Who are you? You are the one God is with.

The Bible gets used and abused in a lot of different ways. It’s a handy doorstop, it makes a great bookend for the shelf where the books just won’t stop falling over. Of course, for that you need a hard-bound version, preferably one of those great big family Bibles everyone used to have. The huge German subscription Bible in my office is of the sort that makes for a good booster seat for little ones at the Thanksgiving dinner table. As a paperweight, the Lutheran Study Bible is nice, whether in paperback or hardcover or even the nice vinyl cover. Frankly, I think all of these are perfectly fine uses of the Bible, because who knows, one of those times, it might fall open at the Book of John or Paul’s letter to the Romans and a little bit of Gospel might slip out. I certainly like that better than some of the other uses I’ve seen. What exactly is the right Bible for thumping in a political debate, I wonder? Whatever Bible is being used, it usually feels more like that big German subscription Bible, because it is brought down with the weight of a Mac truck with skull-shattering precision. There are, of course, a lot of other ways to use the Bible. Many of them very fine uses, like reading it for daily devotions; sharing it with the family; applying its words to our lives; setting its words to music; memorizing bits of it for recall at moments of need; praying in the words of the psalms when our own words won’t come; calling on it for comfort or advice or grounding when the world seems to be a shaky place. All very good ways to come at Scripture.

But I have to wonder, why were these words written in the first place? My first seminary Bible professor claimed that the Scriptures are best considered as “rescued responses to experiences of God.” In other words, someone had an experience of God. Maybe they were napping in the desert with their head on a rock, and had a dream about a ladder and a promise, like Jacob last week. Or maybe they were thrown into a pit in the wilderness by their 11 brothers, and taken captive and traded into slavery in Egypt and became Pharaoh’s right-hand man and then had those same brothers come begging for food and had to decide whether to forgive them and through all of that came to see how God redeems people and situations that feel irredeemable – that kind of thing is an experience of God that someone might share with others, as Joseph did. And the story might change and morph as it gets transmitted down through the generations, but the people who hear it over the centuries might feel that it is worth saving, worth sharing, worth rescuing for future generations. This would be a rescued response to an experience of God. And it would become, for example, the book of Genesis.

Or maybe a guy was on the run from the law. He was a troubled youth – born to a Jewish slave, but raised by a Pharaoh’s daughter, he never really felt at home in the palace, but he didn’t really belong among his own people, either. And then one day he saw an Egyptian abusing a Jewish slave, and he just kind of lost it, things got out of hand, and before he knew it, the Egyptian was dead, and buried in the sand, and Moses was an outlaw, on the run. And out there in the wilderness (it’s always in the wilderness, isn’t it? that seems like good news in and of itself) out there in the wilderness, this guy Moses found a little grace. He found a family, married a Midianite woman named Zipporah, and got a job with his father-in-law. It wasn’t much of a job, granted, pretty entry-level stuff, tending the sheep. But while he was out there one day, he found himself having a God experience, stumbling across a burning bush. A talking, burning bush. A talking, burning bush that told him to go back to Egypt, back to the place where he was an outlaw, and there to set the people of Israel free.

Did it seem like a God moment right then? Or was it only in retrospect, looking back on it from the shores of the Red Sea, or wandering for 40 years through the wilderness of Zin, or standing, finally, on the banks of the Jordan, looking over into the promised land that he would never enter? When did Moses finally get the perspective that we all eventually get, when we look back on those moments when God reaches into our lives and turns them upside down? Whenever it was that he finally saw it, this was one of those experiences of God that was rescued, passed down through the generations, until it eventually came to us, here, today.

There are a lot of things that we try to do with the Bible, a lot of ways we try to use it. For example, we bring all kinds of questions to the Bible – everything from “what should I do?” to “who should be allowed to marry?” to “how much should I tithe?” to “how many volumes do I need to get Elinor to reach the table?” – but these aren’t the questions the Bible is actually answering. Instead, there are two questions that frame the Bible, two questions that I think we could be asking of this sacred text, questions that I think would get us far more interesting answers, far more helpful answers, than the questions that we usually bring. And Moses asks both of these questions: Who is God? And who am I?

God tells Moses, “Go back to Egypt and bring the Israelites out of slavery!” And Moses wants to know, “who shall I say is calling?” On whose authority am I going to do this thing? How can they trust you? How can I trust you? And once you’ve answered that, God, let me ask you this: who am I?

These are actually the questions we’ve been asking of the text for the last several weeks, since we began, at the beginning, with Genesis and Creation. These are questions the text has offered up to us, questions the text has sought to answer for us. This image-of-God motif I’ve been preaching for the last 4 weeks? That’s what’s going on there.

Over and over throughout the Bible, different authors in different circumstances have asked the question: who is this God I’ve just encountered? There are a lot of different answers, but time and again, as here in Exodus, they are variations on an ever-expanding theme. This is the God who will not be put in a box.

Moses asks, “who will I say has sent me?” Maybe Moses is trying to pin God down. Maybe Moses is trying to weasel out of the call. Maybe Moses really isn’t sure which God he’s talking to – after all, he was raised in Pharaoh’s household, raised to believe in many gods, raised to believe his grandfather the Pharaoh was himself a god. It’s a pretty reasonable question to ask, given those circumstances: can you be more specific? who are you? if you’re going to make such a serious demand and claim and call on me, I need to know a little more about you. Do you maybe have a Facebook page I could check out?

And by way of a resume, God simply points to the stories, the rescued responses, the Book of Genesis. “The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, … This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.” And God adds this enigmatic name, “I am who I am” Sometimes translated, I am who I am, sometimes, I will be who I will be, sometime I have been who I have been, or some combination of these. It’s not much to go on, as a name. “Tell them I AM has sent you.” But when combined with these stories, the stories that the Israelites would know, these rescued responses that they have received down through the generations, when combined with these, God’s name means something. It tells us something. God has been, is, will be, the God of Creation. The God whose Word creates the world and the people, whose Word brings promise, and whose promise brings transformation and blessing. This God has been, is, will be, the God who shows up, time after time, in the middle of the wilderness, in the least likely places, in the moments of hopelessness, when everything has gone pear-shaped, this is the God who steps into our darkness and brokeness and pain with words of life and renewal and presence. The God who brought Noah and his family through the waters of the flood and set the rainbow in the sky as a sign of covenant; the God who led Abram into a new land and blessed him to be a blessing; who promised to be with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. And now this God is doing again what this God has been doing all along – bringing new life into the heart of despair, leading the people of Israel into freedom. I Am who I Am. Tell them I Am has sent you.

Which leaves us with the other question, which is actually, I think the question we are all trying to ask the Bible all the time, even though we’re usually asking other questions like who can marry who and how can I lay some heavy judgment on that guy over there who does things I don’t like. The question we’re really asking in the midst of all of that is, “who am I?” Moses asks it right off the bat with this God: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” And then Moses asks it again in a bunch of other ways: “Why would they listen to me? I’m slow of speech, I can’t talk in front of crowds! Please, send someone else! Who am I?” It’s the question we all come back to. Who am I? Standing in the wilderness, looking back on all the ways we haven’t quite fit – all the little disconnects, all the fractured relationship, the shattered dreams, the mistakes we made, the turns that we took that led away from what we thought was our destination, and now here we stand in the wilderness, in the desert, wondering, where do I fit? where do I belong? who am I? who am I, O Lord, that you would call me? Good Lord, don’t you know who I am? You really ought to call someone else.  If you really knew, you would call anyone else.

And God responds. “I Am who I Am. And I Am with you. I Will Be who I Will Be. And I will be with you.” That is it. That’s God’s answer to all your questions about who you are. God’s answer is your baptism, when God named and claimed you, and made God’s name your own, made God’s story your own. God’s answer is that God knows exactly who you are – knows you head to toe, inside and out; knows all the cracks and heartbreaks and everything that you’ve done that makes you feel unworthy and everything that’s been done to you that makes you feel undeserving and unqualified and unfit for God’s love and God’s trust and God’s call. And God’s response to all of that is to say, “I Am with you.” God’s response to all of that is to show up, in the desert, in the wilderness, in the most unlikely places, in a manger, on a cross, standing next to you. And it turns out that the answer to Moses’ question, to your question, “Who am I?” is simple. You are the one who God is with. You are the One who God has named and claimed as God’s own. You are the One who God loves and longs for and lives for and dies. “Who am I?” we ask. God’s answer: “I Am with you.”

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In the Image of Blessing

Aside

When Isaac was old and his eyes were dim so that he could not see, he called his elder son Esau and said to him, “My son”; and he answered, “Here I am.” He said, “See, I am old; I do not know the day of my death. Now then, take your weapons, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field, and hunt game for me. Then Rebekah took the best garments of her elder son Esau, which were with her in the house, and put them on her younger son Jacob; and she put the skins of the kids on his hands and on the smooth part of his neck. Then she handed the savory food, and the bread that she had prepared, to her son Jacob. So he went in to his father, and said, “My father”; and he said, “Here I am; who are you, my son?” Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me; now sit up and eat of my game, so that you may bless me.” But Isaac said to his son, “How is it that you have found it so quickly, my son?” He answered, “Because the Lord your God granted me success.” Then Isaac said to Jacob, “Come near, that I may feel you, my son, to know whether you are really my son Esau or not.” So Jacob went up to his father Isaac, who felt him and said, “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” He did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like his brother Esau’s hands; so he blessed him. 

A few weeks ago, my family started a new nightly routine. Each night before bed, around 7:30 or so, we gather in the living room. We turn off all the electronics, the television, the ipads, the phones, the computers, all of them. Elinor bounces back and forth across the couch from lap to lap. Holden gets distracted by a thousand different things, from a drawing to a lego toy to another drink of water. Grace patiently leans into one or the other of her parents. And we share. We start by sharing our highs and lows of the day, each person sharing while the others listen. Granted, listening isn’t a strong suit for the younger members of the family, but that’s okay. We do our best. After we have heard each others’ highs and lows, we read a Bible story from the children’s bible, and then we chat a little bit, trying to ask the question, “What is God saying to us in this story?” Often the conversation goes in a totally different direction, but that’s the idea. Then we pray. Don’t get the image in your head that we pray all nice and quiet and Norman Rockwell. Our prayers are a loud and messy business, with kids shouting out names of people we need to pray for: Grandad Bill’s still sick! It’s grandma’s birthday! Don’t forget Sally Gunn! Dad needs a job! Mom’s got a council meeting! The bully at school! Then we usually tie it together with an Amen and a song – Johnny Appleseed or the Superman prayer. I think we might need to expand our repertoire a bit. Finally, we bless each other. The first night, it was pastor mom doing the blessings, marking a cross on the forehead of each member of the family, saying, “You’re a child of God and God loves you very much.” The next night, Holden took up the job, saying, “You’re God’s kid and God loves you.” From there on, his blessings took on a distinctly unique tone. One night he blessed us each by telling us two things he loves about us. Altely he’s been tayloring them by telling me I’m loved, and telling his little sister and dad that they are “a duckydoo and God loves them very much.” I don’t know what it means, but I love it. And Holden’s not the only one bestowing blessings, either. The blessing portion of the evening becomes a little bit of a melee as Appells clamber over one another giving and receiving blessings.

And the thing is, these blessings, they’re not just words. They’re more than that. This isn’t a polite “bless you” after a sneeze. They do something. They are powerful. I can see the kids standing up a little straighter, leaning in a little closer, yearning to hear the blessing: “You can do hard things through the God who loves you.” “You are blessed to be a blessing.” “God loves you and there ain’t nothing you can do about it.” These are the words that are ringing in their ears as they drift off to sleep. I can see them taking root, and strengthening these children, and strengthening our family, as we open ourselves not only to share but to receive the loving touch and reassuring words of one another.

When God created humans, we were created in God’s image. In the image of One who could speak worlds into being, in the image of One whose Word comes into the world to change it. Your words are powerful. When God spoke to Abraham and promised him a great nation, and land, and offspring like the stars, God also said, “in you all families of the earth shall be blessed.” You are blessed to be a blessing. When Jesus gave the Office of the Keys to the Church, he said, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” You are made in the image of God, you are empowered with the Office of the Keys, and you have the power to bless those around you with real, true, powerful blessings. Blessings that come true and change the world and transform situations and transfigure people. Blessed to be a blessing.

Of course, Jacob does push the limits of blessing. I mean, this guy is clearly not a nice guy. He’s a thief and a liar, and this is not the first time he’s taken something important from his brother. He came out of the womb clinging to his brother’s heel, and his name means “to follow” or “to come behind,” or even “heel.” But it also means “someone who cheats” or “supplanter.” And he has so far lived up to that name. Always behind Esau from the beginning, he winds up cheating his brother first out of his birthright, and then out of his father’s blessing, something so powerful and effecacious that it can only be bestowed once. In fact, this blessing and this birth right means that, even though Jacob was the second born, he will now bear the promise that God had given Abraham, the promise that passed through Isaac. So now Jacob, this supplanter, this cheat, is the one who is blessed to be a blessing.

Esau is, understandably, upset. And Jacob is now fleeing for his life. A fugitive, stuck in the no-mans-land between his shady past and his cloudy future.

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 

Maybe you know the song, the old spiritual, “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.” (You’ll now have that song stuck in your head all week. You’re welcome.) It’s a beautiful song, and I know many people love it dearly. But I’m going to have to burst a bubble or two. Because the song gets it backward. We are not climbing Jacob’s ladder. Not even Jacob climbed Jacob’s ladder. It was the angels of God that were going up and down the ladder, not people. In fact, in the story, God does not stay up at the top of the ladder at all. God comes right down to stand beside Jacob. Which is a really important detail. Remember that this story was first written down around the time when the people of Israel were living in exile in Babylon. It had been told for generations, but it wouldn’t have been written down until then. And in those generations, the people of Israel had been to Egypt and seen, well built, pyramids. And then to Babylon, where they saw the Babylonian version of pyramids, called ziggarauts. These were religious buildings with huge staircases that went up the side, and the priests would climb those staircases to bring offerings and sacrifices to the god Marduk, patron of Babylon, who waited up at the top of the pyramid. If the climb was successful, if the offerings were acceptable, then Babylon would be rewarded.

That’s not the God that Jacob’s dealing with.

And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring;

This is a very different God. This is a God who shows up, not way up at the top of a ladder, looking down on the world and waiting for Jacob to get it right, waiting for Jacob to climb his way up. Because, let’s face it, Jacob is not likely to get it right. So far, Jacob has gotten it wrong just about every time. He has cheated and lied and usurped his brother’s birth right; he has tricked his father and manipulated his mother and made his brother look like an idiot and stolen his blessings. He has come by this promise of God thorugh the worst kind of dysfunction and deceit. And now he is fleeing for his life, running through the wilderness with literally no place to lay his head. He is sleeping on a rock. His past is catching up to him, and his future looks to hold retribution, recrimination, punishment, maybe even death. This is the last place that we expect to find God. And yet, this is exactly where God shows up. Because this is a God who comes right down among us, right down to the bottom of the ladder where we’re standing looking up; who stands beside us and speaks words of promise to us right where we are. And these words of promise, these blessing words of God, they do something. They have the power to change the world and transform situations and transfigure people. They are not just words. They are the words of life. They are the words of the God who shows up in the most unlikely places, of the God who shines light in the deepest darkness.

God’s words transform Jacob.

And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; 

The promise that God speaks changes everything. It opens up a future for Jacob that he could not have imagined for himself. God is saying, hey! you have a future! Your future is not about retribution and revenge and death. Your future is about life! Offspring! Land! And Jacob is transformed from a fugitive and a trickster into a patriarch, a father of multitudes, the bearer of the promise.

But God is not done.

and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.

All the families of the earth shall be blessed in you – blessed to be a blessing. There’s a great little wordplay in this promise – the word that is translated here as dust – your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth – it evokes the promise that God spoke to Abraham – your offspring shall be like the stars. It’s an image of abundance too great to count. But it also says “your offspring shall be like the topsoil.” The place where growth happens, the most fertile soil, the soil that nourishes and sustains. That’s Jacob and his family. That’s the people of Israel. That’s you. That’s the promise. Blessed to be a blessing. A blessing that transforms, a blessing that continues to transform, so that in just a few chapters, Jacob will become Israel, the father and founder of a nation, a priestly tribe.

God continues:

Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

Hey, even bearers of the promise get it wrong sometimes. When he wakes up, Jacob is amazed! “Surely the Lord is in this place and I didn’t know it!” Wow! What a God we have, who would show up where we are, in the depths of our suffering, when we are at our lowest, even when we have screwed up so badly that we are caught between our past transgressions and our future punishment, even when we have brought the law down on ourselves, still this God shows up! This is a major theological breakthrough, both for Jacob and for the ancient world. A God who comes to us! Wherever we are! A God who is for us. No matter how badly we’ve screwed up! And Jacob gets it. For a moment. But then he does what we always do. He sets up a stone, and he says, “How awesome is this place!” And he puts God right back into the box, and says, “look! I know where to find God!” And this place, Bethel, becomes the site of the Temple for the Northern Kingdom, the only acceptable place of worship for generations to come.  But that doesn’t stop God showing up in the most unlikely places.

This is the God in whose image you have been made. The God who speaks powerful words, blessings that change and transform. You have been made in that image. Your words have power: the power to bless; the power to transform; the power to speak light into darkness. The power to see God where God is, to name that for those around you. This is the God in whose image you have been made. The God who shows up, in the most unlikely places: in the wilderness; in the dreams of a fugitive; standing beside us at the foot of the ladder; hanging before us on a cross; going ahead of us into fear and suffering and death, so that these things have no power over us. This is the image in which you are made – blessed to be a blessing; the topsoil that nourishes the world; the speaker of blessings and promises; bearing light into the most unlikely places. Thanks be to God.

Vulnerable in the Image of God

NOTE: The time signatures in the text below refer to the above TED talk by Brene Brown, “Listening to Shame.”

Let’s just start with this. I do not like this story. At all. It is an icky, uncomfortable, vexing, obnoxious, disagreeable story. It is the kind of story that sends me to the thesaurus looking for adjectives to describe how much I dislike it. Because, seriously, what the heck am I supposed to do with this story?

The story of Genesis so far is the story of people behaving badly. Adam and Eve listening to a snake, and Cain killing Abel; God wiping everyone out and starting over, thinking that Noah was a nice guy and good starter stock, but people (including Noah) still behaving badly; then there was the whole Tower of Babel debacle, and people still found a way to make mischief, even though they couldn’t talk to each other. So now, God is going to try selecting one guy, a good and faithful guy, who God can kind of coach along. God chooses this guy, Abram, and promises Abram that he will be the father of nations, even gets Abram to change his name to Abraham, which means “father of many.” But still, Abraham isn’t even father of one at this point, and faithful though he may be, he and his wife still have their doubts, so he fathers a child with his wife’s handmaid, Hagar. This boy is named Ishmael, and it is through him that Abraham is the father of all Muslims. In fact, in the stories of Islam, it is Ishmael that Abraham takes up onto the mountain to sacrifice, not Isaac. In the tradition we have received, however, God tells Abraham that the promise is for both Abraham and his wife Sarah, and eventually Sarah has a son, who is named Isaac, which means laughter.

Which brings us to today’s reading. Chapter 22 starts out, “After these things, God tested Abraham.” I would like to add “again.” Because it seems to me God has already messed with Abraham enough – moving him across the continent, changing his name, forcing him to take refuge with pharaohs and kings (Abraham even had to lie, not once, but twice, and say that Sarah was his sister, and watch her go and live in the harems of these kings and pharaohs); Abraham even had to send away his eldest son Ishmael to secure the succession of the promise – I mean, hasn’t Abraham been thoroughly tested already? Apparently not, because now God is going to ask this ever-so-faithful Abraham to take the only son he has left and sacrifice him on a mountaintop three days away from home. And I’d just like to say, on Abraham’s behalf, because Abraham is either too faithful or too gullible to say it for himself, “excuse me?” Like I said, I don’t really like this story very much. I don’t like Abraham’s obedience and I don’t like God’s demand and I don’t like Isaac’s vulnerability. To say nothing of poor Sarah waiting at home.

So you know how there are times when something you’ve never really thought much about before suddenly shows up everywhere and you realize you need to pay attention? Well, that’s what happened to me this week. It started with an email Cynthia sent me with a link to a couple of TED talks by Brene Brown. I’d heard of this woman in a few different contexts, but I’d never gotten around to watching her speak or reading her books, so I watched them. They were all about vulnerability. Then I came across this website called The Work of the People, where all of these videos are collected, videos of various really smart really spiritual people talking about the things they think are important about God, and time and time again on that website, I found people talking about vulnerability. Then I saw a video of one of the greatest preachers in America, Barbara Brown Taylor, talking about vulnerability in worship. Then I was listening to some commentary online, and they started talking about being vulnerable, and I decided maybe I’d better start paying attention. Maybe God was trying to get me thinking about this vulnerability thing.

So I watched Brene Brown’s TED talks a few more times. Really, I considered just showing that and calling it good. They are just that good. I have linked them to our webpage, and I’m sending you home with homework – go and watch these videos. They are time well spent.

But I’ll give you the Cliff notes as best I can. Brene Brown is a researcher and a social worker. She has spent a lot of time studying human connection and how we build relationships. And what she has discovered is that we are hardwired for connection. We are actually, biologically, chemically, and neurologically created to be in relationship. Remember that whole image of God business from last week when we read Genesis 1 in the middle of a thunderstorm? Well, as a refresher, let me remind you that you were created in God’s image. And God’s image is a community – a creator, a breath, a powerful Word; a maker, a redeemer, a sustainer; a Father, a Son, a Spirit; a community; a relationship. So now we have it from the Bible, and from the research. We are created for connection.

And the thing that makes connection possible is vulnerability. The only way that we can truly connect to another person is to let down the guard, and show them who we really are. To be vulnerable with them. Listen to what she says in her talk: 3:52-5:12

And already, I’m liking this reading of Genesis 22 way better. Because everyone is vulnerable in this story. Everyone has put their relationship and their very being on the line. Isaac is clearly vulnerable. Not just physically. But he trusts his father, and through his father, Isaac trusts God. And when he asks his terrifying, terrified question, “Where is the lamb?” he is putting it all on the line. Abraham is definitely vulnerable, no one would argue that. Abraham is putting his trust in this God who has so far come through for him, but what will he do if God lets him down? He’s given his whole life to this God and here he’s about to give his son’s life to this God and there had better be some kind of payoff. Not to mention that if he comes home without Isaac Sarah is going to kill him.

But here’s the thing that I like about this reading – God is also vulnerable. God is also putting it all on the line. What if Abraham refuses? What if Abraham decides to throw his lot in with another God? What if Abraham jumps the gun and kills the boy before God can stop him? A lot rides on Abraham here, and while Abe is putting his trust in God, God is putting a lot of trust in Abe. And now we have another image of God to work with. God is not just about relationship. God is about the authentic relationship that can only come when we let down our guard and place ourselves in one another’s care. When we show ourselves for who we truly are – not hiding behind masks of shame or power or who we think we are supposed to be or could be if only we could get it together; not playing parts or controlling others or being controlled by others – when we show ourselves for who we truly are, we make ourselves vulnerable. And it can be painful, but more than that, it is necessary. Absolutely necessary. 5:12-6:05

And this vulnerability will be a theme that will come up again and again as we work our way through the Narrative of the Bible this year. As we discover together what the image of God is, this image in which we were created. Because time and again, God will show God’s self, will be vulnerable, will pledge fidelity and love, and be rejected – at the foot of Sinai, in the fires of Ba’al, and finally on the cross. And even then, God will remain true – true to us and true to God’s self, showing us the fullness of God in the broken body of a vulnerable man hanging on a cross, taking on all the shame and grief and pain of the world, vulnerable to the point of death. And through that vulnerability, the same vulnerability that we see in Isaac on the mountain, we see the image of God, the image in which we were created. We see God becoming vulnerable for the sake of the whole world, reconciling the world through this broken body hanging on a cross.

But here’s the tricky part. God didn’t become vulnerable so that you wouldn’t have to. This is not God being vulnerable as an excuse for us to hide behind our masks. This vulnerability of God opens the way for our vulnerability. The enemy of vulnerability is shame. Shame is the voice that tells us over and over again that we are not good enough. Here’s how Brene Brown explains it – 13:08-14:01.

But hear this: God has no truck with shame. God will not put up with shame. God has created you for relationship, real authentic relationship. God knows that shame gets in the way, every day, that we live in a world powered and fueled by shame, a world where we hear 1000 times a day how we are not pretty enough or smart enough or rich enough or smell funny or whatever, and we have been sacrificed on the alter of shame over and over and over again. And so God has said enough – shame is not your god. Shame is not allowed to have power over you. And so your God has come into the world with the antidote to shame – vulnerability. God has shown us once and for all that vulnerability – God on the cross – will win every time over shame – the taunts of the soldiers, the handwashing of Pilate, the betrayal of the disciples. Vulnerability carries shame into the grave, buries it next to death, and rises again Easter morning, showing us the true face of God – the One who walks first into vulnerability, so that we will have the courage, the strength, the power, to follow; to become vulnerable ourselves; to live in the image in which we were made.

The Truth about Creation, the Enlightenment, and That Whole Image-of-God Thing

I take a yoga class at the YMCA once a week. I’d take it more often if I had time. I find yoga incredibly grounding and energizing. The Monday morning class is an anchor in my weekly devotional life, and when there isn’t a class, like this past Labor Day Monday, it throws me off.

At the end of every yoga class, we are instructed to take one final deep breath, and draw our hands together at our hearts, in a posture called Anjali Mudra, which just means a sign of salutation or benediction. In English, they call it “prayer hands.” And then the instructor says, “Namaste,” and the practice is ended. There are a lot of translations for namaste. It can simply mean, “hello,” or “goodbye.” In India it is a common form of greeting. Many people translate it as, “I salute, honor, greet the divine within you.” I salute the divine within you. Whenever I hear this, I think of today’s passage from Genesis. Whatever the original meaning of that word, namaste, what I hear is verses 26 and 27 of this first chapter of Genesis: “Let us make humankind in our image…so God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” In the image of God. You are the image of God.

To hold with our summer Small Catechism theme, this begs the question: What does this mean? I mean, you’ve heard it time and time again. Probably heard it often enough that you tuned it out a little bit when it was being read today, as we so often do when we hear the familiar. But what does it mean? To be created in the image of God?

Well, the first thing it means, is that you are not God. The writer Anne Lamott says that the one big difference between you and God is that God doesn’t think he’s you. So that’s the first thing we need to learn from this story, the first thing that Adam and Eve had to learn, there in the garden, when that serpent tempted them and told them that if you eat from that tree, you will be like God. And they forgot that they were already made in God’s image; they already had a God, had been created by God, and didn’t really need to be God. And so they ate. Well, that didn’t work out so well. So that’s the first thing we can learn. We are not God. We are simply made in God’s image.

In God’s image. When we want to know what it means to be made in God’s image, we can start here in Genesis. In the beginning.

The first three verses of Genesis tell us a lot about God – In the beginning, God created. God created. So God is, first of all, a creator. A creator who created everything that exists (remember that Catechism?) Still creating. Always still bringing the world into being. Always being made new.

And a wind from God, a Spirit from God, the breath of God (those are all the same word in the Hebrew and the Greek – wind, spirit, breath – ruah in the Hebrew, pneuma in the Greek) the spirit of God hovered, swept over the waters. So God is a creator. And God is Spirit. One of the things that I love about yoga is the breathing. It seems like the most basic thing we can do, to breathe. So basic, that we usually forget that we’re doing it. In yoga, we take time at the beginning of each practice to connect to our breath, the ruah, the pneuma; the breath, the Spirit, moving into and out of the our lungs. The movements of our bodies, the stretching and reaching and strengthening of each muscle, is then linked with the in and out rise and fall of our bellies, as the air moves into our lungs and our bloodstreams, bringing oxygen and life and renewal with each in breath, carrying out toxins and waste and tension with each out breath. In – stretch. Out – lengthen. In – Bend. Out – Rise. If one were crazy enough to memorize the psalms, or the Book of Job, or, say, the first chapter of Genesis, the rhythm of the poetry would move with the rhythm of their breath, and the word of God might become the very air they breathe.

And then God spoke, “Let there be light.” And there was light. So God’s Word is powerful, when God says something, things happen. God doesn’t just speak for the sake of hearing God’s own voice. God’s speech is effectual – it does things. So God is a creator. And God is Spirit. And God is a powerful, active Word.

Now, to be clear, I am a Christian, and I confess the Trinity, and so when I read these three verses, I am inclined to find there the God that I am looking for, which is a trinitarian God that the original author had never intended to write into these verses. And yet, there it is. So clearly. And as if to underscore this find, God’s powerful voice comes forth again, and says, “Let us make humankind in our image.” And this Triune God, three in one, one in three, is discovered to be a community, a relationship, speaking out of relationship, and bringing relationship into being, creating humankind, not just one person, but humankind, and placing them into relationship with all the rest of creation. In the image of God.

So. A creator; a spirit or breath; a powerful word; a community.

And this is the image in which you were created.

I don’t know what image you carry of yourself. Maybe you see yourself as a reflection of the divine, so that when someone says “namaste,” when someone greets the divine in you, you take it for granted. “Why yes, thank you. I am that good.” But I kind of doubt it. Not because you shouldn’t. But because I’ve sat with you, and talked with you, and heard your stories. I’ve watched your eyes as you’ve come up to the communion rail, and even when I don’t know the whole story, I can see that you do not believe this “image of God” business. Not deep down. Not always. Not in a way that frees you.

After all, we are modern people. We are people of science and learning. People of knowledge and history. We know that this is just a story, a poem written by some ancient people, ignorant of the facts, ignorant of the geological and cosmological truths, of shifting continents and ancient solar systems and expanding universes. It’s a myth among many myths and, though we find it quaint and lovely by way of a story, it is not real. It is not fact.

Which means that I don’t have to believe. I don’t have to believe that the world was created in 7 days, science has proven that. So if that’s not true, then why should I believe that I was created in God’s image? Why should I believe that you were created in God’s image? Why should I believe that the child being held in slavery in a sweatshop in Bangladesh so that I can have 30 different shirts was made in God’s image? Why should I believe that a Muslim or a Hindu or an atheist or a Catholic or a Missouri Synod Lutheran was made in God’s image? It’s all myth, right? It’s no more fact than the stories of Zeus or the legends of Thor. Quaint, ancient, provincial, stories.

But here’s something that is both true and fact. And I’m speaking now, not as a pastor and theologian, but as an anthropologist. That was my first love, anthropology; my first college degree was in anthropology. And here are two things that I learned in Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia, that bastion of knowledge and modernity – One, there is a big difference between Truth and Fact. A big, important difference between Truth. And Fact. And two, even more than we are people of science and learning and history, we are people of myth. We are people of story. As human beings, we live in stories, we make meaning from stories, we figure out where we belong and who we are and what matters most, through stories. Through myths. And though we spend a lot of time seeking after facts and evidence and hard science, there are truths that are different from facts. There are truths that do not depend on facts. They are simply true. The belief that truth requires facts is an idea that came out of the Enlightenment. For most of human history, Truth did not equal Fact.

Which is why this story in Genesis matters. Because it’s True. I don’t mean that I believe that the world was created in 6 literal days some 6000 years ago. I don’t mean that I believe that God literally scraped together some dirt and shaped a man, like it says in chapter 2. I don’t mean that I believe that the facts, the exact facts, support Genesis over science. What I mean is, I don’t care. I don’t care what the facts are when it comes to reading this story. What I want here is the Truth. And Truth is not particularly dependent upon facts.

And here is the Truth. You were, truly, honestly, made in God’s image. Made to create – God’s Work, Our Hands. Made to breathe in the Spirit and share that Spirit with others. Made to speak a powerful word, a word that changes the world around you. Made to live in community. To find your being in community. These things are True about you.

And here’s something else that’s True about you. This same God, the God who created you in God’s own image, also came into the world for your sake. Became human for your sake. Died on a cross, gave himself for you, to the point of death, and comes to you again and again each and every week in the bread and the wine, the body and blood of Christ, so that you will eat and drink this story, so that you will take God’s very self into your body, so that even if you do not believe that you were made in God’s image – and God knows that you find that hard to believe and God gets that – but even if you don’t believe that story, it’s okay. There’s a bigger story going on, the story of how far God will go to know you, to love you, to draw you into God’s story. Because this is not just a story, not just something in a book; this is your story. This is your story. This is your very real, very True, story.

Don’t Pick it Up Yourself! On How to Use the Office of the Keys

(Note: The minute notations in this sermon refer to the Leslie Morgan Steiner TED talk video, The Secrets of Domestic Violence, also posted above)

0 – 1:30, 2:13 – 3:25

Jesus was teaching in the synagogue, and just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over, and quite unable to stand up straight.

10:15 – 10:55 i didn’t know

She was bent over, and quite unable to stand up straight.

I don’t know what you are carrying today that has you bent over, and unable to stand up straight. But I know it’s there. I want to be clear, I’m not using this example today because it pertains to anyone in particular, but because it is so powerful, and it is something that effects each of us in some way. I personally have three very good friends who have been physically abused by their partners. Three very strong women, who have been crippled by domestic abuse, bent over, quite unable to stand up. One of them for years. She still lives in fear, she is still in some ways unable to stand up straight, to post her name and address on the internet, to have a Facebook account, to share her child’s achievements or her own the way most of us do.

But maybe this is not your burden today.

Maybe you are bent over by worry, over the problems or health or the choices of a spouse, a child, a friend.

Maybe you are bent over by death. The anniversary of a death. The grief and loneliness of moving on in the wake of death. Saying goodbye to a beloved spouse, or friend, or pet.

Maybe what weighs you down is money. How to make ends meet when resources are scarce. When healthcare costs so much. When debt begins to pile up. When jobs don’t materialize.

Many of us are bent over, unable to stand up straight, by the prospect of war. More war. Images of women and children, abused not by loved ones, but by a government charged with protecting them. And the drums of war sound louder, and we wait for decisions to be made, and bombs to be dropped, in our name; in the name of justice; in the name of peace.

She was bent over, and quite unable to stand up straight.

11 – 12:35 why doesn’t she just leave

When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, thou art loosed from thine infirmity!” Woman, thou art loosed!

This is the Office of the Keys. This is the rite of Confession. It is loosing, releasing those who are bent over, those crippled by the burdens they bear, those who are quite unable to stand up straight. It is, first, seeing them, as Jesus saw that woman. As Jesus sees you. Seeing another for who they are – looking at them and seeing, not another victim, not another disease, not another label, a generic way of classifying them – by their infirmity or their ideology or their poverty – but truly seeing them.

The Office of the Keys, the authority that Christ gave to the church, to you, gives you the power and the authority to see others for who they are, for their story and their experience. It may include pain. Scratch that. It will include pain. Because pain is a part of every story. And that is why we so often shy away, why we focus instead on labels, on their disease, or on their victimhood. If we focus on these things, if we classify and label them and sort them neatly away, then we won’t have to truly see them, we won’t have to engage their pain. We won’t have to walk with them through their pain.

But we are called by the Office of the Keys first to see them, and then to shine a light on their darkness.

13:55 – end – i’m talking about u

One of the signs of the true church, one of the signs that was named by our forebears in the faith, so that we will know the Body of Christ when we encounter it, so that we will know the community of the church when we encounter it, is the Office of the Keys. One of the ways that those around you will know, know, without a doubt that you are a baptized and freed child of God, is that you will share that freedom with those around you. You will see that woman, that child, that man, whether victim or perpetrator, you will see them, and you will hear their story, and walk with them into it. Even when it means walking into pain. You will shine a light into their darkness, and loose them from whatever weighs them down.

It sounds like a tall order. It sounds like too big a job for any one person. But when you do this, you do not go alone.

Each week, as we gather for worship, I begin the service with the public rite of confession and forgiveness. And I’ve added a few words of my own in there. I did it initially to help people unfamiliar with our worship language to understand better what we’re doing there. I usually say something to the effect of, “We all go through our weeks, carrying our joys and our sorrows, our celebrations and our sadness, and when we gather here, we lay these at the foot of the cross.”  And then we speak the words of corporate confession, all of us, together.

There are also times when individuals come to me and share their burdens, one-on-one, laying before me their hearts, telling me their story, their shame, their guilt, their pain, their grief. Private Confession. And it is hard. It is sometimes very hard to hear those things. The temptation is to pick those things up and carry them home myself. Someone has to carry this for them! I see in their eyes, they are bent over, and quite unable to stand up straight. And I love them, and I want to carry it for them. But that’s not my job.

And you, when you use your authority, when you carry out the Office of the Keys, you will be tempted to do this, too. You will be tempted to hear another’s story and to walk with them through it, and to make it your own, as if by carrying it for them, you could straighten them up yourself. But that is not what you are called to do. You are called to walk with them, yes, but not alone. You walk with them, alongside Jesus, who gives you the strength and the power and the authority to speak, “Woman, thou art loosed!” You are forgiven. You are beloved. You are free.

And by Jesus’ authority, you give her permission to lay down her burden at the foot of the cross. But you don’t pick it up! Do not pick it up yourself! Because that burden is not yours! It belongs to Jesus now, and it is his alone to carry. When you loose another’s burdens, you also loose your own. We lay them down together, because we are not strong enough to lay them down on our own. We pile them up at the foot of the cross, trusting that Christ will pick them up, and carry them onto the cross for us, and into the grave, where they will stay, while we, we are free to rise again tomorrow, loosed, and talking about it to anyone and everyone we meet.