Tuesday, August 21, 2012

theology tuesday

Gulp.  It's time to bite the bullet.  As I have made nauseatingly abundantly clear, I am a pastor.  I am ordained as an elder in the United Methodist Church.  I have been preaching on a regular basis for six years.  I have never preached *every* Sunday (and thank God, because I don't know I have the discipline for it!), but I have probably preached in excess of 50 times altogether. 

I have hesitated to post my sermons here for a number of reasons.  For one, a sermon is not meant to be read by the eyes.  It is meant to be spoken and comprehended by listening.  As a creative writer, it bugs me that many of my sermons are not my best pieces of writing.  But they shouldn't be.  They should be my best pieces of speech communication.  So my sermon manuscripts are full of repetition, symbols that indicate gesture and nuance, and sentence fragments that lend themselves better to the spoken word.

Second, there is something very scary in preaching.  When I bring the message, my words are not my own.  There is a transaction that is managed by the Holy Spirit.  Frequently, when shaking hands on their way out of the service, congregants will say that the sermon spoke to them in this way or that way.  Most of the time, what touched them is not what I meant to say.  The words that I spoke were translated by the Spirit into something that met something else in their heart.  And this is fine.  This is the nature of a sermon.  It is a singular type of communication - not quite persuasive speech, not quite lecture. 

Third, over time, I have begun to be so wary about what I put down in writing.  Emails, text messages, documents - these things can be hauled out, pointed to, and made to mean things that they don't.  Sensitive discussions are so much better in person.  Not just because of the potential for misunderstanding, but because of the impact that face-to-face communication has for our souls (and even more in this day of virtual lives). 

Fourth, sermons are not written generically.  Because they are a transaction, they are written with an audience in mind.  I picture these people as I write.  I picture the woman who told me about her daughter's experience of abuse at the hands of her mom's boyfriend.  I think about the man who has lost his wife and totally unmoored without her.  I think about how my words will hurt or help them.  Of course, there are unknown elements.  There will be visitors and situations I don't have knowledge of.  But it's worrisome to put those words that are so much intended for a certain group of people out into the ether, unsure of what orbit they will take.

But.  There has been a small voice nagging at me.  It says, Emily, post the sermons.  You can perhaps bring a word to someone out there.  You can be held accountable if anything you wrote was irresponsible.

So that's that.  I will bring you my sermons on Theology Tuesdays.  Please be merciful and recognize that these are not pieces of academic writing.  Here's one from Genesis, written for the tenth anniversary of the WTC attack.

The Recognition of Joseph by His Brothers, Peter von Cornelius, 1816-1817.
Genesis 50:15-21
Well, you don’t need me to remind you what today is.  The media has inundated us with reminders of that horrible day back in 2001.  Our memories of the towers crashing to the ground and a plane going into the Pentagon have been dredged up, and it is unsettling – to say the least.  That was a day that will stand out as a marker of a generation, like the bombing of Pearl Harbor, or the assassination of Kennedy.  It may be trite to share our recollections of where we were on that day, but allow me to tell you about my September 11, 2001.

I was a senior in high school.  School had only just started a few weeks before, and I had an independent study during our first hour.  As I was walking out of the bathroom, I ran into Karen, a girl I knew from marching band.  She had a wild look in her eye, and she said, “Do you know what’s happening?  They’ve flown a plane into a building in New York.”  I had no idea what she was talking about.  I quickly made my way down to our media room, where giant televisions gave me a terrible view of the second tower falling.  Second hour was chemistry, and Mr. Mosley called class off and we all listened to the radio together.  He recounted the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and how his father had gone off to war.  Fourth hour was choir, and Ms. Bushouse told us about the day that Kennedy had been killed.  She reminded us to remember this day forever.  In sixth hour, which was band, we said the pledge of allegiance together.  I don’t think I’d recited the pledge of allegiance since elementary school, but it seemed like a very important thing to do at the time.  That evening, I sat in my driveway and watched the sun set, offering my prayers for those who had died and also for peace for the nations. 

Why do I tell you about all of this?  Well, bear with me, and I will try to explain.

Today we hear the final installment of the long saga of Joseph and his brothers.  I’ll do a quick recap of the drama:  Joseph’s father had given him a beautiful multi-colored coat, which made his eleven brothers jealous because they thought he was the favorite.  They set out to kill Joseph, but instead sold him into slavery.  As a slave, Joseph was taken to Egypt, where he was accused of assaulting a palace guard’s wife.  He was thrown in jail, and was only saved by his ability to interpret dreams.  By interpreting the pharaoh’s dreams, he was freed from prison and saved the nation of Egypt from a huge famine.  By the time we get to today’s scene, Joseph is very successful and renowned throughout Egypt.  He is among the favorites of the pharaoh and has great influence.  He is in charge of doling out the grain the Egyptians saved back and are selling at high prices to the starving people who come to them. 

Joseph’s brothers are rightly afraid that Joseph won’t help them, because they have been anything but kind to him.  So, when they approach him, they offer what they think is a fair trade:  they will be Joseph’s slaves if he will give them food.  After all, they sold him into slavery, so he should have the right to treat them in the same way.  Joseph’s response is curious.  He tells them that he is not in the place of God.  He also tells them that God made into good what they had intended for evil.  I think we today have much to learn from Joseph’s response to his brothers. 

First of all, we have to acknowledge that we are not in the place of God.  Forgiveness is only possible if God works it in us.  Notice that Joseph never says that he forgives his brothers.  He only says that he isn’t God, and goes on to help them.  Sometimes we hold forgiveness as a weapon over others, but it is really only God’s to give or take away.  God is endlessly forgiving, and is the only one who can empower us to forgive one another. 

 Second, Joseph refuses to engage in his brothers’ justice of reciprocity.  Remember, they had figured that they would offer themselves as Joseph’s slaves, since they had sold him into slavery.  But Joseph won’t see tit-for-tat in this way.  Joseph, rather, engages in justice by kindness.  Again, he leaves the judgment to God, and offers only good things to his brothers.

 So, how can we apply these lessons from our Scripture to our lives ten years after the horrible tragedy of the bombing of the twin towers?  We must, first and foremost, always remember that we are not in the place of God.  Justice and forgiveness are matters that God must work.  We need only to make ourselves available to the working of God’s spirit.  Joseph was able to see beyond revenge.  After all, he was letting God’s mercy work on those who had tried to kill him.  Are we able to do the same today?  Are we able to leave the work of God for God to accomplish?  Or do we long for justice and retribution worked at our own hands? 

 And are we able to follow Joseph’s lesson in justice?  Do we long for the same to be done to those who tried to hurt us?  Or do we offer kindness?  This can seem impossible.  It can seem almost disrespectful to the memory of those who died.  But it isn’t.  Those who died on that day surely have the perfect knowledge that none of us will have until we enter into God’s presence. 

 Joseph also said that, although his brothers had intended to do him evil, God had made it into good.  After all, he was now a prosperous official in Egypt who had avoided a terrible famine – and this was all due to his brothers’ trying to kill him!  And so God still tries to make good out of what evil we humans do to each other.  We have schools for girls in Afghanistan now, because of the horrible wars that came out of that horrible day in 2001.  There is some good out there.  God is still at work in the world.
And that is why I wanted to tell you the story of what happened in my life on September 11, 2001.  Because good came out of it.  I heard the stories and struggles of those important teachers in my life.  I heard about Pearl Harbor and I asked my mom for the first time about what had happened on the day Kennedy died.  Knowledge was passed down from generation to generation, because of the evil that had occurred. 

 So, I challenge each of us today to be optimists.  What good do we see floating out of the ashes of these evil acts?  How will we allow God to work in our lives?  Can we ask God to give us the ability to forgive?  And can we engage in justice by kindness, rather than justice through reciprocity? 

These are difficult questions.  They represent the work of a lifetime, not of a single morning’s sermon.  But they are the questions that we must use to shape our world after an event like the bombing of the twin towers.  They are what will make the shape of our new world a better one.  This is the word of God for this morning, thanks be to God. 

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