Legacies



Isaac inherited a mixed legacy from his father Abraham. On Mount Moriah the story says God told Abraham to kill Isaac to show his faithfulness to God, right up until the last minute, when Isaac lay bound with ropes on a stone altar and the knife was raised. Does anybody ever think of that story from Isaac’s point of view? Jewish legend says that this incident left Isaac emotionally scarred. No wonder! We never read about Isaac talking to God or God talking to Isaac, as as we do with his father and his son. It seems Abraham gave Isaac a distrust of intimate communication with God. Yes, legacies can be negative. But remember this: you can set aside a legacy. With support and determination, you can lay to rest the hurts of the past. 

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Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
April 8, 2018

Legacies

Genesis 26:12-22. Isaac sowed seed in that land, and in the same year reaped a hundredfold. The LORD blessed him, 13 and the man became rich; he prospered more and more until he became very wealthy. 14 He had possessions of flocks and herds, and a great household, so that the Philistines envied him. 15 (Now the Philistines had stopped up and filled with earth all the wells that his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham.) 16 And Abimelech said to Isaac, “Go away from us; you have become too powerful for us.”
Gen. 26:17  So Isaac departed from there and camped in the valley of Gerar and settled there. 18 Isaac dug again the wells of water that had been dug in the days of his father Abraham; for the Philistines had stopped them up after the death of Abraham; and he gave them the names that his father had given them. 19 But when Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of spring water, 20 the herders of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herders, saying, “The water is ours.” So he called the well Esek, because they contended with him. 21 Then they dug another well, and they quarreled over that one also; so he called it Sitnah. 22 He moved from there and dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he called it Rehoboth, saying, “Now the LORD has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.”

Legacy: something received from an ancestor or predecessor. Our Christian faith is a legacy almost twenty-one centuries old. It has passed through many generations of ancestors in the faith, in many cultures and lands; practiced in many different ways, and here we are in Brea in 2018.

I am so grateful for the freedom we have here to reinterpret the legacies of our faith, to do our best to make that faith relevant today. That wonderful phrase “God is still speaking” means that our understanding of scripture and worship and justice are not set in stone. They can reflect our best understanding of what God asks of us in our time. So a woman is able to preach to you today, as most of our ancestors would have forbidden, and many of our neighbors still do, by law or by custom. We have done away with much of the language of worship that addressed God as if God was a king and we his royal subjects praising and flattering him and begging him for favors (and God was always “Him”.) Instead we can speak prayers and poems that express our faith our way. We seek to take the best of the legacy we are given and, with God’s creative power, to make the good news of Jesus Christ real and life-giving today. And we in turn are building a legacy for those who will come after us.

We don’t do that in a vacuum. Times change and cultures change. When I grew up in Silicon Valley, it seemed like most everybody I knew went to church. Now, not so much. The era of Christendom, when church was just what almost everybody did, whether or not they were bored and disengaged, that era is gone. Churches that are just going through the motions do not thrive these days. Even churches with a passion for the gospel who do not figure out how to engage their neighbors do not thrive. Newer churches that prosper often have a literalist understanding of the bible and an “us against the world” mentality. This makes full participation urgent for their members, but it seems to lose an important part of the gospel in the process.

Where does this leave us? Feeling a little lonely sometimes. But needed! Jesus’ values of loving God and neighbor and world are needed more than ever, and a community that nurtures and celebrates them is a great community to be a part of! We know what the Gospel asks of us. Love God, and love our neighbors, and do it passionately, and have fun. How exactly shall we do that? More will be revealed. But here’s the thing: what feels “normal” to do, whether or not it makes sense, is the legacy we’ve been given.

Institutional memory is a tricky thing. You got used to a long pastorate; many of you think of that as normal. It’s not. We discovered, as Ann Marshall created the church’s timeline, that most of your pastors before Rick stuck around for only a couple of years. Nationwide, the average is five. Change can be hard. Change requires faith: trust in God.  And change gives God’s spirit a chance to work among us.

This church is not bogged down in the past. I haven’t found a lot of historical records in obvious places. I did have fun reading through a folder of plans for the 75th anniversary celebration in 1988—that’s 30 years ago. My conclusions from that were that the church knew how to throw a good party back then, and that the church had a lot of bureaucracy back then. We can be selective in which parts of our legacy we bring forward.

Legacies are not all positive, and it is helpful to recognize the parts of a legacy that we have overcome, or want to overcome. We are long past the era in the 1920’s when our pastor and a good fraction of the men in Brea belonged to the Ku Klux Klan, but to be honest about that painful legacy is to begin to take seriously a commitment to racial justice.

We are part of a congregation that has been worshipping almost continuously since 1913. This church joined the United Church of Christ shortly after it was formed in 1957.  That commitment challenges us to seek justice as a part of being faithful to Jesus, not as an afterthought. We have the Congregational legacy of shared and public governance, and of a rather private faith. We have that Congregational shyness about speaking about faith in public; you leave that to your pastors. I wonder if you could overcome some of that legacy, because our community needs to hear that our faith inspires our action. You do have that big signboard that makes a statement sometimes… that is a wonderful legacy to carry forward.

Legacies were very important to the people who wrote the Hebrew-language part of our bible. That’s why they have all those lists of unpronounceable names in genealogies. For them, to know your ancestors was to know that you belonged to the family of God. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were the original ancestors, the founding fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel. They are our ancestors too, by faith if not by blood. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob belong to a time of legend, almost 4000 years ago. Yet many of their adventures seem very human and down to earth.  Abraham started it all (with God, of course); he was the grandfather, Isaac the son, and Jacob the grandson. Abraham and Jacob have a lot of adventures and talk to God; Isaac, not so much.

This obscure little reading from Genesis is one of the few times we hear of Isaac doing something instead of getting done to. Isaac inherited a mixed legacy from his father Abraham. On Mount Moriah the story says God told Abraham to kill Isaac to show his faithfulness to God, right up until the last minute, when Isaac lay bound with ropes on a stone altar and the knife was raised. Does anybody ever think of that story from Isaac’s point of view? Jewish legend says that this incident left Isaac emotionally scarred. No wonder! We never read about Isaac talking to God or God talking to Isaac, as as we do with his father and his son. It seems Abraham gave Isaac a distrust of intimate communication with God. Yes, legacies can be negative. But remember this: you can set aside a legacy. With support and determination, you can lay to rest the hurts of the past.

Abraham also gave Isaac some very positive legacies: hospitality, generosity, great animal management techniques that made them both rich, and a habit of digging wells. Abraham had an attitude of abundance. He was blessed to be a blessing (Genesis 12:2). I love that phrase: blessed to be a blessing. Because we can give generously to others, we ourselves are blessed.

What did Abraham do with all these blessings? Among other things, Abraham dug wells. In the dry scrubland of the Negev desert, not so different from the inland empire of Southern California without irrigation, water is life. This was one very down-to-earth way Abraham blessed the people around him. He invested in the life and the future of his community. He dug wells. But his legacy didn’t last. His work was undone by the neighboring Philistines. After he died, they stopped up his wells, and they drove off his son Isaac more than once. Those Philistines chose selfishness and destruction over abundance and generosity. Abraham and Isaac both prospered. We are not told about the Philistines, but people who spend that much time feeling jealous and tearing down instead of building up will never feel prosperous no matter how much they have.

Isaac had a legacy from his father, but it didn't save him any time or trouble or sweat. The legacy he had was not a network of functioning wells– the Philistines had destroyed that. Abraham’s legacy to Isaac was the practice of digging wells, and the attitude of abundance and generosity, of building for the future, of working to bring life and prosperity to his community. Isaac inherited that legacy, so Isaac started digging a well. And then the Philistines chased him away.  And then he dug another well.  And he was chased away again, so he named that well esek, ‘contention.’  He moved on and dug a third well, and he was chased off again, so he called that well sitnah, ‘harassment.’ His hard work seemed for nothing, but he didn’t give up. Nor did he take revenge. He just moved on and kept digging. And finally at Rehoboth, which means ‘wide open place,’ Isaac and his community were allowed to enjoy the fruits of his labor. The desert blooms.

For Isaac, honoring Abraham’s legacy was not a passive remembrance. It was an active practice. It was hard, dirty, frustrating work! And it seems he passed this legacy on to his son Jacob too. The Samaritan woman at the well whom Jesus asked for water– she was at the well Jacob dug, many centuries after Jacob dug it.

Legacies. I don’t think this church was built by any of us here today, with the exception of the hall remodel a few years ago. Who helped with that? These buildings are a legacy from those who came before us, and a great blessing it is to have a sanctuary, sacred space, instead of setting up folding chairs in a school auditorium every Sunday.

We don’t need to build wells, or buildings. But we might continue to build on a legacy of extravagant welcome that goes back at least to the time when this church invited young draftees from Camp Pendleton to live in members’ homes on their furloughs if their family home was too far away. Janice Carey remembers this fondly; it was probably in the early 1970’s.

That legacy of welcome has broadened as you took on the interfaith shelter over twenty years ago, housing people in transition to a better life, and you make the welcome personal. Dinner service signups coming soon!

The legacy of welcome broadened again when you supported marriage equality for same-gender-loving couples. You have made this safe space for people whose own families may not welcome them, for people to be themselves, love who they love, and we all are blessed by blessing these relationships. Now we are learning to welcome transgender and non-gender-binary people. We are not always doing it perfectly, but we do it for the same reason and with the same spirit as we welcome any other of God’s children. A legacy of extravagant welcome. I wonder how you will carry it forward into God’s future.

A timeline awaits us in the Hall to help us reflect on the legacies of this church. Some of you remember “back in the day”; I’m glad you’re here because many of us do not. Hearing where we’ve been puts the present in perspective. And it’s fun! God is inviting us into a future that we can’t quite imagine yet. So we begin by remembering the legacies we have been given, as we explore how God may be leading this church to learn and love and serve into the future.  May we treasure the legacies that empower us to learn, and love, and celebrate, into God’s future.  Amen.


Live Now


I don’t know much about life beyond death, but I know this: we are invited to practice living that life now.  To discover and celebrate the sacred that already surrounds us, lives in us, now.  To nurture and create in collaboration with God, now. To stand up for justice and show mercy, now. To find what is precious in the midst of pain and death, now.  And to take refuge in a love so powerful that nothing, not even death, can stop it. Now, not later. 

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Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018

Following Jesus Into Life

Mark 16:1-8   When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.  2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.  3 They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”  4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.  5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.  6 But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.  7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”  8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.


If you were following along in those nifty green bibles in the pews, you will notice that we didn’t read to the end of Mark Chapter 16.  Verses 9 to 20 were added by some conscientious editors, because you can’t have the end of the Gospel be: they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid, right?  You have to prove the risen Christ is real, right?

The stories of the risen Christ in the Gospels are confusing, to say the least.  Four contradictory scenarios.  Who was at the tomb? Who ran away? Not being recognized by people who knew him.  Entering locked rooms, yet eating and being touched.  Disappearing in an instant. Hanging around, or not, in Jerusalem, or Galilee; for forty days and ascending into the clouds, or not.  Call me skeptical. I appreciate that Mark didn’t bother trying to show us the risen Christ.

Mark wants us to enter the Easter story, and make it our own. Otherwise, what good is it?  He wants us to see the first followers of Jesus in all their cluelessness and fear, running away to hide from the shocking gift of the risen Christ.  Hopefully so we can have a good laugh, because we know better.  But maybe so we can be easy on ourselves when we run away or hide from the transformative presence of God. Mark doesn’t give us the end of the story, because the story isn’t finished yet: the risen Christ is at work in us and among us, bringing hope and new life. Mark expects us to tell our own stories of the risen Christ, not borrow someone else’s. 

The story of Good Friday was vivid, pretty consistent in all four versions, and all too literally real. I wish that almost twenty-one centuries later people weren’t still being arrested in the dark of night, tortured, executed unjustly, and all the other horrors and indignities that people do to people. Good Friday is still real. 

I wish God had just settled the whole deal on Easter. A skeptic who is very dear to me once said, “Your God did not get the job done on Easter.” I think he’s right. Easter is not a done deal.  Easter is an ongoing process. God is at work, patiently and lovingly bringing new life out of death. Far more patiently than me!  How does God do this? Here’s how I explain it.  In Christian Process Theology, we say there are three crucial things to know about God:  presence, power and love. 

First, God’s Presence: God is in and through everything. Things just appear ordinary. If we allow ourselves to shift perception, wonder and glory are all around us.  We don’t need to wait for heavenly choirs to start celebrating.  Your body?  A walking miracle.  Treasure it, and give thanks. Every living thing: a dance of wonder.  This is one place where science and religion agree. And, Good Friday tells us, God is also present in the midst of horror and pain. How can we respond to God’s presence in and through all things?  Pay attention!  Enjoy.  Notice the sacred, the wonder, the beauty, and let it fill you with joy, and hope and gratitude and celebration.

Second, God’s Power.  In Process thinking, God does not control everything; things are not all planned in advance.  And we don’t control things either, but we can sure make a mess when we try! God’s power is not power over.  It’s power with, and power for.
Like a great jazz conductor, God is leading, inviting, creating, riffing off of what we do, sometimes cajoling us, to create a work of art that is our lives together, that works for the good of all of us. 

God’s power does not override our freedom.  Our freedom made Good Friday.  We might wish for a bit less freedom, but here we are.   Because of our freedom, bad things happen to good people.  But God’s power is at work to bring good out of evil, hope out of tragedy, a way out of no way. If we don’t give up, and follow God’s lead!

And God’s power seems occasionally to pull off some amazing transformations, just not on our schedule or at our command.  How does that work?  I have no idea.  But I know that transformation happens more often when we are willing partners. When we give up, God doesn’t have much to work with.  When we trust, and hope, and pray and love, surprising things can happen. So, be ready for Easter….every morning.

Third, God’s Love.  God’s love follows from the way God is at work in the world, inviting us into our best future.  But that’s a bit abstract. Most of us like our love with skin on. So we have Jesus, to show us what love looks like, person to person. Listening well; stopping to make human connections.  Going to parties.  Telling stories.  Standing up for justice and showing mercy; seeing in every face a child of God. And sometimes making sacrifices. After Easter, Jesus got a lot harder to hug, but he’s no longer limited by time and space and human exhaustion. How do people know they’re loved unless someone shows them?  If we follow Jesus, this is our job: to take in God’s love for us, and to make love real for those around us.  What a great job.

I do trust that love wins in the end. I rely on it. I trust that beyond death, we have a life in God. And I like to imagine what it might be like, but I really have no idea.  Well, besides that Jesus will be there. 

I don’t know much about life beyond death, but I know this: we are invited to practice living that life now.  To discover and celebrate the sacred that already surrounds us, lives in us, now.  To nurture and create in collaboration with God, now. To stand up for justice and show mercy, now. To find what is precious in the midst of pain and death, now.  And to take refuge in a love so powerful that nothing, not even death, can stop it. Now, not later. 

Remember who the women found at the tomb? A young man dressed in white. I suspect Mark intends that fellow to be the reader of the gospel: the newly baptized follower of Jesus, who has died and risen with his Lord. Thus the shiny white clothes, like an angel. Humans can be angels, you know.  An angel is just a messenger, a messenger from God.  So be an angel. Shine. Share the message of the risen Christ; his power, and his presence, and his love.

May Easter break forth in your life. 

May your gardens bloom wildly in the light of God’s love.

May Christ guide you from the bondage of fear, trusting that whatever happens, God goes with you.

May Christ guide you from bigotry and hatred, whether you dish it out or are on the receiving end.  In Christ is neither black nor white, rich nor poor, gay nor straight, alien nor citizen.

May Christ free you from guilt.  Make your amends, but then give to Christ the burden of perfection you cannot carry.

May Christ free you from resentment and bitterness.  In him, be made whole and practice the power of forgiveness.

May Christ free you from the illusion of inadequacy, so you can join your Lord’s team and take up that good work that only you can do.

May Christ free you from loneliness.  His love knits the whole universe together.  How did you ever imagine that you were alone?

Easter is the beginning of new life in Christ.  Just the beginning.  We are human, and we will keep messing things up.  But the secret is out. The presence, the power, and the love of God is at work in us, and through us, bring new life to a broken world. Alleluia! Christ is risen!  Christ is risen indeed!  Alleluia, and amen.