Matthew 22: 15-22
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
Stuck with God: Matthew 22:15-22
I was tempted to preach in a Star Wars t-shirt today. Tasha got it for me. It has a character named Admiral Akbar on it. He looks like a catfish with a human body. He is primarily known for saying one phrase, "It's a trap!" during the movie, Return of the Jedi. He was trying to warn the fleet under his command that the bad guys have outsmarted them and are waiting to ambush them. He has to work with the other rebel leaders to figure out how to either win the battle or escape the bad guys and fight another day. Admiral Akbar knows that when realize that someone is trying to trap you, you often have to think or act quickly in order to not get caught. Somebody tried to trap Jesus once. I don't know if he had a fish-faced guy there to warn him. I do know that he managed not to get caught.
The Pharisees and the Herodians started the whole thing. In case you have forgotten in the three years since I last preached on this text, it is completely weird that these two groups of people would work together for anything, even trying to outsmart Jesus. The Pharisees worked hard to uphold what they saw as a very pure vision of their religion in order maintain a sense of nationhood and religious identity. The Herodians, it seems, were a bit more opportunistic. They were connected and indebted to Rome for any power and Privilege they had. In fact, as long as it made them more powerful, they were happy to have the power and cultural influence that came with Roman support, even at the expense of religious purity. When we read that they are conspiring together, we should realize that, at best, this is an odd pairing. How threatening must Jesus' ministry have been if it got these two groups to work together?
They send their disciples to ask Jesus a very loaded question, one that could get him in trouble with both Rome and their own religious community. They asked “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” This is more than simply a question about money. This is really a question about authority, specifically the Empire's authority over the Jewish people. Jesus is being asked whether he thinks a religiously faithful person should respect the authority of the Roman Empire. We should remember that when a nation was conquered by Rome, Rome required those people to pay taxes. While it is true that the taxes paid for all manner of amazing public works, most of the people resented paying them. And, the people whom Rome subjugated weren't mad about aqueducts. They were frustrated because the taxes were a constant reminder of their subjugation. Taxes were a symbol that Rome was in charge and that you were not. In my study for this sermon, I was reminded that the refusal to pay taxes was tantamount to revolution. Some of the coins that the empire used even bore an inscription asserting the divinity of the Caesar, an idea that would have been counter to all that the Jewish people believed. I learned that some people may have even believed that to use these coins was to go against the first and second commandments, that is putting another god before God, as well as creating an idol.
They asked Jesus if paying taxes was in accordance with Torah (that was "lawful" means in this situation). The Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, was understood to be the primary authority for guiding all of one's decisions, including one's decision on how to engage with politics. If paying taxes was recognizing Caesar's divinity, how could the people do it and also remain faithful? This is a hard question, a tricky question. It's a trap, obviously, to make Jesus look like either a bad Jew or a danger to Rome. How in the world was Jesus going to respond to this question? This was a question designed to paint Jesus into a theological and political corner. But, Jesus didn't play their game. He rarely does. Here's what he does instead.
He told them outright that this question revealed their hypocrisy (he's said something like this before). He then took a coin and asked whose picture and title were on it. They, of course, answer “the emperor's.” I'm sure his next statement surprised them. He said, “give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's." That's right. He told them to pay their taxes. But, he didn't stop there. He continued with “and give God the things that are God's.” In this case, the second part of his answer is actually the more important part. Remember, Jesus' primary point of contention with this group of leaders was that they cared more about religious platitudes than what he understood as the heart of the law (love of God and love of neighbor). In this statement, he's telling them how to do more of the loving God and loving neighbor.
I read a fascinating interpretation of the phrase "give to God what is God's." I know I've shared it before but I think it's worth repeating. A scholar named David Owen-Ball thinks we need to pay attention to the fact that Jesus asked about the inscription on the coin. He notes that the story specifically says that Jesus asked the crowd about the “likeness,” or “image” on the coin. Where else have we heard the terms “likeness” and “image” in reference to God? Owen-Ball reminds us of the words of Genesis 1:36: “The God said, 'Let us make the human in our image, after our likeness.” Owen-Ball also notes Jesus asked about the title on the coin. This word “title” can also be translated as “inscription.” Is there somewhere in scripture where can we find something about God's inscription? Owen-Ball points to Exodus 13:9: “And it shall be to you as a sign on your hand and as a memorial between your eyes, that the law of the Lord may be in your mouth...”
It is very possible that Jesus is reminding the people listening that humanity is created in the very image of God and that God's law, an invitation to love God and love our neighbors, is written on our very bones. That silly little coin is nothing compared to humanity's legacy through creation. God is written all over your face and on your heart, in your mind, and on your hands. Jesus tells us that that is where our primary concern should lie. Sure, we have to worry about money, and we wonder if the taxes we pay to prioritize care of neighbor, just like Jesus did. But just because we need to think about money, that doesn't mean our primary identity is in our money. Our first concern should be giving God the things that are God's... that is our very selves. Taxes are easy. Giving yourself to God... Now, that could take a little more work.
How are you going to give yourself to God? We are welcoming new members into our church today. This is not the first day they have been with us. All of them have long been part of our community and we are simply making our covenant official. However, in committing themselves to covenant with us and in our welcoming them and committing ourselves to covenant with them, we are giving a little more of ourselves to God. Some of you undoubtedly went to Peter Labbe's funeral yesterday, offering care and comfort to his family. That's giving more of yourself to God. Some of you have fed strangers, welcomed new immigrants, and called on the sick this week, offering one more piece of yourself and your time back to God.
In each of the acts, and a thousand more that I didn't name, you reflect that divine blessing that is writ large in us from creation. You give something back to the God who created everything. You've even managed to be a little like Jesus, avoiding the trap of forgetting your true allegiance to God, not to the empire. Money is a tool through which we can do the Gospel, but it is not God, even if it's too important to completely ignore. Maybe we have the best relationship with money by remember that it's not out priority. Our priority is loving God and loving our neighbor. That's what guides how we use our money. Let's not get trapped by thinking money is more than what it is. And, let's remember whose likeness truly matters.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing this sermon:
Lance Pape: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2201
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3361
David Lose: http://www.davidlose.net/2014/10/pentecost-19a-money-politics-and-religion/
David Lose: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1589
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ Aaron said to them, ‘Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.’ So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mould, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.’ They rose early the next day, and offered burnt-offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.
The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” ’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.’
But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, ‘O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth”? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.” ’ And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
This image of the Golden Calf is from The Nuremberg Chronicle Notes: "Written by Hartmann Schedel, with 1,809 illustrative woodcuts from the workshop of Michel Wolgemut, this incunabulum, or book printed before 1500, is a tour de force of early printing. The book is an illustrated world history, the first few sections derived from the biblical account. This woodcut of the dance around the Golden Calf from Exodus, is a particularly fine example." http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54273
Changing God's Mind: Exodus 32:1-14
Moses sure is taking a while. To be fair, he and God have had a lot to talk about. The people who are intermittently afraid of, and annoyed with, God have asked him to mediate their relationship with God, a role that he has already kinda been doing. God mostly speaks to the people through Moses, though God seems able to hear the people's complaints without Moses passing them along. God and the people have set up a covenant, a promise they both have committed to. God has demonstrated God's commitment by saving them from slavery and leading them through the desert. The people of God will live into their covenant by orienting their lives in accordance with God's priorities.
God gave them, though Moses, a set of instructions on how to build this holy life, this holy nation. You've probably heard some of these instructions before: You shall have no other God's before me. You shall not misuse my name. You shall take a day of Sabbath for rest and worship. You shall not take money, property, relationships, or the lives of others. You shall not endanger others for you own gain. God promises to be present with them, to never leave. God even instructs them to build a home for God, called a tabernacle, a space where God may dwell among them. The covenant between the people and God is powerful and is supposed to remain at the center of their common life. They promise to live as God directs and God promises to be with them. Moses is right in the middle of all of this, acting as a conduit for God and ears for the people.
Then, Moses stays away for forty days and forty nights. I have been told by my biblical studies teachers that when we read that something happens for 40 days or 40 years, we don't need to think that it happened exactly those amounts of days or years. Mostly, if you have 40 of something, it simply means you have a lot of it. To say that Moses has been away for forty days means Moses has been gone a really, really long time... Like the four to six months officials are estimating it will take to restore power to Puerto Rico or the 1268 days it's been since Flint, Michigan has had clean water... Long enough that we should expect the people to both worry and be angry. If its been a long time since the people have seen Moses, that also means it's been a really long time since they've heard from God. It probably shouldn't surprise us when they begin to take drastic measures.
The people had grown accustomed to mysterious, but ever-present, reminders of God. Pillars of cloud and fire had led them away from Egypt. Bread and birds were provided for them to eat, delicious signs of God's provision for them. They had seen a foreboding darkness at the top of the mountain and knew that God was in it, and they had heard peals of thunder and cracks of lightning and knew God was speaking to Moses. But, this time, for a really long time, they'd heard nothing and seen nothing. How could they be sure that Moses was even coming back. God had promised to be there as part of the covenant, yet they could see no signs that God was there... or, at least not enough signs to keep them from being afraid. So, they demanded that Aaron build them a sign, a symbol, something they could see, feel, and touch to help them be unafraid. They demanded that Aaron build them a god they could see, not one that hid away in a terrifying cloud. So, Aaron did.
Is anyone else surprised that Aaron so easily acquiesced to their demands? If there was any human outside of Moses who should have trusted that God was still invested in their lives, it should have been Aaron. He knew the power and vitality of the God they had followed across the sea in a way that most of the Israelites could hardly imagine. I still don't understand how he could so easily, it seems, begin to build new gods for his frightened people. Maybe the time away from his brother has softened his resolved, and pushed him towards the same fear that had shaken his people. Maybe he was simply an overwhelmed second in command who was just trying to figure out how to placate a bunch of angry and scared people. Maybe building a golden calf was the easiest way to get them to calm down until Moses and God could get back and straighten everything out.
One of the scholars I read this week pointed out something I hadn't realized about the jewelry the Israelites used to create their new gods. As slaves, the Israelites probably would not have much golden jewelry of their own. If we look back at chapter 12 of Exodus, we can see that this jewelry came from the Egyptians themselves as a kind of pay off to the Israelites. On the heels of an increasingly terrifying cavalcade of plagues, the Egyptians practically begged them to leave (even in the Pharoah wasn't ready to do so). "Get out of our land before you kill us all." Moses told the Israelites not to leave empty handed: "Ask for gold and silver Jewelry and clothes to cover your backs." The Egyptians, having witnessed the terrible miracles of the plagues, gave the Israelites whatever they asked for, including golden rings, earrings, and necklaces, just so they'd leave.
The Egyptians could afford gold, in part, because they had built their empire with so much unpaid labor. Every bit of gold was a reminder of their enslavement. The Israelites would carry these signs of their former lives away from their captors, towards the new life that God was leading them into. They would use these tangible symbols of their bondage to create tangible and nonthreatening gods to shore up their fear. In so doing, they would break their promise to God. They would choose a god they could hold in their hands over the all-consuming, overwhelming, and mysterious God who had been making promises to them. They could count on gold. Who knew if they could count on God?
As you might expect, God is angry about all this. Even while Moses and God have been hidden away, making plans to create a tangible space for God, the real God, to feel present with the Israelites, God was still paying attention to what was going on in the desert. God saw them break their promise. It's not clear whether or not God realized that the people thought God had already forgotten God's part of the promise. What is clear is that God is ready to snap and destroy them with the same flourish that God destroyed the Egyptian soldiers. God tells Moses to leave so God can get on with the smiting. But, Moses doesn't leave. Moses, who has been God's voice to the people, suddenly becomes the people's advocate to God.
For all of his frustration with his people, Moses cannot bear to think they will be destroyed. Moses, who was once so afraid, has found a bravery that allows him to stand up to God Godself. So many people have inherited a vision of God that shows God to be unchanging and always right. We have been told that if scripture shows God taking an action, it must be right because God is always right. We have been told that God is now as God always once was, and in our chaotic world, the one thing that we can count on is God not changing. Those descriptions of God are common, but they are not rooted in the God we meet in this particular story. Because in this story, Moses thinks God is wrong and Moses sets out change God's mind. The miraculous thing is that Moses succeeds. Moses talks God down from God's anger and convinces God to not completely destroy the people. Now, this isn't the end of the story. Moses gets pretty mad at them and communicates God's anger to them. The story tells us that there is a still smiting that happens. But, there is not utter destruction. There is not total demolition of the covenant. Their relationship does survive, precisely because Moses is willing to stand up for a people who literally have no one left on their side.
So, church, what is the good word for us, modern day people, in this story? I think there's probably a cautionary tale about confusing gold for the presence of God. There's probably also a reminder that just because God isn't appearing to us in ways we demand, it doesn't mean God is not present and attentive to our lives. I hope we can also hear a call to stand up to the powerful, especially to God, when we see a people facing utter destruction. I mean, if Moses can do it, we probably can, too. But, mostly, I hope we can see the power of on-going relationship. Had Moses not valued his relationship with his people, he would not have risked standing up to God. Had God not valued God's relationship with Moses, God would not have listened to him when he asked for mercy. How can we nurture the relationship that help us be both more brave and more merciful? I have a hunch that we'll always be tempted to create a god that we can manage with our own two hands. May we have the bravery to remember that this God responds to our heart.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing this sermon:
Miguel De La Torre, "Proper 23," from Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year A Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013)
Anathea Portier-Young: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3442
Callie Plunket-Brewton: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2248
Carla Suomala: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=168
The timeline for Puerto Rico's recovery: http://www.latimes.com/visuals/framework/la-na-puerto-rico-unfurled-timeline-20171013-htmlstory.html
Two articles that remind us that Flint, Michigan still doesn't have clean water:
...even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh.
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more:circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee;as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ,the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal;but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
The Goal: Philippians 3:4b-14 and Matthew 21:33-46
I have heard that some people think that the apostle Paul is being arrogant in today's reading from Philippians. They think his list of all the ways that he could be "confident in the flesh" is far too near to bragging to be appropriate for such an esteemed apostle. Why on earth would he need to outline his privileges so frankly? It's... unseemly. Like talking about religion and money with strangers. Oh, wait... Paul probably did those things, too. But, why does he outline his privileges like this? Why, in a letter of encouragement to his friends, would he need to talk about the aspects of his life that bring him a certain amount honor and power in their community? Does he have a point, or is he just bragging?
I'll go ahead and tell you, I think Paul is not just bragging to get attention. I mean, you may recall that he's writing this letter from a Roman jail... little more than a pit in the ground. The Romans who imprisoned him gave very few provisions to those in jail. Paul may have been relying on his friend who had traveled to visit him from Philippi to provide for his most basic needs for food and water. Also, Paul may have been imprisoned for disturbing the peace. He was hardly in a position to strut around bragging. And, if you remember from the last time we talked about Philippians at any length, Paul seems to really be hoping to offer encouragement to his friends with this letter. It hardly makes sense that a good friend, which Paul seems to have been, would spend precious time writing a letter of encouragement that was filled with a list of his own accomplishments. If he's listing things that bring him honor, either because of things he's done or because of honor he's inherited, he's hoping to use this information to help his friends. Here's how I think he's using this list of privilege.
We should remember a couple important things about this early Christian movement. First, membership in the churches was often drawn from the margins of society. Slaves, the very poor, women, and children were all granted membership in these communities. There were wealthy members, to be certain. Wealthy women benefactors, like Lydia who you can read about in the book of Acts, often supported these early missions. They were also a place where people from different ethnic backgrounds could worship together. Gentiles and Jews, citizens and non-citizens, were to be of equal status in these communities. And, increasingly, Christian public preaching was being understood as disruptive of good social order. That may be why Paul was arrested. Paul knew that something was different about his community. So many of the typical rules of their various cultures were being bent for people to come together in Christian communities. It can be hard to live a life that runs counter to prevailing cultural expectations.
Paul wanted to encourage his friends to continue to live this countercultural life, even if it could be a strain. In order to do so, he had to demonstrate that he understood just what was at stake and that he himself was willing to give up certain privileges in order to better follow Christ. So, he names the ways he is privileged in his own ethnic community: Some of these privileges are ones he earned; some simply came to him by virtue of his honorable family and religious lineage. He is from a devout Jewish family that chose to have him circumcised according to their religious practice. He can trace his ancestry through the tribe of Benjamin. He was devout in his adherence to a particularly rigorous branch of Judaism. In fact, he had spent a good amount of time holding heretics accountable for the ways they were flouting the law. He declared that his personal commitment to his faith was so complete that he could even be called blameless. When he encouraged his friends to follow Christ, he doesn't do so as someone who has fallen well outside of the bounds of propriety. In discussing his history and accomplishments, he's reminding them that he is deeply rooted in a religious and ethnic community. He is reminding them of just exactly how much he has to lose.
Had Paul been willing to continue to judge his life by these standards, one could argue that he had already reached a perfectly respectable life goal: Righteousness in his community. Many people would never be able to achieve what he had through both luck and intense discipline. But, once he had a vision of Jesus and came to understand his interpretation of their shared faith to be authoritative, he realized that he no longer valued what was once deeply important to him. He looked at his life, a life which many would call successful, and realized he know considered to be rubbish compared what his life could be with Christ. So, he became willing to give up his previous markers of success in order to be more like Christ. It did not make his life easier. In fact, in made it harder. But, the difficulty was worth the pain. Paul told his friends the story of the change in his life to show them that they could change their lives this way, too, not because it would be easy, but because they would do so with Christ. And, living with Christ would be worth the struggle.
A minister named Corey Fields recently shared a powerful story in an article in Baptist News Global. He spoke of a pastor named Brian Zahnd, who served in Missouri. Rev. Zahnd was a popular and successful pastor, known for starting new congregations. One of his churches grew to be particularly large and well attended, typical marks of success in the Christian world. In his article, Fields reported that in the midst of his ministry with that congregation, Zahnd began to discern that something was missing in the communal life of their church. He returned to the works of early Christian writers and mystics. He studied and studied the Bible. He prayed a lot. He grew to believe that he had actually been missing the real depth of the Jesus' teaching and ministry.
Like Paul after his conversion experience, Zahnd began to live differently. He did an extended sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount (You've probably heard it before: Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the peacemakers and the persecuted). It appears that he understood this to be the core of Jesus' message. I'm inclined to agree. He encouraged the leadership of the church to re-examine their vision for their ministry and reorganize their time together so that it might better reflect Jesus' priorities as found in this piece of scripture. Their common life would no longer be centered around what Fields called "attending a worship concert once a week and maybe meeting in small groups at home over fatty snacks and lackluster curriculum." Zahnd had returned to Jesus and had found something radical and life-changing. He was more than willing to consider his previous success as rubbish to discarded in favor of following this radical Christ. He asked his followers to examine their own priorities and do the same. Not everyone could. People began to leave. They had seen what was at risk... comfort, fun, an easier life... and they weren't willing to lose it, even in if their pastor was.
I don't share this story to simply critique the folks to left that church in Missouri. People go to church for a lot of reasons and often being challenged isn't really one of them. I know that it is mighty hard to examine one's own life, one's accomplishments, and one's good fortune and find it wanting. That's why Paul wrote this letter, so people like me, and you, and folks in a church down in Missouri don't think that this life of faith is supposed to be without struggle... that we're supposed to follow Jesus and suddenly have an easy way opened in front of us. No, the strain of individual and communal examination has always been part of following Jesus. So, we don't shy away from the difficult questions: Are our priorities in line with Christ's? Do our ideas about freedom inhibit the safety and livelihoods of our neighbors? Are we truly tending to the needs of the lonely, hungry, and meek? When we call ourselves peacemakers, is this peace grounded in love and accountability or in coercion and resistance to dissent? These questions are hard, but they are necessary. Paul doesn't use the word "strive" lightly. Our faith is always striving to be more like Christ. What Paul wants us to remember that is that we don't do this striving alone.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources when writing her sermon:
Troy Troftgruben: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3440
Christian Eberhardt: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2147
Susan Eastman: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1010
Efrain Agosto: https://www.onscripture.com/pressing-toward-higher-goals
Sarah Henrich: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2776
Corey Fields: https://baptistnews.com/article/careful-close-let-jesus-get-real-life/#.WfHo0WhSzIX
When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ And they argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” But if we say, “Of human origin”, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.’ So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.
At Work: Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32
Sometimes, in popular culture, changing one's mind is painted as the worst possible kind of moral failing. Do you remember that national election a couple years ago when one of the candidates admitted to changing his mind about something? He was raked over the coals. His opponents never described him as someone who simply got new information, considered it, and changed his mind. According to their thinking, he didn't change his mind... he flip-flopped because he's a big giant weenie who doesn't deserve your vote. They used his change as an opportunity to declare him morally deficient, unable to commit, even cowardly. This was such an emotionally convincing argument that the negative idea of changing one's mind being flip-flopping stuck. In that particular election, many people called him a flip-flopper. He ended up losing the election, probably for many reasons beyond the fact that he once changed his mind on a political position. But, the idea of the cowardly flip-flopper continued to have power after that election.
A whole host of politicians got elected over the next couple years precisely because they promised to never change their minds, to never waiver. Their intractability became a selling point on the campaign trail. They would walk into Congress with opinions fully formed and thoroughly unchangeable. They would never dream of compromise because they were right and they would make sure to fix up everything that was wrong. I read an article this week that talked about why changing one's mind can be labeled as problematic. The author, Maggie Koerth-Baker, said that certain beliefs and values can become central to our group identity, be it our church identity, our family identity, our town, or our national identity. Whether or not we have a certain opinion becomes a mode by which we verify our allegiances and construct our identities: It's like we say, "I am this kind of person, therefore I believe this set of things." But, if you change your mind, if you don't believe quite the thing that your group thinks you should be believing, you risk being seeing as disloyal... as untrustworthy. Your difference becomes disconcerting and disconnecting.
The first part of our reading from Matthew today has a fair amount of waffling opinions, mostly opinions from the religious elite regarding the appropriateness of Jesus' actions upon entering Jerusalem during before Passover. Given that we haven't visited this portion of Matthew since sometime between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, it is probably wise to take a moment to remind ourselves what has been happening in the lead up to this conversation between the chief priest and elders and Jesus. First, this happens the day after Jesus rode into town and the crowd called out to him "Hosanna," that is, "save us now!" The city is described as being "in turmoil," maybe something close to a riot, and Jesus did nothing to quieten the crowds. In fact, he seems to rile them up more.
He flew into the temple and turned over the tables of the money changers and dove salespeople. Even though the dove salespeople and money changers served an important function at the temple by making sure people had the correct types of money and correct animals for sacrifice, Jesus called them a "den of robbers" who were desecrating the temple. After that, mobs of sick and broken people crowded around him and he healed them. The scene only calmed down when Jesus left town and spent the night out in Bethany.
If you ask me, after a disruptive display like that, it seems pretty fair for the chief priest and elders to ask him just what exactly he thinks he's doing. Given the ruckus of the previous day, we should probably expect people in authority to ask Jesus by whose authority has he caused such a disturbance. Remember, its Passover. Roman troops were watching them carefully, ready to crack heads at any hint of seditious behavior. Knocking over tables and stirring up a crowd would have intensified the scrutiny. The chief priest and elders said "What gives you the right to stir up such a scene? Who gave you the authority to make such a mess and turn all the soldiers' attention our way?" This could end up being an intimidating line of questioning for anyone. It would have been especially tense at that moment for all the political reasons I have described. But Jesus doesn't sound one bit intimidated. If you are familiar with his interactions with the religious and political elite, that is probably not a surprise to you.
First, Jesus doesn't even really answer their question. He asks his own, saying if they answer, then he will say where is his authority is from. Here's where the waffling comes in... they don't know what to say. It's not like they are confused or simply have doubts. They are having a hard time sorting out what would be the most politically expedient response. You see, Jesus asks them about John the Baptist, and his call to repentance and baptism. One scholar I read this week, Noelle Damico, noted that this is both a political and theological question. Their response may place them in a precarious place both in the eyes of Rome and in the eyes of their religious community. They say, "If we say that we believe this baptism is from heaven, he's going to take us to task for not believing John. If we say it was simply something he made up, the crowd will come after us because they believe." Rather than risk admitting they were wrong or risk annoying the crowd, they just said they didn't know. I think they did know what they believed. They were just afraid of saying it.
When they refuse to answer, Jesus also refuses to answer, not out of fear, but to draw attention to their non-answer. This is an important conversation. Even though Jesus never tells his critics where his authority comes from, he does demonstrate his authority in this conversation. He does not back down in the face of their questions. He asks his own question, thereby reorienting the entire conversation. And, he presumes he has the right to not answer them. According to scholar Stanley Saunders, these contests were not simply verbal games. Had Jesus been bested faithfully or intellectually even once, as the person with less official authority in the situation, all of the credibility he had built with the people would be in shambles. He would have lost the right to occupy the place of respect that he had assumed in the temple. He would have lost the place from which he challenged local officials. His triumphal entry and passionate actions in the temple would have been forgotten. He would have just been one more loudmouth who was outsmarted by the elite.
It is also worth noting, had he lost, he might have been able to avoid the wrath of the powerful. Had he lost, he might never had been crucified, because who crucifies someone who isn't a threat? But, he didn't lose. He outsmarted them, demonstrated his authority, and help put a target squarely on his own chest. At this moment, he reminds us that being faithful has rarely meant being safe. The next thing he did was remind them that changing one's mind is actually a good and righteous thing. He asked them a question in the form of a short parable. Who has honored the wishes of the father in the parable, the son who refused initially but eventually did what the father asked or the one who said yes first, but did nothing? This question they answer. Obviously the first son. Jesus said you're right. And, you are not the first son. You have seen the evidence and ignored it. All the people whom you look down upon but have found their way to John, they changed. They got it right. You need to do better. You need to risk being changed.
I read a poem by Wilbur Rees a couple weeks ago that continues to sit with me:
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep,
but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk
or a snooze in the sunshine.
I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man
or pick beets with a migrant.
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth.
I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
What Jesus is saying in our reading today is that we shouldn't follow God and connect with our neighbors in order to remain unchanged. We follow Christ to risk being changed. Jesus calls us into the most divine of flip-flops- towards reconciliation, redemption, and justice for the oppressed. We aren't here for just enough God to feel warm and fuzzy. We are here for a God who shifts our hearts and the world beneath our feet so that we fall closer to God and closer to our neighbors. It won't necessarily keep us safe (I mean look at Paul... he wrote Philippians from inside a jail cell... look at Jesus who ended up on the cross). But, it can transform us, if we let it. We would do well to remember these words from Paul: "for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for God's good pleasure." God is still at work and so are we. Feel God's work in your life and be changed by it. Then act on that change.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Grace that Sustains You: Exodus 16:2-15, Matthew 20:1-16
In my reading this week, I came across this quote from Margaret Atwood's book, A Handmaid's Tale: "Girls, I know this must feel very strange. But ordinary is just what you're used to. This may not seem ordinary to you right now, but after a time, it will. This will become ordinary." These few lines are spoken to the women who have been enslaved and forced to bear children for heterosexual couples who are unable to reproduce on their own in the theocratic dystopia of the novel. This is said to the women early in their confinement, before they have become adjusted to their lack of freedom and self-determination, when they are still learning what is expected of them as slaves. This portion of the book shows the harrowing process by which the women are broken down and reshaped into the handmaids their government intends them to be. During their capture and "reeducation," they are consistently told, yes, this is strange, but it will become ordinary.
The troubling thing about ordinariness is that sometimes what is ordinary, what is common, what is expected can be mistaken for what is right or what is holy. That is certainly what has happened in this book. Slavery, not for the first time, began to be called holy. Sometimes, even when people know that just because something is ordinary does not make it good, it can still be terrifying to do something new. Ordinary risks becoming a place of comfort because doing the ordinary can be easier than doing something new and better. Even though humans are capable of adapting to so many difficult situations, a new situation can be terrifying. Some would choose the ordinary, even when it is slavery, rather than reach for the extraordinary, even when the extraordinary promises liberation and grace and new life.
When we encounter the Israelites in the desert in our reading in Exodus, we learn that many of them would choose a terrible ordinariness over extraordinary uncertainty. The story tells us that these people have experienced the great power of God. They have seen the plagues that rained down upon Egypt at God's behest. They had run across the floor of a sea, with the waters churning safely at their sides, and then watched as Pharaoh and his army was unable to do the same. They had followed a miraculous pillar of fire and cloud towards freedom. And, yet, they had grown deeply afraid. In their fear, they began to complain. They will complain about alot of stuff in the next 40 years in the desert. The very first thing they complain about is the food... or the fear that they won't have enough of it. What is the use, they say, of escaping Egypt if we are just going to die of starvation here in the desert? Who cares about these miracles? Are we going to be able to eat?
You hear them? In the midst of the wild and unknown desert, they crave the ordinariness of their lives of slavery. As a slave, at least they knew what to expect in their days. Back- breaking work, abuse by overseers, food enough to allow them to work, and a little sleep. Wake up and do it all again. Day in and day out, they understood what was expected of them. Life was hard. They even cried out to God to save them from it. But, as the overseers in A Handmaid's Tale knew would happen to the enslaved women in their society, the Israelites had grown accustomed to it. Oppression had become ordinary. In fearful times on the road, where nothing seemed ordinary or even like anything that had ever happened to them before, the fear would overcome them. They looked at one another and they looked at the desert, and decided slavery had to be better than this.
One of the things I learned in my chaplaincy training is that at some parts of our lives, we develop coping skills to survive adverse situations. Spiritual maturity comes when we learn that the skills that were able to help us in one situation aren't always the best skills to use in other situations. Maturity is being willing to learn newer, healthier ways of living. When I read about how God responds to the people's complaints, it reminded me of that lesson. God doesn't lash out at the Israelites and call them big whiners. God doesn’t say, hey, if you don't like freedom, you can turn around and go back to where you came from. Instead, God constructs for them a new way to order their lives, a new rhythm based not on the Pharaoh's whims but on creation and God's recreation of life within their people.
God promises to feed the people and asks them to harvest their food on a particular schedule, so that they do not begin a cycle of hoarding that can be tempting when people believe resources are scarce. God assures them that there will always be enough. I read an article by the scholar Anathea Portier-Young that I think offers a beautiful connection between the rhythm of the first creation story in Genesis and the rhythm of the Israelites' harvest. Genesis repeats the glories of each day's creation and finishes with the statement, "there was evening and there was morning" and counts the day. Exodus gives us different words to similar beat. There was quail and there was bread. There was evening and there was morning and there is another day. There is even a reminder of the special nature of the seventh day, the Sabbath Day of holy rest. On the sixth day of their food gathering, there will be extra so that they don't have to gather food on the Sabbath.
Slowly, their habits shifted from away from the life they learned in slavery. Slowly, they began to move with God's creation once again. Their lives shifted from oppression into provision. The meaning of their labor shifted. All of their work was their own once again, oriented to their well-being and needs, not pharaoh's. Each family was able to gather all they needed. If they tried fell back into scarcity thinking and tried to hoard food, the extra they collected would rot. They had constant reminders that there was enough, that work can be for the good, and that rest and worship are necessary. Their sense of the ordinary became readjusted, this time for the better.
For what it's worth, I think kind of "ordinary readjustment" is happening in the reading from Matthew, too. The parable is rooted in real life agricultural practices, practices that were not only in Jesus' time, but also our own. Landowners, both ancient and modern, show up to places where people gather to work and hire day laborers to work. They hire the number of people they need, usually picking the strongest looking and hiring only as many as they need to do the work. It is important to keep costs down, you know. It is a system where a worker can show up every day willing to work, and still leave with no pay if they don't get chosen, or minimal pay if they get chosen towards the end of the day. It is a system that is mostly oriented around the employer's needs: how many people? What kind of work? But, Jesus shifts things around in this parable. Here, it's about the workers' needs, all the workers, and everybody ends up with enough cash to make it through the day.
The scholar Thomas Long points out three shifts that changes this story about day laborers into a parable about grace. First, the story never says that the employer keeps hiring people because he needs more help. It says he hires people, even the last few who will only be able to work an hour or two, because he sees that they are idle. He hires based on their needs, not his. Second, there is a significant amount of trust between the later hires and the employer. Only the first employees negotiate their wage. The rest simply trust the landowner when he says he will pay them. Plenty of employers prove themselves unworthy of such trust. It is interesting that these day laborers, knowing that they might be cheated, go on to work anyway. Thirdly, everyone is paid a full day's wage. Everyone, from the one who worked one hour to the one who worked eight will leave the vineyard with enough money to survive. While those who worked a long time may feel slighted, the ones who were hired last can only feel grateful and say, "How extraordinary!" Hopefully the folks who got hired first will learn to praise the extraordinary work of this landowner, too.
We don't have to stay in our ordinary patterns of living simply because they are familiar. God's pattern of living invites us to so much more. A life that is marked by creativity, daily provision, meaningful labor, and extravagant grace, a life informed by these two scriptures, seems to be a life most closely aligned with God. We are ever invited to see if our own patterns of living actually reflect this divine rhythm. Are we living our lives as though we are confident that there is enough for today and there will be more for tomorrow? Are we willing to be gracious to our coworkers when they receive a wage that allows them to live, even if we think we might have worked harder? When we recognize that our ordinary is actually oppressive, are we really ready to push into the uncertain but extraordinary possibility of new life? May we never mistake comfort for faithfulness. May we continue to boldly travel with God, even when we aren't sure how our lives will change. There will always be another harvest in the morning.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing this sermon:
Nancy Rockwell: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/biteintheapple/money-manna-marriage-mercy/
Anathea Portier-Young: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3433
Thomas Long: https://www.onscripture.com/imagining-economic-justice
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 1986)
Catherine Gunsalus González and Justo L. González, "Proper 20," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year A Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds. Dawn Ottoni- Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, and Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013).
The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, ‘Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.’
Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.’ So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.
Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.
This image of Crossing of the Red Sea and Miriam Dancing and Singing Notes: From the Chludov Psalter -- "Chludov Psalter (Moscow, Hist. Mus. MS. D.129) is an illuminated marginal Psalter made in the middle of the 9th Century. For more information, go to: http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55470
How Are We to Follow: Exodus 14:19-31
My research for the sermon this week reminded me of an image I have seen floating around the internet. You may have seen some version of it. It usually looks something like this: there are two pictures, each one showing three people who are standing on boxes, trying to see over a fence to watch a baseball game. In the image on the left, all three people are standing on the same size box. But, each person is a different height, so even though they have equally high boxes, the shortest of three people can't see over the fence. This picture is labeled "equality" because all people have equal tools. In the image on the right, the tallest person gives the smallest person their box so they all can see over the wall. This picture is called "equity," because the person who doesn't need a box is willing to give the box to the person who needs the most help to see over the fence.
I've seen a slightly different version of these pictures that I think is even more interesting. It has three pictures, instead of two. In the first one, all three people have the same size box and are still of different heights. In this one, the smallest person has found a hole in the fence through which they can watch the game. This is "equality." Everyone is able to watch but, we know that peering over and through a fence is not an optimal game-watching situation. In the next picture, labeled "equity," the tallest person gives the smallest their box. Now, everyone can see over the top of the fence. But, everyone is still having to deal with a fence. Why not just take the fence down... make sure everyone can see? So, a third picture is added, this one titled "liberation" with no fence. In this picture, no one has any barrier to truly enjoying the game.
Now, any of us who have been to baseball games know that fences can come in handy sometimes... nobody wants to get surprised by a fly ball to the forehead when we aren't paying attention. As you can guess, these pictures aren't really about baseball. They are about the work we can do for and with our neighbors to build a more just world. They show that sometimes people think simple equal access to tools, like everyone getting the same size box, will be enough to help everyone see the game. But, not everyone needs the same tools and, some people don't need the help at all, and could stand to share a bit with their neighbors. And, as the addition third picture without a fence reminds us, sometimes, the barriers that are keeping people from thriving just simply need to be removed.
In our story from Exodus, it appears that God figuring out who needs boxes, who needs to give up boxes, and which fences just need to come down. It seems to me that if we compared the Israelites to the metaphorical baseball game, in the book of Exodus, God gave them all the boxes to stand on, poked all kinds of holes in the fence, and then definitely pulled up the fence that was in their way. You see, after many years of suffering under Egyptian cruelty, God has become dedicated to making sure the Israelites do more than survive the oppression of the Egyptians. God wanted them to thrive and wanted to removal all the barriers to their survival. So, God sent them a cloud and God parted the waters. And the Israelites became free.
One of the scholars I read this week, Carlos F. Cardoza-Orlandi, pointed something important out about this story. When we read about the Israelites and the Egyptians, especially the Pharaoh and the army, we are reading about two groups of people with what Cardoza-Orlandi calls fundamentally "asymmetrical relationships." One group had resources and power that could drastically overwhelm the capabilities of the other. One group, in fact, had power even of life and death over the other. It becomes clear, then, that one of the most important features about God in the story of Exodus is that God is deeply invested in helping the Israelites even out the asymmetrical nature of their relationship with the Pharaoh who enslaved them.
In this part of the story, the first thing God does to help the outnumbered and out-resourced Israelites is give them a buffer of protection. God is shown to be present with the people in two ways, first as an angel, and then as this mysterious pillar of cloud or fire. It was both depending on the time of day. This is such a strange visual description that I have a hard time imagining what this would look like in real life. Would it be something like a tornado swirling in one spot or maybe a dark and menacing cumulonimbus cloud smoothly shifting across the sky ahead of their frightened band of travelers? Would it look like a bolt of lightning trapped in time or a trail of lava snaking towards the ground, pointing them forward, away from Egypt into the as yet to be promised land? Or could it have been a dense fog that wrapped them up, slowing the advance of Pharoah's army behind them? The story that has been passed on to us does not go into such details... it just states that God surrounded them, protecting them and leading them to safety. This is a divine defensive move.
The people of Israel understood that God would do more than just defend them from the ones who pursued them. They also understood that God would go on the offensive because they believed that God had little patience for tyrants. A scholar I read this week, Casey Thornburgh Sigmon, said that a tyrant is a ruler who acts with no concern or respect for checks and balances to their power. Pharoah, who up to this point has enslaved people who were once neighbors, ordered the death of children at their birth, and the drowning of children who have survived birth, is a tyrant. A tyrant cares not for justice but only for power and loyalty. A tyrant will murder children to maintain power and chase after impoverished slaves with chariots. A tyrant hoards all the resources and harms others to maintain power. A tyrant would never share a box at a baseball. A tyrant would choose to build the fence higher.
If you are the descendant of people who have been enslaved... if you have witnessed the abuse of an empire... if you know what it is like to have little say in how you construct your life or even if you will have the chance to fully live, you can probably imagine why the ancient Israelites assumed that only God could knock a tyrant like the Pharoah down a peg. The pharaoh had weapons of war and horses that could quickly overcome a person on foot. They barely had clothes on their back and food to eat. They were no match for pharaoh. But, the story tells us that God was.
If we remember the ancient stories of creation, God once molded life itself out of the watery depths. God breathed into mud and created humanity. In this story, scholar Anathea Portier-Young notes that God breathes across the water again, and creates anew, this time, creating a path by which the Israelites can escape Pharoah. This is how we know God is powerful enough to defeat a tyrant. Chariots cannot overcome this God. This God can move the seas. This God can tear down all the fences. Now everybody can watch the baseball game. Well, not everybody. The Egyptians, so enmeshed with a society enriched by slavery, so loyal to a cruel Pharoah that they repeat his cruelty, with hearts hardened, they follow Pharoah to chase the Israelites down the path. The Egyptians do not make it to dry land. They become stuck and the water falls down around them, with God shown to be destroying them just as definitively as God save the Israelites.
I must admit, this is a hard part of the story for me. Surely God could have found a way to save the Israelites without destroying Pharoah's army quite so completely? We have been sharing the story of Egypt's cruelty and comeuppance for generations. Part of me wonders if people needed to hear that the Egyptians were particularly cruel, thereby deserving destruction, in order to explain the horrors of slavery. In this story, where God has hardened their hearts, it makes sense that they could continue be so cruel to their neighbors, even after witnessing God's great power. It may make the tragedy of this story easier to bear if it is part of a plan. I read a scholar this week who suggested one more way to understand this story. Carlos F. Cardoza-Orlandi suggested that this story exists as a reminder that liberation isn't always complete at the edge of the sea. While the Israelites made it to the other side, many people were not able to follow. Perhaps the next step in our Divine story is to find a way, with God, to get everyone safely across the water.
At the beginning of this sermon, I told you about a series of images I admire, images that show a progression of supposedly equal tools with unequal outcomes that becomes a set of tools tailored to the people most in need of help that then shifts into an image of liberation, where no one has barriers to access great joy. What I've also learned is that the artist of the newest image, Angus Maguire, left a blank fourth image in the set. He has invited viewers to imagine what would be the next step in a just world after the fence has been torn down. Maybe it's that everyone joins the game. Maybe it's that the three people go get a bunch of friends to join them in their watching. Maybe it's some other possibility that I can't imagine yet. Maybe the story of the crossing of the sea has another block for us to fill in, with God's help. We have a similar invitation to imagine a next step beyond this piece of liberation. Our question now is how can we work with God to make sure our liberation doesn't hinge on someone else's destruction. That's how we truly help build a future worthy of God's name.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing her sermon:
Casey Thornburgh Sigmon: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3403
Carlos F. Cardoza-Orlandi, "Proper 19," from Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year A Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013)
Anathea Portier Young: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2179
A great discussion of the graphic I talked about at the beginning of the sermon:
Our Sermon for September 10, 2017: Letting Loose and Doing No Wrong, Matthew 18:15-20, Romans 13:8-14
Letting Loose And Doing No Wrong: Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20
Our town is named after John Winthrop, a charter member of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, former governor of Boston, and preacher of one of the most influential sermons of the early European colonization of New England. Though he was not a preacher, his sermon, "A Model of Christian Charity," helped to inspire early Puritan colonizers to understand the community they would build on this continent as a city on a hill, a shining example of God's light in the world. As he and other English Puritans rode together on the ship Arbella, bound for the place we know as Massachusetts, he reminded them of the words of Matthew, sayings of Jesus referenced in today's reading from the book of Romans. He told them that their goal as people of faith was to love God and love one another, to shape their whole lives into reflections of God's love. He believed that how they lived in community should demonstrate something about who they believed God to be. And, if they did not live lives that truly reflected the God in whom they believed, Winthrop was certain that their colony would fail. God would make sure of it.
Anne Marbury Hutchinson was a Puritan, like Winthrop, who arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634, after convincing her husband to follow their minister, John Cotton, to the colony. She was a nurse and a midwife. Her father had been an Anglican clergyman who had pushed so hard for reforms in the church that, according to one scholar I read this week, he had developed quite the reputation as a troublemaker. After being expelled from his parish for insubordination, he spent most of Anne's childhood tutoring her and her siblings. All of his children, girls and boys alike, learned scripture and theology. As a child, Anne was her father's brightest pupil. As an adult, John Winthrop would describe Anne as the "sorest tryall that ever befell us since we left our native soyle." What on earth could she this once promising student have done to be perceived as such a threat to the city on a hill? Preach, apparently. She preached.
Much of the information I'm sharing about Hutchinson's life comes from the research of Anna Carter Florence. According to Florence, John Cotton, that preacher that Anne and her husband followed to Massachusetts, had often encouraged his congregants to be attentive to the ways that God worked in their individual lives and to publicly share these stories of divine grace. After the deaths of three of her children, through much prayer, study, and fasting, Hutchinson received what she described as an "immediate revelation," an encounter with the Divine much like those described by her pastor, Cotton. This revelation convinced her that God's grace alone was sufficient to save someone from despair and that it was not possible to perform enough moral duties to entice God to save you. God just saved you as a gift. This revelation also empowered her to share her new theological understanding with others, which, again, was not out of line with what she had been taught to do at church. She grew certain that God was guiding her, as she spoke with her neighbors and friends, as she delivered children, and she convinced her husband to follow their pastor into New England.
Hutchinson thrived in Boston. She was well-connected in her community, serving as a trusted midwife. Her kindness, competence, and faithfulness led many people to attend Bible studies in her home. Women met there three times a week to discuss Cotton's sermons, a common practice in their broader faith community. What was not common was how popular these meetings became. At one point, nearly every woman in Boston, and a good portion of the men, crowded into the Hutchinson home to hear Anne expound upon John Cotton's sermons. It was often standing room only... sometimes 60 people stuffed into their house to hear her share her interpretations of Scripture, to participate in discussions of other preacher's sermons, and hear her exposition on theology, including places where she disagreed with Puritan doctrine. The religious and political leaders grew suspicious and began to publicly denounce her and the people who studied with her. They called these gatherings "disorderly, and without rule." But, that did not stop her, or the people who respected her, from meeting.
John Winthrop was both appalled and confounded by her popularity. He could not understand why so many people, especially men, found her so compelling. According to Anna Carter Florence, Winthrop was already leery of the expansive ways that non-clergy Christians had been empowered to interpret Scripture and their lived experience in his beloved Puritan movement. Between old cultural arguments in England about how much authority minsters and the church should have and a deep theological commitment to rigorous personal study of Scripture that had become very important in Protestant circles, many people who came to the colony did not assume that ministers, by virtue of their training and vocation, automatically had the right to override theological points made by everyday people. It wasn't just Hutchinson who thought she could, simply by rights of her Christian faith, speak of matters of faith with a measure of authority. In her mind, she was simply living out the faith that she felt God had revealed to her in a manner consistent with the practice of her religious community. She was respected because she was better able to communicate her faith than most of her neighbors. And, if she didn't respect the ministerial office quite as much as Winthrop would have liked, apparently, many of her neighbors didn't either.
If Anne Hutchinson had been a man, it is possible that she would have been seen as, at most, a congregant who was kind of a hand full for the preacher, always asking hard questions, but ultimately, still welcome in the community. Or, maybe, her fierce intelligence and engaging demeanor would have caught the attention of a mentor who would have encouraged her to become a minister herself. But, she wasn't a man. She was a woman who assumed God gave her the power to speak seriously and deeply about faith, to critique the words of male preachers, and disregard the opinions of political leaders who did not approve of her gatherings. She was, therefore, declared disorderly and out of rule.
She was brought up on charges and tried. Her own beloved pastor, John Cotton, would denounce her. Winthrop appointed the church and court authorities who ultimately banished Hutchinson from the colony in 1637 and excommunicated her from the church in 1638. Even through this painful trial, she never submitted to their authority, never allowed them to shut her faithful testimony down. They punished her for her audacity. One of her judges said, "I would commend this to your Consideration that you have stept out of your place, you have rather bine a Husband than a Wife and a preacher than a Hearer; and a Magistrate than a Subject." You have stepped out of your place, they said. My, weren't they certain they knew what her place was. After settling with close friends in Rhode Island for a few years, upon her husband's death, Anne would eventually settle in Long Island. She and six of her children were killed in a raid by some indigenous people who had first lived in the area. Apparently, John Winthrop was pretty sure that Hutchinson's terrible death was proof that he had been right all along.
With hurricanes, fires, floods, and earthquakes rattling over this earth, I remember the story of Anne Hutchinson and how John Winthrop though her preaching might bring destruction to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Hearing the news of possibly 800,000 young people who had been eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals now being faced with deportation from the only country they have ever known, I remember how Anne's family was sent away, and how they ultimately died far from the place in which they had intended to build their new life. And, when I heard that a preacher whom I respect, who has gotten national attention for his public stance against white supremacy, chose to resign from his congregation when the weight of the attention he was receiving seemed to be too great for that community to bear together, I am reminded of all of the trouble that can arise even in the midst of a community that is trying to root itself in love of God and love of neighbor.
John Winthrop was right about one thing. I do think how we serve and worship together says something about how we understand the nature of God. I think that's what Jesus was talking about when he was trying to help his followers have more grace-filled conflict mediation in Matthew. All his talk of "binding on earth, and binding in heaven; loosing on earth and loosing in heaven," that's all connecting our actions here with God's actions, explaining that at our best, we strive to have our actions mirror God's. But, this is not easy. John Winthrop's actions remind us that actions that may have been intended to be holy, may, in fact, be destructive. It is easy to make such a mistake when you are as certain as I think he was (and I can be) that he knew all the bounds of God's grace.
I'm certain that John Winthrop's not the only one who has ever been certain that he knows exactly what God wants him to do, and was willing to punish those who's notion of grace was a bit more expansive. This is a temptation many of us have. That's probably why Paul had to remind us so forcefully that love does no wrong to neighbor. It's like he knew we would need the help and tried to give us a standard to measure our actions by. It has always been difficult to balance grace and accountability in Christian community. It was in Jesus' time, in Paul's time, in Hutchinson's time, and our time, too. I pray that we can hear the lessons our forebears have taught, and strive to live just a little more fully into God's grace. May we step out of our place, and more fully into God's loving community.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
It's always good to read original sources. I encourage you to take the time to read Winthrop's sermon and Hutchinson's trial testimony. These are both important works in our denomination's history:
Stanley Saunders: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3392
Eric Barreto: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2164
Kyle Fever: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3401
Elizabeth Shively: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2156
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3320
Robert Lee: https://www.onscripture.com/gathering-resolve-hate
Barbara K. Lundblad, "Proper 18," from Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year A Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013)
Kim Hill, "Female Preachers in Early America," American Spirit: November/December 2007, vol 141, No. 6
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ He said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’ But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ He said, ‘I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.’
But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you.” ’ God also said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you”:
This is my name for ever,
and this my title for all generations.
A Sign Strong Enough To Move You- Exodus 3:1-15
If you are a shepherd in the area that we now call northwestern Saudi Arabia, but was once called Midian, the chances are that you've seen plenty of crispy, burned out vegetation in your life. Chances are that you recognize the familiar crunch of crisp, dry grass and bushes underneath your feet. You have likely seen plants burn a thousand times, casualties of errant lightning strikes, ill tended camp fires, and flames intentionally set to quickly clear land. It is not likely that this is the first time that you would have seen a piece of shrubbery set alight, smoke filling the air, excess heat licking at your skin. The flame is probably not what surprises you. You've seen it a thousand times before. You probably only watch it out of the corner of your eye to see if might spread. You probably go about your day like normal. Fires happen all the time.
There is a fire burning right now in Centralia, Pennsylvania. It has been burning since 1962. A fire that began at the town dump worked its way down into the ground into a coal seam. The fire would spread across that seam, through a network of mines underneath the town. Noxious fumes made it hard to breath. A giant sinkhole eventually opened up in 1981. From 1984 to 1992, nearly all of the town's 1400 residents moved away. As of this past spring, only 10 people still live there. The fire continues to burn. There are more than 30 mine fires similar to this in Pennsylvania. There are hundreds more around the world. There is a mountain in Australia, one they call Burning Mountain, that has been burning for probably 6,000 years. It is a burning coal seam, too. Fires happen all the time. They burn as long as they have fuel. Shepherds know that. Moses was likely assuming that the fire he saw would soon consume all of its fuel. But this fuel wasn't burning away.
The beginning of the book of Exodus gives some history to ground the story of the shepherd. He is a descendant of people who once traveled to Egypt in order to survive a severe famine. Once, a member of his ethnic group had, through luck and shrewd deployment of his wisdom, managed to become a confidant of the Pharaoh and leverage that privilege into salvation. Inviting his family into Egypt, Joseph was able to make certain that generations of Israelites would survive the famine. More than that, the Israelites thrived and grew strong. But, Joseph eventually died. As did the pharaoh who knew him and was willing to help save his people. A pharaoh rose to power who was afraid of the descendants of the Israelite refugees. This fear bred contempt. Remember when white supremacists marched in Virginia and chanted, "You will not replace us." The pharaoh would have approved of that sentiment.
The children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of refugees who had once been considered neighbors began to be treated as enemies of the state, worthy of the meanest measures of social control. They are enslaved. Their boy children are threatened with extermination. Two brave and cunning midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, saved many of the boys, but pharaoh so afraid that he was willing to throw the ones who had been saved into the river to drown or be eaten by crocodiles. That shepherd I mentioned at the beginning, the one who was watching the fire in Midian, he was an Israelite boy who had been saved. His mom had put him in a floating basket where the pharaoh's daughter found him. At this moment, quite suddenly, another son of Israel has found himself in the Pharoah's household. He grew up knowing he was an outsider in both his adopted family's home and in the community of his ethnic kin. When he snaps one day, killing an Egyptian who had been beating a Hebrew slave, neither of these communities would come to his aid. The Egyptians assumed that his actions proved how unworthy the whole community was. The Israelites were likely afraid he was drawing unnecessary attention to them.
That's how this adopted grandson of the pharaoh, this child of slaves, this man named Moses, wound up living in exile in Midian, married to a priest's daughter, working as a shepherd, watching a bush burn in the wilderness. Up to this point in the story, notice what spurs action in Moses: observing a man being beaten by an Egyptian, hearing threats to his own life, and, in this one part of the story where he meets his wife, observation of men harassing women at a well. Physical danger moves him to act. He is willing to do something when he sees someone else (or when he himself) is the target of physical violence. But, there are many smaller actions and systems that lead up to an explosion of violence. Violence, like fire, can only burn when it has fuel. Moses will notice a fire, but it takes him a while to notice the fuel. This brush fire that he has been casually noticing seems to be the first time that he thinks about the fuel.
In my research this week, I read that Rabbi Lawrence Kushner once said that the burning bush is best understood not as a miracle, but a test. Kushner said, “God wanted to find out whether or not Moses could pay attention to something for more than a few minutes.” Kushner may be right, because there is something different about this event than the other life changing events described in the story. Those other moments of actions are all about the fire: the fight, the threats, the harassment. This story is really about the fuel. The fact that it is never consumed is what takes this event from commonplace to extraordinary, but you miss that if you aren't paying attention. Remember, fires happen all the time. You really have to pay attention to understand why this one is different.
Moses' turn towards the burning bush mirrors God's own turn towards the cries of the enslaved Hebrew people the chapter just before today's reading. According to scholars I read this week, the Hebrew words used to describe both God looking upon the people in the midst of their oppression and Moses' turn towards the fire are related. Moses' behavior, however unintentionally, is patterned after God's. It is at this moment that God first speaks to Moses. It is at this moment, when Moses recognizes the difference in this flame from all the others, that God declares that place holy. God says, "Take off your shoes. Feel this earth beneath your feet. I am the God of your ancestors. I once made them an important promise." And, Moses, upon hearing these words, responds how many of us would, by being terrified and hiding his face from the one who was speaking to him.
God then lays out the plan for what one scholar I read called "the single largest rescue operation in the entire Bible." Much to Moses' surprise, he has a role in it, a key role, in fact. A role for which he feels completely unprepared. He does his best to talk God out of using him. He is certain that hiding is much easier than leading. But, God repeatedly asserts that Moses is the one for the job. Maybe it's the fact that the knows the Pharaoh personally. Maybe it's because he is Hebrew but knows Egyptian culture. Whatever the reason, God is clear: Moses is exactly the man for this job. God promises to help him. With that promise, Moses can no longer turn away. This whole conversation has become a sign that he cannot ignore. It is a sign strong enough to move him to greater action.
If you are like me, all week you've been seeing footage of people moved into action, not by fire but by water. Convoys from Mexico and Louisiana rumble down Texas highways, bringing with them food, water, and fishing boats, ready to haul in people, pets, and possums trapped by the high water that came with Hurricane Harvey. A furniture store owner opened up his warehouse, creating what amounts to the biggest spare bedroom in all of Texas, so people could have a clean, safe, and dry place to stay. At this very moment, firefighters from Rockport, Maine may even be headed to Rockport, Texas to help. In short, I think people are acting like Moses in the earlier part of the story, seeing the explosion of need and stepping in to help.
But, even more, I think this moment can be a burning bush moment, too. It can be a moment where people see the fuel that is keeping the crisis going, and decide to work with God for a people's salvation. While we will always need to help in moments of crisis, we also need to grow better at addressing the contexts that help create the crisis. Nobody could control that 50 inches of rain fell in two days in Southeast Texas. But, had people build a city less dependent on cars and the miles of asphalt they require for parking and driving, the water could drain off easier. When so many people have difficulty affording evacuations, as has been true along coastal Texas and in poorer parts of Houston, if we are paying attention to what can fuel a potential crisis, we as the question: how do communities plan cities and towns that are more storm resistant so fewer people are in danger in the first place?
These are not just questions for people in Texas. Humans affect the climate. The science is very good and very clear. There are only going to be more intense storm seasons in our future on this warming earth. Our burning bushes are these flooded cities... Houston, Rockport, and Fullerton in Texas, Naimey in Niger, Mumbai in India. Let's learn from Moses that we have to pay attention to fuel in order to understand the fire. God is with us, too, and will help us. We'll just get climate scientists and urban planners instead of Aaron and a magic walking staff. We have a part to play. May we be brave enough to play it.
Pastor Chrissy consulted these resources while writing this sermon:
In the Houston area, the communities that were the hardest hit in Harvey were often communities of color. Here's some places you can donate to help rebuild:
Reflections on this week's reading:
Jim Keat: https://www.onscripture.com/burning-bush-boston-common-you-are-standing-holy-ground
Karla Suomala: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3390
Anathea Portier-Young: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2136
Information about city planning and climate change:
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.