Ananias’ Courage: Acts 9, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, and the PC(USA) A Corp

mlk behind bars.jpg

The conversion of Saul is oft-told in Christian circles. His is the most well-known tale: Saul’s dedicated work in rooting out Jesus followers from the ranks of Jews; the appearance of the Risen Christ who asks Saul why he persecutes the Lord; his transformation from the Saul of oppression to the Paul of liberation. The story has given we Christians a penchant for the dramatic conversion tale.

Today, though, let us focus on another figure in the Acts 9 narrative. Ananias is introduced to us as a devout man living in Damascus. Later scholars will argue whether he is to be regarded as an apostle or a prophet. His call is similar to that of Abraham, Moses, and Isaiah: God appears, calling out his name, to which Ananias responds: “Here I am, Lord.” God gives him a mission, to go via the Straight Road to find Saul of Tarsus, who was physically blind but had experienced a vision of Ananias coming to lay hands upon him.

Like most prophetic calls, this one is rife with uncertainty. Ananias knows about Saul’s reputation. He has been instrumental in the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Saul is not the type of person a Jewish Jesus-believer wants to encounter. He’s a zealot with authority. Regardless, God is explicit. “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel. I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

Ananias overcomes his fear. He walks into the house of Judas where Saul has been for three days, reeling from his experience and blinded by the light. Ananias lays hands, which some argue was the third Christian sacrament, after baptism and the Eucharist.  The scales fall from Saul’s eyes and he goes out to be baptized by Ananias.

Tomorrow, April 16, we mark the fifty-fifth anniversary of the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote to prominent white clergy who had publicly called upon King and by association the Civil Rights movement, to slow down. King secured a pen and began writing a 7,000-word epistle that is perhaps the most important in our country’s history. King was prophetic with his words. He an Ananias writing to a Church filled with Sauls. He knew the dangers but was secure in his own sense of call. The push for justice cannot be contingent upon the comfort level of the oppressor.

Within the denomination I serve, the Presbyterian Church (USA), there are currently heated discussions concerning our national restructuring. I do not pretend to understand the minutiae, but I do understand that the Advocacy Committee on Racial Ethnic Concerns (ACREC), the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns, the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACWP), and Presbyterian Women all feel discounted in the ongoing process. They are only being brought in after key decisions have been made, without their input. They are Ananias, trying to get through to Saul.

In the Church, we far too often like to think of ourselves as Paul, boldly going where God sends us, determined to preach the Gospel. But the Church is Saul to many in the Body of Christ. The Church is the white pastors who called upon King to slow down, telling him that he was an outsider upsetting the apple cart. One of the central messages of today’s passage is that sometimes we can be dangerous yet God sends people to us to help the scales fall away.

I’m a Stated Supply Pastor for a small congregation. I am not involved in the national conversations, but that does not mean that I can’t be Saul. As much as I try to reject racism in all its forms, that doesn’t mean I can’t be one of the white pastors telling King to shut up and know his place.

It really is a pivotal time for Mainline Protestant denominations. I imagine that is said every generation, but it is especially true right now. My colleague Rev. Keri Allen is an important, prophetic voice right now. She is pushing for us all, regardless of our relationship with power, to think theologically. This is great advice for any Christian, but it is especially vital when examining institutional structures that are like a legion of Sauls occupying a village of Ananiases.

May the scales fall from our eyes without the deaths of any more Stephens.

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.

Where is God on Good Friday?

Crucifixion 1946 by Graham Sutherland OM 1903-1980

“Crucifixion” by Graham Sutherland
Art on board, c. 1947

“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

It hits the ear like a loss of faith. A moment of extreme doubt giving way to exasperation, to anger, perhaps. It hangs in the air, this outburst, heavy like smoke on a windless field. God, I thought we had a deal! My enemies are all around me. My persecutors have nailed me to a tree. I loved them. I prayed for them. WHERE ARE YOU?

Scholars have even given this saying from the cross a fancy name: the cry of dereliction.

Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani.

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

The cry of dereliction. Dereliction, a word that has two meanings. The first is a feeling of abandonment. We can imagine that is where Jesus is at; his Gethsemane moment has reappeared. He’s bereft. The second meaning, though, is part of what makes Good Friday so difficult. Dereliction also means to shirk one’s duty. In this situation, Jesus is not the one who is found wanting. Where is God on Good Friday?

Before continuing it is important to establish that the cry of dereliction is the opening lines of Psalm 22. It is a prayer of deliverance, a prayer uttered from the depths of pain with the confident assurance that God will act in the present or very near future because God faithfully has acted in the past. We have nothing except the hope produced by pain and memories.

In Mark’s Gospel, the first in the canon to report the crucifixion, Jesus only utters the first line of Psalm 22. It can be argued that Jesus starts the psalm aloud and then continues it in his head or cries out the first line with the expectation that others will understand that, despite his horrid circumstances, he has retained full faith in God. And that’s a perfectly logical, theologically sound interpretation.

But I’ll be honest, that doesn’t work for me. At least not this year. I don’t know why, but God and I just aren’t on the same page. There have been some trying ministry situations over the past few weeks and for whatever reasons my spiritual well seems to be have run dry. God and I are missing each other, leaving messages on the machine.

This is the first Holy Week in my life that I have not felt profoundly close to God.

The cry of dereliction reminds us that sometimes the memory of God is all we’ve got. Like a faded black and white photograph that we didn’t store very well, coffee stains and yellowing about to kill what time hasn’t already taken, a phantasmal memory that haunts us and taunts us, remaining just out of our mind’s grasp. God. It can be easy to feel forgotten.

Psalm 22 is asking us to begin praising God on the cross because God has shown up in the past and will show up again. And there are lots of pastors tonight preaching that sermon and I say, God bless. It is a good sermon. But I can’t preach it because I’m still in the cry of dereliction.

Good Friday challenges us to look at our expectations of God. When we feel distant, what do we remember? When we have an Easter hope, to what does it point? I think we have to talk about what we mean when we say God will show up again. Because it is easy to make false promises, to boast and be grandiose about what God will do on Easter, but the truth is our lived faith often is much more subtle and dirty. I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling Good Friday more this year than I am Easter Sunday.

So where is God on Good Friday?

Jesus does not pray the entire psalm aloud. He just prays the cry of dereliction, which seems to indicate that he’s not quite in the praising mood. Jesus is able to have his moment of doubt and pain, and it does not stop the power of resurrection. In Jesus’ experience of dereliction, God is already at work on the transformation that will occur Easter morning. The two are not mutually exclusive. The resurrection is in the offing. While Jesus suffers, feeling alone, God is preparing a place of glory.

This can sound kind of like empty promises if we regard God as a genie. The chaos and quandary of the cross are exactly this: they make no sense; the horror of God sending God’s son to die such a death defies logic, yet it perfectly exemplifies the eternal majesty of divine love. Nothing can kill it. And when we submit to it completely, we are granted everlasting life. perfect love remains even when we are overcome with alienating pain.

For me, this year, the cry of dereliction is especially potent: Jesus feels that human desperation, that disconnect, that panic, that summoning of faith that must happen when derelict. Sometimes all we have is the memory of a whisper, a memory of a whisper that our joy comes on Easter, that there will be confirmation again that God makes miracles, in the ways we least expect them, but right now all we have is the cry of dereliction. And that’s enough. Amen.

“I’m washed in the blood of the Lamb, so I’ll be the biggest jerk I can”: On the surprising depth of Paul’s theology of the cross (a sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25)

huge-tiny-.gifThere are times when I hear about the religious beliefs of others and I shake my head, wondering how anyone could believe such claptrap. Take, for example, Scientology. Like, seriously. How could anyone believe the story of Xenu and thetans? Then I remind myself that the Christian story is absolutely outlandish. It defies logic to the point of absurdity. We forget this to our detriment, and today’s words from the Apostle help us to confront the fact that God purposefully has used the preposterous to reveal the nature of God’s power.

Let’s establish a few important things. Paul is writing in response to a letter the church in Corinth sent to him, a letter which is lost to history; Paul is writing to a mixed community, Jew and Gentile together, that is struggling to co–exist without reverting to division and confrontation. Most potently, Paul centers his theology in an impending end-time, an apocalyptic eschaton that will happen within a generation. Paul puts a lot of eggs in that basket. Of course, Jesus has not come back yet. On that count, Paul is way wrong.

But today’s passage shows that Paul’s theology of the cross is much deeper than simply believing that the blood of the lamb washes you clean, requiring nothing more of the individual until Christ comes back. Sadly, this is what often passes for Pauline theology. I describe it as, “I’m washed in the blood of the Lamb, so I’ll be the biggest jerk I can.” In fact, Paul seems to purposefully refrain from using some of his favorite eschatological sayings in these early verses; his focus in on what God has done, not what God will do. Paul’s message to the church in Corinth is: “Look, you’re reverting to these positions of division and making something profoundly simple unnecessarily complicated. I’m passing on to you the same thing that I learned, that Jesus was handed over to the authorities, tried, beaten, crucified, killed, and on the third day, raised. That’s all you need. Understand this and you will be unified. This is wisdom, everything else is foolishness.”

I’ll admit, this is a theology one might rightfully fear. It appears, perhaps, to require that a person believes in something fantastical and absurd because, well, Jesus. Literally, “because Jesus.” And we Christians are largely responsible for such a shallow understanding of Paul.

Paul’s argument is sophisticated, a reality expressed more clearly through the original Greek than it is in English. It is important to establish two things right off the bat: one, Paul sees the world as transient and therefore no wisdom can come from it; and two, creation is fallen, and the world is in active rebellion against God. So, again, why do we expect wisdom from human endeavors? Any attempt to engage Paul’s theology has to accept these assumptions. Paul believed the end of the world would be an act of wisdom.

Eschatology is not at the center here, as I mentioned before because Paul is using harsh language to describe what God has done in the world through Jesus. Paul juxtaposes σοφία τοῦ θεοῦ (wisdom of God) with μωρία (moria), a word often translated as “foolishness.” However, μωρία is actually the root word for moronic. So, Paul is saying, “There’s the wisdom of God, and then there is the moronic claptrap given by the world.”

Paul then goes a step further. He says, “What passes for wisdom is moronic. The people whom the world elevates as wise are morons.” They believe that might makes right, that God is always on the side of the victor, that wealth and power are always signs of divine favor. When the moronic passes for wisdom, how then is God to be heard?

Remember that Paul is writing to a community of Jews and Gentiles, often called Greeks by Paul. “You Greeks love your wisdom,” he says. “And you Jews love your signs,” he adds, able to speak from experience about both as a Hellenized Pharisee. God, therefore, has flipped both of these conventions like Jesus rearranging tables in the Temple: God’s wisdom is that a peasant, itinerant Jewish preacher submits to the crushing power of religious and civic authorities, turning the cross, a sign of torture and imperial oppression, into the definitive symbol of God’s redeeming, liberating grace.

Think about that: foundational to our faith claim is that Jesus teaches us how to live the life we are designed to live by being rooted in the knowledge that God’s love, compassion, mercy, and justice prioritizes the least of these. As an eternal reminder of the seemingly absurd notion that God would side with the poor and the oppressed, we have the wisdom of the cross. It is in and of itself a scandal, something embarrassing, something that draws the ridicule and ire of the world, but it reminds us that God’s love is subversive. God’s love takes us to uncomfortable and difficult places, but our assurance is that God is with us. God is Emmanuel.

I get chills just thinking about the potency of this theology for our own time. However, that does not mean that Paul’s cross theology is not still problematic. Perhaps you, like me, are sometimes resistant to Paul because of how Paul has been used in damaging ways across the millennia. Yet, imagine how powerful and liberating this message must have been in the first century as the war drums between Rome and Jewish rebels became increasingly louder until they burst in 70 C.E. when the Temple was destroyed. Think of how immediate Paul’s theology of salvation makes God if you are poor if your whole life is spent being denigrated by others, called foolish, told you are unworthy of God? God’s wisdom, God’s redemption, begins by seeing that God defies categories.

Lent reminds us that God’s message has been consistent across time. If we want to know God, we must love others. We must reject false wisdom, push back against the moronic promises of a world that is at war with peace. What God has done through Christ is purposefully absurd on the face of it. Who would look for a God made manifest in a rebellious, heretical, provocative, and thoroughly debased Jewish preacher who ended his life nailed to a tree? The answer? Those who know that God is not to be found in the structures of power that oppress those whom God has prioritized. Our faith claim is ridiculous and worthy of ridicule if we believe that money brings happiness, violence brings peace, fear brings loyalty, and morons bring wisdom.

Lent faces us with big questions. What does the cross mean? What does it point us to? What does it reveal about God? And when we pick up our own, what are the contours of the cross? What is the wisdom we take upon our backs as we march toward our own metaphorical crucifixions? What will we die to in the world when we are resurrected in God’s wisdom? Who is the God we have discovered in the unlikeliest of places? Let us keep our eyes fixed on the City of David and continue to kick up the dust on the Jerusalem Road. 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.

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.