Tag Archives: seek justice

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 ]

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.

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.

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.

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.

Peace Banners

Scripture:  Mark 11:1-11,  Philippians 2:1-13

Image

I saw this picture on the Internet — a familiar painting of Jesus with a cloak over his head, only this time it had the caption, “Jesus wore a hoodie.”

Last week our sister congregation St Johns UCC, led by Rev. Starsky Wilson, wore hoodies to church in solidarity with Trayvon Martin, the youth who was gunned down for walking through a neighborhood with the audacity and posture of someone who had a right to be there — which he did. But he was black and young and it was a gated neighborhood of mostly white people, mostly older, and it was in Florida, which has a law, called “stand your ground” that would appear to let Trayvon’s murderer off the hook because he felt “threatened” by this unarmed teenager wearing a hoodie and talking on a cell phone.

When a TV commentator suggested that the shooter was justified because a black youth in a hoodie could be interpreted as threatening enough to justify being killed, people all over the country began wearing hoodies — to church, on the street, in legislative sessions and in their profile photos on Facebook.

Jesus wore a hoodie.  It reminds me of a button I used to wear before it fell off my coat in the grocery store:  Jesus was a low wage worker.

Compare these modern-day descriptions — Jesus wore a hoodie, Jesus was a low wage worker — to what the people shouted as they waved palms or other leafy branches and spread their coats on the ground in our scripture lesson from Mark this morning: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!”

This triumphant entry by Jesus into Jerusalem where he knows they’re out to kill him can be interpreted in so many ways. Today, I’d like to expand on what we know of this familiar parade, and see it as a peace march. Waving palms and wearing hoodies in a non-violent effort to counter evil and bring about peace.

Jesus showed us– and in the tradition of “God is still speaking,” Jesus is still showing us — how to seek peace through non-violence, to counter evil with good, to be steadfast in our love in the face of hatred.

Lets look first at the Mark passage that John read. Jesus planned this parade. Its whole purpose was to call attention to himself and make a few symbolic points. Because — did you notice this? — at the end of the passage, when Jesus and his disciples got to the temple, they looked around and went back to Bethany.

Yes. After all that hoopla of borrowing an animal to ride, people shouting and waving branches and coats, they retraced their steps and went back to the suburbs where the parade began that morning. Jesus’s point had been made and he would come back the next day to make some more points. We’ll be reading about his last days in Jerusalem all this week. This was Jesus’s first dramatic non-violent act of his last week of life.

This parade was planned for a particular purpose, to call attention to Jesus on the very day that historians now tell us, Pontius Pilate was coming into Jerusalem at a different gate, with a much different parade. Pilate rode a horse, or maybe was driven in a chariot. He had Roman legionnaires to accompany him. If there was any cheering, it was forced, because the people of Jerusalem had no love for the Romans. Most likely the watchers were silent, and you could hear much jangling of harnesses and rumbling of chariots and wagons carrying the retinue of a Roman governor, coming into Jerusalem to keep the “Roman peace” among people celebrating Passover, a festival of deliverance from an oppressor that reminded them of the sovereignty of God over Caesar.

Jesus’s parade of God’s peace was a contrast to Pilate’s entry. Jesus chose a donkey colt, a very common farm animal, not useful in war.

Jesus sent his advance men out to get the colt. They didn’t ask for it, they didn’t offer to rent it. They took it, and when they were stopped — lucky for them the people who stopped them weren’t armed with pistols, ready to shoot first and ask questions later — the disciples simply said, “The Lord has need of it.”  A potential confrontation was diffused. I think we can assume they brought it back. Maybe that’s why they went back to Bethany that night, to return the colt.

The procession itself seems to have been a very spontaneous parade. Jesus evidently had no inside knowledge about anyone preparing banners to welcome him. Instead, they spread their clothing on the road in front of him. This was a very big gesture among people who owned only the clothes on their backs.

Nevertheless, when they saw Jesus coming, people waved their sweaters or cloaks or hoodies in the air. They ran out into the fields or shimmied up palm trees and cut branches and waved them.

They didn’t cry, “Hail Caesar!” They cried “Hosanna!” which means, “Please save us!”
And they shouted, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

That was brave of them. Their scripture, what we call the Old Testament, is full of people who came in the name of the Lord. Most of them were prophets, and the people — especially the people in power — weren’t always comfortable with what these spokespeople of the Lord said. They often said things like, “Let justice roll down like streams of water,” and “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.”

If you shout, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” you must have a pretty good idea that the Lord is not going to side with your oppressor. See it from the point of view of a poor person who owned only one hoodie, someone who really needed saving from the empire and its systems of oppression, someone who was familiar with the healing Jesus, the Jesus who said ‘blessed are the poor and the meek,’ the one who told parables that made the powerful guys want to kill him.

And here he is, riding in on a little donkey, holding a parade, a sort of anti-empire parade. So you shout, “Hosanna, blessed is he and blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!”

Modern English translators stumble over the word “kingdom,” with its connotation of hierarchy and royalty. I’ve heard it translated as “realm,” or “reign of God” instead. But most recently, I’ve heard it translated, “commonwealth of God.”

That’s in the book we’ve been reading for Lent, Practicing Peace, which is about the Quaker tradition of non-violence. Commonwealth of God. Yeah, that says, to me, that we all have a stake — an equal stake — in common, in the wealth or the welfare of the realm. Not a community led by royalty or dominated by the elite, but a coming together of people for the common good. I like that, the Commonwealth of God.

This book has a lot of wise, important points to make about practicing peace in our everyday lives. Knowing that several of you have been reading and discussing it while I was away visiting my mother for two weeks, I decided to let it inform this sermon. Seeing Palm Sunday through the eyes of non-violent practice has been very helpful.   Especially as I caught up on news I had avoided while I was away.

How do we respond to the hard-to-ignore evidence that the Commonwealth of God seems as far away as ever? When Trayvon Martin’s killer can claim the right to shoot, based on his “feeling threatened” and there is an apparently serious debate about who is at fault in this teenager’s death?

Or when we read stories like the one in the Post-Dispatch last Sunday about a young woman who died less than an hour after being  arrested for disturbing the peace, because the hospital emergency room personnel missed the blood clot in her leg and assumed she was faking her pain to get drugs? She died when the blood clot reached her lungs. She died because she was poor, black and loud. How do we respond?

How do we respond when our elected officials and our judicial system seem hell-bent on destroying our democracy for their own power and greed? When they introduce, and sometimes pass, bill after bill aimed at attacking workers, teachers, voters, pregnant women, young women, all women… Don’t get me started.

As I read my emails and let the outrageous, unjust behaviors wash over me, I felt so powerless. But I kept reading Catherine Whitemire’s collection of sayings in Practicing Peace. They reminded me that seeking peace, or practicing peace, as she calls it, brings about good, even if the victories are tiny and the struggle seems endless.
She quotes Kenneth Boulding, who wrote in 1945,

But though hate rises in enfolding flame
                                                                          At each renewed oppression, soon it dies:                                                                     
It sinks as quickly as we saw it rise,
                                                                                  While love’s small constant light burns still the same.
                                                 Know this: though love is weak and hate is strong,
                                                      Yet hate is short, and love is very long.

Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa knew that love trumps hate. When the apartheid, segregationist powers gave way to Mandela and Tutu’s freedom movement, the new victors did not seek to punish their former oppressors. They started a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to allow people to confess and forgive openly, without retaliation. The commission has been criticized for letting perpetrators off without sufficient punishment. But the leaders knew that forgiveness is a better healer and a better instructor than vengeance.

Bishop Tutu said of the process, “Forgiveness does not mean condoning what has been done. Forgiving means abandoning your right to pay back the perpetrator in his own coin, but it is a loss that liberates the victim.”

The same kind of forgiveness occurred in Mozambique, the homeland of an Eden classmate of mine. He told me his cousin was kidnapped by rebels who killed her father, and she eventually became the rebel leader’s “woman,” mother of his children. After more than a decade of civil war, church leaders in Mozambique and neighboring countries brokered a peace agreement that allowed the rebels to return to their homes in exchange for their laying down their arms.

This woman’s family welcomed her back, with her children and her husband. Her husband who had killed her father. “What else could they do?” my classmate asked. She was their daughter, their sister, their cousin, and her children were family. So, too, was the children’s father their family. Hate is short and love is very long.

When we see injustice and hate, we don’t have to stand back feeling helpless. In fact, many of the people quoted in the book say, we must not stand back feeling helpless. In large ways or small, we need to take sides — on the side of non-violence. If we had been there in Jesus’s time, we might have been the one to tie a colt outside our door for Jesus to ride in his parade.

Today, maybe we take a photo of ourself in a hoodie and post it on Facebook. Maybe we sign a petition calling for an end to payday loan sharks — Lois has one she’ll be happy for you sign. Maybe we support candidates for public office, like Jeanette, who seek to pass laws for the common good. Maybe we just make an effort to smile and look someone in the face that we would ordinarily ignore in passing at the grocery store or bus stop.

Maybe we write a letter in support of health care for all, so that a young woman with leg pain can see a doctor outside the emergency room, well before her condition becomes life threatening. Maybe we pray for politicians we do not agree with, recognizing that they, too, are God’s children and that there is a difference between causing evil and being evil.

Maybe we even pray for forgiveness for George Zimmerman for shooting Trayvon. Or if that’s unrealistic, maybe we ask God to forgive us for not being able to forgive Zimmerman. Then we may realize that forgiveness is a gift that God bestows and that even our confession of imperfect forgiveness is a non-violent response that Jesus would have understood.

We are here today, commemorating the parade, the little drama that Jesus and his disciples cooked up. We needed historians to rediscover that other parade of Pilate going into Jerusalem, but all Christians remember Palm Sunday. This week we will be reading and discussing, singing about and feeling in our hearts the story of Jesus’s last week.

It is a story of meekness winning out against might; of non-violence quietly resisting violence, even unto death; of love outliving hate.

In the words of Paul to the Philippians, “Be of the same mind, having the same love, (as Christ) being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

And when we are acting in the name of Jesus, seeking to follow him in non-violence and peacemaking, we can take to heart what Paul said: “for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you, both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.”

So lets have our own peace parade. Lets hold up these palms as peace banners; lets wave our hoodies in the air; and lets march in the light of God, knowing that while hate is strong, it is also short; and love … love is very long. To the Commonwealth of God. Praise God, Amen.