Sermon Manuscript July 21, 2019
Rev. Nicholas J. Dorland
Scripture: Ruth 3:1-18
I am not sure how many of you are Seinfeld fans like me, but it is one of my favorite sitcoms of all time. The way they point out witty everyday things we say, do and can have fun with our interactions as people is fun for me. It is relatable, real, and although scripted you feel like these short sitcom stories could have happened. Maybe it’s the comedy, or maybe it’s the characters like Kramer who always comes flying in the door with a bizzare expression and story of his own, or maybe it’s both. Have any of you watched every episode like me? It is one of those shows I could binge watch over and over and still find something to laugh about. How many of you recall the ‘yada’ episode? In it Marcy, one of George Kostanzas girlfriends likes to use some verbal filler to buffer uncomfortable parts of a story. At one point she is telling George that an ex-boyfriend of hers came over, and she says “and yada yada yada, now today I am really tired.” The running joke is that she ‘yada-ed’ over the best or most important part, and later on this trend and joke continue to be the punchline for all of the characters as they ‘yada’ over parts. George gets concerned that Marcy had sexual relations with this prior boyfriend but he can’t be sure because she yada yada’ed over that part of the story. We may not use that term but some of us use a similar talking pattern where we say things like, “ya know,” or “oh they did some things they shouldn’t have.”
The interesting thing about our story today and about the word yada used in Seinfeld is that yada is actually a Hebrew term from the old testament which means ‘to know.’
It could be translated as you would expect that someone knows mentally something about another person or about a subject. However, there is an innuendo here where the word to know (yada) can also mean to have sexual relations with another person. I mention all of this because there is a lot of word play and innuendo in this chapter, and if it isn’t mentioned it is lost. Like the Seinfeld episode, it is like we yada over the most important part of the story of Ruth.
The whole story of Ruth has been a story of knowing. Who knows what, when do they know it, who knows who and in what way, and how do we treat those who are unknown or foreigners? This word play continues into this chapter as we read about the scandal of people knowing that Ruth and Boaz were seen together leaving the threshing floor. One or two more euphemisms and innuendos are used here to heighten the ambiguity of what happens with Ruth and Boaz and what Ruth actually asks Boaz for.
The issue at hand is that Ruth doesn’t have a home of her own in Israel. At the end of chapter 2 we read that she lived with her mother in law. Seemingly since Boaz hasn’t acted in the way Ruth and Naomi expected they start to take the matters into their own hands. Naomi devises a plan and Ruth begins following it out. She goes to meet Boaz and uncover his feet and lay down and then from there Naomi hopes a marriage proposal would happen. Uncovering and recovering respectively is the play on words here. Here is the first instance of the story getting potentially scandalous.
(Kathleen A. Robertson Farmer in the New Interpreters Bible Commentary): “By juxtaposing the similar-sounding words ‘gala’ and ga’al, the narrator encourages the audience to consider ways in which ‘uncovering(with all its possible innuendos) can lead to ‘recovering’—to the redemption of what was lost.”
Feet are often a euphemism in the Hebrew for a man’s genitals. What is Ruth actually doing, and what is really being asked for? IS this a yada yada moment where we want to gloss over and say that it is completely innocent and she actually did lay at his feet? The most important thing for Naomi and Ruth is redemption, recovery of what was lost, and so perhaps the commentator is right that maybe this scandalous uncovering, can actually lead to recovery of what was lost.
Perhaps Ruth as a character is scandalous and does take actions further than what Naomi or we as the readers would expect. Ruth is the one who gives the instructions to Boaz in the next scene. When Boaz wakes up because he notices someone is there, instead of waiting for him to tell her what to do, she tells him what to do in v. 9 by asking for a marriage proposal. “Since Boaz says, ‘I will do for you all that you ask,’ and then proceeds to arrange his marriage with Ruth, we should be able to assume that he understood Ruth’s request as a proposal of marriage, rather than a request for sexual relations per se.” (ibid.)
Boaz is challenged again by Ruth to act as the redeemer, the next of kin who can make things right for Naomi and their family. Boaz has shown hesitancy for some reason, and we can only assume it is because of his status in the community and the association of her as a Moabitess. Anyone who heard about the Moabites would automatically think of how that nation started according to scripture. Lot’s daughters trick him into having incestuous relationships so that they can have children of their own.
Ruth as a character seems concerned most about Naomi and making sure the kinsman redeemer will create for Naomi a better life without emptiness. Yet perhaps by being a bit more forceful with Boaz Ruth is also trying to secure herself. Either way Boaz promises to help, although he does say there is another redeemer who is closer than he. This tension will follow us into chapter 4, as we wonder if this other kinsman redeemer will fulfil obligations, or if Boaz will finally step up and do everything Ruth asked for.
Faithfulness or loving kindness is the last important word that I want to mention today. We have heard about the yada’s and who knows what and potentially who knows who, and we have looked at the uncovering and recovering, but this term faithfulness or loving kindness has been used since the beginning of the story as well. Ruth is called faithful by Boaz in her staying with Naomi in the previous chapter, now in this chapter she is called faithful or to show loving kindness by continuing to seek out Boaz and seek out provision for herself and Naomi. Perhaps what is being hinted at here is bigger than just the characters of the story? Perhaps all of these word plays intersect so much with our own lives and our own stories as the people of God that we must not miss them.
For one, ‘like Boaz, we need more than one reminder that we have a role to play in making our pious wishes for others to come true. And, like Boaz, those of us who are the ‘pillars’of our own religious communities may need to be taught how to do hesed or do loving kindness by the ‘foreigners’ in our midst.’” Second we must be curious about how Ruth is both a scandalous story, and one of challenging expectations and proper social behavior.
This is not a call for us to be scandalous in the same ways sexually, but it is a call for us to look at how we can show the same faithfulness or loving kindness to others even if it means our actions may be considered ‘wrong.’ Maybe this is just a reminder that all of us have done scandalous or things considered to be wrong, and not to fear too much because God is still faithful through it all.
I believe the best take away we can have is that no matter what the characters do or don’t do, and no matter what we do or don’t do, redemption is still offered to us by God. God is at work in this story in spite of the characters who are doing things out of the order and law that we would expect. Somewhere there is still faithfulness being exhibited.
I want to leave us with a question about redemption or our about being made right with God. “Is redemption (which plays such a large part in the story) given as a reward for the behavior portrayed in this chapter or in spite of it?” (Ibid.) Ruth and Naomi are looking for redemption in a physical manner, perhaps restoration of property, a namesake, and relationships to provide for them. They do end up receiving this at the end of the story, but does it happen because of their own faithfulness? Likewise with us, are we redeemed and restored because of our faithfulness, or are we given it even though sometimes we do things that are wrong?
The gospel says that God forgives us, redeems us, and doesn’t look at the wrong, but offers us every chance to continue to do hesed, to show loving kindness and faithfulness as we have been made new. So let us go from this place showing loving kindness as we continue to live in the grace of our lord Jesus Christ. Amen!
Sermon Manuscript July 7, 2019
Rev. Nicholas J. Dorland
Scripture: Ruth 1:1-22
Famine, loss, grief, bitterness. A foreigner who is faithful and desires to live as an Israelite. A mother without two sons; three wives without their husbands. This first chapter of Ruth communicates to us some of the most difficult situations any of us face in life. It communicates to us how people living even in a time of turmoil and great unrest can still manage to be loving and faithful. We are brought into this story recognizing the many similarities to our own lives today. Perhaps the one piece we don’t understand is the most pivotal part of the whole story; famine. People will do amazing and controversial things to keep from going hungry. One of the greatest motivators every living creature has is food. Many moral dilemmas have been asked about whether we would steal bread to feed our families. Many other moral dilemmas come when we think about famines in other places in the world that could be eradicated if the powers that be would not make food an industry that is all about profit. We are fortunate and privileged to live in a country where we have an abundance of food. We have not been famished, hungry, or without food in all our upbringing.
The beginning of Ruth tells us of the context we must understand to know the climax of the situation. This is during the time of the Judges, which was known in Israel to be a ‘lawless time,’ where people did what was right in their own eyes. Without a king, without a ruler of any kind, many people only followed God when a judge would arise from time to time. The house of bread, Bethlehem, is experiencing a famine, and this push factor sets up the climax of the story to this point. Elimilech and his family must leave to go to a foreign land in order to survive the famine.
They cross a boundary, a border, into another land because of the push factor of the famine and the pull factor of Moab having food. As nomadic creatures, humanity has always been influenced by push and pull factors. It is no different today. Food, money, land, resources, jobs, scarcity, opportunity, safety are all different factors we migrate from one land to another.
I recall standing in a Mexican market in Senora with a group of fellow Americans as we learned about the power of money as it relates to food. We were given a worksheet with a week’s wages and asked to shop for what we needed for the week, as well as to note prices of other groceries. We were shocked to say the least. One of the surprising things for all of us was that the cost of a 2 liter of soda was less than half the price of the cost of milk.
Also, if we were to buy the groceries, we needed in America to feed our family for a week we would not have had enough money to do so given the conversion rate. I felt like I could connect with Naomi, Elimilech and the book of Ruth. They couldn’t stay in Bethlehem, they needed to find sustenance. They left almost empty handed, for the promise of being filled again. Many of us who have experienced loss, grief, and bitterness also know that longing to be filled again.
They soon are filled again, and live very full lives for many years, the sons taking wives of the people whom they have been living with. We know all too well from what we heard that Naomi and Ruth will return to Bethlehem and will return empty again. This time the pivot is on loss of life and not loss of food. The new rising action in the story is that Naomi is left without any blood relatives, and Ruth who is expected by custom to return to her homeland instead becomes the only piece of comfort for Naomi. Ruth, a foreigner, begins to show forth characteristics of faithfulness, and a desire to live as an Israelite.
For the original audience this would be surprising to say the least, but especially so given the timing and context of the Judges, where people did what was right in their own eyes. I could go on about emptiness and Naomi’s bitterness. Naomi has real human emotions of bitterness, pain, and grief. The empathic route for any of us is to dwell with people like Naomi and learn what they are feeling, learn how they are coping, and not try and fix everything for them. We could spend a whole sermon here. Someday we will come back to this, but today I want to move along as the story does to continue to speak about Ruth.
Ruth is a courageous woman who steps out of her own tradition and comfort zone to become a faithful daughter, friend, and follower of Judaism. Ruth is what my Old Testament professor Carol Bechtel liked to call a faithful foreigner. There are many examples of faithful foreigners in the Old Testament: Naaman, Ruth, and Rahab just to name a few. Part of the law is to welcome in the stranger and foreigner, and if they are willing to become part of the community to treat them as faithful members of the covenant community. At such a time when people are living how they want to live and not necessarily according to the law of God, for anyone to live faithfully is surprising. Ruth as a foreigner is no exception and her admission to go where Naomi would go, and live where she would live, and that Naomi’s God and people would become her own is doubly faithful. She is loving and committed to Naomi but is also loving and committed to the God of Israel.
It leaves me to wonder about my experiences in Mexico as I stood in that grocery store and realized that many people in the world do not know how they will have enough food, adequate food, or many of their needs met through no fault of their own. It leaves me to wonder about our own welcome of those we call strangers, foreigners, or other people in general.
I wonder not just as a citizen in America about the global and political ramifications, but I wonder as a Christian and a minister of a congregation about our welcome of people into this community. I am not claiming any easy answers, but I am claiming that scripture is clear here that some of the most faithful people are outside of our boundaries. How might we learn from them?
As I consider Ruth and I consider her commitment to Naomi and God I wonder about my own commitments, and my own faithfulness. As I consider being empty, being filled, and experiencing loss I wonder how others in the world are doing and feeling. The clearest thing I know from this passage as we start to read through the book of Ruth is that we cannot as followers of God or citizens of a country fully understand what others are going through without listening to them, hearing their stories, and understanding their struggles. What is clear to me is that all people need to be welcome and brought into this place of worship. As we sang last week, “all are welcome in this place,” and I believe when we say all, we need to mean all people. This is what God calls us to do today, and it is the reason we come to this table.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen!
Sermon Manuscript June 23, 2019
Rev. Nicholas J. Dorland
Scripture: Galatians 3:23-29
After we wake in the morning, there is a beautiful split second where we get to decide how we want to start this new day. For many of us it is groans and stretches and a dull familiarity that we don’t often think about. Another morning, another day, another backache to start it all. Some mornings we wake with more vigor, more gratitude, or with joy and laughter. On those days in that split second, we have chosen to start our day differently. Different for us and different from most. How many of you wake in the morning and think, “First let me have my coffee, then I’ll start the day?” My family has always repeated that mantra; Dorland’s are known for their coffee consumption. When we are forced to wake up early and haven’t had adequate sleep I believe most of us start our day with a groan or two. We wake up for school, for work, for appointments, and in that split second, we decide how we want to start our day. A few days ago we woke in laughter as Lindsey and I found online some funny tee shirts with all sorts of puns and graphics that we would actually consider wearing. One had a cartoon of a lemon giving a piggy back ride to a pear. The words said: “Woah were halfway there, Woah lemon on a pear.”
Anytime something new is started, whether we have decided to start it ourselves or it is something our school, workplace, or community is starting, we have a choice in how we want to be present, and how we want to view the new thing taking place. In our scripture passage Paul is communicating the new things taking place in Christian community.
Paul speaking about the new life these believers in Galatia have with Christ wants to make sure they view the new life they have as welcome and as challenging the current social norms they have all lived into. Paul is concerned that the Galatian Christians know that although they have lived with some pretty defined boundaries in social groupings that these things should be viewed differently now. As followers of Christ who are expecting Jesus to come again very soon, Paul wants to make sure the believers are living in community the way that Christ’s kingdom would look. He believes that every time the Christians gather for worship they are in Christ’s presence and therefore the things that once divided and excluded others would be wiped away and that instead all people will be included and with voice and respect in the community.
In joy Paul recounts for them how the law has served them well up until this point. He calls it a guide or tutor and the word he uses was one that conveyed a specific person in the community. There was a person who would bring children to and from school and would guard them until they got either to school or home again. Eventually the children didn’t need that guide or mentor any longer. This is what Paul says about the law of God. The law has been a guide leading them to Christ but now with that new relationship they don’t need to worry about following every letter of the law. This is especially true as it relates to those social customs. The new relationship is one where we have put on Christ, much like you put on clothes or armor. The point of this image is that now when people see this community, they should be seeing a bunch of people clothed with Christ, or who look and sound like Jesus.
After all this set up Paul describes what the new relationships or new social customs should look like. It is like starting a new day we first are reminded that we can choose to start the day mindful of how grateful we are for our lives.
It is like before our feet hit the floor, before the first cup of coffee, before anything gets done we are reminded that to be alive is a mighty good thing.
To be alive and to have loving relationships where we are accepted and feel like we belong is a wonderful gift. To get the opportunity to have a new day to start again and be our best selves and interact with others in such a way that we are not cold or bitter, is a comforting way to start the day. When we started our day a few days ago in laughter I kept repeating that “lemon on a pear,” in song format and it made me smile. It reminded me of the actual song, “living on a prayer,” and it made me doubly smile.
So Paul has set it all up to reach this point about new social constructs. The former way of viewing people with such distinctions like Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female has caused certain relationships strain. In Christ, Paul is telling the believers that as a community reflecting Christ those distinctions look differently. Jesus love and forgiveness for all brings about a change whereby Jews and Greek’s or Jews and Gentiles can worship together, not separately. Not Jew or Greek, but instead Jew and Greek. Likewise, with slave or free; Paul is stating that those distinctions should fall away. All are one in Christ. Lastly rather than male and female, Paul is stating that the place of women should be alongside of the men, rather than in the household codes which stated that men were the head of the household and women should learn from them only. This is radical for the Galatians, and radical for Paul to say during his time.
Today we have different ways of categorizing who is “in” and who is not. I wonder how Paul can be a model for us of what new life in Christ really should mean.
I don’t believe that Christ excluded people from fellowship, or if he did it is something a gospel writer has made more poignant because of the audience they were originally writing to. Paul’s writings here and elsewhere and the book of Acts as well show forth a Christian community and a knowledge and practice of the Gospel that is about clearing those distinctions.
What distinctions do we still hold, and how are we keeping people out? Race is still an issue, sexual identity and gender norms are still an issue. Ethnicity can still be an issue. Are they issues here in this church? Who is welcome? My belief is that all means all. Christ welcomes all to be here with us, and as followers so should we.
Sermon Manuscript June 16, 2019
Rev. Nicholas J. Dorland
Scripture: John 16:12-24
“A Little While…”
Last weeks youth service was such a joy and delight, and the message we heard from the sermonettes they delivered was an important one. We were told how important it is for us to have this community around us, that we need one another in order to best reflect what it means to be the body of Christ, or more simply put to reflect what it means to be the church, God’s people. A great message for Pentecost as it reminds us that the Spirit of God is the person of God who makes all these truths happen in our community. The Holy Spirit is God with us, now that Jesus cannot be in our midst as he was with the disciples, binding us together and making us unified. The Spirit is the one breaking down barriers at Pentecost to language, and divisions, and as Christians we believe that God as the Holy Spirit continues to do this work in our lives and in the world.
Today I want to keep speaking on the topic of Pentecost and what God as Holy Spirit is doing and will do for us as that community, as that body of Christ we heard about last week.
But first a story. Our language is learned over many years of practice, and I believe we are constantly learning. Our children as I am sure many of yours do/did as well, have a difficult time with unclear expressions. Time expressions that are unclear are some of the hardest to explain. For example: “No you can’t have a snack right now, because we are going to have dinner soon.” Our kids respond with “soon, what does that mean?”
So, we say something like, “in a little while, or not too long, or its almost time for dinner.” None of those are any clearer than the first thing we said. We keep trying to help them understand it, but it isn’t something we understand right away. They are still learning, they still need help figuring out what to say, how to say it and understanding the meaning of words and expressions. In some ways explaining that concept of time is like what happens with the disciples today. What does Jesus mean when he says, “in a little while you won’t see me and then in a little you will see me again.” The disciples are confused and still don’t understand that Jesus will die, and that he will rise again, and that both of those things are good things to happen.
Jesus could be speaking simply about his death and resurrection; with Pentecost we could imagine it as the ascension and the promise that Jesus will return someday. The early church struggled to articulate their views on the end times because they believed with the oppression of the Roman Empire and the destruction of the temple in 70 CE that the end was coming soon. Either way, Jesus is speaking about his departure, and his coming again, and that means something very distinct to the community John is writing to, and it means something to us today as well. The comfort of Jesus’ words than also mean something particular to the community John is writing to, to the disciples Jesus was speaking to, and they mean something to us today as well. The promise of the Holy Spirit as the paraclete, or the helper, comforter, the called-in aid, is just as true a promise to us today as it was to them.
Jesus tells the disciples that the Spirit will speak to them the truth, and will communicate the things that are to come. He also says that they cannot bear all that he must tell them right now.
Jesus is saying here that the Spirit of God will speak the truth about Gods love and about who Jesus is.
The Spirit as the helper will help the disciples to understand all Jesus has said about life, love, community, and God’s desire to forgive and live with God’s people. This is a great comfort to the disciples then, because it says that nothing Jesus has taught them, shown them, or imparted to them will be lost. This is a great comfort to us today as well, and I believe it is one of the reasons our faith tradition continues. God continues to remind us of Jesus Christ’s work, message, love, and miracles. So the comforter or the helper that we call God as Holy Spirit is that person of the trinity who is abiding with us, guiding us, teaching us, speaking to us and through us, and helping us to discern the truth about God.
The second thing Jesus says about the Spirit is peculiar. I love how the commentators explain it in terms of what the Greek phrases actually mean. (Timothy Jones writing for Workingpreacher.org):
"This observation about what they can bear is not about capacity in terms of the sheer amount of information that they can understand, but instead it seems to be about time and context. They can’t bear the many words, now, because there are words that they need to hear in the future that would not make sense now. The Spirit will guide them to truth in the future, for a word that they need to hear in that moment. The word will still be from the one that they trust and have a relationship with, 'he will speak whatever he hears,' but the word will fit the needs of the community at that time."
The Spirit of God guides us as well speaking what we need to hear to fit the needs of this community and at this time. So our encouragement today this second week in Pentecost is one of reminding, helping, and one of speaking.
We still have many questions, we are still waiting for Jesus return, we know that our questions will be answered on that day. In the in between time we look to God, as Holy Spirit, to guide us, direct us, teach us, help us, remind us and to speak into our current context the truth we need for our present moment.
I wonder what the Spirit is saying to us right now as a community? What is the truth we need to hear right now?
Jesus is coming in a little while, but we have been waiting a long time, and when he come’s we will know all things. We are not alone though. Although we have been waiting and expecting God to show up we have been sometimes blind to Jesus words mentioned here that God is intimately with us as Holy Spirit. And the other comfort of God’s presence with us is that the Spirit will speak to us in a little while. Maybe that means right now. How will we listen? Are we listening? Amen.
Sermon Manuscript June 2, 2019
Rev. Nicholas J. Dorland
Scripture: Acts 16: 16-34
“He and His Household”
I have had the privilege of baptizing two of our three children and have also had that same privilege of baptizing several other infants at our first church as well. One of the biggest questions in our differences as Christians is why some still practice infant baptism. Our passage today and many similar passages in the book of Acts, speaks to one of the large reasons biblically why we practice infant baptism. We are told that the jailer and his family are baptized. Acts is full of stories, where one person in a family becomes a Christian and is baptized along with their household. This practice wasn’t seen as strange at the time, nor was it foreign to many cultural and religious practices of the Jews. It stems back to the Old Testament where whole families were part of the covenant community of believers.
I believe I have said it before, but it is worth mentioning again. To become a member of the Jewish community a male had to be circumcised, this would ensure he and his household would be part of God’s covenant. This mark was an outward sign of an inward promise from God. It meant that the promises of God, the love of God, and the benefits of living in community were for those who had this sign, along with their family. Baptism becomes the new sign of the covenant for Christianity, because it is a universal sign and symbol. Not only is it a universal sign and symbol of cleanliness, and of being a new changed person, it also is an outward sign of an inward truth that can be done for any person. This meant that women, as well as men, Gentiles as well as former Jews, and young as well as older people could all receive this sign. So when we read that a whole household was baptized it isn’t a stretch to say that this includes infants, in fact, because it says household it more than likely means anyone in the family of any age.
We as Reformed Christians believe that the freedom we have in Christ, the reconciliation we receive from God through Jesus’ life death and resurrection, is a promise and truth for all people. We believe that we are members of God’s covenant community, by the means of our sharing in the Sacrament of Baptism. I would love to talk more about this later if you have further questions. For now let me just say that this sign and symbol called baptism is our entry into the covenant, or the promises of God to love us and to be for us and our flourishing. It is the promise that we have forgiveness, that we have relationship, and that we belong to a community whereby we are united to one another in a bond of fellowship and love.
Baptism is a one time sacrament, initiating us into the covenant community, saying that just as the promises are for those who know Christ, they are also held out to the whole community who have received the sign of baptism. We believe that the means of grace come through baptism, and hope that someday those who have been baptized will accept the promises as true for them. We are claimed by the promises of God in Baptism, and later on we hopefully will claim those truths for ourselves as well. Communion is our other sacrament, and we celebrate it as a continual reminder of the promises of God in Jesus to love us, forgive us, and make our relationship right. We will receive this good gift of grace in a little while. For now I want to get back to our story.
A woman is enslaved to a master and a spirit of divination, and likewise Paul and Silas are servants or slaves to God. Paul releases the woman from her bondage to the spirit, and because of it Paul and Silas are literally thrown into prison for causing a scene. It is interesting how the work of liberation can bring about opposition. We are all trapped or servants of certain things in our own lives. The promise of the Gospel tells us that we have freedom, we have peace, and yet we remain trapped in one way or another.
For some it is addiction, for some it is unhealthy relationships, for others it is human trafficking, and for still others it is emotional immaturity. Whatever we are trapped in we need these dual stories of freedom and liberation to remind us what God has done for us, and what God continues to promise to do for us. We are not freed from sin, forgiven by God, and made new creations only once. We are always in need of grace and forgiveness from God. We are always in need of further liberation, further justice, further peace in our own lives. We need these not only in our own lives but in our whole world. Our life in this covenant community with the promises of God before us is more a continuous process whereby day by day we are invited to let go of the things that are entrapping and enslaving us. It is a daily dying and rising to new life in Christ. It is a daily process of remembering the promises given to us in our sacraments and in scripture that the promises of God are for us. Not just for us, but for our families as well. It then becomes a daily habit of reminding our families and letting them remind us, that we are claimed by a truth, by a promise, that has freed us, will continue to free us, and will continue to call us to greater liberation, peace, and holistic living. This is the good news. This is the joy of our faith! In the name of the F,S, and HS. Amen.
Sermon Manuscript May 26, 2019
Rev. Nicholas J. Dorland
Scripture: Acts 16:9-15
“Gatherings at the River”
It feels like summer is fresh upon us today doesn’t it? When it is this warm out the one thing I want to do is go to the beach and be near the water. I am not entirely sure what the draw is for me. I love the sand, and I love how it makes my skin feel after a whole day spent playing and building tunnels with our kids. I love the breeze that passes across the water. I love the smell, most of the time, and I love seeing and hearing everyone else around us enjoying the beach. Of course we gather near the water for the benefit of being able to cool off as well, but just the idea of gathering with other people near water is something so basic to human life.
The story of the Gentile women in Macedonia in the city of Philippi is not one of just a social gathering. Commentators suggest that perhaps the women are meeting because there are not the designated number of men to allow for a synagogue. Apparently, these types of situations were not uncommon, and Paul was not unfamiliar with people gathering near the water to pray. The term place of prayer is synonymous with the word for synagogue, so that he calls it this shows his belief in the women’s faith. Paul is only able to meet with these Gentile women because of the location and type of gathering that they are having.
This is not just a summons of the women to gather at the river much like we like to gather at the beach, poolside, ocean, or canal. They are there for a specific purpose, and that purpose is one of religious nature. There have been many Jewish diasporas over the many years of history of the Jewish people. During this time of Hellenization and Roman rule this became so because of many factors, not just a feeling of persecution. We don’t know the details of these women or even of Lydia, but we are told this small detail of where they gathered and for what purpose.
We gather here in the name of Jesus Christ, and we gather for the purpose of worship and dialogue. We worship God as the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and we continue to give thanks and praise for God’s work in our lives, and what Jesus has done for us in bringing us into relationship with God. We gather to have dialogue with God as God speaks to us through scripture, song, liturgy, space, and sermon, and we respond to God through our liturgy, music, offerings, prayers and posture of receiving. The small detail of gathering for a purpose conveys a whole lot. We could go on and on about why we gather as the church, and even longer about why we gather in this particular building with these people around us. It is no less complex in our passage today. Paul knows why they are gathering, and he hopes to bring them a message.
We read that Lydia is singled out as a God worshiper from Thyatira, and we hear that she has a specific response to the message of the Gospel. She becomes a believer in Jesus Christ and the Christian way of life. She immediately is baptized with her whole household and then invites Paul and his travelers to stay with her. The gospel message is one that changes us, and it makes us more ready and willing to welcome others into our gathering places. For Lydia this is true, and as we know later on in scripture there is a whole letter dedicated to the believers in Philippi.
As we gather I believe it is extremely important that we recall two things that arise from this passage. First is that we gather for a specific purpose and not just as a social gathering, but to attest to our belief in the living God, and listen and speak in dialogue to the God that has claimed us! Second is that we like Lydia are to have changed lives by the message of the Gospel. It should so change us that we become immediately hospitable like her. We should be always inviting others into our midst, into our lives, and making space for them to be where we gather. As we gather here today and every Sunday we must like Lydia, be thinking and making preparations for all people to come and be with us. As we delight in parades and festivities the next day or two and enjoy the people around us, may we do so mindful that we are called to have the same joy and delight in having other people gathered around us in worship. As we go about our lives the rest of the week, may we be looking like Paul was for the places people are gathering, and for what purposes, and let us like him enter into those places and share the good news of Jesus Christ. Amen!
Sermon Manuscript May 19, 2019
Rev. Nicholas J. Dorland
Scripture: Acts 11:1-18
“Acceptance: Make No Distinction”
I make a distinction between what makes me feel dirty and not. For me to have dirt, motor oil, paint or any other result of working with my hand left on me does not make me feel dirty or unclean. Sure it is a nuisance and I want to wash my hands to avoid spreading the dirt, oil, paint, but I don’t feel like I myself am less cleanly then I was before. Now here is the weird thing, I do feel dirty when my food gets on my hands or mouth. I love chicken wings, but the amount of mess that is caused on my hands leaves me with heavily coated napkins and a trip to the bathroom to wash my hands and mouth. I feel like that is really strange, but it is the distinction I make about when I feel clean and when I feel dirty. I am sure we are all different about what makes us feel clean or dirty. We make distinctions about what those things are for each of us. We likewise differentiate between just about everything in life. We classify and categorize everything, and I mean everything!
We hear the words in verse three and it is all too familiar. How could you___ with that person/those people? We distinguish in the harshest ways with our relationships and the people around us. For some of us this is cultural, for some racial, for others socioeconomic status, and for others who is kind and who is not. Categories are meant to be helpful. Our brains work in such a way that to organize information they naturally start putting things in categories. I hope we all can understand and hopefully combat against this tendency in our relationships. This is an issue for the world in the time of our scripture passage. As you know from other scriptures and from reading between the lines of this one, Jews and Gentiles did not get along.
Part of our tendency as people who are afraid, hurt, and broken is to push away other people, especially different people. This fear is what mainly fueled the distinctions within the world of Judaism, and it was the fear of foreign oppression that kept the distinction of Jew and Gentile so fierce throughout Jesus’ life and up until this point.
In some of the Gospels it is clear that Jesus has come for both the Jews and for Gentiles, but it is clear in other Gospel accounts that Jesus has come first for the Jews. The stories of the early church up until this point have all been about the Diaspora Jews who were all over the Greco-Roman empire. Kosher laws, as well as circumcision, as well as religious belief were all distinctions between these two people groups. It really is no different today. We became vegans for a time last year, and you wouldn’t believe how many less invites we got for meal times with friends and family. People make distinctions between vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores all the time, and because of this we find lots of tension just about what we eat. It seems silly to say that we would be so caught up about what someone else eats or what we ourselves eat. Another issue was going to restaurants. Unless you go to a specific restaurant, or one you know that is willing to make substitutions it is almost impossible to eat out as a vegan, and sometimes even as a vegetarian.
For Peter it is this exact issue of eating un-kosher food that opens his eyes to God’s desire and intent to involve all people in the message of the gospel. This tremendous vision of the sheet with all of the ‘unclean’ animals is a perfect metaphor for the distinctions made between Jews and Gentiles.
What is clean and what is unclean to eat, is synonymous to who is clean and who is unclean to associate with. To be clear there are more than just Gentiles that were considered unclean, but God is breaking down a barrier here. Peter is told to not call these animals, and likewise these Gentile people ‘unclean.’ He is transformed by this vision and message from God. It is also clearly told to him that God has not called these things unclean or profane, and so Peter should not call them that either. God breaks down this human barrier meant to distinguish, but that ultimately excluded and shamed other people, and open’s Peters mind and heart to the possibility and truth that God makes no such distinctions, and that God loves unconditionally. This is an important part. Peter is told by God to make no distinction.
The word used here has a range of meaning that means make no distinction, do not judge, and do not discriminate. This is a very important definition we must not pass up. Peters explanation from his own transformation, was that he was not to make a distinction, to not judge, to not discriminate. Just as this sheet appears in his vision and disappears, so something like a sheet or veil is lifted in Peters thoughts and feelings about the Gentiles.
As we think about our own lives, our own distinctions and our own discrimination I wonder what God is speaking to us? I wonder how the gospel may transform us to not discriminate or call others unclean? This is about acceptance, this is about inclusion, this is about hospitality. I love the most recent social media post about barriers and borders. It says this: “when you have more than you need, make a longer table not a larger wall.” This speaks to our hospitality and inclusion of others, but I think it also speaks to our generosity towards other people.
We are not just generous or hospitable when it is easy, or with the people that make it easy for us. We are not just generous with our finances but with all of our lives. We are not just hospitable with our hosting meals, but with all of our lives. We are generous with our time, our relationships, our love, our service to others and with our finances. We are not just hospitable to those who we feel are easy to host in our homes because they aren’t vegans and we wouldn’t know what to serve. Instead we are welcoming and accepting of all people, in all situations, and we make the preparations and space to help them feel welcome as well. We stop the comparing and discriminating, and we instead own our prejudices and prejudgments and look for a way to apologize, and learn, and be transformed in our relationships.
This is what happens to Peter, and the community receives his story that God is up to something. I believe God is up to something as well, and you may not agree with me, but I believe that our values mean we are radical in our generosity, and our hospitality. Radical from the Latin root radix which means “root.” To get to the root, or the radical forms of these values will mean that we understand how deep and broad they are. After-all God’s grace is deep and broad and high. God’s plan is far more inclusive, and welcoming then our minds and hearts can comprehend. Sometimes we feel so much shame that we keep ourselves at a distance from God, because we feel unworthy. Instead God reminds us that not just us, and not just the people who think and look like us are worthy of love, but that in fact all people are!
God makes no distinctions when it comes to who God loves and is willing to share life with. God shares the gifts of grace and reconciliation with all people. God has gifted even the gentiles with salvation. As a community we must realize when we have made too many distinctions about who is in and who is out, or about who we show love to or welcome to be part of us. God has gifted reconciliation and grace to all people, and we are part of that story.
Like the original critics in Jerusalem, we must listen to the stories of transformation from all places and all people, and if it truly is God’s doing we are to celebrate what God is up to. This is the kind of welcome, acceptance, and hospitality we are called to as the church. Let us make no distinction, no wall, and no barrier to people worshiping and learning about life in Christ with us. Let us welcome all people to be part of our story. In Christ’s name, Amen!
Sermon Manuscript May 5 2019
Rev. Nicholas J. Dorland
Scripture: Acts 9:1-20
“Conversion and Acceptance ”
I do want to come back to this Scripture in a minute, but first I want to share the results of last weeks Values workshop we did in place of the sermon. First off let me just say “thank you” to all of you who were here last week and participated fully in the activity. For me, it was definitely different from anything I have ever done in worship, and it made me anxious thinking about how everyone would interact and respond. Within the first few minutes last week my anxiety almost disappeared as I saw everyone start engaging, and the amount of energy I saw gave me great encouragement. It is worth celebrating together that we heard sermons and scripture passages on values, spent time together last week discerning and thinking about what values we want to try to live into, and this week will reveal our results. Let’s take a small moment to celebrate that! (applause)
Now you have the results in front of you, and I would like to help you know the process we used to compile all this information together. The bolded words are the ones that come from sermons, topics, or the more usual name given to these values. (Hospitality, Integrity, Reconciliation and Generosity are the words I am talking about) It might not be the word or phrase you wrote down, but you will see the bulleted points underneath are all contained in the bolded value words. Our process was simple as you all did such good work! We took each chart paper and put them all up on one wall. Then we found all the same/similar words on other charts and started tallying which ones stood out the most.
These are in no particular order and are not in the order of which was written down the most. We will do best to think of all of these as important values and not that one is more valued over the others. I believe these four came to the top for a reason, and I did say that we would verbally vote on them. (ask for a verbal “yes” if we agree to them)
In another document I am planning to write out a definition of each of these values and start showing what it would mean for us to live into each. When we look at our mission and vision statements now and wonder how we will do them, and who will do them it becomes so much clearer. We just agreed that all of us are going to do this work as we discerned together what our values are/should be. That really is what discerning values is all about, determining the how question. We know that we feel called to love God, love others and serve the world, but how? We know that the vision we see for our congregation in the future is one that is an intergenerational faith community that shines as a light of hope to the world, but how are we going to get there? We will be and do these things by living into these values of hospitality, reconciliation, generosity, and integrity.
Coming back to our scripture passage today it is no surprise to me that many of these values can be gleaned from Saul/Paul’s conversion story. I want to highlight just a few, but I am interested to hear what else you glean in terms of these values in our scripture passage. There isn’t one right answer. I could make a case for every word written here, but I feel some fit better than others. For those of us who are familiar with this story we know that Saul was not just persecuting the followers of Jesus, but that he was a Pharisee or expert in Jewish law and wanted to make sure order was kept in all of Israel.
Most of the apostles and other followers of Jesus’ teachings tried to steer clear of Saul, because they knew that he would find some reason to get them in trouble. Today’s passage is known as the famous Damascus road conversion. The two values I glean most from this passage are hospitality or acceptance, and reconciliation or forgiveness.
Saul is confronted by Jesus in a theophany, or a vision, and there he is afflicted with literal blindness. God in Jesus does not see Saul as someone who must be punished, or pushed outside of fellowship. There is a plea to end the persecution, but Saul is in need of grace and forgiveness as much as anyone else. He needs God’s grace to see again. This is given through the person of Ananias. You may already see where I am going with this. Saul who ends up changing his name to Paul, is shown grace and forgiveness by God, and then is shown the same compassion or forgiveness through Ananias and the rest of the followers of the Way.
Part of this story is at least in part about Ananias as much as it is about Paul. Ananias who knows his reputation as a persecutor of the followers of Jesus, is called to hospitality. Ananias must welcome and accept Saul as the changed man Paul. He must not only accept him in a emotional sense, but in a very real and physical way is commanded to go to Paul in person, to interact with him, to talk to him, and to lay hands on him. He is asked to be hospitable to someone he does not want to show hospitality to out of fear, and possible other emotions like anger or sadness. Again I think you can see where I am going with this. Paul is shown hospitality by Ananias as he meets him, lays hands on him, and continues to care for him as his sight returns.
How might giving or service come into play in this story? How might trust and being a good role model come into play in this story?
One of the biggest parts of this story that must always stick out to us is that God’s grace to Paul comes first. It is startling, from the place he least expects, and means he has to interact with the very people and movement he has tried to avoid. God’s story is often one that startles us and moves us to unexpected places and people. The grace we know and receive likewise always comes first in our story. As we look back a few weeks to Easter we recall that God’s grace came in the person of Jesus Christ. We are members of this community of grace because of what God has done for us in reclaiming us in Jesus. Paul is reclaimed by God into a different faith, and his life is altered. It is important to state that Paul was a good Jew, and this by no means is a message against Judaism, but instead that Paul was reclaimed by God for a specific purpose in Christianity.
As we come to this community, to this church, and to this table fellowship we come to be reclaimed by God as well. We come to receive reconciliation and to enact it by sharing together in the breaking of the bread. We come accepted, and included, and we are transformed to enact this same spirit as we welcome others and go out into the world.
I really am looking forward to how we will live into these four values over the next several months. I believe God will do great things in and through us. Amen.
Sermon Manuscript April 21, 2019
Rev. Nicholas J. Dorland
Scripture: Mark 16:1-8
“They Said Nothing”
It hardly seems like the right ending to Mark’s gospel, and many of you would rightly say that chapter 16 doesn’t end there in our bibles we have in the pews. Biblical scholars and historians have debated for a long time where the ending of Mark’s gospel originally is. In general, biblical scholars take the shorter, more difficult reading of any biblical text, and if they can find early enough manuscripts that prove their hypothesis all the better. The majority agree that Mark 16 ends at verse 8. ‘They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.’ It is confusing and it seems wrong. If they really said nothing why are we here talking about it like Jesus is risen still to this day? It is an ironic ending to a gospel that has been structured much like a parable. Parables have no clear ending and lack a one to one correlation behind what they are supposed to teach us. The angels message to the women is still one of the most controversial and doubtful stories out there; Jesus is not dead any longer; He is risen! We will come back to Mark’s ending in a few minutes.
First I want to capture with you the play by play moments of this Easter morning. The women wake up; we all do this every morning, but what is different about this one is a lingering thought. The lingering thought on their mind is one of care, so they go to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body for proper ceremonial burial procedure. Joseph of Arimathea has taken the body, and wrapped it in cloth. He put Jesus’ body in this tomb, and rolled a stone in front of it, but he did not anoint it as was Jewish custom. The women who stayed with Jesus and took care of him in life, continue to take care of him in his death. We are told it is Mary presumably his mother since it mentions she is the mother of James, Mary Magdalene, and Salome who bring the spices to the tomb to essentially embalm his body and control unpleasant odors.
Their mission is a tough one emotionally but is further complicated by the fact that they are not sure how they will remove the stone at the entrance to the tomb. Their mission is thwarted and superfluous as they make it to the tomb to discover the stone already rolled away and Jesus’ body nowhere to be found. Emotionally this discovery would put a heavy weight on anyone. We know that they are then greeted by an angel who explains why he is gone, and what they are to do and say to the disciples. The women come to the tomb because the disciples have all fled. The women come to the tomb as the last people who may still put all the mysterious pieces together concerning the events of Jesus’ recent death. The women go to anoint his body as is custom, but I wonder if perhaps a shred of faith lingers that maybe, just maybe he will be awake and alive.
We to this day continue to fear death and flee from it. This is a natural human response, and while the disciples aren’t excused for deserting Jesus there is at least a common understanding from all of us who hear this story. We would do the same. I always wonder if the fear and terror of the events of the Passion are enough to scare anyone away? Maybe they were still expecting Jesus to be a different kind of Messiah? The women in Mark’s original ending are not immune to this response either. Pheme Perkins in her commentary says it beautifully: “There are no heroes among Jesus’ followers…all have been reduced to flight and fear.”
I concur with her and the scholars that the ending in verse 8 makes sense given our own experience and understanding of human nature and emotions. The two Mary’s and Salome hear this wonderful news that Jesus isn’t there, but they say nothing about it. The fear could be that someone has taken Jesus away. The fear could also be that they saw an angelic being and that is a common and natural response to seeing an angel. Maybe it is all of these, but whatever the reason Mark is intentional in making this final ironic ending.
It is a hard and difficult ending; it leaves us with several questions. Among the most important is why the other Gospel writers have different stories, and what we are supposed to do with them if this is the most true story? Could the other resurrection appearances all be true and valid still? I believe they are, and I believe this is the reason we cannot simply pass off the resurrection of Jesus as hogwash, fake news, or a trick employed by the disciples. There are not just the gospel stories, but several other stories throughout the rest of the New Testament that confirm in different ways that Jesus is risen.
If you want to lie and cover something up, you get your story straight. You make sure everyone is telling the same story; you control the narrative so that everyone believes the same lie. People today make a living out of this kind of storytelling. They think of all the ways they can spin a story, and make sure they control the narrative so that what they want it to say shines through. I just heard a story about this new series on Netflix called “Our Planet.” It is a documentary type series that is supposed to highlight the beauty of earth and its animals, but also showcases death and disaster especially in the animal kingdom. The story I heard reported, was mentioning how the series is misleading. In one episode videographers ensure to show a horrifying display where Walrus’ are falling off of cliffs to their death. The series makes sure it highlights that global warming has caused these animals to live in places they normally wouldn’t.
What the videographers fail to share are the Polar bears at the top of said cliff who are trying to capture these walruses to eat them. They want the story to remain about global warming, which is good and true and should be highlighted as we consider our planet. They want this image of death to be powerful so that it moves us to care about global warming and its affects. Yet they are still spinning the story without presenting everything that is happening. They are omitting details or choosing to not speak about them. This is what we do as people who are trying to get our story straight.
When something is true and spectacular there is no need to get all the facts straight. Therefore, multiple resurrection stories are left intact, because it is spectacular, unbelievable, and miraculous that someone could be raised from the dead. Some of the stories mention the suspicion from Roman officials believing that the disciples might actually come and take the body away. With such a momentous event, surely someone would have found his body, or his bones at least and made some kind of shrine? We are left with the fact that all these stories of resurrection, and the fear and amazement at it all points to it being true. Only God is able to do something like this. God in Jesus has conquered death and Jesus is risen!
Marks gospel is important in its telling because of his insistence on irony and the disciples not getting what Jesus is doing. As I said earlier there are no heroes among the disciples. Mark is sure to point out that they have failed Jesus. Yet here is what Pheme says further in her commentary: “Jesus does not need to come once again and choose a new team in some grand lottery for better disciples.” God trusts that they will get it at some point.
The message is entrusted to the women, even though fear has rendered them speechless. We know that this is ironic because we have a gospel called Mark. We know this is ironic because someone had to get the message, and likewise because good news can never be contained.
The women are sent back to Galilee to find the disciples and to tell them that Jesus is risen, and that he will go ahead of the disciples to meet them there. Why Galilee? Galilee is where Jesus ministry starts, it is where the disciples first encountered Jesus. If Mark’s gospel is like a parable the beautiful thing about that is we are always encouraged to go back to the beginning and start again. This ending makes that a possibility. It makes it plain that all of Jesus’ followers, even those reading this gospel will fail Jesus time and again. We won’t get it like the disciples all along, we will flee in terror and amazement. We will keep quiet about this good news even when it is so good we are filled to the brim with utter elation. Even when we fail Jesus, and even when we are tempted to deny the resurrection the invitation offered here is to go back to the beginning.
It reminds me of forgiveness. Beginning again. As I prepared for this message I kept thinking how strange it was that I kept learning through study that this was irony at its best and that Mark is telling the readers to go back to the beginning of his gospel. I was puzzling for a while about why someone would play such a cruel trick. Even with a parable there is a clear message even if we find truth in other parts of it. That wasn’t sitting well with me that Mark’s gospel was like a parable and we had to find the truth within it.
It all seemed too obscure until one of the commentators pointed out that we all fail Jesus. We all need that invitation to begin fresh. That is the good news of forgiveness. That is truly the good news of Easter. No matter how much trouble we have believing Jesus or believing in Jesus, no matter how many ways we may spin our own version of the Easter story, we are all invited to begin again. Forgiveness in God through Jesus comes about because Jesus has come to us, invited us to live as he lives, and learn from him how best we can live for God. We mess up, we fail, we give up on Jesus. No matter how many times we mess up or fail, we are still entrusted with the good news. We begin again in forgiveness and love and are given the gospel again to hear again or read again, or speak again what Jesus has done.
Perhaps one of the most beautiful parts about this story is the forgiveness of the disciples. The angel tells the women to go to Galilee to report that Jesus was not in the grave but risen as he said. He tells them to tell this to the disciples and Peter. None of them are so far gone that they can’t be made new again. Even Peter who denied Jesus is included in this, and specifically, to show that there is forgiveness, love and second chances. They all do the right thing with their second chances and that is why we sit here today. The story of the resurrection is told to this day. The disciples did get to begin again. The women remain the heroes of the day as the fear eventually gave way to speech. Good news cannot be contained. It must be shared. Let us share our good news with the world! Our good news is we all get to begin again, to have second and third and fourth chances. Our good news is that Jesus is not dead, he is risen!
Sermon Manuscript April 14, 2019
Rev. Nicholas J. Dorland
Scripture: Mark 11:1-11, Philippians 2:1-11
“Full of Integrity and Wrapped in Love: Humility”
Palm Sunday is a day of celebration for us; we hail the coming of Jesus into Jerusalem with the crowds, and we take our branches and lay them on the ground just like the crowd who welcomed Jesus. Aside from mimicking the scriptures, this is a poignant time to remember the stark contrast between the welcoming of Jesus in the beginning of the Passover feast, to the betrayal and arrest at the end of the week. We will fully enter into the story by highlighting both the jubilation and the humiliation today. Later in the week we will join with our brothers and sisters from the Methodist church and will share the same last meal that Christ and the disciples shared. We will then remember fully the humiliation of Jesus being turned over to the High Priest and to Pilate, and dying on the cross.
The questions that surround holy week continue to be whether Jesus is truly a king or not; after all there is no military conquest, and Jesus is mocked and crucified in the end? A regent is meant to be welcomed into a city after military conquest, with fanfare, and riding in on a war horse, with full regalia. The crowd will typically pay homage to the conquering general, laying themselves, their coats, and branches on the ground. The victory will be celebrated, because the kingdom is at peace, the battle won, and the people can go on living well and free from fear of death. Jesus rides in not in military conquest, and on a horse but on a donkey and in peace. This isn’t uncommon for kings in the history of Israel to ride in on a donkey.
Also this scene is borrowed from the Old Testament where Saul rides in on a pair of donkeys to signal his anointing as the king. Jesus adds a new meaning to this story as he rides in as the exalted king.
He hasn’t won some valiant victory as a regent, he hasn’t been anointed king of Israel, and isn’t seen as a hero by most people. One commentator summarizes the context of this moment beautifully: “Details vary, but the format is the same: after conquest, a military champion enters a city, joyously acclaimed, then offers cultic thanksgiving. The Messiah’s entry to Jerusalem warps this pattern. In place of military conquest is Jesus’ ministry of peace…”
The stark contrast between Palm Sunday and Good Friday is further highlighted as we investigate the details. We have the pleasure of hindsight as Christians and know that Jesus’ triumphal entry is fit for him and the kingdom of God that he inaugurates. WE know that Christ came humbly, emptied himself and took on human flesh in order to bring peace, to bring new life, and to bring us fully into relationship with God. The details of Holy Week take on a new meaning as we recall the humility of Christ, and the kingdom of God that is ushered in by his coming, living, and dying for us and our salvation.
In many ways I find holy week to point back to the incarnation in many ways. The mysterious and surprising nature of Palm Sunday is akin to the surprising coming of Jesus as the Messiah. As we recall from every Christmas, Jesus comes not as the expected Messiah, but as a humble servant. Jesus’ ministry has been about challenging expectations and calling out the religious elite for their hypocrisy as well as their neglect of the needy. Jesus enters homes of tax collectors and Pharisee alike, and Jesus heals those considered untouchable like the lepers or the woman with the flow of blood. Jesus towards the end of this week will take the true place of a servant and will wash the feet of the disciples before they dine together. In his own words Jesus has said that he has come not be served, but instead to live his life in service to others. He encouraged the disciples to live in a similar way, and sent them out with just the clothes on their back to go tell of the coming kingdom.
It is this that makes Jesus such a great model for humility. It is also one of the highest virtues and values I believe we can have as Christians. I love the way Philippians states what this looks like when it says: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others…” We know all too well how easy it is to desire our own way, and to want the things that will make us happy. This is calling us to a different mobility; one where we do not make ourselves high but choose instead to become low. Theologians call Jesus’ story one of downward mobility. What they mean by this is that Jesus became low, he made himself a servant, took on human flesh, and in this path showed us how God desires us to live with one another.
It is not the way of the world, and it is not the way of our society, but this path of humility and of downward mobility is about relationship, and it is about modeling Jesus who gave his all for us. It is ironic that today Jesus is hailed as king as we celebrate Palm Sunday, but Jesus’ ministry has not been one of making himself look good, or of self praise. Instead Jesus has lived in service to others, has been humble and gracious. Jesus chose a path of love and devotion to God and others, and models this way as the way all should live for God. The greatest commandment is to love God and to love our neighbors! I believe for us to be humble will mean a few things must change about our lives individually and perhaps a few must change for us as a church.
If we value humility and living in loving service to others I believe it means we are about finding out ways we can serve in the community. It means we aren’t trying to attract people to our church, or attract people to ourselves, but instead about serving our community and letting people know that we are about doing that. It means not insisting that we be right, but honoring others and taking on a posture of learning. It means not feeling entitled to more than our fair share, and making sure our resources are given to those who need them. Philippians says it simply to regard others as better than yourself, not looking to our own interests but to others.
Another commentator picks up on this theme for today as she says this: “In the Roman Empire, dominance, victory, and ascendance signaled power and authority. How is it possible for humility, servitude, submission, even death, to signal power and authority?” Humility and submission signal it because Jesus came bringing a different kind of power and authority. Jesus brings God’s kingdom which is one not of dominance or victory, but instead one of love and one of peace. We are called to live into this different kind of kingdom as God’s people. We do that by living humbly, we do that by valuing what Jesus has valued. As a model we enter into Holy week always mindful that Jesus wasn’t looking to ascend to a kingly throne, but instead chose service, chose humility and chose loving others. It cost him everything, and it may cost us everything as well.
This day may we choose to model Christ in our humility; this day may we choose to enter into holy week praising God, but also mindful of others, especially those who we are called to love and serve. Like Jesus may we consider others as better than ourselves, and so bring them honor, love, and the peace of God. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen
Sermon Manuscript April 7, 2019
Rev. Nicholas J. Dorland
Scripture: Isaiah 2:1-5, Matthew 5:1-11
“Full of Integrity and Wrapped in Love: Shalom”
There are some people I absolutely love to be around because when I am around them my whole attitude changes, and my blood pressure drops. I believe this is true for many of us. Try and think of those people, who when you are around them you just feel at peace; being in their presence means you can relax a bit more. For some of us it is family, for some our spouses, for others it might be a very close friend or sibling. One of my mentors in Seminary was Marijke, a female pastor at the church I was an intern at. We share a lot in common, and to this day she remains a mentor and friend. I had the joy of seeing Marijke again this past summer when I was out in Michigan for a church function for the RCA. Every time I am with her I feel calmer, I sense the peace she has within her and it reminds me to take a deep breath and let God’s shalom wash over me.
A calm and peaceful presence is something I have tried to have as well, and I believe that when I am my best, I feel at peace with myself when I am centered, and whole, and feel like I am exuding peace to those around me. This kind of peace is a tranquility, or a type of presence we experience. Yet this feeling doesn’t always last.
It doesn’t last because it isn’t peace. Peace isn’t some abstract feeling or presence. This is what peace leads to; this is the cause of peace within us and others, but peace itself, and peacemaking as a practice is much more than this. Some people have unique temperaments where peace making is the way they function best with others and in relation to who God has called them to be. Peace is equated in scripture to wholeness, unity, and completeness. Shalom is the Hebrew word that is translated peace, or wellness. It is the greeting to this day that our Jewish brothers and sisters speak upon saying hello and saying goodbye. ‘Is it peace?,’ was a common phrase in the Old Testament, and the answer was often that ‘it/there was peace.’ In some ways I view shalom or peace in this sense as homeostasis, or the state of our body being in balance. IF that is peace, if it is more about balance, wholeness, and things being made right, than I wonder what that peace looks like in relationships, in workplaces, in schools and communities like Brockport, and in churches like First Presbyterian, like us?
Peacemaking can be and, in my opinion, should be something we all practice as Christians. Peacemaking as a value and as a practice is about our actions, and the way we are about making peace in the world. It is about not only speaking peace, but also about making it happen by mending relationships, creating balance, and about making things whole and complete again.
Jesus in the sermon on the mount tells us what living as a disciple looks like. He is speaking the word for blessed as if it is a completed action; that people are called blessed who do these things. It is as much a description of what will be true as it is a description of who we are becoming if we are followers of Jesus. We are blessed already, and we will be blessed when we do these things. Peacemaking is in that list, and so is mercy, and so are many other important values and actions. Jesus believes it is important, and believes that if we are to be disciples living into the kingdom of God which is one of shalom, that peacemaking is something that will constitute this kingdom.
The Isaiah passage speaks to peace and what shalom looks like without necessarily mentioning it. Revelation speaks of this too when it speaks about a new heaven and new earth. What these passages are speaking of is the wholeness, the restoration, the return to balance, but also wellness within all of creation. Peace and wellness for all relationships between God and people, people with each other, and the rest of creation with people and God. Isaiah 2 in many ways was the judgment day or end time picture for Judaism, much like the book of Revelation and in particular chapter 21 is for Christians. Both speak to the kind of transformation and change that will occur when God has made peace with sin, and brokenness, and has restored all things to what they were originally created to be.
So why talk about peacemaking now, if it seems to be only something that will happen one day? Why talk about making things right, and whole, and balanced and even fair? Why talk about inner peace within ourselves and those around us? Because Jesus Christ has come and has made peace a reality. Jesus’ life death and resurrection creates inner peace within us, as we are made right and whole now. With the coming of Jesus there is healing, restoration, a breaking down of barriers that once divided us, and a new way of living. When we accept Christ as our savior we even sense this peace within ourselves.
Since Jesus has brought this peace already, it stands that we should be about peace as well. Living into this value will mean that we are living as those at peace, and living as those who continue to be about shalom and wholeness being a reality for all. When there isn’t peace, when there is strife and war, and when there is enmity between people groups we get involved. We sometimes need to disrupt the waters in order to make peace. I have been careful to say make peace, because our tendency is to keep the peace. Keeping the peace is not what we should be about. Keeping the peace is about maintaining status, or about keeping people appeased. Making peace is about ensuring there is true wholeness, true wellness, and that things are being made right. In this sense peacemaking and reconciliation really go hand in hand.
Shalom/ peacemaking is about wholeness, and I believe that means that we must be about wholeness as well. Part of our inner peace, and feeling that peace around those people we know and love, is viewing ourselves as whole people and viewing other people in the same way. We accept people wholly, we love them as whole people, and we recognize that peacemaking means valuing complete people as they are. We are diverse as a species and with that comes a diversity of race, culture, sexual and gender identities, as well as varying languages, customs, and traditions. We must make peace happen in each of these areas by allowing people to be themselves as whole people. From there we must address the inequality that we have created by oppressing or excluding people because they are different from us. We must have a vision for the whole picture.
God sees the whole picture, God created us good and intends to make things good again, at peace again, back with full shalom as it was in the beginning. God in Christ has begun this process, but we are still waiting for that full picture and full restoration to occur. WE have the promises here that God is about this shalom and peace to occur. We have the promise that one day all nations will stream together to God’s holy mountain, that war will be no more, that death and pain and crying will be no more.
We have this table here that makes peace with us a reality, and also is a model for us of what true shalom balance looks like. At this table we are whole people, and we are one. There is no division here, there is peace. There is no enmity here, there is peace. There is a relaxing joy that as we come to this table we are receiving God’s peace in Christ in a tangible way, and not just through the senses of sight, and sound. As whole people we touch, smell, taste, and experience the peace of God that comes through Jesus Christ dying and rising again!
Sermon Manuscript March 24, 2019
Rev. Nicholas J. Dorland
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 5:17-21,
“Full of Integrity and Wrapped in Love: Forgiveness”
I am never surer of how fragile and broken we are as humans as when I see story after story about people who can’t get along or resolve differences. We see it in history, books, movies, art, songs and even in the news daily. We continue at war with other people and other countries, and we continue to hold grudges against the people who say terrible things at the worst times, and fairly innocent things at the right time that just get under our skin. It is all too easy to be mad, feel attacked, feel like a victim, or to place blame on others. We start to tell stories about people and what they are like, and who they are, and why they act the way they do. Relationships are fragile(repeat); and broken, and for some people they become so thin that the slightest weight can cause a tremendous amount of pain and discomfort.
We are all capable of remembering old friendships that were like this. Sure, at first they were fine; we got along with our friends, shared some of the same interests and enjoyed spending time with one another. Sometimes we grow apart because of distance or life circumstances, but other times a misunderstanding happens, a large fight happens, or perception from others causes us to go our separate ways. I remember one set of friends that felt judged by me and the life I and my best friend were living. We received a letter and later had a conversation about how they were feeling. We tried to make things right, and we tried to show how we were not being judgmental and that communication is a two way street. They felt we were not friendly to other people they knew, and my best friend and I felt like we were never invited to meet these new people. This simple misunderstanding cost us a friendship, but this is rather minor compared to what goes on all around us. Rival gangs continue to perpetuate violence in our city, heroin and alcohol addictions continue to cause people to become isolated from families, and when untreated often result in what would normally be preventable deaths. Differences in practice continue to split companies, where often times rivalry ensues, other times business partners go separate ways and the local shop we love disappears. So many other things cause pain, create friction, or simply end relationships between people or groups of people.
In Ephesians Paul is reminding the church about the different distinctions and persecution they endured because they were Gentiles trying to live as Jews. About how those who called themselves the ‘circumcised’ or the Jews, continued to hold enmity with those who were ‘uncircumcised’ or the Gentile foreigners. The reason being that those who had this very outward mark on their body belonged to the Jewish faith, and to not be designated with this mark meant that you were not part of the covenant community. However, as Paul mentions time and again in the New Testament, circumcision may have served a purpose, but baptism has become the new outward sign of an inner reality. Baptism in and with water, is not a sign done for males, but also for females, and unlike circumcision can be done just about anywhere and to anyone. This new sign reflects the love and forgiveness of God.
A love that breaks down barriers and dividing walls, a forgiveness that makes even the greatest rift in relationship vanish. Paul wants them to remember that they are no longer disenfranchised, but are now one body in Jesus Christ. Christ has made peace, and has brought reconciliation!
In order to understand the divides that we face today, since we no longer deal with the divide between Jew and Gentile I look to these borrowed words from Brian Peterson: “We may feel distant from the Gentile/Jew divisions that this text declares abolished. However, we must not forget the continuing painful relationship between church and synagogue. Over the centuries the church’s side of this relationship has often violated the reconciliation claimed in this text. We also need to recognize that, despite God’s reconciling peace toward us, we have allowed other social hostilities to divide us and to cloud our view of God’s mission. In our current context, those divisions seem to revolve with particular ferocity around political parties, perspectives, and policies, and these are woven together with insidious divisions of economics, gender, and ethnicity.”
This isn’t anything new for any of us. We know of the great tensions in our country with several of these latter mentioned topics. Our country now finds itself in a particular time where tensions seem the highest in political parties. Not to mention the differences of how to continue as a country among other developed countries in the world. Many churches and denominations find themselves in hostile debate about who is welcome in the church and whether full inclusion of people with different gender or sexual identities is allowable in the church. Just think about the United Methodist Church a few weeks ago at their General Conference deciding to stick to a traditional view of marriage and sexuality. This means that many UMC members and clergy are having to deal with the pain of this decision. Only time will tell for them, and for other denominations in our country whether further fracture and divide will occur due to these differences.
I have included the scripture from 2 Corinthians because I feel that it tells exactly what reconciliation looks like in terms of our relationship with God. (read from 2 Corinthians passage). The key section of this comes in these words, “…in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” For us to be forgiven and reconciled with God, or maybe easier put, for us to have right relationship with God we had to have our sins not be counted against us. It is also pertinent that the reconciling happens between the world and God. God’s forgiveness extends beyond just us as humans, God in Christ is making peace, forgiving our sins, and making right relationship with all of creation.
Likewise in our Ephesians passage the author talks about how Christ has brought down the distinctions and dividing walls. Forgiveness is about not holding people’s past against them, but it is more active than even that. It also means finding a way to have relationship even when we have differences, distinctions, and have put up our own walls of division. Christ has broken them down, and God has made all relationships right, but we continue to break them, and put up walls.
So where does this leave us today in our own world? We have mediators, conflict resolution specialists, lawyers, pastors, and friends all with training to bring about reconciliation or peaceful separation. As I said in the beginning our relationships in our world are extremely fragile today.
We can start by forgiving people nearest to us for the small things that they do that pester us, bother us, or just made us have an off day. I think that is step one in the process of living out forgiveness. For me personally the next step is to ensure I am not putting up walls or divisions where God has broken them down. From there it moves on to actively seeking out reconciliation with appropriate recognition from the parties involved of where the break down in relationship occurred and how each side contributed.
Of course this work is hard, and of course it does not often happen. In some situations I would say that forgiveness can happen, but reconciliation cannot or should not happen. I think of the recent shooting in New Zealand as an example of this, but I also think of rape victims. Certainly forgiveness can happen in these instances, but I don’t believe reconciliation would be good, wise, or even thought of as an option. This is where we become discerning.
As a church I believe this would mean that we value forgiveness and reconciliation among one another. When we have disputes we would work towards both. I think it would go one step further as a church where as a value it would mean that we are pursuing peace and making sure divisiveness are not something we practice, and not something we would want perpetuated in the world as well. We would be about making sure our community sees us as forgiving, and we would make amends where we could. We would be a safe place where people who have been hurt, can find the space, and more importantly the God who teaches us to forgive. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians we would carry out the word and work of reconciliation, and be like ambassadors for Jesus who continues to be about forgiving all people. We would be ambassadors for the world, because God in Christ is reconciling the world to God. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen!
March 17, 2019
Rev. Nicholas J. Dorland
Scripture: Micah 6:1-8, Amos 5, James 1:26-27
“Full of Integrity and Wrapped in Love: Justice-seeking”
Last weeks value was about listening well, and about telling the best possible story. When we listen to another’s story we are invited into the meaning they have made about a specific situation. For Joseph’s story the meaning we often make is that one side is a villain and the other side is a victim. I think both sides of story telling are important and so I may have lost some of you last week as I chose to speak more to how we tell stories than how we listen to those stories. I do believe that most of you got the point I was trying to make, which was that the way we tell our story as a church, and the way we listen to our own stories and meaning making the more we understand how we are being perceived by others. I told stories of two churches responding to an event where they had unexpected guests. Each church told their story differently. If we have a way of telling stories as a church or as individuals it may end up changing how we speak and also how we listen. So, our first value is about listening, and particularly-- listening for the best possible stories we tell about our church.
This week I want to gift you another biblically based value that might be helpful for you personally, but certainly could be something we value and live out as a church. It is the longstanding value of seeking out justice, or making ways for justice to happen. For something to be ‘just’ means that it is right, according to the law, or the way things should be. For some people justice means equality, and for others it further means equity.
It could be equated with fairness, or compassion for those who are on the fringes of society as is alluded to in scripture with prophets speaking about the orphans and widows in Jewish life, who are always pushed to the side. The concept of seeking justice makes it sound like we have to look for it, like it is hard to find, elusive, or that it actually can be found and when it is will make all the difference.
Our passage in Micah chapter 6 always strikes me as a summary of what the prophets in general are always trying to say from God to the people. Here the people are questioning God’s expectations for them as the covenant people of God. God reminds them of the saving acts that have been done for them, and so their response is to ask about what specific worship practices will be accepted. God through the prophet is calling into question the Israelites relationship with God and with one another. This is what God is always addressing with the prophets: the people’s relationship to God and one another. The people through the prophets are always wondering why it went wrong, and what they need to do differently. Micah’s chapter here lays it all out for us.
So then verse 8 hits us square between the eyes as it says with a depth of clarity that God has already told us what must be done for this relationship. God has saved us, God has cared for us, and what does God require for us to live in response to that? To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. I love how one commentator summarizes this. Terrance Fretheim says this: “The orientation toward both neighbor and God is clear. In effect, give yourself on behalf of others, particularly those who are needy, by doing justice and loving kindness (“steadfast love”). At the same time, walk humbly (or attentively) with your God. The “walk” with God (4:2; see Deuteronomy 26:17; 28:9) has to do with life’s journey and the shape thereof.
That God’s call for action on behalf of the less fortunate is joined with the call to journey with God is important; the one will deeply affect the other. This text is similar to Jesus’ combination of two other Old Testament texts (Mark 12:28-31): Love your God and your neighbor as yourself (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18).”
What this means for all of us is that doing justice, and acting compassionately, and being humble as we journey with God are not optional. The people hear back from God through the prophet that the expectation for them is that they treat people with equality, that they love one another and God, and that they seek to be humble as they do so.
There are some expectations by way of responding to the grace God has bestowed on us. I believe this means that the church universal should be about seeking out justice. Many of you know about the shooting at a mosque in New Zealand just a few days ago. Part of being God’s people and seeking justice means we do not sit idly by when things like this happen. It means we speak out, we refuse to be silent about what matters most. We stand up and we speak for people who cannot, or who are not normally listened to. We stand with our Muslim brothers and sisters and we grieve with them at such a tragedy.
For me justice seeking comes from a place of passion within me, so maybe that is the place to look for it within yourself as well. It means anytime someone is being bullied and I am around, I am going to speak up about it. ( I was bullied as a child) It means anytime children are treated with disdain, disrespect, or worse with abuse I am going to stand up for them. (I was abused as a child)
It means that whenever I see women, children, people of different races, ethnicities, or socioeconomic backgrounds and they are not being treated right, that I have an obligation as an image bearer among these other image bearers to say that this is not what God intends.
I am not calling all of us to be activists, but I am calling all of us to value justice for what it brings about, and that is dignity and love for other people that God has created. Valuing justice seeking as a church will mean that we ensure safety for people in and out of these four walls. It will mean feeding those who are hungry, caring for widows or widowers, it will mean dismantling systems whereby people are looked over. It will mean ensuring people within these walls are receiving adequate care, are not being abused, and feel that they can be the whole, good, and beloved people that God made them to be. So if we embrace justice seeking as a value this is what it will look like.
James chapter 1 verse 27 says that ‘pure and undefiled religion is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Amos chapter 5 calls for ‘justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.’ If we embrace justice seeking it will be like those images of water; it will continue to roll on like water does, it will be ever flowing. I believe that this is a huge part of how we live out our mission statements second and third statements ‘to love others and to serve the world,’ and as part of our vision statement it fulfills us ‘shining as a light of hope for the world.’
As I said with all of these values last week, we must ensure we do this full of integrity and wrap it all in love. If we seek justice for a moment and then decide not to do it anymore, either we lack integrity, or we feel that this value isn’t as important as we once thought. If we seek to do justice, but do it mean spirited, without compassion, love, and dignity for all people we will be unlike Christ to say the least, but also may come across as bullies for our good causes. We could be all about making sure battered women receive the care and support they need, but if we are matching the violence they have received to those who have inflicted it we are defeating the whole purpose.
As we continue in this series we will look at the values of forgiving and reconciling, making peace and shalom, and humility. I believe that all of these are good values to get us thinking about who we should be as a church. I believe that as you look at your own life you will be able to discern your own core values as well. One of the most helpful things I have done for my own spiritual direction as a Christian was to get really clear about my values. These are a path forward for me, guiding me towards a more Christlike life. As I strive to live into my core values I have accountability, and I have grounding when life gets overwhelming. We all have a little mantra or self talk we use to reorient our lives.
I hope that as we journey further into this work you find greater direction for your own life as followers of Christ. I am happy to meet with any of you if you want to know more about this work, and try out some exercises to figure out your own values. I love to counsel, and to give spiritual direction, so take me up on the offer! My prayer is that these values will give us all some healthy self-talk and accountability to measure who we say we are, compared with what we live out as we interact with other people.
We may say we want to love God, love others, and serve the world in our mission statement, but if we value being bitter about old wounds we may never find the capacity to love. Let us instead seek out these values much like I mentioned seeking out justice. Let’s seek out our values because they are somewhat elusive, need to be found, and actually can be found if we are willing to look for them. When we do our values, and hopefully that will include this important one of justice seeking, will make all the difference in the world. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen
March 10, 2019
Rev. Nicholas J. Dorland
Scripture: Genesis 37:1-24
“Full of Integrity and Wrapped in Love: Believe the Best”
I want to illustrate for you two ways to tell a story about a church just like this one.
Kings Baptist held a churchwide sing along for many years, and it was such a fun event that they continued to do it year after year. Everyone in the church was encouraged to bring their favorite hymns and come sing. They held this event on a Thursday evening and generally speaking it was just church members with a few family and friends of members who would stop in to share some of their favorite hymns as well. One-year Kings Church decided to open the doors to the community and allow others into their church wide sing along that happens just once a year every fall right after kids head back to school. Invites were sent to the school and were handed out in classrooms. The hopes were that maybe some families would show up and join the church. To the surprise of many; the whole 4th grade choir showed up to join in the sing along. The next council meeting Daisy, an elder in the church spoke up: “I just cannot believe that we had so many people here! This always used to be just a church event. Having all these other people here was terrible. Someone brought in juice and spilled it all over the floor and we had to clean it up. I don’t think we should invite anyone from the community ever again. This should go back to just being a church wide sing along.”
Hear is another story of a similar church:
First United Church in Springfield likewise held an annual event as part of the church’s outreach to the community. They were known for the best Chili and Cornbread cookout among the town’s ecumenical organization. They likewise decided to stretch themselves and invited people from the community who they thought might not have heard about this wonderful meal that was all donated food items and only cost $2 a person. They had many new people that came, and who didn’t know about this small church in Springfield. Their whole church couldn’t stop talking about how great it was to see so many new faces. One family that didn’t know about the church ended up realizing that their best friends were members there and decided to start attending. The minister of 20 years, who helped organize the first cook off commented: “I have never seen so many people in this congregation get so excited about anything! I had people telling me that they wanted to call their neighbors and work colleagues because it just seemed like something everyone should be a part of. Next year this same person suggested that we do it two separate times in the year because it was so great to see people from the community coming together, eating together, and being able to make connections with our church.”
The way that we tell our stories changes the way we feel about them. I believe this church is more like the second of these two stories, but I wonder how we tell stories to one another? I wonder what value there is as a church community to telling the best story possible? So as I start a new sermon series about personal and church values I am starting here for a very specific reason. We all have multiple stories that have influenced our lives. Not only that we have told stories about situations and believed other peoples stories without asking ourselves if this is the best possible story that could be told?
Have we told a story in such a way created a meaning such that a person, or a group of people are seen as somehow in the wrong, or as villains, or that we are somehow the heroes or victims in these stories.
There are many people in scripture who are made out to be villains. Joseph is certainly one of those characters, at least at first, but like many of the characters in scripture that this is true of, it doesn’t mean they are doing anything wrong or sinful. Joseph in our passage today is seen as a villain by some of his brothers, who in turn trick him, push him into a pit, and sell him whereby he will consequently end up in Egypt many miles from home. Joseph quickly switches from a villain to a victim, and from there will be quickly made a villain again and thrown in prison. The story could be true that his brothers are telling. The meaning they are making could be a true interpretation of his dreams.
I don’t believe that it is, or that it is supported to make him a villain given what we read in the story. Likewise I believe in our own lives, we often make ourselves victims and other people villains in order to justify how we feel. If we can remember to tell the best possible story given what we know, and avoid naming anyone as victim or villain we can get a fuller picture of what is going on. If we can do this good meaningful work of listening well I believe we will find a value worth keeping. The value I am talking about is listening well, and it comes by believing the best possible story about others.
Truth be told we don’t know all the details behind many stories including this one about Joseph, so to jump to conclusions is dangerous to say the least, and extremely unfair and judgmental to say the most.
We don’t know the many years of history of the brothers of Joseph, all born to Israel through concubines, and so not even full brothers to Joseph and later Benjamin. Our story starts with the favoritism of Joseph to paint a picture
You could name the favoritism shown by Israel the father, or the fact they are only half brothers and would not receive as much inheritance as Joseph. You could tell the story in such a way that Joseph becomes a villain, as long as you side with the other brothers who feel like victims or second best.
Another thing we don’t know is what Joseph was like before this. Has he had dreams before, has he had a good relationship before this with his brothers? We are left to draw the conclusion that the brothers story is the true one. Joseph never once interprets his dreams to his brothers. This part is important.
So what would it look like to tell the best possible story here? Well for starters I think it would be to avoid victim and villain stories. Joseph is neither a victim or villain, the brothers are neither victims or villains. Israel is neither a victim or villain. What facts do we know? We know that Joseph was legitimate. We know that Israel loved Joseph more than the other brothers. We don’t know if this was exhibited up until this point. We know that Israel gave Joseph a unique coat with long sleeves as a gift. We know that the brothers hatred was real and was directed at Joseph. Joseph told his dreams to his brothers and father. Their hatred grew. Joseph went out to meet his brothers. His brothers threw him into a pit and did so because of his dreams. His brothers sold him to some travelers, and then framed his death with his coat and some animal blood. Reuben tried to rescue Joseph but was not able to.
The best possible story I could tell is that the brothers had hatred for Joseph because they knew about inheritance traditions. This created jealousy within them, which led to anger and resentment. This anger and resentment grew when the coat was given to Joseph, and it grew again when they began interpreting his dreams for him. Since dreams were believed to come true in ancient Jewish culture the brothers believed that they were right in their actions. Since their anger and resentment was so great they were clouded in judgment, with exception of Reuben who talked them out of killing Joseph. Joseph himself was unaware of the anger and resentment his brothers had. He was extremely trusting. He trusted his brothers enough to share his dreams with, wondering what they might mean. He did not intend the interpretation that they made for his dreams. He knew he was favored by his father, but did not ever try and make things fair for his brothers. Joseph never let on that he believed the interpretation from his brothers was correct, and still never shared his own interpretation in the story at all. We as the readers are left to fill in the blanks, and given the facts it becomes all too easy to side with the brothers.
When we refuse to make someone a villain, we are left with dealing with the facts of a situation. Crucial Conversations, a book and communication tool that utilizes this terminology and strategy then moves us to asking a very large and important question: Why would a normal, rational individual say or do what they just said/did?
This reframing helps us especially in the moment of listening to think about how we are reacting and how others are reacting to an event, a situation, or a difficult conversation.
Think about our first two stories about the different churches with unexpected guests at an event. The stories are told in two different ways, but the details are almost exactly the same with the content/type of the event being all that is different. One church tells a story that this is the worst thing that could happen, seemingly because there was a bit of extra mess to clean up and a felt loss of specialness because other people were invited. The second story paints a picture of a successful event that met its desired impact which was to reach out to people who don’t normally make it to the event. Both churches had the same hope and desired impact in wanting people in the community to experience their event and know about it and the church community. One story makes meaning out of the facts of lost specialness and spilled juice, whereas the other story speaks of the excitement and connections that were made relationally.
I wonder what might have been different if the question was asked: why would a normal rational person have done/said what that person said/did for both the person who spilled the juice and the elder who felt the loss of community? How might the story be different if there were no victims or villains? How might the story change to become the best possible story and still have the facts that juice did get spilled and many felt a loss that they weren’t doing it as just a church community any longer?
I believe this is the difference between listening well, but also the difference in reacting and responding well. Perhaps the greater value in all of this is having good communication or maybe even assessing how we wish to respond to others.
As a church I am happy to say that I see responses far more like the made up First united church of Springfield whereby we do tell the best possible story. I am also wondering how each of us individually feels about this value. One of my mantras or repetitions throughout this series is going to be what the sermon title is. That with every value we seek to live out individually, as well as those we will decide are right for our church community to live into, that we live out those values ‘full of integrity and wrapped in love.’ So in this instance how are we living with full integrity as we listen, communicate, tell the best possible story, or respond to others? Are we making sure that we live out this value of listening well and responding well by making sure it is all wrapped in love?
I hope that as we look back on the story of Joseph, we will begin to understand how continuing to value anger and resentment for the brothers ended up creating a story for them of needing to hurt, sell, or kill one of their brothers! By continuing to tell victim and villain stories for them it resulted in drastic results, and for us as readers to continue to view Joseph in the brothers’ regard pulls us into that way of telling Josephs story. Likewise, to make Joseph a victim and not express that he could have intervened and had conversation with his brothers and father, continues to perpetuate a story whereby Joseph gets off as oblivious. We can all too easily get pulled into other people’s stories, and if we are ensuring integrity and love as we live out a value of listening and responding well I believe we will be able to resist that pull. I believe we will begin to ask that question more and more about why a reasonable and rational person would say, do, or respond the way that they just did. I hope that by doing so we would then move to greater love, greater understanding, and greater curiosity about the full story of someone’s life.
I believe God looks at us with the same curiosity, wondering what stories we have been believing or telling ourselves, and what stories we have been dragged into. I believe God; full of integrity and always wrapping us in love; understands our hurts and wonders what stories are keeping us from seeing the best possible story. For God to investigate our lives and wonder about our stories means that God cares for us enough to remind us that the best possible story for any of us is that we are not too far gone, too broken, too angry, or too favored to receive love, mercy and forgiveness. God invites us to tell the best possible story about others, because God has done the same for us, by sending Jesus to wrap us in Christ’s loving arms and let the story of death and resurrection be our story. This is the good news, and therefore we must value listening and responding well. We are part of the best possible story already. Amen!