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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

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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.

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.

Called by God in the Name of Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is the Lord Among Us or Not?

Scripture:  Exodus 17:1-7Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32

Sermon preached at Epiphany UCC, St. Louis on Sept. 25, 2011

Is the Lord Among Us or Not?

One of the things I love about reading the Bible is the realization that people haven’t changed all that much. From the time of Moses, through the days Jesus walked among us, to today, human nature has been pretty consistent.

Take the Israelites, for instance. The passage we read today occurs after the plagues that forced the Egyptians to release the Israelites; after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea and the Egyptian soldiers drowned; after God showed Moses how to sweeten bitter water; after God fed the people with manna and quail. The people have had ample demonstration that God is guiding Moses to provide for God’s chosen people.

But the very next time they have a need and do not see an immediate remedy, they forget what God has done through Moses and they accuse Moses of bringing them into the wilderness to die of thirst.

Can you blame Moses for asking God, “What shall I do with this people? They’re ready to stone me!”

We can do a 180 and look at the story from an ordinary Israelite’s point of view, and Moses and Aaron come off as not always dependable, especially after that euphoric moment when they crossed the sea and their enemies were stopped. Once they were in the wilderness, the people didn’t get these miracles until they complained long and loud about Moses’ leadership. You notice Moses didn’t ask for God’s help until the people were ready to stone him. Who’s the stubborn one?

Figuring out the best way to lead and the best way to follow has been a problem for humanity since the dawn of time. I used to think of history as a continuum of progress, human beings learning from their ancestors and predecessors, aided by the spread of wisdom through written, as well as oral, communication.

But in the 21st century, we’re still dealing with the same struggles. A traditionalist would call it sin. A psychologist would call it the human condition. Today, in our American society, we’d call it, “just politics.”

How do people act as “a people” to meet their needs and how do leaders lead them? How do we all follow God’s will to accomplish that?

That’s why I cherish the UCC slogan, “God is still speaking.” God is still speaking through these scriptures, because we’re still having the same kind of problems. And God is still speaking through people like Moses and the writer of Matthew and Paul and the people to whom he sent his letters. And people like us.

Lets take the Matthew passage. The chief priests who question Jesus’s authority have based their own authority on an assertion very similar to statements made by Moses and Aaron:  That is, when you complain to us about our leadership, you are really complaining about God.

That’s why I was so intrigued by the decision of the lectionary folks to pair the Exodus and Matthew scriptures in the same week’s reading. In Exodus, Moses and Aaron ARE God’s instruments. In Matthew, the priests only THINK they are God’s instruments, or maybe they know they’re not, which is why they’re so touchy about Jesus.

In both passages, the question is “by what authority do you do these things?”   In the words of the Israelites in Exodus, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Or other ways of asking it, “Are your words and actions from God or not?” “Should we listen to you or follow your leadership as having God’s authority or not?”

We readers of the Matthew story have the advantage of knowing the rest of the story. When the priests challenged Jesus, we know they were challenging God as directly as any person ever could. But they didn’t know that. They seemed quite certain of their own authority. They probably felt confident they could trace their lineage straight back to Aaron himself, even though plenty of people then and now would say they were lackeys hand-picked by the Romans.

In fact, Jesus (and Matthew, in the telling of it) turns their question of authority right back on them. He asks them about the source of the authority of John the Baptist.
The description of the chief priests’ and elders’ dilemma brings another element into the question:  The crowd. The people have already determined for themselves that John’s baptism and his authority are from God. If the priests dismiss his actions as not from God, they’re afraid of what the crowd will do.

The crowd. Jesus describes the followers of John — and by implication the followers of Jesus himself — as tax collectors and prostitutes. Isn’t it amazing that these powerful chief priests, appointed by the Roman emperor or his agents, would be afraid of tax collectors and prostitutes?  Kinda reminds you of the people who were about to stone Moses if he didn’t ask God to find some water, doesn’t it?

OK, so how does anyone determine that a leader who professes to speak for God really is speaking for God? Jesus gives us a pretty good benchmark with his parable of the two sons. One says he won’t do his father’s will, but then changes his mind and goes and does it. The other is very respectful of his father and says the right thing. But he doesn’t do it.

If the question had been, “which son has shown the proper respect for his father?” some people would take the words at face value, especially if they were spoken in public, or, say, on TV. They would say the second son showed the proper respect.

But Jesus didn’t ask about how things appeared, or what the motivation was of the two sons. He asked which son did what the father wanted done.

We’re locked into just such a contrast at the moment. We hear a lot of politicians and other opinion leaders saying they honor God and are speaking for God, but their actions do not match their words. Jesus tells us, in this Matthew passage, that the actions are what counts. And even those without honor — prostitutes and tax collectors — can tell the difference between the empty rhetoric of the chief priests and elders and the message of John and Jesus.

I’ll read that part again where Jesus says to the chief priests:  “For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

Notice the translation is not “believe IN him.” But just “believe him.” John’s message was to repent, because another one greater than he was coming. The priests didn’t believe it. The people did, especially the people who had little or no power and no honor or respect in society. They saw and they believed and they changed. And they “are going into the kingdom of God” before the chief priests.

Are going. I used to interpret such passages as indicating they’ll go to heaven after they die. But Jesus is talking in the present tense, not after they die. Right here, right now. They’re going right now into the kingdom, which Jesus said was “at hand.”

That has been an evolving understanding for me, that the kingdom of God is here right now. Not completely — for if it were all accomplished, we would not be praying to God every week, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

But in those instances where God’s will is being done, God’s kingdom is there — that day in the temple with the chief priests disputing with Jesus as the crowd looks on, as well as here today, when, despite sin and the human condition and “just politics,” when people manage to do God’s will.

In those instances, the answer to the Israelites’ question of, “Is God here among us or not?” The answer is, “Yes. God is among us.” we are going into the kingdom.

Paul, in his letter to the people at Philippi, gives us some more clues on how to judge who has God’s authority and how God is acting among us.

If the peope have  “any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy,” they will show it by “having the same love [as Jesus].” They will be “in full accord and of one mind.” They will  “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than themselves.”

In the kingdom of God, each person “looks not to his or her own interests, but to the interests of others.”

Here is the perfect description of doing God’s will, of demonstrating “God among us”:

Jesus, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited, 
but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
You want to know the one whose authority comes from God? Look for the person who does not exploit the name of God, but accepts the servanthood of others, who looks to the welfare of others before his or her own power and honor and glory.

I find one glaring irony resulting from this passage about Paul’s understanding of Jesus and God’s kingdom:  that in such close proximity to an expression of awe at Jesus’s humility — that he emptied himself — some demagogues take the next description of honoring Jesus as a demand that all people bow their knees to one single (and not necessarily accurate) understanding of the statement that “Jesus Christ is Lord.”

Sometimes I fear that such people who are so certain of their own authority — and their own interpretation of Christianity —  are more like the chief
priests and the elders in Matthew than they are Moses or Jesus or Paul.

When we see someone who does nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regards others as better than themselves, someone who looks not to his or her own interests, but to the interests of others, then we see, in the words of Paul, “God who is at work in that person enabling that someone both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.”

Then we can say, “yes, the Lord is among us,” right here, right now, in the kingdom of God.

Praise God. Amen.