On Shouting and Harvesting: Psalm 81:1-10 and Mark 2:23-3:6
Do you remember all those covenants we learned about during Lent? All those great promises between God and humanity and the potential for goodness they hold? These covenants that promise freedom, relationship, sanctuary, and healing are the roots to God's relationship with the people of Israel. When the people lose their way, the prophets and sometimes kings... sometimes God Godself... calls the people back to their covenantal roots. People remind God of the covenant, too, sometimes. Abraham was quick to remind God of grace and compassion when it was necessary. All these covenants and the miraculous salvation stories of shelter in the wilderness, food that suddenly appeared in the morning and evening, and voices that thundered from high places, those stories should be on our mind when we read Psalm 81. It is a Psalm to remind the people of their relationship with God. It is a Psalm to remind them of their part of the promise.
This Psalm is a prayer of thanksgiving and exhortation that was written not during the time of Exodus, but during the time of exile. So much of the Hebrew Scriptures, which before the exile had been stories and prayers around campfires and in holy, wild places, were finally written down after the devastation at the hands of the Babylonians. With the leadership of their community in Babylon and the common people spread across what was left of their once-promised land, they needed shared stories to help their culture survive. This Psalm, which describes a religious festival and retells part of the salvation story of the Exodus, teaches people, again and again, how God saved them and what God asks of them.
Think of every good thing that you credit to God. The relationships that bring you joy and wholeness. The support when you've needed it most. The challenge to serve your neighbors. Mash together all of those feelings of joy and gratitude and imagine them erupting from you in song. That's the feeling the beginning of this Psalm is intended to invoke. Sing aloud to God our strength! Shout for joy to the God of Jacob! What are you so thankful for that it would make you take up a tambourine or blow a trumpet? For this Psalmist, it's the memory of the way God cared for them when they were deeply oppressed. It's the memory of God's commitment to liberation.
When we remember all that God did for Israel, the rescue from slavery and the time in the wilderness, the stories we usually call the Exodus... these are some of the most influential stories in the Hebrew Bible. In this act, the people were shown repeatedly that God wants liberation, not constraint, for God's people. And, they were invited to act as agents of God's liberation into the future. If you've had any chance to spend time with our neighbors at Temple Beth El, you may have witnessed their commitment to welcoming new immigrants. They, like many Jewish people, root their welcome to the Exodus story, a story that reminds them that they were once strangers in a strange land and were sorely mistreated. In honor of their liberation, they will welcome others. They aren't the only ones who have been inspired by the Exodus story. In US history, it is the Exodus stories that helped many African Americans survive slavery and fight for their own freedom. They heard the truth of God's liberation, even when so many Christian church's supported bondage. This truth helped them shape a more just future. It is still pointing us to a more just future.
There is this interesting turn in the Psalm after the party of the first five verses. All the sudden we shift from a leader reminding the people to give thanks to the voice of God reminding the people of their side of the covenant. Remember what we read today: God says, I'm still your only God. Remember that I brought you out of Egypt. Remember that I made sure you had food to survive in the wilderness. All those commandments the people began to receive during the Exodus... the second part of the Psalm is to remind them of the promises they made in response to liberation. The whole gist of the promises wasn't to make life more complicated for the people. Because I know that you all have memorized all of my sermons, I know that you will remember that commandments are really to help people reshape their lives so that they better reflect God's promises and God's priorities. The laws weren't just to be religious hoops to jump through. They were to be guides to shape your life into a reflection of God.
I think Jesus understood this. That's why he got in the two arguments that we heard in our reading from Mark. If we can turn to that story for a moment, we can see a difference between living a life shaped by liberation and concern for the needy, that is a life shaped by the law, and living a life that is more concerned with the letter of the law than its spirit. Jesus and his disciples were traveling. Instead of finding somewhere to stay and pre-preparing food for the Sabbath, they began to pluck heads of grain to eat as they walked. For the Pharisees, who were deeply concerned with following the law, these actions... the traveling and the harvesting... went against even the most basic ways of keeping the Sabbath. And, keeping the Sabbath was very important.
Jesus didn't think he could or should ignore the law. What he did think, like other Jewish teachers before and since him, was that sometimes some parts of the law take precedence over others. In this case, he reminded the Pharisees that the Sabbath was set aside for rest and prayer after the era of slavery, when people rarely had time for either. It is a time intended to remind people of God's generosity in liberation. He said, like Jewish teachers before and after him, Sabbath was made for humankind and not the other way around. So, if people are hungry on the Sabbath, you feed them, even if it means doing a kind of work that is usually forbidden. Jesus also pointed to King David's own life story. When he was on the run with few resources, he ate bread that was unlawful for him to eat. David needed to eat to survive to go on to fulfill his calling as king. The call to feed the hungry took precedence over the call to serve the priests in a particular way.
The second story is similar. There was already a practice of understanding that saving a life is a kind of work that was ok to do on the Sabbath. If you could work and save someone, you were not disregarding the gift of the Sabbath. But, this man whom Jesus' heals does not appear to be dying. I mean, his hand isn't working well, but he wasn't in immediate danger. His healing was the kind of healing that could have probably waited a day. Jesus' followers probably could have skipped a meal, too. But, he didn't ask any of these people to wait. Instead, he placed a value on doing the most good as quickly as possible as a sign of his dedication to the law. And, as one scholar I read this week pointed out, on what better day than the Sabbath, a day set aside for restoration, could Jesus restore a person's body to wholeness. With this healing, not only did the man's hand work correctly, but it also allowed him to work more easily, thereby better providing for himself and his family. With this action, Jesus showed that God's liberation doesn't need to wait. It can happen right now.
As followers of Jesus, we consider ourselves inheritors of this tradition of liberation. We would do well to follow Jesus in making both thanksgiving and reconnection with covenant, the two key elements of Psalm 81, part of our lives as well. So, we find ways to celebrate, I mean really celebrate what God has done for us, just as our ancient forbears remembered what God did for them. But, we also remember to shape our lives according to the greatest of God's priorities: liberation and compassion. Where are the places where you are willing to stand up to authorities to restore someone else to wholeness? Maybe you've heard about our government's practice of removing children from parents who are crossing our borders without proper documentation. Maybe these are the people who need wholeness right now. Maybe you've heard of someone else who needs liberation in another way. Where are you being led to work with God towards future liberation? What songs will you shout to guide your way?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Robert Hoch: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3689
Diane G. Chen, "Proper 4 ," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Matt Skinner: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3667
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Moved by the Spirit
I am about four weeks into a continuing education course called the Convergence Leadership Project. It's for pastors and church members who are interested in cultivating a joyful and generous Christianity that is a force for good in the world. Right now we are in a session that is talking about how we can rouse up the passion and perseverance of Christ's Church to tackle the most pressing needs of our day. It is in the midst of these conversations that I encountered the work of Jessica Jackley.
Ms. Jackley grew up as a middle-class, white, American kid who went to church. She did what we hope all kids do at church, listened to and tried to follow the guidance of Jesus. It was at church that she said she started hearing stories about "the poor." She said she never really heard anyone call themselves poor and never really heard poor people talk about their own lives. She just learned that to be poor was to not have something you needed... like clothes or food or shelter. And, she learned that people who followed Jesus were supposed to help people who were poor. "What you do for the least of these, you do for me." She said, "I was very eager to be useful in the world -- I think we all have that feeling. And also, it was kind of interesting that God needed help. That was news to me, and it felt like it was a very important thing to get to participate in." So, she started trying to help poor people in order to follow Jesus.
Around this time, though, she heard another part of the Bible that talked about poor people. She heard that Jesus once said, "The poor will always be with us." She must have been a very good student, because this second story confused her. She said, "I felt like I had been just given a homework assignment that I had to do, and I was excited to do, but no matter what I would do, I would fail." As she got older, it got harder to remain excited about this work God had called her to help in. She never experienced poverty herself. She only heard about it from other people and from books and the news. Poverty seemed unrelenting, all wrapped up in disease, war, and devastation.
In the face of poverty that seemed insurmountable, she began to feel bad when she heard about the lives of poor people. She said she felt guilty, too, because she lived a life of relative privilege. She said that she even began to feel shame. She couldn't help everyone enough. She had such a good life, but she didn't have the skills she needed to disentangle her shame from her sense of calling. So, she said she started to distance herself from the stories that overwhelmed her. She still gave money to charities and to individuals who were going good work. But, what had once felt like a mission from God had become a transaction to relieve guilt. She had enough money to insulate herself from the pain around her, relieving her guilt in the process, but never really being the force for good that she had once wanted to be.
In today's Pentecost story from Acts, we are told that the people knew a miracle was happening because they heard people speaking their own language, telling them something new about God. Ms. Jackley had a Pentecost moment, too, but it wasn't a room full of people all speaking different languages. No, it was one man, Dr. Muhammad Yunus, speaking and telling her something new about humanity that would help her fulfill that old calling from God. He spoke a language she needed to hear and she was moved by it. He talked about a financial lending process called microfinance and about all the amazing, poor entrepreneurs he had met in his work. Attending this talk changed Ms. Jackley's life.
When she learned about the power of small loans to change people's lives and learned the real stories of creating a life in poverty from the poor people themselves, she finally saw a way to serve her neighbors that moved beyond the transactional into the relational. And, she began to really understand people who were poor as whole people who could tell her something about the kind of help they needed. She was so moved by hearing Dr. Yunus speak that, just a few weeks later, she quit her job. She then spent three months in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania interviewing people who had received loans of $100 to start or grow a business. In that time, "the poor" stopped being strangers with terrible lives, and they started being humans with joys, ambitions, and intelligence. And, she stopped using emotional distance to protect herself from their stories.
The more conversations she had, the more she learned. She said one of the most important things she learned was about her own limits for fixing other people's problems. She said, "It was really humbling to see for the first time, to really understand, that even if I could have taken a magic wand and fixed everything, I probably would have gotten a lot wrong. Because the best way for people to change their lives is for them to have control and to do that in a way that they believe is best for them." She also noticed that in three months, she was never asked for donation. But, a couple times, people did ask for loans. She had seen enough that she knew $100 could do a lot of good. So, she tried to figure out how to get some small loans into people's hands where it would do the most good.
Working with old friends and family back in the States and new friends in Uganda, she helped found the program Kiva. Kiva connects lenders to people who need money but don't have access to major lines of credit. You can start with a loan of $25, a manageable sum for many people, and know it will be put to good use. Since they began building relationships between lenders and borrowers in 2005, the program has loaned $1.15 Billion dollars (mostly in small amounts). They have a 97% repayment rate. And, when you loan through Kiva, you get to hear the story of the people in whom you've invested. And, the people who are helped are empowered to make decisions based not on what a wealthier person believes, but what they know will help them build a thriving life. Now, programs like Kiva don't do some things. It doesn't replace the food pantries or free clinics of the world. But, they do shift financial systems so that poor people have access to life-changing money. And, it is helping people with money to share stop using money to isolate themselves from the world. Instead, their money becomes a tool for connection.
Jessica Jackley has gone on to work with a other projects and no longer works with Kiva. But, she carries the lessons she learned with her. One of the most important was this: she said,
"When you lend [people] money, and they slowly pay you back over time, you have this excuse to have an ongoing dialogue. This continued attention -- this ongoing attention -- is a really big deal to build different kinds of relationships among us… from what I've heard from the entrepreneurs I've gotten to know, when all else is equal, given the option to have just money to do what you need to do, or money plus the support and encouragement of a global community, people choose the community plus the money."
There are so many ways to understand the miracle of Pentecost... the miracle that we say birthed the church after the Resurrection. Perhaps our lesson for today is to be pay attention to the ones who are speaking a language that is, all the sudden, telling you something that changes how you understand the world. That new word you're hearing is the Holy Spirit. That new word is helping you to understand humanity better. That new word can help you work with other people to make a difference in the world. What is the church if not a group of people, hearing one another stories, and investing in one another's lives for the better.
We can hear the stories and see the images of devastation, and we can hide away for our own self-protection. But, Jesus never asked his followers to hideaway in dark closets and behind locked doors. He calls us out, to connect, to learn, and to build. The Spirit will give us the ability. We just need to use it. “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy." May we all dream and may we all prophesy.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing this sermon:
Kathryn Matthews: http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_may_20_2018
Caroline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4641
Greg Carey: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3665
Caroline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5154
To hear and read Jessica Jackley's talk about Kiva, please go to https://www.ted.com/talks/jessica_jackley_poverty_money_and_love/transcript
To learn more about Kiva, go to https://www.kiva.org/about/impact/success-stories
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: "Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire." Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/pierre_teilhard_de_chardi_114239
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
Friends of Jesus- John 15:9-17
I'd like to tell you one of my favorite stories of the late Rev. Dr. Fred Craddock. It is a story that took place on Easter and we are now in the final weeks of the Easter Season. It seems appropriate to share it as a reminder that Resurrection didn't happen just once. It happens all the time. So, hear this story about baptism and love and Christian community. In the year before he married, Dr. Craddock served a small church in East Tennessee in a small town on Watts Barr Lake. That's not more than a couple hours from where I grew up. Dr. Craddock was ordained in the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, a sister denomination of our own United Church of Christ. If you were to worship in a Disciples church, it would seem very similar to our worship services with a few interesting exceptions. One difference is that their lay people pray over and serve communion. In our tradition, someone must be ordained to bless the elements. They also usually have communion every week, which is less common in the UCC. Another difference is with baptism. While people of all ages are baptized in the UCC, many people are baptized as infants or very young children. In Disciples churches, most people are baptized when they are old enough to make their own statement of faith. They are fully immersed in water, either in large baptismal fonts their congregations or in the lakes and rivers near their congregations. This story that Dr. Craddock told took place following several baptisms in the lake near their church.
The church gathered with those who had felt moved to be baptized along the shores of the lake on Easter Sunday evening at sundown. One of the oldest practices in Christianity is to accept new members into the faith on Easter. His church followed this tradition. You know that this story takes place in the South because the lake wasn't still frozen over at Easter. It was probably still at least a little bit chilly though, but, warm enough to be baptized in. He and the candidates would wade out together. One by one, he would baptize the newest members of Christ's body. As they finished, still dripping, they would go back to shore where the rest of the church had gathered. The church would have already built a small fire. They would be singing and cooking some supper to share. The newly baptized would then go and change into dry clothes in little booths that the congregation had constructed with great care for just this purpose. Dr. Craddock changed his clothes, too, and everybody went and stood by the fire.
Up to this point, the story seems very familiar to me. Plenty of churches across time have practiced baptism this way. While the lakeside fire-cooked supper may be a nice addition, I imagine that many Christians would recognize their own church practices in these baptisms. It is the next part of the story that I think makes this little church stand out. They added their own ritual to this ancient one. Dr. Craddock said it always started the same way. Glen Hickey, a long- time member, would introduce the new members. Glenn did this every time. He would say their name, where they lived, and what they did for a living. The new folks would also gather closest to the fire, which was fair since they'd just been in the lake and were undoubtedly chilly. The rest of the church would create a circle around them.
Once all the new folks had been introduced, the older members would begin to go around the circle and introduce themselves in a unique way. They would first say their name and then, they would offer a service. For example, I might say, "My name is Chrissy and if you ever need somebody to come and feed your cats, please call me." Then, the next person would offer their name and how they could help. This would continue all around the circle, with everyone in the church taking a turn. "My name is Earl. If you every need anybody to chop wood, please ask." "My name is Bernice... if you ever need a ride into town, I'm happy to help." "My name is Beverly and if you ever need somebody to sit with someone who is sick, call me." "My name is Jonathan and if you ever need somebody to watch the kids, they can come to our place." One by one by one. A name and a way to serve. All the way around.
Then, they would do the most church-y of activities: they would eat. Food cooked on the fire. Food brought from home. Food from the little deli on the corner. They'd eat all of it. Then, as if that weren't enough, they'd have a square dance. Right there by the side of Watts Bar Lake. They'd dance long into Easter Sunday night. Then, as Dr. Craddock told it, when it was the right time, a man named Percy Miller would stand up and say, "Time to go." They would clean up the food and pack up the dishes. They'd take down the changing booths and carry coolers and camp chairs and guitars to the car. And, they all head home. Percy would be the last person to leave, making sure everything got cleaned up and the fire got put out. Dr. Craddock shared that he was pretty overwhelmed the first time he experienced all this. You see, these practices predated his ministry at the church. He had to learn them just like the newly baptized people did. As he stood with Percy, watching him kick sand on the fire, he couldn't really move. All he could do was stand still and try to take it all in. Percy looked at him and said, "Craddock, folks don't ever get any closer than this." I think Dr. Craddock believed him.
If I ever heard a story that sounded like church, it would be this one. People gathered together to celebrate rituals that were long central to Christianity as a whole and to their own small church in particular. People sharing sincere offers of care and kindness to new comers to their community. Food and song and dance, all in celebration of the Body of Christ growing just a bit bigger on that night. Having people who knew how to lead and knew when to make sure everybody got home. This is what intimacy in religious community can look like when people take seriously this call to be friends of Christ. And, while this story doesn't talk about it, I am certain that this generous spirit was not limited to only the people in the congregation. I do not for a minute believe that it would be easy to be this gracious in religious community without that graciousness leaking out into your relationship beyond church. No, this is the kind of intimacy that give you a space to practice mutuality and service to others so you then extend this loving-kindness beyond the walls of the church.
Part of what is groundbreaking in our reading from John and also so inspiring in this story from Fred Craddock, is the power found in equitable relationship. The graciousness of post-baptism practice at the church is so striking, in part, because every single person participates. Every single person offers care and every single person is a possible recipient of care. No one is understood to be without a gift. Everyone has the capacity to help. Everyone is understood to likely need help at some time. In the Scripture from John, it is incredible that Jesus invites his disciples to be more than servants, to be friends. At that moment, he upends so many social expectations between teachers and students, as well as any sense of how the Messiah might be some mighty military leader. Instead, he posits that an interdependent relationship should really be the divine standard. You become his friend when you follow his commandments. And, he commands us to love one another. The people dancing on that lakeshore in Tennessee loved one another. We can love one another, too.
I've recently started a continuing education class for pastors. In a class earlier this week, our teacher invited us to try praying in a different way to more clearly connect our calls from Scripture to our experiences during the week. Remember how the church introduced themselves to the new people: My name is.... and if you need.... I'm going to invite you to reimagine that practice with the last week in mind. You can write it down on your bulletin. First, imagine what you would tell a newcomer that you could help them with. Second, think about one time in the last week that someone has shown you Christ's loving friendship. Make a promise to pray a prayer of thanksgiving for that person. When we pray together in just a few minutes, if you feel so led, you are welcome to share what you can help with or how you were shown love this week, along with anything else you'd like us to pray for. This is how Christ's joy lives in us, when we act as friends of Jesus. How has your joy been completed this week? And, how will you carry that joy forward in love?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Osvaldo Vena: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3649
Choi He An, "Sixth Sunday of Easter," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories, eds. Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward, Chalice Press, 2001
This is a picture of a baptism in the West African nation of Benin. One of our scriptures for the day features a person from the East African nation of Ethiopia. While this image and story feature people separated by the width of an entire continent, the call to baptism is clear in both the story and the picture. You can access the picture here: http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54255
A Love Broad and Deep: Acts 8:26-40 and 1 John 4: 7-21
One day, back when I was in college, I was doing some group work with another student. He wasn't someone I knew particularly well. We just happened to end up in the same class during our January short term, which meant we saw each other every day. Somehow, in the course of our conversation on that particular day, I said something about my church. Honestly, I don't even remember how it came up. But, I do remember my classmate's response to my mentioning church. He said, "Oh, I didn't know you were religious." At first, I was defensive. I thought, what did he mean by that? What in the world had I done in his presence that was so un-Christian that it would surprise him that I was devout?
You see, I grew up going to a different kind of church than a lot of people in my community. It was the kind of community where people put really strict bounds on who got to be considered "Christian." I had grown accustomed to spending a lot of time explaining my religiosity to people who weren't sure that I was really Christian enough since I went to a different kind of church than they did. Because of those experiences, when this guy said, "Oh, I didn't know you were religious," initially, I heard it as an insult. But, eventually, I realized that he had actually meant it more as a complement. He was a person who had been treated very poorly by lots of people who were Christians. In fact, he rarely experienced devout Christians as anything but hostile forces in his life. I was polite, even kind, to him (I don't say this to brag... I was being just basic level Southern polite). In his experience, Christians were mean and judgmental. If I wasn't those things, how could I be Christian?
I have a ministerial colleague who had a similar experience before she went to seminary, when she moved to Florida and started working in theme parks. She'd meet new people. As they all shared more about their lives, at some point, she would talk about her Christian faith. She said, more often than not, her new friends would say, "You're a Christian? But you're so nice!" Like the guy in my class in college, many of the people she worked with, people who were gay, or not religious, or single mothers, had had far more bad encounters with Christians than good ones. When they met my colleague, who was creative and kind and generous, they had a hard time reconciling her identity as a Christian with the mean-spirited and stingy Christians they had known. In their lives, Christian had become shorthand for mean or unsupportive. I think it still is.
Both of the stories I shared happened about 20 years ago. I'd like to share a similar one that happened just a couple weeks ago. While Tasha and I were on vacation, we had the opportunity to hear an actress named Stephanie Beatriz talk about coming out as bisexual, and what this has meant for her professionally and personally. In talking about coming out to her family, she began this part of her story by saying, "They're really religious." At that moment, everyone in the room knew what she was going to say next. We knew that she was going to say that they weren't supportive of her because of their religious beliefs. Unfortunately, we were right. She shared how they had a hard time with her coming out. While they didn't disown her the way some families do when their children come out, they won't really totally affirm her either. Recently, the character she plays on TV recently came out in the course of a storyline. While Ms. Beatriz' family usually talks to her a lot about her character, they won't talk to her about this storyline yet. They are religious, you see. This is one step farther than they are willing to go.
I don't know when "Christian" and "religious" became shorthand for mean and unreasonable. I do know that this is has been a common narrative for most of my life. To be fair, Christians have often lived up to these bad reputations. When you look at the kind of Christianity that has shaped public discourse over the last 40 years, it is not often a generous or joyful iteration of the faith. Just this week, in Oklahoma, the state legislature has passed a bill that will likely be used to keep LGBTQ people from being allowed to adopt children. That bill has been supported by many legislators who call themselves Christians. Also, this week, the leader of one of the largest Christian denominations in the country has been in the news for saying that abuse is not a valid reason for getting a divorce. Regularly, "religious" people decry the dangers of having children outside of marriages while also doing little to make sure poor folks, who's marriages often suffer because of financial instability, have programs available to support their families. "Christian" people will be in the news for being unwelcoming to their Muslim neighbors who are trying to build a new mosque while also insisting that every football game and school day start with a Christian prayer.
Even as the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's was rooted in a liberative and justice-seeking Christianity, the culture wars of the last several decades have not been shaped by the same kind of public testimony. Christianity has, too often, had a nasty public face. Too many Christians have had trouble living out a faith that looks like the faith described in today's readings. In the first reading, Philip happily taught the Ethiopian eunuch about Jesus, even though Philip's own religious community would have excluded the Ethiopian because eunuchs had ambiguous gender identities. When the eunuch asked to be baptized, to become part of their community, Philip saw no good reason to say no. In the second, the author tells a Christian community that "everyone who loves is born of God and knows God." The writer asserts that love is the primary attribute of God and of the Christian community that serves God. The person who wrote this letter said very clearly that our communities should be known by their love, not by stinginess or self-righteousness or hostility to outsiders.
It is possible to live in Christian community that looks more like Philip and 1 John and less like the hard-hearted Christians who have hurt so many people in God's name. I know it's possible because it's what we're trying to do in this church. Through your Church World Service donations, and the deacons' fund, through your work at the food pantry and your welcome to new comers in this community, you are practicing faith as love. But, if we want to counter the "mean Christian" narrative, it is going to take a whole lot more people living a loving faith out loud. I want to share a story with you about another Christian I've seen living out this kind of love-rooted faith. I've told a couple of you all this story already. But, this scripture reminded me so much of another encounter I had on vacation that I had to preach about it today.
At the same convention where I heard the panel I mentioned earlier, I also had the opportunity to meet an actress named Nafessa Williams. She plays a superhero who is part of a whole family of superheroes on the TV show Black Lighting. One thing I appreciate about this show is that her fictional family, the Pierce family, are Christians who live a loving faith. They pray, and attend worship, and go to protests together. Throughout the course of the show, they talk about how to use their powers in service to their neighbors. Ms. Williams' character in particular talks about how her powers are "a gift from God." It is important to note that while Ms. Williams is straight, her character is a lesbian. It is also important to note that her character's devout Christian family wholeheartedly supports her. Not once in the narrative of this program has her character ever been asked to choose between her faith and her sexuality. Now, this... this is the kind of Christianity that I want to see more of in the media. This is a faith lived in love.
When I got the chance to speak with Ms. Williams, I thanked her for portraying a faith like this. I said that I think it's important for there to be models of generous Christianity in the media. The moment she heard me say that I think it's important to see Christians who unabashedly support their daughter, she stopped everything she was doing and put her hands on my shoulders. She even turned me slightly so she could look right in my eyes. She started to preach to me. Frankly, I was so surprised by her generous response to me that I don't actually remember exactly what she said. But, I know she made sure that I knew that I was a beloved child of God, and that everybody who comes out should have an experience like her character did. Now, it's been a while since I've needed to be assured that I have a place in the Christian community. I had other Christians who did this for me a long time ago. But, she didn't know that. All she knew what that far too many people don't get that kind of welcome from Christian community. And she is a Christian. She is called to love. She wanted to make sure that I knew that I was beloved. So, she stopped everything she was doing to tell me.
After I met her, I paid attention to some interviews she gave through the rest of the weekend. Repeatedly, she said, "I feel like God has put me here." She talked about feeling a calling to give black women and LGBTQ people a hero to look up to. She has a profound sense of purpose, rooted in both her own experience as someone who needed to see people like her on television and also in her belief in Christ's love. Now, none of us in this room are on TV like she is, but we will each have an opportunity to testify to God's love like she did. If we love one another, God lives in us, and God's love is perfected in us. How are you going to make sure somebody knows that God is this love? How are you going to live a life that shows the world a Christianity rooted in love?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
J.R. Daniel Kirk: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3633
Alicia Myers: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3632
Judith Jones: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2448
Simone Sunghae Kim, "Fifth Sunday of Easter," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
An article about the Oklahoma adoption bill- https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/oklahoma-advances-adoption-bill-could-discriminate-against-gay-couples-n870186
Article about Patterson's views on abuse and marriage- https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2018/04/29/southern-baptist-leader-pushes-back-after-comments-leak-urging-abused-women-to-pray-and-avoid-divorce/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.6035b35b1b89
To Shepherd and To Build: Acts 4:5-12 and John 10:11-18
Each of our two readings for the day, Act 4:5-12 and John 10:11-18, has a different and interesting central metaphor for how we are to understand Jesus. Through Christian history, both of these metaphors have taken root in Christian community. If you spend some time among Christians, at some point, you will encounter art and songs and simple short hand for Jesus that includes these phrases. There is even a low-cost loan program from the national office of the United Church of Christ called the Cornerstone Fund. It's a fund that helps church better use their real estate serve God and neighbor. It makes sense that they use a construction metaphor for Jesus as their name. There are churches all over the country... all over the world, really, that have names like Good Shepherd, Shepherd of the Hills, Chapel of the Shepherd, and Shepherd of the Valley. Plenty of Christians understand Jesus as their guide and protector. No wonder so many churches are named shepherd. This Sunday in the church year is even called Good Shepherd Sunday. That probably means "shepherd" is an important metaphor.
The great thing about metaphors is that they have layers of meanings. And, they can be important to different people for different reasons. It's probably worth taking some time to explore just what these two metaphors- Jesus as cornerstone and Jesus as shepherd- have to say to us today. The foundations of the world we know are ever changing. We look for guidance on how to understand Jesus and follow him in a world so different from the one he knew. What does it mean for us to have Jesus as a cornerstone and to follow Jesus as a sheep follows its shepherd? How do these stories live in our everyday context?
First, the cornerstone. The book of Acts is the sequel to the Gospel of Luke. It is a collection of stories about Jesus' disciples and their ministry after the resurrection. There was conflict at the end of Jesus' life in Luke. The conflict continued through the early ministries of his first followers. The apostles Peter and John were leaders, and therefore, targets in the early movement. This part of Acts 4 tells a story of a time they arrested and go to trial. They have continued Jesus' ministry of healing, which garners them attention from people who are suspicious of their actions. You see, there was an official religious process to being healed. You went to the temple. Officials in the temple examined you. It was only after this examination and their verification would the community accept that you were healed. In Acts chapter 3, Peter and John bypassed this process, healing a man with mobility issues as they themselves traveled to the temple. They did so without communal authority and they did not direct him to seek official healing. They simply healed him, and then preached about that healing in order to teach people something more about Jesus. As you know, when people work outside of the accepted systems, the people who run the systems don't always like that.
An important thing to remember is that much of the conflict during Jesus and the earliest disciples' ministries was a conflict among people of the same faith. Jesus was Jewish and offered a critique of the practices of many leaders in his tradition. In following his example, Peter and John also offered a critique of their leaders. Now, a generous reading of this courtroom scene would admit that priests, Sadducees, and the captain of the temple had a right to question anyone who was preaching and healing in this place of worship. This was their holy space, they had a responsibility to make sure that anyone healing and preaching there did so in good faith and in accordance with their traditions. They had the right to question anyone who preached or healed there, especially if a preacher was openly critical of their practices. We shouldn't be surprised when they ask John and Peter what gave them the power to heal. We shouldn't be surprised that they want to make sure the healings happen in their God's name.
This is where we are reminded that following Jesus often means being willing to be in conflict with your own leaders. It also means being willing to tell the truth about how you experience God, even when it differs from how others experience God. When Peter and John explained how they could heal the man at the temple gates, they can't help but talk about Jesus. You see, even though Jesus is no longer with them physically, the Holy Spirit is living in them and empowering them to continue Christ's own mission. Peter, though he knew he could be punished, told them about his mission. He told them how Jesus had taught them to heal and taught them about God's beloved kin-dom. He told them about how God had proven stronger than death in the resurrection. And, he reasserted his deep connection to their shared tradition by citing Psalm 118. He believed that this Psalm of Thanksgiving said something about how to understand Jesus. A stone that builders once rejected was actually strong enough to be a cornerstone. Jesus was that cornerstone.
This means that Jesus was the foundation of all they did. Jesus inspired them to heal and to work outside of structures that left little room for grace. Jesus taught them to recognize people in need and to help them, even when it was inconvenient. Jesus modeled truth-telling for them, showing that the truth is important enough that it is worth the risk of telling it. And, he showed them a vision of God who would not let death the last word. Each of these lessons became the foundation for their ministry and for the beginning of the church. With a cornerstone that they could be sure of, they were able to build upon their foundation. We, as inheritors of their traditions, are called to keep on building.
And, what of our second reading, Jesus' description of the Good Shepherd? There are many stories of sheep and shepherds in whole Bible in general, and in John in particular. As members of an agrarian community, the people who listened to Jesus would have responded well to these images. They were shepherds and farmers. They understood the relationship between the sheep and the shepherd. Their livelihoods depended upon competent shepherds who could care for the flocks that provided for their food, their religious sacrifices, and their ability to trade with others. It was wise for Jesus to teach using an example of sheep and shepherds. They understood what it meant to care for a flock.
John 10 is actually a story similar to Acts 4, but instead of Peter and John being questioned, it's Jesus. He has just healed someone outside the bounds of their traditional healing rituals. This healing shocked everyone. The leaders of the community, though they don't arrest him, are still suspicious of his power. Jesus takes this time to explain where his power comes from and how he's going to use it with a metaphor that the people understood. Like Peter and John who call up on the Psalms to explain Jesus as a cornerstone, Jesus calls up on the imagery of the shepherd in Hebrew Scripture to explain his ministry. Like the shepherd in Psalm 23, he was offering the man he healed access to good pasture, safe paths, and cool water. There is a shepherd in the book of Ezekiel, too. That shepherd sought out the lost and wounded sheep. Jesus had sought out this wounded man and healed him. There is also a shepherd in Isaiah. This shepherd comforts and heals his sheep. That is the core of Jesus' ministry: Offering comfort and healing. Jesus said he is a good shepherd. He will do all of these things. He is more than a hired hand. He will call out to his sheep and they will know him. He will sacrifice himself for them.
Throughout John, Jesus functions as this good shepherd. Jesus called out the names of Lazarus and Mary Magdalene, first when he healed Lazarus, and second, when he showed Mary that he had risen, inviting them to his flock. He made sure his sheep were safe when he left his disciples in the garden and gave himself up to the authorities, rather than ask the disciples to hide him away. He found his sheep when he found each one of his disciples, and called them to ministry. A good shepherd is willing to risk his life for the safety of his sheep, as Jesus risked the cross in order to bring about a reign of love and justice for God's people. Importantly, though, Jesus wasn't the only shepherd. In the days after the resurrection, Jesus told Peter he needed to be a shepherd, too. In John 21, Jesus said, "Simon (that's one of Peter's names), do you love me more than these?" Peter said of course he loved him. Jesus told him, "Feed my lambs." He told him, "Tend to my sheep." He said, "Feed my sheep." Jesus was not the only shepherd. His followers are shepherds, too.
We have Christ as a cornerstone for our ministries of healing and proclamation. We are called to be shepherds and tend to Christ's sheep. We have in these stories, examples of the forebears of our faith risking censure, at best, and imprisonment and death at worst, by following their calling. Ours is a time when there is a great need for builders and shepherds. Ours is culture less concerned with tending and feeding, and more inclined to separating and destroying. As our social safety nets are threatened with budget cuts and our neighbors are threatened because of the color of their skin and the content of their faith, we need people who are willing to stand up, like Jesus, John, and Peter did. People who are willing to be instruments of healing and nurture instead of destruction and greed. There is going to come a time when each of us will have to answer questions about who calls us to such work. May we be willing to live like Jesus is our cornerstone. May we be up to the task of serving as his shepherds.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5130
Osvaldo Vena: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3628
J.R. Daniel Kirk: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3630
Mitzi J. Smith: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1250
While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.
Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.
Looking for Jesus- Luke 24:36b-48
The women had told them that Jesus had risen. In this way, Luke is very much like John and Matthew. The women who had followed Jesus and later went to tend to his body were the first witnesses to the resurrection. They became the first preachers of this particular piece of Good News. But the male disciples did not believe them. They thought Mary Magdalene, Joanna, James' mother Mary, and the other unnamed women who were present were simply telling "an idle tale"… a lie or gossip or garbage, you know the things women's stories get dismissed as all the time. The women had seen the presence of God through two beings in dazzling white. They had been reminded of Jesus' own message that death need not be the end. But, the men, with the exception of Peter, did not think their report was worth heeding. Either it was too strange or they were too sad to be willing to entertain any hope after the crucifixion. The women had told them that Jesus had risen. They chose not to believe.
Eventually, someone believed the women, else we would not be here. Today's reading describes how some people came to believe. There are two stories. Our reading for the day is the second. First is the story of the two people meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus. I tell this story sometimes when we share communion. After all, it's a story where Jesus' friends recognized him in the breaking of the bread. That's one place we, too, regularly recognize Jesus, in the breaking and sharing of a simple meal. Those two, Cleopas and an unnamed disciple, run to tell the others, just as the women had. When they arrived, they learned that Simon has seen Jesus as well. As they talked about these incredible sightings, verifying what the women had said, Jesus appears once again and offers them peace.
I learned in my research this week that there are ancient historians who recorded different ways to check and see if a person is a ghost. Apparently, ghosts were a big enough concern that learned people developed tests for other people to make sure that the person they were talking to was really there. First, you may check the potential apparition's feet to see if they are touching the ground. You might also check their hands, to see if they feel solid. You may examine their teeth and watch them eat. Jesus followed the template of this kind of test to show that he was not a ghost. Though he has offered peace with his appearance, he saw that they were frightened. He saw that they had doubts. He knew this kind of ghost test would be familiar to them, so he ran through the motions, showing his hands, his feet, sharing some food. He needed to show them that he was real and really there. He needed them to believe.
I read another scholar this week who pointed out something interesting. María Teresa Dávila notes that while we are likely intended to read Jesus' resurrection as a victory, it is not a victory without cost. His body bears the marks his struggle. His hands and feet, though once again alive, are scarred by his interactions with the Empire. Victory didn't erase the scars. He continued to carry on his very skin the evidence of a life lived in radical commitment to God's love and justice. All of his ministry was created in the face of the destructive patterns of the Empire. Even his ultimate victory will always be remembered in light of his great vulnerability. His wounds were there. They knew it was him because they saw them. It did them no good to pretend that they weren't there. In fact, according to Dávila, it reminds us that "the work of building the beloved community takes place within history and within our wounded bodies." The presence of Christ's wounds helps show us that our own woundedness has a place in our community. We don't have to hide it in order to take part.
Once he was sure that they knew who he was, he reminded them why he was there. He reminded them that the Messiah wasn't a military leader who would be declaring war on God's behalf. He reminded them that repentance and forgiveness were central to his life and should be central to their on-going ministry. And, he told them that they had a future... one without his physical presence but still guided by the Spirit. In a lovely little line just after today's reading, Jesus said they will be clothed with power from on high. But, they have to wait for it. God will give them what they need to do this work. They are already the witnesses to God's grace in this story. There will come a time very soon where they will share what they've seen.
The thing is, it is not just the ancient disciples who are witnesses to the Resurrection. We are, too. We have encountered Christ in so many ways. We know that there is something Divine that is real and bigger than us and that there is a just and loving future we are building with the Holy Spirit. We probably didn't ask to be a witness. One rarely does. And, yet, here we are witnesses to the movement of God in this world, tasked with sharing the word, and empowered to carry this mission out. In so many ways, we are like these men. We have seen the Lord. Now, we are invited to share that experience.
It's not always easy to bear witness, though. We can get out of practice, if we ever really started to begin with. I read something from the scholar Lucy Lind Hogan that I thought might help give us some form to our witness... help us flesh out how we describe our God to someone else. What she wrote is actually a shorthand description of today's reading... an easier way to understand how this story flows. I think it can also help guide us in our learning to be witnesses for Christ. The whole process centers around these 5 words:
We won't always initially understand our encounters with Christ. Each encounter we have must be examined. We will practice discernment informed by prayer, the scriptures, and by our interactions in Christian community. With all the sources and some guidance from the Holy Spirit, we can work to more fully explain and understand how we've encountered Christ. We can never say fully what and who God is, but we come closer every time we are willing to share some of our story with others.
The eating part is important, too. This isn't just about an ancient ghost test. I think it can be shorthand for relationality. We share food in worship when we take communion. That is a ritual that is always supposed to teach us something about the presence of Christ. We share food in community, having coffee and cookies after church while we catch up on our weeks and baking casseroles for someone who has been ill. We share food with complete strangers at the food pantry and at lunches on our lawn. When we eat together, we care for one another and give one another the opportunity to, once again, experience Christ through fellowship.
When we've had an encounter that feels holy and placed it in conversation with our scriptures and traditions... when we've prayed about it and talked about it with people we trust... when we feel like we might have an explanation or a couple explanations for our Holy experiences... when the Holy Spirit moves with us, we may feel a sense of enlightenment. Even in times when it's hard to communicate what we experienced, we are called to try. We are called to practice. Jesus promised that we can be clothed with power from on high that will help us share this good news. Now we just have to live like we believe it.
Shortly after our reading for today, Jesus exits the story for the final time, carried away to be with God. We will exit, too, from this house of worship, from our homes and places of work, from the plays and games and activities that provide us with evermore opportunities to encounter Christ. We will exit the place where we have sought sustenance for our journey. When we leave, we are invited to go out singing God's praises. We will exit so that we can proclaim the Good News of our encounters with Christ so that the whole world will know something more about love and justice. We will leave as witness to God's loving future. Even with our fears and our doubts, we are still witnesses. May we help one another to live out this holy calling.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3627
Lucy Lind Hogan: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1238
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5126
María Teresa Dávila "Third Sunday of Easter," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
Whom Are You Looking For? John 20:1-18
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. That is how this whole Gospel begins... with poetry that is trying to tell us something about Jesus. It says, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." There are few lovelier phrases in the whole Bible. John wants to make sure we understand something. Jesus was close to God... was as close to God as a word on God's lips. Jesus was at the beginning, the word that started everything. Jesus was a Word that had life to it... that created... that had power. Jesus was the Word and this Word is life and builds life and is the light the gives life. Jesus is a Word that can never be drowned out or overcome. Jesus is a light that never will truly be put out. We should remember that when we start today's reading in the darkness of the tomb.
John asserts that this Word was never simply an idea or a feeling. Not that ideas and feelings aren't important or powerful. It's just that John thought this Word was concrete. This Word became flesh and lived among us. This Word is like us, experiencing every facet of what it means to be human. The Word was born and had a family, though the Gospel of John chooses not to outline all of that story. This Word had friends and enemies. This Word hungered and grew thirsty. This Word mourned and laughed and wept and grew tired. In every way that one can be human, the Word was like us. This Word even died. That's how completely Jesus, the Word that was present at creation, identified with humanity. This identification had a purpose. The Word did not become flesh just to see if it could. Incarnation is not a Divine Power Trip. The beginning of this Gospel told us that this Word had a purpose. You see, all people who receive this word will be changed. Whomever receives this Word will become a child of God. This Word is here to create connection... to build a family with humanity. Nothing will be more powerful than this mission. Not even death can sever the connection from God through Jesus to humanity. The Word cannot be drowned out. Even the tomb cannot seal the Word away forever.
Even the location of this story tells us something about the relationship fostered by Jesus with God and humanity. In the same way the beginning of the Gospel calls us back to creation with the Word, this story calls back to creation with the garden. In the beginning of the whole Bible, God's first creations lived in the garden. God engaged with the ones in the garden. God called the Garden good. There was intimacy, life, and beauty in creation of the garden. The garden was a place of abundant life... life enabled and enacted by the Word. I am certain that Jesus' followers thought his crucifixion was his destruction. I am certain that they thought it was the end. But, we readers recognize words that we've heard before. We remember that good things happen in gardens. We know that in a garden there is always the possibility of new and abundant life. There are few places where the human and the Divine have been closer together than the garden. The Word can re-create life, even here, in this garden of death.
Mary will need to hear this Word before she'll understand the miracle that is happening right in front of her. Seeing won't quite be enough. This is not the first time that one has needed to hear the Word in order to know the Word. In chapter 10, when Jesus described his relationship with humanity, he said he was like a good shepherd who cared for his sheep. He said that he would do anything for his sheep and that he must add more to his fold. He said that his own sheep will hear his voice and follow him. He will call them by their name and will lead them out. Just as a blind man hears Jesus and believes in chapter 10 and Lazarus hears Jesus and is raised from the dead in in chapter 11, Mary will need to hear Jesus to understand that he is living again. She will need to hear the Word to understand.
First, she sees that the stone has been rolled away, and she is afraid. She goes and tells her friends who look and see that Jesus' body is not there. Then, in her deep mourning, she looks herself. She sees angels where Jesus' body is supposed to be. It appears that seeing angels isn't even enough to restore her hope. She continues to weep. The angels ask her why and she explains that she believes that someone has stolen Jesus' body and she does not know where they took him. In her distress, she turns away from the angels. Can you imagine being so bereft that angels don't even hold your attention? That's what Mary is feeling at this point. So, she turns around and sees a man who she thinks is a gardener. They are in a garden. It makes sense. She's still not seeing clearly, though. She still needs to hear the Word to understand.
Jesus speaks for the first time in the story. He asks her two questions: Why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for? The first question is one of compassion, a hallmark of his ministry. The second question calls us back to the beginning of his ministry. The first thing he ever said to his very first disciples is a similar question: "What are you looking for?" We are to read this and recognize it. We are to realize that we are hearing a new beginning. But, she still doesn't recognize him. She asks him if he knows who took Jesus' body and offers to retrieve it. Jesus picks this moment to relive his role as the good shepherd. He says his sheep's name. He says to her, "Mary!" She hears the Word. She finally understands. The Word has not been erased. Jesus is risen.
At this moment, Mary joins the multiple other women who serve as the first witnesses to revelations of Christ. The Samaritan Woman at the well heard Jesus say "I AM," that is, I am the Messiah of which you've heard. Jesus' mother was the witness to his death on the cross. And, now, Mary Magdalene is the first to witness that Jesus has been raised from the dead. Jesus commissions her to be the first preacher of this good news, too. After he tells her that he can't stay, he reassures and tells her to deliver a special message to the others. He will ascend to God. This is where the greatest future promise lies. You see, this isn't simply a story about resurrection, that is, salvation from the grave. This is also a story about ascension. The ascension is the final act in this Gospel that assures the continuing relationship between God and God's children. Jesus doesn't just want Mary to say that he is risen. He wants her to remind them that the Word has made them children of God. Jesus' ascension will assure them of this promise and of their on-going relationship with God. Not even death can destroy that promise. So, Mary went to them and she preached the Word. She said, "I have seen the Lord." She reminded them of the promise.
While Mary was the first preacher of this particular good news, I believe Jesus' words to her have a lot to say to us, too. If Jesus were right here today and asked you, like he asked her and like he asked his first disciples, "What are you looking for? Who are you looking for," what would you tell him? What did you expect to see when you walked through these doors? If you didn't see what you expected, what would you need to hear in order to believe? What Word reminds you of Christ's promise? And, when you leave this place, what Word will you carry with you? What Word will make you shout "I have seen the Lord?" Who are you going to tell about Jesus?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Karoline Lewis, John (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014)
Randall C. Bailey, "Easter Day (Resurrection of Jesus), Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Mary Hinkle Shore: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3610
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5121
Lucy Lind Logan: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1236
Also, our great Easter art came from the Salt Project: http://www.saltproject.org/
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?” just say this, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.” ’ They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’ They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
Why Are You Doing This? Mark 11:1-11
This story of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem in the days leading up to the crucifixion is both important and familiar. It's a story important enough that it gets told in all for Gospels. Jesus' birth isn't even talked about in all four Gospels. Jesus' entry into Jerusalem is so special that it gets its own special day on the church calendar. If a story comes up four times, we should probably pay attention to it. Here are some details of the version in Mark that we would do well to remember. First, there is only one donkey. There are two donkeys in one of the other stories. Second, is that Jesus is borrowing the donkey, not taking it. Even though it's a strange request, the disciples are willing to go find someone to borrow a donkey from in order for Jesus to use it. And, the donkey's owner is willing to loan it out. Third, nobody talks about palm branches specifically in this story. Palm branches are associate with royalty during this era. This story only talks about regular branches. Fourth, when Jesus finally makes it into town, he goes to the temple and looks around quietly. He doesn't flip over any tables on this first day back in town. He simply checks things out, and leaves with his disciples to spend the night in Bethany.
And, a fifth thing we should remember: In every version of this story, Jesus is coming to Jerusalem alongside hundreds of other pilgrims. It is Passover. Of the many Jewish festivals each year, Passover has some of the strongest connections to revolution. It is one of the most important festivals and it centers on the delivery of the people from slavery. It is all about liberation. These big crowds and memorials to liberation would have made Rome nervous. Rome was the new Egypt... the new Babylon... the new worldly power subjugating the people of Israel. Rome was concerned enough during this holiday of liberation that they would send three times the regular amount of military presence to the city in order to handle any rabble-rousers. The military general himself, Pontius Pilate, went to the city to keep the so-called peace by any means necessary. Their dangerous presence would shadow all the talk of liberation and divine provision of the festival. We should pay attention to it in our interpretations, too.
This story is situated at an important time in the church year, too. It comes up the Sunday before Easter. As Jesus enters the city, we enter Holy Week... the time of prayer, faithfulness, betrayal, and crucifixion. If we are walking into this last week with Jesus, how does this story shape the way we approach the stories of the coming week? What does this story teach us about Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday? Does it help us anticipate Easter Sunday? Dr. Fred Craddock has a paradigm that he suggests as one way to understand Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. I find it compelling. I think you might, too. He said that you can read this story as a parade, a protest, and a funeral procession all at the same time. It sounds a little complicated, but Jesus is complicated. Life is complicated. I suppose you could simplify the reading a bit and concentrate on just one of these types of processions. But, I think you miss something important if you do so. So, let's sit with the complexity a bit and explore how a parade, a funeral procession, and a protest can be wrapped up in one story. I think it will help us get through the next week.
First the parade. It helps if you know something about ancient royal parades and the expectations for the coming of the Messiah. After reading the work of several different scholars, here are some things I've been able to piece together. The Mount of Olives, the place where this story starts, is associated with the Messiah. The use of this particular donkey as his primary conveyance into the city is a royal thing, too. Zechariah 9:9 tells of a humble king who rides into the city on a young donkey. Parts of Numbers, Deuteronomy, and 1 Samuel all talk about animals that have never been used before being set aside for religious purposes. Also, kings, not random roving teachers, have the right to commandeer an animal for a special purpose. It sure seems like Jesus commandeered this animal for special purpose.
The practice of laying branches and clothes down on the road was a way to smooth the way forward for royalty in 1 Kings and 1 Maccabees. The words the people shouted had royal connotations, too. Psalm 118 is a psalm used at times of enthronement. The shouts from the people and promises from the leader in this psalm remind those present of God's liberation and provision. This Psalm was also connected to the story of David, the great king of Israel, and the hopes that a leader from his line might return to help save the people. The words of Psalm 118, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord"… these words are what you call out to a king or what you call out to the Messiah. This story sounds a little like a royal parade. It sounds like they are calling Jesus the anointed one who would save them.
The thing is, if this is a royal parade, it's a really weird one. Even with all of this ancient Jewish symbolism, it is missing the marks of the greatest ruling power in the area: Rome. Unlike, say, Pilate's own entry into the city, Jesus' entry into the city is not recognized as special by the Empire. None of the important, powerful people of the city rush out to meet Jesus or welcome him with long-winded speeches. In fact, in this version of the story, none of his own religious leaders even came out to meet him. The streets are not lined with soldiers in gleaming armor or aristocratic people in finery, wearing signs of their wealth and power. Instead, it's just regular people with the clothes of their backs and branches hastily cut from the fields. Even Jesus' entry into the temple is quiet. There is no mention of sacrifices made for his sake or prayers lifted up in his honor.
So, maybe it's not quite a parade, but a satire of a parade, a kind of protest against the presence of Rome. The protest may be clearer in Matthew where, immediately following the parade, Jesus flips over tables and hassles money changers. That takes a little bit longer to happen in Mark. Jesus spend the night somewhere else before flipping tables and saying the money changers have made the temple a den of robbers. But, in this version, there is just enough to remind the people present of how God invites them to welcome in their leaders and how Rome requires them to greet their oppressors. Rome has to show off its might, with soldiers and flashy parades, overcompensating in order to make the people fearful. What would it mean for the people to great a common, poor man with the welcome of a king? What would it mean for them to greet Jesus with the phrase "Hosanna," which means "save us?" Is this a protest, where they proclaim their trust not in Rome, but in Christ?
What if this is also a funeral procession? We know that Jesus will not finish the week lifted high on a throne. We know that he will instead be lifted high up on the cross. In fact, the author of Mark has already told us three times that Jesus' ministry will end in the cross. Even as regular people shout out "Save Us," the Romans seem to ignore this hullabaloo. They saw this little pageant and didn't seem to imagine it to be a threat. Had it been, someone would have dispatched soldiers to break it up. But, no one did. And, while this crowd is greeting him in so many ways like the Messiah, days later, at his trial, another crowd, spurred on by Jesus's enemies, will call for his death. That tension didn't just appear as Jesus came into the city on this particular Passover. The tension has been building for weeks. Every shout for joy would have been tempered by calls for destruction. Just a few short verses after this reading, we are told that the leaders have begun, in earnest, to plot his death because they were afraid of him. This parade is beginning to look more and more like it leads to a funeral.
A Messiah who will be crucified. A king who cannot save himself but might save the world. A celebration on the way to the tomb. Acclaim, protest, and mourning... this is a story of all three. We need to keep all of these things in mind as we make our way into Holy Week. Each part of this story will help us understand the shape of Christ's ministry. Where are you finding yourself today? Along the parade route, joyfully shouting out to the one who will bring you freedom? In a stance of protest, choosing a compassionate, just leadership unlike the powers and principalities that currently rule? Maybe you are in mourning, lamenting that which has been destroyed, and unsure about the promise of resurrection that has been proclaimed for our future? All three are faithful responses to this story and to the movement of the Spirit. But, we should also remember, the entry into the city isn't the end of the story. There is always one step further on this journey. May we be just as ready to take our next step on our journey as Jesus was on his.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
C. Clifton Black: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2587
C. Clifton Black: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1919
Paul S. Berge: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1240
Kathryn Matthews: http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_march_25_2018
Teresa Lockhart Stricklen, "Sixth Sunday in Lent (The Liturgy of the Palms)," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Rob Browning: http://www.ethicsdaily.com/from-palm-branches-to-open-palms-cms-17792
Fred Craddock, "If Only We Didn't Know: Mark 11:1-11," The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002)
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
Written On Our Hearts: Jeremiah 31:31-34
I remember being in 3rd or 4th grade and taping music off the radio to listen to later. The tape deck didn't work in our radio. I could never get it to record. So, I had to get creative. My family had one of those clunky free-standing tape recorders... it was about the size of one of our hymnals and had really big buttons. I think my mom borrowed from my uncle Ben when she went back to college. She wanted to tape her class lectures. I wanted to use it to make mixtapes.
I'd take whatever blank, or mostly blank, tape I could find and load up the recorder. Then, I'd turn on the radio, preferably a countdown show of some kind. The songs I wanted to tape were almost always among the current hits. I could nearly guarantee that they'd be on a countdown show. I couldn't hook the recorder into the radio, so I had to hold it as close to the speakers as I could and hope the phone didn't ring or one of my little sisters didn't start talking in the background. Once I got everything set up, I'd lay down in the floor in front of the radio and wait.
If I was lucky and recording during one of the countdown shows, they'd say what the next song that was going to be. If I was just listening to the regular radio, I'd just have to pay close attention and be sitting with my finger at the ready. As soon as I heard the song I liked, I'd rush to smash down the record button. At least 67% of the time, I'd miss a little bit of the introduction of the song. Sometimes I'd stop the song, too early, too, so instead of a gentle fade out (that's when songs still had fade out at the end), there'd just be a click and nothing. Then, the next taped song would have an abrupt beginning a few words into the song. Sometimes you might even hear a phone ring or a two-year-old yell in the background. These were some super high-class recordings.
I wanted to tape these songs because I wanted to memorize them. I wanted to be able to sing along with Richard Marx's "Right Here Waiting For You" while riding in the car with my teenage cousin Larissa. I wanted to belt out the words to "Blame It On the Rain" and "Miss You Much" while dancing in my friend Ashley's basement. I needed to listen to "We Didn't Start the Fire" enough times so I could keep up with fast-paced, complicated lyrics referencing world politics that I didn't even come close to understanding. Just this last Sunday, as I turned on my car to come to church, I heard the familiar strains of "Love Shack" by the B-52's come on the radio. I sang every word. It's been almost 30 years since that song came out, and I still know every clap, breath, and bang, bang, bang on the door. Those lyrics are transposed onto some deep, dark recess of my brain. If you say to me, "Hop in my Chrysler," I'm going to know that it's as big as a whale and it's about to set sail!
My childhood wasn't all pop songs though. I learned some hymns and prayers, too. The Lord's Prayer was probably the first prayer I ever memorized. We had a small wooden plaque with of the prayer that hung on our wall. The same one had hung on my grandparents' wall when my mother was young. Later, as an adult working in hospice, I came to truly appreciate the power of this prayer. I spent much of my time with people whose memories were very poor. In some cases, their dementia was so advanced that they could no longer string together enough words to create a complete sentence. It was during these visits with people in various states of memory loss that I began be more intentional about praying the Lord's Prayer during our visits. I don't remember if another chaplain suggested I offer to pray it with people or if I just started saying it myself. Most of the people I worked with had been raised in Christian churches. Nearly all of them had learned this prayer as they were children and had repeatedly weekly, if not daily, much of their lives.
Despite some variations in version, like how some people say "sins" and others say "trespasses," nearly everyone knew the words, even if their memories were very poor. At the end of our visits, I would offer prayer. That was a word many people remembered, too. If someone I was visiting said yes, they'd like a prayer, I would begin to say the Lord's prayer. It was amazing. People who could still speak clearly would usually say the words with me. On some occasions, a person might have trouble remembering all the words but could still pick up a few of them... Maybe the "Our Father" or the "on earth as it is in heaven." They usually remembered the Amen. I visited one lady who really couldn't say any clear words any more, but she smiled and laughed a lot and hummed along with music. If I prayed the Lord's Prayer with her, she would mumble and hum along with me, matching the rhythm in which I was praying. She could almost finish with the whole word "Amen." She prayed like this with me during every one of our visits. Even as so many of her words were gone, this prayer was still inside of her... familiar and comforting. I think she was glad to pray it with me.
When I was in college, with the help of grants and student loans, I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to Brazil. Brazil has a racialized history that is similar to the US in many ways. Like with US history, it is impossible to understand Brazilian history without taking into account European colonialism, the destruction of indigenous communities, and the enslavement of millions of Africans. When I was traveling in the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia, I learned about some parts of West and Central African cultures that managed to survive slavery and colonization. You see, the people who had been enslaved developed a martial art called capoiera. Capoiera looks like a dance and is played like a game.
A capoiera match is played between two people who use a series of movements, including kicks and swipes of legs, flips, handstands, and spins, to try to trip each other up while also avoiding being touched by their competitor. At the time I traveled to Brazil, I learned that capoiera had developed in this way in order to practice fighting in a manner that looked like enough like dancing that it confused the slave owners. This was one way that people could prepare for a rebellion. But, this practice did more than help them prepare for fights. It helped the people maintain parts of their ancestors' culture in the face of white supremacy. It also allowed them to feel strong when the people who enslaved them needed them to feel powerless. It even helped them create a series of ritual acts that was outside of the culture that oppressed them. Capoiera, and other Western and Central African cultural practices, provided enslaved people a place to be creative and come together in fellowship, reminding one another of their shared humanity in the face of racist cruelty. Capoiera was a more than a game. It was a way to re-inscribe pride and a sense of self that slavery attempted to erase. Many of the people who were enslaved did not survive. For the ones who did, this practice of capoeira was a place where they could feel the beginnings of their liberation... it was a source of a new, and also very old, way of living.
What are the things that are inscribed on your very heart? What instructions from God have curled up around your bones and made you strong? What words and songs and rhythms are keys to the memories that are the foundations of your life? I think people keep reading these prophecies of Jeremiah thousands of years after they were written, because we know something about having words written on our hearts. We know what it means to have ideas so deeply embedded in our behavior that they might as well be the blood that pumps through our veins. The pop songs that taught us something about growing up, the ancient prayers that teach us about staying connected, the movements and dances and rhythms that help us survive unspeakable injustice... all written on the hearts of the people, carried into a new world, a new life stage, a new relationship. What are the things that are inscribed on your very heart? What are the words that shape the foundation of your very being?
Jeremiah knew the people would need help rebuilding after the exile. Jeremiah knew that one word, covenant, was written on the hearts of his people. Their covenant with God is scrawled across the promise to all creation after the flood, the promise to Sarah and Abraham's descendants, and the promises to the lost and fearful in the desert. At the core of their common lives is the God who promises, who forgives, who holds people accountable, and, most of all, who is faithful. In the midst of the desolation of exile, these words could be lost in the jumble of trauma, destruction, and suffering. In order to rebuild, Jeremiah knew that a new version of this covenant must arise. It will be in the pattern of the old: both parties will be committed. Both parties will tend to the powerless and the fearful. Both parties will be accountable. But, this covenant will also be new. The years of exile will change the people. The covenant can't look quite the same. But, the words will be there. Deep within them. Renewed and moving them to love of God and love of neighbor. These words are here for us, too. What words has God written on your heart? What new creation and liberation are they calling you to today?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Commentary from the Salt Project: http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/lectionary-commentary-lent-5
Kathryn Matthews: http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_march_18_2018
Lee H. Butler, Jr., "Fifth Sunday in Lent," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Information about Capoeira: http://www.capoeirabrasil.com/the-history-of-capoeira/
Terence E. Fretheim: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3607
Mark S. Gignilliat: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1210
To Be Lifted
Several weeks ago, I sat down to study and discern what theme to preach on this Lent. I started reading through the scriptures suggested by the reading cycle I often use. I was particularly struck by the stories from the Hebrew Bible. Many of the stories were familiar. How many times have I read or heard a sermon on the Ten Commandments or on God's covenant with Abraham and Sarah? The story of Noah's family and the ark is a Bible story I've literally known most of my life. These are stories of promises and covenants made between God and humanity that have become foundational to how I understand the Bible. I was not surprised that these readings would come up during the season of Lent, when Christians are invited to consider our own commitments to God and one another. Even though the presence of these stories did not surprise me, the presence of another story about God's promise did. It's the story of the bronze serpent in Numbers 21.
The book of Numbers is not a book I think about very often. It is not referenced in the Gospels as often as, say, Isaiah (which I think about all the time) or in common worship usage as something like the Psalms. In the 3-year reading cycle that shapes my preaching, a cycle that suggests 4 different readings each Sunday, a reading from Numbers may come up only once per year. Compare that to Genesis or Exodus or Deuteronomy that are suggested multiple times during every year of the reading cycle. It's not that nothing important happens in Numbers. Plenty of things happen.
This is a book that is mostly set during the wilderness travels of the Exodus. You remember how last week I said that there are actually 613 commandments, not just 10. A bunch of those other commandments, instructions on orienting one's life around God and neighbor and not according to slavery, are here in the book of Numbers. Also, this is a book where we continue to observe Moses acting as a mediator between God and the people. And, importantly, it is in this book where the people come to the end of their wilderness. They will be standing on the river Jordan, preparing to go to the Promised Land. This book tells us how they prepared to go into the promised land. Wilderness travel. Instruction. Preparation. These are not unimportant themes, especially in Lent. What is interesting is that the reading that shows up this season is not one sections of commandments or one of the descriptions of the leaders who will take over for Moses. No, the story that shows up here is a story about a bronze snake on a pole. What on earth does this story have to tell us about God's promises?
I won't blame you if you're not as familiar with the story as you are with Abraham and Sarah or Noah's family and the ark. Like I said, it doesn't come up nearly as often in Christian circles as those other stories do. It starts out a lot like a story we're more familiar with, the story of manna in desert. The people who are traveling in the midst of a desert, and are probably very afraid, start wondering if maybe things weren't better off in Egypt. The difference in this story is that we're told that they are 40 years into their journey and have become fearful. They have had the manna and quails in the desert for decades now. You would think that would have been enough to show them that God would provide for them. Generations of slavery and general crankiness are hard habits to break, though. Even a life in God's provision can seem burdensome. The scripture tells us that they have become impatient. So, they do what impatient people often do... they complain.
God in these stories reads more like another character whose personality you have to take into account. It appears that God is a little cranky, too. After 40 years, God is tired of hearing people complain about the food, and probably a little tired of hearing questions about whether or not God is actually doing right by them. So, God decides to teach the people a lesson. Now, I think this part says more about how people try to explain away difficult events than it does about the actual character of God. Nevertheless, we should pay attention to how these people explained a weird and scary thing that happened in their community. The authors of this book said God sent down a bunch of poisonous snakes. Now, who here would find living in the midst of a bunch of poisonous snakes pretty terrifying? Yeah, me, too. Every time I go visit family in Texas, I have to remind myself that rattlesnakes are real things that hang out in shady spots where I also like to hang out. My mom has nearly jogged over rattle snakes on several occasions. One of her dogs very nearly came to an early end when he saw a big ol' rattler and tried to eat it. If I thought God was dropping all those snakes on me, I would be unnerved to say the least.
The Exodus story has lots of plagues in it. They are ways to show how powerful God is. Some are painful, like boils and leprosy. Some are scary, like rivers of blood. Some are weird, like all those frogs that fell from this sky. This one strikes me as a little different though. Venomous snakes, while dangerous, don't chase you down to hurt you. They don't stalk you through the night. You have to do something to a snake, either surprise it or intentionally make it mad, before it will bite you. This plague, while dangerous, it is mostly dangerous in potential. It's not quite a trap, but is an accident waiting to happen. If you aren't careful, you will be hurt. But, you can navigate around the danger. You shake out your boots before you put them on. You don't go digging around under logs or in piles of leaves without checking first. If you want to sit on a rock, you check around the rock before you sit down. When you live with something so dangerous as this plague of snakes, vigilance reshapes your life so that you can stay safe.
In the Bible story, as in real life, people end up getting bitten. This happens sometimes when you live with snakes. You accidentally run into them. You get annoyed and try to move them. You compete for space and you occasionally loose. Enough people were being bitten that the people grew afraid, again, and this time blamed themselves instead of God. That said that they had messed up by speaking against God and against Moses. They begged Moses to intervene with God and get rid of the snakes. Moses prayed on their behalf. God helps, but not in the way the people expected. God doesn't take away the snakes, these scaly reminders that life is best lived with great care and attention, but God does give them a way to be healed when they do run afoul, intentionally or accidentally, of a snake. In a time before anti-venom existed, the people needed something that sure looks like magic to us. God had them build a bronze serpent. When they looked at it, they were healed.
Man, this is a wild story. It could be easy to dismiss it as superstition. I think it is worth more than a dismissal. Remember, Numbers is a book about, at least in part, all those instructions for shaping your life according to love of God and love of neighbor. When the people have forgotten these instructions, forgotten to live a life a worship and service and trust in God, they begin to fall back into the patterns of slavery and deprivation. They worry that God's provision will run out. They complain and whine and fight. The commandment shape of their lives becomes warped. They fall into old patterns of jealousy, destruction, and scarcity thinking. These patterns are dangerous. They can fall into them accidentally, by habit, or intentionally, out of frustration.
I wonder if the fear of the snakes, and the necessity of shaping one's life in response to the presence of the snakes, is meant to be a parallel to the way one can live one's life according to God's instruction. A fuller and longer life is possible, even when surrounded by danger, when a person is willing to be attentive and responsive to powerful external forces. You have to be willing to shake out those boots and look under the logs. And, when you do step on the snake, you have to be confident that God has a way to heal you.
Maybe that's why the author of John liked this image of the snake on the pole as a metaphor for Jesus. Jesus can be both the vector of healing, like the bronze snake, and the reminder of God's instruction, like God's words as heard through Moses. While John didn't believe that God simply removed the hard and dangerous parts of life, John did believe that it was possible for people to pattern their lives that took temptation to destruction, scarcity, and fear into account. This story from Numbers has both the healing and the reminder to follow God that John would have needed to explain Jesus' mission. For John, Jesus will always be there, a reminder to live life according to God's instruction and the method by which God will heal the world. It's kind of weird metaphor to our modern ears, but, John found it meaningful.
Perhaps our question, as modern-day readers is, what can we see on high that will bring us back to the full life that God intends? If you're not looking for a snake on a stick to heal you, what are you looking for to remind you to shape your lives according to God's instruction? What heals you when you've poked the wrong snake or sat down on an ill-advised rock? Remember: We have access to great instruction. Let's hope we don't have to get bit by a snake to start looking for it.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Cameron B. R. Howard: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3606
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5075
Samuel Cruz: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3579
Karoline Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014).
Melissa Bane Sevier: https://melissabanesevier.wordpress.com/2015/03/12/snakes-on-a-plain/
Marilyn Salmon: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1256
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.