Our Faith, Our Vote

our-faith-our-voteEmma Roller wrote recently in the NY Times that “The strongest bias in American politics is not a liberal bias or a conservative bias; it is a confirmation bias, or the urge to believe only things that confirm what you already believe to be true. Not only do we tend to seek out and remember information that reaffirms what we already believe, but there is also a ‘backfire effect,’ which sees people doubling down on their beliefs after being presented with evidence that contradicts them.”

Of course we all like to think we’re objective and try to hear all sides, but we know we have our biases and tendencies. All that can be shaped by where and how we were raised, our generation, the social and historical events that shaped us and by our own reading and study. I try to read widely, but I also know where I tend to gravitate. Look at our Facebook pages. We likely live in a bubble where most of our friends agree with us or have the same political outlook.

I’d like to think that as Christians, while recognizing our biases that we would also look to the scriptures for guidance in shaping our thinking. After all Jesus said we should love the Lord our God with “all our heart, soul, MIND, and strength.”

This election year is particularly difficult for people of faith who want to think Christianly about their vote. We have two deeply flawed candidates. One has tremendous experience and knowledge, but has made choices that skate close to felonious boundaries. The other is a person who doesn’t have a day of experience in public office, is a boor without an ethical center, and who proves to be deeply divisive. What do we do as Christians?

People have rightly said that they do not want politics from the pulpit, but what does that mean? What is a pastor to do when the scripture for the day clearly speaks to public policy or the great issues of the day? The Bible has a lot to say about the role of the church and the state to uplift the poor, for instance, so does the preacher ignore the fact that poverty is rising in this the richest nation on the planet? The Bible has a lot to say about the environment, sexual abuse, war and peace, and racism, as well as prayer, forgiveness, the use of our money, repentance and so on. Does the preacher stick his or her head in the sand and pretend that difficult issues don’t exist? Does he or she not broach them for fear of offending someone? (Remember, Jesus was pretty offensive at times!)

While some people don’t want to be troubled during a worship service, I do think most want to be challenged to think about hard questions from a Christian and biblical perspective. A helpful way to do this is to extract abiding principles and values from the scriptures and apply them to our changing context. We can talk about ideas, not people, looking at the strengths and weaknesses of various positions. Sometimes the best place to address difficult issues is in an adult education setting rather than the pulpit. The preacher does, after all, have an unfair advantage because you can’t talk back when he or she is perched up there!

A pastor is called to be the preacher and teacher of the flock and part of preaching includes the prophetic—addressing the issues of the day with a word from God. Most search committees I’ve ever met with want the preacher to relate the Bible to daily living and they grant freedom of the pulpit. When the Bible speaks to money, power, or politics, however, people sometimes bristle. “That’s not preachin’, that’s meddlin’,” they say. Our faith is personal, but it’s not private. God speaks to our public affairs as well as our personal lives.

It is my conviction that we should bring our religious convictions about all moral issues to the pulpit and the public square – such as the uplifting of the poor, the protection of the environment, the ethics of war, protecting our children from the coarseness of the media, or creating an economy where all prosper. We need not do that, however, by attacking the sincerity of other people’s faith, or demanding that we should win because we alone are right or righteous. Remember, sin runs through every human heart—liberal, moderate, or conservative, Republican or Democrat—and we all have our blind spots. We must make moral arguments and mobilize effective movements for social change that can powerfully persuade our fellow citizens, religious or not, on what is best for the common good.

I invite you to ponder these questions and think about them when you go into the voting booth on Tuesday and how you want to be challenged by your next pastor on the great issues of the day.

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God in the Voting Booth

Selected Scripture /25th Sunday after Pentecost / Year “A”/November 6, 2016

faith-elections-16-blog-banner-largerCome with me back to 1729. The pastor at Tewksbury Congregational Church likely preached an election day sermon as did our Puritan forebears.  They would speak about the call to national righteousness and the obligations of lawmakers to obey God’s law. Martin Luther exhorted pastors to “whisper the law of God into the magistrates ear.” The pastor would often endorse a candidate as Jeremiah Bellamy, pastor of First Parish in Dover, NH, did for George Washington. Bellamy was the chaplain to patriot soldiers and was a huge booster of the revolution.

I suspect if I did that today, or any of our pastors, we’d be job hunting. Yet God does have a sure word about our politics and our elections. As Christians we profess Jesus as Lord and that should include every area of our lives—including the personal, social, religious, economic, and political. But how can Christ be Lord of our politics? That is a question basic to the concerns of American Christians as we go to the polls on Tuesday.  The simple answer is that we submit our politics to the risen Lord by weighing every political issue in the light of scripture.

But that raises at least two tough problems.  First, the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, was written for a theocracy some 3,000 years ago and the New Tes­ta­ment was written for the church in a pluralistic society some 2,000 years ago.  So how can one apply biblical teaching to secular society in the 21st century?

Sec­ond, there is no detailed political or economic blueprint in the bi­ble regardless of what the religious right or the progressive left may tell you. The Bible won’t tell us if we should have an excise tax on snow tires or what kind of health care plan we should have. So how can a Christian determine which political views are more biblical?

Certainly the first application of both testaments is to the people of God.  But the scriptures clearly teach that God al­so cares about and judges nations.  The nations of this earth will not answer to you or to me, but to the risen Christ, the Lamb of God.  The lamb is the lamp of the city of God.  “The na­tions will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it” (Rev. 21: 22-22:2).  The Old Testament ap­plied the same standards to surrounding nations, like Babylon, as it did for Israel.  God’s standards for justice are universal.

The second problem is also complex. There is no chapter and verse to tell us which candidate should be president.  There is no text that contains a blueprint for the in­ter­national economic order in the 2000s.  But that does not mean that Christians should derive their economic and political views entirely from secular theories.  There are prin­cip­les from scripture, Christian tradition and scholarship that have profound importance for our politics.

What then, are some of these principles?  I will sketch out five principles, and I mean sketch, each of which is worthy of a sermon, for your con­sideration.

The first principle is respect for human life.  Every person is created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27) and Christ died for all people (1 Tim. 2: 4, 6; 2 Pet. 3:9).  Therefore, ev­­ery person is im­measurably valuable and sacred. The value of each in­div­id­­ual is in­dependent of his or her social usefulness. Christian peo­ple cannot remain silent when modern society forgets the val­­ue of each individual–as when it neglects the mentally handicapped and aged, the immigrant, practices racial, religious or sexual discrimination, condones torture, or escalating abortion rates.

People of good will disagree about when an unborn child has moral and legal standing, for instance, but I think many will agree that reducing the number of abortions by providing quality sexuality education, supporting women with crisis pregnancies, encouraging adoption, and caring as intensely for life after birth as before birth is a step in the right direction.

Second, God has a special concern for the poor.  Scripture teach­es that God has a unique concern for the poor and the op­pressed.  If you were to take a pair of scissors and clip out ev­ery passage in the bible that speaks of God’s concern for the wid­ow, the orphan, the poor, the oppressed, the prisoner, the disenfranchised—by the end of that exercise, your bible would look like Swiss cheese. What was Jesus mission? As we read today:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, to pro­claim release to the captives, the recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are op­pres­sed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord”  (Lk. 4: 16 ff).

Therefore God also commands the people of God to have a deep concern for the poor.  “Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court” (Prov. 22:22).  Lead­ers must be sensitive to the poor and have a strong com­mit­ment to seek justice for them.  The Proverb promises, “If a king judges the poor with equity, his throne will be estab­lished for­ever” (29:14).

And this is not simply having food banks, shelters, and health clinics, but also addressing the structures that cause poverty and keep people in poverty. As Dom Helder Camera, Brazilian Roman Catholic Archbishop during the military regime there, put it: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

Third, God requires economic justice.  The starting point of Christian teaching on economics is that God is sovereign, God reigns.  God is the only absolute owner of all things. (Ps. 24: 1, Job 38; Lev. 25:23). God wants the earth’s resources to ben­e­fit everyone.

Throughout scripture, God commands and guides the peo­ple to carry out programs of economic sharing. Those who can­not work are to be cared for and those who can should have access to the resources to earn a decent living. (Lev. 25: 10-24; Deut. 14: 28-29; 15: 1-6).  The one who is sovereign over econ­om­ics requires economic patterns that offer all people the op­portunity to earn a living in fulfilling work.

In ancient Israel landowners were not to glean their fields at the edges or pick up wheat or corn or vegetables they dropped when harvesting. They were for the poor. Debts were forgiven every 25 years and land reverted back to the original family owners. Money was to be lent at no interest.

Fourth, God requires Christians to be peacemakers.  God’s will is shalom–right relationships with God, neighbor, and all cre­ation. It not only means peace as in the absence of conflict, but fully unpacked the word further means flourishing, abundance, and wholeness. God’s intention in Christ is “to reconcile to himself all things whether on earth or heaven” (Col. 1:20).  As followers of Christ, we must join in the task of building signs now of that com­ing shalom.  We must work to restore broken relation­ships, seeking repentance, forgiveness, and restitution to move for­ward toward wholeness in our communities, our nation, and our world.

Christians look forward to the time when “nation shall not lift up sword earlyvotingagainst nation neither shall they learn war any more” (Micah 4:3).  Many Christians believe they should, as the lesser of evils, engage in just wars for the sake of pre­ser­v­­ing some order in a fallen world.  Similar arguments are made on the personal level for “just abortion,” in a less than per­fect world.

Other Christians believe that war and the taking of human life under any circum-stances is contrary to the teach­ing of Christ and that he calls us to overcome our en­em­ies with suffering love rather than with weapons. Regardless, Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the peacemakers” are urgent in our time (Mt. 5:9).

Fifth, the Creator requires stewardship of creation.  “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness within it,” the Psalmist says (24:1). In the creation story God places human beings in charge of this cre­a­tion, saying, “Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over the cattle and ov­er all the earth” (Gen. 1:26).  For generations we have justified polluting our land, water and sky in the name of having dominion over the earth. Because of our abuse of the environment the planet is heating up and the climate is changing. 97% of scientists when surveyed agree that global temperatures have increased during the past 100 years; 84% say they personally believe human-induced warming is occurring, and 74% agree that “currently available scientific evidence” substantiates its occurrence.

What in fact has happened is domination. In the past 50 years scripture scholars went scurrying back to their Bibles and said, “Wait a minute. We got it wrong.” The word for “dominion” is used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible to refer to the role of a king.  And Israel’s view of king­ship is stri­kingly different from the domineering views of kingship in surrounding pagan societies.  According to OT scholar William Dryness, king­ship means that “Israel’s king is to rule as a brother over brothers and sisters.”

Do­minion, there­fore, is not domina­tion.  On the con­trary, humanity was given the respon­sibil­ity of upholding, pro­tecting, and pre­­serving the creation.  To be good stew­ards does not mean that we can manipulate property that is ours, but that we manage property that is God’s.  Such a high calling requires each generation to protect the environment and preserve the quality of life for future gen­erations. We are stewards of God’s good gift.

These are only five principles that I think can be culled from the scriptures and are vitally important today. I could have also added universal human rights, freedom of political and religious expression, personal integrity, and so on. Unfortunately, no candidate for public office will perfectly embody a commitment to any of these principles.   Human politics will at best be an approximation to God’s vision for society. As Christians, however, in this time of polarized politics, we should reject the false choices between personal re­sponsibility or social justice; between good values or good jobs; between strong families or strong neigh­borhoods; between sexual morality or civil rights for homosexuals; between the sanctity of unborn life or the rights of women; between fighting cultural corrosion or battling racial and economic injustice.  Life is more complex than bumper sticker slogans and we should present a “third way.”

Many of us care deeply about moral values and the breakdown of family life. We feel the erosion of personal responsibility and character in our neighborhoods and nation. But we also believe that social responsibility is at the heart of our faith, that racism and sexism are also sins, and that the best test of a nation’s righteousness is not its gross national product and military firepower but, according to the prophets, how it treats the poorest and most vulnerable.

How we apply these principles Tuesday will depend on our own experiences,vote convictions, and social location. We will come out in different places. But by all means please remember to take God into the voting booth with you and that ultimately, God is still the governor of human affairs.

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All Our Sorrows, All Our Griefs

Psalm 6 and Selected Scripture

griefI would like to assert a proposition this morning and see if you agree with me. The proposition is this: most of life is loss, and, paradoxically, gain.  When we think of loss we usually think of the loss of someone we love through death.  But loss is far more encompassing than death.  We lose not only through death, but also by leaving and being left, by changing and letting go and moving on. And our losses include not only our separation and departures from those we love, but our conscious and unconscious losses of romantic dreams, impossible expectations, illusions of freedom and power, illusions of safety–and the loss of our own younger self, the self that thought it always would be unwrinkled and invulnerable and immortal.

Judith Viorst catalogs what she calls “necessary losses” in her book by the same name.  We confront these losses when we come face to face with the “inescapable fact,” she writes:

 That our mother’s love can never be ours alone; that what hurts us cannot always be kissed and made better; that we will have to accept–in other people and our­selves–the mingling of love with hate, of the good with the bad;  that there are flaws in every human connection; that our status on this planet is implacably impermanent; and that we are utterly powerless to offer ourselves or those we love protection–protection from danger and pain, protection from the inroads of time, from the coming of age, from the coming of death; protection from our necessary losses.

My proposition this morning is that loss is a part of life–universal, unavoidable, inexorable. It is the great irony of life, however, that some of our greatest growth comes by losing and leaving and letting go. We gain by giving up.

This irony is woven into the fabric of life. Jesus knew all about it. Isaiah said of the Messiah that he was a man of sor­rows and well-ac­quainted with grief. “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies,” he said, “It remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (Jn. 12: 24) “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mk. 8:35).

The Psalmists, too, were people all too familiar with loss and grief and we are for­tunate enough to have a record of their suffer­ings be­fore us today. They offer us prayers when we have no words. They speak feelings we aren’t yet able to feel. They give us emotional resources when we are drained.  And in them we discover the God of our losses.

Psalm 6 is one of those. This is the first of the seven so-called “penitential Psalms.”  We are not certain of the histori­cal circum­stances of the Psalm, but it is set close to Psalm 3 which was written when David was on the run from his rebellious son Absalom. This is called a Psalm of peni­tence because David Grief 2was sorry for something that he had done. If this is in fact a Psalm written while hiding from his son Absalom, there is good reason why David should feel penitent.  Da­vid both spoiled and indulged this son so that there was no personal disci­pline in him, but he also neglected him because he was so absorbed in his career as king. When Absalom led a mutiny against his father, David saw the direct consequences of hav­ing led an undis­ciplined life and raising an unruly son and he was sorry.

Jesus wept for those who were not sorry. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” he cried, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children to­gether as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Mt. 23: 37).  While it is not healthy to dwell on our sins, faults, and short­comings, it is even unhealthier to deny they are there. Blessed are those who mourn over their lost innocence and are sorry for their failings, for they shall be comforted.

Even if we aren’t sure of the historical circumstances of this Psalm, it surely is a description of one who is grieving deeply. David lays all of his raw emotions out before God: “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping.  My eyes waste away because of grief; they grow weak be­cause of all my foes.”  Here is a man who has gone to pieces. Depression and exhaus­tion are his compan­ions. In­stead of rousing him to arms, his foes now crush his spirit. He can’t even pray; he just sobs.

CryingWhat good advice that is for us today. Sometimes the message we get from society is to suck it up, don’t be so emotional, be strong, get over it. Yes, sometimes we do have to suck it up, but in the face of deep, deep loss we should open the tear spigots. Let it out. Soak your pillow. Tears are your body’s release valve for stress, sadness, grief, anxiety, and frustration. Also, you can have tears of joy, say when a child is born or tears of relief when a difficulty has passed. “Tear expert” Dr. William Frey says that emotional tears shed stress hormones and other toxins from the body which accumulate during stress. Additional studies also suggest that crying stimulates the production of endorphins, our body’s natural pain killer and “feel-good” hormones.” So cry. Cry because life isn’t fair. Cry because death is cruel. Cry because it doesn’t make any sense. Cry because God cries with you and can take all of your anguish, anger, and confusion.

All grief comes to us be­cause of loss. David had lost face, his son, his health was fad­ing, the glory days of his kingdom were gone, his self-confidence was shot, and his relationship with God was withering.

light at the end of the tunnelOne modern author lists at least forty-two occasions when we exper­ience loss in our lives. Not only the obvious ones like death or divorce, but also the loss of trust in a mar­riage or friend­ship, the loss of a role (parent, doc­tor, wife, executive), the loss that comes in moving, the loss of a breast, the loss of faith in something, whether God or dem­ocracy brings us to our knees. Leaving home for first grade is a loss for mom and dad as well as the child. Going to college, getting married, having your first child, retiring, are all great losses as well as great gains. For in each of these transitions we have to say good bye to something–a way of life, of being, or doing–that we can never have again. They are heart cries for our true home. Deep inside we know that there should be more than death, separa­tion, loss. Khalil Gibran wise­ly said, “When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”

The shortest and most revealing verse in the bible re­fers to tears. “Jesus wept.”  When he lost his good friend Lazarus, Jesus wept. Jesus wept that our common enemy death had claimed another. He wept that a worthwhile life ended too soon. He wept because this is not the way things are supposed to be. He wept because it brought him face to face with his own mortality. He wept at how much it hurt.

The Christian Story teaches us that this is a fallen world. The book of Genesis teaches us that we live in “Paradise Lost.” We are not exempt from cancer or car accidents or natural disasters. We sin and are sinned against. That’s just the way it is. But the story doesn’t end there: God in Christ died for the sins of the world. God took the judgment that was due sin into the divine heart and did not count it against us. I rejoice that no matter what I ever do or ever will do or who I am or ever will be, I am assured of God’s mercy. In the cross I see that God “so loved the world” that God will not abandon us to ourselves.

The word of hope is that we do not have a sphinx for a God who stares at us with a pitiless gaze, immune to our suffer­ing. We have a God who in Jesus Christ has undergone human life as we undergo it; who knows what it’s like to be sick and tired, hassled and hated; who knows what it’s like to lose a father and a friend; who knows what it’s like to be misunder­stood and misinter­preted; who knows what it’s like to suffer abuse and mistreatment for doing good.

isaiah-534-carries-griefs-bears-our-sorrowsThis God suffered the judgment, if you will, of being finite and human. Consequently, this God is the companion of those who suffer.  Jesus was victimized that there might be victims no more, for in defiance of all evil and suffering he rose from the dead, as if to say, “No! This is not my will! Your pain is my pain and I will overcome it!” As God stands with sufferers, so should we and do all we can to eliminate unnecessary suffering. “Surely he took up our infirmi­ties and carried our sor­rows” (Is. 53: 4a).

As you read this Psalm you can’t help but see that its pages are stained with tears. Tears can drive us to God. In the midst of depression, the Psalmist writes, “My tears have been my food day and night.”  Yet he says, “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of my God?” (42: 2-3).  And what do we discover when we come to God in our grief? “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your record?” (57: 8).  Yes they are.  And dear David is able to say with the glimmers of faith, forgiveness, and courage, “De­part from me, all you workers of evil, for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping. The Lord has heard my supplica­tion; the Lord accepts my prayer.”

Here’s another word of advice take the time to work through loss and. Don’t beat yourself up. Don’t let others guilt trip or shame you with lame advice. “You aren’t over that yet?” “C’mon, it’s time to move on.” “Time heals all things.” “It was his time.” “God moves in a mysterious way.” And blah, blah, blah. These folks mean well, but they sound like Job’s comforters.

Tractor stuck in mudThere was once a boy out plowing in the field when his tractor got stuck in the mud. A farmer came by and saw his predicament. They rocked the tractor, changed gears rapidly from first to reverse while pressing on the gas trying to dislodge it, they used chains and a winch. Nothing worked. The boy was so discouraged he just sat down in the mud. The farmer came by and sat down next to him. The boy asked, “What are you doing?” The farmer said, “Well if I can’t fix it I might as well sit in the mud with you.” We can’t fix grief or loss for another. The best thing you can do is sit in the mud with them.

As you come to God this morning, come with all your losses, all your griefs, knowing that God has felt them all. Come knowing that nothing can separate you from the love of God which is ours in Christ Jesus. Come knowing that at that Great day of Resurrection there will be no more weeping or sighing.



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Dad Duty

Genesis 48: 1-11 and Selected Scripture

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Fathers’ Day

Grandfather and grandsonWhen I was growing up my grandfather always let his granddaughters to crawl into his lap, but never his grandsons. He told us that he wanted us to make his so proud that we’d “make the buttons pop off his vest.” We got the lectures about the need to work hard, tell the truth, respect your parents, and keep your hair cut short. The day of the funeral of my three year old brother Bobby, we were gathered in the living room when he broke down and started to cry. We were all ushered out of the room because the children shouldn’t see their grandfather cry.

He also had a soft side. Once a year we would have a “Grandpa No Day,” which meant G’pa couldn’t say no to anything we asked him. One year he took my brother, cousin and I to Canobie Lake Park. My grandmother pack a whole loaf of bread of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a bag of chips, and a box of Devil Dogs (my favorite). There was no limit on what we could eat nor the number of rides we went on.

My dad was much the same way. He showed little affection accept when we were little and played “pig pile” or did fake wrestling. The way he would show love was by doing things for us—like putting a new muffler on my car when I couldn’t afford it. When he was on his death bed I went up to the ICU room where he was on a ventilator. There was something I had to know before he died. I said, “Dad, I know there have been rough times in our relationship and we’ve had our ups and downs, but there’s something I need to know. I don’t think I’ve ever heard you tell me that you love me. Do you?” And through his ventilator and all the hook ups in that hospital bed he shook his head vigorously, Yes. And that made all the difference.

Were my father and grandfather mean-spirited, men without feeling, or simply clueless?  I don’t think they were any of those things (though maybe the latter), but they were shaped by the culture they were raised in. Once upon a time, it used to be easy. The categories were neat and tidy. Everyone knew their job and their place. Men initiated, women respond­ed. Men made the money, women cared for the children. Women nurtured the home and family, men took care of the house and yard. Men were stoic and unemotional, women were sentimental and emotion­al. Men sowed their wild oats, women were chaste. Men were leaders, women were followers. But the rules have changed in the past three to four decades. The categories don’t fit.

Sociologists estimate that there are as many as 2 million stay-at-home dads in the US right now. And fathers as a whole – stay-at-home dads or otherwise – spend almost as much time with their children as mothers do. Men do laundry, cook dinner, buy groceries, and drop the kids off at soccer practice (though in the studies I read women always think their husbands overestimate what they actually do.) Meanwhile, women write legal briefs, run for office, work construction equipment, and direct corporate mergers.

In spite of these advances there are strong cultural cues, maps, messages, whatev­er you want to call them, that are sent to men and boys in our society today (as well as women). Despite cultural norms, acting like men doesn’t mean being macho, arrogant, overbearing, rude, or harsh. That’s immaturity and, well, sin. Men, Christian men, are to love and serve through controlled strength. The power of godly men is shaped through the liberating work of Christ in our hearts and lives.

This morning I want to take a brief look at a father in the Book of Genesis who faced similar pressures that we do, but in an entirely different cultural setting.  His name is Jacob.  The Bible says that there is nothing new under the sun, and Jacob experienced many of the same tensions that father’s face today.

Jacob and Esau First, there was the reality of Jacob’s imperfection.  Jacob did not have a great reputation as a young man.  One day in his youth he was out barbecuing some beef tips when his older twin brother, Esau, came in from an unsuccessful hunt, famished.  The aroma from those tips cooking smelled great to a ravenous hunter, and Esau begged for a plate full.  Jacob said, “I’ll give you some, but it will cost you something.  Namely, your birthright.”  Esau said, “What good is a birthright if a man dies of starvation?”  Jacob got his deal, but it was a raw deal.

Sometime later Jacob cheated Esau again, this time out of his inheritance.  It was the custom that the older son would receive a double portion of the father’s estate when the father died.  So Jacob, with his mother’s help, disguised himself as his older brother and manipulated his blind father into guaranteeing him the inheritance.  That would be the equivalent of making someone sign a will under duress today. When Esau learned what had happened, he was furious and he vowed that he would kill his brother when his dad died and then Esau would get it all.  So, Jacob fled for his life.

Jacob’s reputation in the land of Canaan was one of a schemer, a con man, somebody not to be trusted.  That’s the kind of reputation most fathers want to prevent their children from learning about.  Jacob did not have an untarnished reputation, and the sons knew about it. Most of you know some things about your dads that were or are imperfect.  Maybe he was prejudiced or greedy or a heavy drinker or a womanizer.  Or maybe he was insensitive, a work-a-holic, or had outbursts of anger. When you first discovered those flaws you were disillusioned. But be realistic. There’s no perfect father.  I’ll also bet for many of us that was never the whole story. You also remember your dad as kind and compassionate, as the one who went to your sporting events with you or was maybe your coach. He taught you how to change the oil on your car and balance your checkbook. He felt badly for you when you broke up with your first girlfriend. So don’t have an unrealistic standard but a balanced one.

Another tension of being a father is not repeating the shortcomings of your dad, even if your dad was essentially a good and decent person.  You’ve heard the cliché, “Like father, like son.”  But there are some areas where we might like to do just the opposite of what our fathers did.  For example, maybe your father was not a good handler of money and you’ve decided to learn from his mistake and to be more careful in how you spend yours.  My dad was never that affectionate around my mother or with his kids.  I decided that was something I missed growing up, so I try to show a lot of affection to Peggy and my kids.

Another tension Jacob faced was in providing for his family.  In an agrarian society, he was the chief breadwinner. In our day, both husbands and wives work and share the load, but dads, for any number of reasons, still feel the pressure to provide an income. God blessed Jacob, and he became rich. Genesis 30: 43 says, “Jacob grew exceedingly prosperous and came to own large flocks, and maid-servants and menservants, and camels and donkeys.”  He promised God that he would give back a tenth of everything he made, and he was generous with his sons.

But famine hit the land, and Jacob became desperate.  He had eleven sons and a number of daughters and grandchildren.  In fact, the Bible tells us that Jacob felt responsible for the 66 people in his clan.  When this severe famine came, he sent his son to Egypt to buy grain so that he could find some way to sustain his family.

That’s a strain that fathers can feel today. With the downsizing of many corporations, new skills being required and technology replacing human labor, there are a lot of dads who live with the constant pressure to try to make ends meet–especially if they are the chief bread winner.  For good or for ill, men, perhaps more than women, can draw much of their identity from their work and livelihood.  It feels demeaning if we can’t provide for our families with their needs and wants or if our job is at risk.

One of the best ways to help relieve that stress is to be prudent in your spending and to be supportive.  If your family is well off financially, express gratitude.  Don’t take it for granted, because every dad wants to be a hero in his children’s eyes.  But if your father is like most of us and has to struggle to make ends meet, learn to be content with what you have.  Tell him thanks for working so hard to take care of you. And occasionally take dad out to eat or to a movie or get him something nice–instead of asking for twenty bucks to go out yourself.

I know there are many exceptions to this where mom is the chief bread winner and dad is quite secure making less or being a stay at home dad. So the same principles can apply to mom and to the whole family: express gratitude, support one another, and spend wisely.

Joseph blessing his sonsThe greatest challenge Jacob may have faced was that of trying to be a positive influence in his home.  Even though Jacob was imperfect, he tried to be a spiritual guide to his family. Even though he was an old man and his sons were grown, Jacob called all twelve of his sons, and he blessed them individually.  He said, “Rueben, you’re going to excel in power and honor.  Judah, your brothers are going to praise you, and your enemies are going to be conquered by you.  Dan, you’re going to provide justice to people.  Asher, your food is going to be rich.”  One by one he blessed his children.  With all the imperfections in this family, these twelve sons became heads of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Christian fathers feel an urgency to be a spiritual influence on their children, and that’s good and right. But it’s also hard because we worry about opioids and guns in school, sexting, bullying and youth suicide and all those things that are countering the values we want to impart.  We don’t always know how to bless our children and keep them walking

Gary Smalley wrote a book some time ago called The Blessing in which he encouraged modern fathers to pass a spiritual blessing on to their children.  He said that it’s more than taking them to church or praying with them at meals and bedtime or setting a good example.  He talks about five practical ways to pass on a blessing.

Number oneTouch is a meaningful touch.  Jacob embraced and kissed and laid his hands on his sons and grandchildren.  By giving a hug or a touch or an arm around the shoulder or butterfly kisses or nuggies, we communicate love and a blessing to our kids.  We let them know that we like them, that they are valuable, that they are worthy of touching.

Professional golfer Greg Norman had a reputation for intimidating his opponents with his ice-cold stoicism. He learned his hard-nosed tactics from his father. “I used to see my father, getting off of a plane or something, and I’d want to hug him,” he recalled once. “But he’d only shake my hand.”

After leading the 1996 Master’s golf tournament from the start, Norman blew a six-shot lead in the last round losing to rival Nick Faldo. In a Sports Illustrated article about the occasion, Rick Reilly writes,

Now, as Faldo made one last thrust into Norman’s heart with a fifteen-foot birdie putt on the seventy-second hole, the two of them came toward each other, Norman trying to smile, looking for a handshake and finding himself in the warmest embrace instead. As they held that hug, held it even as both of them cried, Norman changed just a little. ‘I wasn’t crying because I’d lost,’ Norman said the next day. ‘I’ve lost golf tournaments before. I’ll lose a lot more. I cried because I’d never felt that from another man before. I’ve never had a hug like that in my life.’

Touch your kids.

Second, Smalley says we pass on a blessing through verbal affirmation Children long to hear their dads say, “I’m proud of you.”  “You’ve done that well.”  “I love you.”  One psychologist said the greatest gift we can give to our kids is the knowledge that there is someone who is absolutely nuts about them.

Another sports story. Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene once asked Michael Jordan why he wanted his father to be in the stands during a game. Jordan replied, “When he’s there, I know I have at least one fan.” Can you imagine? Has any athlete had any more fans than Michael Jordan?  Even the great Michael Jordan needs loving, emotional, loyal support from his dad. We all need regular reminders that others are behind us even when we aren’t at our best.

Third, we pass along a blessing by attaching value To bless means to honor.   We honor our children by letting them know that they are valuable to us–they’re the most important people in the world to us.  That means we sacrifice time for them.  That means we look them in the eye when we talk to them, and we stop and listen to them.  We apologize when we’re wrong.  We have high standards for them and hold them responsible for their lives.

It is said of Boswell, the famous biographer of Samuel Johnson that he often referred to a special day in his childhood when his father took him fishing. The day was fixed in his mind, and he often reflected upon the many things his father had taught him in the course of their fishing trip together.

After hearing about that particular excursion so often, it occurred to someone that it might be interesting to check the journal Boswell’s father kept to see the incident from a parental perspective. Turning to that date, the reader found this short entry: “Gone fishing today with my son; a day wasted.”  What you may think is a day wasted, a child may experience as a life-affirming moment.

Man on top of mountain

The fourth way we pass along a blessing is by picturing a positive future for them Jacob pronounced a positive future on Rueben and Judah and Dan and Asher and the others.  We can bless our children by attaching high value to their gifts and then picturing for them a positive future.  “You’re really good with people.  You’d make a great counselor some day.”  “The way you love animals, you’d be a good veterinarian.”  “You want to be a firefighter.  That means you’re courageous.”  “The way you love church, you’re going to be a great leader in the church some day.”

The fifth way that Gary Smalley says we bless our children is by an active commitment.  It’s not enough to speak the words.  There has to be willingness in the parents to sacrifice for the child, to pray with them and for them, to spend time in helping develop their gifts, to spend money for lessons and for higher education.

Truth be told, many men still find it difficult to do some of those things and to verbalize how they’re feeling and to pass along a blessing.  A spouse can sometimes help Dad do that by communicating to the children what he says to you in private and to encourage him to tell them to their face.  My dad, for instance, was a home grown Yankee with all the characteristic traits.  He found it hard to talk about his feelings, especially with his kids.  My brother and I were working on some project together and he said to me, “You know what Dad said about you last night?”  And I thought, Oh brother, what smart Alec remark might that have been.  “He said, ‘ya know the thing I love about Norm is that he can take a sack of manure and tell you it smells like a bed of roses.’”  I never knew my Dad felt that way about me.  And I’ve never forgotten that.  Dads, tell your kids what they mean to you.

And kids if your dad does something right or if you appreciate something about him, tell him.  He’ll act like it’s nothing, but I guarantee you, he’ll remember it the rest of his life.  You have no idea how much your father loves you, although it might be difficult to express at times.

So fathers, bless your children. And children bless your fathers. In so doing we will be blessing God. Amen.

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Follow Me

Youth Sunday

come follow meWhenever we turn on our computer or TV we see Donald Trump, Hilary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders are asking us to follow me. If we do so we’ll have world peace, better healthcare, high wages, the end of terrorism, split ends, back pain, premature balding, and back talking kids. But if you’re going to follow someone, you better be sure they know where they’re going.

Once Yogi Berra was driving to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York with some other players. After passing the same landmark three times Joe Garagiola said “Yogi, you’re lost” and he replied: Yeah, I know it. But we’re making good time, ain’t we?

Today we’re focusing on following Jesus and I want to discuss four things we need to know before we follow someone.

TRUSTWORTHYFirst, anyone who says “follow me” needs to be trustworthy. Jesus certainly was that. He kept his commitment to his disciples after he asked them, “follow me.” He taught them, he loved them, he got irritated with them, but didn’t give up on them and he made them “fishers of people.” He kept his faith even when he was in distress praying in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross when he cried out to God. He completed his mission by proclaiming the kingdom of God was near and bringing people to God and God to people. The kingdom of God, very simply, is the rule or reign of God over all, tenderly shepherding, superintending and guiding heaven, earth, the cosmos, and all this is.

There are many followers of Jesus who made a huge difference in this world. I think of William Wilberforce (1759-1833), an English parliamentarian who dedicated his entire life to abolishing of the slave trade on the British Isles or Dietrich Bonheoffer (1906-1945), German theologian and clergyman, paid with his own life for daring to stand up to Adolf Hitler at a time when most German Christians were applauding the Fuehrer. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968), US Civil Rights leader led a movement that brought closer the American society across its racial divides. Mother Teresa (1910-1997), an ethnic Albanian nun with a global impact, brought hope and love to millions of the outcast in India and the world. They were the true “salt and the light of the world” — Matt. 5:13-16.

roadsSecond, anyone who says follow me is going someplace. We need direction. Jesus knew where he was going. In his ministry he had a strategy. He went to Galilee and Capernaum, to the Sea of Galilee, and to many different villages and hamlets where the poor, working folks, and everyday families lived. Ultimately he went to Jerusalem where the political and religious leaders killed him because he was shaking things up. But Jesus surprised them—he rose from the dead and showed the world that love was stronger than hate, forgiveness was stronger that judgment, and life was stronger than death.

Third, anyone who says follow me is more interested in the future than in the past. Jesus brings an announcement that “the kingdom of God has come near.” “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’” (Mark 1:14-15). The old dispensation of sacrifice and following the Law is gone.

The kingdom of God, Jesus said, would be like a tiny mustard seed growing into a large bush; when it comes in its fullness the wolf would line down with the lamb, everyone would have enough water would run clear, and there would be a new heaven on earth. The promise to Abraham would be fulfilled—the people of God would be more numerous than the stars of a night sky.

The futureLastly, anyone who says follow me has given us a standard by which we can measure ourselves. After Jesus washed his disciple’s feet at the Last Supper, he said: “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you,” John 15:13. He set a high standard to serve others as he had served them. He gave us the Golden Rule, the Great Commandment to love God and our neighbor and the Great Commission to go into all the world to preach and teach the Gospel. He set an example for us with a life of prayer, trust, friendship, kindness and ferocity. You see when God measures a person’s character, God puts a tape measure around our hearts, not our head.

There are also people in our church who teach us to follow Jesus—it might be your Sunday School teacher, a confirmation mentor, maybe even your parents or your minister! Anyone who is a Christian that you would like to be like is a good example to follow.

Let me close with this story. The Navy Seal’s were performing a covert operation, freeing hostages from a building in some dark part of the world. The team flew in by helicopter, made their way to the compound and stormed into the room where the hostages had been imprisoned for months. The room was filthy and dark. The hostages were curled up in a corner, terrified. When the SEALs entered the room, they heard the gasps of the hostages. They stood at the door and called to the prisoners, telling them they were Americans. The SEALs asked the hostages to follow them, but the hostages wouldn’t. They sat there on the floor and hid their eyes in fear. They were not of healthy mind and didn’t believe their rescuers were really Americans.

Navy SealsThe SEALs stood there, not knowing what to do. They couldn’t possibly carry everybody out. One of the SEALs got an idea. He put down his weapon, took off his helmet, and curled up tightly next to the other hostages, getting so close his body was touching some of theirs. He softened the look on his face and put his arms around them. He was trying to show them he was one of them. None of the prison guards would have done this. He stayed there for a little while until some of the hostages started to look at him, finally meeting his eyes. The Navy SEAL whispered that they were American and were there to rescue them. Will you follow us? he said. The hero stood to his feet and one of the hostages did the same, then another, until all of them were willing to go. At the end, all the hostages safe on an American aircraft carrier.

Jesus is our rescuer becoming like us, crouching beside us in our brokenness, putting his arm around our shoulder, and asking us to follow him.


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The Still Small Voice

I Kings 19: 9-18

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost / June 20, 2010

JezebelOnce upon a time in a land far away called Israel, there was an evil king by the name of Omri. Omri had been a commander of the Israeli army and became the first king of Israel after the nation divided into two kingdoms. He established a new capital named Samaria and worshipped false gods. He made his son Ahab king. He also arranged for his son to marry a wicked woman by the name of Jezebel from the land of Sidon, which was along the coast. She wore lots of heavy makeup with blue eye shadow that she smeared on her eyelids. Lots of bangle bracelets and other cheap jewelry. This marriage of convenience gave Israel access to the ocean for trade and travel.  Jezebel worshipped the false god Baal and Ahab soon followed. He set up altars and sacred poles to worship Baal, which really ticked Yahweh off. This was the name faithful Jews gave God. Ahab was so evil that he even sacrificed two sons to Baal.

During Ahab’s rule, Yahweh raised up a prophet called Elijah the Tishbite and sent him to give the word to Ahab. “Hey Ahab,” Elijah said. “You talkin’ to me?” said Ahab. “Yah, I’m talkin’ to you. Knock off this vile stuff you’re doin’!” “Yah, and if I don’t, what are you gonna do about it?” “What am I gonna do about it? How about shuttin’ up the sky for three years so there’s not a drop of rain? God says, ‘Knock it off or that’s exactly what will happen.” “I dare ya. In fact, I double-dare ya.” So, it stopped raining for three years.

Now this meant something in those days besides the crops not growing. You see, Baal was the storm god. He was the one who sent rain and gave life. When there was a drought it was presumed that Baal was dead. When there was rain, it was assumed that Baal was alive and that death had been defeated. So when Elijah made the rains stop, it was a sign that his god was stronger than Baal.

So, during the drought, Yahweh had Elijah go off into the wilderness and hide out for three years. Over time, there was a severe drought in Israel and eventually Yahweh told Elijah to go back to Ahab to see if he was ready to listen. When Ahab saw Elijah he said, “Yo, Elijah. Whaddya you doin’ here, troubler of Israel. And Elijah says, “Yo yourself. I’m not the one troubling Israel, you are. Here’s the skinny; let’s settle this once and for all to see whose god is the real deal.

“Get your 450 Baal prophets and your 450 prophets of Asherah and meet me at Mt. Carmel.” So, Ahab gets the 900 prophets and a bunch of curious onlookers and they march up to Mt. Carmel.

“OK, here’s what’s up,” says Elijah. “Give us two bulls and build an altar anyway you like it. Make it with granite, marble, stones…anything you like. Then stock it with wood, kill the bull and cut him up, put the steaks on the barbie, but don’t light it. Then, we’ll each call upon our god and whoever’s is real will answer with fire and start the cookout.”

They all said, “Sure that sounds fair.”

Baal2So the Baal prophets set up the grill and start dancing around it. “Answer us, O Baal.” Well this goes on all morning. By noontime they’re getting’ a little worried. Elijah starts bustin’ their chops. “So what gives boys? Where’s your god? Is he out for a walk, sittin’ on the can, sleepin’ in this morning?” By now they’re getting desperate. They dance like crazy people. They whip out their jack knives and start cutting themselves thinking, “This’ll get his attention.” But still, by mid-afternoon, nothing happens.

Finally, Elijah says, “Step aside boys and let a man show you how to do it.” So he rebuilds the altar and sets twelve stones around it, one for each of the tribes of Israel. Then he stacks up the wood, butchers the bull, and throws the meat on. But he’s not through yet. He says, “Get four gallons of water and dump it on the altar.” And they did it. And he said, “Do it again.” And they did it. And he said, “Do it again.” And they did it. So, they dumped 12 gallons of water on top of the altar. He even had a trench built around the altar and had that filled too! So now he’s good and ready for a fire.

Then Elijah stops and says a prayer. He says, “Lord God, shows these bozos that you are the one true God and that there is none other beside you. Amen.”

fire-from-heavenAnd before two shakes of a lamb’s tale, the sky opens up, fire comes roaring down and it licks up the bull, the wood, the stones, the dust, and even licks up the water in the trench. Just like that.

“Whoa,” say all the Baal prophets as they look at each other blinking at what just happened. They all go face down in the dirt saying, “Oh my gosh. It is true. Yahweh is indeed God of the universe.” Elijah will have none of it and has the people round them up and slaughter them.

Well, then Ahab got back home and told Jezebel what happened. “You wouldn’t believe what Elijah’s god did.” She was fit to be tied. All of her henchmen had been offed. So she sent word to Elijah, “May I look like one of my butchered prophets if I don’t do to you what you did to them by tomorrow night.”

At this challenge, Elijah reels back, digs down deep and runs. No kidding. Right after this massive display of Yahweh’s power, he runs at the threat of this queen who worships Baal. He runs all the way to Mt. Horeb and hides there. While he’s hiding there God comes to him again and asks, “What gives? Why so glum? Why you hidin’ in the bushes?”  Then he lets it all out. “Whaddya mean what am I doing here? I’ve been very zealous for you. I’ve gone out of my way for you. I’ve gone the extra mile without complaining. I’ve gone beyond the call of duty and look what it’s got me. A death warrant. Nobody’s been faithful but me. I’m gonna go eat worms. That’s why I’m here.”

still small voiceSo God says, “Hmmm. I see your point. Let’s go for a walk. Stand out on the edge of mountain there and I’ll pass by. See if that will cheer you up.” Elijah did as he was told and stood at the doorway of the cave. First a huge tornado goes by pulling up trees and throwing rocks around like they were pebbles. But Yahweh wasn’t in the wind. Then a monster earthquake comes and shakes the ground like a flour sifter, but Yahweh wasn’t in the earthquake. Next a gargantuan fire comes blazing by consuming everything in its path, but Yahweh wasn’t in the fire. Finally, there was “a sound of sheer silence,” (how’s that for an oxymoron?) and that’s where Elijah found Yahweh.

I don’t know about you, but this seems nuts. When I want to hear the voice of God, I go sit in the middle of Times Square. All the traffic noise, the horns, the police whistles, the construction, the throngs of humanity—that’s where you can really hear God. I’m only kidding. Although there are times when you have to get in the thick of it with real people to find God and see God at work, most often God is in the quiet.

This never fails to surprise me. I suppose it’s part of my American conditioning. Bigger is better. If it’s bold and brash and over the top, it’s got to be good. Think of Christmas Eve—we’re singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” at the top of our lungs; the organ has all the stops out, the timpani are pounding, the trumpets are thunderous—it’s a wonderful, inspirational moment. That’s where we find God. Or maybe in a mega-church like Lakewood Church in Houston. Pastor Joel Osteen and his congregation are housed in the former Cellular One arena in Houston that holds 13,000 people—and they fill it up. They have programs 24/7—Bible studies, men’s groups, women’s groups, Praisercize, dieting in the Spirit, auto repair for Jesus, a food court that sells heavenly baked goods, you name it. That’s where God is.

No, usually I find God at the kitchen table, at the bedside, or the fireside—those places where I intentionally settle down to have quiet conversation or to sit and read and think and pray. There are two traditions of prayer in the Christian faith, defined by two Greek words: one is called kataphatic and the other apophatic. Kataphatic prayers are those where we talk to God, growing out of an ancient Roman school of prayer. Those are the ones we are most familiar with. The other prayers, apophatic prayers, come out of the Alexandrian school in Greece in which we don’t talk but we listen for the voice of God.

This latter kind of prayer is the hardest because it takes planning and it takes time. It is also difficult because it is the place where we are most vulnerable. If the Spirit is alive and active and roaming around at the core of our being, which is the birthright of a Christian, and if the Spirit is shaping and redeeming and empowering and purifying us from within, and if we are usually so noisy and busy that we rarely make room for the Spirit, then if we are quiet, the Spirit just might show up and show us some uncomfortable things about ourselves.

One of the signs that the truth of the Spirit’s presence is beginning to make itself known is that we feel as if, in Paul Claudel’s colorful words, “an undesired lodger has moved in, one who does not hesitate to rearrange the chairs according to his taste, to drive nails into the walls, and, if necessary, even to saw up the furniture when he is cold and needs a fire.”
In the quiet we might find that we are more shallow and self-centered than we ever suspected. In the quiet we might see our temper, negativity, and critical spirit for what they are. In the quiet we might see our shame, weakness, and powerlessness to change anything in ourselves apart from God’s grace. In the quiet we might feel the pain of the suffering world as Jesus feels it and it might be unbearable. And we also find the smile of God who says, “You are my beloved child. Thank you for all you do for me.” We are, as the French philosopher Blaise Pascal said, we are like a shallow pond; one little pebble can upset us and send ripples all over us.

That’s what happened to Elijah. Immediately after this wonderful display of God’s amazing power, what did he do? He headed for the hills. He was afraid. And when people become afraid, they begin to operate on their spinal cord—literally. It’s called the “reptilian brain,” the most primitive part of the brain that ties us to all living creatures. It’s our survival mechanism. When we feel threatened the old fight or flight syndrome kicks in. In this case, Elijah ran. In other cases they fight. It was great when we had to face down saber-toothed tigers, but today when we are frightened or uncertain or worried we lash out at each other.

But we are not on the level of the animals. The Psalmist said we were made “a little lower than the angels,” or as some translations put it, “a little lower than God.” We have this gray matter in our frontal lobes that separates us from the animals and allows us to rise above our animal instincts. It’s also the place where we meet God and hear that “still, small voice.” Do you know what one of the frequent commands in the scriptures is? “Fear not.” “Fear not.” Whenever God shows up or is doing a new thing, the first response from us is fear; the first response from God is “Fear not.” When God called Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Mary or Paul the first word was always, “Fear not.” You can look it up.

So yes, fearfear-not2 not. Just as God did not abandon Elijah to himself or berate him for being so faithless, so God is with us. We are not surrendering to an enemy who wishes to punish us, but we are laying down resistance to the One who loves us more infinitely than we can guess, the One

who is more on our side that we are ourselves, the One who loves us too much to leave us where we are today.

And just as God restored and recommissioned Elijah to go anoint the next king Hazael and his successor Elisha, so God recommissions us to do God’s work in the world. So, I guess what we learn from this passage today is that when you face resistance, challenge, or suffering there are two things you can do: run and hide in a cave and suck your thumb, or stop and listen for that “still, small voice.”

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The Motherhood of God

Mothers Day, May 8, 2016

Selected Scripture

Famous-bible-mothers_3It is a practice in almost all mainline Prot­estant denominations to use what is called “inclusive language” in our hymns, pray­ers, liturgies and sermons.  What do I mean by in­clusive lan­guage?  Namely, that when we use language to talk about our faith in our chur­ches that both females and males are in­­cluded and af­firmed.  This happens in two ways: how we talk about God and how we speak about one another.

The ex­clusion of women when we talk about our rela­tionship to one an­­other in the body of Christ is seen all the time, particu­larly in our hymns.  We sing a­bout the “Faith of our fath­ers,” (what about our moth­ers?).  We ex­hort “Stand up O men of God,” (what about the wo­men?).  In “Be thou my vis­ion” we de­clare, “Thou my great Father, I thy true son,” (what about the daughters?).  “­In Christ there is no east or west in him no north or south”” which is a wonder­ful hymn that celebrates the universal oneness and in­clu­sivity of the church.  Yet in the third verse we sing, “Join hands then brothers of the faith, whate’er your race may be! Who serves my Father as a son is surely kin to me.”

So this universal church that cuts across races doesn’t clear the gender hurdle, at least not in this hymn.  Clear­ly, this should not be in the church of Jesus Christ where there is neither male nor female (Gal. 3:28).

When we apply inclusive language to God, however, the issue becomes a lot thornier.  The argu­ment for changing our language about God goes some­thing like this: when we speak about God as our Fath­er, and Christ as his son, we are using mas­culine lan­g­uage that excludes women.  To al­ways re­fer to God as “he” is to the neg­lect of women who are al­so created in the divine im­age.  Words like “Lord” and “King­­dom” are freighted with dom­in­ant male imagery and are therefore to be jetti­soned.  More inclusive words like “Holy One” or “Sov­er­eign” are to be used.  The king­dom of God is better de­scribed to mod­ern people as God’s “sphere,” “common­wealth,” or “realm.”

Now before you pooh-pooh this stuff as so much lib­er­al theological tripe, let me remind you that how we speak about God can deter­mine how we think about God.  If you only speak of God as Judge, King, or Master you can per­­ceive of God as distant, other, and over you, but not necessarily beside you.  On the other hand, if you only speak of God as Friend, Shepherd, and Guide you do so to the neg­lect of God’s majesty and holiness, God’s other­ness, and God becomes your buddy or old man.  If God is spoken of only in mas­culine terms, then what of the feminine in God?  Many women have exited Christianity because they thought it no longer held a place for them.

Je­sus revealed God as “Father” and spoke of God as such some 140 times.  To be sure, this God was not like any hu­man father–neither indulgent nor domineering–but ten­der and strong.  The Council of Toldeo, an ancient Church council, spoke of the universe as coming from “the womb of the Father.” So, clearly this is not any ordinary father. Jesus further expressed his rela­tionship to God as a unique, filial one; he was God’s only son.  The im­pact of this language is not to affirm the “maleness” of God, but to teach that God is father-like or parental.  It al­so underscores the familial relation­ship of the triune God.  They are in a mutual, indwelling relationship to one an­other.  Clearly, the Fatherhood of God is part of the Biblical revelation.

Nevertheless, feminist theologians are on­to some­thing and I think it is this: our con­cep­tions of God are too nar­row.  Most theol­ogy up until recently has been written by white, North American or European males.  In­evit­ably, the­ol­ogy will pass through that mas­­culine fil­ter and some im­portant accents in the Bible will be missed.  One of those im­portant aspects is the motherhood or fe­maleness of God.  So instead of throwing out “Father God” and “Christ the son,” I prefer to return to the Bible and see how we can cap­­ture a broader, fuller, more accurate un­der­standing of the God revealed in its pages.  Rather than dis­card traditional, time-tested understandings of God, I would rather bring fresh insights to how we perceive God.  Instead of calling it “inclu­sive” language, I would rath­er call it “generous” language.

Let’s begin our survey with a prophecy in Jeremiah 31: 15: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weep­ing, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be com­for­ted, because her children are no more.”  These are the tears of the mothers whose children were carried off in­to exile.  God tries to comfort Rachel: “Dry your tears–I will bring them back,” God says, but Rachel’s tears are in­con­solable.  Yahweh becomes so moved by the depth of the compassion that Rachel has for her little ones that God takes on the role of Rachel weeping.  “I have sure­ly heard Ephraim’s moaning,” says Yahweh.  Eph­raim was a promin­ent and powerful tribe in Israel and symbolizes the lost, ex­iled na­tion.  Ephraim cries out for help, “You dis­ciplined me like an unruly calf…restore me, and I will return, because you are the lord my God.”  Now Yahweh, who has become Ephraim’s mother says, “Is not Ephraim my dear son, the child in whom I delight?  Though I often speak against him, I still remember him.  Therefore my heart yearns for him; I have great compassion for him” (v.20).

One commentator notes that the word “compassion” comes from the Hebrew root which literally means “trembling womb.”  Thus she translates the passage, “For the more I speak of (Ephraim), the more I do remember him.  Therefore my womb trem­bles for him; I will truly show motherly-compassion up­on him.”

Mary carrying JesusThis image shows us the God who is vulnerable to our pains and losses, who is susceptible to tears­.  In fact, it anticipates the anguish God will feel when Christ, the “only begotten Son,” dies at Calvary.

There are many other passages in the Old Testament which affirm the maternal nature of God.  Hosea 11 un­mis­takably depicts God as a mother car­ing for a very difficult child.  “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.  But the more I called Israel, the fur­ther they went from me…it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them.  I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love.”

In Hosea’s day it would have been moth­ers who took care of children and nur­tured them.  The imag­ery would not be lost on ancients and it should not be lost on us.  God is the mothering God who wipes our noses, keeps us from danger, and teaches us to walk.  The image is that of a mother holding her baby’s fingers as she takes her first steps.  This passage raises child­care to a dignified and hon­or­able task.  Perhaps if the church had lifted up passages like this more often, men would have seen if God will stoop to do the lowly par­­ent­ing that usually fell to women, then surely it is not be­­neath them.

Isaiah 46: 3-4 invokes the same imagery.  “Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all you who remain of the house of Israel, you whom I have upheld since you were conceived, and have carried since your birth.  Even to your old age and gray hair I am the one, I am the one who will sustain you.  I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will res­cue you.”   Here God takes on the role of a nursing mother.

The same promise of maternal com­­fort is made in Isaiah 66: 13: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.”  Mothers often dry the tears of their child­ren. The promise finds its fulfillment in Rev. 21:4 when at the end of time God will “wipe every tear from their eyes.”

God is also depicted as a nursing mother in numer­ous other places.  In Hosea 11:4 God says, “I was like someone who lifts an infant close against her cheek; stooping down to Ephraim I gave him his food.”  You can imagine a mother holding her child close to her cheek, bent over her baby, while he nurses.  Commentators interpret Ps. 34:9 which reads, “O taste and see that the Lord is good,” ­­as a nursing image.  Perhaps the most memora­ble passage in this regard is Ps. 131: 1-2, where the Psalmist sings, “I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.  But I have stilled and quiet­ed my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.”  God weans us and sends us into the world to be responsible, produc­tive peo­ple, but we must also allow our­selves the time to lie in the lap of God “like a weaned child with its mother.”

God is also likened to a mother eagle.  Speaking of God’s loving care toward Israel in Deut. 32: 10-11 Moses says, “In a desert land he found him, in a barren and howl­ing waste.  He shielded him and cared for him; he guard­ed him as the apple of his eye, like an eagle that stirs up her nest and hovers over her young that spreads her wings to catch them and carries them on her pinions.”  This is an image of God protecting the eaglets, but also of bearing them up, of empowering them to fly, and cat­ching them when they fall.

Jesus as mother henJesus likened himself to a mother hen.  Matthew re­cords Jesus as lamenting over Jerusalem saying, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks un­der her wings, but you were not willing.”  Whereas the moth­er eagle images speak of being stirred up by or car­ried upon the wings of God, the hen image speak of the warmth and protection found under God’s wings.

Jesus would not be unfamiliar with this im­agery for the Psalms often speak of this aspect of God’s mother­hood.  Ps. 57, for in­stance, says: “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me, for in you my soul takes refuge.  I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the dis­aster has passed.”  Jesus was speaking of God’s deep compassion which characterized his life, teaching, and mis­­sion.

St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 11th cent. Clearly grasped the impli­cations of Jesus’ hen-image when he wrote: “But you, Jesus, good lord, are you not also a mother?  Are you not that mother who, like a hen, col­lects her chickens under her wings?  Truly, Master, you are a mother.”

It was not unusual in the Middle Ages to see Christ as a mother.  St. John Chrysostom wrote in his bap­tismal in­struc­tions to new con­verts, “Just as a woman nurtures her off­spring with her own blood and milk, so also Christ continual­ly nurtures with his own blood those whom he has begotten.”  And does­n’t this make perfectly good sense, for Christ gave us life, his life, in his incar­na­tion and death.  He nourishes us through the word and the sacraments; he makes us grow through his grace adap­ting himself to each of us in his infinite love.  The apos­tle Paul says that be­liev­ers are those who are “in Christ”–a womb-like image.  Baptism is called a “new birth” and the baptismal waters are likened to amniotic fluid.

I could go on.  We have only scratched the surface of some of the feminine or maternal images of God.  One thing I want to empha­size, however, is that reclaiming the fem­in­ine side of God is not intended to reinforce stereoty­pes of women as gentle and nurturing and men as strong and emotionally out of touch.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that we should stop using masculine images of God. Nor am I saying that you should stop using Father to refer to God. If you find comfort in those images and it is meaningful for in private prayer and how you image God, then by all means continue to do so.

The point of re­claiming the feminine component of the God of the Bible is to give us a true picture of who God is and to affirm that both the masculine and the feminine are equally present in God.  It is to have a fuller, more generous image of God which is always dimmed by our narrow conceptions of the Divine. We are made in the image of God; men and wom­en together re­flect that image in unique ways.  But it also reminds us that both masculine and the femin­ine qual­ities reside in every one of us.

What then are some of the implications of knowing God as mother?  First, if God is wo­manlike and motherlike then you women can take great comfort in the fact that your God knows ex­actly how you feel and how you think.  God understands your mat­ernal longings and the joys and hopes that are uniquely yours as a woman.  It means that you are a unique ex­pression of God’s image just as much as men are.  And if both men and women are “God­­like,” that is the basis for mutual sharing and defer­ence to one an­other.   We cannot pull rank on one another on the basis of sex.  We need each other.

For those of us who had mothers who were present and caring we can thank them that they gave us a glimpse of the God who gave birth to us, who cares for and nourishes us, who bears us up, who discip­lines us, weans us, and sends us out into the world.

The last sermon John Robinson preached to the Pilgrims as their pastor before they came to these shores con­tained this line: “God has yet more light and truth to break forth from his holy word.”  I believe that’s true.  We re-read and reinterpret the Bible anew for every genera­tion.  We do so very carefully, with an eye to the great in­sights of our forebears in the past and with the rest of the church today, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  We do not want to be guilty of biblical ventrilo­quism–mak­ing the Bible say what we want it to say.

GOD AS WOMAN 2I am grateful for voices in the church that challenge me to re-read my Bible.  And I have received comfort and insight from a mothering God My hope is that you too might experience a God who, as King David said in the Psalms bids us to crawl into her lap “tran­quil and quiet…as con­tent as a child that has been weaned.”

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A Way Out of No Way

Luke 24: 1-12     Easter Sunday 2016

some bunny loves youI took a trip to CVS this week to peruse the Easter and Passover cards available; it could have just as easily been Walgreen’s or Rite Aid. The cards are, of course, divided into the Easter section and the Passover section, but then within both of sections there is another division: the religious and non-religious cards for each festival.

If you were from another planet inspecting these cards you might suspect that Easter and Passover were some kind of Rites of Spring. All the cards had flowers and bunnies and butterflies on them, nothing about the Resurrection of Jesus Christ or of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from Pharaoh’s oppressive rule. One Passover card had Snoopy in a yamulca wishing you a Happy Passover. One of the most profound Easter cards reminded the recipient that “somebunny loves you.” Most had basic “buck-you-uppo” kind of messages.  You know, “Spring is here, the grass is riz, I wonder where the bunnies is. Life is good. Live it up.” Can’t you imagine Jesus dragging his cross along the Via Delarosa, turning to his disciples and saying, “Chin up boys, tomorrow’s a new day. Every cloud has a silver lining.” You’d think you could at least get Jesus out of the tomb.

At Easter it was especially comical to look in the religion section of the newspaper or to drive around witnessing sermon titles on church marquis’ for Easter morning. In any number of these sermon titles and messages words appear like renewal, rebirth, and revival. These words are used far more than the word resurrection, if at all. We hear of a new season, new growth, and new life. We hear of sap rising in the trees, the singing of birds, and the warmth of the lengthening days. We hear of “a new season in the earth and in the heart of humanity.” We hear that “the early Christians came to understand that love is stronger than death.”

Seriously now, does that turn you on? Is it possible that ideas like this would have taken hold of a tiny, badly beaten, demoralized, disgraced, discouraged, beleaguered, scattered band of disciples and transformed them into a mighty force that within a few years was striking fear into the hearts of Roman emperors? One journalist writing in the NY Times described Easter as a spring festival celebrating “the ancient myths of the Mediterranean imagination.” Would that cut it for you? Is that what turned the disciples around?

empty tombPut yourself in the place of the women who went to the tomb that Easter morning to anoint the body of Jesus. Do you think they were expecting anything? Maybe the daffodils were blooming and the crocuses were pushing up. The cardinal was serenading them with her sweet song. Do you think they drew comfort and inspiration from that? Is it likely that they looked out over the fields and then at one another and said, “Maybe the Master is going to come again like wheat that springeth green”? Not on your life. When I take flowers to my brother’s or my father’s or my grand parent’s graves, I do not expect to see an empty grave. And if I did see one, it would not occur to me that the body was raised from the dead. Of course not.  I’d assume grave robbers or vandals had been up to mischief.

That is why the two men dazzling at the tomb in today’s reading said, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” (vv. 5b-7).  Here was a word from God. His body wasn’t stolen. It was raised, just like he said it would be. Then they had a Homer Simpson moment and went, “Doh. Of course. Remember he told us this.” And they ran back and told the eleven and a bunch of others who were there as well.

Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” One woman who was asked what Easter meant to her after coming from an Easter Sunday service said, “Easter is when you throw off winter’s robes.”  Is this enough for you? I confess it is not enough for me. And it is not enough for people who have had to bury someone under the most tragic circumstances. Can you imagine if you had to bury someone killed in the terrorist blast in Brussels this past week? Or if you have had to bury a beloved spouse of forty plus years? Or a nine year old girl who died of Leukemia? Would some nebulous religious hope about an afterlife have the power to stare down the stark ugliness of death, never mind a premature or gruesome one? I think not.

A Way out of no way

I instead like the phrase that African-Americans use to describe God’s power—“God makes a way out of no way.” I don’t know its origin. Martin Luther King often used the expression when he preached and Andrew Young titled his book on the civil rights with it.  “God makes a way out of no way.” This is the message of the Exodus and of Easter.

The people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went in after them into the midst of the sea…Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the water may come back upon the Egyptians… So Moses stretched forth his hand over the sea…and the Lord routed the Egyptians… (Exodus, vv. 22-27, 31).

Who can make a way out of no way? Only God can. The American civil rights movement staked their lives on it and depended upon God’s power in their darkest hours. Often we do not actually see the power of God at work. More often we see evidence of it in hindsight. No one saw the actual resurrection of Jesus, but they were witnesses to the evidence and power of it. We live in hope of a future we do not yet see except by faith. The Exodus was “only a hint of what will come in full power at the end” one commentator (Brevard Childs) remarks. The church is a church of Easter faith. We have seen the evidence of the saving power of Christ and we stand upon its promise for the full future reign of God. Who can make a way out of no way? Only God can. Who can bring the dead back to life? Only God can. Who can burst a tomb? Only God can.

It is fashionable today to deride the stories of the empty tomb. Members of the notorious Jesus Seminar tell us that there was no Resurrection, Jesus was not buried in a tomb and his body was probably left on the cross, or thrown in a common grave to be eaten by scavenging dogs and birds. They are a small band of some seventy-odd revisionist New Testament scholars who take delight in scandalizing the faithful. What the disciples experienced they propose was the disciples experienced a “spiritual rising of Jesus in their hearts.” This kind of stuff drives my wife nuts. She is a professional historian and too often hears people put down folks from the past as if they were stupid. “They thought they saw the resurrected Jesus, but what really happened was a marvelous existential moment.”

Yet the Jesus Seminar is not without formidable critics. The late and preeminent New Testament scholar Raymond Brown has written that there is not a scintilla of evidence that any of the early Christians thought Jesus’ body was moldering somewhere. If it was so, all their enemies would have to do was find it and produce it. That would have crushed the movement in its infancy.

Now, it is true that most of the Easter narratives and all of the Apostle Paul’s testimony focus on the appearances of the risen Jesus, rather than the empty tomb. Instead, they seem to be two independent stories that were circulating in the early church that describe the same thing from a different perspective: Christ is risen. Although the Gospels agree on the core facts—women finding the tomb empty and Jesus appearing to various disciples—they diverge on many of the details surrounding those facts. The testimony of the gospels is not unlike that of the courtroom. The same event looks different to different people, especially in hindsight. To many scholars the fact that the gospels agree on the central fact of the Resurrection in spite of disagreement on the details points to their authenticity. If the story were a fabrication by the early Church, you would expect everyone’s story to be consistent and complete.

mary in the gardenThe New Testament bears strong and credible witness to these two important pieces of information: an empty tomb and reports of post-resurrection appearances of the Risen Christ. That is much different than saying that this is incontrovertible objective proof that Jesus rose from the dead and was declared to be God’s Messiah. But it does provide a basis beyond mere fantasy or wishful thinking upon which a resurrection faith can stand. Ultimately, these things remain in the realm of the unprovable and the mysterious. They are matters to be grasped by faith, but with an intelligent faith informed by the credible witness of the Gospels.

And so I am a believer. I believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. That is not to say that I am a literalist. I don’t believe that Jesus was a resuscitated corpse. Nor am I a skeptic. I don’t believe his followers made it up. Nor do I believe that they had some kind of interior spiritual experience that made them believe that Jesus was alive. It takes too much faith to believe that than to believe the essence of the Gospel narratives. No I believe that Jesus was raised in a spiritual body, a resurrection body, something so unique and spectacular that the Gospel writers could barely find the words to describe it.

I also believe in the Resurrection because of the changes it brought and continues to bring. Matthew’s gospel has the angel saying, “Go quickly and tell his disciples he has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him. This is my message.” I do not believe that any other message could have reversed the devastation of a crucifixion. Jesus was brutally murdered and his disciples were crushed. I do not believe a made up story of an empty tomb and some appearances in an upper room could have transformed the disciples into a mighty band, galvanizing the whole Mediterranean world. I don’t believe there is any other news ever uttered with the human tongue that could convince us even to this day that Death, against all evidence and against all reason, has been driven from the field. Even skeptics who want to make the Resurrection into something completely bloodless will admit that something happened. But what was it?

resurrection-appearances1I have a friend who lost a child to leukemia some year’s back.  I asked her once when life began to seem normal again. She said it took her four years before she could laugh freely and spontaneously again. What message do you think brought her comfort? Did ‘the ancient myths of the Mediter­ranean imagination” do it? What would she rather hear, a message about rebirth in nature, or this: “His soul was not left in hell, neither did his flesh see corruption; this Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we are witnesses” (Acts 2: 31-32). Would you rather hear about the earth replenishing itself, or would you rather hear this:

 “Behold I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall all be changed… Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your sting? O grave where is your victory?” (I Cor. 15: 51-55).

So this is no day for innocuous sentiments about springtime blooming in the human heart. This is a day for trumpets and timpani and organ fanfares to burst the eardrums of Evil. This is no day for wistful thoughts about the possibility of an afterlife; this is a day for Paul’s cry of triumph.

If Christ is not raised, our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain…If Christ is not raised, you are still dead in your sins; but in fact Christ has been raised from the dead…For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive!” (I Cor. 15: 14-22).

Christ is Risen And the same power of God that led the Israelites through the Dead Sea raised Jesus from the dead. This is the God who makes a way out of no way. This is the God whose power raised Jesus from the grave as though death were but a piece of cheesecloth. But this is not just “my” belief. It does not belong to me. It is the Church’s belief and so it belongs to you too. Jesus is the Lord of the Universe and he has turned the key in the lock of the gate of Hell. His promise to establish his reign forever and ever is true, not because I am faithful, but because God is faithful, and God’s faithfulness is powerful enough to break down barricades and overthrow tyrants and raise the dead to life, yes, and to give each of his children, from the least to the greatest, hope and strength and courage and defiance in daily life against everything that would ever hurt or destroy you, God’s beloved creatures.

Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

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No More of This

Luke 22: 47-53    Tenebrae 2016

47While he was still speaking, suddenly a crowd came, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him; 48but Jesus said to him, “Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?” 49When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, “Lord, should we strike with the sword?” 50Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. 51But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. 52Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple police, and the elders who had come for him, “Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit? 53When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness!”

shirley-jackson-jpg-1As an 8th grader I had to read “The Lottery,” a classic short story by Shirley Jackson, first published in the June 26, 1948 issue of The New Yorker. In a small village of about 300 people, the locals are in a strange and nervous mood on June 27. People are going about their morning routines of making breakfast, walking the dog, and doing chores in a commonplace fashion. In the backdrop, children are gathering up stones as the adult townsfolk assemble for their annual ritual called “the lottery.” This tradition has been practiced for generations to ensure a good harvest.  In the first round of the lottery, the head of each family draws a small slip of paper; Bill Hutchinson gets the slip with the black spot, meaning that his family has been chosen. In the next round, each Hutchinson family member draws a slip, and Bill’s wife Tessie — who had arrived late — gets the marked slip. In keeping with tradition, which has been abandoned in other neighboring communities, Tessie is then stoned to death by everyone present as a sacrifice, all the while protesting about the fairness of the lottery.

Readers were stunned and angry that Jackson could write such a piece. Jackson offered the following explanation of her intentions:

I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.

The sacrifice of innocent victims has been the machinery of human justice from time immemorial. The reason Jackson’s story was so jarring is that we now recognize it for what it is: scapegoating. But that was not always the case. Our literature, our myths, our legends are full of stories wherein an innocent victim is sacrificed violently for the sake of peace in the community, but the violence becomes masked as the myth is repeated or the ritual is rehearsed year after year. It’s always been so.

The ancient Greeks had an agricultural festival of their own every May to honor Apollo and Artemis, which included a purging ceremony. While people offered the first-fruits of their harvest to the gods as a token of gratitude, they also had to placate them lest they send excessive heat or pestilence upon their crops. Before the thanksgiving service two of the ugliest men in the city were chosen to die, one for the men and one for the women. On the day of the sacrifice they were led round with strings of figs on their necks, and whipped on the genitals with rods of fig wood. When they reached the place of sacrifice on the shore, they were stoned to death, their bodies burnt, and the ashes thrown into the sea (or over the land, to act as a fertilizing influence).

This human reality is called the scapegoating mechanism, and it works like this: Violence in a society is resolved by blaming a victim. A victim is identified. They are accused as being responsible for the violence or the trouble in the society. They are killed. When the victim is accused, something miraculous happens. The community finds itself of one mind. There is enormous common purpose and wondrous social cohesion. Indeed, a kind of peace. Finally, when the victim is killed, peace and stability returns to the community.

Nazi_poster_antisemitismIn Nazi Germany a myth emerged that the Jews were manipulators of world finances and responsible for poverty in Germany in the 1930s. They were also considered to be an inferior race. The myth that the Jews were responsible created a justification for their murder. And, coincidentally, their murders created social cohesion in the rest of society. But only so long as the myth served to hide the innocence of the victims did the myth hold up. Most people in Germany believed the myth that the Jews deserved to die.

After the Civil War when Federal Troops left the South in 1877, racial violence against African-Americans and lynchings by mobs became commonplace.  In an attempt to restore the South to its antebellum state, the Ku Klux Klan terrorized African-Americans to re-establish previous lines of racial segregation.  By charging Blacks with various crimes and creating an “us” vs. “them” situation, Whites attempted to maintain a state of white supremacy.   Blacks are dehumanized and violence is normalized to maintain order.

Matthew Shepard was a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming who was tortured and murdered near Laramie, Wyoming in October 1998. During the trial, witnesses stated that Shepard was targeted because he was gay.  Those who study these crimes say those who commit violence against gay persons see themselves as enforcing social morals and they commit assaults in an effort to prove their toughness and heterosexuality to friends. Violent acts are often the result of myths created about gay men: they are abnormal, they are predators, they are not natural, and they are outside the bounds of acceptable behavior.  Such an ideology galvanizes a heterosexual majority against an innocent victim who threatens the status quo.

crucifixionThe central event in the New Testament is a public execution, an act of official violence regarded as legally righteous by the political authorities and as a sacred duty by the religious leadership. Did the people who killed Jesus think he was innocent? No way. They were certain he was guilty. He was a rabble rouser and a public nuisance. He said he would topple the Temple system of worship. He challenged what had become a calcified understanding of the Torah, the Law of the Jewish people. He challenged Roman authority by suggesting that people had to choose between Caesar or him. Look at the riff raff who followed him: tax collectors, prostitutes, zealots, common laborers, and peasants. Stir them up and who knows what kind of mess you’ll have on your hands.

The political authorities were certain they were legally right. The religious authorities were certain they were within God’s will. Caiaphas the High Priest avows that “it was expedient that one man die for the people” thus stating the scapegoating principle with perfect precision. In the text I read tonight, the scapegoating drama plays itself out with impeccable precision. The mob comes under the cloak of darkness with clubs and swords to arrest Jesus, to exterminate the man causing unrest in the community. And one of Jesus followers, resorting to behavior they had always known said, “Lord, should we strike with the sword?” and with that sliced off the right ear of Malchus, the High Priest’s servant. But what does Jesus say, “No more of this.” No more of an eye for an eye and ear for an ear. No more of grinding up innocents victims in this perverse machinery of human injustice. No more of settling your scores with violent means. No more!

Jesus was a scapegoat. And, in most respects, the crucifixion of Jesus was not dissimilar to the official murders of thousands of victims before or since. Yet in one respect it is very different. The Gospels tell a perfectly typical story of an innocent man who became a victim with astonishing insight into the role religious zeal and mob psychology played in it. What is different about this story, and contrary to all myth, is that it is told from the point of view of the victim and not that of the religious community of persecutors. The voice of the victim is heard. We see the innocence of the victim. And the scapegoating mechanism is unveiled for what it is. Jesus, the innocent Son of God, becomes the victim to end all victimization. He becomes the sacrifice to end all sacrifice. And on Easter morning he will become the Victor on behalf of every victim. He was the only victim to come back and expose the lie of scapegoating.

scapegoatBut you know something? The practice still goes on. It goes on in politics, industry, and boardrooms. It goes on at the courthouse, the White House and in our house. And it goes on in our churches as well. How many times have we tried to live out the myth—“if only we got rid of the minister, then we would have peace; if only we could get rid of that board chair, things would be smooth again; if only the liberals would leave; if only the conservatives would stop making a stink.” If only, if only.  And it works. People rally around the common enemy, the person who is upsetting their world, and they have secret meetings and make phone calls and sign petitions. They draw up their list of grievances. All are pulled together in this common cause of purging the community of this interloper, there is high energy, esprit de Coeur, and self-righteous zeal oozes from everyone’s pores. Once the minister or the board chair or the liberals or the conservatives are ousted there is once again peace—until the next conflict or crisis.

Once we see how scapegoating works, it does not work too well any more. We finally see the victim. On this night we hear the victim’s cry from the concentration camps, and the Nazi myth is destroyed. We hear the cry of the man lynched for being Black and of the gay man murdered because he was gay.

We hear their cries and the cries of all innocents. And our voices join the chorus because we know that we have been both victims and the victimizers of others. On this night Jesus so radically identified with the human race that he entered into our dilemma, took our sins upon his innocent body, felt the pain and death of fellow sufferer, exposed our complicity with injustice, and broke the back of sin that we might be free of it. “Love so amazing, so Divine, deserves my life, my soul, my all.”


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Downwardly Mobile

Philippians 2:5–11
Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday
March 20, 2016

upwardly mobileWhen Peggy and I lived in Washington, DC, we had dinner with a couple who worked with a ministry called “Fellowship House.” They ministered to powerful muckity mucks on Capitol Hill and sought to bring them the gospel in “non-threatening” ways. Half way through the meal they said, straight-faced I might add, that they had to have an expensive home with fine furniture, china and all the trappings because “the people we minister to just wouldn’t understand.” We thought that was one of the cleverest spiritual self-justifications we had ever heard. These folks felt that they needed to be “upwardly mobile,” to keep ahead, to do their job, to be taken seriously.

When we look at this primary season we’ve seen campaigning sinking to its lowest level certainly in my life time. Grown men are yelling at and insulting one another during a Presidential debate. There is bravado and boasting about how tough they are, how rich they are, how special they are—the next Savior of America. We’ve seen coarse, hateful, divisive rhetoric that appeals to the basest instincts of human beings. Humility is certainly not among their virtues. As Jesus said, “You shall know them by their fruit.”

In contrast, we have our Palm Sunday gospel before us. In this Gospel we see Jesus becoming “downwardly mobile” in order to redeem a broken and lost humanity. Let’s look at the scenario.  Palm Sunday began with a festive procession. Good Friday ended with the death penalty. Excited children waving palm branches gave way to violent mobs shouting death threats. Adoration by the crowds in Jerusalem evaporated into abandonment by God on Golgotha.


Between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, Jesus’ disciples argued among themselves about who was the greatest, Judas betrayed him and then committed suicide, Peter denied ever knowing him, and all his disciples fled for the high grass (except for the women). After three years of itinerant preaching, teaching, and healing that focused on the poor, the imprisoned, the blind, and all who were oppressed (Luke 4:18ff), Jesus’ family declared him insane, the religious establishment hated him, and the political authorities had had enough. And so Rome deployed all the brutal means at its disposal to crush an insurgent movement—rendition, interrogation, torture, mockery, humiliation, and then a sadistic execution designed as a “calculated social deterrent” (Borg) to any other trouble makers who might challenge imperial authority and disturb the Pax Romana.

But why did Jesus die? The passion narratives for this week explain why. Jesus was executed for three reasons, says Luke: “We found this fellow subverting the nation, opposing payment of taxes to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is Christ, a King” (Luke 23:1–2). In John’s gospel the angry mob warned Pilate, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar” (John 19:12). In short, “He’s subverting our nation. He opposes Caesar. You can’t befriend both Jesus and Caesar.” They were right, even more right than they knew or could have imagined.

Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into the clogged streets of Jerusalem on Good Friday was a deeply ironic, highly symbolic, and deliberately provocative act. It was an enacted parable or street theater that dramatized his subversive mission and message. He didn’t ride a donkey because he was too tired to walk or because he wanted a good view of the crowds. The Oxford scholar George Caird characterized Jesus’ triumphal entry as more of a “planned political demonstration” than the religious celebration that we sentimentalize today.

roman armyThe Roman state always made a show of force during the Jewish Passover when pilgrims thronged to Jerusalem to celebrate their political liberation from Egypt centuries earlier. New Testament scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan imagine not one but two political processions entering Jerusalem that Friday morning in the spring of AD 30. In a bold parody of imperial politics, king Jesus descended the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem from the east in fulfillment of Zechariah’s ancient prophecy: “Look, your king is coming to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Matthew 21:5 = Zechariah 9:9). From the west, the Roman governor Pilate entered Jerusalem with all the pomp of state power. Pilate’s brigades showcased Rome’s military might, power and glory. Jesus’ triumphal entry, by stark contrast, was an anti-imperial and anti-triumphal “counter-procession” of peasants that proclaimed an alternate and subversive community that for three years he had called “the kingdom of God.”

On Palm Sunday Jesus invites us to join his subversive counter-procession. But he calls us not to just any subversion, subversion for its own sake, or to some new and improved political agenda. Christian subversion takes as its model Jesus himself. It aims for what Martin Luther King Jr. called “transformed nonconformity” (cf. Romans 12:1–2). It is a subversion that is deeply spiritual and deeply social. He calls us to resist the false kingdoms of this world that are being promised by our bloviating Presidential candidates. He calls us to a different standard of living that is not “upwardly mobile,” but downwardly mobile.

Look at Jesus. In one of the earliest Christian hymns, believers worshipped Jesus as one who “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross.” It is staggering to think that the second person of the Trinity, the Divine Logos–the creative, ruling, principle of the universe, took up residence in Jesus of Nazareth. Yet he, “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,” but rather became a servant.

Servanthood is a description of Jesus’ whole career: He came to seek and to save that which was lost.  The sacrifice of Christ was the self-giving of his whole life, not just his death on the cross.  He gave up his prerogatives as God in the Bethlehem manger; he gave himself in teaching, healing, touching, and comforting in his Galilean ministry; he gave up his life at Calvary; and he gave us new life on Easter.  His whole career was one of service, of self-giving agape love. He became a bond-servant for the sake of humanity.

Christs_Entry_into_Jerusalem_Hippolyte_Flandrin_1842We tend to smuggle human definitions of power into what God must be like instead of taking our cues from Jesus.  We think of power as “controlling others” or “getting one’s own way.”  So when we define God as omnipotent, we project our human conceptions of power onto God and think of God as all-powerful.  God can do anything God wants to–instant and everywhere control.  And yet, when we look at the career of Jesus, we see those KINDS of definitions of power turned on their head.  Real power is the freedom to give up for the sake of another.  Real power is a love that will not let go. Real power is long-suffering.  Lowliness, humility, downward mobility are the characteristics that define our God.  Suffering love bids us to come follow, not brute force that demands compliance.  And so Paul instructs us in his epistle for this week: “have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5–11), something radically subversive.

And so although Palm Sunday marked the beginning of the end for Jesus, his end showed the way for our own beginning.

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