Tuesday
Oct142014

Joy remains

Wednesday was a great day. If somebody, somewhere is keeping a record of best days in history, Wednesday ought to be added to the folder labeled Thomas. It was fall break for metro schools, and on Monday I had checked the weather forecast for the week – cloudy with a chance of rain every day, except on Wednesday: Sunshine, mid to upper 70’s. It looked like the perfect day to go kayaking with Miles.

Wednesday morning I got up early and looked out the window – very promising! Miles and I loaded the kayaks on the car, put the paddles and the rest of the gear in the trunk, and took off to Percy Priest Lake. First thing I did when we got there, was send a text to Kaye, Hope, and Greg telling them I would not be coming in (no worries, I wasn’t playing hooky; it was a make-up day). Miles and I put the boats in the water and started paddling across the lake toward the dam. The sky was clear with just a handful of fluffy white clouds, the lake was smooth, and not a jet-ski in sight; it was gorgeous. I took a couple of pictures to send to Hope, Greg, and Nancy, but that was it. I didn’t think about stuff, let alone worry, I just paddled and enjoyed the view, the quiet, the sun on my face, the breeze on my skin, and that Miles seemed to have a good time as well. We had a little snack break on Bear Island before paddling back to the boat ramp at Hamilton Creek park and driving home.

Wednesday was a great day. Friday, however, was something else altogether. Friday was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.[1] I had made plans to power wash the stone columns in the entrance to the sanctuary. They have some stains from algae growth, particularly on the west side. So on Thursday, I checked the power washer in the basement. It didn’t have gas in it, and I made a mental note to get some in the morning. Bob Lyons had told me I could use one of his trucks for the day, so I could pull a boom lift from Home Depot to the church. We swapped vehicles on Thursday night, and Friday morning, after a quick stop at the gas station, at around 7, I signed the rental agreement with Home Depot tool rental for a 35-foot boom lift. I backed up the truck, the hitch and the trailer fit like they were made for each other, when suddenly the guy from Home Depot told me that he couldn’t let me drive off the lot with the equipment: “Sorry, buddy, your truck doesn’t have the proper towing package; you can’t use a bumper hitch mount.” Uh-oh. Where do I get another truck on Friday morning? It was too early to call anyone, so I started texting: “Bob, do you have another vehicle I could use?” “Jack, could you help me pull a boom lift from Home Depot to church?” “Joe, I hope you continue to do well after the knee replacement and I hate to bother you with this, but could I borrow your truck?” Bob had a van with a trailer hitch, but it wasn’t available that day. Jack hadn’t looked at his phone yet, but I got a call from Joe: “Sure, you can use my truck. Just come on over and get it.” Perfect! So I drove to West Meade, left Bob’s truck in the driveway, took Joe’s truck and returned to Home Depot tool rental, signed another rental agreement, paid the deposit, and pulled the boom lift to the front of the church.

It was 9:30 by now, and I hadn’t done a thing yet; but I was ready. I hooked up the pressure washer and filled the tank with gas. Then I positioned the boom lift on a level spot and proceeded to lower the outriggers.

“Strange, that key doesn’t seem to fit,” I mumbled. “No, they wouldn’t give me the wrong key, it’s probably me.” Well, it wasn’t me, it was the wrong key. So I drove back to Home Depot where the guy apologized profusely and handed me the correct key. “Sorry, buddy, we’ll definitely adjust your rental time.” Oh, that’s so generous of you, I said to myself, but I was eager to get back to church and didn’t say anything.

So I drove back, positioned the lift on a level spot, pulled the parking break, extended the outriggers, and tested all the controls. Everything seemed to be working just fine. Excellent! I turned on the water, ran it through the pressure washer for about thirty seconds, and prepared the small engine. Power switch on. Gas line open. Choke valve open. Pull starter rope. One. Nice rumble. Two. Three. Well? Four. You know, of course, what happened. Exactly, nothing. The pressure washer didn’t start. I waited a minute and tried again. Same result. Could be a clogged air filter, I thought, or perhaps a bad spark plug. Who knows when that thing was last used. I didn’t have the tools to check the spark plug or the filter, and did I mention that it was raining the entire time? I walked around the building to see if the tree guys were still there. They were taking down a big tree by the playground, and they know how to convince a misbehaving small engine. They were already gone.

I played with the idea of renting a pressure washer, but then I calculated that another trip to Home Depot would take another hour, and by the time I’d get started, I’d have to think about returning the lift. And I didn’t have all afternoon anyway, since there would be a wedding rehearsal, and while they would love to notice clean columns, they certainly would’t want to see me there. So I turned off the water, rolled up the hose, rolled the pressure washer to the storage room, pulled in the outriggers, hitched the lift to the truck, and drove it back to Home Depot. Then I took Joe’s truck back to his house, and Bob’s truck back to the warehouse, and drove home in my own car.

I had been busy for something like 7 hours, and I hadn’t got anything done. It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. You’ve had days like that, haven’t you? Days when just about everything that can go wrong, does in fact go wrong? And you know what was playing in the back of my head? “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). I carried that word with me all week; I wanted it to be the backdrop for anything and everything I would encounter day to day. Oh, and Wednesday, glorious Wednesday, enjoying a lovely late summer day with Miles, immersed in the beauty and peace of creation, I rejoiced and my heart sang, “Lord of all, to thee we raise this our song of grateful praise!” Who wouldn’t sing when the lake reflects the blue and white of the sky, the shore line is dressed in every color fall introduces early in the season, and everything, everything glows in golden light? Who wouldn’t rejoice and sing?

But on Friday, well, on Friday rejoicing was a stretch. Rejoice always? Paul was no pollyanna. He wrote those words from jail, facing capital charges, knowing that he might die soon. “But even if I am being poured out as a libation” – he speaks of his own possible execution here – “even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you—and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me” (Philippians 2:17-18). Like a thread of gold, joy is woven into the text of this letter from jail, and it shines in places where you’d least expect it. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near” (Philippians 4:4-5). The source of Paul’s joy is the nearness of God.  The horizon of Paul’s world, even in the confines of his cell, is the nearness of God. “The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything; in everything, let your requests be made known to God. The peace of God will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:4-7). The horizon of Paul’s world is not determined by the particular circumstances of each day, but by the nearness of God. According to Paul, joy is not an occasional emotional outburst, but something both bigger and deeper that grounds our experience; it is a discipline of perception, a fruit of the Spirit, a gift of grace. Joy rises when we remember that Christ has made us his own; when we know that we are not children of circumstance, but children of God. Joy rises from the nearness of God in any circumstance.

Friday was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day – but only because I wanted to get those columns cleaned and things didn’t go my way. But at the end of the day – and believe me, it didn’t dawn on me until late in the evening – what’s a stained column against the horizon of God’s reign? Yep, it’s exactly that: a column that will have to get washed another day. But wasn’t it great to talk with Joe on the front porch about physical therapy and small engine maintenance? Wasn’t it great to drive back to Bob’s warehouse and talk again about that crazy day, groaning and laughing? “Go home and have a beer,” he said when I was about to leave. “I think I’ll have two,” I shouted over my shoulder. Later that night I told Nancy the Reader’s Digest version of the story, and that’s when it dawned on me: it wasn’t such a bad day after all. It allowed me to notice again and be grateful for Joe’s generosity. It gave Bob and me another story to tell the grandkids after the one about the great flood of 2014. I discovered again after sitting with the day’s events and processing them quietly, what a gift it is to share all of it with Nancy. And what’s all that against the horizon of God’s reign? It’s the stuff that matters. It’s the joy that remains. Rejoice in the Lord always; and again I say, rejoice.

 


[1] This is no endorsement of the current movie, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. The book, written by Judith Viorst and illustrated by Ray Cruz, was published in 1972.

Tuesday
Oct072014

Ten words of life

We celebrate today. We celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. We celebrate that congregations around the world, gathered at the table of Christ, praise God in more languages and dialects than any of us can imagine. We celebrate that in the breaking of bread we all come to know our crucified and risen savior. We celebrate our liberation: the burden of sin removed from our shoulders, the fear of death driven from our hearts. We celebrate the freedom to live as God’s people, for we are no longer slaves to the powers that oppress us, but free servants of God. We celebrate the covenant God made with Israel in the wilderness.

They had left behind Pharaoh’s mud pits and the bosses who enforced the daily brick quotas. They had crossed the sea. They had eaten the bread of angels and drunk water from the rock. They had argued and complained, and through it all, they had begun to discover the faithfulness of God. Now they were at the mountain, and all of them heard the ten commandments, the ten commitments that from that day forward would be a kind of constitution for the covenant community of God’s people.

Ten words of life. Chances are the last time you heard them mentioned was in a news story about a court case. Either somebody, somewhere wanted to have the Ten Commandments added to a public building, or somebody, somewhere wanted to have them removed. There are approximately 4,000 public displays of the Ten Commandments in the United States, including the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress. Zeal for the commandments runs high, but so does ignorance. A 2004 poll indicated that 79% of Americans oppose the idea of removing displays of the Ten Commandments from government buildings, but fewer than 10% of Americans can identify more than four of the ten. Tom Long points out that “in the popular religious consciousness, the Ten Commandments have somehow become burdens, weights and heavy obligations. For many, the commandments are encumbrances placed on personal behavior. Most people cannot name all ten, but they are persuaded that at the center of each one is a finger-wagging ‘thou shalt not.’ For others, the commandments are heavy yokes to be publicly placed on the necks of a rebellious society.” The Ten Commandments have become iconic symbols in battles that have little to do with the words of life the ten are. It’s easy to forget that they are not prefaced by a directive, “Here are the rules, ten of them. Obey them!” No, they open with an announcement of freedom, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Ex. 20:2). The ten words are affirmations of life after liberation, affirmations of freedom. “Because the Lord is your God, you are free from the tyranny of lifeless idols. You are free to rest on the seventh day. You are free from coveting, lying and stealing as ways to secure your life.”[1]

Martin Luther was convinced that knowing the Ten Commandments was tantamount to knowing the entire Bible. “This much is certain,” he wrote in the introduction to the Large Catechism, “those who know the Ten Commandments perfectly know the entire Scriptures and in all affairs and circumstances are able to counsel, help, comfort, judge and make decisions in both spiritual and temporal matters.”[2] He knew, of course, that knowing the ten perfectly doesn’t end with being able to recite them – but it certainly begins there. There are ten of them, which is very good because we can use our fingers to help us learn and remember. They are, for the most part, brief and simple, so we can take them to heart and be guided by them in our living – and living from them, living into them is the key to knowing them perfectly. Perhaps all this talk of perfection makes you nervous. Isn’t perfection just another yoke? Isn’t seeking to be perfect a heavy burden that only creates hypocrisy and self-righteousness?

That question is raised in a another catechism from the Reformation period. The Heidelberg Catechism grew on the reformed branch of the tree and it also contains a long exposition of the Ten Commandments. Question 114 asks, “But can those who are converted to God keep these commandments perfectly?” The response is refreshing in its frankness, “No, for even the holiest of them make only a small beginning in obedience in this life.” Only a small beginning in obedience, but it’s a beginning in the direction of God’s will and promise; it’s a beginning in the direction of freedom from all that keeps life from flourishing; it’s a beginning in the direction of God’s kingdom.

At the heart of the ten is the good word about remembering the sabbath day and keeping it holy. I won’t say that it is the one commitment we struggle the most with; we’re only beginners in all of them. But when we don’t remember the sabbath day, when we don’t remember that it is God who has set us free for freedom, we forget everything else. We forget who we are as God’s people. We open the doors to lesser gods and friendly looking idols to teach us their ways.

I want to read you a poem. It was written by Stanley Wiersma, a poet and teacher who grew up in the 30’s in a Dutch Reformed community in Iowa. He begins with a question:

Were my parents right or wrong
Not to mow the ripe oats that Sunday morning
with the rainstorm threatening?

I reminded them that the Sabbath was made for man
and of the ox fallen into the pit.
Without an oats crop, I argued,
the cattle would need to survive on town-bought oats
and then it wouldn’t pay to keep them.
Isn’t selling cattle at a loss like an ox in a pit?

My parents did not argue.
We went to Church. 
We sang the usual psalms louder than usual-
we, and the others whose harvests were at stake:

“Jerusalem, where blessing waits,
Our feet are standing in thy gates.”

“God, be merciful to me;
On thy grace I rest my plea.”

Dominie’s spur-of-the-moment concession:[3]

“He rides on the clouds, the wings of the storm;
The lightning and wind his missions perform.”

Dominie made no concessions on sermon length:
“Five Good Reasons for Infant Baptism,”
though we heard little of it,
for more floods came and more winds blew and beat
upon that House than we had figured on, even,
more lightning and thunder
and hail the size of pullet eggs.
Falling branches snapped the electric wires.
We sang the closing psalm without the organ and in the dark:

“Ye seed from Abraham descended,
God’s covenant love is never ended.”

Afterward we rode by our oats field,
Flattened.
“We still will mow it,” Dad said.
“Ten bushels to the acre, maybe, what would have been fifty
if I had mowed right after milking
and if the whole family had shocked.
We could have had it weatherproof before the storm.”

Later at dinner Dad said,
“God was testing us. I’m glad we went.”

“Those psalms never gave me such a lift as this morning,”
Mother said, “I wouldn’t have missed it.”
And even I thought but did not say,
How guilty we would feel now if we had saved the harvest.

The one time Dad asked me why I live in a Black neighborhood,
I reminded him of that Sunday morning.
Immediately he understood. (…)

“Were my parents right or wrong?” The author didn’t answer the question, but he acknowledged that his parents’ sabbath observance was at the root of his own attempts at faithfulness. He was grateful that they had bequeathed to him a “more important pattern defined as absolutely as muddlers like us can manage:” That pattern – and the poem’s title – is “obedience.” [4]

I’m drawn to this poem because it questions my own initial response to the harvest challenge. I probably would have mowed that field and later thanked the Lord that we got it all in safely before the storm. I would have missed the worship service and the singing in the storm; I would have missed the closing psalm’s affirmation in the dark,

“Ye seed from Abraham descended,
God’s covenant love is never ended.”

It is difficult for us to grasp that obedience to God is at the heart of freedom. The world we live in tells us that to be free is to be able to do what we want. Then it goes on to tell us what to want. Our economy grows on the assumption that coveting is a virtue. The world we live in tells us that we are what we do; and so we do more in order to be more. And the more we do, the less we remember who we are. Without sabbath, amnesia sets in.

We celebrate today. We celebrate the freedom to live as God’s people, not as slaves to the powers that oppress us, but as free servants of God. We celebrate our liberation from the burden of sin and the fear of death. We celebrate life in God’s covenant community.

 


[1] See Thomas G. Long, “Dancing the Decalogue.” Christian Century 123, no. 5 (March 7, 2006) 17. 

[2] The Book of Concord: the confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. by Robert Kolb, Timothy J. Wengert, Charles P. Arand (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2000) 382.

[3] Dominie is a term used in the U.S. for a pastor of the Dutch Reformed Church

[4] “Obedience,” by Sietze Buning (Stanley Wiersma’s pen name)

Monday
Sep292014

The rock at Horeb

Remembering is essential for God’s people. “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart,” we read in Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 8:2). Remembering is essential for God’s people in order to be God’s people, and so is telling in story and song. Today’s reading from Exodus and the Psalm are part of the telling that makes remembering possible.

“We failed the wilderness test,” the witnesses declare, “and what was in our hearts was lack of trust, despair, and grumbling, betrayal of the covenant, and the stubborn refusal to see the desert as the place for knowing the Lord and the way to the land of promise.”

“We failed the test,” the witnesses declare, but they didn’t photoshop the desert scenes to make themselves look a little better. “We forgot what God had done, and the miracles the Lord had shown us, who divided the sea and let us pass through it and made the waters stand like a heap; who led us in the daytime with a cloud, and all night long with fiery light; who split rocks open in the wilderness, and gave us drink abundantly as from the deep, making streams come out of the rock and causing waters to flow down like rivers.[1] We failed the test, but the promises were new then and we had everything to learn; everything to learn. What did we learn, you ask? We learned to sing of the faithfulness of God.”

Psalm 78:

“Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth.”

It is the voice of a teacher we hear in this psalm.

“I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us.”

Israel continued to utter dark sayings from of old because they continued to shed light on what it means to live as God’s covenant people.

“We will tell to generations to come the praisworthy deeds and the power of the Lord, and the wonderful works God has done” (Ps 78:1-4).

Israel continued to remember and tell so that every new generation would “put their trust in God, and not forget the deeds of God, but keep God’s commandments; and not be like their ancestors, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, and whose spirit was not faithful to God” (Ps 78:7-8).

It is a humbling exercise to pass on a tradition that includes yourself and your generation among those who failed it, but such honesty may well be the most profound proclamation of God’s faithfulness. Israel’s parents and teachers didn’t tell their children, “We did everything just right back in the day, and you must learn to do the same.” No, they told them, “We have failed again and again in our life as God’s people, but God has been faithful and true all the way. We failed to remember God’s promise and the commandments of life, but God remembered us.” Psalm 136 recalls Israel’s story with the God of gods and the Lord of lords, and after each line the refrain is, whose steadfast love endures forever. “We failed the wilderness test,” the witnesses declare, “but through our failure we learned to sing of the faithfulness of God.”

The commentaries point out that complaining is a defining theme of the wilderness wandering stories. Trapped between the sea and Pharaoh’s approaching army, the people said to Moses, not without a dose of dark humor, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?” (Exodus 14:11-12). Soon they marveled as the Lord made a way out of no way. Then they couldn’t drink the water of Marah, because it was bitter, and the people complained against Moses, “What shall we drink?” (Exodus 15:23-24). The Lord showed Moses a piece of wood to sweeten the water. Then they ran out of food, and again they complained against Moses and Aaron, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:2-3). And the Lord gave them quail and manna to eat. Then the water gave out altogether and the people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink,” followed again by a version of the now familiar refrain, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” (Exodus 17:3).

Yes, there’s definitely a pattern, and Moses certainly noticed it. “What shall I do with this people?” he cried out to God. It is tempting to notice the pattern and ask, “What is wrong with these people? They’ve been surrounded by miracles every step of the way, and all they can do is complain! Is their memory that short? Any little crisis, and their anxiety takes off spinning like a dust devil.” That’s easy to say for someone who reads about it in an air-conditioned room after a good breakfast.nA professor from Atlanta wrote,

I never fully appreciated the Hebrews grumbling in Exodus until two years ago when given the opportunity to journey through the Sinai wilderness on a Middle East travel seminar. We entered the region after having hiked a day in the full heat of the Petra sun, and I had become extremely dehydrated—so dehydrated that I could not make it to the top of Mount Sinai on the next day’s hike without becoming ill. As we trekked by bus through the Sinai Peninsula, I gained much more sympathy for the travelling Hebrews. In my early years, I would often hear preachers caricature the wandering Hebrews (…) as a petulant group of stubborn children who never knew true obedience or faith. When I look at this text (…) after having travelled by bus and with plenty of water through the Sinai desert, I realize that these newly freed slaves actually had reason to complain.[2]

Israel’s testimony wasn’t written on a bus tour. It was born in a long struggle for freedom and against oppression, a struggle against hunger and thirst, against fear and despair. Israel’s trust in God was not a relaxed nod in response to a friendly invitation – it was found at the bottom of all they could imagine, at the end of their strength, and at the very edge of what they could bear: nothing left to lean on but the promise of God. “The desert is only the real desert when it is too big for you,” wrote Mary Boulding, “when you do not know your way and have no reliance except God.”[3]

The men, women, and children who followed Moses were pioneers of faith who went into the unknown much like their ancestor Abraham who left all that was familiar to him in response to God’s promise. It is tempting and easy for us to notice the pattern of complaints in the desert and to miss entirely the trust that was built over a generation of wandering between the people and God. It was that trust that became the foundation of the covenant God made with them at Sinai. Their testimony to their children, to every generation of Israel, and to us is that the journey is precarious, but that God is faithful, even though our own fidelity is shaky.

The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Nothing more is said or shown. No additional scene describing the size of the rock, the faces of the elders upon seeing water flowing from the rock, or the joy of the people drinking and watering the animals. None of that. The Lord’s instructions are recorded, and the narrator only adds, “Moses did so.” Our attention is not drawn to the miracle but to the God whose word can be trusted.

There’s another detail that invites us to read the entire episode metaphorically rather than hydrologically. The rock to which God pointed Moses was not some rock over there, next to another rock; it was the rock at Horeb, the mountain where Moses received God’s Torah, the commandments and teachings of life.

“The journey was long and precarious,” the parents and teachers told the children, “but God never failed us. We had food to eat and water to quench our thirst. None had too much and no one had too little. Because God was faithful, we learned to be faithful to each other. Not that we never failed each other again, God knows we did, but in the wilderness we began to drink God’s word like our life depended on it, and God’s word has sustained us ever since. Moses called the place Massah and Meribah, test and argument. Looking back, we thought he could have called it Ya-amin, the Lord is faithful, but perhaps he still had to discover that himself then.”

 


[1] See Psalm 78:11-16

[2] David G. Garber https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=892

[3] Mary Boulding, The Coming of God, 38.

Tuesday
Sep232014

Monday Men - the tour

Since Boscos closed its doors in Hillsboro Village, Vine Street's Monday Men are looking for a place to have a beer and solve all the world's problems.

An initial survey yielded a rich harvest of pubs, bars and restaurants, and so it seems best to plan a tour. The links below make an initial review pretty convenient. Please procede to the form to indicate your rankings. The very secret site selection committee (a.k.a. Isle of Skye Monastery) will publicize the tour schedule on October 6.

Mafiaozas

12 South

Hillwood Pub

Craft Brewed

Broadway Brewhouse

Blackstone

Flying Saucer

Stone Fox 

Monday
Sep222014

Cultivating mercy

What a curious story Jesus told us. Take it to a business owner or a manager and tell them how this peculiar workday unfolded from first light to pay time. They’ll scratch their heads and wonder, “What kind of business man is this land owner? How did he ever manage to stay in business?”

Then take it to the union hall where the organizers will try to keep their calm while explaining why you can’t pay some workers for one hour’s work what others make in an entire day. It’s just not right.

Then take the story to the corner of the parking lot at Home Depot. Early in the morning, men and women gather here, waiting for someone to hire them – spread mulch in somebody’s yard, perhaps, or help clean up a construction site. They laugh as they listen to your story because they know how hard it is to get hired, how hard it is to make a living with day labor. They know what it’s like to watch truck after truck drive by – and how few trucks come around after noon.

When Jesus first told this story, many farmers in Galilee had lost their land, and they had to make a living as day laborers. Mid-size and large farms, many of them owned by absentee landlords, were usually operated with day labor rather than slaves; it was much cheaper, and there was an abundance of landless peasants. Farmworkers in Galilee were poor, chronically underemployed, and yet they still had to pay taxes to Rome.

One denarius, a small Roman coin, appears to have been the going rate for a day of field labor, but a denarius wasn’t much. You could buy 10-12 small loaves of pita bread for a denarius. For a new set of clothes you had to save 30 denarii.[1] Day laborers lived hard and often short lives.

So this landowner went out early in the morning to hire laborers. Nothing unusual. Common practice. Familiar world. But then he came back at 9 to hire more workers. “Well,” you say to yourself, “he must have realized that he needed more hands to get the work done; it happens.”

Then he came back at noon. “Does he know what he’s doing,” you wonder, “or is he perhaps one of those rich guys who buy themselves a vineyard and a winery and it’s all just an expensive hobby?”

Then he came back again in the middle of the afternoon, when everybody was dreaming about quitting time, and he kept hiring. Now you are running out of explanations that don’t involve mental health concerns. Has the owner perhaps been in the sun too long?

About an hour before the first stars would come out the owner of the vineyard returned again, and he hired every last worker he could find. You’re done trying to explain this.

What do you make of this story? Where do you find a way in? Imagine it was you who got up at dawn to go to the corner where they pick up day laborers. You know that if you get hired, you can get some bread on the way home and your family will eat. But you don’t get picked in the first round. You go to the other side of the square, hoping to have better luck over there, but you don’t. The younger ones are hired first. The stronger ones are hired first. You cross the road again, but it’s noon already. You decide to check out the Labor Ready office, but they tell you to come back tomorrow, and to be there early. So you go back to the marketplace, and just when you decide to call it a day and walk home, this landowner shows up and asks you, “Why are you standing here idle all day?”

You already feel like a left-over person, no longer needed, unnoticed, forgotten, and this man calls you idle. He doesn’t know how long you have been on your feet. He doesn’t know how hard you have tried to find work. He doesn’t know how hungry you are and how much you dread coming home tonight with empty hands. Did he just call you lazy or work-shy? “We’re here because no one has hired us,” you tell him. “You also go into the vineyard,” the landowner replies. And you go. You’re not doing it for the money, or you would have asked him how much he’s paying. You go because …, who knows. Perhaps it’s just because you want to be useful, because you want to contribute and feel like you belong.

So you go and work in the vineyard. Soon the foreman calls everybody to line up, starting with those hired last, starting with you. You barely got your hands dirty.  How much could it be for an hour’s work? It doesn’t really matter. It won’t be nearly enough to put bread on the table.

The foreman puts a coin in your hand. You feel the weight. No way. It’s a denarius. It’s a full day’s pay. It’s unbelievable! You turn around to the people behind you, “Look at this! A full day’s wage – and I just got here!”

The news travels fast to the end of the line, where the ones hired first are waiting to be paid. So there’s another door to enter this story.

Imagine you’ve worked twelve long, hard, hot hours. You are dirty, your clothes are sticking to your skin, and your back is aching. Talk about eating your bread by the sweat of your brow! But you’ve heard the news from the front of the line and now you’re looking forward to a little bonus, and your back is already starting to feel better. The line moves slowly forward, and eventually the foreman puts a coin in your hand. It’s a denarius. One denarius. It’s unbelievable! You turn to the people around you, and they are just as upset as you are. “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” You have made them equal to us.

What a curious story, this parable of God’s kingdom. You wish somebody would just explain it, boil it down to its essence; but it resists reduction, this curious story. Instead, it shakes up our expectations; it challenges our assumptions about God and the world, and perhaps it subverts what we accept as settled just enough to free us to re-envision our world anew in light of such grace.

This parable holds the pain and the hope of those in every generation who are treated like left-over people. All those latecomers in the company of sinners and tax collectors who are not pious enough to be counted among the righteous, who are unworthy of divine reward, and yet Jesus welcomes them into the kingdom.

This story holds the pain and the hope of all those in the company of landless peasants who feel like they are no longer needed or wanted, and Jesus affirms them because the words “no longer needed” are not in the kingdom dictionary.

But this story also holds the anger and resentment of those in every generation of God’s people who worry that too much mercy for others will only breed further lack of effort on their part; it holds the anger and resentment of all who look with envy on those they deem less industrious, less committed, less worthy of the joy of God’s reign than they themselves are: the company of the self-made upright who cannot imagine themselves as recipients of any gift they didn’t earn, but whom Jesus welcomes with the same compassion as he welcomes notorious sinners.

You have made them equal to us. Yes indeed. Will we learn to sing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a bunch of Johnny-come-latelies like me and them”?

This little story of God’s amazing grace holds a mighty surprise. Whether we respond with joy or with grumbling depends entirely on where we see ourselves in line:

Have I been working since the break of dawn, or am I only just now beginning to get my hands in the dirt of this landowner’s vineyard?

Do I see that work in this vineyard is about cultivating mercy and not about endlessly cloning our own concepts of fairness and equity?

Do I recognize that at the end of the day the story is not about my work in this landowner’s vineyard, but about this landowner’s patient, passionate work in the vineyard of our life? Very little is said about what the workers do all day, but a lot about what the owner of the vineyard does. How much time he spends on the road, driving back and forth between the vineyard and the marketplace, picking up anybody off the street at all hours that is looking to make a living! The harvest is not about grapes, it’s about us. It’s about our growth in God’s extravagant mercy.

The peculiar landowner in this story is a lot like the man who told it: persistently looking, calling, and inviting us to go and work in God’s vineyard. Every last one of us needs to work a little in that vineyard. Until all of us rejoice in the gift of life shaped entirely by God’s grace.


[1] Ulrich Luz, Das Evangelium nach Matthäus (EKK 1/3), 146.

Tuesday
Sep162014

Pharaoh's army got drownded

We hear the words from Exodus and whether we like it or not, fragments of clips begin to play in our imagination. For some of us the scenes are from Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” (1956) where Charlton Heston stands on the rock above the sea, with arms stretched out wide, staff in hand, declaring, “The Lord of hosts will do battle for us,” and then thick clouds gather and the wind makes a way in the sea. Others will remember the scene from “The Prince of Egypt” by DreamWorks (1998), where Moses walks a few feet into the surf, staff in hand, and he pushes it down on the ground he stands on and the waters part and draw back, opening a path for God’s people to escape Pharaoh’s army. On dry land they cross over, between enormous walls of water on their left and on their right, protected from the chaos and death of the sea. Pharaoh’s army follows them, warriors on foot, warriors in chariots, but then the walls of water begin to collapse behind the Israelites and violent waves wash over the Egyptians.Not one of them remained, the Bible tells us, and at dawn the Israelites saw the bodies of their former masters washed up dead on the seashore. The chariots, cutting edge military technology: gone. Pharaoh’s elite warriors: perished. The house of slavery: dismantled.

Walter Brueggemann comments, “The narrative invites silence before this stunning reversal of the processes of power.”[1] In the DreamWorks version of the story the people look across the sea, wide-eyed, and no one makes a sound for seconds, which is a long time in an animated musical. You can see awe in their faces.

In the Bible, the chapter is followed, not by silence, but a song:

I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. (…) The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is his name. Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea; (…) the floods covered them; they went down into the depths like a stone. Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power— your right hand, O Lord, shattered the enemy.[2] 

Was it necessary? Wasn’t there already a heaven-sent pillar of cloud and fire holding back Pharaoh’s chariots so that the Israelites could pass through the divided sea? Could not that pillar have kept them at bay a little while longer, until the waters had returned? Did they all have to be covered by the sea, sink like lead in the mighty waters? I wonder—don’t you?

Whatever you make of it, the violent ending is not random violence. Much is at stake here, everything is at stake. It’s Pharaoh’s oppressive sovereignty clashing with God’s. It’s Pharaoh’s vision of a house of slavery competing with God’s vision of God’s people on God’s land. Noone was going to look back and say, “Well, if that odd cloud hadn’t been there, they wouldn’t have gotten out. There’s no way they could have outrun the Egyptian military.” They did and the outcome was decisive and clear. After that night, no situation of human oppression could ever be justified as somehow being part of God’s plan for creation. “Pharaoh’s army got drownded, O Mary don’t you weep,” slaves in this country sang, knowing in their bones that God is a God of freedom and that they and their children would be free some day.

Victory songs on the seashore are not the end of the story, though. The rabbis noticed a phrase that opened a window to heaven. When the angels saw the drowning Egyptians they were about to break into song, but God silenced them saying, “How dare you sing for joy when my creatures are dying?” [3]

Pharaoh and his warriors are no less the work of God’s hands than the children of Israel, and while humans may sing after the yoke of oppression has been lifted from their shoulders at such a cost, the angels may not. That song will have to wait.

In the book of Proverbs, the ambivalence appears in two sayings, one stating, “When the wicked perish, there is jubilation” and the other, “Do not rejoice when your enemies fall.”[4] If we don’t sing when slavery has come to an end and God’s people are on the way to freedom in the promised land, then we are not in tune with God’s will and purpose; but if we are not saddened by the loss of life, our knowledge of God’s heart is still very fragmentary.

“As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways,” we read in Ezekiel (33:11). In a bold rabbinic reading of the story of the parting of the sea, Pharaoh did not drown with his army. He is mentioned explicitly only at the beginning of the chapter, and with great interpretive skill Rabbi Eliezer showed that Pharao did not die but fled to the east. Eventually he became the king of Nineveh, and when the prophet Jonah showed up, it was Pharaoh who led the repentance movement in the city and throughout the land.[5] You may think that the ancient scholars were a little too creative in their interpretive work, but I look at it as yet another way of composing a song of hope inspired by God’s mercy. Who would have thought that ole Pharaoh could end up serving as the poster child for repentance?

Some of us, I believe, still struggle with the violence of God in this story, and not all of that struggle can be explained by pointing to the different sensibilities of the writers of those days and today’s readers. The tension between God’s fierce justice and God’s equally fierce mercy is part of the biblical witness, not just something we bring to it.

Terence Fretheim points out that God’s violence is never an end in itself, but is always exercised in the service of God’s saving purposes for creation under threat: it serves the deliverance of slaves from oppression,[6] the deliverance of the righteous from their antagonists,[7] the deliverance of the poor and needy from their abusers,[8] and the deliverance of Israel from its enemies.[9] And violence in the service of God’s saving purposes for creation under threat is not just a matter of the end justifying the means. Walter Brueggemann suggests that we understand the violence assigned to God as counterviolence, which functions primarily as a critical principle in order to undermine and destabilize other violence.

“Israel lives (as do we) in a threatening world of many competing powers, all of which struggle for control. Thus the violence undertaken by [God] as warrior is not characteristically a blind or unbridled violence. It is rather an act of force that aims to defend and give life to the powerless against demonic power.” He also points out that “this rhetoric of violence is characteristically on the lips of those who otherwise have no effective weapons,” that is, not on the lips of the mighty.[10] If there were no human violence, if there were no human disregard for the image of God in another human being, there would be no divine wrath or judgment, which may take the form of violence.

Abraham Heschel wrote, “[Our] sense of injustice is a poor analogy to God’s sense of injustice. The exploitation of the poor is to us a misdemeanor; to God, it is a disaster. Our reaction is disapproval; God’s reaction is something no language can convey. Is it a sign of cruelty that God’s anger is aroused when the rights of the poor are violated, when widows and orphans are oppressed?”[11]

I can’t begin to imagine what our history had been, not to mention what our hope would look like, had the Hebrew slaves simply slipped out of Egypt under the cover of night, without the clash of the two very different visions of freedom, land, and life represented by Pharaoh and the God who hears the cries of the poor. Would we even care about continuing forms of slavery and human trafficking? Would we care about domestic violence? If God is not angry, why should we be? We may struggle with the violence of God, but indifference with respect to those who have suffered human cruelty, indifference is not an option. The God we encounter through the witness of scripture is a passionate God.

“I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land.”[12]

God does not simply give people up to experience violence. God chooses to come down and deliver so that evil will not have the last word. Again and again, God takes the side of those afflicted by violence. And in another exodus, again creating a way out of no way, God in Jesus entered deeply into the abuse, the ridicule, and the scapegoating we engage in with each other. And God bore the full weight of it, the whole, oppressive yoke of our sin, all of it, and cast it into the depths of the sea.[13]

At dawn, Mary came to see the tomb and the angels in heaven sang, “O Mary don’t you weep, don’t you mourn, O Mary don’t you weep, don’t you mourn, the power of sin got drownded, O Mary don’t you weep.” The angels sang, Mary’s mourning was turned into dancing, and the song will never end.

 


[1] Brueggemann, Exodus NIB, 795.

[2] see Exodus 15:1-18 and Miriam’s song in 15:21

[3] Talmud, Megillah 10b and Sanhedrin 39b

[4] Proverbs 11:10 and 24:17

[5] Pirkê de Rabbi Eliezer vi. Ch. xl.-xlvi.

[6] e.g., Exodus 15:7; Psalm 78:49-50

[7] e.g., Psalm 7:6-11

[8] e.g., Exodus 22:21-24; Isaiah 1:23-24; Jeremiah 21:12

[9] e.g., Isaiah 30:27-33; 34:2; Habakkuk 3:12-13

[10] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, 244.

[11] Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper & Row, 1962) 284-285.

[12] Exodus 3:7-8

[13] See Micah 7:19

Monday
Sep082014

The river flows

“Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” the disciples asked, and Jesus responded by talking about children, humility and lost sheep. Then there is a noticeable change in the text. It is still Jesus talking and teaching, but he “is so concrete and practical in this passage that you could swear he was Paul, writing to a feuding congregation,” Anna Carter Florence observed. “He tells the disciples what to do if [one sins against another,] and then offers step by step instructions for how to proceed.”[1]

“If a brother or sister sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” He does sound a little bit like Paul, doesn’t he? Paul wrote passionate letters to the churches in Corinth, Galatia, and Rome to remind them and the whole church that we need each other in order to be whole. When sin creates a rift between us, we must pursue one another, because we belong to each other; one member of the body of Christ cannot say to another, “I have no need of you.”[2]

Jesus in today’s reading may sound like he’s writing the article on excommunication for the bylaws, but he’s still responding to the disciples who are with him on the road to Jerusalem, wondering who will get the best seats in the kingdom.[3] They have their eyes and minds set on greatness and triumph, and he teaches them, teaches us the hard and humble work of reconciliation between one sinner and another. Through his instructions he unfolds for us how we are to be each other’s shepherds when sin has caused alienation. Rather than dreams of greatness, we are to cultivate gentleness and mercy by humbly seeking and restoring one another.

“If a brother or sister sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” It doesn’t often happen that way, does it? If a brother or sister sins against me, I want to tell somebody about it. I want to tell my story and make sure I get plenty of sympathy. I have been wronged. I have been offended. I have been hurt. I may end up telling several people about it, but not the one person who, according to Jesus, needs to hear about it first and foremost. That’s how it goes, quite often. I know it’s not right, but my proud heart doesn’t relent easily; not even to the Spirit’s prodding.

Every time we say the Lord’s prayer, we speak about forgiveness. Whether we learned to say trespasses, debts, or sins, we put into words our need to be forgiven and to be forgiving. We ask God to ‘give us this day our daily bread’ and in the same breath we remember the one thing we need just as much as bread – forgiveness, given and received, daily.

Breaking bread with a stranger, of course, is much easier than seeking forgiveness with a brother or sister. Vengeance and retribution require little effort; all I have to do is let the waves of my pain and anger carry me. You hurt me and I’ll hurt you back; it’s easy. You hurt me and I hold a righteous grudge, and I even feel good about it in a weird way. We all know how it feels when a relationship is stuck in unspoken hurt. And we know how it feels to wait for the other to make the first move. “Not only do you owe me an apology, sister, you also have to be all-knowing; you must realize without my telling you that that half-sentence you so thoughtlessly dropped on me last Friday in the parking lot outside the restaurant was incredibly insensitive and hurtful.”

Jesus knows what kind of games we play. “Go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone,” he says plainly. You can add a cup of coffee, but beyond that it’s as basic as it gets: One-to-one. Face-to-face. Take a breath. Speak the truth. Beverly Gaventa wrote a few years back, “Jesus’ counsel … demands a costly forthrightness that I normally reserve for the few and the greatly trusted.”[4] Yes indeed, Jesus’ counsel demands that I expand my small circle of the few and the greatly trusted to include all who are members of his church. I may think that sin is a matter between me and God and between me and the other person, but Jesus has placed me and the other into his community of reconciliation. Consequently the rift sin has created between me and another is not merely a private matter, but the place where the whole fabric is torn. What we do or fail to do to each other has an impact not just on individual relationships, but on the community as a whole.

Jesus teaches in the tradition of Israel’s covenant law, where we read in Leviticus, “You shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[5] Jesus, as always, has love in mind when he says, “go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” If the two of you can work it out, no one else needs to know.

“If you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you.” He has love in mind, and so he’s certainly not suggesting that I come back with some muscle to intimidate my brother or sister. I ask somebody to help us hear each other out and come to a shared understanding of what happened. I ask one or two others to hold us in prayer and help us remember that the wholeness of the community is at stake, not just a private relationship. If we can work it out, no one else needs to know.

“If the brother or sister refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.” It is easy to see how this can go terribly wrong. First one sister, then several people, then an entire congregation confront one brother with his sin, but instead of a humble confession, they only encounter a growing wall of silence. One could of course describe such a coordinated effort as loving persistence, but the person at the center of all that attention may call it harassment. Scenes from The Scarlet Letter come to mind where a community is all too eager to mark and exclude the “offender.” Jesus himself comes to mind, alone on the cross, outside the city gates, the excluded offender, violently excommunicated. Keep that image in mind, we’ll come back to it.

“If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a gentile and a tax collector.” Shut the door on such a one; a hard word of exclusion. But the one who said it is the one who died for gentiles, tax collectors and every species of sinner on the face of the earth. The excluded are the very people Jesus seeks out to save and restore to community in his ministry.[6] So in one sense, treating someone “as a gentile and a tax collector” means rejection and exclusion. But in another sense, and quite ironically, it means the radical, offensive inclusion demanded by the gospel itself.[7] Ultimately, then, there is no outside of God’s love.

Paul comes to mind again.[8] Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is demanding. Love is persistent. It doesn’t write off anyone. It keeps going back repeatedly to work toward reconciliation. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another,” Paul writes in Romans; “for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”[9]

The road to the brother or sister who has sinned against me is demanding and difficult, but it is the road Jesus travels. I must learn to be truthful without being hurtful. You must learn to say hard things gently. We must learn to trust the bond of love Christ has created between us.

“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” To me, this is the verse that holds the entire passage together. “If a brother or sister sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” When we gather in his name, we are never just the two or three of us. We are only together because of him and what he has done for us. At first glance, we may only see a brother struggling to find the right words to tell a sister how she has sinned against him. But with our eyes illumined by God’s reconciling love, we see Jesus, one arm on her shoulder, the other on the brother’s. We find the courage to bring each other back into reconciled community by trusting in the work and presence of Christ between us.

Forgiveness is a call to a future better than vengeance, a future not bound by the past. It is a call to move out of stuckness.

You can’t make yourself forgive anyone, but you can prepare your heart for it by remembering God’s mercy.

Forgiveness is not so much our doing as it is our standing in a healing river whose source is not in us. Forgiveness begins with God’s love for the world. In Jesus, God became vulnerable to the world of human beings, vulnerable to our capacity to touch, caress, comfort, and hold, but also to the many ways in which we abuse, betray, mock, and abandon one another. In Jesus, God entered the space between us where sin destroys trust and friendship and all that is sacred, and God ended up being the one judged, condemned, and crucified. Everything ends there, in the darkness of Friday. Everything comes to an end there, everything but God’s mercy and forgiveness. Love’s final move is not retribution, but resurrection, and the river flows. The river flows. May it flow through us.

 


[1] Anna Carter Florence, Preaching the Lesson, Lectionary Homiletics Vol. 19, No. 5, p. 54

[2] 1 Corinthians 12:21

[3] See Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 202

[4] Beverly Gaventa, “Costly Confrontation,” The Christian Century, August 11-18, 1993, p. 773

[5] Leviticus 19:17-18

[6] See, e.g. Matthew 9:10-13

[7] See Beverly Gaventa, “Costly Confrontation,” The Christian Century, August 11-18, 1993, p. 773

[8] See 1 Corinthians 13

[9] Romans 13:8

Wednesday
Sep032014

Sunday morning in the chapel

How did you like our first Sunday with the revised morning schedule? We have heard many positive comments, particularly about the time after worship when we gathered in Fellowship Hall. Several people appreciated the opportunity to talk with folks with whom they rarely got to exchange more than a friendly “Hello! How are you?” on Sunday mornings before.

This Sunday, we want to introduce an addition to our Sunday morning line-up: a brief communion service in the chapel at 8:30 a.m., led by one of the ministers and an elder. It will not include music or singing, and will allow us to focus on listening for the Word of God in scripture, praying, and sharing the bread and cup. Our intention is to close with a benediction at about 8:50 a.m. so that all can participate in various education events for children and adults at 9:00 a.m.

Some of us already like the idea of beginning Sunday morning at Vine Street together with prayer and the meal of thanksgiving, and we hope that others will join us on occasion or perhaps every week.

Order of service:

Opening Prayer
Scripture Reading (with silence, we may share briefly what we heard)
Intercessory Prayer (shared concerns; we enter into silence; we offer prayers for each other, the church, and the world)
The Lord’s Supper
Words of Institution
Sharing the Bread and Cup
Benediction

Tuesday
Sep022014

No wunderlist of love

Are you a listmaker? I’m not, or at least I didn’t use to be one. But then I noticed that when life just seems to be piling up I’m a lot less likely to forget things when I write them down and manage not to lose the piece of paper I wrote them on. A few years ago I found this app that manages all my tasks and sends me a tidy to-do-list in my email every morning. It’s called Remember the Milk, and it’s great for grocery lists, but also for recurring things like changing air filters around the house or sending that monthly email reminder to the guys.

I think I may have become a listmaker. Going back to school has a lot to do with it. All those reading and writing assignments – there’s no way to keep up with all that without a personal assistant or a great app that syncs across all my little screens, from the phone to the pad and the laptop. This summer I said good-bye to Remember the Milk and said hello to Wunderlist (app relationships are short-lived), which is half-German for miracle list or wonder list. Great app. And you know what is one of the best features? When I check off an item, I get a “ding” – and I hate to admit it, because I know it makes me something akin to a lab rat, but that “ding” has a direct connection to the area of my brain where deep satisfaction registers. It feels good to tap the complete box and get a “ding.” It makes me feel like the little boy who got a gold star for his homework.

Now the Rev. Hope Hodnett is in a whole different category of listmaking. She will tell you that it’s a terrible waste to just put “do the laundry” on your list. She breaks it down to “wash whites” – check; “dry whites” – check; “fold whites” – check; “wash light colors, dry light colors, fold light colors” etc. She gets twelve things done in the time other folks just do their laundry!

Do you think the Apostle Paul was a listmaker? Today’s reading from his letter to the Romans sure sounds like a list. Let love be genuine. Be ardent. Serve. Rejoice. Contribute. Bless. Extend. Don’t be haughty. Live peacably. I counted thirty-one imperatives in that short passage. I’d say that makes it a list; but it’s not a to-do-list. These aren’t items we can check off and move on to the next. It’s something like a “to-become-list,” and it’s all about how believers extend the love of God in Christ to each other and on to others outside the community of believers. It’s about becoming a community shaped by nothing but the love of God. It’s about becoming a community whose life together in the world shines with the likeness of Christ.

“Let love be genuine” it begins – and everything that follows is an unfolding of that initial statement. In Greek, there are just two words: Love – unhypocritical! No masks. No pretending. No counterfeit niceness. Love as real as Christ crucified and risen. That’s enough for a lifetime of prayer and practice.

Paul knew that, and that’s probably why he started to unfold it for his listeners and readers. “Love one another with mutual affection.” The word he uses is philadelphia, love one another like family, like brothers and sisters. You come from very different parts of town, different parts of the world even, and your daily lives rarely overlap – love one another like family. Yes, all of you. Jews and Gentiles. Wealthy wine merchant and day laborer. Love one another like family.

I wonder if somebody in Rome unfolded those statements some more when they first read Paul’s letter there on a Sunday night. I wonder how they read that letter, that particular passage. One verse at a time? I don’t know how else they could have done it. The unfolding of unhypocritical love in a city that’s not particularly friendly to making righteousness a standard of community, the unfolding of unhypocritical love in such a city is demanding.

I imagine them saying to each other, “We need to talk about these things. Don’t you think? One line tonight. Then let’s talk about the next one next Sunday. We can’t just hear these words and nod and sing another hymn and go home. This isn’t just a laundry list of things to do or not do; these words make demands. We need to let them sink in so they can begin to renew our doing, speaking, and thinking.”

I wonder if perhaps the first Christians in Rome learned these words by heart. One phrase each. And every time they gathered to pray and break bread together, just before the benediction, just before they all went home, one would say, “Let love be genuine.” And from the other end of the room a voice would respond, “Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.” And yet another voice would add, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.”

I wonder how they wove those words into the fabric of their life together in the unending effort to let nothing but the love of God shape their community. How did they, how do we remind each other to persevere in prayer without just telling each other what to do? How do we encourage each other to serve the Lord in all that we do instead of just adding more and more things to do to our days?

Today is our first Sunday with a new schedule. We gathered for worship at 10 a.m., for a variety of reasons, but mainly to carve out a little more time on Sunday morning for all of us to simply be together. To get to know each other. To learn each other’s names. To hear each other’s stories. We have more ways to connect via technology than any generation before – mobile phones, email, text, tweet, facebook, skype, websites, not to forget good old handwritten notes and glossy newsletters. But in order to “rejoice with those who rejoice” and “weep with those who weep,” we need more than a name in a prayer concern that arrives in our inbox or is printed in a bulletin. Love is never virtual. Love is embodied. Love is incarnate. Love as real as Christ crucified and risen gathers us around a table, face to face; blesses us, hand in hand.

That hour after worship gives us an opportunity to unfold more layers of genuine love, simply by being together. And it’s not just about us. It’s not about suddenly turning our focus inward in some kind of warm fuzzy huddle. It’s about our capacity to be part of God’s church in this city. It’s about modeling community that is inspired and shaped by the love of Christ. Perhaps you noticed how in Paul’s unfolding of the demands of love the circle is being extended further and further outward to include not only strangers, but even enemies. “Do not repay anyone evil for evil,” he writes, and “never avenge yourselves.” Why not? He tells us earlier in his letter: “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us; … while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son” (Romans 5:8, 10). We are to leave vengeance to God who did not repay evil for evil but overcame it with good.

Barbara Brown Taylor affirms that "the only way to conquer evil is to absorb it. Take it into yourself and disarm it. Neutralize its acids. Serve as a charcoal filter for its smog. Suck it up, put a straitjacket on it and turn it over to God, so that when you breathe out again the air is pure." I counted seven imperatives in just over fifty words. She sounds quite confident that you can do all that – take it, disarm it, neutralize it, all of it – between breathing in and breathing out. I think Paul knows us better. It’s the love of Christ that conquers evil by absorbing it. The love of Christ takes evil into God-self and disarms it. Outside of that love we can do nothing.

The Apostle Paul doesn’t tell us to do stuff. He calls us to give ourselves to the love that has found us in Christ. He urges us to allow this love to unfold between us and transform us. And he’s convinced that neither death, nor life, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from that glorious communion of life.

Monday
Aug252014

Embracing the way of life

How many videos have you watched of people giving a little speech before pouring a bucket of icewater over their heads? Charlie Rose wore a tuxedo in his. Carol Doidge came prepared with a towel and a set of dry clothes to yesterday’s board retreat. Bill Gates carefully planned and built a contraption that is scheduled for release as part of Microsoft Office in October. President Bush thought he could get away with just writing a check, but his wife Laura knew better. Jack McLaughlin told his dad to go first and for a moment it looked like he really just wanted to see his dad do the deed and use his own bucket to water the lawn. If you saw any of those brief videos, chances are you smiled a lot or laughed out loud, because people are so funny and creative. And you probably cried a little, because you got to hear moving stories of love and courage. This wave of short, life-affirming videos is rolling across the nation, telling us about ALS and asking us to support efforts to treat and prevent that terrible disease.

And then, midweek, news of another video, made by the servants of death, showing the beheading of American journalist, James Foley. What a clash of creative, splashing, life-affirming exuberance and the horrid theater of terror and death. “The brutality of this act is itself evidence of an unspeakable evil that is rampant and inhuman,” said New Hampshire Bishop Peter A. Libasci of Manchester. “To the prayers that have been offered since his captivity almost two years ago, we now add our prayers for James’ eternal rest and, in Christ Jesus Our Lord, James’s future resurrection to eternal life. Our prayers also must accompany a sorrowful mother, a grieving father, a deeply pained family and countless friends who have kept vigil all this time,” he said. “May we also pray for those who have embraced the way of darkness and death, that they may turn away from this terrible evil now and forever.”[1] The latter prayers will be more difficult than those for James’ family and friends, but Christ is praying with us for liberation, the liberation of all from all that keeps life from flourishing.

In our reading from the book of Exodus we hear about a new king who arose over Egypt, a king who did not know Joseph, son of Jacob. A new king with a short memory who did not remember how well Joseph had served Pharao, and how he had risen from slave and prisoner to the king’s right-hand man. A new king who didn’t remember that it was Pharao who had said to Joseph, “Settle your father and your brothers and their families in the best part of the land,” and they settled in the Nile delta. There they prospered; they were fruitful and prolific, and the land was filled with them. The new king regarded those Hebrews, those resident aliens and their large families with growing suspicion. In his mind, fruitfulness and flourishing among the Hebrews represented a growing threat. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we.” His anxiety quickly turned into a policy of forced labor, but his efforts only had the opposite effect of his intentions: the Hebrews continued to multiply and fill the land. The new king was a man of considerable power, but another power was at work in the community he feared: life, unstoppable, irrepressible, uncontrollable life.

Forced labor wasn’t enough to keep the Hebrews in their place, and so the king ratcheted up the oppressive measures; summoning the Hebrew midwives and giving them the obscene command to kill all newborn Hebrew boys he embraced the way of darkness and death. Zora Neale Hurston wrote about this in her book, Moses, Man of the Mountain:

“Have mercy! Lord, have mercy on my poor soul!” Women gave birth and whispered cries like this in caves and out-of-the-way places that humans didn’t usually use for birthplaces. Moses hadn’t come yet, and these were the years when Israel first made tears. Pharaoh had entered the bedrooms of Israel. The birthing beds of Hebrews were matters of state. The Hebrew womb had fallen under the heel of Pharaoh. A ruler great in his newness and new in his greatness had arisen in Egypt and he had said, “This is law. Hebrew boys shall not be born. All offenders against this law shall suffer death by drowning.” So women in the pains of labor hid in caves and rocks. They must cry, but they could not cry out loud. They pressed their teeth together. A night might force upon them a thousand years of feelings. Men learned to beat upon their breasts with clenched fists and breathe out their agony without sound. A great force of suffering accumulated between the basement of heaven and the roof of hell. The shadow of Pharaoh squatted in the dark corners of every birthing place in Goshen. Hebrew women shuddered with terror at the indifference of their wombs to the Egyptian law. (…) Then came more decrees:

Israel, you are slaves from now on. Pharaoh assumes no responsibility for the fact that some of you got old before he came to power. Old as well as young must work in his brickyards and road camps.

No sleeping after dawn.

Fifty lashes for being late to work.

Fifty lashes for working slow.

One hundred lashes for being absent.

One hundred lashes for sassing the bossman.

Death for hitting a foreman.

Babies take notice: Positively no more boy babies allowed among Hebrews. Infants defying this law shall be drowned in the Nile.

Hebrews were disarmed and prevented from becoming citizens of Egypt, they found out that they were aliens, and from one new decree to the next they sank lower and lower. So they had no comfort left but to beat their breasts to crush the agony inside. Israel had learned to weep.[2]

Yet in the deadly chaos of genocidal cruelty, courage and grace arose. And in the story, each is given a name: Shiphrah and Puah. Remember those names, remember those women.

The servants of death want to build their empire of fear, and you feel small and powerless against them and you say to yourself, “Why doesn’t the ground open under the feet of these evil doers and swallow them up? Who will stop them? What can I do?” Remember Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives. The first time God is mentioned in the great story of the Exodus is when these two women are introduced. They knew a thing or two about new life that wants to be born. They knew a lot about helping new life to emerge and thrive. These two women knew everything about the shadow of Pharaoh squatting in the dark corners of every birthing place in Goshen. But the midwives, it says in verse 17, feared God; and the fear of God gave them the courage to resist. They did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them; they let the boys live.

What can one person do? Choose to fear the God of life and refuse to obey the masters of oppression.

The great story of the liberation of God’s people begins with two women willing to say ‘no’ to a mad king’s deathly decree. With defiant grace they went about their good work in the birthing place. When the king summoned them again, demanding an explanation, Shiphrah and Puah lied in the name of truth. “Those Hebrew women, you know how they are. They give birth so quickly, they’re done long before we get there,” they told him. Now the mad king commanded all his people to throw every boy born to the Hebrews into the Nile.

Lord have mercy. The way of darkness and death has long distorted everything – work into forced labor, neighbors into executioners, the great river into a mass grave, the mission of God into crusades, the name of God into a justification for murder. Yet amid the chaos of the king’s decrees, life yet again broke through defiantly; and it was good: a man and a woman got married and they had baby. His mother hid him, and when she could no longer hide him, she made a basket, put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the water’s edge. The Hebrew story teller has left a beautiful hint that is hard to detect in translation. The word for ‘basket’ is the same word which is translated ‘ark’ in the story of Noah and the flood. We’re invited to hear the two stories together, to let one resonate in the other, and to know that the little boy, floating in his little ‘ark,’ is safe. It may appear as though nothing could escape the pull of terror and death in the mad king’s realm, but the floating cradle tells a different story.

Pharao’s daughter comes to the river, finds the basket and opens it and sees the little boy who is crying and she picks him up. “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she says. She recognizes that he is a child from the slave community, a child under death sentence from her father – and yet she doesn’t throw him into the river. She obeys a different law than her father’s and thus becomes part of the conspiracy of grace that resists Pharaoh’s fury. Now the boy’s sister steps forward, and smart as a whip she asks with all innocence if perhaps her royal majesty would like her to go and get her a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for her? And before you know it, the little boy is back in his mother’s arms.

Two midwives, a mother, a sister and the king’s own daughter, each in her own way, resisted the pull of terror and death and, barely knowing of each other, the five women participated in God’s conspiracy of life and liberation. What can one person do against the servants of death and their empire of fear? Remember these women and their courage to say yes and no; then go and do likewise.


[1] http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/1403500.htm

[2] Zora Neale Hurston, Moses, Man of the Mountain

Monday
Aug182014

The language of the unheard

There are Sundays when I don’t know where to begin the sermon and when to stop. Today is one of these Sundays.

We wonder what’s really going on on the border between Ukraine and Russia. We wonder when the history of injustice and violence between Israel and Palestinians will become a story of friendly neighbors who share the land and the water. We wonder how the violence in Syria and Iraq can be contained and ended. We are mourning the death of Robin Williams, one of the great artists of our time and we wonder how much longer we will have to struggle against the hushed silence surrounding mental illness. And we are mourning the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed young black man who was shot by police in Ferguson, MO. We don’t know the whole story yet, but the killing and the events that followed it revealed again the deep wound of racism in our communities, a wound time won’t heal.

I’m a parent of a teenage boy, and we talk about school, drugs, drinking, politics, driving, sex, telling the truth, respecting others, working hard, getting enough sleep etc., all the usual stuff of parenting. I never had to tell him not to run through our neighborhood because police might think he had done something wrong. But that’s just one part of the talk parents of black teenage boys can’t miss, because missing one part might have deadly consequences in a country with a history of regarding young black men as a threat. Historians say “the talk’’ dates back to 1863, following the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves living in still-rebellious states. Encounters between freed slaves and whites were fraught, and black parents made it a point to caution their sons who had been slaves that if they celebrated their freedom too publicly, they could trigger an angry and potentially lethal reaction. Keep it down, boys. Don’t wake the dragon. From emancipation, to the “separate but equal’’ segregation doctrine, to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, to the war on drugs of the 1980s that included police profiling that snagged noncriminals who happened to share skin color with criminal suspects, the essence of the talk has remained.[1] Keep it down, boys. Don’t wake the dragon.

Attica Scott is a mother and a Metro Council representative in Louisville; she wrote a piece for the Courier-Journal, and I will quote her at length so we can hear her.

“Son, when you go to work tonight, if you get stopped by the police for any reason, you reply with all of the respect that you can muster even if you are being pulled over for no reason. A 17-year-old, unarmed black teen named Michael Brown was shot Saturday in Missouri by police, and I am afraid for you.” What was left unsaid to my son is that I am a nervous wreck when he works the night shift and that I barely sleep when he is gone to work because I fear for his safety. (…) I am a single mom of two teenagers, both black, one female and one male, and we have to have “the talk” more regularly than I would have ever imagined. (…) What cuts like a knife when I think about Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, John Crawford, Michael Newby, Amadou Diallo and so many other black men and teens is that their lives were taken by police officers (or law enforcement authorities and wannabe law enforcement in the case of Trayvon Martin). We should not have to live in fear of the people who are paid to protect and to serve our communities; yet, I have to teach my son to live with that fear every single day — it is a matter of survival. (…) We are weak in this community and in this country when it comes to having honest conversations about race. We are not post-racial. Police officers have always had a license to kill unarmed black teens. What is a mother supposed to do with that knowledge besides teach her son to live in fear — and fear does not equate respect. (…) When we see uprisings in cities like Ferguson, Mo., it is one way in which people who are frustrated tell authorities that we must condemn police brutality, racial profiling, use of excessive force, the militarization of peaceful protests and shoot-to-kill policies.

Scott ends her piece quoting Martin Luther King:

In his speech, “The Other America,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us that “... a riot is the language of the unheard.” [2] 

The gospel reading for this Sunday is about Jesus crossing borders and about a mother making a riot on behalf of her child. We know what having a sick child can do to a parent: it makes you desperate.[3] It makes you say horrible things to the receptionist who won’t give you an appointment until a week after Labor Day. It makes you very rude to doctors who run test after test for hours and then won’t give you more than two minutes to tell you about the results. It makes you scream at the insurance company representative who tells you that your plan does not cover the treatments your child needs. It makes you stay up all night doing research on the web, finding out where the best clinics are, the best doctors, the most promising programs. You will do anything it takes to make your child well.

When Jesus crossed into the region of Tyre and Sidon, he entered territory that was foreign in every respect: foreign accents, foreign customs, foreign food, foreign religon – and yet Jesus went there. “Why did he?” we wonder.

A woman from that region approached Jesus, shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” It wasn’t proper for a woman to approach a man who didn’t belong to her family for help. It was unthinkable for a Jewish man to be approached by a Gentile woman, let alone when demons were involved. And she wouldn’t stop shouting, kept at it, relentlessly crying for mercy. We don’t know why Jesus crossed the border, but we know why she did; we know what having a sick child can do to a parent. The barriers of custom, language, ethnicity and religion were high between her and the man from Nazareth, but no match for her love for her child. Shouting without any restraint she begged the Lord Jesus to cast the demon out of her daughter.

To the disciples the whole scene was just too embarrassing, and they urged him to put an end to it. “Send her away,” said one.

“Lord, have mercy,” she kept shouting.

“Send her away,” said another.

“Lord, have mercy,” she kept pleading.

What are the limits of Jesus’ ministry? Where does he draw the line? How wide is the circle of God’s mercy that has the life of Jesus as its defining center? Wide enough to include one like her?

We may not like it, because this doesn’t sound like the Jesus we know, but he said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Let her shout – she doesn’t belong to the flock I was sent to tend.

But the woman was determined. She came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” We notice that she wasn’t arguing but praying. The Jesus we know would reach out and, taking her hand, would tell her to get up and go home and that her daughter was well. But this stranger in a strange land said, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” How wide is the circle of God’s mercy that has the life of Christ as its defining center? Which voices will prevail, the woman pleading, “Lord, help me?” or the voices of those already in the house, already at the table, already full and satisfied who are telling Jesus, “Send her away”?

This is a hard story because the debate over who is in and who is not is difficult, and in the language we use, our attitudes and commitments spill from our hearts and over our lips. “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Don’t you wish this had been said by one of the disciples rather than Jesus? It does sound like something we might say when we try to keep outsiders in their place: we insult them.

Many have wrestled with this story, trying to reconcile the Jesus they thought they knew with the Jesus who not only didn’t show any compassion but was incredibly rude. Some have suggested that he didn’t really mean it, that he was merely testing the woman’s resolve. Others have suggested that Jesus wasn’t testing the woman’s faith but the disciples’, that he was waiting for one of them, just one to stand with her and say, “Lord, have mercy.” That’s a kind thought, but there’s nothing in the story to suggest that this was a test.

I am intrigued by the fact that Jesus talked about bread. Throwing the bread to the dogs would be wrong, he told the woman, since it was the children’s bread. But the woman was not only courageous and persistent. “Yes, Lord,” she said, “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” What she asked of him didn’t take away anything from the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Crumbs of mercy would be plenty to save her child. He had just fed 5,000 people with a lunch that looked like nothing to his disciples, and when all had finished eating and all were full and satisfied, there were twelve baskets of broken pieces left. She had been paying attention; she knew that what she needed was his to give, and that there was enough for all. “Woman, great is your faith!” Jesus finally said. “Let it be done for you as you wish.”

There is so much that divides us along lines that have been drawn and continue to be redrawn by privilege and power. Division, prejudice, and fear have been our lot for as long as any of us can remember. But this little story, beautiful and perplexing, reminds us that courage and mercy cross those lines from either side for healing. And who would doubt that the Lord of reconciliation calls us to cross those lines for the sake of peace and wholeness? Who would doubt that the Lord of reconciliation calls us to pray, “Lord, have mercy on us, we are being tormented by a demon and time won’t cast it out.”? Who would doubt that the Lord of reconciliation calls us to cross those lines and to pray for the healing of the wound of racism, because the lives of our children depend on it?

I want to close with a quote from Mark Twain’s book, The Innocents Abroad. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men [and women] and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Travel in that sense is not just about going to far away places and peoples. It’s about taking the first step to meet the neighbor who is a stranger. It’s about crossing with a little more courage than we think we have the lines that power and privilege have drawn between us. It’s about getting out of our little corner.

 


[1] http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2012/04/07/in_light_of_trayvon_martin_case_black_fathers_in_boston_are_scrambling_to_have_safety_talk_with_sons/

[2] http://www.courier-journal.com/story/opinion/contributors/2014/08/11/mothers-fear-black-son/13905957/

[3] With thanks to Anna Carter Florence, Lectionary Homiletics, Vol. 19, No. 5, August-September 2008, p. 30

Wednesday
Aug132014

Mountain and sea

I thought I would preach today on Elijah’s time up on the mountain. I expected that this morning, in speaking and listening, we’d unfold together that scene on Mount Horeb when one spectacular thing after another happened – rock shattering wind, earthquake, fire – and yet, God was not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire, but in the silence that followed them; in the “still small voice” of the old KJV, in “a gentle whisper,” in “a sound of sheer silence” as more recent translations rendered the text.

“Be still, and know that I am God,” says the Holy One of Israel in Psalm 46, and I thought I’d preach on stillness today. A few years back I found a brief, prayerful text by Edwina Gateley I wanted to share with you today. And because it seems so much more appropriate to enter into silence than to preach about it, I invite you to ignore for a moment that the bulletin insists that now is the time for a sermon and to pray instead.

Be silent.
Alone.
Empty
Before your God.
Say nothing.
Ask nothing.
Be silent.
Be still.
Let your God look upon you.
That is all.
God knows.
God understands.
God loves you
With an enormous love,
And only wants
To look upon you
With that love.
Quiet.
Still.
Be.
Let your God —
Love you.[1]

“Be still, and know that I am God,” says the Father of Jesus Christ in a Psalm that begins with bold assertions of human fearlessness. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”[2]

One of the wonderful things about living with scripture is that you never know what resonance it will create and what echoes you will pick up. Jesus, after the feast of abundance on the lakeshore that began with five loaves and two fish and ended when all had eaten and were filled and twelve baskets of left over pieces had been taken up, Jesus went up the mountain by himself to pray. The contrast of the tumult of mountains shaking in the heart of the sea and the stillness of resting in the presence of God, that contrast from the psalm also appears in our gospel reading; only there it’s Jesus resting in the presence of God up on the mountain while the disciples are dealing with the waves battering their boat. I thought I would preach about solitude and silence, but we’re all in that boat, far away from the mountain.

After the banquet on the beach, Jesus dismissed the crowds and told the disciples to get in the boat and go on ahead without him. It was the first time since Jesus had called them to be his disciples that he told them to go on without him. When night fell, he was alone on the mountain, praying, and they were alone in the thick of things, far from land, with the wind against them, working hard to keep the course.

Since apostolic times, the church has recognized itself in this small boat on its voyage to the other side of the wide sea. In Matthew, this is actually the second time that we are invited to recognize ourselves in those seafarers rather than watch them from the shore. The first time, Jesus was in the boat with the disciples when a wind storm arose; the boat was being swamped by the waves, but he was asleep.[3] He was right there with them, but to them it was as if he wasn’t there at all. They woke him up, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” And he said, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. Why be afraid when Emmanuel, God-with-us is in the boat?

Well, in today’s passage of the sea crossing Jesus was not in the boat. It was dark, and they were far from the land because the wind was against them – but they were not afraid. They just kept the course. They knew what to do; several of them knew this lake like the back of their hands. Just keep your eyes on the horizon and the stars.

But then Jesus showed up. They thought they were seeing a ghost. Now they were terrified and crying out in fear, and Jesus said, “Take heart, it’s me; do not be afraid.” The wind and the waves they could handle, but Jesus showing up like that out of nowhere, that was frightening. The church has continued to tell and dwell in this story because it reminds us who Jesus is: not somebody we left behind on a distant shore when he sent us, but one who is with us and is coming to us. One whose voice and word we recognize. “It’s me; don’t be afraid.”

Now what got into Peter that he responded, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water”? I’m only asking because it’s a good question to ask, not because I have an answer. Followers of Jesus have asked themselves for generations, and some suggest that Peter climbing over the side of the boat is a great example of daring discipleship. They paint a portrait of Jesus calling us o’er the tumult of our life’s wild, restless sea and bidding us to come to him. Like Peter, we are to heed his call and find the courage to get out of the boat and walk. Step out boldly; just keep your eyes on the Lord. They think it’s perfectly OK for a follower of Jesus to want to walk on water, and if Peter hadn’t taken his eyes off the Lord, he would have hiked up and down the waves like it was just the thing to do out on the lake. Now I will gladly affirm that as disciples of Jesus we must step out boldly in faith, in obedience to Christ’s call; but Jesus didn’t come to them walking on the sea and saying, “It’s me; get out of the boat and let’s walk together.” That was Peter’s impulse, and the way I read this little gem of a story, he is not an example of courageous discipleship, but of rather ordinary discipleship.

The one we follow is with us and continues to come to us in unexpected ways. His is a presence unlike any other. Elijah on Mount Horeb fully expected to encounter the living God in the spectacular events of rock shattering and mountain splitting wind, of earthquake and fire, but the voice, the sound was still, small, a gentle whisper bordering on silence. “Take courage, it’s me. Don’t be afraid,” said Jesus. You are not alone on the journey to the fullness of God’s reign; I am with you. We hear the words, we hear the promise, but we go back and forth between between faith and the need for certainty.

Peter said, “Lord, if it is you…” In all of Matthew there are only two other scenes when someone addresses Jesus with this kind of conditional clause. In one, the devil comes to Jesus in the wilderness, saying, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”[4] And in the other, at the crucifixion, some who pass by say, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”[5] We are ordinary disciples; we want more than the word and the promise, and that puts us in the company of those who tempt and scorn the Son of God.

Nevertheless, Jesus didn’t sold Peter, but said, “Come.” The simple command reminds us of the day when Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, saw Peter and his brother and said to them, “Follow me.” They left their nets and followed him, and the hardest part then was keeping up with the man going ahead of them.

As we follow the Living One who is with us and who is coming to us we must learn to trust his word and promise and be attentive to his voice and call. Peter’s faith and ours is a blend of trust and doubt, of courage and fear, of sinking and being held.

“Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck, I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.”[6] The words of the psalm teach our hearts to trust in God’s promise and power to save. The world floods in on us with paralyzing experiences and frightening stories of what human beings are capable of doing to each other when love is absent. We have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over us, and many of us are drowning – in fear, in worries and despair.

I thought I would preach today on Elijah’s time up on the mountain and on God’s presence encountered in stillness. But Jesus came down the mountain in the darkness before dawn; he came down to meet his friends on the sea. When Peter began to sink and the waters were about to close over him, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” No more “Lord, if it is you,” only the voice of humanity crying out of the depths – and there it was, the strong hand of Jesus. Thanks be to God.

 


[1] Edwina Gateley, Let Your God Love You

[2] Psalm 46:1-3

[3] Matthew 8:23-27

[4] Matthew 4:3, 6

[5] Matthew 27:40

[6] Psalm 69:1-2

Tuesday
Aug052014

Schedules, Chore Charts and Calendar Apps

Significant changes on the horizon

On Sunday we all worship. On Monday the Elders meet one week, and the Board another week, and on the first Monday each month the men meet at Boscos. Tuesdays are for movie lovers and the women who gather in the Serenity Circle. Some people still remember when Wednesdays were church nights; folks didn’t even put it on their calendar, it just went without saying. But the times they are a-changin’ and so are we. Scheduling our life together has become an art like juggling (although some would say it’s more like a nightmare). Our calendar apps are great, but finding time to simply be together has become more and more difficult for families, friends and congregations.

Our congregational leadership wrestles with these questions all the time, and over the summer they have pondered and discussed a scheduling proposal that emerged from a set of observations:

  • We want and need more opportunities to simply be together and get to know each other.
  • It's increasingly difficult for us and our families to commit to Wednesday nights as a church night.
  • Having the Chancel Choir practice on Sunday mornings means people have to choose between singing in the choir and participating in Christian education.
  • We tried squeezing Children’s Choir rehearsals between Sunday school and worship; we know now it’s not a good idea.
  • Only a small number of people worship at 8:30 a.m., but we invest significant staff time in that service.

The Sunday morning schedule the leadership developed with the staff looks like this:

  • 9 a.m. - Children and adults gather in Sunday school and other groups and classes to learn and grow together.
  • 10 a.m. - All gather in the sanctuary to worship God.
  • 11 a.m. - Members, friends and guests go downstairs for coffee and conversations (folks gather to talk with the preacher about the sermon; people make lunch plans; occasionally we have a table reserved for guests who are curious about Vine Street; we may have brief presentations about things like summer camp or the current season of the church year, etc.) while the children meet in the choir room to sing with T.J. and Katie.
  • Noon - Time to go to lunch and enjoy the sabbath rest of Sunday afternoon.

Wednesday night continues to be available for book groups, Bible study, prayer groups, dinner groups and other gatherings with a focus on learning, growth and friendship.

Thursday night (or another weeknight the choir members will agree on) is choir night for adult singers, a.k.a. Chancel Choir rehearsal.

Next steps

Our congregational leadership recommends that we switch to this new schedule on August 31, Labor Day weekend. They see great potential in these changes to help us grow as a community and they invite and welcome your questions and comments.

We will gather in the fellowship hall on Sunday, August 10 and 17, following the 10:45 worship service, to answer questions and address any concerns you might have. On both Sundays, following the 8:30 service Thomas and/or Greg will also make time to talk about these changes in the chapel. Of course, the staff, the Elders and Board leaders are available every day to talk with you on the phone or in person and to answer your emails. So, take another look at the proposed schedule, think about the possibilities and pray, and let’s talk.

Tuesday
Aug052014

All ate and were filled

Those walking by the palace could hear them sing, Happy Birthday, dear Herod, Happy Birthday to you! It was Herod’s birthday, and government officials, members of the leading families and the usual lobbyists had been invited to a banquet at the palace. They took turns toasting Herod and praising his wisdom, his power and glory. He was in a great mood, and he asked the daughter of Herodias to dance before his guests.[1]

Herodias was his wife, but she used to be his sister-in-law, his brother Philip’s wife, and John, the wilderness prophet, used to tell him, “It is against the law for you to marry her.” John didn’t mention that Herodias was also Philip’s and Herod’s niece… Anyway, Herod had John the Baptist arrested, bound, and put in prison. He really wanted him dead, but he feared public opinion: recent polls had indicated that a great number of people regarded John as a prophet of God.

So, back to the birthday party. Herod asked Herodias’s daughter to dance for his guests, and she did, and her dancing pleased him so much that he promised on oath to grant her whatever she might ask. He may have had a few drinks too many, or perhaps he just wanted to impress his guests with his lavish generosity. The young woman, prompted by her mother, asked Herod for her present, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a plate.”

For a moment, perhaps, you almost feel sorry for the old fool: it was too late to take back the impulsive promise; he couldn’t afford to go back on his word and lose face in front of his guests. He was trapped in the power game whose rules he upheld on behalf of Rome. He had to do what he had to do, or at least so he tried to tell himself, I imagine. Nothing’s being said about John, the servant of God’s coming reign, locked up in a cell, unaware of the deadly developments upstairs. Who knows if the music ended when they brought in the prophet’s head on a platter, or if the party went on all night.

Matthew draws our attention to what happened next, outside of Herod’s palace. John’s disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus. And Jesus, upon hearing the sad news, withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. [2]

We wonder if he just wanted to be alone to grieve the death of his friend; or if he crossed the lake to get away from Herod, at least for a while. We imagine his soul was thirsting for prayer. He had to wonder what John’s death meant for his own proclamation of the kingdom that wasn’t Herod’s or Caesar’s but God’s. As he made his way across the lake, men, women and children followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus went ashore, he saw them, but rather than getting back into the boat and seeking solitude and silence out on the water, he stayed with them and cured their sick. He had compassion for them. The kingdom he embodied and proclaimed is founded on compassion.

Matthew shows us in stark contrast the kingdoms of the world and their power and the kingdom of compassion. He tells us the story of two banquets: Herod’s bloody birthday party and Jesus’ banquet by the lake. Herod, trapped in his own power games and determined to stay on top, could only produce death. Jesus brought healing and life, and all ate and were filled.

This is not just a story in the past tense about a miracle that unfolded one late afternoon hundreds of years ago, on the northern shore of lake Galilee. The story is about Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims in the midst of all the old power arrangements. The story is about us and where we go with our hunger. The story is about our need for healing and salvation, for compassion and community, for bread and the feast of life. The story invites us to leave Herod’s party and to go where Jesus is headed and find fulfillment there. There is no bread for our hunger in Herod’s palace, but there is bread in abundance on the other side of the lake where Jesus prepares a picnic in the wilderness.

Bread in the wilderness evokes memories of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, memories of God’s liberating power and providence. Like his father, Herod the Great who killed the infants in and around Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth, Herod looks a lot like Pharao. The murder of John was not an unfortunate, isolated incident of poor judgment, it rather showed with brutal clarity that there are powers in the world that will do anything to keep God from disrupting their plans with the announcement of freedom for the oppressed, good news for the poor, compassion for the suffering, and bread for the hungry in the kingdom of God.

I tell myself that I don’t want a seat at Herod’s birthday banquet and that I don’t want a piece of his cake.

The real players, inside the palace, smile; they know I’d never get an invitation.

But the children who crossed the border into Texas and Arizona, longing for a chance to feel safe, to learn and grow and live, the children look at me, saying, “Are you going to sit with us?”

And the children in Israel who have nightmares because rockets keep flying across the sky and exploding around them, the children look at me, saying, “Are you going to eat bread with us?”

And the children in Gaza who have no place left to flee from the terror of war, the children look at me, saying, “Will you sit with us?”

They know and remind me that I’m very much part of Herod’s world, whether I like it or not, and Herod’s ways are very much part of me. They know that it’s power and privilege that keep me from fully embracing a life of compassion, and yet they wait for me, and Jesus with them.

I hunger for a world where all eat and are filled, a world where God is at home and all of creation is at peace. I hear a voice, shouting and yet barely audible under the din of constant propaganda and anxious chatter,

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;
and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me
listen, so that you may live.[3]

I hear the voice of Christ in these lines from Isaiah. I hear his invitation to all who hunger and thirst for life to come to him. He calls the poor to buy wine and milk without money, and those of us who have money he asks, Why do you spend it for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Why indeed? Why do I spend so much money for things that promise to fill me but don’t? Why do I labor for things that only leave me wanting more? Why do I eat too much, drink too much, work and drive too much, and still I don’t know how it feels to be filled? Why do I fill with things a void only God can fill?

We are being taught daily, in more and more sophisticated ways, that we are in control and that we can work, shop, possess and consume our way to fulfillment – I know this sounds like a cliché, but I’m afraid you and I might be quick to dismiss it because we suspect that it could be true. Meanwhile, Jesus is at the lake shore, God’s compassion in the flesh, calling the poor and the rich to come, and healing us.

It’s getting late, and some of us are beginning to worry about this enormous group of people and their hunger. “Send them away so that they may go and buy food for themselves,” some disciples say. There are markets in the villages, there are stores in the towns – send them away so that they may buy food for themselves. Jesus says, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” And we look at what we have to offer, and it doesn’t look like much, and we tell him, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” It really isn’t much to look at against the backdrop of human hunger and need, wherever we turn our eyes, but Jesus says, “Bring them here to me.” And then he does what we remember and proclaim every time we gather at his table, he takes the bread we bring and blesses it, breaks it, gives it back to us, and we pass it around. At the end of the day all have eaten and are filled and there’s enough left to feed the whole people of God.

It doesn’t matter how much or how little we have, but what we do with what we have been given. Our fulfillment and the fulfillment of our neighbors and our enemies is not tied to how much we manage to control what is ours. Fulfillment is tied to our trust in God’s promise and power to redeem us. Fulfillment is tied to our trust that once we begin to relate to each other through Christ, life abundant will erupt.

In Jesus we encounter a power that is utterly different from what we celebrate or fear when we look through the windows of Herod’s palace for a glimpse of the party. Jesus has no use for legions, for rockets, tunnels, tanks, or border fences. But in his hands – this is the gospel promise – in his hands even our smallest gifts of what we know to be life-giving become fullness of life for all.


[1] Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great (Matthew 2:1-23)

[2] Matthew 14:1-13

[3] Isaiah 55:1-3

Tuesday
Aug052014

A cup of water

In Matthew chapter ten, Jesus gathers the twelve, he gives them authority over unclean spirits and sends them off. The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few, and the twelve are only the beginning. “Go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he tells them, “and as you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’” They are to act as his envoys, sharing in his authority and power to forgive and heal, but also sharing in his poverty and homelessness. They are to take no money, no bag for their journey, no extra clothing, but depend entirely on the hospitality of others for shelter and food.

He also prepares them for rejection. They will not be welcomed everywhere, and they can expect to experience some hostility since he is sending them out like sheep into the midst of wolves. They may also have to face painful division within their families because of their loyalty to Jesus and the kingdom of heaven. For all of this risk and suffering, Jesus promises, “those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Last Sunday we reflected on the weight of these words, the weight of wanting to be worthy of him; todays lection are the final three verses of the speech. Something is different in these closing lines. He no longer speaks of the risks of going out, but rather of the rewards for welcoming them in. It’s just a slight change of perspective. One moment we see ourselves in a small group of itinerant disciples walking toward a house, wondering if they will be welcomed, now we see ourselves inside the house, wondering what to do with the strangers about to knock on the door. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

It is in these closing verses that it becomes clear that Jesus is not just addressing the twelve who are about to go on the road, but all his disciples. You and I are no less part of this mission than Simon, Andrew, James and the rest of the twelve. In our life together, in our proclamation, in our intentional and accidental everyday witness to Christ God is reaching out in mercy to the world.

By the time the gospel of Matthew was composed, congregations of Christians already existed in many cities and towns of the Roman Empire. Itinerant Christian prophets and teachers were not unusual at all; on the contrary, early Christian writings suggest that at times they may have become a burden to the small communities. Not only did they need a place to stay and something to eat (and occasionally overstay their welcome), sometimes they also disagreed with each other. Paul wrote to the church of the Thessalonians, “We appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work…. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good.”[1] And another leader warned, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”[2] Matthew makes sure we remember Jesus’ words, “Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.”[3]

He is addressing one audience, but he’s talking to two groups; the settled Christian community and the itinerant prophets. He’s assuring the prophets that they don’t need to sell their word like peddlers, as it were, because the ones who receive them will receive a rich reward for their hospitality. And he’s promising the welcoming community the rewards of welcoming a prophet in their midst. A prophet’s reward is in kingdom terms what we might call a king’s ransom, only that tilts it too much to the monetary side of things. A prophet’s reward is treasure in heaven, a kind of wealth and fulfillment money can’t buy.

Congregational life in Matthew’s day was very different from Vine Street, we know that. But having lived with people for a few decades, I imagine that life was also very similar. Nobody’s too eager to welcome a prophet, either because things are going just fine or because they’re a little iffy already, and whether you’re comfortable with the way things are or a little nervous, you don’t want some outsider coming in and stirring up trouble.

What I hear Jesus saying here to the prophets among us, is, “Don’t be afraid. Speak the word you have been given without fear. The truth of the gospel is at stake. Don’t be silent and do not walk away too soon.” And to the congregations of disciples I hear Jesus say, “Welcome a prophet, welcome without fear anyone who speaks in my name, whether or not you agree with them. The truth of the gospel is at stake. Do not close the door too soon.”

There aren’t a lot of itinerant prophets around anymore, but there’s plenty of settled Christianity in our city, and there are voices and perspectives, Christian voices that come to us like those of strangers who are passing through. Men and women who may speak with a pentecostal accent or a catholic sensibility, people we have perhaps dismissed as holy rollers or papists, or had already labeled as pinkos or fundamentalists, and who wants to listen to them? “Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward,” and whoever doesn’t welcome them will have to wait for the reward that much longer.

Itinerant and settled describe the early days of Christian prophets and house churches, but to be sent and to receive are also aspects of being church together that never become a thing of the past. Jesus calls us to be fearless when we venture out beyond our comfort zone with the word of life in our hearts, in our hands and on our lips, and to be equally fearless in receiving the word of life when it comes to us – to listen, to test, and to hold fast to what is good. And the reward, it turns out, is not just tied to prophets and the righteous. We hesitate to use words like prophet and righteous, we want to be careful because they are precious, and we might cheapen them by overuse. But we do not hesitate to pray for the courage to speak the word given to us without fear and to seek righteousness in the company of Jesus. The promised reward is tied not only to prophets and the righteous. Jesus says, “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because they are my disciples—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” At the end of a long speech addressing the challenges and dangers of living as those whom Jesus has sent, at the end of a chain of difficult teachings about the hard places where faithfulness might take us, at the end we are given this beautiful word like a cup of water.

I see a prophet sitting on a hot, dusty sidewalk, tired from calling the city to repentance so that he too might have a place to lay his head, and one of the waiters steps out of the hip restaurant across the street, carrying a small tray with a tall glass of water, ice cubes jingling, and she kneels beside him and says, “You look thirsty, brother.” It’s just a cup of water, but she offers it with the mercy that holds the universe.

It is so simple, and you may be saying to yourself, “I already know that, preacher.”

Well, I’m glad you do. I think I’m done for today.

 


[1] 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, 20-21

[2] 1 John 4:1

[3] Matthew 10:41 NRSV alt.

Tuesday
Jun242014

Double trees

Fifty years ago, some of you remember that summer, on June 21, 1964, three young men volunteering for the voter registration drive disappeared in Mississippi. Their names were Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Earl Chaney.

About six months earlier, President Lyndon B. Johnson, speaking before a Joint Session of Congress, had said, “No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.”[1]

The bill passed the House in February of ’64, but it was debated in the Senate for sixty working days, including seven Saturdays with several attempts to filibuster the bill. It still is the longest Senate debate in history. On June 19, the Senate adopted an amended bill which was sent back to the House (Martin Luther King, Jr. was in a county jail in Florida that week after attempting to integrate a restaurant). The House adopted the Senate version of the bill on July 2, 1964 and President Johnson signed the bill into law that same day. A month later, on August 4, the FBI found the bodies of the three missing civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi. They had been shot and buried beneath a dam, and they weren’t the only ones who gave their lives in the struggle for justice.

When I read the texts the lectionary of the churches recommends for this Sunday I groaned a little under their weight. Persecution. Killing. Fear him who can destroy both body and soul. Take up the cross and follow. Not worthy of me. Three times! Not worthy of me. Heavy stuff. I got a little break when I read again Jesus’ words, “I have come to set … a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”

“Well, Lord,” I said quietly, “that won’t take much, will it?” Sitting at my desk, chuckling at my own joke, I knew I was laughing because I felt more than a little uncomfortable. The world of Christian witness this text addresses seems so far away from my world. I am free to proclaim the good news of God’s Messiah Jesus. In my world, the men and women who want to build a mosque for their Friday prayers face way more opposition and more threats than a preacher who loves the Lord Jesus. The only time I ever received some mildly threatening letters and emails was after arsonists burned a small Islamic center in Columbia. After that incident I stood with Muslim friends because that’s where the Jesus I know and love stands.

Perhaps the point is not whether or not we recognize our life, our little world in this heavy passage from the gospel. Perhaps the point is whether we will have the wisdom and the courage to stand where Jesus stands when the moment of decision comes and he’s looking for us. Perhaps the point is whether our sons and daughters will know Jesus well enough to recognize him on the bus and get on to ride with him.

The gospel words on the page seem heavy at first, too heavy almost for a sunny summer morning, but the word they speak comes to us embodied in the lives of witnesses like Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, Dr. King and James Earl Chaney.

In 1998, the authorities at Westminster Abbey in London decided to fill ten niches on the West Façade, empty since the fifteenth century, with statues of Christian martyrs. The Rev. Dr. Anthony Harvey, one of the leaders of the effort, said, “There has never been a time in Christian history when someone, somewhere, has not died rather than compromise with the powers of oppression, tyranny and unbelief. But our century, which has been the most violent in recorded history, has created a roll of Christian martyrs far exceeding that of any previous period.”[2] Among the modern martyrs remembered for standing firm in their faith against the perpetrators of the acts of violence and injustice dominating their world are Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, and we know that each of them stands for countless men and women, and even children whose names we do not know.

Bonhoeffer wrote in his 1942 Christmas letter,

“We are not Christ, but if we want to be Christians, we must have some share in Christ’s large-heartedness by acting with responsibility and in freedom when the hour of danger comes and showing real compassion that springs, not from fear, but from the liberating and redeeming love of Christ for all who suffer. Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior. Christians are called to compassion and action, not in the first place by their own sufferings, but by the sufferings of their brothers and sisters for whose sake Christ suffered.”[3]

On April 5, 1943 Bonhoeffer was arrested, along with his sister, Christine and his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, all on suspicion of treason. On Easter Sunday, April 25, Christine, still in jail, wrote a letter to her sons, Klaus and Christoph, and I want to read from it, because we have so many good and inspiring words from men like Bonhoeffer, King, and Romero; we rarely hear from ordinary people, women in particular, who know and show the fearless love of Jesus. Christine’s letter to her boys ends with these words,

“Now I want to tell you one more thing. Don’t carry any hate in your heart against the power that has done this to us. Don’t fill your young souls with bitterness; that has its revenge and takes from you the most beautiful thing there is, trust.... it is after all only a really small and meager part of the human being that one can put in jail.... I embrace all of you.[4]

Stories and even snippets of stories of faithful witnesses help us to imagine how to follow Jesus when it becomes crucial.

Clarence Jordan was a Bapist preacher with an agriculture major from the University of Georgia and a PhD in New Testament. I mention him because his story is very much part of the story of the civil rights movement in the South; he was also very serious about the gospel and very funny. He heard the call to the ministry of reconciliation, and he answered it by founding the racially integrated Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia in 1942. As you can imagine, not all the neighbors were thrilled about that project or the people involved in it. When the Koinonia folks set up a roadside stand to sell peanuts the Ku Klux Klan threw a stick of dynamite in it and blew it to smithereens. Jordan didn’t retaliate; he put up another stand. It got blown up too. Finally, the Koinonia Farm resorted to mail-order ads: “Help us ship the nuts out of Georgia.”[5]

Jesus said, “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! So have no fear of them.” No fear. No retaliation. But real compassion that springs, not from fear, but from the liberating and redeeming love of Christ for all who suffer.

I want to tell you one more story with a farm in the middle of it. It’s in a part of the world where keeping hope alive is the biggest challenge for all who live there. It’s a small farm, just outside Bethlehem. Bishara Nassar was a child when his father bought the land in 1916. It was a time of massive change. World War I was transforming the Middle East in ways still not resolved to this day, the Ottoman Empire was limping to an end, and Palestinian Christians were beginning to leave.

After the war of 1948 the Christian exodus from the West Bank quickened, and Bishara, who was a preacher and a musician, began to travel round the nearby villages, singing songs and leading Bible study in family homes. Music and stories, he thought, might deepen the faith and lift the spirits of Bethlehem’s Christian children, encouraging them to stay. Bishara also came to believe that the Christian community had a special role to play in building a more peaceful future on that wounded land, and he taught his own children the principles of non-violence rooted in Jesus’ teachings.

In the years since his death in 1976, the family’s commitment to non-violence has been tested in ways he could never have imagined. Jewish settlements began to be built on the hills around the farm, all of them considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this. As they watched the settlements rise around them in the 1980s, the Nassars began to worry. Their farm was in a great location, close to the main north-south road through the West Bank and on high ground. Prime real estate.

In 1991 the military authorities declared that more than 90% of the farm now belonged to the State of Israel. The Nassars, though, refused to leave, and they had the documents they needed to launch an appeal in the Israeli courts. In 1924 Bishara Nassar’s father had registered his property with Palestine’s new imperial rulers. The British issued land deeds that specified the size and borders of the farm, and almost 70 years later, those papers became the basis of a legal case that has been in front of the Israeli courts for 23 years. It remains unresolved.

When the Nassar family was informed, after 10 years in the military courts, that their Palestinian lawyer was not eligible to contest the case in Israel’s supreme court they found an Israeli firm willing to take it on. When they were told to provide a land survey, they hired an Israeli surveyor, and sent him, at great cost, to consult maps and documents in the imperial archives of London and Istanbul. “Every time they see you are ready to meet their demands, they ask [for something] more and more difficult, [so] that you say ‘I am fed up’,” one of Bishara’s children said. “Yes, this [is] always the process. We know it. It’s a game to push us to leave.”

Last month, a BBC reporter watched Daher Nassar, one of Bishara’s sons as he picked apples from the ruins of an orchard he had planted years ago. The fruit was scattered across ground freshly opened and imprinted with the tracks of a bulldozer. Tree trunks and branches had been pushed into a muddy pile. On May 19 a shepherd from a nearby village had been out at first light and had seen the bulldozer at work in the field, guarded by Israeli soldiers. By the time Nassar arrived the whole orchard was gone. His English was far from fluent, but there was no mistaking the pain in his voice when he said to the reporter: “Why you broke the trees?”

A spokesperson for the Israeli military authorities in the West Bank said the trees were planted illegally on state land. Nassar’s sister, Amal, has a different explanation. The government, together with the Israeli settlers who live around the farm, is “trying to push us to violence or push us to leave,” she says. Amal insists that her family will not move from the land, nor will they abandon their commitment to peaceful resistance. “Nobody can force us to hate,” she says. “We refuse to be enemies.”

Her brother walks across a scarred and empty field. He looks around and says, “I will plant more trees. Double trees.”[6]

 


[1] http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=25988&st=&st1

[2] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/129587.stm

[3] Letters and Papers from Prison, as quoted in Kelly, Geffrey B. and F. Burton Nelson. The Cost of Moral Leadership: the spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publ., 2003, 46.

[4] Sifton, Elisabeth and Fritz Stern. “The Tragedy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi”. The New York Review of Books. October 25, 2012. Emphasis added. 

[5] See Millard Fuller’s foreword to Ann Louise Coble, Cotton Patch for the Kingdom: Clarence Jordan’s Demonstration Plot at Koinonia Farm (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001), 11.

[6] Adamson, Daniel Silas. The Christian family refusing to give up its Bethlehem hill farm. 17 June 2014. 

Monday
Jun162014

Holy Extravagance

The other day, driving home through the rain, I made the final righ turn and parked the car in the driveway just after it had stopped raining. I sat there for a moment, listening to the rest of a story on the radio. Then I pulled the key from the ingnition and opened the door.

It was late in the evening, the sun was low, light pouring through the  trees like the world had just taken a bath. I was about to open the back door of the car to grab my bag from behind the seat, when a very gentle breeze stroked my face and a sweet fragrance greeted me in passing. Suddenly nothing else mattered. I just stood and then turned toward the tall magnolia tree, slowly breathing in, hoping to catch another wave of scented air from its graceful blooms – and there it was.

Such goodness. Such generosity. I didn’t say a word, but for a moment my whole being was a thank you to life and the God of life. It didn’t cost me a penny, all I had to pay was a little attention.

Our days are full of these wonders. Honeysuckle. Watermelon. Strawberries. Such goodness. Wine with friends. Thick slices of fresh bread. Travel stories. Sitting on the beach, watching the waves roll in. Or closer to home, gently swinging in the hammock, listening to the happy noise of the children at the pool. Such goodness. The joy of noticing all the places where the Wrens love to stop before they fly to the nest to feed their young. Or seeing how the hills cradle the lake and the air carries the hawk above the cliffs by the river. Such beauty. Such wideness and fullness of grace.

We listened to the entire first chapter of the first book of the Bible this morning, which may have seemed slightly over the top to some of you, a little extravagant perhaps. “That was enough text for a seven-week sermon series,” you may have said to yourself, “complete with an adult education forum on faith and science – why waste it by pouring it all out at once?”

Why pour it all out in one reading? Because it’s the whole story of life in one chapter, from first light to God’s rest. Because it’s poetry that wasn’t written to be chopped up into lectionary sections but to be read and heard, to be spoken and sung with at least some of the extravagance the text applies in describing the wondrous orderliness of creation. And we listen to the whole poem because God takes time in creating. God doesn’t just snap the divine fingers and immediately bring creation into being. God speaks. God makes. God names. God observes and delights. “And God saw that it was good,” is one of the refrains of this grand poem. The first day. The second day. The third day. God is not in a hurry. Like an artist who steps back from the detail, again and again, to behold the whole as it is taking shape, God pauses to observe closely how the earth brings forth plants yielding seed of every kind and fruit trees. The fourth day. God notices how the waters swarm; God sees how birds fly across the sky and where they build their nests. God lingers with delighted attention over every movement of every wing. The Carolina Wren, the eastern Goldfinch, the Great Blue Heron. The fifth day. God speaks. God makes. God observes and delights. “Why so many forms?” asks Annie Dillard in her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

“Why not just that one hydrogen atom? The creator goes off on one wild, specific tangent after another, or millions simultaneously, with an exuberance that would seem to be unwarranted, and with an abandoned energy sprung from an unfathomable font. What is going on here? The point of the dragonfly’s terrible lip, the giant water bug, birdsong, or the beautiful dazzle and flash of sunlighted minnows, is not that it all fits together like clockwork—for it doesn’t, particularly, not even inside the goldfish bowl—but that it all flows so freely and  wild, like the creek, that it all surges in such a free, fringed tangle. Freedom is the world’s water and weather, the world’s nourishment freely given, its soil and sap: and the creator loves pizzazz.”[1]

According to the poem from the opening chapter of Genesis, human beings are latecomers to creation. We are creatures of the sixth day, made in the afternoon, after cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind. When Carl Sagan came up with his now famous model for the age of the cosmos, he didn’t count days, but he arrived at a similar conclusion regarding the late arrival of humankind. Sagan first popularized the idea of squeezing all the time of the universe into not seven days, but a single year, beginning with the Big Bang on January 1. On March 15, the Milky Way galaxy was formed. The sun and planets came into existence on August 31. The first multicellular life on earth appeared on December 5, fish on December 18 and birds on December 27.

Human beings arrived on the scene about 8 minutes before midnight on December 31. And we started writing only about half a second ago in cosmic time.

“What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” asks the Psalmist, awed by the dawning knowledge of creation’s grandeur. It is in us, in these last few minutes of creation’s magnificent unfolding in the hands of God, that the universe has become conscious. Human beings are the first creatures to look at the heavens, the moon and the stars, and ask questions. Human beings are the first creatures to discern the unity of life in all its wild and orderly freedom, and to name the source from which it comes. All creatures praise God by simply being what they were created to be, but there was great joy in heaven when the first human beings looked around with awe and delight and said, “Thank you.” Human beings find themselves addressed by the divine creator in a particular way that calls us to respond to every detail of the miracle in which we know ourselves to be participating, to respond with praise and gratitude, with caring responsibility and exuberant creativity.

We listen to the entire opening chapter of Genesis on a Sunday morning in June, because it is a beautiful invitation to step out of our little worlds and to live into the unfathomable splendor of a gazillion creatures great and small, each vibrating with the love of God, giving that love a shape that changes from moment to moment and yet remains one for as long as God breathes and speaks. We listen to beautiful scripture to better know how to be who we are made and meant to be.

More than fifty years ago, in 1967, a historian named Lynn White wrote an article for Science magazine in which he charged that the roots of the ecological crisis are essentially religious. The problems derive from Christian tradition in particular, he said, which has taught people to view themselves as “superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim.” James Gustafson calls it “despotism”—one of the historical ways that people of faith have interpreted their divine calling to dominion over the earth. “In this view,” says Barbara Brown Taylor, “you do not have to ask a tree before you bulldoze it for a subdivision. You just knock it down, push it into a pile with the corpses of other trees, and set it on fire. Then you are free to scrape the clear-cut earth free of green moss, tiny wild iris, unsuspecting toads and a couple of thousand years’ worth of topsoil before calling the pavers to come cover your artwork with steaming asphalt. Oh—and if the mountain laurel block your view of the river, just cut them down too. The next time the river floods, the banks will collapse without those living roots—the river will silt up eventually, until you can push a sharp stick three feet straight down in the sandy bottom without ever hitting what used to be the river bed—but what the heck, if the trout die, you can still buy some at the grocery store—already cleaned and boned, for just a few dollars a pound. You are Lord over this playground, after all—God said so. It is all for you.”[2]

A lot has happened since 1967. We have listened to the prophets and begun to repent. We also listened to our teachers of Scripture who reminded us that dominion on God’s earth doesn’t mean self-serving tyranny, but rather caring attentiveness that allows life to flourish. And by the mercy of God, growing numbers of Christians remembered that God isn’t some absentee landlord who can’t wait to burn the place to the ground, but the creator who delights in every creature and on the seventh day rests serenely in the wondrous whirl of creation.

Summer, of course, is the perfect season for us to fully immerse ourselves in our God’s delight in all creatures and to practice seventh-day-living by resting completely in God’s providence and care. So have a full, slow, free, wild, wonderful summer.


[1] Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 1988, p. 137

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Dominion of Love,” Journal for Preachers 2008, p. 26

Tuesday
May272014

Life in fullness

It was the night of their last supper together. Judas had already left the table and gone out, and the other disciples didn’t know why or where. Then Jesus said, “Little children, I am with you only a little longer.” I imagine each of them feeling their stomachs tensing up. Jesus also said, “I give you a new commandment; love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other.” But Peter and the rest of them weren’t quite ready to hear those words; they worried what would become of them.

“Lord, where are you going?” When will you be back? What are we supposed to do without you? Why can’t we come with you?

Little children he had called them, and that’s exactly how they must have felt. Worried kids, not at all excited about the prospect of having the entire house to themselves with no one around to tell them what to do. “Don’t be troubled,” he told them. “I go to prepare a place for you, so that where I am you may be also.” And he went on like this for four long chapters, telling his disciples everything they needed to know before he left them. “I will not leave you orphaned,” he promised.

Barbara was the eldest of three daughters and the designated babysitter in her family. “From the time I was twelve, I was the one my parents left in charge when they went out at night. First my father would sit me down and remind me how much he and my mother trusted me—not only because I was the oldest but also because I was the most responsible. This always made me dizzy, but I agreed with him. I would not let the house burn down. I would not open the door to strangers. I would not let my little sisters fall down the basement steps. Then my mother would show me where she had left the telephone number, remind me when they would be home, and all together we would walk to the front door where everyone kissed everyone good-bye. Then the lock clicked into place, and a new era began. I was in charge.”

Turning around to face her new responsibilities, what Barbara saw were her sisters’ faces, looking at her with something between hope and fear. They knew she was no substitute for what they had just lost, but since she was all they had they were willing to try. And so was she.

“I played games with them, I read them books, I made them pimento cheese sandwiches on white bread with the crusts cut off. But as the night wore on they got crankier and crankier. Where are mommy and daddy? Where did they go? When will they be back?”

She told them over and over again. She made up elaborate stories about what they would all do together in the morning. She promised them that if they would go to sleep she would make sure mommy and daddy kissed them good night when they came in.

“I tried to make everything sound normal, but how did I know? Our parents might have had a terrible accident. They might never come home again and the three of us would be split apart, each of us sent to a different foster home so that we never saw each other again. It was hard, being the babysitter, because I was a potential orphan too. I had as much to lose as my sisters, and as much to fear, but I could not give in to it because I was the one in charge. I was supposed to know better. I was supposed to exude confidence and create the same thing in them.”[1]

When Jesus prepared his friends for his departure, he called them little children; he sat them down to give them his instructions and left them in charge. That’s us, all of us. We’re the responsible ones now, the ones he has trusted to carry on in his name. But what about the times when we feel not quite grown-up enough for the responsibility we were given, when we feel abandoned, desolate, vulnerable, frightened—in a word, orphaned? What about the moments when the darkness creeps in and our little brothers and sisters look to us for a story to comfort them, for a brave song that will keep the monsters from coming up the basement steps; when they look to us for assurance that all will be well in the morning? What about the moments when we worry about what will become of us, what will become of the church, what will become of this beautiful world—aren’t we supposed to exude confidence and create confidence in the ones who look to us?

The way John tells the story, faith doesn’t begin with intellectual conviction or an act of will; faith is a relationship with Jesus. A relationship with Jesus, because he doesn’t just declare and explain the truth; he is the truth. Jesus not only gives and restores life, he is the very life of God and of God’s creation. Yes, Jesus teaches the ways we are related to God and to each other, but he isn’t just a teacher of the way, he is the way.

Faith is a relationship with Jesus, and through Jesus with the God he revealed and glorified in his life on earth. The first disciples were anxious about the end of the incarnation of God in Jesus, anxious about the prospect of their relationship with Jesus being reduced to mere memories of him. How would they love him after his return to the Father?

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth.”

Another advocate, someone like Jesus. Someone who would keep the truth of Jesus present to the world. The word our Bible translation (NRSV) renders as “advocate” has been translated as comforter (KJV), counselor (RSV and NIV), companion (CEB), helper, assistant, broker, and mediator; another contemporary option would be community organizer. The Greek word parakletos has a wide range of meanings, and we must assume that all of them are meant to resonate. All translations are correct, but no single one captures the full range. Many scholars have suggested that perhaps it would be best not to translate parakletos but to keep it in its transliterated form, Paraclete.[2] I’m not sure that’ll help, since lots of folks will wonder what kind of bird that might be.

Jesus promised his friends that he would not leave them orphaned. His return to the Father didn’t mean he’d be absent, but rather that they would encounter him differently, in and through the Spirit. They would continue to love him, not by clinging to their cherished memories of him, but by continuing to live in his love.

While Jesus was with them as the Word of God incarnate, his mission was limited to the one place where he was at any given time, and to the people he encountered then and there. Then he returned to the Father, and a new era began. His friends, the disciples, were given the Spirit and, little children no more, they now became the community of love where the living Christ, the living God is at home. This is us, all of us, every generation of disciples. We’re the responsible ones now, the ones he has trusted to carry on in his name, gifted with all that is needed.

We worry, because we think it’s all up to us now, and it’s so much to do, and we already have so many things to do, and how much more can we do, and do we really have all it takes to do all that? We’re so used to letting ourselves be defined by what we do and how much or how little we accomplish. We think we’re supposed to live constantly on the edge of anxiety. We forget that we’re gifted with all that is needed. We forget that faith is not a call to do everything Jesus used to do. Faith is our relationship with the living God, our participation in the life of God, our being with Jesus in what he is doing.

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you,” Jesus says, having already promised the coming of the Spirit, and then he says, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”

The divine presence the first disciples encountered in Jesus, the divine presence we seek and so often question, that presence is promised to those who love, to those who mirror the divine communion of Father, Son, and Spirit in their human communion with one another.

“I give you a new commandment; love each other,” Jesus said to his disciples that night. “Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other.” And he went on like this for four long chapters, with words intertwining like branches on a vine.

“If you love me you will keep my commandments. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” Words like music, phrases intertwining like the melody lines in the harmonies of a song, ever new variations on a theme Jesus embodied so beautifully: love in communion, life in fullness. Loving each other the way Jesus has loved us we become a dwelling place for God, a place where God is at home in the world and the world at home in God. I can’t think of anything more awesome.

 


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine, pp. 80-81

[2] The New Jerusalem Bible does just that

Monday
May122014

Take One

A couple of years ago, during one of our weeks of hosting Room in the Inn, I was standing near the kitchen counter downstairs, waiting in line with our guests to have our plates filled. The food smelled wonderful, and from every side I could hear bits of conversation. Just as I was about to grab a plate, the man in front of me, one of our guests, turned to me and said, “I know what we need to do to end homelessness.”

“You do? That’s awesome. Would you mind telling me?”

“Every congregation in Nashville adopts one of us and then you all help us get the help we need. Some of us just need a place to stay to get back on track, others need medical attention or a job. If every congregation adopted one of us, we wouldn’t be back here night after night.”

“Man, what an idea, and so simple! You’re right, one each ought to be doable and that would change things dramatically.”

Then he turned to ask one of the volunteers on the other side of the counter if they had any hot sauce, and I thought about Isaiah’s call to share our bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into our house as a way of fasting that is righteous and God-pleasing.[1] But it wasn’t long before I thought about how much easier it is to open the doors to God’s house to the homeless poor on a cold night for shelter and a meal when we know that the next morning they’ll get a ride back to the Campus for Human Development. Organizing shelter and meals for a few nights a year requires the commitment of many helpers, but it is nothing compared to a congregation committing to embrace one individual with their gifts, their story and their needs.

This doesn’t change the fact that the man was right. Homelessness is caused by many factors, but most of them represent a breakdown in community, a fracturing of relationships, separating and isolating us one from the other and pushing some of us to the margins. And congregations are communities that embody and display in their life together God’s power to reconcile and make whole. Congregations are communities of hope. We are being called together by God who doesn’t turn away from our brokenness but says, “I am with you.” The big question is, how do we translate that promise of God into a life together that embraces not just some of us, but all who need community to be made whole?

The end of April, I got a letter signed by one of our state legislators and by the Commissioner of TDOC, the Tennessee Department of Corrections. Take One, it says in big, bold letters.

“Dear Faith Leader,” it begins, and after some introductory remarks it continues,

It is estimated that more than 90 percent of offenders currently housed in Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC) prisons will eventually be released back to our communities. It is also well known that having positive influences to assist and support these men and women in their transition is crucial to their return home.

Take One seeks to have individual organizations agree to mentor just one offender and his/her family for a period of one year. The idea is that faith-based and non-profit organizations can provide a level of support, encouragement, and guidance that could be the difference between a successful transition home or a return to prison.

Take one, just one, for one year. Reconciliation heals broken community, and reconciliation is such a big word, but here it translates into support, encouragement, and guidance that say to one individual, preparing to return to life outside the prison doors, “You are not alone. You are not on your own. We are with you.” It’s the promise of God, embodied.

In this Easter season, we are given a reading from the book of Acts, the Acts of the Apostles, a book about the wondrous ways in which church happens. It’s the day of Pentecost, and Peter stands up to address the crowd, to say a few words about how the world has changed for good. Christ is risen from the dead, the Spirit of the risen Christ is on the loose, and the world is no longer what it used to be. Everything’s become new, and you’d expect Peter, this newly made apostle of the kingdom to grope for words, perhaps stammer a bit, but no. Luke has him preach a sermon without notes, complete with lenghty quotes from scripture, flawlessly structured according to the best practices of rhetoric, and all at nine o’clock in the morning. And to top it all off, we’re told that those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about 3000 persons were added. One sermon – and 3000 new disciples! What is this, preacher intimidation Sunday?

Well, not just preachers. These 3000 plus newly baptized along with the first followers of Jesus, we’re told, devoted themselves to Christian education and fellowship, to shared meals and prayers. No worries about worship attendance or Wednesday night programs, Bible study or budgets. Everyone spoke highly of them, and there was not a needy person among them since everything they owned was held in common. Everything was just perfect.

Why is Luke doing this to us? Why is he painting this picture of perfection where no one is hungry, no one is homeless, sinners are forgiven, and all are devoted to learning and growing as God’s people? Doesn’t he realize that no congregation we have encountered is like that? Doesn’t he know that among us devotion to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship is not exactly enthusiastic and that most of us are glad to be able to make it to coffee hour occasionally and perhaps to the waffle breakfast on Mother’s Day? Doesn’t he know that he’s making us feel small and insignificant in comparison, that somehow we’re not measuring up?

If Luke had written solely as a historian or a chronicler, we’d be looking at nothing but the sad fact that the church has been going downhill, and fast, since the day he wrote about it in chapter two. If he had written on rose-colored paper with nostalgic, golden ink flowing from his quill, we’d find little comfort in his words as we struggle to embody and proclaim the gospel in our day. If, however, Luke wrote as a visionary theologian with a pastoral heart, then he looked at the struggling congregations of his day and thought of a way to support, encourage and guide them in their tremendous and sometimes terrifying mission as Easter people. He wrote to remind them and us that we are participating in a movement of the Holy Spirit, the powerful, unstoppable, life-giving Spirit of God who draws us and all creation into life redeemed and made whole. He reminds us that the work is God’s and that we have the privilege of participating in it, anticipating the conversion of multitudes when we tell one of the compassion of God; anticipating the just sharing of earth’s goodness among all people when we give of our abundance to the need of another; and anticipating the signs and wonders of the age to come when we take one, just one, for one year. He teaches us to see God’s purposes perfectly fulfilled in the seemingly small things we do faithfully, day by day.

Think of it as Luke taking a picture of an ordinary congregation of ordinary people on an ordinary day, but then he doesn’t just post it on Facebook with a quick comment, “Hang in there, friends, and keep up the good work!” No, he applies a set of filters that render the everyday scene in the light of heaven, and suddenly the ordinary moment glows with the promise and presence of God’s reign.

You may be standing in line with a group of homeless men, waiting with them to have your plates filled with fried chicken, mac ‘n cheese, and green bean casserole. And you talk about stuff you enjoy talking about, a movie perhaps, or the biscuits your mom used to make when you were little, or how to end homelessness in Nashville. And there, on an ordinary Wednesday in November, suddenly it dawns on you that we’re all made for each other, that we all need community more than all the things we want, and that we’re all being saved by being drawn together by the Spirit of the risen Christ. It’s a wonderful moment, and you don’t quite know how to talk about it without sounding corny, but you know in your bones it’s true.


[1] Isaiah 58:6-7 “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

Monday
May052014

Walking to Easter

We don’t know where to look for Emmaus on the map, but we know the road. We walk on it when loss has turned love into grief. Or when our hope has drained away as though a sinkhole had opened underneath and swallowed it. Emmaus is where we go to walk away from what we cannot forget.

Seven miles is a good long walk. When your heart is heavy and you don’t know who you might become after you’ve pretty much lost all sense of who you are, you go for a walk. Walking gives you something to do. It helps you sort through things. Sometimes you have to be alone – you walk by yourself; you want to be under tall, old trees. And when you know there’s no one else on the trail who could hear you, the words don’t just run through your head anymore, but spill out. You don’t really care who it is you’re talking to, whether it’s yourself, or God, or the trees. You let the anger well up, the disappointment, the doubt, the tears. And you walk; the rhythm of your steps keeps your thoughts and memories from spiraling into chaos. You walk, sometimes by yourself, sometimes with a friend. You tell the story, again and again, to your friend, to yourself, to God, to the trees. Seven miles, that’s a good long walk.

Two of Jesus’ friends, Luke tells us, were on that road – Jerusalem behind them, the city and the events of the last few days. They were trying to cope with the flood that had washed over them: the joy of Jesus’ arrival, the shock of his arrest, the guilt over their painful lack of friendship, the trauma of his execution, and then the astounding story the women told about a vision of angels who said that Jesus was alive. It was all too much to take in, and so they walked. A stranger came near and was going with them. Luke tells us that it was Jesus, but they didn’t know that. They didn’t know the man who was walking next to them.

He asked them what it was they were talking about. They stopped and stood for a moment, and then they told the story again; told the man how their hope had grown from a spark to a bright flame in the company of Jesus, and how death had snuffed the flame together with the life of their friend. “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”

“We had hoped,” they said. Some of us have spoken those words when we were packing up the things we had brought with us to the ICU. “We had hoped,” we said, and then we went home alone. Some of us have used the phrase when we didn’t get the phone call after the job interview that went so well. Some of us were too tired to even say the words when news of yet another atrocity flashed across our screens: Civil war in Syria and South Sudan. Hundreds sentenced to death in Egyptian courts. Over two hundred Nigerian girls abducted from their school because education threatens power.

We had hoped. Emmaus is where we go when we can speak of hope only in the past perfect tense. We had hoped that Jesus was the one to redeem us from the powers and rulers that oppress us. With every fiber of our being we want to speak of that dreadful Friday in the past perfect, “Our chief priests and leaders had handed him over to be condemned to death and had crucified him, but …”

“But on the third day,” we want to continue… but the two on the road can’t hear that yet. The execution on the cross, that was the public event, the one with all the eyewitnesses. From the road to Emmaus, Good Friday simply rings truer than Easter morning. Good Friday is verifiable, then and now. On the Emmaus road, Good Friday is not only not past perfect, it’s present tense. It is where we live, in the world of betrayal, corruption, violence, death, and shattered hope. “Easter is a rumor by comparison. Someone said that someone saw him, only it didn’t look like him, exactly, and before anyone could believe it was him he was gone. … Now you see him, now you don’t.”[1]

Rumors. Baffling tales. The two travelers told the stranger the story of their dreams and disappointments, and they were quite unable to see outside of their own story. The things they kept rehearsing in their hearts kept them from seeing that it was Jesus, the risen Christ himself who was walking with them.

Cleopas and his unnamed companion are not as famous as Mary or Peter. We never hear of them again; they are like us, ordinary people struggling to keep hope alive. They are also, like us, folk who sometimes struggle to see outside of our own story. Slow-of-heart folk. The story of the resurrection of Jesus is the story outside of our stories, it is the story of God’s faithfulness surrounding our stories of lost hope, the story of God’s creative and redemptive possibilities enveloping our stories of dead ends. It is also the story inside all of our stories. Now you see it, now you don’t.

The stranger listened, and then he retold the story they had just finished, told it right back to them, and in the telling, he wove their loss of hope into the fabric of God’s faithfulness. Now they could hear the confusing rumors of resurrection as echoes of God’s promises to God’s people. Now they could begin to see that the suffering and death of Jesus was not the end of their hope, but somehow a part of it. In the stranger’s words, the promises of scripture opened up like blossoms, and the two companions opened up along with them. “Stay with us,” they urged him when they reached the village and he was walking ahead as if he were going on. “Stay with us; it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. And there, at the kitchen table, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. That’s when they recognized him. That’s when it dawned on them. That’s when the resurrection was no longer a rumor or an idle tale, but their life, their world renewed.

Once they had recognized him in the stranger, in the scriptures illumined by his presence, in the breaking of the bread, they no longer needed to see him. He vanished from their sight. The risen One walks with us on the road through the wasteland of lost hope until we see that the power of God’s suffering love makes all things new. Now we see it, now we don’t.

“The sacred moments,” wrote Fred Buechner, “the moments of miracle, are often the everyday moments, the moments which, if we do not look with more than our eyes or listen with more than our ears, reveal only… the gardener, a stranger coming down the road behind us, a meal like any other meal. But if we look with our hearts, if we listen with all of our … imagination (…) what we may see is Jesus himself.”[2] The risen Christ subverts our ways of knowing, making an ordinary moment shine with glory and opening to us a horizon of hope and courage we cannot perceive with our minds alone. Before we recognize the risen Christ in the stranger, in the scriptures, and in the breaking of the bread, we try to squeeze what we are told happened on Easter into our understanding of the world. We try hard to make it fit. Afterward, it’s the other way around. Now, how we understand the world is held in the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. And how we understand life is illuminated by this divine passion for communion with creation, the pssion that has broken down the gates of hell, the chains of sin, and the tombs of death.

We don’t know what the future holds. We don’t know what will become of Syria and South Sudan, or of Ukraine and Russia. We don’t know how many executions there will be in Egypt or in Tennessee before we stop killing each other in the name of justice. We don’t know how long girls will be obducted and sold in Nigeria and elsewhere before their lives and freedom will finally be honored. We simply do not know what the future holds. But we believe in God who raised Jesus from the dead. We believe in God who is redeeming all things through Christ.

In his book Why Christian?, theologian Douglas John Hall engages in a series of dialogues with an imagined conversation partner, someone who is “on the edge of faith.” The final conversation in the book is about hope, and Hall talks about resurrection:

Resurrection is the ultimate declaration of God’s grace. It is not ... natural. It is not ... automatic. It is wholly dependent upon the faithfulness, forbearance, and love of God. And just for that reason - only that! - I am able, usually, to sleep at night, to continue playing the piano and writing (…) and taking my aging body more or less for granted “in the meantime.” Because the only thing of which I can be at all confident when I think of my own “not being” is that God will be. I am not so presumptuous as to think that the God who “brought again our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead” (Heb. 13:20) will also, quite naturally, be pleased to bring me from the dead, too. I don’t understand all that. (…) I do not, and I expect I never shall, understand all that. All that I can do is to stand under it.[3]

It’s much more than just a clever word play. All that I can do is to stand under the great promise that gives me hope and sets me free.

In Barbara Brown Taylor’s words,  

Deciding to trust the contours of this new reality more than they trust their accustomed sense of things, the [disciples] themselves are changed. They stop hiding and start seeking. They stop making excuses and start moving mountains. They sell all of their stuff and put the proceeds in a common pot so that no one is in need. They lay their hands on the sick. They defy the authorities. They never tire of telling people who gave them the courage to do such things, and they become known for their glad and generous hearts. (…) their way of life becomes contagious. [4]

They become Easter people.


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Easter Sermon,” Journal for Preachers (Easter 1995), 10-14.

[2] Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat, 87-88

[3] Douglas John Hall. Why Christian? (Kindle Locations 2113-2119). Kindle Edition. Emphasis added.

[4] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Easter Preaching and the Lost Language of Salvation,” Journal for Preachers (Easter 2002), 18-25.