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