Sunday, October 5, 2014
Friday night, Roberta Goodman and I went to Temple Kol Ami's Kol Nidre service for the start of Yom Kippur, at the invitation of Lisa Sylvester, who, in addition to being our music director, serves as the High Holy Days music director for the synagogue. At one point in our worship, a number of members of the congregation were invited forward to reverently hold the Torah scrolls while a long prayer was sung, primarily by the cantor. These scrolls are large, and beautifully covered in rich fabrics, some with lovely embroidery, some adorned with intricately worked silver plates; I have to assume they are also fairly heavy. Although I didn’t understand the Hebrew words, I was overwhelmed by the looks of joy and love on the faces of those entrusted with holding the scrolls, by the notes of longing and faithfulness in the cantor’s voice, by the yearning in both the music and expression of the cellist accompanying the prayer. These scrolls, and by association the ancient words on them, represented not a burden but an honor, an intimate connection to Adonai, the creator and ruler of the vastness of all creation who also bends down to draw near to every human being.
In that moment, I was powerfully reminded that the commandments I so often reduce to a list that has all the thrill of a section of civil code are in fact the expression of God’s deep and abiding love for us and God’s desire for us to remain in this covenant as an intimate, dynamic, reciprocal relationship. These are not first of all a list of rules, some sort of deified cattle prod to keep us within the boundaries of civilized behavior..which is how a lot of us look at them. These are the result of engagement between no less than Almighty God and humans. Campaigns to post the 10 Commandments in courthouses and classrooms abound, but those miss the whole point: it's not that abiding by them creates people who will be good--and therefore somehow worthy of that relationship or poster children for the benefits of faith--but rather that the true value of the commandments is they reflect the covenantal bonds of an established relationship, a relationship in which our actions mirror those of the God who loves us.
Listen to this from the psalm: "The statutes of the Lord are just and rejoice the heart; * the commandment of the Lord is clear and gives light to the eyes." This isn't based in fear or intimidation, but in hope and delight with the expectation of blessing. I think that overall, that's an attitude that is a breath of fresh air in our culture. God's words--in these commandments and in the whole story we've been hearing for many weeks, from Abraham to Moses--God's words to the people of Israel release them from captivity and death, and lead them into life and freedom...and they can do the same for us.
We don't have to be prisoners to our calendars and technology that keeps us going 24/7; we have permission to take time for sabbath rest and renewal, to reconnect with the One who refreshes us. We can invite each other to let go of distorted cravings for the coolest car or biggest bank account or greatest travel destination; we're called instead to focus our attention on the constancy of the One who truly sustains us. We can offer up that which distorts meaning and falsely fills our voids; we have an invitation to draw near to the One who loves us most faithfully. I'm not suggesting that this is all easy, just that it's probably a more deeply satisfying, joyous way to live. Being in relationship with God is worth the effort!
Let us pray:
"With an eternal love You have loved the house of Israel Your people. You have taught us Torah and mitzvot, statutes that have ruled our lives since ancient days, judgments that form our sentences today. Lying down and rising up, Adonay our God, we shall strive to make your laws the substance of our speech, to exult forever in each word of Torah we can learn, in each commanded deed we can fulfill. By meditating on them we shall find the purpose of our days; by acting on them we shall learn how to lengthen life. In darkness and in light, may these words of Your love ever be upon our lips. Whatever our merit in our own eyes, may we never be deprived of your love. Help us to reciprocate Your love, Adonay, through our praise."
On Wings of Awe: A Fully Transliterated Machzor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur , p. 255, revised edition, edited by Rabbi Richard Levy, Ktav Publishing.
Sunday, September 14, 2014
I want to be an Israelite. Not one of the whiny ones looking longingly back at slavery under Pharaoh as some sort of golden time--I'm gonna assume they were a vocal minority--but one of the rest of the host who were so grateful to have shed the shackles of their oppressors, those plagues a set of miracles if there ever was one. I want a pillar of fire to lead me by night and a pillar of cloud to have my back at day. I want the waters that threaten to engulf me to part down the middle and leave me with a comfortingly straight, dry path to traverse. I want to know I'm on the way to freedom, leaving behind all that enslaves me. I want someone to follow to the promised land.
By contrast, I don't want to be an Egyptian. I don't want the horror and heartbreak of plagues and the death of those I love. I don't want to feel like I have to be in pursuit of others, and I don't want to feel like I'm on the wrong side of what's right. I don't want to have my wheels clogged by mud and debris, and I most certainly don't want to drown in chaos and wash up on the shore while my enemies exult.
If only it was so clear, the good guys and the bad guys, and we all got to pick whose side we'd be on. That would be so easy. But we all know it doesn't happen that way. Sometimes good people become ensnared by chaos--of violence or poverty, disease or abuse, disaster or addiction, or simply because they were born in one place and time and not another--and they drown. And some people who act heinously, who show wanton disregard for the life and dignity of others, who think only of themselves and their own craven desires, sometimes they walk away unscathed. And almost all the time, the more closely we look, the harder it is to tell the good guys from the bad guys anyway. Some of the Israelites were probably gangsters and thieves, and some of the Egyptian soldiers men who just wanted to go home to quiet and peaceful lives with their families, every bit as far from Pharaoh's reach as the Israelites hoped to be.
Amazingly, out of this chaos and confusion, God brings a new creation. Light once again appears in the darkness; the same ruach--the Hebrew for spirit or wind--that stirred over the waters of the deep in Genesis blows mightily again here; and God separates the waters from the dry land. Exodus is no less than a new creation; the power that once brought something out of nothing now brings the new life of freedom out of the darkness of oppression. God has saved the Israelites and, by virtue of this miraculous crossing, transformed them into a new people on their way to the promised land.
It's not neat and tidy, though; new beginnings in scripture rarely are. As the wind blows and waters ebb and surge, as the cloud obscures vision, as the mud begins to entangle the chariots and their riders, we can feel how dangerous this passage is. The enormous magnitude of repression, of an old order, of sinfulness, requires an equally great force to break it. Though scripture is biased, for understandable reasons, toward the perspective of the "good" Israelites, the amount of violence and death in this whole Exodus saga is disturbing, and I can't justify it...but it does reflect the tumult and upheaval of complete change.
It's the same struggle we have with the crucifixion and resurrection. Couldn't Jesus have died nicely in old age surrounded by predictably faithful and highly competent disciples, then shown up alive again a few days later to send them forth? We know--deep in our bones we know--that the power of the defeat of death and of the destruction of the oppression of sin, of all that separates us from God, wouldn't be adequately represented if God had taken that route. Our longing for new life comes out of the reality of what we know of life before resurrection, that it's not neat and tidy, that the good guys and the bad guys aren't easy to distinguish and don't get what they deserve, that sometimes chaos and darkness disorient us and mud and debris confound our every move. Jesus's victory has to overcome the weight of that version of life to truly be new life, the start of a new creation. We are both the children of Israel led out of bondage into the land of promise and the offspring of Pharaoh whose greed and brutality and thirst for domination get drowned in the Red Sea.
As you come up for communion, lay your hand on this font, claim again this sign of the Red Sea through which we have passed. The Spirit moves over the water of baptism, and we're brought through death--not around, not over, but through death--to the new creation of the resurrection, following Jesus to God's promised land.
Seriously, what does God expect from humans? Peter, despite his best efforts, keeps getting it all wrong, and here Jesus is really taking him to task for his shortcomings and then going on with ridiculous demands about denying oneself and taking up a cross and losing one's life. Paul trots out a list of 30+ items detailing right behavior from wrong--anyone want the Cliff Notes version?--and yet this pillar of the faith elsewhere confesses he can't seem to do what's right and refrain from what's wrong, even when he wants to. Moses, by his own description in the next chapter of Exodus, says he's slow of speech and slow of tongue, and he certainly lacks confidence when God tags him. Plus what made God think that a good way to find a new leader was this weird burning bush trick? And that's just today's lessons; the bible has falls and floods, screw ups and sinners, denial and despair, and a whole lot of incompetent behavior. In our own lives, we have much the same experience, with our pain and sense of inadequacy or just plain insensitivity, our confusion and capacity to complicate things, our pride and our prejudices, our U-turns and wrong turns. Compared to God, we don't even live more than the blink of an eye. What on earth makes God think that humans are a wise choice for partners?
Sure, we have our good days. Mary and Joseph say yes, Noah and Daniel remain faithful, midwives outwit a power hungry pharaoh, the beloved disciple stays nearby, and the Good Samaritan stops to help a person who reviles him. We befriend the lonely, care for the needy, support the bereaved, speak up for those who have been silenced, and strive to be peace-makers and justice-bearers. Those are all very good, but when I weigh them next to the aforementioned shortcomings, I'm still left wondering: why has God chosen us as partners in creation?
Maybe it's because God is I Am Who I Am. God just is, and has been, and will be, and thus has the presence and patience to hang out with us. God doesn't need us to be good so that God will feel better or have a sense of personal fulfillment or for endorsement of the success of creation; God already contains all that and more within Godself. But God obviously wants interaction, wants relationship, wants reciprocal love; and, dare I suggest, also wants discovery? I imagine God saying, "I Am...and who are you?" with the same joyous wonder that we might experience looking at a young person and watching who she or he grows up to be. At the very heart of God's love shown to us in Jesus is an unconditional acceptance that also longs for us to be more ourselves, and encourages us to set down the parts of ourselves that separate us from God and to embrace who we are as God calls forth our being.
God is still God whether we do well or totally goof up, whether we come through the fire or go up in flames. God has chosen to participate in a creation that has an element of unpredictability and that's messy...and humans are exhibit #1. When Moses says that he doesn't think God's plan to involve him is such a great idea, God doesn't try to convince Moses that he actually is qualified or that he shouldn't worry; instead, God tells Moses, "I will be with you." Not a vague presence in a vague way, but I--the God of your particular patriarchs and matriarchs--will be with you in the specific world you inhabit. I, the God of Peter and Paul, the God of Desmond and Rosa, the God of Michael and James, I will be with you…in Altadena and Ferguson and Montgomery and Soweto and Israel and Palestine and everywhere you go. Because I Am, you also shall be.
When we're at our best--loving and prayerful and peaceful and hospitable and humble and all those good ways of being that Paul suggests--we may not need that assurance, but the very fact we're at our best suggests that somewhere deep within us we remember it. When we're at our worst or at our lowest, maybe knowing that I Am is with us, that God has chosen to delight in our company, that God is inviting us to be partners in the unfolding creation of the world, maybe knowing all that will help us get through to the next day or month or year. Maybe knowing all that will remind us of the holy ground on which we stand, all the time, because God is with us, all the time, and we will find ourselves able to respond with a calling to a holy life: “Here I am.”
Sunday, August 3, 2014
So, given this inclination, I'm absolutely mystified as to how 5000 men plus women and children could possibly go to a deserted place far from town without at least snacks. Just the parents alone...that's like Parenting 101, that you never go anywhere without food. How could they be so irresponsible? And isn't Jesus enabling their careless behavior by making sure there's dinner even for those who rushed headlong out the door to follow him, without a thought for what they might need? He's robbed them and the disciples of the opportunity to learn an uncomfortable but important lesson about planning ahead! What have they done to deserve God's blessing?
Then there's Jacob. Cheater, liar, scoundrel...those are the stories we've heard about him this past month. At least last week he got his comeuppance when his uncle Laban outsmarted him and got not just 7 but 14 years of labor out of Jacob in order for him to get to marry Rachel, the woman of his dreams. Now he's going back home to face his brother Esau, the one he tricked out of both birthright and their father's blessing, and he's terrified because word has it that Esau is heading toward him with 400 of his own men. Improved, maybe, but still not quite an honorable man, he sends his wives, his maids, his kids, and all his goods across the river so that Esau will run into them first, and he plans to spend the night camping in the rear. Then along comes this mysterious stranger, and Jacob has the gall to try to wrestle a blessing out of him, too. After all he's done, shouldn't God make an example of him and teach him a lesson about the consequences of bad behavior? What has he done to deserve God's blessing?
I've said this before and I'll confess it again: I am far too quick to decide who is deserving and who isn't, who acted rightly and who screwed up, who ought to get a blessing and who...well, who shouldn't. I'm pretty sure I'm not alone in this tendency and in its corollary: being confident that I am on the right side of the equation most of the time. I wish it weren't so. I long to see others with a more charitable heart and mind. I try hard to do better, and over time maybe I even have made a little progress in that direction. But I find that part of my human nature is to imagine that God needs my help separating the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the weeds, the truth from the scams, the properly prepared from the woefully remiss. After all, what have they done to deserve God's blessings?
Maybe some of those parents were so busy rounding up their children for a once in a lifetime opportunity to hear Jesus that they forgot to grab the diaper bag. Maybe some of those men and women had their hands full already because they were assisting a person who no longer walked easily, or a friend who needed encouragement, or someone who might wander off the road along the way. Maybe some were skeptical that Jesus was going to have anything to say that was worth hearing and they figured they'd be back home before lunch...and then they allowed their minds to be changed and their hearts opened by his words and they stayed to hear more. Maybe others, in their absolutely completely over-the-top excitement at getting to see this miracle man they'd been hearing about, just didn't think beyond the moment of following him.
Fortunately, none of that mattered. The ones who were empty handed and the ones who had duffel bags full of supplies were equally fed. The skeptics and the super-excited all received more than enough. No one had to prove anything, show any documents, pass any tests. The only thing Jesus was enabling was a demonstration of God's reckless, ridiculous love, of God's desire for everyone to be fed and filled.
Likewise, God wasn't checking Jacob's credentials. Jacob wrestled 'til dawn, and we can believe that was a reflection of decades’ worth of wrestling. Are there any among us who haven't spent long nights struggling with the troubles of family or work, relationships, mental health, physical ailments, financial worries, fears of the future or regrets about the past? The price Jacob paid was forevermore manifested in his limp, but I think that was the cost of wrestling with life, not of the blessing. In that blessing, he was given a new identity, one that echoed all his past and offered hope for not only his future, but for generations to come. Like the rest of us, Jacob probably wanted that blessing on his own terms; what he got, after much struggle, was a blessing on God's terms, which I would guess are ultimately far different and better than any we might propose on our own. He didn't deserve it, and God indeed made an example of him, in God's reckless, ridiculous way of wanting everyone to be blessed.
We shouldn't mistake our inclination to draw boundaries and borders, to evaluate who's deserving and who's not, to put ourselves on the right side of every opinion, with God's way of being. God desires to feed everyone. God longs to bless each of us. God holds arms wide open to include all the world. That means Jacob, limping from his struggles but walking away with a new name and a renewed future. That means the disciples and 5000 men plus women and children, who didn't know what to do when dinner time rolled around and in less time than pizza delivery had leftovers to spare. That means the woman wearing the business suit sitting in the corner office and the guy with a hat in his hand standing at the freeway off ramp, both of them hungry and hurting. That means me and you. None of us deserve it, and that doesn't matter a bit: come, be fed, receive the blessing, and embrace the reckless, ridiculous love of God.
Monday, July 21, 2014
Proper 11, Year A
The Rev. Betsy Hooper-Rosebrook
Dreams come in so many forms: Good ones, nightmares, realistic or ridiculous, some that seem so vivid we aren't sure when we awake if they were dreams or not.
Jacob is on the run. He'd connived with his mother, cheated his brother, and tricked his father. He won the family birthright and blessing, yet he seems to have lost out on life. No wonder he's dreaming. But it's not a nightmare--that would have been understandable under the circumstances--nor a vision grounded in his past experiences. Instead, in this thin place, this house of God and gate of heaven, God steps through the gate to speak to Jacob of the future. There's no rebuke for unsavory behavior or stipulations for earning the right to carry forward God's plan; God simply reassures Jacob that through him the promise will be continued and the families of the earth will be blessed in him and his offspring.
As is so often the case in scripture, God chooses to act in an ordinary, and unlikely, person, in this case a refugee fleeing for his life. Even the description of the blessing--"You and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth"--is so mundane; no longer is a comparison made to sparkling stars in the sky, as Abraham was promised, but only to plain old dirt. But stars or sand, the words are clear: "I am with you and will keep you wherever you go." Consider the power of that dream to sustain Jacob and his descendants as time went by; imagine the confidence and strength inspired by those words. Remembering that God is with you can change everything.
In recent weeks and months, our news has been full of stories of young refugee children, journeying without their parents, fleeing for their lives from places of violence and the constant threat of death, circumstances created by powers and events far beyond their control. No matter your thoughts about how they got here or where they should go next, these children and youth have arrived in our midst...in the case of Southern California, nearly 600 at Port Hueneme...and they are in need of hearing God's promise: "I am with you and will keep you wherever you go." As they face all the fears and challenges of being far from home, remembering that God is with them can change everything.
This weekend, Bishop Bruno, along with a broad interfaith coalition of religious leaders, has called upon us to pray for these young people and to open our hearts in compassion for them. They are ordinary kids, and right this moment they need our love. Their past isn't the issue, they don't have to earn the right, they just need us to be a sign of God's presence with them.
So, right now, we're going to take the opportunity to write letters reminding these children of God that they are precious in God's sight and ours. In so doing, we're joining with thousands of people of every faith. If you have a smartphone or tablet with you, I invite you to take it out now and go to www.theyarechildren.com . You'll see on the right side of the website how you can submit a letter online. If you don't have one, or you're like me and your thumbs stumble over the tiny keys, take one of the papers and pens that are being handed out and use that, and we'll pass them along for delivery.
You don't have to write anything fancy; simply express, in a couple of lines, love and and reassurance. I've put up a few phrases in Spanish if you want to use those; feel free to get up and look at them. Or draw a picture if you prefer! Just think about what it might help you to hear, what would remind you that God is with you always, wherever you go. If you need more inspiration, take a look at our psalm today, Psalm 139, and use some of those words to help you speak of security and hope. Let's offer these beloved children of God a dream to give them courage and strength for their future, and show them that God is in this place.