Sunday, December 28, 2014

"I Have Good News and Bad News"

Text: Luke 2:22-40

Today’s Gospel story offers something for everyone: characters who follow God through faithful adherence to customs and those who will follow God by breaking with custom; female characters who are as significant as the male; characters from infancy to old age. In fact, this story holds the hopes of at least three generations:  a child who embodies hope, loving parents who carry their best hopes in their arms, faithful elders whose hopes are finally realized though they could have given up on hope years before. And this story holds, in the words of a carol, "the hopes and fears of all the years.” The truth is, I have some good news for you, and some bad news. 

Some would say it’s very good news that Mary and Joseph take their child to the Temple to initiate him into an ancient religious tradition they’d followed to a T. But strict traditionalists might view it as unfortunate that Jesus would eventually critique much about that tradition. He later understood his religion’s essence well enough and appreciated its best parts fully enough to help reform it—because, like all religious systems, it needed to change to remain vital and faithful. So even though Simeon and Anna are symbols of the religious status quo, they bless a baby who will later violate some of their religious laws—by healing on the Sabbath, for example. They bless the child though their religious leaders would oppose his future ministry. Ironically, the seeds of radical reform can grow in the sure and steady soil of tradition.   

The bad news is that all expressions of Christ’s church are imperfect, but the good news is that a self-correcting mechanism is built into the church’s enduring traditions. This story honors those who have remained faithful to traditional pieties and practices but also those who question and upend those traditions. As soon as faithful Simeon blesses this child, he correctly predicts that Jesus will one day be opposed by the very tradition in which he was dedicated, because it is a tradition Jesus will challenge and change.  This story should warn us—and encourages us—that the children raised to follow our dearly held church traditions will bring about saving changes the tradition will then oppose. Yet the church, in every generation, must bless the new generation within the very tradition they will eventually reshape, much to our discomfort, much to our potential benefit. The Bad News is that tradition is always Breaking Down. The Good News is that tradition is always Re-forming.

Good and bad news can also be seen in the words of Simeon. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all children were to receive Simeon’s blessing—and all parents receive his warning? Because all of us share in Christ’s mission in this post-Christmas world. Can you picture the old man’s frail arms scooping up the infant, his quavering voice declaring:  “Well, I can die happy now because I have seen what it’s all about. My responsibility is over: I see at last how our messed up world will be rescued”?

Now plenty of parents have heard their children praised and have delighted to think that others have recognized their children’s adorable qualities. But Simeon’s praise is so excessive it’s scary. Good news is starting to sound less good—and then the news grows worse with a discomfiting prediction, spoken directly to Mary in a tone suddenly ominous: 

“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2: 34-35).

He’s saying, first of all, that this child’s saving way involves first a falling and then a rising. This image of falling in order to rise prefigures Jesus’ death and resurrection but is also at the core of many spiritual teaching. Then Simeon adds, “This child’s way will be seen as a threat and will be opposed.” Finally, he tells the young mother, “Your child will cause people—even you, Mary—to grapple with their inner thoughts. This little one is going to cause YOU pain. How hard it will be to turn him loose, to truly dedicate him to the work of bringing God’s peace and love into a violent world. Those who oppose God ways of peace and justice will one day hurt him and when they do, you will feel your very soul pierced.  You already know, young mother, how your heart is all entwined in his. Are you really ready to dedicate him to the Lord, Mary?  Can you love him enough and trust God enough to give up your own expectations of and for him?  You agreed to bear him.  Can you now give him back to God in this dedication ceremony?  Because, Mary, this child can change the world. But to fulfill his purpose, you must let him be who he is. You must believe that his destiny is bigger than fulfilling your expectations. You must teach him that the future of the world is, in some way YOU don’t understand, dependent upon him. It’s good news and bad news, dear girl. The good news is we have our hero. The bad news is –he’s your son, and his life must be lived for others and his goodness will be opposed.  Still want to dedicate him, young mother?”

Maybe at this point Mary wanted to back out of her vow to God.  Or maybe in later years Mary’s kinswoman Elizabeth confided her fears for son John. As word reached them about John’s reputation for challenging the authorities, maybe Elizabeth whispered to Mary that she wished she’d soft-pedaled some of that religious stuff. And surely Mary feared, after John’s beheading, what Jesus’s calling might exact. Maybe you, too, have helped nurture children into adulthood—loved and admired them—but also worried about where their calling might take them. 

A little over six years ago, while our daughter was finishing law school and interning in Nashville’s public defender’s office where she’s now an assistant PD, she was part of the team defending a man the media dubbed “the wooded rapist”—and whose conviction was eventually covered on NBC’s Dateline. G emailed us a news clip from the trial that shows her walking in with the accused. He wears a yellow jumpsuit that signifies the most dangerous classification of inmates. He is guarded by two courtroom officers. So encumbered by shackles, he needs assistance from my child to be seated. And there he sits at the defense table, shoulder to shoulder, with my baby girl. Six years later, I’m accustomed to the fact that G. spends most of her time in the jail meeting with folks charged with minor to heinous crimes. But six years ago, even though I supported my daughter's vocation, I was disturbed to see with my own eyes the child I’d once protected in my arms sitting beside a man accused of a series of terrible acts. Georgia rightly reminds me that her own calling is to serve “the least of these,” but a sword can pierce a mother in moments when she sees, when she literally sees, what that calling might exact.

Last Sunday I wondered if Mary could possibly have known that her son would follow a scandalous and dangerous calling? This Sunday we wonder if Mary and Joseph glimpsed both the good and bad of Simeon’s prophecy and the “good news” that Anna began sharing about this child.

And now I’m wondering, what if  the prophet Anna and elder Simeon, like most preachers and prophets, gave to Jesus’s family the same essential blessings and warnings they had given to countless other families before?  What if Anna and Simeon had been encouraging and challenging young parents for decades. But what if this were the first time their words were believed, the first time a young couple had the courage and faith in God to live their lives and raise their child as if the world’s salvation depended upon that child?  What would it mean to our world if each one of us treated the children in our lives as if they have the potential to heal the world’s brokenness? How would our parenting be different? Our grandparenting? Our care for children in our congregation and our community? How might we treat differently a sick child in Sierra Leon, a battered child in Guatemala, a hungry child in Alabama Village, an ignored child living across the street?

So here’s what I want you to ponder:  If we truly believe the Christmas message that God works through incarnation, and that the Christ event continues today through the Church, then should we not regard every child today as potential vessels of the Christ light? You don’t have to be a parent to see how everything changes for you if you believe that. 

What if Anna had been whispering to little girls and young mothers down through the years a blessing that said, “You are so special. God will use you to set this world to rights. And little Mother, how blessed you are to love this very child.” What if Simeon had held boy babies up to God, day after day, with this message for hundreds of fathers: “Your son is special. He will save his people. He will bring light. He is the one.” And isn't this what baptism should convey--as our children follow Jesus in baptism? What if prophecy is not so much about predicting a glorious future for a special individual as it is a fervent hope for all humanity? What if there really is in all of us that spark of the divine, we who are made in God’s image, we who are called to be like Christ? 

If that is so, our healing work will be opposed. The way is not easy for parents and children, for heroes and their mothers and fathers, for those who follow the Christ and try to live up to and into a calling to be peacemakers and justice seekers. The way is not easy for those who try to reform religion among the religious. The way is not easy. That’s the bad news. The good news is . . . well, who can say it better than an earlier Hebrew prophet, Isaiah?

“A little child will lead them.”

Prayer: Forgive us, O God, for not realizing that sometimes the bad news contains the good news. Forgive us for squandering opportunities to bless your children.  Help us, O God, to see your image in one another.  Direct us, God, to be faithful to the essentials and to challenge the inconsistencies.  

Sunday, December 21, 2014

"Mary, Did You Know?"

Gospel text:  Luke 1:26-56

“Mary, Did You Know?”, a song we’re hearing a lot this season thanks to Pentatonix, makes me wonder what Mary could NOT have known. According to today’s Gospel reading, the angel Gabriel told Mary she would give birth to an extraordinary son who would “be great” and would be called “the Son of the Most High” and would be given the “the throne of his ancestor David”(Luke 1: 32). But how would Mary have understood that? If a Jewish peasant were to take back the throne of David, a major shift would have to take place in the political conditions of a subjugated people. Mary must have heard the good news Gabriel brought to her as good news for all her people—emboldening her to sing a subversive song we now call the Magificat to extol the God who would bring down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly (Luke 1:52).   

But Mary couldn’t anticipate who her baby would become.  Even nowadays, when ultrasounds tell expectant parents the gender of their child, not much else can be predicted.  S__ ­­and K__ know their baby will be a boy; but it will be a long time before they will know how tall he’ll become or what his favorite foods will be. K__ and S__ will wonder and hope and dream about the man he’ll grow into for a long, long time.

You and I will have the joy of watching with them as God shapes a new baby boy into a fine young man. Our faith community can be ready to assure this child and his mothers that he is growing into exactly the person this world needs at this hour.

Because each new baby born into this broken, tired, troubled world is potentially the next Messiah.

What I mean by that is every little girl or boy can become our savior by living God’s love so fully, so decisively, so radically, so hopefully that salvation comes to our earth. I name the child we’re expecting in our congregation as our savior without any expectation that a new star will settle over Mobile on the night of his birth and without any hope he’ll enter this world wearing a halo. (If he does, be sure to take pictures, S__.) I’m not contradicting the distinctly Christian meanings of the words messiah and salvation—and there have been many Christian meanings of these terms over the centuries. I’m not predicting this child’s impact as if I’m some kind of prophet. I’m simply professing this belief: our violent, selfish world can be changed one life at a time—by love and love alone. That is the saving Gospel Jesus lived and preached. “Our” new baby has the potential to live God’s love in saving ways. I think Mary knew that about her baby.

Mary, did you know that your Baby Boy would save our sons and daughters?

A new baby can begin his saving work in our lives from the very start. Through his vulnerability, WE are required to care.  God comes to us in the face of a defenseless child who calls forth our love. 

Our very planet is saved when we think beyond the span of our brief lives to the needs of the next generation and the next. Environmentalists value a saying from the Iroquois Nations that we should make decisions with a view toward the impact on seven generations into the future.  If we are not thinking about our children and their future children and their children when we make choices, then we are not living in sustainable ways, meaning we are destroying rather than saving our earth. A new baby calls us to care about conditions on this planet even after we are gone. And so we are saved by caring for this baby and each new baby. We must think about the world he or she will inherit. We must prepare them then to think about and protect the world their children will inherit.

Mary, did you know . . . when you kiss your little baby you kissed the face of God?

Thirteen years and one day ago, a baby girl was born to T__ and K__.  Thirteen years ago those new parents kissed her sweet face, and I’m pretty sure they knew they were kissing the face of God. They knew, in that season of Advent, on the darkest days of the year, that God was with them in a special way because of a tiny infant. 

But let me step back if I’m too close to confusing the sacred power of love with mere sentimentality, as we’re susceptible to doing at this time of year. Let me not romanticize babies or mothers. Instead, let me, let us, see in the ancient story these representatives of vulnerability. Advent tells us that we all live lives pregnant with possibility. And responsibility.

What a terrible responsibility to deliver a baby into a world where he would be feared and despised by the dominant culture. According to Matthew’s account, by the time Jesus was two, King Herod would order the murder of all male Jewish babies. Mary’s fears and hopes for her child were tied up with her fears and hopes for an entire people. That meant Jesus would learn that his life mattered not just to his parents, but to his people. Mary’s love for her son was part of her love for her people. God’s love for that new baby was part of God’s larger love for humanity. Mary sang a protest song about a God who would “scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts” and bring down the powerful and “fill the hungry with good things” but send the rich away empty” (Luke 1: 52-53).  Hope for one child is tied to the welfare of all.

As these children are saved, so are we. We’ll be saved when we recognize the face of God among young men gunned down by a militarized police force, among the poor who are getting poorer, among the victims of the Ebola virus and their heroic nurses and doctor, in the tenderness of two young mothers whose marriage is blessed by this church but not by the state of Alabama. Well guess what, Alabama? God didn’t care about official marital status in choosing the mother of Jesus. In fact, the story of Jesus’s birth stresses that it’s the unlikely ones who do the saving; it’s the folks some consider disreputable who are most likely to usher in the reign of God’s peace and justice.

The Orthodox Church calls Mary Theotokos--meaning “God bearer”, “the one who gives birth to God.” I like to think we’re all a bit pregnant with God. Pregnancy, like Advent, is a season of waiting and of not knowing, of anticipating the emergence of God in our world, of feeling within us a maturing and expanding love. 

The Mother of Jesus helps us appreciate the maternal in God—as does my favorite medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich. Lady Julian wrote a book describing visions she had of Christ, and that fourteenth century book called Showings became the first book written by a woman in the English language. She interpreted her visions about Christ this way:  “Love was his meaning.  Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For Love. So I was taught that love is our Lord’s meaning.”

Interestingly, she visualized the loving Christ at times in a feminine form. She wrote, for example, that “Jesus is our true Mother.” Seeing the feminized Jesus altered her imagery for the sacrament of Holy Communion. Quaintly, she explained, “A mother can give her child milk to suck, but our dear mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and he does so most courteously and most tenderly with the holy sacrament, which is the precious food of life itself. . . . The mother can lay the child tenderly to her breast, but our tender mother Jesus, he can familiarly lead us to his blessed breast through his sweet open side . . . .”

The Eucharistic meal is interpreted by Julian as a mother’s giving of her body’s milk for her child.  For love.

Mary, the mother of Mother Jesus (to use Julian’s metaphor), loved her own child. But she loved others enough to teach her son a kind of love that might require him to give of himself. Did Mary know that we cannot love only our children if we want to love our children truly?

When I was a new mother, another new mother in my church learned that her baby had a medical condition that prevented the child from being able to digest any formula or milk other than human breast milk. Unfortunately, that mother was not able to produce milk for her baby. So I became one of a few other mothers in the area who volunteered for many months to express breast milk to help feed another child. I hate to admit it, but in the earliest days of anxious motherhood, I worried my body wouldn’t produce enough milk for my child and this other baby, too. I was afraid to share. But here’s the miracle of the human body and the human heart: the more you nurse a child, the more milk your body produces; the more you give, the greater your supply grows. My child and my friend’s child grew fat and healthy. My love for my child could not be limited to my love for my child. Love was all of a piece.

Mary, did you know that your child could not be fully himself until he could give himself with love for others?  Mary, did you know, as Julian did, that the meaning is love?  Mary, did you know your child would save us with love?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Leveled Path of Peace

Texts: Isaiah 40: 1-11;  Psalm 85: 8-11; Mark 1: 1-8     

It’s hard to imagine “peace on earth” when a double homicide dominates the local headlines, when Eric Garner’s death at the hands of a New York police officer claims national concern, when the deaths of an American and a South African journalist in Yemen make international news. Thank God, the violence you and I usually encounter--or create--is not physical. 

Johan Galtung, a peacemaking strategist, says that in addition to physical violence, there are two other types: "structural" violence and "cultural" violence (qtd. in Peterson 41).The life and teachings of Jesus, the writings of St. Paul, the words of the Psalmist, and the prophecies of Isaiah condemn these less obvious impediments to God’s peace.

Let’s first consider peaceful responses to physical violence—which is the type of violence easiest to recognize and the type I experienced this week.

George and I were returning from our evening walk last Wednesday with new dog Rascal. A few months ago Rascal joined our family, having previously been the victim of considerable violence. He came to us from a rescue organization with buckshot pellets embedded in his back and hindquarters, blind in one eye, a slight limp from being hit by a car, and scars up and down one leg consistent with bite marks. And he was/is heart worm positive. But this little fella is 40 pounds of insistent, in-your-face affection and hilarity. Those eyes—one gazing at you adoringly, the other weirdly vacant—melt your heart. He’s an odd and compact combination of being cuddly and street-wise—like one of the characters the young Mickey Rooney used to play. I fell in love with him the first time he snuggled up.

On Wednesday night I was leading Rascal on his leash back into our yard when another dog came toward us out of the dark in a running crouch. Two seconds later three more large dogs charged us. I remember mainly the sounds: snarling and barking from the pack and doggie screams from Rascal. George, who was trailing about fifteen feet behind us, and two neighbors got to us fairly quickly. George tried kicking the other dogs away but they kept coming back into the vicious vortex. One neighbor ran inside her house to get a spray bottle of water and came back with it to distract the dogs. I remember screaming for Rascal and trying to pick him up, but he had slipped his collar and leash. The other dogs darted in and out on every side. I thought they were killing him. I didn't know what to do. Somehow he and I escaped into our garage and just hunkered down between our two cars for a long time. After the dogs’ owner got control of the other dogs and put them in her home, she walked back to our yard and into our garage to see if we were okay. She was crying, breathing hard. I just kept saying, “We’re alright. We’re alright,” even though I couldn’t really assess our injuries yet. I didn’t realize until I got ready for bed later that I had blood all over my face.

Turns out we were alright—no stitches required. Pain meds and an oral antibiotic for poor Rascal who had at least six bite wounds. Simple first aid for a few minor bites on my hands. Since then the dogs’ owners and I have talked to make sure nothing like that happens again.   

Here’s what haunts me most about that situation. I am still wondering what I should have done. I didn’t know how to stop the violence. But I’m pretty sure that screaming Rascal’s name and plunging my hands into a circle of bared teeth was one of the worst things I could have done. My fear for Rascal only added to the agitation and frenzy.

Of course, in the midst of conflict there’s usually no time to develop a plan. In the darkness of night there’s usually slim hope for a peaceful response. But peacemakers believe we can be taught strategies for creative nonviolence, and we can practice those strategies. Our very liturgy--which weekly involves speaking words of peace to one another, holding concerns for the world in empathetic prayer, and gathering at the Table of peace as sisters and brothers--instills these habits of thought and action.

That’s why Jesus taught a way, a holistic way to live in this world. His way of discipling others was not a simplistic set of rules. His way was a spiritual discipline that could be practiced, a spiritual disposition that could developed in order to live in right relationship with God, neighbors, and ourselves. Jesus’s “third way,” spelled out most clearly in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, was neither to respond to violence with more violence, nor to submit to violence and degradation, but to actively oppose violence with creative nonviolence.

Look at the first verse of the Gospel of Mark, which, you'll note, is not a complete sentence. That's why some believe Mark 1:1 was intended as something like a title or subtitle launching this Gospel and declaring its intention. If so, the entire Gospel of Mark is aimed at sharing the Good News (or gospel) of Jesus Christ. Mark’s method for doing so is to show how Jesus discipled others in his ways. As we work through the book of Mark this year, we’ll observe Jesus instructing his followers in a way of living and, as readers of that Gospel, we can be instructed, too.

While Matthew and Luke’s Gospels start with nativity stories (two different versions) and John’s Gospel starts with a poem about the pre-existing Word coming among us, Mark begins with another beginning: Jesus’s ministry, as heralded by John the baptizer. John is the one who prepares the way OF the Lord. I used to think that John was preparing the way FOR the Lord, merely announcing the coming of the Lord. But John is saying he’s preparing the way OF the Lord, preparing the people of Jesus’s day and preparing readers of Mark’s Gospel, with instruction in the Way, the way of God, through which God’s fullest reign can be ushered in.

That way is the way of peace. That way should be the work of the Church.

Let’s consider two other forms of violence that disrupt God’s peace as surely as physical violence does.

Structural violence is, says Galtung, “built into the very social, political, and economic systems that govern societies, states, and the world. It is the different allocations of good, resources, opportunities, between different groups, classes, genders, nationalities, etc.”  (p. 41).  In reporting on Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson last week for the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates exposed the invisible (and often unspeakable) rules and structures that perpetuate injustices in our country. He lamented, “Black people know what cannot be said. What clearly cannot be said is that the events of Ferguson do not begin with Michael Brown lying dead in the street, but with policies set forth by government at every level” (

The third form of violence is cultural/relational, which Galtung says are those “aspects of a culture that legitimize violence and make violence seem like an acceptable means of responding to conflict. It’s a way a community or individuals view themselves in relation to themselves, to others, and the world.  It often supports a sense of superiority over, and dehumanization of other cultures.” (qtd. in Peterson, 41).

The violence of actions and words and attitudes that one individual uses against another is easy to spot even if it’s not easy to address. The violence committed against an “underdog” can even be measurable: six puncture wounds on the little dog and none on the big dogs.  But structural and cultural violence isn’t always so obvious. That’s why many Christians haven’t recognized that scriptures—from Isaiah to the Gospels—actually decry economic and political injustices as forms of violence. 

Look at today’s passage from Isaiah, which the writer of Mark later paraphrased.

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”

The prophet recognizes that a leveling must occur if we’re to receive God, if God’s way is to be created. Figurative valleys must be elevated; symbolic hills need to be leveled; God’s way, the Lord’s “highway” must be level. God’s kingdom lifts up the lowly and eliminates unfair privilege. Through symbolic topography, Isaiah implies that reparations may need to be made, systems equalized, and economic disparities corrected before we can receive God into our midst. Genuine peace cannot exist alongside injustice. The Roman Empire's "peace" during Jesus’s time—pax Romana—was a false peace maintained through fearsome threats and military domination.  Genuine peace is not mere absence of protest or conflict. It’s not passive, doormat acceptance of unjust treatment or degradation, which would allow violence to the human spirit. Living with hunger, being subjected to verbal abuse, being denied opportunity and choice and self-expression are forms of violence. Real peace is founded on fairness and equality and honoring the dignity of all.

The Psalmist put it this way:  “Righteousness (which means social/economic justice in the Hebrew Bible) and peace kiss each other.”  Peace and justice must kiss.

We are bearers and bringers of Good News of God’s peaceful reign. 

People of faith must practice empathy and compassion in order to live nonviolently. People of faith must “study war no more” but instead study and think critically and creatively about peace and expose societal structures to make level the pathway for God’s peace.  Followers of Jesus are called to treat the “least” in society with a certain privilege to honor Jesus as we lift up the valleys and lower the hills. 

As I recall my unpreparedness for violence against my dog Rascal, I imagine Advent as proactively preparatory for the coming of the Christ, calling us think through our commitments to nonviolence and how we want to live that out. If we wait until we are in conflict with friend or family member to develop a plan of nonviolence, we may be as unprepared as I was during a dog fight. If we have not become sensitized to cultural and structural inequities, we might be as ill-equipped to work for genuine peace as the Romans with their phony Pax Romana. If we are not cultivating the spirit of peace within, we'll have no inner resources for peacemaking in the world.

John the Baptist calls us to prepare the way of peace—in our relationships, in our society’s structures—through a commitment not only to peace but to justice.  Jesus taught us how.

Peterson, Ken, ed.  Engaging Our Conflicts: An Exploration of Nonviolent Peacemaking.  Louisville: JustFaith Ministries, 2009.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Hope from the Darkness

Texts: Isaiah 64: 1-9; Mark 13: 24-37

The following was posted on Facebook this week by Emily Padilla, a founding member of Open Table now living in another state:
I teach in Sanford, Florida where Trayvon Martin was killed. I've spent most of my life in Missouri where Michael Brown was killed. I've read countless articles about whether or not Darren Wilson should have been indicted, but some of us are missing the most important part of this.

For the past few weeks, my American lit students (mostly African American, most living in Sanford at the time of Trayvon Martin) have been debating the existence of the American Dream. It is heartbreaking to watch a bright group of 17-year olds become so cynical and hopeless. Our society has done this to them.

Vandalism and looting are awful, but before we condemn these people, think about the last time you had to fight for your dignity and humanity. If you're like me, you've probably never had to. Which is why we will never understand.    

God bless Emily for understanding that a comprehensive and communal tragedy hovering over the tragic deaths of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and others is the death of hope for her 17-year-olds and so many others.

I hope we did not light the Advent Candle of Hope this morning out of a reflexive habit, as if the spell of hopelessness can be broken with an Advent litany, as if hope can be rekindled simply by lighting a purple candle.  

I want us to take seriously the short-day, long-night darkness of this season of the year. I want us to appreciate the despair of disappointed people, the longings of the human heart. I want us to commend wise and caring teachers like Emily who mourn the hopelessness of her students and want us to at least TRY to understand her students’ daily fight for their “dignity and humanity.” I want us to acknowledge that before there is hope, there is deep longing; before there can be healing, there must be waiting, lamentation, silence, humility, justice. We must sit in the darkest of the darkness before the light of hope dawns.

I want the poetry of the prophet Isaiah to move us—as it was intended to move God—to see injustices done to the poor.  I want to follow Isaiah’s example and beg God to “tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake . . . so that the nations might tremble!” I want us to pray just as audaciously for those who are mistreated and, as Isaiah did, I want us to demand that God “consider [that] we are ALL [God's] people.” And then let’s hope that justice will have the final say.

Hope seems absent from the Gospel lesson in Mark 13. It begins ominously: “But in those days after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” But you don’t have to believe in the highly contrived “rapture” theology to find the hope here.

Bible scholars often point out that Mark may be mixing two different understandings of Christ’s return circulating then in the Marcan community. If you reread Mark 13, you’ll see the writer makes the contradictory claims both to know the signs of Jesus’s return and that no one knows when Jesus will return and usher in God's fullest reign. Theologian David Lose teases out an interesting point that may initially seem unrelated to our search for hope in this passage but is on point.  He draws a parallel between the four specific time periods mentioned in this reading and in the next chapter of Mark.
Mark 13: 35-36 reads, “Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”     
Lose believes this “mini-parable about the eventual return of the Son of Man foreshadows the betrayal, trial and denial of Jesus, narrated in the following chapter.” In Mark 13 “Jesus warns that the servants do not know whether the master will come back to his house in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn. . . . Now notice the way in which Mark [in the next chapter] divides the scenes leading up to the crucifixion”: Scene 1 is the Last Supper, beginning, “When it was evening he came with the twelve…” (14:17). Scene 2 is Jesus’ prayer and betrayal: “And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy” (14:40) because it was the middle of the night. Scene 3 is the close of Jesus’ trial with Peter denying Jesus for the third time just as the cock crowed for the second time” (14:71-72a). 4) And the Scene 4 is Jesus is delivered to Pilate for trial “As soon as it was morning”(15:1).

Lose suggests Mark names four time periods connected to the return of the Son of Man and these same time periods connected to Christ's Passion story in order to signal that Jesus's death was itself a kind of Advent. By paralleling the Son of Man’s return in glory with Jesus’s ignoble arrest, punishment and death, we recognize Jesus’s revelation comes in the darkest of times. From this perspective, Mark “invites us to imagine that whenever Jesus may come again – whether in the imminent or distant future – all of our anticipation and preparation of Jesus’ second advent should be shaped by his first advent in the form of a vulnerable infant and as a man hanging on a tree. More than that . . .  Mark is inviting us to look for Jesus – even here, even now – in similar places of vulnerability, openness, and need" (

Imagine: our very weaknesses can be a cause for hope. As some recovering alcoholics attest, they are eventually grateful for the time they hit rock bottom because it allowed them finally to recognize their disease and surrender to recovery.

Here’s why the advent message of hope begins on one of the darkest days of the year and why the Advent Sunday of hope springs from a context of tragedy and despair and why the Advent scriptures reference injustices: Jesus’s coming into this world happened, as one Christmas carol names it, “in the bleak midwinter.” And Jesus’s continuing advents—God’s continual inbreakings into our lives—happen in moments of need and vulnerability. Often it’s in dark times that we see clearly not only what is wrong but how to right that wrong. Hope begins precisely at the apex of hopelessness just as dawn can come only after the dead of night.

Last week Reza Aslan, author of Jesus the Zealot, was asked in a radio interview what gave him hope. He argued that Fundamentalist reactivity can be seen as a sign of hope. “We have a progressive society that is unstoppable,” he explained.  “Fundamentalism is a reaction against the natural progress of society. Fundamentalism is reacting to progress. I focus on progress, not the reaction to the progress.” (

What gives you the most hope?  Have you considered the very reactivity of people who are, for instance, racist or homophobic or anti-environment might be a good sign, evidence that some prejudices and ignorance are in their death throes? Is it possible that the most strident voices of hate are the most desperate because they realize on some level that they have lost their power to control public opinion and policy?

Advent hope not only is birthed in vulnerability and powerlessness; it’s also, like any pregnancy, a process of waiting. Time will aid progress. There's much we cannot control. Sometimes we simply have to wait. And wait. For the coming of the light.

A rabbi once asked his students, "How can a person tell when the darkness ends and the new day is beginning?" After thinking for a moment, one student replied, "It is when there is enough light to see an animal in the distance and be able to tell if it is a sheep or a goat." Another student ventured, "It is when there is enough light to see a tree, and tell if it is a fig or an oak tree." The old rabbi gently said, "No. It is when you can see another person coming towards you and recognize that person as your sister or brother. For if you cannot recognize in another's face the face of your brother or sister, the darkness has not yet begun to lift, and the light has not yet come.”  

Can you think of a time when you wish you’d waited for more light before you reacted to someone without first recognizing them as your sister or brother?

My friend, if you’re wondering where to begin looking for a return appearance of the Christ, look out into the darkness. Look until you can see the figure approaching you and recognize that person as your sister and brother. For surely they are. And surely they are Christ Jesus. And surely in the space between the darkness and the light we’ll find our hope.

The Advent season begins with hope. But before there can be hope, there must be ardent longing—which is different from wishing. What you LONG for can’t fit inside a Christmas stocking or under a tree. What you long for is God-sized, God-inspired. Advent longing tunes us to God’s longings for justice, for peace, for love. Yes, your individual cares and pains and fears and desires matter. But until your longing encompasses the groanings of this world, you may be wishing rather than hoping. Tune your heart to God’s longings. 

Hope persists in community and patiently across time. As Reinhold Niebuhr said: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope." 

We are not alone.  This moment in time is not all that matters.  May God use you, as God used Jesus, to fulfill the deep and godly longings of this world.  May we persist in hope.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Defending the Least of These

Texts:  Ezekiel 34: 15-22;  Matthew 25: 31-47

Seventy-eight-year-old Mattie Rigsbee embodies today’s Gospel reading. She’s the most loveable character in all Southern literature—well, second only to Atticus Finch—and you can meet her in Clyde Edgerton’s novel, Walking Across Egypt. Mattie makes the best fried chicken and pies and biscuits. She’s a widow who lives alone in small-town North Carolina. She’s a Southern Baptist who plays hymns on the piano at night, her late husband’s picture looking down upon her. One night she muses that “Well, after all was said and done, after all was said and done, she had Jesus. She would always have Jesus. But. But it wadn’t his way to come in and keep you company. You couldn’t cook for him” (Edgerton 76).

Within the first pages you’ll learn of Mattie’s dark secret. She watches All My Children on her TV at 1:00 each weekday. It’s not just watching a soap that Mattie is hiding from friends and neighbors. It's her habit of watching her show without washing her dishes from lunch first.

As the novel begins, Mattie has turned on the TV, ready for her guilty pleasure, forgetting she’d removed the bottom of her rocking chair so it could be recovered.   

“She slowly walked backward. . . toward the rocker.  Her left hand reached behind her to find the chair arm.  She had started sitting down when a mental picture flashed into her head: the chair without a bottom. But her leg muscles had already gone lax. She was on the way down. Gravity was doing its job. She continued on past the customary stopping place, her eyes fastened to the New Blue Cheer box on the TV screen, her mind screaming no, wondering what bones she might break, wondering how long she was going to keep going down, down, down.”

“When she jolted to a stop the backs of her thighs and a spot just below her shoulders were pinched together tightly. Her arms were over her head. Her bottom was one inch from the floor. . . . She was wedged tightly. What was she going to do? She looked at Erica on the TV screen. In a straight line were Mattie’s eyes, her knees, and Erica’s face.”

Here’s how Mattie’s mind works. She assessed quickly, “Nothing seemed broken." And then the terror: "Lord have mercy—what if Alora comes in the back door and sees me watching this program? Then she will see my dishes stacked over there.  . . . I’ve GOT to get up” (Edgerton 9-10).

I love Mattie for her little sins. And for her way of reading the Bible, which I’ll get to.

Mattie is soon rescued from her rocker. But her adult children are really starting to worry about her. Not about being gobbled up by her rocking chair again. But Mattie has begun taking in stray dogs and feeding every Tom, Dick, and Harry at her kitchen table. What’s worse, her children learn she’s harboring an escaped juvenile delinquent. They must save her from her own benevolence. But Mattie's rationale for her actions confounds them. She explains she’s been caring for Wesley Benfield, newly escaped from juvenile detention, because he's a "least-of-these-my-brethren." And Mattie quotes from Matthew 25, in the KJV, of course. She explains to her son about the "least of these my brethren":

"Matthew says . . .  'Whatso ye do unto one of the least of these my brethren you do also to me.' . . . It was Jesus talking about people in prison. In prison.  Wesley is certainly 'one of the least of these my brethren'."

“I'll say.” Robert sipped his coffee. “You've already done for him, Mama. You've already done I don't know what. Doesn't the Bible say when to stop?”

Mattie pauses. The reader can imagine her running through the Bible verses filed away in her 78-year-old brain.

Mattie: "No.  Not that I know of." (Edgerton 176-177).

When are we to stop doing for “the least of these my brethren”? 

When the laws of our country make it difficult for us to welcome and care for the stranger? Is that when we can stop caring for those fleeing violence and abject poverty?  Or when the sick are contagious with and stigmatized by a terrible disease? Is that when we can turn our backs on them? Or when our neighbors and family disagree with us about our welcome to LGBT folks? Can we stop caring for those on the margins then? When those in prison are mentally ill? Do we have to visit them then? When our culture tells us to be suspicious of people of different races and religions and when law enforcement acts with prejudice? Do we stop caring at that point? When we’ve worked hard to make a decent living and suspect that those without a home and enough food just haven’t worked hard enough for theirs? When the people dying are on the other side of the globe? When caring for our planet’s air and seas and soil require us to make inconvenient sacrifices? When feeding a homeless person is against the law? When the person in need has a criminal record? Doesn’t the Bible say we can stop caring for the least then?

No. No, it does not.

Oh, I know we must discern where to put our energies, learn our own limits. Discernment becomes hard when there are so many “least of theses.” And then we must decide HOW to “give a cup of cold water” in Jesus’s name. By donating to a charity? By writing our legislators? By looking out for our neighbors? By protesting a systemic injustice? By creating a new system? Open Table just spent several months deciding on a particular focal ministry in order to have greater impact. We are seeing the LGBTQ community as “the least of these” in our midst--and I mean this without a patronizing or pitying intention. We will be intentional in the coming year to use our gifts in service to the LGBTQ community. But not exclusively. Because Mattie Rigsbee is right. I don’t think Jesus told us when to stop forgiving or caring or giving second chances to or interceding for or defending any of the least, the last, the lost.

Mattie’s also right in understanding that the core of Jesus’s teaching—and the very clearest he gets in how we will ultimately be judged—is in our treatment of “the least of these my brethren.” He was probably influenced by the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of God separating the sheep into two groups: the fat sheep, who’ve pushed aside the weaker ones—and the lean sheep who’ve been butted and scattered;  the sheep who drink clean water but foul it for the rest, and those who are left with the dirty water. And what an apt image for the way corporations have grown fat by literally fouling the water of “the least.” To those who grow fat by taking from the lean sheep, Ezekiel speaks a word of emphatic judgment. And Jesus, in this his final sermon in Matthew’s Gospel, extends Ezekiel’s teaching. 

Remember the first sermon of Jesus, according to Matthew, is the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus blesses the meek, the mournful, the persecuted—in other words, “the least.”  In this, his final sermon, the culmination of his teachings, Jesus blesses those who stand with and care for the meek, the mournful, the persecuted. Jesus, speaking to his followers, takes Ezekiel’s message and his own earlier sermon further to say not simply that divine judgment favors the weak but that those who support the weak are to be rewarded as if they’d treated him in the same way. Jesus imagines that God’s justice demands lifting up those in need and those who serve those in need. 

For those who understand hell in literal terms, this is the scripture that most clearly speaks to a judgment in the life to come. But note that the righteous who are rewarded with eternal life are not those who believe certain things about Jesus. They are the ones who feed the hungry and welcome the stranger. But those who do not care for the thirsty, the hungry, the foreigner, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned—will meet with eternal punishment. Their doctrinal understandings have no bearing on their eternal destinations. There is one simple determiner for how we are judged: Did we care for the least among us? Nothing in this culminating sermon supports those who condemn gay and lesbians to hell. Nothing in this passage says you have to ask Jesus to forgive your sins in order to go to heaven.  Nothing in this lesson teaches that only the baptized will know eternal life with God.

For those like me who do not understand hell in literal terms, we can hear Jesus recognizing that one way of treating others deserves divine condemnation; the other warrants divine praise. Precisely how a Just and Loving Spirit condemns and approves is spelled out in metaphorical terms. Yet the point remains: what has lasting importance is our commitment to the least of these. Only a society that makes that kind of commitment will reflect the highest intentions for our life together. Only a people who care for the least will have any hope of producing that which has eternal significance and can evolve into a species that can survive far into the future. The Universe does judge which ways are conducive for survival and flourishing.

Our daughter is a public defender. Most of her clients are mentally ill. Many are racial minorities. Many are illiterate. Some do not speak English. All are indigent. They are the thirsty, hungry, friendless, ill, imprisoned. She is my hero. On her Facebook page, under the “about” section, she lists herself as a Public Defender. And below that she writes simply: “Serving the least of these.” That is her vocation. I think that is OUR vocation, too, the vocation of any Jesus follower. To serve and defend the least of these.

Edgerton, Clyde.  Walking Across Egypt.  New York:  Ballantine, 1987.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Guided Meditation: Spiritual Practices of Taking Risks, Imaging God, Praying for Those Treated Unjustly

On third Sundays our worship experience is contemplative. Below is part of the worship bulletin with  the words to our Guided Meditation included.

GOSPEL TEXT:  Matthew 25: 14-30

*OPENING SONG      “Holy Ground”            

CALL TO PRAYER     Zephania 1:7
Be silent before the Lord GOD! For the day of the LORD is at hand; the LORD has prepared a sacrifice; he has consecrated his guests.

SONG       “Be Still and Know”               p. 15 in songbook

WORDS FOR REFLECTION           Psalm 123: 3-4
One: 3Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy upon us, for we have had more than enough of contempt.
Many: 4Our soul has had more than its fill of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud.
ALL: Let us forget each contemptuous word, each scornful glance that has seeped into our souls. Let us fill those spaces with compassion so we may offer soft glances and strong encouragement to others.

For those the proud have scorned
RESPONSE     “Kyrie”                                   p. 41 in songbook
For forgiveness for the times we’ve scorned others
RESPONSE     “Kyrie”                                   p. 41 in songbook
For strength to claim our belovedness
RESPONSE     “Kyrie”                                   p. 41 in songbook

EPISTLE READING    1Thessalonians 5: 4-11      
But you, beloved, are . . . all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

CHILDREN’S TIME “Encourage One Another”        

SUNG PRAYER   “Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ”      p. 39 in songbook

Prayer station 1:  You’ll find paper and pens with which to write encouragement notes to someone here today. Your message may be very brief—a phrase or sentence or picture.  Put their name at the top.  Sign your name at the bottom if you wish. These will be delivered later in the service.  If you would like to write a note to someone absent from us, those will be mailed or hand delivered later. As you write, hold this person in your heart and align your intentions for this person with God’s intentions.  This is a kind of prayer.

Prayer station 2:  Giving our offerings is an exercise in faith, hope, and love.  Because we have love for others, we can give generously.  Because we have faith and hope, we can give expecting that good will come from our generosity.  Make this time of giving a prayer for the world and for our faith community, which takes encouragement from these gifts.

Prayer station 3:  Receiving the sacred supper of bread and wine is another exercise in faith, hope, and love.  We recall the love of Jesus, we renew our commitments to have faith like his in the More that is God, and we reorient our lives toward hope for ourselves and this world.  Eat. Drink.  Remember. Hope.

GOSPEL READING   Matthew 25: 14-30                
14“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’24Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents.29For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

GUIDED MEDITATION IN THREE PARTS                                      
1.Many understand this parable to mean that we should put our personal resources and skills to good use. If we don’t, our “talents” may not count for much; we might even lose them completely. Though simple, this message nevertheless offers us as individuals a chance to reflect on how we are using our resources. I hope it also can challenge us to “invest” in our congregation’s future through our collective “talents.” But in case some troubling details in the parable snagged you, let’s attend to them first and trust that the Bible can withstand our scrutiny and questions.

Let’s begin by admitting that the master seems to have treated the poorest of the three servants or stewards too harshly. Since tradition presumes the master in the story represents God, the parable could suggest God is merciless. Why do the folks who start off with all the advantages receive even more? Why was the poor servant punished (sent to the “outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”) when he simply played it safe with his master’s money?  After all, hiding treasure in the ground was a typical way to safeguard valuables in those days.

We might be able to defend the master’s treatment of slave #3 if we remember Jesus was not giving financial investment advice to the peasant folk who followed him. Jesus was talking about how people should invest their lives. Jesus, who told his followers they had to give up everything to follow him, was recommending a radical and risky way of living.

MEDITATION ON THE VALUE OF RISK: A Facebook meme reads:  "When was the last time you did something for the first time?" Call to mind a recent risk you took with your life. Did you befriend someone very different from you? Did you try a new activity that might offer you a healthy way to deal with stress? Visit a counselor to talk about a relationship problem? Quit a job that was killing you? 

Give thanks for taking a risk—whether it has paid off or not. Each of you took a huge risk to visit Open Table for the first time, to come back and invest your life with this unconventional new church. I thank God for the risks you continue to take—with leadership responsibilities and by inviting others and by trusting your heart to one another and contributing your time and financial resources in faith that good will be done. Pray now for a new way you can take another act of daring with and for and through Open Table.  What might that be?

2.We might also read the parable with the possibility that the servant misperceives the master as being harsh and unfair. “You’ve assumed I was harsh, and you made your choices based on that assumption,” the master says, essentially, in verse 26. “Alright then,” says the master, “you will live your life with those expectations.” If we perceive God in certain ways, we will reap the consequences of that perception. The ultimate reality of God is never fully known to any of us. It is our own perception of God that shapes our actions. That’s why the theme for my Lenten sermons this year invited us to give up the God of __ for Lent—and we considered certain perceptions of God might need to be relinquished.  In today’s parable the master says: “You’ve made me out to be a harsh master” to slave #3.  “Okay,” he continues. “That is how you will perceive your reality, I’m afraid.”  If we think God is violent, for instance, we will respond to our world as a people created and governed by Violence. That verse alone warns us against fashioning for ourselves a God who is cruel or indifferent, for that will be the God we will serve.

MEDITATION ON THE WAY WE IMAGE GOD: If you have to visualize God, what’s the first image that comes to mind? Draw that image on the back of your bulletin. Or make a collage of words about your image of God.  Even if you believe God is not an embodied being or has any physical visible substance, create something that symbolizes your understanding about God.  SHARE

3. A third way to account for the cruelty of the master is to call into question who or what the master represents. Though we’ve traditionally presumed him to be God, he may actually represent the leaders of earthly economic systems.*  Rather than describing the idealized Kingdom of Heaven, this parable may instead be critiquing the injustice of the kingdoms of this world, where the rich get richer and the poor--like the servant with only one talent--eventually lose everything.  Some scholarship supports this upside down view of a parable we’ve used to validate our passion for achievement and accumulation. Perhaps this Jesus story may have, very early in its transmission, become co-opted by a system that favors the favored and ends up taking away everything from those who have little.  Listen to verse 29 again as if it is a summation of the way this world’s economy works rather than a proclamation about God’s economy and divine will:  “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

PRAYER FOR THE VICTIMS OF THE WORLD’S KINGDOM: We hold in our hearts those who have started life with little power or wealth and whose exploitation has benefited the rich and powerful.


Whether you believe the master is just or unjust in this system of rewards, the essence of the story teaches us to assess how we use our “talents.” Those who follow Jesus are responsible for using their “talents” well, regularly discerning if their money and time and skills and education are being used for ushering in God’s realm of shalom.

*This interpretation is from David Ewart, who says this:  "The parable of the talents then is NOT intended to be an introductory lesson how the Kingdom of Heaven is like modern Western capitalism - extolling using wealth to make even more wealth. As my friend George Hermanson puts it in his sermon, A Kingdom of Surprises, the servant who buries the talents acts as a whistle-blower. He takes a very public action that draws attention to the injustice that has come to be taken as 'business as usual.' Burying the talents is a classic piece of non-violent resistance: the servant does nothing to harm anyone, but he makes a public act of refusing to participate in the unjust system of acquiring wealth for the few by impoverishing the many.The master's wrath is the response of an elite who has been publicly shamed by one of lower status.It is highly ironical - to say the least - that the master's words to the servant have been taken by the church to be Jesus' words, and have been used to continue to support the very practices that the parable condemns.I believe this is NOT a "Kingdom" parable; it is a "Wisdom" parable teaching us about the perils and difficulties of the ways of the world until the Kingdom comes. It warns us to continue to expect the rich to steal from the poor; and for the followers of Jesus to expect to be punished by the rich for behaving honourably. (So much for all the stewardship sermons I have preached using this text!)."

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Dark Sayings

Texts: Psalm 78;  Joshua 24:1-3, 14-25;  Matthew 25: 1-13

Today’s Psalm alludes to “dark sayings” from “our ancestors" (Ps. 78: 2). Today’s Gospel reading tells a dark parable about an unforgiving Christ-figure who shuts out the foolish (Mt. 25:10). Today’s Hebrew Bible reading depicts a jealous and unforgiving God (Joshua 24:19). It’s a good thing our children are away on a camping trip with their fathers because, unlike the Psalmist, we may indeed want to “hide [these dark sayings of old] from our children” (Ps. 78:4).

Asking what spiritual heritage we want to pass on to our children is one way to get at the heart of our own spiritual needs, our vision of church, and our understandings of the Bible. Perhaps part of our responsibility as Christians and members of this progressive faith community is to make choices about what we retain from our faith tradition and what we modify or jettison entirely. Because I think we have a choice.  Joshua declared: “Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served”or some other god (Joshua 24:15). For Joshua there were many gods from which to choose. (The Hebrew people gradually and inconsistently became monotheistic, and the Bible reflects that uneasy evolution to monotheism along with a persistent tribalism.)

We, too, must choose. The god we have come to understand through the life of Jesus is in some sense different from a devotion to, say, Joshua’s god—or more precisely, one story’s depiction of Joshua’s god.  

“Choose your god,” ordered Joshua. Commanding his people to choose “the Lord,” he reminded them that their ancestors had served other gods at one time.  Joshua was looking toward the future—not the past.

We can make this choice, even as Joshua’s people made a choice, by considering both our ancestors’ wisdom and our children’s needs. But to be honest, the God of Joshua who threatens to harm us if we don’t obey him kind of loses some of his appeal for me (Josh 24: 20). 

To some degree we are each day choosing our god—choosing what values and dreams and attitudes and devotions will hold sway in our lives. Week after week we gather here with others hoping to make the right choice. And together we support one another in making the right choices for ourselves and those who come after us. We choose for our children and whatever part of humanity’s future we might impact. 

You might be wondering if this very story about Joshua and the speech he gave to rally his followers before conquering an indigenous people is a story worth passing on to our children. As you know, this is a speech sometimes used today to rally religious-political allegiance. “Choose this day whom you will serve,” shout the religious and political demagogues. Joshua’s god is mighty in this story. Joshua’s speech is powerful. But neither Joshua nor his god seems very nice. Maybe we should smooth out the rough places in the Bible and eliminate embarrassing stories like this one—and parables like the one of the ten bridesmaids.  So should we bequeath to our children and their children only the sanitized Bible where God is always pleased as punch with us?

I think not. The stories that are worth passing along are complicated.
We and our children need new stories for a new day. But we also need stories that have stood the test of time, stories textured with layers of history and knotted up with meanings never fully resolvable. Our children need stories that tell them where Christianity and humanity have been and perhaps hint at our future. We and our children need stories that are more artful than morality tales or the latest Law and Order episode. We need stories that can shock us into realizations and shake us out of our complacency, stories that suggest more than they state.

Some people who come to despise Christianity because of flawed people and inconsistent theology within the Good Book don’t seem to understand literature. These folks seem to position themselves as morally superior to the writers and lovers of the Bible because they have discovered—as if it’s a well-kept secret—biblical examples of a God who’s mean and God followers who are meaner.

The stories we tell our children should be permeated with compassion and goodness—but must also hold ambiguity and tension so they can decide for themselves what is right and wise and true. The library of stories and poems and laws and liturgy in the Bible have stood the test of time for this very reason: they are stories to learn by and often they are stories to live by. 

Sure, there are biblical stories that are not very, well, biblical.  Sure, there are “dark sayings” attributed to Jesus which you know good and well he never said or maybe said when he was sleep-deprived and had left half of his sermon notes at home.  

But I think we and our children deserve to hear varied voices in the biblical text. I think we and they can be trusted to test those voices against our own experiences and common sense and modern science and others’ experiences of the sacred—including other religions’ experiences of the sacred.

Frankly, I grow a little tired of the outrage of the newly disenchanted who lift up biblical examples of meanness or theological contradiction or error as if they’re the first to discover these problematic passages.  Really?  As if Christians have to read this library of ancient stories and poetry and law and liturgy in literal and uncritical ways. Really? Do they not know how literature works? 

We need grown-up stories. Maybe we adjust those stories to make them accessible to our children. But we let our children grow up and authorize them to read complicated, nuanced stories that sometimes have no moral center and sometimes merely provoke questions or generate new stories. And we trust the next generation to carry these stories responsibly into the future—praying our stories and theirs serve the future of humanity, trusting that the storytellers are always guided by the Spirit of Life and Love.

Imagine that you and I are tapped one distant day to choose the literature that the remnant of humanity, still alive after some future cataclysm, will carry with them toward a new planetary home. I would recommend that we download the Bible onto the starship’s computer. I’d choose other literature, too, from many cultures, words of beauty and truth to serve the human race in an unknowable future. Surely we’d include the Bible in its entirety, even Joshua 24 and Matthew 25 and Psalm 78 and all the other embarrassing or otherwise disturbing scriptures. Let’s add some commentaries to provide socio-historical-rhetorical-literary perspective. But let’s pack the Bible.

I will hope someone continues to teach our story to our children. And I will hope they will choose to serve the god of Jesus whose ways are revealed within much of that library of books called the Bible—though they may come to know this source of love by other names. 

“Choose!”Joshua commanded the Israelites as they moved into the new territory of Canaan—which may have felt as far from Egypt to them as the Alpha Centauri system seems to us. “Choose!” our future calls to us. We cannot make up God as if we are the creator of God. But we do choose our gods when we choose our priorities in our personal and communal lives. We as individuals or as a people might serve the god of war, of wealth, of complacency, of prestige. We are responsible for recognizing the very practical ways our behaviors and ethical commitments reveal what we elevate above all else. Before we make an evolutionary leap, humankind will make billions of little decisions and actions that add up to collective choices toward a more just and loving future—or not.

What parts of the biblical story seem to you especially suited for travel into the future?  What parts will have the longest “shelf life”?  I’m not asking what are the purest and sweetest and most inoffensive scriptures or images or stories in the Bible.  I’m asking what parts of scripture will endure and will help humanity evolve.

Two thousand years ago Paul answered the question of Christianity's enduring essence this way:

Love never ends. [Love is what will endure.] But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.  (I Corinthians 13: 8-13)

What are the stories we want our children to know and live?  Today’s psalm announced that we’ll pass down to our children some “dark sayings” (Ps. 78:2) our ancestors have told us.  But the Psalm implies we  should do so in ways that “set their hope in God” (Ps. 78:7).  

PRAYER: Give us your stories, God of Love, and help us live and share them with hope.  Amen

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Bearable Lightness of Being Saints

I Thessalonians 2: 9-13
You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters;[c] we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. 10 You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers. 11 As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, 12 urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.13 We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers. 

Matthew 23: 1-12

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

I’m going to preach a sermon. And then I’m going to unpreach that sermon.  I’m sincere about both the sermon and the unsermon.

Here’s the sermon:

If you like your saints on pedestals, carved from marble, chiseled into perfection, larger than life and towering like religious Super Heroes over the little folks, then you’ll be disappointed in the best of them: Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross, Saint Francis of Assisi, even (especially?) Saint Paul. Did you hear how boastful Saint Paul sounds boastful in today’s Epistle Reading--bragging of his “pure, upright, and blameless . . . conduct” (I Thessalonians 2:10)?  He is not always an-easy-to-love saint.  But his point is actually about humility, equality, and service. He believes shining the light of Christ into this world requires humility. In fact, Paul elsewhere addresses the entire church of Ephesis as “saints” (Eph. 1:1), so he’d surely have rejected “saint” as his title. I think we can assume you and I can be on a first name basis with Paul from here on.

Like Jesus, Paul was a spiritual leader in the honor-based 1st century Mediterranean culture.  The honor/shame codes of that world were very different from our own 21st century Western ways of measuring someone’s social status. In Paul's culture a different psychology, based on family and group identity, was operating, and a different understanding of the primacy of honor and how it’s attained and maintained shaped all relationships.  Jesus and Paul were not simply telling their followers: “Don’t think too highly of yourselves.” 

One factor of the 1st Century culture is that honor and shame were embedded in one’s social group. Paul, in imitation of Jesus, was creating new social groups that defied the strongest of Mediterranean bonds of family and religion.* Paul called on his “sisters and brothers” to live as equals in a community in which the leader works hard to avoid burdening the followers—a system at odds with the hierarchical Roman empire.

Jesus had likewise preached about the kingdom of God that could turn his culture’s values upside down. Jesus insisted that God’s ways can only be ushered in when the last are first and the first are last. God’s realm exists whenever those on the margins are the guests of honor. Jesus upended the honor code of his culture not only by preaching the now and coming kingdom of God but also by modeling the way leaders yoke themselves with their followers to lighten the burden of the followers (Matt. 11:30). Jesus rejected honorific symbols (special garb and elite seats) and eliminates special titles (like father or rabbi).  (Matt. 23: 5-8).

A few Sundays back you surprised with me a beautiful pastor appreciation service—and the gift of this exquisite stole.  Explanations for the origins of the clerical stole vary.  To be honest, probably all clerical garb is rooted in Christianity’s 4th century leap into respectability and privilege when it became the religion of the Roman Empire and church leaders aped the attire of the empire’s leaders. But two other stories explain the stole in particular: 1) Some say the stole represents the “napkin” or cloth Jesus draped over his shoulders as he humbly washed the disciples’ feet on the night he was betrayed.  If so, the stole is a sign of service and humility, not power.  2) Others say the stole symbolizes the yoke of ministry that we clergy wear like the weight of a lost sheep draped over the Good Shepherd’s shoulders—another image of selfless care and a reminder that clergy should feel the weight of their office. Pastors should bear the weight of their sheep and not place the burdens on the flock.  I think it’s a good thing for clergy to feel a literal weight of responsibility. 

Children are invited to come forward to wear one of several stoles and are told what the colors and symbols mean.

Today’s Gospel lection follows a series of exchanges between religious leaders, who were concerned about religious symbols, and Jesus, who was concerned about the people. The scribes and Pharisees had been trying to catch Jesus in unorthodoxy they could use against him. Not so subtly, he nails them for their hypocrisy and their abuse of the people in their care (Matt. 23:1-4).

I’m tempted now to dig out one of the many contemporary stories about greedy, manipulative, abusive pastors who’ve worn the symbols of their office for their own advantage. But I’m going to resist pointing fingers because I have my own flaws. And because the easy examples of televangelists buying mansions and private jets from the donations of poor widows do not get to the heart of Jesus’s concern. 

Jesus was criticizing the scribes and Pharisees for placing the burden of religiosity on their people. He was concerned about the way religious leaders burdened people with religion itself and its legal minutiae. The modern comparison that comes first to my mind is the way religious leaders today have singled out certain groups of people to be the named chief sinners. When priests and pastors heap the burden of focused religious condemnation on gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons, they are doing what the Pharisees and scribes did in Jesus’s day: they are burdening their people with religion.  Religion should be lifting burdens. The LGBTQ community should be buoyed by religion, not burdened by it; Jesus followers need to be blessing, not burdening, the folks being scapegoated and scorned. The kingdom of God will be manifest only when we invert the empire’s value system.

Yet I’m now going to push back against the idea that the pastor needs to bear the burdens. I’m resisting or complicating this point not because I want to squirm out of my vows of servant leadership but because I’m recognizing and celebrating that Open Table is an increasingly lay-led congregation with many leaders who themselves can be overburdened. Many of you feel, from time to time, the yoke of leadership, and it’s not light.

So here begins the unsermon. More and more of you, my sisters and brothers, are seeing what needs to be done and stepping up to take on responsibilities in our faith community. Thank you. More and more of you are appropriately claiming your roles in leadership and envisioning new possibilities and voicing your dreams for Open Table. Stella demonstrated her own growing awareness of her responsibility within our faith community when she wrote me a note last week that said, “Your [sic] nice and caring. You take my suggestions. Your [sic] the best!” This eight-year-old does regularly share suggestions with me, and I listen to them and try to learn from them. She has already taken on the yoke, the burden, the responsibility of church leadership.

I want to be careful that Stella sees church leadership lived out in healthy ways. Which means I want her to see her pastor being self-giving but not self-destructive. I suspect you want that, too—for Stella’s sake, for my sake, for our sake. I want her to see her parents contributing generously, as they are—but not taken advantage of.  I want her to eventually experience the joys and frustrations and plain ol’ messiness of church life—making hard decision with others who have different opinions, sometimes working harder on a project than others, struggling to communicate clearly without hurting someone’s feelings. I want her to know what it means to experience the joys AND the challenges of being in community. But I don’t want any of our children or grownups to be unduly burdened. It is tricky for the church to call forth generosity and sacrifice—without going so far as to create an unhealthy and ultimately unsustainable pattern of letting a few key leaders bear all the burden. The Church has enough martyrs, as I hope last Sunday’s sermon underscored. Give and take is required. There should be seasons of sacrifice and seasons of renewal.  Self-awareness is also essential. And a bit of luck so that you have a deep enough leadership bench to rotate in new leaders when some leaders are tired.

For Paul, the sin of pride is the chief sin from which all other sins develop. Therefore, Paul urges church leaders to be humble and take on their people’s burdens. And I’ve agreed with Paul in sermon #1 for today. But now in the unsermon I’m agreeing with feminists who’ve argued that the “sin” many women must confront is that of self-abnegation. Women have been acculturated to be self-sacrificial in unhealthy ways. For many Christian women—and for many pastors—and maybe especially for female pastors—the spiritual challenge for them is to set limits, let others deal with consequences if some things don’t get accomplished, and trust that the world will not come to an end if a deadline is missed or a task goes undone or if someone is disappointed in us. Men can also struggle to discern the limits of self-sacrifice. Sometimes we just need to sing the song from Frozen: “Let it go! Let it go!” But it aint easy.

What I’m trying to say—in the context of All Saints Day and Reformation/Re-formation Sunday—is that the saintly life is one that requires ongoing and honest re-formation.

Saints-in-the-making make sacrifices—and allow others to sacrifice. But never do we want religion to become a burden that crushes someone’s spirit. Saints bring light. Saints make others’ burdens light. Everyday saints bless rather than burden.

In honor of the death this week of one of my favorite poets and because of his fondness for an official saint of the church, I share Galway Kennell’s poem titled “Saint Francis and the Sow.” Picture, as I read, St. Francis bending down to bless a mother pig lying on her side with 14 piglets lined up nursing alongside her. Saint Francis knows how to bless those who need a blessing:

Prayer: May our vocation be a life of blessing.  May the saints of all times and places celebrate each time we can lift a burden and each time we experience a lightness in our vocation.

* For a brief introduction to the anthropological concept of the honor/shame culture and an annotated basic bibliography, see:  

A seminal work is:

Malina, Bruce J. The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, 3rd ed.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.