To Be Lifted
Several weeks ago, I sat down to study and discern what theme to preach on this Lent. I started reading through the scriptures suggested by the reading cycle I often use. I was particularly struck by the stories from the Hebrew Bible. Many of the stories were familiar. How many times have I read or heard a sermon on the Ten Commandments or on God's covenant with Abraham and Sarah? The story of Noah's family and the ark is a Bible story I've literally known most of my life. These are stories of promises and covenants made between God and humanity that have become foundational to how I understand the Bible. I was not surprised that these readings would come up during the season of Lent, when Christians are invited to consider our own commitments to God and one another. Even though the presence of these stories did not surprise me, the presence of another story about God's promise did. It's the story of the bronze serpent in Numbers 21.
The book of Numbers is not a book I think about very often. It is not referenced in the Gospels as often as, say, Isaiah (which I think about all the time) or in common worship usage as something like the Psalms. In the 3-year reading cycle that shapes my preaching, a cycle that suggests 4 different readings each Sunday, a reading from Numbers may come up only once per year. Compare that to Genesis or Exodus or Deuteronomy that are suggested multiple times during every year of the reading cycle. It's not that nothing important happens in Numbers. Plenty of things happen.
This is a book that is mostly set during the wilderness travels of the Exodus. You remember how last week I said that there are actually 613 commandments, not just 10. A bunch of those other commandments, instructions on orienting one's life around God and neighbor and not according to slavery, are here in the book of Numbers. Also, this is a book where we continue to observe Moses acting as a mediator between God and the people. And, importantly, it is in this book where the people come to the end of their wilderness. They will be standing on the river Jordan, preparing to go to the Promised Land. This book tells us how they prepared to go into the promised land. Wilderness travel. Instruction. Preparation. These are not unimportant themes, especially in Lent. What is interesting is that the reading that shows up this season is not one sections of commandments or one of the descriptions of the leaders who will take over for Moses. No, the story that shows up here is a story about a bronze snake on a pole. What on earth does this story have to tell us about God's promises?
I won't blame you if you're not as familiar with the story as you are with Abraham and Sarah or Noah's family and the ark. Like I said, it doesn't come up nearly as often in Christian circles as those other stories do. It starts out a lot like a story we're more familiar with, the story of manna in desert. The people who are traveling in the midst of a desert, and are probably very afraid, start wondering if maybe things weren't better off in Egypt. The difference in this story is that we're told that they are 40 years into their journey and have become fearful. They have had the manna and quails in the desert for decades now. You would think that would have been enough to show them that God would provide for them. Generations of slavery and general crankiness are hard habits to break, though. Even a life in God's provision can seem burdensome. The scripture tells us that they have become impatient. So, they do what impatient people often do... they complain.
God in these stories reads more like another character whose personality you have to take into account. It appears that God is a little cranky, too. After 40 years, God is tired of hearing people complain about the food, and probably a little tired of hearing questions about whether or not God is actually doing right by them. So, God decides to teach the people a lesson. Now, I think this part says more about how people try to explain away difficult events than it does about the actual character of God. Nevertheless, we should pay attention to how these people explained a weird and scary thing that happened in their community. The authors of this book said God sent down a bunch of poisonous snakes. Now, who here would find living in the midst of a bunch of poisonous snakes pretty terrifying? Yeah, me, too. Every time I go visit family in Texas, I have to remind myself that rattlesnakes are real things that hang out in shady spots where I also like to hang out. My mom has nearly jogged over rattle snakes on several occasions. One of her dogs very nearly came to an early end when he saw a big ol' rattler and tried to eat it. If I thought God was dropping all those snakes on me, I would be unnerved to say the least.
The Exodus story has lots of plagues in it. They are ways to show how powerful God is. Some are painful, like boils and leprosy. Some are scary, like rivers of blood. Some are weird, like all those frogs that fell from this sky. This one strikes me as a little different though. Venomous snakes, while dangerous, don't chase you down to hurt you. They don't stalk you through the night. You have to do something to a snake, either surprise it or intentionally make it mad, before it will bite you. This plague, while dangerous, it is mostly dangerous in potential. It's not quite a trap, but is an accident waiting to happen. If you aren't careful, you will be hurt. But, you can navigate around the danger. You shake out your boots before you put them on. You don't go digging around under logs or in piles of leaves without checking first. If you want to sit on a rock, you check around the rock before you sit down. When you live with something so dangerous as this plague of snakes, vigilance reshapes your life so that you can stay safe.
In the Bible story, as in real life, people end up getting bitten. This happens sometimes when you live with snakes. You accidentally run into them. You get annoyed and try to move them. You compete for space and you occasionally loose. Enough people were being bitten that the people grew afraid, again, and this time blamed themselves instead of God. That said that they had messed up by speaking against God and against Moses. They begged Moses to intervene with God and get rid of the snakes. Moses prayed on their behalf. God helps, but not in the way the people expected. God doesn't take away the snakes, these scaly reminders that life is best lived with great care and attention, but God does give them a way to be healed when they do run afoul, intentionally or accidentally, of a snake. In a time before anti-venom existed, the people needed something that sure looks like magic to us. God had them build a bronze serpent. When they looked at it, they were healed.
Man, this is a wild story. It could be easy to dismiss it as superstition. I think it is worth more than a dismissal. Remember, Numbers is a book about, at least in part, all those instructions for shaping your life according to love of God and love of neighbor. When the people have forgotten these instructions, forgotten to live a life a worship and service and trust in God, they begin to fall back into the patterns of slavery and deprivation. They worry that God's provision will run out. They complain and whine and fight. The commandment shape of their lives becomes warped. They fall into old patterns of jealousy, destruction, and scarcity thinking. These patterns are dangerous. They can fall into them accidentally, by habit, or intentionally, out of frustration.
I wonder if the fear of the snakes, and the necessity of shaping one's life in response to the presence of the snakes, is meant to be a parallel to the way one can live one's life according to God's instruction. A fuller and longer life is possible, even when surrounded by danger, when a person is willing to be attentive and responsive to powerful external forces. You have to be willing to shake out those boots and look under the logs. And, when you do step on the snake, you have to be confident that God has a way to heal you.
Maybe that's why the author of John liked this image of the snake on the pole as a metaphor for Jesus. Jesus can be both the vector of healing, like the bronze snake, and the reminder of God's instruction, like God's words as heard through Moses. While John didn't believe that God simply removed the hard and dangerous parts of life, John did believe that it was possible for people to pattern their lives that took temptation to destruction, scarcity, and fear into account. This story from Numbers has both the healing and the reminder to follow God that John would have needed to explain Jesus' mission. For John, Jesus will always be there, a reminder to live life according to God's instruction and the method by which God will heal the world. It's kind of weird metaphor to our modern ears, but, John found it meaningful.
Perhaps our question, as modern-day readers is, what can we see on high that will bring us back to the full life that God intends? If you're not looking for a snake on a stick to heal you, what are you looking for to remind you to shape your lives according to God's instruction? What heals you when you've poked the wrong snake or sat down on an ill-advised rock? Remember: We have access to great instruction. Let's hope we don't have to get bit by a snake to start looking for it.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Cameron B. R. Howard: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3606
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5075
Samuel Cruz: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3579
Karoline Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014).
Melissa Bane Sevier: https://melissabanesevier.wordpress.com/2015/03/12/snakes-on-a-plain/
Marilyn Salmon: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1256
Then God spoke all these words:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
A Promise to Live By: Exodus 20:1-17
Did you know that there are more than ten commandments? Really. In Christian churches, most of the time we just talk about these first ten. In Jewish tradition, there are another 603 commandments spread throughout the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. It is all of these commandments together that make up what is called "the law." This word "law" doesn't really mean the same thing it means in modern usage. In Hebrew, the word is "torah." A scholar I read this week named Nyasha Junior says that torah is often better translated as "instruction" than "law." If we think of these words as instructions on how to live a life instead of laws we break at our own peril, we may get closer to their original intent. These words were not simply pronouncements from on high. These ten instructions are the first in a long list of instructions from God on how to live a life well. These ten instructions are simply the introduction to all the rest. They point us to a covenantal way of living with God and with one another.
According to Dr. Junior, this set of instructions from God is really about forming patterns of living shaped by respect for everyone, God and neighbor, with whom we are in relationship. We won't talk about all 613 instructions. I can tell that you are relieved. That would be a really long sermon and they aren't all in this one reading any way. Since these are the first ten instructions given to the Israelites during Exodus and the ten that get most attention within Christian circles, it makes sense to spend some time on how these particular instructions can help us to build patterns of respect into our daily lives. That probably means we need to pay attention to how this set of instructions starts out. The author declares that God spoke these words, these instructions, and God began with this important reminder: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." These words should shape how we read the whole rest of the list.
I read a scholar named Terrence Freitheim this week and he asserts that if we forget the context of these first ten instructions, we miss their purpose. When we read these words, we should read them through the lens of redemption and promise. These instructions are best situated within a relationship between God and the people God has redeemed. These instructions are not simply free-floating good ideas, like how you should wash your hands after you go to the bathroom, or laws set up by a governmental body, like the laws that govern how fast you should drive down Main Street. They are instructions for you for being in right relationship with your God who redeemed you. They are at once deeply personal and deeply communal, connecting each person's history of redemption to the story of redemption of their people. It is a reminder that God did something for you, and now, you are invited to live your life as a reflection of that redemption. Dr. Freitheim calls this "giving a commandment shape" to one's life.
So, then, rooted in redemption and promise of God, how do we read the rest? Jesus once said all of the law can be winnowed down to love God the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. I think this is a helpful shorthand for these ten instructions, too. What does it mean to love God? For one, it means that you will follow this God. That means not just avoiding following other gods like Baal or Bast, but also not making other things into a god. Money, property, fame, power... none of these things can be central to your devotion. Love, trust, and fear God above all things. But, don't be too narrow in your understanding of God. God is always bigger than you can imagine.
People are called to use God's name properly, too. Originally, this may have meant not to use God's name in divination rituals or magic outside of their tradition. I'd say we probably shouldn't use God's name to justify shaming or wounding other people. Too often, these instructions get used as a hammer. I don't think they were intended to be weaponized. Another part of loving God is mirroring God's own actions by taking a time of Sabbath. Set that time aside, away from work, and keep it for cultivating a relationship with God. You are God's. Your labor should be God's, too, and should be shaped by your commitment to the covenant. Just as you won't make things that aren't God, into gods, you won't allow your labor to overshadow your relationships.
Love this particular God but not in narrow or harmful ways. Giving your worship and your work to this God. That's what it means to love God. What does it mean, then, to love people as God commands? This half of the ten instructions begins with the relationships that are often closest to a person, the relationships in one's family. Develop a healthy relationship with your parents. Love them as God loved you. That probably means parents need to work on having a healthy relationship with their kids, too. There is a sacred trust in this relationship that should be nurtured.
The rest of the instructions on how to cultivate covenant in human relationship hold truth both within in the bounds of family and beyond. Do not murder. Do not break the bonds of trust in other families. Do not steal from or lie about your neighbors. And, don't waste your time in jealousy over your neighbor's possessions and relationships. Jealousy, called coveting here, is pointless in the covenant. Jealousy presumes that there is a finite amount of goods and good relationship available to people. God want us to know that there is already enough. We don't have to grasp at what others have just to make sure we will survive. Remember, these instructions were given during the time in the desert. People were worried about having enough all the time. This final instruction of the first ten reminds them that they don't have to. God will provide for them as God has always provided for them.
I would like to make a short digression in the whole coveting conversation. Wives are treated as property to be grasped at in this verse. That... is not great. But, Dr. Freitheim noted that when this list is reiterated in Deuteronomy 5:21, the wife is no longer listed as part of the property, but instead as a participant in the covenant with her own specific instruction. Apparently, these instructions shifted under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the changing needs of the time. We should all thank God for that. I wonder what the next spirit-filled change needs to be?
A couple years ago, when I last preached on these first ten pieces of instruction given to Israel in the desert, I talked about how some scholars read them as a gift to the people at a time when the people were desperately in need of guidance for creating a new life outside of slavery. I still think that's an important way to read them. This set of instructions, yet one more covenant with the people, was their new pattern. They were a redeemed people. The world would be redeemed through them. They could participate in that redemption by living in accordance with God's instructions. Here's how scholar Elizabeth Webb explain's it: "The Ten Commandments, and the books of law that follow, are meant to form Israel as a sacred community, a community rooted in right worship of God and living in justice and peace with one another. The Israelites are to live as neighbors to one another, the foundation of which is knowing the God to whom they belong." She says it is here, at Sinai, where God gives the people the instructions for how to live in the harmony for which they were created. When we read these first instructions, we are invited to remember that this is what humanity is created for: communities of love and justice rooted in God's redemption.
This set of instructions is a gift from God and the Jewish forbears of Christianity. As we modern Christians seek to follows Jesus' call to love God and love neighbor, we would do well to remember these words of instruction and covenant. As Freitheim says, these words remind us that how we think about God shapes how we relate to our neighbors. May we remember that our God is rooted in redemption, not destruction. May we also live out that redemption in how we engage with the world around us. What instructions are helping you live into your own redemption on this day?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources when writing this sermon:
Terrence Freitheim: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3604
Elizabeth Webb: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1224
Nyasha Junior, "Third Sunday in Lent, Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Our Sermon for February 25th, 2018: To Walk In a Promise, Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 (plus a little of verse 17)
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.’ Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him,‘As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.
God said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.’ Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’
To Walk in a Promise: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 (and vs 17)
Abraham fell to his face and laughed. Laughed out loud. Laughed until he was out of breath. Even as he stayed low and face down in an ancient posture of reverence, he laughed. So often, when we tell the story of this family and their relationship with God, we talk about Sarah's laugh in the face of Divine Impossibility. Her son Isaac was named for her laughter. But, Abraham laughed, too. He was 75 years old and still going by the name Abram when God first promised him children and land on which to thrive. To his credit, he believed God at that first promise and mostly did what God asked him to over the next 25 years. There was this moment of fear-based decision making on Abraham's part that ended up with Sarai getting taken by a Pharoah to be a new wife or concubine. God helped her get back to Abram, though. And, that whole debacle didn't stop either of them from trusting that first promise God made to Abram.
Abram usually trusts God when God makes a promise. The second big promise God made, after Lot and Abram decided to settle in different areas, was yet another promise of children and land. God said their descendants would be as numerous as dust on the earth. That is a lot of offspring and he was probably in his 80's at that point. But, he followed God. At one point, after saving Lot and many others who were kidnapped in war, when God again tells Abram that he will be blessed, Abram does ask when. He and Sarai were well-passed the years that most people conceive and they had no child. He was worried that one of his slaves would be an heir. But, God confirmed the promise. Abram and Sarai would have descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. God said they would have land for a home.
They do try an end run around the promise once. Sarai convinced Abram to try to conceive with her slave Hagar. It is not at all clear that Hagar wanted to be a part of this arrangement. Abram could have said no, but he didn't. Hagar had a son, Ishmael. God took care of her and child when Sarai and Abram wouldn't. God would eventually find them a home in the wilderness. But this child, Ishmael, would not be the promised child. That boy will come later. By the time we come to our reading for today, where God makes one more promise of children and land, Abram and Sarai do not yet have a son together. They have been following God's promise for nearly 25 years. Even after the pharaoh debacle and the mistreatment of Hagar, God sees potential in this family and assures them that a richer future is in store for them. Abraham, that's what he's called now, Abraham... Abraham hears this promise and he believes, but he laughs out loud anyway. It has been twenty-five years. There have been so many moves, even a war, and he has one son, even if it's not with Sarah. He will do what God says, but, he has to laugh. He no longer has any sense of how long this promise with take to manifest.
You'll remember, Noah had been made a covenant, too. God saw the destruction that was a product of God's anger and added a mark to the world as a reminder to never do that again. It was a promise to all of creation, not just one particular family. Creation didn't really have to do anything to merit this covenant. God just made the promise. God's covenant with Abraham is different. While God will remain the God of all the world, this part of the story is about Israel's particular relationship with God. The covenant reflects that particularity. This covenant is not a blanket promise over all creation. It is a particular promise to this family and their descendants. While Abram and Sarai didn't do anything to court God's favor at the beginning of this story, once they decided to follow God and believe in the covenant, God began to ask something of them. This portion of the story is the moment where God set forth the expectations for their side of the covenant. They would have to do something to demonstrate their faith.
First, they would have different names. A name change often signifies a new or changing relationship. Their new names become one sign that they are changed by their relationship with God. There is a second sign that's not part of our reading, circumcision, but this sign isn't available to all people. God asks for it, nonetheless. Whereas the marks in the sky after the flood remind God of a promise, these marks on some of the people and in their very names become signs to the people of the covenant they have with God. The rainbow reminds God to create, not destroy. These marks and names remind God's people to walk with God and be blameless. Notice, this doesn’t mean perfect... Abraham and Sarah are far from perfect, even by their own cultural standards. As scholar Wil Gafney says, people are more than the worst things they've ever done. And part of the uniqueness of this God is that this God entrusts fallible people with a powerful covenant.
So, what does it mean to walk blameless before God as a sign of the covenant? A scholar I read this week named Alejandro Botta explains it this way. When you look at Genesis, where the covenant begins, alongside other books of the Bible, where the covenant is fleshed out, to behave in a way that is called "blameless," like Noah or Job is to know God. Knowing God means doing a couple different things. In 1 Kings, Psalms, Proverbs and Isiah, it means to fear God. In 1 Chronicles, it means to serve God. In another part of Isaiah, to believe in God, and another Psalm, to trust God and cleave to God. In Jeremiah, a good king is said to truly know God when he dispensed justice and equity and upheld the rights of the poor and needy. Blamelessness then becomes a third mark of the covenant... a commitment to serving God and caring for those who need it most.
In another article I read this week, a minister named Kathryn Matthews, noted that these stories weren't written down by Abraham or Sarah themselves. They were written well after these things were traditionally thought to have taken place. These stories, and many other parts of the Hebrew Bible were finally written down during the exile in Babylon, after Jerusalem had been destroyed. While the leadership in exile and the temple in ruins, people wondered if the promises God had made were really true anymore. With the people so spread out, some living in poverty in Judah and some in exile in Babylon, were these old promises even valid anymore? These authors say yes. This covenant is everlasting. For a people who would not have had access to many of their most important religious sites and for whom evening keeping up with rituals may have been difficult, what a relief it could have been to hear that you can be blameless without the temple. You can be blameless without the sacrifices. You can be blameless, even, without your people. You carry the mark of the covenant on you. You can live into the covenant wherever you fear God and do justice. Babylon can never take that away.
Maybe that's why we need to see Abraham laughing while also kneeling in worship. He knew that God's promises don't always happen in the way you think they will or on the timeline you imagine. He remembered times when he was afraid and times when he was brave and probably some times when he was both. I mean, Ishmael, the product of both his and Sarah's anxiety for the promise, lived with them every day (until Sarah sent him away). He believes, but he's not sure how he believes or what will come of this belief. God has been with him thus far. Now God is asking for a greater level of commitment from his family. So, he laughs, and he prays. That's all he can really in the moment. It's what they will do next that shows us whether or not he and Sarah will fully participate in this next iteration of the covenant. I'll give you a little hint about what comes next: Abraham has everyone who can be circumcised, circumcised. Then a couple angels show up at their tents. That's the part of the story where Sarah laughs and, their son Isaac is born.
This is the season of Lent. It is a time for telling the stories of God's promises, even in the midst of that which is challenging in human life. It a time for remembering all the ways that God calls to us, as God called to Abraham and Sarah, inviting into both new life and greater responsibility. Our faith is richer for remembering these promises, and discerning new ways to live them out. Maybe we'll find ourselves praying and laughing at the same time, completely unclear how God will make a way with us but choosing to trust that God will. You see, the apostle Paul thought that Gentiles could be part of God's covenant with Abraham, too. He said we got adopted into the family. That means that we are asked to be blameless, too, then, as a sign of the covenant. What are the signs that you count on to remind you of your own covenant with God? What are the signs that we collectively need to remember are written onto the hearts of our community? How will you remember these signs and be changed by them?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources when writing this sermon:
Wil Gafney: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3596
Cameron B. R. Howard: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2384
Alejandro F. Botta, "Second Sunday in Lent," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Kathryn Matthews: http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_february_25_2018
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.’
See It And Remember: Genesis 9:8-17
In the part of Prague called the Jewish Town, there is an old synagogue called Pinkas Synagogue. It was first a private house of prayer in the midst of one of the longest-standing Jewish communities of any European city. There are records of this synagogue going back to 1492. The building we visited was constructed in 1535. It is kind of wedged into a chunk of a street between the largest and best preserved Jewish cemetery in Europe, an historic Jewish ritual bath, and another synagogue called Klausen. It has plaster walls and a red-tile roof. To enter the synagogue, you step off the sidewalk and walk down a slope that takes you about a floor below the modern street. It was cool inside. The vaulted ceiling, much like the ones we saw in gothic Christian churches and castles we visited, was high and lovely. There was an ornate bema, an elevated area in the center of the sanctuary from which Scripture is read, surrounded by a low red marble wall and high cast iron lattice. There was also a lovely ark, the case in which they stored the Torah scrolls against the far wall. There was even a balcony. I believe that is where the women worshiped.
The sanctuary is about as big as our own, but with the additional space of the balcony. It feels warm and quiet like our sanctuary does if you come here early on Sunday morning before the people begin to trickle in for worship. The synagogue is no longer an active place of worship though. Now, it's a memorial. You see, hundreds of thousands of Jews who lived in what is now the Czech Republic were killed by the Nazis. Written on the walls of this synagogue are the names of 77, 297 of them, the people who lived in the regions of Bohemia and Moravia. In careful script, people are listed alphabetically, according to their last names, family groups, and towns in which they lived. In red, you see the names of the town. In black, the names of the people, people like Kamila Fiserovak, who was born in 1881 and killed in 1942, Lily Haasova, who was born in 1911 and killed in 1942, and Valtr Eisinger, who was born in 1893 and killed in 1942. Many of them ended up either in Terezin or Auschwitz. Few Jewish people returned to this part of the city after the war. The artists who created the memorial in the 1950's, Jiří John and Václav Boštík, wanted to make sure these people weren't forgotten. You are supposed to see these walls and these tens of thousands of names and remember.
On the same trip, we stayed in Berlin, Germany. The conference Tasha was attending was at the university where President Kennedy made his famous "I am a Berliner" speech. When I walked from our hotel to campus one day, I walked by a strange building. It was much the same as the other slightly posh, old-fashioned homes on the street. It had smallish lot with a nice little yard and a tall fence around the property. The home could have been built 100 years ago. But, it was different, too. While the other homes were well maintained brick and plaster, this one literally had holes in it. Well, not all the way through the walls, but down through a couple lays of plaster and wood. And, the walls were dingy compared to neat and tidy neighbors. It turns out that it was an art museum. When artist (and museum curator) Wolf Kahlen got the property, he left the outside in disrepair and renovated the inside. The inside is a fine gallery space. When describing his small museum, he once said "I have made the house in cooperation with the Russians: The Russians have the appearance and I made the inside." The part of the city where I stood had been heavily bombarded by the Russians during World War II. Then, the city had been at the center of the Cold War through the 1980's, when Kahlen opened his museum. The cracked walls and broken plaster invite you to see and remember just exactly what war looks like, even in the midst of a relatively nice, modern neighborhood.
A colleague of mine is serving a church in London, in the UK. A couple weeks ago, she and some of her parishioners visited another church, St. James, an Anglican church that was built in the 1600's. St. James has one of those grand gothic sanctuaries, with a ceiling that is easily a hundred feet high,. There are arches, vaults, grand windows, and marble floors. And, right now, through the end of the month, there are clothes... hundreds of items of clothes of all colors and sizes suspended high above the pews. There are socks, shirts, pants, and skirts all hanging vaguely in the shape of an inverted dome. These clothes almost have a life of their own. They don't hang limply like they are on a clothesline. These clothes look like snapshot of a whirlwind, caught for just a moment in the middle of the church.
They are part of an art installation called Suspended. The artist Arabella Dorman and church wanted to bring attention to the on-going frustrations and dangers facing migrants from the Middle East and North Africa as they make their way into Europe. All of these clothes were collected on the beaches of the island of Lesvos. When you cross the Mediterranean on a small craft, if you survive, you may end up on a beach in Greece in cold, wet clothes. In Lesvos, the people will peel off the wet clothes and leave them where they land. Brigades of volunteers have been formed to give them warm, dry clothes and help them on to their next steps towards building a new life. Upon leaving the beach, many of these migrants have found themselves in detention centers and strange cities, stuck just as surely as their clothes are suspended between the ceiling and pews of the church. They can't go back to where they left, but they can't really go forward, either, not without help. St. James hopes that you will see these clothes and remember... remember God's call to welcome the stranger and care for the orphan and widow.
All manner of things can call your memory to a promise of long ago. A wedding band to remind spouse of their covenant of marriage. A plaque on a wall to remind a congregation of a tradition of advocacy and welcome. A sign by the side of road to remind you of the power of march to change the world. Today's scripture tells of a bow that God set across the sky. Like the synagogue and the art museum and the whirlwind of clothes, this bow was created in the aftermath of destruction. The face of God we see in this part of Genesis is one of contrition and eventually mercy. The preceding story of a flood and a family building an ark, a story that is often told as though it were a fanciful children's story, is a hard story with an angry God and a planet-wide scale of destruction. But, it is also a story of a God who is moved by the plight of the survivors, the women and men and animals who made it through the storm. It is a story of the most powerful being realizing that they cannot wield their power so completely again. This is a story about God promising not just one family but all of creation that God will never destroy the world so completely again.
No matter how angry God will get, God will see the rainbow and remember. And, the people will see the bow bend across the sky, and remember that all people, regardless of family of origin, race, gender, sexuality, religion, or immigration status are equally covered under that covenant. Every living creature is beloved and will be covered by this promise that God made to Noah. All flesh is connected this way, through a promise of protection. If we ever make the mistake of thinking that God leaves some people out of new life and renewed creation, we have this story to remind us that all people are part of the covenant. In fact, all living being are part of this covenant, and we shouldn't forget that either. Just 'cause God won't destroy the planet with a flood again, doesn't mean that we're allowed to.
Perhaps most importantly, maybe this story is telling us that if God needs signs to remember God's promises, perhaps we, too, need signs to remember our promises. The names across the walls of the Pinkas Synagogue remind the people of Prague of the time when they failed to protect their neighbors and call on them to never so blithely sacrifice people again. The shell-shocked walls of an art museum remind a city of horrors of war and calls its citizens to work of peace and freedom. Clothes suspended in a sanctuary remind Christians of desperate migrants who are so easily forgotten and call them, and us, to welcome the migrants as neighbors. Sometimes, we, like God, need the reminder of both the breadth of our destruction and our promise to support new and renewed life after whatever flood has come. Right now, new memorials are being built in Parkland, Florida, memorials like the ones built in Sandy Hook, at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University, and in Columbine. What promise will we be reminded of when we see them? Will we have the courage to hold up our end of these covenants?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the followed sources while writing this sermon:
Nicole L. Johnson, "First Sunday in Lent," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Wil Gafney: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3567
Information about Suspended: http://www.sjp.org.uk/suspended.html
Cameron B.R. Howard: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2375
Information about Pinkas Synagogue: https://www.jewishmuseum.cz/en/explore/sites/pinkas-synagogue/
Elizabeth Webb: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1222
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
Double Share of the Spirit: Mark 9: 2-9
Last year, on a very foggy Ash Wednesday, Mike Mayette shared a great story with me. On a Sunday when our readings deal with mysterious and confusing sights, it seemed like a good day to share it with you. One night, a call came in about a structure fire in Readfield. The volunteer departments of six local towns, about a hundred people, all rushed to the scene. Or tried to rush to the scene. They knew it was on route 17 near the Jesse Lee Church, but a thick fog had come up and was blanketing the whole area. The fog was so dense that they couldn't even see the fire. Now, I don't know the last time you've seen a structure fire, but I remember what it looked like when the post office was on fire just down the road. I could see the smoke from a long way off. Did any of you see it? Now, imagine a fog so thick you couldn't see that fire. That's the kind of fog we had last Ash Wednesday and that's the kind of fog the firefighters were dealing with that night.
As the firefighters grew closer to the hilltop where they thought the fire was, something strange came over their radios. Now, these radios are supposed to only be used for business. There's not a lot of idle chatter coming over the line. You can imagine everyone's surprise when they heard the voice of the fire chief in Readfield come over the line, yelling, "Oh, Jesus. Oh, Jesus. Oh, Jesus." It turns out that as he rounded the hill in front of the church, he lost control of his truck, and he began swerving all over the place. He ended up being okay. He regained control of his truck and didn't end up in the cornfield next the road like he might have. Plenty of other people have not been so lucky on that stretch of highway. But, he still ended up swearing/praying out loud across the whole fire department's main method of communication. This incidence happened several years ago, but few people have forgotten it. To this day, his department calls particularly dense fog a "Jesus fog."
It sounds to me like Peter, James, and John know a little something about being in a Jesus fog. Well, maybe it's more of a God fog. Maybe it's kind of the same thing. They have followed Jesus up a mountain. I don't know what they were expecting to see on the mountain but I bet it wasn't Jesus glowing and hanging out with two, long dead heroes of the faith. Now, I almost walked into a famous actress in a bathroom once, and I was pretty flabbergasted. I can't imagine what it would be like if I saw Moses and Elijah or Jesus for that matter. It's no wonder that Peter wanted to build a structure to commemorate the event. I learned from a scholar named Ched Myers this week that that's what these dwellings he offered to build were, tabernacles, places to mark the presence of the Divine. Peter was so in awe and, frankly, so terrified of what he saw that his first impulse was to build something holy to mark the place's importance. He couldn't figure out any other way to respond to what was happening. It's like he was swerving all over the place, trying to get his bearings, and he landed on a tabernacle.
Then, this cloud overshadowed them... it sure sounds like the Jesus fog in the story. They could see nothing in the divine darkness. Remember, in Exodus, God appeared in the dense cloud up on the mountain when talking to Moses. This story is supposed to remind us of that. In that moment, upon the mountain, in the cloud with Jesus, in the midst of the fog, God says two things to help these three disciples figure out how to respond to what they have witnessed. First, they hear the voice of God say, "This is my Son" and call Jesus Beloved. The next thing God does is tell the disciples to listen to Jesus. This is supposed to remind us of prophet stories in Hebrew Scripture. God will make sure that the people God's sends are listened to. Just as quickly as this fog shows up, it clears, leaving the three a little stunned and still confused, but clearer, at least, that they should be listening to Jesus.
After the fog clears, Jesus tells his disciples not to tell anyone what they saw. This seems like such a hard ask to me, maybe not as hard as the times he will ask people he's healed not to talk about what he did for them, but still hard. I mean, I saw a famous person in a bathroom and I tell people about it all the time. I've mentioned it twice in this sermon. I imagine, at least for some people, it would be a challenge not to tell everyone, or at least the other disciples, about the Transfiguration. It would have been such an incredible sight, how could you not? But, Jesus said, now is not the time to share this story. So, they do what God said. They listen to Jesus. They tell no one... at least until after the Resurrection.
I read a sermon by Fred Craddock, a scholar and teacher I've often talked about. He said that he wondered if Jesus asked them to wait because there was no way they understood the miraculous thing they just saw mere moments after they saw it. To go around telling everyone was to risk missing the point of the event. To truly understand what they saw, maybe they needed some more experiences, some more stories, some more mysterious fogs. So, for now, they would hold this piece of information close. Pray about. Listen to Jesus some more, and do what he says. Take some time to tell this story right. It's ok to stick around in the fog for a while. You will soon see a way forward. Just know, you might swerve around a bit on the way.
A colleague of mine, the Rev. Tamara Torres-McGovern, told me another story about finding a way through a fog that seems appropriate to tell with this piece of the Gospel. There was a man traveling along a road. Maybe he was a fire chief, maybe he was a disciple. We don't really know. What we do know is that he had a long way to go but felt confident in his direction because he could see where he was going. He knew what to expect in the road ahead. But, then a fog rolled in... heavy one... a Jesus fog. Every single landmark and mile marker he needed was completely obscured. But, he couldn't just stop. He still had to get where he was going. So, he kept walking. Finally, after stumbling around in the foggy dark, he ended up at a home. Desperate for help, he knocked on the door. A hermit answered. The man said to the hermit, "I am so lost. I know where I'm supposed to go, but I cannot find my way. Can you help me?" The hermit was kind and said, "Of course." He turned around and went back into his home.
After a few moments, the hermit returned. He was holding a lantern in his hand. The hermit handed the lost man the lantern and said, "Here you go. This should help." Do you remember how thick the Jesus fog is? Do you think a little lantern would be much help? Well, the lost man sure didn't think it would. He said the hermit, "Thank you. But, I don't think this is enough. I need directions. I need someone to show me the way. This is only one small light." The hermit looked at the poor man with great grace. He took the lantern back and showed him: "Hold the lantern out in front of you. Look. You can see at least a couple feet, right? Well, walk to the edge of what you can see. Hold the lantern out again. Look, you can see a couple feet further. Walk, again, to the edge of what you can see. That's how you will go forward. You will travel this road 10 feet at a time."
I think the transfiguration is but one flash of light that helped his disciples figure out the next ten feet of their journey with Jesus. But, this story is so miraculous that people might have gotten stuck in those ten feet, not realizing it was but one step towards God's vision of love and justice, if this miracle was all they talked about. The disciples', the world's, transformation would not come in one burst of light, but in a long journey with Jesus, a journey that will be amazing but often confusing and very hard. We will not find our way by lingering too long in one spot. We will always need to hold our hand out and see where the next ten feet of Christ's light leads us. This story reminds us that we may have to journey together for a while to truly understand how we got where we needed to go. This story also assures us that we will one day understand it enough to pass it along.
There is one last part to the story about the fog and the fire chief. I told you that he eventually was able to regain control of his truck. He was finally able to safely stop. Then, he looked out of his window. Remember that fire they couldn't find? Well, he stopped right in front of it. He was able to tell the rest of the firefighters where it was. I pray that we all can find our fires, even as we travel through dense fogs and winding roads, even if it takes us a while to understand how.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Thanks to church member Mike Mayette for telling me about the Jesus Fog and to Rev. Tamara Torres-McGovern for telling me about the hermit and the lantern.
C. Clifton Black: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3561
Ched Myers, "Transfiguration Sunday (Last Sunday after Epiphany), Preaching God's Transforming Justice
Fred Craddock, "Tell No One Before Easter: Mark 9:2-9," The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
That Is What I Came Out To Do: Mark 1:29-39
This portion of scripture really has three parts that each show us something about how Jesus works in this world. In each section, one in a private home among close friends and their family, another in a more public space among strangers, and the third, isolated in the wilderness, away from everyone, we can gain insight into what Jesus thinks is important according to this Gospel. We are also able to get a glimpse of what it means to follow Jesus during the earliest parts of his ministry. In looking at these early stories of how Jesus lived and ministered alongside the people who had faith in him, I think we can learn something about how to follow him today, in our own families, out in public with our neighbors, and in our own places of quiet and solitude.
This reading begins where many of our journeys of faith began, within a family home, among people who love and care for one another. Scholars remind us that, in this time and in this culture, several generations lived with each other and, many times, branches of extended families lived together. This home is called Simon and Andrew's. Simon's mother-in-law lives there, too. There are likely many people who call this place home. And, this family is well known by James and John, the other two brothers and early disciples of Jesus. Now, at least one scholar I read this week, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, reminds us that Jesus has a tricky relationship with families in Mark. Like, in chapter three, when his own family comes looking for him, he says his real family isn't necessarily them, but anybody who does the will of God. I'm going to hazard a guess, but I bet that wasn't an easy thing for them to hear.
And, yet, here is a story where two brothers make sure that Jesus knows that a member of their friend's family is sick. From this story forward, friends and family are shown to powerful centers of compassion and care. That will continue throughout this gospel. Parents will ask Jesus to heal their children several more times in this book. These two sets of brothers, James and John and Simon and Andrew, will continue to care for one another even as they follow Jesus. Faith in Christ will consistently be situated inside the family, with family members encouraging one another to believe and to be healed. People will find Jesus within their closest relationships. And, Jesus will respond with compassion to those who advocate for the people they love.
That's what he does here. He responds to James and John's concern for Simon's mother-in-law by lifting her up out of the illness that may be close to claiming her life. In a time before Tylenol, a fever could be a terrifying sign. But, here is Jesus... stronger than the illness that was trying to claim her. The brothers had already seen him heal someone once. How much more would it mean to them to see him heal someone they know and love. It sure seems to have affected Simon's mother-in-law. It is too bad that we don't know her name, because she does something incredible. In what some may describe as the first glimpse of resurrection in Mark, she returns to her healthy life. But, she doesn't stop at simply being healed. She begins to serve.
We would do well to remember what the word "serve" means in the Gospel of Mark. Kittredge points out that the Greek word for service is used throughout the book of Mark to mean both serve at a table and to do ministry. Much of the time, it is used to describe discipleship or work with divine foundations. The angels served Jesus in the wilderness. A whole slew of women will become disciples of Jesus and serve with him. In Mark 10, Jesus will describe his own ministry this way: "For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Read this way, Simon's mother-in-law was the first person to be both healed by Jesus and then begin a life of discipleship with him. And, none of that would have been possible had her friends and family not advocated for her.
As this woman shifts into discipleship, the story shifts from the private sphere to the public. Or, at least semi-public. The next part of the story happens within the crowd of people who have gathered outside of the mother-in-law's home. Between her healing, the healing of the possessed man at the synagogue in the story just before this one, and Jesus' preaching in the synagogue, Jesus has gone from one who is relatively unknown to someone the whole town is talking about. People knew they could find healing with him. So, they came to him in droves. And, Jesus healed them, one by one, from their various diseases and possessions. For the second time in just a few verses, we see Jesus communicating with the demons as he draws them out. I didn't preach on this last week, so it is worth noting. Earlier in this chapter, when a demon tried to say out loud who Jesus was, Jesus stopped him. In today's reading, it says he did the same, forcing them to be silent because "they knew him."
Now, if Jesus is willing to preach and heal people in public, why would he prevent the demons he called out from naming him? Another scholar I read this week, Bonnie Bowman Thurston, says she thinks this has something to do with how Jesus prefers that people come to know him. It is one thing for people to observe him themselves and choose to follow. It is another thing for people to be convinced of his power by the word of supernatural beings. According to Thurston, for Jesus, it matters not simply that people hear about him, but that they observe him themselves and choose to follow. Later in Mark, Jesus will even tell Peter not to tell people he was the Messiah. Maybe it's because Jesus doesn't just want people to be swayed by the miraculous. You didn't have to be the Messiah to heal people. Magicians and healers roamed the countryside, performing miracles, too. Perhaps Jesus didn't want his reputation to be like that of any common magician. Healing is central to his ministry, but his work is more than simply magic. He was a preacher, too, sharing something new about God. The spectacle of the healings could not overshadow the core of his message of compassion and grace. So, don't make following him about the flashiest things done in his name. Make it about the invitation to come and see for yourself how he teaches and how he can change your life.
As the story shifts into the third part, we see yet another shift in location. After a full day of healing people, modeling sabbath for anyone who cares for other people, Jesus goes to an isolated place to pray. This isn't the first time that Jesus will pray in the desert. Jesus went to the desert to reconnect with God, the source of his power and the foundation of his identity. Thurston asserts that periods like this, where he is in the desert praying, remind us that all of his authority is rooted in his dependence on God, not in flashy feats of magic. They are necessary times of respite and reconnection in the midst of his hectic ministry. But, his disciples didn't seem to understand that. He is so far out of the way that the scripture says his followers have to "hunt" for him, as though he was lost. Their hunt isn't necessarily described as a good thing.
There was probably still a crowd of people around the house where Jesus had stayed. The disciples, either because they were excited that so many people wanted to meet Jesus or because they were afraid of offending the crowd, came to find Jesus to deal with them. But, Jesus was not interested in popularity. He would have directed everyone, human and demon alike, to spread word of his miracles if he was. No, he had a different calling and he was clear about it. I wonder if his time in prayer helped him gain clarity in his mission. When Simon seems to try to get him to return to the crowd, he tells them they need to go in a different direction. He said, "we're going to travel to other towns. I am going to preach again in those places. This message is important. It is what I came to share." And, so they followed, out into Galilee, where Jesus preached and healed people. But, all that work was rooted in prayer and time spent with God. He would have had no ministry without it.
This reading gives us three parts of a story. It reminds us three locations in which we live out our faith: among family, in public among strangers, and in private, with God. Perhaps, inspired by this reading, we need to ask ourselves three questions: How can we, like James and John, advocate for the healing of the people we love and welcome hurting people we don't know? How, like Jesus, do we center our faith around service and connection, and not around bombast? And, also, what are our deserted places that allow us to reconnect with God and fortify our own ministries? Ministry, both Christ's and ours, is not simple task. It is not done in a vacuum or with a few, attention grabbing events. It is a long journey that must be sustained through prayer, compassion, and advocacy. What is sustaining your ministry today? What have you learned from your time in the dessert?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing her sermon:
Cynthia Briggs Kittredge: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3547
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5052
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).
Praise the Lord!
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart,
in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
Great are the works of the Lord,
studied by all who delight in them.
Full of honour and majesty is his work,
and his righteousness endures for ever.
He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds;
the Lord is gracious and merciful.
He provides food for those who fear him;
he is ever mindful of his covenant.
He has shown his people the power of his works,
in giving them the heritage of the nations.
The works of his hands are faithful and just;
all his precepts are trustworthy.
They are established for ever and ever,
to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.
He sent redemption to his people;
he has commanded his covenant for ever.
Holy and awesome is his name.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
all those who practise it have a good understanding.
His praise endures for ever.
Amazed, With My Whole Heart: Psalm 111
In my research this week, I came upon a commentary by the scholar Shauna Hannan that I found both entertaining and persuasive. She argues that Psalm 111 is one of the best Psalms to use if you were trying to introduce God to somebody new. Now, she's a professor, so she imagined using the Psalm to introduce God as a guest lecturer in her class. Because I have been in a lot of classrooms and I'm married to a professor, I was pretty charmed by the idea. She even wrote the commentary like a professional resume:
Current Position: God, also known as true Lord of All
Accomplishments: Providing food for those who fear God. Making and keeping covenants. Providing for the legacy of the nations by helping them tell the story of their past and looking towards their future. Crafting justice. Redeeming people. Practicing grace and offering mercy. Developing a relationship with humanity that will last forever.
Turns out God is pretty accomplished. I guess that's why God gets brought in as a lecturer. When you have a guest lecturer, after making sure everyone knows about all the cool stuff they've done, you spend some time bragging about how great they are.
God's attributes include: Trustworthiness in the relationship that has been developed with creation. Powerful, but always tempered by righteousness. Honorable and majestic. Quick to hold others accountable, but willing to be held accountable as well. Upright. You could even say that God's very name is holy and awesome.
Dr. Hannan argues that many gods might have some mix of these attributes, but this Psalmist thinks this combination of majesty, power, grace, and trustworthiness is unique to our God. That is why this Psalmist steps out into the congregation and shouts in Thanksgiving. You see, when God is as good as this God, the author can't help but shout about God's works. They can't help but want you to know this God better. Were this a classroom, that's the real reason God has been invited to give a guest lecture. The Psalmist knows God is good and wants to introduce you to that God. This Psalm lays the groundwork not just for an introduction to God, but for the development of a whole relationship and lifestyle lived with God. If the Psalmist was a professor, they would really want to make sure that you know that this speaker is worth paying attention to.
Now, Dr. Hannon thinks that we don't just learn of God's great works without being affected by them. God's movement in this world is not outside of us or beyond us. The God described in this Psalm works on us, too. This God tends to people and calls them to service. This God makes promises and demands that we keep our promises to God. The respect and thanksgiving we offer God shines back on us in the form of wisdom and understanding. And, in turn, that wisdom and understanding shapes how we function in this world. I read another commentary, this one by a scholar named Kenyatta Gilbert, who described one way that this cycle of thanksgiving and creation shaped a group of people's behaviors. Dr. Gilbert described a particular kind of prayer service called a Kesha that he attended in Machakos, Kenya. It was a service where people were ready to be shaped by their praise. He said that the people sang songs of praise and prayed together. He said that they acted out their praise, too, dancing before God and one another in thanksgiving. He said they even began to practice glossolalia, speaking in tongues. You see, their praise was so all-encompassing that common words could no longer express it. This is a group of people consumed by praise for God, and unafraid to show it.
Dr. Gilbert goes on to describe the prayer service itself as an offering. He said all the people's prayers, all their movements, all their words were offered up to God in thanksgiving. This is a kind of full-bodied offering that doesn't require much money but does require commitment and trust and vulnerability. In his commentary, Dr. Gilbert spoke of the freedom that such thanksgiving inspires even in the midst of the required trust and vulnerability. Like the Psalmist, the worshipers in the kesha service have let themselves loose to praise God. They have burst forth from worldly expectations and everyday burdens to simply spend some time marveling at the God who created them. That praise that they shouted forth then reshaped them, helping them to fulfill the covenants that God had long ago made with humanity. This service was part of a cycle of Thanksgiving and transformation. Gilbert said that this service helped him to better understand what it means to give thanks with one's whole heart, just like the Psalm says.
This afternoon is our annual meeting. I think we have good reason to give thanks to God with our whole hearts, too. Because, I believe that if you look over the descriptions of our last year in ministry together, you can see that God has been at work among us in this church just as surely as God worked in the life of the Psalmist. For one, the Holy Spirit continues to draw each of us each week to this place for worship and prayer. While our worship sounds a bit different that the service Dr. Gilbert described, we still worship and offer our whole selves to God. You all have read scripture, offered prayer, sung, and played instruments together, each time reflecting the Spirit's movement through your offering. You have cheered one another on as you tried new things. You have sung new songs and practiced new ways of worship. You have remembered one another in prayer and spent time together in fellowship. You have even been willing to testify to the ways that God has moved you sing, to cook for the community, and to welcome strangers, all in our times of communal worship. Each time that we worship together, God has been at work. For that, I know I am thankful.
The Holy Spirit has called us to serve beyond our walls, as well. As the Psalmist says, God provides food. Some of the way God does that is by inspiring us to share our own. Many of you volunteer at the Winthrop Food pantry and the congregation itself donated 275 pounds of food to the pantry this year. I can't even count the amount of food you have shared with one another, bringing food for fellowship hour and to the homes of people who could use a hand in emergencies. Because we know that there is something divine in sharing food and eating together, several of us attended an Iraqi cooking class taught by a new Mainer friend. And, you've made sure that the food we sell people, at chowder and at luncheons, is both delicious and affordable.
God has inspired this church to make sure people have other material goods they need, too. You bring bars of soap for the Everyday Basics Pantry and home-goods to the Family Violence Project. We connected with Christians all over the world who donate to Church World Service, sharing an offering of blankets, hygiene kits, school kits, and disaster relief buckets. In fact, in response to the terrible hurricanes and earthquakes of this fall, this congregation raised enough money to donate 13 buckets to Church World Service. As best as I can tell, that is the largest disaster relief donation we've ever collected. If there was ever a way that we have worked to keep our promises to love our neighbors, we have done so with food and donations.
In Psalm 111, it says that God shapes faithfulness and justice. We have reflected this particular shaping of God's hands in our ongoing commitment to be open and affirming. In the broader community, there has been an increase in activity of white supremacists as well as an uptick in anti-immigrant rhetoric and politics. This congregation knows that such hateful actions do not reflect God's justice. So, we have worked to have a more visible stance of welcome and care that does. We joined with many religious communities and individuals in the Capital Area and placed a sign that said "No matter where you are from, we are glad you are our neighbor" in three languages in a prominent place in the church yard. Many of us also put these up in our own yards as well. We also created a "Love Your Neighbor" sign based on Matthew 6 that was prominently displayed on our property, reminding ourselves and our neighbors of this call from God. Upon learning that they did not have plans to celebrate an important religious feast together, our church hosted an Eid party that 60 new Mainers and their family mentor partners attended. In marching, rallying, and signing petitions together, we have lived more closely into the justice that God is creating around us.
These are only a few ways that we can be thankful that God has worked in and through us over the last year. I'm sure we'll talk about more ways later in our meeting. There will always be more that we can thank God for in this amazing life that is being created in us. It matters that we recognize that what we do together, our worship, our service, our caregiving, and our justice-seeking, can always be rooted in our praise and thanksgiving for the what God has already done in this world. Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them. Great is the God who inspires us to follow God's lead. May we continue to be willing to offer all we have, our skills, our ingenuity, our good humor, our lament, in thanks to this God and in partnership with the Spirit. This God is always trustworthy. May we be trustworthy, too.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing this sermon:
Shauna Hannan: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3542
Kenyatta R. Gilbert, "Fourth Sunday After Advent," 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)
Mark 1: 14-20
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
And, They Left
There is a social scientist named Paul Piff who studies kindness. More specifically, he studies what kind of things can induce cooperation and kindness between people instead of inducing selfishness and greed. He has a particular interest in the ways that having money affects people's behavior. For example, he cited the numerous studies that show a trend for the last 60 or 70 years of people with lower household incomes giving a larger portion of their incomes to charity. He and his colleagues design tests to try to figure out why. I'd like to describe a couple of his experiments.
Have you ever heard the common assertion that people with fancy cars are more likely to be rude drivers? They created an experiment to see if that was true. He and his colleagues live and work in Berkeley, California. There is a law that states that a driver must stop for people standing and waiting at cross walks. They had people hiding in bushes and behind telephone poles next to cross walks. Their job was to identify the makes of cars that drove by. They also had other people planted in the cross walk, waiting to cross. After studying who stopped for the pedestrians and who didn't, they found that a full 50 percent of people who drove the fanciest cars didn't stop. What's more, they found that every single driver whose car was in the "least expensive" category stopped like they were supposed to. Every single one.
They had another study where they brought in people who of varying levels of wealth and gave each of them what amounted to $10. Each participant was told that they could keep the $10 or share a portion of it with an anonymous stranger. The people running the experiment kept track of if and how much each participant was willing to share. They found that people who made below $25,000 a year (some of them made as little as $15,000 a year) gave 44% more of their money to the stranger than the people who made $150-200,000 a year.
One of the more entertaining experiments they developed was to see if they could 1) make someone who wasn't necessarily rich feel privileged in a situation and 2) observe if that feeling of privilege affected how they would behave in a situation. They brought out the ultimate game of greed and conflict: Monopoly. Then, they rigged the game. With one hundred pairs of players, they set up the game where, by the flip of a coin, one player would be assigned the role of the rich player and the other, the poor player. The rich player got twice as much money and got to roll two dice at a time instead of one, which meant that they got to move around the board much faster and much more often than the poor player. They also got the much-coveted Rolls-Royce playing piece to drive around. The poor player had to use the shoe.
Over the course of these one hundred rigged games of Monopoly, a pattern emerged. The rich players would begin to show signs of dominance and power during the game. Granted, this is pretty common behavior in Monopoly. It does not bring out the best in people. But, the researchers found that it was more than just competitiveness that was at play here. The rich players were so affected by the power they had in the game that it literally affected how they would move the little car on the board. They would begin to smack the car on the board, accentuating their speedy movement through the game with a whack... whack... whack of their fancy car. They would start to taunt their opponents and create increasingly loud and pushy celebrations. What's more is that this devolution of behavior hadn't occurred in the process of a regular, sometimes hours long fiasco that a regular monopoly game can be. All of this sass and bragging and strutting would happen only 15 minutes into a heavily rigged game. All it took was fifteen minutes for such measly power to go to someone's head.
When the researchers came in and asked the players to talk about their experience playing the game, the results were fascinating. The designated rich players, people who ostensibly knew that the game had been rigged in their favor, never seemed to credit their privileged starting position as the reason they won. They talked about their wise hotel building strategies and methods for choosing which property they bought. They would talk about their skill, and a couple lucky rolls of the dice that helped them out. Very few acknowledged how much their privilege worked in their favor. Remarkably few said, "Well, I started out in a much better position. It would have been really hard for me not to win." You see, they saw the game was rigged but still thought they had done something great to deserve their win.
Now, before I go any further, I should note that Paul Piff doesn't come up with all these studies to make rich people look bad. He really wants to try to figure out what factors help people act generously towards their neighbors and what factors influence people into acting more selfishly. I think he has some interesting theories as to why having money affects our levels of compassion. In the radio show I listened to about his studies, Piff points out that people with more money often live in bigger homes, homes where they have their own bedrooms and lots of space. They may choose to buy homes with more property, thereby physically separating them from their neighbors. He said that people with more money are more likely to drive their own cars instead of driving with others to work, or, if they live in urban areas, taking the bus or train or walking. And, at work, they may be in managerial positions, where they oversee others' work. They may be less likely to work closely on a team or in a crowded room of cubicles or on an assembly line. In short, Paul Piff thinks that money lets you be alone.
While a certain amount of solitary time is necessary for humans, the kind of aloneness that money enables may end up isolating people from one another. When you have more power and more control, you don't have to pay as close attention to the needs and wants of the people around you. You don't have to be as cooperative. You don't have to really think about all the ethical implications of your actions because you don't necessarily regularly interact with the people your actions affect. Now, I should be clear: It's not that being wealthy makes you terrible. And, it's not like poor people never display these self-tendencies. Piff is very clear that selfish patterns of behavior are just part of being human. There is a whole host of aspects of our lives that affect how generous and compassionate we are: how we were raised, our gender, our faith, the social groups we belong to. But, even with all that, we shouldn't forget that how much money we have, and how much that money insulates us from the needs of others, affects us, too.
I got to thinking about our relationships with the money and stuff we have when I reread the call stories of Simon and Andrew and James and John. As I read them in preparation for this sermon, I was struck by just how much Jesus asked of them. These were four young men with jobs, not fancy jobs, but, jobs and family responsibilities. They maybe didn't have a lot of cash, but they had nets and maybe boats and all the gear you would need to make a living. Isn't it shocking, then, that all Jesus had to say was, "follow me. I will make you fish for people instead" and they dropped all they had and followed him. This is an awfully generous sacrifice for a guy they just met.
Were these four men among those generous low-income people who were willing to share 44% more with a stranger? Were they the people in the simple cars who always stop for grad students in cross walk? Were they people who had been taught that money wasn't as important as connections to others, and Jesus was offering them an incredible new kind of connection? Or, maybe they were tired playing a game that they knew was rigged against them. Instead of continuing to play like the people in Piff's study, they were willing to bet everything they had on the vision Jesus set before them just to see how a new kind of game would play out? Reading their story, which is supposed to strike us as miraculous, I had to ask myself, what would be the thing Jesus could say to me to get me to drop my nets, to generously give away all that I have in order to make his vision real. If I'm honest, I don't really know.
Paul Piff said that isolated wealthy people can relearn some of their lost empathy if they are given little reminders of the needs of other. In one of his studies where people from a variety of income levels were shown a 46 second video about child poverty. This short video was an empathy nudge. After watching it, the wealthy people in the study became just as willing to share their time helping a stranger in need as the poorer people. Maybe I'm like these isolate rich people who need a nudge. Maybe you need a nudge from God, too. What has been pushing you a little closer to following Jesus this week? What has given you a little bump in empathy? Maybe you aren't ready to throw down your nets yet, but you just might be more willing to share a couple bucks. It's a start. But, remember, we will still be invited to go fishing.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources to write this sermon:
Greater Things: 1 Sam. 3:1-10 and John 1:43-51
You never know who God is going to call or where they are going to come from. I mean, look at the Bible. Time and again, people think they know where God is going to show up. And, then God does something they don't expect... calls somebody that surprises people... shows up in places deemed unimportant and backward... brings people together who had once been torn apart. Over and over, scripture tells us that just when people think they have God figured out, God happens differently, teaching us something new and powerful each time. Our scriptures for today tell us two of such stories.
I mean, who would have ever thought Samuel would become a prophet for the Lord? He was just a kid working for the priest, Eli. Heck, he hadn't even gotten this job with Eli on his own. His mother had promised him to Eli as a way to thank God for her being able to become pregnant with him. In all likelihood, the closest Samuel probably ever expected to get to God was priest-adjacent. You see, Samuel was born during tumultuous times. There was no central leader to guide the different tribes of the people. The nation wasn't working as one body, but as several groups that were, as scholar Valerie Bridgeman put it, doing right by their own eyes. You heard in our reading for the day put it this way: "The word of the Lord was rare in those day; visions were not widespread." It's not even clear how often the priest heard from God. But, the priest still knew how to teach someone to listen.
One night, Samuel, who is still a kid mind you, hears someone call his name and assumes that it's Eli and runs to his bedside to see what he needs. It wasn't Eli. Eli sends him back to bed. It happens again. And, Eli sends him back to bed again. It is on the third trip that Eli's God-listening muscles finally kick in. He remembers what it can mean to hear a still small voice that is so insistent that it keeps you from going back to sleep. He wonders if maybe it was time for Samuel to start paying attention to this repeating voice. So, Eli told Samuel, who had never heard from God before, to pay special attention. This voice wasn't Eli, but it might be God. The voice was God. And, because he had a good teacher, Samuel was ready to respond to that call. He replied, "Speak, for your servant is listening!" God spoke and Samuel became a great prophet.
Our second scripture is another great example of God surprising someone. There are several short stories in a row here at the beginning of John where people begin to follow Jesus in this Divine domino effect. It starts with John the Baptist who sees the Holy Spirit in Jesus and knows he is the Son of God. John, who is always quick to speak of God's revelations, tells his own disciples about the surprising way he has seen the Spirit. Two of these disciples begin to follow Jesus. After spending time with him, they, too, were confident that in Jesus they see something new of God. So, one of them told his brother what he had seen. After Jesus seemed to know the brother, even without ever having met him, the brother grew convinced that there was something special about Jesus, too.
The pattern continues at least one more time, into our reading for today. People share that they have seen something Divine in Jesus. Someone hears them and believes. In this case, Philip was a particularly quick study. He didn't even need three chances to respond to God like Samuel did. Jesus just said, "Follow me," and he did. But, Philip's friend Nathanael, the next domino in the story, needed a little more convincing. You see, even though we don't know much about Nathanael, we know one important thing. It seems like Nathanael was pretty sure he knew where and how God would show up.
Times were probably tumultuous during Nathanael's life, too, like they were in Samuel's. Rome had conquered Israel and they no longer had a king who had faith in their God. They had a Emperor who kinda thought he was God. But, Nathanael had faith that their God would send them a leader, a messiah, who could restore their nation's fortunes. The messiah be royalty. He would probably definitely lead the military. He would never come from a dinky town like Nazareth, where this guy Jesus came from. I mean, can anything good come out of Nazareth? That's a backwater town. We need a messiah from an impressive city, like Jerusalem. Why on earth would God work through someone from a community that everyone else thought was insignificant?
Then, we find out one more thing about Nathanael. He trusts Philip, maybe not as much as Samuel trusted Ei, but enough. He was willing to come and see Jesus himself. Jesus was forthright with Nathanael, telling him a truth that Nathanael alone seemed to understand. In that moment, Nathanael realized he was wrong. Something good had come out of Nazareth. Jesus had. And, Jesus assured him that he would come to know even greater truths if he would follow him. Jesus said, "You will see greater things than anything I have already told you." But, you must follow me. And, he did. He became one of Jesus' first disciples.
As I studied this week, I read a third story that seems worthy of sharing. In 1956, a young anti-racism organizer traveled to Montgomery, Alabama to help a young pastor and local community groups to organize a bus boycott. The organizer was Bayard Rustin. The pastor was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They initially worked well together, first on the boycott, then on the development of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In fact, it was Rustin, a Quaker pacifist, who introduced Dr. King to nonviolence strategies of Gandhi, strategies that would become part of the bedrock of the Civil Rights movement. But, not everyone saw a hopeful future in working with Rustin. Some people believed that only certain kinds of people could do the Holy work of the Civil Rights movement. They didn't think Rustin was the right kind of person.
Bayard Rustin had several strikes against him in the eyes of some so-called "respectable" organizers. Since he had been an anti-racism advocate and agitator since he was a teenager, he had been arrested many times. He had also been a conscientious objector during World War II. At one point in his life, he had been affiliated with a communist group because of their anti-racism work. By the time he came to work with King, he had long since left that group. However, in the 1960's in the United States, any ties, former or current, with communism was a great burden. And, the final reason many people didn't want to work with him was because he was gay, openly so, in a time when a man could still be arrested for being in a relationship with another man. In fact, he had been arrested once for that, too.
In an article by the scholar Louis Gates, Jr., I learned that Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., an important Civil Right leader, did not want to work with Rustin at all. In 1960, when Powell learned that King and Rustin were planning a march in Los Angeles outside the Democratic National Convention, he threatened King, saying that he would tell the press that King and Rustin were in a relationship, if King didn't cancel the march. Now, this wasn't true, but Powell knew that it could damage King's reputation and make it more difficult for him to do the organizing he was doing. Unfortunately, Dr. King bowed to the pressure. He called off the march and distanced himself from Rustin. Rustin even resigned from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. This could have been the end of their work together, work that I am sure was Holy even as the workers were imperfect.
We are fortunate that this wasn't the end of the Spirit moving through these two leaders. First, the unrest in Birmingham shocked the nation. Then, Rustin's mentor A. Philip Randolph, began to wonder if there needed to be a national Civil Rights demonstration in Washington, D.C. Notice that his name is Philip. Aren't we lucky to have all these Philips who are ready to help share the Good News? Randolph brought in Rustin. Together they approached King, and many others. Some people still were uncomfortable with Rustin, insisting that he not be the lead organizer. Rustin, putting the movement before himself, agreed to allow Randolph to serve as the director. But, Rustin was still the primary coordinator for the whole march. Rustin helped figure out everything from how many bathrooms they'd need, how many doctors should be on hand, and what people should bring with them for lunch.
Even with all this hurtful history between them, they knew they could see Greater Things, like those greater things Jesus' was talking about with Nathanael, but only by working together. Dr. King would give his most well-known sermon at this March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Bayard Rustin would also stand up and read out the demands of the marchers. The next year, when Dr. King was given a Nobel Prize, it was Rustin who organized the trip to Norway for him. According to Dr. Gates, in 1968, when Dr. King was assassinated while fighting for economic justice for sanitation workers, Rustin participated in the memorial march and took up the cause himself. He had his eyes on the Greater Things, and he helped get us one step closer to the Kindom of Love and Justice that God is inviting us to build. Now, the question is: Are you ready for God to work in surprising places and surprising people in your life? Are you ready to see Greater Things with this surprising God?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources in writing her sermon:
Resources about Bayard Rustin
1 Sam. 3:1-10
Valerie Bridgeman: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3556
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Guide Us With Your Perfect Light: Matthew 2:1-12
A few years ago, my sister shared this story with me. In early December, in her small church in Texas, they had been preparing for the arrival of the Christ child. One of the things they did was put together a crèche, a manger scene, in the sanctuary. Space is at a premium in their sanctuary, much as it is in ours. My sister noticed that the small stable they had looked particularly crowded. She realized that some of the crowding issues were because someone decided to go ahead put all of the manger scene people inside the barn at the beginning of the season. Usually, they add the people and animals as the month progresses. My sister wasn't sure why someone decided to go ahead and build the whole thing. She said somebody probably just got busy and tried to save time by putting the whole scene up at one time, and nobody else thought it was worth the effort to take out some of the figures only to add them back at a later date.
Now, one Sunday, as their pastor preached up in their now very crowded chancel, he turned around quickly and bumped right into the tiny, crowded barn. Down went the magi. Well, at least one magi... Kellie didn't tell me if it was Gaspar, Balthazar, or Melchior. She did tell me that his head popped clean off, right in the middle of their worship service. Her pastor leaned over, picked up the poor fellow and his now detached head, and said, "I’m sorry. It looks like I broke his head off." Then, without missing a beat, his wife said, "Well, that's ok. He wasn't supposed to be in there yet any way."
I laughed out loud when Kellie told me this story. I totally get it. Like the woman at her church, I don't think the Magi needed to have been there yet, either. Jesus doesn't get in the manger until Christmas and the Magi don't show up until Epiphany. That's how this works. It gives us some narrative continuity. And, it gives me something fun to do with the kids during a children's moment in January. It is actually worth taking some time to get to the Magi. I mean, they would have had to take some time to find Jesus. They did not have access to rapid transit. Donkeys and camels can only go so fast. In fact, they probably would not have visited a baby Jesus, but a toddler Jesus and his family. And, if we're really paying attention, they wouldn't have shown up looking for the baby in a barn. Matthew doesn't talk about a stable at all. That's the birth story from Luke. Luke wanted to make sure that we know God shows up in unexpected places, like in a barn surrounded by poor people and animals. Matthew had a slightly different point to make about Jesus. That's where the Magi come in.
The author of Matthew still thinks that God moves in unexpected ways, but shows this movement differently. In Luke, Jesus is shown as a different kind of Messiah than the military leader that the people expected. His manger-side birth showed that he was different from the very beginning. Luke tells us something about God's values by situating Emmanuel among the common, every day, poor people of Israel. But, the story of the Magi is from Matthew. Matthew switches it around a little. Matthew keeps Jesus among regular people, but brings the symbols of power into the poor places. The story is meant to surprise us, as I'm sure it surprised Herod. It makes sense that we, and the Magi, would ask: Who is this child? And why doesn't Herod know him?
Scholars tell us that the Magi, the Wise Ones from the East, weren't kings like the one song says. They were, however, experts in astronomy and mathematics, and well-versed in the astrological traditions that would have been understood as cutting-edge science. As natives of Persia or Armenia and members of the royal court in their homeland, it would have been important to them to follow certain protocols in order to maintain good relationships with neighboring countries. They would likely have been accustomed to visiting the local rulers to offer congratulations on the birth of royal children. In this story, the star, like the dreams people have, is a divine sign telling them that something important is happening. The star is a sign that they have a part to play in this holy story. They don't know what yet. In fact, they just seem to assume that this baby is like any regular royal baby. They assume that their gifts and glad tidings would be welcome. Little did they know that the revelations that came with their arrival would be far from comforting to those who were already in places of power.
Herod, and all of Jerusalem, became terrified when they heard of a new child who would be born to be king of the Jews. Herod, though technically a king, was hardly a stable or confident ruler. He only had power because Rome allowed him to have power. Part of how Israel understood its own history and its relationship with God was that they believed God gave them a king. These kings were often seen as rulers who led the people out of oppression. Herod was not appointed by God. Herod was appointed by Rome. He was a walking symbol of the people's oppression. He was not on their side. He only cared about ability to maintain power. The moment Rome became dissatisfied with his administration of their territory, he would be deposed. Historians tell us that he would do anything, including murder his own sons and other innocent children, to stay in control. The divine birth of a new king, which is what the Magi thought had happened, would have felt like a threatened this callous and cowardly ruler.
Scripture tells us that out of his fear, he crafted a lie. He and his political cronies hatched a plan to destroy the one who would upset their delicate, destructive, self-serving order. He told the Wise Ones that he hoped they would find the child. He asked them to tell him when they did. He said that he, too, wanted to pay homage. But, there was no worship or hospitality on his mind. Only grasping fear. Only concern that he would lose power. Only a desperate strategy to hang on to what Rome had given him. Thank God the Magi realized that Herod only had self-preservation on his mind. Thank God that they had enough sense to listen to their dream and not seek out his council once again.
The Magi know something about God that Herod doesn't. They see signs and dream dreams. Herod doesn't. If we want to know something about God, we should follow them. And, where do they go? They go right out to a regular little town full of regular people. That's where they know the Divine is leading them. They find Mary and her toddler, Jesus, regular people, part of the subjugated class. Mary and her whole family were likely barely literate and fairly impoverished. Their home was the last place that most royal emissaries would have expected to find a new national leader. And, yet, the magi trusted the Divine. So, they were able to find Jesus.
Matthew shows us that Jesus is different and special because the learned and wise leaders seek him out for veneration. As his story unfolds, we can be confident that he will prove to be a leader worth following because these wise people were willing to go to such lengths to find him. Matthew believed that God would show you the way, even if it means you had to find your way around a coward and fool like Herod. God can show you a sign and help you make a way. It started with the Magi. And this courageous hopefulness can continue with us. Herod's desperation and destructiveness have nothing to do with God. The Magis hospitality and faithfulness do. Where is God calling you? What tools do you need to make your way around the craven and the callous and into the Divine? How can you use your great gifts to make God's presence known? The Magi found a way. I pray that we can, too.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Terriel R. Byrd, "Epiphany," 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)
Jan Schnell Rippentrop: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3523
Eliseo Pérez-Álvarez: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2736
Stephen Hultgren: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2304
Craig A. Satterlee: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1525
David Lose: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1509
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.