Sunday, June 28, 2020

I am going with you -- a sermon on Genesis 46

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
I am going with you
Genesis 46.1-7, 26-27 (Common English Bible)
28 June 2020, Postcards of Faith 2

Israel packed up everything he owned and traveled to Beer-sheba. There he offered sacrifices to his father Isaacs God. God said to Israel in a vision at night, Jacob! Jacob!” and he said, Im here.” He said, I am El, your fathers God. Dont be afraid to go down to Egypt because I will make a great nation of you there. I will go down to Egypt with you, and I promise to bring you out again. Joseph will close your eyes when you die.” Then Jacob left Beer-sheba. Israels sons put their father Jacob, their children, and their wives on the wagons Pharaoh had sent to carry him. They took their livestock and their possessions that they had acquired in the land of Canaan, and arrived in Egypt, Jacob and all of his children with him. His sons and grandsons, his daughters and his granddaughters—all of his descendants he brought with him to Egypt. … All of the persons going to Egypt with Jacob—his own children, excluding Jacobs sonswives—totalled 66 persons. Josephs sons born to him in Egypt were 2 persons. Thus, all of the persons in Jacobs household going to Egypt totalled 70.

A lot has happened since last week’s reading about Abraham and Sarah pulling up stakes and moving through the land God was showing them. We’re two generations on now, and Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, is elderly himself. You might have noticed that the story goes back and forth between calling him Jacob and calling him Israel — because many years ago, when Jacob and his wives and children were traveling and were about to meet up with Esau, 20 years after Jacob had stolen Esau’s birthright and blessing, Jacob had a dream in which he wrestled all night long with a stranger…and the wrestling was so fierce and Jacob so insistent about not giving up that the stranger gave him a blessing and changed his name. Some think the stranger was God, others an angel, still others think it was Jacob wrestling himself and his inner demons…but whatever the case, it ended with Jacob being given the name Israel, which might mean “strives with God” or it might mean “God strives”. Either way, it is a name that recalls the way he refused to give up on his wrestling with God, even when the night was long and the going was tough, and that is the name that will be given to the whole community and nation of people who are descended from Jacob and his twelve sons: Israel. 

Today we have come to the culmination of a saga that is by turns heartbreaking, infuriating, confusing, wonderful, and awe-inspiring. Jacob’s son Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, but had risen to be the most powerful man in Egypt besides the Pharaoh. He used his skills, and allowed God to work through him, so that while there was a famine everywhere, Egypt still had food. After several back-and-forth visits by his brothers, some intrigue, some weeping and some rejoicing, it was time for the brothers to bring their father down to Egypt, to re-settle in new land, and most importantly, to see his favourite son, whom he had thought was dead these past many years.

And so Israel pulled up the stakes, just as his forebears had done, and began to journey by stages away from his home in the land God showed his ancestors.

The first place that Israel stopped is the place where he and Esau had grown up, with their parents Isaac and Rebekah. It’s a place that Abraham had found water, and where both Abraham and Isaac had made treaties with the local king. Jacob was now the third generation in his family to worship in that same spot. Given that God had promised to show them the land, it made sense that they would stop to worship as they proceeded to leave the land — especially since in that time and culture, gods were thought to basically live in their territory. To leave the land God had given them might also mean to leave God behind, and they would be understandably worried about that!

But our God is different. God appeared to Jacob, just as he had appeared in that same place to speak to Abraham and Isaac, to say: I am going with you.

I am going with you.

The God who wouldn’t let go of Jacob all those years ago on the riverbank, who blessed him in the struggling…
the God who sat beside him through all these years of grieving the loss of his son…
this God is going with him on this next stage of the journey, even into a foreign land.

So when it feels like we are struggling — we don’t let go, because God doesn’t let go of us. 
And when we are sitting in the valley of the shadow of death — we are not alone.
And when we are leaving behind everything familiar and heading into the unknown — God is going with us.

For all the times we have subconsciously assumed that God lives in our church buildings, or at least that God speaks loudest in a church building, now we know that God is going with us when we are outside of them, whether we are on the internet or walking through the neighbourhood or sitting in our windows looking out at the rain. 

Though the world feels different, almost foreign, like we can’t quite find our footing…God is going with us. Our God is not contained in a particular place, or a particular way of doing things, or a particular understanding or language or profession. God is determined — often more determined than we are! — to come alongside us wherever we are, to guide us to walk together on God’s path, to ensure we are never alone, no matter where we find ourselves.

Once we hear the words that Jacob heard, “I am going with you,” the question becomes: what will we do now? How will we live, knowing that God is going with us into this unknown territory? What choices, behaviours, words, actions, and relationships will demonstrate that we are walking with God even outside the church building, even outside our comfort zones of the ways we’re used to?

A lot is shifting around us. We are being asked to consider the impact our words and choices have on people we have not thought much about before. Sometimes it might feel as if everything we do is wrong, or like it’s impossible to use any words at all. Sometimes it might feel as if the world we knew is slipping away, and we feel unsteady. That’s okay! Discomfort can lead to growth, and we can learn from mistakes, if we are willing to shift and re-negotiate and make space for different people, with their different experiences. Despite the fact that we have been the definers of reality and normality for centuries, there has always been more to the story. We are being given the gift of seeing other perspectives, and it might feel like leaving our homeland and heading for Egypt…but if it does, remember: God said, “do not be afraid, I am going with you.” How might we respond to these changes in the world, knowing that God is with us all?

Our personal journeys through this pandemic experience, our church journey into the unknown future God has planned, and our cultural journey away from white supremacy and toward justice and wholeness — any of these would be anxiety-producing on their own, and we are making all three at once! So today, let’s learn from Jacob, who wrestled with God until his blessing became apparent, even though it left him limping. When Israel began this leg of his journey, pulling up the stakes and moving forward, he first went back to his old stomping grounds, a place he knew he could meet God. But it was just a pause on the journey, because when he heard the message there, he pulled up stakes again and went onward, trusting God’s promise: I am going with you. He could not stay in that place, even though it was familiar and he reliably encountered God there. It was not the place he was called to be anymore. He had to move forward, not back.

We, too, can pause at our familiar places, and seek God’s voice. We, too, will hear again the promise: I am going with you. And we, too, can journey on by stages into this unknown land, trusting God’s promise to be with us, guiding us every step of the way. We may make mistakes, it may be uncomfortable, we may long for the familiar, we may struggle to understand and incorporate new ways of thinking and being that include more people….but we are not alone. Therefore, let us live as God’s people, with our choices, words, and relationships reflecting that grace.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Pull up the stakes -- a sermon on Genesis 12

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Pull up the stakes
Genesis 12.1-9 (NRSV)
21 June 2020, Postcards of Faith 1

Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’
So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. And Abram journeyed on by stages towards the Negeb.

This summer we are going on a church family holiday — though we can’t physically go away this year, we can still travel spiritually! And we can still tend our physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing along the way. Members of the church have been walking, running, cycling, praying, reading scripture, and serving others to move us along this journey. Adding up every kilometre we’ve moved our bodies, and every ten minutes we’ve spent nurturing our relationship with God and God’s people, we’ve already managed to get ourselves to the border between Hungary and Romania! 

I don’t know about you, but whenever I plan to travel to a new place, I like to look things up to see what to expect. So I spent a few minutes looking into what sorts of food we might eat in Romania — cabbage rolls are apparently very popular. I looked at the satellite images and saw a lot of farm fields. I looked at pictures of the architecture of the villages near the border and saw beautiful, colourful, old churches and homes. I looked at photos of the national park that we would be passing through right now if we were walking the journey in person, and marvelled at how much it looked like the Cairngorms. I’ve never been to Romania before, and everything I knew about it really came from watching gymnastics competitions, so it was an interesting place to learn a little bit about! 

When God spoke to Abram and Sarai and told them to go on this journey, leaving their country, their birthplace, their family home in order to be a blessing to those they meet, to the community, to the whole world…they didn’t get a chance to google first. They didn’t ask for more information, or for photos of where they were going, they just packed up everything and went.

And we do mean they packed up everything! Clothes, bedding, cooking utensils, work tools, animals, people, and even their tents. They left behind the place they had known their whole lives, and their parents and siblings and cousins, taking only their nephew whose father had died tragically young. Off they went, not really knowing where they were going, or how long it would take, or what it would be like when they arrived. 

In every place they went, they would rebuild their home: pitch tents, lay out bedding, set up a kitchen, pasture the animals, and build an altar. And when it was time to move on, they packed it all up again. This week, I learned that the original Hebrew doesn’t say “moved on” but rather literally “pulled up stakes.” They pulled up stakes and went to the next place. It’s a reminder of just how much work we’re talking about for this journey into the unknown: they have to physically and emotionally uproot their home in order to follow where God is leading them. Each time, perhaps they wonder if this is it…they pound the stakes into the ground…and then after a while, pull them up again. That’s what it means to journey on by stages, to put the stakes in, and then take them out. To build a village of tents, and then fold all that canvas again and tie it to a donkey or a camel. To unpack jars and pots, and then carefully roll them in blankets and pack them up so they won’t break along the way. To set up a spinning wheel and loom and make new clothes and bedding and tents, and then put them away again. To set up an altar and meet God there…and then to leave the altar behind as a witness to the encounter between human and divine.

You would definitely learn to live with only the essentials!

I wonder if there is something for us to learn, though many of us have lived in the same place, or even the same house, for years. Not necessarily about our material things, though that always bears thinking about. But today I’m wondering more about our metaphorical journey through this time. We’ve been called out from our comfortable place, and we don’t really know where we are going. We packed up everything and moved into the unknown world of online worship, virtual afternoon tea, and connecting without seeing each other. The “new normal” is still ahead of us and we aren’t sure what it will be like…all we can do is trust that God will show us, just as God promised to show Abram and Sarai their new homeland.

I wonder, though, if when they pulled up the stakes, were they tempted to go back? Were they tempted to go back to where they knew the lay of the land, and the people, and they could re-build their village and resume their old habits and not have to worry about moving on to the next thing?

I know we certainly are tempted that way!

But instead it says they journeyed on, in stages. Pulling up stakes, and pounding them in. Without even the benefit of google to show them what the landscape looked like or what sorts of foods they should try. Every time they set up camp it would have been slightly different than the one before — different landscape means different organisation of tents and pastures and workspaces, perhaps different arrangements inside their sleeping spaces to take advantage of different light or wind. And I suspect every time they pulled up stakes, they decided on something else that didn’t need to make the next stage of the journey — something whose value wasn’t worth the weight or space or effort of bringing it along. Putting down stakes, and pulling them up…on, and on, because God called them forward into something new, and promised that in them and through them, the entire world would be blessed. 

In these days when we have left behind the comfortable ways of being church, the familiar routines and rituals, we have had to learn to build altars wherever we are — to encounter God in our homes, or out on a walk, or in phone conversations, or even over the internet. As we journey on by stages, each time we pull up stakes there’ll be temptation to go back, to settle into old familiar ways. But God is showing us something else…if we are traveling light enough to see it and follow. What things are necessary to take with us? What things are weighing us down and making it harder to move? What markers can we leave behind as a witness to the encounter between human and divine?

Abram and Sarai clearly expected to meet God everywhere they went — otherwise, why build an altar in every camp? And they expected God to lead them onward, stage by stage. Otherwise, why pull up the stakes?

If we, too, expect to meet God everywhere we go, and if we expect God to lead us onward, stage by stage, or phase by phase, we might even say, then perhaps we, too, can be confident enough to pull up the stakes. To leave behind some of the things that have served us well in the past but are not necessary to this part of the journey, and find new ways of living and worshipping and witnessing and serving. We don’t know exactly where we’re going, or how long the journey will be. We do know that the reason behind the journey is to become a blessing to others, perhaps even those we will never meet, and we do know that we are not alone. So we must go forward, step by step.

May it be so. Amen.