I just had to say something, didn’t I?* A pastor responds to outside missionaries

IMG_1423.JPGI saw the placards as we rolled past Mills Lawn on Elm Street. Turning onto Short from Walnut, I saw the bearers. Two women, at least in their 60s, bedecked in the long dresses and long hair that often accompany Holiness movement communities. I sighed as we turned right on Xenia and looked for a parking space. “I think this is something to which a town pastor must respond,” I said, getting out of the car.

Mimi and I have a ritual: Monday mornings at the Sunrise. We love the people who work the shift. It is generally a very townie time to be downtown. We each invariably order the same thing. They know us so well, they once started our order while we were still waiting for a table to come open. By the time we sat down, the food was coming up.

I was hoping to gather my thoughts over breakfast when Mimi pointed out that they were on a wait. No biggy, I thought. As we walked past a group of four tourists and into the restaurant, they followed immediately. A woman asked if she could sneak past, even though she had already put their name in. I said, “The host will come around in a second. We’re not cutting.” She and another lady then moved into space right next to people eating; just, milling about and assuming that this very successful restaurant is staffed by people who don’t know that there is a small waiting area and people go outside. They’re still talking about how they don’t want to lose their spot. I said to Miriam, “I don’t like the vibe in town today. Let’s go to Tom’s. ”

We stepped out and walked toward the Little Art. I look again at the women and they were speaking to people passing by. Dammit, I thought. I told Miriam she could go ahead, and I crossed the street.

**

“Hello,” I say.

“Hello,” one woman returns, eyeballing me in a way with which I am most familiar. My beard, locs, tattoos, muscles; the ever-present Monday Jesus Christ Superstar t-shirt; they all add up to danger. She takes a step back.

“I’m pastor of the church right there. I just want to let you know that Jesus is very well represented here. We’ve had committed, Christ-infused people with long, deep ties to this community for nearly two hundred years. We don’t need outsiders coming in to deliver a message regarding Jesus, especially this way. We have at least half-a-dozen pastors toiling in the vineyard of Yellow Springs right now. Jesus is doing just fine.”

“Then why did God ask us to come here?” she retorts.

“I don’t even know how to respond to that, ma’am. Because your claim that God sent you here seems in direct contradiction about what I know to be true. I grew up here. I have committed the whole of my life to Jesus Christ. I have been a pastor in this village for five years, and I know the fruits that God has born from the countless seeds sown by Christ-loving people.”

“I’ve never heard of one Christian asking another Christian to leave,” she says.

“Ma’am, I’m not asking you to leave. What I am saying is that if you were really concerned about the souls of people here, why did you not contact those of us who toil in the vineyard? Why not come and talk to us? This is not doing anything to help those of us who love Jesus and who will still be here after you leave.”

“Okay, you’ve had your say.”

“Yup, God bless.”

All I hear is laughter as I walk away.

**

In a way, my approach was confrontational. I imagine that there will be those who feel that I should have gone in with a carrot rather than a stick. Establish mutual love for Christ, ask questions, be more invitational; I get it. Because I have done it in the past and it goes nowhere. I’ve spent two decades studying and living Christianity. I’ve lived in this part of Ohio for the overwhelming majority of my life. I know their techniques, their theology, their assumptions. They are treating this town as a mission field.

Missionaries only go where they feel that Christ is not represented or to places they believe are openly hostile to God. That must always be kept at the forefront. The earnestness of these Christians cannot be denied; they sincerely believe that Satan takes root in communities unless there are soldiers in God’s army actively fighting against him. They will not recognize as authentically Christian any Jesus-believer who does not share their Manichean worldview, replete with racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and nationalism wrapped up in a millennialist-based eschatology that would make the Qurman community say, “Whoa, lighten up y’all.”

Was it comfortable saying these things to my elders? No. I didn’t relish it. I didn’t enjoy it. I wasn’t angry. But I couldn’t just roll me eyes and walk on. I just had to say something.

**

Paul writes in Ephesians 4:4-5, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism…” It is important to remember that Paul was writing while in prison, awaiting trial before Nero that most certainly would result in a death sentence. In this epistle, which was not addressed to the people of Ephesus as it is an encyclical and meant for all members of the Body of Christ, Paul uses seventy unique Greek words that are not found in any of his other authentic epistles.

Ephesians operates as a diptych, with two panels (Eph. 1-3; 4-6) facing one another. In the first part, Paul writes about what must happen inside each person: we must hold ourselves up against the example of Christ and see that we are found wanting. Understanding that we need God in order to transform, we replace ourselves with Christ. We begin to live in Christ. Paul does not say how this must happen; he understands that each experience will be different, but if it results in you pulling up a chair at the table of Christ and saying, “I’m all in,” then that is the faith Paul is talking about.

In the second half, Paul connects this idea of Christ unifying each of us to your true selves with how the Body of Christ must function. This is something most often misunderstood by missionaries such as those who are currently downtown. When Paul writes about “one faith,” he is not arguing for a uniformity of belief. This is not a credal proposition. How could he have made such a claim? Paul was referred to as an apostle by his followers, but such as a term that was only applied to those who knew Jesus. Paul did not. Paul had an experience of the risen Christ, which no one could substantiate except Paul himself. The whole of his life was meant to evidence that even those who never knew the historical Jesus can be filled with the Spirit and can be used by God for the glory of the gospel.

From the beginning, our faith tradition has been about the transforming power of God through Jesus Christ. The kerygma, the oral proclamations, spread in numerous languages, meeting people where they were; the gospel as we have received it is by definition an experiential one. Sadly, history has shown that Christians are far, far too concerned about how a person ended up at God’s table rather than the fact that God brings us all as equals.

In Paul’s vision for Godly community, we must have respect for the myriad ways in which God can reconcile humans to God’s self. God points to a shared baptism. Again, this was not just a credal formula. It was a public testimony, even in the face of danger, about inward grace. It was not a call that everyone should be baptized in the same way or for exactly the same reasons. Rather, Paul’s call to a shared faith and baptism was meant to be a radical invitation into God’s diverse, Spirit-infused community.

**

I have to imagine that I am now, or will soon be, a story these ladies share. Based on their derisive laughter as I departed, I’m sure I will be seen as a demon, a fallen soul, a deceiver, a fill-in-the-blank. Just like with an encyclical: the community name in the greeting is left blank so that the reader/teller of the epistle can insert the name of the one being addressed. Rather, in my situation, I’ll be a mirror for all their fears and assumptions. In that way, what I did is a certain failure. My words will only strengthen their resolve and might, in the end, increase the frequency of their visits.

But I just had to say something, didn’t I?

*The title should be read in the voice of Dr. Venkman with the sarcasm tone set on 11. I’m not conducting a poll.

**This was updated to correct tense issues.

An Easter Sermon: Running home scared is a perfectly good response to rumors of resurrection

 

empty tomb mafa
“Empty Tomb” by Anonymous, c. 1970s

Our first scripture reading this Easter morning comes from the Gospel of Mark, which contains the earliest intact account of Jesus’ resurrection. Interestingly, it reports a rumor from an unknown character rather than an actual resurrection appearance. We don’t see the Risen Christ, we just hear about him from someone we’ve never met and never encounter again.

 

As the story goes, Mary Magdalene, Salome, and Mary, mother of James set out for Jesus’ tomb at the first light after the Sabbath, fretting about the large stone they will have to move in order to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. They arrive, only to find the stone moved. In the tomb is a man dressed in a white robe.

Who is he? Could he be the mysterious man who appeared at Jesus’ arrest clad only in a loincloth, who was stripped nude and ran away? Could it be the author of Mark’s gospel? Scholars have speculated wildly, but in the end, we just don’t know.

Mystery man tells the women to not be afraid, which is both logical—fear seems a reasonable response on their part—and is reminiscent of Jesus’ own words spoken frequently. Do not be afraid. Mystery man then tells them a fantastical tale: Jesus, who was crucified, has been raised. His body is gone, evidence enough, it seems, at least for the time, that what the man says is true; he orders the women to tell the disciples, even Peter, who denied Jesus and ran, to get to Galilee, where Jesus will meet them.

The women flee the tomb, the account tells us, and say nothing, for they are afraid.

End of story.

Our second scripture reading contains a resurrection account written decades later; this one, from the Gospel of John, contains an actual appearance of the Risen Christ. It shares some details with the narrative from Mark, though. Both take place after the Sabbath has drawn to a close, although in John, morning has not yet broken. Both feature the stone having been rolled away. Both detail the absence of Jesus’ body. Both feature dumbfounded people trying to make sense of a bizarre situation.

In John, though, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb alone. Upon seeing that the stone has been removed she runs to find Simon Peter and the enigmatic Beloved Disciple. Mary, at least it seems to me, assumes that Jesus’ body has been stolen and has been taken to an undisclosed location, which will prevent him from having an honorable, religious burial. This seems to cause Mary no small degree of distress, as she is the one tasked with preparing Jesus’ corpse, or, perhaps, given the early hour, Mary has secreted herself away before anyone else can undertake it themselves.

Seeing the stone rolled away is in itself too much for Mary to face alone. We can hardly blame her.

Freshly alerted, a race is afoot between Peter and the Beloved Disciple. The disciple whom Jesus loves arrives at the tomb first, we are told, but is stopped short by the sight of the linens, limply laying where Jesus once was; funeral clothes without a corpse can be unsettling.

Upon arriving, Peter blows past the disciple whom Jesus loves, making it into the tomb itself before coming to a halt. He, too, sees the linens, but it is the cloth which had covered Jesus’ head now rolled up and set aside that commands his attention.

Doesn’t the relating of this detail seem so intimate, as though that little act is what stops Peter in his tracks?

The Beloved Disciple comes in and, the author tells us, believes. What he believes we’re not sure because we’re told specifically that they, both of them together, do not yet understand the fullness of the events, that Jesus’ resurrection is the fulfillment of scripture. What the Beloved Disciple believes we know not; what strikes Peter about the cloth neatly folded remains a mystery as well. But there they are, these details that changed lives.

Overcome, they run.

John’s narrative continues. Mary, alone at the tomb again, is crying. We can only imagine the depth of her trauma, having been, by all accounts, one of the few who witnessed the totality of the crucifixion and now discovers the empty tomb. Have bandits taken his body? Religious or Roman enemies?  We should take a moment to enter her sense of loss, her confusion: her rabbi is dead, and the avenue through which she can religiously and culturally mourn and honor him, preparing his body for burial, has suddenly been denied her.

The chaos of the last week, the heady entry into Jerusalem followed by the events in the Temple, the unexpected revelations in the Upper Room, the arrest, trials, crucifixion, death, and vigil must have left Mary raw. We can imagine that coming to the tomb she was expecting to have some moments of mooring, to be with Jesus’ body, to honor and love him. Imagine the trauma of having that, too, ripped away.

So, I think we can forgive Mary that she is so overcome with grief and distress that she does not even bat an eye when two angels appear and ask her what is wrong.

“They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him,” she says.

Suddenly, Jesus appears, but Mary does not recognize him, mistaking him for a gardener. We can speculate why this is the case: his resurrected form is different than his earthly one; Mary is an emotional, spiritual, and mental wreck and it takes her a few beats to catch up; she is so focused on locating the body she is not aware of her surroundings; perhaps Jesus as a gardener is meant to be a play on images, reminding us of Jesus’ parables of seeds and harvests. Regardless, when Jesus says her name and she turns around, Mary recognizes him and goes to hug him, which he does not allow because he has not yet ascended.

I’m gonna go ahead and punt that last detail until next Easter’s sermon.

The Gospel of John is clear about what happens next, though: Mary becomes the chief apostle, the one sent out to deliver the good news of the resurrection: she tells the disciples of what she has seen and heard. The post-Easter story begins with Mary. It’s sad that this has ever been a controversial observation.

But what I take from both of these narratives is that running home scared is a perfectly good response to rumors of resurrection.

The story of Jesus being raised from the dead defies logic, to such an extent that for some it is the ultimate stumbling block of faith, especially since it has been placed at the center of Christian confession, thanks largely to Paul. If Christ is not raised, he wrote, our faith is in vain.

It seems that the further we have gotten away from the historical resurrection, the more we Christians have required each other to believe it completely and entirely, proclaiming it as the alpha and omega of following Jesus. Yet, with today’s passages, in both the earliest and latest canonical resurrection stories, we see confusion, fear, and very human concerns preventing people from understanding immediately and fully.

To be sure, as a pastor and as a devout Christian, I proclaim with every fiber of my being, “He is risen, he is risen, indeed!” But as I preached on Good Friday, I believe that one of the central, beautiful truths of Christianity is that God, through the Incarnation, came to understand that we can still have faith while being confused and scared. There’s room for questions in the resurrection story.

Sometimes we’re Mary looking for Jesus’ body to bury, sometimes we’re Mary proclaiming that Christ has been raised. Sometimes we’re racing to the tomb to get there first, sometimes we’re high-tailing it home to hide away in fear.

The pain of Good Friday is still there on the original Easter morning. It lingers for others in the weeks and months ahead as they each puzzle out what this whole, “raised from the dead” thing means. For some of us, resurrection joy may come quickly and easily. Understanding and living an Easter faith may be foundational to who we are, and that it a true blessing.

For others, it may be an ongoing process. A cyclical journey in which we annually race to and fro, from cross to tomb, from despair to assurance. The great comfort is that our sacred Scriptures make room for us. He is risen, he is risen indeed, even if we are hiding under the bed uncertain of what to do. Amen.

Can anything good come out of Nazareth?: On God’s shitholes

9ChristianCaves.JPG“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael wonders aloud in today’s passage, the timing of which once again proves to me God’s continued guidance of us through Scripture.

Just a few days ago, the president of the United States allegedly referred to certain countries as shitholes, implying that the people from said countries are, well, the shit that fills the holes. Both Nathanael’s question and the president’s reported statement have the same underlying factor: assumptions about an area and a people they do not know or understand.

**

         Settlement in the area called Nazareth^ began during the Middle Bronze Age and continued through the Iron Age. Archaeology tells us this, as the great Jewish historian Josephus mentions nothing of Nazareth. It appears that the area was uninhabited after the Assyrians conquered the North in 722 BCE, but by the time of the Hasmonean Dynasty (c. second century BCE), there was a population of about five hundred souls.

Jesus lived in what St. Jerome terms a viculus, a Latin word that can describe both a small village or an alley. The Galilee—think of it as a province in which Nazareth is situated—was already looked upon with a bit of side-eye from those in Judea. Galilee was far from Jerusalem and was populated by persons who practiced Judaism in ways that were different from those in the South. Sadly, those customs have been lost to history, but we know enough to know that Nazareth was rarely used as a positive word. Where is he from? Nazareth? Oh, I see…

There is an irony to this text that can only be appreciated with the unfolding of time and a little insider knowledge.

Philip is the fourth disciple to be called, according to the Gospel of John. They are in the Galilean town of Bethsaida, and Philip goes looking for Nathanael, an apparent friend, and says to him: “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote.” This is curious phrasing. Andrew, just a few verses before today’s passage, tells his brother Simon, whom Jesus renames Cephas, or Rock, that the Messiah, the Anointed One, has been identified.

But that’s not what happens here. No, Philip makes an important, but bold claim: Jesus is the fulfillment of all prophecy from the Hebrew Bible. He cites no book, no chapter, no verse. This Jesus, Philip tells his friend, is the real deal.

Nathanael is uncertain, as we’ve discussed. He is simply reflecting the attitudes of his time. In just a few chapters, Nicodemus will be queried by the chief priests and Pharisees after asking that Jesus be extended equal justice: “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.”

Philip does not give Nathanael an explanation or a defense of Nazareth, he simply says, “Come and see.” But it is he who is seen by Jesus, who in John’s gospel is more God than man, even before Nathanael knows Jesus’ name. Nate responds by extending two more important Christological titles: Son of God and King of Israel. Can any good come out of Nazareth? How does Messiah, Son of God, King of Israel, and fulfiller of all prophecy grab ya’?

**

         Above, I wrote that there is an irony to this text that can only be appreciated in the fullness of time and with some insider baseball. I submit to you that Nathanael’s call story largely is about needing to scratch beneath the surface. Don’t assume you know a place or its people if you are not from there; don’t rely on the prejudiced assumptions of others as a basis for your behavior. God sees you, the text says, from the most surprising of places.

For much of modern biblical studies, Nazareth in the first century has been considered a backwater burg. It was a place one left, not a place from which one came. But archaeology began to change that opinion in the late nineteenth century. A Neanderthal skull was discovered in 1934, dating human occupation to the Middle Bronze Age. Beneath the present-day Church of St. Joseph and the Church of the Annunciation are two caves that contain great marvels. The first, a painted plaster cross and a mosaicked floor with prayers to Jesus in Greek that likely date from before the time of Constantine (c. 4th century).

Even more telling, there is evidence of an original building constructed over the caves; the building was situated north-south, toward Jerusalem. It was likely a Jewish–Christian synagogue, again sparking heated debate regarding the split between Judaism and Christianity.

Also uncovered was a mikvah, a ritual Jewish bath, dating close to the second century. By the fifth century, the whole lot was buried as a church and monastery, likely a pilgrimage stop by the sixth century, was built and dedicated.

**

         See what happens when we dig beneath the surface? See what comes up when we don’t regard a place as a crap–hole with people to match? We find magnificent things.

It is important to remember that Jesus was born on the periphery, that the circumstances of his life helped him to understand intimately the challenges and stumbling blocks that assumptions can produce.

It is also important to remember that Jesus tells us, what we do for the least of these among us we also do to Jesus. We do to God.

My own personal political feelings aside, the Revised Common Lectionary is leading millions of Christians to this story today. That can’t just be a coincidence. Whether or not we think the president actually said the horribly dismissive and presumptive words, as Christians we should be stopped short that this text has come up now.

If ever we wonder whether or not scripture is still relevant, moments like this, at least for me, banish all doubt. Christian denominations and individuals around the world are stepping up. They are saying, “We know that good comes out of Nazareth.

When Nathanael saw Jesus and understood him, Nathanael not only changed his opinion but also started speaking up. Yeah, this guy from Nazareth. I’m telling ya’. Not what you expected, huh? Me neither, but I think that says a lot about our limits and God’s expansiveness, no?

I also like to imagine that there was some pride among the inhabitants of Nazareth. Not all, as Jesus was rejected at home and abroad. But I like to think about the little kids who suddenly stood a little taller, felt a little more seen because someone was willing to challenge the notion that Nazareth, and her peoples, were worthless. May we all remember this before we assume things about others that could cause them pain, or to feel unseen, or before we shut our own hearts to the work that God so often does in unexpected places. Amen.  

 

^I relied heavily on the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary entries for archaeological information regarding both Galilee and Nazareth. Any errors or incomplete assessment of the evidence are mine alone.

Sermons—When Advent Four and Christmas Eve Fall on the Same Sunday

Sermons—When Advent Four and Christmas Eve Fall on the Same Sunday

A Stoic Christmas: John 1:1-18 

Three hundred years before Jesus was born, a group of Greek philosophers asked some important questions: What if the human capacity for logic, flawed as it may be sometimes, is itself evidence for a divine being that is, in turn, perfect Logic? In other words, does our lowercase l logic exist only because a capital L Logic imprinted itself upon us? Even more, what if that capital L Logic imprinted itself upon all of creation, meaning that we can discover perfect ethics through study and experience of the natural world?

This group of philosophers, known as the Stoics, formulated an entire system of thought based on these questions and insights. For them, the author of all is known as the Logos. This word logos translates as logic, yes, but also to so much more. Logos means reason, study, and, as used in John’s Gospel, the Word.

In the beginning, was the Logos.

John is rewriting Genesis 1:1. In the beginning, he says, before the waters of creation, before the ruach, the breath of God, before letting there be light, before all of that: in the beginning was the Word. In the beginning was Logos. And this Word, this Logos, was with God and it was God.

It was God? One can almost still hear the gasps let loose in first–century synagogues.

And like the Stoic’s Logos, John’s Logos acts as the divine filter for creation: “All things came into being through him and without him, not one thing came into being.” Everything is brought into existence by being imprinted with the Logos. Our inner essence and the universe itself have all been touched by the Logos. It is what guides us, even when we do not recognize or understand. The logos is the light of creation and existence, a light that shines throughout the universe.

And now for something completely different. John’s Logos became flesh. And not flesh imprinted by Logos, like we are. No, Logos itself enfleshed. The embodiment of God’s Logic, Reason, Study, and Word. What if God were one of us, indeed.

The Logos became known as Jesus and dwelled among humans, including among those who rejected him. This Logos presented people with grace and truth, helping them to understand that they are children of God, not as a result of blood and flesh, but through Logos. Through reason. Through study. Through the Word. This Logos will later say, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” The I here is Logos. Jesus is so much more than a baby in a crib.

We hear people say, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Yes! But we must understand “reason” to be Logos. It is not just that Jesus is the cause of the season, it is that Jesus is God’s language made flesh. A language we must study. Jesus is the Logos of the season, the Word. Jesus is the walking dictionary of ethics, reminding us that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves and to pray for those who persecute us. Jesus is evidence that God cares so much about how we treat one another, God came down here to show us.

In the beginning, the Word was with God and the Word was God. Tonight, when we celebrate the coming of Christ into the world, let us think of Jesus as the Logos. Jesus as God’s embodied statement on what it means to be authentically human, living in accordance with eternal, divine mandates. And let us think of ourselves as imprinted by God living in a world bearing God’s imprimatur. Let us remember that “God is Love.” And that’s all we need. Amen.

One hundred fifty-seven Christmases and counting

The religious community known as First Presbyterian Church of Yellow Springs first worshipped together in 1855, but not in this building. No, in the Little Antioch schoolhouse that sat where the funeral home is now. The pastor, Rev. Samuel Smith—a fitting moniker, given the Yellow Springs Brewery—preached a sermon on Hebrews 10:23-25:

Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who                          has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to                          love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as in the habit of some,                        but encouraging one another…

The great historian of FPC was Lila Reed Jones. Her grandfather, J. J. Reed settled here in 1857; he came so that his boys could be educated by Horace Mann. The elder Reed involved himself with this fledgling Presbyterian community. His granddaughter Lila would later record in her history that the very first Elder, R.W. Davis (think of Davis Street), was suspended, along with his wife, “for a belief in Spiritualism.” Only two months after that, scandal of scandals, a “member in good standing was reprimanded for drunkenness.” Rather than give us more specific, sordid stories, Lila writes tantalizingly: “Probably no other village in this mid-west area has had more interesting people than Yellow Springs, and our church has had its share.” We come by our quirkiness honestly here, it seems.

The original building, the inside of which we have gathered tonight, sits on land purchased from Judge Mills in 1858 for $400. What we now refer to as the sanctuary was completed for $5,029.47 in the year 1860. These walls around us contain, deep in the limestone, the memories of people who have gathered, as of tonight, for 157 Christmas Eves.

Listen and you can hear the voices from the Christmases of 1862-65. Lila’s history is peppered with the names of those who served in the Union Army, including her uncle who returned disabled and lived on the Bryan farm. Or Lieutenant Colonel Ewing, who also was injured and served for a spell as superintendent of the growing Sunday School. The Ewing family moved on from this village before the turn of the twentieth century, but their voices remain. In the pages of Lila’s history and in the stones of this church.

What of the two Christmas Eves that passed during U.S. involvement in the Great War? Lila writes, “These were troubled times. Our boys were enlisting for training, as the First World War was already a certainty. Our army defense forces totaled almost 700,000 and every home was disturbed . . . The church,” Lila wrote, “should be able to afford leadership for world activities as well as moral and intellectual inspiration for all, comfort in time of sorrow, peace in time of distress.” She continued by noting, “We bought New Testaments of the best army type, and gave one to each of the boys from our church going into the service.” Lila lists over a dozen names, including four brothers: Elmer, Ira, Roger, and Owen Barr.

Can you imagine the burden of the Barr family? Can you hear the mother’s prayers for safety, the calls for God to protect her children? Let us hear the prayers that came on December 7, 1941. And November 22, 1963. And April 4, 1968.

How many Christmases of the 157 have been during times of great uncertainty, calamity, confusion, and pain? And yet, people have continued to come. They came in 1955 when Rev. Dr. Buckley Rude and Dr. Walter F. Anderson’s family, together made FPC the first integrated church in all of Greene County.

Not all came here for the same reasons. Such is true tonight. Some are here as a family tradition. Others still for the music. And, as always, a faithful core because they believe in this story of God showing us how we are to live.

What we experience collectively tonight, though, through hearing the tale of Jesus’ coming into the world, is a continuation of the call made by Rev. Smith: that we extend love and good deeds to one another. That we gather together because it is important. By being here, you are part of an ongoing effort to live up to Lila Reed’s declaration that this place be a voice of love in affairs both international and local. We counteract the darkness of the world by following the light of God’s star.

I think we celebrate Christ’s birth best by following his teachings. By being here tonight, you help the mission of this church: to be a place that is open to all who come, meeting them as they are and declaring them beloved of God.

One hundred fifty-seven Christmases and counting. The Christ child has come again. We sing our Alleluias. We squeeze one another’s hands. And we feel that Emmanuel, God With Us, is more than just a name. Emmanuel is a statement of fact. God is with us.

I leave you tonight with the words of Rev. Dr. Buckley Rude, who resigned this pulpit in 1966 because the threats against him and his family proved to be too much.

“Our church for tomorrow,” he said in his last sermon, “must seek out and become the home of the stranger as well as the longtime resident.” And to that, let the people of the church say, Amen.

Sermon—Hearing “Me, too” in the Bible

bathsheba1.jpgFor those of us who spend time on social media, we might have noticed the frequent appearance of two words, “Me, too.” Across age, race, religion, sexual orientation, and cultural background, women throughout the country have been making public their experiences of sexual harassment and violence. To add potency to this organic effort, dozens of women have spoken out publicly about their violations at the hands of one extremely powerful Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein.

I’m here today to shine a light on another voice, another woman, one who was abused by King David, an extremely powerful figure in our history: Bathsheba.

Like so many other examples of abusers throughout time and history, we have to make our way through the minefield of, “But he’s a really good guy.” No doubt. David was and is an important figure without whom, at least according to the biblical witness we have, Judaism would not have survived and then thrived.

First, he is God’s anointed. Today’s passage shows us Samuel, the Moses for a new age, still mourning the fact that God has withdrawn his favor and is selecting a new king who will rise to rival Saul. Samuel is led to the house of Jesse, who has eight sons. Together, Samuel, Jesse, and seven of the sons engage in a ritual sacrifice and purification. God gives specific instructions not to use human standards when speculating about who will be anointed. One by one, the older and physically impressive sons are set aside. Finally, God tells Samuel to have Jesse send for the youngest child who is tending sheep, our David. He is anointed, and thus begins the David cycle of stories.

Second, God forms a covenant with David and the “line of Jesse” in 2 Samuel 7 in which there is an everlasting covenant between the God and this new royal house. This shapes a new theology and a new sense of community hierarchy. We’ll talk more about this next week.

Third, David did some incredible things. He moved the Hebrews away from the loose tribal confederacy. He put national identity over tribal identity by developing a small town run by the Jebusites called Jerusalem as a political and religious capital. The Sanhedrin, the highest court of Jewish law was tethered to Jerusalem. And the Ark of the Covenant, which had been captured by the Philistines, was brought to Jerusalem, where it remained until lost to history. The Hebrews became Israelites, a vital development in what we now understand as Judaism.

Finally, David secured peace that his son Solomon was able to enjoy and undertake a massive building campaign. He did this through warfare and strategic marriage, taking wives and concubines as the nascent empire grew into power. Women were currency, and David cashed in.

The best example of this comes with Bathsheba. According to biblical witness of 2 Samuel 11, David spies Bathsheba on her roof. Most English translations render this in rather benign terms: Bathsheba is bathing. But Bathsheba is engaged in bathing to become ritually clean after her menstrual cycle. With no mikvah in her house, she goes to the roof, strips nude, and is subsequently viewed by a voyeur who sends for her so that he may possess her.

Here is where disagreement most often gets heated. Was the sex consensual? The scripture simply reports that Bathsheba lay with David, and subsequently becomes pregnant. But we must ask ourselves, could she have declined? David knew that she was married; further, he knew she was married to one of his military leaders. Her objections on these fronts would not have been heeded. David knew what he was doing when he sent for her. Even in the case of genuine mutual attraction, there is not mutual parity. There is no equality in this situation. David sent for her so that he may lay with her. Bathsheba had very little choice.

Let us address the most common objection: cultural context. “Well, that’s just the way things were,” we hear. I argue that we should accept such claims from persons in history to the same degree that we accept it from ourselves. David was king. He could have led by example, at the very least, treating the women around him as more than chattel and incubators. Further, let us stop accepting the idea that men have the right to summon women at will and demand that they submit to sexual acts. If it’s problematic in Hollywood, it’s problematic in Jerusalem.

The biblical story, as many of us know, becomes even more horrific. Bathsheba is pregnant; when she tells David, he unfolds a winding scheme that results in launching a military attack designed simply to get Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, killed. God causes Bathsheba to have a miscarriage and requires her to marry David. God and Samuel spend a good deal of time showing for David his sins against God. David repents and shows true remorse…to God. Not to Bathsheba. There is no sign that he made any attempts to atone for his horrific actions. Sadly, powerful men seldom do.

Let us hear Bathsheba say, “me, too.” Let us not use her actions after the rape to somehow mollify ourselves, “Oh, she was fine. I mean, her son became KING; she was a manipulator who used royal power to secure the place of her son.” These details are not relevant to the trauma inflicted upon her by a man lionized in popular religious imaginations. Let us not say, “Well, it wasn’t rape-rape,” as though there are only a set number of incidents that deserve the acknowledgment of being bestial violations of human persons made in God’s image.

And God does not get off easy here, either. God causes a miscarriage. God’s law requires victims to wed their rapists. And I don’t have some slick interpretation or word study to do to change the bright light that shines on this part of our sacred tradition. This view of God is the perfect example of patriarchy and toxic masculinity. All that matters is the man. It is his redemption that matters. It is his sin against God, not against the ones he violated, that matter. God’s endless covenant is with a line containing sexual abusers.

This matters in the course of religious history. There are billions of women throughout history crying out “me, too.” There are women sitting in pews or reading this online with their own, “me, too” stories. I see the irony of a man speaking about women’s experiences with righteous indignation; it is most certainly not lost on me. But one response to the “me, too” men can have is, “I was him.” I was him who engaged in misogynistic thinking; I was him who enjoyed the patriarchy while comparing to Nazis feminists who sought to dismantle it. I was him who did not heed the first no. There are so many ways.

Sometimes all we can content ourselves with is playing the role of Israel, meant literally as “one who wrestles with God.” As for my own efforts, I am no longer erring on the side of interpreting David with, “Oh, that’s awful, but really he’s a great guy, so I bet he didn’t mean it.” Seldomly do we hold up sexual abuse without trying to explain it away, victim shame, make accusations about the timing of reports or the manner in which they were reported. Let us wrestle with God, constantly hearing the “me, toos” that surround. We must never stop wrestling.

 

Cloudy with a chance of manna

murmurring.png

Exodus is a matter of perspective.

Slavery in the ancient world was not based on race. It was based on the notion that the gods control what happens here, so one’s fate is decided by the stars.

That did not make slavery any less brutal or more humane. It’s just important to know that these religious understandings cannot be gauged through the lens of modern race theory. It takes white supremacy culture to do that.

So imagine if a man with an Egyptian name meaning “drawn from the water” and his brother named mountain put on a spectacular water and lights show, all the while freaking out the earthly representative of Ra, the mightiest god in the known world. And then these two guys say, stop what you’re doin’ ’cause God’s about to ruin the image and the style that you’re used to.

Everything you’ve known has been upended in a flash. Can you imagine the emotions? How do you think you’d be feeling as you pulled the bread from the oven before it had a chance to rise? Excited? Would you be confused as you threw what you could on your back and started walking forth? Hopeful? Scared? Uncertain? Tired?

And then, the greatest miracle: the parting of the Sea of Reeds, with the waters crashing down on the Egyptians, not upon the people whom this new god had saved by besting Ra.

Those two men, Moses and Aaron, along with their sister, Miriam, sing songs to God’s glory. The first night you sleep with a full belly, feeling exhilarated and filled with anticipation as to what comes next.

Now imagine it is a month to the day later. The optimism, like the hearty food, is long gone. You’re wandering. You’ve lost faith in water and mountain, and in the god they proclaim. You’re angry. You feel deceived. Forgotten. Without a place in the order of things. Despite the brutality of the enslaved condition, you start to remember the good things. Consistent food and a place to sleep. A sense of place within the cosmos. Hope.

Exodus is a matter of perspective. The idea of being delivered is powerful, but sometimes the process is brutal. The road to wholeness most often is paved with pain.

I’ve personally had some terrifying depressions that came after a blissful mania. Well, blissful until it wasn’t. This was before being put on medications. It was those experiences that propelled me toward treatment. Some of those walks in the valley of the shadow of death were horrific.

But I have also had horrendous experiences with medications. So bad that I was actually nostalgic about the darkness of my depressions. Why? Because it is a hell I know to survive. I don’t have much control, but I have some. With the wayward meds, I often have no control over my body functions or my mind.

I imagine we all have it in us to a certain extent, a fear of the unknown that can become so stark that we actually prefer slavery or madness to an uncertain tomorrow. I imagine there are not many hearing this who do not have their own version.

Maybe it was or is a job you stay(ed) at because of the benefits, the salary, the flexibility; some reason that you continue to use as justification for doing something that does little more than speed up your journey toward death? Maybe it is a relationship, or a substance, or food? We forget almost everything bad about it, convincing ourselves that this time will be different.

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Murmuring in the desert is natural. Life is difficult when you need a snack and a nap and none are to be found.

mannaToday’s passage features the famous “manna from heaven.” The word comes first from Aramaic (mān hû); in Hebrew, it translates to “what is that?” Our English word comes from the Greek μάννα. Like the Hebrews, though, we wanna know. What is that?

There are two general hypotheses based upon the biblical descriptions. First, the “fine, flakelike frost” like a coriander seed, white of color and tasting like honey points to one or more variety of flowering trees such as Alhagi maurorum (Sinai manna), Tamarisk gallica, or Fraxinus ornus (flowering ash). Each of these has a gum resin.

Which leads us to the second explanation. The Cocidae, insects indigenous to the Sinai desert often called tree louse, secrete a rough, white substance that changes to a yellowish-brown color, becoming sweet with the passage of time. The Bedouins refer to it as “manna from heaven.”

To this day, they rise early in the morning and collect it before the ants wake and the sun melts it. During rainy seasons, one Bedouin can collect three pounds, which is kept in a sealed jar. It can then be made into cakes, bread, porridge, and a variety of other dishes.*

Using mythopoetic language, the author(s) of Exodus describes this as a miracle from God in response to the people’s murmuring. I am not here to deny that; I believe in daily, minute-to-minute miracles.

But I prefer the definition provided by the Dalai Lama: “a miracle is something unexpected.” What is unexpected here? That the Hebrews do not need Egyptian taskmasters to provide them with bounty. God has done it through the natural world. This story, in my opinion, is likely rooted in the historical experience of eureka: “I HAVE FOUND!”

They go from “what is that?” to “I have found.” The act of discovery that one need not go back to those conditions that deny us of our humanity. The realization that many of the solutions to our issues are around us, from the natural world to the people whom God sends.

What God demands is an attitude of gratitude. Toward God, yes. But also toward one another. God tells us to cook and bake and boil for six days, and on the seventh to rest. To be with one another. To connect with God. To appreciate the natural world and the miracle of being an embodied spirit.

God liberates us from that which enslaves our hearts, minds, and souls. May we look around and see what the manna from heaven is within our own lives, and when we find it, let us say “thanks be to God.” Amen.


*Information gathered from the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary and the Lexham Bible Dictionary

Not that kind of God: American Pharaoh and Exodus 3

 

bushIn the ancient world, if you were enslaved it was because your deity had been bested in the heavenly realm. The battles of human beings simply played out what had already been decided in the noumenal world, the realm of reality far removed from the puny humans. The realm perfection. So the enslavement of the Hebrew peoples was confirmation that their God was, well, not much of a god.

In the main, ancient cosmogony operated on the principle that the deities should be the main concern of humans, not the other way around. If calamity befell an individual or community, it was because the patron(ess) deity(ies) had been wronged or were upset. The capriciousness of these goddesses and gods is well-captured in myths. Over 5,000 years ago, humans could not fathom a divinity who would not place self-interest first over the well-being of persons.

But there was the belief that staying in the good graces of these powerful forces would result in divine benefits and protections. Dances, songs, sacrifices, offerings, rituals: all of these were efforts to appease the fickleness and fecklessness of the mighty spirits. Defeat in war, enslavement, occupation, and destruction were seen as the gods’ problems, though. The notion that God could raise another army to humble and chastise God’s people was pioneered by the Israelites.

But we’re talking about the Hebrews. Israel at the time of Moses was just an idea, a name attached to Jacob. Israel, which means “wrestling with God,” was not yet a place. The use of “Israelites” in the text reveals at least two things: the account was written from a point of retrospection and after the establishment of Israel proper, which doesn’t really happen until the time of King David, c. 1000 BCE.

The theology in Exodus 2 is revolutionary. Let’s read it again: “After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God.  God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”

Notice the verbs, the actions: groaned, cried, rose, heard, remembered, looked, took notice. This shapes a theology.

  1. Human cries and groans of suffering rise to God. Certainly, other gods have heard cries of affliction, but not from slavery. These reach the noumenal world.
  2. The cries are heard. These are not ritual actions, dances, ceremonies, etc. These are laments and anguishes directly related to the culturally assumed defeat of the Hebrew God, at this point still known as El-Shaddai.
  3. God remembers an agreement, not to point out human error but as an act of self-discovery. It is hard to picture this as an omniscient God though, right? Did God forget?
  4. God looks upon the Israelites. Imagine being told that you are seen even in the most horrendous of circumstance. Not only seen, but…
  5. God notices the cries of suffering. Your pain matters. It does not go unaddressed.

These actions largely frame what is described in 3:1-15. The Burning Bush is like God’s first Skype call. But let’s go deeper than literalism. God has mastery over the natural world. Fire needs fuel. It is the only way that fire can sustain itself. But fire is not so good for the kindling. Yet here, fire and fuel are in symbiosis. The fire does not consume the bush, yet it need not spread elsewhere to remain alive.

From this harmony comes God’s voice.

“Moses, Moses,” God calls. Moses responds with the words we first heard from Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob, and now, from one not of their genetic line. “Here I am.”

God’s response is theological. “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham…” Abraham’s descendants are not determined by blood alone, but also by faith.

God does not demand that those enslaved offer sacrifices to him. Not yet. This God does not send a tweet saying that these cries of anguish and affliction are unfair because liberation is a communal effort. God does not sigh and say that the damn Hebrews want everything done for them. No. God does not.

God lays out a plan. Notice the action words: observed, heard, know, deliver, bring. And God does not expect worship until the people have been delivered to Sinai, just as God promises.

The revelation of God’s name is a sermon unto itself, and one that I’ve already delivered in past years. Today, let us notice, though, that one translation of YHWH is “I am.” From Abraham to Isaac and on through Jacob, we’ve understood their words “Here I am” to be a reference to themselves.

Let’s perform a through experiment. Picture the words “here I am” as though they are hovering before you, like the Sesame Street reading lessons. Now, place a comma after “here.” Here comma, I am. What happens if we read their words as though they are calling upon God, not identifying themselves.

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What happens in Exodus 4 is fascinating from an anthropology of religion perspective. We see the commissioning of two new roles within the nascent faith. The first is that of prophet, literally “mouthpiece.” Moses is charged with proclaiming the words that God has just delivered to him. Moses, as will many after him, claims that he is not up for the job. This ticks God off a bit, so he suggests Moses’ brother.

This just goes to show you, if you want something done just get a loudmouth named Aaron.

Aaron is a Levite, which from this point forward is the tribe of priests. Moses is the first prophet, Aaron the first High Priest, at least according to the Israelites who wrote down this story nearly a millennia after it happened. However it happened.

However, it happened. On some level, significant things occurred that allowed for these theological breakthroughs. A God who hears. Who cares. Who will send human agents to bring about liberation and community. A God who is in this with us. A God of verbs.

There are cries of anguish and suffering coming from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The storm was not punishment for sins. It does not represent the defeat of a god or the failures of the peoples on the islands.

We have a president who is centering himself and his ego whilst people are enduring an unimaginable hell. Let us call out to God both here comma I am, and here I am. We are God’s people. Us. I know that it’s overwhelming. We can’t do everything. In trying to do so, we do nothing. Not well, anyway.

But we can always remind ourselves that if God observes, hears, knows, delivers, and brings, we should as well. We may not be Moses or Aaron, but we are those who stand in relationship with a God who models for us the proper response, especially when we are being ruled by a despotic Pharaoh.

God understand the anger and cries of frustration whilst an inept, bumbling clod makes haphazard decisions that crush lives, while then using the State-enforced propaganda to gaslight people into disbelieving their own lying eyes. What are you talking about, the Nile isn’t red! Don’t believe the FAKE NEWS, there is plenty of food, water, and assistance. The place is teeming with it because of the beneficence of Pharaoh.

Let us all remember our verbs, our action words, and follow God. Amen.