Sermons

Nothing Can Separate Us

5th Sunday of Lent | Romans 8 | March 29, 2020 | Susan Boyer

For a printer friendly version of the Scriptures, hymns and sermon, click HERE

Gathering Chant

Gathered here in the mystery of this hour. Gathered here in one strong body. Gathered here in the struggle and power. Spirit, draw in.

Come, We That Love the Lord

1. Come, we that love the Lord,  and let your joys be known; join in a song with sweet accord. (x2)
and thus surround the throne. (x2)

Refrain: We’re marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion;
We’re marching upward to Zion; the beautiful city of God

2. The hill of Zion yields. a thousand sacred sweets. before we reach the heavenly fields, (x2). or walk the golden streets. (x2)

3. Then let our songs abound, and ev’ry tear be dry; we’re marching through Emmanuel’s ground (x2) to fairer worlds on high. (x2)

Psalm 133

How very good and pleasant it is  when kindred live together in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head,  running down upon the beard,  on the beard of Aaron,  running down over the collar of his robes. It is like the dew of Hermon,  which falls on the mountains of Zion.  For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.

Romans 8:35, 37-39

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Message: Nothing Can Separate Us | Susan Boyer

Brennan read Psalm 133 to you today.  It is one of the Songs of Ascent from the Book of Psalms.  Scholars believe that pilgrims sang these songs as they ascended the hill to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  Some scholars believe that these hymns were placed together to signify that historic time when the Israelites living in exile returned to Jerusalem and were able to worship once again with those who had not be exiled. They were all together again as one community of faith in the Temple in the city of Jerusalem. If you have been to Jerusalem you know that the city crowns the hill and the temple is at the very top.  That is why they are called the Songs of Ascent. 

These psalms are filled with joy and hope.  Zion is the star in these songs, just as it was in our opening song this morning: Come We That Love the Lord.  

The hill of Zion yields a thousand sacred sweets… 

We are marching to Zion, 

Beautiful, beautiful Zion;

We are marching upward to Zion,

The beautiful city of God.

These faithful people of ancient times sang Psalm 133 out of sheer joy at the prospect of worshiping together again with the promise that God would meet them there.  It begins with the words:  How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!  “Kindred” here does not refer to blood relatives but those who are joined together in faith.

These kindred come together at the high place to worship God.  The delight of being able to do that together once again is likened to the oil that that was used to anoint Aaron to the priesthood.  It rolled down off of his beard and onto his collar.  It is a metaphor of abundance…overflowing abundant goodness.  When those who had been held captive and kept at a distance returned to join those who had been left behind in Jerusalem their joy was overflowing.  It could not be contained.

I told you last week that scripture texts have come alive for me in new ways while I hunker down here at home, missing my kindred.  When Sunday rolls around now I feel even more distant, more separated than I do during the rest of the week.  I define my week by Sundays…by being with you….my kindred. Social isolation is hard on the soul.  When I lost my husband you were my people, my anchor.  Worshiping with you, joining my voice with your voice, knowing you were praying for me, seeing love in your eyes…that is what got me through.

One of the many griefs of this pandemic is the loss of being together…singing, praying, celebrating, laughing, crying, seeing God’s face in each other.  It is a huge loss.  I understand why some churches are refusing to follow the directives.  I don’t respect their decision, at all, but I understand the deep impulse to need to be together.

When the Babylonian captives were separated from their kindred still in Jerusalem they continued to worship…singing the same songs and doing the same rituals. They continued to sing and pray even though they were apart but they dreamed of the day they would be together again in the same space, pilgrims joining together in this journey of faith.  And when it finally happened they named it precious.  Their joy overflowed.  The blessing they felt could not be contained.  It was like anointing oil dripping off the face and onto the collar.

I think of the time when we will be together again as I sit at my kitchen island working on an online worship service; or having a Zoom call with the office staff; or talking to you or emailing with you about your lives as we distance ourselves out of love.  I understand in new ways how those returning exiles must have felt to be able to worship once again, in the same space, with their kindred.  That thought overwhelms me right now and I’ve only been isolating for 14 days now.  It makes me think of a verse of Blessed Be the Tie that Binds 

When we asunder part,

It gives us inward pain;

But we shall still be joined in heart,

And hope to meet again.

It is painful to be apart from all of you.  This time has made me relive all my past griefs and sudden separations only this time I have to do that work without the loving arms of my kindred around me.  Perhaps you are experiencing some of that same inward pain.   But even though we can’t be next to each other we are still joined by heart. And I know that when we are together again in the same space, doing this journey of faith in tandem with each other, it will be even sweeter. 

I have spent time pondering how we will all be different when this is finally over.  I think that things that used to bug us about each other will seem less annoying and more adorable.  I imagine that we will give our togetherness a name.  We will call it “Precious”.  We will treat our worship service less like a performance and more like a feast….like the meeting of hearts, souls and bodies in the wonder and delight of worship. How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together, worship together, love together in unity.

But what do we do in the meantime?  How do we care for each other and do our soul work right now?  There are so, so many ways. These are difficult times but as Pastor Dawna continues to remind me there are sweet spots in every day. Look for those sweet spots.  

I saw one of them this week on my Facebook feed.  A member of our church took a walk around the church property and posted photos of our facility.  Our church sign on Bonita Ave. says, “May there be work, water, salt and bread for everyone.”  Underneath our sign someone had made another sign.  It said, “Hello, neighbor.  Please take one bag of fruit.  Enjoy.”  There were multiple bags of orange, grapefruit and lemons underneath our sign.  People are doing their soul work by finding ways to care for others while we practice social distancing. 

Another way is the way Paige shared with our children…and the rest of us.  We can meditate, be calm, breathe and remember we are loved.  I joined in that meditation today.  I can’t crisscross applesauce but I can breathe, I can close my eyes and see all the people I love and who love me.

This week I reread the scripture that Tom shared with us…the one from Romans 8.  It is a familiar scripture, often read at memorial services reminding the grieving that even death will not separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. I usually read quickly through the part that says “nor things present, nor things to come” but right now we need to hear those words.  What we are experiencing right now….staying home, empty grocery shelves, constantly shifting directives.

This present reality…it doesn’t stop love.  In fact, it may do the exact opposite.  It may remind us just how to love each other.  It just might allow us to stop long enough to let God’s love soak in.

The things to come frighten us because they are unknowable but even the unknowable can’t separate us from God’s love. We are separated from each other right now….but only physically.  We are still breathing in unison and in harmony.  People are still putting out fruit for their neighbors.  We are still meeting together virtually.  We are still loving and being loved.  Nothing can separate us from the love of God and nothing can truly and ultimately separate us from each other. 

Nothing…nothing…absolutely nothing….not social distancing, not the lack of respirators, not the lack of toilet paper, not boredom, not the lack of physical connection, not having to be home with all our family members who are getting on our nerves, not the inability to gather for worship, not all the events and celebrations we have had to forego, not the anxiety that seeps into our souls, not life or death or things present or things to come and can separate us from the love of God….or each other.  

Close your eyes.  Breathe.  Call to mind the people you love.  Call to mind the people who love you.  Feel God’s love and presence bathe you with love.  Nothing.  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God.  Amen.

Great Is Thy Faithfulness

1. Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father; there is no shadow of turning with thee, thou changest not, thy compassions, they fail not; as thou hast been thou forever wilt be.

Refrain: Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see: all I have needed thy hand hath provided – Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!

2. Summer and winter and springtime and harvest, sun, moon, and stars in their courses above join with all nature in manifold witness to thy great faithfulness, mercy and love.

3. Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth, thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide, strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!

Refuse to Flatten the Curve of Our Love

4th Sunday of Lent | Romans 12 | March 22, 2020 | Susan Boyer

For a printer friendly version of the sermon click HERE

Scripture Reading: 2 Timothy 1:5-7

I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

Scripture Reading: Romans 12: 9-18

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.  Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.  Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

Message: Refuse to Flatten the Curve of Our Love

We are in a time of flux like I have never experienced before in my lifetime.  I think I am staying current with the latest news and then my son in Oakland will text me with something like “The Bay Area has just been directed to shelter in place.” And I don’t even know what that means. Every day brings new information and new directives.  The world is changing so fast that every evening I wonder what will happen tomorrow. We will look back on this time and recount how we lived through it and who and what we lost.  Nothing feels right.  I invite you to take a moment to just acknowledge the disorder we all feel.

We have already given up many things we take for granted…our sense of normalcy; the illusion of control; many of the events that bring us joy; physical connection with others; the ability to go where we want to go when we want to go; making a quick stop at the grocery store to pick up a gallon of milk.  Others have had things taken from them…the ability to leave their homes, employment and health.

With this kind of upheaval we can’t just pretend things haven’t changed.  As I read my Bible this past week I was struck by how differently I experience texts I have read my whole life.  No longer can I enter the text with the same idyllic and privileged filter that I usually layer on top of scripture without even realizing it.

For example, the text I read to you from 2 Timothy 1:  “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather a spirit of power and love and self-discipline” feels especially relevant right now. Those words come from a letter Paul wrote to Timothy at time when Timothy needed to be reminded that he had been given a legacy that would aid him in facing the challenges of his time.  Timothy needed to be reminded that he came from a long line of courageous people who met their challenges with courage, power, love and self-discipline.  Timothy was the grandchild of Lois and the son of Eunice, after all. Paul wants him to remember that he comes from a long line of faithfulness and courage …and self-discipline.   

We also reminded to remember from whom we came.  While this time feels like no other time that isn’t completely true.  Our ancestors have lived through plagues, the Spanish flu, the polio outbreak.  In our more recent history we have seen Pearl Harbor, the AIDS epidemic and 9/11.  These are events that also felt like they came at us from the side, with no preparation.  It means that we have to take what we know and through courage, power and self-discipline continue to move forward in love…just as Paul reminded Timothy to do.

The other scripture I want to look at today comes from Romans, another letter from Paul.  In that letter Paul is reminding the Christians in Rome of the practical ways they are called to continue following Jesus’ example.  Depending on what translation you use there are upwards of thirty imperatives in this scripture.  Love is the theme.  We think of 1 Corinthians 13 as the love chapter but once again, in Romans 12, Paul uses love as the foundation of everything.  Let love be genuine.  Love one another with a mutual affection. Contribute to the needs of the saints.  Show hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you.  So far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  In other words, pattern yourself after the life and death of Jesus in which love and self-sacrifice was at the basis of every decision.

The other interesting thing about the admonitions in Romans 12 is that all of the verbs are plural.  We follow Jesus together.  This scripture is a window into what life in Christ looks like as a community.  You can imagine Paul saying, “Don’t try this alone.” 

I’ve been paying attention to the messages that other clergy leaders are speaking to their congregations during this pandemic. A few are ignoring that these times are different.  I read this week about pastors who have continued to encourage their parishioners to physically come to worship.  One pastor was quoted as saying, “We are raising up revivalists, not pansies.”  These pastors think you can’t do the work of Christ if you aren’t all in the same sanctuary. These are tough times and when Christians refuse to listen to our best minds telling us the best way we can take care of each other, I shudder.  I wish this pastor had a Paul in his lives that would remind him that God has given our communities a spirit of courage, power and self-discipline, in which love is the underlying theme. We are supposed to be raising up communities acting in love, not mavericks acting thoughtlessly.

The good news is that the vast majority of faith leaders are inviting people to remember the values of their faith and move forward in love and self-discipline. One of the deep challenges for us during this time is that we are a community that loves each other deeply, gathers often and makes decisions together.  That has become more difficult during theses times, but not impossible.  We do our faith journey together as a people.

So, we need to be creative about how we come together. We are learning a new skill….how we can do this work together while we enact the loving practice of social distancing?  It is one of the many ways we can act in love right now…together.  This church is not afraid of a challenge and it exudes creativity.   Your staff is thinking all the time about ways we can connect without putting the vulnerable at risk.  For example, last Sunday night our high school youth had a get together through video conferencing.  Their time together began with a scavenger hunt, each playing from their own homes. What a fabulous idea of community having fun during these tricky times. We need your help to devise new and creative ways to be community to each other. Isolation is hard on our souls and we need to figure out how to connect. We need each of us to reach out in love and compassion to each other but also in service to the larger community.  Let us know your ideas of how we can connect and how we can serve during this altered reality.  Join us in the process of creating community.

It is also important that we get creative about how we can be people of service in a time of social distancing.  Last Sunday in a sermon delivered to an empty sanctuary that was livestreamed, Rev. Miles, a priest at Trinity Church Wall Street Church said to her congregation: “Every hand we don’t shake must become a phone call we make. Every inch and every foot of distance we put between ourselves and another must become a thought about how we could help that other should the need arise.” 

Our faith was born out of the love of a suffering and incarnate God.  We are suited for the loving work ahead of us.  Times of risk and isolation call us to live lives of advocacy, compassion and service to others. Sometimes that service means we have to be physically apart.  Sometimes that service will require something else.  Each day the target moves and each day we must stand up in love and figure out what our calling is for the joys and challenges of yet another day.

For we have been blessed with the deep values of love and service that were handed down to us from our spiritual ancestors….those who made the bold decision to be baptized by trine immersion in the Eder River and found themselves persecuted for their actions….those who took the practice of feet washing and made it smooth with prayer…those who took the stance of peacemaker to the point of becoming medical guinea pigs rather than serve and kill others through military service ….those who have stood in the way of tanks…those who have stood up for the inclusion of others…..those who have been allies to the farm workers…. those who joined MLK in the march from Selma to Montgomery….those who refused to let gender be a deciding factor for answering the Spirit’s nudging.  We are here because of the generations of courageous people who went before us, putting their lives and reputations on the line to continue the work of Jesus during challenging times.  

And now it is our turn.  Romans 12 tells us to rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Right now these are the spiritual practices we will put into place together while we stay away from groups and work at flattening the curve.  But true love is fervent, relentless and practical.  So at the same time that we flatten the curve of the Coronavirus we should allow the curve of our love to explode exponentially.  

We have cancelled many things but we have not canceled our love or our courage or our power or our self-discipline or our service to others or our community or our hope or our prayers or our faith.

Friends, resist panic, refuse to demonize, speak words of encouragement, hold fast to what is true, keep community alive and may the curve of our love explode in new and creative ways.  Amen.

Keep Calm and Wash Your Hands

3rd Sunday of Lent | Psalm 23 | March 15, 2020 | Dawna Welch

For a printer friendly version of the sermon click HERE

Invocation:

Loving Shepherd, you know our names; you care for us.
When we face darkness and death,walk beside us.
When we hunger for your love, fill us with your presence.
When we are fearful, feed us at your table.
May we dwell in the house of goodness and mercy
all the days of our lives. Amen. ~ written by Mary Petrina Boyd

Scripture Reading – Psalm 23:

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
    He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
   he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
    for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk
    through the darkest valley
I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
    forever.

MESSAGE – Keep Calm and Wash Your Hands

As you may or may not know we are smack dab in the middle of a Lenten Sermon series on water. Today is the third Sunday of Lent and, originally, I had prepared a very different sermon to bring you this morning. 

But in light of the rapidly evolving conditions surrounding the Corona Virus pandemic that led us to this very different worship experience – another message keeps begging to come to the forefront: Keep Calm and Wash Your Hands! 

So yes, water still features prominently…..but so does fear. Fear caused by the reality of a pandemic.

Pandemic …. I don’t know about you, but that word seems so archaic to me. Something out of the dark ages – like the bubonic plague. In this day and age of modern science and medical advancements it seems crazy to me that we could find ourselves in this global health crisis caused by a flu virus. Yet here we are, part of creation along with a gazillion microbes that have their own agenda and life-driving force. 

Daily, we are learning about the nature of COVID-19, how it is spread and which populations are most at risk. The rise of infected people is staggering and that’s just the people we know about. It’s scary. As fear grows,social media is full of reports showing pictures of empty store shelves. People are panic-buying. I confess I got caught up in that hysteria last week while running errands. I stopped by CVS, (our neighborhood drug store) to pick up some shoe inserts and thought, “I might as well grab some Lysol disinfectant while I’m here”– nope. Not a canister or box of wipes left on the shelves. Same for hand sanitizer. “Well”, I reasoned, “CVS doesn’t have very deep stock on household goods”. So, I headed to Target and then the grocery store. Same at both locations. Shelves really are empty! Not only hand sanitizer, disinfectant sprays, wipes and cleaning supplies but also toilet paper, and bottled water as well. With a growing sense of dread that perhaps I had waited too long I grabbed the last two cases of bottled water and a humungous package of bargain 1-ply toilet paper (because that was all that was left). I sort of wrapped my body around these items and made my way to checkout like a gold prospector protecting his lode. If anyone made eye contact I might have shouted, “Go on. Git!”  

Maybe some of you can relate? 

After I arrived at home and had carried everything into the kitchen I began filling in my family on the heroic measures I took to save their lives that day. My husband, Jeff just sort of stared at me with this genuinely perplexed look on his face. He asked, “But, why all the bottled water?” “Because of Corona Virus, we may have to quarantine”, I responded. To this, Jeff very sweetly and gently placed one hand on my shoulder and with the other he turned toward the kitchen sink and turned on the water. 

I am not trying to make light of a very real issue. We have to be aware and we have to prepare. But, stockpiling hand sanitizer, toilet paper and bottled water is nowhere on the CDC’s recommended list of how to prepare for a mandatory quarantine. But, do you know what is on the recommended list of how to prepare for a mandatory quarantine? 

  • Create a plan based on the needs and daily routines of your household members.
  • Know your risk 
  • Monitor your health
  • Make a plan for those who are at greater risk for serious complications
  • Practice good hygiene.

Essentially, Keep Calm and Wash Your Hands!

Even if you’re not worried about your own personal health or your risk is low, Nadia Bolz Weber, posted this comment on social media which demonstrates another layer or ripple effect caused by the Corona Virus, “[this is] also now a pandemic of human disappointment- cancelled trips, art openings, sports events, book tours, concerts. Things folks have been planning for, working toward, and excited about – that’s a lot of grieving on top of sickness”. 

Underneath all of this disappointment, there lies a very present vulnerability. Hysteria, fear and a sense of loss has led us into our own dark and foreboding valley. A valley where the threat of scarcity and death make us compete against each other for physical, emotional and spiritual resources. From this place of fear and confusion, Psalm 23 has a message of hope. 

Psalm 23 was written for a vulnerable community absolutely distressed by alienation in exile. The preceding Psalm 22 describes this community. It begins with their agonizing lament, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” and ends with them emerging from their darkness, weak and stumbling, and blinking into the light of having been delivered by God. Psalm 23 enthusiastically emphasizes a depth of assurance but make no mistake – it is not cheaply attained. Rather just the opposite; it is the hard-won assurance of those who have suffered greatly while relying on the gentle guidance of their shepherd to lead them.

Belief and faith in God does not inoculate any of us from periods of darkness and doubt, or from feeling overwhelmed and lost. Psalm 23 reminds us that God is with us through it all, our gentle shepherd in whom we can rely! 

The shepherd imagery is important to this story and to ours. A sheep is a particularly vulnerable creature, especially when it is isolated from the herd. According to instincts developed over centuries, sheep react to the situations they find themselves in – they either run when they perceive danger or band together for protection.

Like sheep, our instinct is to flock together. But, what happens when staying close makes you even more vulnerable? Recently, I was startled by the sound of someone screaming in my backyard. It wasn’t just high-decibel complaining, it was like someone was being tortured. Impulsively, I ran outside thinking perhaps a coyote had cornered one of my cats. And then I realized the screaming was coming from a few houses down. When I got to the corner to investigate the situation, I saw several of my neighbors walking toward a young boy who was having an epic meltdown. His father was following close behind. The neighbors were concerned and confused and began to shout out, “Are you alright?” “Do you need help?”. This only made the young boy more agitated and scream louder. You could see the panic on his father’s face. About that time another neighbor came out and told everyone that the boy was visiting from out of state, that he was autistic and walking to discharge energy while his father assured his safety from a distance. With that explanation we understood that the best thing we could do to support this family was walk away with compassion and trust that the young boy was safe and protected. And I could almost hear the father saying thank you, thank you, thank you with the relief and gratitude I saw in his eyes.  

Can we fight our instinct to band together for the greater good of the most vulnerable among us? I hope so. Because that is what this Corona Virus Pandemic calls for. In order for us to care and protect each other we are no longer able to safely gather together in our sanctuary. While we don’t know how long this will be necessary we do know this – Church exists beyond these walls! Even in our physical separation we are yoked in spirit and guided by love. 

To that point, I want to share a prayer I came across this week through my Spiritual Direction training: 

PANDEMIC

–Lynn Ungar 3/11/20

What if you thought of it

as the Jews consider the Sabbath—

the most sacred of times?

Cease from travel.

Cease from buying and selling.

Give up, just for now, 

on trying to make the world

different than it is. 

Sing. Pray. Touch only those

to whom you commit your life.

Center down.

And when your body has become still,

reach out with your heart.

Know that we are connected

in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.

(You could hardly deny it now.)

Know that our lives

are in one another’s hands.

(Surely, that has come clear.)

Do not reach out your hands.

Reach out your heart.

Reach out your words.

Reach out all the tendrils

of compassion that move, invisibly,

where we cannot touch.

Promise this world your love–

for better or for worse,

in sickness and in health,

so long as we all shall live.

When we walk through the dark valleys of our lives, sometimes self-preserving instincts kick in that lead us to frenzied levels of excess, be it emotional, physical, or spiritual. In those times there is a gentle shepherd calling us to follow a somewhat more difficult path, but a path that leads to restoration by the still waters of green pastures. With a rod to protect, a staff to guide, a table where all are safe, all are fed and no thirst is left unquenched. A table where we are the guest, and anointed in God’s restorative love. 

So, rest assured my friends. Keep calm and wash your hands and know that God’s goodness and love will follow you all the days of your life, even the most trying ones.

Amen.

By the Waters of Babylon: March 8, 2020

2nd Sunday of Lent

Susan Boyer

Audion version click HERE

The Book of Psalms is the hymnbook of ancient Israel.  It is filled with the liturgy and worship life of Israel.  The psalm you heard today, Psalm 137, is song of lament.  It grows out of the Babylonian captivity, which happened in the 6th century BC.  The Babylonians destroyed the temple in Jerusalem.  Then they captured all of the elite members of society – the scholars, business leaders, land owners, artists – all of the prominent citizens were hauled off against their will to Babylon.  The peasant class was left behind.  The Israelites were pulled apart at their seams.

Psalm 137 sounds like a song that was written once the exile was over and the exiled had returned to their ruined city of Jerusalem, trying to rebuild their lives and their community while the trauma they had experienced as a community haunts their daily lives.  They must not and cannot forget their past.  How do they explain to their Jewish neighbors back in Jerusalem what the exiled experienced?  Their humiliation is fresh and they take it and place their raw pain and anger in the cradle of a song.

“How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”  Every day they were reminded that they didn’t belong in Babylon.  When the empire makes you its captive it changes your name; strips you of your history and force feeds you the historical narrative of the empire; it breaks your family apart and then tries to convince you that their gods are more powerful than your God. 

Think how that felt for the Israelites.  The language was not their language.  The food didn’t taste familiar or satisfying.  The stories the Babylonians told were not their stories. The values were different and the gods were not Yahweh. Suddenly and against their will they were aliens, refugees, enslaved people.  How do you sing when you don’t feel like you have anything to sing about?  Psalm 137 is not one of the songs of Zion.  It is a song that longs to feel whole enough to sing the songs of Zion…to sing of the Zion they lost.  It is a song of worship but it is a sad, angry, vengeful song…a song of the yearning for home by those who have been torn from it and a song that begs God for retribution.

During Lent, as we move through a sermon series on water, this Psalm of lament speaks of water as they place where the displaced went to sing, to find comfort and connection with home.  By the waters of Babylon they rested, they clung to each other; they sang the songs of their people and their homeland….there they wept.  This was more than homesickness. This was the people of faith gathering for communal lament.  It was sorrowful worship.

But even there the tormentors found them.  “Wow. Listen to them. Hey, sing us one of your songs. Perform for us while we scoff at you.  Where is your God now, huh?”  But this was just too much for the Israelites.  They were already too humiliated and harmed. They would not let their worship be stolen from them as well.  And so they hung their harps in the tree and hid their musical instruments in the foliage next to the waters.  Defiantly they would not sing for the Babylonians.  But when they were alone, perhaps they could sneak down to the water and remember Zion in their music, away from the taunts of those who strove to subjugate them.  Down by the water they went to escape…and weep and sing.

It not only comforted them….it not only connected them to the neighbors and families still in Jerusalem…it helped them refuse to assimilate into the power structure of the empire.  When you find yourself a captive, it is always a temptation….to merely move your loyalty to Babylon….to take a new name…move into the empire’s neighborhood and give up your difference…your ethic…your deep held beliefs.

I have heard Church of the Brethren historians describe us as an exiled people.  Our denomination was birthed in Germany after the reformation and as a reaction to wanting reform to go further.  We are a fusion of the Anabaptist movement (I didn’t say anti-baptist, I said anabaptist) and Pietism.  Anabaptism means “those who baptize again” and was a derogatory name given by those who tormented the ancestors of our movement.  Anabaptists believed that baptism should be an adult choice; there should be freedom in religion; a separation of church and state; nonconformity to the world; peaceful nonresistance; a central focus on the Sermon on the Mount and a priesthood of all believers.  I hear those beliefs and think, “Okay.  So what was the problem?”  But when you truly preach and practice the separation of church and state, you become suspects of the state.

Our religious ancestors were tortured, imprisoned, fined and martyred. They were considered too radical and a danger to the stability of the state.  Some of them were drowned, which was called their “third baptism”.  Their first baptism was when they had been sprinkled at birth by the state-approved church. Their second baptism was when, in defiance, they chose to be rebaptized as adults.  Their third baptism was when the state drowned them for choosing adult baptism.  King Ferdinand declared drowning (this third baptism) as “the best antidote to Anabaptism.”  The Brethren left Europe in the early 1700s in two different shiploads, bound for Pennsylvania, a land that promised them religious freedom.  The Brethren became a displaced people shortly after their birth as a movement.

Many Anabaptist traditions today still sing the lament song of torture and capture by the empire.  We remind ourselves of our history of exile. But I wonder what that story does for us these days. Can we really see ourselves as the exiled anymore? Can we sit in our lovely stained-glass churches and still tell these stories as our stories?  Or have we merely assimilated and become the beneficiaries of Babylon?

It is our tendency to read Bible stories and see ourselves as the Good Samaritan, the father of the Prodigal son, the Israelites escaping Egypt, Abel, Esther, Ruth, Peter.  Most of us don’t read these stories and imagine ourselves in the story as the priest who walks by the man in the ditch or the older son who resents his prodigal brother or as the Egyptians holding the Israelites captive or Cain or the empire or Caiaphas. 

But just to be a bit provocative this morning, how would it change our understanding if we no longer saw ourselves as the victims of the third baptism but instead we understood ourselves as those who have assimilated into Babylon …who once upon a time hid our instruments in the foliage by the river but no longer remember even to go there and sing our songs…who demand that the exiled among us entertain us with their songs of home?

As I was working on this sermon I thought of all the displaced people we run into every day.  They may not have been captured and forced here but we are asking them to stop singing their songs…stop speaking their language…stop remembering.  It might be a woman who works in a nail salon whose nametag says Daisy who you know isn’t really named Daisy.  Or the man that mows your lawn that you know as Joe because it is easier for you to say.  It might be an otherwise gendered person who has to live in a space that does not recognize them as they recognize themselves. It might be a Nigerian healthcare worker who makes do with the food she can make with the bland ingredients that she can find but every day when she sits down to eat her plate of food makes her miss home more profoundly.

Psalm 137 is a song of two cities:  Zion and Babylon.  It is a song of home and the Empire:  the Promised Land and Egypt.  It is the song of birth and exile:  Schwarzenau and Germantown.  A song of two cities in which there is devotion to one and resistance to the other.  Music gives us language when we are living between the two cities.  When we can’t sing the songs of Zion and we don’t want to sing the songs of Babylon, we sing the songs of lament and memory….the songs of courage and protest…and in that singing we are reminded who God calls us to be…we sing as a way to refuse to assimilate to the demands of Babylon…we sing as a way to connect.  We pull our harps out the trees where we have hidden them by the waters of the empire and we sing our hope, our faith, our praise, our intention to hold fast to our God.  Let us keep on singing.

Water of Creation: March 1, 2020

1st Sunday of Lent

Susan Boyer

Audio version click HERE

Apollo 8, the first human mission to the Moon, entered the lunar orbit on Christmas Eve 1968.  The three astronauts on that mission celebrated this scientific wonder by reading ancient religious poetry.  They took turns reading about the first three days of creation, according to Genesis 1.  I was eight years old back then and when I hear those verses from Genesis, I still envision the planet Earth as seen from space…a beautiful blue orb covered in water…..and I hear the crackly radio noises and the occasional NASA beeps…and I am filled with the same wonder I felt at eight years old.

Dot read us that scripture this morning and then you heard the astronauts read it.  Did you notice just how often water is mentioned in those first few verses?

Today is the first Sunday of Lent and it is also the beginning of a sermon series on water.  I know that may seem like a weird thing to concentrate on during Lent when we are invited to journey into the wilderness. We associate the wilderness with dryness and bleakness.  If you haven’t already noticed, we aren’t always conventional here.  Today I invite you to think of the wilderness as that which is filled with wonder and wildness…that which cannot be tamed or controlled.  We enter Lent this year through the wilderness and wildness of water.

As the quote on the top of your bulletin says, “Water is life’s matter and matrix, mother and medium.  There is no life without water.”  As you probably learned when you were in elementary school, 75% of the Earth is water.  97% of the Earth’s water is in oceans.  75% of our freshwater has been in the polar ice caps.  Only 3% of the Earth’s water can be used as drinking water.  Because the Earth is a closed system, the same amount of water that was there when the Earth was formed is the same amount of water we have today — 326 million cubic miles of water

Now that is just the Earth.  Our own human bodies are also predominantly water.  60% of the adult body weight is water.  Our hearts are 73% water.  Our lungs are 83% water.  Our skin is 64% water.  Even our bones have water….31% of our bones consist of water.  Water carries nutrients to every cell in our bodies and it carries oxygen to our brain.  Water is our matter and matrix, mother and medium.  We cannot exist without it.

I think we forget just how important water is to our lives and to this planet. Every time I go to visit my son and his husband in Las Vegas, the first thing my son-in-law does is fill up a drinking glass with water and hand it to me. He says, “You are in the desert.  Keep hydrated.”  When I go to bed at night I notice he has left a glass of water beside my bed.  The human body does not store water.  We have to keep drinking it.

Even so, we forget the importance of water to life because it is so easy and present in our lives.  We turn on the tap and it is easily accessible.  We flush our toilets.  We do our laundry.  We brush our teeth.  We don’t even think about it.  But there are places in this world where water is hard to come by.  Millions of women and girls spend up to 60% of every day on the chore of collecting water for their families.  Collectively, women around our globe spend 200 million hours hauling water every day of the year.  In fact, more people have cell phones world wide than have toilets.  The amount of water we use in a five minute shower is the amount of water one person in a developing country uses for the whole day.  Water is life and we take it for granted.

But it is hard to miss the importance of water when you read the Bible.  Our religious stories revolve around water. In the story of Noah and the ark, God uses water as a force of destruction. In the story of the Exodus, water is liberation as God holds back the Red Sea to allow the Israelites to escape by the waters of Babylon that the exiles sit down to sing their songs of lament and find comfort.  It is into the chaotic waters that Jonah is thrown as he tries to run from God’s call and he finds redemption in the belly of a leviathan.  It is in the soothing River Jordan that Jesus is baptized and named the beloved son of God.  It is in the celebration of a wedding that Jesus transforms water into wine to provide connection and joy.  He shares the living water with an ostracized woman at a well.  In the Book of Revelation, the city of God is imagined as a place with a river running right through the middle. Water, water everywhere. You can’t tell the stories of life without water.

We treat water like a prop in the play rather than as one of the actors.  But water is the single symbol shared by every religion. Water symbolizes the sacred value of life.  We are all born in a sack of water.  Here at the La Verne Church of the Brethren water is used in baptism and feetwashing. It cleanses, purifies and sanctifies in different religious ceremonies around the globe.  Water signifies that which is chaotic, untamable and forceful. It changes and transforms.  It is filled with mystery and potential and creativity.  It is birth and sustenance; connection and redemption. 

Genesis 1 says that on the first day of creation there was a wild wasteland, formless and void…utter darkness covered the deep.  It says the Spirit of God (ruach elohim) brooded over the face of the water.  All my life I have heard that God created ex nihilo…out of nothing…but that idea was not derived from Genesis 1.  In this creation story, the world was created out of formless void of matter, water, wind and darkness. In the beginning of the beginning water was already there. This creation story is not telling us about the beginning of all things but the beginning of a created order.  This is a story about God’s creative impulse.  It is when God took those things that await further creative work and made them into beauty and life.  Then at the end of each day God stepped back and did a bit of evaluation.  “This is good.”  God didn’t say, “Done.”  Or “It’s good enough for who its for.”  Each day God looked at creation and said, “What can I create today?”  At the end of six days God stepped back and said, “Wow. This is very good.”

As with many stories of the Bible we have tried to take the first creation story and fit it into the framework of history, cosmology and science as we understand those things today.  There is nothing more harmful we could do to this beautiful scripture than jam it into that box.  When that happens we hear the voices of those who say, “If you don’t believe that God created the world in six days than you are a heretic.” And the voices of those who say, “The Bible is ridiculous.  Science proves it isn’t true and if you believe that God created that world in six days you are ignorant.”

We are asked to choose a side and if we do, we all lose. We lose the poetic wonder of the creativity of the Creator who took the mediums at hand…the stuff of life and mystery and chaos….matter and water and wind and darkness and splashed them onto canvas.  We take poetry and make it stale. John 1 says, “In the beginning was the Word and all things have coming into being through that Word.” In other words, all life is an expression of God, just as all artwork is an expression of the artist and all music is an expression of the composer. To understand who God is we have only to listen to creation.  We and the rest of this beautiful globe are a theophany…a manifestation of God….an expression of the Artist.  As George MacLeod writes:

The grass is vibrant,

The rocks pulsate.

All is in flux;

Turn but a stone and an angel moves.

We are part of God’s creation…made up of 60% of water…the stuff of life…the stuff of creation. Water is us and water is all.  We are not the center of the universe. We are part of its wonder. Along with the rest of creation we are part of the ongoing creative process …reflections of the Creator.  St. Francis understood that.  He called the sun his brother and the moon his sister.  The wind and water were his siblings. Creation is God’s unending glory expressing itself.  If we forget that we fail to know ourselves. But more importantly we disconnect ourselves from our Creator. We live out of ignorance instead of wisdom…out of fear instead of love.  But if we remember we were created in love by Love we reflect that love.

This week, when you drink a glass of water, wash a load of laundry, turn on your sprinklers, brush your teeth, cry a tear, or walk on the beach remember that water is life…you are water and water is all around us.  We are part of the wild, wonderful, creative expression of our self-giving God.  Amen.

Call Me by My Name: February 23, 2020

Christopher Bache

Audio version click HERE

Good morning.

While preparing for this very first sermon I got a taste of the gender non-conforming and trans-liberation theology that is currently being written exploring new ways of understanding old stories and this offered an invitation to me within scripture that I hadn’t anticipated encountering. I have spent most of my life assuming that I did fit into the kin-dom despite not feeling fully named as the transman I am. I am using the term kin here, not king, to emphasize familial belonging and disrupt a hierarchical understanding of God’s people. My assumptions started in small ways like the verse in Genesis 1:27, “So God created humankind in God[‘s] image”. My introduction to a queer centric reading began when my friend Jo Clifford, a Scottish playwright, actor and activist, named gender variant saints like Joan of Arc and Joseph and his dream coat (actually a princess dress). I have discovered that it is possible to hear God call us by our claimed names in larger and explicit ways, today I will talk about how Jesus calls the gender variant both in speech and example.

First, it is important to acknowledge how gender permeates our names and language. Joy Ladin, a professor, poet and theologian, uses a metaphor I hadn’t heard before, she explains that, “Gender was my mother tongue, a tongue that lectured me constantly…tirelessly telling me what I must and couldn’t be” (Ladin 16). While not everyone is going to perceive of the world as teaching and training us a gendered language, this concept is one that is more apparent to gender variant people and those raised female. Ladin was describing her experience of the world growing up knowing she was different, but not understanding how to name who she was or what her path could look like. These gendered concepts are generally couched in binary terms of male and female. Ladin goes on to explain that binaries are powerful, “They organize reality so effectively that they tend to seem like built-in features of existence rather than human interpretations of it” (Ladin 22). A binary is a way of relating two things, such as black and white or night and day; this way of categorizing often sets up a duality that only allows for the two options. Binaries are simply a human way of categorizing, labeling and accounting or naming.

Names are important. We are each given names at birth. Some of us find new names and new ways of calling ourselves in the world. When our names are forgotten or misused a small wall is built up. Like when the barista spells your name incorrectly or someone introduces you wrong. These small slights are often invisible to us because so often our names are correct. For gender variant folks, or to use a new term from my reading ‘OtherWise gendered,’ names can be a fraught situation. Everyone seems to have an opinion about what is a good name or whether they want to use your new name. The use and acknowledgment of a name is important, it offers respect. It is for that very reason that I have been searching for myself in scripture, because I don’t want to just feel called by family and loved ones or my community. I also want to be called by God.

The way that we conceptualize gender and sex now is not the same as it was in Biblical times or before. Therefore, we cannot map our current meanings and categories onto those that are used in the Bible because they do not fully conform to one another for cultural, social and physical reasons. Gender variance is not new, it is very ancient. Chris Paige, whose words we used in our call to worship, explains that we should

“Beware of those who would tell [us] that gender diversity is something new, that gender diversity is a white, liberal, privileged invention, or even that people of transgender experience are historical late-comers to movements for liberation. We are talking about several centuries of resistance to the violence and erasure embedded in Western settler-colonist ideology. Such resistance is intentionally ignored, erased, or demonized by the powers that be and yet remains ever present for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.” (Paige 13)

In early Jewish culture there are at least six different gender categories: male, female, androgynous, saris, tumtum, and ay’lonit. The four latter categories are essentially different types of eunuchs, who occupied the liminal space between male and female within the hierarchical gender structure of the time. It is important to note that while we could say that intersex or other gender variant people are similar to eunuchs, the eunuch played a very specific role in society which we no longer have. Eunuchs were allowed in spaces that men were not and were given powerful positions because they could not abuse their power in the same way a man capable of procreating could. Often they were created from conquered people in war as a means of control and dominance.

In modern times there is gender diversity with very different names and societal meaning such as transman, transwoman, genderfluid, non-binary, genderqueer, FTM, MTF, transmasc, and trans-. There are also other third gender variations from indigenous cultures all over the world. There are new terms being created all the time and part of the joy of that is that we are naming ourselves in new ways and finding the terms that are right for each and every one of us.

Our current binary understanding of gender and the world can skip over these fruitful moments which name gender variance in the Bible. Often efforts to uphold gender conformity within scripture appear to come from fear that a new understanding will preclude or erase meanings that we have already agreed upon. Instead I want to take a multivocal approach, following the Jewish tradition; allowing a new interpretation of scripture to sit alongside a previous one. I want to allow this trans liberation reading of scripture to enhance our understanding and help us grow as Christians and people in the world.

In this passage from Matthew Jesus extends the invitation that has been given earlier in the Old Testament, in Isaiah. Here Jesus is explicit in including eunuchs in who is allowed to come into the kin-dom and what kind of welcome they will receive, illustrating how God shows radical justice through inverting power structures, culture and expectations by using gender variant folks. Jesus does this through naming varying types of eunuchs.

I’m going to read the passage from Matthew again: “But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”

This is the invitation I have been waiting for.

I chose this translation because it uses the word eunuch. Some versions use ‘unmarried’ or those ‘unable to marry’ following the context which Jesus is talking about. However, that ignores a connection to the Old Testament, referencing Isaiah 56:4-5. Jesus’ own celibacy would have given him experience with the stigma that eunuchs faced. Arguably, here “Jesus is placing himself into an analogous situation with the eunuchs.” (qtd. in Paige 69) Some scholars have argued that Jesus is a eunuch.

The first two categories of eunuchs that are named are widely used throughout historical and Biblical contexts, however, the third category that Jesus mentions is not. This is the first time “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” is used at all. One way of reading this verse is that Jesus has made themselves a eunuch for the kingdom. I’m interested in this idea because it allows me to reclaim my identity within a religious context. I can think about my transition as a means to align my spirit with my physicality. I can think of my body’s changes as a radical way of embodying the kin-dom. What is important about that? It means that this journey I have been on which has felt purely secular, medicalized and very much removed from my faith in any tangible way can be reimaged and understood as a healing and prayerful way to authenticity.

To understand the power of what Jesus says in the Matthew verse, I will read Isaiah 56:4-5.

For thus says the Lord:
“To the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths,
And choose what pleases Me,
And hold fast My covenant,
Even to them I will give in My house
And within My walls a place and a name
Better than that of sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
That shall not be cut off.

This is a new commandment. Here God is telling the Nation of Israel that they will not be cut off even if they think they now cannot be accepted into God’s kin-dom. Israel has just been conquered by the Babylonian Empire and taken into indentured servitude, likely resulting in some of them being castrated in the process. The power of God’s inclusion in Isaiah 56 is an inherited promise of legacy, connection and inclusion. This is radical. It opens up the kin-dom in ways it has not been opened before and connects to the story of Abraham and Sarah. So Jesus’ statement of inclusion in turn echoes God’s new commandment but also the beginnings of the Hebrew people. Connecting OtherWise gendered people to the very beginning of God’s people.  

What does this mean? What if you can’t relate to what I’m saying?

Just as much as categorizing and labeling is detrimental it is also our human desire to be included in those named spaces, particularly in God’s family. In holy spaces God uses our names. Can we ever understand the divine without imposing our human perception? I don’t think so. Instead I’ll go back to Genesis, “So God created humankind in [hir] image, in the image of God [zie] created them”. That is all of us. We are all there, each and every one of us in every iteration of our being, in every change and new beginning of us.

My pastor friend, Maxwell once told me, “Do not compromise who you are, how you express yourself or who you love in hopes of becoming an acceptable Christian.” As Jesus shows we are named, called and accepted by God; there are no limits to God’s image and no limits to God’s kin-dom.

Works Cited

Ladin, Joy. The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah From a Transgender Perspective. Brandeis University Press, 2019.

Paige, Chris. OtherWise Christian: A Guidebook for Transgender Liberation. OtherWise Engaged Publishing, 2019.

Tanis, Justin. Trans-gender: Theology, Ministry, and Communities of Faith. Wipf and Stock Publishing, 2003.

Trusting God Against all Odds: February 16, 2020

Susan Boyer

Audio version click HERE

The Israelites were camping on the edge of Canaan, poised to enter what they were told was the Promised Land.  We like to tell the part of the story in which the Israelites were led triumphantly out of Egypt and slavery.  The Red Sea parts and pharaohs army is drowned.  We write lots of songs about this part of the story.  Let my people go, we sing. But when we get to the part where they form themselves into armies to go to war to take this land from others we skip this part and join back up for the wandering in the wilderness for forty years.   

The scripture I asked George to read to you today is one of those stories that doesn’t work well for postmodern readers.  We have good reason to be suspicious of stories that make it sound like God wants her children to walk onto land where others are living and steal it from them by force.  But if we cut out all the stories in the Bible that make us uncomfortable we will get in trouble.  Because we will not let the stories of our religious history teach us anything.  Plus, we fall into the danger of letting other people tell our story and interpret for us.  As Ursula Le Guin writes: The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.

I believe these stories carry profound truths inside myth.  Joseph Cambell said, Myth is much more important than history. And so, in the context of story and myth, I invite you into a journey with me today of spies and giants, milk and honey, danger and promise.

We stand on the edge of the Promised Land with the Israelites this morning.  A census has been taken in order to organize the Israelites for war.  They know that in order to live in this land they will have to push others off.

I went to Jordan and Israel a couple years ago.  The night before we left I read once more through our itinerary for the first day.  We were going to Mt. Nebo, where the Bible says that Moses was granted a view of the Promised Land….even though the promise would not be granted for him to enter.  What I read said that Jericho is usually visible from Mt. Nebo….usually.  So at the last minute I ran and got my binoculars and stuffed them into my suitcase.  I wanted to see Jericho…the Promised Land….from Mt. Nebo, just like Moses did.  Little did I know that fateful decision would have me stuck in customs for long time before my binoculars were eventually confiscated…along with the children’s walkie-talkies of the man standing next to me.  I was chastised for thinking that I could bring spy equipment into Jordan.  If you don’t think that these myth stories of spies invading land continues in the modern world, you are naïve.

Anyway, back to the Bible story.  The Israelites are standing on the edge of their dream to be a people of land…of substance…of freedom.  They have been formed into an army for military engagement but it seems wise that they do some recon first.  Moses tells the twelve tribes to each select one person….male, of course… to go and check out the place.  He instructs each tribe to choose a spy.  Caleb, from the tribe of Judah and Joshua, from the tribe of Ephraim were two of the twelve chosen.

Moses sits down with the twelve and tells them what he wants to learn from their recon.  “What is the land like?  Are the people weak or strong?  Are they numerous?  Are the towns walled or unfortified?  Bring us back some of the fruit of the land so we can see what is grown there.”  Moses basically wants to know two things:  the military might of the residents and the fertility of the land.

After forty days they return with grapes, figs and pomegranates.  (Yes.  The number forty plays a significant role in this story.  It alludes to a significant time of testing and transformation.)  Eleven of the spies return and say, “We have good news and bad news.  The good news is the land is flowing with milk and honey. I mean, aren’t those grapes delicious.  The bad news is that the people of this Promised Land are strong and the towns are large and fortified. Besides the descendants of Anak live here.”  The descendants of Anak were known as notoriously large warriors.  Goliath was descendant of Anak.

With this news the Israelites start murmuring among themselves but Caleb from the tribe of Judah stands up and says, “Don’t worry it will be fine.  Let’s leave right now and take this land.”  Do you have a person like that in your life?  That person who when you say, “It is all falling apart and is going to turn out horribly wrong” says back, “It’s going to be fine.”?

The rest of the spies can’t believe Caleb’s Pollyanna attitude and so they ramp up their story, “Are you crazy?  We can’t win against these people. They are giants and next to them we look like grasshoppers.  They will devour us.”  This is news to Caleb.  Nothing he saw made it look like the inhabitants of this land were cannibals.  But it is eleven voices against one voice.

The Israelites lose it.  They cry all night and then they say, “We should have just died in Egypt.  Why would God lead us out here just to have us killed?  Let’s choose a new leader and return to Egypt….back to slavery….back to the land of our oppressor.”

Joshua, one of the other spies, suddenly stands up next to Caleb and together these two spies boldly say, “Have you forgotten God’s promise to be free?  God is with us. Who can be against us?  God is leading us on this march to freedom.”  But the Israelites will have none of it.  They threaten to stone Caleb and Joshua. 

I understand how the Israelites feel.  I’m tired.  I’m tired of fighting the giants of capitalism and consumerism, racism and privilege, greed and hate.  I read my newsfeed with increasing dread. I’m weary from trying to stay focused on the truth that no one is free until everyone is free. It seems to feel like a useless battle that won’t end in victory. Sometimes I lose that focus while I sit on my seat of privilege.  I’m tired of wandering in the wilderness.  I’m tired of the constant call to reinvent myself and my own life.  It would be so much easier if nothing bad or challenging ever happened in my life. 

The truth is that I just want to sit with my cup of coffee and get my nails done.  I’m worn out from trusting the goodness of God and relying on the people around me.  There are giants on one side and the other side screams bondage.  Which way should I go?  Add on to all of that the fears of all the other people I stand alongside.  Could someone just be in charge?  Hopefully, we will get a benevolent dictator this time.  Do you know what I’m talking about?  Anyone else weary?

The wilderness is a tiring place.  Staying here rather than returning to our earthly gods requires some risk and a whole lot of courage.  Accepting the gift and the responsibility of freedom is exhausting.  It is work.  It might just be easier to return to Egypt.  I know it is cowardly to say that.  But constantly standing on this edge of freedom with its sheer drop down into the abyss has me on edge.  We have a choice to make…redemption in the unknown future or the oppression amidst the way things have been.

Now back to our story. God meets Moses in the tent of meeting and says, “How long will my people despise me?  Really.  After everything I’ve done and shown them and they want to go back.  I should strike them with the same pestilence I sent to Egypt.  I should disinherit them.  I should reverse the exodus.  How about it Moses?  If I got rid of them I could make you…Moses…a great nation all by yourself.” 

Moses pleads with God on behalf of his people. He is a good leader.  He says, “Be slow to anger.  Abounding in love.”  “O, alright!” God says.  “But no one who remembers the slavery of Egypt, except for Caleb and Joshua, shall be allowed to enter the Promised Land.  You will have to wander in the wilderness for forty years until all that is left is a new generation.”

Have you always wondered why the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years?  Did you think it was because they had a leader who refused to stop and ask for directions?  No. It was to allow those who rejected God’s promise… who refused to choose redemption…to see freedom as gift….the ability to influence this new community…the ability to live in this promise.   This is a story that demands that the people know they are free.  It is a story about claiming the freedom to live in community… freedom to be a people…freedom to seek a better way. This is a myth story that demands faith against all odds…all giants. It is a story about having a courageous relationship with God who stands with us on the risky precipice of our liberation.

It is your choice. I believe, as Robert Fulghum says, “It is still true, no matter how old you are – when you go out into the world, it is still best to hold hands and stick together.”  God is beckoning us forward.  Let’s do it together.  Come and go with me to that land…that promised land…that land of milk and honey…where the lion and the lamb stand together…where redemption is our promise…where transformation awaits and we aren’t free until all are free.  Amen.

The Poor in Spirit: February 9, 2020

Tom Hostetler

Audio version click HERE