From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesusordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’
Always Something to Learn: Mark 7:24-37
*Today was the Sunday where we had the Blessing of the Backpacks and Lesson Plans. I asked the kids present at church several questions through the sermon. I’ve tried to include their answers in this post.
This Sunday, I asked the people gathered a couple questions:
Some of the things Jesus might have been taught while he was growing up could have made it hard for him to spend time with people who were of a different religion than him. For one, he might have been told not to hang out with people of a different religion at all. I grew up with Christian people who were taught that. He may have also been told not to talk to women that he didn’t know who weren’t in his family. Both of those things would be hard to do if he went to a place where mostly Gentiles lived. But, he decided to go there anyway. Did anybody hear why he went away to the place called Tyre?
It sounds like he was tired and needed a break. He had started his ministry of teaching and healing and it was so much work. He had gotten in pretty regular arguments with his religious leaders, he had gathered together his disciples, and his reputation had been spreading very quickly. Sometimes the crowds would be so big that he would get in a boat to preach from the sea so he could have a little space. Sometimes, when he tried to go out into the desert for some peace and quiet, scores of people would follow him. He would still help them as best he could, even feeding 5,000 of them in one story, but he grew tired. Do you think you’d be tired if you fed 5,000 people?
But, people had heard that he had helped so many people. That word had spread even beyond the people in his family and his religious community, all the way into the place that was mostly Gentiles. There was a woman whose daughter was sick. Nobody had been able to help her. The woman had heard about Jesus and thought maybe he could help. So, she went looking for him, even though he was trying to take some time off. She was probably not supposed to be talking to Jesus. They weren’t from the same family, or even the same religious community. Jesus and this woman (we don’t know her name) are people who probably would not have had any real reason to talk to each other had her daughter not been sick and had he not been able to heal people. But, he could heal people. And, her daughter really needed help.
Now, the last time people followed Jesus when he was taking time off, he still helped them. But, they were people like him. It’s sometimes easier to say yes to people who seem like they are like you. I’ve heard that it can be easier to feel empathy with somebody with whom you share something in common. It can be so much harder to empathize with people who are different, especially people that you may have been taught weren’t all that great to hang around with. Does anyone remember what Jesus said to this mom when she asked for his help?
That’s right. He said, “No.” He said no in kind of a harsh way, too. Do you remember it? “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s good and throw it to the dogs.” It seems like he saying that he came to help the people like him first and he said helping her would be like throwing good food to dogs. It’s like he called her a dog. That is really rude. Does anybody have any guesses why Jesus was rude to her at first? (maybe he was cranky and sometimes people are rude when they are cranky, maybe he really thought he shouldn’t be helping her) I think those are all really good possibilities. Some people think he was just testing her or using her experience to teach others who were watching. I don’t actually think either of those suggestions make what he said not rude. They just give him the benefit of the doubt.
I think we need to pay attention to what the mom says back to him. She was trying to figure out a way to take the unkind way he responded to her and turn it around on him so that he would help her. She remembered what it’s like to have dogs in your house. Does anyone here have a dog in their house? What do many dogs do while you are sitting at the dinner table? If your dog is like my dog, she kind of hangs around, waiting for something to fall or hoping she will get a treat from our plates. It turns out that dogs have been doing that for a very long time. This story was written down 2,000 years ago and that’s what dogs did then, too. She said, “Sir, even the dogs under the table get the children’s crumbs.” Even if one group of people was supposed to get all the stuff, that shouldn’t prevent someone else from using what is extra or what they threw away.
Now, Jesus could have decided that he still didn’t want to help. He was on vacation. He was mostly supposed to be helping his own people. But, he had already helped someone who was a Gentile in another mostly Gentile town, a place called Gersara. So, it doesn’t seem like he’s opposed to helping people different from him. It might be that he needs to reminded that he can do that here, too, in this predominantly Gentile town. Even though he’s tired, that doesn’t mean he has to limit his mission that God gave him. That means that Gentiles can hear his message, too, including this one who is interrupting his day off. She shows him, maybe even reminds him that his message his too powerful to limit to only the people who were like him. For showing him that more people can fed than he imagined, for showing a great and tenacious faith, he said her daughter was healed.
What do you think Jesus learned in this story? This healing would not have happened had Jesus not been willing to learn something new from a stranger that he had been taught not to talk to. The next story after this is another healing of a Gentile in a predominantly Gentile town. Then, the next story after that is an amazing miracle story, a second story about feeding a crowd. The first time that happens in Mark, the crowd is probably supposed to be all Jewish. This time, they are probably mostly Gentile. But, he feeds them all anyway, and saves the food left over, the crumbs, to share with more people later. I wonder if Jesus didn’t learn something powerful about his own ministry in this encounter. He could do more good than he may have been able to imagine, but only if he was willing to help people whom he had been taught to mistrust. It turns out that he could do a countless amount of good in God’s world.
What are some things that you’ve learned that help you follow God’s mission with greater joy and generosity? Have you ever learned something from a person who surprised you? From this story, it sure look like Jesus did. I hope we all can be more like Jesus. Willing to listen when someone responds to the ways we are unkind. Willing to change when someone makes a good point. Confident that we can share even more than we imagined, but only if we don’t let old divisions in our society keep us apart. I bet some of us will have the opportunity to be like Jesus this week. We may also have the opportunity to be like this woman. I hope you are ready to do both, because we need both of these kinds of people to do the Gospel in the world. We always have something to learn. May we be ready to learn it.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing this sermon:
Elisabeth Johnson: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3761
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5216
Alyce McKenzie: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=391
Micah Kiel: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2624
Barbara K. Lundblad, "Proper 18 , "" 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)
Carolyn C. Brown: http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2015/08/year-b-proper-18-23rd-sunday-in.html
Arise and Do the Word
Growing up, I don’t think I ever heard a sermon preached from the book of James. To be honest, I may have forgotten. I don’t really remember many sermons from when I was a kid, so maybe this is me being forgetful. But, really, I don’t remember hearing something specific from this book until I was in college. That’s when I learned about another part of James. It’s over in chapter 2. In a book that is very concerned with exhorting Christians to fully living out their faith, chapter 2, verse 17 makes it plain: Faith, by itself, if it has no works, is dead. I heard this sermon in the context of the small, Christian work-study college that I attended. Not only was work celebrated as a way to learn and contribute to the community, but service was part of the equation, too. We were taught not to live only for ourselves, but in service to our communities. The scripture I told you about from chapter 2 was one of the scriptures my teachers pointed to. Today’s reading from chapter 1, where the auther encourages us to be doers of the word, and not merely hearers, was another one. This author, who says his name is James but it’s not clear which James, feels that true faith, a living faith, is reflected in our actions. This reading describes some of actions of a living faith.
According to scholar Dr. Margaret Aymer, today’s reading is best understood as three chunks of advice for living a Christian life. After acknowledging that all good things come from God, James tells us how to live like we know we should be thankful. Be slow to anger and slow to speak, but quick to listen. Short-fuses are signs that one is shaped by the world and not God. Second, be doers, not just hearers. Live like your faith has changed you. And three, exhibit how you are shaped by God by caring for the ones who need it most, and making sure your speech reflects your faith. If we follow this advice, we will be living what scholar Sharyn Dowd called “a life of single-minded devotion to God,” one that James understood to be shaped by the Gospel.
Since college, I’ve learned one thing that might explain why I don’t remember hearing much about James growing up. The Protestant reformer Martin Luther didn’t like James at all and I grew up in a Lutheran denomination. His opinions on the text have long influeced Christians. Luther called James “an epistle of straw.” He even went on to say that there was “nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.” Now, what on earth could he have found so problematic about this book on Christian lifestyle that he would say that it contains nothing of the Gospel? Martin Luther, who emphasized the grace part of Christian faith, was deeply suspicious of anyone, even someone who wrote part of the Bible, who might be read to say that one can earn salvation though good works. Luther said grace was freely given and our life of faith had little to do with the stuff we do to deserve grace.
The conflict over the relationship among faith, grace, and actions has continued well past the life of Martin Luther. Christians still have arguments about the tension between our faith and our actions. Many thoughtful people ask, what does it mean for me to live out my faith? Is it just about believing and going to church? Is it about shifting my own personal actions, choosing not to smoke or swear? What about our responsibilities to shape public policy in a way reflects these commitments to community, to hearing others, and to caring for neighbors? What does it mean to be a doer of the word? What does it mean to have a Christian faith that affects your whole life? I’m inclined to think James had a point. If Jesus’ message of love and justice is transformational. That means we will live differently after hearing it. Sure, we can’t buy our way into forgiveness. But, we don’t get to sit around feeling superior because we simply believe the right thing, either.
Funnily enough, our other reading for the day, this one from Song of Songs, a book also known as Song of Solomon, has also not been without controversy. I don’t know if you noticed when you heard it today, but this book is a love poem (well, a bunch of love poems). The voice shifts around. Sometimes it’s one partner talking about their beloved, strong in body, bounding over hills like a young stag. In other parts, the other partner says, “You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you.” Sometimes there are groups of people who speak, but they are basically a chorus that props up the narrators. Most of the time, the poems are just talking about one thing: How these two people are in love, and they love each other a whole lot. When Tasha and I first bought rings to wear as a symbol of our commitment to each other, words from the Song of Songs were inscribed on them. Last year, when Bishop Michael Curry of the US Episcopal church preached the sermon at the royal wedding, it was a part of the Song of Songs that was his central preaching text. This book is a book of love poems, an unabashed celebration of romantic love, and some people are not comfortable with that.
I mean, it’s controversial in a couple different ways. Dr. Renita Weems, in her commentary on the book, notes that it’s one of only two books in the Bible that does not mention God. The other one is Esther, but Esther still talks about prayer and fasting, and religious rituals. Song of Songs doesn’t talk about any of that. It just talks about how great this couple is and narrates their search for each other in the city, and their encounters in a garden. Dr. Weems points out another unique feature of this book. The couple is probably a man and woman. What is interesting is that the woman in this couple is the primary narrator of their relationship. Another scholar, Alphonetta Wines, points out that she narrates 75% of these poems! According to Dr. Weems, “Nowhere else is scripture do the thoughts, imaginations, yearnings, and word of a woman predominate in a book as in the Song of Songs.” Dr. Wil Gafney also notes that the relationship between these two is pretty equitable. They have similar amounts of power and investment in the relationship. There is no evidence of either one of them exerting power over the other. This is a rare relationship in scripture, and, too often, the world.
Because people haven’t really known what to do with this biblical book that doesn’t mention God but does describe an intoxicating courtship, there have been a myriad of ways that people have suggested interpreting it. Dr. Weems said that the most common interpretation is to disregard them as love poems between two people and only treat them as an allegory, demonstrating how either God and Israel, in the Jewish tradition, or Christ and the church, in Christian tradition, are connected in a passionate, idealized relationship. Christianity, in particular, was shaped by ancient Greek traditions that were deeply suspicious of anything connected to the body and to feelings like romantic love. They would have had trouble reading this book as a simple celebration of loving relationship. It was safer to be passionate only about God. Everything else was unseemly.
The thing is, though, I think it’s important to read this scripture as a scripture about human love. It is a kind of love that we hope for. It is joyous and celebratory and respectful of one another. It is a love that is persistent, even when others don’t approve. The couple has to sneak around, and the narrator is even attacked once while searching for her beloved. And yet, they still love one another and seek each other out. In a time when political leaders, like our own governor, are asking the Supreme Court to keep it legal for LGBTQ people to be fired from their jobs because of who they love or because other people think they should present their gender differently, we need a bunch of love poems right in the middle of the Bible. We need to be reminded that love is part of our tradition and worthy of celebration, not punishment. We need the poems set in a garden to remind us of the garden of creation, where God made us and called us good. And, in a world where unequal, non-mutual, relationships are all too common, we need the example of this relationship as a model to follow because our relationships are best when they are joyous, equitable, and shared between two people with mutual interest. That is not something we just made up. That is a standard set forth right here in our Holy Scripture. We may not know exactly how these poems ended up in the Bible, but they are here. And we can learn from them.
Christian faith, if it’s anything like Christ, was never going to be without scandal. It was always going to push and rub and strain against the constraints of the oppressive world in which it develops. So, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by the places of conflict, like James and the Song of Songs, in our own tradition. The conflict is a sign of growth, a sign that we are taking these letters and poems seriously enough to be willing to be changed by them. That sounds like what James wanted. That we not just listen, but we figure out how to do the word, in all aspects of our lives: in our church, in our town, in our romantic relationships. May we hear the Spirit’s call and may we do the word with joy.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
David Frenchak, "Proper 17 ," 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)
Sharyn Dowd, "James," Women's Bible Commentary, Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, eds (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998).
Margaret Aymer: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3759
Wil Gafney: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1402
Alphonetta Wines: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1402
Michael Curry: https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/05/20/612798691/bishop-michael-currys-royal-wedding-sermon-full-text-of-the-power-of-love
1 Kings 8: (1,6,10-11) 22-30, 41-43
Then Solomon assembled the elders of Israel and all the heads of the tribes, the leaders of the ancestral houses of the Israelites, before King Solomon in Jerusalem, to bring up the ark of the covenant of the Lordout of the city of David, which is Zion. Then the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the Lord to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherubim. And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.
Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands to heaven. He said, ‘O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart, the covenant that you kept for your servant my father David as you declared to him; you promised with your mouth and have this day fulfilled with your hand. Therefore, O Lord, God of Israel, keep for your servant my father David that which you promised him, saying, “There shall never fail you a successor before me to sit on the throne of Israel, if only your children look to their way, to walk before me as you have walked before me.” Therefore, O God of Israel, let your word be confirmed, which you promised to your servant my father David.
‘But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built! Have regard to your servant’s prayer and his plea, O Lord my God, heeding the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to you today; that your eyes may be open night and day towards this house, the place of which you said, “My name shall be there”, that you may heed the prayer that your servant prays towards this place. Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray towards this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling-place; heed and forgive.
‘Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name —for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm—when a foreigner comes and prays towards this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling-place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.
The Cloud of the Lord: 1 Kings 8: (1,6,10-11) 22-30, 41-43
I am one of the few members of my family that has been able to travel to other countries for fun and for study, and not for military service. As I read today’s scripture from 1 Kings, I remembered one trip in particular. In 2006, three friends from college and I saved our pennies and dimes and went to Greece. We were inspired by one of their mothers. My friend Amanda’s mom, Maureen, had been a force of kindness and creativity in all our lives for several years at that point. She loved people fiercely and deeply. She was kind and funny. She always threw great parties. Maureen had also always loved this movie called Shirley Valentine. I won’t go into details about the plot, except to share one thing: Shirley goes to Greece.
When Maureen died after having been diagnosed with cancer, we decided that we should go to Greece, too. It seemed to be a good way to remember Maureen, who had not been able to make such a trip, while also spending some time with Amanda, and doing something we had all wanted to do. It ended up being an incredible trip. We saw ancient ruins and beautiful art. We bought tacky t-shirts and postcards and tried wine that tasted like Pinesol. We dressed up in our fanciest clothes and danced. We carried Maureen’s picture with us, too. She was with us, right in the midst of everything we were doing.
One of our day trips on the cruise was to the island of Patmos. That’s where John, not the Gospel of John but a different John, received the religious vision that became the book of Revelation. Now, Revelation is intense. It’s about a fire-y and terrifying end of the world. John had also been exiled to Patmos, probably because of his religious beliefs. Given what I knew about the history of Revelation, I guess I expected the island to be kind of dour and depressing. I mean, it was a place to send someone to exile and a place where someone had bloody religious visions. It was bound to be unpleasant, right? Church, I am happy to tell you, I was completely wrong in my assumptions about Patmos. Granted, I don’t really know what it was like 2,000 years ago and it’s likely that anyone might complain even about a lovely place if they don’t want to be there. Still, the island I saw was gorgeous.
The sea is the most amazing shade of blue that I have ever seen. There are beautiful beaches and lovely harbors and imposing rocky cliffs. There’s this monastery that covers the high points of the island that full is feral cats and decorative archways. The most surprising part of the visit was the cave. John was supposed to have been living in a cave when he got the Revelation. About a thousand years after he wrote it down, the cave that was thought to house him was turned into a chapel. The structure is several square buildings attached to one another that kind of work their way down the hillside to the cave, completely enveloping the space inside brilliant white walls. When you stand inside the walls, all you see is white plaster and blue sky. There are these tall, narrow windows in the walls, through which you catch little glimpses of the Aegean Sea as you make your way down stone steps to get to the cave.
About halfway down the steps, I caught the scent of incense wafting its way towards us and filling the bright, open-air corridor in which we were walking. I started hearing music, too. It was Sunday morning. Worship had begun. We were late, but they were used to tourists being annoying and not showing up on time. They let us join the service. A group of teenage boys and young men were chanting. I have no idea what they were singing. I can read a little ancient Greek but the modern language being sung is much more difficult to understand. It didn’t matter though. I knew what was going on. This was church. They were singing on our behalf, on Christ’s behalf, with full knowledge of the weight of history in the space in which we worshiped. Their music, all acapella, filled the air and filled our hearts.
This was such a fascinating place to worship because it is a real cave. It’s just full of church stuff. There was a whole wall of icons of saints and a big gold chandelier. There were long, thin beeswax candles all over the place, bathing the room in a warm light. You could light a candle and say a prayer, an action familiar to those of us who have worshiped in Roman Catholic churches. A stranger passed me a candle. I prayed, but I don’t remember what for. Maybe gratitude for the trip. Maybe for my friend and her mom. Maybe for the work at the hospital that awaited my return. We only stayed a little while, leaving as the priest began his part of the liturgy. We quietly slipped out, full of the peace and beauty of the place. We went up to the road and caught a cab to the next part of our excursion. But, we all knew that we had experienced something special in that place.
King Solomon built a temple hoping to create a special, holy place like I encountered on that hillside in Greece, but to a much grander scale. He built a temple fit for a new nation that had found a homeland. Solomon’s father David secured Jerusalem for Israel and brought the arc of the covenant, that is the seat and sounding board for God, into the city. Solomon would build a temple to house the arc. This temple would be a sign of his hope for a fruitful and settled future for his once nomadic people. The temple would solidify his shift of the people’s worship from the hills and high places in the wilderness into this particular temple, which would hold the arc, the reminder of the people’s covenant with God.
We know God is present in this place because the cloud of the Lord fills the new temple, much as the incense, the chants, and the candlelight filled that cave chapel in Patmos. Scholar Kathryn Schifferdecker reminds us that God shows up in a cloud in lots of places in Hebrew Scripture: Leading the Israelites out of Egypt and hiding them from the army, sitting atop Mt. Sinai and talking with Moses, draping across the tabernacle, the “movable sanctuary” in which people transported the arc, and remembered the presence of God. In this story, the cloud is now here. We see the cloud so we will know that the God that once traveled with the people, guiding them in the wilderness, was present with them in this new place. This new temple was a symbol of the next step of the covenant, the building of a life in the promised land.
Solomon prayed over this temple, saying that he believed his God to be unlike any other God and expressing faith in this God as a covenant-keeper. Solomon built the temple as a sign that he was keeping his part of the covenant and he prayed that God would respond in kind. Importantly, though, the temple will not be the only place where one can encounter God. The God who can fill up this temple so fully that the priests cannot see is also the God whom Solomon knows is too vast to be contained in one building. Solomon prayed, “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” God is in all places, touching all things, filling up caves in Greece, hospital rooms in Tennessee, sanctuaries in Maine, and jail cells in Texas. If we are lucky, we can catch a glimpse of this God, as though looking through a long, tall window in a chapel and seeing the sea.
Solomon believed God had a special relationship with his people. But, Solomon also knew that God was big enough to hear all people. Among Solomon’s great hopes was that foreigners would see this temple and know they could pray there and that this God would hear them. In fact, Solomon made a special petition for the strangers, even the tourists who showed up late to mass: If they pray, please, God, hear them and respond. As one who once traveled to a country I didn’t know, to hear prayers in a language I didn’t understand, and worshiped in a church built by someone else’s hand, I can’t help but feel like the ones who built that chapel in Greece must have prayed a prayer similar to Solomon’s, because I definitely felt that expansive, filled-to-the-brim God on that hillside by the sea.
Solomon knew the world was bigger than him and that God was bigger than him. He also knew that any success he had as a ruler would be because he aligned himself with God’s priorities and rooted himself in the covenant. He built a whole temple to remind himself of the need for God’s presence in his life. Perhaps that’s why we should continue to read this story of the dedication of the temple. It tells us of a vast God who is always present, who includes foreigners and uplifts the broken-hearted. When we are feeling lost or wounded, or when we just need to be reminded of a power bigger than ourselves, we can direct ourselves back to the places where we once encountered God. We can go to the sanctuaries, to the friends, to the dancefloors, and the hillsides, and know that we can find God there once again. Let us not be afraid to approach the presence of God. This is what gave hope to Solomon, and it is what can give us hope, too.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Garrett Galvin: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3754
Kathryn M. Schifferdecker: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=364
Mary Alice Mulligan, "Proper 16 ," 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)
Wisdom has built her house,
she has hewn her seven pillars.
She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine,
she has also set her table.
She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls
from the highest places in the town,
‘You that are simple, turn in here!’
To those without sense she says,
‘Come, eat of my bread
and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Lay aside immaturity, and live,
and walk in the way of insight.’
Wisdom’s Invitation: Proverbs 9:1-6
Wisdom is a woman at work. Look at all she does in just six verses. She has built an entire house. Do you know how long it takes to build a house? Do you know how many skills it takes to build a house? Carpentry, masonry, plumbing, painting, engineering, design. Maybe you throw in a little tile work for a nice backsplash in the kitchen. It is so much work to build a house. It’s sounds like it’s not a very small house either. She invited many people. She’d need a big space to host them all. So, she built a house, directing her staff and working alongside of them. Wisdom is a woman at work, making sure she has room for everybody who walks in her door.
Her home is both practical and beautiful. She has created seven pillars. These aren’t just posts to hold up a wall. They are monuments, hewn from trees or carved from stone, honoring God and marking this home as a site of something holy and good. This is skilled work, work done with years of training and practice. These pillars were not hastily thrown together. They were crafted, beauty drawn out of raw material to give glory to God and show hospitality to her guests. She created seven pillars, but she didn’t stop there. She cooked, too.
I imagine her holding court in her kitchen. You have seen someone at work like Wisdom was at work in this scripture. This is Julia Child prepping a turkey with efficiency and good humor. This is Mary Berry from the Great British Bake Off making sure the bottoms of her pie aren’t soggy. This is my mother-in-law Sherry Dunn making the best sausage balls in the state of Georgia. They are perfectly round and perfectly cooked through every time with the right cheese to sausage ratio. Wisdom ask for help if she needs it (she usually doesn’t). She’ll show you how to cook if you ask. Here, go cut these onions. Wash that big skillet. It's almost time to put on the potatoes. Wisdom brought out the good wine and probably some sparkling grape juice because she knows that some people in recovery are going to show up and they deserve delicious drink, too. The table was set. Maybe it is fine linen and china. Maybe she had to pull out every mismatched plate in the house because she knew people will keep showing up, and, by God, she’s gonna feed them all, even if the dinnerware isn’t all the same. Wisdom had been cooking. You could smell the feast a mile away.
All she needed was the company. She sent the girls from her household out to bring the neighbors. But, the girls aren’t the only ones with invitations. Wisdom, who sawed and cooked and served right alongside the workers, Wisdom went out with the girls, and started inviting people. She was not just inviting the wealthy or the powerful or even people she knew particularly well. She invited strangers, people she’d never met before. Remember, this is a party at Wisdom’s house. Some people behave like they’ve never encountered Wisdom before in their lives. Many people choose not to invite them over because it. Wisdom is different. It’s those people... this translation calls them “the simple” or “those without sense”... who got invited to this dinner. She said that’s the people who needed to be there. She wanted them to come so badly that she went out and found them herself, shouting out into the streets, the hills, and the high places: “A great feast has been set for you. Come, eat, and drink. If you do, you will learn something good.” Wisdom is a woman working, and cooking, and welcoming strangers into her home.
Wisdom is also our neighbor Margy who invites you to her home, feeds you until you feel like you might burst, and then sends you home with three plates of leftovers, including one whole plate that is just dessert. You never walk away from Wisdom’s place empty-handed. Insight and understanding are Wisdom’s signature dish. Wisdom makes the best understanding. It is almost as good as my great grandmother’s biscuits. The great thing about Wisdom is that she always has enough to share. Like the couple of cookies handed to you when you get home from school, or the piece of hard candy fished out of a purse to sooth a wiggly child, Wisdom makes sure there’s enough insight ready so that anybody can have some if they ask.
What does this scripture mean when it talks about “insight or understanding”? In my research, I found Dr. Wil Gafney’s explanation biblical wisdom helpful. She says that wisdom is not simply intellect. It is also skill, expertise honed by experience and practice. A person who is wise does not come to wisdom immediately. Wisdom is cultivated in the same way that an apprentice learns a skill from a master. Wisdom is your grandmother showing you how to add enough flour to dough to keep it from sticking as you roll it out. Wisdom makes sure you point the knife away from your thumb when you whittle, not towards, so you don’t slip and cut yourself. Dr. Gafney calls this heart-and-head knowledge. Wisdom is teaching, practicing, listening, and knowing all wrapped up together.
Dr. Gafney made a list of some people who are called wise in the Hebrew Bible: the people who build a tabernacle, that is a resting place and home base, for God in the book of Exodus; in Deuteronomy, the people of Israel who keep the Torah, that is, God’s commandments, are called wise; the shrewd woman who leads her people and saves them from death in 2 Samuel 20:22; and King Solomon, in 1 Kings 4, who was able to build a country because he uses his wisdom to build up his people. Their lives are models of wisdom. Dr. Gafney puts it this way, “[W]isdom is craft: statecraft, Torah-craft, craftwomanship, craftsmanship and craftiness.” It is using all your wit, all your training, all your intuition honed by experience, to honor God and to save your people. Therefore, to be a person of faith it to crave understanding the same way you crave that big piece of pie that has sat, tempting you, on the corner of the table all afternoon. This portion of Proverbs that we read today is about teaching people to crave insight and understanding the same way they crave a good meal in a lovely home crafted by a strong and smart woman. Proverbs tells us that Wisdom is a woman who is inviting you over. You would do well to accept that invitation.
This is a compelling vision of Wisdom, isn’t it? A woman, competent and welcoming, ready to empower you and make sure you have what you need to thrive. It is a vision that is not only in this one portion of Proverbs. Personified Wisdom moves all over scripture. In earlier parts of Proverbs 8, Wisdom is shown both as a part of God and as a craftswoman working alongside God to create the cosmos. The voice of Wisdom says, “I was beside God, like a master worker, and I was daily God’s delight, rejoicing in God always, rejoicing in God’s inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” Sometimes this Wisdom is layered onto God’s word in the law, Torah. The Psalms say Wisdom-Word-Torah is a banquet and sweet like honey.
New Testament writers were even inspired by this image of personified Wisdom, and rooted their understanding of Jesus’ ministry and identity in it. Have you heard these words from the beginning of the book of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was the beginning with God. All things came to being through him and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” The author of John was talking about Jesus. But, doesn’t Jesus sound like Woman Wisdom working with God hewing and carving the cosmos out of chaos? And, don’t we read about Jesus moving through the Gospels, like Woman Wisdom, inviting all kinds of people, but most especially the people with the greatest needs, to eat and be full and be changed by eating together?
From the earliest days of our faith, well before there was anything called Winthrop Congregational Church United Church of Christ, well before there was even anything called Christianity, there was Wisdom and there was an invitation and there was hospitality and practice and work together to make something beautiful and useful. Not only do we return, again and again, to Wisdom’s table when we hear her call, but we also learn how to craft this table and cook this meal at her side, at Jesus’ side, so we can go out like the girls into the street and invite others to the feast, so we can make a bigger table, more pillars, bigger piles of food. Our is a faith rooted in this vision of abundance, of a table full of food that is always there if you but ask for it. We can even learn to prepare this kind of meal, to build this hospitable home, by the side of the One who makes it best. But, Wisdom doesn’t want us just to hoard this gift. Wisdom’s invitation, God’s invitation, is to pass it along, sharing it with others who need some space at the table and a little food to eat. Wisdom is going to the high places to invite everyone to come and eat. Are we ready to come to this feast and are we ready to help cook next time?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing her sermon:
I am particularly indebted to Dr. Wil Gafney who crafted such a powerful commentary on Woman Wisdom: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1360
Kah-Jin Jeffrey Kuan, "Proper 15 ," 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)
James Limburgh: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3747
Sara Koenig: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=370
So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Live In Love: Ephesians 4:25-5:2
When I was in seminary, I learned a song that went something like this, “I know I’ve been changed. I... I know I’ve been changed. I... I know I’ve changed. The angels in heaven gonna sign my name.” It’s an old gospel song. You may have heard Aaron Neville or Tom Waits or the Staple Singles cover it on some of their albums. It is a song written from the perspective of someone who has had a religious conversion. They have become a Christian and feel the Holy Spirit working on them. Something has changed and they are ready to testify to that change in word and deed. They go on to sing, “I know I been converted./Lord knows I been redeemed./ You can wake me up in the midnight’s hour/And I’ll tell you just what I seen.” One of my favorite things about this song is that it asserts that religious belief isn’t just something you talk about or an extraneous part of your life. This song demonstrates an understanding of faith as a force- it changes you- and also a tool- with it, you help change the world. It is a great song, and it is a song that reminds me of today’s reading.
This part of Ephesians is about how to actually live a life shaped by the Gospel. It is about concrete practices for living out a faith that changes you. This is a faith that can completely overturn your life. It is a faith that makes you rethink cultural divisions that you once thought were unchangeable. It is a faith that demands both confession and forgiveness. It is a faith that asks you to give up power to be a servant. You will be changed if you are actually committed to it. But the change doesn’t happen all at once. It keeps happening. There are even some ways you can live in community that help you continue to be changed by the Spirit present in others. Today’s reading is about helping Christians continue to be changed by and changed for one another. It’s pretty powerful.
In our current cultural context, and frankly, during any times of anxiety, it can be easier to be short or contemptuous or ungenerous with people with whom we disagree, even at church, where love is to be our guide. This author believes that there are seven practices that can help us live into the change Christ is making in us. Here’s how they spell them out:
1) There is to be no falsehood in the church. Lies or hateful speech that are only intended to cause harm has no place in religious community. That doesn’t mean telling the truth is always easy. It’s not. But it should be done without malice, manipulation, or intent to slander.
2) It’s ok to be angry. But don’t let the anger make you forget your commitment to God and one another. Anger is often justified and is an appropriate response to injustice. But, don’t let your anger be corrosive or fester.
3) Don’t steal stuff. Allow people who have stolen things the option to make amends. Practice grace by allowing former thieves the opportunity to return to honest labor and service of neighbor.
4) Let no evil come out of your mouth. I read once that this phrase is better translated as “let no putrid talk come out of your mouth.” Don’t say malicious words that infect the entire community. Putrefaction is a sign of death. This a community of life where Christ is a fragrant offering.
5) Do not lament these changes that are being asked of you. Yes, itt is hard to change. It is hard to learn to live life differently. This guidance is a gift, even when living different is a struggle. The changes brought on by the struggle to live life anew are signs of the Holy Spirit. These holy struggles are what redemption looks like.
6) Put aside bitterness, wrath, and manipulation. It does not further the cause of Christ.
7) Be kind. Forgive others as you have been forgiven. Confession and forgiveness are central to who we are.
These seven pieces of guidance, not rules, exactly, but practices to guide our life together, they are not simple. But, they are good. They are worth trying. The person who wrote Ephesians (we’re not sure if it was Paul or a student of Paul’s) said to follow this guidance is no small feat. He said it was, in fact, like imitating God. You see, God is rooted in truth and resists malice. God offers forgiveness in place of bitterness. God allows second chances. When we do these things, we are living a life changed by the God whom we imitate... we are reflecting God’s light through the prism of our own experience, back out into the world.
This is a world that too often needs a reminder of God’s spirit of love and forgiveness. This weekend is the anniversary of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where one woman, Heather Heyer, who was imitating God’s call to truth-telling, was run over by a white supremacist attending the rally. Today, white supremacists are rallying in Washington, D.C. to call for the creation of a version of this country that runs completely counter to the values outlined in today’s scripture. These events, both a year ago and today, are marked by bitterness, malice, manipulation, and fear. Thank God the church can be a counter example of such hatefulness. Thank God that Jesus showed us how to live differently in this world. Thank God that Gaby, Alice, and Penny are being baptized today, reminding us of what it means to commit to God and to a community of faith. We have already been made more generous, more lively, and more kind by their presence in this church. Their choice to partake in this sacrament is a gift to us, reminding us of the power of faith to change ourselves and our world for the better.
I know I’ve been changed. I know they’ve been changed. I know we’ve been changed and we can be instruments through which God works to change this world. We will imitate God today, welcoming them, again, into this church. They will imitate God today, by standing with us and celebrating. May we all be ready to imitate God in this world. It is so much better to live in love than in hate. Indeed, that’s how we know we’ve been changed. When we seek that kind of love instead of malice. Let us practice this love together and out in the world beyond our doors.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing her sermon:
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling,one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.Therefore it is said,
‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.’
(When it says, ‘He ascended’, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
Ephesians 4:1-16- Growing in Every Way
In a recent conversation with my colleague Rabbi Erica Asch, she said that she thinks when certain ideas are repeated in the Bible, it doesn’t just mean they are important, it also means that they were hard for people to learn. God, and our ancient teachers, have to keep repeating themselves because we keep forgetting the lesson. Our reading from Ephesians carries with it a lesson that might seem familiar to people who have heard different parts of the Bible. You may have heard something like it when the disciples were arguing amongst themselves in the Gospel of Mark. Or maybe you heard something similar in the letters to the Corinthians when the people argue about, well, everything. I imagine that this reading may feel familiar if you’ve ever been a part of a group of people that has struggled to have one single identity when members of the group feel like they are really different from each other. Being a church, a group of loving but fallible humans, has never been easy. It wasn’t during the earliest days of this movement and it’s not now. But, it is possible to have rich, gracious Christian community shared among all kinds of people. We just keep needing to be reminded of that fact. This portion of Ephesians shows how one particular group of Christians kept learning how to be church together.
Scholars tell us that Ephesus was an important and diverse city in ancient Rome. It is not surprising that the church reflected the community in which it developed. Some of these Christians were Jewish. Some were Gentile. The early Christian movement became well known for including people of lots of different ethnicities, as well as different social classes. Slaves, wealthy widow women, everyday tradespeople, fishermen, and farmers all came together in many ancient churches. While it was great to live in such a diverse community, it could also be difficult to build relationships class and ethnic boundaries. This is certainly true of the diverse church of Ephesus.
They were complaining about each other, specifically about who got to have the most authority and privilege in their community. According to the scholar Grace Ji-Sun Kim, it appears that these Christians wanted to draw lines of privilege based on both ethnic background and type of service to which one was called, types of service that I imagine may be connected to levels of education and training that people had attained. Thankfully, the author of this letter knew that Christ calls us to a community that is guided not by old social divisions, but new love in Christ.
Some people thought that the Jewish followers of Jesus, who had been Jewish himself, should have greater authority than people who came to Christ from other religious and ethnic groups. This author had to explain to them that Christ had broken down the divisions between Jew and Gentile, and that they were to no longer be bound by this particular cultural divisions. In chapter 2 of Ephesians, this author explains it this way: “For [Jesus] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us... he came and proclaimed peace to those who were far off and peace to those who were near.” Jesus himself gives people a special revelation of God that is not bound to their ethnic group.
There is a second, also important conflict in this community. That is the main point of this part of chapter 4. Not only are they having trouble navigating the old division between Jew and Gentile, they are also arguing about what kind of spiritual gifts are most important. Apparently, rather than celebrating having members who have a diversity of talents and gifts from God, they were arguing over who's gifts were most important. It would be like our Sunday School teachers, choir, trustees, and deacons all fighting over whose job was more important to the church. They apparently spent at least part of their precious time together jockeying for position, trying to assert that prophets were more important than pastors or teachers more important that apostles.
This author had to explain that such arguments were a waste of time and took away from the unity that they were seeking in the Gospel. He had to explain that all people received grace through Christ, and that just because the gifts may be different, that doesn't mean that one set of gifts is better than the other. These folks needed to be reminded that it takes all kinds to build the church, and it does the Gospel no good to pit people in the church against each other based on what they have gifts for doing at church. As scholar Susan Hylen put it, Christ does not require uniformity to create unity in the church. Grace abounds in many different forms and the church is richer for it.
On this day, when we welcome two people into Christian community through baptism, it is helpful to read this reminder that all of us have gifts that strengthen the church. We are a whole body, knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped. These two, Autumn and Charlotte, bring with them gifts and abilities that make us stronger and more ready to follow Jesus. This reading and their presence reminds us that each part of Christ’s body has been given gifts that allow us to serve our neighbor. We are called to use all these gifts for equipping the saints so they can better follow the Gospel. There isn’t a hierarchy of gifts. Being the body of Christ means that we are working together enriched by our differences, not divided by them.
While I think this author may underestimate the gift of childlike grace, I do think they were on to something when they talked about “growing in every way” so that we become more like Christ who is leading us. It’s like we are all puzzle pieces, holding a small spark of God, that can only be clearly seen when we join together. Without each of our gifts, we miss something of the Divine. When we all aren’t present, we don’t have all the ligaments that help us move. Even though we are spending our day celebrating Autumn and Charlotte’s baptism, and we typically aren’t arguing about prestige and authority, I think it’s good to be reminded just how necessary we each are to the whole. It is our calling to equip the saints in our lives and to recognize the gifts they bring to the church. The gifts don't have to all be the same. The people don’t have to be all the same either. We just have to be ready to use what we have to serve God and neighbor. God has never needed us to be all the same. God has just needed us to be ready. Are you ready to grow in every way?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing this sermon:
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5203
Brian Peterson: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3749
Sarah Henrich: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2599
Susan Hylen: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=373
Grace Ji-Sun Kim, "Proper 13 ," 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)
2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19
David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. David and all the people with him set out and went from Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim. They carried the ark of God on a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart with the ark of God; and Ahio went in front of the ark. David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songsand lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.
It was told King David, ‘The Lord has blessed the household of Obed-edom and all that belongs to him, because of the ark of God.’ So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing; and when those who bore the ark of the Lordhad gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet.
As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart.
They brought in the ark of the Lord, and set it in its place, inside the tent that David had pitched for it; and David offered burnt-offerings and offerings of well-being before the Lord. When David had finished offering the burnt-offerings and the offerings of well-being, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord of hosts, and distributed food among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, to each a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins. Then all the people went back to their homes.
To Dance with God: 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19
What exactly is this ark that has gotten David so excited that he is dancing down the street? This does not seem like typical king behavior. Given that we don’t talk about the ark of the covenant every week, it's probably a good idea to take some time to remind ourselves just what it is. I mean, some of us might have some idea because we've seen that one Indiana Jones movie where a bunch of Nazis are looking for it and end up with their faces melted off. I must warn you, there is much less face-melting in 2nd Samuel. There are a few plagues and a whole bunch of dancing, but no face-melting. What is all this dancing about anyway? Who is it for?
The scholar Samuel Giere wrote a summary that I found helpful, especially since the ark is in two other books before it pops back up here in this book. Here's the short version of the ark's history. Way back during the Exodus, God told Moses to have someone craft an ark, which is kind of a container, that will hold the tablets of the first ten commandments. An artisan named Bezalel created it. Moses put the tablets inside and then put the whole thing into the newly constructed tabernacle. When they left Mount Sinai, they carried the ark with them. Later, in the book of Joshua, the ark was at the front of their procession across the Jordan River. And, later still, in the terrible massacre of Jericho, the soldiers march the ark around the city walls before the walls come tumbling down.
Then, we really don't hear about the ark again until the time of Samuel, the last judge to rule the Israelites before the monarchy began. Samuel slept in the room with the ark when he was a boy. In this book of the Bible, the people called the Philistines are the greatest enemies of the Israelites. Early in 1st Samuel, they steal the ark. While nobody's face melts off, a bunch of other really bad stuff happens to them, like tumors and town-wide panics. Scripture tells us they were happy to give the ark back, and even threw in a little extra gold for the Israelites trouble. The ark got left in a town called Baale- Judah. David, our dancing king, decided to bring it from there to Jerusalem.
To catch us up on what has been going on in 2nd Samuel, David had been consolidating his power and had defeated the Philistines, winning the city of Jerusalem. As one who, since a very young age, has felt God at work in his life, David wanted to bring the ark, the symbol of the covenant and the very presence of God, into the city that would come to be central to Israelite worship. Remember, this ark isn't simply a keepsake box to hold special trinkets. That is one thing the Indiana Jones movie got right. It was very special. Somewhere between its creation and the march into the Promised Land, this ark became known the central site for God's presence with God's people. It's like when you hold a magnifying glass in the sun, condensing all the sun's powers into one hot, burning point: The ark was the hot, burning point of God. The ark is God's throne. The ark is also a speaker through which God makes Godself known. In parts of Numbers and Exodus, it says that Moses would hear God from between the two Cherubin on the ark. In retrospect, it makes sense that David would want this tangible presence of God to be in the midst of his people in their new capital.
I imagine that many of us understand the celebration part of this story. A battle has been won and God is being brought into the city. Of course, David would dance. Of course, the people would play instruments and sing with great joy. Of course, they would build a brand-new cart in which to transport the ark. God was returning to the midst of the people. This is a reason to celebrate. So, bring on the lyres, harps, tambourines, and cymbals! But this story isn’t all celebration.
I don't know if you were paying attention to this whole passage, but did you notice that the story goes from verses 1-6 to verses 12-19. There's a story in the middle that’s left out of today’s reading. It is not a joyful one. It’s one that reminds us that God's power as resides in the ark is not a neutral force. For all the joy that can come from restoration with the Divine, the God of David was dangerous, too. When the ark was not handled with a specific kind of care, people could die, and, not just people who were identified as enemies like the Philistines. In the story that is left out of today's reading, an Israelite man named Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark to keep it from tipping out of the fancy new cart. God got mad. God killed Uzzah because he touched the ark without permission. It doesn't seem to matter that Uzzah was trying to keep the ark from falling. He still died.
David, who had moments earlier been dancing his heart out, erupted in fear and anger against God. He did not anticipate a seemingly innocent man's death in the middle of his victorious parade. David then began to doubt that he could be a good steward of the ark. After such a terrible incident, he said, "How can the ark of the Lord come into my care?" He took it to the home of a man named Obed-edom and left it there for three months. He could not see a way forward after such a terrible and terrifying act. I read a scholar this week named David Garber, Jr. who said this part of the story, the story of the death of Uzzah, is hard for a lot of Christians to know what to do with. We often think of God as approachable, like as Jesus who welcomes children or a God who is like a gentle, powerful parent. This God in this story is the opposite of approachable. Garber says this God is shaped by a sense of dangerous otherness. We end up doing what David did. Put that terrifying mystery somewhere else. We don’t tell that story at church. We avoid the dangerous other until we can figure out what to do with it. Let’s skip that part of the story and get back to the dancing.
We do eventually get back to the dancing. Having the ark, while dangerous, was also a blessing to Obed-edom. His household prospered. Three months after the first disastrous attempt to bring the ark into Jerusalem, David tried again. He danced again, though it seems with more intention and maybe a touch of solemnity. David danced before God giving all he could, with only trumpets to guide the rhythm. He does something other interesting stuff, too, stuff that priests only usually did. He wore a small piece of clothing called an ephod (and little else). He performed a sacrifice. He constructed a tent in which to house the ark. He even blessed and fed his people. His wife Michal saw all this leaping and dancing in not nearly enough clothes and though David had debased himself instead of shorn up his reign as king. But, David was satisfied with his procession. The people seemed satisfied, too. God quietly sat among the people, not too disturbed to strike anyone down and seemingly prepared to offer blessing over punishment once again.
This is a complex text, isn't it? I mean, the most straightforward reading, the one facilitated by chopping up the story to emphasize the two dancing parades while also pairing it with today’s other reading, the joyful Psalm 24 that discusses God's power and enthronement over the world... that reading is a pretty joyful one. Our church and our world could probably use some more joyful dancing. But, a comedian named Hannah Gadsby recently pointed out, our stories are shaped as much by what we don't tell as what we do tell. Uzzah died, punished by a mysterious God. Michal was not impressed by her husband's pageantry. This story, while bracketed by raucous dancing, is not wholly joyful. The God in this story, pleased with dance and song, but angered by an errant touch, is not wholly approachable or even really fully comprehensible.
Another scholar I read this week, Cláudio Carvalhaes, suggested asking a couple questions of a text to help capture the breadth of possible interpretations and maybe even identify what interpretation is most needed today. Let's think about the most local version of “community” first. What does each text have to do with us and our community of Winthrop? On your bulletin, write down these questions: What is God telling us to consider? What is God telling us to do in Winthrop? To Change? To Move? To Engage? To transform, right here, today with guidance from this complicated story? We are in a curious season of the church year, between the firey beginnings of Pentecost and the expectant and hopeful beginnings of Advent. This is a time when we are guided by the Holy Spirit, through the texts we've inherited. What is the Spirit telling you about these texts today? Let's be quiet together for just a moment, then we'll sing a little and pray. After that, I‘ll invite you to share what the text and the Spirit are saying to you today.
* If you are reading this sermon after I preached it, I invite you to write in the comment section of this post what about this story is inspiring you today.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Samuel Giere: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3683
Cláudio Carvalhaes, "Proper 10(15)," 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)
David G. Garber, Jr.: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2526
He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Maryand brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
What You Carry With You
I went back this week and looked at the first sermon I preached here as your pastor. Not the one with the plates... that was my candidating sermon (if you weren't here for the sermon about the plates, ask me about it after church)… but the first one I preached after I officially began my time here as your pastor. I remember feeling a lot of pressure that Sunday... pressure to do well, pressure to be interesting and insightful, pressure to do right by the scripture I was preaching. And, boi, was it a doozy. It was so complicated. It was a part of Matthew 11 that was half annoyed Jesus and half compassionate Jesus. It's not that irritation and compassion don't go together. How many of us have found ourselves both irritated and compassionate over the last couple weeks? That's what Jesus was feeling in that reading. Frustrated with religious leaders in his community and trying to lead with compassion in his life. It was a heavy story from the middle of Jesus' ministry that was about being in the middle, as in, in the midst of ministry. At the beginning of our ministry together, I had been hoping for something a little perkier to start off our time together.
I think I was looking for an optimistic setting-off-on-an-adventure story. Kind of like a "once upon a time" but without the fairytale mess that can follow. But, since I often preach from a preset reading schedule precisely so I will be pushed to preach difficult texts, I went with the text suggested for the day. Four years later, I've been trying to figure out if I would have been more confident then preaching on our Gospel text for today. This story from Mark isn't from the middle of ministry. It's fairly near the beginning. Jesus has been baptized. He has been doing some preaching and healing. He's even gotten some disciples. He has been traveling around the area a bit and has decided to return to his hometown. We're not exactly sure why he came back, but it seems like he's beginning something, and his hometown is as good a place to start as any. On my first Sunday as your pastor, maybe I would have liked to preach about something starting. Or, maybe not. It turns out that this was not the most auspicious of beginnings.
Did you hear what happened in this story? Jesus was back home preaching at the synagogue and everybody wondered who they heck he was. I mean, they knew who he was. He was a carpenter. They knew his brothers James, Joses, Judas, and Simon. They saw his sisters crowded around. They knew his mama. Most of all, they knew that skilled in wood-working though he may be, there was no way he should have had the confidence to preach the way he did. How could a boy from this neighborhood grow up to be a man who could work such miracles? There was no way he could. They had changed his diapers. They knew all the stories of his teenage indiscretions. There was no way they could take him seriously. So, scripture tells us, they didn't.
Their inability to take Jesus seriously ends up having real consequences. Did you notice the part where Jesus is unable to heal anyone there? It said, "he could do no deeds of power except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them." A scholar I read this week said we need to pay particular attention to this part. In the first five chapters of Mark, Jesus is able to do all kinds of things that demonstrate his power. Just last week we heard about the woman who was healed after touching his cloak and another girl he healed. In the first five chapters, he was powerful enough that just touching his clothes could heal someone. He was powerful enough that even death could not stop him. Why, all the sudden, wouldn't Jesus be able to live out such power? The scholar I read this week, Bonnie Bowman Thurston, says it has everything to do with what the people believe.
Let’s look back at some of the other works of power Jesus performed. In Mark 2:5, a man is brought to Jesus to be healed. His friends actually lower him through a hole in the roof of building in order to get to Jesus. Jesus saw the faith of this man, and the friends who lowered him through the hole, and said his sins were forgiven and he told him to pick up his mat and walk. And, the man did. When the woman touched Jesus in 5:34, he said that her faith is what really made her well. Even after this encounter in chapter 6, in chapter 7, when a Syrophoenician woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter, it is her stalwart faith and stubborn hope that convinced Jesus to do so. Let us also not forget that when a father brought his son to Jesus to be healed in chapter 9, Jesus told the man that all things can be done for the one who believes. Immediately, the man cried out, "I believe; help my unbelief." Jesus healed that man’s son, too.
Did you hear the key element in all of those stories? Belief. In Mark, healing only comes with believing. Power isn't something Jesus inflicts on you without your consent. Every time he speaks, it is an invitation to believe. Those who cannot hear him... who choose not to listen... they miss out on the transformation. When Jesus went home, only a couple people were able to be healed. They believed. Everyone else, they thought they knew Jesus too well for that. How could the carpenter heal anyone? How could Mary's boy preach like that? They were too distracted by what they thought they knew to be able to receive something that would give them new life. How could Jesus start something new with them if they wouldn't believe? The power was always in the belief.
Interestingly, even with the setbacks in his home town, Jesus doesn't stop teaching, though he doesn't stay in town, either. He begins to travel to other villages in the community. It’s like if Winthrop was his home, but he went to Wayne and Monmouth and Readfield, maybe even as far as Fayette and Mount Vernon. Interestingly, he only taught these other towns. He did not do the signs of wonder and healings. It’s like the experience in his hometown taught him that these were his people. They knew him too well to believe. But, he also didn't want to leave them without the possibility of transformation. You see, even if they couldn't believe him, they might believe others. So, he sent out the twelve.
Because divine power in most fully made manifest in relationship, Jesus sent his followers out in sets of two and asked that they be fully reliant on other people's hospitality while they did the work of the Gospel. They could only take a walking stick, the clothes on their back, and the shoes on their feet. This was an urgent calling. They didn't have time to gather provisions. God would provide for them through other people. They were to take the hospitality offered to them, not travel around to see who had the cushiest house for them to stay in. He also gave them another direction. He said, “Don't try to make them let you stay if they can't hear you. Leave. Shake the dust of their homes off your feet. Do not even carry their unbelief with you on to the next, possibly holy ground.” Jesus then gave them the power to heal and drive out unclean spirits, work that only he had been doing up until this point. Off they went, and they healed people and drove away demons. They did the work that others would not have let Jesus do by himself. Their own faith in Jesus helped them carry his message in a way the people could finally hear it.
I began today's sermon remembering my first sermon as your pastor. In that sermon, I talked about how Christ's call to compassion may look heavy and unwieldy, like the yoke we'd find on oxen. Today, four years into our ministry together, I think it's worth noting that sometimes we may have an idea about how we might start a ministry, like Jesus did in his hometown, and sometimes, the first idea doesn't actually work all that well. Sometimes what we're preaching isn't connecting because the people can't hear us. They have too many preconceived notions about who we are and what we could possibly know about healing and wholeness. If the people aren't hearing us, we may have to be like Jesus and find another way to do the Gospel. Jesus sent out the twelve and asked that they fully rely on God and other people. What is our next strategy for sharing Christ's message of healing and wholeness? Are we the ones being sent out, two by two, or are we training up the ones who will be sent?
Jesus' message is worth sharing, even if initially others may not be able to hear us. They didn't always hear Jesus. But, he made sure that everyone got the chance to hear and believe. He found a way to get more people to hear. We can, too. Who are the people who need to hear God's word of love and justice in this place? How can we make sure they hear it from people who they can trust and believe? Who are you able to go to with just a walking stick and sandles, and invite to believe?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Cláudio Carvalhaes: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3729
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5186
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002)
When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered round him; and he was by the lake. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, ‘My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.’ So he went with him.
And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.’ Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ And his disciples said to him, ‘You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, “Who touched me?” ’ He looked all round to see who had done it.But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’
While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?’ But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear, only believe.’ He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, ‘Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.’ And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum’, which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.
To Be Touched: Mark 5:21-43
Have you heard about good trouble? That a phrase that civil rights activist and congressman John Lewis uses sometimes to talk about the most important works of his life. Like on May 4th, 2016, he tweeted a picture of a bunch of people who were waiting to get on a bus. He described the picture this way: "55 years ago today, I was one of 13 original Freedom Riders who set out to integrate America's buses. #goodtrouble." Another time, when talking about why he once again began to use the protest tactic of the sit-in, he said, "Sometimes you have to get in the way. You have to make some noise by speaking up and speaking out against injustice & inaction #goodtrouble." That's what he means by the words "good trouble." A disruption of injustice. A willingness to put yourself on the line in order to do what is right. You may be getting in trouble, but it's the good kind of trouble. It's the kind of trouble that makes a difference.
This ethic of "good trouble" rose from his own experience as a black man raised in the Jim Crow South. Growing up in such a hateful political system, black people had to be very careful so as try to avoid the violence that white people were allowed to direct towards them. In the graphic novel about his life, March, Rep. Lewis talks about warnings his parents gave him growing up. "Stay out of trouble. Don't get in white people's way." This was not a heedless fear on their part. From 1882 to 1968, 3,446 African Americans were lynched in the United States, with 73% of those lynchings in the South. When Mr. Lewis was in high school in Alabama, just one state over in Mississippi, another teenage boy named Emmett Till was murdered by white adults who claimed he called a white woman "baby." Keeping your head down.... Not drawing attention... Choosing not to correct people when they were rude or cruel... Not getting in trouble... that is what kept you alive. It's what kept your kid alive.
Representative Lewis learned something though: Sometimes you need to get in trouble to force a change. Sometimes the rules of the society or even of one small community are contrary to what is good and hopeful in the world. Representative Lewis learned this. So, he started getting in good trouble, first as a college student integrating lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee. Then, as a freedom rider. Continuing through his activities with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the marches across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama, into his work as a public servant, he found power and transformation in getting into "good trouble." And, he helped change the world.
I'm going to suggest that you keep this idea of "good trouble" in mind as you hear these two stories, one of a father advocating for his daughter and another of a woman advocating for herself. These are people who are willing to get in good trouble. Now, they aren't joining in national protests. They are most advocating for themselves and their families. But, in approaching Jesus, they both are willing to look at the social conventions of their time, decide that they were not conducive to life and wholeness, and risk getting in trouble to demonstrate their faith and find healing. This is a story about two people getting into good trouble and about Jesus seeing the wisdom and care in their trouble-making. They show us a way to be brave and follow Jesus. They show us the power of good trouble.
At first glance, with the gift of hindsight, a whole pile of cultural differences, and 2,000 years of Christian tradition, neither of the two people's actions seem all that brave or unsurprising. Those of us who have read Gospel stories for years, who have come to maturity knowing that Jesus can do amazing things, we're not surprised to read the story of two strangers approaching Jesus. I mean, that's what you do when you see Jesus. You ask him for help. How could you not? Well, there were some pretty big reasons why they wouldn't that we miss because our cultures are so different. But, if we don't know about these differences, we miss some of the power of their stories. We miss the good trouble. So, let's take some time to see why they might have had a hard time approaching Jesus in a way that we wouldn't. It might help us figure out how to approach Jesus, too.
First, the woman who touched his cloak: She is a woman alone in public who slides through the crowd to touch the hem of Jesus' clothes. According to the research I have read, in the era in which they lived, it was common to believe charismatic teachers and speakers had the power to heal. This comes up in other parts of New Testament, like in Acts 5 and 19. Their clothes were an extension of their body, therefore, an extension of their powers. Knowing this part, we shouldn't be surprised that she would be content to touch his clothes. For someone with faith, they would have believed that this would have been enough to heal them. The clothes thing, it turns out that that's not the surprising part. It's the fact that she thought she could touch him at all that we should pay attention to. You see, her particular physical ailments, likely gynecological in nature, would have deeply affected are ability to engage with other people in her community.
She had been bleeding excessively for many years. Because of her particular ailment, she would have been labeled ritually unclean. People in her community, including a husband if she had one, would have hesitated to have physical contact with her because of her ritual status. While she had once had money, she had used up most of it on doctors who could not help. Her poverty, a product of going bankrupt to pay medical bills, would have also isolated her from the community. To reach out and touch a man, a teacher, who was not a member of her family, someone whom she would then make unclean... these actions put her at even greater risks for ostracism. But she has heard of Jesus' power and his compassion. She knew he could heal her. Her faith pushed her to risk trouble to gain healing. The risk ended up being worth it. He felt her touch. When she admitted what she had done, rather than run away, he praised her, calling her daughter, and sent her on her way in health and peace. She no longer bled. And, she was restored in relationship. And other people learned from her bravery. That is some good trouble.
Jairus is another one who risked trouble in going to Jesus. Jairus is the administrator of the local synagogue. He would have been close with Pharisees. They were the ones who ran the synagogues. Remember, Jesus and the Pharisees were often at odds over their interpretations of the law. I am not certain that it would have looked right for a synagogue administrator to go to a traveling teacher for healing. And, to go to such lengths for a daughter, that might have appeared unseemly... undignified, especially as the man fell at Jesus' feet. It was a risk to go to Jesus. He put his good relationship with local leaders in jeopardy. He put his public reputation in jeopardy. There were other, more appropriate ways to seek help, but he didn't. He believed Jesus could help. He calculated the risk (conflict with his community), and the reward (the restoration of his daughter's health), and decided to push the bounds of what would be deemed appropriate. He pushed his way through the crowd and found Jesus.
Jesus ended up doing something pretty risky, too. Shortly after healing the woman, people came up to him and Jairus and said that Jairus' daughter was dead. There is no need to come heal her anymore. That could be the end of the story. If the reason Jesus was going was to heal her and she was already dead, why go? Why risk ritual contamination by being near a dead body? Dead bodies, like bleeding women, were unclean. But, death did not stop Jesus. He looked at Jairus and said, "Do not fear, only believe." Then, bringing along Peter, James, and John, Jesus went to the girl's bedside. The professional mourners were already present. Jesus said, this girl is not dead but sleeping. With her mother and father by his side, Jesus said to her, "Get up." And, she did. And, he said to feed her something. And, they did.
And, he said to tell no one what had happened. I'm not sure why he did that. Maybe he knew the story would be too incredible and strange to be believed. Maybe he wanted to make space for people to meet him on their own terms, without having heard of him before. Maybe he wanted them to have a miracle story that stayed their own. Whatever Jesus' reason, none of it would have happened had Jairus not been willing to get in some good trouble. His daughter was alive because he was willing to ignore convention and seek help in unexpected places from a man with a dubious reputation. Like with the woman in the crowd, the risk, the trouble changed things. And his family was better for it.
Are you being called to good trouble? What conventions and preoccupations are keeping you from seeking healing in this world? Good trouble is not easy and will not be smooth. Ask John Lewis about his good trouble. But, it is remarkably worthwhile. If the woman and Jairus could talk, I bet they'd agree. I hope you can find your good trouble. And, I hope you know that Jesus is in the good trouble with you. So, do not fear. Only believe. And, be ready to reach out.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while preparing this sermon:
On Rocks and Boats
Can I tell you one of my favorite stories that I read this week? This couple named Charlotte and Dave Willner had been paying attention to the news about the new family separation immigration policy that began in May. They are parents themselves and were particularly moved by the images of one little girl whose mother was being patted down by a border patrol officer. Ms. Willner recognized her own daughter in that child’s image. She said, “This is the exact face she makes when she's terrified.” Now, lots of people might be moved by such a picture and try to figure out how to help. The Willners definitely were. They had both once worked for the social media company Facebook, and they currently work for other technology companies. They know how much good social media can do when used well. They also knew that Facebook has a new feature where you can set up a fundraiser and share it with your friends. And, they knew that they were pretty good at researching things. They had all these really helpful tools at their disposal.
Working with another friend, they tried to figure out what would be a good way that they could help people coming across the US border with Mexico. They eventually learned about the work of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services. It’s called RAICES for short. This is a legal non-profit organization in Texas that works with new immigrants and people who are refugees. RAICES has a really good reputation and does good work. I’ve seen multiple posts and articles commending them. What caught the Willners' eye was one particular part of their work, their family reunification and bond fund.
To understand why they need that kind of fund, it is helpful to have some background about changes in immigration policy enforcement. I learned about some helpful information about the new family separation policy from a non-profit, non-partisan news organization called the Marshall Project. Before May 7th of this year, if you were caught crossing the border between official border checkpoints without proper documentation, you would face immigration charges in a special immigration court. Families who were caught, or who had presented themselves to immigration authorities to request asylum, were usually detained together in family detention centers. There's one in Texas and one in Pennsylvania. Since 2015, families with kids couldn't be held in that kind of facility for longer than three weeks. A judge said that it was harmful to the children to keep them there longer than that, and that families should be released together so the kids could be with their parents. For the last three years, upon initial arrest, families might be detained for a little while, but, barring suspicion of serious illegal behavior, like child trafficking or drug dealing, they were usually released all together to await their immigration court dates.
Starting this past May, the government began a new policy. People who cross between official check points are no longer allowed to ask for asylum when they meet a border patrol officer in the field (people used to turn themselves in so they could do just that). Things changed once they get arrested, too. Now, rather than send the adults to immigration court, they have to go to federal court to be tried for a federal misdemeanor of cross the border without permission. Remember that all used to be done in immigration court. Only some cases actually went to federal court. Now, everybody goes to federal court. There's one other big change. That's the change that has gotten most of our attention: the family separations. Instead of taking previous court rulings into account that recommended keeping families together during this process, any children who cross with their parents have been taken and funneled into an entirely different agency federal agency than their parent. Remember: The parents aren't even convicted of crimes at this point.
While the parents are being held in federal pre-trial detention, the children are being classified as unaccompanied minors (though they were initially accompanied) and detained by the Department of Health and Human services, often in privately contracted facilities, where they go to wait for their own immigration hearings. The parents often aren't told where their kids are and the kids are often moved to facilities very far from their parents. The parents may be in Texas while the kids are in Florida or New York state. The parents and their lawyers, when they actually have lawyers, are having a very hard time finding the kids once they have been taken. Some parents have been deported without getting their kids back.
Looking at their resources and the enormity of the problem at hand, the Willners decided the thing they could do was to help pay the bond of one parent so at least one person could get out of pre-trial detention and begin the difficult process of finding their kid and being reunited. Every adult's bond will be at least $1500. Much of the time, the bond is between $5,000 and $10,000 dollars, even if the person is an asylum-seeker and has no criminal history. It is hard for them to get bail, in part because bail bond companies don't usually help people in immigration bond proceedings unless they impose very strict requirements on them. RAICES had already been raising money for bonds well before last week and had staff at work to help the parents. Sometimes if you want to help, you help people who've been doing the work longer. Charlotte and Dave Willner started a Facebook fundraiser, hoping to get $1500 together to donate to RAICES that they could help one parent with a low bond get out and get their kid. Just $1500. That seemed like a reasonable donation that they could manage and still feel like they were doing something worthwhile for one family.
They ended up helping way more than one family. I don't know if you've heard about this. As of this morning, Sunday, June 24th, 2018, the little fundraiser that hoped to get $1500 has reached $19,982,160. To put that in perspective, RAICES' own fundraising for all the work they do, not just the bond work, was about $7 million last year. The Willners' fundraiser has been passed around so much that they have raised 2.5 times the nonprofit's yearly needs. RAICES has been raising money on their own, too. They have raised over $5 million dollars on their website. Gobs of other people are giving in other ways, too. Jenny Hixon, the nonprofit's development director, said that they have also received phone calls from literally thousands of people who want to volunteer. People are even offering to come to Texas to help.
What started as a modest goal from one family to help one other family has become millions of dollars that will help thousands of families. RAICES will be channeling the money into two of their programs, the bond fund as well as a fund that provides legal representation to kids who are actually unaccompanied minors. They also are going to share the money with other nonprofits. They know that there are plenty of other groups are doing good work and now is the time for all-hands-on-deck. They will be able to have more lawyers for the parents. They are hiring more people to do the work of finding the kids and getting the parents back in contact with them. And, they will be launching a nationwide network of people who will provide legal support to those who have been detained. They are even working on setting up a network of therapists and psychologists to help families address the likely PTSD and toxic stress of separation. All of this, from a nonprofit that was going to have to stop some of their programming next year. You see, last month, the government stopped funding a grant program that helped some unaccompanied minors get lawyers. That program paid a lot of their bills. RAICES wasn't going to be able to take on any more cases for kids in that situation. But, now they can and they will be able to do so much more. All because one small family used the tools they had to give all the help that they could.
Underdog stories catch people's attention. So do stories of regular people doing extraordinary things. I suspect that's why NPR and the Washington Post and several other news outlets paid attention to the story of the Willner family. The Willners aren't exactly shepherd boys facing down giant warriors, but they are regular people who looked at a monstrously large problem- thousands of children taken from their families- and looked at their resources- social media, the ability to read and research, some money to start off donations- and figured out how to put their resources to work. In that way, they are like David in today's reading.
David could have looked at the challenge before him, a trained and armored warrior, an adult, a confident army... he could have looked at all that was before him and given up before he even started. But he didn't. Armed with five smooth stones, a shepherd's bravery, and the confidence of one who knew he would one day be king, David faced the Philistine's challenge and won, changing the course of not only his life, but the history of his country. The Willners, and all the other people who joined with them to raise literally millions of dollars, they are changing things, too. They will definitely change the lives of all the people RAICES and other nonprofits will help. They helped me feel more hopeful this week, too.
Now, young David and the Willners aren't the only ones who can make a difference. Every single one of us has some divine tool for serving our neighbor at our disposal. David was just a shepherd with slingshot. The Willners are just an upper middle-class family with a computer and a Facebook account. What smooth stones are in your pocket? What gifts to you have that you can use for the public good? The challenge is great. But our God is greater. Like, stop the sea with a word greater. Let's put all these tools to God's use.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources to write this sermon:
Here are a couple articles about the fundraiser
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.