Sunday, June 26, 2011

Us & Us

I love the Old Testament prophets. I Love them because they will say ANYTHING. They are the guys who say what everybody else is thinking – but lack the courage to say. But they also say crazy stuff. Stuff that nobody understands. Stuff that seems to be about one thing but it is really about something else. 

Ezekiel was a Hebrew prophet born some 622 before Christ. He is revered within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as a prophet of God. Ezekiel is thought to be descended from Joshua and was born in the Hebrew line of Judah. Ezekiel describes his calling in Ezekiel 1 – and describes receiving a vision of God riding in a chariot pulled by cherubs. The OT book of Ezekiel is a collection of his prophetic ministry and speaks primarily of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.

In Ezekiel 34 he begins with a strong rebuke of Israel’s shepherds. He condemns their self-serving leadership and their lack of compassion and real care for the people. In verse 11, God promises to replace these shepherds and to establish Himself as caregiver and shepherd of Israel.

Ezekiel 34:11-24 - New Living Translation (NLT)
 11 “For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search and find my sheep. 12 I will be like a shepherd looking for his scattered flock. I will find my sheep and rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on that dark and cloudy day. 13 I will bring them back home to their own land of Israel from among the peoples and nations. I will feed them on the mountains of Israel and by the rivers and in all the places where people live. 14 Yes, I will give them good pastureland on the high hills of Israel. There they will lie down in pleasant places and feed in the lush pastures of the hills. 15 I myself will tend my sheep and give them a place to lie down in peace, says the Sovereign LORD. 16 I will search for my lost ones who strayed away, and I will bring them safely home again. I will bandage the injured and strengthen the weak. But I will destroy those who are fat and powerful. I will feed them, yes—feed them justice!
In verse 16, the prophesy hints at what is coming next as God turns his attention from the shepherds to the sheep. This is today’s reading and it is aimed squarely at us!
 17 “And as for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign LORD says to his people: I will judge between one animal of the flock and another, separating the sheep from the goats. 18 Isn’t it enough for you to keep the best of the pastures for yourselves? Must you also trample down the rest? Isn’t it enough for you to drink clear water for yourselves? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? 19 Why must my flock eat what you have trampled down and drink water you have fouled? 20 “Therefore, this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I will surely judge between the fat sheep and the scrawny sheep. 21For you fat sheep pushed and butted and crowded my sick and hungry flock until you scattered them to distant lands. 22 So I will rescue my flock, and they will no longer be abused. I will judge between one animal of the flock and another. 23 And I will set over them one shepherd, my servant David. He will feed them and be a shepherd to them. 24 And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David will be a prince among my people. I, the LORD, have spoken!
I have heard a lot of sermons about sheep and goats. Not so many about sheep and sheep. I think we prefer the “sheep and goats” stories because it is another “us vs. them” type of story. Also interesting to note that, when those stories are told, the story teller is almost always in the sheep family and the goats are the “other” in the story.

Ezekiel’s prophecy – which we are to believe comes directly from God himself – gives us less wiggle room. It is not us and them… it is us and us. Sheep and sheep.

In the narrative view of scripture – the practice of reading the bible as story rather than instruction manual – Israel is both a literal nation of people and also a type for all the people of God - the vessel for God’s story. NT Wright says that the Creation story is Israel’s story and that Israel’s story is the story of all mankind – all creation. In this context we see creation – fall – exile – and reconciliation in all of these stories, each smaller story point to the larger. And so… some 2600 years removed from Ezekiel’s prophecy, we read the story of Israel and look within to find our own story.

To that end I don’t want so much to tell you with any absolute assurance what these verses mean or how they SHOULD be interpreted. Instead, I want to just share how they hit me… at this moment in my story and in our story. I am not attempting to proof text or to establish any definitive word on these passages… only to share the thoughts they stir in me.

In verse 17, God says that he will judge between those of the same flock. Not us and them… us and us! The SAME flock. Think about that. His words are not meant to draw a line to determine who is in and who is out. Instead, everyone seems to be “in” but there seems to be trouble in the flock. Some of the sheep have gotten fat… gotten fat by pushing and shoving the weaker sheep aside. They have fouled the water by drinking with such gluttony that by the time they are finished… the water is no longer clear and good to drink. The water is muddy and cloudy. The good grass has been trampled into the dirt, leaving nothing for those too weak or timid to push their way to the front. and the weak, hungry and thirsty sheep are scattered… driven away by their own family and forced to try and survive alone.

Remember… not us and them… us and us.

Anybody here a sheep farmer? Maybe descended from a long line of sheep farmers Even without much expertise we should be able to answer these questions. On a sheep farm; which sheep are most valuable; fat or scrawny? Whether we are making wool socks or mutton stew… the fat, well fed and watered sheep are the most valuable, right?

What about in our society… in America?

Who is more valued? The healthy, wealthy, and wise or to sick, poor, and marginalized?

Maybe we are better than that. Maybe we are more enlightened.

What about the gifted? The artist, the musician, the writer? Do we value them more than the mentally challenged guy who bags our groceries?

And what about the church… not just here but everywhere. Do we prefer those with the most to offer? Do we tend to promote those who push to the front and rarely even see the quiet and timid souls who hang back?

If we are honest, we do these things because it makes sense. Of course we promote the most gifted, the most worthy. Of course we give preference to the best and the brightest.

Anyone here ever see the movie “Frankie and Johnny”? The film starred Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer and was about an ex-con who falls in love with a waitress in a diner where he is bussing tables. The movie is based on a stage play entitled “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” The play made a point that these two lovers were just regular schlubs – over 40 - Not attractive or glamorous – just two lonely folks who find each other beyond all hope. The roll of Frankie was played, on Broadway, by Kathy Bates. She lobbied hard for the film role and was eventually passed over for the lovely and 33 year old Michelle Pfeiffer. Bates said this… 

 "I thought it was wonderful to see a love story about people over forty, ordinary people who were trying to connect... I don`t think we will see it with this movie."
It’s who we are. Kathy Bates can play a psychotic, homicidal Romance Novel fan in “Misery” but she could never play a romantic lead opposite Al Pacino.

This attitude, this value system is so pervasive we are scarcely even aware. In our work place, in our social connections, even in our families. The gifted, the beautiful, the precocious get noticed and get loved. The quiet and introverted simply become invisible.

This is what our world looks bike - But this is not what the kingdom looks like.
In today’s passage we see what we see again and again in scripture. We see a God, a shepherd whose heart beats for the scrawny sheep. Who loves, most of all, the hungry, the thirsty, and the scattered. 

We have two rat terriers. They are sisters – litter mates. Queenie is the dominant of the two and she regularly pushes Pepper away at meal time. In fact, Pepper has sort of given up and will stand back until Queenie is finished. Only when Queenie leaves the food bowl will Pepper approach.  Maybe it is time to let Pepper eat first…

20 “Therefore, this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I will surely judge between the fat sheep and the scrawny sheep. 21For you fat sheep pushed and butted and crowded my sick and hungry flock until you scattered them to distant lands. 22 So I will rescue my flock, and they will no longer be abused. I will judge between one animal of the flock and another. 23 And I will set over them one shepherd, my servant David. He will feed them and be a shepherd to them.
I think we are at a moment of historic change in the church. Smarter people than me have noticed and commented. The church is beginning to hear the words of Ezekiel and to realize that some of us have fattened ourselves at the expense of others. We have made such a splash as we approach church as consumers… we have muddied the water and made it unfit to drink. We have branded Christianity and forgotten that to be like Jesus, we must love those HE loves… the scrawny sheep. The hungry, the thirsty, the scattered. 

This community is, in many ways, a group of scattered sheep. Most of us could not find a place at the watering hole and we ended up here. We know what it is to be spiritually hungry, left out, marginalized. But we have to work hard to remember and to guard against the temptation to fatten up at our new trough. There are folks here… in this room… who still feel pushed to the back; who still feel invisible. And there are those out there – in our neighborhood and in our city who are hungry and thirsty and scattered. Some are hungry for actual food, out in the camps or street corners where Aaron and the van go – in search of “the one”. Others are thirsty for acceptance – for love. Some are scattered by broken families, divorce, death, addiction.

And he loves them. He cares for them. He wants to rescue them and bring them home; where they will no longer be hungry or abused. 

So… is R Street home? Is it home for you… and is it home for them? Is this a place where everyone is loved, everyone is treasured; everyone eats and drinks and rests? Is this a home where Jesus is shepherd… where HE will feed us and comfort us and care for us? Is R Street HIS home? 

May we always make room for all who hunger and thirst. May we never forget that we have known hunger and thirst. May we seek the scattered, feed the hungry, bind the broken hearted, and love as we have been loved.

His Kingdom Come…

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Big Love ~ 02.13.2011

Genesis 30:1-24 (New International Version, ©2010)

1 When Rachel saw that she was not bearing Jacob any children, she became jealous of her sister. So she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I’ll die!”

2 Jacob became angry with her and said, “Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?”

3 Then she said, “Here is Bilhah, my servant. Sleep with her so that she can bear children for me and I too can build a family through her.”

4 So she gave him her servant Bilhah as a wife. Jacob slept with her, 5 and she became pregnant and bore him a son. 6 Then Rachel said, “God has vindicated me; he has listened to my plea and given me a son.” Because of this she named him Dan.[a]

7 Rachel’s servant Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son. 8 Then Rachel said, “I have had a great struggle with my sister, and I have won.” So she named him Naphtali.[b]

9 When Leah saw that she had stopped having children, she took her servant Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as a wife. 10 Leah’s servant Zilpah bore Jacob a son. 11 Then Leah said, “What good fortune!”[c] So she named him Gad.[d]

12 Leah’s servant Zilpah bore Jacob a second son. 13 Then Leah said, “How happy I am! The women will call me happy.” So she named him Asher.[e]

14 During wheat harvest, Reuben went out into the fields and found some mandrake plants, which he brought to his mother Leah. Rachel said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.”

15 But she said to her, “Wasn’t it enough that you took away my husband? Will you take my son’s mandrakes too?”

“Very well,” Rachel said, “he can sleep with you tonight in return for your son’s mandrakes.”

16 So when Jacob came in from the fields that evening, Leah went out to meet him. “You must sleep with me,” she said. “I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.” So he slept with her that night.

17 God listened to Leah, and she became pregnant and bore Jacob a fifth son. 18 Then Leah said, “God has rewarded me for giving my servant to my husband.” So she named him Issachar.[f]

19 Leah conceived again and bore Jacob a sixth son. 20 Then Leah said, “God has presented me with a precious gift. This time my husband will treat me with honor, because I have borne him six sons.” So she named him Zebulun.[g]

21 Some time later she gave birth to a daughter and named her Dinah.

22 Then God remembered Rachel; he listened to her and enabled her to conceive. 23 She became pregnant and gave birth to a son and said, “God has taken away my disgrace.” 24 She named him Joseph,[h] and said, “May the LORD add to me another son.”

ok… I have to say – I LOVE this story.

If you know me and have ever discussed any aspect of pop culture with me, you know that I am drawn to the quirky, off center storytelling of the Coen brothers and the like. I love messy, open ended stories. I love it when a story leaves me scratching my head and saying “huh?”

Did I mention that I love this story?

This story has all the makings of a great film adaptation; Lots of great characters, farce-type comedy with real heartbreak and struggle to balance. And… the original work is in the public domain and therefore the story rights are essentially free!

If I were going to develop this story for the screen, I think I’d want to really explore these characters and their stories so, rather than a big screen adaptation, I think I’d pitch it to cable; Maybe an HBO series like the Sopranos with great actors and great writers telling great, complex, quirky stories. I might move the story to a contemporary setting.

It might look something like this…

There is another reason I love this story. Another reason I find it so rich and so hopeful. I love this story because… well… because it is just so… messed up.

How did we get here? Jacob swindled his brother out of his father’s money, his father’s blessing, and his father’s love. But, he soon found it difficult to enjoy his winnings due his constant and well founded fear that his brother Esau might, at any moment, brutally murder him. So, he runs. He runs until he finds a rich uncle who will take him in. Uncle has a beautiful young daughter named Rachel and a not so beautiful daughter – Leah. Jacob is smitten with Rachel. Leah… not so much. Asks uncle for permission to marry Rachel. Uncle says “eh… work for me seven years and she is yours”. Jacob works seven years. Takes a bath, combs his hair puts on his tux, walks the aisle, marries Rachel, and they head off on their honeymoon. Candle-lit tent… soft dessert breeze… camel softly braying in the distance… Finally the moment comes and he removes Rachel’s bridal veil…


Not Rachel. It’s Leah. Remember Leah? The not so beautiful sister?

Complains to Uncle. Seven More years. Another bath, his second in 14 years! Another wedding (wasLeah Matron of Honor?). Another honeymoon. candles, breezes, veil ever so gingerly lifted with one eye closed and the other squinting… sigh of relief. She is more beautiful than he remembers. Jacob finally has Rachel…

AND he has Leah.

This should absolutely go well.

As the father of three daughters who are consequently also sisters, the thought of this arrangement makes my eyeballs ache. In fact, I am pretty much ready, at this point in the story, to say that Jacob has paid his penance for ripping off his brother.

So, here we are. We pick up this story in Genesis 30. Jacob has two wives and 4 sons. Rachel has not been able to have children and so she has Jacob marry her servant who gives him two more sons.

Now we have THREE wives and six sons.

Leah, in a fit of sibling rivalry, gives Jacob her servant with whom he has two more sons.

So… if you are keeping score… that’s FOUR wives and eight sons. I am tired…

And NOW the story takes a really weird turn. Leah’s oldest son Rueben – Like the sandwich - has gathered some Mandrakes out of the fields he tends. Rachel sees the mandrake plants and really wants some…

Mandrakes. Most of you are undoubtedly aware that the mandrake is known primarily for that fact that it screams like a banshee when pulled from the earth and that Mandrake is the best known antidote for victims turned to stone by the direct gaze of a basilisk. If you are not well read in the Harry Potter Chronicles and require more commonly known facts about the truth and legend of the mandrake, consider these nuggets:

  • the mandrake is a hallucinogenic plant (was Rachel attempting to self-medicate?)
  • the mandrake is a common element in many pagan and neopagan religions
  • the mandrake is found in the writing of literary greats such as Macciavelli, Shakespear, DH Lawrence, JK Rowling, and Cormac McCarthy

and most significant to our story…

  • the hebrew word used for mandrake means “love plant” and the mandrake was believed, in many ancient cultures, to ensure conception.

Jacob had eight sons at this point, but Rachel remained barren. So she asked for the Mandrake… she was desperate and Leah knew it. Leah knew how badly her sister wanted a child and she also knew how deeply Jacob loved her sister. So Leah, being a loving and kind sister, gave Rachel the Mandrake with but a simple request.

“Let me sleep with Jacob”

Rachel gets a nasty, ugly, root and Leah gets Jacob and, eventually, two more sons and a daughter. Got that? Rachel takes the fertility drugs and Leah, who already has 4 sons, gets pregnant!

And Jacob? By now I would imagine that he’d give back his birthright if he could just spend a weekend alone fishing.

There is an old Asian saying: “happy wife, happy life”. What do you get with four un-happy wives? Not sure but maybe this is why, a few years later, Jacob wrestled God without fear.

Have you been keeping up… doing the math? Four wives. Ten sons. One daughter.

And then it happens. God remembers Rachel. And Rachel has a son… she names him Joseph.

Joseph. Of Jacob’s 12 sons (Rachel has another son later - Benjamin) the only one we all remember is Joseph. The only son of the 12 whose story we know because he is truly the only one of the 12 whose story is recorded. We don’t know much about Dan or Rueben or Asher except that they sold Joseph to the gypsies and told Jacob he was dead… did I not say this would make an amazing HBO series?

So there is the story… and here is your challenge…

What is the doctrinal truth taught in this passage? Where does this story most clearly and significantly impact systematic theology?


Is this story another wonderfully quirky example of a big God with a Big Love for a messed up bunch of people?

Maybe, sometimes, a great story is just… a great story.

In the midst of this soap opera, God listened to Leah. God remembered Rachel. He did not endorse or condemn their wacky behavior. He just stuck around and cleaned up the mess… but not all of it.

I said last week that these Old Testament heroes give me hope… that God can use me as I am. Broken, selfish, dishonest, tired, bitter, weak. That a great story does not require perfect characters and that, in fact, the best stories rarely have perfect characters at all.

And yet… I am not satisfied in my weakness. I do not embrace my selfishness or my bitterness. I look forward… and I look up because; at the end of this “great cloud of witnesses” that make up the patriarchs of the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faiths, is the “New Adam” – Jesus Christ. The Christ who, before he was executed, prayed for his closest friends and, maybe, for us too:

John 17:12-19 (New International Version, ©2010)

12 While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled.

13 “I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. 14 I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. 15 My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. 17 Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. 19 For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.

He kept them… us… safe. He protects us. The broken, the selfish, the bitter, tired, weak…

By his NAME. He gives us HIS joy. He gives us truth. He sanctifies us. And he sends us stumbling into the world… not to be a part of the world… but to CHANGE the world.

Jacob did not want to be the father of a nation. He only wanted Rachel. He did not intend to become Israel, only to keep his wives from killing each other and maybe to take a peaceful nap every once in a while.

But God uses the stuff at hand. He uses the common, the broken pieces; and tells a story that leads us all to his son and the kingdom he has called us to seek.

A kingdom that can be found…

Even in a messy family like Jacob’s...

Or like ours.

His kingdom come.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

tribes: 2

i need community. i thrive on relationship and interaction with others. i hate being alone. unfortunately, i am also not very good at relationships.

i am easily wounded. easily hurt. easily discouraged. and to make matters worse, i tend to be drawn to people who sense my weakness and proceed to push my buttons. did i mention that i also tend to be paranoid?

so... how do you lead a tribe with such a huge basket of snakes to carry?

my only hope, i think, is honesty. to say out loud "this is me... this is who i am." to live as transparently as possible and to trust that those who remain are cool with following, or at least walking beside such a mess as i.

no apologies. no masks. no hiding. i am a mess and i have no idea where i am going. wanna come with?

Thursday, June 02, 2011


thinking a lot about tribes lately. larger tribes and tribes within tribes. tribes and how we lead them.

"What people are afraid of isn’t failure. It’s blame. Criticism." ~ seth godin (Tribes)

i'll be writing more soon about some of the tribes i inhabit and how the above quote may be the heart of all related frustration. stay tuned...