Category Archives: seek justice

Great and Meaningless Then and Now

A Multi-media Sermon

Both the scripture and message from a worship service I led July 31, 2016, are more timely than I realized at the time. President-elect Donald Trump is not the first man to declare himself “great,” or to blur the lines between allegiance to God and allegiance to self.

Call to Worship (and first scripture):

Colossians 3:1-17 New International Version (NIV)
One: Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, not on earthly things.
Many: For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
One: Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: immorality, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived.
Many: But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.
One: You have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.
Many: Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
One: Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
Many: Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
All: And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.


Old Testament Reading

Ecclesiastes 1:1-2, 2:18-23
The words of the Teacher,[a](A) son of David, king in Jerusalem: “Meaningless! Meaningless!”says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”

18 I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. 19 And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? Yet they will have control over all the fruit of my toil into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. 20 So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. 21 For a person may labor with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then they must leave all they own to another who has not toiled for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. 22 What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun? 23 All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless.

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New Testament Reading

Luke 12:13-21 (NIV)
13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” 14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” 15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” 16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ 18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’ 20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ 21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

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The Message

Jerusalem June 2016

jerusalem-june-2016

photo credit: Barry Gilbert

Isn’t it amazing how the lectionary sometimes dovetails so closely to current events? When I read the lectionary scripture, after coming back from our tour of Israel, I was reminded of another quote from Ecclesiastes: “There’s nothing new under the sun.”

While I am tempted to point immediately at current figures in the news who bandy about the term “great,” I’m going to go back to much earlier times, to the person who history has often referred to as Herod the “Great.”

Herod the Builder

herod-the-builder

photo credit: Wikipedia

One reason for giving that Herod a modifier was that there were two Herods in the gospels:  the Herod who the gospel of Matthew said killed all the babies of Bethlehem, and his son, Herod Antipas, who had John the Baptist executed and who handed Jesus back to Pontius Pilate for his eventual crucifixion. One might call the first of these despots Herod the Elder.

I certainly wouldn’t call him “great.” We don’t have other corroborating evidence for Matthew’s accusation of the slaughter of innocents in Bethlehem,  but we do have multiple instances of that Herod ordering the deaths of many people in the area he controlled, including the murder of two of his own sons, and several mass crucifixions of Jews he considered to be political opponents.

This Herod I would call Herod the Builder.

Caesarea

caesareaBarry Gilbert

He built the city of Caesarea, whose ruins we toured. It is full of beautiful stone edifices and many examples of the excesses that the Romans encouraged their designated elite to build for themselves all over the empire. Theaters and chariot race tracks — really.

Herod’s Fresh-water Swimming Pool

Herod's Fresh-water Swimming Pool.jpgBarry Gilbert

Here’s one example of the excesses of wealth and power:  a swimming pool on the edge of the beach of the Mediterranean. It was a fresh water pool, filled with fresh water brought from 20 kilometers away.  This is a sort of outdoor example of Roman-inspired excess, ruins of which you can see all over the former Roman empire, from Britain to Palestine, that is, bath houses.

These bath houses, which were open only to the elite, were the primary reason that the Romans built aqueducts.

Roman Aqueduct in Southern Gaul

roman-aqueductWikipedia image

Yes. The Romans built aqueducts to supply water for their bathhouses. I learned that fact from Jon Dominic Crossan’s book on the life of the early church. Roman aqueducts were, for Crossan, the perfect and revealing symbol of Roman imperial rule. They syphoned precious water from the countryside — not for irrigation of crops as I had always assumed, not even for drinking water for people in the cities. No, the aqueducts took the countryside’s water for the bath houses, so that the fat-cat middle managers like Herod and his lieutenants could loll about in water that could have given life to crops and animals and people.

That’s not “great.” That’s what the writer of Ecclesiastes called “meaningless.” Many of Herod the Builder’s projects carried out that same principle of taking the necessities of the people and using them for the luxury and ego of the rich and powerful. Caesarea was paid for by taxing the people into destitution, as Crossan documented over and over in his 600-page book. It’s one of the reasons that “tax collectors” are so often lumped with “sinners” in the gospels. Because tax collectors were often state-conscripted and -sponsored robbers of the people.

I would say, “Oh don’t get me started,” but I’ve already gone down that route, haven’t I? Taxes then were not like the taxes that we vote for now. We vote to tax ourselves to pay for schools and roads and the Environmental Protection Agency and the Securities and Exchange Commission and the army, navy and air force and Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid and food stamps … That’s what we want our taxes to pay for, not to siphon life-giving water into bath houses for the rich.

But back to Herod.

Herod the Builder’s most meaningless project was the fortress on the top of Masada, a mountain south of Jerusalem.

View from the top of Masada

view-from-top-of-masadaBarry Gilbert

 Here’s a view from the fortress. It was designed to give Herod a place to run to if he lost control of Jerusalem. Anyone attacking him there would have to scale a mountain first. He built the fortress with a double wall, to slow down any army that made it to the top of the mountain.

He built a bath house there, and spacious apartments for himself and his royal retinue. He also built barracks for soldiers and many, many storehouses for grain.

Grain Storage Rooms at Masada

grain-storeage-rooms-at-masadaInternet stock photo

So here we come back to the scripture today. When I read in Jesus’ parable about the rich man’s plans to build larger barns, I couldn’t help but think of the grain storehouses that Herod built on Masada. Long, stone-walled rooms that were designed to allow Masada’s defenders to survive months of siege.

Maybe you know — Herod the Builder never lived at Masada. He died a horrible death of kidney disease. His son, Herod Antipas, never lived at Masada either. He died in exile. Luke could have been writing about  Herod the Builder when he quoted Jesus saying, “who will get what you have prepared for yourself?”

The only people to use Masada as a fortress were rebels during the insurrection that resulted in the Roman destruction of Jerusalem — including Herod’s palace and the second temple.

Roman Ramp at Masada

roman-ramp-at-masadaBarry Gilbert

The rebels and their families survived for months in the fortress and watched helplessly as the Romans built a ramp up the side of the mountain. (This is the ramp that Barry and I climbed to get to the top of Masada to watch the sun rise.)

As the Roman soldiers broke into the outer wall of the fortress, the rebels killed their families and committed suicide rather than surrender. When the Romans breached the inner wall, they found hundreds of bodies.

Meaningless, meaningless.

Another View from Masada

Another view from Masada.jpg Barry Gilbert

“What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun? All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless,” wrote the writer of Ecclesiastes.

I also think of Herod when I read the verse in Ecclesiastes that laments that “a person may labor with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then they must leave all they own to another who has not toiled for it.” As I said before, Herod killed two of his sons, because he feared they were conspiring to take what he had built. Imagine, thinking it meaningless to leave all you own to “another who has not toiled for it.”

I think it’s not an accident that the parable in Luke begins with two men disputing their inheritance. Jesus’ response to them is, ““Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”

How many times does humanity need to be told that, before it sinks in?  “life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”

Let’s look at some subtleties of this parable, starting with its beginning: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest.”

abundant-harvest

Notice that the rich man did not “toil” for this abundance. The ground yielded it. Grain is a gift from God. There’s no question someone has to toil to harvest the grain. But the person or corporation that is considered to be the owner of the ground doesn’t usually do the toiling.

So this rich man, seeing all the abundance of the harvest and his overflowing barns, doesn’t spend a moment expressing gratitude, either to God or to the field laborers. He thinks only of how to make room to hoard this abundance for himself, so that he’s set for years to come. He’s not even thinking about “who will get what you have prepared for yourself?”

But what does it mean to be “rich toward God”? Jesus’s and Luke’s audience would have known what he meant when he said that.

gleaners.jpg

The Hebrew Bible is very clear about how people are to treat abundant harvests:  We are to share with those who have none. Hebrew scripture and Jewish liturgy are full of commands: Remember, you once were strangers. Take care of the stranger, the orphan, the widow, those who have less than you. Leave grain on the edges of your fields for the poor, set aside some bread for the hungry. And remember that Adonai rescued you from bondage, and from hunger and share with your neighbor.

Consider the Lilies.jpg

Consider the Lilies

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the verses in Luke following the parable of the rich man we get the very familiar sayings of Jesus about the lilies of the field, which begins, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes.” He goes on to urge his followers to sell their possessions and give to the poor.

In this chapter in Luke, Jesus is not talking to the destitute who faced hunger every day, those for whom “give us this day our daily bread” is not a metaphor, but a very real plea. He is talking to those who have an inheritance to fight over, those who have surplus they don’t know what to do with.

And when Jesus says life is more than food, he’s talking about how we treat each other. The writer of the letter to Colossians expands on this concept. Maybe you noticed, I slipped a third scripture from the lectionary into the call to worship this morning. The letter writer, a student of Paul’s, calls on the Colossians to “put on new clothes.”

Reject one set of views of the world — take them off like a worn-out coat — immorality, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Rid yourselves of anger, rage, malice and slander. They knew then and we know now, greed and malice and slander are destructive to the individual as well as to society. Such a view of the world leads to meaningless striving for the wrong things.

Put on a new set of clothes, the letter writer says: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. I would add a subset that is part of compassion and kindness, that is, generosity or sharing.

Tzfat

tzfatBarry Gilbert

Our tour group of 19 people did a lot of sharing, of food, prayer, music and help — carrying things, finding our way, explaining things.

Our tour in Israel took us to Jerusalem and the Galilee. We rafted on the Jordan River and we floated in the Dead Sea. We ended our tour in Tzfat, also known as Safed or Safad, the home of Kabbala, mystic Judaism. Perhaps you have heard or read of the pop star Madonna  discussing Kabbalistic teachings.

Avraham Lowenthal.jpgBarry Gilbert

We met a Kabbalist artist, Avraham Lowenthal, who created a painting and then made a necklace of it, portraying what he calls Teshuva Heh. Teshuva is the Hebrew word for “turning around” or “returning to” and is translated into English as “repentance.” Heh is the Hebrew letter that is used twice in the initials for the divine, YHWH, or Yahweh.

Teshuva ה: Return to G_D

necklaceVirginia Gilbert

In the painting and this necklace, the hollow Heh is a life without God and the raised Heh above it is a life filled with God.

Here is Lowenthal’s explanation:

“The bottom Heh is associated with our desire to receive for the self (the place of conditional love). The upper Heh is associated with the desire to give (the place of unconditional love).”

In my words, the hollow Heh — I think of that as the meaninglessness that the writer of Ecclesiastes writes about. The filled Heh — that is a life of abundance, of recognizing God’s gifts to us and sharing them with others. A life of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. And recognizing that the real Great one is God.

colossians

As the writer to Colossians said, and as we prayed today in our opening, prayer, “over all these virtues — compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience and generosity — may we put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”

And that is the definition of Great.

Praise God. Amen.

Missouri uses flawed data to penalize poor, minority students

http://www.stltoday.com/news/opinion/columns/missouri-uses-flawed-data-to-penalize-poor-minority-students/article_fd33baf3-1871-5209-8697-8aa902fb94e7.html

Published as a Op-Ed piece in the St. Louis Post Dispatch on May 28, 2014 

Concerning Normandy’s suit against the Missouri Board of Education, it’s absolutely necessary to point out the elephant in the room: The method for evaluating school districts and thus removing accreditation and ultimately dissolving a district is based on faulty data that discriminate against poor children and especially minority children.

It’s not as if we couldn’t see this coming. What did the state do with the schools and students in Wellston when that district was dissolved? They were merged into Normandy. And now the state wants to dissolve Normandy. What’s wrong with this picture? What district do the vultures want to pick off next?

Elisa Crouch and Walker Moskop’s well-written story on May 18, “The grade divide,” about the struggle to educate children in poverty, clearly revealed the problem that children from low-income families do poorly on standardized tests. Not that they don’t or can’t learn, but that their test scores are low.

Studies show that the test format itself and especially the conditions under which the test is administered increase the odds that children in minorities will get low scores (see “Stereotypes and the Achievement Gap: Stereotype Threat Prior to Test Taking,” Markus Appel, Nicole Dronberger, Education Psychology Review, 2012.) In that study the Austrian researchers tested African-American students in the United States, Turkish students in Eastern Europe and others with “an immigration background” that labored under negative stereotypes. They found that if the tests were presented to such students as having high stakes — and what could be higher than branding an entire school as deficient? — performance went down even further.

I see three problems here: Evaluation of districts is based on faulty, discriminatory data; the state is using that faulty data to penalize poor children by attacking their schools, especially school districts that have a majority of African-American students; that attack has resulted in the dissolution of one district already, the attempted dissolution of a second district and the threat to continue until all school districts with minority majority enrollments and a majority of poor children have been taken away from their constituents and handed over to for-profit (i.e., charter) operations.

This is a racially tinged class struggle. Let’s quit talking about transportation costs and get to the point: This accreditation system is deeply flawed and does not serve the education needs of the children of Missouri, especially children in schools with a large number of low-income students. The decision to penalize the school districts for the ethnicity and social class of their students is unconstitutional. Taking away local control is unconscionable.

 

Virginia Gilbert covered the education beat for the Post-Dispatch for six years in the 1980s and early 1990s.

The In Crowd and Outcasts

Scripture:   2 Kings 5:1-15   Luke 17:11-19

We in America don’t have a lot of experience with lepers and leprosy in our daily lives. Most of us only know what we’ve heard in Bible stories.

One memory of our Sunday School understanding of lepers and leprosy kept popping in my head while I was preparing this message. It’s a story told fondly by my first husband’s older brother Walter. He and his wife had five children in four years, three boys and twin girls. Every Sunday they piled into their nine-passenger van and went to Sunday School and church. As Walter told the story, one night on a long ride home from some event, the kids were tired but still playful. The youngest son, about six at the time, said, “lets close our eyes and pretend we’re blind.” And his brother replied, “No, lets pretend we’re lepers and go around saying, ‘unclean, unclean.’ “

It was a family joke for a while. When there was a lull in the party, or the home team was losing at the ballpark or we were stuck in a boring lecture — or sermon — one of us would turn to the other and say, “Lets pretend we’re lepers and go around saying, ‘unclean, unclean.’ “

We modern Americans may feel very removed from the concept of lepers, but the concept of some people being unclean — that is, unacceptable in society — is still with us. And it’s no joke.

The writers of the Old Testament — the scripture that Jesus and the gospel writers were familiar with — often used leprosy as a symbol of  punishment from God. For instance, when Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses, she came down with leprosy, which was only healed after Aaron pleaded with Moses, who pleaded with God. And in the chapter in Second Kings after the passage we read today, when Elisha finds out one of his servants tried to get some of Naaman’s gold by pretending he spoke for the prophet, Elisha curses him and the servant gets … leprosy.

In many of today’s versions of the bible you’ll find footnotes that say that the biblical version of leprosy referred to a variety of skin diseases. Archeological pathologists say they have found no physical evidence  in the Middle East during the time scripture was being written of  the flesh-eating malady that today we call leprosy.

Why then, were lepers quarantined, forced out of their homes and away from their families, declared unfit for human society and especially barred  from entering the temple for worship, just because their skin was itchy and flaky? John Pilch, one of my favorite bible commentators, explains. It has to do with what he calls boundaries, which I might further define as borders or divisions. Our skin is our boundary between us and everything else, just as a nation’s border is its boundary between itself and other nations, whether they are friendly or hostile.

The purity laws of Leviticus were an attempt to describe and maintain safe and secure boundaries, Pilch observes.  He says, “A society concerned with maintaining safe and secure body boundaries is also concerned with safe and secure societal or geographical boundaries. Rules governing the physical body replicate rules governing the social or geographical body.”

As I understand Pilch’s explanation, the social body, would include not only rules about who was fit to be in the company of others, but who was fit to be married to whom. The geographic body, of course, includes boundaries of where people live.

And Pilch says the reason for all these laws is “to ensure that Israel would remain “holy as the Lord is holy,” a recurring theme in Leviticus.”

Throughout scripture and throughout history and today, many people try to please God by being “good” or “pure.” “Goodness” can take many forms, including loving your neighbor or loving the stranger. But “purity” very often is concerned with setting up and obeying boundaries, especially boundaries that establish an In crowd and cast out anyone who doesn’t fit.

I think the purity approach is based on fear — fear of a vengeful and jealous God as well as fear of anyone unlike ourselves. This is a destructive fear.

It explains, to me, why some religious leaders and politicians today are so bent on controlling other people’s bodies, especially women’s, and other people’s relationships, especially marriage. They see it as a struggle for their own souls as well as for their nation.

And it is a struggle, only not in the way they expect. They’re like Naaman, expecting the prophet to say some holy words and wave his hand, make it all better and accept some gold for his troubles.

But God doesn’t want adherence to purity rules set up by people, even if they think they mean well. God wants obedience and trust.

These purity issues all come together in our two stories. If you’ve ever heard a sermon on the Good Samaritan — and I know you have — you know that the people of Judea hated the Samaritans and vice versa. That all began during the Babylonian exile, when the leaders and property owners of Hebrew society were dragged off to Babylon as captives and the shepherds and farmers and day laborers were left behind to work for the Babylonians. The folks left behind intermarried with non-Hebrews. They crossed the purity boundaries and married outside their group. They became known as … Samaritans.

So we have lepers who are outcasts because their skin boundaries are literally flaking and disintegrating.  And we have outcasts who are Samaritans, descendants of folks who violated marriage boundaries. And we have outcasts who are foreigners, like Naaman.

Naaman was also an enemy general who had attacked Israel — crossing another boundary — and who had taken captives, including a young girl who was made a slave who served Naaman’s wife.

But Naaman also had a claim as part of the In Crowd.  According to the world’s understanding at that time, Naaman and the two kings of Aram and Israel are the powerful ones, the In Crowd. But Naaman’s servants, both the captive slave girl and the servant who went with Naaman to Israel, know more about how to solve Naaman’s problem. They both know the power is God’s, through Elisha. I have to wonder why the slave girl bothered to tell Naaman about the prophet. What was in it for her? I’m guessing she was well treated, or maybe Naaman would be so grateful he would set her free. Or maybe she gets her reward elsewhere.

The slave girl and Elisha belong to the same In Crowd — followers of the one true God. They trust God and believe in God’s power. And they turn out to be right.

When he’s cured and the powerful prophet who cured him will take no payment, Naaman gets an inkling that he’s not so powerful after all. Elisha says, “don’t thank me. God cured you.” Elisha would not take credit, and God is not for sale. God is in charge.

Finally Naaman gets it. Acting like a man of his time, he asks for a little bit of the land of Israel to take back home with him, where he can worship the God of Israel, while standing on a bit of Israel’s ground. I guess it was his way of fuzzing the boundaries a little.

The point of the story of Naaman’s healing seems to be that God’s power can be understood even by a lowly slave girl and that even a successful general, seeking God’s mercy, must obey commands rather than give them.  Naaman is grateful for this insight and vows to worship the God of Elisha for the rest of his life. I’m tempted to say he lived happily ever after. That glib, fairy tale ending fits, because such a hard-won knowledge of God could bring anyone contentment and happiness if he paid attention, whether he was a successful general … or a captive slave girl.

Jesus knew this story about Naaman and Elisha, and he mentions it in the only sermon he preached in his home town — insulting his fellow Nazarenes so much that they tried to throw him over a cliff. What was the insult? He reminded them that the only leper that Elisha ever healed was a foreigner, an outsider.

In this case, Jesus reminds his listeners that God is selective in who gets healed, and it’s not always who you might expect. God is in charge, and God decides who is in the In Group and who is not.

Now to the passage we read today about the ten lepers. More boundaries. Notice that Jesus and his disciples are walking “in the region between Samaria and Galilee.” Notice that the lepers are outside the towns, banished from both Galilean society and Samaritan society, and that one of the 10 is a hated Samaritan. Evidently their afflictions, both the leprosy and being cast out, bonded them together and trumped the division between them.

By calling out to Jesus, they show that they’ve heard of him and they hope he would heal them. Like Elisha, Jesus stands well away from the lepers and issues instructions across a distance.

Jesus does not say, OK, you’re healed. He also does not tell the lepers that to be healed they should do something, like jump in the Jordan. He says, merely, “go show yourselves to the priests.”

The only reason the lepers would show themselves to the priests is to show the maintainers of the purity laws that they no longer had leprosy and could be returned to the community. So by turning in that direction, all 10 lepers are demonstrating their trust that they would be healed. And then they are.

Only the Samaritan turns back to thank Jesus. Maybe that’s because the other nine could thank God in worship. They’re back in the In group and can go to the temple. But the Samaritan is still an outcast, a hated “foreigner,” descendant of violators of the purity laws against intermarriage.

So he goes back and thanks God through Jesus, while the others go to thank God through the priests.

Jesus manages to insult the priests as well as other supporters of the purity laws with his response to the Samaritan: “But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

One of the commentaries I read suggested that Jesus laughed when he said this. Read it as a jibe, a somewhat snarky comment directed at the priests and the pharisees who are so hung up on purity laws. I imagine Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” saying this line: “But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?

One of Jesus’s missions in his life was to tell the purifiers they were mistaken. It was good news for them as well as the outcasts, if they were able to understand it.

“Your faith has made you well,” Jesus tells the Samaritan. When Jesus uses the word faith, he’s not talking about belief; he’s talking about trust. As Naaman reluctantly trusted Elisha and did as he was told, the Samaritan trusted Jesus to treat him as a person, not an outcast.

This story is so consistent with the whole gospel. Jesus says, in nearly every parable and every healing encounter, that God does not recognize the purity divisions that human beings establish, even if they were set up to please God. Jesus heals on the sabbath. He heals blind and lame beggars. He heals a woman who has been bleeding for 12 years and he touches and heals a 12-year-old girl who was presumed dead. He heals the daughter of an annoying gentile woman who violates all kinds of boundaries to get his attention. He heals a paralytic man whose friends violate the boundaries of a person’s home by lowering the man from the roof into the room where Jesus is staying. He heals lepers. He heals Samaritans.

And to all these people, Jesus says, “Your faith   — that is, your trust in God — has made you well.”

If we trust God we will not try to “purify” ourselves or others with rules that set up divisions between us.  We will not try to create an In crowd of people we think God loves by drawing boundaries that make others outcasts.

If we trust God we will not accept those divisions set up by the purifiers among us. We will draw the circle wide, trusting that God accepts us all — lepers and healthy people, generals and slave girls, gay and straight, married in the faith and married out of the faith, married to a person of the opposite sex or married to a person of the same sex, born in the Middle East or born in St. Louis. God loves even the purifiers. I’ll bet God even loves Republicans.

These divisions between people are created by people. They are not God’s. If we trust God, we will listen to what Jesus says. And Jesus says, love one another as I have loved you.

Praise God. Amen.

This Really Happened

This story comes from the most recent newsletter of the church I was raised in, First Presbyterian Church of Kennett, MO.

Message from Missy

Blocking Traffic

It was 5:15 p.m. in downtown Memphis. The sun was still beating down and I was thankful for the breeze coming off the Mississippi. My “crew” and I were pulling up to the downtown branch of the public library with 176 burritos, 96 bottles of water and 200 Oreo cookies. Over 40 men and women were waiting for us. Many had not eaten all day. I was a little concerned about having enough food (this was a big crowd for our first stop). But I was more concerned about another commodity. Did I have enough mosquito repellant?

Our congregation had donated a LOT of mosquito spray this month and I had decided to “ration” it and take only a little downtown each week. But yesterday I had a strong feeling that I should take all of it. It didn’t seem practical. What if I run out? What about next week? The reply in my head was this, “Don’t worry about that, take all you have today.” So I did. And it was gone in about 5 minutes. They were desperate for the relief. So I grumbled to myself, “I just knew this would happen. Now there’s none for next week and I have no idea how I’m going to get it.”

At that very moment, as I handed over the last can of OFF, a man in a huge SUV stopped in the middle of the street next to my open trunk. “Great,” I thought, “someone from the city here to harass me about this mob of homeless folks on his sidewalk.” He asked about the name of the ministry and if we are here every week. I answered his questions thinking he would hand me a citation or a warning about permits and such.

Instead he pulls out his wallet and peels off five $20 bills and hands them to me! Before I can say more than “thank you” he pulled away. (He was, after all, blocking traffic.)

I’m still processing what all that means. Personally, it was a lesson to me about the nature of miracles. I was focused on the scarcity of resources, and God shattered that perception. God was able and willing to be fully engaged in our efforts to bring forth His kingdom here on earth. (Even if He had to block Memphis rush hour traffic to do it.)

I’ll probably never know that man’s name, but I know this much about him… he let God use him to bring forth a miracle.

May God use you today to bring forth a miracle! (Even if you have to block traffic!)

See You Sunday!

The ePISTLE
Rev. Missy Rose, Stated Supply , First Presbyterian Church of Kennett, MO

Called by God in the Name of Love

In the Name of Love[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/edit?o=U&ns=1&video_id=8Pgm5cWRgyc]

Scripture References:
1 Samuel 3:1-10
John 1:43-51

Called by God in the name of love. We have several people in the Bible and in history and in our own times that would fit that description.

Take Samuel. What we read earlier is just part of the story of how he was called by God. Actually, Samuel’s call, started before he was born, before he was even conceived. His mother, Hannah, prayed to God for a son. She was at the temple after a festival and Eli — the same priest that is in the story we read today — mistook her silent mumblings for drunkenness. When she protested and explained she was praying, Eli replied with a non-commital blessing, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.”

Hannah promised that if she conceived and bore a son, she would dedicate him to the service of God. And when he was still a small child, she made good her promise, taking him to serve with Eli, the same man that first doubted her prayer and then sent her away with a lukewarm blessing.

I look at Hannah’s gift with new eyes, now that I am grandmother of two boys. Oh how the entire family rejoiced when they were born. How sweet they were as babies and toddlers. Jake is 4 and Denny is 5 and they’re both unique packages of sweetness and energy. I cannot imagine taking either of them when they were still preschoolers to a mostly clueless man like Eli and saying, “Here, he’s dedicated to God for life.”

But Hannah did so, to keep a promise, made in the name of love. Her song of gratitude and praise for God is very similar to the magnificat that Mary sang when she learned she was to be the mother of Jesus. It begins, “My heart rejoices in the LORD.”

You could wonder who did the calling — did Hannah call upon God, or did God call upon Hannah? — but the result is the same. Samuel was born and set apart as special, called by God. It’s obvious he didn’t know what that meant. Well apparently nobody did. Scripture tells us that In those days the word of the LORD was rare; there were not many visions.”

I’ll give Eli credit. He eventually figured out who was calling Samuel. Eli wasn’t a bad guy, just not very effective. He had tried, maybe a little half-heartedly, to correct his sons and urge them to take their priestly duties seriously and quit swindling people who came to make sacrifices to God. He warned them that if they sinned against another person, they could expect a mediator to help them (maybe their father?). But if they sinned against God, which he said they were doing, nobody could help them.

So it seems that Eli might have known something was up, when God started calling the boy Samuel. Again, Eli did the right thing. He asked Samuel to tell him everything. And Samuel did. It was a hard truth — his sons would die before him, and he would have no descendants to carry on the priestly call in Shiloh. Samuel would be groomed to take over instead.
It was a revolutionary message, delivered by the child Samuel in the name of love. I would say that Samuel’s first response to God’s call came in two parts. First, he listened to God and then he delivered God’s message.

The Old Testament writer tells us that “The LORD was with Samuel as he grew up, and God let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground. 20 And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the LORD.”

Samuel went on delivering tough-love messages from God, first calling and anointing Saul as the first king of Israel, and then calling and anointing David to be the second king of Israel after Saul didn’t work out. Hmm. I wonder, did God keep changing the divine mind about the leaders God chose, or were Eli and his sons and then Saul simply the inevitable demonstrations of how some folks called by God can end up disappointing instead of serving God? I think it’s the latter.

Even if the messages to Eli and to Saul were not something they wanted to hear, however, Samuel delivered the bad news: God is going to make a change. Hard words, but said in the name of love.

Other prophets and leaders in the bible struggled more with their call than Samuel. Moses tried to argue his way out of serving God on several occasions. Jonah went in the opposite direction when told to prophesy to Ninevah and didn’t accept the call until he was in the belly of a “big fish.” The Psalms are full of people who doubted their call or were afraid of what their enemies would do to them while they were following God.

Nathaniel is our next example in today’s scripture of a man who at first was reluctant to respond to the call by God.

“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”

The story about how Nathaniel was called to be a follower of Jesus is not nearly as well known as the story of Peter, Andrew, James and John being called to be “fishers of people.” That’s next week’s passage, by the way.

No this call story of Nathaniel’s is an odd little incident, isn’t it? When Jesus says, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit,” you kind of get the feeling that Jesus heard what Nathaniel said about his home town, don’t you?

Nathaniel sounds a little cynical for someone that you’d expect Jesus to call to be among his closest followers. Someone who is skeptical and has his prejudices — for instance, against anyone from that down-at-the-heels village in Galilee, Nazareth.

But Nathaniel’s prejudices don’t appear to be deep-seated. Jesus mentions he saw Nathaniel sitting under a fig tree before Philip called him to ‘come and see’ Jesus, and Nathaniel does a complete about-face. He drops the skepticism and declares Jesus to be the Son of God and the King of Israel. You have to figure there was more to the discussion than this. It cries out for a Paul Harvey-type treatment — “And now for the rest of the story…”

But we don’t see Nathaniel in scripture again until John’s story about the resurrected Jesus appearing to the Galilean disciples — who were Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples. They were on the beach, and Jesus appeared and gave them breakfast and asked Peter to “feed my sheep.” Nathaniel didn’t get any lines in that scene, just a walk-on part. At least he was named, unlike the “two other disciples.”

Nathaniel’s story is growing on me. I like it because it’s very hard to smooth it over and make it sound sweet. It’s Nathaniel’s 15 minutes of fame as an ordinary guy who didn’t appear to be anyone special — either good or bad — but was open to transformation by following Jesus. He was remembered by name by the folks who recounted stories of Jesus in the decades after the resurrection and before the gospel writers wrote them down.

All that survived of Nathaniel’s particular life story is his slam against Nazareth and the fig tree. But he was one of the close disciples who was there at the beginning, before Jesus performed his first miracle, and there at the end, when Jesus appeared to his close followers before going away to heaven.

Nathaniel’s call story gives us the bare bones of the typical — if there is such a thing — call by God. Someone invited him — in this case, Philip, who suggested he ‘come and see.’ Philip saw something in him worthy of God’s call. So, evidently, did Jesus, who gave him that odd compliment about having no deceit.

Nathaniel had his moment of resistence, and abruptly, he answered the summons. This same gospel writer told us that it took Andrew an entire afternoon of sitting at the master’s feet before he told his brother, Peter, “We have found the Messiah.”

Even Jesus seemed a bit surprised that Nathaniel was so easy to convince. “You believe[a] because I told you I saw you under the fig tree,” Jesus said.
You will see greater things than that.”
The writer of the gospel of John describes a Jesus sure of his call. In a bit of foreshadowing John quotes Jesus — well before the first miracle signals the start of his ministry — saying to Nathaniel and Philip and others, “Very truly I tell you,[b] you[c] will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’[d] the Son of Man.”
But even on Jesus, the call of God did not always rest comfortably. None of the gospel writers quote Jesus as saying he was the Son of God or the Christ, the anointed one. Other people — like Philip and Nathaniel — give him those titles. But Jesus calls himself the ‘Son of Man,’ a reference from scripture that sort of describes an ordinary mortal called to lead the people in a time of cataclysmic change.
We know Jesus had moments of doubt and fear. We know this very human, very divine person responded to the very real threats against him with courage in the name of love. And he called on everyone else to respond to life with love. “Love one another as I have loved you,” he said.
We have no better modern example of responding to God’s call with love than Martin Luther King, whose birthday we celebrate today. Many people (including me) believe he was a modern-day prophet, delivering God’s message of change and speaking in the name of love.

Like Samuel, Dr. King was designated for the Lord’s service early in his life. His grandfather and father were both ministers, both leaders in the Black Christian community in Atlanta. Like Samuel, King dedicated his youth and young adulthood to study in the service of God.

King was well into his first pastorate when he realized the extent of God’s call. I’m going to read the summary presented by John Dear, a Jesuit, scholar of Dr. King and follower in his footsteps, having been arrested dozens of times for demonstrating for civil rights and peace issues. Here’s what Father Dear wrote in, a column titled, “The God at Dr. King’s Kitchen Table,” in the January 16, 2007 National Catholic Reporter:

It was the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott. Rosa Parks had just been hauled to the police precinct for her audacity on the bus. And amid the electricity in the air, Dr. King emerged — the man of the hour, a confident new leader who would take on racism and injustice and violence, and surprisingly, in a spirit of confident, public nonviolence.
At least by the outward look of things. Privately, however, he started out as a reluctant prophet. By all means, he would help advance nonviolent change. But to be thrust in the spotlight of national leadership — that was another matter indeed.
On the other hand, an assumption mitigated the pressure. The boycott, assumed everyone — including King — would last but a few days. Symbolic victory achieved, and in short order things put back to normal. The days, however, lengthened out and passed over into weeks and months, and white Montgomery rightly discerned a bona fide economic threat. That’s when the death threats began. Chilling and cutting to the chase: “Call off the boycott or die.” Towards the end, as many as forty such phone calls came in every day. And on one occasion, when the police had hauled him into jail for speeding, in the clutches of the police at last, he imagined himself on the threshold of being lynched. Fear descended like a fog.
It reached an apex late Friday night, January 27, 1956. King slumped home, another long strategy session under his belt, and found Coretta asleep. He paced and knocked about, his nerves still on edge. And presently the phone rang, a sneering voice on the other end: “Leave Montgomery immediately if you have no wish to die.” King’s fear surged; he hung up the phone, walked to his kitchen, and with trembling hands, put on a pot of coffee and sank into a chair at his kitchen table.
Here was the prelude to King’s most profound spiritual experience. He describes it in his book “Stride Toward Freedom.”
“I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.”
“The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. ‘I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.'”
“At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”
[That ends the quote from Dr. King and I resume Father Dear’s account.]
Three days later a bomb blasted his house, and his family escaped harm by a hairsbreadth. “Strangely enough,” King later wrote, “I accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it.”
News of the bombing drew a crowd. A mob formed within the hour, all clenched jaws and closed fists. And they pressed up against the shattered house and shouted for vengeance. King mounted the broken porch and raised his hands. “We must meet hate with love. Remember, if I am stopped, this movement will not stop because God is with this movement. Go home with this glorious faith and radiant assurance.” And thus the mob dissipated, their mood disarmed and their ears ringing with the message of gospel nonviolence.
Some eleven years later, King spoke before an audience of his epiphany in the kitchen. “It seemed at that moment, I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’ I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.”
God strengthened Martin and in turn, Martin strengthens us. “Stand up for justice, stand up for truth, stand up for peace. And I will be at your side forever” — the message spoken to Martin but a message intended, [John Dear said he believes], for all of us. Dr. King staked his life on it and we can too. We can confidently embrace it as God’s leading of you and me toward prophetic work, a message uttered to all as to one, [Dear said].
Martin Luther King, John Dear and Bono, the leader of U2 and writer of the song featured in the prelude today — they have heard and answered a call of God, “in the name of love.”
“What more in the name of love” Bono asks.
What more? Shall we speak truth to power, like Samuel and Martin Luther King? Shall we witness to the greatness of others called by God, like Philip, Nathaniel and John Dear?
For we are all called, are we not? We are all called by God in the name of love.
Praise God. Amen.

Take Back Our Holidays

Years ago, kicking off the Christmas “shopping season” the day after Thanksgiving was kind of fun. It meant that stores would not put up Christmas decorations and promotions until then. And it was a fun outing for family members who didn’t see each other that often.

Now, it’s become this frantic chase for “bargains” on the part of consumers and market share on the part of retailers.

I know a few people — my niece Betsy, for instance — who thought it was fun to get up before dawn and line up outside a big box store to be first inside for those “bargains.”  It was never my thing, but I wouldn’t begrudge her the fun, if that’s her idea of a good time.

But now Target and WalMart and who knows else are opening at midnight, and forcing their employees to start work at 11 p.m. or earlier on Thanksgiving Day.

This has GOT to stop. I’m already part of  Advent Conspiracy, to help churches urge a turn away from consumerism and toward the real meaning of Christmas. Now I urge everyone to pledge:

NO SHOPPING ON BLACK FRIDAY

until Target and WalMart and the other big box retailers give their employees a break on Thanksgiving. Some things are more important than shopping. Really.

I urge you to go to this website and sign the petition to Target to give their employees a break.

Now We Know

Occupy St. Louis

A Message to the people of Occupy St. Louis, inspired by Occupy Wall Street:

I’ve been saying for at least 10 years that we need to make the tax system more fair — so that rich people pay their fair share and so that governments have enough funds to provide essential services such as education and police protection.
But what I heard on TV and radio and the reader entries in online news forums was that few people agreed with me. I suspected that the Tea Party was as much a media creation as a real movement. I suspected that those of us on the left (who can spell our signs correctly) were not getting our opinions across effectively.
NOW WE KNOW…hundreds of thousands of people of all ages and backgrounds agree that we need to take our country back from the rich fat cats who are stealing our wages, robbing our 401Ks, illegally foreclosing on our houses and oppressing us at every turn.
NOW WE KNOW…because people took to the streets and parks in non-violent, non-strident ways, simply standing there, sitting there, erecting a tent or bringing a sleeping bag.
NOW WE KNOW…that the media can no longer ignore our message and our opinions, even if many of the tents have been folded.
NOW WE KNOW…just how strong our numbers are. Because for every person who slept in a tent, there were 10 or more people like me — who can’t sleep on the ground, can’t spend all our time in a park, but who came to an Occupy site every sunny afternoon and who support the Occupy cause and the voices of those willing to stand in for us.
NOW WE KNOW. And we will not forget. Not this month, not next year.