desire of nations

Sermon: Matthew 2:1-12

January 6, 2019: Epiphany!

During Advent, our Sunday school class has been paying a lot of attention to a single hymn: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

This familiar hymn has its roots in an ancient prayer practice called the O Antiphons. In traditions that hold to what’s called the “liturgy of the hours” or “fixed hour prayers,” the O Antiphons are special additions to Vespers, or the evening prayers for the seven days leading up to Christmas Eve. They date to the 6th century, and each antiphon is a name of the Messiah, taken from prophecies in the book of Isaiah.

You know all the names, because you know the hymn:

O Wisdom, O Lord, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Dayspring, O King of the Nations, O Emmanuel.

For folks who pray the O Antiphons daily during the week leading up to Christmas, they are calling on the name of the Lord in a different way every evening.

Some of the names are familiar – Emmanuel means, of course, God-with-us. Some are a little more obscure: the Root of Jesse comes from Isaiah’s prophecy about the coming Messiah in chapter 11: “In that day the Root of Jesse will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.” Isaiah was prophesying that the Messiah would come from the lineage of King David – Jesse, remember, was David’s father, and also the grandson of Ruth and Boaz.

Each antiphon, each name of the Messiah, is connected to a passage from Isaiah, and each name illuminates a different part of Jesus’ identity, as the gospel writers and early Christians understood it.

This tiny baby, the Messiah, came to be understood as the fulfillment of prophecy, God incarnate, such a complicated mystery that it takes multiple names with multiple histories to even begin to try to understand who Jesus was, and is.

Jesus is the personification of Wisdom.

Jesus is the promised Messiah who will come from the lineage of David, and Jesse.

Jesus is the Light that dawns in the East, shining on all those who have sat in deep darkness.

Jesus is the one who will unlock the doors to heaven, unbind the slave and set the captives free.

Jesus is God, come to be WITH us.

Jesus is ALL of these – and more.

One of the antiphons that we didn’t get to study in Sunday school is, in our hymn, the verse that goes:

O come, Desire of Nations, bind

in one the hearts of all mankind;

bid every strife and quarrel cease

and fill the world with heaven’s peace.

This is the Desire of Nations, or the King of Nations, or, in Latin, Rex Gentium.

This antiphon comes from Isaiah’s prophecy in chapter 2:

In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
3     Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
4 He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

This particular identity of Jesus was – is? – the one that made people mad. In today’s text, King Herod was especially resistant to welcoming a new King, especially one who would judge all the nations and put an end to war.

King Herod was appointed, not elected, to rule over Galilee as the representative of Rome, and his reign was violent. He was an insecure leader, and the first thing he did was to execute Hyrcanus. Herod took all kinds of security measures to ensure his rule: he used secret police to monitor the opinions of his subjects; he tried to prohibit protests of his policies; he had his opponents removed by force. He maintained a bodyguard of 2,000 personal soldiers.

Herod was a big-time builder. During his reign, he spent millions on building the Temple Mount, a huge harbor at Caesarea, and massive fortresses. The money to build all this came from heavy taxation.

Herod was the king of Judea, a region filled with Jewish people, but he had a lot of trouble understanding the Jewish way of life. He was loyal not to the people, but to Rome: when he built the huge new Temple, he put a giant golden eagle at the entrance, refused to listen to the Pharisees when they explained how it needed to be built – to scripture’s specifications, and replaced the high priests with outsiders from Babylonia.

When Herod died, violent riots consumed Jerusalem – all the dissatisfaction of the oppressed boiling over.

This was the King who received strange visitors from the East one day, visitors who confessed to him that they had seen a new star rising that indicated a child had been born, destined to be King of the Jews.

Herod was not respectful of Jewish law and scripture, so there’s no telling whether or not he knew about Isaiah’s prophecy that this King was not only King of the Jews but actually the King of Kings, the one who would judge between nations, bring justice and righteousness to all people, the one who would cause all wars and all oppression to cease. IF he HAD read that passage, I suspect Herod would have been INCENSED and foregone his rather measured response to the magi in favor of one of our modern, presidential rage-filled tweet storms.

Really, can’t you just see the Twitter feed?

The Jews have a CHILD for a king? SAD!

I am the only KING in this country. For “wise” men, those guys sure are DUMB.

A STAR? You should have seen MY STAR. So BIG. The BIGGEST. The HUGEST STAR EVER. I AM THE ONLY STAR HERE.

Melchoir is a FAKE. His last astronomy prediction was TOTAL BUNK. Heard he can’t tell a star from a moon.

Only HEROD could have built that beautiful TEMPLE. Don’t tell me some other BABY KING is going to do THAT.

Herod was right to be mad. All the prophecies pointed to a Messiah who would rule over every earthly king and kingdom, a Messiah whose power would be not only the kind of divinity that humans created and bestowed upon their royalty, but actual, heavenly divinity – god incarnate.

heqi magi

He Qi, The Magi

And the kind of King that Jesus was – is – would be VERY different than the kind of King that Herod was. Herod ruled as a pawn of the Roman Empire – everything he did was specifically calibrated so that he could continue to rule over the Jews in Judea – cruel enough but not so cruel that revolution fomented – while remaining in the good graces of Rome.

His thirst for power kept him constantly on the lookout for anyone who might challenge his reign. That’s why Matthew tells us that after the magi went home without telling Herod where this new king was, he instigated what we call the “Slaughter of the Innocents,” commanding that all children in and around Bethlehem who were under the age of two be killed.

I read this text last year, and Herod sounded really familiar. I read it again this year, and even more of that time felt like this time. We also live in a time when rulers are mad for power, when poor people are taxed beyond their livelihood, when strongmen build impossible structures just to have their names on them, when leaders are in thrall to Empire and responsive to money instead of people.

We live in a time when children are being sacrificed in order for leaders to retain their power – in the last several weeks, as we prepared for Christmas, two children died while in custody of the US Customs and Border Patrol: 7 year old Jakelin Caal Maquin died on December 8 and 8 year old Felipe Alonzo-Gomez died on Christmas Eve.

Sometimes, reading the news in America in 2019 feels hopeless. The horrors just keep coming. But reading the story of Jesus’ birth is hopeful in more ways than one. All those names of the Messiah – all those different, mysterious identities of Jesus – they become even more relevant.

In an article last month, Rev. William Barber wrote about Herod:

The spirit of Herod still lives…And yet, it was in the time of Herod that God began preparing the way for Jesus and for deliverance. This is the good news of Christmas in the time of Herod. In the face of our enemies and in the midst of our problems, God shows up to set us free. There is no “peace on earth and good will to all people” apart from the angels who showed up to tell migrant farm workers that their Savior had been born. There is no “joy to the world” apart from the message that politics of Herod’s are numbered and a new politics is getting born. We who would celebrate the new born King should consider what it means that we wait to hear the angels sing in the time of Herod. In fact, maybe the point of the text is that we must choose love, truth, mercy, and justice. We must embrace the politics of God and reject the politics of Herod.1

 

What does it mean for us, today, to embrace the politics of God and reject the politics of Herod? What does it mean for us to follow the Prince of Peace, to live as his disciples, the ones who

beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;

the ones who believe that


nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

 

Herod did not win. Oh, yes, he reigned on for a few more years after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and his sons divided his territory. But Herod’s reign was not powerful enough to stop the coming of the Messiah, the King of Kings, the Desire of Nations. Even Herod’s paranoia, violence and oppression did not stop God’s plan to arrive on earth, to offer deliverance. “Even,” Barber says, “int eh face of our enemies and in the midst of our problems, God shows up to set us free.”

I am always struck by the magi’s decision to go home by another way – to refuse to return to Herod, to resist the Empire’s consuming power and worship, instead, this baby in a barn.

This is the call for those of us who have promised to follow Jesus today: we cannot ignore the Herods, but we need not bow to them. We cannot pretend that the terror of Herods’ reigns does not exist, but we need not participate in them.

 

Herod is not our King. Jesus is. Praise God.

 

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oceans rise, empires fall

Sermon 11-25-18

John 18

Christ the King Sunday

This week, I had the supreme joy of seeing the musical HAMILTON here in Durham, and how could a preacher see that incredible show and not immediately turn around and preach about it? For the common good, I should say that there are still tickets available through DPAC AND you can also enter a lottery for one of the 80 $10 tickets reserved for every performance – through December 2.

The play, if you don’t know it, is the story of the creation of America, told through the life of founding father, Alexander Hamilton. Oh, and it’s told through hip-hop, jazz, blues and rap music.

I grew up in Virginia and even went to college on a campus surrounded by a re-creation of Colonial America, and still some of the history of our nation’s founding that I learned from Hamilton was completely new to me.

For instance: did you know that Thomas Jefferson was conveniently away in France during the entire Revolutionary War? I went to the same college as TJ, and I did not know that.

One of the best parts of seeing the production – as opposed to listening to the soundtrack on repeat, which I have done for the last few years – is seeing the character of King George show up on stage.

King George is, in this version of the story, fussy, prissy, self-involved and huffy about losing his colonies.

https://giphy.com/embed/3ov9jNzt9SRTaH06SA

via GIPHY

 

Every time he shows up on stage, the rest of the cast vacates it – no small feat for this fast-paced, crowded, mile-a-minute show. The King shows up in full regalia, crown jewels catching the stage lights and glittering across the audience. He sings a fairly creepy song that implies some imperial emotional abuse:

Remember, despite our estrangement, I’m your man
You’ll be back, soon you’ll see
You’ll remember you belong to me
You’ll be back, time will tell
You’ll remember that I served you well
Oceans rise, empires fall
We have seen each other through it all
And when push comes to shove
I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love!

The King shows up several more times, at opportune moments. He is clearly meant to be a laughable character, comic relief, old, irrelevant and petty. The revolution is destroying his reign – who needs a King anymore?!

The best scene for King George, though, is when the first President, George Washington, decides to vacate the office peaceably, to facilitate a non-violent transition of power, to allow a new leader to simply…take over. King George cannot believe it: you can just…do that?, he asks. This time, when the King takes the stage, he pulls up a chair – stage left – and sits down, trembling in anticipation: OH, this is gonna be GOOD, he says, waiting for the inevitable drama, violence and war that’s about to tear the new nation apart.

And the King is not disappointed. The battle is bitter. Aaron Burr outright campaigns in the streets, clearly a breach of etiquette, if not law. Jefferson and his posse from Virginia are snarky and sneaky. Things get bad. The King watches in delight.

But things do work out. Sort of. John Adams assumes the presidency (though King George sniggers that such a short, boring man could make any kind of effective leader). Democracy survives. The King is irrelevant…or is he?

//

In the text for today, Jesus is in the midst of his arrest, trial and sentencing. It’s an odd text for us to read today, just on the cusp of Advent, when we get all excited about the baby Jesus, the tiny, helpless, newborn human godchild. But here we are: Jesus is headed toward crucifixion. He has already stood before the high priests and is now in the chambers of Pilate, the imperial governor. “Are you,” Pilate asks, “King of the Jews?”

Pilate is not a King, exactly, but he is in the service of the Roman Emperor and he knows from power. He knows what kings do and what they’re for. The Jews have been whispering about this guy being their king or some such thing, and Pilate is not about to let his Emperor’s reign be threatened or disturbed.

Jesus is non-committal:

“My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

Pilate, determined to protect his power, asked him, “So you are a king?”

And Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world: to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

And Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

Pilate, protecting the power structures that preserve him, sentences Jesus to death. But not just that: he has him flogged, mocked, dressed and crowned with thorns. The soldiers bring Jesus out before the people and Pilate declares: “Okay, Here is your king!” And the priests, who are forced to declare their loyalty right here, right now

  • to the God who created, sustained, called, protected and loves them, the God who promises to love and protect them in both this life and the next
  • or to the threatening, violent, punitive Emperor who holds the fate of their bodies and the safety of their people in his hand,
  • they respond, obediently, “We have no king but the emperor!”

//

On this particular day in the church calendar, when we are already looking forward to a tiny baby being born in a dirty stable and also looking ahead to that same child’s eventual death by the power of the state, we, too, are asked to declare our own loyalties.

Delores Williams, womanist theologian, says that this juxtaposition: “King of Kings!” on the one hand, as if sung by a resplendent choir; and “poor little Mary’s boy” on the other, as if whispered by an elderly woman standing alone” is the crux of who Jesus is and what following him is all about. “These two songs, Williams contends, sung back and forth in call and response, is “the Black church doing theology.” Each song needs the other for the truth to shine through.”1

Jesus, in this text, refuses to identify himself as an earthly King. He doesn’t say, exactly, that he’s NOT a king, but he refuses to assent to Pilate’s understanding of what that means. Jesus is supreme ruler of the universe, but he does not and will not reign in the way of earthly kings.

If I were an earthly king, Jesus tells Pilate, you’d expect my subjects to be here with swords and war, defending their king. But that’s not how my reign works. I am here to testify to the truth, not to amass power and riches and devotion. My kingdom doesn’t work by the same rules of yours. My kingdom is not of this world.

And here, Jesus invites us to become subjects of this kingdom that crosses the boundaries of heaven and earth, that pairs a tiny, vulnerable baby with a powerful king, that refuses to defend itself with violence but insists on including the last, the lost and the least.

“Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice,” Jesus says.

//

I find it supremely interesting that Jesus did not say to Pilate: NO, I’m not a King! Haven’t you ever heard of representative democracy? Don’t you know that the very idea of aristocracy will soon crumble? Jesus didn’t say “no, Kings are bad!” Jesus didn’t say (like Alexander Hamilton cries in the musical) “just you wait!”

just-you-wait

Jesus refused to identify with human power structures altogether. My kingdom is not of this world, he said. I don’t operate the way you do.

Sometimes, American preachers tend to identify our system of government with Jesus’ refusal to identify with aristocracy. We revolted against systems of concentrated power, they say, and so our form of Democracy is particularly Christian, particularly suited to following Jesus.

And I admit that my own formation in American exceptionalism makes that kind of explanation push my own satisfaction buttons. I DO think that American representative democracy is fundamentally a better way of governance than paternalistic, class-driven aristocracy. I loved Hamilton, and the story of the scrappy revolutionists who fought their way out from under King George’s thumb.

But Jesus wasn’t refusing Pilate’s categorization because he had representative democracy in mind. He was refusing Pilate’s category of kingship because the way power works in Jesus is of an entirely different order than the way power works in ANY human system. And we are still learning what that means.

//

Part of the reason that Hamilton is such a revelation is that Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the play, imagined the entire story of American revolution as if all the key players were people of color. The people who had been enslaved, the women who had been silenced, the immigrants who had been cast out: these people become the central characters in Miranda’s telling.

Miranda has re-imagined the story with all new power dynamics. The only white people in the cast are King George and Samuel Seabury, an opponent of revolution. Miranda emphasizes Hamilton’s partnership with statesmen who died fighting to end slavery, saying that “we will never be free until we end slavery.” Hamilton’s sister-in-law, Alexandra Schuyler, reads Thomas Paine and sings about how “when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’m ‘a compel him to include women in the sequel.”

We are still working to include all kinds of people in the American sequel. I do not think that if Jesus showed up here in America, today, he’d declare “YES! This is the kind of kingdom I recognize!”

Jesus is always confounding our ideas of what power is and how power works. To declare that Christ is King or that Jesus is Lord is to declare that we strive and seek to live in ways that confound oppressive human power structures, wherever we encounter them.

To declare that Jesus is Lord and Christ is King is to say that we do not live by the law or the expectations of any human kingdom. It is to say that when we make choices about how to live, we consider first and foremost the life and instruction of Jesus.

//

In an article titled “Saying Jesus is Lord in the Age of Trump,” theologian David Fitch says it this way:

“To confess “Jesus is Lord” is therefore to resist the powers when they deny the sovereignty, reign, character and purposes of God whom we worship, serve and submit ourselves to as King. We know for a fact that this confession set Christians at odds with the Roman government in the first century, and the Roman government viewed it as a threat. Why, I ask, would it be any different today?”2

Confessing Jesus as Lord means that we choose the way of Jesus over and against the ways of Empire, nationalism, and the politics of power-over.

It means that when our government demands that we build walls against people seeking safety and asylum, when we throw tear gas across walls at children,

we refuse to participate

and insist on obeying Jesus’ commands to welcome the stranger, offering sanctuary, befriending refugees, and working for the health and wholeness of our own undocumented neighbors.

It means that when the President insults and assaults women,

we refuse to participate

and insist on following Jesus’ example of respecting, loving and lifting up the women in our midst.

It means that when the economy demands that we spend more, buy more, shore up a structure that keeps some poor and others rich,

we refuse to participate

and insist on obeying Jesus’ instruction to give generously and trust God instead of money.

It means that when the rest of the world demands that the only answer to conflict is war and violence,

we refuse to participate

and insist on obeying Jesus’ command to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.

Confessing Jesus as Lord has immediate, daily, bodily consequences. It means orienting our lives around Jesus – not a human King, not a particular political platform, not money, not social media cache. Confessing Jesus as Lord means that our lives are subject to the way of Christ. We live by the rules of God’s Kingdom, not any human one.

And that will make people – especially the people who enjoy power in these kingdoms of this world – mad. Like King George in the play, they will yell and scream and pound their scepters into the ground and sing songs of imperial emotional abuse. They will threaten armed battalions and all-out war to keep us compliant and loyal to the kingdoms of this world.

[It’s funny when it’s silly King George in the play – it is not funny when one of our neighbors is body-slammed and taken into ICE custody during a scheduled biometrics appointment at USCIS.]

But there is something that we know that the King Georges of the world do not. It’s the same question Pilate struggled with in the text – it is the truth of the gospel, the promise of a kingdom not of this world, the reality that Jesus has already inaugurated that alternative reality. “I have come to testify to the truth,” Jesus says, as he resists and refuses and up-ends the oppressive power structures of human creation. “Everyone who belongs to the truth hears my voice,” he says, and we listen.

May we be bold in our declaration:

Christ is King and Jesus is Lord.

choosing gentleness

Sermon 9-30-18
James 3:13 – 4:8
Dana Cassell
Peace Covenant Church of the Brethren

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

My friend Jon is one of the most wise and gentle people that I know. Whenever I see him, walk into his presence, I am enfolded – both with some of the very best hugs that I’ve ever experienced and with a deep, divine sense of peace. Jon is a poet, so he sort of exudes a certain mysticism in general, but he is also deeply compassionate, gentle, and kind.

I bet that you know people like that – people who seem to exist in the world as islands of refuge, people who make you feel calmer, saner and safer every time you see them. Some of that is personality, I think – some folks are simply gifted with non-anxious presence and loving embrace. But I suspect that some of those people who practice such gracious welcome and impartial kindness do it with deep intention borne of necessity. Some of the most gracious and hospitable people I know are people who have been deeply wounded themselves, people who have chosen to respond to hatred with love, people who have been transformed by grace themselves and are compelled to live as examples of that grace toward others.

//

The letter of James is all about how we are to live, and how we are to make these very kinds of choices. It is about taming the tongue and believing the poor and ending our never-ending infatuation with money and power. In today’s text, James is talking about an important choice that we get to make in our living.

James likes to talk about the dichotomy of being a “friend of the world” or a “friend of God.” You cannot be both, he says. If you choose to be a friend of the world, then you will find yourself angling for money and power, oppressing your sisters and brothers, doing everything out of envy, ambition, and self-interest. This is the way the world works, James says. If you align yourself with the world, then there’s really no choice: this is how you will live.

“You unfaithful people,” James rails: “Don’t you know that friendship with the world means hostility toward God? So whoever wants to be the world’s friend becomes God’s enemy.”

We know, because we’ve been hanging out with James for a while now, that he is uncompromising in his division of the world into GOOD and BAD. For James, there are very few gray areas. He doesn’t seem to know any compassionate rich people, for instance, of acknowledge anything of our contemporary mess of capitalism and culture that makes it so confounding for us to understand how he can be so certain about economics + virtue.

James is also incredibly certain that “worldly” things are demonic. And I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard an awful lot of bad preaching and bad theology that takes its cue from this idea – that you can’t be friends with non-Christians because they’re too “worldly” or that things like drinking wine or playing cards or dancing will lead to hellfire and damnation because they are concessions to evil. James’ concerns that the church he was writing to had adopted a worldly stance of valuing money, power and self-interest over and above all else has often been turned into an excuse for Christians who are afraid of engaging the world around them.

I do not think that this is what James was preaching. I don’t think James would ever fall for the slippery slope argument that drinking a glass of wine or playing a round of rummy will inevitably lead to “disorder and wickedness of every kind.”

But I DO think that James is reminding his readers – and us – that we do have a choice in how we behave. We get to decide whether we align ourselves with the world or whether we choose to befriend and follow the God who created us. And the difference between those things is actually not that hard to discern, James says.

Worldly attitudes include envy, selfish ambition, boastfulness, and deceit. THESE are the things that lead to “disorder and wickedness of every kind.” These attitudes are not hard to find – in fact, I find that they are rather hard to avoid in America in 2018. They are, in many contexts, the default behavior. This kind of attitude is so normalized, that it’s often only when someone chooses to act differently that we notice it:

When a business structures itself as a social enterprise, motivated not by a cash bottom line but a communal good, we wonder how they did it, or why they’d want to.

When a person in leadership cedes their airtime or their power to someone else instead of soaking up every bit of spotlight and media exposure that they can, we almost can’t believe it.

When a politician tells the truth – especially when that truth reveals something distasteful about themselves – we are bowled over.

When someone decides to share accolades or rewards with a team of people instead of boasting about how great they themselves are, we notice.

Envy, selfish ambition, boastfulness and deceit are the fuel on which our culture runs. If we removed these behaviors from American politics, economics or society, entire structures would collapse. Instead, we nurture them, stoke their fires, consent to their power and have found ourselves living among the ruins of disorder and wickedness of every kind. We have chosen to befriend the world.

But James reminds us that we have an alternative – in every interaction, in every situation, no matter how pre-determined or impossible it seems. In every moment, we are invited to choose to be friends of God. And recognizing this wisdom from above isn’t hard, either. James tells us exactly what it looks like. Being a friend of God means aligning ourselves with the kind of wisdom and behavior that is:

Pure

Peaceable

Gentle

Willing to yield

full of mercy and good fruits

without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.
The line about being “willing to yield” alone made me gasp when I was reading and praying with this text. In other translations, it’s listed as “submissive,” which I can’t quite stomach, given the way that term has been leveled against women over the years. But “willing to yield” or, as Eugene Peterson paraphrases it in The Message, “gentle and reasonable,” might actually be revelatory.

Can you imagine what life would look like if we, collectively, agreed to be gentle and reasonable with one another? If we covenanted to a rule of life that included taking seriously a willingness to yield? If we prioritized mercy and good fruits?

After this week’s Senate Judiciary hearings, with accounts of assault painted across the news and social media and conversations with friends recounting their own traumas, I was desperate for a dose of gentleness. Maybe you were, too.

 

gentleness

James tells us that these are the characteristics of the wisdom that comes from above. By choosing to live peaceably, gently, mercifully, without any trace of hypocrisy or partiality, we become friends of God.

And I really do think that these are choices.

//

My friend Jon, one of the gentlest, most merciful and peaceable people I know, is also someone who carries with him deep pain and trauma. When he was born, Jon was assigned the gender of female. He lived many years as a girl and then as a woman before he found a way to live truthfully as a man. If you met Jon now, you would not guess from his appearance that he once presented as a woman. But I suspect that you would sense immediately, just as I do whenever I find myself in his presence, that he has made very hard and intentional choices to live his life in pursuit of peace, mercy, gentleness and purity. He exudes every quality on this list from James.

I don’t understand what it is to live in a body that doesn’t fit who you know yourself to be, and I don’t quite know how to talk about the idea of being “transgender” as it’s batted about in our cultural conversation today. But I know Jon, and I love him. And listening to him has taught me a lot about this exact thing that James is teaching in his letter.

The last time I saw Jon in person and got one of his amazing hugs was when our Annual Conference was in Greensboro two years ago. That was, you remember, right in the middle of the North Carolina controversy over HB-2, making it illegal for people to use the restroom unless the gender on their birth certificate matched the sign on the door. Jon lives abroad, but he had flown across an ocean to attend the conference in a state that was currently making it illegal for him to use the bathroom. That’s how much he loves our church. And that’s how deeply Jon has chosen to be a friend of God – someone who practices mercy and grace and peace.

Jon shared a bit of his story in a podcast a while ago, about what it was like for him to be a transgender person in the church, about the difficulties and the graces of that, about why he loves the Church of the Brethren and why he stays. He shared this amazing thing that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since I heard it: that when he was working to transition from living life as a woman to living life as a man, he got to choose HOW he was going to be a man. Since he didn’t grow up with expectations of manhood forced upon him and hadn’t really fallen into an unthinking pattern of male-ness, he got to make choices about how to be a man.

And for Jon, who has long been a part of the Church of the Brethren, he knew that there was more than one way to be “manly.” He said, in this podcast interview, that having spent time around Brethren men who were committed to things like mutuality and humility, gentleness and service, he had been given a gift of knowing that the “masculinity” projected in the culture and media was not the only way to be a man. He had experienced men who chose differently, men who were kind and gentle and merciful, men who chose not to behave selfishly or boastfully or taking advantage of their power-over others, men who rejected the macho-man worldliness in favor of the willingness to yield that is a sign of divine wisdom.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this reflection from Jon, because I experience his story as an invitation in the same way that James is offering us an invitation. I do not think that the opportunity to choose how we behave – whether it is related to our gender or our class or our race or our personality – is restricted to those of us who make huge changes in our lives like Jon did, but I do think that his experience sheds some profound light on what those choices might look like.

We make these choices about how we behave every day, every hour. We are regularly faced with befriending the world through selfish ambition, envy, deceit and boastfulness, and we are just as often offered the opportunity to be a friend of God – to practice purity, peaceableness, gentleness, a willingness to yield, rejecting partiality and hypocrisy in favor of mercy and good fruits.

James sums up his argument with this: “A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”

Or, in another translation: “You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.”

We can befriend the world or we can behave like friends of God. But James insists that we get to choose. So, what will we decide?

…and the midwives knew God

Exodus 1:7-20

Church of the Brethren National Youth Conference

July 22, 2018

My grandmother’s grandmother was named Mary Ann Boggs Stiltner O’Quinn. It’s a big name, and it comes with a big story.

Mary Boggs Stiltner O'quinn wife to John w O'quinnThat’s Mary Ann there, third from the left

Actually, Mary Ann Boggs Stiltner O’Quinn was not my “GRANDMOTHER’s “GRANDMOTHER”: she spent her life in Grundy, Virginia and Elkhorn County, Kentucky – climbing mountains and moving across state lines through Appalachia. It’s where I grew up, too, a place full of coal miners and moonshiners, yes, and also full of the loyalty, heart and humor forged by living in the cracks, crevices and hollers of the Blue Ridge. In those mountains, you won’t hear many folks call anybody “GRANDMOTHER.” Mary Ann Boggs Stiltner O’Quinn was really my MAMAW’s MAMAW.

Mary Ann was born on July 26, 1855. She married my great-great grandfather (my Mamaw’s Papaw), Matthew Stiltner, and had SEVEN children. When Matthew died in 1897, Mary Ann was left a widow with seven children, a little bit of land and no money. What do you do if you’re all alone and have seven kids to feed?

In the late 19th century, in the hills and hollers of Eastern Kentucky, a widow didn’t have many options. One characteristic of Appalachian culture that I inherited is a fierce loyalty to family and neighbor: when tragedy strikes, you take care of your people. The community bands together. This is a great attitude, in some cases – it keeps people together, knits support systems and networks of care, and assures people that they are loved and surrounded. I wish more communities knew how to do this the way my home community does.

But this fierce loyalty also has its downfall: sometimes, it means that folks are unlikely or unwilling to look outside their immediate community for opportunity or to extend their care to people who are not like them. I say this lovingly, because I am describing myself. I imagine that Mary Ann’s friends and family opened their homes to her, made space for her. I imagine that they were urging her to find another suitable man to marry, there in Elkhorn County, and quick – because she would have needed safety and security and they wanted to surround her, hold her close, and enfold her in the community.

But Mary Ann did not choose any of those things. She did not duck her head and allow her family or community to keep her safe. She did not seek refuge with her own people. Instead, she opened her eyes and her heart to a larger understanding of the world. What she decided to do became the stuff of legend: Mary Ann Boggs Stiltner sold what land she had for a horse and a shotgun, parceled her 7 children out to friends and family members, and became a midwife, riding through county after county, over the mountains of Virginia and Kentucky to deliver babies. She would mount her horse, shoulder the shotgun for protection from mountain predators, and leave her home and her people to ride over a ridge or two in order to safely usher baby after baby – from families entirely unknown to her – into new life.

//

Our scripture this morning is about midwives, too. The Israelites have made their way into Egypt – a small band of people from the country who have ended up in the city, under the rule of a Pharaoh. At first, the Israelites had an in with the people in power – Joseph had gotten in good with the ruling class and made sure that his people were safe and taken care of. But we hear in the beginning of the book of Exodus that a new king came to power who didn’t know Joseph – meaning that he didn’t acknowledge the Israelites as people who belonged in his kingdom – and he started to get nervous about them.

“There are so MANY Hebrews,” the new king complained. “What if they start rising up against us? They’re not from here, and I think they’re dangerous. We need to limit them. We need to keep our own people safe, first, and not waste resources on people who aren’t from here, the ones who don’t belong here.” I can hear, if I listen to this new king’s words closely, echoes of my own white, Appalachian, American bringing up: take care of your people, the ones to whom you belong, first. Loyalty is important.

But the new king didn’t stop there. No, the new king outlined a plan to get rid of the Hebrews all together: he would make all the Hebrews do the worst jobs available in his kingdom, the hardest, most difficult, manual labor jobs, the ones no one else wanted. Then, surely they would all die off and stop having more kids. The king had a LOT of riches – food and treasures and unbelievable abundance. He decided that instead of sharing it with the Hebrews, he would force the Hebrews to build storage facilities: that way, they’d have to see all the resources but have zero access to them. Surely that would convince them to leave.

But the hard work didn’t stop the Hebrews from multiplying, and it didn’t drive them away. They stayed in Egypt, and they kept having hearty, healthy children. Their numbers increased even more. The king was terrified. He was frustrated that his plan wasn’t working, so he implemented phase two of the campaign against the Hebrews: The king began talking very badly about the them, calling them evil, criminal, godforsaken. He turned the whole country against them, and the entire Egyptian people started to see the Hebrews as less-than-human, looking at them with disgust and dread, calling them names and telling them to go back tow here they came from.

Eventually, because they came to believe that the Hebrews were of less value than Egyptians, that they were a plague on their country, that they were dirty and criminal, the Egyptians enslaved the entire Hebrew nation. They forced them to do the hot, dirty, dangerous work of making bricks, tilling the fields and all kinds of other backbreaking and cruel work, with no pay, no safety, none of the country’s riches, and no rights to citizenship.

And still, the Hebrews multiplied.

The king could not contain himself. He was obsessed with ridding his country of these outsiders, these slaves who didn’t belong, these dangerous immigrants who were going to take over his nation if nothing was done. But making them do the worst jobs wasn’t working, and even turning an entire people into slaves wasn’t working. So the king sent word to the midwives, Shiprah and Puah:

“When you are helping Hebrew women give birth, and you see that it’s a boy baby being born, kill him. You can let the girls live, but kill every baby Hebrew boy.”

Shiprah and Puah had spent their entire lives helping women give birth – they were dedicated to life, in every way. They knew, because they’d spent so many years seeing it up close and personal, how miraculous and holy birth was, and how precious and beloved each and every child was. They’d committed themselves to bringing LIFE and they knew – deep in their bones – that there was absolutely no way that they could obey the king’s command. There was no way that they could participate in killing.

The midwives, the text tells us, KNEW GOD. That doesn’t just mean that they’d heard of the guy or that they would acknowledge God in worship; to KNOW GOD means that these midwives had a relationship with God, participated in God’s holy work on earth, respected the God who created them and who they knew created every single mother and baby that they helped enter the world. The midwives KNEW God. And because they knew God, they KNEW that the King was wrong.

And the text tells us: “The two midwives KNEW God, so they did not obey the King’s order. Instead, they let the baby boys live.”

The king was furious, and called Shiprah and Puah into his chambers. “Why are you doing this?!” he fumed. The midwives turned to the king and said: “Hebrew women aren’t like Egyptian women. They’re much stronger, and so they give birth really fast. By the time we get there, the babies are already born and we don’t even have a chance to kill them.”

Shiprah and Puah knew God, and they knew that the king was wrong. The midwives chose to follow God instead of following the king. And the midwives not only saved scores of baby boys; their work saved an entire people. These midwives became the first deliverers in a great big, grand narrative of deliverance.

//

One of the most fascinating parts of the story of Shiprah and Puah is how little we actually know about these women. We don’t know, for instance, whether or not they were lying to the King when they told him that Hebrew women gave birth too fast for them to kill the boy babies. Maybe that was true, maybe it was a fib. Maybe – and this is what I like to think – the midwives simply dallied a little while when they got the call: “Hello, yes, my wife is going into labor, please come quick! What’s that? Oh, yes, we’re Hebrews. Just get here soon!” And, hearing that the woman was a Hebrew, the midwives would sit down, have another cup of tea, and eventually mosey on over to the house, where a healthy baby boy was already birthed, cleaned, and squalling.

But another fascinating thing about this story is that although Shiprah and Puah clearly worked as midwives among the Hebrew people, we don’t actually know if they themselves were Hebrews. The way it’s written in the text could mean that Shiprah and Puah were “Hebrew midwives,” part of the slave class, but it could also mean that Shiprah and Puah were midwives who worked among the Hebrews – Egyptians whose work took them through different communities, helping both slave and free women deliver their infants.
I can’t stop thinking about this. Of course, if Shiprah and Puah were Hebrews, they’d know exactly how awful life had been for the Israelites in Egypt. They would have experienced the backbreaking work, the horrors of slavery, the insults and hatred from every Egyptian they encountered. They would have known the accumulated pain of microaggressions, the generational trauma of oppression, the economic tragedy of never being allowed to earn or to own. If Shiprah and Puah were Hebrew, then they would have grown up and been formed by a people who trusted God over Empire. They would have known the stories of their ancestors who chose God even when it was risky. They would have known that following God was always – ALWAYS – more important than following the King.

But if Shiprah and Puah were EGYPTIAN – if they were part of the empire, if they had grown up in privilege, taught by their parents and their government to look down on the Hebrews, formed in a culture that treated Hebrews as less-than-human, doing it without even thinking about it – well, that’s a totally different story. Shiprah and Puah would have had to come to KNOW GOD without the benefit of their own communities teaching them. They would have had to have experienced a powerful kind of transformation. They would have had to have learned, somehow, that their King was awful, that what he was doing was contrary to everything God imagined, that they, themselves, were implicated in the sinful behavior of their own nation.

If Shiprah and Puah were Egyptian, learning to KNOW GOD and to obey God instead of the King would have been hard. It would have meant that they had not only encountered the living God of Israel and been transformed, but that this transformation led them to care deeply about people who were not their own.

Shiprah and Puah refused the King’s orders because they knew God, and they knew that God loved every single baby, every single person – whether they were Egyptian or Hebrew. If Shiprah and Puah were Egyptian, what they did was a testament to a God who calls us beyond the borders and boundaries of Empire, beyond the false dichotomies and fake differences that we humans erect to keep ourselves safe and others out.

//

The story of Shiprah and Puah is powerful for me, in part because of my own formation as a white American woman from Appalachia. All three of those things – being white, being American, and being from Appalachia – have the capacity to limit my understanding of the world as belonging only to people who are like me. And, to be honest, all three of those things HAVE limited my understanding of who belongs, who is worthy, and who I am responsible to and for.

For me, learning to KNOW GOD and trust God instead of the Kings of this world is requiring a powerful transformation. Because of who I am and how I was formed, I assumed for a long, long time that I was only responsible to and for a specific set of people. I didn’t know how my life was or could be intimately connected to people who were not like me. I’m still learning this, still being led into this salvation through the power of the Holy Spirit, but I want to share with you one particular moment in this process of becoming redeemed:

A couple of years ago, I went to hear Rev. William Barber speak. You might have heard of Rev. Barber lately, because he’s leading what’s called the Poor People’s Campaign, a national call for moral revival. When I heard him speak, though, Rev. Barber was the head of the North Carolina NAACP – that’s the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. I knew that Barber was a powerful preacher and a force for justice in North Carolina, but I had also felt stuck on the outside of his movement, as a white person newly arrived in the state. I’m not a part of the black church tradition that formed Rev. Barber, I’m not really the target demographic for the NAACP, and even though I was attracted and intrigued by the ways he was witnessing across the nation, I still felt like an onlooker, an outsider, a hanger-on.

But I went to hear Rev. Barber speak, and he told this story: he talked of being invited, several years ago, to preach out in Western North Carolina. You might have read about Rev. Barber being threatened and arrested in various contexts – notably kicked off an American Airlines flight or arrested in front of state capitals for his advocacy on behalf of the poor. But this story that he told was about traveling into a tucked-away mountain county in western North Carolina where he knew the Ku Klux Klan to be active, and where he – a black man – was quite literally scared for his life. His church sent extra people with him, and the group that invited him took extra security measures.

Western North Carolina is Appalachia. It is mountain country, full of the same kinds of hills and hollers that I grew up in. It is also filled with the same kind of fierce loyalty that is able to take care of its own with an unparalleled beauty but sometimes struggles to identify with outsiders, the ones who aren’t like us or don’t belong.

When Rev. Barber got up to speak out in western NC, he said that the crowd was mostly white, just as he expected. He was glad, he said, that he had brought extra people and that the host group had posted security outside the venue. The crowd was also filled with mostly women – white, mountain, Appalachian women. Rev. Barber preached his standard message about justice and fusion coalitions, connecting people across lines of race and politics to advocate a moral agenda on those in power.

After he spoke, he said, this group of what he called ‘old white mountain ladies’ got so excited about what he’d said, so caught up in the message of different kinds of people working together, so on fire with the biblical principles of caring for the poor, that they begged Rev. Barber to start their own chapter of the NAACP right there in the mountains of Western North Carolina – made up of members who would be mostly old white mountain ladies.

No kidding.

Rev. Barber’s message of cooperation and justice, mercy for the least of these and accountability for the powerful was so convicting – so full of the the love of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ – that these white mountain ladies wanted to start their own chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

That story convicted me, not because I want to join the NAACP, exactly, but because I am from a long line of old white mountain women. I thought, immediately, of Mary Ann Boggs Stiltner O’Quinn, who was called to expand her heart from her own place and her own people in order to love and be of service to ALL of God’s children. Rev. Barber laughed a hearty laugh when he told this story, but when I heard it, some door opened in my heart. Maybe, I thought, just maybe there is a place for me in this movement, too. Maybe I – a white lady from Appalachia, inheritor of both the fierce loyalty that binds people together and white supremacy that tears us apart – can work together with all kinds of different people to make a new world possible, too.

//

Here’s what I want to say to you:

Our God – the God of the Hebrews, the God of the midwives, the God of Mary Ann Boggs Stiltner O’Quinn, the God of Rev. William Barber, the God of me and the God of you…
our God does not stand for smallness.

Our God does not endorse petty human boundaries, hateful racism, sinful white supremacy. Our God is not satisfied when we barricade ourselves in places with people who look like us, talk like us, and experience the world like we do.

Our God is calling us, inviting us, convicting us, compelling us, insisting that we come to KNOW him, and that in knowing him, we will come to act in solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, the enslaved, the exiled.

Shiprah and Puah didn’t disobey the King just because they could. They disobeyed the King because in coming to know the God of the Universe, they realized that they had been called and commissioned and equipped to follow her, in every relationship and every circumstance.

Their hearts had been filled with a love so extravagant that it could not be contained by racial or ethnic divisions, political or social expectations, cultural or religious formation. Their hearts had been filled with a love so enormous that they couldn’t imagine doing anything other than what they did.

The midwives KNEW GOD, and so they disobeyed the King.

May each of us be granted the kind of relationship with the Creator God that compels us to follow in the way of love and mercy even at great risk, even across great divides. May it be so. Amen.

a PARAble

Church of the Brethren Annual Conference Bible Study

Luke 18:9-14

Friday July 6 2018, 8am

 

By the end of this conference, you will know good and well what a PARABLE is. You might even get tired of hearing about it, with morning bible studies and evening worship all centered around these stories from Jesus. This morning, we’re going to do a little bit of Greek.

“Parable” is made up of two Greek words: para and ballo. Ballo means “to toss” and para means “alongside.” Mostly. But more about that later on.

A parable is, in other words, something cast alongside the truth – tossed out as a way toward better understanding.

ac-2018-logo

Parables tell the truth. But they don’t tell it straight. Parables are not one-to-one correlations, they are not codified behavior laws, and they usually do not answer the question that we think we should be asking.

An Emily Dickinson poem might help us:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind —

Jesus taught in parables. He told stories, because he knew that his disciples – then and now – would be more likely to understand if he served the truth in the form of a story, inviting his hearers into the conversation, engaging their imaginations and their spirits. Like Emily Dickinson says in her poem, parables tell the truth, but they tell it slant. Tossed alongside.

Our job, as Jesus’ listeners, is not to decipher the parable. Our job, as faithful followers, is not to figure it out and apply it immediately to the very next thing we do. Our job, as people who have covenanted to life together in Christ, is to PAY ATTENTION. Jesus longs for us to hear him – let all who have ears to hear, listen, he says, over and over. Our job is not to solve some sort of riddle and run around victorious at how clever we’ve been…our job is to immerse ourselves in the parable and pray that the Holy Spirit might inscribe it in our hearts and interpret it through our lives.

So. Here’s a parable, a truth tossed out alongside. Don’t try to solve it, don’t try to FIGURE IT OUT, just pay attention. Just immerse yourself in it. Just let it wash over you, cover you, invite you, surprise you, take root in you.

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

 

Okay. If I was actually leading a bible study and not sitting up here on the stage so far away from you, I’d ask you what word or phrase caught you when you listened. I’d want to know if when you heard this familiar parable for what surely must have been the seventy fourth time, you noticed anything that you hadn’t heard before. I’d want us to read scripture the way our Brethren tradition has formed us: in community, with the power of the Holy Spirit directing our interpretation.
But, alas, I am here and you are there. If you’re sitting close to someone, turn to them and share a single thing you noticed. Just a sentence – not a paragraph. Just share what the Spirit spoke to you in these verses. I’ll wait a second.

Okay – okay.

I’m all alone up here, and I have the microphone, so here are a few things that the Spirit spoke to me – and to some biblical scholars – as I read and studied this passage.

 

First of all: when we hear “pharisee” and “tax-collector,” we have immediate images and assumptions filling our imaginations. We’ve been conditioned to think of Pharisees as “bad guys.” Did any of you sing that kid’s song in Sunday school or summer camp: “I just wanna be a sheep? [Baaaaa]” It has a couple of verses about what we DON’T want to be, and one of them is “I don’t wanna be a Pharisee. I don’t wanna be a Pharisee. I don’t wanna be a Pharisee, ’cause they’re not fair, you see.”

The kid’s song stands on pretty solid ground in dissing the Pharisees. In English, we’ve even turned them into an adjective: if you’re “pharisaical,” then you are hypocritical or self-righteous. And this characterization shows up in scripture, too. In Luke’s gospel the Pharisees are usually a little shady. They aren’t very quick to welcome Jesus’ teaching, they seem to want to keep the status quo in place, they are generally reluctant to shift their perspective or give up the power they wield. The Pharisees, in Luke and in modern-day caricature, are not fair, you see.

But both our modern-day understanding and Luke’s characterization are not exactly true to what we know for sure about Pharisees. Pharisees didn’t write much themselves, so the only historical record we have of them comes – aside from Paul, who was a deserter of the Pharisaical tradition – from people writing ABOUT them. We don’t know what Pharisees believed, we don’t really know a lot about how they functioned. But I’ve learned a bit about what they did not do.

Pharisees were not in charge of the Temple. Instead, they worked in the villages, among the people. They were teachers, not priests. They didn’t have particularly strict purity standards – they just observed Jewish law like everyone else. They were, apparently, some combination of scholars and special interest group, a predecessor to the later role of “rabbi.” They studied Torah and taught the law, but they also were not the ones in charge of the system of sacrifice or polity. They were, as far as I can tell, a group of local pastors who loved the Temple and their God but who spent more time with the regular people than they did with those in power.

Unlike us, who have several millenia worth of baggage attached to the idea of a Pharisee, Jesus’ first audience would have had a different image. For them, according to scholar Amy-Jill Levine, “the Pharisees would have been respected teachers, those who walked the walk as well as talked the talk.” It would have made sense to them that a Pharisee was praying in the temple – the temple was a place of healing and grace.

Now, a tax collector, on the other hand, would NOT have been likely to show up at Temple. Tax collectors were employed by the Roman Empire, and their allegiance was to Caesar, not the God of the Israelites. They worked for the empire, and they dealt in money, and they had easy access to skimming off the top for themselves, cheating people, stealing, getting whatever they felt themselves entitled to. In Luke’s gospel, tax collectors turn out to be a pretty good group of guys: Zaccheus did an about face and followed Jesus after he was found up in that tree, Matthew became one of Jesus’ most trusted friends and disciples. But that character trait – being willing to change their life and follow Jesus – was NOT what Jesus’ first hearers would have thought of when they heard about a tax collector in the Temple.

 

For the people Jesus told this parable to, tax collectors were lying, cheating charlatans who would have been to scared to set foot in such a holy place as the Temple for fear that their evil deeds would have sent them up in smoke as soon as they crossed the threshold. The first hearers of Jesus’ parables would probably have been imagining either – depending on your political disposition and based on my observation of social media since the 2016 election – Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton walking into your home church sanctuary on a random Sunday morning.

 

The tax collector showing up in the Temple was unheard of. Those Jewish folks listening to Jesus tell this story would have probably let out a collective GASP, and whispered curses under their breath. They would have immediately wondered what they would have done if they’d been there at the Temple that day: shout curses or insults, demand they remove themselves from the premises, refuse to look them in the eye or engage them in any kind of conversation other than heckling or hateful talking points.

 

And so, here we are, in the Temple, with a respected, benign, regular local pastor kind of guy who everyone would expect to be praying in the Temple and a stealing, cheating, reviled enemy kind of guy that everyone would be horrified to find praying in their Temple.

 

Even the Pharisee himself isn’t immune to the hateful prejudice that surrounded tax collectors: “Thank you, God, that you didn’t make me like THIS GUY,” who is clearly sinful and beyond hope. It wasn’t that the Pharisee was particularly arrogant, really, he had just soaked up the common wisdom of the day and fallen in with the accepted characterization of tax collectors as too far gone to be recipients of God’s grace.

 

But the tax collector isn’t paying attention to anyone else in the Temple. He’s not there to make comparisons. He’s not there to point fingers or to build himself up by putting others down. The tax collector is beating his breast, confessing his own sins, pleading with God to have mercy on him, to forgive him for what he’s been doing.

 

The Pharisee, in other words, does all the right things but can’t stop himself from pointing fingers and judging others. The tax collector, on the other hand, does plenty of bad things but has also learned to practice humility and repentance.

 

And then Jesus tells the listeners: I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other.

Except this is where we encounter a pretty serious problem. That word, RATHER – as in the tax collector went home justified INSTEAD OF, RATHER THAN the Pharisee, is, in Greek, a word that we’ve heard before. The word that is translated into English as “rather” is actually the Greek word “para,” as in paradox, parallel, Paraclete, and…parable.

 

And you remember what the “para” in parable means, right? Not RATHER but ALONGSIDE. It turns out, that Greek word can mean both. And it turns out, choosing the other translation changes the entire parable.

If the tax collector, after going up to the Temple, beating his breast and begging for mercy goes home justified alongside the Pharisee and not instead of the Pharisee, we are freed from having to choose a “good guy” and a “bad guy” in this story. If both the tax collector and the Pharisee are able to return home in the grace of God, forgiven, loved and free, then we do not have to participate in the heresy of putting limits on God’s grace and mercy.

Jesus is not telling this parable to help us differentiate the good guys from the bad guys – he’s telling this parable to demonstrate the nearly unimaginable depth of God’s grace, the wideness of God’s mercy, the striking heights of God’s love. Grace is not a zero sum game. Just because the tax collector repented and received grace does not mean that the Pharisee is no longer eligible for it.

The Pharisee is a child of God who spends his life doing good, praying, following God’s commands. He is not perfect. He stumbles into self-righteousness and hypocrisy – it’s so easy to do. But his mistakes do not remove him from God’s care. His shortcomings do not rip God’s grace away from his life. His prejudice and unthinking hatefulness do not set him outside the reach of God’s mercy.

And the tax collector’s evil deeds, his lifetime of serving Caesar instead of God, his track record of lying, cheating and stealing: neither do they render him ineligible for forgiveness. He begs for mercy, and God grants it, pours it down over him, wraps him up in grace.

And the two, both broken, both mistaken, both taken in by the hateful customs of their government and their culture, both human beings susceptible to greed and self-righteousness, the two of them walk down from the Temple, brothers, both forgiven, both justified, both loved more deeply than they can imagine, ALONGSIDE one another.

 

This parable is not about who is right and who is wrong, and it’s not about who is good and who is bad. It is a little bit about the dangers of self-righteousness, and a little bit about the power of repentance. But it is also about the incredible depth and width and breadth of God’s unending and unlimited gifts of mercy and grace. It is a reminder to us, mere human beings, created as children by an all-powerful Creator God, that we can not be the arbiters of grace because we humans will always erect bad boundaries and false fences and judge people who are not like us simply because they are not like us. God’s grace is so much bigger than you or me or our ideas of who is worthy of inclusion and who is not, who is able to get God’s attention or not, who has standing in our Temples or not.

 

God does that, all of that. And thanks be to God, our God is much more tolerant, much more forgiving, much more willing to believe in the goodness and potential of even the worst of us, the worst in us.

 

Thanks be to God.

an Easter sermon on horticulture

In John’s gospel, the resurrection is…confusing. Everyone who encounters the risen Christ – Mary, Simon Peter, the rest of the disciples who are hiding behind locked doors, even, later, good old doubting Thomas – everyone who encounters the resurrected Jesus is confused about who and what he is.

And really, that’s no different than the rest of John’s gospel, is it? We’ve been walking with Jesus through this Gospel story for months, now, and we know that no matter how hard he tries to explain himself to his friends, his disciples, the Pharisees, the crowds…everyone pretty much responds with disbelief and confusion.

Resurrection does not make sense. There’s no logic to it. For those of us who operate in a world of observable phenomena, fact-based research, in a world where we are more and more on guard against fake news and propaganda, resurrection is…confusing. Just like those first friends of Jesus who encountered him alive after they had watched, with their very own eyes, as he was arrested, tried, crucified, killed and buried, we have trouble understanding how this story could ever be real.

It is, at the very least, confusing.

John’s gospel bears witness to that. Unlike many of our Easter hymns and celebrations – even our worship here at Peace Covenant – that moves speedily from the last supper and death at crucifixion straight to the inexpressible JOY of Easter Sunday, in the gospel and in our own lives resurrection takes a much more winding path. It is not something we jump to acceptance of, not something that *snap* changes our lives immediately.

Resurrection is confusing.

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There is this random bush in the median of my apartment complex parking lot that has been captivating me this spring. It’s gigantic – wrapping around a tree – but fairly nondescript. If it hadn’t done this weird thing that I’m about to describe to you, I never would have noticed it. But this spring, as the trees started to bud out and the flowers began to bloom, this bush sort of…transformed.

It’s regular color is a deep, dark green with oval leaves – very bush-like. But as its new growth began to sprout, the new leaves were BRIGHT green – almost yellow – and not quite as oval as the old ones. I don’t know a lot about plants, but I assume that the new growth was appearing in relation to the exposure to sunshine that it got, so that the side of the bush that was exposed only to weak morning sun took longer to sprout new growth than the other side that got full-on afternoon level vitamin C sunshine.

What ended up happening is that the old bush looks like this: as if it is being overrun, consumed, engulfed, devoured by new life. The new bush is something altogether different than the old one.

resurrection is re-creation

I was so compelled by this random parking lot bush that I asked around about what kind of plant it might be. I shared a photo on Facebook and asked people who are better with plants than I am. No one could quite believe that it was a single species: surely that new growth was a foreign vine overtaking an old plant. There was no way, my friends said, that it could be the same, since the new leaves were SO different in color and even in shape than the old ones. I conceded that I, knowing next to nothing about plants, must have misconstrued the situation and resolved to believe my more experienced friends. Two plants, one taking over the other.

Fran and I walk by this bush every day, though, and it won’t stop captivating me. I stopped in the office to ask the groundskeeper what kind of bush it is, but he didn’t know either. I walk by every day, and stop and marvel at what is happening. I’ve inspected more closely, too. I think my gardening friends are wrong – I think their confusion is warranted, but I think they are wrong.

Those new, yellow leaves are sprouting on the same vines where the old dark green growth is living. This is one single plant, being taken over by new life.

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I think resurrection is like this nondescript parking lot median bush (which is called, ironically, given its quiet and unassuming presence most of the year, a “burning bush.”). I think resurrection is confusing and unexpected and something that is really, really hard to explain: even when you consult the experts.

When Jesus appeared to Mary at the tomb, she thought he was the gardener. She didn’t recognize him because resurrection is, as Karoline Lewis says, nothing short of re-creation.

Even after Mary ran to tell the disciples that she had seen the Lord, the disciples huddled together in a room and locked the door behind them, unable to believe what she was telling them and sure that there was no way that this person Mary had seen could in fact be the same one they had known and followed. It took Jesus appearing *inside* the locked door and showing them his nail-scarred hands and sword-pierced side for them to believe it was really him.

The stories of Jesus’ first resurrection appearances make me wonder how often we refuse to see or believe in resurrection in our own lives. It makes me think about the disciples, about Mary, about how experiencing the resurrected Jesus changed them…or didn’t.

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For Mary, experiencing resurrection must have led to a different kind of life. She’d been so close to Jesus – she loved him so deeply, followed him and argued theology with him and yelled at him when he didn’t show up soon enough to keep her brother from dying, knelt and anointed his feet with perfume and her hair.

Mary loved Jesus deeply. When he died, she wept…and wept, and wept and wept. She showed up to the tomb weeping. She answered the angels who appeared there through tears. When Jesus, who she assumed to be the gardener, asked why she was weeping, she wept even more. Mary loved Jesus. She was one of his best friends. What would it have meant to her to lose him?

What would it have meant to her to find him again?

I wonder what happened to Mary after she witnessed the resurrection. She runs to tell the other disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” and with that, she becomes the very first preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I wonder if Mary was able to live into that new identity: a disciple of Jesus Christ, a preacher of his good gospel. I wonder if, in her experience of resurrection, she discovered that she herself had been re-created. I wonder how her life changed, whether she would even recognize her old self when all the newness of resurrection descended over her.

When Mary realizes who Jesus is, after he has called her by name, she shouts, “Teacher!” and runs to him, grabbing on, holding on, trying to prevent him from ever leaving her again. But Jesus speaks kindly to her: “Do not hold on to me. I still have to ascend to my Father.”

That moment of resurrection, of re-creation, of experiencing the risen Christ doesn’t last forever. In resurrection, in being re-created, we are asked to let go of things: the old bodies, the old growth, the old way of understanding the world. If we are to be created anew, if we are to participate in resurrection ourselves, Jesus tells us gently, too: “do not hold on. There’s more to come.”

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Resurrection is confusing because Jesus asks us to let go. Resurrection doesn’t make sense to us because we think the world should operate with logic and observable patterns. But resurrection is also confusing because we do not want to let go of the ways we understand the world. Resurrection is confusing because it threatens us, the old us, the conventional wisdom and the ways we’ve always done things.

We look for other explanations – any other explanation – that the new creation is really another thing altogether, that the man in the garden is just the gardener, that if we lock the door and huddle together then we’ll escape the transformation awaiting us in encountering the risen Christ.

But Jesus calls us into encounter, into belief. Jesus has been offering himself to us, over and over, showing up in the unexpected places of our lives, reminding us that God is with us and that God is for us. The resurrection teaches us that God’s love is unending, unstoppable, bent on transforming our old growth into new creation, stronger even than our disbelief, stronger even than death.

Resurrection is confusing. But we need not be afraid of that – confusion is natural. Just like Mary’s weeping at the tomb was a natural, human expression of her love for Jesus, our confusion at what resurrection is, what it means, how it could possibly happen or continue happening is to be expected.

But Jesus does not leave us in fear and confusion. Jesus will not allow us to remain in grief or shut up behind locked doors. Jesus arrives in our midst, and brings greetings of peace.

“Peace be with you,” he tells us. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” You are confused now, yes. You are wondering what all this could mean, yes. You are struggling to process all that has happened and all that is about to happen, but I have a job for you. This is not the end of the story. You’ve experienced resurrection and now your job is to go tell about it.

I know you are scared, Jesus says. I know it doesn’t make a lot of sense right now. But there is something deep inside you that understands, that longs for this truth, that is celebrating this victory, this illogical resurrection and unbelievable re-creation. And, he says, you are not alone.

Just like he did with those first terrified disciples, Jesus breathes into us and says, “receive the Holy Spirit,” the comforter, the companion, the one who will intercede when you cannot find the words and the one who will guide you in your work and witness.

Resurrection is confusing. But we are not alone, we are not abandoned, and even death cannot overcome the truth of the gospel:

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth…From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

May it be so. Amen.

lift me up to the light of change

Sermon 2-25-18

John 8:12-20

Peace Covenant Church of the Brethren

One of my very favorite books – of all time – is A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle. Did any of you all read that when you were younger? L’Engle was a Christian writer, whose best-known books are still the Wrinkle in Time series – a 5-part science-fantasy story written for young adults. The books have it all: magical creatures, a universe in trouble, time traveling kids, and an uncertain teenage heroine discovering her great capacity for awesomeness who is surely the prototype for every modern-day Hermione Granger and Katniss Everdeen. If you are one of those people who are into The Hunger Games or the Divergent series – currently popular dystopian fiction for young adults – you should totally be reading the Wrinkle in Time series. It’s just as incredible andfar more theologically grounded.

The movie version, directed by Ava DuVernay, comes out on March 9 and I am contemplating dressing up and attending a show on opening night – I am excited.

wrinkle poster

A Wrinkle in Time tells the story of a young girl, Meg Murray, whose father has gone missing after working on some kind of secret, serious project called a tesseract. We find out later that Tesseracts have to do with space-time travel, but for the sake of the story, what we know is that Meg’s father is on a super-secret mission, and he’s gone missing. Meg, her odd but gifted little brother Charles Wallace, and and their friend Calvin meet some strange old women living in an abandoned house nearby who turn out to be supernatural beings. Ms. Who, Ms. Which and Ms. Whatsit take Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin on an incredible journey to find and free her father – learning about cosmic battles between good and evil and the power of redemptive love along the way.

It seems that the universe is being attacked by some big, dark Thing. Some planets have succumbed to the darkness, some are fighting it valiantly, and some are what they call “in shadows.” Earth, as Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace learn when they visit another planet and meet someone called the “Happy Medium,” is significantly shadowed. The darkness covers a good portion of the planet. But, the Medium and Mrs. Which assure them, the fight is being waged, and by many:

And we’re not alone, you know, children,” came Mrs. Whatsit, the comforter. “All through the universe it’s being fought, all through the cosmos, and my, but it’s a grand and exciting battle. I know it’s hard for you to understand about size, how there’s very little difference in the size of the tiniest microbe and the greatest galaxy. You think about that, and maybe it won’t seem strange to you that some of our very best fighters have come right form your own planet, and it’s a little planet, dears, out on the edge of a little galaxy. You can be proud that it’s done so well.”

Still, even though the universe is waging such a grand and exciting battle against the darkness – which Meg eventually learns to name as the Powers of Evil – it turns out that her father is trapped on a planet called Camazotz that has given in to the darkness. Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin must journey to Camazotz to find and free him.

In the course of their quest, the children encounter all kinds of darkness, pain and evil. It comes in all forms: physical pain, mental injury, despair, loss, bitterness. It seems that the darkness is everywhere, and indeed, on the planet that has succumbed, it IS.

wrinkle book cover

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In our text for today, Jesus is offering us another one of his “I am” statements. This time, it’s one that we know: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

Often, when we think about the metaphor of light and dark, we think of them as interchangeable with “good” and “evil.” This gets problematic really quickly: if dark = evil, and if that’s how we think of the world, what does that mean for the ways we think about people, particularly people whose skin is dark? It is too easy for us to hear Jesus say “I am the light of the world” and assume that darkness only = evil, that if Jesus is LIGHT then only things that are light-COLORED are good.

This is a modern problem. Jesus wouldn’t have talked about lighter-colored people being more moral or ethical or holy, since he himself was a dark-skinned man. When Jesus calls himself the “light of the world,” he does not mean that light-colored things are good and dark-colored things are bad.

And, if we think about it, we know that, too. We know that darkness is not always evil – the darkness of a womb is where we are created and formed and nurtured before birth. The darkness of the soil is where seeds germinate and sink roots and find strength for growing. The darkness of night is when our bodies relax into rest, and find rejuvenation. Darkness is not evil, it’s just one way of helping us to understand how evil works.

Even in Meg’s story, where The Dark Thing is the name of Evil, darkness also operates as healing. The children do end up finding Meg’s father, though that does not solve all the problems, and he is able to tesser (bend time and space) them away from Camazotz. In order to escape, however, they have to go through the dark shadow that is covering the planet. The journey almost kills Meg. She lands on another planet paralyzed, barely breathing, and in agonizing pain. The inhabitants of this planet are strange creatures, with tentacles and no facial features. In fact, these beings don’t even have eyes. The entire planet is in grayscale – since seeing is not one of the senses of the beings that inhabit it, light and color simply don’t matter. But here, on the gray planet where beings live in what we humans would call utter darkness, but who have no way to even understand what that means, Meg is loved, healed, and nurtured back to health. In darkness, she finds wholeness.

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So, if Jesus doesn’t mean that Light = Goodness, what does he mean when he says “I am the light of the world”?

If Jesus is not telling us to run as fast as we can from darkness and live only where things are light, white, and pure, what IS he telling us?

Light doesn’t always mean color. Light also illuminates. Jesus is not giving us a convenient metaphor to justify our racist tendencies – Jesus is inviting us to have all our sinful, evil propensities illuminated, made visible, exposed, brought into the light.

When Jesus makes this I AM statement, he is not talking to his disciples. He’s not talking to the crowd – like last week’s statement about being the bread of life – either. In this passage, Jesus is talking to the Pharisees. That is, the people who are hell-bent on having him arrested, tried, and killed. In this passage, Jesus is giving this clue about his own identity to his enemies. The pharisees are gathered around him, questioning him about who he is and where he has come from, declaring that he has no one to vouch for him (even though we already know that people as diverse as Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman have been witnessing on his behalf all along). When Jesus says “I am the light of the world,” he is doing so in the presence of the pharisees, his enemies, who are actively plotting to destroy him.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus reveals himself and offers everyone who encounters him a choice: believe in me, follow me, or don’t. Judgement, in John’s Gospel, is not about punishment or eternal damnation – judgement is about making a choice here and now. Jesus reveals himself – by signs, by confession, by the witness of others – and expects everyone who experiences the revelation to decide whether or not to believe in him.

Here, among the Pharisees who are plotting his destruction, Jesus is offering an alternative. He is revealing himself for who he is – the Son of God, the Light of the World – and inviting them to believe and follow him.

The problem is, in order to believe and follow, these Pharisees have to admit that they are wrong. They have to confess that what they are doing right this minute – testing and plotting against Jesus – is misguided, hateful and full of sin. They have to allow their own darkness to be illuminated, to be honest about who they are and what they need, where they’ve failed and what needs to change.

Jesus is the light of the world – and that means that in him, everything gets revealed, uncovered, illuminated. Dishonesty and hatefulness don’t stand a chance, since they thrive in secret and there is nowhere unknown to Jesus.

Jesus being the light of the world doesn’t mean that the darkness doesn’t exist, and it doesn’t mean that the darkness is bad. It means that in him, the truth of what is is made clear. It means that in him, all our own failings and faults are brought to bear, uncovered for what they are, extricated from the pool of shame and guilt, exposed to the illuminating light of grace, forgiven and transformed.

The Pharisees could not bear the intensity. In the moment of recognition, when they encounter Jesus for who he is, they cannot muster the courage to respond with belief. They can’t overcome their own guilt and shame and anger in order to follow him into the light of vulnerable truth telling.

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In A Wrinkle in Time, Meg experiences one of these crisis moments. She discovers the hidden shame and anger in herself and is forced to confront it one way or another. Toward the end of the book, after she and her father and Calvin have tessered off Camazotz, they realize that Charles Wallace has been left behind – and, worse, he is under the spell of the Dark Thing. Meg herself is still in the frozen state from going through the Darkness, and she is so angry she cannot stand it:

She had found her father and he had not made everything all right. Everything kept getting worse and worse. If the long search for her father was ended, and he wasn’t able to overcome all their difficulties, there was nothing to guarantee that it would all come out right in the end. There was nothing left to hope for. She was frozen, and Charles Wallace was being devoured by IT, and her omnipotent father was doing nothing. She teetered on the see-saw of love and hate, and the Dark Thing pushed her down into hate. ‘You don’t even know where we are!’ she cried out at her father. ‘We’ll never see Mother or the twins again! We don’t know where earth is! Or even where Camazotz is! We’re lost out in space! What are you going to DO?!’ She did not realize that she was as much in the power of the Dark Thing as Charles Wallace.”

In the book, Meg manages to come to see her own anger and disappointment for what it is. She acknowledges, eventually, that she is wrong. She apologizes to her father. And she decides to accept that there is more to do and that she is the one who has to do it.

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If Jesus is the light of the world, what does that mean for us?

What in our own lives do we need to have illuminated? Where are we screaming and stomping our feet, like Meg, or refusing to confess or admit, like the Pharisees?

What would it be like to allow our whole lives, our whole selves, to be illuminated in the love of Jesus, the light of the world?

And what keeps us from it?

God refuses to be kept out of the dark spaces of our lives. The darkness exists, continues to persist, in our own lives and in the life of the world. But the light shines in the darkness, illuminating all that wants to stay hidden, and the darkness – the secret and the shame – does not overcome it.

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(On Sunday, we welcomed guest musicians Chris and Jenna Horgan in worship, and this was the final hymn that they taught and led us in – a perfect response, confession, and offering):