Sermons

Being Peace on Earth

When my children were in 8th grade and 4th grade we took, what felt to us like, an epic journey.  We left the cold weather of Indiana on Christmas morning and flew to Hawaii for two weeks of bliss.  My husband’s sister, who lives in Hawaii, had instigated our trip by telling us that she was getting close to retirement and contemplating retiring to the mainland.  (She admitted later that it was a lie to get us to come visit her.)

 

But I have no regrets.  It was a dream trip. We island hopped.  We experienced Haleakala at sunrise.  We went snorkeling off the Big Island.  We splurged on surfing lessons for our boys.  On our last full day we took a catamaran cruise to the Na Pali coast off Kauai.

 

I was so thrilled to be going on a catamaran with dolphin accompaniment that I had not considered that I might get seasick.  There I was in this magical island haven and all I could think of was heaving.   The boat captain told me to sit outside in the air, find a spot on the horizon and focus on it.

 

I resonate with that feeling this Advent season.  Here we are in this beautiful season of Christmas and I feel like I am going to heave.  Every morning I get up and check my news feed to see which politician, celebrity or journalist got fired for sexual harassment.   There are shootings and bombings in churches and mosques.  There is an investigation on the national level to discern if our leadership has been in collusion with the Russian government.  Meanwhile we cut funding to the most vulnerable of our society while the rich get more benefits with the hope that some of that might trickle down to save the starving.   I feel sick to my stomach most days.  I have been trying to find a spot on the horizon and focus on it but I’m afraid the horizon is just a mirage.

 

I got out my Christmas decorations this year and stacked the boxes in the family room.  This is usually a one-day event for me.  It has been said about me that I have a “go” button but not a “stop” button. I usually want to get everything decorated and put away before I go to bed. However, this year, once I got all the boxes in from the garage, I couldn’t force myself to start putting things up.  The next day I finally put up the tree.  A day later I trimmed the tree.  Another day I decorated the mantel.  This went on for days while I lived among the boxes.  You see, hanging the wreath on the door this year felt like an act of faith.  By this time each year I am usually drowning in Christmas music.  I belt out “Silent Night, Holy Night” with feeling while I peel potatoes.  But I haven’t fully committed this year. Somehow I know that music and decorations cannot blot out my fear and anger.  Do you feel like that this year?

 

It’s a good thing I’m a minister because most weeks out of the year I have to figure out how to bring the good news to others.  It means when I hit these times I have to deal with them because I know I have to get up here and remind you….and me…..to focus on the horizon.

 

For the last couple of weeks I have been looking over our Advent scripture texts for today.  I sat out in the air and used our two scripture texts as my focal point to help me find my sea legs.  In our first scripture Isaiah describes a new reality, in which the Temple Mount, a hundred feet shorter than the Mount of Olives, will become the highest mountain in the world.  It will attract the nations of the world and they will stream to it.  God will become the great arbitrator, resolving all international disagreements.  With no need for war, war will cease.  We won’t even study it anymore.  All our weapons will be re-tooled into plows and hedge shears.  All peoples of the world will walk together in the light of God. It sounds like a pipe dream….just a mirage on the horizon.  The voice in my head says, “You can focus there if you want but it isn’t possible. It is never going to happen.”  No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t make this scripture my focal point.

 

The other scripture today is the well-worn Magnificat, the song that Mary sings after Elizabeth recognizes that Mary has been chosen to carry the incarnation.  Mary, belts out a birth announcement on the spot, declaring that God lifts up the lonely, the downtrodden and the oppressed, not just of her day but for us, as well.  She sings in the past tense as if God’s promises are already a reality. She declared her relationship with the God who has been siding with the oppressed since the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt.  She sang of the Divine One who has been keeping promises since the time of Abraham.  Mary…fearless Mary pitches her tent in God’s redemptive history.

 

Here I am on the boat, trying not to heave, focusing on the Magnificat on the horizon and what I see is that Mary enters right into God’s reign. Mary didn’t focus on the horizon.  While I’m drifting at sea, she landed her boat and made the horizon her home.

 

On the one hand I want to go with her.  But on the other hand, I know that Mary’s decision does not mean that her life is going to be easy.  She isn’t going to sit home and eat bon-bons. The conscious decision to make the horizon your home takes a new set of eyes, but more importantly it takes commitment. Beating swords into plowshares is not a passive thing to do.  Donald Miller, one of my seminary professors writes:  “Changing our communities from cultures of violence to cultures of justice is hard work.”[1]  By entering God’s story Mary declared herself the indomitable spirit that she was.  As Nancy Rockwell writes:

Mary gives birth in a barn…and welcomes weathered shepherds in the middle of the night.  She is determined, not domestic; free, not foolish, holy not helpless; strong not submissive.[2]

 

Mary sets up housekeeping in the Kingdom of God and sings out this song of revolution:

…God, you have scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  You have brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. You have filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

 

This protest song, sung by the determined, strong, holy Mary doesn’t match the soft hues of the woman we paint as Mary, the virgin mother of Jesus.  While I sat out on the deck of the boat and focused on the horizon by reading Mary’s Magnificat I figured out why I’m not feeling “Silent Night, Holy Night….all is calm, all is bright” this year.  It was because we have decorated the real story of the birth of Jesus with a story where the cattle are lowing; no crying he makes; the Virgin Mary so sweet and kind; peace on earth and mercy mild. No wonder I haven’t been able to belt out the Christmas carols this year.  We’ve scrubbed them of the revolutionary truth the incarnation is trying to speak to our situation and time.

 

Rachel Held Evans, one of my favorite bloggers, wrote an incredible essay this week on Mary’s song. Evans described how she is feeling this year and like me she is angry.  So instead of singing the Magnificat this year she is imagining shouting it…in the halls of the Capitol Building, in the corridors of the West Wing, in the streets of Charlottesville, with the woman who have survived assault, among the poor, the refugees, the victims of gun violence.  In those settings this song makes absolute sense.  Evans writes:

With the Magnificat, Mary not only announces a birth, she announces the inauguration of a new kingdom, one that stands in stark contrast to every other kingdom—past, present, and future—that relies on violence and exploitation to achieve “greatness.” With the Magnificat, Mary declares that God has indeed chosen sides.

And it’s not with the powerful, but the humble.

It’s not with the rich, but with the poor.

It’s not with the occupying force, but with people on the margins.

It’s not with narcissistic kings, but with an un-wed, un-believed teenage girl entrusted with the holy task of birthing, nursing, and nurturing God.

This is the stunning claim of the incarnation: God has made a home among the very people the world casts aside. And in her defiant prayer, Mary—a dark-skinned woman, a refugee, a religious minority in an occupied land—names this reality.  

“God is with us. And if God is with us, who can stand against us?” [3]

 

Mary sings the song of our revolution.  She chooses to lives as if….as if the rules really apply to everyone….as if a dark-skinned woman, a refugee, a religious minority in an occupied land really matters.  You have heard of people who have chosen to land their boat on the horizon.  Rosa Parks chose to live as if she was already treated like an equal.  Women in the #MeToo movement have chosen to live in the world where sexual assault is not okay.  Dreamers have chosen to fully live in the land in which they live.  And that is how things get done….when people live as if.

 

Today we lit the candle of peace.  We sang songs of peace.  But it isn’t enough to long for it.  It isn’t enough to sit in this gorgeous sanctuary and sing about it. That only rings hollow. We can’t cover up the fear and anger with carols about peace.  We need to live as if…as if peace on earth is a reality.  We need to live as if… by starting to beat our swords into plowshares.   We need to live as if…by disembarking the boat on the horizon and living in harmony with our brothers and sisters. We need to be peace on earth…this is the moment….now.  Amen.

 

[1] Donald E. Miller, Ain’t Gonna Study War No More:  Isaiah 2:1-4, Brethren Life and Thought, September 1, 2007, p. 201.

[2] Nancy Rockwell, No More Lying About Mary, The Bite in the Apple. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/biteintheapple/no-more-lying-about-mary/

[3] Rachel Held Evans, Mary, the Magnificat and an Unsentimental Advent, Rachel Held Evans Blog, December 5, 2017.

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/biteintheapple/no-more-lying-about-mary/

Making Space for Hope

When my kids were little, one of our Christmastime traditions were the chocolate treat filled Advent calendars. We had one for each boy.  We generally kept the calendars somewhere fairly visible. Because it was chocolate – things had to be monitored. And believe me, I could no more be trusted with chocolate in the house than my young boys! Anyway, with each passing day my boys would open the window to get their treat which in turn adjusted the number of “Days left until Christmas” on the calendar. Depending on which family member you asked and depending on the proximity to Christmas morning, the countdown could lead to either pure joy or sheer panic.

 

All in all, these “countdown” calendars serve to remind me of our presnt-day impatience and of the fact that we will go to great lengths to avoid waiting. This isn’t only true at Christmas of course, it is true in much of life — we dislike waiting for phone calls, waiting for lab results,  we loathe the idea of being the fourth or fifth person in line for the cashier at the grocery store – or even the second or third! In this instantaneous world that we all live in where life seems to happen at ever increasing speeds, the idea of waiting is often met with outrageous indignation. On the rare occasion that Jeff and I drive to the Claremont Village for dinner I become so agitated if I have to wait for a parking spot. And heaven forbid if I have to enter the parking structure! I’m a resident! I shouldn’t have to wait! There simply is no getting around the fact that no matter how much we dislike it and no matter how much our modern world suggests otherwise, waiting remains a regular part of life.

 

When you think about the broader story that results in Jesus’ birth, the idea of waiting permeates almost every aspect of the account. From a broad standpoint, the Israelite people held onto the great hope of a promised and coming Messiah. Their hope turned into centuries of waiting. This reality was also true in terms of some of the more particular parts of the story such as our text for today regarding the equally miraculous birth of Jesus’ relative and contemporary John the Baptist. Like Jesus, John’s birth was an amazing event and it was unique in its own right. While Jesus would be born to parents who were very young, John was the child of parents who were getting old. While Jesus was born to parents who were not even expecting a child at the time, John’s parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth had long hoped for a child in vain and had already reached a point where they sensed that parenthood was going to pass them by.

 

Zechariah served as a priest at the temple of Jerusalem. According to the Gospel of Luke responsibilities at the temple were chosen by lot and on the day that Zechariah was performing his role at the altar of incense, an angel of the Lord appears and announces to him that his prayers have been answered, “your wife Elizabeth is pregnant!”  Now, let me just say, that if the Archangel Gabriel (well known as the angel of revelation!) ever appears before me and says, “Dawna, the very thing you have been longing and praying for will be realized!” I suspect I pass out cold or at least fall to my knee’s and break into a sobbing puddle of gratitude and joy. But that is not Zechariah’s reaction. He comes back at Gabriel and questions how this good news is even possible. I find that fascinating! Does it mean Zechariah has been praying continually until this time for a child? That would be a very persistent prayer—like a peach farmer praying for a harvest in the dead of winter! Maybe the angel is referring to prayers that Zechariah offered to God long ago, before Zechariah’s face was lined with wrinkles and Elizabeth was past the age of childbearing. I would think that at some point Zechariah and Elizabeth looked up after offering yet another “Please send us a child” prayer and said to each other, “It’s never going to happen!” We don’t know. But regardless, Zechariah made space for the faithfulness of God by remaining faithful to his practice of prayer. Whether he expected his prayers to be answered or not he made space for hope.

 

Hope seems like such a simple concept – when you have it. But, ask anyone who has lost hope and you’ll get a very different answer. At its worst, hope can feel flimsy, like a fleeting emotion that has more in common with a party balloon than any measure of strength or trusted barometer for real outcome. Like Zechariah, we have a complicated relationship with hope. Unrealized hope has broken each one of us wide open – the job we didn’t get, the relationship that fell apart, the loved one we couldn’t save. We don’t fully give ourselves over to hope because we might be disappointed and we don’t want to be hurt. Jan Richardson writes that, “hope is not always comforting or comfortable. Hope asks us to open ourselves to what we do not know, to pray for illumination in this life, to imagine what is beyond our imagining, to bear what seems unbearable”. Hope is not lost. It is just bigger than our imaginations. Bigger than the stories we tell ourselves about the meaning and purpose of life.

 

In July, just weeks before he was scheduled to return to school in Maine, my son Ethan announced he had a new education plan for himself, one that did not include remaining at his University in Maine; words that create anxiety for parents of college aged children. But, Jeff and I have learned long ago that Ethan has both the ability to be open to trying new things and the skill to create a plan of action. When he left for college in 2016 he did so to pursue a career in Conservation Law Enforcement – during the first week of orientation – before school even started he changed his major to “undeclared”. Having been exposed to the Maine way of life Ethan had become interested in hunting.  When he came home for Christmas he researched, enrolled, and completed a gun safety course that would allow him to apply for a hunting license upon his return to Maine. When he came home for the summer, he had settled on a new major – Sustainable Agriculture, and he was vegan. Ethan lives his life on his own terms, he always has and I could not be more proud of him! However, when he laid out his new education plan to stay local, enroll in fire technology classes at Mt. Sac with the goal of being accepted into their very competitive Fire Academy program, I’d like to say I embraced it easily with great hope for his future. I got there quickly because I trust Ethan. But, in truth my first reaction was panic. What happened? Why doesn’t he want to go back to Maine? This wasn’t the plan! I like being an empty nester! Because I had only made space for this one scenario – that Jeff and I had successfully launched our children into adulthood and were now reaping the rewards for all our hard work – in a quiet, clean house with a full refrigerator, I was missing the fact that Ethan was demonstrating great maturity and bravely launching his own plan – pursuing his vision of adulthood! Ethan was making space for hope.

 

By the very next morning Jeff and I were on board. We even presented Ethan with our plan for how we would all live together again as roommates. And I must say! So, far so good! In fact, having Ethan home created new possibilities for Jeff and I to get away since he would be home to take care of our small domestic animal farm! Bonus!!  We cashed in our tickets we had pre-paid to go visit him in Maine, applied them toward a visit to North Manchester, Indiana where our older son goes to school – AND there were still funds remaining in our travel account which created space for us to dream about another trip. The timing of all these events corresponded with Jeff’s 50th birthday so I suggested that we use the remaining travel funds for a birthday get-away. I determined three locations we could travel to that would be within our budget and gave Jeff the opportunity to choose between three different themes for the get-away:

  • Music
  • Birds
  • Spiritual Retreat.

He chose Spiritual Retreat. Maybe Jeff is incredibly enlightened or maybe he knows that music and birds would happen wherever we go! Either way, he chose retreat so I got busy planning a birthday retreat in Sedona, AZ.  Keeping both the location and details of the trip a secret from him, I researched where to hike, where to eat, where to stay and what to see and I splurged on a 2-hour guided, sacred walk to kick it all off. Our guide took us into the red rocks where we were the only people for miles and extolled  the power and sacred nature of the land we were walking on. We stopped at two perfectly beautiful spots along the way. At the first location our guide laid out a blanket and led us through a meditation that focused on relaxation and grounding. At our next location he led us through a practice of stripping away all the identities and roles we play that keep us from being vitally connected to our source/God. He explained that all we ever get is what we practice. If we practice working hard and trying to please people, what we get is working hard and trying to please people. He said what you make space for is what you get and asked us what it would look like to practice what we wanted rather than what we didn’t want. Over the last year I have faced a lot of change – in my personal life, professionally, in my church, and in the nation. I had no idea just how much time I was spending worrying about outcomes until I got quiet and focused only on the job of breathing and connecting to God. I had been making space for worry and it was wearing me out. In that moment I recalled being asked in a workshop I attended 3-4 years ago to identify three values that I consider most important in order to thrive. Those values were, and still are, creativity, vitality, and joy. When I remembered this, tears started rolling down my cheeks. Tears are a barometer of truth for me so I knew I had to pay attention. It wasn’t until I read this scripture and began to prepare for this sermon that I realized my prayers had been answered. I have been given the awesome opportunity to serve you in a new role as the Pastor of Spiritual Formation. A role that requires creativity in order to stimulate vitality and the choice is mine whether I decide to go about that in a fog of worry or with a spirit of joy. This was my, ‘Do not be afraid’ moment. I will make space for hope and chose joy.

Hope is not lost, it exists and is thriving in the small, quiet corners of our lives, and that is precisely how we lose track of it. Hope isn’t intimidated by the loud, soul crushing expectations, obligations, fears and worries that we carry around with us. Hope can hold its own but it doesn’t compete with the noise in our heads and in our world. Jan Richardson writes: “Hope does not wait until we are ready for it, until we have prepared ourselves for its arrival. It doesn’t hold itself apart from us until we have worked through the worst of our sorrow, our anger, our fear. This is precisely where hope seeks us out, standing with us in the midst of what most weighs us down. Hope has work for us to do. It asks us to resist going numb when the world within us or beyond us is falling apart. In the height of despair, in the deepest darkness, hope calls us to open our hearts, our eyes, our hands, that we might engage the world when it breaks our hearts. Hope goes with us, step by step, providing the sustenance we most need.”

This is Advent, the season of light. It is a time of hope, of expectations for what is to come again. It is a season of waiting, not a passive and inert waiting, but an active hopeful waiting lived in joy. What will you risk hoping for? Amen

The Widow’s Mite

The day before Thanksgiving an elderly man in Phoenix called his son in New York and said to him, “I hate to ruin your day, but I have to tell you your mother and I are divorcing; 45 years of misery is enough. We’re sick of each other, and so you call your sister in Chicago and tell her.”

 

Frantic, the son called his sister, who exploded on the phone. “Like heck they’re getting divorced,” she shouted, “I’ll take care of this.” She called Phoenix immediately, and said to her father, “You are NOT getting divorced. Don’t do a single thing until I get there. I’m calling my brother back, and we’ll both be there tomorrow. Until then, don’t do a thing. DO YOU HEAR ME?” The man hung up the phone, turned to his wife and said, “Okay honey. The kids are coming for Thanksgiving, and they’re paying for their own flights.”

 

Thanksgiving. There was an elementary Sunday School class that was to write a short paper on “Things that I am most thankful for…” The teacher collected the papers and noticed one in particular that read, “I am most thankful for my glasses. They keep the boys from punching me and the girls from kissing me.”

 

I suppose there are all kinds of things to be grateful for. Thanksgiving. On the 4th Thursday in November, wherever we are, we reach a high point in the year. Some ancient, ancestral instinct in us knows the satisfaction of gratitude. We welcome family and guests to the table. We play games; we watch football; we take a walk; we take a nap; we go to the mall; we eat leftovers; we reckon our prosperity, be it little or much. We tally our gains and losses. And if, on those days, our hearts are not just a little fuller, or as someone said, “if that doesn’t light your fire, then maybe you just have wet wood.”

 

In the house where I grew up, the table at Thanksgiving was full of aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, babies and kids galore – all talking at once. It was a cacophony of sound. The people of my parents generation would talk about the hard times, the lean times, and would wax poetic about how great life was even though they didn’t have nay money; and they had to walk miles and miles to school, up hills, and down dales, backwards in the snow; and we had no shoes, and we liked it! And how they had to eat squirrels and blackberries day after day, but at least we were eating…down right poetic about the good old days when they were younger and poorer , but they were happier then than they are now that they have moved up the ladder and their kids have more than they ever dreamed of.

 

There is a danger in romanticizing poverty, when all too many people who are in poverty have no hope of ever escaping it. Moving up the ladder out of poverty is much more difficult today than it was a generation ago.

 

We are the wealthy ones on this planet. We know that, right? We live lives that are beyond the imaginations of 90 percent of the people who share this planet with us. Now, we are not the 10% who own 90% of all the wealth in the world, or the 1% who own 50% of all the wealth, but we are richly blessed. We are wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of most of the generations who celebrated Thanksgivings before us.

 

Someone wrote:

“If you have food in your fridge, clothes on your back, a roof over your head and a place to sleep you are richer than 75% of the people of the world.

If you have money in the bank, your wallet, and some spare change you are among the top 8% of the world’s wealthy.

If you woke up this morning with more health than illness you are more blessed than the million people who will not survive this week.

If you have never experienced the danger of war, the agony of imprisonment or torture, or the horrible pangs of starvation you are luckier than 500 million people alive and suffering.

If you can read this message you are more fortunate than 3 billion people in the world who cannot read at all.”

 

That sort of sets things in perspective, doesn’t it? We have much to be thankful for! But I confess, when I remember the poverty of the majority of the people on this planet, all too often I feel more guilt than gratitude. It is an inconvenient truth.

 

It’s difficult to sing God’s praise for all the wealth and beauty that I enjoy, when so many people have so little wealth and so little beauty in their lives. Yet hear we sit, wealthy, privileged, North Americans, surrounded by so much beauty…but one thing I know for sure, is that we must sing our alleluias for the beauty of creation, the joy of life, and the magnitude of our blessings because gratitude is really the only hopeful response to all our wealth. Until we learn to sing our own alleluias for our wealth, guilt will give way to fear and fear to greed.

 

Gratitude is a learned response. “What do you say?” we prod our children. “Say thank you.” Whether you feel like it or not. Why did our parents teach us that? Because they knew that a life of gratitude is a happier life than a life of grumpy ungratefulness and boorish unappreciation. Nobody wants to be around a grump. And it’s bad for your health. Thanksgiving is a good holiday for us to turn the corner on gratitude and try to become a little more positive, generous, grateful people.

 

Did you hear the story about the woman who was visiting some people who lived on a farm, and she noticed a pig in the backyard with a wooden leg. She asked the farmer, “What happened to the pig?” The farmer said, “Oh, that’s Betsy, our wonderful pig. One night the house caught fire and she oinked so loud she woke us and we got the fire truck in time to save the house..” The woman said, “Wow. That’s really something!”  The farmer continued, “That’s not all. One day my youngest fell into the pond, and Betsy dove in and pulled her out.” The woman said, “Oh my gosh, that’s amazing! But why does the pig have a wooden leg?” The farmer said, “Well, when you have a pig that special, you don’t want to eat him all at once.” (I know, but there’s a point…)

 

Maybe some days we feel more like the pig than the farmer, like life is taking bites of us, a piece at a time. I know that there are many people, maybe some of us, who are finding more hard times than good ones; more unhappy memories than happy ones. What does Thanksgiving mean to that person? Or the one who is facing an operation for cancer or divorce or unemployment or some other scary thing; or someone who will be eating Thanksgiving dinner without a loved one for the first time? For them, hearing a traditional Thanksgiving sermon is more than useless, it’s painful.

 

Martin Luther King Senior’s mother used to preach a sermon entitled “Thank God for What is Left.” That’s something to think about. She preached that sermon after losing two sons, a husband, and then her house burned to the ground, and she said, “Thank God for what is left. There’s always enough left in life to make it worth living.” (Hard as that is to hear.)

 

What is left for which to be grateful when life falls apart? In the New Testament there is a story told.  Jesus and his disciples are sitting near the Temple. He teaches them to “beware of the Scribes,” those powerful religious authorities of the day. He notes that these Scribes strut about in their gorgeous robes, reveling in the attention. But these same Scribes, Jesus says, “devour widows’ houses” even while mouthing elaborate prayers. To “devour widows’ houses” was shorthand for participation in financial systems that enriched the elite while impoverishing the most vulnerable members of society. It’s true. I’m not saying it just because it’s still happening today.

 

After speaking these hard words, Jesus and the disciples move into the Court of the Women. Around the walls of this court were eight trumpet-shaped receptacles (large at the mouth, looked like a funnel) to receive offerings for the Temple treasury. As Jesus watches, several prosperous-looking types make large gifts to the Temple. They dump in bushels of coins; it makes a tremendous racket going around and around these receptacles. It’s quite a spectacle, this receptacle.

 

Then, after all the noise dies down, along comes a widow who gives the proverbial widow’s mite. It rolls around this copper trumpet, and makes a pitiful clunk in the mass of coins at the bottom. And right before their eyes, a multi-leveled truth is acted out, a living parable. Jesus quickly calls his disciples and points out the irony and power of what has just happened. Famous Bible words these: “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

 

You don’t have to dig far to find the most obvious interpretation. Over the centuries, countless stewardship sermons have been preached on the widow who gave so generously. I’ve done it myself. And there is a sermon about stewardship giving in this story, lying right at the surface.

But if you dig a little deeper, think about it a little more, there is in this story, a sharp critique of – let’s call it – institutional corruption. In spite of what the Temple was supposed to be, the reality was something else. That storehouse system described in the Old Testament – such a noble idea – beautiful offering places was for money collected for the poor, the widows and orphans, sort of a welfare system. It had become hopelessly corrupt. The temple leaders regularly orchestrated distribution according to their own interests. In addition, there was a tax system on top of this to pay for it that had degenerated into favoritism and profiteering. It was set up so that the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. (Can you imagine such a tax code?) This system was hard on the poor. They were often forced to sell their land and even sell their children into slavery to pay the mandatory Temple tax. For the poorest of the poor, the whole thing could be devastating, and in this patriarchal world nobody was more vulnerable than widows. Bereft of rights because a widow had no man to go to court for her, they were easy pickings. So in this reading on the widow’s mite, there is a cautionary tale about institutional corruption. It’s sort of a three-legged pig story.

 

But that still doesn’t answer the question. What is with this woman? Why did she “give everything, all she had to live on?” Maybe, in the end, this woman sees something everyone else had forgotten. Maybe she knew the real purpose and the true meaning of gratitude. Maybe her two copper coins expressed an alleluia of thanksgiving.

 

Joan Chittister tells a wonderful story about attending an international conference in Asia on the status of women. Most of the participants were women she describes as “well-funded activist types or official observers. They were all there to professionally analyze various women’s issues around the world, especially of the needs of women in developing countries. They were discussing all sorts of issues that kept women everywhere in some kind of bondage to a money-driven world. At the gathering, these professional women called for more education for girls, more equality through government legislation, more birth control training, better health-care programs, and most importantly more participation of women at all levels of the political process. It was a good conference and every one was very sincere. But it was what happened on the margins of the conference that moved Sister Joan.

 

As the conference was drawing to a close, a leader of one of the small group workshops, passed a piece of paper around and asked that everyone write their e-mail address on the sheet so that they could all stay in contact and support one another in their work. One of the participants; a woman named Rose, was a Kenyan pastor of a Presbyterian church in Africa. When the sheet of paper came to her, she simply filled in her name and passed it on. The woman next to Rose passed the paper back to her and pointed out that she had neglected to put her email address on the form. Rose answered quietly: “I don’t have email where I am. It is too expensive for us. And when I can use it, it is too slow to be reliable.”

 

When Sister Joan and her colleague were getting into a cab to leave, her colleague said that she couldn’t leave without first seeing Rose. She asked Sister Joan to wait and rushed back into the hotel saying that she had promised to give something to Rose. Later as they were waiting to check in for their flight, Sister Joan asked her colleague, what she had given to Rose. Her friend answered that she had given Rose her credit card. “Your credit card?” Sister Joan gasped. “Why in heaven’s name would you give Rose your credit card?” Her friend answered quietly, “So she can pay for her email every month.”

 

Joan writes, “The answer was a clear one. An alleluia for wealth has little or nothing to do with money at all. It has something to do with the way we deal with money, with what we do with it; with the manner in which we do it, with the reasons for which we do it. That women’s conference would, in the long run, be very good for a lot of women. The credit card would make life better for at least one of them immediately. It demonstrated in a great and glaring way the difference between talking about doing great things and doing what you can while you wait to do even more.

 

She continues, “Clearly, the purpose of wealth is not security. The purpose of wealth is reckless generosity, the kind of generosity that sings of the lavish love of God; the kind of generosity that rekindles hope on dark days, the kind of generosity that reminds us that God dwells in, with, and through us, and that we are Gods body, Christ’s hands and the Spirit’s breath. Reckless generosity creates in holy hearts a freedom of spirit that takes a person on their way rejoicing and scattering possibility as we go.”

 

That’s what the widow knew. She knew what she had, and what she had left. She was poor, but she had the dignity of expressing the gratitude of thanksgiving, something that couldn’t be taken away from her. Something that makes the world a better place.  And I have a hunch that the offering receptacle in the Temple wasn’t the only place she expressed it.

 

I know that all of us have the power to be reckless in the generosity of thanksgiving, because of what we have, or what we have left. So let yourselves go. May we trust the Spirit to inspire in us the kind of thankfulness that transforms us into Gods body, Christ’s hands and the Spirit’s breath. Amen

Abram, Melchizedek, Jesus and Tithing

A couple years ago we were going through some kind of exercise here at the church with our church leadership.  We had an outside consultant and he asked how this congregation talks about money. Someone responded with, “Susan never preaches about money.”

 

You can tell it bothered me because I remember it.  But I admit that talking about money is one of my least favorite things to do.  When my husband felt like we needed to work on our budget, I would suggest some other activity he really liked to do like, “Sure, let’s work on the budget but after we watch the football game”.  If that didn’t work I pulled out the nuclear weapon and suggested a trip to Dairy Queen.

 

So which is it, football or Dairy Queen?  Just kidding. I must say in my own defense that I do occasionally talk about money.  It is hard to be a pastor and not talk about money.  Not just because there is toilet paper to buy and electricity costs money but because Jesus talked about money all the time.  If you think that Jesus most often talked about prayer or loving your neighbor you would be wrong.

 

A man named Howard Dalton Jr. did a statistical study of the New Testament and this is what he writes about his study:

Sixteen of the thirty-eight parables were concerned with how to handle money and possessions. In the Gospels, an amazing one out of ten verses (288 in all) deal directly with the subject of money. The Bible offers 500 verses on prayer, less than 500 verses on faith, but more than 2,000 verses on money and possessions.

 

So, it seems like if we are going to take this whole New Testament church thing seriously than we have to talk about money.  I say that with fear and trepidation because I lose my mind when that is all pastors or churches talk about.  If you watch preachers on TV you know that they have absolutely no qualms about asking for your money.  I don’t ever want to sound like one of them.

 

I remember several years ago attending a day long workshop led by a man who had grown a church from 0 to 5,000 in a relatively short time.  He claimed that the trick was to make sure leadership was completely invested by making them sign a contract.  You couldn’t be a leader in his congregation if you did not sign a document saying that you would tithe your income.  Imagine how that would go over here.

 

So for those of you who don’t know the definition of a tithe it means you give ten percent of your income to a religious institution to help with the mission of that organization.  We think this is a Judeo-Christian idea but it is also found in other religions and traditions, as well.

 

People talk about tithing as a biblical principle but the Hebrew Bible really doesn’t give us any clear-cut directive about tithing.  There are a few snippets here and there but they differ from each other in application.  So today I am going to talk about money by looking with you at the very first reference in the Bible to the idea of giving 10 percent.  It occurs in Genesis 14 by Abram. Abram and Abraham are the same guy.

 

This is how the story goes.  One of the kings of Canaan began attacking the land of the other kings of Canaan and in the process Abram’s nephew, Lot, was captured and taken away.   So Abram got a crew together and went after the king who had captured his nephew.  Abram defeated the king and freed Lot and took all the loot that this king had stolen. On the way back to the land where Abram lived his nomadic life, he ran into two of the defeated kings of Canaan.  One was the king of Salem, a man named Melchizedek.

 

His name is interesting.  “Melchi” means “my king”.  “Zedek” means “righteousness”.  Melchizedek was the king of righteousness.  The story tells us that he was the king of Salem, which was the name for the pre-Israelite Jerusalem.  “Salem” means peace. So, in essence, he was the king of peace and righteousness.  This is the kind of story in which good myths are made. We are also told that Melchizedek was a sacral king – in other words he was both priest and king – something not allowed in the Hebrew tradition.  Finally, we are told that Melchizedek was the priest of the Most High God.

 

Melchizedek comes out to meet Abram when he returns from his victory.  Melchizedek is grateful to Abram for defeating the enemies of Salem.  In gratitude Melchizedek brings bread and wine and blesses Abram:  “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth.” In return Abram turns over 1/10 of everything he has just stolen back.  Not one-tenth of his income but one-tenth of the loot.  The way the story is told we know that he did it as an act of worship. It wasn’t a duty.  It did it out of gratitude.

 

The other king who is present invites Abram to keep the rest of the loot for himself.  But Abram says, “Let the men who went with me take their share but I don’t want a sandal thong or even a thread.  I did not do this to become rich and I don’t want anyone accusing me of such. I give it all back.”  So basically, Abram tithed the loot, let his crew take a portion, and then gave everything back that was left.

 

Then Melchizedek disappears again.  This was only a cameo appearance. But as we learned a few weeks back with a woman named Serach who was listed as a descendant of Jacob, there are stories outside the Bible about these elusive characters.

.

Melchizedek turns up in Jewish and Christian sermons around the first century.

In these sermons we are told that Melchizedek had neither father or mother and since he is not listed in any genealogy he must be eternal.  Some of the stories say that King Melchizedek and Shem, the son of Noah are one in the same.  The Midrash says that Melchizedek was so perfect and spiritually advanced that he was born circumcised.

 

Whoever wrote the book of Hebrews picked up on these stories and included some of them in his writings.  The writer of Hebrews was trying to make the point that when you read the Old Testament you run into the foreshadowing of Jesus.  The writer of Hebrews claims that Melchizedek is a foreshadowing of Jesus:

  • A high priest who fulfills that role even though he does not come from the tribe of Levi.
  • A king of righteousness and peace
  • Who has no beginning and no ending
  • Who blesses us
  • And offers bread and wine

The book of Hebrews actually claims that “Jesus is a priest from the order of Melchizedek”.

 

Hebrews picks up the story of Melchizedek, not because it is fun to say…not because it talks about giving ten percent…no Hebrews talks about Melchizedek as a way of saying that the story of Jesus is foreshadowed in the Torah. The author of Hebrews uses Melchizedek, a bit part actor making a cameo appearance many, many generations prior, to introduce Jesus to us.

 

Many of you here know that I like to find the Christ figure in every movie I watch.  I think that all good movies have a Christ figure in them. What that means to me is that movies often have in them a person who sacrifices for the good of others or who blesses people or who takes sin upon themselves.  My search for the Christ figure in movies reminds me that Christ is constantly breaking into our narratives in surprising ways.

 

For my birthday this year my children paid for me to take a class in storytelling and essay writing.  At the first class we had to pick a story from our lives to work on and develop for the five-week course.  While everyone else in the class chose stories filled with depth and trauma, I chose what I thought was a light, funny story from my past…one that makes me laugh and would be fun to tell.  But in the process of the class my story developed into one of depth about a woman who was Christ for me and how I was Christ for her.  Jesus is always breaking into the narrative, if we are paying attention.

Wow….I’ve done it again. Did you notice how expertly I did that? I started out by telling you that I had chosen a story about money and now I’m not talking about money anymore.  I’m talking about encountering Christ in our daily lives. Sometimes I’m so good at not talking about money that I don’t even realize how easily I can change the subject.  But in my defense, you should know that the real topic today was never money.  Money is only a representation of something else.  Sometimes money represents idolatry and sometimes it represents generosity.

 

Abram’s response to meeting Melchizedek is to give him 1/10 of what he has with him. Abram didn’t give a tithe out of duty.  There was no law telling him he had to.  He didn’t sign a contract to give ten percent in order to hold a leadership position.  He gave because he could and he was grateful.  He got to give.  He could have given more.

 

The focus from this scripture is not money.  It is generosity.  Money is just the means by which we get to give. It should be done joyfully, freely and with gratitude for all the ways you meet Christ in the world.  Amen.

Where God Was

It isn’t until recently that I have been able to shake the image of Moses as Charlton Hesston.  Cecile B. DeMille made an epic movie in 1956 called “The Ten Commandments.”  It was nominated for seven academy awards.  For years every time I heard Moses’ name I thought of Charlton Hesston stomping his foot and saying to Yul Brynner, “Let my people go!”

 

In the last couple years I have been able to lose that image and in doing so I have  become more and more aware of just how fierce Moses was. He led a successful civil rights movement right past the oppressors and out of the country.  Now every time I read about Moses I am reminded that religious leadership is a weird occupation.

 

At the end of each day, Moses had to come back down off the mountain and try to convince the people that what he was telling them was real and worth following.  It was his word against theirs.  This can be a problem.  People want answers.  They want proof.  People turn to religion when their lives are in disarray and they want evidence.  But good religion won’t give you answers. If you didn’t already know this I am sorry to break that news to you.  Good religion doesn’t give you answers but it will help you live more fully into the questions as you and the divine explore the answers.

 

When we enter our Moses story today, Moses and God are in the middle of an argument about the shape of God’s relationship with Israel.  This is a conversation that Moses and God have been having for a long time.  When God first appears to Moses in a burning bush and tells him that it is time for the Israelites to leave the oppression of Egypt, Moses says, “Okay.  So when I tell your people its time for a mass exodus who shall I tell them is the mastermind behind this operation?”  You have to admire Moses.  He had chutzpah. God says, “I am who I am.”  Actually, the better translation is “I will be who I will be.”  In other words, watch what I do in order to know who I am.

 

Later when Moses presses God again with this same question about God’s name, God expands the name, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and the house of slavery.”  God wants to be known by the fruit of God’s labor.  “If you want to know who I am notice what I have done.” Later the name expands to:  “I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt in order that I might live with them.”  God is still naming by works but is now naming a desire…the desire to live among the people God saved from oppression.

 

It all sounds kind of beautiful…this budding definition of relationship with the sacred….and then disaster strikes.  Moses takes some time up on the mountain with God and when he gets back home he finds out that these people God wants to be with so badly have taken this opportunity to build a golden calf and worship it in a drunken orgy.  Moses is distraught and God is furious.  And that is the moment when we enter the scene today.

 

Moses is on Mt. Sinai arguing with God and he is demanding answers and taking names.  Moses is thinking to himself, “How did I get here?  O yeah, I remember, God called me to lead the Israelites out of slavery.  I was minding my own business when God came and called me into set-apart ministry.   I said, ‘Are you sure you want me? Yup, God said.”  But Moses isn’t done.  He turns his dismay on God. “It is hard work, you know, leading your people out of slavery and I’ve had hardly had a day off since.  Now you’re mad and you have started referring to the Israelites as Moses’ people.”

 

Moses isn’t going to let God off the hook.  “You called us out here into the middle of the desert.  You have consistently given me really high marks on all job performance reviews and now you want to hand this whole mess to me and walk away?  No thank you!”

 

“I’m not walking away,” God says.  “I will send you an avatar to lead you.  Listen Moses, you need to understand, I’m just too angry to be here.  I might hurt someone.  I’ll just meet you in Canaan.”

 

“No way, Yahweh.  You owe me this one.  You have to come with us or no one will know that you are our God. You started this whole thing and you can’t walk away when it gets tough.”  Don’t you just love Moses speaking truth to power?  He is so hardcore.

 

Now notice that this is an Old Testament story and God doesn’t chose to smite Moses.  Instead God says, “Okay.  I’ll do what you ask because I really do like you and you make a convincing argument.”

 

While Moses has God in a more agreeable mood he says, “One more thing…..could you please let me see you, face to face?”  He wants God to come out of hiding and stop being so coy.  He wants what is hidden to come out into the light of day; for the veiled to become unveiled.  Sometimes Moses felt so close to God.  He had so many mountaintop experiences.  But other times he felt misled and spiritually dried up and so cut off from God.

 

It happens to all of us.  C.S. Lewis, a British novelist and lay theologian, who spent his life writing books and novels of Christian faith, married his true love in his late 50s.  She was an American novelist named Joy. She died just four years after their wedding day, following an excruciating battle with cancer.  Lewis was devastated and he filled four journals with his anguish.  These were later published, under a pseudonym, in a book called “A Grief Observed.”  I read that book after my husband died.  In his rage and anguish I felt like Lewis had entered my brain and spoken my thoughts aloud. He writes things like:

  • “I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it or not. I hate if they do, and if they don’t.”
  • “The death of a beloved is an amputation.”
  • “Was God, after all, a cosmic sadist?”

 

Eventually, as he scribbles his questions and rage down in his journals Lewis begins to find his answers.  They aren’t my answers but he helped me name my questions.  When we walk into the painful wildernesses of life we want God to explain and to be present with us in a visible and powerful way.  Moses wants the same thing.  “Let me see you in all your glory,” he says to God. Moses knows that this whole liberation movement rests on who God is.  Not on who the people are…who God is. Moses wants God to be present….to live in the midst of the people…to be Immanuel…God with us.

 

God says, “Listen.  This is what I will do.  I will pass before you in all my goodness and glory.  As I do I will tell you my latest expanded name.  Here it is:  I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and I will show mercy to whom I show mercy. There you go.  That is the latest version of my name.  But the face to face request is more than I can grant.  I cannot let you see my face for it would be too much for you.  You couldn’t possible experience me in all my power and glory and live to tell about it.  But here is what I will do.  See that cleft in the rock.  I will hide you in that cleft and when I pass by I will shield your eyes with my hand.  When I am moving away I will remove my hand and you will see the backside of me.”  So basically God offers to moon Moses.

 

I did some looking at the word “cleft” this week.  It comes from the word cleave which has two exact opposite meanings.  One means to cling.  “The two cleaved to each other in the storm.”  It also means to sever.  You know what a cleaver is.  God puts Moses into the cleft of the rock, a v-shaped space formed by a fracture, in order to safeguard him.

 

Following the unexpected death of her husband, Jan Richardson, an author and artist, wrote a book called, The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief.  In this book she has writes about the confusing role of the cleft of the rock.

 

In the Cleaving
A Blessing

Believe me,
I know how
this blessing looks:
like it is
leaving you,
like it is
walking away
while you stand there,
feeling the press
of every sharp edge,
every jagged corner
in this fearsome hollow
that holds you.

I know how hard it is
to abide this blessing
when some part of it
remains always hidden
from view
even as it sees you
from every angle,
inhabits your
entire being,
calls you
by your name.

I know the ache
of vision that comes
in such fragments,
the terrible wonder
of glory that arrives
but in glimpses.

So I am not here
to make excuses
for this blessing,
for how it turns
its face from us
when we need
to see it most.

But I want to believe
it will always
find its way to us
when we are in the place
made by cleaving—
the space left
by what is torn apart
even as it is joined
in the fierce union
that comes only
in the fissure.

I want to be unafraid
to turn toward
this blessing
that binds itself to us
even in the rending;
this blessing
that unhinges us
even as it
makes us whole.

 

Moses, in a time of great disappointment and anger, has an unprecedented encounter with God.

He sees God but only as God walks away from Moses…

only from the backside…

only once the glory has passed by already.

Moses doesn’t see God.

Moses sees where God has been.

 

And in the passing God says, “I am the one who shows graciousness.  I am the one who shows mercy.”  The full glory remains unseen but Moses makes the whole journey knowing only the backside of God…the God of mercy and graciousness.  Somehow the part of God he has now seen gives him enough strength to continue the journey.

 

Moses comes down from the mountain this time, as he had so many times before but this time he is ready to leave for Canaan…for the Promised Land.  And this time his face is glowing from his encounter with God.  In fact, if you read further you read that from then on Moses kept his face veiled because it continued to glow.

 

It is in the places of rending that we come to God wounded and vulnerable and completely honest, wearing our rage and anguish for all to see. In those places we encounter God in unprecedented ways. God calls us by name.  God hides us in the cleft of the rock….in the midst of the fractured space.  We catch glimpses…fragments of the sacred, even in the midst of our broken hearts.  We see where God has been and blessed us in the past.  It is in looking from the backside that we see how often God has been with us.

 

Look backwards my friends.  See where God has been.  Be unafraid.  Witness the God of mercy and graciousness from your cleft in the rock.  Amen.

The Mystery of Serach

I come from the Frantz clan.  My grandmother, Irene, was a Frantz.  Other than that I don’t really know much.  I have a book on my shelves that traces the Frantz family back to Adam and Eve….well, not really, but back to Michael Frantz who came over with the original group of Brethren to Pennsylvania.  I know that the Frantz clan has an annual reunion near Frystown, PA.  And somehow, without my knowledge or consent, I ended up receiving a fairly regular email from a woman named Susan asking for volunteers to help clean up the Frantz family cemetery or with the latest obituary of a Frantz family member, a person I have never met but I now know they liked cats and Elvis.

 

Today you heard scriptures read that included parts of genealogies.  They are not the exciting part of the Bible.  All but biblical scholars usually skip over these lists.   But we all know that genealogies can hold some interesting gems.  In the scriptures today from Genesis and Numbers there is a daughter named.  If you read a genealogy in the Bible and you see the name of a woman, pay attention.  Women were named in these lists only in rare occasions.  In both of the scriptures read today we learn that Asher had a daughter, named Serach.  She is listed as being present at the time that Jacob and all his offspring moved from Canaan to Egypt.  In this list of seventy people we see the names of Jacob’s twelve sons, one daughter, all his grandsons and then just one granddaughter, Serach.  She is listed as the daughter of Asher, the eighth son born to Jacob by Leah’s handmaiden Zilpah.

 

The second time we hear Serach’s name is in another genealogical list.  When the Israelites fled Egypt and wandered in the wilderness, Moses commanded a census be taken of all men 20 years and older.  The reason for this census was that Moses needed a list of the men who could fight in the army.  In that census, are listed the names of Asher’s sons but they are deceased.  Their names are listed as clans.  But Serach, is still there in the names of men 20 years and older who can fight in an army.  It seems odd to list her name her and not as a clan but as a person.

 

That is all we know about Serach from the Hebrew Bible but luckily there is long tradition of non-biblical religious literature that serves as commentary on the written and oral Torah.  It is called midrash.  The fact that Serach, a female, is mentioned and named in the family genealogy was enough for the rabbis to take notice of her.  There are several stories and conjectures written about the mysterious Serach in the long years of rabbinical commentary.

 

One story says that Serach was not actually a biological descendant of Jacob.  Asher married twice. His second wife was a widow who happened to have a three-year-old daughter, named Serach.  So in rabbinical literature Serach was a stepdaughter, not a daughter, of Asher, which makes is doubly odd to find her listed in the genealogy of Jacob’s family. But the legend is that when the sons of Jacob learn that their brother Joseph, who they sold into slavery, is alive and living in Egypt they know they need to break this news to their father.  But it is a sticky situation.  You see, they told Jacob, years earlier, that wild animals had killed Joseph.  Jacob has been mourning the death of his favorite child ever since.  Now he is a very old and frail man.  How can they now confess their evil deed and tell their aged father that his son, Joseph, is alive and well?  They conscript little, innocent Serach to break the news.  She waits until he is praying and then repeats a rhyme over and over again softly until he hears it:  “Joseph is in Mitzrayim (which is another word for Egypt)…Joseph is in Mitzrayim, and has fathered two sons, Menashe and Ephraim.”  Jacob is so grateful to this little girl for bringing him this news that he blesses her, “My child, may death never rule you, for you brought my spirit back to life.”

 

In the biblical narrative, Jacob’s entire family is saved from famine by moving to Egypt and being cared for by Joseph, the one sold into slavery.  The book of Genesis ends with Joseph’s death.  He gathers his brothers around him and says to them, “God will surely take notice of you.”  Just before he dies he reminds them of God’s covenant to give them the Promised Land.  He tells them that he knows that one day their descendants will leave Egypt and he makes his brothers promise, on his deathbed, that they will take his bones with them back to Canaan.

 

Generations later in Egypt, a man named Moses has an experience at a burning bush.  The voice of God speaks to him there and tells Moses that it is time for the Israelites to escape out of their slavery in Egypt.  He tells Moses to gather the elders of Israel and tell them that the God of your ancestors has spoken to you and said that God has taken notice of you.  So Moses does, but how do you convince a people who have forgotten their history that they are to revolt and leave.

 

The midrash on this text says that upon hearing this report from Moses the elders sent for Serach for she was the only one still alive, having been blessed with life by her step grandfather.  Serach was the one who carried memory for the clan.  She confirms that Moses is the rightful leader because he shared the secret code that had been passed down from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to Joseph to Joseph’s brothers, “God will surely take notice of you.”

 

But the Israelites feel like they cannot follow Moses and leave Egypt without the bones of Joseph…for they do remember that part.  So Serach, still alive some 430 years after the Israelites came to Egypt, is the one who saves the day.  After she learned that Moses has spent three days and three nights looking for Joseph’s bones, Serach found him and said, “Follow me.  I know where they are buried.”  She took him to the Nile and told him that the magicians and astrologers made him a metal coffin and threw it into the river at this exact spot.  She said they did that because Pharaoh knew that the Israelites would never leave Egypt without the bones of Joseph so Pharaoh wanted the bones to never be found.

 

Moses stood by the side of the Nile and called out, “Joseph, Joseph, God will surely take notice of you.  Give God the honor and do not hold us up any longer.”  Just then, Joseph’s coffin slowly ascended from the depths of the Nile River.  Moses picked up Joseph’s coffin put it on his shoulders and led the people out of Egypt and away from oppression.

 

That isn’t the final story of Serach outside of the Bible.  There is one more.  It is found in the Talmud, another collection of rabbinical writings.  It comes years and years later when the rabbis are arguing over what form the Red Sea took when it parted.  All of a sudden, Serach looked in and said, “I was there.  The waters weren’t anything like any of you think.  They were like lighted windows.”

 

Something about Serach seems to make her special enough that stories were told about her more than her name listed in a genealogy seems to warrant.  How easy it would be to leave Serach unnoticed. She could just disappear like so many other women from her time.  But the fact that she was listed, not as a wife or a mother, gave her a different status in the story. She became known as a wise woman.  Some even conjecture that she is the wise woman of Abel Beth Ma’acah, a story in Hebrew Bible from hundreds of years after the Exodus.

 

Somehow Serach was entrusted and credited with keeping alive the institutional memory of the Jewish people.  It is said that she was there when the seventy entered Egypt and she was there over 400 years later when they escaped Egypt.  She holds the sacred memory.  She carries God’s promises for them.  She retains the code that unleashes their trust.  She knows where the bones are buried.

 

Judaism understands the importance of memory.  Serach is now gone and so Passover is now the holder of their sacred memory of that time in history.  It is the telling and a re-telling, a commemoration and a re-enactment of God’s liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt.

 

Memory links us to the story of God’s faithfulness and reminds us who we have been as a people, who we are and who we are to be.  We sing “O God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come.”  We tell the Christmas and Easter stories every year…without fail. Many churches act them out.  In the Church of the Brethren we re-enact the Last Supper and wash each other’s feet, not because our feet are dirty but because we are reminding ourselves who we are called to be at our core.  In re-enacting the Last Supper, we are carrying on the sacred memory that links us to the truth of our past and calls us to enact that truth now.  We are not washing each other’s feet just for this moment in time.  We are the link between the past and the future.  We are the sacred carries of the story of God’s love and God’s call.  We are the Serachs of our time.  May we be faithful to the memories we hold.  Amen.

 

Living in the Land of Ledger

Jesus has just told his disciples that if someone sins against them they are to first go talk to the person in private. Then if that doesn’t work try again with witnesses.  If that doesn’t work bring the matter to the church. And if all of that doesn’t solve it than treat that person as a Gentile or a tax collector.  We know how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors.

 

Peter was that attentive student who always tried to impress Jesus and so he responded with a question:  “Jesus, Jesus, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive that person?  As many as seven times?”

 

Peter knows his suggestion of seven times is super generous.  He padded his question to show Jesus just what a forgiving guy he was.  After all, Jesus just described a possible four-step process when it comes to dealing with people who hurt you.  It seems like a fair question:  “So just how many times do you have to go to all that trouble with the same person before you can write them off?”

 

The rabbinical custom, according to Amos, was three times.  You should forgive a person up to three times and then when it comes to the fourth infraction they can be punished.  Peter takes that number, doubles it and then adds one to make it the perfect number, seven.  He probably thinks, “This time Jesus will smile at me and say, ‘Well done, Peter.  Well done!”

 

Jesus says, “No.  Seventy times seven.”  I wish I could see Peter’s face.  But I know that face.  I have made that face.  “Really, Jesus, what you ask of us is too hard.  How do I keep track of 490 times?  I will have to create an Excel spreadsheet but I don’t really know how so I will have to take a quick online tutorial and that takes time away from other things I want to do.  Really, Jesus.”

 

(Now for you numbers people in the room.  I know that it says seventy-seven times in the scripture you heard this morning.  Actually, translators will tell you that the language is not clear on whether it says seventy-seven or seventy times seven.  Most scholars agree it is seventy times seven so I went with them.)

 

Okay, back to the story.  So Jesus decides to explain his answer further for those of us who live in the land of ledgers and Excel spreadsheets.  He tells a parable about a king who decided to settle accounts with those who owed him money.  First to be brought in was a man who owed him 10,000 talents.  One talent was 130 pounds of silver.  On talent was equivalent to 15 years at a laborer’s wage.  So this man owed the king 150,000 years of wages.  (Just an aside here, I love that Jesus’ stories always include hyperbole.  So if you have ever accused me of a bit of exaggerating, just know I am continuing the work of Jesus.)

 

Everyone who hears this parable knows that the servant was not going to be able to repay the king this money and so did the king.  But still the servant falls down on his knees in front of the king and cries, “Please have patience with me and I promise you I will repay every cent!”  Right!

 

The king looks on this man in front of him and he thinks, “There is no way he can pay me back.  Poor guy.  This must be horribly stressful for him.”  So he tells the man to stand up and he forgives him all of it….all 150,000 years of labor….every last dime of it is forgiven.  The man goes skipping out of the palace. A huge weight has been lifted from his shoulders and he stands up straight for the first time in years. Tonight, he will let his children’s have seconds at dinner.

 

But as that forgiven man walks home he runs into a person who owes him money.  He whips out his ledger and says, “Hey buddy, where is that 100 denarii you owe me?”  A denarii was what one received for a daily wage.  This debtor owed the newly forgiven man 100 days of work.  That is no small debt. That is a third of his wages for one year.  But it is probably way less than some of you owe on a mortgage or a student loan.

 

The forgiven man grabs a hold of the neck of his debtor and yells, “Pay me what  you owe me….now.”  Out from under his debt he is ready to accumulate some wealth.  The debtor falls down on his knees and says, “Please have patience with me and I promise you I will repay every cent!”  Remember where you just heard that same plea.  But the forgiven man wouldn’t listen.  He decided to get the law involved and throw the unforgiven man into prison where it would be even harder for him to repay his debt.

 

Well, their neighbors couldn’t believe the irony of what they just witnessed.  So they tattled to the king.  He summoned the man, whom he had just forgiven, to come back to the palace.  He said, “You are a wicked man.  Give me that ledger.  I forgave you a huge debt after you pleaded with me.  Then you turned right around and refused mercy to a neighbor.”  The king says to the guards, “Throw him into prison until he can repay every penny of the money he owes me.”

 

Then Jesus says, “Does that explain it Peter?  God will do the same to you if you do not forgive your brother or sister from you heart.”  Wouldn’t you like to see Peter’s face?  It is the same face we have.  We are trying to hide our ledgers behind our backs while we process what this means about the jerk who always lets his dog poop on your lawn without picking it up or the uncle who ruined your wedding reception while he was drunk and then never said he was sorry or the son-in-law who keeps you from spending more time with your grandchildren or the kid at recess who steals the ball and runs away or the thief who took your wallet or the drunk driver who killed your daughter or….you can finish that sentence with your story.  Surely, the times we have been injured are outside of what Jesus is talking about.  Surely our story is different than what Jesus is talking about.  Surely our injury requires that ledger.

 

Jesus isn’t really expecting us to keep track 490 times or even 77 times.  What he really wants us to understand is that forgiveness never comes with a ledger.  It is something we do in the context of our relationship with God….not within the context of the person who harmed us.  If God loves us so much that God forgives us, we should do the same.  We aren’t forgiven because we deserve it.  We are forgiven because God loves us and wants us to bestow that same kind of irrational love on others.

 

Forgiveness can’t be counted.  It isn’t a legal transaction.  It is not even a transaction.  It is an act done in love.  If Peter had asked Jesus how many times he had to love we would know it was a ridiculous question.  Love is the framework in which we need to understand forgiveness.

 

Some of you here have been harmed in ways that I can’t even imagine….you have suffered inexcusable injury.  You need to know that forgiveness is not about allowing yourself to be further injured.  Forgiveness is not about staying in an abusive relationship.  You need to distance yourself from harm. Absolutely.

 

Forgiveness is actually a decision about your past.  On December 22, 1986, Bill Bosler, a Church of the Brethren minister in Miami, Florida, and his 24 year-old daughter, Suezann, were getting ready to go Christmas shopping together when the doorbell of the parsonage rang.  Bill went to answer it and then Suezann heard crashes and groans.  She went running into the living room and found a man savagely stabbing her father.  He stabbed her in the back, twice in the head and left her for dead.  Her father, Bill, died of his injuries.  Suezann regained consciousness three days later on Christmas Day.

 

James Bernard Campbell, a drug addict in search of funds, was convicted of killing Bill Bosler.  Suezann made it her mission to keep Campbell from getting the death penalty.  She said her father and she had spoken once about it and he had told her emphatically that he would never want someone to get the death penalty for killing him.  She was raised in the Church of the Brethren and she had sung the song, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”  She believed that it needed to begin with her.

 

Campbell was sentenced three different times.  Each time the prosecutors were trying to get a sentence of death.  Twice it was overturned.  The third time Suezann insisted on speaking.  At that third hearing Campbell received a sentence of life.  After the hearing she gave Campbell a Bible and said to him, “I forgive you.”  Suezann began traveling around the country speaking out to abolish the death penalty.  She feels like killing people to show that killing people is wrong makes no sense and just makes more victims.  Her included.  She knew that and eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.

 

The story of Suezann Bosler is an amazing one.  It got attention in the mainstream media. The television show, 48 Hours did a whole episode on her fight during that third attempt at a death penalty verdict.  Her story was even written up in People magazine.  If it had happened in the time of the world wide web it would have gone viral and ended up on Facebook.

 

The reason it got so much attention was because Suezann lives in the land of ledger but her heart resides in the Kingdom of God.  James Bernard Campbell refuses a relationship with Suezann Bosler after her many attempts.  But Suezann hasn’t required Campbell to say he is sorry in order for her to forgive him.  She refuses to be held captive to the worst night of her life.  When she forgave Campbell she was released to live into her future.  Her forgiveness was rooted and grounded in the love and forgiveness God bestows on her.  Suezann forgave Campbell and she was freed.  She doesn’t live in his prison cell.

 

I know that some of you are living in the prison of your inability to forgive.  I invite you today to move out of the land of ledger and dip your toe into the Kingdom of God.  I am going to give you some time of silence to think about a person you are having a hard time forgiving.  It may be someone who doesn’t even know how hurt you are.  Do you see them?  Imagine what forgiving them would do for you and for your future.

 

God invites us to burn our ledgers and live in the land of Love…God’s holy land…the Kingdom of God.  Forgive and be free. Forgive as you have been forgiven.  Forgive and live into your future.  Amen.

Blind Spots

 

The year I graduated from seminary, I pastored the Lone Star Church of the Brethren outside of Lawrence, Kansas. Not long after I was there, the Brethren preacher down the road at the Washington Creek Church contracted abdominal cancer which had metastasized to other organs, and she was scheduled to undergo surgery to remove as much of the mass as possible to give her a little comfort. She was not expected to live, so she wanted to be anointed with oil, and asked me to perform the service along with my deacons, her deacons and her family in the hospital the night before the surgery. It was a room full of people. We talked, we sang, we prayed and read scripture. When it was time for the anointing, I reached into my pocket and discovered I had forgotten the anointing oil. So I said, “I invite everyone to close your eyes and be in prayer during the anointing.” Everyone did. So I went, “Sister Doris, I anoint you with oil…” and licked my fingers and placed them on her forehead, “for the forgiveness of sins”… lick… “for the strengthening of your faith”…lick… “and for healing and wholeness according to God’s plan and purpose for your life.” We prayed, and when everyone opened their eyes, I put my hand in my pocket as though I had that oil all along. One of the things I learned in seminary was that Jesus once performed a healing with spit and mud. I figure, if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.   Well, Doris went through that surgery, and by glory, a month later, she was cancer free! Here’s what I learned: if God wants to heal, God can do it any old way God chooses. It certainly wasn’t because of me (I clearly had no idea what I was doing) but God can do amazing things with us, without us or in spite of us. (I don’t think Doris ever found out about that, so don’t you tell her.) I once told that story at a Sunday School Class retreat in Indiana, and the next Sunday they all brought me oil in big containers, just so I wouldn’t run out. One guy even attached a bottle to a neck chord. He called it “hope on a rope.”

 

The healing of the man who was blind from birth in our gospel reading was pretty spectacular.  Jesus made some mud with spit and rubbed it on the man’s eyes.  When the man washed off the mud in a nearby pool, he was able to see for the first time.  The difference in this man as a result of gaining his sight was so great that even his neighbors didn’t recognize him.  He essentially had to show them his ID and kept insisting “Really!  I’m the same man!”  Maybe the people who had seen him begging every day had never looked beyond the outstretched hand to see the face that was now filled with light.  Or maybe they were so flummoxed by the idea of a blind man who now saw, that their brains couldn’t make the obvious connection.  He was a completely new and different person to them.

 

This is what happened: The confused neighbors brought the man to see some religious leaders.  They were concerned that this miracle had occurred on the Sabbath and was therefore an inappropriate kindness.  An interrogation resulted, and the text says that the religious leaders, the Pharisees, were divided.  Some thought Jesus must be pretty powerful.  Others said he was a fraud since he didn’t follow the Sabbath rules.  The man’s parents were called in for questioning and they stopped talking when they realized it was a trap.  They deferred to their son and said, “He’s old enough, ask him yourself.”  The son was tired of all the attention and snapped back at the Pharisees, “I’ve already told you more than once.  Why all the questions?  Do you want to become his disciples, too?”  It was the wrong thing to say, and the men lectured him for his disrespect before throwing him out of the room.

 

Later, Jesus found the man to make sure he was OK.  Jesus answered some questions about God and said that he had come into the world so that the blind could see and so that those who thought they could see would become blind.  Some Pharisees listening nearby asked Jesus, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”

 

The first car accident I was ever in was the result of a blind spot.  Not mine, but the girl who was driving her father’s truck. She had a spot on her right side, and when she passed a car and looked into a mirror, she didn’t see the car and pulled right over into him. The next thing I knew the truck rolled over twice in the road and we landed in the ditch upside down. I don’t know how either of us came out of that alive. The truck didn’t come out too well, and her father wouldn’t let her ever go out with me again. I thought that was extreme – it wasn’t my fault.  At least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it! What I learned from that experience was that blind spots can get us into deep trouble.

 

I had one of those “peripheral vision tests” not long ago, and it mapped out my vision and showed a spot where I don’t see so well in one direction.  I could actually look at a chart and see my blind spot.  But, beyond physical blind spots, I would dare to say that we all have deficits of awareness about ourselves. It’s the blindness Jesus is talking about. How great it would be if we could have a chart showing us where they are.  The nature of those kinds of blind spots, of course, is that we are unaware of them even though others may see them clearly in us.

 

So it’s easy to see how the blind spots in others result in what we believe are bad decisions.  What’s not as simple is recognizing those in ourselves.  Jesus had an interesting commentary on this in the Sermon on the Mount when he advised us not to worry about the speck in someone else’s eye.  He said, “Take the plank out of your own eye so you can see to take the speck out of the eye of someone else.”  Self-awareness is sometimes hard and painful work.  Seeing ourselves clearly, though, is important in our desire to cure the blindness that exists in others.

 

Most people who are physically blind become blind in the course of their living because of an accident or a progressive disease.  Very few are blind from birth like the man in Jesus’ story.  A well-known preacher named Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story in a recent book of a French man named Jacque Lussayran, as related in his own book titled “And There was Light.”  Although he wasn’t born blind, he began to lose sight at an early age and then lost it completely after a schoolyard fight at age seven.  He writes about how he learned early on, that most people around him considered his blindness to be a complete disaster.  Many assumed he would ultimately become a beggar.  His parents, though, refused to place him in an institution.  They fought to keep him in public school so he could learn to function in the seeing world.  His mother learned Braille with him.  They refused to pity him, and his father said to him, “Always tell us when you discover something new.”

 

Despite Jacque’s complete blindness, he writes about the first weeks after his accident in this way:  “I could not see the light of the world anymore, yet the light was still there.  Its source was not obliterated.  I had only to receive it.  I found again its movements and shades, its colors that I had loved so passionately a few weeks before.”  He concludes, saying “The source of light is not in the outer world.  We believe that it is only because of a common delusion.  The light dwells where life also dwells: within ourselves.”

 

At the end of this story of the healing of the blind man, the scripture says,

35 Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, 

“Do you believe in the Son of Man?”

36 “Who is he, sir?” the man asked. “Tell me so that I may believe in him.”

37 Jesus said, “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.”

38 Then the man said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him.

39 Jesus said,[a] “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”

40 Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked,

“What? Are we blind too?”

41 Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.

 

It’s hard for me to look at the story of the healing of the blind man and not see the politics of health care.  Think about it.  The man’s situation was pretty desperate.  In his culture, blindness was an imperfection that alienated him from all of the systems of support that others enjoyed.  It was a pre-existing condition. Blindness was often seen as a curse, which is why the disciples asked Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?”  Talk about blaming the victim!  No insurance for him! What is remarkable to me is that when something really good happened to the man, it aroused all kinds of suspicions.  In other words, the delivery of healing and health was of secondary importance to those nearby who were unaffected by the disability.  That seems to me to be our problem today. What mattered to the neighbors and Pharisees was that the whole social and religious system they had carefully maintained remain unchallenged and undisturbed.

 

The Pharisees, who constituted a religious political party of sorts, were divided on the delivery of health care in this situation.  They subpoenaed witnesses and they threatened those who were afraid of being put out of the temple.  They pointed fingers at Jesus and let him know that no matter how successful he had been in restoring health, doing so on the Sabbath day constituted sin.  They did not care about making sick people well.  What they cared about was being right and maintaining their positions of power.  They were completely blind to their own lack of compassion, and Jesus didn’t hesitate to point that out to them.

 

A photo was taken some time back that floated around of twenty-eight men at the White House discussing policy changes affecting the health care of women, where not a single woman was present. The ridiculousness and injustice of the situation was not lost on the public.  Could caucus members recognize that for themselves, or were the blind spots too wide and too many?  Ironically, the insistence on stripping health care basics from a bill to replace the Affordable Care Act assured that it would not be repealed.  While many consider that very good news, it makes me wonder whether the quest for power and money is a disease that results in blindness and erodes compassion.  Regardless of where we stand on the specifics of how health care is delivered in our county, the actual needs of people, not political self-interest, must be the force that shapes our policies.  Time and again, the gospels tell us that Jesus was moved by compassion in his response to the sick and the demonized and the alienated.  He didn’t stop to figure out what the fallout would be if he healed a blind man on the Sabbath.  He just used all of his powers and did what was right.  For those who see Jesus as a model for action, we need to ask ourselves if we will use our powers in the same way,

 

Jesus resisted those who stood in the way of compassionate care. He did! I believe God calls us to be servants in the service of the whole human family and to resist the powers of oppression.  We are seeing what happens when people are willing to resist.  When we do so as followers of Jesus, it is not rooted in a political ideology but in our understanding of how the message of both Jesus and the prophets who preceded him relates to our world in 2017. It’s rooted in 300 years of our tradition that has majored in compassionate health care, going back as far as the early Brethren who cared for each other’s needs, and John Kline, the famous horse riding preacher who was also a doctor.

The Brethren established medical facilities in their mission fields in India, China and Nigeria, Ecuador and Indonesia. Bethany Hospital was built in Chicago by Brethren, as in Castener Puerto Rico, and a clinic in Caimito in that country; there were medical programs in the Appellations and in New Mexico, well projects for clean drinking water in Sudan and other places, care for the elderly in 24 places across the country including Hillcrest in La Verne, CPS work during World War II, Heifer Project, CROP, Lafiya, not to mention the thousands of Brethren who have worked in health and medical vocations. So raise your hand if you’ve been involved in any of those things I’ve mentioned.

 

Jesus said in John 9, “I am the Light of the World.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” He also said, “You are the light of the world.”

 

The light of the world inside of us is greater and is brighter than any darkness and is powerful in its ability to heal our blind spots, to release us from any delusion, to reveal new knowledge about God, and to increase our compassion for all who long to be whole again.  Let that light shine for all to see!  Amen.

 

Wise Woman of Abel Beth Maacah

 

Since 2011, I have done a summer preaching series called Is That Really in the Bible?   For several years I knew exactly what stories I wanted to be able to tell you:  Ehud, the left-handed assassin; David cutting off a portion of the King Saul’s robe while the king was relieving himself in a cave; Balaam’s donkey talking back to him.  But I am now on my seventh year of doing this summer series and I am having a harder and harder time finding those obscure stories that astound.

 

One of my reasons for preaching on these stories is an attempt to get you to read your Bibles.  But the story I am going to tell you today was a new one for me.  The tables were turned and someone (Bob Mullins) introduced me to a story in the Bible I had never heard or read:  the story of the wise woman of Abel Beth Maacah.  Several years ago, when Bob began this dig in Israel he suggested that I might want to preach on this text during my summer series.  First, I had to locate it and read it.

 

The story of the wise woman of Abel Beth Maacah is the story of a separatist movement in the middle of political upheaval.  Here is the prequel. King Saul was the first king of the united monarchy of Israel.  King Saul’s rule didn’t last very long and eventually King David became his successor.  King David’s son, Absalom, decided he would like to be king and so he led a revolt against his own father.  David fled Jerusalem but eventually, David’s troops, under the leadership of his nephews, Joab and Abishai, beat Absalom’s troops.  Now think about that.  If it isn’t bad enough that Absalom is leading a resistance movement against his own father, Joab and Abishai are first cousins to Absalom and they are on opposite sides.  It puts a new spin on the phrase “All in the family”.

 

As Absalom’s troops are losing, Absalom flees for his life but his hair gets caught in the branches of an oak tree.  This left Absalom a sitting duck. Joab (his cousin) found him hanging from the branches and killed him.  Even though King David’s own son was trying to take over his throne, David had left explicit instructions that he didn’t want Absalom killed.  So David was angry with Joab and he put a different nephew, Amasa, (he had lots of nephews) in charge of his troops.  It is an odd move because Amasa had actually been the commander in charge of the rebel forces, under Absalom.  Now King David is back in power of the united monarchy and he has appointed his treacherous nephew, Amasa, in charge of the army; and removed his faithful nephew, Joab, from that position.

 

King David’s rule continued on, shaky at best.  The northern kingdom was still angry.  That is where our story for today begins.   A man named Sheba ignites another movement against David’s reign.  Sheba was a member of the tribe of Benjamin and he secured the loyalties of those who had formerly been attached to the house of Saul and part of the revolt of Absalom.  Sheba declared war.

 

So King David goes to his nephew, Amasa, the commander of the troops, and says, “Collect the men from the southern part of the kingdom.  Return with them within three days.”  But Amasa doesn’t come back in three days.  In other words, he disobeyed the king.  Where was he?  Joining the revolt?  Or maybe he was informing Sheba of the king’s plan?

 

David circumvents Amasa and goes next to Abishai.  Remember that Abishai is one of his nephews that helped him defeat Absalom’s revolt.  Abishai is also the brother of Joab, who was stripped of his former command and yet remains loyal to David.  Joab collects his men and follows his brother Abishai into battle on behalf of David.  They want to catch Sheba before he enters a fortified city and escapes.

 

While Abishai and Joab are pursuing Sheba, Amasa shows up belatedly.  Joab goes up to greet him. Joab says, “Is it well with you, my brother?”  Then he grabs Amasa’s beard with his right hand and he kisses him.  Remember from other biblical stories we have looked at together that the naming of which hand he uses in this gesture is important.  You would never touch someone with your left hand, considered your wiping hand.  Joab reaches out to his cousin, Amasa, with his right hand….a sign of welcome between military leaders…and family.

 

What Amasa doesn’t know is that Joab is holding a sword in his left hand….the hand no one would consider using. Joab killed his own cousin, who he considered a spy for the resistance.  He doesn’t think twice.  Joab is mercilessly devoted to King David.  He leaves his cousin bleeding out on the road.  He and his brother, Abishai, leave and head out in pursuit of Sheba.  Joab…so, so violent.  He killed Abner, who he believed was spying on David.  He killed Absalom who led a revolt against David.  He killed Amasa who he guessed was a spy against David.  David would rebuke Joab but he always called on him when he needed the resistance squashed and Sheba is next on David’s list.

 

Sheba is hiding out in Abel Beth Maacah…a city in the northern kingdom.  It is border town on the crossroads of many routes.  Like many border towns it finds itself in the middle of political upheaval, not of its making.  Sheba and his men are holed up here and Joab knows it.  Abel Beth Maacah is built with two city walls.  An extra wall of security is a good idea for a border town.  Joab and his men build a ramp over the first wall so that they can just tear down the second wall.  He and his men have scaled the first wall and are beginning to destroy the second wall when a wise woman calls out:  “Hey listen.  Bring Joab to me.  I need to talk to him.”

 

Before we go on with the story, we must stop and point out that this woman may not have had a name but she had a title:  wise woman.  This woman may have been a judge.  What we know is she was considered a shrewd woman. She clearly had the authority and trust of her people.  She is the one who is either sent or self-proclaimed to negotiate a peace settlement.  But she is not only respected on the inside of the city walls.  She gains respect on the outside of the city walls.  Joab’s men go and find him, just as she requested.

 

When Joab is brought to her she confirms his identity and then says to him, “Abel Beth-Maacah isn’t a place you should just feel free to destroy.  We have an important heritage here.  We are known for wisdom and peace and fidelity.  I am one of the wise, peaceful, faithful of Israel.  I need to ask you, why would you want to destroy a city that is the mother of Israel.  Why do you want to destroy the heritage of Yahweh?”

 

No man ever tried to negotiate with Joab.  Joab was a fierce, righteous warrior.  It didn’t matter what he was commanded to do.  He did what he thought was necessary to instill the rule of David, even when David explicitly asked him not to do it. He wasn’t use to someone calling him out.   But this woman didn’t command him about anything.  She asked him some well-appointed questions.  She let him know that while they were chipping away at the wall to find the rat named Sheba, there were living, breathing people inside these walls….people of wisdom and faithfulness.  She told him, “People are God’s heritage and here we stand while you prepare to slaughter us.  We are innocent and we belong to Yahweh.”

 

Joab responds to the wise woman, “Far be it from me to destroy anything of the Lord’s.  You do realize don’t you that you are harboring a fugitive.  Give him to me and we will be on our way.”

 

“Okay,” she said.  “But we will be the ones to judge Sheba, not you.  We will cut off his head and throw it over the wall to you.”  So the people of Abel Beth Macaah cut off his head and threw it over the wall.  Joab and his men left satisfied and went back to Jerusalem to show Sheba’s head to King David.  Abel Beth Maacah and its people were saved because of this wise woman. For her decision that one should die rather than many should die, we learn to know the wise woman of Abel Beth Macaah.

 

As a life-long member of the pacifist Church of the Brethren this is a hard scripture for me.  It made me think about how on American Bandstand Dick Clark would have two audience members rate the songs.  On a scale from 35-98 they would give a song a rating based on how easy it was to dance to its beat.  This week while I was writing this sermon I thought to myself, “I would give this scripture a 40 as a text that is easy to preach to.”

 

But that is the point of my summer series.  There are so many scripture texts that are filled with the earthiness of the world that we never bother to read because they make us uncomfortable.  There is someone who refers to my summer series as Susan’s sermons filled with blood stories and potty stories.  I don’t make these stories up. The amazing thing about the Bible is that it hasn’t been cleaned and sanitized.  We make it that way because we usually only tell the stories that make us comfortable.  I’m afraid that we do that with our Bible and we also do it with our lives and the world.  We don’t want to read about the news that frightens or disturbs us.  We put our heads in the sand and pretend that all that mayhem isn’t happening or that it is it doesn’t have anything to do with us.  It is so much easier to live in a world where everything ties up in a neat little moral bow than to confront the world in which we live.

 

I wish this story would end differently.  I wish the wise woman would have invited Joab in for tea and cookies.  Then Sheba and Joab would shake hands without any hidden swords and figure out the best way forward.  I don’t like that the people of Abel Beth Maacah would cut off the head of someone they were harboring.  But we don’t get to write this story.  We do get to push up against it.  We do get to ask ourselves important questions.  Who am I in this story?  What wisdom do I carry?  Would I sacrifice someone else to save my life? Why is this story in our Bibles?  Is it relevant to my life?

 

And then we get to remember the New Testament…the testament to the one who laid down his life for his friends…the one who blessed us as peacemakers

…the one who called us to a new way of living…the one who lived as a servant, not a king…the one we follow.  Amen.

Paul and Silas’ European Adventure

 

In this summer series, “Is That Really in the Bible?”, I like to tell you stories from the Bible I don’t think you’ve heard before.  That isn’t true today.  I think the story I will tell you today is familiar…even if you have never heard it before.

 

The story I am going to tell you is about a culture that treats people like commodities; a system that regards incarceration as the answer to problems; and a society that fears the foreigner.  Sound familiar?

 

Remember last week that we looked at the concept of theopoetics, a way to read the Bible that allows us to hear it speak to our present experience.  As we look at this story today I invite you to hold it up as a mirror to our nation and culture as it exists today and see if looks the same.

 

Today’s story about power and privilege comes from the Book of Acts. The two main characters are Paul and Silas.  Now I figure you know who Paul is.  Silas was a man chosen by the elders of the church to accompany Paul and Barnabas on their mission.  When Paul and Barnabas got into a “parting of the ways” Paul chose Silas to accompany him on his second mission trip.  They ended up in Macedonia because Paul had a dream in which a man said, “Come to Macedonia and help us!”  They ended up in the city of Philippi, marking Paul’s first time to set foot on European soil.  Philippi was really a miniature Rome.  It was under the municipal law of Rome.  It was governed by two Roman military officers appointed by Rome.  Its land was divided up and given to the descendants of Roman soldiers who had fought under the command of Emperor Augustus.  It was known for the gold mines in the mountains nearby.  Philippi was an extraordinarily powerful society that was populated with elites.

 

So in Philippi on the Sabbath, Paul and Silas went down to the river to pray and they found a group of women gathered there.  Among them was a woman named Lydia, a business woman, who dealt in purple cloth.  They struck up a conversation that ended in Lydia and her entire household being baptized.  Lydia, a business woman, became a big supporter of Paul and his work and his ministry in Philippi was housed out of Lydia’s home.

 

Things were going well in Philippi until they ran into a slave girl who had the power of divination. In her culture she would have been seen as operating under Apollo’s powers. The people who had enslaved this girl were making money hand over fist by setting her up as a fortune-teller.  This girl took one look at Paul and Silas and recognized them as workers for the Kingdom of God. She followed them, calling out in a loud voice, “These men are the slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”  This went on for days.  “These men are the slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim a way of salvation.”  Instead of going, “Finally, someone has seen who we are and isn’t afraid to tell the world”, Paul got irritated.  Every time he tried to pray with someone this was in the background:  “These men are the slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim a way of salvation.”  It is how I feel when I go into a hospital room and try to pray with someone and the person in the next bed is watching a show called Wildest Police Chases at the highest decibel.  Paul finally couldn’t stand the way she was interfering with his work and so annoyed he healed her:  “In the name of Jesus Christ, come out of her!”  He did exorcism and suddenly she was quiet.

 

Now Paul didn’t get the reaction you might think.  We don’t know what the slave girl said.  It seems she isn’t a main character in this story.  This is a story about power and privilege and she had neither.  What we do know is that her owners are furious.  With one action, Paul has dried up their lucrative business carried on the back of one poor girl.  So they dragged Paul and Silas into local court house and said, “These men aren’t us. They are Jews and they are disturbing our peace and advocating for different customs.”  So they ordered them stripped naked and beaten with rods…in public.  Then they threw them into prison and ordered them to be kept securely – which meant an inner cell with their feet in stocks.

 

Paul and Silas didn’t cry. They didn’t beg their jailers to let them out.  They sat side by side and sang hymns.  The rest of the prisoners listened to them sing about the Kingdom of God while imprisoned by the empire. As Maya Angelou writes:

The caged bird sings   

with a fearful trill   

of things unknown   

but longed for still   

and his tune is heard   

on the distant hill   

for the caged bird   

sings of freedom. 

 

And it was while they were singing hymns about God and freedom that the walls of the cage began to shake.  It was an earthquake so violent that the very foundations of the prison were at risk. The doors flew open and everyone’s chains were unlocked.  The warden, knowing that the empire would blame him for the prison break, got out a sword in order to kill himself. But Paul shouted out, “We are all here. Please don’t kill yourself.” The jailer was so moved by their reaction that he came in to the cell with Paul and Silas and fell down at their feet.  Then he cleaned up their wounds from the flogging, fed them at his own table and asked them to baptize him and his whole household, without delay.

 

The next morning, the police showed up at the jail. They came at the request of the judges to tell the prison guard to let these two Jewish men go. The jailer was ecstatic about this turn of events for his new friends.  He told Paul that it was time to go and go in peace.

 

Acts 16 is a story about power and privilege….about how empires behave:

  1. They respond swiftly and severely to anything that makes them look bad.
  2. They value people only when they can exploit them for profit.
  3. They create enemies, scapegoat foreigners and sow the seeds of resentment towards the other.
  4. They torture and they incarcerate what they fear they cannot control.
  5. Empires never admit wrongdoing.

How do we look in that mirror you are holding up?

 

We are not quite done with this story.  Let me finish telling it to you.  Paul did not sigh with relief when he learned they were being released.  Instead Paul said, “No. We are not leaving.  We were beaten in public. We are innocent men who were thrown in jail.  Besides, we are Roman citizens.  Now the powers that be want to hide what they did and release us in secret?  No.  I’m not leaving here until they come in person.”

 

Remember empires never admit wrongdoing.  But when the magistrates who threw them in jail heard that they were Roman citizens they became very frightened.  They hurriedly went to the jail and apologized and asked them to do them a favor and leave Philippi.  First Paul and Silas stopped to say goodbye to Lydia but then they left.

 

I find this ending messy.  I can’t tie it up into a bow for you and say, “See everything turned out the way in which it should.” I love that Paul spoke truth to the empire.  “You flogged and imprisoned me, an innocent man.  Now you want to let me out of prison without even so much as an acknowledgement of what you have done.  No.” But Paul used his privilege as a Roman citizen to get what he wanted.  I do think people with power and privilege should use it to affect change but not just for themselves.  Paul and Silas left Philippi with all their fellow prisoners still in jail.  We don’t know what happened to the poor slave girl no longer able to make fistfuls of cash for her enslavers.  The empire was embarrassed for a moment but they went back to behaving the same way they did before Paul showed up.

 

And so it leaves us with more questions than we had before….which many Bible stories do.  Some of them are actually personal questions.  Do you use your power and privilege for the good of others…or just yourself?  Do you fall under the spell of the empire, fearing others and exploiting people for your gain?  Do you speak truth to power?  These are good and vital questions for us to ask ourselves.

There is also Good News to be found in Acts 16.  Let me read you the quote at the top of your bulletin:

The good news according to Acts 16 is that God’s intentions cannot finally be thwarted by obstacles put in the way by individuals, governments, societies, or bald imperial pretentiousness.

 

That is Good News and we need to be reminded of it every day.  And we also need to be reminded of our role and obligation in submitting to the Spirit of God alive in the world.  We need to look past the threat of the empire to the power and glory of the Kingdom of God.  We need to sing of freedom, no matter where we are and dance even if we find ourselves in the dragon’s jaws.  We need to care for and about our brothers and sisters, created by God.  We need to stand up to power and join God’s movement of love.  For we are called to live in the Kingdom of God…for the glory of God and our neighbors’ good.  Amen.