Archive for July 2016

Genesis 18:20-33 7/24/16 Epiphany, Norfolk

Our 1st Reading this morning, from the Book of Genesis, is one of those great Old Testament stories that’s too good to pass up for a homily. I’ve preached on it before, and I’ll probably preach on it again. It’s one of my favorites.

First, we need to understand that the text has some problems. It is an old story, and it has been rewritten and re-translated so many times, that parts of it don’t make sense. But there’s still enough there to make it a wonderful story.

Let me recap it for you. Word has come to God that things are pretty bad in the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah. So, God decides to personally visit Sodom and Gomorrah and see for himself. And God pledges that if things are as bad as God has been hearing, then everything in the two towns will be destroyed. Well, Abraham doesn’t like that idea. Abraham has a concern for those in the towns who are righteous – in other words, still in a “right relationship” with God. So Abraham approaches God and begins trying to strike a deal with God. “Suppose there are 50 good people within the city. Will you still destroy the whole place?” And he makes a pretty good argument. Why should the good have to suffer for the bad? And God thinks about this a little, and God decides that if there are 50 righteous people, God will spare the town. So, Abraham goes the next step: What about 45? God says “O.K.” Then 40. Then 30, 20, and finally 10. God finally agrees that if there are 10 righteous people, God will spare the two towns. And both Abraham and God are satisfied, and go about their business.

Now, the Jews would have really loved this story, because it’s a big part of their culture to haggle and bargain. They would have liked the way Abraham and God worked this out and struck a deal. Abraham really worked God down, and the Jews would have admired that. They also would have admired the fact that God was willing to “give.” This would have really spoken to the Jewish culture.

Well, before I go too far, we need to look at the background to this story. Remember that in Old Testament times, there was a Northern Kingdom (Israel) and a Southern Kingdom (Judah). The Northern Kingdom referred to God as “Elohim”, and the Southern Kingdom referred to God as “Yahweh.” They also understood God differently. In the Northern Kingdom, they saw God as mystical, hiding in smoke and clouds, speaking out of fire and whirlwinds, and things like that. In the Northern Kingdom, God did “magical things.” In the Southern Kingdom, they saw God as very humanlike. We call it “anthropomorphic.” For the Southerner, God walked in the Garden with Adam and Eve, and talked to them. And here, God visits and argues with Abraham. So, this story is from the Southern Kingdom, and God is seen as very “human like.”

Well, how about Sodom and Gomorrah? Those two towns really did exist, and they existed in the Southern Kingdom. They were south of the Dead Sea, which was not as large as it is, today – although it has shrunk in recent years. Just south of the Dead Sea there were 5 small cities, including Sodom and Gomorrah. They were in a valley, called the Siddin Valley. Now, the Siddin Valley would have been very fertile, and a really nice place to live. But archaeologists tell us that there was a major earthquake in the region, and the Dead Sea either overflowed its banks, or the Siddin Valley sank and allowed the Dead Sea to over wash it. Either way, the Siddin Valley, including Sodom and Gomorrah, ended up under the Dead Sea. Don’t forget that the Dead Sea today is over 1,000 feet below sea level, which makes it the lowest dry land on earth. So, there’s been a lot of sinking and eroding going on there for a long time, coupled with a lot of earthquakes.

Now, if we are going to be good Biblical Scholars, we have to face something with a story like this. And that “something” is, that there are at least two perfectly valid understandings of the story. One would be “exactly like it’s written” – that God got angry, caused the earthquake, and destroyed the cities. That is a valid and Biblical understanding of the story.

The other would be, that the oral lore of prehistoric times, told of the destruction of these five towns, and the devastation to the area. And many, many generations later, as the writers in the Southern Kingdom were writing their understanding of their History with God, they recalled this ancient event, and made up this story to explain the earthquake and the destruction of the towns. Most Biblical scholars follow the second understanding. And we refer to this as “reading back”, and writing a story to explain a historical event from the past. But don’t ever get caught in an argument between these two ways of understanding a Bible story. You can’t win, because both are valid.

Well, let’s get back to our story of Abraham haggling with God. I can really identify with this story, because I do the same thing, all the time. I’ve told you before that I argue a lot with God, and I really do. I’ve also admitted that I try to strike deals with God, and I really do. And sometimes I feel real stupid about it. I do it a lot, and I’ll bet you do, too. And the truth is, at least in the Bible, God doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, in the Bible, God seems to enjoy striking deals with mankind. Over and over again, like our story this morning, God responds rather positively to our efforts to strike a deal. I can’t think of one instance in the Bible where God strikes down, or becomes angry, when someone tries to negotiate a deal.

So, why doesn’t it always work out when we bargain with God? Well, we have to take the whole Biblical Narrative in context when we’re trying to understand God.

We need to remember that the Biblical understanding is that God does not alter or reverse history. When we make a mistake, or create a mess, God is not going to step in and “rewind history” for us. When a course of events is in motion, God will hold our hand through it, but God will not let us go back and start over. One of the great Old Testament themes is that God does not alter history.

That is one reason that Jesus had to die on the cross. History was in motion, and God could not alter it. But God could correct it with the resurrection.

Well, what does God do? First, God gives us another chance. We’re not destroyed by our mistakes, our imperfections. God lets us go on with our lives, learn from our mistakes, and try to do better – next time. Secondly, God opens up new possibilities for us, new opportunities, new insights, new understandings – things we didn’t see before. No, I didn’t get that new job, but I see some things that need doing in the old job. No, the relationship did not work out, but I see ways to move on with my life in new and positive directions. God opens our eyes to see things that we didn’t see before, and then move on with our lives.

Well, to end this, I really don’t think it’s wrong to try to strike deals with God. But if we’re going to do it, we need to do it right. Don’t make reversing history a part of the deal. God won’t do that. Instead, make a second chance, or a new opportunity part of the deal. And remember poor old Abraham in today’s reading. He struck his deal – 10 righteous people and the cities would be spared. But in the end, God could only find four righteous people. Abraham had his deal with God, but it still didn’t work out. THAT happens to us, sometimes, too.

Amen.

Posted July 26, 2016 by Church of the Epiphany in Epiphany Moments

4th of July 7/3/16 Epiphany, Norfolk

Well – we’ve made it, as a nation

to another 4th of July.

And it’s really a special holiday for us.

Of course –

it celebrates our gaining our independence

from the English.

It’s especially important

to this geographical area –

because so much of it happened

right here.

St. Paul’s Church downtown –

has a canon ball in it –

shot by Lord Dunmore –

at the bombardment of Norfolk.

Troops may have walked

right through our present day churchyard.

And it’s important to our Church –

because our roots were

the Church of England.

And we came very close to dying out –

as the British were trounced –

and it became “disloyal”

to be part of the “Anglican Church” –

or the Church of England.

The celebration of freedom

from even a benevolent power –

is always a joyful remembrance.

Even though a lot of people died

in the Revolutionary War –

the results outweighed the loss of life.

We were suddenly

a fiercely free nation.

We would never be told again

what to do.

But with that freedom –

came cost.

Now that we were free –

what were we going to do

with that freedom?

We all know –

that a rudimentary government was formed –

and the tedious process began –

of determining

how we would live out our lives as a nation.

It was not all peace,

and quiet,

and happiness.

In fact –

the bickering was pretty brutal.

Strong egos had risen

to positions of power.

And they were sometimes very noisy –

and sometimes very obstructionist.

But somehow –

they put something together

that seemed to work –

for about 90 years.

Then it all fell apart.

The result was a Civil War –

or the War Between the States –

or – that wonderful Southern euphemism –

“The Great Unpleasantness.”

I still cannot believe

that as a young nation –

just about 90 years old –

we slaughtered each other –

our own people –

our own families and relatives.

Women and children would go out to the battle field

to watch their husbands and fathers –

shoot each other –

kill each other.

Then the women and children

would gather their dead

and bury them –

as best they could.

I cannot wrap my mind around –

this taking place –

right here on the land

on which our homes sit.

How could we be so stupid?

How could we let our passions

get so out of hand?

We killed 2% of our own population –

620,000 of our own people –

more Americans

than died in WWI and WWII together.

And it wasn’t terrorists.

It wasn’t Muslims.

It wasn’t Isis.

It was Ebola.

We did it to ourselves.

Well – the amazing thing to me is –

that our ancestors

somehow put it back together –

and began building

the great industrial force –

the great military power –

the great scientific brain pool –

the great world bread basket –

and probably –

one of the most stable governments

in the present world.  – –

Well – that brings us to the present.

But this year

has been a tough year

for our still young nation –

just 240 years old –

a little over 3 of my life spans.

We’ve got “hot spots” all over the world –

and there’s not a lot we can do

about most of them.

Terrorism is something

that we’re apparently

just going to have to keep living with –

and trying to outfox

when we can.

Some of the great nations around the world

are having major issues

dealing with refugees

dealing with the European Union –

dealing with labor unrest –

dealing with racial and ethnic issues.

It’s a dangerous world out there.

And then –

there’s the home front.

It looks pretty good on the surface.

The stock market is up

and doing well.

Unemployment figures

are pretty good.

The Gross National Product

is impressive.

There is food for our people –

and a significant part

of the world population.

Inflation and interest rates

are down.

More people are getting health care –

than ever before.

Not everyone –

but it’s better.

It looks pretty good.

But then there are these shootings –

individual and mass shootings –

right here on our own streets.

Our people are killing each other out there –

not just in Ferguson –

but right here in Norfolk.

EVERYONE wants “the violence to stop.”

But how do you stop it?

Do we just wait

for all the bad guys

to kill each other off?

We have a major problem.

And –

then there is congress.

Whether you’re Republican,

Democrat,

or Independent –

we all know

that Congress is not working.

Something has really got to change.

And it’s got to be through the ballot box.

But there’s something scary about that.

Just in the last week or two –

the British voted to pull out of

European Union.

I don’t know whether

it was the right decision –

or not.

But when it was announced

that a huge portion of the population

did not understand

what they were voting on –

it raised my eyebrows.

And Google announced

that the day after the voting –

the single largest query was –

“What is the European Union?”

And then they called for a “revote.”

“We didn’t know what we were doing –

so – let’s do it again.”

And this wasn’t

some crazy “back woods country.”

This was Britain.

Well – lest you think

that this a “doom and gloom homily” –

let me tell you –

I’ve traveled a significant part of the world –

not everywhere –

but a lot of places.

And there’s nowhere else I want to be.

I’ve seen some beautiful places –

like the Greek Isles.

You think I want to live in Greece?

No way.

St. Petersburg, Russia.

You think I want to be in Russia?

No way.

I could go down a long list of places –

and right here

is where I want to be.

But –

we have to be careful.

We almost destroyed ourselves from within –

once.

We can’t let it happen again.

As dangerous as this world is –

and as much harm as can be done to us

from outside –

our real danger is from within.

I want to read a portion

of our 1st Reading this morning –

from the Prophet Isaiah –

just the first sentence.

Know –

that when this was written –

Jerusalem had been laid waste –

the temple destroyed –

and the Jews were just being set free

from 70 years

of enslavement in Babylon.

“Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her,

all you who love her;

rejoice with her in joy,

all you who mourn over her –

that you may nurse and be satisfied

from her consoling breast;

that you may drink deeply with delight

from her glorious bosom.”

Those are so easily

my thoughts for our country –

this Independence Day.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

Posted July 6, 2016 by Church of the Epiphany in Epiphany Moments

%d bloggers like this: