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.

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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):

against economies of loss & waste

Sermon 2-18-18

John 6

Peace Covenant Church of the Brethren

Last Saturday, fifteen of us worked for a couple of hours at the Food Bank in Durham. We helped to process gigantic pallets of onions, onions that had been donated by a grocery store because they didn’t meet the standards to be sold on their floors. But the onions weren’t all bad, and with a couple of hours’ worth of work, we managed to salvage over 4,000 pounds of them that the Food Bank will distribute to our hungry neighbors across 34 counties in North Carolina.

What strikes me every time we go to the Food Bank is the tonnage of good food that would go to waste if not for the Food Bank and its volunteers.

This is a direct result of the way our food system works in America – a system that relies on corporations, cross-country transportation and far too few local and sustainable farmers and artisans. Our food systems are built to withstand a certain percentage of waste – the calculations of supermarkets and producers are created with waste included and expected. The USDA reports that between 30-40 PERCENT of the food supply ends up as food WASTE.

Our systems are built to expect and account for this. And the systems don’t just expect and tolerate loss of material goods – they tolerate and expect loss of human life. Our food systems leave 40 million Americans unsure about where their next meal is coming from. That’s 13% of our population, and it includes 13 million children. We have plenty of food – we just can’t figure out how to share it in a way that values people over profit.

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In our text for today, Jesus declares “I am the bread of life.”

During the season of Lent, we’re going to spend some time with Jesus’ declarations about who and what he is. In the Gospel of John, Jesus utters seven of these “I am” statements – that is, seven statements that have a predicate nominative – or a thing or image that comes after the verb.

We’ve been hanging out with Jesus in the Gospel of John for the last few weeks – hearing about how he called the disciples, how he turned water to wine at a wedding, turned over tables in the temple, met with leaders of the Jews in the middle of the night and went out of his way to encounter a single Samaritan woman in the middle of enemy territory.

We’ve learned a lot about who Jesus is in the Gospel of John. But over these next few weeks, as we walk through the season of Lent and anticipate Jesus’ final days – the last meal with his disciples, his trial, crucifixion, burial and resurrection – we’re going to dive into the ways that Jesus defined himself, the ways that he talked about who and what he is.

My hope is that as we explore these “I am” statements, we’ll find ourselves ushered into a new kind of relationship with Jesus, the one who deeply desires to be in relationship with us.

Today’s clue about who Jesus is comes just after the story of feeding the five thousand.

This is the only story about Jesus that occurs in all four of the gospels. Mark and Matthew and Luke all tell this story, too, but there are a couple of differences in the way that John tells it.

You know the story:

Jesus has been traveling across the region, teaching and preaching. He’s just sailed across the Sea of Galilee, and a big crowd is following him, now. Jesus goes up on the mountain with his disciples – we assume that he’s looking for a bit of rest or respite, after long days of travel and preaching. But the crowd has followed him – a large crowd. He turns to Philip and asks, “Good grief! Where are we supposed to go to buy bread for all these people?!” Philip sighs, and says “Oh, Jesus, six months’ wages wouldn’t be enough to buy food to feed this many people!” Andrew, having surveyed the crowd earlier, pipes up: “There is a boy who has five loaves of bread and two fish. Maybe we could do something with that. But that’ll feed, like, maybe 20 folks and we’ve got thousands here.”

Jesus tells them, “Make everybody sit down, and give me the loaves.” He blessed them, giving thanks to God, and then Jesus himself started handing out lunch to every one of the five thousand people who had gathered. He did the same thing with the fish and people ate until they were full.

When everyone had eaten their fill, Jesus told his disciples: “No, go gather up whatever’s left – all the leftovers. Keep every last crumb so that we don’t lose anything.” They obeyed him, and they had twelve baskets of leftovers.

What’s different about John’s version – as opposed to all the other writers telling this same story – is that the disciples don’t distribute the food. Jesus himself take it, blesses it, and then goes through the crowd himself, offering men and women and children the basket of bread and the packet of fish. Jesus himself looks each person in the eye and gives them what they need.

After the feeding, Jesus recognizes that the crowd is sort of worked up into a furor and wants to kidnap him and force him to be their king, so he sneaks out to the boat with his disciples and crosses to the other side of the sea.

In the morning, the crowd, distraught that he has left them, sails across the sea to find him. They do, of course, and badger him with questions: “Why did you leave? How can we do these kinds of miracles that you do? What sign will you give us so we can believe that you’re telling the truth? Moses gave our ancestors bread in the wilderness, remember?”

Jesus looks at this crowd, desperate to believe him, to believe in him and to live with him, and he says “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you bread from heaven – it is my Father who gives true bread from heaven. The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

“Yes,” they said, “give us this bread always!”

And here it comes – Jesus says,

I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37 Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; 38 for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40 This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”

You hear what Jesus is saying: the manna in the wilderness was a harbinger, a taste, an example of what God will do to sustain and nourish God’s people. Jesus is saying: I am the manna. I AM the bread from heaven. God is sending ME here to feed you, to nourish you, to save you when you find yourself hungry and lost. I am here to do God’s will – and God’s will is that I “should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.”

WK_Tabgha_Church_Mosaic_Israel

A mosaic in a church in Tabgha, Israel

In this food system – this divine system of feeding and being fed, growing and producing and distribution – there is no waste. Nothing is lost. No crumb of goodness is left behind. In the system of God’s Kingdom, there’s no built in calculation for loss, waste, or write-offs. In this system, every single thing is accounted for – every single person, every single relationship, every single interaction. It all counts. Nothing is lost. Every last crumb will be recovered and raised up.

And, more than that – the food is good food. The people there with Jesus ate until they were full. There is plenty, and it is good, healthy, nourishing. Jesus says that “whoever comes to me will never be hungry.” This food system that Jesus is describing does not produce junk. It doesn’t load people up with sugar and carbs and send them on their way, only to crash from lack of protein in an hour. This is food that satisfies, that fills, that perpetually sates what can feel like an inexhaustible hunger.

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Jesus’ declaration that he is the bread of life does mean that a spiritual relationship with him will be the most nourishing thing we can encounter. It does mean that, just like bread nourishes our bodies, his love nourishes our souls. It IS about the spiritual reality of being human beings in relationship with a God we cannot see or hear, but whose love feeds our hungry souls.

But Jesus’ declaration that he is the bread of life also means that he is invested, concerned, committed to the well-being of all people, the eradication of hunger, the practices of feeding everyone, even when that seems nearly impossible. And I think, in our encounter with this kind of Jesus, we are encouraged to be those kinds of people, too.

Jesus is inviting us into a relationship with him. He is telling the crowd gathered there and he is telling us that in the economy of God’s new order, we will be fed until we are no longer hungry with the gift of relationship in Christ. He is assuring us that this reality, this relationship, will keep us, will grow us, will nourish and sustain us.

And Jesus is also inviting us to be people who are invested, concerned, committed to the well-being of all; people who are deeply covenanted to a relationship with this Messiah will be people who are deeply interested in feeding the hungry.

I think, in our context, that might mean working at the food bank to ensure that thousands of pounds of onions aren’t thrown out. It might mean adjusting our own cooking and eating habits to keep fewer of the billions of pounds of American food from ending up in the trash. It might also mean working for an entirely new food system that refuses to tolerate loss and waste – of food AND of human life.

This week, I can’t help but wonder what God’s economy means in the wake of yet another loss of multiple lives to an attack with an assault rifle. Jesus tells us in this passage that he is the bread of life, that he has been sent to do the will of the Father, and that the Father’s will is that nothing will be left behind, nothing will be lost, that there will be no waste and no tolerance for systems that operate based on a huge tolerance for loss.

Our economies in America assume, account for, and become callous to a certain level of waste and loss – 30 percent of our food ends up in the trash and we walk on by and assume that is the way it has to be. Seventeen people are murdered with an assault rifle and we move on to the next news article because we assume that is the way of the world if we want to remain free.

Jesus teaches us that there is a system, an economy, a kingdom where we do not have to tolerate this kind of loss. Jesus gathers up every crumb, produces abundance from even the scarcest bit of bread and fish, and preaches to us that God does not tolerate allowing resources or people to be lost in the careless ways we do.

How can we follow Jesus into these ways of abundance and reclamation? How can we work for systems and economies that refuse to tolerate loss as collateral damage? How can we become people of God’s peace, people who declare that there is a way for all – ALL – to live abundantly?

that time Jesus broke Billy Graham’s rule

Sermon 2-11-18

Peace Covenant Church of the Brethren

John 4

The story of the woman at the well doesn’t make sense without the story that comes right before it – the story of Nicodemus. This woman – unnamed though she is – becomes a powerful figure in Jesus’ ministry. She is the first evangelist beyond Jesus’ own disciples, proclaiming her belief loudly to all her friends and neighbors, inviting them to “come and see” this Messiah for themselves.

This fact – that a nameless Samaritan woman becomes the first preacher for Jesus – is utterly and completely absurd. To our modern ears, ears who’ve heard the story over and over, it might not seem that way at first glance, but for John’s first hearers, this plot twist wouldn’t just be strange – it would be essentially impossible.

The story that would have made sense – that makes more sense to us, even – is that Nicodemus, teacher, pharisee and leader of the Jews – would have become an ally for Jesus. He knew the scriptures, he saw the signs, he suspected that Jesus was the Messiah and he was set up as a person of power and influence in the community. It makes sense that the leaders of the Jews, the people from whom Jesus came, the ones schooled and versed in God’s relationship with God’s people, the ones who knew the long salvation history and spent their days praying and sacrificing in service of God’s presence with God’s people would be the ones to recognize Jesus for who he really was, to support him and advocate for him, to become his allies and his evangelists.

But that is not how things play out. Nicodemus can’t manage to bring his suspicions to bear in the real world. He comes to Jesus in the middle of the night, stutteringly asks about his suspicions, has them confirmed but then retreats back to his power and his privilege, living out the rest of his days with this knowledge of major missed opportunity.

Things do not happen the way they should happen.

Instead, immediately after Jesus preaches the gospel of eternal life to Nicodemus, he sets out for Galilee. The text tells us that “he had to go through Samaria,” which makes no logical sense. Samaria is situated right in between Judea and Galilee along the Jordan River, but Jesus wouldn’t have needed to wander through the countryside, as the text here implies – he would have taken the road by the river, a straight shot that barely grazes the Samaritan territory. Still, for some reason, Jesus decides to wander his way north through the Samaritan countryside.

This is not just an odd decision – it’s a dangerous one. Jews and Samaritans are enemies. They’re both descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and they both worship the same God, but they have serious theological disagreements about how that worship was supposed to happen. The Jews worship, remember, in the temple at Jerusalem. The Samaritans didn’t buy into the primacy of the temple worship and centered their worship on Mt. Gerazim. This divide between the Jews and the Samaritans was not a new one – it went back generations and generations, such that the Jews thought of the Samaritans not only as outsiders, but as idolators.

Jesus is intentionally detouring through enemy territory. Why?

As they make their way through Samaria, Jesus and his disciples become weary. They stop, by a well near a city called Sychar, and Jesus sits down to rest while his disciples continue on into town to find dinner for them all. While he rests, a woman approaches the well, carrying two huge buckets. It’s mid-day, not the usual time for women to be drawing water from the well – they would have come early in the morning and early in the evening, two taxing trips each day, women’s work to keep the households running. Why is this woman here in the middle of the day?

It could be that her household ran out of water early that day and she, the woman with the least status in the house, drew the short straw for the hot lunchtime trip. It could be that she was not on good terms with the other women of the village and chose to make her trips when she wouldn’t have to endure their sarcasm and insults about her life (she’d been widowed over and over, and had now ended up living in her last husband’s brother’s household, a last resort for a woman without husband or sons to care for her, but not, as we so often hear, the equivalent of “shacking up.” This woman has endured loss after loss and she has sought the only shelter and protection available to her by law – levirate marriage, which required a man’s brother to take in his wife and children when he died.)

Whatever her reasons, this woman shows up to draw water from the well, and Jesus is there. This is…awkward. Have you ever heard of the Billy Graham rule? It got a lot of publicity last year because our Vice President subscribes to the practice – basically, because of his theological understanding of gender, Billy Graham vowed never to be alone with a woman other than his wife. There are allllllllll kinds of problems with this practice, not least of which includes the assumption that any adult woman is a threat to a man’s marriage and integrity simply by existing, but the rule is helpful to understand how awkward Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well would have been.

Jews would have practiced an INTENSE form of the Billy Graham rule. Women and men who were not married would NEVER have been in conversation with one another at some isolated place like this well outside the city. The Samaritan woman meeting with Jesus at the well is the equivalent of Billy Graham finding himself in a private hotel room with a strange woman he’s never met before. This would have been considered beyond scandalous, beyond accidental – this was forbidden.

And we haven’t even gotten to the mortal enemy part of the situation. Not only was this situation all sorts of wrong, it was also dangerous. Jesus wasn’t just a man alone at a well, he was a JEWISH man. The Samaritan woman knew that Jews did not speak with Samaritans (remember the story of the Good Samaritan? Priests, rabbis and community leaders simply refused to acknowledge the existence of a Jew on the side of the road.) Jews and Samaritans DID NOT INTERACT.

If we want to stick with the Billy Graham example, this meeting of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well would be something close to the equivalent of Franklin Graham, Billy’s son, who confirmed last year that he follows his father’s rule about never being alone with women who are not his wife and who has also been loud and persistent about his opinion that Muslims are “infidels,” “followers of a very wicked and evil religion,” “controlled by fear and intimidation” out to “behead, rape and murder in the name of God” finding himself alone in a private hotel room with a Muslim woman draped in hijab.

Except Jesus didn’t “find himself” in this very awkward, scandalous situation – he deliberately put himself here. He chose to meander through Samaria, which he knew to be dangerous enemy territory. He chose to stay behind, alone at the well while his disciples went into town. He chose to speak to the woman, asking her to draw him a drink. When she questions him (“uh, really? You’re a Jew and you want ME, a single Samaritan woman, to get you a drink? Isn’t that kind of…inappropriate?”), Jesus chooses to engage her further. He insists that he does mean to talk to her, that he knows every reason why it should be forbidden, and that he is choosing, even so, to engage her.

And engage her, he does. (Actually, that verb choice is not unintentional. The well was a site of betrothal – it functions in this text as a symbol of intimacy and relationship. Jesus having this personal conversation with a strange, single, Samaritan woman at the well, a place where deep relationships are cemented and commemorated, is full of meaning and implication. This woman, he will tell her later in the conversation, has been married five times, and is now unmarried, living in her brother-in-law’s household, in need of protection and family, in need of a source of water that will never run dry, never leave her or forsake her. Jesus offers her exactly this.)

samaritan-woman

From a 12th century illuminated Gospel of John

They have a deep, theological conversation. This is important: this nameless, single, cast-off woman not only responds to Jesus’ inquiry: she critiques him. She asks him theological questions. She engages with him deeply. She is a full participant in this scene, with autonomy and agency. And that’s important, because her response to Jesus is going to require some serious action.

While they are still talking, Jesus’ disciples return from grabbing dinner in the city. They are…not amused to find him talking so intimately with this strange Samaritan woman. The text says that they were “astonished,” but, having learned that Jesus was one to keep them on their toes, none of them questioned him or her. She picked up her water jugs and went home. And that’s when she becomes the first evangelist: when she gets home, she tells everyone she sees – “Come and SEE! I’m pretty sure this guy is the Messiah!”

And, wonder of wonders, all her neighbors heard her and believed her. This woman, remember, had the least status in the neighborhood. She was an unmarried, quintupally widowed and/or divorced woman with no sons, living on the charity of her brother in law, making her trips to the well in the middle of the day’s heat to avoid interacting with all the other women who would make fun of her, but when she comes back so full of excitement and transformation – they can hear it in her voice – they not only believe what she’s saying, never mind that the man she’s talking about is a stranger, a Jew, and a dude who has obviously broken all kinds of boundaries to talk to her, they accept her invitation.

They go out to the well to meet Jesus for themselves. They’re so compelled that they invite him into their town to stay, and he spends several days and several nights there. When he leaves, they all go to the woman who invited them in the first place and they say to her, “It’s not that we didn’t believe you – we really did – but then we MET the guy, and saw him for ourselves, and we’re convinced that he IS the Messiah.”

And there it is – this woman, this single, cast-aside, no-status, Samaritan woman – becomes the first evangelist, the first person to invite others into relationship – deep, intimate, transformative relationship – with Jesus Christ.

It was not Nicodemus. The first evangelist, the first sharer of the gospel, was not the high status preacher with plenty of power and concern for appearance. The first evangelist in John’s gospel is this woman – the one who ought not have been talking with Jesus in the first place, the one whose existence should never have come into contact with his.

And yet, Jesus went out of his way to encounter her, to engage her, to assure her that she was just as worthy and important in this new kingdom full of springs of living water as any other human being. Jesus’ message that God has sent him for the entire world is coming to bear in this story: he is the Messiah not just for the Jews, and not just for the powerful or the learned or the ones from good families; he is the Messiah for the entire world. And in this new world, where this Messiah reigns, it is the least likely people from the least likely places who get to become co-workers, co-creators, evangelists and disciples. It is the people we least expect who are the ones bearing good news, inviting friends and enemies into encountering Jesus, sharing the invitation to come and see as far and wide as their voices can carry.

So, who is it that is inviting you to come and see, recently? Are you paying attention to the right people, the right places, the right voices? Are you dismissing the invitation because it hasn’t come from a place that is fully vetted or credentialed? Jesus does not care about those things – in fact, when the credentialed, vetted leaders show up in his story, they are unable to bear the gospel very far at all. In this story, the invitation to encounter Jesus comes from the very least likely place. What is that for us, for you? Where should we be focusing our gaze and opening our ears?

If we learn much from this story, it might be that listening to the church leaders is not a great strategy for encountering Jesus – at least, if our church leaders are, like Nicodemus, too caught up in appearances and so-called “integrity” to proclaim the good news. Instead, we might consider turning up the volume on the witness of those on the margins, the ones who have deep, intimate relationships with Jesus, who have no compulsions about sharing it, who are not worried about being seen in a “compromising” situation because they are so compelled by Jesus’ existence that they cannot help but stick close to him, whatever the cost.

what exile feels like

Sermon 10-8-17

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14

God’s people are really having a tough time of it. They’ve been promised a land of their own, but that land keeps getting annexed, conquered, claimed through eminent domain, tossed from one Empire to another.

Last week, remember, Isaiah was warning King Ahaz about the dangers of allying his kingdom with the Assyrian Empire. Ahaz, of course, didn’t listen, and God’s people came under the thumb of Assyria. Not so many years later, Assyria was defeated by the Babylonian empire, and the Jews were handed off as part of the spoils. The Babylonians definitely didn’t honor any of the Assyrian agreements about the Jews being able to remain on their land and be semi-autonomous in their own government. No, the Babylonians didn’t want anything to do with God’s people. They kicked them out.

Jeremiah had been a prophet in Israel for years, and he’d been warning the leaders of God’s people that this was coming. Jeremiah wasn’t very popular – who wants to hear that they’ll be defeated by yet *another* world power or that they’ll be summarily removed from their homeland? Jeremiah got ridiculed, ostracized, imprisoned and ignored. No one wanted to hear what he had to say.

But you know how it goes with God’s prophets: even if no one listens to them, their prophecies tend to ring true eventually. When the Babylonians finally took over, they deported all the Israelites from Jerusalem and into other parts of the empire. The deportations happened in three waves: 597 BC, 587 and 582. Jeremiah, in today’s reading, is writing to the first exiles – the elders, priests, prophets and people. Jeremiah is still in Jerusalem, and sending word to his neighbors who are not.

//

I don’t know about you, but when I try to put myself in the position of those exiled Israelites, the kind of letter I’d want from home wouldn’t necessarily be the kind of letter that Jeremiah sends.

And, to be honest, it is difficult for me to put myself in the position of the exiled Israelites. I have only ever left my home as a result of my own, autonomous decision. Some of those decisions were easier than others, but I have never been forced from my home. I understand, intellectually, that this is a privileged sort of existence in this day and age.

But I know – and so you do – sisters and brothers who HAVE been forced from their homes. If we stop for just a minute and think about folks we know who might have vivid experiences of physical, geographic exile, the list could grow very, very long:

  • I think of the S. Family – the refugee family from Syria (one of many new neighbors) that I had the joy of getting to know earlier this year, forced from their home and their country because of civil war;
  • I think of Gloria M., the Nigerian girl from Chibok who was abducted from her classroom by Boko Haram fighters in 2014, who this congregation spent years praying for, and whose return we had the privilege of celebrating this spring.
  • I think of Wildin Acosta, who I heard speak at a DCIA event a few months ago, a young man who graduated from Riverside High School here in Durham after spending nearly a year in a Georgia immigration detention center, who has been fighting deportation to Honduras, a place he fled because he was a target of the M-13 gangs there. This week, his case has been continued until December.
  • I think of Eliseo Jimenez, whose family entered sanctuary this week – voluntarily imprisoned themselves inside the Umstead Park UCC church in Raleigh in order to avoid deportation while their immigration status makes its way through the courts, a family that has been chased from one home already and is desperate not to be deported from this one.
  • I think of sisters and brothers in Houston and Florida and Puerto Rico, forced from their homes after this season’s hurricanes destroyed houses and towns.

Who else do you know who has experienced the physical, geographic reality of exile?

Even if we ourselves have never been forced from our homes, we know people who have been. We can imagine what it might feel like. We know people. We love people. We empathize with and live among people. I also think that even if we have never been physically removed from our homes, we might still know what exile feels like. I was part of a women’s retreat several years ago where we considered this question: when have we felt exiled?

The responses to that question were really powerful. There were women in the group who had been forced, physically, from their homes. One woman shared that she had been living in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit, and even now, over a decade later, she could still feel the depth of that loss and terror and trauma.

But others in the group connected those emotions to experiences of exile that were not quite so physical or geographical: One woman talked about what it felt like to have both of her parents pass away in the same year. Another shared about the way her life’s journey had led to her to a place that was very different politically and theologically than her family of origin, and how she felt so far away from the people that raised her. And another woman shared about how, when she told her church that she had had an abortion when she was young, they shamed her, condemned her, and excluded her from the community.

We are gifted with imagination, compassion and empathy, so even if we have never been forcibly removed from our own homes, we can begin to develop a compassionate imagination for what that kind of loss might feel like. We might not have known exile, but we have felt the tips of the tentacles of emotion that being cast out, ostracized, and exiled might call up. We can begin to imagine what sort of care and compassion we would long for. We can begin.

When I try to do this, to summon up all my own small experiences of “exile” and attempt to put myself in the place of the Israelites who have been deported from the only home they’ve ever known, it seems pretty clear what kind of compassion and sympathy I would want from the people around me.

I would want to scream and rage and cry and then wrap myself up in a cozy blanket, close my eyes and fall asleep until the nightmare was over. I would want people to agree with me that this would be the best option, and bring me another pillow to keep my neck from seizing up while I slept.

But that’s me. Maybe you are calibrated differently, and your response would be something else. Maybe you would want to scream and rage and cry and then fight with all your gathered resources to change the situation. Maybe you would mount an army and instigate a revolt against the people who forced you from your home. Maybe you would be driven to swift and immediate retaliatory action.

But neither of these responses are included in Jeremiah’s letter of “comfort” and instruction to his fellow Israelites exiled to Babylon. Jeremiah does not write a letter telling the exiled Israelites to huddle up and wait it out, and he does not write a letter endorsing forcible resistance to the enemy powers.

What Jeremiah writes is, I imagine, a rather unwelcome note to those exiled Israelites.

“Thus says the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there and do not decrease.”

In other words, Jeremiah says: unpack your bags. Settle in. Get used to this place, to this feeling. Your don’t have to despair, and you don’t have to revolt. Your response can be something else: your response can be to LIVE, to flourish, to build and plant and marry and celebrate. You can live HERE, too.

And I don’t know about you, but that advice would be pretty hard for me to swallow. Trauma is exhausting. It takes time to process, to feel, to move through. Getting out of bed, planting a garden and building a new house would NOT be on my initial to-do list. Jeremiah’s letter with instructions for the exiles feels like…stage 2. Maybe a very distant stage 2.

And some of the exiles never made it there. They didn’t all heed Jeremiah’s advice. Some of them refused. Some of them fled – to Egypt, of all places, where their ancestors had escaped slavery so many years ago – and they took Jeremiah with them.

But others stayed. They built houses, planted gardens, celebrated wedding feasts and the births of new babies. I imagine that those practices of tilling soil and hewing boards and baking cakes and soothing infants were what enabled the Israelites to heed Jeremiah’s continued instructions:

Because Jeremiah doesn’t stop at this insistence on picking back up and living life as if they were at home. Jeremiah also insists that part of life as God’s people – even as God’s people in exile – is also to “seek the welfare of the city where you are; pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare will you find your welfare.”

The Israelites, driven from their homes and their families and what they understand as the land that God has always promised them are instructed not only to keep living and breathing and celebrating life, but also to get engaged with their community. Jeremiah instructs them to seek the welfare of the city – THIS city, the one they probably hate, the one they did not choose, the one they have been forced into. Jeremiah instructs them to pray to God – the God of Israel, the God they thought they could only know in Jerusalem where the temple was and the priests were making sacrifices and all their ancestral history resided – to pray to God for THIS hateful, unfamiliar place.

If planting a garden is Step 2 in Jeremiah’s trauma healing process, helpful after the initial grief and processing, THIS – to embrace the current circumstances in such a way that the exiled Israelites would even become good Babylonian citizens, productive members of Babylonian society, good neighbors and co-workers and praying even for these people that conquered them and removed them from their land and cast them out of the one place that they had been certain they could worship God in the way that God wanted…that feels like Step Number 539. But Jeremiah says that this is Step #3.

Here, in Jeremiah’s Trauma Healing Program, there are 3 steps:

  1. Move.
  2. Plant/Build/Celebrate/Live.
  3. Pray for THIS place.

God’s promise has not been forfeited. Jeremiah goes on, in the next few verses, to assure the Israelites that God is still planning to gather them all back together. These are familiar verses for us, ones we trot out whenever we are uncertain about the direction of our own lives, ones that we have probably unwittingly made trite with the lack of context. You know these verses:

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14 I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

Yes, God says, I have plans. They are revolutionary plans, plans for your good, plans for a future that is full of hope. You are exiled and dispersed now, but I will bring all of you back home. That will happen. Trust that it will.

But.

It probably won’t happen in your lifetime. “Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place,” God says. This exile is going to last a long time. The hope of my promise of return is not an immediate thing – this is a long, slow-burn of a promise. Your children’s children may be the ones who get to return home. It probably won’t be you.

That’s some cold “comfort” for exiles, for people who’ve been uprooted from all they’ve known and all they trusted.

But then, when I think about those sisters and brothers we’ve named who are experiencing exile, who are living this ancient reality in real time, I realize that Jeremiah’s wisdom is…not worthless.

The S. Family, the Syrian refugees I got to know last spring, are learning English: painstakingly, slowly, with great difficulty. It is necessary, yes, to survive here in America, but the language is also a way for them to build their home here. Z, the father of the family, probably won’t ever be fluent. The alphabet is too foreign, his life has been filled with too much trauma. He is, rightly, more worried about getting a job than mastering English grammar. He won’t ever be fully integrated into this new country of his. But A, his son, translated every word I said. He’d been in the US for three months.

I don’t know much about Gloria M’s family in particular, but I do know that her church family in Nigeria has lost 70% of its buildings and over 700,000 of our sisters and brothers have been displaced by the violence of Boko Haram. And I know that those same exiled people have worked tirelessly to build new homes, new churches, to plant gardens and celebrate the birth of new babies – even those babies fathered by Boko Haram fighters. This has not been easy. It is not intuitive. But Jeremiah’s word to the exiles – to find a way to LIVE in this foreign place – is coming alive.

You’ve witnessed the resiliency and doggedness of friends and family who’ve been cast out decided to LIVE, even in exile. You know what it looks like.

What does it look like for us? Where, in your own life, are you experiencing the beginnings of that experience of exile? What relationship or situation or place in your own life feels a little like exile? And then, what is it that you can do in that situation, that relationship, to build, to plant, to celebrate, to live as if this strange, unknown, unpleasant and unfamiliar place were actually home?

And if you aren’t feeling or being exiled right now, what is it that you can do to enable someone else to do this hard work for themselves? How can you be a supportive neighbor? Can you offer a garden plot, some building supplies, the raw materials a sister or brother needs to make some strange new place into a home? Can you attend the party, help them celebrate or pray alongside them for this place – THIS place, where our welfare is bound up together?

God is gathering us, all of us, back together. May we open our eyes and our hearts to witness to the truth of it. Amen.

tucked up in our morally superior perches of plenty

Sermon 9-10-17, Peace Covenant Church of the Brethren

Amos 1:1-2, 5:14-15, 21-24

When we last left the people of God, Elijah had been called as a prophet to declare God’s disappointment with King Ahab. The Kingdom of Israel had split in two, and both kingdoms were having trouble abiding by God’s commands for living life with integrity. The Kings were amassing wealth and building temples to other gods, failing to participate in the ancient covenant that their ancestors had made with the Lord. Elijah warned King Ahab and the people that God was not pleased and that God had plans to bring a drought upon the whole land. You know the story – the drought came, Elijah fled, after three years, Elijah returned to prove God’s power, the drought ended and the people once again professed their fidelity and faith in the Lord.

But, as you might imagine, that fidelity and faith doesn’t last forever.

This week, we’re soaring through the centuries to catch up with another prophet: Amos. Amos is one of what are called the “twelve minor prophets.” His book is fairly short, sweet, and to the point. His prophecies are not long like Isaiah’s or uber-historically specific like Jeremiah’s. Amos was the first prophetic book to be written, and it was meant to be read over and over. His prophecies came at a particular time in the history of the people of Israel, but they are so relevant even today that it is actually sort of…terrifying.

Amos starts out by reeling the Israelites in. He names all of Israel’s neighbors and pronounces God’s judgement upon them all, one at a time: Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, the Ammonites, Moab: one after another, Amos lists the injustices of these nations, and one after another, reports that God is planning to bring down fire on each of them. You can imagine the way those first hearers of this book were feeling:

“Yes, yes, that’s right: those guys are AWFUL. Haven’t we been saying it all along what animals those Ammonites are? Didn’t my grandfather warn me years ago about the infidels of Gaza? Thank goodness this prophet is finally speaking so clearly and honestly. So well put! Such a sad state of affairs. Thank GOD that those people will finally be done away with! Just getting what they deserve, aren’t they? Finally encountering their comeuppance. You know what they say about karma…”

But Amos is wily. After two chapters full of denouncing all the other kingdoms for their transgressions – which are, we should probably point out, injustices of the dehumanizing kind: Gaza sent entire communities into exile, Edom pursued his brother with the sword and couldn’t stop being angry, Moab refused to give even their enemies a proper burial –

After this laundry list of judgement to come upon every other people in the land, Amos, who has reeled his hearers in on the line of their deep self-righteousness, makes a sudden turn.

“And Judah,” he says, and you can almost hear the audible gasp among the crowd:

“WHAT? I thought we were here to hear about how God was going to smite all our awful enemies! Moab and Damascus and Gaza are AWFUL. God is right to bring down fire on them! Just listen to what they’ve done! This isn’t about…us…is it?”

And Judah, Amos says, has rejected the law of the Lord.

And Israel, Amos says, and you can hear the crowd start grumbling with impatience. A few of them are probably turning around and leaving in a huff.

And Israel, Amos says, has decided to sacrifice the poor on the altar of extravagance. They’ve broken my commandments, ignored my law, and decided to live only to please themselves.

//

Amos prophesied during the first half of the 8th century BCE. The kingdom of Israel had split in two, the kings were getting pretty rich, and even though Elijah and others had persistently been calling the people back to a life of fidelity and justice with God, the people were not full participants in this covenant. They kept getting seduced into systems of earthly power and wealth.

It seems, in Amos’ day, that the elite of the land – both Israel and Judah – were engaged in some serious economic exploitation. They “sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, they trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and push the afflicted out of the way.” Apparently, they have both winter and summer houses, while the poor around them have no place to live. They are “hoarding violence and oppression for themselves.”

Amos has, it’s true, listed the failings of every one of Israel’s neighbors, and they are not pretty. But the downfall of the Israelites (which includes both Israel and Judah, remember) is not that they’re perpetrating human rights violations. The downfall of the people of God is that they have failed to live up to the covenant of faithfulness and justice. Israel hasn’t necessarily sent entire nations into exile or dishonored the dead of their enemies or done what the Ammonites are apparently being punished for and killed and dismembered pregnant women in order to gain more land for themselves…but they are, nonetheless, in deep, deep trouble with God.

It turns out, being selfish and unjust to the poor and needy is an even bigger violation than sending a whole people into exile – if, that is – you are a part of the people that God has chosen to be his living example of mercy and justice in the world.

God will deal harshly with all those other peoples, because God is a God of justice and in charge of the entire earth. But this infidelity of God’s own people to God’s own way of mercy and justice for all…well, this makes God particularly upset.

Later on, another of God’s prophets will pick up on this theme of self-righteousness. In Matthew’s gospel, when John the Baptist comes to proclaim the coming of the Messiah, to prepare the way for Christ himself, the Pharisees and Sadducees flocked to his preaching point and asked to be baptized. But when he saw them, John screamed at them: “You brood of vipers! Bear fruit worthy of repentance! Do not presume to say to yourselves ‘oh, that judgement isn’t for us…WE have ABRAHAM as OUR ancestor! EVERY tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Amos’ warnings of the wrath of God, about to descend upon the unjust and self-righteous elite, is not the last time that God will have to send a prophet to remind her people not to be so sure of themselves, so certain of their own goodness, so comfortable in their morally superior perches of plenty.

The rest of the book of Amos is a description of God’s pronouncement of punishment upon Israel.

“I gave you warning after warning,” God tells them.

I sent famine on the land, and drought, too

…and yet you did not return to me.

I sent blight and mildew, destroyed your gardens and your vineyards, had locusts devour your fig trees and your olive trees

…and yet you did not return to me.

I sent a pestilence on you like I did to the Egyptians, I killed your young men and carried away your horses

…and yet you did not return to me.

You’ve had so many opportunities to change your ways. I’ve tried and tried to convince you to return to me, to repent, to live lives of mercy and justice. But you did not repent. You refused to return. You were seduced by the power and wealth of the world.

This sounds a little like that nursery rhyme – Little Bunny Foo Foo. Do you know it?

Little bunny Foo Foo
Hopping through the forest
Scooping up the field mice
And boppin’ ’em on the head!

Down came the good fairy
And the good fairy said:
“Little bunny Foo Foo, I don’t wanna see you
Scooping up the field mice and boppin’ ’em on the head!
I’ll give give you three chances,
Then I’ll turn you into a goon!”

//

This is what God says to the Israelites. “Seek me and live. And, by the way, seeking me doesn’t stop at worship. I hate, I despise your festivals and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Stop singing your noisy songs to me! No, seeking me looks like letting justice roll down like waters, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

rbt0244

The ‘separation wall’ on the West Bank, Palestine. From nomadruss on wordpress.

In fact, Amos prophesied in the early 8th century, BCE and by the second half of that century, the Israelites had in fact been defeated and destroyed by the Assyrians. Later on, the Babylonians would send the entire people into exile – the temple would be completely destroyed, and the people would be sent far away from home, monarchy, sacred spaces.

Amos is the first of the prophets, and given that there are 11 more “minor” prophets and four “major” prophets still to come, plus the resurgence of this message all the way through John the Baptist, it’s probably safe to assume that Amos’ warnings were not the final word in this conversation between God and God’s people.

The conversation continues today. God is always reminding us that the covenant we share includes not only worship and prayer but also and always the practices of mercy and justice. To live a life of faithfulness and fidelity to this God who calls us his own, we are invited to live our whole lives in the light of God’s new kingdom on earth.

Sometimes, we Christians get caught up in naming the sins of others. This feels good. Really good. I am happy to point out the ways that Russia is colluding with our government for their own gain, eager to name the inhumanity of Boko Haram in Nigeria, delighted to point out the hypocrisy of our president and other powerful men claiming the name of Jesus but failing to practice self-giving love.

It feels GOOD to call others out. When I name the sins of others – even rightly so, even sins that need to be named, hate that needs to be countered, actions that need to be stopped – I feel powerful, and superior, and…exempt. If THEY are the ones doing wrong, then surely WE are over here, in the column of RIGHT.

Amos smirks at this kind of projection. “Yes, those other people are doing horrendous things. Yes, these injustices are maddening to God, and God is angry about them and promises to right them. But what ought to be concerning you, dearly beloved children of this God of justice, are the ways that you yourselves have forsaken your creator and your covenant. Don’t you know that you, too, are trampling the heads of the poor in the dirt, that YOU are hoarding up violence and oppression for yourselves, that YOU are part of the problem?

This is hard to hear. It is harder still to heed.

Here’s this week’s challenge, straight from the ancient prophet Amos:

The next time you find yourself raging at the news, screaming about the injustice of the President rescinding DACA or the General Assembly drawing racist district lines or the local celebrity mega-church pastor exiling LGBTQ folks from grace or the KKK planning to put their horrific racism on display here in Durham, or your rich neighbor dropping a few cool millions on a summer home when you know people who can’t afford their rent…

The next time you find yourself ranting and raving about the how badly all those other people are behaving, read a little bit from the prophet Amos, or Isaiah, or John the Baptist. Offer a prayer of personal repentance for the ways that you, yourself, have participated in these evils. Ask God to clear out some of the self-righteousness in your own heart in order to make way for those mighty streams of justice that are on the way.

Because God is coming, roaring like an angry lion, to bring justice throughout the land. God is coming, bringing fire down on those who refuse to live in the light of divine justice – no matter which ones of us are standing in the way.

…about that Temple you’re building me

Sermon 8-27-17

1 Kings 5:1-5; 8:1-13

During this series on the big epic stories of the Hebrew Bible, I’m tempted every week to do a television flashback: Previously, on The Bible:

You remember that we’ve walked with the Israelites through their origins as a nomadic desert people claimed by the Creator God, into the empire of Egypt and Pharoah’s courts, out of slavery and into their own, promised land.

You remember that, once they got there, they became unsatisfied with the way God was choosing to lead them – through judges: priests and prophets and warriors raised up from among them – and demanded that they be given a King, to rule them like all the other important nations they saw around them.

And you remember that God conceded, sent them Saul – the least possible qualified man – to be their first King. And Saul did indeed fight the Israelites’ battles for them – exactly what they’d asked for – but he also slowly descended into madness.

You remember that God’s spirit departed from the mad king and went to dwell with David, the unlikely young shepherd boy, that Saul went even more mad with envy and when he finally died in a battle with the Philistines, David took over the throne.

Well, this week, we arrive at the end of King David’s life.

David is on his deathbed, and his oldest son, Adonijah, jumps the gun. He assumes, since he is the oldest surviving son of the King, that he will automatically inherit the throne.

But we, followers of this story since the beginning, know what a huge mistake that assumption can be.

Adonijah goes about boasting “I will be king!” He stocked up on chariots and horses, rallied a few prophets and military leaders to his cause, and threw himself a celebration banquet of sacrificial feasts.

Except Adonijah hadn’t actually gotten his father’s blessing, yet. And David the King was still alive. So some of the other prophets and military leaders, who did not support Adonijah, went to one of David’s wives and told her what was going on. Bathsheba went into sickly King David’s chamber and convinced him to bestow his blessing on HER son, Solomon (sound familiar, eh? Just like Jacob and Esau and their wily mother Rebekah?)

The fading King David listens to Bathsheba and names his younger son, Solomon, to the throne. Adonijah is properly chastized, and goes to his younger brother with his tail between his legs and apologizes, begging Solomon not to kill him. Solomon agrees (although Adonijah continues to act like the braggart and entitled man he has shown himself to be, seduces one of his father’s concubines in an act that is tantamount to usurping the throne, and Solomon does, eventually, have him killed).

Still, even though there is this age-old sibling rivalry, the Israelites have managed to establish themselves – they’re in the land that God had always promised them; they have not only a King, but, with this transition from father to son, an actual generational monarchy. They’ve seemingly escaped slavery and managed to defeat enough of their enemies to enter into an era of relative peace. In fact, once Solomon takes the throne, the text says that “Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sands of the sea; they ate and drank and were content.”

Moreover, the King himself is doing QUITE well. We learn that his rule “extended over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines and the boundary of Egypt.” Every day, Solomon’s subjects provided him with pounds and pounds of corn and flour, 10 fattened oxen, 20 pasture-fed oxen, 100 sheep and goats plus deer and gazelles, roebucks and fatted geese. Every DAY. The King had 40,000 stalls of horses for his chariotry and 12,000 horsemen.

Every one, from Dan to Beer-sheba – the whole nation – sat under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and they all dwelt in safety.

This is a far cry from the nomadic, desert existence that this people had come from.

And what does the nation of Israel decide to be most important in this moment of safety, prosperity and contentment?

They decide to build a temple for God to dwell with them in the same kind of safety that they are enjoying. Surely, they think, if all this food and wine and contentment is so enjoyable for us then it must be also what God would like. We tried to build him a temple back when David was king, but there were too many enemies that we had to fight and so we had to wait. Now is the time, for sure! Let’s build a gorgeous, elaborate, gilded home for our God.

Well, actually, it wasn’t so much the entire people that made this decision: it was mostly King Solomon.

And King Solomon had some interesting alliances. He’d really gotten into the whole King thing, and had decided to marry a daughter of Pharoah, to cement the international alliances with the empire of Egypt. Yes, that’s right – he’d married the daughter of the monarchy that had, not so long ago, held his entire people in slavery. Oh, and he had a great friend from Tyre – a buddy of his father’s – who was the best of the best when it came to Cedar trading. He decided to import all the cedar for this huge temple from another nation, since, as he tells King Hiram, “as you know, there is none among us who knows how to cut timber like the Sidonians. I’ll send you my workers and we can get that Cedar cut and planed in no time.”

This international flavor was…weird. For a people who had been called out to be the chosen ones, set apart as God’s own, instructed again and again, over and over not to marry outside their own nation for fear of diluting their commitment to the God who chose them, commanded over and over to go to war against peoples whose cultic religion posed a threat to their worship of the one true God, entering so effortlessly into alliances with empire and other nations – explicitly, mind you, for the purposes of amassing power and wealth – is sort of unheard of.

Solomon is…up to something, here.

And if it’s not entirely clear yet, we learn soon that what Solomon is up to is not exactly for the glory of God and his neighbor’s good.

And God is not fooled. God does not instruct Solomon to build a temple, but God does say, when he speaks to Solomon: “In regard to this House you’re building – if you follow My laws and observe My rules and faithfully keep My commandments, I will fulfill for you the promise that I gave to your father, David: I will abide among the children of Israel, and I will never forsake my people.”

In other words: “Do what you want, Solomon, but my promise remains the same as it always has been: whether you worship me in the desert or the temple, all I ask is that you BEHAVE in the ways I’ve commanded you. Keep the commandments, and I’ll never forsake my people. This temple is fine, whatever, but you know as well as I do that I – the Lord and King of the Universe, the one who exists shrouded in mystery and glory – I don’t need a…HOUSE.”

But Solomon goes right on doing what he’s doing: and he makes it happen by enslaving his own people. “King Solomon,” we hear, “imposed forced labor on all Israel; the levy came to 30,000 men. He sent them to Lebanon (where the Cedars were being cut) in shifts of 10,000 a month…Solomon also had 70,000 porters and 80,000 quarriers.”

The Hebrew word that Solomon uses when he’s striking the deal for Cedars with King Hiram to share Israelite labor for the Cedar cutting is “mas” – this Hebrew word only occurs one other time, in Exodus 1:11, “so they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor.” In other words, what Solomon has done to his own people is exactly what Pharoah did to the entire Israelite nation in Egypt: enslaved them.

It’s impossible to hear this detail recounted so nonchalantly and not remember God’s warning to the people way back in Samuel’s time – telling them that if they got a King, all a King would do would be to amass wealth for himself and enslave them all.

As if that weren’t enough, we also learn that while Solomon, in his fervor to amass as much wealth and power as possible, spent seven entire years building this temple to house God, he then proceeded to build his own home – and that palace took THIRTEEN years to build.

It’s pretty clear that even though this temple will come to be unbelievably important to God’s people, even though for thousands of years, people will make pilgrimage here to be in God’s presence, even though the temple’s destruction in a few years will cause a massive identity crisis, even though good and proper and sacramental worship is an important part of faithfulness…

…this temple, like this whole ‘king’ thing, is not exactly God’s first choice for God’s people.

And, in fact, when the temple is finally completed – cedar planks, a shrine overlaid with gold, a holy of holies complete with two cherubim made of olive wood and overlaid with gold, doors carved with cherubim and palms – and Solomon calls all the people together for a great feast to dedicate it, to transfer the Ark of the Covenant – the seat of the divine presence, that’s been kept in a tent all these years (you remember the Ark because of the whole hemorrhoid debacle during Samuel’s time) – into this brand new, gold-gilded and cedar-planked building, God does show up.

God has promised, after all, not to abandon her people. God’s deep desire is to abide with the people, to refuse to forsake them. So, when her people build her a gorgeous, gilded house, she shows up.

Except God does not show up as a bodily figure, or a stationary liquid to fill the Ark of the Covenant. No, God shows up true-to-form: as a cloud. And the cloud fills the entire temple, makes it so full and hazy that the priests themselves have to leave. They can’t even make their sacrifices or do their ritual job because the presence of the God that this temple was built to house is so HUGE, so unwieldy, so fluid, so uncontrollable and uncontainable that when God showed up, she drove the priests out.

This could not have been unexpected: God showed up as a cloud back in the wilderness, leading the Israelites by day out from slavery. The Israelites knew that God was an unpredictable and uncontainable being – hasn’t this story been, from the beginning, about a mysterious, expectation-defying, tradition upending God who wants only for his people to trust him?

When God showed up in a cloud and drove the priests out of this newly constructed temple, Solomon starts praying:

“The Lord has chosen to abide in a thick cloud: I have now built for You a stately House, a place where You may dwell forever.”

Um. What? The Lord is a cloud! And I have built a House!

That’s absurd. Clouds aren’t contained in houses. Clouds don’t belong inside. Clouds are part of the sky, part of the heavens, meant to be on the move. Clouds aren’t stationary.

But Solomon is PROUD of this cloud-house he has built, and the people – enslaved into the labor needed to construct it, subjects of a King who will spend twice as long on his own house as he does for the Lord’s – seem equally happy.

Solomon says a long-winded prayer to God, then turns around and offers a long-winded blessing to the people. He requires them to stick around for a long-winded Feast – it lasts seven days. And, we hear “on the eighth day, he let the people go. They bade the king good-bye and went to their homes, joyful and glad of heart over all the goodness that the Lord had shown to His servant David and his people Israel.”

To summarize: the Israelites, led out of slavery under an oppressive Pharoah and formed to be a nomadic people traveling with their God who promises to show up with them wherever they find themselves have now submitted themselves – joyfully – to a King who’s married into Pharoah’s family, convinced them to happily become slaves in order to build a permanent house for God.

I will admit that this reading of Solomon and the temple is not exactly orthodox – the traditional way to read the story is to laud honor and compliments on Solomon, this faithful man who obeyed God’s command to build a gold-gilded monument to the Lord. Solomon is, after all, the King who was wiser than any other.

But every detail here is present in the text. The writer of 1 Kings is not a fan of Solomon, and he is not a fan of temple worship.

Or, since the writer of 1 Kings was actually writing for the Israelites who had been exiled from their land and seen this temple destroyed, maybe he was telling the story in a way that made all that loss and grief palatable: yes, this is AWFUL, y’all – that we’ve been cast out of our land and the temple has been demolished, but don’t worry: none of that is what God really wants for us, anyway.

Either way, I find this story of Solomon and the temple pretty instructive for the ways and the places we choose to worship today.

I confess that I don’t feel comfortable in gold-gilded, relief-carved, column-filled houses of worship. The ancient cathedrals of Europe are imposing and unbelievably gorgeous, and I do marvel at the artistry and creativity and sheer strength of will and body that made them possible. Even Duke Chapel, here in town, a pale replica of all that, is impressive.

But those places are not where I feel at ease with God. I do not sense God present more in those spaces than anywhere else. And, honestly, I LIKE that we worship here in an unassuming, cinder block, multi-purpose, unadorned building. Simple spaces help me to recognize God present in the sisters and brothers surrounding me, help me pay attention to the ways God is at work always and everywhere, not confined to fancy buildings or elaborate rituals.

And that’s pretty Brethren. Brethren have a long history of refusing the trappings of church liturgy and power structures and buildings. The first Brethren gathered because those trappings had become barriers to what they called simple, unadorned faith. We have insisted, over and over, in many different ways, that we believers do not require special dispensation, special leaders, special institutions, special times, special education, special vocabulary, special food, special words or special buildings in order to be in deep and transformative relationship with the one who made us.

This kind of insistence on simplicity does have the capacity to rob us of some of the richness of faith. There are advantages and blessings in ritual, in liturgy, in beauty, in systems of accountability, in following a church calendar instead of a seasonal one, even in worshipping in spaces filled with symbols and reminders of God’s glory. I love and appreciate so much of the church’s tradition that comes to us in these vessels.

And yet, I think the wisdom of our anabaptist ancestors is in line with the wisdom we learn from Solomon: God’s promise is and has always been that if we obey God’s voice, then we will be God’s people. God has never asked us to construct fancy temples, and whether or not we worship with the proper songs or in the proper key or with the proper words or in the proper order or gathered among the proper cedars and gold-gilded cherubim simply does. Not. Matter.

In fact, spending all our time and energy on “proper” worship will probably, in the end, effectively distract us from actually listening to and obeying God’s voice in that mobile cloud.

If we’re too worried about how well we are doing here in this sanctuary, whether or not we’ve gotten enough cedar planks or olive wood cherubim, we’ll miss out on God’s call to be out in the world, loving God and loving our neighbors. God shows up in a cloud, kicks the priests out of the temple, and continues to call the Israelites into a journey of discipleship. God doesn’t want to sit around in a house and hear about how great she is (though if we decide to build a house, God will show up because God has promised to abide with us, to be our God, to never forsake us) – God is on the move, and asks us, over and over, to join her.