Grace and Truth

This sermon is taken from John 2:1-22. I was taking a class on the Gospel of John at the time, and I had learned that these two stories are inseparable from on another. Since the story of Jesus in the Temple was the lectionary text for that day, I decided to add in the wedding at Cana story as well. I think too often we can get caught up on either one of the stories without focusing on the other: either we focus far too much on the awesome grace that Jesus provides, as symbolized in the jars overflowing with good wine, neglecting to take sin seriously; or, we forget about grace and come down entirely too hard on the side of judgment. The truth is that we need both. We need both grace and truth. This is a difficult paradox for many to hold in order. How can you be gracious while simultaneously whipping the money changers out of the Temple? Yet that is exactly what John wants us to see here: grace and truth are inseparable.

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples; and they remained there a few days.

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?”But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

 

So, if you know me well, you know that one of my favorite shows of all time is Friends. I happen to own all ten seasons, and if you come over to my apartment, you’ll see them proudly displayed on the shelf below the T.V. In fact, there are many times when a real-life situation will remind me of a scene from Friends, and that’s exactly what happened when I was reading this passage about Jesus in the Temple this past week. There’s a scene early on in the show when Chandler is dating Janice, and he comes to Ross and Rachel for advice, because Janice was upset with something he said. When they ask him to explain, he says: “Ok, well, Janice said, ‘Hi! Do I look fat today?’ and, uh, I looked at her…” at this point Ross cuts in and says, “Woah! You looked at her? You never look. You just answer. It’s like a reflex – ‘Do I look fat?’ ‘No!’ ‘Is she prettier than I am?’ ‘No!’…” and so on and so forth. Gradually, what Chandler comes to understand is that, in this relationship, being absolutely truthful all the time is probably not the best policy. There are some things you just say to make your partner feel good, because what is valued in those situations is not necessarily the truth, but the emotional well-being of the persons involved in the relationship. Of course, nobody involved in this scene considers that it is possible to value both.

Fortunately, we have been blessed with a number of persons throughout history who have been willing to look. We have been blessed with a number of persons who have been willing to answer the unasked questions with the sometimes very painful truth. We are blessed that though most of the world is content to turn a blind eye and answer by reflex – “Is segregation wrong?” “No!” “Is the Church corrupt?” “No!” “Is the monarchy unjust?” “No!” “Does the earth revolve around the sun?” “No!” “Is the Temple a marketplace?” “No!” – there are people like Rosa Parks, like Martin Luther, like Thomas Jefferson, like Galileo, like Jesus, like countless others who have been willing to speak the Truth boldly and prophetically even though they faced social ostracization, imprisonment, torture, and even death. We are blessed because without people willing to speak this Truth, many of us would still be stuck in cycles of oppression – stuck in poverty, stuck in slavery, stuck in systems of violence, in intellectual and religious censorship, and in sin – which is our own means of oppressing ourselves.

We call this willingness to speak the Truth the prophetic voice. Now many of us – myself included – grew up thinking that a prophet was someone who foretold the future, and that the prophetic meant the hint of things yet to come. But actually, that’s only because so often we read the prophets as pointing forward to Jesus; indeed, many of the New Testament writers have conditioned us to read the prophets as future-tellers, because they found evidence for claiming Jesus was the Messiah in the writings of the prophets. But while many of the prophets certainly seem to have dabbled in future-telling at least a little, future-telling is not the role of a prophet. The role of a prophet is to hear and speak God’s words to the people, even if those words are not ones the people wish to hear. More often than not, the role of the prophet is to speak Truth into the midst of lies, deceptions, and misunderstandings that often characterize places of established authority. Because, as almost anyone who has been in a relationship knows, any relationship based on maintaining the status quo, on keeping the peace and not riling anyone up, overtime develops certain narratives to counteract the truths that threaten that status quo, narratives like “mom only drinks to cope with the stress of her job,” or “my husband only yells at me because I constantly mess up,” or “my friend only makes fun of me because that’s just how he is.” And institutions, such as churches, schools, nations, international organizations, etc. – because they have been around a lot longer – have mastered the art of these deceptive narratives. Here are a few examples of past narratives that have already been disrupted: “Only the church has the power to pray souls out of purgatory, and in doing so we are providing a service for which we deserve to be paid.” “Imperialism is good because we are really saving the people we colonize by civilizing and Christianizing them.” And, of course, “Segregation is right because persons of color are genetically inferior.” Yet even today, after confronted with the Truth, these overarching narratives show remarkable resilience, still existing in modified forms – “I am only wealthy because I am doing God’s work and God has blessed me for it; therefore I deserve to be wealthy.” “We must invade that country because it is our job to liberate the people there by bringing them capitalism and democracy.” “Of course the prison population is predominately made up of persons of color – they are more likely to commit crimes – i.e., morally inferior.”

It is the job of the prophetic voice, embodied in people across time and space, to challenge these deceptive narratives. It is the role of the prophet to counter the lies with Truth. And while Jesus is the ultimate Truth-bearer, indeed is Truth itself, is the Prophet, capital P, who is come into the world, the prophetic does not begin and end with him. Jesus comes from a long tradition of prophets in the Hebrew Bible – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Hosea, Obadiah, Micah, Zechariah, Malachi, Habbakuk, Haggai, Joel, Nahum, not to mention those who didn’t have books named after them – Deborah, Moses, Miriam, Elijah, Elisha, Balaam, and so on and so forth. Jesus is not the first, though he may rightly be called the epitome. Nor is he the last, as we have come to see. Indeed, anywhere there is Truth being spoken against the dominant deceptive narrative in a society, there the prophetic voice can be found.

So what does all this have to do with the Jesus story? I mean, is the cleansing of the Temple simply one more example of this prophetic voice? Well, yes and no. The cleansing of the Temple is one example of the way in which Jesus embodies the prophetic. In John, it happens to be the first example, for the following reason – although this story is found in all four Gospels, in the other three it comes toward the end; it is the catalyst that sets in motion Jesus’ crucifixion. Think about it for a second: Nobody knows who Jesus is. This is some random guy who comes into your place of worship and starts upending tables and driving people out, tossing the elements of worship aside and calling your sacred space a ‘den of robbers’. What would you do? The reaction in John is actually quite mild – the people ask, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” In the other Gospels, the people end up having Jesus executed! So this prophetic act of Jesus is perhaps the most radical in all of his ministry, the most likely to upset the status quo. That is why John puts it first in his Gospel – he wants to show us that Jesus is not just here to be a nice guy. Jesus didn’t just come to save everybody and make everybody happy. No. One of the most important points about Jesus is that he brings Truth. He is the Truth. And that is something John feels we need to know immediately. Here we see a perfect example of people doing just what they were supposed to be doing according to the dominant narrative – you have to trade in your Roman money for Judean money, and you have to purchase your sacrifice so you can worship in the Temple, because this is what God wants – and Jesus not turning a blind eye, but instead looking at the Temple, looking at the established system of religious authority, and saying “actually, you know what, you do look fat. You do look like a marketplace.”

This is a perfect example of Jesus’ prophetic power. It is a sign, to use John’s language, of Jesus’ Truth-bearing capabilities, but if you read John really carefully, you’ll notice that Jesus performs a lot of signs and the actual signs aren’t the point. They’re called signs, not miracles, for a reason, because a sign points somewhere beyond itself, and in John it always points to something about Jesus. John has already told us in the prologue, but now he shows us: grace and TRUTH came through Jesus Christ. And so if you ever want to know where that prophetic power comes from; if you want to know what it is that makes Rosa Parks able to say “I don’t think I should have to stand up” or Thomas Jefferson say “When a long train of abuses and usurpations… evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government” or Galileo say “And yet it moves” or Martin Luther say “Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God” or the prophet Amos say “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” John’s answer is that you only need look to the Word that became flesh, the self-expression of God that has been made visible in the singular person of Jesus the Christ. That, John says, is the source of all Truth.

So what do we do with this? As Christians who follow Jesus, the source of the prophetic voice, what are we meant to do with it? Well, for one thing, we are certainly not called to ignore it. I would even go so far as to say that we are invited to embrace it, to speak the truth in love even if it means that somebody’s narrative is disrupted, even our own. See, I have been talking about institutional sin, about being a prophetic voice in the face of established authority, because so often I think this piece gets missed when we talk about Jesus as a personal Savior – but the thing is that Jesus asks us to speak the Truth to ourselves too. During this time of Lent, as we journey together with Jesus and reflect on our own spiritual journeys, in a time when Christians traditionally called themselves to repentance, what would it mean for us to examine our own lives in light of the prophetic Truth that is Jesus Christ? How might we challenge our own deceptive narratives that keep us in bondage to ourselves? In other words, what is the story we keep telling ourselves to justify the things we are doing – or the things we aren’t doing – that keep us from living into the Kingdom of God, and how does that story measure up to the prophetic Truth? Because the implications of the incarnation, of the Truth revealed in God’s Son, are not an either/or. It is not that Jesus either challenges us personally to live a better life or that Jesus challenges the places of established authority. It is a both/and. In the same way that we are a prophetic voice calling out in the wilderness of the wider world, we must also be willing to speak words of Truth to ourselves.

And here at last is where the wedding at Cana story comes in. For those of you checking your watches, don’t worry – this story won’t take as long to unpack. But I can’t stop here, because it is impossible to divorce the story of the Temple from the wedding at Cana in John. See, we’ve been leaving out a word. We’ve been focusing on Truth, and that’s all well and good, but we have to recognize that before we can even begin to think about Truth, there needs to be Grace, and that’s what we get with the wedding at Cana. It is the height of eschatological symbolism – eschatology is a fancy Bible scholar word that essentially means the study of the end times. The reign of God, the coming of the Kingdom, the New Jerusalem, and all that jazz. Jesus’ first sign takes place on the seventh day of his ministry – the last day of Creation, the final rest – at a wedding, a traditional Jewish symbol for the final days. And Jesus turns water into wine, good wine, an abundance of wine. As is always in John, the sign itself is not the important piece; it always means something. This wine is a symbol of the grace upon grace that Jesus offers. It is the cherry on top of the eschatological sundae in this story, because the Jewish Scriptures say that in those days ‘the wine will flow freely’. This story is not about judgment, or war, or violence, or any of the other negative things we might associate with the end of days; it is about the overwhelmingly abundant gifts of God that are available in the Kingdom of heaven on earth. It is about those same gifts that are now made real in Jesus Christ. This sign, the first sign that Jesus does in John, is an act of Grace. An act of grace, by the way, that the majority of the people at the wedding don’t even recognize – recall that the steward thought that the host had simply waited to bring out the good wine.

All of this comes before the Temple story, before the prophetic pronouncement of Truth. So before we even begin to talk about Truth, we must talk about Grace. What is grace? First and foremost, it is the intentional withholding of judgment, an act of leniency – but it is more than that. Grace is overwhelming generosity where one might expect guilt and retribution. And it is generosity that comes, not out of a desire to “heap burning coals” on the head of one’s enemy, as Paul writes in Romans 12, but rather out of a deep and genuine love for the other. Francis Chan tells a story that illustrates grace actually quite nicely – he says that his daughter came home one day, hesitant to show him a test she’d just gotten back. And when she finally did, he saw why – she had gotten a C, which, for her, was a bad grade. In response, he says that he decided to take her out for ice cream, because he wanted her to experience grace. The truth part came later, when he told her that he expected her to study and work harder so that it wouldn’t happen again. But this story that Francis Chan tells is an excellent example of how grace and truth are related to each other – an example confirmed in the placement of these two stories in John’s Gospel. Grace is not the hard-won product of our response to Truth, but rather the very context out of which Truth is borne. Before we even have the chance to confront ourselves with the Truth, we are engulfed in an overabundance of Grace. And, of course, before we even stand in the midst of the Temple and shout, ‘stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!’ we must recognize that God’s Grace has already saturated its hallowed courtyards. You cannot have Truth without Grace – no one will listen. And you cannot have Grace without Truth – nothing will change. So let the wine flow freely and let the prophetic voice march on, because the Spirit of God and of Jesus the Christ is forever at work among us. Amen.

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The Other Side of the Fence

There is an inclination – shared by all humans – to hate the Other. It’s almost instinctual. When things aren’t going all that well in our lives, or when someone threatens our well-built defenses, we fall back into a mode of self-protection, and our empathy fails to extend beyond our own.

I’m not sure why this is. Maybe it is some sort of survival instinct that evolved over time to keep us safe; to keep us alive. We humans are fundamentally created to be in community with one another; the lone wolf does not survive long without the pack. However, we are as a result conditioned not to trust anything outside of our community. We fear what we do not know, and if there are people out there who do not look like us or act like us, we judge them not to be people at all.

This is the foundation of much of the world’s problems today. Hating/fearing the Other and thinking we are the only real humans is how racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia continue to thrive. It is the failure to look into the eyes of another human being and recognize that they, too, have a soul. They, too, are made in the image of God. I believe the most recent tragedy in Charleston, SC is a result of this failure. It is the result of a systemic failure to recognize persons of color as full human beings in their own right, equally deserving of the rights and privileges so many of us enjoy without a second thought. More than anything, it is the result of a communal failure to bring up our own to look beyond the bounds of the community; to tear down the walls that we built centuries ago; and to reach across the barrier to shake hands with the one we used to call our enemy.

Jesus speaks very plainly of this. From his parable of the Good Samaritan to his exhortation that we love our enemies, Jesus understood long ago what was causing us problems. When we segregate ourselves into groups, and label the other group as “terrorists”, “criminals”, “murderers”, “rapists”, “thugs”, “enemies” – essentially, “evil” – then it becomes so much easier to hate them. It becomes that much easier to kill them, and to feel justified in doing so. But Jesus, very clearly, understands the thing that we all need to understand. Behind that “terrorist”, behind that “criminal”, that “murderer”, that “thug” – behind that “enemy” is a human being. A flawed human being, just like you and me.

This is not to excuse the atrocious and incredibly destructive actions of others. Those who have erred grievously must bear the responsibility for doing so. It is, however, a calling. It is a calling to preach love instead of hate. It is a calling to eliminate the word “enemy” from our vocabulary and replace it with “a human being, fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God”. It is a calling to eliminate our borders rather than secure them. It is a calling to recognize that we are always only one step away from becoming our worst enemy.

Most importantly, we must reckon with the fact that there are 7.1 billion people in this world. You are on the Other side of someone else’s fence.

YHWH

This sermon is going to be very provocative for most of you. It is still provocative for me. There is this thing that we do with God, where we try and put God in a box. I believe that is what Moses is trying to do in today’s scripture, Exodus 3:13-15. I believe that is what we do when we try to imagine God, or speak for God, or say “God is like this…”. Of course, we can get glimpses of the nature of God, but no one really knows the full story. That doesn’t stop us from trying to know God. Indeed, I think we should always continue to seek after knowing God. However, there are those times when God replies to us, as God replied to Moses, “Stop trying to pin me down. I Am Who I Am. I Will Be Who I Will Be.” This is where God meets us in today’s message, I believe. The following is my own translation:

And Moses said to God, “Behold me coming to the children of Israel and saying to them, ‘The god of your fathers sent me to you all,’ and them saying to me, ‘What is his name?’ What do I say to them?” And God said to Moses, “I Am Who I Am.” And he said, “Thus say to the children of Israel: ‘I Am sent me to you all.'” And God said moreover to Moses, “Thus say to the children of Israel: ‘YHWH, the god of your fathers, the god of Abraham, the god of Isaac, and the god of Jacob sent me to you all.’ This is my name for all eternity, and this is my remembrance for all future ages.”

I don’t know about you all, but growing up, I always thought that God’s name was, well, God. I understood calling God Lord or Almighty or Father, like calling my dad Dad or my mom Mom or my teacher Ma’am or Sir. And then you throw in the whole Jesus thing, saying Jesus is God, and it gets a little confusing, but I was able to separate it in my brain and understand that Jesus still wasn’t God’s name, but just a different manifestation of God, and he had titles too – Prince of Peace, Son of God, Wonderful Counselor, etc. But still, God’s name was God – that’s what I was told since I was really little. Oh and also, God was a he.

But, by the by, I grew up, and in high school I committed to reading the Bible all the way through. Now, that’s a pretty easy commitment to keep for like the first chapter. Actually, it’s not too bad until you get to about the middle of Exodus. And once you get to Leviticus, it’s like, “kill me now!” So I had made it through Genesis and I was reading the beginning of Exodus, and I came across this passage, which is our text today. And I remembered hearing it before, but when you’re that young, you don’t really understand what God is doing here. This time, however, I read it, and I said to myself, “huh!” God’s name isn’t God! They’ve been lying to me all these years! God’s name is… IAWIA (that’s short for “I Am Who I Am”). But seriously, this is actually quite brilliant (like we should expect anything less from God) – God says, “I’m not going to tell you my name! I am who I am, and that’s enough to identify me.” See, when I started back in Genesis, I had this nifty archaeological bible at the time – because I wanted to be an archaeologist – and at the part where Adam names all the animals, it said in a footnote, “Ancient Israelites believed the act of naming someone or something gave you power over them or it.” That merely to know someone’s name gives you power over that person. And if you think about that for a second, it makes perfect sense. How many of you – raise your hand – will turn around in the middle of a crowded street if someone yells, “hey, you!” And how many of you will turn around if someone yells your name? How many of you answer when someone says your name, but they’re talking to the other person in the room who happens to have the exact same name you do? Yea, there are like, five Chrises at Wake Forest Divinity School, it’s insane. So this act of naming gives you intrinsic power over someone else, and to name God would be to give humans power over God. And so Moses, bless his heart, I believe he really was sincere and didn’t think the Israelites were going to listen to him, but his question comes off almost like a trap – he says, “hinei!”, which we translate as “behold!”, and that’s a good translation, but there’s really just nothing like this sentence construction in English so I’m going to try and explain it. “Hinei!” in the Hebrew Bible is like telling somebody, ‘behold!’ and then putting them in front of a movie. “Imagine!” is another good word to translate it. So Moses isn’t even asking God a direct question; he’s pulling God into this scene, so that God literally sees Moses go to the Israelite people and tell them about God, and the Israelites rejecting Moses’ testimony without a name. And then Moses pulls God back out of that scene and says, “so what should I tell them?”

And God says, (laughs) “I’m not gonna tell you that. They want to know which god came to you? They want to know whether it was Ba’al or El or Anubis or Orion? Tell them I am not some lifeless statue you keep in your house. Tell them I am not a tree, or a weather system, or even just a planetary body. Tell them I am not the sun or the moon or any other created thing they can think of. Tell them I am. Tell them that the Ground of All Being has sent you, that the source of existence itself is your god.” Can you imagine what Moses must have been thinking? Like, ok… you didn’t really answer my question. I just wanted a name.

Well, Moses kindof gets his wish – we do get a name in verse 15. We call it the tetragrammaton – that’s a fancy word meaning it has four letters. In Hebrew the letters are yod, he, vav, he, which we write in English as Y H W H. This is the name of God; and guess what? We have no idea how to pronounce it. See, for much of its existence, Hebrew Scripture was passed down orally; when it was finally written down, it was written as consonants. Ancient Hebrew writing didn’t have vowels. Since it was an oral culture and people knew the words anyway, they would just pronounce the word how they knew to pronounce it when reading it. It would be like if I put up the letters WRD or CHRCH up on the screen. You would know what those words are; now, one of them may have more than one option – “word” or “wired” or “weird” – but if you’re reading it in a sentence, you can use context to figure out what the word is. That’s what they did back then, those who could read. But, by the time it had all been written down, because the ancient Israelites took the third commandment so seriously – don’t take God’s name in vain – nobody actually pronounced the tetragrammaton the way it was supposed to be pronounced; we’re not sure if anyone at this time even knew how to pronounce it. Instead, when the reader got to that word, they would skip over it and say ‘adonai’ instead, which, in Hebrew, simply means “my Lord.”

Well, much later on, in the 11th century, after Christianity had come about and the transmission of manuscripts of Scripture was largely taken over by the monasteries, there was a group of monks called the Masoretes who decided they were going to add vowels to the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. So, they came up with their own system of vowels and, using the oral tradition of Jews who were still alive and well and reading their Scripture aloud in the synagogue, they added these vowels to the text. Of course, these Jews still didn’t pronounce the name of God correctly – saying ‘adonai’ instead – but the Masoretes went ahead and added the vowels to the tetragrammaton anyway. So, the word now sounded like this in Hebrew: yehova. Of course, in Latin they don’t have the ‘y’ sound, and any word that begins with an ‘i’ or a ‘y’ is pronounced as though it begins with a ‘j’. Given the fact that nearly everything in medieval Christianity was done in Latin, the non-word ‘Jehova’ became common in theological circles as the proper name for God. It took a while for people to realize what had happened – or, more likely, just to care. But now most scholars think that the pronunciation of the tetragrammaton was closer to something like, ‘Yahweh’ (translated into English, of course).

Whew, that was a nice little tangent, wasn’t it? I’m sorry, I just love that little bit of trivia; and now you can correct your friends when they call God Jehova! The point is, though, that even with all of that history, we still don’t really know what the proper name of God is; we’ll probably never know. All we know is that it is somehow related to the Hebrew verb ‘to be’. And theologically, I think that that’s magnificently beautiful. God cannot be named, and thus God cannot be put in a box. The god we worship is an unboxable god, a god that does not fit neatly into human categories, a god that cannot even be contained within the pages of a book. The god we worship is a god that encompasses all of Creation, a god who is the very force of being in the universe, calling, birthing, speaking, breathing things into existence; the god we worship is a god in whom we live and move and have our being, because it is god who is being itself. And because of this, when you try to imagine God, the image you have in your head will never be adequate enough to describe the god of the universe. In and of themselves, words are ineffective at describing God, because God will always be on the edge of description. In fact, this realization has hit some Christian theologians so hard that they were convinced God could only be described apophatically – meaning, God could only be described based on what God is not. They said God is not evil. God is not a tree; God is not the sun or the moon or a weather system or anything else from the created order of things. God is not passive. God is not inanimate. God is not boxable. God is not named.

And yet, as admirable as this endeavor may be, Christians who take the apophatic approach of describing God may find that they have no idea who they are worshipping at all. Indeed, God’s own self, in response to Moses’ basic question, “Who are you?” does not say “I am not…” but rather “I am.” So what are we supposed to do with that? We’ve already decided that no single word is adequate enough to describe God, indeed that though we may exhaust the vocabulary of the world’s 6,500 languages we shall never be able to fully describe the God who is. Still, God’s own statement, “I am who I am,” encourages us to avoid describing God in terms of what God is not, and to instead use words affirming of who God is. And so we say that God is Creator, Sustainer, Healer, Giver of Peace, Rock, Refuge, Shield, Hiding-Place, Almighty, Shepherd, Provider, Eternal, Savior, Liberator, Hope, Alpha, Omega, Sovereign, Holy, Potter, Maker, Truth, Love, Hope, Strength, Sanctifier, Righteous, Father, Son, Spirt, Advocate, Comforter, Lord, Nurturer, Protector, and, oh yes, Mother. These are all biblical images of God; each and every one of these can be linked to Scripture. And yet, we know that we have barely scratched the surface with these words when describing the all-encompassing force of Being that Creates and Sustains the universe. Not only are there plenty more descriptions of God in the Bible, but we do not have to be restricted to Scripture to come up with ways of naming God. God is Grandfather, Grandmother, Painter, Dancer, Chef, Composer, Architect; God is a child’s laughter. God is the silent understanding shared between two friends. God is a song, sung from the deepest trenches of the soul. God is all of these things and more. God is.

When we talk about God, when we pray to God, when we imagine who God is, we must not get caught in always using the same words and images. Some of these words may be more meaningful to us than others, but if at any point we ever think we have God pinned down, then we need to switch words. Because God is not boxable, and if God ever becomes boxable for us; if we ever get an idea in our mind of who exactly God is, then we can be sure that we are no longer worshipping the true God at all, but an idol. We commit a grave sin whenever we use the same language over and over exclusively to define God, because through that language we have graven an image into our minds of what we call god, thus violating the commandment, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” There are plenty of other words in the Bible and in Christian tradition to choose from, so why don’t we?

Many of us have a false idol for a god. We may be perfectly willing to grant all that’s just been said and committed to thinking of God in different ways so as to be sure not to create a graven image. But if we’re all really honest with ourselves, most of us worship a man who is not God. Most of us have the image of a god in our heads who is old, and muscular, and bearded, and white, and dressed in kingly attire or a white robe of some sort, and, of course, he is a man. Or if we don’t have all of that in our heads, at the least we still have an image of a masculine god. And even if we say, “no, actually, God has no form in my head, he’s just kind of an abstract, mysterious spiritual force when I think about him,” we still use masculine pronouns to describe God, and we still, when we pray and converse with God, interpret the voice that calls to us from between the mist as a deep, masculine voice. Do we ever imagine God as a nurturing Mother? Do we ever hear the comforting tones of a woman’s voice when we speak with God? Do we ever refer to God as She? Are we uncomfortable even thinking about it right now? If we are, then I would suggest that our god is male – and this is not the same God who is.

This is an incredibly difficult paradigm shift to make, and I have to admit that when I was first presented with it, I resisted it vehemently. I assented to the notion that of course God is not inherently male. Neither is God inherently female. God has no gender. God has no race. God has no physical characteristics to speak of because God is God. I preferred to define God apophatically, but I also argued that we have to say something in order to talk about God, and we can’t call God an ‘it’, so why can’t I say He? Why can’t I call God Father, if that’s who God has been to me my whole life? I imagine many of you probably feel the same way. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that they’re right. It is idolatrous to continue to refer to God as ‘He’, because in doing so I cannot imagine God as ‘She’, and I am therefore denying the very name that God gives God’s own Self – “I am.” I was wrong when I said God has no gender – God is all genders. I was wrong when I said God has no race – God is all races. I was wrong when I said God has no physical characteristics, because God has them all. The only way I can affirm that is to use expansive and inclusive language – not exclusive.

So that’s why I will stand here before you today and say that God is not brown, dark brown, light brown, tan, or pale – God is. God is not tall or short – God is. God is not fat or skinny or muscular or curvy or pudgy – God is. God is not abled or disabled – God is. God is not brown-, blonde-, gray-, white-, pink-, green-, blue- or red-haired or bald – He is. God is not male or female – She is.

Word

This is a sermon about Scripture. It is about my own interpretation of Scripture, but I would also invite you, the reader, to consider your own interpretation of Scripture. First of all, consider that it is, indeed, an interpretation. Second, make sure that it is your own interpretation, and not someone else’s. Finally, consider why your interpretation of Scripture is important to you. History demonstrates that there is more than just one valid way of interpreting Scripture. Too many of us hang too much on what the Bible says. We must recognize in the final analysis that the Bible is not, in fact, God. However, it is an important tool for knowing God. As I make clear in the sermon that follows, I believe there are many other tools aside from Scripture that help us to know God; I also believe “Scripture” should not be such a strict category. Once again, please keep all discussion respectful, open, and loving.

*          *          *

I’d like to do things just a little differently today, if you don’t mind. Instead of reading the Scripture together, I’d like to read it to you, and after I read a little bit, I want you to guess what the Scripture is (book, chapter, verse). Don’t worry – it’s very easy! Ok, so here goes…

“In the beginning…” What Scripture is that? Are you sure? Ok, let me read a little more.

“In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

Surprised? So were the people of Ephesus some 2000 odd years ago or so when they walked into the synagogue one morning and heard “en archei ein ho logos…” “That’s not how it goes!” they said. Many of them were probably thinking to themselves, “how dare this person corrupt, degrade, replace, or otherwise alter the sacred Scriptures!” I mean, one does not simply re-tell the creation story and get away with it. What if I got up here this morning and, instead of reading from the Gospel of John, read straight out of Douglas Adams’ popular series, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “In the beginning the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move,” and I was completely serious about it? What if I treated it as Scripture? What if I preached a sermon from it?

This is, in effect, what John is doing when he writes, “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the Word was God. It was with God in the beginning. Through it all things came into being, and without it nothing came into being that has come into being. In it was life, and that life was the light of all the world. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” This is a new way to tell the story of creation – it doesn’t negate or cancel out the story in Genesis. That story is still very much valid for John. But he says “I have something else to tell you. That in addition to “When God began to create the heavens and the earth, and the earth was formless and void and darkness covered the face of the deep, and the breath of God hovered over the face of the waters…” the Word – which in Greek is the logos –  was also there, and it was through the logos that God created all things. And we know this now because of what I’m about to tell you… You see, there was this guy named Jesus…” And John continues his story from there.

The Gospel of John was written sometime around the end of the 1st century C.E., roughly 50-70 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is considered to be the last Gospel that was written, out of the four, and it is often set apart from the other three – what we call the “synoptic gospels” – because the way it tells the story of Jesus is just so different from the Synoptics. The author of the Gospel is actually anonymous, but beginning in the second century C.E. it was attributed to John the son of Zebedee, who is listed in the Synoptics as one of the Twelve main disciples of Jesus. But regardless of who actually authored it, early Christian communities recognized the authority of the Gospel, read it aloud in their homes and in the synagogue, and incorporated it as one of a number of important texts regarding the faith. The reason? It helped them understand who this Jesus character was that they were worshipping, and also who they were in light of that. Eventually, the Gospel of John was voted upon and included in the main Christian canon of sacred Scriptures, and it is now printed in every Christian Bible you might happen to pick up today.

John, along with every other book in the Bible that underwent a similar process at one time or another, became Scripture. Just like the creation story in Genesis, John’s “creation story” joined the ranks of those sacred combinations of words we hold up on a pedestal and resolutely declare, “This is the Word of God for the people of God; thanks be to God.” But that invites one giant beast of a question – and it’s a question I’m not going to answer outright, as though I have the definitive answer (full disclosure, I never do), but I am going to try and parse it out over the next few minutes, to try and help us get a better handle on what our own personal answers may be. Here’s the question: What is Scripture?

For me, growing up, Scripture was the Word of God. I believed that everything in the Bible was somehow there because God made it so – after all, surely God would not allow fallible human beings to create a book so unquestionably authoritative that millions upon millions of people would literally allow it to dictate their lives? Surely such a book must be entirely vetted by God? And what’s more, if one part of the Bible wasn’t somehow infallibly true, how then could I trust the rest of it? I’d been told that the Bible was the inerrant Word of God, and my faith was built on that. If it turned out that the Bible was not inerrant – if it had anything morally, scientifically, or historically questionable in it – then I couldn’t be a Christian anymore.

Well, this is one way that many people think about Scripture, and for a lot of people in this country, it is the only way to think about Scripture (otherwise, you can’t be a Christian!). You either believe it, and you’re a Christian, or you don’t, and you’re an atheist. I know both Christians and atheists who make this point – it’s an either-or; you can believe all of it or you believe none of it. There is no in-between. Well, I take issue with that, honestly. Because what nobody bothered to tell me, of course, is that this way of thinking about the Bible is only a few centuries old, and it is a distinctively Protestant thing. There have been plenty of Christians throughout time and space for whom the assertion “the universe was not created in 6 literal days” would not have been an issue. In fact, they might have responded, “Duh; that’s not what the story of creation is about!” Early Christians even recognized that there was more than one way of thinking about Scripture – Origen describes four levels of Scriptural interpretation – Literal: the translation of meaning of events for historical purposes with no underlying meaning; Anagogic: dealing with the future events of Christian history; Typological: connecting the events of the Old Testament with the New Testament; and Tropological (or moral): “the moral of the story”, how one should act in the present. Origen, along with other ancient Christian authors, recognized that Scripture contains a special revelation of God to the world. In other words, the words and stories in Scripture reveal something particular about God; in some way, shape, or form, they make God known.

Ok, you may be willing to grant me that – but how do they make God known? We could say that God reveals God’s own self in Scripture, that somehow or another God orchestrated the writing of Scripture by the various biblical authors, and the councils that voted on which books got to go in the Bible, and whether or not you would be a Protestant or a Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, because they all have different books in their Bibles – if you open up a Catholic Bible, you will find quite a few extra books in it you’ve never heard of – we could say all that. Of course, we’d have to reconcile the fact that almost everything in the Bible was passed down orally at first, then written down, then copied thousands of times, and translated half a dozen more. I promised myself I was going to minimize the lecture portion of my message today, but I just find this incredibly interesting – did you know that when the scribes copied the manuscripts over and over, they often made notes, or even corrections – what they thought the Scripture should say – in the margins, and often times those notes/corrections got confused with the original text when it came time for the next scribe to copy the manuscript, and so it just got written write into our Scripture! Also, the original manuscripts of the New Testament books were in ancient Greek, which was written in all caps with no spaces or punctuation, and with no care for keeping all the letters in one word on the same line. There were no chapters or verse numbers. No capitalization. Just a string of Greek letters. So, we would have to say that God was involved in that long process of transmission, keeping the text the way God wanted to keep it. We could certainly say that. But, if we do, it becomes less of a revelation and more of a dictation. And is that really how it usually happens? More often than not, it seems to me, God speaks through agents of God’s creation, especially people, flawed people, and not by hijacking people’s minds for, say, an hour or so, so that they can give a God-dictated speech or write a God-dictated book. Instead it seems that God connects with people in such a way that they are able to know something about the truth of God, and communicate it in their own words. And, call me crazy, but I believe we all have the means to recognize when that happens. So, when David says, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” we say, “yes, that’s true; that sounds like God.” When St. Augustine says, “our hearts are restless ‘til they rest in Thee,” we say, “wow… There is truly something God-like about that statement.” When Thomas Jefferson says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident – that all people are created equal,” we cling to it because it is somehow incredibly true, as though it should come from the lips of the Creator Himself. And when we hear the voice of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. ring out across the square, “I have a dream…” we must see in King’s dream of a truly free society God’s dream as well.

This is what I see in Scripture. I see people trying to ascertain what they can of God, trying to know God, and then telling the story so that eventually, over two thousand years later, we also can catch a glimpse of who God might be. This is exactly what John does in his Gospel – he tells the story of Jesus, and he tries to make sense of it all in light of what he knows about God already. This is what the people of Israel are doing when they tell the history of their nation – God was right there from the start, they said. The technical term for it, in case you were wondering, is theology. The folks who are writing Scripture are doing theology, just as much as we do theology whenever we ask ourselves the question, “I wonder if God __________?” And if you read Scripture carefully enough, you’ll notice that different folks come up with different answers to the same question. And that, I believe, in and of itself, says something about God.

So when we get bogged down with trying to prove or disprove Scripture, we’re really missing the point – God is not the Bible. Neither is the Bible God’s instruction booklet for life. It is a collection of words from folks just like us trying to figure this whole God thing out. Many of them claim to have had a special relationship with God. Many claim that God spoke to them. Some even claim that God came and lived, walked, and talked among them. Scripture is the testimony of those people – it is their experiences of God mediated through words that reveal some part of who God is. What one believes about Scripture depends on how one takes their testimony.

Some people say that Scripture is the Word of God. I, personally, would no longer make that claim. But I would say that Scripture is the words of God’s people. I would say that Scripture is the collective attempt of God’s people to describe their relationship with God and to make God known. And if that is the case, then the category of Scripture includes a whole lot more than just the words in this book. And within those words, all of them, I do believe we are more than likely to find God speaking to us in a number of ways. Amen.

Piercing the Soul

This sermon was preached the Sunday after Christmas, and the text was Luke 2:25-40 – Jesus’ presentation in the Temple. Now, it being the Sunday after Christmas, this was not one of the most prepared I’d been to preach. Still, I believe God gave me something to say in one way or another. The assertion in this sermon is scandalous, because we imagine the Kingdom of God as a place where everyone is equal and no one wants for anything. However, we must recognize that God’s Kingdom is just, and the definition of “justice” is everyone receiving what he or she is due. Some people are indeed due more than others. Some people are due less. Indeed, in order for some to receive justice, others must sacrifice. They must sacrifice things like money, power, privilege, etc. And so this sermon is not about exchanging one oppressed people for another. Jesus’ coming does not mean that the oppressors become the oppressed. It does, however, mean that the high and mighty are brought low and humbled, while the lowly are lifted up to their rightful place in the Kingdom. Here follows the text and sermon:

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
    according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
    which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
    and for glory to your people Israel.”

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

 

I have some bad news for you all. For those of you who don’t know, Jesus was not born on December 25th. It actually doesn’t really tell us, in the Bible, when Jesus was born, and quite frankly that didn’t matter much to the first Christians. The very first Christians didn’t even celebrate Christmas at all. And when Christians did first start celebrating the birth of Christ, it was actually on January 6th – which we now celebrate as Epiphany. In fact, it wasn’t until around the 5th century that anyone celebrated Christmas on December 25th, and for the longest time people continued to celebrate it on January 6th, especially in the Eastern churches. To this day, the Armenian Eastern Orthodox church still celebrates the birth of Christ on January 6th. But, believe it or not, Jesus wasn’t born on January 6th either. Modern historical scholarship says that Jesus was likely born sometime in the spring – in March, probably. But back then they didn’t know that; they had no idea when Jesus was actually born. And so they chose a date based on a popular belief that Jesus’ death and conception were at the same time in the calendrical year and also on the fact that the Winter Solstice was a major pagan holiday, and was best co-opted as the date for Christmas in order to keep Christians from returning to the pagan cults from whence they came.

All that is to say that Christmas is a time when we celebrate the birth of Christ, no matter when it may have actually taken place. And so it is important to keep in mind that, though it may not really be Jesus’ birthday, this is the time we, as Christians, have set aside to reflect on the theological significance of Christ’s birth – of the coming of God into the world, being fashioned into helpless, wrinkly flesh, and living a human life, with human experiences, emotions, and suffering. This is the time when we remember that God showed up.

So what happened? Why has this Holy Day gone from a recognition of the most awesome, humbling thing our God has ever done in the history of the universe to a day when we get stuff?

Well, I’m not going to give an answer to that one. I could go off on a rant about the evils of commercialism and the corporate takeover of Christmas and yada yada yada. And it would be hypocritical of me because, I, too, like getting stuff on Christmas – just the other day I took some of my Christmas money and went out and bought something I really wanted. So, I certainly don’t think there is necessarily anything wrong with getting things on Christmas. Christmas, after all, is a season of joy. But, there is a problem, I think, in the way we celebrate Christmas. We make it all about the joy. It is, indeed, a happy occasion – a time of love, and laughter, and friends and families coming together, of food and merry-making – and what do we wish each other after all? Merry Christmas! Happy Christmas! Or, my personal favorite – have a Holly Jolly Christmas! Christmas is all about joy! Advent is over, the King is here, unto us a child is born, Hallelujah! And that is perfect! Praise God, indeed. But, for what?

That’s where we get stuck. That is where Jesus becomes this magical remedy that all of the sudden makes everything better. Isn’t that why we are all happy? Isn’t that why we sing Joy to the World? The Lord is come and the Savior reigns! Do you ever really listen to the lyrics? And if you do, do you ever think about what that really means?

Because Simeon does. In our text today, Simeon, the random guy in the Temple who comes up and takes baby Jesus out of Mary’s arms – just think about that for a second, how awkward that must have been – Simeon knows full well what it means that God now walks on earth among us. Simeon is fully aware of what the Kingdom, which Jesus came to inaugurate, looks like. Christmas is a happy occasion for the lowly, for the poor, for the oppressed, for the captive, for the weak, for the sick, for the powerless. Because they will be exalted. But for those on the other end of society – for the high and mighty, for the rich, for the oppressors, for the captors, for the strong and the powerful – for most of us who are, globally, admittedly on the better off side of humanity, Christmas is not meant to be a conventionally happy time. If you think of happy as moving up in the world. If you think of joy as having a good life, feeling safe and secure in the warmth of your home surrounded by loved ones. Indeed, as Simeon points out, the coming of Jesus not only signifies the rising of many in Israel, but also the falling. Christmas is that one time when we are given a glimpse of the future Kingdom of God, when the complete social reversal is made, when the prince becomes the pauper and the pauper the prince, when God, Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, the All-Powerful, All-Consuming Force of Unconditional Love becomes the tiniest, most helpless little form of human imaginable, born to the lowest of the low, a poor family that can’t even afford the proper sacrifice to present him at the Temple, and God does it willingly. This is the Savior’s reign! As Mary says earlier in Luke, the powerful will be brought low, and the lowly will be lifted up! If you have stuff; if you have power; if you have privilege – this should scare you! If you don’t want to give it up.

I’ll tell you one person it did scare. It scared Herod. Oh, it scared him good. There was no room in his heart to share the power and control that he held, and so he decided that the best way to keep his power was to kill the new king. And so it happens that today, which is Holy Innocents’ Day in the calendar of the church, we remember the countless young lives lost in the wake of that futile endeavor, when Herod slaughtered every boy under two in Bethlehem and the surrounding villages.

Isn’t it awful what some people will do in order to resist the power-divesting force of Christmas? And Herod is not the first nor the last. History is riddled with individuals and groups of people who were so unwilling to give up their power, their wealth, and their privilege, that they imprisoned, tortured, and killed innocent people in order to keep it. Many of these people also celebrated Christmas as a joyous occasion, not recognizing that they were meant to be among the fallen in Israel, that Christmas meant that they should be willing to let go of what they had so that others could have it as well. At least Herod recognized that Christmas was a direct attack on his power and wealth. At least folks like Ebenezer Scrooge are honest in their assessment and rejection of Christmas – Christmas does indeed constitute a direct attack on their wealth and position in the world. Many of us, however, are content to experience Christmas without conviction, as a day of giving and receiving amongst close friends and family, a day of laughter and merriment, a day when we simply get salvation in the form of Jesus Christ.

But that’s not what Christmas is all about. My family and I were acutely reminded of that when we had an unexpected visitor at our house at 1am early Christmas morning. We had just returned from the Christmas Eve service here at the church, and my dad discovered a young woman hiding in our garage. She had grown up down the street from us, and our family knew her well. We brought her inside, and she began to tell us about her addiction to heroine, how she had overdosed again the previous Sunday. And as she told us her story, no doubt embellishing it here and there because she knew we had caught her attempting to steal from us, we stood there and listened. And I realized that it was Christmas, and this young woman was sick, addicted, out desperately looking for money to feed her addiction, and terrified that we might decide to turn her in. So, after she finished and my dad prepared to walk her to the door, sending her home to her father, I asked if it would be ok to pray together before she left. So we did. And in that moment, I don’t believe anyone could have faked the tears that fell down her cheeks.

Even your own soul will be pierced, Simeon said to Mary. And that night, I think all our souls were pierced. It’s necessary, before there can be joy, laughter, and merriment. Now I don’t know what more we could have done for that young woman – I wish we could have done something more, but I don’t know what. But I think the whole event was a much-needed reminder that Christmas was more for her benefit than it was for ours. Jesus came for everyone, it’s true, but he came especially to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captive, and freedom to the oppressed. So before we can have true fulfilment of that awesome, humbling event we call Christmas, it is necessary for those of us who have privilege in a society built on the foundations of racism, sexism, homophobia, and religious intolerance to relinquish control, to divest ourselves of our power, and to stop trying so hard to guard that which we consider to be ours. Some of us must be willing to take the fall, so that others may rise. We must be willing to let our souls be pierced. Because Christmas doesn’t come otherwise, not really. The joy of the season is not found in the acquisition of more, but in the willingness to be less. That’s Biblical. That is Christmas. Amen.

The Presence of Justice

I preached this sermon last year on the second day of Advent. It was the Sunday after a Grand Jury failed to indict the officer responsible for Eric Garner’s death. Unfortunately, the abuses of authority we have seen disproportionately applied to people of color have not stopped with Eric Garner. It seems like every week we read about some new occurrence of police overstepping their bounds. Now, I have as much respect for police officers as I do for anyone else – it is the content of your character, not your badge, that earns my respect (or lack thereof). My wife and I have had very pleasant encounters with the police. Police officers, however, are human, just like anyone else; as with anyone else, we must be careful not to confuse who they are as a person with what they do as a profession. Even ministers are not exempt from having character flaws. The problem is, power and authority are easily abused, and so persons who are given power and authority as a part of their job have a greater responsibility to keep themselves in check.

I encourage you to have an open mind when you read this sermon. Sermons are meant to challenge us and invite us to grow, not to reaffirm our biases and keep us where we are. If you find yourself resisting something, ask yourself why that is. For my part, I have tried to be open and honest with myself in this sermon. As always, these messages are just as much for me as they are for anyone else – I believe the Holy Spirit moves as I write, and comes up with things I had never even thought of before. The text for this sermon is 2 Peter 3:8-15; I had originally written a different sermon for a class, but the events of the week compelled me to write a completely different sermon. I really didn’t want to, as it was a lot of extra work, but the Spirit is funny like that. She doesn’t always care what you want to do. Anyway, here follows the text and sermon. As always, I encourage open and loving discussion in the comments.

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed. Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

 

The message I am about to offer takes its title from one of the many quotes of the great Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. He said, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” The presence of justice. So, for Martin Luther King, Peace cannot exist without Justice. People can get along with each other, and they could not fight; there could be no violence, but as long as some people are oppressing others – as long as one person does not get justice – there can be no peace. Peace requires justice. Before we can even begin to talk of peace in the sense that we all just get along with each other, we have to have justice.

I have great respect for Dr. King. In fact, if I could ever add anything to the canon of Scripture, it would probably be something of King’s writings. So it should come as no surprise when I say that I agree with him. Justice is necessary for peace. It makes sense – it is unreasonable to call for your opponent to stop fighting back as you slowly beat them to death. We have no right to cry “peace, peace!” when we ourselves are oppressing others. I am quite sure that if we were on the other side of the oppression, or if we have ever known what it feels like to be held in a constant state of belittlement or torture, then we should conclude that such an existence is not peaceful at all.

So, if justice is required for peace, we have to figure out what justice is. Well, the technical definition of justice is everyone getting what they are due. Now, this is purely my own theological perspective (as it was King’s), but I believe God knows exactly what everyone is due, and it is our job to figure that out. We do this by reading Scripture, by using reason, by interpreting our own traditions and values, and finally through our own experience – we in theological circles call these four things the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Many of us, when confronted with an unjust situation – whether it be from our own life or from a story we’re being told – have a visceral emotional reaction. “That’s not fair!” we scream at the TV, either out loud or silently in our hearts. Then, through using the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, we eventually arrive at our own conclusions as to whether justice was served in that situation. We go to Scripture, we pray, we acquire all the evidence we can and apply our reasoning skills to it, we most certainly bring our own experience to bear on the situation. Individually, we may not all arrive at the same conclusion. But, collectively, I do believe we may in time discern an objective, universal notion of justice to which we should all aspire, and which, according to both King and myself, is required to have true peace. And this universal notion of justice is rooted in God.

C.S. Lewis makes this wonderful point in Mere Christianity – he says that before he became a Christian, he was a staunch atheist. And what convinced him of the existence of God was the fact that he had any sense of justice at all. He knew that without God, there’s really no point in arguing over whether something is fundamentally right or wrong, fair or unfair, because the world just is. But because the world lives, and moves, and has its being in the very body of God, and because God radiates justice, we as human beings are able to perceive whether or not something is “just”. Not whether or not it is just for somebody – have you ever heard somebody say “that’s not fair!” when they didn’t get their way? No, we are constantly attempting to understand what an objectively “just” world looks like – what God’s reign of justice and righteousness looks like. And, remember, until that happens, we can have no true peace.

And this brings us to our text today. Up ‘til now, I admit, it’s been fairly heady. But we need to be clear on these two points before we go any further – true peace requires justice, and justice is a universal notion rooted in God that can be known. Now, according to Peter, this justice will be a reality in the new heaven and new earth. God’s righteousness will be at home. This is the final culmination of God’s plan for the universe, where everyone will be found at peace. This is the end-goal of the universe, the thing for which it is ever striving. And now, more than ever, we are waiting for it. Because, if we are perfectly honest with ourselves, justice is not present this Advent season. Not here, at least.

I’m going to speak quite candidly now, and I want you all to understand something. What I say is grounded in my own Wesleyan Quadrilateral – it comes from my experience and my reasoning, in conversation with Scripture and tradition. It is not meant to be a political statement – I am politically unaffiliated; I believe in voting for and saying things that I believe are right and grounded in God’s will for the universe. So, with that in mind, please hear the following:

I grew up believing that racism was a thing of the past. I was born in 1990 – and before you ask, yes, I really am 24 – and I learned about slavery and the Civil Rights Movement growing up in school. I learned about it as a thing of the past, that racism was wrong, and that we are now a post-racial society. And although most of my classmates were white, I did not perceive in myself any bias that would make me behave differently toward my peers of a different skin color. I’m not sure why, but I guess I just thought that once the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, America was no longer racist. My parents, my extended family, and everyone else I interacted with gave me no indication that it should be otherwise.

In the past 4 years or so, however, I have become acutely aware that my assumption of a post-racial America is not, in fact, a reality. On the night that Barack Obama was elected president, Twitter exploded with racist comments from all over the country, and I was shocked. Most of the tweets were from young people – people even younger than myself, who had supposedly grown up in our “post-racial” society – calling Obama the “N-word” and saying he did not belong in the “white” house. Then in subsequent years the reactions to Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, and Eric Garner came, among many others; racist comments from all corners of the nation, including the authorities involved, and even today it continues. Donald Sterling is not an anomaly. I have had close friends directly experience racism in a church setting – they did not get a youth ministry job because of their race. I have read personal accounts from friends of my friends on Facebook, accounts of being stopped by police when they had committed little more than a traffic violation, and yet they were insulted and degraded because of their race, placed in handcuffs, and their car was searched illegally. I did not want to believe it because I, like many of you, wanted to believe that this country is better than that; that all of our failings are in our past and that we are a shining city on a hill, a beacon of light in a fallen world, proclaiming liberty and justice for all. But the more I experience; the more comments I hear and read; the more relationships I have with real people who are experiencing injustice, I have to acknowledge that we, as a society, are living a lie. I cannot claim that we are living in a post-racial society because, deep down, I realized something else:

I, too, have always been afraid of black people.* Not the black people that wore the right clothes – suits and ties and all that – but those who chose to wear hoodies, backwards hats, and sagging pants. I have to admit that I am still instinctively afraid of those types of people. And, yeah, I might also be afraid of white people who choose to wear similar clothing, but if I’m really being honest with myself, I know I am more afraid walking past a black person on the street with sagging jeans than a white person in similar garb. I have an implicit racial bias, drilled into me over the years, and it takes a lot of effort to fight that bias. And if I have that bias, despite my commitment to anti-racism efforts and my attempt to be a force for reconciliation in a broken world, I know that plenty of others around me, including those we count on to serve and protect us, have it as well.

We can keep trying to deny it. We can keep coming up with excuses. We can keep living the lie that justice is present. But if we are really honest with ourselves, we know this is not the case. We must instead accept the fact that our society is in a constant state of growth, and that 50 years, in the long history of black oppression, is a miniscule amount of time in which to become “post-racial”. As a society we have collectively discerned from God that racism is unjust. Now we must acknowledge that systemic racism still exists in this country, and we must work to fight against it. It does nobody any good to deny other people’s experiences of injustice outright, because we know that our justice system is not perfect – we are not, after all, yet living in the new heaven and new earth where God’s justice and righteousness reign forevermore. We are a work in progress.

So what does that mean for us? We’ve taken the long way around, because I want it to be clear that injustice is persistent in our society, and if we really want true peace, that is going to have to change. If we really want to live in the new heaven and new earth, then we are going to have to help inaugurate the presence of God’s eternal justice here on earth. Our text today says, “Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire?” I believe this tells us two things – the first is that we are actively involved in bringing about the day of God, because we are commanded to hasten it. Not just to wait for it, but to hasten it. That means that we are helping God to build the Kingdom here on earth. The second thing is this: that God’s reign of justice and peace does not come without conflict. It does not come without destruction. In any fight against injustice, there is always tension. Change requires conflict. If we want to experience true peace – the kind of peace that only comes in the new heaven and earth – then we must be willing to pass through the fire.

Advent is a time of change. It is a time of injustice; it was never meant to be a time of peace. Advent is the time when we look forward to peace, when we expect it, and by expecting it I mean that we actively work to bring it about. Because peace doesn’t come until Christmas Day. It does not come until God steps into the world. It does not come until the old order of injustice is dissolved in fire and passes away into dust, and the new world, the new society is allowed to rise from the ashes. For now, we wait; longing for, hoping for, and, hastening the presence of justice.

 

*Growing up, I was always taught that “African-American” is the politically correct term to use for persons of African heritage living in the United States. However, I have had a number of close friends inform me over the years that they would rather be called “black” than “African-American”, since it was not them, but rather their ancestors who came from Africa. They, however, are full-blooded Americans. Consequently, I have chosen to use the term “black” to refer to a specific racial group rather than “African-American”. While some black people are African-Americans, some are simply Americans, or Africans, or Europeans, or Asians, etc. That said, if you feel I have misrepresented your experience in any way, please let me know. My ears are always open.

Communing with Sinners

There are two versions of this sermon, and I have chosen to reproduce the longer one here. I preached this sermon twice in the same week – the first time at the church where I currently serve as an Associate Minister, and the second time at Community Chapel at seminary. My text was Romans 14:1-12, and my message was one that even I still need to hear. We often focus so much on the things that divide us – on those who we are so sure are so wrong – that we fail to see our commonalities. We fail to grasp that we are all human beings, made in the image of God. Here follows the text and sermon:

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God. We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8 If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written,

“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
    and every tongue shall give praise to God.”

So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

 

The year was 49 CE. I remember it well. The Great Emperor Claudius had issued a rescript expelling the Jews from Rome, because they were creating disturbances on account of some man they call Chrestus. Well, the Jews were cast out, but this was not entirely effective, I hear, because it was not just the Jews who were creating disturbances on behalf of this Chrestus. A great many other barbarian foreigners who live within our walls, and not a few previously respectable Roman citizens even, have joined the ranks of their so-called ekklesia. I do not know what they do in their secret meetings in their homes, but I have heard rumors of rampant fornication, blood-bathing, and even cannibalism – this last I know for certain, for by the very lips of one of their own they consume the body and blood of their leader! A most contemptuous sect indeed. Even the Jews, I know, do not practice such horrendous rituals! I can only imagine what they might do now that the Great Claudius’ rescript begins to wane, and they return to our glorious city. How will they find their ekklesia now, ruled by those whom they call goyim, the Gentiles? Surely, they cannot be of the same mind, having been separated for so long? Perhaps their quarreling may finally put an end to this Chrestus movement once and for all – such a dark stain it has been on our once great city.

Thus might a typical Roman have viewed the Jesus movement in Rome in the 50s and 60s CE. What happened behind the closed doors of the early Christian house churches was a mystery to all those who were not a part of it. In fact, the Jesus movement – and I say Jesus movement because we can’t quite call it Christianity at that time – was no different from any number of other mystery religions and cults that met in secret in people’s homes, according to people on the outside. In order to know what was going on, you had to be on the inside; luckily for us, Paul was just such a person on the inside.

Now, Paul had never been to the Roman church, but he still had a good idea of what was going on there. He received letters and communications from the church, and what he received apparently was enough to induce him to write this letter, the last extant letter he wrote, to the Roman church. Many scholars consider it his theological Magnum Opus – a brilliant, Pauline, theological treatise. But, as we see in our passage this morning, it’s not a treatise. It’s a letter. It’s a letter to a church. It’s a letter to a church with problems. Hmmm. A church with problems? Well, that doesn’t sound familiar at all!

Now, the church may have had many problems, but the one Paul is addressing here is this:
Some people in the community believe that they must abstain from eating all meat in order to be good Jesus-followers. Others think that’s a bunch of hogwash, and that they can eat whatever they want and still be good Jesus-followers. Again, some people in the community think they need to commemorate certain days of the year as more important than others (like Holidays). Other people think that all the days of the year should be treated exactly the same. Now, with respect to eating meat or not eating meat, Paul calls the first group “strong” and the second group “weak”, meaning, of course, that Paul belongs to the group that eats meat. Naturally, those who abstain are “weak” – because they disagree with him. It’s clear that Paul thinks there is a “right” position to take on the matter of eating meat – but that does not necessarily mean it is, objectively, the “right” position. We could just as easily switch the identity of the “strong” and the “weak”, depending on whose side we’re on. I’m quite sure the “weak” perceived themselves to be “strong” – if you think you’re right, you’re not going to say that the people with whom you disagree are “stronger” in faith than you. So let’s be clear; these groups in the Roman church are not divided according to who is “strong” and who is “weak” in faith. Neither are they divided simply according to “Jewish Christians” and “Gentile Christians”, despite the picture painted by our uninvolved Roman observer. Rather, the real picture we get of the Roman community is multivalent: there are Jewish Christians, Gentile converts from all different backgrounds, Gentiles recently converted to Judaism who then became Christians, and so on and so forth. The differences in the community are not ethnic; they are based on the individual beliefs and opinions of its members. Some people believe you can’t eat meat; some people believe you can eat whatever you want. Some people believe there should be special days. Some people think every day should be the same. And lest you think that this is divided neatly into two groups – the people who abstain from meat also commemorate special days, and the people who eat everything treat every day the same – the text doesn’t say that. Paul gives us two examples of beliefs or opinions on which people in the Roman church disagree. It is easy to imagine that there are likely many others. So, what we are dealing with in this passage is a community divided into many different factions according to their differing beliefs – and all of them claiming to be a part of the same Jesus-following community!

The thing about us Christians – and about us Disciples in particular – is that we like to be inclusive. It’s what we’re all about. I love this church and I love the openness of the Disciples’ Creed – we follow Jesus, as best we can, and that’s it. It doesn’t matter if you identify as Conservative, Liberal, Progressive, Fundamentalist, White, Black, Gay, Straight, Male, Female, Young, Old, or anything else really; you’re welcome here! I love that.

The thing about us humans is that we like to take sides. You may have noticed that all the identities I listed were binaries, when we know that there is a huge spectrum of identity in between each and every one of those binaries. But we humans like things to be black and white; we don’t like gray areas. And when we separate ourselves into two opposing categories, as the people in the Roman church seem to have done, we usually end up labeling our category right and the other category wrong, and that creates one big mess of things.

I have to admit that I am just as bad at this as anybody else. I, of course, think that I am right on most things, and that the people who disagree with me on certain issues – issues that seem fairly clear-cut to me – are not just wrong; they’re mind-bogglingly stupid! Now, please, please stay with me! Because I’m willing to bet that each and every one of us here has thought the same thing at least once in our lives. You know, you read an article about an issue you’re really passionate about, and you either wholeheartedly agree or disagree with what the author is saying, and then, of course, you scroll down to the end, to the comments section. Because you HAVE to read the comments! Pro tip: never read the comments. I still do, it’s a curse, really. And of course, you always find that one commenter, and most of us, if we admit it to ourselves, are actively SEARCHING for that commenter, whose comment is so incredibly moronic that we feel newly justified in our particular belief or opinion about that issue.

But here’s the thing – it doesn’t matter what side of the issue you’re on! If every single one of us can relate to the process I just described, that means that you can throw a comment up on an article, and no matter how well-researched, no matter how well-articulated, if you take a strong stance, somebody is going to get angry at your comment and think to themselves, “this person is mind-bogglingly stupid!” In other words, no matter how ignorant, no matter how closed-minded, no matter how stupid you might think somebody is for holding a certain opinion, I guarantee you that that person thinks you are just as ignorant, closed-minded, and stupid as you think they are!

So it doesn’t really matter how right we think we are; somebody thinks we are wrong. And it doesn’t really matter how wrong we think other people are; somebody else thinks they are right. If there’s any universal truth, then, it must be this – all of us are right about some things and wrong about others, and only God knows which is which. More importantly, all of us are wrong about something. In the church, we tend to frame this in the language of sin – he or she is a sinner, because he or she is not doing what I think God wants him or her to do. She or he is a sinner because she or he supports the homosexual lifestyle. He or she is a sinner because he or she is a gun nut. Even the language we use – “homosexual lifestyle” and “gun nut” – is used with the intent of demonizing the other person. And what ends up happening is we get into these air-tight, polarized groups, and we start thinking of the other group as the enemy. We judge them, we deride them, we believe they are the sinners who need to see the light, that if only they truly knew Christ, they wouldn’t behave that way; they would believe correctly.

And there’s the rub; to somebody else, you are a sinner. I am a sinner. We are all sinners in someone’s eyes. And I don’t mean the classic Pauline thinking, “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” although I do believe that to be true. I mean that we are all living in sin according to someone, even if we think we are doing that so-called “sin” for God. The Roman church has the same problem – “those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord…while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord.” So, you see, depending on who you ask, you’re either sinning or living for God. And the only one who really knows the difference; if there is an absolute truth to the matter; if there is an absolute right or wrong; the only One who knows what it is is God! Not you! Not the people around you! God!

So where does that leave us? Paul says to the Roman church, stop judging people for their opinions and beliefs. Stop deriding them. If they are doing what they do for God, then you need to welcome them into the community. Treat them as an equal in the faith, even if you disagree. Paul seems to say, let bygones be bygones; stop quarreling amongst yourselves over who is right and who is wrong, because it really doesn’t matter.

Well, that may be the case with the issues at hand in Romans – it doesn’t really seem to hurt anyone else to eat meat or not eat meat (unless, perhaps, you think of animal rights); it doesn’t seem to cause anyone any harm, psychological or otherwise, to observe special days or treat every day the same. But when it comes to issues like abortion, where each side perceives that the other’s way of thinking does serious harm to real human beings, it becomes a lot harder to listen to Paul here. Indeed, I don’t think that, with issues such as these – where the well-being of a person is at stake – we can just let bygones be bygones. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything from Paul’s words. Paul never says that we can’t talk about our different beliefs with one another. Paul never says that we can’t treat each other with respect and work out our faith together. Paul never says that we shouldn’t try to find out the absolute right position to take on an issue, if there is one. I think he would say that if we talk with each other, and, more importantly, listen to each other, and not assume that we already know the right way to think about things, indeed, if we start expecting to be proven wrong in our conversations instead of expecting to be proven right, then we might start to model what it means to be a community living for God.

If we are actually trying to be that good Christian community; if we are really trying to be the church – and succeeding – then each and every one of us is going to be a sinner to someone else. And if we learn how to commune with each other; learn how to share our beliefs and our opinions without judgment or derision, then we may find that we are slowly being transformed into the true Body of Christ; a Body that has not excluded even one fingernail; and together, we will be made to stand. Amen.

All Come, All Served

This was a sermon I preached on my birthday last year, and as it was my birthday, much of my family came up to hear it and have lunch afterward – hence the reference to my cousin toward the end. This sermon is on Matthew 14:13-21, popularly known as the “feeding of the five thousand”. How are we feeding people today – what is our role in alleviating or perpetuating food insecurity? I invite you to think about these questions as you read on.

 

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

 

If you haven’t yet noticed, I love preaching stories. Sometime down the road I’ll have to tackle some poetry, maybe a Psalm, or, heaven forbid, Leviticus! If you didn’t laugh at that joke, you should try reading Leviticus. You won’t get very far, trust me. But I love stories, mostly because stories define the way we see ourselves in the world. Our lives are lived in narrative. And so I was very excited when I opened up the lectionary a few weeks ago, flipped through the different texts, and discovered that this particular story was a part of today’s reading. Because this story was apparently so important to early Christians that they recorded it not once, not twice, not even four times, but six times throughout the four main Gospels. It is recorded in every Gospel, and in two Gospels, it is recorded twice. Now, each version of this story, the feeding of the multitudes, is slightly different – in some cases, the crowds number four thousand, in some cases five, and in our text today, even more than that – but the basic core of the story is the same. There is a great crowd; they have come to hear Jesus, and it has been a long day, and they are hungry. But, rather than send them on their way to buy their own food, Jesus instead multiplies the food that he and his disciples have until everyone has had their fill.

 

This is what we call a miracle. Now, reading this story, I got to thinking – and I honestly believe that God put this idea in my head, because I had never thought about it before preparing for this message – what would we do if we suddenly had the power that Jesus has in this story? First, he heals all the sick people in the crowd, which is kind of the sideline miracle, the opening miracle, if you will, to the main miracle he performs later on, which was to feed well over five thousand people until each and every last one of them was full with only five loaves of bread and two fish. Oh, and by the way, there were leftovers. Twelve baskets full – it sounds like there was more left over than what they started out with! What would we do if we had that kind of power?

 

What would you do if, all of the sudden, you discovered the cure for cancer, or you discovered a new renewable energy source? What would be the first thing that pops into your head? I recently started watching this show called “The 4400” on Netflix. The show is about 4400 people who are taken out of their place in history, given special powers, and then returned to the world all at the same time. And one of the episodes is about a man who basically has the power to make people instantly skinny. And what do you think is the first thing he does when he finds out about this? He tries to sell it. He signs a $40 million contract with a company that wants to package and market his special ability for a sizeable profit. Now, it may just be a TV show, but that’s not really all that surprising, is it? Because it seems that anytime we discover or create something new, the knee-jerk response is to think: I have something everyone wants or needs, and so first I need to patent it so that other people can’t “steal” my work, and then I can sell it, and I can make myself a place in the world. And so it really isn’t hard for me to imagine, that if Jesus had done this today, it wouldn’t be long before we started seeing the billboards – “Miracle Fish Sandwich – $9.99” now available at your local McDonalds. Yea, it’s that expensive because it’s got Jesus in it! You laugh but you can bet that restaurant chains and pharmaceutical companies would be chomping at the bit to make this miracle-working Jesus character a part of their business. That’s the kind of mentality we have in our society. How can I use what I have, the resources and the abilities and the people available to me, to make my life better?

 

On the surface, this mentality doesn’t sound so bad. Everyone has an equal chance to get ahead because everyone is allowed to use what they have. I like to imagine an apple orchard, where everyone has their own apple tree, and they can choose to eat their own apples, which they picked, or they can trade them with the folks next door in the blueberry patch. In this scenario, everyone has an equal opportunity. The problem with this mentality, though, is that some of us have more resources than others. See, some of us got to the apple orchard first, picked all the apples, and then decided it was our right to sell them to everyone else who later wandered into the orchard – including, perhaps, the world’s greatest apple-picker. Indeed it seems that everything we do reflects a first-come, first-served mentality. If I thought of it first; if I got to it first; if I had it first; if I was sitting there first; it’s mine, isn’t it?

 

But if you look back at the story… Jesus doesn’t charge a dime for the miracle food. Jesus doesn’t regard the food as his because he has the ability to create it. Neither do the disciples, having primary access to the source of the food, behave as though the food is theirs to give or sell as they wish. Now, I should back up a bit, because some of you will have noticed that before they start passing out the fish and the bread, the disciples cling to the old way of thinking. They tell Jesus that the crowd is hungry, and they should be sent on their way into the towns to buy food for themselves; meanwhile, the disciples had their five loaves and two fish – they were set. But it is easier for the disciples, who have, to advocate for a position where everyone has to fend for themselves. Now, when Jesus confronts them with the command, saying “No! You give them something to eat!” – the disciples’ reply shows why they clung to the old mentality in the first place. It is the same reason we also continue to cling to this first-come, first-served mentality. “There isn’t enough,” they say. They are operating from the assumption of scarcity, that there aren’t enough resources to go around. But Jesus turns that assumption on its head and says, “No, in fact, God is not a God of scarcity; God is a God of abundance, and if you could just get out of that assumption for a second, and believe that what I freely give to you is more than enough to fill and to satisfy everyone, then maybe, just maybe, no one would have to go hungry.”

 

So the disciples start distributing the food. And, wouldn’t you know it? Everyone ate, and everyone ate until they were full. And there were still leftovers. It was not a scarcity problem, at all. Did you know that the current world population is estimated to be somewhere around 7.2 billion people, and that there is enough food being produced in the world to feed every single one of them, with leftovers? It’s true; you can look it up. And yet, roughly 842 million people – that’s about one out of every eight people in the world – are currently estimated to be suffering from chronic hunger.* Think about that for a second. There is enough food in the world to feed every single one of those people until they are full. They problem is not scarcity. The problem is distribution. Unlike the story in our Scripture reading this morning, the abundance of food is not getting passed around to all of the people until they have eaten their fill. And lest you think that this is an out there problem, beyond the veil, the sad truth is that one in four children in North Carolina are food insecure. In fact, as of two years ago, Winston-Salem was ranked as the third hungriest metropolitan area in the United States. Now, this church knows that, and this church does an amazing job at combatting this hunger epidemic here in our city. I am proud to be a part of this church and the work that it is doing. But I think it’s important to start asking why people are going hungry in the first place. And I think the answer is that we, collectively, as a species, have ignored Jesus’ teachings, both in what he said and, in this case, in what he did. Because, despite the plethora of hymns and worship songs that claim otherwise, the cross was not the sole reason for Jesus’ existence. Jesus did other stuff besides die on a cross and rise from the dead. Yes, that is extremely important to us, as Christians, but it means nothing if we forget that during his life Jesus taught us a better way to live with each other. We don’t say Jesus is the Son of God because he died on a cross and was resurrected. Anyone can die on a cross; and there are multiple examples of miracles in the New Testament where someone was raised from the dead. We say Jesus is God because there is something profoundly Godlike about the way he lived, and the way he taught us to live.

 

While it seems that most of us have either ignored or completely forgotten this, I have to say I was rather pleasantly shocked to discover about two months ago that there are people here in the United States – CEOs, even – who still believe that the things God gives to us are not meant to be hoarded but rather shared with everyone; that the “first-come, first-served” mentality actually makes for an incredibly damaging way to go about life. On June 12th of this year, Tesla Motors’ CEO Elon Musk announced that they “will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use [their] technology,” effectively saying that anyone who wants to use their technology to create better, more sustainable, no-emission cars may do so free of charge and without threat of lawsuit. The corporate world was shocked by this decision, and there was even an article that came out a few days later calling the patent release “good for humanity, but bad for business.” I mean, who in their right mind would give up ownership of a technology they developed, when that technology stands to make them millions? Perhaps the company was merely following the example of its namesake, Nikola Tesla, who believed in the radical idea that technology is something to be used for the betterment of humankind, not for personal profit. Perhaps they had stumbled onto a new way of thinking, which is not really new. It is the same way of thinking held by many African tribes, especially in the Southern Africa region. My cousin, who is with us this morning, spent a year in South Africa, and can probably explain it a little better than I can, but this way of thinking is called Ubuntu, and it essentially means, “I am what I am because of who we all are.” And I just love the story that goes with it; it’s been circulating around the internet, and I’m not sure whether it’s true or not, but it really doesn’t matter to getting the point across. It goes like this:

 

An anthropologist studying the habits and customs of an African tribe found himself surrounded by children most days. So he decided to play a little game with them. He managed to get candy from the nearest town and put it all in a decorated basket at the foot of a tree.

Then he called the children and suggested they play the game. The game was that when the anthropologist said “now”, the children had to run to the tree, and the first one to get there could have all the candy to him/herself.

So the children all lined up waiting for the signal. And when the anthropologist said “now”, all of the children took each other by the hand and ran together towards the tree. They all arrived at the same time, divided up the candy, sat down, and began to happily munch away.

The anthropologist went over to them and asked why they had all run together when any one of them could have had the candy all to themselves.

The children responded: “Ubuntu. How could any one of us be happy if all the others were sad?”

 

How can any one of us be happy if all the others are sad? How many of our children are growing up with such an understanding of the world? How many of us operate in our everyday lives according to this principle? Because, make no mistake folks, this philosophy, Ubuntu, is the exact same philosophy demonstrated by Jesus and the disciples in our story today. This is no first-come, first-served religion we follow, my friends. Jesus doesn’t say “Only give those who can afford it something to eat.” Jesus doesn’t say “Only give to those who look, think, smell, and act like us.” Jesus doesn’t even say “Give only the ones who are most hungry something to eat; the others have just eaten and can make it until tomorrow.” No, Jesus says, “You give THEM something to eat,” as in, “ALL of them.” Because if we are truly followers of Jesus, we are not followers of a religion that justifies and builds up the individual. If we are truly followers of Jesus, then we are deeply invested in a way of living that seeks to bring all of God’s creation into community with one another, and into harmony with God. In this, all come; and all are served. Amen.

 

*Statistics from http://www.worldhunger.org/articles/Learn/world%20hunger%20facts%202002.htm

Listening to the Silenced

I preached this sermon last year on the Sunday after July 4th, my fifth sermon. It also came in the wake of the Santa Barbara shootings and the #YesAllWomen campaign. The lectionary text for that day was Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, and 58-67, and so I decided to preach on that text.

Now, I would like to say a few things before you read this sermon. The first is that blind patriotism and nationalism will not be tolerated here. If you should feel the need to dispute anything I have said, please do so in a respectful and reasoned manner. I will always have a listening ear, so long as no one shouts in it. The second is that you may notice I am preaching from the spaces in between the text, rather than the text itself. That is entirely the point. This text is not making an argument; it is telling a story. When we read or hear a story, we are always interpreting it, and what is not said is almost as important as what is, if not more so. It is imperative that we do not accept the text blindly, but rather seek its truth by asking hard questions of it. If you open yourself to reading the text in this way, I am quite sure you will find a faith deeper than you could have previously imagined. That said, let us turn to the text. The following is my own translation:

 

So he said, “I am Abraham’s servant. Yahweh has greatly blessed my master and he has become wealthy; he has given him sheep and cattle, silver and gold, male and female slaves, and camels and donkeys. And Sarah, my master’s wife, bore a son to my master after she had become old, and he has given to him all that is his. And my master made me swear, saying, ‘You shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose land I dwell; but instead go to the house of my father and to my family and take a wife for my son.’…So I came today to the spring and I said, ‘Yahweh, God of my master Abraham, if you are indeed prospering the way upon which I am going, behold, I am standing by the spring of water; let the maiden who comes out to draw and to whom I say, ‘Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,’ and she says to me, ‘You may drink, and I will also draw for your camels’ – she is the wife which Yahweh has appointed for my master’s son.’ I was not yet finished speaking in my heart and behold, Rebekah came out with her jar upon her shoulder, and she went down to the spring and drew. And I said to her, ‘Please give me a drink.’ And she hurried and lowered her jar from upon her shoulder and she said, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels.’ And I drank, and she also watered the camels. And I asked her, saying, ‘Whose daughter are you?’ And she said, ‘The daughter of Bethuel, son of Nahor, whom Milcah bore to him.’ And I put the ring on her nose and the bracelets on her wrists. And I bowed down and prostrated myself before Yahweh, and I blessed Yahweh, the God of my master Abraham, who led me on the path of truth to take the daughter of my master’s nephew for his son. And now, if you are to show faithfulness and loyalty to my master, tell me; and if not, tell me, and I will turn to the right hand or to the left.”…So they called Rebekah and they said to her, “Will you go with this man?” And she said, “I will go.” And they sent their sister Rebekah and her nurse along with Abraham’s servant and his men. And they blessed Rebekah and they said to her, “May you, our sister, become thousands of multitudes, and may your offspring possess the gate of those who hate them.” And Rebekah and her young women rose and mounted the camels, and they followed the man. So the servant took Rebekah and went. Now Isaac had come from Beer-lahai-roi, and he was dwelling in the land of the Negeb. And Isaac went out to walk in the field before evening, and he raised his eyes and saw, and behold: camels approaching. And Rebekah raised her eyes and she saw Isaac, and she fell from the camel. And she said to the servant, “Who is this man walking in the field to meet us?” And the servant said, “That is my master.” So she took her veil and she covered herself. The servant reported to Isaac all the things that he had done. And Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent, and he took Rebekah and she became his for a wife; and he loved her. And Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.

 

Some of us may be rather familiar with this story; and for some of us, this is our first time hearing it. Before we go any further, I’d like to run through the whole thing from the beginning, since we only get an excerpt in our reading today, and note all the relevant details.

 

So, Abraham is very old; we understand that he is close to death. And his wife, Sarah, has just died. He is concerned with holding on to the promise God made to him, that he and his many descendants would inherit the land of Canaan, so he tells his must trusted servant to go and obtain a wife for his son Isaac. Now, this wife cannot be one of the locals – we can only speculate as to why Abraham didn’t want his son marrying a local. Instead, she must come from Abraham’s family, who live about a month’s journey away. Abraham makes the servant swear that he will get a wife for Isaac from his family, as long as the woman agrees to return with him. The one thing he is absolutely not allowed to do is bring Isaac along. Isaac has to stay in Canaan. Can you imagine how hard it would be to arrange a marriage when none of the bride’s family have ever met the groom? So, the servant travels to the city of Nahor, and that is where this whole scene that we just read takes place. The servant prays to God; Rebekah comes and fulfills the servant’s prayer; the servant is invited into Rebekah’s father’s house, the marriage contract is arranged, Rebekah agrees to leave with the servant and return to Canaan to marry Isaac, and she does.

 

Now, there are a couple of interesting things to note, here. The first is that the narrator tells the story of the servant’s meeting with Rebekah, and then, in our text today, the servant himself recounts the meeting to Rebekah’s family. If you pay attention, you’ll notice that the servant changes some details. For example, the narrator says that he places the gold ring and bracelets on Rebekah before he finds out who she is. The servant, however, says that he first inquired about Rebekah’s family, and then gave her the gifts. This is important because we see the servant is making his case – he wants to be successful in his mission to bring Rebekah back as a wife for Isaac, and so he is going to try and sell the marriage hard. The second thing to note is that Rebekah’s father, Bethuel, is probably not in the picture anymore. Scholars point out that the one time he is mentioned, it is relatively late in the story and his name comes after Rebekah’s brother, Laban, in negotiating the marriage. This one mention is probably a gloss or a scribal error, and it is likely that Bethuel has already passed away by the time the servant arrives on the scene. The final thing is that Rebekah shows up to the spring almost immediately after the servant finishes his prayer. There is nothing to indicate that he has seen any of the other women, and when he sees Rebekah, we are told that, actually, she’s pretty easy on the eyes. So, is it a coincidence that she happens to be the one who fulfills the servant’s prayer? Could be, could be…

 

Now, with all of this background in mind, I’d like to share with you another story, and, if you will, imagine with me that this is an excerpt from a scroll recently-discovered in the Middle East. It reads as follows:

 

“My name is Rivkah. I was born in Nahor, in the land named after my grandfather. My father, Bethuel, died when I was very young, and I was raised by my mother and brother. I don’t remember much of my childhood, except that it was simple and I always got into a little too much mischief with my brother and sisters. As I got older, I began to take on more responsibilities, as is proper for a woman in Nahor. One of these daily tasks was to go and fetch water from the spring near evening. It was a time I looked forward to; I would always go a little earlier than the rest of the women so I could spend some time alone beside the calming waters. And so I was a little annoyed one day to find a stranger standing beside the spring with his camels and servants, watching me far too closely as I came down the hill. My plan was to draw my water and leave as quickly as possible, but as I stood up again, my jar full, he asked me for a drink. Of course, I could not refuse, but as I tipped my jar to give him a drink, I noticed that the camels he brought with him looked exhausted and very thirsty. Since this man, who apparently could not draw water for himself, probably wouldn’t draw water for his camels, either, I took it upon myself to water the poor beasts. After I had done this, the stranger gave me gifts – a gold nose ring, and two gold bracelets. I was taken aback by this amazing display of wealth, and I answered him freely when he asked whose daughter I was, and whether there was enough room in my father’s house for him and his men to stay the night. We pride ourselves on hospitality here in Nahor, and I could not refuse this man. On top of that, when my brother saw the gold ring and bracelets, he welcomed the stranger in immediately with open arms.

 

That’s how it happened; how I came to be where I am now. It all happened so fast. After the stranger came into our home, he explained that he was out to find a wife for his master, and that his god had chosen me. Me. I found myself unable to breathe as my brother – either unwilling to argue with this stranger’s god or, more likely, enticed by the promises of wealth the stranger brought – negotiated my own marriage contract. Too fast. It was all too fast. This man, Yitzac, my husband, sounded good on paper, but I had never met him before in person. Instead, he sends his servant to collect me. Well, after everything had been decided and the dowry paid, the man said he wanted to leave immediately. No time to stay and say goodbye to my family and friends; no time to relish one more moment alone by the spring of water. It almost seemed funny that they asked me then whether I would go with the man, as though I had any choice in the matter. Leave right then, or leave in a few days – what difference did it make? My family had already sold me to this Yitzac, and so I left.”

 

The story I just told is, as I imagine it, Rebekah’s version of the events surrounding her and Isaac’s marriage. We don’t often think about that when we read a text, do we? We don’t often ask whose voice seems to be missing. For example, in an argumentative essay, it is the opponent’s voice that is missing. In a story, especially a 1st person or close-3rd person story, it is the voices of the other characters. In history textbooks, it is often the losing side whose voice is missing. See, stories change based on who tells them; even stories where we would expect complete objectivity, stories about what actually happened. We’ve all experienced this, I imagine. Something happens, some misunderstanding, between us and a sibling or a friend, and we have our own version of the events that precipitated the misunderstanding and they have theirs. There are two sides to every story, as they say, although I would argue there are a lot more than that.

 

Consider this story from Laban’s perspective, for example – a brother, whose father has passed away too soon, struggling to take care of his mother and sisters in their patriarchal society. Suddenly his actions and his preoccupation with the wealth of Abraham’s servant make more sense. Or think about it from the perspective of Isaac – did he have any idea whatsoever that his father had sent his servant off to find him a wife? What does he think about his dad’s forwardness, or how does he feel about not being consulted on this arguably huge life decision?

 

Things do seem to turn out well for Isaac. He loves Rebekah, and she comforts him in the absence of his mother, Sarah. But we don’t quite get any information on how Rebekah feels about the marriage. We have to sort of imagine it. And while it may be easy to imagine marital bliss and mutual love and affection – indeed, this is most likely how the author intended us to imagine it, and, sure, it is definitely a possibility we can’t rule out – I think it is always helpful for us to imagine the less-easy, sometimes even difficult, alternative reading of a text. In this case, perhaps Rebekah wasn’t so thrilled to marry Isaac. In fact, perhaps she was downright terrified.

 

It seems I’m not the only one to notice this, either. I think it is interesting, and quite telling, that we see this tension between marital bliss and something a little more dark and sinister in Fanny Alexander’s 1854 poem, “Isaac and Rebekah.” In recounting the encounter between Rebekah and Abraham’s servant, she writes:

 

The desert’s burning breath I felt,
I heard the camel’s tinkling bell;
And when the faithful servant knelt
At even by the city well,
I saw his young lord’s destined bride –
A damsel very fair, and young –
Come tripping to the water side,
Her pitcher on her shoulder slung.

I marked his wonder, as the dew
She scattered round the fountain’s brink,
While in her courteous haste she drew
And gave the weary camels drink.
I watched what blushes bright and warm
To cheek and brow did instant spring,
When on the maiden’s delicate arm
He hung the heavy golden ring.

I saw the feast of welcome spread,
While loud he praised his master’s Lord;
I heard how well the wooing sped,
How gentle was the kinsman’s word,
Content – since God had willed it so,
That hand and heart the maid hath given,
And when she whispered, “I will go,”
They blessed her with the wealth of heaven.

Another eve – and Hebron lay
All flooded with a tender light –
The last tints of a rosy ray
That lingers somewhere out of sight, –
What time, the long day’s labour done,
Came Isaac from the green well-side
Out in the quiet fields alone
To meditate at eventide.

He saw afar the dust uprise,
The camel-driver’s song he heard;
But who is she that lifts her eyes
Then hides them, like a frightened bird?
A trembling thing with covered face
Into his mother’s tent he led,
And set her there, in Sarah’s place,
And loved her, and was comforted.

Sure such a tale, so sweet, so fair,
Around our hearts should linger long,
Familiar as a household air,
And soothing as a cradle song.
And we may learn of their meek ways,
Their trustful faith in heaven above,
Their calm of unambitious days,
Their simple truth, and modest love.*

 

Now, I cannot pretend to know exactly what Alexander intended when she wrote this poem – poems are funny like that. Nobody really knows what the author intended the poem to mean, often not even the author. The poem is meant to speak for itself. What I do see in this poem is a struggle between trying to feel what one is supposed to feel about this story and what nineteenth-century women – or, at least, Fanny Alexander – feel about Rebekah’s situation. Notice that in the poem Rebekah whispers her assent, and when she goes to meet Isaac she is described as a “frightened bird,” and “trembling.” Isaac is the one who loves her. Isaac is the one who is comforted. Is this really a “sweet, fair tale?” It could be. But without Rebekah’s voice, we will never know.

 

This, then, begs the question: what other voices are we missing? Who else has been silenced? Or who have we not been listening to? How many times have we, like Abraham’s servant, been deafened by our own mission or our conviction that God ordained that mission; that God is behind us in everything we do; and as a result we fail to listen to the very people we thought we were trying to help in the first place?

 

A few days ago, we celebrated our country’s Independence Day. We commemorated the day that the founding fathers of our country stuck it to the man, so to speak, that man being King George III. To us this day represents our country’s most highly treasured and esteemed ideal – freedom. A wonderful ideal, to be sure, and one that I believe God champions as well. But, like the Israelites, after we obtained our freedom from tyranny, we turned around and subjected others to the very same tyranny we despised so much, enslaving some and slaughtering quite a few others. Sadly, this is largely forgotten on Independence Day. We like to forget the mistakes that we have made; we tend to forget the voices that have been silenced – are currently being silenced – in the name of freedom. Now, I’m not saying the United States is a bad nation, or that we shouldn’t celebrate and be proud of our nation – please don’t hear that from me today. We live in a great nation, and we should be proud of that. I do think, however, that we would be a better nation if we remembered those voices, and listened to them. Rather than telling others what we think is best for them, perhaps it would be best to listen to what they have to say, really listen. Because when we start listening to each other instead of talking past each other; when we start thinking less about “what do I want – for me, for you, for them” and more about “what do they want for themselves;” that’s when we create space for the Spirit to work in us and to grow us, as individuals, as Christians, and yes, even as a nation.

 

Many of you may have noticed, about a month ago we got the opportunity to listen to some of those silenced voices. In the wake of the devastating UC Santa Barbara massacre, the YesAllWomen hashtag was born, and the digital world witnessed a great and powerful storytelling campaign. If you were not aware of this campaign and have no idea what I’m talking about, I sincerely encourage you to look it up when you get home. Essentially, thousands upon thousands of women opened up online to tell their stories of fear and frustration in the face of harassment and assault, reminding men everywhere that yes, all women undergo these kinds of experiences, regardless of whether or not all men harass or assault women. Today I would like to respectfully add one more story to the YesAllWomen campaign – Rebekah’s story. You see, in her time, yes, all women could potentially be whisked off to a strange land to marry a strange man, never to see their families again. Yes, all women were subject to the decisions of the men in their household – father, brothers, and husband. In sharing her story, I hope that we may add Rebekah’s to the long list of voices that, once forgotten, are now beginning to re-emerge. For it is only when we listen to these voices that we move forward as a society. Not when we get defensive. Not when we argue against them. Not when we just shut them out completely. Because God is not looking to protect our interests. God is looking to liberate the captives. God is looking to give voices to the silenced. Are we willing to listen?

 

 

*Alexander, Cecil Frances. “Isaac and Rebekah.” In Let Her Speak for Herself: Nineteenth-Century Women Writing on Women in Genesis, edited by Marion Ann Taylor and Heather E. Weir, 281-82. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2006.