Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth

Sermon preached at Epiphany United Church of Christ, St. Louis, Feb. 23, 2014
(Scripture: Leviticus 19:1-5, 9-18 Matthew 5:38-48)

Some of you remember Dannie Rosen’s three grandchildren, Jordania, Jason and Scarlett, who spent a year with us while their parents were in Afghanistan a couple years ago. I was privileged to get to know them in Sunday School. During one of the first classes, I asked what they knew about the Bible, and they said their father had told them what it stands for.

“What it stands for?” I asked.

“Yes,” they chimed in together. “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” B-I-B-L-E. I get it.

At the time, I suggested to them, gently, that the Bible was a lot more than just instructions. It is full of stories, I told them. And we can learn a lot about God and our relationship with God by reading or hearing the stories.

Stories mean a lot to me for several reasons, and I have embraced the narrative style of preaching, which starts with a story from scripture. So here we are today, with two scripture passages that have NO story. But they are good examples of the Basic Instruction that so many people think of as being in the Bible.

You could interpret the phrase “before leaving earth” as a suggestion that you’re supposed to follow these basic instructions so you can get into heaven, or maybe even to qualify to be taken up in the rapture of the Second Coming. But I think the phrase might be more appropriately interpreted as rules to live by right here, right now. For, as Jesus said, the kingdom is at hand — God’s kingdom is in each of us and we can, by our behavior, help create a fellowship of God’s children by following the Bible’s basic instructions.

Take the Leviticus passage. This passage surprised me, because I am accustomed to thinking that the 10 Commandments are found in Exodus and Deuteronomy. And here they are — six or seven of them at least — in Leviticus, along with several more, a total of 16 or so commandments in the passage we read today.

What’s different about these commandments compared to the list we’re more familiar with? Well, for starters, there’s more of them. Here are the additions:
‘When you sacrifice a fellowship offering to the Lord, sacrifice it in such a way that it will be accepted on your behalf.
When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. … Leave them for the poor and the foreigner.
Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.
Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God.
Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.
Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life.
Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt.
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.

I think we could sum up all of those with the last line: Love your neighbor as yourself. But in case we don’t understand the specifics of that commandment, the writers of Leviticus spell it out for us. For instance, If you’re going to make a big deal of roasting meat to honor God — a fellowship offering — prepare it so it can be shared with others, and let others eat it, rather than just burning it up or putting it on display in a show of wealth. As my mother would say, “don’t waste good food,” share it.

Or the next one, about leaving some of the harvest in the fields for the poor to gather. I could preach a whole sermon on this commandment, interpreting this as an endorsement for taxing the wealthy to fund food stamps for the poor.

These all have to do with getting along with each other, sharing and treating each other fairly. I didn’t realize that Leviticus gives us a biblical basis for supporting the Americans with Disabilities Act, or scriptural support for raising the minimum wage and other legislative actions to require employers to treat their workers fairly. But here it is.

This passage alone redeems Leviticus for me. It has been among my least favorite books of the bible, not only because it has few familiar stories. But mainly because some isolated passages of Leviticus have been lifted out of context and used to beat some of us over the head with condemnation. These abuses of the text might make us so shy of Leviticus that we might not realize the underlying goodness of many of the commandments contained in this book of the Bible.

This passage tells us to be good to each other, to love our neighbors as ourselves, and it speaks to us as a community, not just as individuals. These are indeed “basic instructions” for living. I’d like to put a couple of these on a big poster — “Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart,” for instance — and hold it up at an anti-gay rally. Or maybe “Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life” at an NRA meeting.

In the New Testament passage we read today, Jesus expands on such commandments as we find in Leviticus and Exodus and Deuteronomy. “Love your enemies,” Jesus says. And “Do not resist an evil person.”

The Old Testament commandments were hard enough. But Jesus lays it on even harder, doesn’t he? Love your enemies?

I think it’s revealing to compare the people who were being given these commandments. Moses was talking to people who were about to go into the Promised Land and establish the land of Israel. This was, in effect, their constitution. Their guidelines for a good society. Other passages in Leviticus include punishments for breaking the rules, but in this list of basic instructions, the emphasis is on mutual cooperation, and the reason for doing so is that God is holy, so God’s people should be holy.

Now look at who Jesus was talking to in the Sermon on the Mount. In their towns and villages they probably were still trying to be good neighbors to each other. But they no longer had leaders who felt answerable to the God of Israel. They were all under the thumb of the Roman empire. Their land, their commerce, even their bodies were not their own. Jesus was speaking to the oppressed, the captives that he had said he had come to make free.

So what does he tell them? Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. That doesn’t sound like freeing the captives, does it?

Whereas Moses in Leviticus gave the Israelites good standards for living together in a society that intended to live as God’s people, Jesus gave his listeners good standards to function in a society in which the community itself works against fostering love of neighbor.

Even in the Land of Milk and Honey, and among people who took seriously the commandment to be holy as God is holy, there must have been evil doers. Certainly by the time of Jesus, anyone looking back at the optimism of those people led by Moses who had been so eager to establish the land of Israel — looking back at that time, they would have realized that the hoped-for perfect kingdom didn’t last long.

Can’t you hear the cynic? “Love your neighbor, eh? How’s that workin’ out for ya?”

So Jesus suggests another way, and it works just as well for us today. He’s not really saying that we should give in to evil. He’s giving good tactics for turning evil aside.

As we discussed in the message to the young at heart, when someone gives you the back of his hand and you turn the other cheek, you’re forcing that person to treat you as an equal instead of a slave if he wants to hit you again. Jesus is saying, look the hitter in the eye.

In modern times, Martin Luther King explained the strategy when he said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

We have an example of love driving out hate in our own state just last week. (And now, finally, I get to tell a story). You perhaps heard about or read about Michael Sam, a star player on the University of Missouri football team. He’s graduating this year and looking forward to playing for the NFL. Just before the pro teams began final decisions for drafting new players, Sam held a press conference and announced what his teammates had known all season — that he is gay.

It made big news, because Sam will probably — if he’s drafted that is — be the first NFL player to come out of the closet even before he makes a team. And here’s where the non-violent love driving out hate comes in. You probably read about this too.

Westboro Baptist Church — which is not a church but a family of litigating lawyers that goes around provoking people by picketing with hateful signs at events like funerals — Westboro planned to picket the Mizzou basketball game where Sam and the rest of the football team were going to celebrate the trophy they won in the Cotton Bowl championship game.

Word got out about Westboro’s plans and a crowd of hundreds of people gathered to surround them and their hateful signs with equally large signs of love and support — for Sam and for his coaches and team mates.

In the comments under one of the online news stories I read, someone posted guidelines for opposing the Westboro group when they picket.

Assemble a LARGE crowd of well briefed peaceful folk and Stand Between the WBCers and those who are the object of their protest. If you cannot take this position, set up as near to them as you can. 

2) DO NOT interact with them. Shun them. No talk. No eye contact.

3) YOUR CROWD SHOULD CARRY SIGNS WITH WORDS LIKE THESE:
God is Love

Judge Not Lest Ye Not Be Judged

Be Not Afraid
The Souls of the Just Rest in God

What God Asks: To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God
Blessed are They who Sorrow for they shall be comforted

4. Use “Angel Wings” (large shrouds of light translucent material attached to light rods which can be waved up and down from four feet over one’s head, and four feet out from one’s arms) to provide a curtain between the WBC crowd and your sign carriers.

5. YOUR crowd should chant WORDS OF ENCOURAGEMENT AND SUPPORT FOR THOSE YOU CAME TO  WITNESS TO.

6. And/or sing
”Peace is flowing like a river” or “Let there Be Peace on Earth” or “Kumbaya” or……

Again, do not engage anyone from Westboro “Baptist.”
Don’t speak to them.
Don’t look at them.
Stand with your backs to them holding up your signs high, chanting and singing.

Making them and their venom disappear in the light of your support. Ask the press and other media to ignore them

If this goes as it has gone before, they will withdraw in frustration and disappointment.

The Supreme Court may have ruled that they have the right to be there, and it may be tough to get their tax exempt status revoked, but they do not have the right to be noticed. Treat them as the tiny nasty gnats they are.

GOD IS LOVE, this list of guidelines said, and then closed with, 

BUT I SUSPECT THAT EVEN GOD DISLIKES THESE HEATHENS A WHOLE LOT.

I didn’t know, until I read those guidelines and the comments about them, that the Westboro group’s goal is to provoke people to react violently to their hate signs, so they can sue them.

Here’s what one commenter said: “I had not considered the money-making advantage that comes from aggravating one’s foes….I looked it up and they have won a number of settlements…..many fewer in recent years, because those opposed to them have found ways to take them on without violating their access.”

Don’t hit back, turn the other cheek. You cannot drive out hate with hate, only love can do that.

We have international models for carrying out Jesus’s new rules. When I was a student pastor, I got to know some Liberian refugees. They told me how rebels led by Charles Taylor attacked their city. They were eating dinner when the soldiers invaded their neighborhood. Most of the family fled — David and his brothers and their wives and his brother’s baby boy, Oliver. David’s father and mother stayed behind. His father was killed, his mother was abducted and they didn’t know what happened to her for years.

David and his family and many other refugees fled to neighboring Ghana to a refugee camp set up by the United Nations. They thought they’d be there a couple of weeks. But they stayed for 15 years, and eventually came to the United States.

Many Liberians were unable to get out. They suffered with civil war for years. It was the most vicious kind of fighting and included the rebels’ tactic of forcing men and boys, some only 10 or 12 years old, to become soldiers by threatening to kill their families. Sometimes they killed a boy’s mother or sister before his eyes. Talk about evil doers.

Then one day, a bunch of women decided enough was enough. They gathered in a soccer field near a fish market that was on a main road in Monrovia, the capital, and they started a peace sit-in. They attracted news media, including a documentary film maker. I saw the movie this film maker released in 2008, called Pray the Devil Back to Hell. In 2011 the documentary was included in a PBS series called Women, War and Peace, and it’s available online today.

Here’s the online summary of the documentary:
“Pray the Devil Back to Hell is the astonishing story of the Liberian women who took on the warlords and regime of dictator Charles Taylor in the midst of a brutal civil war, and won a once unimaginable peace for their shattered country in 2003. As the rebel noose tightened around the capital city of Monrovia, thousands of women – ordinary mothers, grandmothers, aunts and daughters, both Christian and Muslim – formed a thin but unshakeable line between the opposing forces. Armed only with white T-shirts and the courage of their convictions, they literally faced down the killers who had turned Liberia into hell on earth. In one memorable scene, the women barricaded the site of stalled peace talks in Ghana and refused to move until a deal was done.”
What this summary leaves out is how these women forced the men in the peace talks to listen to them. When the Ghanian authorities told the women they would be arrested if they didn’t move, the leader, a tall matronly woman, stood and began removing her clothes. “If you arrest me,” she said, “I will strip naked.” With news cameras running, other women followed her lead. They stood and started stripping.

The leader explained in the documentary that for an African man to see his mother naked was the ultimate shame, especially if she did this voluntarily. None of the men involved in those peace talks could face that shame, especially with the eyes of the world on them. These warlords, who had not flinched at ordering mothers to be killed in front of their children, backed down when a mother threatened to make them see her naked in front of the world. The peace talks resumed with more seriousness and in two weeks an agreement was reached.

In the same way, when TV cameras in 1965 showed police in Alabama turning fire hoses on people, including children, peacefully marching in Selma for the right to vote, the public outcry led to passage of the Voting Rights Act.

And in a twist on this practice of non-violent resistance, in the Ukraine last week, a day after government forces killed protestors in a public square, dozens of Ukrainian police officers took off their riot gear — helmets and bullet-proof vests — and gave them to the protestors.

Another New Testament writer in First Peter expresses it this way: Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling; but on the contrary bless, for to this you have been called, that you may obtain a blessing.”

Basic instructions before leaving earth: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.
Behaving in this way not only helps us to be holy and helps us to behave as God’s children. Loving our enemies and praying for them is also good strategy for uncovering the reign of God and nurturing the fellowship of God’s children right here, right now . . . before leaving earth.
Praise God. Amen.

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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.

Lord, are you telling this to us or everybody?

Scripture: Luke 12:32-48; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-13

I had just come in from a walk-back for a striking fast food worker when I reread the gospel scripture for today. “Keep your lamps lit,” resonated with me right away, because these walk-backs come up unexpectedly. We were asked to sign up ahead of time, identifying blocks of time when we would be available to converge on a fast-food restaurant to support a worker who was returning after a legal 24-hour strike, or to take the management to task for retaliating against a worker for wanting better pay and working conditions.

“Stay ready” was the request. And it was remarkable how many people would converge for a “rapid response” call by email or text. Clergy people like Pastor Mary in her clerical collar, or Rabbi Susan Talve in her yarmulka and prayer shawl, mixed with union members like me in our union-logo polo shirts and fast-food workers, some with their McDonald’s or Popeye’s ID badges still clipped to their shirts.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this scripture applies in many ways to the actions some of us have taken to raise the minimum wage and get fair treatment for all workers. Lois with her petitions and Jeanette with her email invitations and events, Angie with her work with Legal Aid, the Jobs with Justice folks who have occasionally invited Pastor Mary to speak to groups like Occupy St. Louis. You have all been keeping your lamps trimmed and burning. You come back to the issue of economic and social justice over and over.

What Jesus seems to be saying with both his parables about absent masters is that good servants are expected to behave well all the time, even when the master isn’t watching. But the two parables are very different.

The first one portrays what I call the “pastel Jesus” — the one with a sunbeam halo and a violin soundtrack that we tend to romanticize and put in a heart-shaped box. When he says, “Do not be afraid, little flock,” and when he promises that good servants will be rewarded by their master, who will turn the tables, take the servant’s role and serve them.

Isn’t he nice? Don’t you just love the pastel Jesus? Just before this passage are the very familiar comforting verses about the tiny sparrow that God keeps an eye on and the passage about the lilies of the field, that God clothes in glory. Don’t worry about what you will wear or where your next meal will come from, Jesus says. God is watching out for you. These are some of my favorite gospel passages. These are the scriptures that prompt us to sing praise songs and wave our hands above our heads.

Then Peter had to go and spoil it all by asking if Jesus was talking to the chosen few or to everybody. When Peter says, “are you telling this parable to us?” he is separating himself and his fellow disciples from “everybody” as in everybody else.

I wonder whether Peter was thinking of the suggestion that they go sell their possessions and give the money to the poor — for where your treasure is, there your heart will be — and maybe patting himself on the back for being one of those who has shown himself willing to make such sacrifices. Kind of the way I’ve been patting myself on the back for being willing to drive to West County to stand along the road in front of a Wendy’s in support of fast-food workers.

Or was he asking about Jesus’s promise that the master will serve the servants. Was he envisioning a time when all his hard work would pay off and he could sit back and let Jesus serve him?

Either way, Peter seems to be angling for some special treatment or recognition.

But in response to Peter’s question, we see a different Jesus, a sort of liberation theology Che Guevera — dressed in camouflage, with a revolutionary’s beret and a fierce, challenging look, a silhouette more likely backlit by explosions than sunbeams. This Jesus threatens to cut up a wayward steward and cast him out with the unbelievers.

If I’d been there, I would’ve been tempted to say, “Whoa, Jesus, what set you off?”

I mean, he sounds ticked, doesn’t he?

In response to Peter’s question, he tells a second absent-master parable. Only this time, he focuses on the negative, on the servant that the master set apart for special trust. When that servant — the steward over all the others — misbehaves, especially when he misbehaves by mistreating the people he’s supposed to be supervising, the master comes down hard.

And just to be sure that Peter and the rest of the in-crowd get his point, Jesus underlines: the one who does not know the master’s will and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with fewer blows, while the one who knew he was disobeying the master — that is, the in-crowd who disobeyed — will be beaten with many blows.

That’s not all. Jesus is on a roll: After the passage we read, he says he’s come to bring fire, and he wishes it was already kindled. He has come to bring not peace, but division — parent against child, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law… And Luke ends the chapter with Jesus making the analogy of one litigant hauling another off to the judge and having his adversary thrown in prison.

I’ll bet just about this time Peter wished he’d never said anything.

I’ve read all these passages many times before, but mostly in pieces, rarely together, one chapter flowing into the next. I think this was the first time I noticed that the turning point from the pastel Jesus to the Che Guevera figure is Peter’s question, “Lord, are you telling this parable to us or to everybody?”

And I found myself wondering, yeah, Lord. Aren’t you telling these parables to those bad guy CEOs and politicians who won’t raise the minimum wage, all the while raking in millions in profit? this verse in particular about the unfaithful steward: he then begins to beat the other servants, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk– which I interpret as drunk with excess profits and power. So, following up Peter’s question, I’m asking, Boy, they’re gonna get it, right?

Or if Jesus is not talking specifically about material wealth, then maybe he means those stewards of the church who mistreat people in the name of the Lord, metaphorically beating up on vulnerable fellow servants for their gender identity or their manner of worship, for instance, only to discover that the master did not appreciate their self-indulgent high-and-mighty self-righteousness.

Well, I think Jesus did mean those folks when he told his parables. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded.

But he meant those lessons for us too.

It occurs to me that if I eat at Wendy’s and don’t leave a tip — because, after all, it’s not table service — then I’m siding with the CEO oppressor. If I shop at Sam’s because it’s cheap, without asking who is bearing the burden of those low prices, I’m siding with the ultra-rich Wal-Mart heirs.

If I consider myself a Christian, but don’t speak up when other Christians use our faith to hurt others, I’m just like the faithless steward.

If we are, like Peter, Jesus’s hand-picked followers, called by the grace of God to rouse ourselves up on a Sunday morning and come together to worship, then we are the ones to hear: “and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

Sunday School teachers and VBS volunteers — you are entrusted with much. Good cooks who bring food for potlucks and for hospitality after worship — you are entrusted with much. People on the restroom committee who are interviewing architects and trying to balance the needs of the congregation and our guests with the cost of providing new facilities — you are entrusted with much, and much more is being asked of you.

Those of us invited into this pulpit to preach — we are entrusted with much, and much more is being asked of us. Those who receive the weekly prayer list from Jeanette and faithfully pray for the people and circumstances that JMO faithfully distributes every week — you are entrusted with much, and much more is being asked of you.

We are this generation’s cloud of witnesses, written about in the letter to the Hebrews (Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16) that Beverly read. As with Abraham and Sarah, we’ve been asked to go on a journey to the Promised Land, not knowing where we’ll end up. We’ve been called by faith, like Isaac and Jacob and, in the verses we skipped, Abel and Enoch and Noah, and in the verses that follow, Joseph and Moses and Joshua and Rahab and Gideon and Samson and David and Samuel and the prophets.

We don’t have to get out our Old Testament to look up each story. The letter writer links them together for us: “Called by faith” to do difficult things, they responded, in their human, imperfect ways, living their lives trying to do God’s will.

The letter writer to Hebrews says “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance.”
So I see myself standing next to Peter with my followup question, wanting to get us back to the pastel Jesus who tells us not to be afraid. I’m wanting to placate that Che Guevera figure or, maybe more appropriately the Father Romero figure that Chance told us about in Sunday School, who lived and died faithfully uplifting the poor and putting a face on liberation theology.
I envision myself standing there like it’s a press conference with Jesus, wanting to ask a question or make a comment that will take us out of range of the pointing finger that is implicating me and you in the types of injustice brought upon our fellow servants by unfaithful stewards.
But instead of squeaking, “Who, me? You think I had anything to do with that? Not me, Lord, I never…”
Instead of defensive excuses or clever questions, I find myself picking up a lamp and a match. And I offer the same to you: Keep it trimmed and burning.
Keep the faith. Even if the journey is long and you don’t know where you’re going. Keep the faith, even if you screw up and have to humbly and publicly admit your mistakes. Keep the faith, even if you die before you receive the things promised.
Who, us? Are you talking to us? Yes, us. You and me. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning.
Praise God, Amen.

Paul’s Visions

Scripture:  Galatians 1:11-242 Corinthians 12:1-1

I have always been fascinated by Paul. As a kid, I studied him in Sunday School, charting his journeys around the Middle East to start churches, learning the names of his converts, like Lydia and Titus, and his companions in evangelism Barnabas and Silas. As a teen, I heard numerous sermons on Paul — I think my pastor at the time had a thing for Paul too.

The most famous scripture passages about him, as opposed to the several New Testament books written by him, are the three accounts in Acts of his journey to Damascus. You recall the story — he was knocked down by the power of God and confronted by Jesus to quit persecuting Jesus’s followers and, instead, carry Jesus’s message of love to others. In two of those three passages, the writer of Acts quotes Paul relaying his story.

But in the two passages we read today, we have Paul’s own words, preserved in two letters to congregations he started. He’s ambivalent and defensive. He struggles to rein in his ego and express humility. He doesn’t mention Damascus. He does separate himself from the other Jewish apostles and disciples who were centered in Jerusalem.

To the Galatians he says, “For I want you to know, brothers and sisters,* that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”

That claim was evidently as amazing and controversial in Paul’s day as it is today. What’s your initial reaction to someone who tells you they have received a direct revelation from God? Distrust? Derision? Skepticism? I’m sure most of you can recall instances when “the media” and the general public have had a field day with various predictions or pronouncements from people claiming to have a direct pipeline to heaven.

Have you ever trusted a modern-day public figure who claimed to base his or her decisions and statements on divine revelation? I can’t say that I ever have.

Evidently people received Paul’s revelations with a great amount of skepticism too. He wrote to the Corinthians:

Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord.

The only specific detail in his account is that it occurred  14 years before he wrote the letter. It’s vague and mysterious, and he sort of tries to distance himself by saying it happened to a man he knows. It doesn’t take a biblical scholar to figure out he’s talking about himself.

He says he was “caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man —whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— 4 was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.

Now, what are his readers to make of that description? The Corinthians way back when or us today, how can we possibly evaluate the truth of his vision based on such a description? “caught up to the third heaven”? Sounds like some UFO account, doesn’t it? Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or maybe, “beam me up Scotty.”

He must have been pressed for more information at other times when he had told of his vision, because he writes, twice, “whether it was in the body or apart from the body, in the body or out of the body, I do not know, but God knows.”

Well, what did he hear in this vision? “inexpressible things, things no one is permitted to tell.”

Wait a minute. He isn’t “permitted to tell” what he heard?  But I thought he said his whole ministry is based on “a revelation from Jesus Christ”? How can he not be permitted to tell it?

It’s intriguing, “inexpressible things.” He’s so defensive about it, I figure he has tried to explain it before and found that he had way more to communicate than he could possibly get across with mere words.

On a more mundane level, isn’t that the way with most ordinary dreams? Even if you try to describe them immediately after dreaming, you can’t possibly remember or explain all the details.

Paul’s visions were much more than dreams. Whether in the body or out of the body, he can’t tell, but he knows they are true. And again he struggles to explain the importance of the visions:

Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations.

Paul is very protective of his visions, his direct revelation from Jesus himself. It’s hard, he says, to tell about them in a way that does justice to the truth. And it’s hard to admit to such revelations and not be misunderstood.

Imagine, having been so privileged as to be called by God, and then be mocked and scorned for your claim. Imagine, having a vision or revelation and then have it be misunderstood as just a product of your own arrogance and ego and hunger for power. Imagine having your work in mission dismissed because you never met Jesus before His resurrection, so you couldn’t possibly be as intimate with Jesus as those who knew Him when. Paul can’t help but be resentful of those people he sarcastically calls “super-apostles” that he defends himself against to the Corinthians.

I’m thinking that the weakness that he writes about is probably just that — experiencing such revelations and having them dismissed as false or irrelevant.

A lot of commentaries and sermons have speculated on what the thorn really was, whether it was really physical or a symbol, a figure of speech. But I think it’s his struggle to understand the revelations and act on them.

I’m even thinking that the experience he describes of being caught up in the third heaven might have happened before the road to Damascus experience. What if these visions he had experienced, and these inexpressible things he had heard were what led him to persecute Christians to begin with? He seemed so certain that he was doing the right thing by those persecutions. So much that he asked Jerusalem temple leaders for the authority to go to Damascus to persecute Christian jews there.

Recall what he wrote to the Galatians: “You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. 14I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” He even said that God set him apart before he was born.

I think that’s why I identify so strongly with Paul. He was so sure of himself, so bent on doing (quote) God’s work (unquote), that he had to be knocked down and struck blind before he would listen to what God really wanted. We know-it-alls have a real need for someone to puncture our puffed-up egos.

God didn’t set Paul apart before he was born and treat him to incredible revelations and visionary experiences just to let Paul go persecute Christians.

I also think the story in Acts and Paul’s descriptions of his thorn are a good slap-back to some Christians today:  Put that in your “free will” pipe and smoke it. Paul was exercising his own free will when God knocked him down and set him straight. Sometimes God’s grace is showered, and sometimes it has to be shoved.

And evidently Paul needed more than one reminder. Back to the letter to the church in Corinth:

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But God said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 

Can’t you just hear Paul? “God, they’re making fun of me and my visions. They’re undermining my ministry. Why don’t you slap my opponents alongside their heads the way you did me?”

And the answer was, “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

God’s power is made perfect in weakness. How many times do we have to hear that before it sinks in? Wasn’t Jesus a good enough example? I think that’s what Paul meant when he wrote so often about preaching Christ and Christ crucified.

The power of love — God’s love — and peace, God’s peace — is ultimately sufficient and made perfect in weakness. This is a difficult thing to wrap your head around.

Paul, who had been given an incredible experience — maybe more than one — of direct revelation from God; Paul, who struggled to be considered one of the apostles even though he didn’t know Jesus before His resurrection; Paul, who dramatically turned from being a know-it-all who persecuted Jesus’s followers into being one of His most faithful and prolific disciples; this same Paul also discovered how to be truly humble, one of the meek that Jesus said would inherit the earth.

Paul wrote, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

And he can say with all truthfulness and humility even of his detractors in Jerusalem, “I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they praised God because of me.”

I might have ended my sermon right there, summing up Paul’s significance and humility and the power of God resting in weakness.

But this church believes God is still speaking. So I have one more point to make about Paul’s visions. God is not finished speaking through visions and direct revelations.

You could hear God yourself. Some of you have already recognized God’s revelations to you. I suppose we could say that everyone here has heard God’s call — otherwise we would be somewhere else on this fine Sunday morning.

God showers grace and love on us all. Some of us have to be slapped up the side of the head as Paul was. Some of us have to have more than one thorny reminder of that grace and love. Some of us get a glimpse of the “third heaven” or “surpassingly great revelations.” Some of us may have an opportunity to know someone who has been given such glimpses.

It can be hard to know what to do with these examples of the still-speaking God.

Paul tells us that experiencing the vision is not as important as using it for God’s purposes. And God’s power is made perfect in weakness.

Praise God. Amen.

Now What?

Scripture: Acts 5:27-32John 20:19-31

The Sunday after Easter is sometimes called  “low Sunday.” We’ve been through the euphoria of Easter, the fantastic music, the Easter brunch. The good news in its most exciting form.

And the next week, we’re asking, “Now what?”

The second Sunday of Easter, traditional time off for nearly all fulltime or senior pastors, is also known as “empty the bench Sunday,” when the starting players take a rest and associate pastors, student pastors and other bench players step up and shoot for the hoop. In my 10 years preaching, this is my 7th low Sunday in the pulpit. I love it.

As Pastor Mary told us last week, Easter begins while it is still dark. We know the story, so we go with the women to the tomb and we hear, “He is not dead, he is risen!”  And we sing triumphant halleluias on this most joyous day of the Christian year. This is all familiar ground, and we’ve been waiting since Christmas to hear the rest of the story.

But just for a moment, imagine what it would have been like if you did not know the story. If this story was new to you, and you were experiencing it for the first time. For the disciples of Jesus whom we read about on this Second Sunday of Easter, the story unfolded more slowly. The news had to break through layers and layers of pain, suffering and defeat.

These witnesses saw him get arrested. They heard the hand-picked crowd that called for his crucifixion. They saw him, maybe even heard him struggle through the streets carrying the cross. They saw the broken body on the cross. They heard that he was buried in a tomb.

They knew the danger they themselves were in, even admitting to know him might get them killed as well.

It’s the anger, deteriorating into despair that I have new feeling for. Imagine for a moment how the people in Jesus’s inner circle felt in those first few days after his death.

Just let it sink in for a few seconds. I know all of you have experiences you can draw on, when all your hopes were dashed. When you suffered the most awful losses.

At some point in that pain, you lifted your head to ask, “Now what?”

Imagine yourself as a disciple, a follower of Jesus trying to make sense out of a senseless death of this great, gentle, godlike man. Imagine surveying your options after following him for months, maybe years, and now he’s gone.

Now what? You ask. Where do I go? What do I do, now that he’s gone? Can I believe anything he said, since they killed him and God didn’t stop it?

Imagine yourself, feeling so sure of Jesus’s words and teachings, having seen or heard of his miracles, his healing. And then having it all collapse with his death.

Now what? You ask.

Imagine,  as the news filtered out, well, gossip really, that the body was gone, that some of the women and then some of the men had seen Jesus alive. At first people said it was an idle tale. They didn’t believe it. How could they?

If you heard it from someone who had actually seen Jesus, you might have seen joy in their faces and that might have been enough to convince you of the truth of their story.

But if, like Thomas, you heard it whispered from someone who heard it told furtively from someone who heard it uttered in cautious wonder from someone who heard it from an eye witness… you might be afraid to believe such a fantastic tale.

Now what? You think. What am I to make of such gossip?

Dismiss it and get on with my grief? Go back home and pick up the pieces of the life I left to follow Jesus?

Or maybe check it out, seek to find out more. Now what? What is this story of resurrection?

That’s where Thomas comes into our story.

Earlier in the gospel of John, when Jesus has decided to go to Bethel to raise his friend Lazarus from the dead, some of the disciples remind him that the authorities around Bethel, which is close to Jerusalem tried to stone him the last time he was there.

Jesus is adamant that he will go. And Thomas says to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Is this empty bravado? I think not. I think Thomas was sincere in his belief in the strength of his belief. He was saying, as Peter did later, “I will follow Jesus to the death.”

And then Jesus did die, but Thomas didn’t follow him there.

I imagine Thomas dealing with his grief by reading some of the psalms of lament. Maybe even Psalm 122, which Jesus began to say on the cross – My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?”

He’s rolling in grief and suffering, rocking back and forth with the pain. And he’s wondering if there is more bad news to come, of companions arrested and executed, of a general search for followers, perhaps.

Now what? He worries.

And then he begins to hear different stories about Jesus and his followers. Stories so giddy with hope, he can’t believe them.

Thomas was probably among those men who dismissed the witness of the women who first saw the resurrected Jesus. You know, an idle tale such as women tell.

Then more of Thomas’s fellow disciples are saying that THEY saw Jesus alive. Some of them describe a scene where Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into them. Thomas sees the transformation of the eye witnesses. But the layers of despair are thick. He wants his own eye witness experience. He wants his own moment of euphoria.

His pain is so great, he needs to hear and see and touch Jesus to believe the good news of the resurrection.

But he has an answer to the question of Now what? He will stay with the witnesses and hope to see Jesus for himself, the way they did.

Please notice that some of the witnesses, like Mary Magdalene and the other women who went to the tomb, were seeking Jesus when they saw him.

But others, like the people locked in the Upper Room on Easter Evening, they were the recipients of God’s free grace. They did nothing to merit being witness to Jesus’s appearance, except lament his death and fear the same.

Thomas, like the first people that the women told, didn’t believe these eye witnesses in the Upper Room. But Thomas sought to confirm the news for himself.

Jesus is gentle with these waves of witnesses, as the news radiates outward. He appears to several people, gradually increasing the circle of those who have seen with their own eyes, heard with their own ears, touched with their own hands, the resurrected body of Jesus.

These people have a new, fresh, exciting answer to the question of “Now what?” Jesus told them, As the father sent me, now I send you.”

“Forgive the sins of others,” he said, “and they are forgiven in heaven.” And go tell what you have seen.

Imagine, then, the glow, the euphoria that would course through their bodies as Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into them. They would surely forgive Thomas’s doubt, as their doubt had been forgiven by the first witnesses, the women.

But Jesus and the witnesses have a problem. Will Jesus have to appear to every single follower before they believe? This is the crux of the story of Thomas. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed,” Jesus says.

Oh, but that’s not the end of the story.

The writer of John ends with a promise: Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.

In fact, Jesus and his disciples have been answering that question of “Now what?” for 2,000 years. Receive the Holy Spirit, forgive others and tell them the good news that their sins are forgiven.

The passage we read this morning from Acts tells how Peter answered his question of “now what?”

The Sanhedrin, the Jewish High Court, blasts the apostles for “filling Jerusalem” with Jesus’s name and teachings. “You are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood,” the high priest says.

Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings! The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”

And they’re going to keep right on teaching and witnessing in the name of Jesus.

Tradition has it that the apostles spread out, each taking a territory to spread the good news.

Says one historian of the 5th Century, Matthew goes to Parthia, Thaddeus to Libya, Philip to Phrygia and Thomas to India.

In fact, there is an ancient Christian Church of Thomas in northern India, and evidence in several ancient documents that an evangelist named Thomas was among the first to spread the good news there, among all castes and classes. He found especially fertile ground among the dalit, the so-called untouchables of India, who welcomed Jesus’s message of good will to all, freedom for captives and those who are oppressed.

Earlier this year, Pope Benedict decided to retire, and cardinals from around the world gathered in Rome, asking “now what?” The Holy Spirit breathed into them and they chose a man born in Latin America who chose to live, not in the archbishop’s palace, but in a small apartment, where he cooked his own meals and took the bus to work.

And he breathed in the Holy Spirit and asked “Now what?”

In his first Holy Week as pope, Francis I washed the feet of some selected prisoners — that was a tradition. But the prisoners included two women and two Muslims, and that was not traditional. The world’s Catholics, indeed, the world’s Christians saw a new thing happening and we’re asking, “now what?”

The grace of Jesus Christ is STILL appearing to us, perhaps at our greatest moments of despair, when we go seeking him as the women did at the tomb. Or perhaps when we are in a locked room with our companions, fearing the authorities. Or perhaps as someone born into a group of people who have been told their whole life they are the dregs of the earth. Or perhaps as a muslim woman whose feet were just washed by one of the leaders of the Christian world.

Or perhaps, like Thomas, when we are sitting in a pew among believers, trying to see for ourselves what all the gossip is about.

Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into us. Now we are witnesses.

Now what?

Praise God. Amen.

Widows…Again?

Sermon preached at Epiphany United Church of Christ Nov. 11, 2012

Scripture:   1 Kings 17:8-24     Mark 12:38-44

Several people in the congregation are reading Joyce Rupp’s Open the Door for discussion in Spirit Group. In her introduction Rupp tells how the image of a door kept popping up in her life. She quotes Esther de Waal about the boundless capacity of imagery to help us find meaning:

“The longer we stay with an image and dialogue with it,” de Waal says, “the more it will yield up. . . . We have to wait for the image to find us. Sometimes it may come unbidden, but more often we must expect to stay with it, and to be ready to go deeper, layer upon layer upon layer, always waiting expectantly.”

So while Spirit Group participants are examining open doors, I have been examining the unbidden recurring image of widows and orphans.

The last time I preached, on Labor Sunday, I offered half a dozen scriptures where God urges us to take care of widows and orphans, but especially widows. I said then — and I still believe — that when we read about widows in scripture, we should interpret the passage as referring to people who are powerless, who are on the margins of society.

When I gathered those scriptures in late August, I did not know I would be preaching today, nor did I know, when I volunteered for this date, that the lectionary would offer up a number of scripture passages dealing with widows, including the other Old Testament lectionary passage we are not using today, which is from the book of Ruth.

All this is to say that for me, at least, the image of the widow in scripture is not through with me yet. I have more layers to peel back. And today, you get to do it with me.

The sermons I heard growing up and into young adulthood tended to treat widows with sentimentality. “Look at the poor widow, giving all she has. Her gift is greater than those who give out of their abundance.” I have heard Jesus’s remark most often used in stewardship sermons, praising her generosity and urging people to give more money to the church.

Only in the last few years have I read commentary that puts Jesus’s criticism of the powerful and wealthy scribes in the previous verses together with the comment on the widow’s tiny contribution. In our passage today, Jesus criticizes “teachers of the law” — in some English versions called simply “ the scribes” — saying “They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers.”  Jesus says, “These men will be punished most severely.”

THEN he sees the widow — maybe she’s one of those whose house was devoured by these wealthy law teachers — and he says “out of her poverty, she put in everything—all she had to live on.” Given the context in the gospel of Mark, Jesus is not praising the widow for giving her last pennies to the temple. He is criticizing the wealthy onlookers who make such a show of giving to the temple while they ignore a poor widow who now has nothing to live on.

In Jesus’ time, pointing out poor widows was a touchy subject. Peeling back the layers on this image, I am reminded that Jesus mentioned the story about the widow of Zarephath when he went to the synagogue in his home town at the start of his ministry.

As the writer of the gospel of Luke tells it, the listeners in the Nazareth synagogue were commenting on what a good job Jesus did, reading and explaining the Torah lesson of the day. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they ask.

And Jesus picks a fight with them. He says he’s not going to heal anyone in Nazareth, as he has already done in the next town over and in the countryside. He reminds them that the widow of Zarephath that God saved from starvation was from Sidon — not Israel.

Maybe you recall what the Nazareth listeners did then — they tried to throw him off a cliff.

Mention a widow to people in Israel or Judah, especially the widow of Zarephath, and you get an angry response — a “them’s fighting words” response. Why is that?

This contrast of reactions to the image of “widow” reminds me of the reactions today when you mention “the poor.” For some people, especially during the election, being poor is a cardinal sin. The poor are lazy; it’s their own fault; they’re not my problem. It’s everyone for one’s self. I call them the “I’ve got mine” group. The most vociferous of these are people who don’t have very much themselves — Or at least they don’t think they do — and they get angry when they’re asked to share.

For others, “the poor” refers to an amorphous group of people that need our help. But we often look down on “them” almost as much as the “I’ve got mine” group does. We think of them as objects of charity. And we think we’re such good people when we give them something. You don’t hear the term, “deserving poor” much anymore, but that’s still part of the mindset of people who say that efforts to help the poor should be the business of churches and charities, rather than the entire society.

Many of us give out of our abundance — maybe making a parade of it, maybe putting pink bows on our products to show what great guys we are to sell or buy products from companies that will give a bit of money to help poor cancer victims, for instance. Maybe establishing a foundation — or giving money to one — and using that as an excuse to keep from paying higher taxes that would support food and healthcare programs for all.

Jesus was trying to get our attention when he mentioned the widow of Zarephath and the widow with two pennies in the temple. We’re supposed to share our abundance with everyone — not only giving with great ceremony at the temple, but treating people fairly in all our dealings.

The books of 1st and 2nd Kings are about the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Like most of the prophets — Jeremiah, Amos, Micah to name but a few — Elijah spoke to the king and the powerful people in the society, whether it was Israel or Judah. Their prophetic statements do not just urge people to say their prayers and behave well — they urge change in society as a whole, to share and be fair. And they speak to the powerful because they are the ones who can change society.

I started wondering, why did God send Elijah to a widow in Sidon — an enemy of Israel even then. In fact, Sidon was the home of Jezebel, the queen of Israel and Elijah’s No. 1 enemy. So here’s some background on this story about the widow of Z and Elijah. Elijah warned Israel and King Ahab and Queen Jezebel that the drought was coming. In fact, some people in Israel believed that the drought was Elijah’s fault.

God sent Elijah to a wadi — a trickle of water — in the desert and sent ravens to take him food every morning and evening during the drought. Then the wadi dried up too. You could say that Elijah obviously couldn’t go back to Israel, because everyone there was mad at him — and maybe at God — for sending the drought to begin with.

But maybe there was another reason for sending Elijah to Sidon. That widow was alone. She was gathering sticks by herself. She had hoarded the little flour and oil to feed herself and her son.

In Israel, if the people had been following God’s commandments through their history, especially the commandments given them when they entered the promised land after fleeing Egypt, if they had been following God’s clear commandments about taking care of widows and orphans and strangers in their midst, no widow and her orphaned son would have been facing starvation alone. Those with flour and oil would have been sharing with those who had none.

By sending Elijah to Sidon — and this was perhaps Jesus’s point to the people of Nazareth — God was saying that God cares about widows outside Israel as well as inside.  And Jesus was saying that if the widows in Israel were starving, that was perhaps the point of the drought to begin with — that God was punishing Israel for not following God’s commandments to share.

Now lets turn from the political point to the personal point, for the widow and for the prophet. I confess I am put off by Elijah’s requests to be waited upon. If I were the widow, I would have said, “get it yourself.” Or perhaps, “could you at least help me gather the sticks?”

I would have expected the balance of power to shift just a bit. She’s the one with the flour and oil, after all. Elijah is not only asking her to share it, he wants to be served first. I can’t help it, I keep thinking, “just like a man.” But the men close to me know better than to suggest I serve them while they sit there and watch me work.

Elijah doesn’t seem too uncomfortable making his request. He does, after all, offer God’s promise to make the flour and oil last.

This widow is not meek. She stands up to Elijah — I have only enough for me and my son, and then we’re going to die. She agrees to give Elijah bread, and God makes good on the promise that the oil and flour will not run out. She not only feeds Elijah, she gives him a place to stay, in an upper room in her own house. (I guess since she lives in Sidon, the law teachers haven’t foreclosed on her property.)

The writer of 1 Kings tells us that God said “I have directed a widow in Sidon to feed you…” We get the impression that this widow is familiar with the God of Israel. The first words out of her mouth are “As surely as the Lord your God lives…”

When her son dies, she is assertive enough to call Elijah out on his claim of power from God. Elijah calls on God to bring him back and the boy is revived. Only then does the widow declare “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth.”

To summarize, when the widow shares with Elijah, he moves in and they eat together. They become a sharing community and the power of God is increased.

From the widow of Z and the widow with the two pennies I get another insight. There is a difference between being powerless and being helpless. The widow of Z is powerless in the face of the drought, but she does what she can to help herself, her son and the prophet sent by God.

The widow with the two pennies has very little to share with people in the temple, but she gives them anyway. It is the fault of the rich and the powerful that she has so little to live on. But she does not let that keep her from giving what she has to the temple fund to share with others.

God commands all of us to share — the widows and the wealthy. And God commanded Elijah, the powerful prophet, to accept charity from a poor starving widow in an enemy country.

In the aftermath of this election, we in America will continue the conversation about sharing, about our obligations to each other — whether we are poor or wealthy — and how we will organize our society to follow God’s commandments to care for the widows, the orphans and the strangers among us.

Praise God, Amen.

Keep Your Hand Upon the Throttle and Your Eye Upon the Rail

Scripture:   Ezekial 1:28-3:1, Mark 6:1-132 Corinthians 12:2-10

Hymn reference: “Life’s Railway to Heaven”

Sermon preached at Epiphany UCC, St. Louis on July 8, 2012

Correct me if I’m wrong, but when the date was picked for installing our newly elected Council members, I don’t think anyone looked at the scripture chosen for the lectionary today. Or maybe they did. The scripture this week is full of warnings for those who are called to serve God. Scorpians, scorn, skepticism… At least we installed you before we read the scripture. So you can’t back out now.

You will probably not be surprised to learn that I could not find a hymn connected to the lectionary passages this week — especially the call of Ezekiel.

First, Ezekiel sees a fantastic vision that causes him to fall on his knees. Then the spirit causes him to rise and he hears a voice — God’s voice! — calling him to bring God’s word to his — Ezekiel’s — people. Oh, by the way God says, they are a rebellious people. And stubborn. And they don’t listen.   And they’re rebellious. They’re like scorpions, and rebellious. Walking among them is like walking through thorns and briars. Did I mention they’re rebellious?

In fact, in that relatively short passage, we find the word rebel or rebellious seven times. Hmmm. No wonder God pulled out the winged seraphs and rolling wheels and fire and all kinds of fantastic visions — before God warned Ezekiel this was going to be a very difficult task.

Then God made sure Ezekiel didn’t get rebellious himself, by literally feeding him the text of what he was to say. Then God says, “OK, go. Tell them. If they don’t listen, that’s their problem.”

So what hymn writer wants to touch that?

The same with the passage in the gospel of Mark. Even though the passage is in the lectionary as we read it today, preachers often break it up, focusing on either the difficulty Jesus has in his home town or sending out the twelve. But not usually both.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that there’s no hymn featuring Jesus’s instructions to shake the dust off their feet of any town that doesn’t welcome the bearers of good news. (snappy tune “Shake the dust off your feet…) Or Jesus’s lament that a prophet is without honor in his home town. (sappy tune “A prophet is without honor…)

These are not easy scriptures to read and embrace. I’m afraid if I had been Ezekiel, I might have at least wanted to raise the question to God:  If you can summon winged seraphs with four-part heads, and make the wind and fire do your bidding, why could’t you make the Israelites listen to you?

But God makes it clear that Ezekiel’s job is not to question, but to proclaim unpopular, uncomfortable, hard-to-hear truths — to a people who don’t particularly seem to get it even when God is being good to them.

This is not just a characteristic of the Israelites, of course. Even Jesus encounters people who won’t hear his message. And these are the people who, you would think, know him best. They hear the wisdom in his teachings, they see — or have heard about — the miracles he has been performing in the neighborhood. Instead of taking pride in a native son, or accepting the wisdom and miracles as coming from God, they ask  “Who does he think he is?”

“Mary’s son,” is a slam. In essence they’re calling into question who his father is, in a culture that assigned a person’s honor, status and place in society according to the status of the person’s father.

The writer of Mark puts these two stories together on purpose. They appear in the other gospels in a different order. But Mark has the twelve carefully chosen followers of Jesus witness his humiliation in his home town — he was amazed at their lack of faith —  They see this right before they are sent out on their own to spread the wisdom and miracles that Nazareth rejected from Jesus.

Put yourself in the disciples’ shoes. You already have a “call story” of your own — some instance of Jesus calling you away from your work as a fisherman or tax collector,  or of someone you trust bringing you to hear Jesus. You’ve left everything to follow Jesus around Galillee, and, until you get to Nazareth it’s been one exciting development after another — Jesus casting out unclean spirits; healing Peter’s mother-in-law, lepers and many others; getting the best of Pharisees in debates about scripture and sabbath rules; preaching through parables; calming stormy waters; even going across the sea of Galillee to gentile territory and casting demons into a herd of pigs.

Jesus’s homecoming should have been a triumph. But it wasn’t. Maybe we disciples should have had a clue from the way his own family treated him. While we were all out on the road with Jesus, his mother and brothers came looking to take him home, suggesting that he was mentally unstable and needed to rest.

So right after Jesus is laughed out of the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus calls us together — his closest followers to whom he has been explaining his tricky parables, we’re his hand-picked entourage, his advance men.  And he says you’re going out, two-by-two to do what he’s been doing.

“Take nothing with you but a staff and a pair sandals,” Jesus tells you. The gospel writers do not preserve what, if anything, Jesus told his disciples to say. They get no scroll fed to them with all the words conveniently digested into their very being.

And his advice is not all that encouraging: “If any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”

Some peptalk, huh. How do you think you would react?

I think I know why no hymn writers have tackled this. It’s hard to set to music the phrase that keeps coming up in my mind: “Wait. What?” ( a rap maybe.)

I’d want a handbook, something to consult when the going got tough — something simpler than scripture, which seems to prompt argument rather than encouragement. I’d want an unmistakable sign, maybe a vision like Ezekiel got. Or at least some words of encouragement to murmur when I walked into a new town and set up shop as a proclaimer of the good news. This is it? “Take nothing with you, rely on the hospitality of strangers and leave if they don’t listen”?

Sigh. OK. So that’s how I found this wonderful hymn, “Life’s Railway to Heaven.” There’s no sugar-coating the difficulties here. No prosperity gospel. No assurance that the way has been smoothed for followers of the one true God. Little encouragement for you new council members.

“You will roll up grades of trial; you will cross the bridge of strife,” the hymn writer says. “Watch the curves, the fills, the tunnels; Never falter, never quail. … You will often find obstructions; look for storms of wind and hail.”

And this speaks to me in a way that sunshine-and-happy tunes never could. We know life isn’t easy. We know a prophet’s life is difficult. So is the life of a Christian, maybe especially council members. We know people don’t want to hear hard truths. We really don’t need demonstrations, but we get them all the time. It’s sort of comforting to know that ordinary people like Ezekiel and Peter and Bartholomew and Nathaniel knew what they were getting into when they went out two-by-two.

The readings were long already, but I almost included the Psalm for today, Psalm 123, which has these verses: 3Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us, for we have had more than enough of contempt.4 Our soul has had more than its fill of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud. The psalmist gives the answer before the plea for mercy: To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens!

And I wanted to read the epistle scripture for this Sunday as well. It’s in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians where he writes about the thorn in his side — right after mentioning he had a mystical vision, a “call story” — Maybe it was similar to Ezekiel’s, but Paul doesn’t go into detail. Instead, he says he has an affliction, a thorn in his side.

Paul said he asked God three times to remove this thorn, this undescribed suffering, but God’s answer was: My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Paul’s learned to boast of his weakness. He says, “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Dear council members, please don’t flee for the exits. I don’t think you’re in for a particular measure of insults, hardships or persecutions. That is, not any more than the rest of us.

The message I get for all of us from these four very different scripture passages is this:  God’s job for you is not easy. In fact, it can be beastly difficult. You’re going to feel like you’re walking through fields of scorpians. You’re going to get your fill of contempt and scorn. You’re going to ask God to make it better. You’re going to feel like no one is listening. You’re going to feel like you failed.  God says, Do it anyway.

  • To Ezekiel:  God says, Don’t worry about what to say, I’ll feed you the words.
  • To the Twelve:  Don’t worry about the people who don’t listen. Leave them and move on.
  • To Paul: Don’t worry about your weakness or your suffering. My grace is sufficient for you.
  • To the hymn writer:  Don’t worry about the hazards of the journey. The road is there for you to follow. Keep your hand upon the throttle; keep your eyes upon the rail.
  • To all of the above and to us: Trust God.

God knows who is paying attention and who is being rebellious. Don’t you worry about who listens; YOU listen to God and follow. The route for your journey is already established. The rails are already laid. Your job is to keep your hand upon the throttle and your eyes upon the rails.

Praise God. Amen.