The New Economy Of Grace

Genesis 37.1-8

Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. This is the story of the family of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him. Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dream. There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.” His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.

It is a strange thing to share the dreams we dream with others. To us, they feel so very real even though, as soon as we wake, we know they aren’t. And yet, more often than not, moved by a particularly imaginative vision, we will tell others of what we have seen and experienced knowing full and well that, most of the time, it means absolutely nothing to the people we tell.

There’s a better than good chance that each of us here have had at least one dream that left us mad at someone because of what they did in our minds even though they did nothing in reality.

How odd.

And yet, how true to our human nature!

Listen – Jacob, Israel, settled in the land of his father, Isaac. Contrary to the controversial beginnings of his life, he eventually grew to have a large and prosperous family. Among his many children, Joseph was his very favorite, and Jospeh was a dreamer.

The parallels in scripture are often quite staggering. 

Jacob has a vision of a ladder stretching into the heavens, a ladder upon which angels ascend and descend. 

Joseph has a vision of his brothers bowing to him.

Jacob’s story culminates in his reconciliation with his brother Esau.

Joseph’s tale concludes with his brothers as well.

And yet these two biblical figures could not be more different. Jacob is selfish, Joseph is kind. Jacob runs away from his problems, Joseph walks straight into them. Jacob throws his life away, and Joseph, himself, is the one thrown away.

Joseph, baby of the family, dreams of sheaves in a field bowing to him, he has visions of his family relying on him for their deliverance. And it would be enough just to have these dreams, but Joseph has the bright idea to share his dreams with his brothers. His brothers already despise him because their father loves him most of all and even gives him the gift of a coat with long sleeves.

Why?

Scripture says that Joseph is the son of Jacob’s old age, but we also know that Joseph is one of the only two children from Rachel, Jacob’s first love and second wife.

Notably, Jacob is one who has experienced the divine inversion that runs rampant in scripture as he was elevated over his brother Esau (by his own heel-grabbing tendencies). Jacob’s preference for Joseph runs against all propriety at the time, and against the established norms. His love upends everything the family thinks they know about how things are supposed to work, which is something God seems to do all the time.

This tale is a foretaste of how, throughout the rest of this strange book, God will often choose the youngest and weakest for honor and leadership. It is a strange and new economy of grace.

The brothers hear out their baby bro’s vision and they decide, with a solid eleven voting members, that they can no longer live with the dreamer. Ten of them want him dead, but the eldest, Reuben, convinces the others to merely throw him in a pit instead.

Reuben, inexplicably, leaves the scene and the remaining brothers spy an approaching caravan and the decide to sell Joseph into slavery. 

*Netflix*

This is a strange and bewildering tale, even among the wild new world of the Bible. The final quarter of Genesis is devoted to this one person and his tale. The themes that follow have been made manifest of countless other stories: exile, hiddenness, the hero’s journey, riches to rags and rags to riches, drama, mystery, and hope. 

As Joseph disappears into the horizon, his brothers take his aforementioned not actually technicolor dream coat, and they dip it in fresh blood to convince the rest of their family, and their father in particular, that Joseph is dead. 

And, to be frank, he might as well be dead. He is completely cut off from his family, from the land of his birth, and from the story of God’s people. He travels as a slave to be a stranger in a strange land without any hope in the world, without his father’s love, and without his special jacket.

Jacob responds to the news of his favorite son’s death by ripping his own coat and vows to live a life of mourning until the day that he, himself, dies.

So, why is it that Joseph’s brothers throw him into the pit of enslavement? 

Those of us with brothers and sisters know, first hand, the strangeness of siblings. We know of the tensions and the pains and the jealously that can be all too present within a family. But, the kind of domestic squabbles we might be familiar with are a far cry from what happens here in Genesis.

Why is it that when God comes to dwell among us, we nail God to the cross?

Why is it that, when they hear of their brother’s dream, the sons of Jacob sell Joseph into slavery?

Joseph, now a slave, is sold to to the captain of Pharaoh’s guard in Egypt, a man named Potiphar. A truly wild narrative ensues that is worth its own sermon series, but for the sake of today it is enough to know that his time there ends with his arrest.

And, it comes to pass that while he is in prison, Pharaoh has a set of experiences that require someone who can interpret dreams. The dreamer from the shackles of slavery and imprisonment has earned a reputation for interpretation, and is called before the throne. Pharaoh shares his dreams of seven skinny cows eating seven fat cows but don’t grow in size, seven good ears of corn are consumed by seven withered ones. 

What does it mean Joseph?

The dreamer tells Pharaoh that Egypt will have seven good years of harvest and seven years of famine, therefore someone is needed who can store up a surplus during the good years and distribute it during the years of scarcity.

And who does Pharaoh call upon for this task?

Joseph.

The dreamer is freed from slavery, given a wife, and the total authority in Egypt. And, when the times comes, his interpretation is proven correct and he saves the nation into which he was sold as a slave.

There’s a version of this story that ends right here. From riches to rags and back again. This would be a good place for the credits to start to roll. But God has another ending in store.

The famine that strikes Egypt is so bad that even the surrounding areas are suffering. So much so that Joseph’s family is stuck in destitution and are in need of deliverance. The brothers are commanded by their father to seek out help in the foreign land and when they travel to Egypt they beg for food from their brother though they do not recognize him. 

Not only do they beg for compassion, they literally bow down to him, bringing his earlier dream to fruition. 

There is great tension in the ensuing narrative with Joseph going back and forth with requests and demands from his brothers who still do not know his true identity, and it all culminates during in a moment in which, scripture says, Joseph could no longer control himself, and he reveals the truth.

He weeps so loudly in the moment that everyone in the entire palace hear his cries. And his brothers are terrified. Rightly so.

They deserve judgment and they are about to get it. 

But instead of rejecting his brothers just as they rejected him, Joseph embraces them, he literally falls upon them and he covers them with tears and kisses. The scene is staggering. They offer to become his slaves for what they had done, but instead Joseph forgives his brothers, he loves them, and he urges them not to be angry with themselves. 

They are invited to live in Egypt and even Jacob travels to the strange land where the entire family is reunited and reconciled. 

Joseph does for his brothers what they don’t deserve at all. They come to Egypt with no hope in the world, and the only one who can do anything for them is the one they did everything to. They offer to becomes slaves to the one enslaved and he, instead, offers them a freedom they never could have imagined. Not only are they free to thrive and eat and live, they are freed from the shame and guilt of what they had done.

In short, they are given grace.

I arrived at Alta Mons this week tasked with being the chaplain for all of the campers and all of the counselors. After breakfast we would gather for morning watch during which we would sing songs together and talk about how to keep an eye out for what God might be up to during the day and after dinner we would gather around a campfire for worship during which we would talk about how we had experienced God during the day.

Throughout the week we covered themes like the body of Christ and how each of us are a part of it, the new beloved community, and grace. Asking the kids to define grace was delightful. One of them told me, “grace is what you do before you’re allowed to eat,” and another said, “I don’t know what it is but I do know that it’s amazing,” and still yet another said, “grace is loving someone even if they don’t deserve it.”

And when I asked why God offers us grace, the young theologian Caleb Anderson replied, “God’s built different, that’s straight facts.” 

The first night of camp, the kids all sat and stood awkwardly around one another as they navigated the strangeness of being forced to hang out with a bunch of relative strangers in the woods for a week. And over the following days I witnessed joy and laughter and the bonds of new friendship but I also saw disagreements, and frustrations, and deep sighs and hair flips. 

But on our final night, as we sat around the campfire and I told them about Jesus’s final night, as I prayed over the bread and the cup and we all shared communion with one another, I saw tears and hugs. I watched and listened to kids sing songs about Jesus, a few of whom who have never darkened the doors of a church. I experienced campers giving love and receiving love without expectation of reciprocation.

In short, I saw grace.

On the day of Easter, resurrected from the grave, still bearing the marks of the cross, Jesus returns not to the best and the brightest and the most faithful. Instead, he returns to those who abandoned him. He loves them, even to the end. 

In the kingdom of God the new economy of grace is weird. It is everything for nothing. It is forgiveness, and mercy, and love. It is Good News for people drowning in bad news.

If Joseph was willing to forgive his brothers after all they had done, if Jesus was willing to return to his disciples who abandoned him and denied him, just imagine what we can do with the new economy of grace. 

It could be amazing. Amen.

What’s In A Name?

Genesis 32.22-31

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint and he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

The strange new world of the Bible is, indeed, quite strange.

It constantly subverts our expectations, no matter how many times we come to it. It reveals things about ourselves that we didn’t even know about ourselves. And it points to an ever-present reality that runs counter to how we think the world works.

Listen – Jacob is the worst.

We all know that plenty of figures from the scriptures have problems – nobody’s perfect. But Jacob? Jacob is a loser.

Prior to his birth Jacob wrestles his twin brother Esau in the womb, a perfect foreshadowing of his life to come. 

And when Esau is born, he comes out with his twin brother grabbing at his leg, so his parents name the second-born Jacob, which means heel-grabber. 

What kind of name is heel-grabber?

Jacob, hustler, scoundrel, liar, cheat, fool, faithless son of Isaac and Rebekah.

Long story short:

Two decades before the infamous battle royal on the banks of the Jabbok river, Jacob swindles his brother Esau out of his birthright. 

Esau comes in from the field, having hunted and collected food for the rest of the family, and with hunger he asks his brother for some red stew from the stove. Does Jacob willingly hand it over to his twin brother knowing full and well that the firstborn contributes more to his wellbeing than the other way around? No. 

Jacob prepares the plate, lets the scent waft in front of his brother’s nose, and says, “I’ll give you this only if you give me your birthright in return.”

And Esau, famished from working for the family, willingly agrees. After all, what good is a birthright in comparison with the deep hunger of your belly?

But it doesn’t stop there.

Later, Isaac in his old age, eyes weary and poor of sight, near death, asks for Esau to come and to receive his blessing, AKA his inheritance. Isaac wants to pass on all of his wealth to his eldest twin son. 

Esau, come bring me some of my favorite food that I might hand over the goods.

But the heel-grabber is quick to act. 

He walks in with the aforementioned food, and boldly lies to his father. He covers himself in fur to appear harrier like his brother. He leans forward to receive the kiss that conveys it all, and takes it without remorse.

For what it’s worth, that’s three of the ten commandments broken in as many verses.

Esau’s fury in response to his heel-grabbing brother heel-grabbing his blessing leads Jacob to flee for his life. 

Jacob becomes a stranger in a strange land, wandering about, and during this time he has a dream, a dream from God. In the dream there is a ladder stretching up into the heavens, angels are going up and down, and the Lord says, “Jacob, know that I am with you and I will never leave you.”

Which, considering what happened and what’s about to happen sounds more like a threat than a promise.

When Jacob wakes from the dream he sets up an altar to the Lord and he is afraid. 

His fear leads him to prayer. Does he pray for forgiveness? Does he offer the Lord a contrite heart?

No. He bargains with the divine: “Lord, if you will stay with me, and keep me, and make sure that I have food to eat and clothing to wear, then you can be my God.”

Jacob encounters the divine through the dramatic vision of the ladder, is still no better than he was before! 

Soon, Jacob has nowhere left to go. Esau’s fury remains on the back horizon. So he reaches out to his uncle, Laban, who takes him in, provides the food and shelter that Jacob demanded from God. Jacob meets Rachel, bargains with Laban to marry her, works seven years, and then, on his wedding night, is duped by his uncle into consummating the relationship with Leah, Rachel’s sister.

More bargaining ensues, and with another 7 years of labor he is finally granted the wife he wanted from the beginning.

Soap operas aren’t even this good. But wait, there’s more!

After 14 years of labor, and after receiving untold wealth and wives, Jacob returns the hospitality of his uncle turned father-in-law by cheating him out of his wealth hiding away the best of the livestock for himself.

Again, not to make too fine a point of it, that’s a few more commandments broken.

Jacob is a no good dirty rotten scoundrel. He runs from all his problems all while making more problems for himself and his family. He’s a liar, and a thief, and a cheat. There’s nothing holy about this heel grabbing son of a, Isaac. 

Why then do we read of this man and his wandering heart? Why do we lift these verses from the strange new world of the Bible and say, “Thanks be to God”? Why does God promise to remain with Jacob even though he has nothing to show for his so-called life?

Because Jacob isn’t his real name.

On the run from his mistakes, from his failures, and perhaps even from himself, Jacob catches wind that Esau is looking for him. So he divides up his family and all of his possessions, assuming that at least half will make it to safety. And, all alone, he sleeps by the bank of the Jabbok river.

A strange figure appears in the middle of the night. Perhaps the consequences of his actions made manifest in the flesh. They wrestle until the sun begins to rise. The stranger knocks Jacob on the hip, dislocating it forever, and demands for the fight to end. Jacob refuses, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”

Still looking for blessings.

“Who are you?” The figure asks.

“My name is Jacob.”

“No it’s not,” the stranger replies, “Your name is Israel because you have striven with God and humans and you’ve made it to the other side.”

Israel then returns the same question to the nighttime wrestler, “Who are you?”

But he receives no answer. And as mysteriously as the figure arrives, he disappears. 

Israel names the place Peniel, which means the face of God, because in the wrestler he met the divine.

The morning comes and Israel sees Esau coming, with four hundred men flanking him on the right and left. Israel goes ahead and bows to the ground seven times until he stands before his brother.

And Esau runs forward and tackles his good for nothing brother to the ground and finally exacts his revenge. And yet, instead of pummeling him with punches, Esau embraces his twin brother and covers him with kisses and tears. 

The end.

What a strange tale.

Jacob, Israel, is deeply flawed learns nothing except for the fact that he deserves nothing and receives everything. We read his story, we can call it Good News, because grace prevails! 

His actions catch up with him, all of the hurt and all of the pain. He is caught and there is no escape. And only then is he known fully for the first time, and is loved. 

Here, at the end, after a life of failure and betrayal, vulnerable and at his brother’s mercy, he discovers an acceptance which he never could have earned or deserved.

Which leads us backward, slightly. Decades before the battle royal at the river, long before he had a taste of forgiveness, Israel had a vision, a dream, of a ladder extending into the heavens. Israel knows, after all is said and done, that God is indeed at the end of that ladder, but more importantly he knows that the Good News, the gospel, is not that God is up there waiting for him to journey up – instead God comes down to meet him where he is.

And he has the scars to prove it.

The Good News of the Gospel for Israel, for each and everyone of us, is that God meets us in the midst of our sins, not our successes.

For some reason we’ve got it stuck in our heads that, like Jacob, we’ve got to do whatever it takes to win the game we call life. We’ll deceive our parents, lie to our spouses, betray our families. We’ll dig deep pits from which we can’t escape all while thinking we’re getting better and better and better. We’ll make horrible decisions and choices all in the name of progress.

But the life of faith isn’t about how we need to get good for God.

It’s about how God comes to us.

And God’s been doing it since the beginning.

From “Adam, Adam, where are you?” To a midnight brawl at the river to the sleepy little town of Bethlehem, God comes to us.

And when God comes to us and we expect to be clobbered with guilt, we actually get clobbered by grace.

Years ago, at a different church, I was sitting in my office one day, day dreaming about a sermon, when an older parishioner barged in through the door. She was older and getting on in years, but she had this youthful glow that I had never seen.

She shouted, “Preacher you are never going to believe what happened to me.”

My favorite stories always start like that.

So without saying a word I mentioned for her to continue.

“Well you know how you keep preaching about forgiveness? Well, I don’t know what came over me, but I finally decided to tell my husband that I cheated on him.”

“What?” I blurted out as I fell out of my chair.

“It was 30 years ago, and it was only once, but I never told anybody. So after we drove home from church last Sunday and as soon as we walked into the house I told him the truth about what I’d done and with whom and when.”

“What does this have to do with forgiveness?”

“That’s just the thing! I told him all I had done and I waited for him to start hooting and hollering and raising hell. All he said was, ‘I know you cheated on me, and I forgave you a long time ago.’ The nerve of that man. Here I am, carrying this guilt around all these years, and he forgave me long ago. Can you believe it?”

Can you believe it?

This story captivates our hearts and minds because it doesn’t end according to the way it is supposed to. Any good consumer of tales knows that Jacob is supposed to get his comeuppance; whether by violent revenge from Esau, or judgment from God almighty. He is nothing but a loser through and through.

But grace works for losers and only losers.

You know, people like us.

No matter how hard we try, and try hard we do, we can’t save ourselves, we can’t make ourselves right. We can try, and we can make a heck of a mess along the way, but the Lord has a way of reminding us, all of us, that we are not as we ought to be, that we’re up the creek without a paddle. We do nothing and we deserve nothing, and yet God forgives us anyway. Can you believe it?

The story of Israel, of the forgiven heel-grabber, reminds us that God comes to us in our weariness and woundedness. God, ultimately, rules not from a throne of glory, but from the arms of the cross. God’s power is revealed in the weakness of Christ, and God’s grace comes to us in our weakness. 

We don’t have the strength, nor do we have the power, to save ourselves. We are as helpless as Jacob, hobbling around with our hips out of joint. We can run away as far as we can for as long as we can, but one day God will catch up with us. God will grab hold of us. And God will tell us who we really are.

What kind of name is Israel? It means we have striven with God and one another and we’ve made it to the other side. Amen. 

No Matter What

Genesis 9.8-17

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh, and waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.” 

In the summer of 2007, having completed my first year of college, I volunteered to help lead a youth mission trip for my home church to New Orleans. It had been two years since the devastation of hurricane Katrina, and parts of the city were still in desperate need of help.

We spent our days in the sweltering heat exchanging crow bars and sledge hammers for demolition. Every house we approached had been boarded up since the storm, and we were tasked with removing everything we could so that city inspectors could deem whether or not the framing was safe for rehabilitation, or if they would have to tear the entire thing down to the foundation and start over.

The mildewed sheet rock was easy enough to pull down, as were the piles of clothing that remained stacked in various states of disarray. But the mangled children’s toys, and the warped family photo albums were another thing entirely.

Mission trips are often marked by laughter and singing and frivolity.

But not when we were in New Orleans.

What I remember most is the silence.

But that’s actually not true. There is something I remember more than the silence.

On our final day, shortly before we were scheduled to fly home, we were given the tour of the lower ninth ward. This was the spot hit hardest, and unlike our modest de-construction work on houses in other parts of the city, the lower ninth ward was devoid of everything. No trees. No bushes. No houses at all. The only evidence that anyone had ever lived there were rectangles of concrete organized in a grid pattern.

A tour guide was leading us through the neighborhood, pointing to memories of the past never to return again, and at some point he said, “The hurricane was God’s judgment on this wicked place.”

The hurricane was God’s judgment on this wicked place.

Perhaps you’ve heard something similar to that. I know I heard it, in as many words, after hurricane Sandy in New York, I know I heard it after hurricane Harvey hit Houston. 

And, more often than not, it’s Christians who make those kinds of theological claims! 

And every time it makes me wonder if they’ve ever actually read the story of Noah and the Flood.

Listen:

Shortly after our first parents stumble out of the garden of Eden, never to return again, things go from bad to worse. Sin abounds on the earth, enmity between God’s creatures plagues the entirety of creation. By the 6th chapter of Genesis the state of things is so bad that God regrets creating creation.

“The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of their hearts was only evil continuously. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved God to the heart.”

Things are so bad off that rather than try to rehabilitate the state of things, God decides to flush it all down the toilet and start over.

Except for Noah and his family and two of every kind of creature.

Why Noah?

Noah found favor with God and was a righteous man.

Therefore Noah receives his divine commission, specific instructions for a rather large nautical vessel, and prepares for the day of judgment.

It rains for forty days and forty nights.

Let us pause for a moment. 

This is a beloved tale in the church. We teach it to our children with flannel graphs and plastic toys. We act it out in vacation bible school and we sing songs about it.

I understand the sentimentality of the animals being something worthy of childlike reflection. But this is a horrifying story. 

Water is strange. Without it, we die. Too much of it, we die. We are surround by water prior to birth, but in life water is often an uncontrollable agent of chaos.

And in this story Noah and his family were spared, but literally everything else in creation is destroyed. What we often miss is that when the seas recede and the ark lands on solid ground, the Noahic family was surrounded by abject devastation.

I know of no children’s version of this story that contains this important and devastating detail. Save for the Brick Testament which, somehow, makes it even worse.

Moreover, according to the strange new world of the Bible, God floods the world not as an act of caprice, but out of a desire to cleanse creation from unrighteousness. It is not a random event in which God intervenes on behalf of Noah and his family.

The flood is willed by God.

The situation of creation could not be improved. The trajectory from the garden did not lead us to getting better all the time, but getting worse. And perhaps the most frightening part of the story isn’t even in the story. It’s how true it all still is today.

Try as we might, and we do try all the time, we can’t make ourselves righteous. 

We try to right ourselves in subtle ways, like how during the pandemic the ubiquity of Peloton’s (stationary bicycles) shot through the roof as people were spending more time at home and wanted to spend more time working on their health but a staggering number of the devices were purchased only to be used once or twice or not at all.

And sometimes we try to right ourselves, save ourselves, in some not so subtle ways. We give our lives over to busyness hoping that so long as we have something to show for our lives, our lives will live on after we’re gone, or we put our hope in political machinations that will surely make the world a better place.

But it doesn’t work that way – we can’t right ourselves. 

And yet, Noah, in the eyes of the Lord, is deemed righteous.

The Bible gives us zero examples of what that might mean or look like, though he does do what the Lord tells him so that’s got to count for something. The only thing we can say about Noah’s life, and his righteousness takes place after the flood.

You see, when we tell this story, and even when we read this story, it ends with the rainbow. The sign of God’s new covenant with creation. Which would be a fitting conclusion. But the story keeps going. And when the waters finally recede, the first thing Noah does is cultivate a vineyard and he gets good and drunk from his own wine, so much so that he shames himself in front of his children and he curses one of them.

So much for being righteous.

Which means, in the end, the flood is a failed new beginning, at least as far as humanity is concerned. We are not better off after it than we were before it. And the rest of the Bible keeps steering in this direction. 

In just a few chapters the descendants of Noah will get it in their thick skulls to build a giant tower so they can be just like God. Abram is called into a life of impossible possibility and continually pretends to be something he is not. Jacob is blessed only because he pulls one over on his father. Joseph sees the future and is literally sold into slavery by his brothers.

I could go on.

From Eden to Egypt, from progress to prophets, the people of God go from obedience to disobedience over and over again. We are miserable offenders who, when push comes to shove, look out for ourselves and only for ourselves.

But the story of the Bible isn’t a story about us, thanks be to God. The story of the Bible is the story of God.

The waters recede after the flood, Noah and his family wander among the graveyard of the Earth and God sets a rainbow in the sky. “I am making a new covenant,” says the Lord, “and this shall be a sign to you and to me.”

God reminds God’s self.

That’s a bit strange. 

But perhaps God needs the reminder of the promise because we fail to keep up our end of the bargain.

In most covenants, if one of the parties breaks the rules, the covenant is over. But this covenant, marked by the rainbow, unlike every earthly covenant, is not contingent on our obedience. That is: God remains steadfast even if we don’t, because we won’t.

God’s love and faith and grace always exceed what we can do.

We are absolutely addicted to keeping score in this life. I did this for you but you didn’t return the favor. We all have these little ledger books in our mind about what we have done and what has been done, or left undone, to us.

And yet, right here in Genesis 9, we catch a glimpse of how God has hung up the ledger book forever. God promises to never ever again cover the earth with the destructive powers of water as a judgment against us even though God has every right to judge us. We have failed to be an obedient church, we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves, on and on.

But instead of giving us what we deserve, God hangs up the bow.

God saves the world not from our brokenness, but instead in our brokenness. 

We don’t like that.

We never have.

It’s why we present these perfect version of ourselves in church, or at work, or at school, or online. We love the idea of getting better all the time. But God doesn’t meet us in our perfection. God meets us exactly as we are, wherever we are.

We can’t get back to Eden on our own. We certainly try, and usually make a heck of a mess while doing so. But instead of getting back to Eden, God brings it to us. That it has a name: Jesus. 

In the fullness of time, in the incarnation, God comes into the muck and mire of life, a life no better than it was before the flood, and becomes the living water for us, which makes a way where there is no way.

The whole crux of the Noah story is that, in the end, God hangs up the rainbow and says, “I’m never going to do that again.” That’s the promise. It’s the first covenant of grace and mercy. The rainbow is a reminder that God is for us, no matter what!

Listen – Jesus does not say, “Bring to me your perfect lives and your perfect jobs and your perfect families.” Instead Jesus says, “Bring to me your burdens, and I will give you rest.”

Jesus does not look at our choices and our actions in order to weigh out whether or not we’ve done enough to make it through the pearly gates. Instead, Jesus says, “I have come to saves sinners and only sinners.”

Jesus does not write us off for our faults or our failures. Instead he says, “You are mine and I am thine. No matter what.” Amen.

Hide & Seek

Genesis 3.1-11

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die, for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was a delight to the eyes and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”

The beginning of the strange new world of the Bible is, indeed, new and strange. God makes it all through the power of speech, “Let there be light!” And then, as is God’s pleasure, God makes humankind in God’s image. Fashioned from the earth, given the breath of the Spirit, our ancestral parents walk among paradise.

This, to put it bluntly, is when the story gets good.

I often wonder what story from scripture is known among the masses more than any other. With the ubiquity of Christmas celebrations, there’s a pretty good chance that lots and lots of people knowing something about the manger and something about the birth of Christ. With the never ending resourcefulness of the “underdog triumph,” David and Goliath must be known by others. But the story of Adam and Eve is, quite possibly, the most well known story from the Bible.

And for good reason.

It is short. It is simple. It gives explanation for why things are the way they are. Though, it cannot be explained in a way that leaves us satisfied, which is what makes it worth coming back to over and over and over again.

Last week in worship Fred Sistler, guest preacher extraordinaire, said, “Genesis doesn’t give us the how, but the wow.” I really like that. There’s a lot of wow in this story. But perhaps, at least with Genesis 3, the wow turns into a woah.

Adam and Even are in paradise. To us that might seem like a remote island in the Caribbean, or any other number of idyllic spots, but paradise in the strange new world of the Bible is simply a perfect communion between God and God’s creation.

Which, if we’re being honest, might not sound much like paradise.

We can scarcely fathom how communal the communion was because it sounds so wrong. And if it sounds wrong it’s because the idea of being too intimately connected with anything, let alone God, is no one’s idea of a good time.

We know what we’re really like behind closed doors, and what’s buried deep in our internet search histories, and where our knee-jerk reactions can be found. We know that even though its easy to point out the splinter in someone else’s eye, we’ve got logs in our own. We know that, to use Paul’s language, we continue to do things we know we shouldn’t.

All of us, the tall and the small, we’re all masters of blocking our some of the grim realities of life. We can read a frightening article about something like the devastating effects of global warming, or we can listen to a podcast about the terror of our current economic situation, but when push comes to shove, we can definitely pretend like everything is fine.

But the Bible doesn’t do this – it never does. Oddly enough, this is why the strange new world of the Bible is realer than our own. It tells the truth, even when it hurts. 

Consider: This book begins with paradise, perfect communion (perhaps uncomfortable communion), and by chapter 11 we encounter murder, near genocide, lying, and loads of violence.

Which begs the question: What went wrong?

As has been mentioned before, GK Chesterton famously responded once to a newspaper article asking “What’s Wrong With The World?” With only two words: I am.

You see, the story of Adam and Eve is real, realer than we often give it credit for. And their story is our story. 

Our first parents find themselves in paradise and there is only one rule. Can you imagine? You can do whatever you want! You’re never in need of anything at all. There’s just one teeny tiny caveat: See that tree over there? You can’t eat from it. Everything else is yours, except for that.

Enter the serpent, the craftiest of creatures.

“Psst, Eve. Did God tell you that you were forbidden to eat from every tree?”

“No, you silly snake, we’re not allowed to eat from one tree.”

“Don’t you find that a little odd, Eve? I mean why would God give you all the other trees to eat from but not this one? Isn’t God the God of love? Doesn’t sound very loving to me…”

“Well, God said we would die if we eat it…”

“C’mon Eve! Do you really believe that? Why would God go through all the trouble to give you life only to take it away?”

And so the seeds of doubt are planted.

The end of the beginning.

She reaches for the tree, as does her husband, and their eyes are opened. That’s the way scripture puts it. The effect is instantaneous. They now know what they didn’t know. There is no going back. 

And what do they do with all this knew knowledge? Are they puffed up with bravado? Are they ready to take on the world?

No.

They are afraid. They see themselves for who they really are and they can’t stand the sight. They fashion fig leaves for clothing, and they hide.

We still hide all the time. We hide in our jobs, in the bottle, in our busyness, in our children, in our wealth, in our power.

And it’s while we’re hiding that God comes and says, “Taylor, Taylor, where are you?”

Notice, the question is not who are you? God does not come with moral judgments, or ethical inquiries. God comes asking where we are.

And what’s the answer?

I’m right here God and I’m lost.

We might not think we are lost, we can try to convince ourselves that we know exactly where we are on the map of life. But, when we take a good hard look in the mirror, we know that we are not as we ought to be. The condition of our condition ain’t good.

And, typically, this is where the scripture, and therefore the sermon, ends. In Adam and Eve we discover ourselves, our plight, and we are made to feel bad about out badness.

And that might not be such a bad thing. Sometimes discovering or confronting our badness leads to goodness. But most of the time, it just makes things worse.

And, notably, that makes it all about us. Our choice, our failure, our punishment.

But what about God?

God comes looking for us.

You see, the strange new world of the Bible is the story of God’s unyielding search for us. From the first parents in the garden of Eden, to the Good Shepherd, to Eschaton, God is for us. 

When they eat from the forbidden tree, God doesn’t hurl down lightning bolts from the sky, nor does God spin together a tornado. No, God goes into the garden and asks, “Where are you?”

Adam, Eve, you, me, we’re all lost. Truly, completely, lost. And for some reason, we assume that we have to be the ones to find ourselves. It’s why we’re forever giving ourselves over to the latest fads of self-discovery, some of which are probably fine. We’re trying to find ourselves with technological advancements, some of which are probably fine. 

We’ve done all sorts of crazy things in the name of progress to make this world more like Eden.

We got rid of slavery only to now have the highest rate of incarceration of any developed nation.

We keep improving our medical systems, but American life spans are diminishing in large part due to the opioid epidemic.

Examples abound!

And yet! (The strange new world of the Bible always hinges on the divine yet.)

And yet God does not give up on us! The story, our story, begins in the garden but it does not end there. The story continues through the strange and wild wilderness in the days of Abraham, it weaves through the journey to Egypt and back again in Jacob and Joseph, it delivers through miracles made manifest in Moses, it rises through the power of David and Solomon, it dances through the prophets who proclaim the word of the Lord, it endures through drought and famines, it connects the lives of the powerful and the powerless, it brings down the mighty and lifts up the lowly.

Of the many details in the story, the story we know so well because we’ve heard it time and time again, the one that always hits me in the face is the fact that, when Adam and Eve see the truth, they hide behind a tree

The story of God’s search for us eventually leads to a small town called Bethlehem, it trudges through Galilee and sails over the sea, it tells of prodigals and publicans, it walks the streets of Jerusalem and turns over the tables at the temple, it marches up a hill to a place call the Skull, and it hangs on a tree for people like you and me, and then it breaks free from the chains of sin and death for you and me.

Our first parents hide behind a tree in their shame, but Jesus hangs on a tree to proclaim that God will never ever stop searching for us, that no amount of badness will ever hold a light to the love that refuses to let us go, and that God is the one who makes a way where there is no way.

Life is a long game of hide and seek. But God always wins. Amen.

Less Is More

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Chandler Ragland about the readings for the Second Sunday of Lent [C] (Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3.17-4.1, Luke 13.31-35). Chandler is the pastor of Black Mountain UMC in Black Mountain, NC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including strange new worlds, Encanto, covenants, righteousness, living in church, narrative preaching, memorizing scripture, waiting on the Lord, the Apostles’ Creed, Mississippi, and the status quo. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Less Is More

Crazy Love

Genesis 45.15

And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him. 

Last week I paced through the “seasonal” aisle at the grocery store looking for the right Valentines. Was I searching for the items that would perfectly convey my love for my wife? No. Instead, I was trying to find appropriate cards/items that my son could distribute during his celebration of the holiday in his kindergarten class.

Tucked away behind the heart shaped boxes of chocolate varieties was a solitary box of Mandalorian Valentines, and I knew that Elijah would delight in giving them to all his friends.

And this morning, as I walked him to school, I asked him if he knew why he was bringing Valentines to school and he said, “I’m sure it has something to do with Jesus.”

And he wasn’t wrong!

Valentine’s Day is a particularly striking holiday because of the juxtaposition from how it started to what it looks like today.

There were numerous Christians in the early church named Valentine and many of them were martyred for their faith. That is, their commitment to the kingdom of God was such that the powers and principalities believed the only way to stop them was to kill them.

But perhaps the most famous Valentine was Valentine the Bishop of Terni during the 3rd century. The story goes that he was put under house arrest by Judge Asterius for evangelizing and the two of them eventually struck up a conversation about Jesus. The judge wanted to put Valentine’s faith to the test and brought in his blind daughter and asked for her to be healed. If Valentine was successful, the judge agreed to do whatever he asked.

Valentine, then, placed his hands on the girl’s blind eyes and her vision was restored.

Overcome by the miracle, the judge agreed to get baptized and freed all of the Christian inmates under his authority.

Later, Valentine was arrested (again) for his continued attempts to share the Good News and was sent before the Roman Emperor Claudius II. Valentine attempted to convince the Claudius to convert to the faith, but then Valentine was condemned to death unless he renounced his own faith.

Valentine refused and was beheaded on… (wait for it)… February 14th, 269.

Later additions to the story proclaim that, shortly before his execution, Valentine wrote a letter to the young girl he once healed and he signed it, “from your Valentine” which is said to have inspire the holiday we now enjoy.

So, what does a beheaded Christian martyr have to do with boxes of chocolate and bouquets of roses?

The book of Genesis is full of family betrayals and deceits. Particularly dreadful is the story of Jacob being sold into slavery by his brothers because they couldn’t handle their own jealousy. Jacob makes a name for himself in Egypt and eventually reconciles with the very brothers who abandoned/betrayed him when they come looking for food to eat.

Jacob’s love for his brothers was such that, even though they ruined his life, he “kisses them and weeps upon them.” 

Love is awful like that. It can make us do crazy and bewildering things. At least, they are crazy and bewildering according to the world.

But consider what we do on Valentine’s Day: we throw away gobs of money on trivial and fleeting items. The flowers will eventually fade and the chocolate will expire.

But others will say that St. Valentine’s willingness to die for his faith, and Jacob’s willingness to forgives his brothers, is even crazier.

Love is a crazy thing.

It also happens to be how God feels about us.

God, in Christ, full of hope and grace and mercy mounts the hard wood of the cross to die for us. And then, three days later, God gives him back to us.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

The Grammar of Christian Faith

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Carsten Bryant about the readings for the 2nd Sunday of Lent [B] (Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16, Psalm 22.23-31, Romans 4.13-25, Mark 8.31-38). Carsten serves as the Director of the Youth Collective of the Orange Cooperative Parish in Hillsboro, NC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Dogmatics in Outline, covenants, proper fear, Taize worship, the coming generations, hoping against hope, flipping expectations, and Robert Farrar Capon. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Grammar of Christian Faith

The Scratchy Sweater of Lent

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Carsten Bryant about the readings for the 1st Sunday of Lent [B] (Genesis 9.8-17, Psalm 25.1-10, 1 Peter 3.18-22, Mark 1.9-15). Carsten serves as the Director of the Youth Collective of the Orange Cooperative Parish in Hillsboro, NC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Bob Dylan and youth ministry, Karl Barth, the liturgy of Lent, double rainbows, The Brick Testament, Ellen Davis, mercy, and the immediacy of the Gospel. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Scratchy Sweater of Lent

The Scandal of Particularity

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Mikang Kim about the readings for the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany [B] (Genesis 1.1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19.1-7, Mark 1.4-11). Mikang serves at Epworth UMC on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Our conversation covers a range of topics including biblical names, rare words, faithful mentoring, real fear, holy moments, being surprised by the church, the scandal of particularity, and the confounding nature of grace. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Scandal of Particularity

Covenants Are Made To Be Broken

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for Baptism of the Lord Sunday [B] (Genesis 1.1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19.1-7, Mark 1.4-11). Drew serves at Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Epiphanytide, the beginning of beginnings, creative speech, Genesis and Jesus, the voice of the Lord, grace-full baptisms, coronatide, ecumenical families, divine parabolas, Greek-ing out, and Deus Dixit. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Covenants Are Made To Be Broken