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.

God Needs More Annas

God Needs More Annas

Rembrandt_Harmensz_van_Rijn_REH036“When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord,” our passage today begins. “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord.” If you’re anything like me, you probably have your hand up already. Teacher, teacher: But, why?

To understand why we must begin with Mary, who according to Leviticus 12, is unclean from the moment of Jesus’ birth through the seventh day. On the eight day, Jesus is circumcised and Mary’s thirty–three days of blood purification begin. Had Jesus been Jessica, that time would’ve doubled to sixty–six days. In these days during the purification period, Mary, along with all other Jewish mothers, are forbidden to touch anything holy or to partake in any religious celebration. Then on the fortieth day—eightieth day if baby Jessica—Mary goes to the Nicanor Gate in the Court of Women at the Temple, where she is to be sprinkled with blood of the sacrifice as a sign of her purification.

The text tells us that Mary offers to the priest for sacrificial dedication a pair of turtledoves or pigeons. What the text doesn’t tell us is that the required offering is a lamb and a pigeon, which cost a month’s salary for the average person. So Mary offers up for Jesus what is called the offering of the poor.

According to a New Testament commentary that consults sacred Jewish texts written before and during the time of Jesus, what we call Hebraica, and commentary on a collection of Jewish law and interpretation called the Talmud, the offering of the poor could be used as a spiritual weapon against the rich and powerful. The offering of the poor is more pleasing to God, the rationale goes, because it is an act of faith overcoming great fear and uncertainty. Think of the parable Jesus will later tell about the widow who gives all out of penury and therefore displays a faith greater than those who give only out of their surplus.

So, for example, when King Herod Agrippa came with a thousand burnt-offerings, the Talmud tells us, a single poor man prevented him with an offering of two turtledoves. Even if Agrippa had kept the priests sacrificing around the clock, they would not have been as pleasing to the Lord as were those turtledoves.

What the passage also doesn’t inform us is that the redemption of the first–born child had at its roots practices of child sacrifice. Scripture is clear that the firstborn of most animal species are to be offered to God. Humans were to be no exception. One interpretation of God’s substitution of the ram for Isaac is that it marks an end to the practice of child sacrifice.

Something new emerges as a result, however, called the Redemption of the Firstborn, in which parents were required to make an offering of five shekels, nearly a month’s pay, in essence buying their son back from God. There were strict regulations regarding how and when the money could be offered. The mind boggles thinking about all those thousands of stories lost, tales of families feeling both joy and panic with each new pregnancy.

With Jesus, though, Mary walks into the Temple and with the offering of the poor. There is no ransom needed here, though, for the child already belongs to God. Once again, though, the mind boggles thinking about Mary going into the Temple. Is she steadfast? Confident? Confused? Overwhelmed?

The scene shifts and we meet a priest named Simeon. He is among the first nonviolent resistors. He engages in fervent prayer, waiting patiently upon the Lord, and fulfills his priestly duties. He is a disciple of Hillel, one of the most important rabbis of the Second Temple Period. Simeon sees the death and destruction wrought by the Romans, yet in the Temple he remains, praying and waiting. We are told that he has been contacted by God and assured that the long-awaited Messiah, the one who will redeem all of Israel, will be made known before Simeon’s eyes dim and he falls into the shadow world.

We are given the sense that the day Mary and Joseph arrive with Jesus, Simeon has the day off. It is the Spirit that guides him to the place of meeting, where he takes into his arms the promised one. His prayer, which is beautiful in any language, connects Jewish beliefs with what will become Christian orthodoxy. Salvation, he says, is available to all, even Gentiles, through the birth of the Messiah. More importantly, Simeon says, God has sent the one who will free Israel from the yoke of Rome.

Joseph and Mary are amazed—and let us remember that Mary is not omniscient, she is on the cusp of an incredible journey in raising Jesus, as is Joseph—but Simeon speaks plainly to the young mother. This boy is gonna shake things up, including your soul.
Suddenly, a scene shift once again. This time, the focus is on Anna, whom Luke tells us is a prophet. The Greek word here is the one used frequently in scripture, but also one that has many different applications. Literally, a prophet is a “mouthpiece” or “spokesperson.” We know of all sorts of prophets—from Moses to Jeremiah—but what is especially interesting is that the Sanhedrin, the high court of Jewish law, had declared in 400 B.C.E that the age of prophecy was over. Kaput. No more prophets.

Suddenly, here is Anna, more properly Hanna, one who also is able to identify Jesus. We’re told that she immediately begins to praise God and to speak of this child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

But we’re not given a single, solitary word of what she says. Simeon’s words are recorded, if we take the passage literally, in great detail, but nothing from the wisdom of Hanna?

Maybe, maybe not. We are told that she is a widow. From the details available it seems that she was married for fourteen years and then upon the passing of her husband, she never remarried.

I do not know the pain of losing a spouse to death, but I do know what it is like to lose a sibling. I imagine each of you has grief events in your own autobiography. Such deaths face us with a choice. Do we become bitter? Do we become angry? Do we trust less, wallowing in the mire, and slowly kill ourselves with our rage?

Or do we, through God’s help, step into our faith and seek comfort through prayer, service, and a fervent belief that we are never alone? Do we see the Christ standing before us in the skin of a stranger? Anna is described as one who chooses to pray, to worship, to spend her time in a community in which she feels meaning and purpose.

Notice that Simeon, upon seeing Jesus, is ready to die. My race is run, he says. And we all have moments like that in our lives, don’t we? That moment when you know an important relationship has come to an end. I knew it a decade ago, the last time I saw a friend from college. We had outgrown the friendship, outgrown one another, turn mean toward each other, and were setting out on two very different paths. That day I was Simeon, ready for the relationship to die but remembering the good times we had.

I pray, though, that most of us seek to be like Anna. We never know how much of our lives may be spent waiting, hoping against hope, even wondering if God exists, but when we glimpse that hope, may we break out in song and prayer and may we seek to be examples to others about the great things God has done. In other words, may we get to work.

Even without knowing what she said, Anna’s temple presence and affirmation of Jesus seems the more important of the two. Couple it with Mary making the offering of the poor for the Son of God, and we have a potent female presence in otherwise male-dominated events. And I hope you find that my opinion does not come through a torturing of the text. I reflect on God’s word as it is presented.

What this says for us, as we leave behind a year that, by most accounts, was especially difficult, is that Jesus needs Annas. Now, more than ever. You never know when your steadfast patience and faith will touch another person’s heart. You may never know when God will call upon you to be a herald for Christ, a person who sings and proclaims the good news that none of us are outside of love and forgiveness. Faith, when practiced like Anna, can shield us from the anger, bitterness, and selfishness that arises when we think that we are accursed and life is bereft of meaning.

Friends, the hope, love, peace, and joy we have rekindled in our hearts through Advent may we now allow to grow in ourselves. Let us be Annas, ready to see and act when God is changing the world. Amen.

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.

A Very Beatles Advent: Imagine Religionless Religion

 

We spend most of our lives imagining peace, don’t we? If we’re lucky, we catch pockets of peace in the right conditions. Around the fire, snuggled in with loved ones safe and sound, a great book and a mug full of something nice. Walking in the woods, the symphony of birds, bugs, water, and waving trees crescendo, lifting our Spirits to God. Peace is the sense that we are aligned, our hearts beating in time with the pulse of the universe.

Peace can be relative, though, right? Some pockets of peace we grab at are simply desperate cries for relief: a break from the chemo treatments, a day off from incessant responsibilities, a positive bank account at the end of the month. How many of us spend our lives looking for a peace we can grab in the short-term while fearing that a true peace, an enduring peace, a dependable peace, is nothing more than a myth told to keep us from philosophical nihilism? If there can be no peace, why believe in anything?

The world tends to hate the spokespersons for peace. In fact, most of them are assassinated. Or executed. And for those of us who are students of peace, those of us who understand that peace is a way of life and a fundamental orientation toward the world, we know why this happens. Spokespersons for peace often make the comfortable feel afflicted, and help the afflicted feel comforted. Purveyors of peace seem to not know their proper place in society, and what does the world do when a person does not know their place?

The world crushes such a person.

**

         Mark’s gospel begins with a bang. The narrator tells us that we’re about to hear the story of Jesus, who, according to various manuscripts, is the Anointed One and the Son of God. Before we can ask how Jesus is anointed (like a priest, a prophet, a king?) or how he is Son of God (through adoption, like the Davidic kings? through biological fact?), we are told about a voice shouting in the wilderness. The narrator of Mark erroneously credits the words to Isaiah alone. But the first half of the passage is from Malachi 3:1. You may be asking, why does this matter? Why, indeed.

During the prophet Malachi’s time, despondent and dispassionate priests oversaw the Temple duties. The numbers of the faithful were dwindling and true worship of God—love of thy neighbor—was fading. Malachi was infused with the Word. “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to the Temple.” Malachi, of course, was the messenger.

But this is not a gentle message. Malachi is warning the priests that purification is coming. They are about to be upended because they have not been good stewards of the people or servants of the Temple. Quoting Malachi 3:1 as you walk out of the wilderness, locusts in your teeth and beard, wild honey on the hair tunic you wear, a rope coated with all manner of detritus tied around the waist, this is the way to make an entrance that gets you killed.

**

         In 1971, the FBI began their file on John Lennon. Senator Strom Thurmond warned President Nixon that Lennon and other activist-artists were putting together a concert tour as a way to target Nixon for the ’72 election, the first one to allow 18-year-olds to vote. The tour would follow behind Nixon’s campaign stops, culminating in a three-day festival in Miami, site of the 1972 GOP convention. Efforts were begun to deport Lennon as a result of his 1968 marijuana possession charge.

The pressure to deny Lennon his green card intensified, even after he was shunned by others for not being Leftist enough. Ever the artists, Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono held an April Fool’s Day press conference in 1973, declaring themselves the first citizens of Nutopia, a conceptual country with “no land, no passports, only people.” You became a citizen by “declaration of your awareness to Nutopia.” Citizens were ambassadors and thereby had diplomatic immunity.

Think of “Imagine” as the national anthem of Nutopia. The lyrics were largely written by Yoko; a book of poems she wrote years before and a prompt to John to write about a place of evolved consciousness provided him inspiration for a song that is beloved around the world.

**

         When John the Baptizer burst onto the scene and started screaming about the forgiveness of sins that comes not from the Temple, not from empty rituals, not from the elite who cared more about themselves than God, he was as good as dead. When he proclaimed an eternal forgiveness that is equally ours and not ours, we must imagine that he was proclaiming a peace that comes from knowing that he was forgiven. John offered the peace in the moment, pocket peace for which we grab. So powerful is that pocket of peace, we Christians still act it out, this washing away of sins with water. But we do so because of the promised coming of a lasting peace through the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.

What John the Baptizer and John Lennon both proclaimed, in their own ways, was what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “religionless Christianity.” A peace that is not contingent upon the rules and regulations of religion; a peace that is not controlled by power brokers, or dangled in front of the people as a way to make them subservient and obedient. A peace available to all who are brave enough to not settle.

“Imagine all the people, living life in peace.”

 

A Very Beatles Advent: Joy and Blackbird

The Church year begins in darkness. This should come as no surprise: the first act of creation, according to the Book of Genesis, was done in pitch black. Granted, we’re dealing with two different types of darkness here. Genesis darkness is literal. The darkness of Mark 13 is more metaphorical, with promises of literal darkness to come.

Amos told of a coming darkness that could be stopped if the people began treating the least of these with compassion. Isaiah warned of an imminent darkness that could not be stopped because people did not listen to the prophets. Both manners of darkness came, the former through the falling of the northern kingdom and the latter with the destruction of Solomon’s Temple. But the darkness of both contained a promise a coming light, a breaking-in of grace amidst chaos and pain, that would end the darkness forever. This was called the Day of YHWH.

The text for our first Sunday in Advent is from Mark 13, often called the “Little Apocalypse.” The word “apocalypse” literally means “revealing, uncovering, or revelation.” An apocalypse is not necessarily about the end times, although it can be, but rather refers to the revelations of the true natures of good and evil. As we saw when considering Amos and Isaiah, God frequently said, “Y’all think you want the Day of YHWH, but you really don’t. You oppress your own people, you serve the false idols of avarice and indifference, and worst of all you do so in my name. The reckoning is coming, so get ready.”

When considering Mark 13 we must point out that it does not have the literary structure of an apocalypse and really should not be called such. It is not an apocalypse, but what concerns us is the content of the chapter. Jesus is warning his followers in graphic detail about the trials and tribulations that await them in the last days. He warns them about false prophets and Messiahs who will lead them astray. He beseeches them to stay true, even as darkness closes in all around them.

I will quickly note that many scholars, myself included, do not believe that the historical Jesus said these words; for those interested in knowing more about that, catch me outside worship and we can talk.

But what begins in Mark 13:24 is a theological shift that impacts the development of Christianity. The Day of YHWH mentioned throughout the Hebrew Bible becomes the Parousia, the Second Coming of Christ. Though the sun be darkened, the moon opaque, the stars burning out, and the powers of heaven themselves shaken, the Son of Man will come like the light of creation, bringing together agents of heaven and earth.

The lesson from the fig tree and the need for watchfulness expressed in vv. 28-37 reiterate points made earlier in chapter 13. But they present us with curious messages. Jesus—whether he said these things or not—throughout his ministry uses examples from nature to illustrate his message: “Behold the birds of the heaven . . . consider the lilies of the field.” Here, the leaves on the tender branch of a fig tree signal the season of summer.

But Jesus warns the listener/reader, those who receive the text, that while the season may be known the hour is not. “Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come.” Do not fall asleep, Jesus says, but keep awake. Like Paul writes, we are looking through a glass dimly.

Advent begins with the promise of God’s light and grace breaking into the world, overshadowing darkness and chaos with hope. In one way, it does not matter whether or not we believe in a literal, physical return of Jesus. What matters is that God promises a reason to hope. A reason to scan the dark horizon for that pinpoint of light that will burst into existence.

Regardless of personal politics, I imagine most if not all of us agree that it is a dark time. There are oppressive regimes around the world, natural disasters are coming quickly and with greater force than recorded memory. Our own country is fractured and angry. Divisions amongst our people and with other nations are deep and entrenched. Even the choice between “Happy Holidays” and “Merry Christmas” is postulated as part of a war upon our religious tradition. I don’t know about you but I am tired. Beaten down by the nonstop onslaught.

Our Church year begins in darkness. But the candle of hope is lighted. We have glimpsed the flicker of light that is like a spark within our hearts. And God will keep lighting flames—peace, then joy, then love—until the bright light of Christ explodes like the original light of creation. The light of life.

But now we huddle in darkness, eyes fixed on hope and one another, knowing that soon and very soon, we are going to see the king. 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.

**

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