their wildness.

I wonder: what kind of garden are you growing, on your little plot of God’s green earth?

Our scriptures are full of plants, both literal and symbolic. Our first scripture this morning, from Deuteronomy, works on both levels. It speaks of the importance of bringing the first fruits of our harvest to God. God has done so much for us, and for our ancestors, the scripture argues, that it is only right that our very first fruits should be shared with God and with God’s people. “You shall set [your offering] down before God and bow down. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that God has given to you.” (Deut. 26:11)

Our second scripture passage speaks not of abundance, but the lack of it. Out in the bleakness of the wilderness, far from water, and without any food at all, Jesus contends with the devil. What will he do, what will he say, while deprived and depleted in the desert?

The Hebrew scriptures describe how God nourishes us with water, so that our leaves will never wilt (Psalm 1:3, Jeremiah 17:8).  God sometimes destroys plants in scripture, ripping them out of the ground or even burning their roots.  Other roots, like the root of Jesse, are miraculously preserved.

In the Greek scriptures, Jesus uses parables about seeds to describe how the good news of the gospel grows, or fails to grow, in the soil of our lives.  He curses a fig tree that does not bear fruit (Matthew 21:19). Jesus also says, “I am the true vine.. I am the vine, and you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit…” (John 15:1, 5)

The letters of the early Church in our scriptures are surprisingly full of plant imagery as they describe the identity and spiritual health of new Christian communities. We are compared to a wild olive shoot, grafted onto the existing plant of faith (Romans 11). We are instructed that the love of money is the root of all evil (Timothy 6:10) and warned of the danger of a root of bitterness in our communities (Hebrews 12:15). We are told that we are being rooted and grounded in love (Ephesians 3:17). And in the letter to the Colossians, we hear: “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” (Colossians 2:6-7)

At the very end of our bible, in the Book of Revelation, there is a tree of life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations (Rev. 22:2), and just a few verses later, Jesus proclaims: “I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” (Rev. 22:16

In all this rich plant imagery, it’s hard to pick a favorite text, but I am particularly drawn to a passage from the Wisdom of Solomon that I hadn’t remembered (7:15, 17-22):

May God grant me to speak with judgement,
and to have thoughts worthy of what I have received;
for God is the guide even of wisdom and the corrector of the wise…
For it is God who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists,
to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements;
the beginning and end and middle of times,
the alternations of the solstices and the changes of the seasons,
the cycles of the year and the constellations of the stars,
the natures of animals and the tempers of wild animals,
the powers of spirits* and the thoughts of human beings,
the varieties of plants and the virtues of roots;
I learned both what is secret and what is manifest,
for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me.

O to know the virtues of roots!
Imagine that your body is a small plot of land, a temporary assignment in a community garden as large as the universe. There’s a lot we can’t control about the plot of land we are given. We can’t change the kind of soil we have, the sun exposure, the natural rainfall, which plots border ours. But there’s many variables we do have a choice about: what we plant, and what we pull up. How we employ mulch, and manure, and irrigation.  Whether we undertake staking and pest control.

What kind of garden are you growing, with the plot of land you were given?  Is there anything about your gardening habits that you’d like to change?

As we start this season, I encourage all of you to consider claiming a Lenten practice: something you will intentionally do or not do, this season. It may be that you have too much of something in your garden right now: aphids, or acidity, or technology, or plastic, or self-criticism.  It may be that you have too little of something in your garden right now: nutrients, or water, or movement, or meaningful human connection.

Come see our strips of soil and add your own!

Let’s take a moment now to consider at least one thing that you could do, if only for these forty days of Lent, that would bring greater health to your garden. If you are moved, and if you have not already done so, please write down your commitment (anonymously) on a brown strip of paper, to be dedicated here today, and to encourage and inspire others here.

On Ash Wednesday, those who were here started some new roots, by placing plant cuttings in water, in the jars that are now in our entryway. As the season starts, we’re also enriching our soil, with these pieces of paper, these commitments to ourselves, and our community, and to our world.  Who knows what could grow, if we only grant ourselves what we truly need?

Please pray with me: Holy God, I am a humble little plot in your great creation, dust and dirt, earth and clay, seeded by your Spirit. Please forgive my inexpert gardening, and grant me the grace to keep on trying, while I learn from you about the varieties of plants and the virtues of roots. Build up my soil, and establish my soul until it grows strong, flourishing in all seasons. May I bear abundant fruit, offering my first fruits to you, sharing my bounty with neighbors and strangers, and in good time, returning my plot to your careful stewardship. Amen.

Singing and Signing Together

By now many have heard (or read) the story about Samantha Gavitz, the two year old girl from Newton whose neighborhood is taking classes in American Sign Language (ASL) because she was born Deaf. https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2019/02/07/farragher/TEREscjAx7jPNA7RP1IQoI/story.html

Like Samantha’s neighbors, I too learned my first words in ASL out of love for a child, my own. But unlike them, ASL took a back seat to mom blogs and potty training books as soon as my son could say, “more” and “all done,” I wish I had stuck with it. Then I might be able to have fluent conversations with my friends at Sunday Fellowship who are Deaf or hearing-impaired. But I’m working on it. I can now sign the entire Lord’s Prayer and I know how to use basic ASL books and apps to get my point across. I’ve been incorporating ASL into some Sunday school lessons and recently got to see a student use her knowledge of ASL to have a conversation with someone from SF.

But the best way I’ve found to increase knowledge of ASL aside from formal classes is to “sing and sign” together. Check out the pictures and videos from the last session of Food and Fun when we learned how to sing and sign to two songs music from The Greatest Showman. I wonder how much progress we can make by May 5th, when SF hopes to perform these pieces with the adult, teen, junior choirs for Sunday Fellowship Sunday!

This is Our Story…Youth Lead the Way in Worship

  • March 5, 2019

What a blessing it was to see the youth in action this past Sunday when they shared their many gifts with the congregation. It was truly a team effort and a wonderful picture of this amazingly thoughtful, talented, and generous group of young people. God’s spirit was shining bright!



Youth Reflections

On March 3rd, our Youth shared their reflections on Luke 9:28-43.

Speaker 1: Good morning. Thank you for inviting us to lead worship on this Youth Sunday and for giving us the opportunity to share with you some of our reflections on this story of Jesus’ Transfiguration.

During our exploration of this story, we wondered together about a number of things. We noticed and applauded Jesus’ desire to get away from the crowds, to spend some quiet time with God, and to bring three of his closest friends along for company. We wondered what made him do this at this time in his ministry?

We also noticed how God invites Moses and Elijah to show up too, which seems to us evidence of Jesus’ connection to the Law and the Prophets as well as God’s desire to elevate the importance of this event. We wondered what the disciples were thinking and feeling when they saw these two figures appear to be talking with Jesus?

After speculating about possible answers to these questions, our attention turned to the event itself. In the Transfiguration, Jesus is made known more fully by his changing appearance and by God’s voice affirming his identity and his mission.

“This is my child, my chosen one, listen to him!”

God’s words here powerfully declare the essence of who Jesus is and point to his purpose – his call – to live into the role that God has given to him. We imagined that this must have made Jesus feel profoundly loved and empowered to fulfill his mission in a spirit of truth and freedom.

Speaker 2: Many of us can relate to this experience of being seen and appreciated for who we are. Our friends, family, teachers and other mentors often play this role in our lives. Their ability to recognize our gifts, gives us confidence and inspires us to be our best selves.

One time I felt empowered was when I received a position as a junior coach at my figure skating rink. When I was younger, a couple of my teammates were repeatedly mean to me, most likely because I was an easy target. Ever since that experience, I worked to become a positive role model and to advocate for younger girls so no one else would be on the receiving end of such unkind behavior. Earning an official leadership role made me feel recognized for these efforts, and I felt empowered because I had a chance to use my own position to help other people.

Speaker 3: When the disciples witness Jesus’ Transfiguration, they realize the sacredness of this moment and want to build dwelling places so they can all remain on Holy Ground and continue to enjoy this mountain top experience together. But they are interrupted by God’s voice and reminded that there is important work yet to be done.

Created and known by God, we too are called to be our truest selves and to trust in God’s invitation to bravely share who we are – our passions, our life stories, our identities and our perspectives – with other people so that we might all grow in faith and love. When we do this for each other, amazing things can happen.

I spent the first half of my junior year up in Maine at a semester school: Maine Coast Semester at Chewonki. It’s in Wiscasset, about an hour north of Portland, a 400 acre peninsula shaped sort of like a hand. There were 45 of us in my semester, and those people, along with the staff, created the warmest, kindest, and most welcoming environment I have ever been a part of. I have never felt more free to be myself, and I can say wholeheartedly that everyone else felt the same way. There was no subtle judgement or assumptions made or anything that seems to happen in a regular high school setting. I was seen right away by these absolute strangers for who I was on the inside, and as a result I was able to learn and grow more profoundly than I ever would have back at home. I am now close friends with 44 other people I never would have been friends with at home, and I am much better and more open person because of them.

Speaker 4: One of the other lectionary texts assigned for Transfiguration Sunday comes from 2nd Corinthians where Paul is talking to the early Christians. In this passage he reminds the people of the power of God’s spirit and encourages them this way:

“Since we have such a hope, we act with great boldness. … Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit is, there is freedom. And all of us, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed. … Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.”

Just as Jesus was known, revealed, and transformed on the mountaintop, so too are we recognized and affirmed by God who loves us unconditionally and offers us the privilege to be fully who we are as we come down from our mountains and share our authentic voices with the world. It is here that we find Courage. It is here that we find Hope. And it is here that we find Freedom.

Amen.

Blessed Assurance: Then and Now and Forevermore

  • March 5, 2019

On Sunday, we sang this old familiar hymn with a bit of a twist with lyrics adapted to fit the themes that the Youth so eloquently brought forth to the congregation as they led worship together.

Blessed assurance, God’s love is mine. Oh what a free gift, from the divine. Known for who I am, called to be me Born of the Spirit, loved tenderly.

This is my story, this is my song. Living in God’s love, all the day long. This is my story, this is my song. Living in God’s love, all the day long.

When I feel doubtful, alone, or afraid
Longing for comfort from friends who have stayed Close by my side and – who see the real me Blessed child of God, I – am thankful and free.

This is my story, this is my song. Living in God’s love, all the day long. This is my story, this is my song. Living in God’s love, all the day long.

Filled with God’s goodness, all is at rest
Mind, body, and soul are peaceful and blessed. Jesus walks with me, holding my hand
Called to share God’s love, throughout the land.

This is my story, this is my song. Living in God’s love, all the day long. This is my story, this is my song. Living in God’s love, all the day long.

*We also discovered an amazing history of this beloved hymn. Read on!!

Fanny Crosby: Legendary Methodist Hymn Writer (1820-1915)

“Blessed Assurance” is one of the most beloved songs in the United Methodist Hymnal. The person who composed this classic, Fanny Crosby is credited with writing 8000 hymns in her lifetime–despite losing her sight six weeks after birth in 1820. This blind, musical visionary was a lifelong Methodist who began composing hymns at age six. From the age of 15, Crosby attended the New York Institute for the Blind and later joined the faculty and met her husband there. Alexander Van Alstyne, blind himself, was supportive. He often transcribed his wife’s poems since Crosby could not write and composed the lyrics entirely in her mind.

The Rev. Alfred T. Day: “Fanny Crosby was not held back at all by her blindness. And probably the words of her poetry and hymns helped more people to see and know and experience Jesus as anybody with two working eyes and 20/20 vision.”

Crosby’s writings never brought her wealth. She was often paid just a dollar or two per poem with the rights to the songs being retained by the composer or music publishers. At one point, the songstress was destitute but Crosby wrote in her autobiography that the songs were God’s work and not for profit. Any royalties she received were often donated toward the mission work she championed with prisoners, homeless people, immigrants and the poor. Crosby was most drawn to her denomination’s work with the marginalized and her songs spoke to social issues of the day including the temperance movement and the campaign against child labor.

Middle class women in nineteenth-century United States had little voice in worship, however. One of the only ways for a woman to claim the authority to be heard was by direct personal revelation from God. Fanny Crosby readily claimed God’s personal revelation as a source for her hymns; her personal revelation then became a communal inspiration as Christians throughout the world sang her hymns and confirmed her faith experience as their own.

So it is in honor of Fanny Crosby, and in the spirit of inclusivity, that we sing this song today.

Game Faces On!

  • February 27, 2019

Seventy people of all ages and abilities came together on February 17th for the second installment of “Food and Fun” a fun new experiment Sunday Fellowship is trying this winter. After a delicious lunch of pizza and salad, it was GAME ON with Candyland, Connect 4, Giant Uno, Legos, puzzles and more! Check out the silly and serious game faces below.

And if you missed it, don’t worry, there is one more edition of Food and Fun on March 3rd when we’ll be singing and signing to music from the Greatest Showman.

Special Music Sunday

On February 24th we enjoyed Mozart’s Missa brevis in B-flat Major, K.275. We’re grateful to Jim Barkovic for his amazing leadership, to all our WCUC musicians and our guest musicians! Thanks also to David Swain for capturing some of the magic with this sound recording.

The second (below) is from the postlude, Ave verum Corpus, K.618.