Sermon July 19 2020  by Rev. June Fothergill

Scriptures: Genesis 28: 10-19a; Matthew 13:24-30

     A city family was looking forward to a renting a summer home in the mountains and was corresponding with a property owner who had a house to rent. “Before we agree,” the woman wrote, “you must assure us the house has a good view.”   The reply came back, “From the porch you can see Johnson’s service station and Peter’s farm but other than that there’s not much to look at except mountains and lakes.”  (p. 391-2An Encyclopedia of Humor ed. Lowell D. Streiker)

   When I was a little girl- I mean truly little before I got tall- I was thrilled to be the acolyte at the little church my father served in Jerome Idaho. I remember standing in the back of the sanctuary and looking at the big beautiful rose window at the end of the aisle and how long that aisle was!  Many years later as an adult I went back to visit that church after all those years.  And how tiny that sanctuary was!!

    It is something how a shift in perspective changes how we see a place!   

  Have you ever had the feeling of being in limbo- in a no where place?  It happens to me most when I am on a journey to somewhere and I’m stuck in an airport, not home but not yet at my destination.  I remember one time when I travelled with a group of college students in India.  We were stuck in an airport on our way to Katmandu.  But we couldn’t leave because one of our group had not yet received after a couple months of trying the visa they would need to return to India with us after our trek in Nepal.  The airport was small and hot with few travelers besides us.  In fact, we would fill the plane.  One of those dull, limbo moments but in this case also filled with fear for our friend.

   Our story from Genesis today starts out in such a no where place.  Jacob is fleeing the wrath of his brother Esau because he has tricked his father Isaac into giving to him, Jacob the blessings of the father for the first born. Jacob is the second born of the twins.  He has tricked his father and enraged is brother who cannot now receive his father’s blessing.  Now he is a fugitive, banished and threatened.  And there in the middle of no where he lays down to rest.  We can imagine his feelings.

   Like Jacob in our story today, I think that many of us can think of times in our lives when we felt in a limbo of fear. Maybe we were lost and alone, like Jacob cut off from our families and friends. Maybe we felt threatened by life or a particulate danger, like Jacob’s experience of his brother’s wrath (and maybe his guilt)   There are times in our lives when we experience dislocation.  When our lives or ways of life are threatened. 

     For some of us this pandemic has been that way: people have lost jobs, gotten sick, experienced loneliness and anxiety, been confused and afraid.  This kind of experience can happen for other reasons as well: divorce, death of a loved one, crime, family conflicts over inheritances, etc.  As Jesus parable acknowledges, the weeds of our life grow up with the wheat. 

    I have on my wall at my home office a saying from Lisa Fithian, a social justice activist.  It says, “Crisis is that edge where change is possible.”   That is what happens in this story of Jacob.  In the midst of his crisis, he falls asleep there on the hard ground and things will never be the same.

    For when he sleeps, when he is the most vulnerable, defenseless, unable to control his life- then he has a dream that changes everything.   It was a dream with two components: visual and audial. 

     The visual aspect is the famous part:  Jacob’s ladder.  Walter Brueggemann suggests that is was more like a ramp or a staircase.  It clearly opened up the idea that there are connections between heaven and earth!    Jacob may have thought that he was traveling alone, but this vision shatters his perspective.   As Brueggemann puts it, ““Now it is asserted that earth is a place of possibility because it has not been and will not be cut off from the sustaining role of God.” P. 243   Jacob is not alone!

   I have been wondering about the African American spiritual that we sang this morning. “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder, soldiers of the cross. “   I think I have tended to think of that ladder as the way to heaven that we all might climb one day, but Brueggemann’s observations invite me to think a bit deeper.   For the traffic on that staircase was both directions.  The slaves who first sang this song weren’t just going to heaven one day- they also were receiving the inspiration and presence of God in their lives right then- as they sang.  In the midst of life’s suffering and struggles- there was an opening to heaven- the dignity of being a soldier, the possibility of repentance and serving Jesus!   When singing this song, when having this dream- life is more than being outcast, banished, hurt, alone- new possibilities of God open up!

    And then God speaks directly to Jacob.  The first part of the speech is the standard fare we have heard told to Abraham and to Isaac- the promise of land and especially the promise that their family will bless all the families of the earth.  The promises of God to this family are for the sake of the world!  Jacob is invited to hear these ancestral promises for himself.  But the word of God to Jacob continues with additional promises for Jacob and his situation.” Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land.”  Vs 15

   God is with him, will protect him and bring him home.  This is good news!  The amazing thing is Jacob doesn’t deserve it!  He has only been a trickster and selfish.  He is in this difficult spot because of his own behavior. Yet, God has chosen him.  God wants him to be the keeper and steward of the promise, the covenant with his ancestors.  God takes the initiative to transform his life.  At his most vulnerable place, asleep in the middle of nowhere, God’s dream gave him a new future, God’s possibilities for his life! 

   Does this still happen?  Does God still touch and change our lives- even when we don’t deserve it, even at our most vulnerable and out of control?  We who take seriously the spiritual journey, who want to grow in Christ and be faithful disciples, this story shakes up our world.  It reminds us that it is God who transforms and forms us, not all our prayers and piety and goodness.  That sometimes in all our striving, we forget to let the dream form in us, to rest in the possibilities of God.  Dreams and possibilities based upon the grace, the undeserved love of God for us!  

     One of the exciting and scary things about the life of our church during this pandemic is that we don’t have the same control over things that we did before.  We are learning new ways to worship and connect with each other; the patterns and ways of the past are shut down for now.  Yet, when we step back, when we take time to dream, to rest, to listen deeply, to let God be God, we discover God’s possibilities for our lives too!  For one thing, learning the new technologies can be frustrating but they also open up new ways to connect to people across space and generations!   

    With these new ways of doing things with our building, I started opening up the clothing rack for a time on Wednesdays, just two people at a time with masks on.  What it has made possible is some opportunities for conversations with people that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.  In tough times, God brings us God’s possibilities!  That was God’s promise to Jacob- I will be there with you and keep you wherever you go!  This is the same promise Jesus made to his disciples.  It is the graceful presence of the Spirit that accompanied Paul and all those who would put God first in their lives ever since.

   The story of Jacob and his dream doesn’t end with him asleep. He wakes up and expresses his trust in what he has dreamed. “Surely God was in this place and I did not know it!”   The place that was just an ordinary, in the middle of no where resting spot, now becomes a sacred place- Bethel.   And Jacob proclaims that because of this experience of God’s dream and word, he will live in a new way.  This God will be his God and he will give a tithe back to God.   Of course, we notice that Jacob is still learning for he starts is vow to follow God with a big “ if”   “ If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be m God.”  (vs.20-21)  

   All I can do is grin at Jacob! So, like us! One of us.  And beginning to discover the possibilities of God!

      I want to close with the second half of my story of limbo and fear.  As I look back at the airport in Varanasi 42 years ago, I see now that surely God was in that place!  There was nothing we could do for our friend but wait. But then someone said, “We won’t get on that plane without our friend.”    While in India we had been learning about Gandhi and his nonviolence resistance to British rule.   When we decided to stay put, things shifted. We were no longer in fearful or dull limbo; we were standing up for someone.  The persons talking with the authorities on the phone let them know our stance.  Not too long after that she obtained the needed papers.  We rejoiced! 

Sermon July 12, 2020    by Rev. June Fothergill  Scriptures:  Genesis 25: 19-34, Matthew 13: 1-9

   In my little backyard we now have a bird feeder.  It’s purpose is to feed the birds but frankly I’m not sure.  Underneath it is our outside table, covered with seed that has been knocked out of the feeder and below that is the ground, where now green grass is growing up instead of the bark the landlord wants.   Now that it’s summer, the birds don’t even really need the feeder!  Seeds everywhere- what a mess.

  In the beginning of our reading from Genesis today, Isaac and Rebekah are concerned about their seed. They know it is their job to bring the next generation of the family. Yet, they cannot seem to do it, they are barren.   So, Isaac prays to God.  They will have to rely upon God for the seed of the next generation.  Then, Rebekah finally gets pregnant but this only increases her concerns for she is made most uncomfortable by this pregnancy. So much so that she takes her concerns to God, “How can I live through this? She laments.  God speaks to Rebekah.  God tells her that who she has in her womb is two babies, who will contend with each other and become two peoples.  And their relationship will not be the conventional one- the older will serve the younger.   It is as if God says to Rebekah, I am planting some strange, promising seeds in you!   Life is gonna get interesting.

  Jesus story of the sower is also unexpected.  The surprise of the story is that the sower is not a very good farmer.  I can just imagine the farmers or gardeners in the audience laughing at this sower.  What gardener or sower in their right mind when just throw the seed willy nilly. Seed was precious.  Farmers would carefully prepare their fields, so the seed had the best advantage. To throw it on the walkways or in the rock pile or neglect to weed a patch!  Forget it. This Sower is exaggerated and extravagant.  There is such an abundance of seed- it can go everywhere! 

    Both stories today tell of God’s extravagant grace.  In the story or Jacob, we see God telling Rebekah that something is afoot. God is not only providing her with children, but the assumed order of things, where the first born receives all the privileges of the household will not be the case.  There will be enough blessing for everyone.  Jesus reiterates this with his story- seed thrown everywhere- just imagine. Seeds and blessings in abundance!

  There are two questions we bring to the stories today.  What kind of soil are we?   But also, What kind of sower are we?     

    What kind of soil am I or is my community?  God wants to plant seeds of grace or blessing, in our lives, so what kind of soil are we?   The truth is that sometimes in our lives our soil can vary. Sometimes we may be open and ready to receive God’s seeds of grace and love, ready to accept God’s presence. Like Isaac, praying and trusting God to plant the seeds of life in his family.  Other times we are more like the hard path, a catlyst for others to take the seeds and spread them aboard like the birds.  Like Rebekah wanting to launch another person into life and faith.  Or we can be like Esau whose soil was rocky, and the seeds fell but not able to take root, they withered like his birthright.   Or like Jacob where there was enough soil, but weeds of conflict grew up over and over and threatened to stop the growth.  Or maybe we are like all of them who with God’s help were able to develop welcoming soil for God’s love and grace:  Esau forgiving Jacob, Jacob finding God in every crisis of his life, Isaac and Rebekah praying for their children. 

   I think this way of looking at the story of the sower can be helpful if we use it to grow in self-awareness or community awareness rather than self righteousness.  If we start to moralize about it, we run into trouble- we can either be too hard on ourselves or too hard on others.  Either way the story doesn’t help our spiritual growth.  Maybe the better way is to just simply listen to what the soil type you perceive in your life and what it tells you. 

     I think that all the kinds of soil can become good rich welcoming soil, with the help of a Master Gardener.   Surely God in Christ is that gardener and wants to help us have good soil.  For example, when the rocky soil accepts the seeds over time those roots help to break down the rocks or God helps us remove the rocks that get in the way.    In other parables Jesus talks about the weeds and the wheat growing up together until the harvest.  God can help us get rid of the weeds in our soil that keep us from fullness of life and faith.  The path can be plowed or stay as a launching pad for the seeds to go with the birds to new sites.   Just remember, God the sower throws the seed on all the soils!  There is enough seed for all of us no matter what our life circumstance, or the state of our soil.

       I took a class on Jail Ministry in seminary.  The jail chaplain told us his frustration with ministries that promised inmates that knowing Jesus would solve all their problems. Then they got out of jail and ran into all the rocks – the troubles of life- and gave up on faith.  He wanted to give his parishioners in the jail a deeper faith or at least some skills to deal with the rocks.  He also wanted them to see that the rocks with God’s help could be repurposed or broken down into sources of strength and wisdom. When my husband’s father started his farm in Pennsylvania his soil was very rocky.  So, he worked hard to clear the rocks and have a more fertile soil.  But the rocks were re purposed.  He used them to build his family a house.

      One way of looking at these stories is with the question about the soil.  But another way of looking at the text is to ask, “What kind of sowers are we?”

     Are we like the one in the parable, assured enough about the abundance of seed to sow widely, extravagantly?  Or are we miserly with our seed, only sowing in the places we think will be fertile or deserving?  What would it mean to follow the path of such an extravagant sower and trust in the abundance of God’s seeds of grace and love?

   We have talked before about how we are often the sower of seeds.  For example, we may be the sower of seeds of faith in our children and grandchildren.  We know from experience that we cannot control which of those seeds will grow and which will not.  We can only faithfully, persistently share our faith with our family.   

     I think about this also in the seeds of social change we long for such as an end to racism and homelessness.  Watching “The Vote” on PBS about the movement to get the vote for woman in our country helped me think about seed planting in this arena.  Clearly, some of the women who started the movement in Seneca Falls planted seeds that they did not get to see be harvested.  Yet, in one case the next generation- Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s daughter did see women get the right to vote- by just a few votes.   For some of us the best story in the series was of the 24-year-old Tennessee legislator who everyone thought would vote against Tennessee ratifying the constitutional amendment. Instead he was the one voted needed for it to pass! Why did he change his vote?  His mother wrote him a letter urging him to vote for it!  How we plant the seeds God has given us does matter! 

    This parable also invites us to plant or sow our seeds without concern for where they fall.  Jesus assures us that there is enough, an abundance of the seeds of life, love and grace for everyone.  We live in a society which values what is called, “outcomes.”  When I write a grant for money for a project, they want to know the measurable outcomes!   Outcomes are great, they help us focus our money and resources of time and energy where it might make the most difference. Yet, the sower is not focused on outcomes but on getting the seed sowed as far and wide as possible.  This is because unlike foundations, the sower is living in an ethos of abundance.  There is more than enough seed! 

  When I was in high school at church camp, we discovered the story of the warm fuzzies. Anyone remember that?  For us, we interpreted warm fuzzies to mean acts of affection like hugs. Warm fuzzies where actions which made another person feel good, which promoted their welfare. They were acts of love.  The story was about a place where warm fuzzies were handed out with abandon, and every time someone gave out one, there was always another in one’s warm fuzzy pouch.  Then one day a wicked witch came and told someone that they had better be careful, for if they gave out too many warm fuzzies THEY COULD RUN OUT!   Gradually this idea began to spread and soon people were being stingy with their warm fuzzies.   We loved this story and brought it home from camp and started hugging everyone!   Today, I know that warm fuzzies are not just hugs, they are the seeds of love and grace that the sower sows, that we are invited to share with our world.   The assurance of the fable and this parable is that the warm fuzzies, the seeds will not run out because of God’s abundance.

    If you remember, in the Jacob and Esau story, it looks like there is a limited amount of love and blessing in this family.  Jacob not only tricks Esau out of his birthright, he and Rebekah conspire to trick Isaac into giving Jacob, the second son, the blessing of the first son.  Trouble and hatred, conflict ensues, and Jacob flees his home.  Yet, in the end, there is enough grace and blessings for both sons.  In the end Esau and Jacob both prosper, and Esau forgives Jacob and makes peace with him.  There is blessing in abundance!

    What kind of soil do you have?   God’s seeds fall on you no matter what kind of soil. And I believe that God is a gardener who will help us with our soil issues.  What kind of sower of seeds are you?  I invite us to remember the abundance of God’s seeds of grace and justice, love and kindness.  Sow them wildly, with abandon, with persistence, with joy!      Amen.   

Sermon July 5, 2020  “The Next Generation” by Rev. June Fothergill

Scriptures: Genesis 24: 34-38,42-49,58-67; Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30

Resources: Genesis by Walter Brueggemann

Diane Roth, “Living by the Word July 5”  Christian Century, June 17. 2020

    As I was reflecting on the differences between generations, I ran across this statement from Art Sanson, “My great grandfather rode a horse, but he wouldn’t go near a train. Grandpa rode on trains, but he was afraid of automobiles. Pop drove a car, but he was afraid to fly.  I love to fly but I’m afraid to ride a horse.” (p. 129, An Encyclopedia of Humor ed.  Lowell D. Streiker)   

    When I came to my first appointment in rural E Oregon in a very small farming community, I realized that the task of the small church I served was to find and welcome the next generation of that church in that place. It was a place where the large wheat ranches still supported 2 or even 3 generations of a family.   Finding the next generation was a little easier there because the grandparents active in the church could invite their grandchildren who still lived on the farm.   The five years I was there, we made some progress, partly because I was the same age as that new generation.   I started a small group of mothers (like myself)  which became part the next generation  of that church.   Of course, now they are in their 60’s like me!    As we look around at the persons in our churches today, we see lots of gray hair and we worry about the future of the church.  Do we need to be finding and welcoming the next generation of the church? Does that that idea still make sense 35 years later?  I wonder.

   The Genesis passage today is about a change of generations.  It begins with Abraham posing the problem of finding an appropriate wife for his son Isaac.  Master Abraham asks his servant to go to the place where his family of origin resides and look for a wife for Isaac.  The servant agrees to go.  Abraham trusts that God will help his servant and the servant prays to God to make his journey successful. The story ends with the Master now being Isaac, who takes Rebekah to be his wife, loves her and is comforted from his mother’s death.  No mention of Abraham, the new generation has begun.  The problem of how the promise of Abraham will continue into the future is solved with the coming of Rebekah and her marriage to Isaac.  The story now shifts to a new generation.

    Walter Brueggemann in commenting on this story notices that it is about trusting God at work in ordinary human life.  The servant asks for God to show him a certain kind of young woman and she shows up at the well.    Rebekah not only offers him a drink but works hard to water all his camels. She shows herself to be strong, compassionate and hospitable. Oh, and the servant notices that she is nice to look at too!  And a virgin (how does he know?)  And then, the good news comes, she is from the right family!  Blessings, upon blessings!  Brueggemann suggests that the story provides us with a, “renewed awareness of the buoyant serenity in which faith lives.”  (p. 201)

     I really like the idea of buoyancy of faith.  Maybe sometimes it is buoyant serenity but sometimes it is just buoyant- able to stay afloat no matter what the water is doing! Certainly, Brueggemann is referring to the faith of Abraham and the servant that this search for a proper wife and the future of the promise will all go well.  But I also see a buoyancy in Rebekah herself. Not just the good humor that helps out a stranger but the willingness to say “Yes,” to the adventure of going with this stranger to a new land and husband.  She doesn’t have any choice about the marriage itself- that is taken care of through the negotiations and the prosperity that Abraham’s servant shows.  Still, when her family wants her to stay at home longer, she is ready to go. She has a buoyancy of grace and faith for the adventure ahead.

  I turned to the dictionary for more about the word buoyancy.  One definition was an elasticity of spirit.  Wow, so what is elasticity?  I looked that up too:  Elasticity- the capacity for resisting or overcoming depression, flexibility, the state of being able to recover shape after deformation or springing back.  So, I see that buoyancy is the capacity to deal in positive ways with changes: being able to stay afloat, to recover oneself, to find cheerfulness.  It is the kind of faith that faces the problems and then finds ways to trust God in the midst of them and for the outcomes.  That is what Abraham and his servant do. They trust that God will work through the everyday encounters of their lives with positive outcomes for the family, for the promise.

      I think as we face our own generational issues, perhaps we can learn from Abraham.  Can we trust that the promise of Christ and his grace will find a way to reach the hearts of a new generation?  I think we can learn to develop a buoyant serenity of faith that God will provide for the next generation of our church.  We can keep faithfully looking for those new folks with a cheerful trust in God and the possibilities of relationship.

      All these attributes of buoyant faith help me to think about finding and welcoming a new generation of our church differently.  As I look at the idea 35 years later, I have some reservations.  I realize that we assumed that the younger people would want to join our church the way it was.  My experience since is that that is not readily the case.  Younger people care about their families, their communities and want to be open to the Spirit.  Yet, the structures of the church and our traditions do not always connect readily to them.    

      Then I imagine us becoming a buoyant, open, flexible and relationship focused faith community.  This openness to relationship will help us build new friendships. This buoyancy will help us to be flexible.   Hum.  People who can show how to have elasticity of Spirit.  Who have been through troubles and learned the power of love and faith to overcome and persevere.  Who help each other through the tough times.  I think that we will find some Rebekah’s out there willing to say “yes” to that kind of buoyant faith.   

   For finally, this passage invites us to think about God as the God of relationships. In the story, God is seen as behind the match making of Rebekah and Isaac.   As Diane Roth in a piece in the Christian Century put it, God as matchmaker.  She found a story of the rabbis from Ellen Frankel’s commentary The Five Books of Miriam. 

Rabbi Yose bar Halafta is asked by a Roman matron, “You claim that your God created the world in six days. Then what has He been doing since then? “

“All this time the Holy One has been making matches.”

“That is no great feat!” declared the matron, “ I can do that just as well.”

But Rabbi Yose warned her, “It is not as simple as you think. The Holy One blessed be He, considers making matches as difficult as splitting the Red Sea.”

Diane comments, “It’s an intriguing thought. What if all God does, every day is make matches? What if that is, in fact the only way that God transforms the world- through matchmaking, which is to say through human relationships? “( p. 25  “Living by the Word”, by Diane Roth, Christian Century June 17, 2020)

     That is what Rebekah was willing to leave home for. That is that made the young women in Wasco thirty odd years ago become the church.  And, I have found that it is in relationships, in our willingness to come together and entrust our relationships to God that we discover the buoyancy of faith, the elasticity of Spirit.    As Diane puts it, “Our lives, our loves are holy, the product of a loving God. If we take God seriously as match maker, it means that we each in our own way contribute to the coming of God’s reign. It is embodied in us and in our children and in our children’s children to the thousandth generation.  

     And it means that we are match makers too, that it is our job to bring people together. Our main way of changing the world is through the relationships we create and nurture. The work of bringing people together is holy. First in families and then in churches we learn that we live not for ourselves but for one another.” (Diane Roth p. 25)   We come together for the sake of the world.   When we wake up to that we begin to realize the buoyancy of faith we have together.    We find ways to reach across the generations.

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