Lent 1: Noah and the Rainbow Covenant

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The Great Flood of 1972

It was 1972 and Hurricane Agnes had made landfall in Florida and was moving quickly up the East Coast. By the time she was done, there was extensive damage all the way from the Caribbean to Canada. Damage was heaviest in Pennsylvania, not from high winds but from severe flooding. Most media attention was on the Susquehanna River, which is the longest river on the East Coast and cities along it – like Harrisburg, the state capital, where some buildings were under 13 feet of water. 

My hometown, Pottstown, is not along the Susquehanna. It’s further east, along the Schuylkill River, a much smaller waterway. But the stories that are still told about the flooding there have an additional feature. 6 million gallons of used crankcase oil were washed into the river by the flood waters that swept over the storage lagoons of a company that reclaimed dirty oil. The flood carried the oil over 14 miles of the Schuylkill, spreading oil for acres in all directions, causing the worst inland oil spill in US history at the time. As the flood waters receded, houses and trees were covered with oil as high up as 20 feet. I wasn’t living in Pottstown anymore by that time; I was actually part of a church group that helped clean up houses after the flood up in Portville, NY along the Allegheny River. But the pictures and stories of the flood and oil spill of 1972 continue to this day. I recently saw a bunch on the “Good Old Days of Pottstown” Facebook page. 

As you can imagine, epic events like this are forever woven into the fabric of the history of these places. That’s true for any disaster, natural or otherwise. People in Texas will forever remember the freezing winter of 2021. Questions about ERCOT’s culpability for the failure of their power grid reminded me of similar questions about PG&E’s role in the pipeline explosion in San Bruno and in some of our devastating wildfires. We want to know who or what was responsible. But some catastrophes need a bigger framework, a way to tell the story in a way that it speaks to bigger issues. Karen Armstrong, author of “A History of God” says, “If you witness a terrible natural disaster, yes, you want a scientific explanation why this has happened. But you also need to something that will help you to assuage your grief and anguish and rage. And it is here that myth helps us through that.”

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THE Great Flood

Now, the book of Genesis wasn’t written until the 5th or 6th century BCE, possibly during the time of exile. But the story was evidently seared into the collective memory of the people, passed down orally from generation to generation, and eventually written into the story of Noah – not as a history lesson but as a theological message about their relationship with God – who was very different from the gods of the Babylonians. 

Water was a very important part of the way the ancient Hebrews understood the world and their God. In the beginning, Genesis 1 depicts pre-creation as a watery chaos, a formless void. The Hebrew creation story portrays God bringing order out of this chaos. And it was all very good.

By the time we get to the Noah story, we’ve seen how humanity has messed up God’s beautiful garden. The great flood was interpreted as God’s way of reversing creation and returning earth to its previous state of chaos and nothingness. You can see what a profound theological concept this was. God, creator of everything, had had it with us. Humanity had gone too far and there was nothing worth saving. Well, not quite. God was not completely done with us. There was Noah. 

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And so, the rainbow. When the flood was over and Noah and his family were back on dry land, God makes a to covenant with them to never do that again. And as a sign of this promise, God sets the rainbow in the clouds and says, “Whenever my bow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between me and all living things on the earth.”

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We love this story. It’s a favorite motif for children’s books and toys. There are Noah’s Ark themed Bible school curricula, Noah’s Ark Precious Moments characters. But we might want to take a closer. I’ll never forget the lesson our Sunday school teacher had prepared one Sunday. I didn’t hear about it until after, or I might have intervened. She brought in a big metal tub filled with water and proceeded to tell the Noah’s Ark story complete with drowning people and animals. She was distraught as she told me the horrified reactions of the children. The thing is she was literally correct in her telling of the story. According to the Genesis writer, God did that. The problem is the literal details are not the point. The point is the covenant that God makes. 

Covenant-making is something that God does a lot of in the Bible This one with Noah is one of the first. During Lent this year, our Old Testament readings will lead us through the story of God’s saving purposes in human history by way of God’s covenants. And the interesting thing is that, taken as a whole, they make it a little difficult to pin down exactly what a covenant is. The easiest definition is that a covenant is a contract: if you do, this, then I’ll do that. The problem with that is that it’s transactional. There’s quid pro quo. That’s not how we want to think about God any more than as someone who kills innocent people and animals. 

But the reality is that throughout the Bible, there are contradictory definitions. Abraham and Sarah are given a unilateral, unconditional covenant: “I will make of you a great nation. . .” There’s no quid pro quo; it’s all about what God is doing. On the other hand, Moses is given a bilateral, conditional covenant: “If you obey my commandments, then you will be my people.” Even the covenant with Noah gives God an “escape clause,” promising never again to send a flood, but silent about other disasters. So what are we to make of this seemingly contradictory God. And how does this idea of covenant help us as we navigate through this season of Lent. 

The Lentiest Lent We Ever Lented

As an aside, on Wednesday I talked about how last year there was a meme going around that said “Lent was the Lentiest Lent we ever Lented” because we were in the first stage of the pandemic, sheltering in place, sacrificing human contact, scrambling to find hand sanitizer and toilet paper, and thinking it would be all over by Easter. This year, we know better. The Lentiest Lent has become our new normal, at least until another new normal can be established. The pandemic is an epic disaster. Last summer, the wildfires were epic disasters. Texas is in the midst of an epic disaster. Climate change is an epic disaster. 

Thankfully, we don’t blame God for creating them – at least not usually. I do find it interesting to note that those who claimed that God caused the 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina because of the sins of New York and New Orleans have been silent about Texas. It seems for some God is selective in which sins to punish. If we want to hold to only the punitive interpretation of the Noah story, we’d better be prepared to be included in the indictment. Many disasters – like the one in Texas – can be attributed to human sin.

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OK, so we’re not going to take these stories historically or literally. But unless we believe that God is out there somewhere, uninvolved with us, then we do still want to try to make sense of how God does work with us in our world today. And this messy concept of covenant can help – as it would help Jesus as he continued in this tradition and we continue in this tradition through the sacraments of Holy Communion and Baptism. It’s no accident that we hear Jesus say in the Words of Institution, “this cup is the new covenant in my blood . .  .” or that we speak of the covenant we make with God in our baptism. It’s no accident that the passage from Genesis is paired with Mark’s version of Jesus’ baptism today as we take our first steps into the Lenten wilderness.

It may sound trite, but covenant is all about relationship. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann defines covenant as
“the deep and pervasive affirmation that our lives in all aspects depend upon our relatedness to this other One who takes the initiative in our lives and who wills more good for us that we do for ourselves.” *

Keep that definition in mind as we go through the five covenants before us this Lent. Don’t be thrown off by  contradictions – because the biblical tradition is saturated with deep contradiction. Brueggemann’s theory is that “God possess a rich internal life . . . that is always processing, adjudicating, and reengaging God’s people in a covenant that is unsettled,” flashing back and forth between “punishment and pathos, judgment and mercy.” 

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We may be uncomfortable with a God whose mind can change and can feel remorse. That idea is threatening if we demand certitude from an omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent God. But remember further along in Genesis when Abraham dickers with God over how many righteous people there would need to be in the city of Sodom for God not to destroy it?

Abraham challenges God: “What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? You won’t forgive it for those fifty?”
“OK,” God says, “if I find fifty, I’ll forgive them all.”

But Abraham’s not done: “What if five of those fifty are lacking? You’ll destroy the whole city because of them?’ 
God says, “No, I won’t destroy it if I find forty-five righteous people there.”

Abraham again: “What if there are forty?” 
God: “For the sake of forty I won’t do it.” 

Abraham: “Oh, please don’t be angry if I speak. What if thirty are found there?’ 
God: “I won’t do it if I find thirty.” 

Abraham, “Just one last time, allow me to speak. Suppose twenty are found there?” God: “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.”

The last verse says, “After speaking with Abraham God departed and Abraham returned home.”

Do you get the impression that God might have finally just gotten exasperated with Abraham’s persistence and just gave up? But on the other hand, God was willing to listen to Abraham. 

Or consider how in the Noah story, God sets the bow in the clouds as a reminder to God’s self:  “When I bring clouds over the earth, my bow will appear in the clouds. Then I will remember the covenant that is between me and you and every kind of living creature, and never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all flesh. Whenever my bow appears in the clouds, I will see it, and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature on the earth.” The rainbow is indeed a wonderful sign and symbol to us, but it is God who admits the need for the reminder. 

When we think of covenant as a contract, it’s too easy to see it as an uneven deal. One party has power over the other. One party can punish the other. In fact, some of the Old Testament covenants are modeled on Near Eastern suzerain/vassal treaties between a greater and a lesser party. The greater party, the suzerain, provided benefits such as military protection and land grants to the lesser party, the vassal. In response, the vassal owed the suzerain financial tribute and fidelity. 

But taken all together, what we find in these stories is a way to go beyond the ancient models to in order to embrace a covenantal existence that is always a two-way conversation, a biblical faith in a God who is always reaching out to us and calling us to reach out to each other.

Fidelity is the hallmark of covenant with God, but not based on coercion, but on love, compassion, and truth. The biblical witness can be messy and contradictory, but is ultimately about God’s commitment to being with us through all the messiness and contradictions of our lives. As Christians, we see this commitment to us, personified in Jesus, that carries God beyond punishment to a love that will not let us go. 

Covenantal living then is recognizing this “love that will not let go” in every circumstance of our lives. It is entering into the conversation with God and with one another both in order to mutually support and nurture the body of Christ, but also to move outward into the world in ways that are faithful to our covenant. 

My first congregation was a covenant church. That is, it was a church that had drawn up a covenant when it was formed that outlined the responsibilities of church members. Each year at the annual meeting, members would sign the covenant and recommit to those responsibilities. I don’t know how that practice found its way to a Lutheran church. It’s usually associated with the Baptist church. Anyway, by the time I got there as their third pastor, the board with the covenant written on it with signatures of members had been relegated to the back of a closet. When I discovered it and asked about it, I felt sad that the tradition had died. That congregation no longer exists. I don’t claim to think it was because they broke their covenant, but I wonder what would have been different if we had taken it out, dusted it off, and renewed it. 

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Actually, though, we don’t need a board with a covenant and signatures. We are in covenant already by virtue of our baptisms. Remember I said that water was a very important element of the way the ancient Hebrews understood the world and their God? And he Genesis creation story depicts God as bringing order out of the watery chaos? And the Noah story is a myth signifying a return to that chaos, the undoing of the goodness of creation through the waters of the flood? Fast forward to the Jordan River with God pronouncing Jesus “my beloved” at his baptism. 

At our baptisms, we entered into a covenant community. If we were baptized as adults, we took on the responsibilities of Christian life for ourselves. If we were infants or small children, adults made the promises for us. In either case, it is the responsibility of the community to remind ourselves and one another what we signed on for. We did that not long ago in January on the day we celebrated the Baptism of Jesus. But it’s meant to be a daily awareness and commitment to this covenant that, as Walter Brueggemann defined it, “is the deep and pervasive affirmation that our lives in all aspects depend upon our relatedness to this other One who takes the initiative in our lives and who wills more good for us that we do for ourselves.”

On Ash Wednesday we made a sign of ash on our foreheads, the same place where the cross was traced at our baptism. We recognize the messiness, the ash-iness, the contradictions of life – and we take heart because we are created in the image of the One who created us out of the earth and water and who has redeemed us through water for our life on this earth. Everything we do should come from this foundation. It’s our contract, our covenant, the best deal we could ever have.

Amen

*LentWalter Brueggemann, “Neither Absolutist Nor Atheist Be”

Genesis 9:8-17

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God said, “Here is the sign of the covenant between me and you and every living creature for ageless generations: I set my bow in the clouds, and it will be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth, my bow will appear in the clouds. Then I will remember the covenant that is between me and you and every kind of living creature, and never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all flesh. Whenever my bow appears in the clouds I will see it, and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature on the earth.”
God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all living things on the earth.”

Mark 1:9-15

It was then that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan River by John. Immediately upon coming out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. Then a voice came from the heavens: “You are my beloved, my Own. On you my favor rests.” 

Immediately the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness, and he remained there for forty days, and was tempted by Satan. He was with the wild beasts, and the angels looked after him. After John’s arrest, Jesus appeared in Galilee proclaiming the good news of God: “This is the time of fulfillment. The reign of God is at hand! Change your hearts and minds and believe this good news!”

Jesus, Darwin, and Hermione on Transfiguration

Well now, what was that all about? We call this event in the life of Jesus his transfiguration. But what is transfiguration anyway. Here’s a quote I found when trying to find a good explanation. See if you can tell who said it:

I do hope they start right away; there’s so much to learn. I’m particularly interested in transfiguration, you know, turning something into something else.
Of course, it’s supposed to be very difficult.

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Got it? It’s Hermione, in the first Harry Potter book. Transfiguration was a core class at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, which taught the art of changing the form and appearance of an object or a person. It was considered very hard work and more scientific than any other form of magic.

Although the transfiguration of Jesus was about something – or rather someone – turning into something else, I think it’s safe to say that Mark, the gospel writer wasn’t referring to a magic spell. But it did get me thinking. 

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The Transfiguration of Jesus is a big deal in the New Testament. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all have versions of the story. It’s also referred to in the Second Epistle of Peter. And while it’s not specifically in John’s gospel, some think that it’s what John means when he says, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld this Word’s glory, the glory as of the only begotten of God, full of grace and truth.” So this strange event obviously had a great deal of meaning for those early followers. 

We celebrate the Transfiguration on the last day of the Epiphany season, the season we’ve focused on the revelation of Jesus to the world. Transfiguration is sometimes called the “Small Epiphany” – the “Great Epiphany” being the Baptism of Jesus at the start of the season. This is also the last day of the first half of the Christian church year. Transfiguration is the bridge between the Advent/Christmas/ Epiphany cycle (the birth and revelation of Jesus) and the Lent/Easter/Pentecost seasons (death, resurrection, and the Church). 

OK, so here we are, sitting on this bridge recognizing that transfiguration should be as important to us as it was to Hermione. But maybe we’re still not sure why. I have always loved the Transfiguration as the culmination of Epiphany. It’s a magnificent ending to this season of awe and wonder, like the grand finale of the biggest and best fireworks display ever. And I never really questioned what happened up there on that mountain, how it happened, what could scientifically explain not only the appearance of two long-dead biblical heroes but the being of brilliant light that Jesus became as he talked with them. Science, I thought, can’t always explain what went on in the spiritual realm. Or can it?

The second part of the description of the class at Hogwarts claimed transfiguration was more scientific than any other form of magic. Now, fear not, Harry Potter isn’t the only place I’ve found a connection between science and religion. In fact, today is also Evolution Sunday. No, it’s not on the church calendar. 

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Evolution Sunday began as The Clergy Letter Project in 2004. The school board in Grantsburg, WI had passed some anti-evolution policies and biology professor Michael Zimmerman felt a call to action. Working with  clergy throughout Wisconsin, they prepared a statement in support of teaching evolution. Zimmerman said, “For too long, the misperception that science and religion are inevitably in conflict has created unnecessary division and confusion, especially concerning the teaching of evolution. I wanted to let the public know that numerous clergy from most denominations have tremendous respect for evolutionary theory and have embraced it as a core component of human knowledge, fully harmonious with religious faith.”

Now to be clear, it is not only many evangelical Christians who have trouble reconciling faith and science, but fundamentalist atheists as well. As John Worrall, professor of philosophy of science stated: “There is no way in which you can be both properly scientifically minded and a true religious believer.” The Clergy Letter Project would disagree.

The project began with 200 clergy signing the statement. As of today that number is 15,658. And that’s just Christian clergy. In addition to the Christian Clergy Letter, there is a Rabbi Letter, a Unitarian Universalist Clergy Letter and a Buddhist Clergy Letter. 

Then, in 2006, congregations were invited to participate in the first Evolution Sunday (later changed to Evolution Weekend to be more inclusive) The date chosen is the closest to Charles Darwin’s birthday, February 12. The stated purpose is “an opportunity for serious discussion and reflection on the relationship between religion and science” and an effort “to elevate the quality of the discussion on this critical topic, and to show that religion and science are not adversaries.” “Religious people from many diverse faith traditions and locations around the world understand that evolution is quite simply sound science; and for them, it does not in any way threaten, demean, or diminish their faith in God. In fact, for many, the wonders of science often enhance and deepen their awe and gratitude towards God.” 

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I have to say that I love the picture I sent along with your bulletin of the Jesus fish and the Darwin fish kissing – seems appropriate for Valentine’s Day today!

I signed the letter back in 2006 and decided to sign up my church for the first Evolution Sunday. One member of the congregation, though, wondered why we were doing it since no one there needed to be convinced of the compatibility of science and religion; after all we had scientists in our congregation – as we do here. But I felt it was important to take a public stand on the issue and I’ve been observing the day ever since. Although I have to say that in the beginning it was rather a perfunctory effort.

That is until I began to learn about evolutionary Christianity, which goes beyond the realm of mere support of evolution theory and more deeply into the heart of Divine Mystery, in which the Christ of the cosmos is a central figure.

Usually, when we hear ‘evolution,’ we think about the history of the earth and the development of human life. But evolutionary Christianity says there’s even more to it and says that, just as the universe is evolving, so is Christianity and so is the Church. As Rev. Bruce Sanguin, author of If Darwin Prayed- Prayers for Evolutionary Mystics writes: “We are meant to evolve. If the Spirit is involved in the evolutionary process – as I believe is the case – then we need to start thinking about our lives in Christ through an evolutionary lens.”

There are a number of thinkers and writers on evolutionary Christianity who see the evolution of the universe as an ongoing sacred story connecting all people, all cultures, all religions, and virtually all of creation. But the grandfather of them all has to be the paleontologist and Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. And lest you think this is some new-fangled, new-age nonsense, Teillard (as he was known) was born in 1881 and died in 1955. He was a Jesuit priest. He was also a scientist, trained in geology, botany, zoology and paleontology. He participated in the discovery of Peking Man in 1926. In his 1929 book, The Divine Milieu, Teilhard synthesized scientific discoveries of his day with what he believed about God and how God was at work in the world. 

As is often the case with new ideas, his religious superiors would not allow the book to be published. The French edition was not published until after his death. The English translation was not available until 1960.

In an unpublished piece written in 1933, “Christology and Evolution,” he re-envisioned the gospel message, shifting the emphasis of a redemption-centered theology to a creation-centered one.

So rather than seeing life on Earth as a test for worthiness to get into heaven, and Earth to be a dangerous place full of sin and temptation, Teilhard saw Earth, our home, as an unfinished divine project, brimming with opportunities toward the fullness of life, and open to continual improvement. He saw Jesus’s teaching as integral to a universe in continual evolution. He wrote, “If we are to remain faithful to the gospel, we have to adjust its spiritual code to the new shape of the universe.” 

For him, evolution is the underlying force driving growth in the kingdom of God. He calls the gospel “the very religion of evolution.”

Now, this isn’t just a heady theological exercise. Not only are we invited to rationally understand ourselves more fully as part of the body of the Christ of the cosmos, but to experientially become mystics who are continually in awe and wonder of where we live. Teilhard said that we exist in the ‘divine milieu.’ For him, the most important spiritual fact of our existence is that at every moment we are swimming in a divine sea. Like fish who live in a milieu of water yet are unaware of its importance until they are taken out of it, we are at every moment inhaling and exhaling the divine life. In the divine milieu we live and move and have our being. 

For Teilhard, the divine milieu is the Cosmic Christ. He resonates with the theology of St. Paul and others in passages such as: “Christ is the image of the unseen God and the firstborn of all creation, for in Christ were created all things in heaven and on earth: everything visible and invisible, thrones, dominations, sovereignties, Powers—all things were created through Christ and for Christ. Before anything was created, Christ existed, and all things hold together in Christ.”

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We can go still further back than Teilhard. St. Hildegard of Bingen, along with other medieval mystics, expressed her experience of this Cosmic Christ. Through music, writing and painting, she formulated a cosmological vision that transcended male/female, human/divine, earth/heaven duality. Her visionary work, Liber Divinorum Operum (Book of Divine Works), is a result of what she called “an extraordinary mystical vision” in which she experienced insights into the cosmic dimensions of the Prologue to John’s Gospel. One of the ten visions Hildegard illustrates in this work is of the cosmos, with a human figure at its center, inside the womb of divinity: a visual portrayal of the Cosmic Christ. Hildegard explains: “From the primordial source of Divine Love, in whom the cosmic order rests, shines her exceedingly precise ordering of things. It comes to light in ever-new ways, holding and tending everything there is.”

Ilia Delio, who bases her theology of the “ecological Christ” on the cosmic Christ mysticism of St. Francis and St. Bonaventure, concludes: “Every age must discover Christ anew. Our traditional Christology – the formal study of Jesus Christ – was formulated in the 4th and 5th centuries: Jesus Christ is true God and true man, fully divine and fully human without change, without confusion, without separation, without division, two natures in one person. The language is a mixture of  New Testament, Greek metaphysics, and Plato and Aristotle, and reflects an understanding of the universe as fixed and unchanging, not dynamic and evolving.

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Which brings us back to the Transfiguration. I read someplace once that physicists are the new mystics. Now I’ll be the first to admit that much of what I attempt to read about quantum physics and even quantum theology is way beyond me. But I am intrigued. For instance, in recent decades there’s been continuing debate over what really happened at the resurrection of Jesus. One side argues for the absolute truth of the biblical witness, even though the versions in the gospels vary greatly. The other side argues for the absolute truth of the impossibility of a physical resurrection; the story is myth created for the grieving followers of Jesus. The Transfiguration itself has often been described as a resurrection story, either misplaced in the timeline by the writers or a vision of the resurrection and new creation to come. 

But a new way of looking at it, combining science with theology, sees the Transfiguration as more than the historical self-revelation of the divinity of Jesus on that mountain. It’s also the basis for a new form of perception, a new mode of existence, a transformed way of being in the world. On that mountain, the possibility of a new unity between matter and Spirit became reality. Even time became blurred as the lines between the dead and the living were erased. Scientists and theologians are coming together to help us make sense of the wide universe in which we live, as well as the small places in which we shelter. 

“A case for consonance between science and theology: The cosmological Christ as the scriptural and confessional focal point for dialogue”

Evolutionary Christianity might seem like a foreign language to us. We may feel more like Hermoine, worrying that transfiguration is supposed to be very difficult. But evolutionary Christianity offers us some new ways of thinking about and experiencing our faith, as well as promoting an ecology theology that is much more helpful and hopeful for our planet.

It also gives us hope as we navigate the evolution of our world as we adapt to the pandemic, the aftermath of the pandemic, the future of the church at large, as well as the future of our own little congregation. 

We might not understand all the theories and scientific and theological language, but we can rest assured that the bottom line of the life and love offered to us in Christ never changes. But we do. Transfiguration is about transformation. And in the freedom of that love and grace, we can grow into what we will become. 

Amen 

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Continue reading Jesus, Darwin, and Hermione on Transfiguration

This Is No Mother-in-Law Joke

She appears in the story so briefly, you might miss her. There’s a lot going on in the first chapter of Mark and it goes by quickly. Mark likes the word ‘immediately;’ he uses it 41 times in his gospel. After Jesus is baptized, the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He says, ‘Follow me to Simon and Andrew’ and immediately they leave their nets and follow him. Then he sees James and John and immediately calls them. He touches a man with leprosy and immediately the disease leaves him. So we have to pay close attention so we don’t miss the two very important verses in this passage. Jesus gets baptized, goes out into the desert to be tempted, and then begins his ministry by calling the first four disciples. They go off to the synagogue in Capernaum where Jesus teaches. A man is there, described as one with an unclean spirit, and Jesus heals him. After that, they head over to Simon and Andrew’s house. 

And there she was. Simon’s mother-in-law. Wait a minute; Simon Peter, the Rock on which Jesus would build his Church, the first pope, has a mother-in-law? But we don’t learn much about her, not even her name. She may be a widow, living there with her sons and evidently her daughter, Simon’s wife. We don’t know much about her, either, although she’s mentioned in 1 Corinthians as accompanying Peter on his missionary journeys and writings by Clement of Alexandria mentions that they had children.

Well, this was intriguing. I wanted to know more about what Simon’s mother-in-law was doing there in the very first chapter, on the very first day of Jesus’ ministry. I started to look at these two little verses with a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion,’ which is a fancy way of saying look a little more deeply into the cultural biases of both then and now, especially when it comes to some of the women in the Bible.

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I’ll tell you how I learned about this way of reading scripture because it was an epiphany for me. Back in my first New Testament class in seminary, we were reading Paul’s letter to the Romans, where he commends to them, ‘Phoebe a deaconess of the church . . .’ This was 1982, so we were still using the Revised Standard Version, considered to be the best translation then. But, as our professor pointed out, the Greek word diakonos, translated as ‘deaconess’ for Phoebe was the same word elsewhere translated as ‘servant’ or ‘minister.’ Well, this was a revelation. Although the Lutheran Church had been ordaining women since 1970, there was still a lot of resistance to women ministers, much of it based on scriptural references. But here was an example of how cultural biases had seeped even into our Bible translations. 

POPE GENERAL AUDIENCE

It was interesting to note that, when the New Revised Standard Version came out in 1989, Phoebe had gotten an upgrade. It now read: ‘I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church . . .’ Although, in the Anglicized edition, which uses wording more familiar to British readers, there is a footnote for deacon that reads ‘or minister.’ This revelation started me wondering: where else had women been or still are mistranslated or misrepresented in the Bible? It’s tricky because oftentimes, women aren’t even named, or their identities are tied to their father, husband, or sons. That was the way it was. Still, if we dig we can unearth some rich gems about some of these unnamed or underrated people. 

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And so it is with Simon’s mother-in-law. And to put a more vivid face on her, I’ve decided to call her Naomi. I actually stole the idea from Maren Tirabassi who has a really wonderful blog post called “How She Taught the Teacher Communion.” She says that Naomi is a good mother-in-law name. And I agree.

In the traditional reading of verses 30-31, Naomi is really just a secondary character to Jesus. Her only contribution to the action is to get up off her sickbed to wait on them.

(I don’t know about you, but that’s rather off-putting – healed just in time to make dinner). 

But there’s something odd about this story. In the usual healing story, Jesus commends someone’s great faith, or declares someone’s sins forgiven. But there’s none of that here. This healing is ‘just because,’ so something else must be going on. Naomi’s condition is described as “lying down” or even “laid aside” because of a fever, which in those days could be deadly. She’s unable to perform her usual duties, which for all intents and purposes puts her aside in her community and her household.

When Jesus learns of her condition, he goes to her. And he doesn’t just heal her; he raises her up – it’s the same word used in descriptions of the resurrection. “Raising up” is not simply a description of a physical movement from prone to upright or even of healing. Her raising up is an invitation into something new. Her response is variously translated: “she waited on them,” “cooked for them,” “served them.” But here, at the very beginning of the first gospel, we should note that the Greek word used for her action is diakoneō, from the same root as the word describing Phoebe. 

Naomi’s response is the first explicit example of discipleship in the Gospel of Mark. So what we might at first read as a matter-of-fact statement about a woman resuming her normal duties becomes powerful illustration of the meaning of discipleship. It’s about service. We don’t hear of her going off with Jesus and the other disciples (and evidently, for some of them, their families). She remains in place, at home, doing what she does best – but now in service to Jesus. 

Maybe that’s an important lesson we’re learning in this pandemic. I mean, we hear a lot about service nowadays. It used to be that a service job was seen as somehow inferior. According to conventional wisdom, when we’ve become successful, others serve us. But these days essential services, essential workers are keeping us going – often at their own risk. But Jesus, who did not come to be served but to serve, reminds us that ser­vice for the sake of others is the higher calling; it’s the mark of true discipleship.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of diakonia lately. For one thing, I’ve been learning more about what being a ‘deacon’ has meant here at Good Shepherd. I don’t know what happened this year. Somehow it’s gotten away from me; things I’d planned to accomplish got moved to a back burner – or completely off the stove. One of those things was to thoroughly read our constitution and by-laws and get a good understanding of how things work. So when I finally started reading about the required roles of deacons (as well as elders and trustees), I admit I was flummoxed. It was the first I’d heard about it. Now, the good thing about this is, as I’ve been sharing my surprise, I’ve been learning a lot of history, a lot of what deacons have done in the past.  

Diakonia

We’re going to be looking at those by-laws in the coming year, and whether or not we keep the same names or duties or terms, etc., the one thing we will keep is the concept of diakonia, with the understanding that each of us is a diakonos – a deacon, a minister, one who serves. From the one who is ordained, to the one preparing for ordination in seminary, to the lay leaders on church council, to the ones who go about serving in some way or ways in their everyday lives, whether in or out of lockdown. Naomi, who got up and made a meal for Jesus and his friends, was no less a disciple than her son Simon would be. 

This should be really good news for us. Service can be done in big and small ways. Serving Jesus can be done at the altar or in the pew, on the church council or in some other way. It might not even be in church. I have no doubt that health care workers are serving Jesus, whether or not they’re even Christian. Wherever healing is done, compassionate care is given, mourners are comforted – there is diakonia. 

Martin Luther was big on this idea of our callings or vocations. He didn’t mean only the ordained ministry. All of us, beloved and forgiven children of God, are mediators of God’s love in the world. This is not an abstract notion. We do it concretely in the various places of responsibility we find ourselves: family life, job, citizenship, church. Ordinary work is turned into diakoneo, faith active in love. What better example could there be of this holy work than Naomi? We might wonder how her service continued. Maybe it didn’t change at all; she’d always been a giving person. But since her encounter with Jesus, maybe she came to see her work in a new way – not simply because it was her assigned role in her culture, not simply because it was what was expected of her, but because it served the mission of Jesus. 

Or – maybe she realized that she was being called to serve in a new way. Maybe she didn’t enjoy cooking for her family, what she really wanted to do now was minister to others who were suffering from fevers and other illnesses and needed a hand to raise them up. We don’t know. 

But the fact that her discipleship comes about as a result of healing should resonate with us today. We’re in the midst of a health crisis the likes of which we’ve never seen. Our sense of community has been shattered by social distancing. In the gospels, whenever Jesus heals someone, the healing is not just physical; the person is restored to their community. And don’t we long for that? Don’t we as a church long to be restored to the community, to figure out how we are invited – called – to get up serve? 

The part that is often a little daunting is figuring out what we are being called to do. The work of discerning our calling can be challenging. And it can come about in strange ways. I was reminded of my early days in seminary, when a friend who was quite theologically conservative and did not approve of women in ministry, invited me to lead a Bible study for his church’s women’s group (it’s OK as long as you’re not teaching men). At the end of the session, my friend had tears in his eyes as he said to me, “You have a calling.” I don’t think I ever received a more powerful affirmation. 

Spiritual Gifts Results

But it’s not always so clear. One way that I’ve used before is the spiritual gifts inventory that’s on the ELCA website. There are 20 categories, everything from administration (where I score well) to skilled artisanship (where I have no score at all). One of the categories is ‘hospitality,’ where I believe Naomi would have done pretty well. 

Sometimes one’s results need to be mulled over a bit – kind of like our star words. A former parishioner scored very high on the gift of leadership. “I’m not a leader,” she protested. “This test doesn’t work.” I reminded her of ways that she had taken on leadership in various ways, and eventually she admitted, “Hmm, maybe I am a leader.” That was proven out even more when, after the tragic death of her 5-year-old son in 1995, she began a foundation to assist abused/abandoned children and their families, locally and globally.

Not everyone has a dramatic story, but everyone does have a gift and a calling. I recommend going to http://elca.organd typing ‘spiritual gifts assessment tool’ in the search bar. Let me know how you do. You can question your result, argue about it, ponder it, maybe get some direction in the midst of this challenging time in our church and our world. I know, we could call it the Naomi project: being raised up by Jesus in order to serve. As Maren wrote:

Jesus lifted her up,
forehead burning virus and all,
and fever was broken,
compassion poured,
and, in gratitude for what he did for her,
she broke bread for them
poured wine into their cups.
and served them all …

As evening fell, others came ¬–
with illnesses of mind and body,
gaping holes of loss,
and he healed them through the night
as they clamored at the door,

but he had time to watch,
as she baked bread after bread, fried fish,
opened jugs of olive oil,
lifted a cup always running over.

And Jesus thought,
as dawn came up in prayer –
when I go,
perhaps this serving,
and these old hands of love

is what I shall leave behind
in remembrance of me.

Amen 

MARK 1:29-39
Upon leaving the synagogue, Jesus entered Simon’s and Andrew’s house with James and John. Simon’s mother-in-law lay ill with a fever, and immediately they told Jesus about her. Jesus went over to her, took her by the hand and helped her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

After sunset, as evening drew on, they brought to Jesus all who were ill and possessed by demons. Everyone in the town crowded around the door. Jesus healed many who were sick with different diseases, and cast out many demons. But Jesus would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew who he was. Rising early the next morning, Jesus went off to a lonely place in the desert and prayed there. Simon and some companions managed to find Jesus and said to him, “Everybody is looking for you!”

Jesus said to them, “Let us move on to the neighboring villages so that I may proclaim the Good News there also. That is what I have come to do.” So Jesus went into their synagogues proclaiming the Good news and expelling demons throughout the whole of Galilee.

Are You (God) Talking to Me?

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How do you know when God is trying to get your attention?

How can you tell when God is calling you to do or to be something? And if you’re asking God for guidance about some-thing, how do you know what the answer is? I’m going to ask you to be open, as you listen to my words, to remembering a time that you felt that God was speaking to you. At the end, you can share your story if you want to. As I wrote this sermon, I was very aware of the power of story – the biblical stories, as well as my own and those of others. And I thought how powerful it would be to hear about the reality of God’s call in the lives of our friends and neighbors. 

How do we know when God is speaking?

As much as we would like to get a message in skywriting or in an email with an attachment with a very clear, detailed plan, that’s not how it works. But how does it? Well, our first stop in our search is to see how it’s happened for others, beginning with people in the Bible. We have two of them today: Samuel and Nathanael. Their stories illustrate both the confusion and the illumination of our own questions. 

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You might remember Samuel as the prophet who chose and anointed David as king over Israel. But that was in his old age. Our story today is from his youth. Samuel was the son of Elkanah and Hannah. Hannah had been childless before Samuel’s birth, which caused her great distress. She prayed for a child and vowed that if she became pregnant she would dedicate the child to God.  She did become pregnant. Her song of praise in the first book of Samuel is similar in many ways to the Magnificat of Mary at the angel Gabriel’s announcement of her impending pregnancy. Hannah remembered her vow and did take him to the temple and into the care of Eli, the high priest. And that’s where we find him today, maybe around 12 years old, as the priest’s apprentice who sleeps in the temple near the “ark of God,” the most sacred object of all in Israelite worship. 

His call story is almost like a comedy routine. God keeps speaking and Samuel keeps going and waking up Eli. Until the dime finally drops for Eli and he tells Samuel what to do – just say, “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.” So Samuel did and God spoke. The next verse in I Samuel is: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.” 

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Under the fig tree

Nathanael, in the Gospel of John, is introduced to us as a friend of Philip. Philip, who was already a follower of Jesus, reaches out to his friend to tell him all about it. Again, what follows is comical. Nathanael hears only that Jesus is from Nazareth and quips, “Can anything good come out of there?” Was his response sarcasm, snarkiness, or just plain doubt? Either way, I think we can relate to his skepticism. If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. And he was right to be skeptical – as are we. Now, as then, many people claim to be the messiah and their followers often discover tragically their mistake. Think of Jim Jones, David Koresh, and other cult leaders. Careful listening for God’s voice is crucial. 

Thankfully, Nathanael does accept Philip’s invitation to “come and see” and Jesus finds him sitting under a fig tree. “Sitting under a fig tree” is a Jewish figure of speech, referring to studying the Torah. In his study of God’s Word and his experience of Jesus, he recognizes the truth of what Philip had told him. 

So here we have two examples of being spoken to by God, of being called by God. But they’re not the only ones. Samuel’s call story is different from the one Moses experienced, beginning with a burning bush. Nathanael’s call story is different from that of the other apostles, the ones we usually think of, when Jesus says. Follow me” and they immediately drop what they’re doing and go. So if we learn nothing else from these stories, we see that hearing a word from God can take different forms. 

If you ask any pastor how they knew they were called, you’ll get a different answer each time. Not that this is about just the call to ordained ministry. God speaks to each and every one of us and calls each and every one of us to some kind of service to the world. But we still have questions: how do we hear and follow God’s call? If we do sense a prompting, an encouragement, or a tug from a particular direction, how do we know that it’s God doing the tugging?

Well, from Samuel’s story we can see that one mark of a divine communication is repetition, even if it’s not a voice we literally hear. So we might ask: Does this prompting or tugging persist or was it a fleeting idea? While many pastors will tell you that they always felt called to ordained ministry and followed that path without hesitation, many others will confess that even though they felt a calling, they avoided it until it just couldn’t be denied anymore. God can be very persistent. 

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Another clue is in Eli’s advice to be still and deliberately, thoughtfully listen, making time and space for reflection. The slogan of the United Church of Christ is “God is Still Speaking,” but I’m told that in UCC circles the response to that is often, “Yes, but is anybody listening?” Granted, it is not always easy for us to find that quiet time for thoughtful listening and even when we have the time we tend to fill it up with other distractions. But listening is the best way to hear what God is saying. 

Another potential sign is those “tingling ears” that God told Samuel about. Now what does it mean to have tingling ears? It sounds like one of the side effects of the ubiquitous drug commercials on TV. But I don’t think that’s what’s intended here. Tingling ears is the effect of the Holy Spirit working in us, challenging us and stirring us. It might actually be an uncomfortable sensation, but paying attention to it could mean that we’re listening and moving down the road God is calling us to follow.

I don’t know if this is an example of tingling ears, but back in 2000-2001 I was becoming more and more aware that my time at my congregation in Buffalo, NY was coming to an end. I knew it was time for change, but I didn’t have any idea of what it would be. I kept telling people (kind of jokingly), “I’m waiting for a word from the Lord.” But to my dismay and frustration no word seemed to be forthcoming. In the meantime, I was getting more and more involved in interfaith activities. One afternoon, as I was talking with my spiritual director, out of the blue she said, “I think you need to go back to school and get a degree in something to do with interfaith.” 

To my everlasting chagrin, I immediately said, “I can’t do that” and started listing all the reasons that was a bad idea. It was the end of our session, and I left. As soon as I got into my car, I burst out in tears. And I said to myself, “I’m going back to school.” And you know the tears weren’t tears of sorrow; they were tears of something like relief – at last, an answer. One that I almost disregarded. Now I can recognize that my ears had been tingling for quite a while, like when the bishop asked me to represent him in interfaith forums, committees, and activities. They were tingling when I was asked to co-chair the interfaith women’s initiative as part of the year-long celebration of the centennial of the Pan-American Exposition held in Buffalo in 1901. Tingling as part of an interfaith response after 9/11. Until finally, the road ahead became clear. 

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Like Eli with Samuel, my spiritual director got before I did that God was speaking. Sometimes, we need to hear it from someone else – although that doesn’t mean we follow blindly what they say. We still have to listen in the quiet of our own hearts, and possibly with trusted friends and spiritual directors.

Now with Nathanael’s story, we see another truth – God’s calling meets us where we are. While other  disciples were on board with Jesus right away, Nathanael engages in skeptical debate. In other words, there’s no one right way to respond to God’s call. And it’s ok to question and debate. In fact, it’s in the wrestling with our calling that we can find the place we’re supposed to be. 

Where you belong

As I was thinking about our seminarian who will be joining us soon, I was remembering Nick. Nick was the first student I supervised from PLTS. He was great, very good at planning and leading worship. But as we came to the end of the semester, he informed me of his decision to leave seminary – he was feeling that it was not his path. In the years since, I’ve kept up with Nick and his family. I knew that he had become a nurse, and when I checked his Facebook page to make sure that was still true, I saw that it was. And on the banner of the website where he works it says #whereyoubelong. 

O God, please send someone else!

There’s a much-loved definition of vocation by the writer Frederick Buechner that says: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” That is a lovely definition, and sometimes it does work that way. But sometimes it doesn’t seem to fit. Moses, for example, didn’t demonstrate “deep gladness” when God called him at the burning bush. His response to his call was, “O my God, please send someone else!” 

And Samuel wanted nothing to do with the difficult news of impending judgment that God called him to deliver to Eli and his sons. In the Gospels, too, the disciples eventually experience their calling as leading them into struggle, not away from it. In the end, Buechner’s definition is still a valuable discernment tool: what is your deep gladness; where do you see the world’s deep hunger? But its opposite can be used as well: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep discomfort and the world’s deep blessings meet.” The longer I look at those four categories (deep gladness, deep hunger, deep discomfort, deep blessings), the more I believe that they could be a powerful way to connect with the mind of God in discerning our calling. 

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Come and see

Finally, the words of Jesus (and then Philip’s echo of them) — “Come and see” — really stand out this week. Up to now, we’ve been thinking about only our auditory sense – how we listen for and how we hear God speaking. But for Nathanael, and for many others, seeing is believing. We want to see for ourselves. But as we know, the likelihood of skywriting or a personal email from God isn’t very high. In John’s gospel, the primary mode of spreading the good news and growing the community of disciples is to offer the invitation to “come and see.” So actually you are the embodiment of a sign from God – or you can be. Your invitation might be just the thing someone was waiting for. 

And that started me wondering: if I were to invite a friend to experience the best of our congregation’s life and use this simple, three-word invitation, to what specifically would I invite them? If you were to invite someone to come and see, to experience the best of what Good Shepherd has to offer, to what specifically would you invite them? Where and when do we most vividly, experientially embody the Gospel we proclaim?

These are a lot of questions, I know. And we’re not going to answer them within the 15 minutes of sermon time. My hope is that they can seep into our consciousness and keep on prompting, encouraging, and tugging on us – maybe even tingling our ears. 

Your story?

And now, I think I’m just going to stop and see if anyone has a story to share of a time you felt God speaking to you and or calling you to some kind of action. 

Amen

1 SAMUEL 3:1-10

Now the boy Samuel was serving the Lord under Eli. In those days, God’s voice was rarely heard – prophecy was uncommon. One night Eli, whose eyes had grown so weak that he could no longer see, was sleeping in his bed. The lamp of God had not gone out, and Samuel was sleeping in the Tent of Meeting, near the Ark of the Covenant. Then the Lord called to Samuel.
Samuel answered, and ran to Eli saying, “Here I am! You called. Here I am!”
“I didn’t call you. Now go back to sleep.” 
Samuel went back to sleep.
A second time, the Lord called Samuel, and he got up and went to Eli.
“Here I am. You called me.”
“I did not call you. Go back to sleep.”
Now Samuel didn’t yet know the Lord, and the Lord’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him. A third time the Lord called Samuel, and he got up and went to Eli, 
Here I am. You called me.”
Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy.
“Go back and go to sleep, and if you are called, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” 
And the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!”
And Samuel replied, Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”

JOHN 1:43-51

The next day, after Jesus had decided to leave for Galilee, he met Philip and said, “Follow me.” 
Philip came from Bethsaida, the same town as Andrew and Peter. Philip sought out Nathanael and said to him, “We’ve found the One that Moses spoke of in the Law, the One about whom the prophets wrote: Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary and Joseph.”
From Nazareth?” Can anything good come from Nazareth?”
“Come and see.”
When Jesus saw Nathanael coming near, he said, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no guile.”
“How do you know me?” 
“Before Philip even went to call you, while you were sitting under the fig tree, I saw you.”
“Rabbi, you’re God’s Own; you’re the ruler of Israel!”
“Do you believe just because I told you I saw you under the fig tree? You’ll see much greater things than that. The truth of the matter is, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the chosen One.”

Baptism: Lifeline for a Lifetime

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Today, this commemoration of the baptism of Jesus is a leap forward in time. It seems like we just celebrated his birth, and now here’s the adult Jesus down at the Jordan River getting baptized. They grow up so fast, don’t they?!

What is it about this event that the Church calendar creators, in their wisdom, have put it right after Christmas and right at the beginning of the Epiphany season? Evidently, they thought that baptism was an important topic for us to think about, especially since a version of the story of the baptism of Jesus is told in three of the four gospels.

Baptism is one of the two sacraments of the Lutheran Church, and Martin Luther famously repeated often the admonition to “Remember your baptism!” But what did he mean by that? What do we mean by it? Baptism is one of the two sacraments of the Lutheran Church, and Martin Luther famously repeated often the admonition to “Remember your baptism!” But what did he mean by that? What do we mean by it? 

Sometimes stories are the best way to get at meaning, so I’m going to tell two. The first comes from Pastor Janet Wolf of Hobson United Methodist church in Nashville, TN. She describes her congregation as wildly diverse, including “…people with PhDs and folks who have never gone past the third grade; folks with two houses and folks living on the streets; and, as one person who struggles with mental health declared, ‘those of us who are crazy and those who think they’re not.’” 

As Pastor Janet tells it, some years ago, a woman named Fayette found her way to the church. Fayette was homeless and was living with lupus and mental illness. She joined the new member class and was particularly taken with a description of baptism as “this holy moment when we are named by God’s grace with such power it won’t come undone.” In the class, Fayette would interrupt to ask again and again, “And when I’m baptized, I am…?” And the class would respond, “Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.” “Oh, yes!” she’d say, and they’d go back to their discussion. The day of Fayette’s baptism came. This is how Pr. Janet describes it: “Fayette went under, came up sputtering, and cried out, ‘And now I am…?’ And we all sang, ‘Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.’ ‘Oh, yes!’ she shouted as she danced around the fellowship hall. 

Two months later, Pr. Janet got a phone call. Fayette had been beaten and raped and was at the county hospital. When she arrived at the hospital, she says: “I could see her from a distance, pacing back and forth. When I got to the door, I heard, ‘I am beloved.’ She turned, saw me, and said, ‘I am beloved, precious child of God, and….’ 

Catching sight of herself in the mirror  – hair sticking up, blood and tears streaking her face, dress torn, dirty, and rebuttoned askew, she started again, ‘I am beloved, precious child of God, and…’ She looked in the mirror again and declared, ‘…and God is still working on me. If you come back tomorrow, I’ll be so beautiful I’ll take your breath away!’”

That is what baptism is.

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The second story comes from Dr. Heather Murray Elkins, Professor of Worship, Preaching, and the Arts at Drew University. This is how she tells it:

It was the last day of a pastor’s retreat. I had given them an assignment. They were to look through scripture over the three days and find the name that belonged to them. Or the story they couldn’t live without. I explained that Abraham Heschel talks about scripture: We do not say the Word, the Word utters us. There are pieces of scripture we belong to. 

To prepare for closing day, we made a circle of chairs, with one chair in middle. And we’d hear each other pronounce our names to all there, to identify the way the word had uttered them. It was going very well, with really powerful testimonies coming right out of scripture. Then a young man, young to ministry anyway, sat in the chair and didn’t say anything. We waited and waited. It got really uncomfortable. Finally I said to him,” Is there something you’d like to share with us, some name or some story?” He didn’t look at me or the group, just at his hands.

He said, “I looked for three days, and there were names I wanted. But none were strong enough to replace the name I have, that I’d been given. I was given this name when I was very young, and it was repeated to me as I grew.  My father gave me this name.” Then he fell silent again. 

After a moment I said, “Would you be willing to share, what is that name, what is your name? 

And he said, he said, “My name is ‘not good enough’. That’s my name; my father gave me that name. ” Then he began to cry.

We were in that room, we were watching him, and he was crying and it was like he was drowning right in front of us. We’re a bunch of lifeguards, and we didn’t know what to do. How can he not have a name or how to break the power of that name?

And then it was I think the Spirit did its work, because it was like a wind or maybe just an impulse. A group of us got up, without a word, without making eye contact and went to where he was on the chair, sitting weeping. And we laid hands on him. And then it wasn’t just one voice, it was several voices, like one voice coming up all together, like one flow, one stream. And what we said, to him, sitting weeping in our midst, with our hands on him was this: “You are my beloved child. In you I am well pleased. “

And then we just paused.  We just let the blessing rest. And then we all sat down. 

When we packed up and finished our business and got ready to go home, I saw him in the parking lot. I went over and said, “I need to know, I really need to know: will that make a difference to you, will what happened make any difference?”

And he said, “You know, I don’t know.  But I feel as if something in here was broken. And it isn’t now. But I promise you, every time I put my hand in the water to help name another human being in front of God, I’ll remember who I am.“

She ends her story by saying, “See, I think that’s the secret of our baptism.”

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Martin Luther is said to have often exclaimed, “I am baptized” when he felt his energy flagging, his doubt growing, or his fear strengthening. The story is told that when he was hidden away for safekeeping in the Wartburg Castle, he struggled with loneliness and anxiety. It’s said that he would scribble on his desktop ‘I am baptized’ in order to battle back his despair. His story reminds us that baptism is not an empty ritual or a one-time welcoming party. Nor is it a requirement for salvation, a way to determine who’s in and who’s out, who’s saved and who’s not. It is a way of life, a way of being in the world that’s informed by a moment in time when we were sealed with the same Holy Spirit that came to Jesus in his moment in time. To scribble or say “I am baptized,” especially in times of loneliness, anxiety, despair, weariness, fear, illness or fatigue, is our greatest resource when our light is faltering or the fire of our passion for life is in need of rekindling.

OK, you say. But how does that work? You mean if I just scribble “I am baptized” on my desk, all my troubles will go away? No, it’s not a magic potion. The Holy Spirit’s not a genie in a bottle to grant your every wish. Baptism is a lifeline – for a lifetime. Martin Luther said baptism is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that takes our entire lives to fulfill.

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The most important thing to remember about baptism is that it’s about identity. That’s what this day is about. Epiphany is the season of revelation. Who was this Jesus who was drawn down to the river for John’s baptism? We get so caught up with the dilemma of why Jesus had to be baptized if he never sinned. We could argue about the validity of that assumption another time. Suffice to say for now, for Jesus, there was more to it than having his sins washed away. 

In all three gospel accounts, the voice of God speaks: “You are my beloved.” No mention of forgiveness of sins, just “You are my beloved.” That’s the revelation. That’s the gift Jesus took away from his baptism: his identity. Imagine what an epiphany that was for him – to be so known, so affirmed, so loved. Well, actually it’s the same thing that you were called in your baptism, so imagine that, savor that for a moment. You, yes you, are God’s beloved. 

For Jesus, secure in his identity, could then go into the wilderness to discern what his ministry would be and then follow through with it no matter where it took him or how difficult it would become. And it’s the same for us. The revelation is that we are beloved and the way forward is how we live out that identity. 

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In the wilderness, as he was spiritually tempted and toughened up for the ministry he was about to undertake, Jesus knew his ministry would be all about preaching and teaching what he called the Kingdom of God. Martin Luther King would come to call it “the Beloved Community,” which according to the King Center “is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. 

“Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. International disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.”

Pie-in-the-sky fantasy? Dr. King didn’t think so. He believed the Beloved Community is “a realistic, achievable goal that can be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.” Jesus didn’t think so either. When he read from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue, he debuted his mission: “to bring good news to those who are poor, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim release to those held captive, and liberation to those in prison.” Obviously, there is still a lot of work to be done in service to the Beloved Community. If the events of recent weeks have told us anything it’s sin and brokenness are alive and well in the world.

But just as Jesus knew himself as Beloved of God and was able to face the hatred and violence he later encountered, and as Martin Luther King, as a follower of Jesus, also knew himself deeply as Beloved of God and was able to carry on the work of non-violent resistance in the name of the Beloved Community, it is our foundational identities as Beloved people of God that, as the old Powdermilk Biscuits jingle from “Prairie Home Companion” used to say, “gives you the strength to get up and do what needs to be done.”

To remember that you are baptized is to know – even if you don’t remember it or didn’t hear the voice of God say it – it is to deeply know that you are beloved. Can we even begin to appreciate the wonder of that? To be beloved – all the time, not just when you’re being loveable, but in your very worst moments. To be beloved – when you’re all alone with your thoughts and feelings, some of which you can barely admit to yourself, let alone to anyone else. To be beloved – when you can’t forgive or love yourself. To be beloved – when you’re tired, when you’re afraid, when you’re lonely.

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Remembering your baptism is allowing yourself to hear the words “I love you” and to allow them to sink down deep into your souls and permeate your every cell. But I suspect, most of us don’t take the time –at least not very often – to do that. Even as I was writing these words, I stopped and realized that it’s too easy to say this and know it on a rational level. But that’s not enough. It’s got to get down into the heart and soul if we are to be true followers of Jesus. So I stopped writing and I took a few minutes to meditate on those words. I already had my Epiphany candles lit, so the mood lighting was just right. The best way to describe those minutes is that it was like being in a Divine embrace. Yes, thoughts intruded. But coming back to the words, “I love you” or “You are beloved” was easy enough, especially concentrating on the light from the candles. The words that came to me were “Sleep in heavenly peace.” Or as St. Paul called it, “the peace that passes all understanding.”

This is baptism, our lifeline. And yes, we will get called back into the world of personal problems, national dysfunction and international violence. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus immediately goes into the wilderness to be tempted, in other words to face the realities of the world. And so do we. But we go as precious children of God. No more special or precious than anyone else. Baptism doesn’t make us some kind of elite God squad. But remembering our baptism is our way of holding onto the lifeline, intentionally allowing the Spirit of Divine creativity and possibility to work in and through us – even when we’re weary, discouraged or afraid.

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Affirming our baptism together solidifies our citizenship in the Beloved Community – along with Martin (both of them), Fayette, the young pastor at the retreat, and all the beloved children of God, born of water and kissed by the Spirit of God. May we remember that we have been named by God’s grace with such power that it won’t come undone. May we live in such a way that others will know themselves as beloved of God – especially those who have been given cause to think they are less than loved, less than children of the One who created them. 

May the revelation of Jesus as Beloved light our way through this Epiphany season, so that we can clearly see who we are, and reflect to others their true identity: beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold. Amen

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Mark 1:4-11

John the Baptizer appeared in the desert, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to John and were baptized by him in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins. John was clothed in camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist; he ate nothing but grasshoppers and wild honey. He proclaimed, “One more powerful than I will come after me. I am not fit to stoop down and untie his sandal straps. I have baptized you in water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

It was then that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan River by John. And immediately upon coming out of the water, Jesus saw heaven opening and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove. And a voice came from the heavens: “You are my beloved, my Own. On you my favor rests.”

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The Magi vs Herod: Then & Now

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January 6 – a day that will live in infamy
Well, to say that it has been quite a week would be a huge understatement. Wednesday, January 6, was the official Day of the Epiphany – the day after the twelfth day of Christmas. I always look forward to that day. I keep the Magi in my Nativity scene a good distance away from the stable, moving them a little closer every day until they reach their destination on Epiphany. And I look forward to the Sunday closest to the 6th when we’ll celebrate in worship their arrival to pay homage to the newborn Christ. It’s my favorite holy day.

But you know what? This year, this Wednesday I never even got the Magi to the stable at all. I was glued all day and evening to TV coverage of the assault on the US Capital building and forgot all about the three wise guys. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was aware that it was Epiphany, which made the unfolding violence even more repugnant. And in the days since, it’s been a challenge to sort through my own thoughts and emotions, as well as those of friends and colleagues. Not to mention the ongoing news updates and uncertainty of what might happen next. Just a week ago, we were giving thanks for the new year and offering prayers for better days ahead. But now we have yet another “date which will live in infamy,” along with the attack on Pearl Harbor, the assassination of President Kennedy, and 9/11. 

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Pushed to the back burner was the heartbreaking news of a record-breaking number of COVID deaths this week and a health system about to collapse. I looked at the lighted Bethlehem star we have in our living room. The light was still shining. But I seriously wondered how much more even it could take of this weary world. 

Epiphany is the story of the birth of the Christ to the rest of the world. 
But Epiphany doesn’t allow us to go down that dark road. It’s said that Christmas is the story of the birth of the Christ to the people of Israel and Epiphany is the story of the birth of the Christ to the rest of the world. 

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Although Matthew doesn’t name them or even say how many there were, an old non-biblical tradition claims that there were three Magi whose names were Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, each representing a different part of the world far beyond Israel – and another religion, probably Zoroastrian. On a happier day, I’d want to talk about the interfaith encounter that was the arrival of the Magi. 

Today, we’re going to try to find some gospel light to shine
into our troubled times. 

Why would Matthew, almost a hundred years after the birth of Jesus, include these figures in his Nativity scene? Think about it; everything is upside down in the story. The Magi are foreigners, most likely from Persia (today’s Iran); they’re out of place in Judea. They’re of a different religion; why are they be looking for a king of the Jews? And that star! What kind of star would lead them to a humble home, and not a royal palace, where they find that the newborn king is from a working class family, not a member of the royal court. We’re used to the Magi of Christmas pageants (brilliantly performed this year!); we hear the story every year. What’s really going on here? And is there anything that might guide us on our way through the maze of our current events?

To answer that question about any Bible passage we have to ask what the writer was stirred up about, what did they passionately want us to get from the story. The author of the gospel (who was not the apostle Matthew), lived in or near the city of Antioch, now in Turkey, but then part of Syria. Antioch was one of the great cultural and trade centers in the Roman empire. It had a large Jewish population, but it was also a central location of the spread of the Jesus movement to Gentiles throughout the empire and beyond. 

Matthew wanted to appeal to both Jews and Gentiles. So his Nativity story is radically inclusive. Not only are shepherds, who occupied the lowest rung of the social ladder, the first to hear the angel chorus, now here come these Magi, who under other circumstances might have been considered ‘other.’   

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Even more radical, this new Christian community talked about Jesus as the son of God, called him ‘savior’, and ‘lord’ – words that sound like everyday religious language to us, but were back then actually political terms. Roman Emperors claimed to be divine figures; Caesar was called ‘Son of God’ and was acknowledged as ‘savior’ and addressed as ‘lord’. So asserting a claim to divine status for Jesus that outranked the emperors of Rome was a bold (and dangerous) act.

So when the Magi go to King Herod to ask where to find this new king, boom! You have the clash that inevitably comes when the kin-dom of God bumps up against empire. Matthew writes, “At this news Herod became greatly disturbed (other versions say ‘afraid’), as did all of Jerusalem.” 

The king is afraid. He fears competition for his power. His insecurity drives him to violence. Thankfully, a dream warns the Magi to stay away from Herod. But unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there. Joseph, too, has a dream warning him about Herod and the Holy Family flees to Egypt. Meanwhile, in a version of “The Empire Strikes Back,” Herod, furious when he finds out he’s been tricked orders all children in and around Bethlehem two years old or under to be killed. It wasn’t until Herod had died that an angel again appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him it’s safe to return to Israel. 

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This horrific story of what’s become known as the Slaughter of the Innocents is not based on historical fact. The cruelty of King Herod has been well-documented; surely such a massacre would have been recorded. No, this is Matthew carefully crafting his message about what happens when the reign of Christ encounters the politics of authoritarianism and coercion. They are not compatible. 

OPEN LETTER TO VICE PRESIDENT PENCE, MEMBERS OF CONGRESS, AND THE CABINET CALLING FOR THE REMOVAL OF

I’m sure you can make the connection to events of the past week. Calls for an immediate end to the president’s term in office, even with only 10 days remaining, are coming from both sides of the aisle. The National Council of Churches has sent an open letter to the vice president, members of Congress, and the cabinet calling for the removal of the president from office. Among other national faith leaders, Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has signed the letter – as has our Sierra Pacific Synod Bishop, Mark Holmerud. You can find the letter below.

I’m not making a partisan statement; this is simply current events. I’m more interested in discussing how we as followers of Jesus respond to these events and those that will follow in the weeks, months, and years ahead. Something I heard from a theologian this weekend has given me a framework for thinking about this; maybe it will be useful to you. His advice is this: Dare to think. Dare to Act. Dare to Hope. Nice and succinct, but let’s see if we can unpack them. 

Dare to think. 
The Magi were the scientists of their day. They were astronomers who studied the locations and movement of the stars. And they were astrologers, who tried to make connections between the motions of the stars and life here on Earth. They observed, they studied, they discussed, and ultimately, they followed the science. 

I doubt I need to encourage you to believe the claims of science. But perhaps we do all need to be emboldened to seek ways to promote truth-telling, to counter falsehoods, to learn how to engage with those who may be recognizing that they had bought into something that wasn’t true. We’ll always need to dare to think, but perhaps in the days ahead we’ll also need to dare to be thoughtfully and truthfully compassionate. 

Dare to Act. 
The Magi didn’t just sit around talking about that star; they got moving. They didn’t even know where they were going. No maps, no GPS in their camels. But that didn’t stop them. Even when they made a mistake – going to see Herod – they corrected quickly and found an alternate route. Sometimes, the Nike ad has the best advice: Just do it. So I signed up for a Braver Angels event on Tuesday. It’s called “Hold America Together: A National Gathering.” If you don’t know them, Braver Angels is the organization that “brings together Red and Blue Americans in a working alliance to depolarize America.”  It used to be called Better Angels, and I like the change – because, as their website says: “At this time of crisis, we need more than civility, empathy, and goodwill. We need courage.”

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Dare to Dream
Personally, I’d add another dare to this list: Dare to Dream. There’s a lot of action going on in the dream world in this story. And the outcome would not have been so good if either Joseph or the Magi ignored the dream that helped to guide them on the right path. I’m part of a dreamwork group, where we share some of our unconscious adventures. The methodology we use states that:  “All dreams speak a universal language and come in the service of health and wholeness. There is no such thing as a bad dream’ — only dreams that sometimes take a dramatically negative form in order to grab our attention.” (“Dreamwork Tool Kit” Jeremy Taylor)

Dare to Wonder
This could even be expanded to: Dare to Wonder. That is, go outside of the realm of thinking sometimes, not into falsehoods and misinformation, but into amazement and wonder of mystery – of dreams, and stars, and imagination, of poetry and prayer that can lead us into ideas, projects, ways of being that on our own initiative would be inconceivable to us. 

And finally: Dare to Hope. 
Vaccines for the coronavirus are slowly making their way to all of us. Isn’t it good to feel some hope that we’ll soon be able to be together again? But there are other places where we might not yet be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. That’s where daring hope comes in. It’s the hope we spoke of in Advent when we lit the first candle and as we read: 
It is significant that the church has always used that language—the advent (coming) of Christ—because it speaks to a deep truth. Christ is coming. Christ is always entering a troubled world, a wounded heart. And so we light the candle of hope, and dare to express our longing for peace, for justice, for healing and the well-being of all creation.

And we prayed:
Loving God, we open up all the shadowy places in our lives and memories to the healing light of Christ. Show us the creative power of hope. Prepare our hearts to be transformed by you, that we may walk in the light of Christ.

Advent is over. Christmas is over. But that hope is still alive. It’s Epiphany! It’s the story of the birth of the Christ to the world in all of its splendor and wonder, as well as all of its disfunction and dis-ease. The Magi brought gifts to Jesus because they somehow had hope in this newborn prince of peace. Yes, wise women would have asked directions, arrived on time, birthed the baby, cleaned the stable, baked a casserole, and brought practical gifts. (Oh, there’s another one: Dare to Laugh). Anyway, the gold, frankincense, and myrrh were pretty good, too. More symbolism by Matthew. 

As we move further into the new year, not knowing what the days ahead will bring (I keep checking the news because another something big could happen at any time), we do not allow ourselves to sink into despair. Yes, there will be moments of fear, anxiety, flashes of anger, depths of sadness. We’re human beings, after all. But we do not succumb to the temptation to give into hopelessness. In fact, we dare to dream of the health and wholeness of our planet, the health and wholeness of our nation, of our families, of our church – and of ourselves. 

That’s the gospel light we’ve been given to shine into our troubled times. 

Can we Dare to Say Amen?!

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OPEN LETTER TO VICE PRESIDENT PENCE, MEMBERS OF CONGRESS, AND THE CABINET CALLING FOR THE REMOVAL OF PRESIDENT TRUMP FROM OFFICE

Posted January 8, 2021

Our faith instructs us to take seriously positions of leadership, not to lead others astray and to be careful about what we say and do. In Philippians 2:3-4 we are taught to, “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.”

President Donald J. Trump’s actions and words have endangered the security of the country and its institutions of government by inciting a violent, deadly, seditious mob attack at the U.S. Capitol. His words and actions have placed the lives of the people he is supposed to serve in grave danger to advance his own interests. Further, he not only failed to stop or condemn the attack after the Capitol had been stormed but instead encouraged the mob by calling them patriots. This domestic terrorist attack resulted in at least five deaths, including a Capitol Police Officer, and more than a dozen police officers injured. The desecration of the Capitol building was also disgraceful and reprehensible. 

For the good of the nation, so that we might end the current horror and prepare the way for binding up the nation’s wounds, we, as leaders of the member communions of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA (NCC), believe the time has come for the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, to resign his position immediately. If he is unwilling to resign, we urge you to exercise the options provided by our democratic system.

In addition, we recognize the need to hold responsible not only those who invaded the Capitol, but also those who supported and/or promoted the President’s false claims about the election, or made their own false accusations. 

We grieve for our country at this difficult time and continue to pray for the safety and security, and ultimately the healing of our nation. Holding those who have abused their power and participated in these immoral and tragic actions accountable, in particular the President of the United States, is one step toward healing.

Signed:

Jim Winkler, General Secretary and President, National Council of Churches

Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer, General Minister and President, United Church of Christ and Chair, National Council of Churches Governing Board

Bishop W. Darin Moore, Presiding Bishop, AME Zion Church and Immediate Past Chair, National Council of Churches

Bishop Teresa Jefferson-Snorton, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church and Vice Chair, National Council of Churches

Rev. Teresa Hord Owens, General Minister and President, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Rev. Dr. Néstor Gómez, The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Rev. Paula Clayton Dempsey, Director of Partnership Relations, Alliance of Baptists

Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, Presiding Bishop, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, Presiding Bishop and Primate, The Episcopal Church

Senior Bishop Lawrence Reddick, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church

Bishop Sally Dyck, Ecumenical Officer of the Council of Bishops, The United Methodist Church

Rev. Dr. Jean Hawxhurst, Ecumenical Staff Officer, The United Methodist Church

Rev. Eddy Alemán, General Secretary, Reformed Church in America

Rev. Jane Siebert, President, Swedenborgian Church of North America

His Eminence Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, Ecumenical Director and Diocesan Legate, The Armenian Church, Eastern Diocese of America

Dr. Kimberly Brooks, African Methodist Episcopal Church

Rev. Richard Tafel, Swedenborgian Church

Carole Collins, Director of Operation, Alliance of Baptists

Reverend Brenda Girton-Mitchell, Progressive National Baptist Convention

Rev. Dr. W. Franklyn Richardson, Chair, Conference of National Black Churches

Stephen M. Veazey, President (Head of Communion), Community of Christ

His Grace Mar Awa Royel, Bishop of California and Secretary of the Holy Synod, Assyrian Church of the East

Bishop Francis Krebs, Presiding Bishop, Ecumenical Catholic Communion

Rev. Dr. James Herbert Nelson II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Presbyterian Church (USA)

Occupy: The Kin-dom of God

There are some places in Bible that, if we take them literally, make it really hard to find good news. Some of these difficult stories never appear in the lectionary. Take, for example, the tragic tale of Ananias and Sapphira from the early days of the church in Acts 5.

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The Grim Tale of Ananias and Sapphira
There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. ‘Ananias,’ Peter asked, ‘why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!’ Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died.

After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter said to her, ‘Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price.’ And she said, ‘Yes, that was the price.’ Then Peter said to her, ‘How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.’ Immediately she fell down at his feet and died.

Geez! Imagine this as your text for stewardship Sunday!

Well, today’s story did make into the lectionary – to many a preachers’ dismay. The obvious problem is that if we treat The Parable of the Talents as an allegory, then the landowner is God. And the landowner is not a nice person.

Another problem is that Matthew’s version of the parable is put in here at end of church year, when the lectionary wants us to think about the Second Coming of Christ and/or a Day of Judgement. His closing line from Jesus, “As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” doesn’t appear in Luke’s version.

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Character matters
In spite of its difficulties, this parable is often used for stewardship Sunday! The idea of risk – investing time, talents, treasure for the kin-dom of God – is a popular theme. And that’s initially where I was going. But to be honest, I just couldn’t get past the character of the landowner. It seemed like I had to do a lot of exegetical gymnastics to get around this elephant in the room. If indeed “character matters,” how could I ignore this man who did not disagree with the slave who called him “a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter”?

Parables 101
So instead I decided to go back to Parables 101. I’ve gained a lot of perspective on Jesus’ parables from John Dominic Crossan’s The Power of Parable. So:

Rule #1: Remember that it doesn’t usually mean what we think it means. These stories have become so familiar, domesticated; we think they confirm what we already know or think is the right answer. But that’s not how parables work.

The word ‘parable’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘to put parallel or put alongside.’ It implies that two things are being thrown together, a kind of biblical mashup. Jesus used this form of teaching, not to moralize or to tell his listeners how to be good religious people. He told parables to stir things up, to encourage debate, to engage in the great Jewish tradition of lively discussion, spirited theological banter. This might seen like arguing to us, because it’s something Christianity lost along the way and really must recover. The video series Living the Questions is a good example of this recovery, as we learn that it’s OK to ask questions, even to disagree. Because in the exchange of ideas, when texts are questioned, wrestled with and explored, new insights and understandings can emerge for our collective edification.

Rule #2: Try to imagine what your reaction would be if you were in that 1st century Jewish audience. In other words, read the parable within its historical and cultural context.

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Three bazillion dollars!
First of all, we’d have understood what a talent was. It wasn’t referring to your ability to sing or dance. A talents was an amount of money. A talent of gold weighed about 30 pounds and was worth about 6,000 denarii. One denarius would be a worker’s daily pay. So we’re talking millions of dollars in our time. Jesus got the attention of his audience with a “fairy-tale” amount of money. Like, “So there was this landowner, and he gave the first slave three bazillion dollars.” Now that would get your attention!

About the slaves
As 21st century people, we have to recognize our discomfort with the fact that those given this money were slaves. There’s no getting around the fact that slavery was an accepted reality in the time of Jesus. And we unfortunately know that this fact was used to support the institution of slavery in this country for far too long – another reason to take biblical exegesis – historical/cultural context – seriously. Taken with Jesus’ message of liberation, it is impossible to find justification for one person ‘owning’ another.

About the interest
Then there is the matter of interest. We hear this parable in light of our own economic system and think the first two slaves made sound business decisions; they invested their money and got a good return. But Jesus’ audience would have been shocked. This story is the only place the New Testament where the word ‘interest’ appears. It’s in many places in the Old Testament – in a negative light in each one.

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It’s Mr. Moneybags
The subject of interest is not a good thing. The landowner is not a good person. He represents oppressive business practices. He doesn’t care how the slaves made more money for him. He’s not bothered by the third slave’s description of him. The “joy” into which he welcomes his “faithful” ones is entry into the 1%: excess wealth gained by systems that made him a perpetuate oppression. We shouldn’t have any trouble thinking of people like that today, people considered ‘smart’ for their ruthless and immoral practices that have made them extraordinarily wealthy.

But the third slave was having none of it. His act of resistance to this ‘harsh’ system made him a representation of the 99%. If it was Jesus’ intention to stir up some good conversation, this parable would have done it quickly. The people in his audience lived in the mash-up of Roman tradition which was pro-interest and the anti-interest teachings of the Torah.In this interpretation, Jesus is clearly siding with Torah – and with the 99%.

But it wasn’t just about money. This wasn’t a call for the Judean version of Occupy Wall Street. It was a call to Occupy the Kin-dom, which includes all our interactions in the mash-up of our beliefs and the ways of the world. Of course, then as now, money plays a very large part in our individual and corporate lives. So if we do interpret this parable with the third slave as the one who was really faithful in Jesus’ eyes, then we are called to make our financial choices accordingly. And now, as then, it can be complicated and controversial. For example:

Where are my pension funds invested?
I remember when the ELCA wrestled with the decision to divest from companies trading with South Africa in the time of apartheid. Today, I can choose to employ screens to eliminate companies, such as fossil fuel industries, weapons manufacturing, and those identified with the denial of human rights. These may or may not yield the highest interest. What is the criteria of the kin-dom in making these choices?

Where do I bank?
During Occupy Wall Street, we were encouraged to take our money out of the big banks. I made the decision to move over to a credit union, but I confess that I still have accounts in one of the offending banks. I haven’t yet been able to wean myself off of the security I feel (rightly or wrongly) in it. But I am aware that in that choice I am aligning myself with the ‘harsh master’ and a different choice needs to be made.

Do I buy clothes made with child labor or pay more for goods made in a union shop for fair wages and benefits?
When you’re on a budget, it’s tempting to go for the cheaper goods. But I also recognize that many people on a much tighter budget than mine do not have the privilege of choosing the higher prices. As a consumer, I can make my own choices. But as a follower of Jesus, I must also advocate for a standard of living for all of us, that is also fair to local economies and the environment.

What about politics?
It’s popular in many parts of the church to warn pastors to keep out of politics. However, in this reading of The Parable of the Talents, Jesus (as he so often does) addresses issues with political implications. I vote according to what I believe are the ways of the kin-dom of God. It’s not left or right, Democratic or Republican. It’s about the choices I make when my spirituality is mashed up with our current culture.

I believe we can read The Parable of the Talents in at least two different ways. On any given day, I might be challenged to be the wise investor, to take a risk with my time, talent, and treasures. But at the same time, I can be challenged to look closely at whatever systems are in operation today that are not worthy of my investment, and even in need of reform.

Bottom line: Occupy the Kin-dom calls me to invest and/or divest in all things in light of the way of Jesus. Can I get an Amen?

Matthew 25: 14-30
‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

The Parable of the Mean Girls

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To tell you the truth, as of last evening, I still wasn’t sure where this sermon was going to go. This past week was one roller coaster of a ride, wasn’t it? Not knowing election results for four days was anxiety-producing to say the least. Watching and wondering how people – on both sides – were going to react to the final tally was  worrisome. Compulsive news checking was a thing, even when we knew it was too early to know anything. 

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By Wednesday, I was all ready to start Advent early. Advent’s theme of watching and waiting seemed to fit perfectly. I redid the bulletin. I picked out a graphic of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” and edited in “Advent” in place of Christmas.  The sermon was going to be all about waiting patiently. Then yesterday morning the election was called and the waiting was over. Lighting Advent candles didn’t seem as appropriate. So I put the bulletin back to the way it was and started looking at the gospel again – in the context of where we are now.

And where we are is with yet another parable from Matthew. Now, I love the parables. But even I have had just about enough, especially since the last three parables before Advent really does begin on the 29th all talk about the second coming of Christ and a day of judgment. And there are textual problems with them and theological differences of opinion on what they mean. But – reading this one again yesterday, I did have some new insights. 

First of all, I started really thinking about that wedding that those bridesmaids were in. If you’ve ever planned a wedding, you know there are a lot of details involved – from the design of the invitation to the table decorations at the reception. Nobody wants to forget any of these details. You want to make the day as perfect as possible. If you’ve ever been a bridesmaid, you know that certain details fall to you. I know that’s true for groomsmen, too. Even these days, when those who stand with the wedding couple might be of any gender (I was “best man” at my brother’s wedding), there still are specific responsibilities. And one of the main ones is to take care that at no time attention is diverted from the wedding couple to you. 

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There are websites where you can read stories of weddings going awry, like the one where the bridesmaid who had refused to try on her dress before the wedding showed up late in a dress with straps that were too long and had to be fixed with safety pins. She’d also smoked a cigarette in the car on the way to the church and the dress had a small burn front and center from ash blowing back in. I mean friendships and family relationships are irrevocably broken over stuff like this. 

But our customs would sound very strange to people in Jesus’ day, when wedding festivities typically lasted seven days, and the processions of the bride and groom marked the beginning of the celebration. In the scene in the parable, the bridesmaids are awaiting the arrival of the groom. This was their big moment, their specific duty: to wait for the groom – either at the bride’s house where he would come to fetch her or at the home of his family where the wedding would take place. All of them have either lamps or large torches, so that when the groom arrived, they would lead the wedding party in a procession of lights.

Now, unlike our weddings, that are supposed to start at a specific time (and there are plenty of stories about when that didn’t happen), in Jesus’ day it wasn’t unusual for there to be a delay. For instance, there could be last minute negotiations between the groom and the bride’s relatives over the gifts to be exchanged. The story doesn’t explain the delay, but it wouldn’t have mattered. The bridesmaids would have known that a delay could occur. Or they should have. The parable describes the debacle of five bridesmaids who missed the procession and undoubtedly incurred the wrath of the bride and groom and their families, and the distain of all the wedding guests. If this was a morality tale, the moral of the story would be: don’t mess up your best friend’s wedding. 

But we know that parables are more than that; there’s always at least one (and often more) deeper meanings to be mined from what, at first, seems like a straightforward cautionary tale. And frankly I’m relieved there’s more to this story because, on the surface, I really don’t like it. 

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For starters, I don’t like the wise bridesmaids. They sound like mean girls to me. Or just selfish ones. Instead of sharing they send the others away to try to find oil. No shops would have been open at night; they would have had to bang on doors of friends, relatives, and shopkeepers begging for help. Really? I can’t think of any other place else in the Bible that such selfish behavior is called ‘wise’? They say, “We can’t share because we might not have enough for ourselves. Just to be safe, we’re not sharing what we have.” It seems they’re operating out of scarcity and fear. We know what that looks like. I’m sure they would have been among those hoarding toilet paper and sanitizing wipes at the beginning of the pandemic.  And these were the wise ones?

But, you know, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the foolish ones either. They should have known better; they should have been prepared. They shouldn’t have listened to the mean girls and gone off in search of oil. Surely the knew that, with the groom approaching, it was too late. Their foolishness guaranteed that by the time they got back, they were left out in the cold and dark. The groom probably thought he’d been deserted by his so-called friends. Maybe he thought they’d simply given up and gone home. And I don’t even want to think about what happened when the bride heard about it! Did she know that when the foolish five did show up, her husband barred the door and refused to let them into the banquet? It seems there was a lot of foolishness going on.

The only distinction between the wise and the foolish ones was preparation. Five were ready when the groom arrived; five were not. They all were judged on the basis of how well-prepared they were. And we get it, right? We get that the bridegroom is Jesus and that we’d better be ready or at least appear to be, like the billboard says:

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But, like with many of the parables, we squirm a little when we really listen to it. Which is good, because parables are supposed to cause us some discomfort. If we’re honest with ourselves, our discomfort comes when we acknowledge that we can relate to both the wise and the foolish bridesmaids and sometimes even the groom.

I’ve been the foolish whose lamps have run out. I’ve been the wise who feared sharing and losing what they had. I’ve been the bridegroom who refused to let people in. And maybe that’s what this parable does. It allows us to really see ourselves. 

That could be why this parable is so troublesome. It creates a stark duality of either you’re wise or you’re foolish; either you’re ready or you’re not; either you’re in or you’re out. But we know we’re more complex than that. and I’m pretty sure God knows that, too. Recognizing ourselves in all of these characters can go a long way in making us better disciples. 

So, when you find yourself feeling foolish, like the foolish bridesmaids, stop and wait in the darkness. Don’t run from it. It can be a holy place where God will meet and transform you. When you find yourself feeling like the wise bridesmaids, tempted to hoard what you have, stop and remember to share, even if it scares you. And when you find yourself feeling like the bridegroom, angrily closing the door against others or erecting barriers to keep certain ones out, stop and open the door to the banquet feast. 

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The second troubling thing about this parable is that it just doesn’t sound like Jesus. The separation between those who are in and those who are out is in stark contrast to the inclusive nature of Jesus throughout the gospels. What’s going on here?

What was going on shortly before Matthew wrote his gospel was the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70 CE. It was a time of terrible turmoil and the religious leaders were understandably trying to figure out how to maintain their community, their religious identity, even their theology that had tied the very presence of God to that temple. We can relate somewhat, right? Keeping the congregation together during the turmoil of the pandemic, wondering what the future of the church will be even after we can go back into the building. 

What the leaders back then were doing was clamping down on the strands of Judaism that didn’t fit into what they deemed to be the correct expression of the faith. They were drawing lines of who was in and who was out. And, among others, those Jews who were part of the Jesus movement were most definitely out.

Matthew and his community understandably didn’t take that well. In turn, Matthew tells a story about how Jesus would probably have responded to these religious leaders. The tables would be turned and they would be the ones cast out when Jesus came back to establish the kindom of God on earth. And there have been centuries of Christians ever since who have been waiting hopefully for this second coming. 

Unfortunately, this idea has created a theology that abandons the earth to the “powers and principalities” of the world, while looking heavenward for divine rescue. That kind of dualistic thinking has created a mindset – and policies – of injustice and ecological destruction. And again we’re challenged to think bigger and understand that we need to be both heavenly minded and of earthly good.

There’s much scholarly disagreement about whether Jesus himself was an apocalyptic preacher, that is concerned with end times and a judgment day, and whether he would come back to lead what John Dominic Crossan calls the “Great Cleanup” – when God would step in and clean up the earth, bringing a new creation where justice and peace would reign.

Some believe that the second coming already happened – on Pentecost. Others say that Christ is continually appearing among us and leading us, sometimes pushing us, into the kindom of God right here and right now. 

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I don’t think it ultimately matters – as long as we hold to what Jesus taught us about the kindom of God. Jesus did not promote division, but our oneness in God. Yes, there are places where we can argue about that. But again, we take those places in context and mine the message for us today. Jesus did promote loving our neighbors – all of our neighbors. The characters in the parable are useful to us in holding up a mirror to ourselves to see where we’re not as well-prepared as we could be, not as generous as we could be, not as welcoming as we might think we are. The parable can challenge us and lead us into better discipleship, knowing that Christ is always coming to us: we don’t have to wait for a great divine cleanup to experience the kindom of God.

And if that’s true, then we have our work cut out for us. Loving and welcoming our neighbors – all of our neighbors. Feeding the hungry, sharing generously from our bounty. Opening doors, taking down barriers that have been erected between those who are in and those who are out. 

In these post-election days, we’ve been hearing a lot about healing the divisions in our nation. That is now the challenge to us as followers of Jesus. How will we promote this: in ourselves, in our congregation, in our wider community?

It’s a big question, probably not one to be answered today. Thankfully, we have more apocalyptic parables to keep us at it over the next few weeks. 

For now, remember the words of Jesus from Luke’s gospel: “. . . in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

And from the Gospel of Thomas: “the kingdom of God is within you.” 

So remember: Christ can come to you at any time. Be as prepared as you can be. But most of all, be open to the wonderment and surprising possibilities that Christ will bring – to you and through you.

To be continued . . .

Amen 

MATTHEW 25:1-13

“Then again, the kindom of heaven could be likened to ten bridesmaids who took their lamps and went to meet the bridal party. Five of them were wise; five were foolish. When the foolish ones took their lamps, they didn’t take any oil with them, but the wise ones took enough oil to keep their lamps burning. The bridal party was delayed, so they all fell asleep. 

“At midnight there was a cry: ‘Here comes the bridegroom! Let’s go out to meet him!’ Then all the bridesmaidsrose and trimmed their lamps. 
The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’
But the wise ones replied, ‘Perhaps there won’t be enough for us; run to the dealers and get some more for yourselves.’

“While the foolish ones went to buy more oil, the bridal party arrived; and those who were ready went to the marriage feast with them, and the door was shut. When the foolish bridesmaids returned, they pleaded to be let in. 
The doorkeeper replied, ‘The truth is, I don’t know you.’

“So stay awake, for you don’t know the day or the hour.”

Making Sense of an Ugly Parable

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“What should I wear?”
I used to ask my roommate years ago. Her answer was always the same, “Wear whatever makes you feel good.” That’s not the same advice that used to be given by the fashionistas on the makeover show, “What Not to Wear,” as they picked through someone’s  closet, tossing out what they judged unflattering, out-dated, or not age-appropriate. Nothing there about feeling good.

Then there’s Jesus, not your definition of a fashionista. But, at least according to Matthew,  he had some ideas about what and what not to wear. The Parable of the Wedding Banquet takes a bizarre twist as the king invites people off the streets to his son’s wedding feast, but then gets upset when one of them arrives in clothing he deems inappropriate for the occasion. The hapless guest is bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness. 

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This is an ugly parable.
Granted, parables should be disturbing. They’re meant to shake us out of our complacency and compel us to ask hard questions. If we’re not surprised or challenged by them, we’ve missed the point. But this one? If this is what God is like, if this is what the kindom of heaven is like, I doubt we could convince many people that this is Good News. So what are we supposed to do with it?

This is why biblical studies are so important: when it was written, who wrote it, to whom was it written, etc. Taken at face value, this parable takes us down into some dark and violent places. So if we’re going to find any meaning for us today, we need to do a little background work. You see, this is one of three versions of this story. One is from Luke. One is from the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of the sayings of Jesus discovered in 1945 among a whole collection of manuscripts buried in the desert near Nag Hammadi, Egypt. 

The versions in Luke and Thomas are quite similar, but Matthew has some very distinctive differences. Many scholars consider Luke’s version closer to the original than Matthew’s. See if you can spot  the differences. 

Then Jesus said, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. He sent his slave to say to them, ‘Come; everything is ready.’ But they all began to make excuses. One said, ‘I’ve bought a piece of land, and must go out to see it; please accept my apologies.’ Another said, ‘I’ve bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m going to try them out; please accept my apologies.’ Another said, ‘I’ve just been married, so I can’t come.’ 
The slave returned and reported this to his master, who became angry and said, ‘Go out into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ The slave said, ‘What you ordered has been done, and there is still room.’ The master said, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’” 

What’s missing? No king, no wedding. No violence – they don’t kill the messengers who brought the invitation; the king doesn’t retaliate by sending troops to kill them and burn down their town. There’s no guest without proper wedding clothes; and there’s no threat of being cast into hell. It seems that Matthew has turned a challenge parable into an allegory about Jewish rejection, Christian acceptance, and final judgment. 

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Oh, boy. You can see the problems. For centuries, this story has been interpreted by Christians, with the king representing God, the bridegroom is Jesus, the wedding feast is the Messianic banquet, the rejected slaves are Old Testament prophets, the A-list guests who refuse to attend are the Jews, and the B-listers who come in off the streets are the gentiles. The guest without the wedding garment refers to those who don’t produce proper fruit. He’s thrown out into the darkness where “they’ll weep and grind their teeth,” another favorite phrase of Matthew’s. 

It’s an ‘attack parable’
But here’s what we have to understand about what Matthew was doing here. John Dominic Crossan, in The Power of Parable, doesn’t just call this version an allegory, he calls it an ‘attack parable.’ The additions to this parable give us a glimpse of a low point in an intrafaith fight. Matthew and members of his community are Jews who are caught up in a struggle with their own Israelite kin about how to be faithful to the God of Abraham and Sarah and whether Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah Israel’s prophets had promised. It’s not a Jewish-Christian dispute – though in the centuries that follow Christians will use this passage to further their anti-Semitism (which is one of the things that makes this passage dangerous). At this point, it’s an intense family feud, and it’s crucial for us to understand that – and reject any further dissemination of anti-Semitism. 

In fact, reading this in conjunction with the Isaiah text gives lie to the oft-repeated explanation that the Old Testament is about God’s wrath and the New Testament is about God’s love. But listen to the Old Testament prophet Isaiah: 

On this mountain, the Lord of Hosts will prepare for all peoples a banquet of rich food, a banquet of fine wines, food rich and succulent, and fine, aged wines. On this mountain God will remove the mourning veil covering all peoples, the shroud covering all nations, destroying all death forever. God will wipe away the tears from every cheek, and will take away the shame of God’s people on earth, wherever they live. Now that’s Good News!

OK, now that we’ve got the background, what’s the “so what?” for us today? Something we were discussing in our book study group Thursday night pinged into my thoughts as I worked with this text. We were talking about the idea proposed by some that we are in the midst of a shift in human consciousness. One of the characteristics of this shift involves a redefinition of religion because many of the answers given in the past don’t address questions being asked today. 

One of the reflection questions at the end of the chapter was: “What are some questions asked by people today that aren’t being answered by traditional religion?” Reading this version of the parable in light of that question, I realized that the allegory/attack version doesn’t work for us today. We’re not in the same place or time of his community. Nor are we asking the same questions. So what questions arewe asking today?

I can think of a lot, as I’m sure you can too. The president is in the hospital. COVID-19 is ravaging our country. Racial tensions continue. Climate change threatens the whole planet. How will the human race emerge from these threats? When will the wildfires stop? How will the church survive in these days and in whatever circumstances are to come?  

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There’s an article that’s been making the rounds on social media this week called “30 Signs of Soul Exhaustion.” It was actually written in 2018, so it’s not even current. But it was all over the place, which should tell us something about how many of us are doing. It begins: 
Are you in a funk and feeling like you can’t get out of it? Perhaps you’re going through a traumatic event. Your heart and mind are preoccupied with what’s going on in your life. Your body starts reacting to the situation. Your body and mind are interconnected. So, when your mind is stressed, your body will begin to show the symptoms. Stepping beyond the physical issues and treating the problem is the only way to help. Your soul is tired. A worn-out soul is impossible to heal with medication. It takes confronting the underlying issues directly and dealing with them comprehensively to allow the soul to revive and recover.

Then, there are 30 ways your soul will try to tell you it’s exhausted and needs help. I don’t think they’re in any kind of order, but I find it interesting that #1 is: You don’t laugh anymore. #30 is: You’re physically exhausted all the time. In the middle at #16 is: you’re afraid of the future. It’s a pretty good article. It’s from a website called Medical News, so I wasn’t expecting any spiritual advice. Still, I found it intriguing that they would diagnose the problem as a condition of the soul. In another place they call it ‘spiritual exhaustion,’ but they don’t offer any remedies.

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So I went back to the parable. And there was that poor soul who was thrown out for wearing the wrong garment. What can we make of him in light of the questions we have today and for the good of our souls?

It’s a brutal way to say it, but Matthew appears to say that being seated at the heavenly banquet requires something more than merely accepting an invitation to discipleship. It’s not enough to just show up. There’s further accountability beyond out initial response of discipleship, our ‘yes!’ to God’s invitation to the banquet.”1 “In other words, “it’s not enough anymore to call yourself a follower of Christ and then act as if you were sound asleep during the Sermon on the Mount. It’s not enough to pledge allegiance to church membership without then vowing to live out that chosen-ness in the world. It’s not enough say you’re a “Christian” and then stay silent when life, liberty, and love are in jeopardy.”2   Or as Garrison Keillor once quipped, “Anyone who thinks just sitting in church can make you a Christian must also think that sitting in a garage can make you a car.” 

We might balk at the idea that the guest with no wedding garment refers to those who don’t produce proper fruit. That might sound awfully works righteousness-y to our grace-accustomed ears. But again, Isaiah points the way: “My soul shall be joyful in my God, who has clothed me with a garment of deliverance and wrapped me in a mantle of justice, the way a bridegroom puts on a turban and a bride bedecks herself with jewels. (Is.61:10)

In the New Testament, the writer of the letter to the Ephesians reminds us: “You were taught to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in the justice and holiness of the truth.” 

And then, with more practical detail: 

“So, let’s have no more lies. Speak truthfully to each other, for we are all members of one body. When you get angry, don’t let it become a sin. Don’t let the sun set on your anger. 

Be on your guard against foul talk. Say only what will build others up at that moment. Say only what will give grace to your listeners.”

The writer of Colossians says:
“Rid yourselves of anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language. Don’t lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self. Clothe yourselves with heartfelt compassion, with kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with one another; forgive whatever grievances you have against one another – forgive in the same way God has forgiven you. Above all else, put on love, which binds the rest together and makes them perfect. 

Let Christ’s peace reign in your hearts since, as members of one body, you have been called to that peace. Dedicate yourselves to thankfulness. Let the word of Christ, rich as it is, dwell in you. Instruct and admonish one another wisely. Sing gratefully to God from your hearts in psalms, hymns and songs of the Spirit. And whatever you do, whether in speech or in action, do it in the name of Christ.”

And in today’s second reading, Paul sums it up:
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever deserves respect, all that is honest, pure, decent, admirable, virtuous or worthy of praise – think on these things. Live according to what you have learned and accepted, what you have heard me say and seen me do. Then will the God of peace be with you.”

Compassion, kindness, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, love, thankfulness – these are not abstract concepts. They’re not works we have to do in order to be acceptable to God.  They are the threads that make up the fabric of our wedding garment. In the midst of our questions, our doubts, fears, and uncertainties, this is the answer to the question “What should I wear?” It’s an answer that will never be unflattering, out-dated, or not age-appropriate. And we can put it on every day. The remedy for soul exhaustion is to think on these things – so much so that our garment of deliverance is our second skin. These fruits of the Spirit aren’t so much actions or works, but just who we are. So that we can have the where-with-all to face the future – known or unknown – with thankful hearts. 

“Wear whatever makes you feel good.” This is it. 

Amen

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1. Sharon H. Ringe, “Commentary on Matthew 20:1-14,”

http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=997

2. Karoline Lewis, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4980

MATTHEW 22:1-14

Then Jesus spoke to them again in parables. He said, ”The kindom of heaven is like this: there was a ruler who prepared a feast for the wedding of the family’s heir; but when the ruler sent out workers to summon the invited guests, they wouldn’t come. The ruler sent other workers, telling them to say to the guests, ‘I have prepared this feast for you. My oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding.’ But they took no notice; one went off to his farm, another to her business, and the rest seized the workers, attacked them brutally and killed them. The ruler was furious and dispatched troops who destroyed those murderers and burned their town. The workers went out into the streets and collected everyone they met, good and bad alike until the hall was filled with guests. The ruler, however, came in to see the company at table, and noticed one guest who was not dressed for a wedding. “‘My friend,’ said the ruler, ‘why are you here without a wedding garment?’ But the guest was silent. Then the ruler said to the attendants, ‘Bind this guest hand and foot, and throw the individual out into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

In the Midst of Chaos: Become Empty

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17th Sunday after Pentecost                        
September 27, 2020
Philippians 2:1-13

Look at me! Look at me!
Sometimes a Bible passage just jumps out and demands your attention. At least that’s how it was for me with this week’s readings. My first assumption was to go right to the Matthew parable. It’s what I’ve been doing throughout this green season of discipleship. But St. Paul was having none of that. His letter to the Philippian church kept creeping back into my consciousness – like a child interrupting her parents with cries of, “Look at me! Look at me!” And, as good parents are wise enough to pay attention to what’s going on in front of them, I decided to stop – and look. 

I was especially drawn to what is known as the ‘Christ Hymn’ in verses 6-11:  
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus: 
who, though in the image of God, 
did not regard equality with God something to cling to–
but instead became completely empty
taking the form of a slave: born into the human condition, 
found in the likeness of a human being.
Jesus was thus humbled-
obediently accepting death, even death on a cross! 

The entire passage is quite beautiful. Unlike some of Paul’s writings, which wander around in long, convoluted sentences, this one is crystal clear. It is a call to humility and unity among members of the church. Paul’s letters usually address the struggles that his far-flung congregations were having. It appears that there was some disunity among the Philippians. We get a hint of it in chapter 4, where Paul writes, “I implore Euodia and Syntyche to come to an agreement with each other in Christ.” We don’t know what the disagreement was about, nor does it matter. We’re surely quite aware of how easily – even in the church – arguments can arise and if not handled well, can lead to a disruption in the well-being of the whole organization. 

It’s just human nature. And Paul, in his letter, is trying to help them look at their situation in a new way – through the mind of Christ. Maybe this is what was drawing me to this text this week – advice on how to cope with disunity. 

Let the same mind be in you
You know, in a way I was glad I had last Sunday off. On Friday, at the news of the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I was thrown into a pit of despair that lasted into Sunday. Part of my distress was knowing how this Supreme Court vacancy was going to throw our country even further into disunity. I couldn’t bear to watch tv news or read any of my many online news outlets. 

But even in the depths of this desolation, I could hear a whisper of something, not quite coherent, not fully formed, but letting me know that I had to find a way out of the pit, off of the path of despair. The words finally came into view – like your fortune in one of those Magic 8 Ball toys – “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”Screen Shot 2020-09-27 at 12.15.29 PM

Let those words sink in for a moment: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” I don’t know about you, but that seems like an impossible task. I mean, we’re talking about Jesus! How can we aspire to such a lofty consciousness? 

But Paul obviously believes that we can indeed aspire to such a – I can’t even find the right word. Attitude, thinking, intellect, mentality don’t convey the kind of mind that I’d imagine inhabited Jesus. This Christ Hymn is a soaring song of praise and confession of faith, probably written by the Philippian Christians:

Jesus, though in the image of God, 
did not regard equality with God something to cling to–
but instead became completely empty
taking the form of a slave: born into the human condition, 
found in the likeness of a human being.
Jesus was thus humbled-
obediently accepting death, even death on a cross! 

That’s the hymn; it’s all about Jesus, what Jesus thought and did. But Paul adds to it, prefaces it, and here’s where it gets really intense: “Let the same mind be in you.” He’s just kicked it up to a whole new level. In the midst of our divisions, disunity, and all the other mayhem going on around us – as well as in just ordinary daily life – we hear his words addressed to us. 

Now I don’t believe that Paul was talking about a strictly intellectual exercise here. It would be easy enough to take what’s been written in the gospels, in creeds formulated by the Church, in doctrines created over the centuries – declare agreement with them and call it a day. But that’s not having the mind of Christ. Those ideas and writings and doctrines may inform us and inspire us, but they’re not the whole picture. 

Jesus’ Action Item
I believe we can approach the deeper challenge by delving into the hymn. And what we find there is the action item: “Jesus emptied himself taking the form of a slave.” 

Now, the use of slave language is problematic. We know that the institution of slavery was supported by many Christians because it was a reality in the time of Jesus. Many translations substitute ‘servant’, ‘oppressed humankind’, or other less inflammatory words. But I kept ‘slave’ for a reason, and I’ll get to that in just a little while – but I didn’t want you to be distracted by the language.

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For now, I want us to consider what it might mean to become empty ourselves. The first thing I think of is the Buddhist concept of ‘sunyata,’ which is often translated ’emptiness.’ In fact, in The Emptied Christ of Philippians: Mahāyāna Meditations, author John Keenan states, 

to those like myself who are involved in the conversation between the Buddhist and Christian traditions, no other Christian text is more pregnant with the potential for interfaith contemplation and insight than Paul’s letter to the Philippians, with its theme of the emptying Christ.

This is not to say there are no differences; there are. But as Keenan says, there is opportunity for dialogue. There is also opportunity in then going more deeply into our Christian understanding of becoming empty. 

Survival Plan Part 1
Another Buddhist concept that can be useful here is that of non-attachment. I used to think non-attachment meant not being overly dependent on one’s material goods. During the time I was running my Buddhist-Christian dialogue group for my doctoral project, my car was stolen. Let me tell you, I loved that car. It was a red Honda Del Sol two-seater with a t-top. It had been lovingly pinstriped by a member of a congregation near Buffalo where I’d been their interim pastor. Getting it shipped out to CA was no mean – or cheap- feat. So I was upset. The next Sunday, when our group met, I told them what had happened; everyone was kind and sympathetic. I told them I’d hesitated telling them because I expected the Buddhists to chastise me for not practicing non-attachment. Instead, one of them said to me, “But honey, it was your car!” I had some learning to do about that. 

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And I’ve come to see the truth and the benefits of letting go of control, of doing what I can in any given situation, without being attached to the outcome, of finding peace in any situation. I won’t say I’ve achieved that goal. If any of you know the Enneagram, I’m a One.  The Enneagram is a kind of personality typing system, but more than that it’s a tool for self-discovery and spiritual transformation (I’m happy to talk about this at another time!). Suffice to say that my type is often called the Reformer. We see problems and we want to fix them. And not just our own problems; we want to fix the world. So you can imagine my frustration with the state of the world today. 

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The Ones’s direction of health and wholeness is toward the number Seven. Sevens are the more optimistic, spontaneous, and playful among us. So my response to the state of the world will be the on-going challenge of finding a balance between taking on the battles of the world and letting go of my expectations of the outcomes – and having fun. 

Survival Plan Part 2
That’s Part 1 of my survival plan. But I want to get back to this emptying idea. The Greek word here means literally ‘to empty,’ as in pouring something out, until there is nothing left. We confess that Jesus willingly gave up all privileges, became completely empty for us. We stand in awe of the one who, though rich, for our sakes became poor. 

But what would it mean for us?  First of all, this practice is not coerced. “Let the same mind…” —it’s an attitude of allowing, of receiving. We don’t simply choose the mind of Christ, we receive it. It’s pure grace; so our posture of prayer must be one of openness, receptivity to learn to see everything through the eyes of God. 

That might seem contradictory, given the ‘slave’ language of the hymn. The words that describe this state are ‘humility’ and ‘obedience.’ Or we might say ‘submission.’ These are problematic words. We do not want to encourage anyone to surrender their will or autonomy to someone grudgingly, out of desperation, or fear of punishment. 

The name Islam means literally ‘submission,’ but not coercion. Just so, submission to the mind of Christ is anchored in feelings of love and longing for union with the Divine. As Jesus said, “Those who lose their lives for my sake will find them.” It’s a paradox that our minds have trouble grasping. That’s why our practice of emptying is so important. 

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This example of Jesus and Paul’s entreaty to us is a call to a radical shift in consciousness: away from the grasping of ego and into the realm of divine abundance that can’t be perceived only through the mind. Your heart, your entire being has to be involved. Practice is important.  There are many ways to practice. For some the emptiness of silence is beneficial; for others music, spoken words provide the pathway into the heart. 

So renewed commitment to my spiritual practice is Part 2 of my coping strategy. Although I know that having the mind of Christ isn’t just about survival and coping. It seemed that way to me last week as my Reformer self felt defeated and lost. And survival and coping worked for a while. But ultimately, the mind of Christ is about thriving, of experiencing unity with the Holy One, of being able to live and work with people of differing points of view – with respect and love. 

I know that I can’t sustain that kind of life without the mind of Christ – as limited as I am in fully letting go and surrendering my ego. But it is what keeps me on the path toward that goal. 

I love that phrase Paul uses: “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Rest assured, he is not talking about works righteousness here. Paul is concerned here with how people live out their salvation here and now in the world. 

The world is a frightening place these days, in many ways. We can’t just stick our heads in the sand and hope it will somehow go away. We also can’t fix everything that is broken. And we cannot succumb to hopelessness or despair. Having the mind of Christ is our way, our truth, and our life as we go out and about with fear and trembling – not of the powers-that-be, but in awe-filled wonder at our God who goes with us. 

Amen 

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Philippians 2:1-13
If our life in Christ means anything to you – if love, or the Spirit that we have in common, or any tenderness or sympathy can persuade you at all – then be united in your convictions and united in your love, with a common purpose and a common mind. That is the one thing that would make me completely happy. There must be no competition among you, no conceit, but everyone is to be humble: value others over yourselves, each of you thinking of the interests of others before your own. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus:

who, though in the image of God, 
did not regard equality with God something to cling to–
but instead became completely empty
taking the form of a slave: born into the human condition, 
found in the likeness of a human being.
Jesus was thus humbled-
obediently accepting death, even death on a cross! 

Because of this, God highly exalted Christ and gave to Jesus the name above every other name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee must bend in the heavens, on the earth, and under the earth, and every tongue proclaim to the glory of God: Jesus Christ reigns supreme! 

Therefore, beloved, you who are always obedient to my urging, work out your salvation with fear and trembling, not only when I happen to be with you, but all the more now that I am absent. It is God at work in you that creates the desire to do God’s will.