Tag Archives: Jesus

Reconciliation – The Love of Christ Compels Us

[A video of the service where this was preached may be seen here: https://www.facebook.com/epiphanyucc/ ]

Scripture: Psalm 27, Isaiah 9:1-4, Matthew 4:12-17, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, 2 Corinthians 5:14-20

The week of prayer for Christian Unity was developed and is sponsored by the World Council of Churches and the Vatican.

This year’s theme for Christian Unity Week was developed two years ago by some German Christians, in response to conditions in Europe. But boy, I can’t imagine a better time to talk about reconciliation than right here, right now.

I started putting together the worship service about a week ago and started writing this sermon two days before the inauguration. As I wrote, I had no idea how the next few days of traditional ceremonies and parties, punctuated with protests and marches were going to unfold. But I’ve known for more than a year that our nation — our world — is heading into a crisis of divisions and discord.

I have alternated between wanting to engage in angry resistance to injustice and wanting to just hunker down and pray for release. Frankly, I am tired of witnessing people who disagree with each other descend into name-calling and worse. I’m tired of the “I’ve got mine” crowd, but I’m also tired of the “I’m so right” and “You’re a moron,” crowd too.

So when I saw that I had fallen into the Sunday in the midst of the week of prayer for Christian Unity, I was encouraged by the theme. The organizers took the title from Pope Francis, who cited Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. The Love of Christ Compels Us.

But lets start at the beginning. We began our scripture reading today with a psalm lament. Aside from it being one of the lectionary scriptures, what does a psalm pleading, “Do not forsake me” have to do with reconciliation?

I would say that reconciliation probably should begin with lament, with an expression of fear, because fear is behind so many of our divisions and harmful acts toward each other. Even greed could be traced back to the fear of not having enough, or the fear of someone else getting more than you or beating you in some competition for scarce resources. Before we can conquer our fear and reach out to someone else, we have to name and face our fear and realize the source of the threat.

The psalmist faces fear by recognizing God as the “stronghold of my life.” And with that kind of support, “of whom shall I be afraid?” he says. Indeed. In these scary times, we need reassurance. We ask,  are you with me, God?

We touched on the Old Testament reading from Isaiah in our second hymn, when we sang, that “God rescues us from fear.” “Through holy prophets, God has sworn to free us from alarm, to save us from the heavy hand of all who wish us harm.” The people Isaiah was addressing really had it tough. And a lot of them would have scoffed at the idea that God was saving them, as they were dragged off to Babylon to be slaves.

The lectionary Isaiah passage includes the verse, “the people in darkness have seen a great light.” We read this verse at Christmastime and see in it a description of what Jesus brought to the world. In fact, it’s quoted in today’s gospel reading.

But Isaiah was writing about a different event. A return of the exiles from Babylon. They’d been in darkness. In fact, many of the returnees were too young or weren’t born yet to remember their time in Israel. And many had died in exile.

Understand — they did not return from exile because they won a battle. In fact, they had just been transferred from one conquerer to another, from Babylon to Persia, who defeated Babylon. Cyrus, the Persian leader, didn’t release them because they rose up in rebellion. He sent them home, scripture tells us, because God softened his heart.

The people who returned from Babylon had been transformed. Judaism would never be the same — and that was a good thing. Defeat and exile brought them together and made them depend on God, in a way that ordinary worldly success and comfort could never do. In exile, they lost their possessions and their status and their power. All they had were their scripture, their traditions and each other, and God.

Isaiah and the prophets didn’t actually promise that the people would never experience hard times. Just that God would deliver them . . . eventually. And they would be stronger, with a stronger trust in God and a better understanding of what is important.

I’m reminded of the movie, “Independence Day” with Will Smith and Jeff Goldblume. The plot is familiar: the world is attacked by aliens and the heroes and heroines are challenged to defend their planet. The scenes that stick in my mind are the little vignettes of people all over the world — in India and Europe and Africa as well as America — first, suffering the attack and then . . . banding together to fight back. No bickering, no talk of letting the marketplace determine the winner, no ideological arguments over who is God (or where is God). They had a common enemy and a common goal.

Is having a common enemy the only way to begin to share a common goal? If that were the case, in our day and age, climate change would appear to be the kind of common enemy that could unite the world to work together. But that’s not happening so far — at least on a scale broad enough to include all of our leaders and fellow Americans.

In fact, the divide and conquer strategy, much older than Julius Caesar who articulated it, depends on people identifying others as their enemy. One group’s “common enemy” designed to bring people together could well be another group with whom they should be joining, rather than fighting.

The term reconciliation assumes there is a division to heal. And humanity is full of division — tribalism, distrust of strangers, patriarchy and hierarchies that elevate some over others, giving power to a few and subjugation to the rest. It happens in nations, but it happens in communities and families as well.

Even churches. Paul begins his first letter to the church in Corinth by referring to the factions arising in that small group.:

My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”  Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?”

How to bring light to that darkness of division? Notice, in the gospel story Jesus reacts to John the baptist being imprisoned by starting his ministry. He doesn’t rally the folks to free John or to resist the Romans. He says, “the people walking in darkness have seen a great light. . . Repent for the kingdom of heaven — or the reign of God — is near.” Now, John was a charismatic leader and he was imprisoned and then executed. That’s darkness enough to dash the hopes of his followers.

So how does Jesus counter that? He says the darkness is over; the light has come. He calls followers, telling them he will send them to “fish for people,” to cast the net of love and draw people in, to gather them together, rather than divide them.

In this passage, Jesus preaches and teaches, telling “the good news of the kingdom at hand,” the gospel writer tells us, and “healing every disease and sickness among people.” Elsewhere the gospels tell us that he said love your enemies and do not return evil for evil. He urged people to seek the common good, to look out for the least — the poorest and neediest among them.

Not many gospel writers tell of the scoffers who probably said such an approach was naive and would never work, the cynics who pointed out that the powers that be would never stand for Jesus’ call for justice and kindness, that they’d probably kill him first.

Hmm. Well, they did kill him. He just didn’t stay dead. And that’s the most revolutionary thing of all. How do you defeat a person or a group of people with death threats if they no longer fear death? I believe that’s the basis of the concept that Jesus died for all of us. He died to show us that if we don’t fear death, it has no power over us.

So we get to Paul’s second letter, which is the scripture basis for this year’s Christian Unity theme.  Paul wrote,

“For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”

And when I read that passage and many others I am reminded that Jesus told his followers more than once in many ways, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Or as Paul says, and Pope Francis reminds us, “Christ’s love compels us.” Compels us to treat each other with love, to seek the common good of all, to forget ourselves and our petty concerns for possessions or power, especially power over others.

Reconciliation is a way to acknowledge that love, by healing the divisions and tearing down the walls.

[The sermon was followed by a Liturgy for Prayer for Christian Unity ]


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.


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.”


The Message

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


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.

Good Shepherd Sunday, April 17, 2016

On Sheep and Shepherds ( a sermon delivered to Ephiphany UCC in St. Louis)

Scripture readings: Psalm 23 (Good News Translation) Psalm 23 (King James)
John 10:22-30 (NIV)

Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen — in person, not on TV or in movies — sheep grazing on a hillside.

And another question, Did you see a shepherd?

How many of you have ever seen a real shepherd? That is, someone who herds sheep, not a kid in a bathrobe with a scarf around his or her head and talking with someone wearing angel wings.

About as close as I’ve ever come to a real sheep is wearing wool clothing, or eating lamb chops. So while I have some bodily intimacy with parts of some sheep, I know next to nothing about the animal or the people who raise them.

In fact, I mainly know about sheep and shepherds from Sunday School. Which brings me to the next question in the hand-raising poll I’m conducting. Raise your hand if, at some time in your life you memorized the 23rd Psalm. It was probably the King James Version, wasn’t it? “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He restoreth my soul.”

It’s many people’s favorite Psalm. In fact, in the half dozen hymn books I have, it is the Psalm that has the most hymn references, going back, as you may have noted, to the Scottish Psalter in the 17th Century. My original plans were to load up this worship service with versions of this Psalm set to a half dozen tunes. If that sounds like too much of a good thing, thank Pastor Mary for negotiating fewer musical renditions of the same text.

Contemporary songbooks, however, don’t have many updates of Psalm 23. That could be because there are so many favorites already, or it could be because sheep and shepherds no longer resonate in our daily lives the way they did in bible times.

Take our gospel reading today. From all that we know, Jesus was a carpenter, not a shepherd. But he calls himself “the good shepherd,” and says that his sheep know his voice. I have to use my imagination and read commentaries explaining sheep behavior in order to understand this reference, which I assume the people listening to Jesus on the temple porch caught right away.

A seminary classmate replied to my Facebook poll about knowledge of sheep and shepherds that she “once got told by a farmer after preaching in a country church: ‘MY sheep know the sound of my truck engine.’ ” I like that image of a guy pulling into a pasture in his pickup and sheep running to meet him.

To be sure, even the urban-dwellers like the temple priests would have understood Jesus’ claim. Sheep and shepherds have a special place in scripture as a metaphor of the relationship between God and humanity. Don’t worry, I’m not going to give you a catalog of all the places where sheep and shepherds are mentioned. At least not now.

Where I’m going with this is — to ask, What is it about this psalm that makes it such a favorite, despite the lack of a contemporary understanding of the sheep and shepherd metaphors?

One answer is that I think we can identify with the sheep — who need guidance, green pastures, quiet pools of fresh water. We’ve all been through deepest darkness — or if we haven’t yet, we can anticipate that we will not get out of this world without our share of troubles. The description of Psalm 23 shows sympathy for the downtrodden.

Another of my classmates said she has helped a friend care for sheep. I guess that makes her a shepherd. She had this to say about sheep:

“Except for the occasional sheep that tried to go their own way, these sheep were very content to be fed, sheltered, and even loved. They did not question who took care of them. They would follow you anywhere. I think that from them, I could see Jesus as a nurturing and loving shepherd to those that accepted him. Sometimes there is freedom in just accepting this unconditional love and have trust that we are being led on a safe path.”

Trust. Psalm 23 is known as a “trust Psalm.” It is sometimes difficult to trust people, even when they offer help, even — or maybe especially — when we desperately need help. Deep in our psyche, we need to know that we don’t walk through darkness alone, and that our loved ones, when they are facing the ultimate unknown, that they, too, are not alone. When you find a person or power who merits that kind of trust, you flock toward them. That’s what Jesus is talking about in the discussion on the Temple porch when he said, “They know my voice.”

When you’re going through a rough period — whether it’s physical, emotional or financial — you long for a moment of calm and peace, when you don’t have to struggle, just to breathe or just to pay your bills.  When I had pneumonia, I longed for just one night when I could breathe well enough to sleep.

When my ex-husband got laid off the first time, I longed for some assurance that we could survive on my salary and that he would get another job soon.

When I sat by my stepfather Don’s bedside as he made the difficult decision to stop dialysis treatments to, in his words, “speed things up,” I longed for the words to strengthen and comfort him for the journey ahead, words that would strengthen my mother as well, as we sat in the hospital room discussing the implications of his — and her — decision.

“Yea, tho’ I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil. For thou art with me.” That’s why I memorized that psalm. But the other translations work too: “Even if I go through the deepest darkness, I will not be afraid, Lord, for you are with me.” What it says to me is that while we are confronted by these dark places, we can make it through to the other side. Having God with us on the journey helps us complete that walk.

And you know what? I recovered from pneumonia — not once but twice. And I’m constantly learning ways to live a healthier life. My ex-husband got another job, and several more after several more layoffs. And he retired with a pretty good pension. My current husband also survived a layoff and forced retirement. I’m not afraid of layoffs or lost jobs anymore.

And two years ago my mother gently departed this life to join Don and my father, having made that walk through the dark valley for the last time. And God is still with her.

That verse is probably the reason Psalm 23 is so often read at funerals and at bedsides of the sick and dying.     But the psalm doesn’t stop there.

“You prepare a banquet for me, where all my enemies can see me.” When I was a kid — probably 11 or 12 — when I first memorized this verse, I was puzzled. I interpreted enemies as bullies and who would want to eat when your enemies were watching you? What’s so great about that? I think one of my older brothers explained it to me. It’s the “nyah, nyah” factor, he said. I’m getting served and you aren’t. Nyah, nyah, nah, nah, Nah, nah.

But I see it in a different light now. Living as I have in a mostly peaceful country and neighborhood, where I don’t worry about enemies coming into my home to kill me or beat me up, my personal struggles with foes have been more about honor or shame than about physical violence.

And in a personal world where one can count on being reasonably safe physically, sometimes the worst enemies are the ones inside us, the voices that tell us we’re no good. The guilt within or the shame without that tells us we don’t measure up, we’re not a good person, we won’t ever amount to much.

Those enemies can be defeated by a good shepherd, a personal mentor or  a higher power, who demonstrates otherwise. One who serves us a banquet and honors us with an overflowing cup and an anointment of oil right out in public, in front of those nay-sayers, those enemies of our well-being and our self-esteem. See, enemies? I’m somebody. God says so.

God doesn’t just provide us with rest and good water. God doesn’t just walk with us in the dark places. God honors us with a banquet right in front of those enemies who discount us as worthy human beings.

The translation that Hannah read today changes the last sentence about goodness and mercy. Hebrew scholars say “pursue” is the best translation for the word we probably memorized as “follow.”   “I know that your goodness and love will pursue me all my life…”

If you think back to some of the other references to sheep and shepherds in scripture, you might recall the parable of the lost sheep, where the shepherd leaves the 99 — safe in a sheepfold I assume — and goes out to find the wayward wanderer. That’s the way I read that line about God’s goodness and love pursuing us. If we stray from the path our shepherd has laid out for us — along the green pastures and through the dark places — God’s goodness and love will nonetheless pursue us and bring us back to God’s house. Calling again on Hebrew translation — the same Hebrew word refers to house or family. So we could interpret this as acknowledging that we are in God’s family forever.

I will draw on a Jewish traditional phrase from Passover. Dayenu. It would have been sufficient.

If God had just provided green pastures for us to rest in, Dayenu, it would have been sufficient;

if God had simply provided cool, quiet pools for us to drink from, Dayenu, it would have been sufficient;

if God had simply been present in our darkest moments, Dayenu, it would have been sufficient;

if God had shown our internal and external enemies that we are worthy, valuable people; Dayenu, it would have been sufficient;

Those each would have been sufficient. But God doesn’t wait for us to ask for this bountiful loving care. God’s goodness and love pursue us to try to ensure we get the message, that we are part of God’s family. Always.

And that would have been sufficient, for me to express what this psalm means for us each as individuals. But we are here in this congregation, about to say farewell to Pastor Mary, our earthly shepherd — God’s representative. We know God will walk with her; we’ve already had a taste of the table prepared for her, at the dinner last night, with the exception that I don’t think any enemies were there. We know she will be pursued by God’s goodness and love.

And so will we. God walks with us as a congregation. We listen to Jesus’ voice. He knows us and we will follow him. While we’re doing that, we can let the realization settle on us. No one will snatch us away from Jesus. We are members of God’s family, with a banquet prepared for us in the presence of our enemies, self-doubt, financial distress, feelings of abandonment. Our cup is filled, our heads are anointed.

And listen. Someone, somewhere, is hearing Jesus’ voice, the same one that said to Peter: Do you love me? Feed my sheep. That person is hearing Jesus say that about us. Feed my sheep at Epiphany.

Don’t look now, but I see goodness and love breathing down our necks. We’re being pursued.

So lie down in the green grass, see the banquet prepared before you, your cup filled to the brim,  and enjoy. Dayenu. We belong to God and it is sufficient.

Praise God. Amen.

Good Shepherd Sunday, April 13, 2008

Separating the Weeds from the Wheat

Sermon preached at Epiphany United Church of Christ, July 20,2014

Scripture: Psalm 139 Matthew 5:38-48

I can see the headlines now:  God’s kingdom is full of weeds! The Almighty blames the devil, but declines to have the weeds removed.” Sidebars include, “Congress calls for hearings on delay of weed-pulling,” and “President sends in FBI to identify and detain saboteur of wheat crop.”

Yeah. We don’t like weeds, especially in our food crops. Those weeds might be poisonous, we’d better have the wheat labelled, “Warning, this wheat was grown in a field containing weeds.”

I suppose you could say I’ve been spending too much time reading the satirist Andy Borowitz. His latest entry: “Boehner drops Obama lawsuit; says it would mean doing something.”

Reading Borowitz and watching Jon Stewart have warped my perceptions. Or maybe I’ve just been reading and hearing too many news stories about the imperfections of the world. I identify much too strongly with the servants in the parable who want to pull up the weeds. In fact, as I read the usual commentaries in preparation for preaching on this text, I focused so sharply on the weeds that at first I skimmed over the opening line.

The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field.

This is one of several parables that Matthew has Jesus telling the crowd along the lake shore while he sits in a boat just offshore. They’re all about the kingdom of heaven. Weeds in heaven?

No. Commentators say that in the parables that Luke and Matthew have in common Luke quotes Jesus as saying the kingdom of God and Matthew substitutes kingdom of heaven to follow the Jewish tradition of not saying the name of God out loud (or writing it). So it’s the kingdom of God, or as we who want to use inclusive language say, the reign of God, or the rule of God to lose that male king part. Lately I’ve read some people (I think from New Zealand) use the Commonwealth of God.

Sorry to get so pedantic, but I wanted to remind myself and you that Jesus was talking mainly about this kingdom or commonwealth of God’s, not some hereafter world with pearly gates — not that there’s anything wrong with pearly gates. It’s just not the whole story about the kingdom or commonwealth of God.

All through chapters 12 and 13, Matthew’s been writing about Jesus saying this commonwealth is near. “The kingdom is at hand,” he says. I’ve come to believe, along with others, that this kingdom is both now and still-to-come. And we see the split nature of this reign of God in this parable. Jesus says The kingdom is like… but then he also mentions the harvest time as being the end of the age. So it’s both now and to come.

In this part of Matthew, Jesus’s speeches and parables are interspersed with people questioning him, trying to back him into a corner with “gotcha” questions, trying to get him to say something that they could twist and exploit. Things haven’t changed all that much, have they? There always seem to be a lot of people wanting to tear down and heckle people who want to increase God’s love and God’s justice in the world.

So here, in one of his longer descriptions of the coming rule of God, Jesus says it has weeds in it.  Well, it does, doesn’t it? Our world is filled with imperfections. It’s filled with imperfect people, people who do unspeakable things to each other, many times hurting each other in the name of God.

Just like the servants, we can see these weeds in God’s field, whether they’re other people or our own imperfections. But they’re so closely bound together with the good wheat, that it would take a lot of work to tease apart the good plants from the bad and even then, we might damage the wheat. Besides, until harvest time the weeds look a lot like the wheat, especially when you get to the level of the root.

It’s a better plan, says the owner of the field, to wait until harvest, when the good grain of the wheat plant will stand out from the weed. Also I interpret that the owner of the field doesn’t plan to pull up the weeds by the root even then. He’ll just have the harvesters cut the weeds at the base, and the ears of wheat from higher on the stalk.

But here’s the biggest part of the lesson for me, if I identify with the farm hands who first notice the weeds. That is, I don’t get to decide what’s a weed and what’s not. Not now, while the plants are growing and not at harvest time, when the harvesters — who we’re later told represent angels — will be instructed to separate the two kinds of plants.

This parable is rich and can be interpreted in many ways. It has a lot of room for shifting and viewing from different angles. I’d say the scholars and preachers I consulted are about evenly divided that the good and bad seeds are different people, or that the good and bad seeds are found in each of us. Either way, it’s hard for the servants to tell which is which, and Jesus seems to be saying that you can’t really tell until you see what fruit the plant produces.

And even then, Jesus is not suggesting that it’s our job to separate the weeds from the wheat. Judge not, that you be not judged, that’s also in Matthew, chapter seven.  “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

I’ve preached before on the difference between being good and being pure, and how scripture seems to sway back and forth between those who think you please God by pious acts of purity and those who think you please God by peaceful acts of justice. Jesus himself gives guidance for which is most important by citing the two most important commandments, love God and love one another.

But most of us try to do a little of both, don’t we? We try to be pious and respectful, and we try to show love by seeking justice. And sometimes we don’t try very hard, or we don’t try at all.

I almost titled this sermon, “Sometimes I feel like a weed, sometimes I don’t.” If we’re honest with ourselves, we know we’re as imperfect as the field we’re growing in.

Oh, I see I’ve switched identifications. Before, I was a farm hand. Now I’m a plant in the field. Jesus said in his explanation of the parable that the good seeds were sown by the Son of Man, which is what he often called himself. And the weed seeds were sown by the evil one.

Some people seem to be quite certain who the weeds are. Or they’re not at all worried about killing the wheat stalks to get at them. Last week I took a class in Public Ethics at a seminary in Chicago. I read a book about genocide and the author said that the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia actually had a saying, “It is better to arrest ten people by mistake than to let one guilty person go free.” That’s kind of backwards from the way we want our justice system to work here, isn’t it?

But we don’t have to look at Cambodia in the mid 1970s to find weeds entangled with good grain.

We can look at the Middle East, with its conflicts and American involvement. Rabbi Susan Talve just came back from Israel and posted a plea for understanding on all sides. She said,

No one is more critical of Israel than Israelis. As progressive Americans I am not asking you to give your support blindly to either side. I am also not asking you to stop caring. I am asking you to recognize the many complex narratives that make up the situation that exists today that make it impossible and dangerous to take sides. I am asking you to believe with me that even though peace in a completely unstable region that is surrounded by Lebanon and Syria, Iraq, Iran and Jordan may seem impossible, because we are talking about these two peoples Israelis and Palestinians, it is possible. It will take time, it will take work, but we have to believe it is possible and by not sliding into predictable, over simplified rhetoric that takes sides we can be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Maybe it should be no surprise that nations are composed of good grain and noxious weeds. Because each of us has both weeds and wheat intertwined in our field. In my introspective moments, I wonder, is my life producing nutritious wheat or noxious weeds? Or both? How will I get rid of the weeds? Should I get out my Roundup spray right now and try to free myself from weeds?

Uh uh. I may not be a very productive gardner, but I believe Jesus when he tells me that’s not my job. As the psalmist said in Psalm 139, God has searched us and knows us through and through. We can’t escape this knowledge, we can’t fool God. But that’s OK, because, as the psalmist says, God’s right hand holds us fast. The last verse of the psalm asks God to “search me and know my heart, try me and know my thoughts. See if I follow the path of evil, and lead me in the way of eternal life.” Again, I am resisting the interpretation that this is about heaven after we die, but more of a plea to be guided into right living here and now.

One of the commentators I read on Jesus’s parable suggested that God, using angels as God’s messengers, will remove the weeds from our souls, as in verse 41: they will weed out of God’s kingdom everything that causes sin.” And then, this commentator points to verse 43, “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of the Father.”

Ah, but that interpretation leaves out a few words. The full verse is  “They will weed out of God’s kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42 They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And only then will the righteous “shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.

So who’s going to be weeping and gnashing their teeth? Passages like this make me squirm. I, who believe in an inclusive Jesus and an inclusive God, what am I to make of  evil doers being thrown into a fiery furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”? What happened to “I got wings, you got wings, all God’s children got wings”?

If I think of the end times at all, I confess I feel more inclined to think of a song in the musical comedy, Finnian’s Rainbow. “On that Great Come-and-Get-it-Day. Won’t it be fun when worry is done and money is hay.” No gnashing of teeth there. But Jesus and several prophets warn that some people should fear judgment day. It’s not gonna be a fun day for some people.

The best explanation I have found, one that I can sort of trust judging from reading some of his stuff, comes from a blogger, Steve Cooke, from Sydney, Australia.  His explanation of the right-here-right-now nature of the kingdom as well as it being in the future matches my own understanding. In this particular post he examines the uses of the phrase gnashing of teeth in Matthew and Luke and he finds that often it is aimed at the self-proclaimed elite who focus on purity rather than love and who are more interested in proving Jesus false than listening to what he says. Steve said this:

“Something you’ve hopefully already noticed from reading earlier posts on this blog is that when Jesus told stories or parables about the kingdom He wasn’t always speaking of some future time in the Age to Come. Most of Jesus’ kingdom-sayings were about the here-and-now, and how kingdom-people should prepare for the Age to Come. Of course, some of His stories were about the future, such as the one in Matthew 13 (our passage today) where He said “this is how it will be at the end of the age.” The context will determine whether Jesus is speaking about the here-and-now or the age to come.

(still quoting Steve) So it is that the religious purists who will be rejected “at the end of the age” will go away angrily “gnashing their teeth” with rage because that is how they behave now. Throughout history we have seen “religious” people directing their anger against other believers who don’t measure up to the standards imposed by the purists. The same is evident today.

Putting this together, Steve says, we see that the idea behind this expression is that those who are apart from God attack each other and try to tear each other, much like a pack of dogs fighting over a carcass. Without love there is just hatred and envy. Those who do not live by Jesus’ teachings on love and grace bite and tear each other. Those who live according to God’s way help others, rather than tearing them down. In these stories of Jesus we are being told that the time will come when they will be left to themselves to tear each other apart. We don’t have to wait until “the end of the age” to see this principle fulfilled. Communities, denominations and churches [and I would add, nations] which splinter and divide do so because they are obsessed with their own standards of doctrinal purity or so-called holiness rather than reaching out in love to those who are in need of God’s kingdom, and in the process they tear each other apart.”

Isn’t that well said? I probably ought to read more Steve Cook and maybe less Andy Borowitz, at least for sermon prep.

What I learn from Steve’s vision of those gnashing their teeth is that for whatever reason, those who willingly follow the evil one or do evil, rejecting love — it’s for suckers, you know — are creating their own commonwealth right here and now as well as in the future. A commonwealth where they can tear each other apart.

The good seed, on the other hand, is producing good heads of grain. Now I’m going to quote one of my favorite biblical scholars, John Pilch, who has published 14 books on the cultural world of the bible:

“The landowner knows that the wheat is strong enough to tolerate the weeds’ competition for nutrition and irrigation. After the harvest, the landowner will not only have grain for his barns, but extra, unanticipated fuel for his needs. Instead of shaming this landowner, the weed strategy has backfired and shamed the enemy. The landowner and his servants have the last laugh. The enemy bent on shaming others is shamed instead!

The “something other” or “something more” of this parable may well be the landowner’s refusal to retaliate, to get even with the enemy. In a society dedicated to revenge, the landowner’s victory by seeming to do nothing is a powerful lesson.

Pilch continues, “The confidence of the landowner that his wheat will survive the effect of the weeds is worth pondering. A trust in goodness that is greater than the fear of wickedness could be a powerful weapon against rampant, senseless violence. It has worked before in history, and could work again if given a chance.”

So putting these mixed metaphors together, of the weeds and the gnashing of teeth, we see that bad seed produces bad fruit, or no fruit at all, and that those who function in a kingdom of evil will conduct their lives here and now and in the future in a way that produces weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Whereas the good seed produces good fruit, and those who grow in the commonwealth of god will conduct their lives here and now and in the future in a way that causes them to be gathered into God’s barn where the righteous — those who seek justice — will shine.

For those of us with both good and bad seed growing in us, we can find support for pulling in our fangs and not gnashing our teeth at each other if we trust God’s trust in us.

“A trust in goodness that is greater than the fear of wickedness.” That’s worth holding onto. God has searched us and knows us through and through. And as we’re allowing God to guide us, we can catch glimpses — while we’re still in that weedy field — we can catch glimpses of the commonwealth of God.

“Won’t it be fun when worry is done and money is hay.”

Praise God. Amen.

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.

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.


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, 


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.

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.