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Sunday 24 September 2017
The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 25A
Everyone knows the story of Jonah, right? Well, it’s not actually the story of Jonah, is it? It’s the story of Jonah and the Whale. Jonah doesn’t want to follow God’s call to go to Nineveh, so he gets on a boat in the opposite direction. But while they’re a sailing, a terrible storm comes up, and they end up throwing Jonah overboard in an effort to get the storm to stop. After he is thrown over, Jonah is swallowed by a whale. He stays in the belly of the whale for three days. And then he gets spit up onto the shore. And then Jonah decides to do what God had commanded. He gets up, and he goes to Nineveh.
And that’s the whole story, right? God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh. Jonah refuses. Jonah gets swallowed by a fish. Jonah learns his lesson and goes to Nineveh. Simple message: when God tells you to do something, you’d better do it. If you try to run away from God’s call, God will find you.
That is part of the Jonah story, but it is not all of it. In fact, that’s less than half of it. With all of our focus on the strange story about the fish, we may have lost track of what it is God was actually telling Jonah to do.
God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and to preach against the people there and their evil ways. But Jonah doesn’t want to deliver God’s message. And he actually has some pretty good reasons. Nineveh is the capital of the mighty Assyrian Empire, a major enemy of Israel. In fact, Assyria will eventually conquer the northern kingdom of Israel. Jonah doesn’t want to visit or bring God’s message to his most bitter enemy. He doesn’t want to travel into the lion’s den, and he doesn’t believe that the Ninevites are worthy of receiving a message from God.
But there’s something more important than that. God has sent Jonah with a message of destruction for the Ninevites. That’s actually a message that Jonah likes. Jonah wants God to wipe Nineveh off the map, just like Sodom and Gomorra. He would love to be the one who declares Nineveh’s destruction.
But Jonah knows God a little too well. Jonah doesn’t believe that God will actually destroy Nineveh. He knows that God’s sense of mercy is much stronger than God’s need for destruction, and he is pretty sure that God is going to have second thoughts and decide to spare Nineveh.
And there are two different problems with that. First, Jonah doesn’t want Nineveh to be spared. Why go to all this effort if God is going to change God’s mind and spare the evil city?
And second, Jonah does not want to be made a fool. If he declares that Nineveh will be destroyed, and then God doesn’t follow through, Jonah will look like he doesn’t know what’s going on.
It’s rather ironic, actually. Jonah is arguably the most successful prophet of all time. He travels to one of the largest cities in the world. The bible says it was so big that it takes three days to walk from one side to the other. Jonah begins walking into the city, and for just one day, he preaches a simple message. He says, “Just forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown!” And before Jonah has even made it half way across the city, everything has changed. Shockingly, the people of Nineveh believe Jonah right away. They listen to God’s message. Every single person in Nineveh begins a ritual of repentance. After just one day of preaching, the entire population repents with sackcloth, ashes and fasting. Even the animals go into mourning when they hear that the city has offended God. The King of Assyria—who never even meets Jonah, he just hears rumors about Jonah’s message—even the king goes into mourning and commands that everyone else join him. It is the most dramatic and complete turnaround in the entire bible. No one, absolutely no one, inspires so much repentance as Jonah does, and he does it in just one day, in a place where no one knows him, where they worship different gods, and among a people who are the sworn enemies of his people.
And yet, far from being happy at this absolutely extraordinary result, Jonah is irritated. He wants fire and brimstone. He wants death and destruction. And instead he gets repentance, and forgiveness, and mercy, and grace. Sometimes God can be so infuriatingly compassionate. I mean, if anyone deserved to be snuffed out, it was the Ninevites. But no, God has to forgive them. It’s just so aggravating.
That’s right where we pick up with the story today. Jonah is angry with God, and he says, “Isn’t this just what I said when I was in Israel. This is why I ran away. I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy.” Those are beautiful words, right? That is a wonderfully grace-filled description of who God is. But Jonah isn’t happy about it, he is angry. In fact, he is so angry that he wants to die. “Kill me!” he says to God. “It would be better for me to die than to live!”
God’s answer can be translated a few different ways. It might mean “Is it right for you to be angry?” Or it might mean, “Is your anger a good thing?” To me, it seems to mean something like, Do you really have any reason to be angry? Is your anger serving any purpose?
Whatever the exact shading of God’s words are, though, Jonah gives God the silent treatment. Instead of answering God’s direct question to him, Jonah says nothing, leaves the city, and builds himself a little shelter to the east of town. He is waiting there to see what happens to the city. He is still fuming mad at God, and he is going to continue to sit there and fume until God takes his advice and destroys Nineveh. It’s totally a teenage reaction. Jonah is furious that the parent is going easy on his annoying sibling. It’s so unfair. My life is over. You ruin everything.
And Jonah continues to rage as God performs a little experiment on him. First, God causes a plant to grow near Jonah and offer him shade. And for a moment, Jonah is happy. But the next day a worm comes and kills the plant, and as Jonah is still sitting in the blazing heat, he gets even madder than before. Again he starts with the teenage complaining, “I might as well die. This is all so unfair.”
And God speaks again and asks Jonah the same question he had asked a few days before, the question Jonah ignored. But this time God asks it about the shade plant: “Is your anger about the plant a good thing? Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” And with more histrionics, Jonah spits back, “Yes! And I’m angry enough to die!”
And that’s when God sits Jonah down for the parental talk: “You showed concern for the plant, even though you didn’t do anything to grow or take care of it. You’re angry about it even though it only lasted day. And look, there is a whole city here. One hundred and twenty thousand people. And you don’t think I should be concerned about them? You really think your little plant is more important than an entire city?”
And that’s the end of the book of Jonah. It’s stops right there in the middle of a conversation. It actually ends on a question spoken by God to Jonah. Shouldn’t I be concerned about these people? It’s not really a book about obey God when God calls. It is that, too, but more than that, it’s about anger and grace, rage and forgiveness, mercy and antipathy.
You see, Jonah doesn’t want God to be good. Jonah wants God to be evil. Jonah wants God to destroy the foreigners, and he doesn’t care whether they follow God or not. They’re not Jonah’s people, so Jonah wants God to destroy them.
And we can certainly recognize that mindset in our world. Prejudice and vendetta are easy to find. Those people aren’t good like our people. They’re lazy. They’re criminals. They’re cheats and thieves. They can’t be trusted. They need to be kicked out. They need to be defensed against. They need to be destroyed.
And of course we know that God is bigger than our alliances and squabbles. Just because we distrust or hate someone, it doesn’t mean that God does. Just because we see some group as evil, it doesn’t mean that God does.
But I want to bring things in a little closer. This story is about prejudices and xenophobia, but it’s also about plain old anger and resentment. Jonah is angry that things haven’t gone his way, and that anger leads him to lose all perspective. He fails to see the marvelous grace of God because he is angry, and he holds on to his anger like a vise.
God asks Jonah twice, “Is your anger a good thing?” The first time he doesn’t answer. The second time he says he is angry enough to die. And he’s right that his anger can lead only to death, not to life. It does nothing good in him. It leads to no transformation, no progress, no healing, only to bitterness and death.
That isn’t to say that anger is always wrong or that anger should be avoided at all costs. Sometimes we are justifiably angry that things are unfair or that someone has been hurt. And at other times, our anger is not so justified, but we will still have to feel it before we can get through it.
Anger can inspire us to do good in face of injustice. And sometimes expressing anger, in a way that is not destructive, can be the best way for us to move ahead.
But if anger is going to result in any kind of good, it cannot just turned in on itself, be allowed to fester and calcify. And it cannot go on unquestioned and unexamined. When Jonah gives himself over to his destructive anger, he is no longer able to experience God’s grace, either for himself or for anyone else. He becomes so alienated from God, in fact, that he is driven to suicidal despair.
And yet, God does not abandon him. God keeps coming back, keeps asking, “Is this anger of yours a good thing? Can you not rejoice with me at seeing a people transformed by grace?” God keeps offering grace, even to the one who wants to deny God’s grace to others.
We don’t know how the story ends, whether Jonah gets through his anger and is able to grasp hold of God’s grace. The question is left unanswered. And so is ours. When we find ourselves blinded by anger, when we feel resentful of the grace and forgiveness offered to others, when we get stuck on how unfair it is that someone else isn’t punished to the full extent of the law, how will we respond? Will we take hold of that anger, squeezing it tighter and tighter until it threatens our health or even our life. Or will we be able to release that grip, to offer grace just as we have received grace, to forgive just as we have been forgiven, and to rejoice with God when anyone, anyone at all, is changed by God’s transforming grace?
Sunday 17 September 2017
The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 24A
Paul is writing to a group of churches in Rome that he has not visited. He is planning a visit to Rome, and as a way of introducing himself and preparing the way, he writes this letter. It appears, though, that he has already heard something about them, something about the issues that the churches are facing in Rome, something about the squabbles and arguments that they are having. All groups of people have disagreements and arguments, and the Church is no exception. Even from the earliest times, it seems, Christians disagreed over the best way to be Christians.
In Rome, among other things, they are arguing about diet and about the observance of special days. So lets talk about diet first. The conflict is between those who eat meat and those who are vegetarians. Now, if these two groups were arguing today, it would likely be about how much land and water it takes to raise cattle, or about the relative health benefits of eating and not eating meat, or about how ethical it is to raise animals for meat, or how much pain they feel when they are slaughtered, or the carbon footprint involved with the meat industry. These are all potentially interesting questions. However, none of these questions are the questions that Christians in Rome were considering when they had their conflict over diet.
For them, the issues were very different. There were probably two main questions for these early Christians. The first has to do with the method of butchery. There are specific regulations in the bible about the proper way to slaughter animals. This is part of what makes meat kosher or not. Living as they did, in the Gentile city of Rome, it would be hard to ensure that any meat they might have bought in the market had been butchered properly in the way prescribed by scripture. If it wasn’t possible to get Kosher meat, then maybe it was best not to eat meat at all. Or perhaps, these sorts of regulations did not matter for Gentile Christians. Maybe it was okay for Gentile Christians to eat non-Kosher food because the Kosher laws only applied to Jews.
But there was another issue that also had to do with the slaughter of meat. In the ancient world, nearly every religious tradition practiced animal sacrifice. When we modern people imagine animal sacrifice, we usually think of a cruel ritual in which an animal is killed and then its body is burned on the altar of some god. Occasionally the ancients did perform these sorts of whole burnt sacrifices, but most of the time things worked a bit differently. A person would bring their animal to a temple and hand it over to the priest. Then, through whatever rituals were prescribed by that god, the priests would slaughter the animal. Then they would begin the butchery process. Typically, only the undesirable parts of the animal, like the bone, fat, and blood, would be burned for the gods. The priests would take a portion of the meat for themselves, as payment, and they would return the rest to the person who had brought the sacrifice. They would take it home and use it for their meals, or to a market to sell. A temple of animal sacrifice was actually much more like a butcher shop than it was like the images we usually have in our heads. This is how animals were slaughtered at the temple of God in Jerusalem. It’s also how they were slaughtered at the various pagan temples throughout the Roman world.
This presented a problem for Christians in Rome, though. If they buy meat in the market, chances are that it has been offered to Jupiter, or Mars, or Isis, or some other pagan god before it ends up in the shop for sale. So if they buy that meat and eat it, wouldn’t it mean that they are practicing idolatry? Wouldn’t they, in effect, be worshipping other gods? For this reason, many Christians, following the example of the Book of Daniel, decide that as long as they live in Gentile cities, where meat is offered to the gods before it is sold, they will simply refrain from eating any meat and be vegetarians.
Others, though, have a different idea on the matter. They argue that since there is only one true God, all of the pagan gods are really nothing at all. They don’t exist. Therefore, even if meat has been offered up to Apollo, there really is no Apollo, so it hasn’t been offered to anything except some inanimate statue of wood or stone. If the pagan gods aren’t real, then what does it matter if meat has been sacrificed to them. It is fine to eat meat from pagan temples, because those pagan gods don’t really exist anyway.
The other conflict Christians in Rome are dealing with is over the setting aside of special religious days. Some people set aside certain days as holy. Maybe Saturday, as the Sabbath commanded in scripture, or maybe Sunday, as the Lord’s day. Other people say that every day is the same, and there is no need to set aside a special day for God. Ancient Rome, by the way, had no weekends. Every day was a work day, though there were plenty of holidays and feast days and days off to watch the games or the gladiators. The fact that Jews, and some Christians, took off one day a week for religious observance, seemed like a strange oddity to most of their Gentile neighbors.
And so, Paul is writing to Christian communities that disagree over what the proper thing is for Christians to do. We modern Christians still have our arguments. And interestingly, we still argue about things like diet and scheduling. Most Christians set aside Sunday for worship, but Seventh-Day Adventists insist that the proper day for worship is Saturday, the day prescribed by the bible. Jehovah’s Witnesses refrain from celebrating any holidays. Likewise, some Christians eat whatever they want whenever they want. Catholics and Orthodox Christians, though, abstain from meat on Fridays and certain other fast days. Mormons abstain from caffeine. Some Methodists and Baptists abstain from alcohol.
But our disagreements are not limited just to calendars and food. We disagree about worship styles; should it be medieval worship, or nineteenth-century worship, or contemporary worship? We disagree about music; should it be chant, or baroque, or gospel, or rock & roll, or rap? We disagree about how to take communion: should we use juice or wine;; should we dip into a common cup, or drink from a common cup, or have individual cups; should the bread be leavened or unleavened; should we celebrate it once a year, once a quarter, once a month, once a week, or once a day? We disagree about mission: should we focus on helping people in need, or on righting the injustices of society, or on winning souls for Christ? We disagree on worship space: should we have an altar or a table; what should we put in the middle, the altar, the pulpit, the choir, or the organ? Should we have an empty cross, or a cross with Jesus on it, or a projection screen? Is Jesus human, or is he God, or is he half human and half God, or is he somehow all human and all God? When is the proper day to celebrate Easter? What kinds of clothes are appropriate to wear to church? What age do you need to be in order to be baptized, and how many times should you be baptized? What kinds of prayers should we say, and what things should we pray for? When should we sit, and when should we stand, and when should we kneel?
As you might guess, I could go on and on. And these are just the strictly religious arguments. I haven’t even touched the social arguments or the political arguments that we Christians have with one another. Things like, what is the proper response to violence, how should balance industry and ecology, or how we should respond to the criminal justice system? We have plenty of things to disagree about, to squabble over, even to fight over.
So what does Paul say to the Christians who are squabbling in Rome? He tells them to welcome one another, but not in order to argue about differences. He says that Christians who abstain from meat do so in order to honor God, and Christians who eat meat do so giving thanks to God. Likewise, Christians who set aside specials days for worship, do so to honor God, and Christians who see every day alike also do so in honor of God, a God who, after all, is not confined to Sunday mornings. And he says something else that is very interesting. He says, “Let everyone be convinced in their own minds. Each person must have their own convictions.” That means that they don’t have to try to convert each other, or to put each other down. It is alright for them to have different beliefs and opinions and practices. They can do things differently and all still be Christians. They can all believe what they believe in their own minds and yet still tolerate the differences they have, still embrace each other as sisters and brothers in Christ.
And that is a message we can still hear today. We live in the most religiously fragmented society in the history of Christianity. There are more denominations now in the United States than there have ever been in the history of the world. For a long time, the church favored unity over what they called schism. It was more important that the church stay one than it was that everyone believe their own things. At times, there was room for freedom of belief. At other times orthodoxy was imposed with force of arms.
But we are a long way from that world. When Martin Luther started the Reformation 500 years ago, he was not trying to break up the church, he was trying to reform it. When John Wesley started the Methodist Movement, he was not trying to start a new denomination, but that was the result of his work. Are we are left with a legacy of Christian fragmentation. And even though the Mainline Protestant denominations, like the ELCA and the UMC, have started working together more closely, it still hasn’t led to much of what we call organic unity. There are still separate denominations. This congregation, being both Lutheran and United Methodist, is a rare sign of hope for the unity of the church and ability to come together across denominational lines.
But even churches within the same denomination might have major disputes between one congregation and another, or even within a single congregation. In general, we have given up on unity as a value and have instead embraced radical individualism, which is not surprising, since we live in the most individualistic culture of all time. And as Paul does say, “Let every one be convinced in their own mind. Each person must have their own convictions.”
However, though we all may have slightly different beliefs, slightly different practices, the fact remains that we are all still Christians. We are all still a part of the one Church, of which Christ is the head, even though that one church may at times seem rather broken. We are all still sisters and brothers in Christ. And as sisters and brothers, members of the same family, we may have disagreements, but we still need to love one another. We still need to tolerate our differences. We still need to respect one another. We still need to find ways to build bridges across difference. We still need to welcome one another, in the love and peace of our one God, who created us all, and who loves us all, and who calls us all to love one another.
So when we find ourselves in the midst of difference and disagreement, let us act with respect and humility. It is not an easy thing. Many of our disagreements today strike right at the core of our understandings of justice and morality. And I am not saying that we should stand by silently while hate and injustice are preached in the name of Christ. Christian unity can never be an excuse for injustice and oppression.
But so many of the things that divide us are not questions of justice or morality, and in those things, we can learn to accept difference, we can learn to embrace diversity, to learn from one another while not seeking to impose our own preferences on one another.
And even in the places where our differences and disagreement strike at the core of our values, we can differ and argue and struggle without resorting to hatred. A person rarely changes their mind after being punched in the face, even if they were wrong. Rather, transformative change comes from people who are willing to have difficult conversations, willing to listen deeply to someone who’s views they find detestable, willing to seek out a human connection with the enemy, just as Jesus commanded us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Who knows, we might even discover ways that we have been blind to our own hidden prejudices and errors.
Welcome one another, Paul says, but not in order to argue about differences of opinion. Each person must have their own convictions. We don’t live for ourselves and we don’t die for ourselves. If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or whether we die, we all belong to God. Thanks be to God.
At this time, the church building is under a Level One (Get Ready) Evacuation Order. All church activities tonight are cancelled. Please stay safe and follow the HR Sheriff’s instructions. Announcements about possible church closure will be posted on Facebook and the church website: http://hoodriverchurch.com/latest/.
The Garden Party scheduled for Sunday, September 10th is cancelled due to air quality concerns. There will be no 9:00 am service on Sunday. Worship at 10:30 am is still scheduled, but check for updates on Sunday morning.
++ Choir practice has resumed on Thursday’s at 6pm at Spirit of Grace.
++ Women’s Spirituality meets this Saturday 9th in the church office.
++ One Service this Sunday 10th at 10:30.
++ Garden Party follows our 10:30 service. Please bring a potluck dish to share. Under Susan Randolph’s management and the many hours she and volunteers have put in, the garden has produced about 2400 pounds of food! Let us all celebrate together.
++ Newsletter info is due by tomorrow.
++ Coffee Hour sign-ups are needed for Sept 24th and for the month of October.
++ CROP walkers will meet Thursday, September 7, at 4:00pm at Hood River Valley Christian Church. CROP Walk materials for walkers and promotional information will be handed out. 2017 Columbia Gorge CROP Walk is Saturday, October 7 at 10:00am beginning and ending at Hood River Valley Christian Church. Spirit of Grace does not have anyone representing our church but if you want to do the walk, this info is for you!
To anyone who donated the much needed items requested by firefighters staying at the fairgrounds, thank you! “There were two cars full of items and it really lifted the Fire Fighters spirits up a lot. They were amazed at how generous our community is and how fast we responded.”
For those that didn’t get a chance yesterday and would like to help, there are still some items firefighters requested:
Body Soap Wash in Bottles – (No soap Bars)
small travel size Deodorant
small Foot Powder, small travel size Body Powder
Once again, bring items to the Print It Shop on Cascade Ave today. (Requests from firefighters have come through local Boy Scout Troop 282).
Sunday 3 September 2017
The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 22A
In the Gospel lesson last week, Peter confesses that he believes Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God. And Jesus praises him for this testimony and tells the other disciples that Peter is the Rock on which he will build his church. It’s one of Peter’s brightest moments, when he proves to Jesus that he knows what’s going on.
In today’s lesson, which follows immediately on the last, Peter is caught by surprise when Jesus seems to turn away from his role as Messiah. Peter, like any good first-century Jew, knows that the Messiah is God’s anointed king, the one who will once again lead Israel to independence and liberty, the one who will throw off the foreign oppressors and inaugurate the imperial reign of God. The Messiah will be a powerful political leader, he will be a war hero, he will be an inspiration to the people, and he will bring unity and prosperity to Israel, who have for so long been persecuted. Peter has proclaimed that Jesus is this Messiah, and Jesus himself has confirmed it to his disciples.
So now, when Jesus starts talking about suffering at the hands of the religious authorities and being killed, Peter knows that something is wrong. Jesus must have fallen into some sort of depression. He must be doubting his call as God’s Messiah. So Peter takes him aside to cheer him up and straighten him out. After all, if the crowds start hearing Jesus talk like this, then everything will be lost. They will all lose faith in him, and their mission to bring about the restoration of Israel, the Kingdom of God, will be lost.
It must have come as an even greater shock when Jesus rebuked him as a satan, an adversary, a tempter, who was standing in the way of Jesus’s calling and mission. What he didn’t realize is that God’s idea of a Messiah is much different than human ideas of a Messiah, that God’s idea of a kingdom of heaven on earth is much different than human ideas about that kingdom.
Peter thought that the coming of the Messiah and the Kingdom of God was all about glory and praise and victory. But Jesus understood a very different reality, that the coming of the Messiah and the Kingdom of God was about suffering and humility and redemption.
“If you want to be a part of my mission,” Jesus says, “then take up your cross and follow me.” To put that in contemporary language, Jesus says, “tie a noose around your neck and follow me, strap yourself into an electric chair and follow me, stick a needle in your arm and follow me.” It’s absolutely shocking. It was shocking for the first disciples, who had not planned on getting killed as part of this mission. And it is equally shocking to us today. Jesus says, “If you plan on following me, then you had better get used to suffering, and you had better be prepared to die for the cause if it comes to that.”
Like Peter, we usually think of God’s kingdom as glorious, praiseworthy, victorious. If we just stick with Jesus, he will protect us and take care of us, he will make our lives better, give us everything we need, make us happy and healthy. God will intervene for us because we are God’s special children.
There are a lot of preachers out there preaching a gospel of prosperity. They’re not difficult to find on the radio or on your television. They’re saying that if you confess belief in Jesus Christ then you will be rewarded with health, safety, and wealth. As they tell it, prosperity on earth is a direct result of faithfulness to God and a sign of God’s favor. This view has become a major part of American Christianity.
Even though most of us here don’t subscribe to that kind of prosperity theology, chances are that most of us tend to see our religion as something that will make our lives happier, easier, or more prosperous. We come to Christ seeking peace, seeking happiness, seeking satisfaction. We come to the one who says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
And so for us, Jesus’s call to take up our cross may be just as unwelcome as it was for those first disciples. We have a hard time accepting that suffering might be a part of the faith. We have a hard time believing that following God might mean walking straight into adversity, and might even lead to our death.
Christians in the first few generations after Jesus knew exactly what he was talking about. They faced opposition from their fellow Jews, and, later, periods of fierce persecution from the Roman Empire. At times it was illegal simply to claim the name Christian, and the crime could be punishable by torture and death.
In modern times, in the western world, being a Christian is rarely so dangerous. Most of us can’t imagine putting our lives at risk for Christ. There are, of course, exceptions. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and many others risked their lives proclaiming Christ’s saving message for all people and decrying the sins of racism and systemic poverty. Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was assassinated for proclaiming Christ’s good news for the poor. Still, most of us never face that kind of pressure, never take those kinds of risks.
And when we do face hardship in our lives, we sometimes feel like God has abandoned us. If life is difficult, if I have doubts, if I’m unhappy, if I’m ill, then maybe it’s because God doesn’t care for me any longer. Maybe it’s because I’ve done something wrong and God has decided to withhold blessing. Maybe God is too busy to pay attention to little old me. For many of us, adversity seems at odds with faith.
We sometimes forget that God never promised that our lives would be easy. God never promised that we would not face hardship, never promised everything would be sweetness and light. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, if we believe Jesus’s words from today.
But we are promised something else. We are promised that whatever hardship we might face, whatever suffering we might endure, whatever troubles we might encounter, Jesus walks with us. Don’t forget that we have a savior who understands suffering, who understands rejection, hardship, and even death. That is one of the most amazing truths of the gospel. We have a God who, in order to be in closer relationship with us, became human and suffered cruelty, rejection, and death. That same Jesus understands our suffering, not as some distant, ethereal observer, but as one who has experienced it for himself, and as one who suffers along with all those who suffer.
We are not promised an easy life with all the pleasures of this world. What we are promised is a savior who knows our hurts, knows our fears, knows our pain, and who stands beside us even in our darkest hours, walking beside us, showing us the way, and sometimes even carrying us. We are promised Jesus the Christ, who shocked the world by winning the victory not through force of arms or political power, but through suffering, death, and resurrection.
And Christ calls us to shock the world, not with glory or power or wealth or charisma, but with humility, with suffering, and with grace. Christ calls us to face our trials with the confidence of knowing the Christ faces them with us. Christ calls us to take up our cross and follow him.
Sunday 27 August 2017
The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 21A
Back when I was in college, there was a popular t-shirt slogan. I still see it around from time to time. “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” We know, of course, that women of all persuasions have been tremendously important to history. However, overwhelmingly, the histories that survive have been written by men, men who either did not know the stories of women or who actively suppressed them. And for that reason, we are left with a terribly slanted, incomplete accounting of things. Women and their important acts have been, for the most part, left out. Or, when they have been included, they have been so marginalized as to make them utterly forgettable. The Bible is no exception to this systematic suppression of women’s voices, and it is a shame that so much of the story of our faith has been lost to history.
From time to time, the stories of faithful women beat the odds and make it onto the pages of the Bible, though probably still in a muted form. We are lucky to have one of those instances today. This lesson from the Book of Exodus tells the story of not just one faithful woman, but five of them, who together participated in a criminal conspiracy to save the life of a baby who would later become the liberator of the people of Israel. Without them, there is no Moses. Without them, there is no Exodus. Without them, there is no nation of Israel.
It happened in Egypt. After Joseph had forgiven his brothers for selling him into slavery, and after he had saved them from the great famine, his father, Israel, and all of their family settled in Egypt under Pharaoh’s protection. But after a time, they were no longer invited guests, but servants. And after even more time, they were slaves. And, as Exodus tells us, after about 400 years, “a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” And as he saw it, the people of Israel living in Egypt had become a threat to the security of his nation. He declares them to be dangerous illegal immigrants, and he decides to beat them down by working them to death. He sets them to hard labor, and they build for him the spectacular treasure cities of Pithom and Rameses. But Pharaoh’s plan doesn’t work. The more Pharaoh oppresses the Hebrew people, the more they multiply and become strong. He keeps working them harder and harder, but they only become stronger and more numerous.
So, eventually Pharaoh comes up with a new plan. He calls the first two faithful women of our story to come before him. He calls Shiphrah and Puah, whom are told are the midwives of the Hebrews. They are rather interesting characters in this story. One interesting detail is that we have their names. You may have noticed that apart from Moses, none of the other characters in the story are given names in today’s passage, and that includes Pharaoh and his daughter. But these two Hebrew midwives are given names. Shiphrah is a Hebrew name that means beautiful. Puah, is a Canaanite name that means little girl. It is unreasonable to think that two women could have done all of the midwifing for the Hebrew people, but they can stand as representative of the others who must have shared the role.
In any case, Pharaoh gives Shiphrah and Puah strict orders that when they attend the Hebrew women giving birth, if a girl is born, they should let her live, but if a boy is born, they should kill him. Pharaoh is asking them to commit genocide so that the Hebrew people can be weakened. Presumably, he assumes that Hebrew girls could eventually be married to Egyptian men, at which point, they would cease being a threat to him.
Shiphrah and Puah, though, revere God. And so, they disobey Pharaoh’s orders. When Hebrew boys are born, they don’t kill them. Instead they let them live. This may actually be the first recorded instance of civil disobedience. These women refuse to obey a law which they believe is unjust. It is that same kind of refusal to affirm unjust laws that has been at the center of many successful civil rights and liberation movements.
This, of course, does not sit well with Pharaoh. He is not accustomed to having his orders disobeyed. He is, as Pharaoh, not only a sovereign king whose orders are to be obey unquestioningly, he is considered to be a living god. The Egyptians worshipped their Pharaoh. They believed that after death, Pharaohs travelled to return to their place among the other gods. The idea that two Hebrew women would disobey him was unthinkable.
And so he summons Puah and Shiphrah before him, and he asks them why they had disobeyed his orders. And these faithful women act faithfully again. They lie to Pharaoh. They tell him a tale about Hebrew women being more vigorous than Egyptian women, that before the midwives can even make it to the birthing stool, that the Hebrew women have already given birth. It was complete fabrication. Not only was it a lie, it doesn’t actually explain why they didn’t kill the newborn boys once they got there, even if the boys had already been born.
Of course, Pharaoh is a man. He doesn’t know any better.He doesn’t know anything about women’s matters. So, he seems to take their word for it. Shiphrah and Puah are faithful to God by lying to Pharaoh, and because they lie to Pharaoh, the sons of the Hebrews escape death, at least for the time being.
Pharaoh, though, is not done. He has tried to keep the Hebrew people down by working them to death. He has tried to keep them down by killing all their sons on the birthing stool. But neither of those plans has worked. It is time to move to Plan C. Pharaoh makes a general decree that every every Hebrew boy should be thrown into the Nile River, but that the girls should be allowed to live. It is an order given to every Egyptian. If they see a newborn Hebrew boy, they should summarily drown him in the river. The Nile, whose seasonal floods were the source of life for all Egypt, is now to become the source of death for all Israel.
At this point in the story, we are introduced to our third faithful woman. She is not named in the verses we read today, but elsewhere we find that her name is Jochebed, which means “Yahweh is glory.” She is from the Hebrew tribe of Levi, and so is her husband, elsewhere named as Amram. Levites would later be set apart as priests in Israel, and so saying that both the father and the mother are Levites is a way of beefing up Moses’s priestly credetials.
Exodus tells us that they had a son, unnamed at this point. Jochebed keeps him hidden for three months, but by then it is impossible to keep him hidden any longer. She takes a basket made out of papyrus reeds, and she uses pitch to make it watertight, the same way that the ancients sealed their boats. She puts her three-month-old boy in the basket, and she puts the basket in the river with faith that God will take care of him.
Of course, she also provides God with a bit of a helping hand. The boy’s older sister, who elsewhere is named as Miriam, is sent out to look after the boy and to make sure that everything goes according to her mother’s plan. And Miriam, is the fourth faithful woman of our story, though she is more of girl at this point. She watches her infant brother as he sits among the reeds of the River Nile, until our fifth and final faithful woman comes on the scene.
Pharaoh has a daughter, whose name we do not know, and as was her custom, she comes down to that particular spot in the river to bathe. While she is in the water, she sees the basket, floating there among the reeds. And she sends one of her maids out into the water to fetch it for her. When the basket is opened, inside there is a baby crying.
Now, Pharaoh’s daughter knows right away what this baby must be. She knows that he must be a child of the Hebrews. And she knows that her father, the Pharaoh, has ordered that every Hebrew boy be thrown into the river and drowned. She knows all of this, and yet, we are told, she takes pity on him.
Right on cue, the boy’s big sister, Miriam, reveals herself. And she tells Pharaoh’s daughter, “If you’re going to adopt this baby, you’re going to need a wet nurse. Do you want me to find one for you?”
It must have been quite obvious to the princess when this Hebrew girl shows up to offer to find a Hebrew wet nurse for this Hebrew infant. But the she decides to play along. “Yes,” she says, “Find me a wet nurse.” Miriam goes home, and she gets her mother, and she brings her to see Pharaoh’s daughter. The princess gives the baby back to his own birth mother, and she promises to pay her to take care of the young boy for her. The princess names the boy Mosheh, which is actually an Egyptian name, not a Hebrew one. But but Exodus gives a Hebrew gloss for it anyway, from the word mashah, which means “to draw,” because she had drawn him up out of the water, drawn him up, in fact, out of death, and made him her son, Moses.
These five women broke the law. They lied to the authorities. They conspired together to subvert the government. Five very different women. Two slaves, two medical professionals, and a princess. They all collude to defy the orders of their rightful leader, Pharaoh.
Well-behaved women rarely make history, but sometimes faithful women do. It is their faith that leads them to break the law. It is their faith that causes them to protest the unjust action of the government. It is their great faith that brings them to conspire together in an act of civil disobedience. They do so quietly, without fanfare. They acts behind the scenes. But in this case, the consequences of their actions are so momentous that they can not be ignored, not even by the men who write history. Without them, there is no Moses. Without them, there is no exodus. Without them, there is no promised land, no Torah, no prophets. Without them, there is no Jerusalem, no temple, no Israel. Without them, the story of God’s chosen people stops dead in its tracks, before it has even begun. Well-behaved women rarely make history, you see. But these faithful women do.
Pastor David’s Weekly Reflection Matthew 15:24-27
Have you ever felt alienated from God or church? How? What brought you back?
++ This Sunday 27th is Food on the 4th. You can bring food donations to church for the FISH Food Bank.
++ Giving Statements will be available in the narthex for pick up.
++ Sept 3rd and 24th are open for Coffee Hour signers.
++ Women’s Spirituality will meet Sat Sept 9th , 9am in the church office.
Sunday 20 August 2017
The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 20A
I have always found the story from Matthew today to be one of the most disturbing in the Gospels. The version in Mark is about Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman. Here in Matthew it is the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman. I’ve researched the version in Mark quite a lot. I’ve written three different papers on it. And yet, I have never fully figured it out. It still gnaws at me. It makes me uneasy. I don’t think I’ve ever preached on either version before, but today I am, so here we go.
Jesus is far outside his usual area of operation. According to the gospels, Jesus spends most of his time right around the Sea of Galilee, with occasional trips south to Jerusalem. Galilee, where Jesus came from, was primarily Jewish, though it was considered a backwater by the people to the south in Judea and Jerusalem. There were gentile cities on the lake, though. And even in Galilee, there would have been a mixing of different kinds of peoples.
In the story, though, Jesus is far to the northwest near Tyre and Sidon. Both cities are in modern Lebanon, on the coast of the Mediterranean. This was well outside the Jewish homeland. But, as in any port city in the Roman Empire, there was likely a community of Jews there, also.
Matthew gives us no clue as to why Jesus might be there. He is not visiting anyone in particular. He has no business. He has never, so far as we know, been there on any other occasion. And the transitions at the beginning and ending of this episode are written rather clumsily. There’s no indication of how Jesus got to a place so far afield of his usual area of operation, and at the end, it is as if he never left Galilee at all.
While Jesus is in Tyre and Sidon, he encounters a Canaanite woman. That is a strange detail. There really isn’t such a thing as a Canaanite in Jesus’s time. There is no Canaan. There hasn’t been for a millennium. It would be as if I said I visited Scotland and met a Pictish woman, or that I went to France and met a Gaulish man, or that I went to Austria and met a Gothic woman. It is quite anachronistic. Canaan is the name of the land that would become Israel and Judea, but before the Israelites took it. The Canaanites, were the people who lived there before Joshua led the Israelites on a campaign of invasion. They were polytheist, whose main God was Ba’al, In this time period, their descendants would more appropriately be called Phoenicians. In the Hebrew Bible, they are always the enemy, always unclean, always the people who are responsible for leading Israel astray. There is a lot of xenophobic baggage between Israelites and Canaanites. The fact that Matthew uses this anachronistic term indicates that he whats to evoke all of the old prejudices and hatreds.
The woman approaches Jesus. Inexplicably, she knows who he is. Even more inexplicably, she calls him Son of David. Son of David is a Hebrew way of talking about a Judean king or messiah. Why on earth would this “Canaanite” foreigner refer to Jesus as a Jewish messiah, especially since very few of Jesus’s followers even call him that? It makes no sense. Whatever else it may be, though, it is at least a term of respect.
The woman asks Jesus to show her mercy because her daughter is suffering from demon possession. Somehow she knows of his reputation as an exorcist and healer, and she asks him in a very deferential way to consider healing her daughter.
Jesus’s response is shocking. He doesn’t say anything to her at all. He acts as if she doesn’t exist and makes no acknowledgment of her request or even of her presence. He simply ignores her while she continues to plead with him for mercy.
She must have continued begging for quite some time, because the disciples finally get annoyed with her wailing and tell Jesus that he should send her away.
Finally, Jesus responds to her, though indirectly and rather rudely. He says, “I’ve been sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Without actually acknowledging her request, Jesus says that she is not worth talking to because she is not an Israelite. She is not a part of the same tribe that he is.
This is both troubling and puzzling. It is troubling because this is not the way we expect Jesus to treat people. He does not ignore or spurn people who sincerely ask him for help. It is puzzling because Jesus also seems to be lying here. He has already helped people who aren’t Israelites. Specifically, back in Matthew 8 Jesus cast demons out of the Gadarene demoniacs, the two men who lived in a graveyard until Jesus cast their demons out, the demons who went into pigs that ran off a cliff. If Jesus would heal them even though they weren’t Israelites, why would he not help this woman? The demoniacs didn’t even ask to be healed, and here this woman is begging Jesus for help. If Jesus really were sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, he wouldn’t have healed the two men in the tombs. Inexplicably, Jesus dismisses this woman and her requests.
Nevertheless, she persisted. She kneels down in front of him and begs, “Lord, help me.” She submits herself to him, addresses him with respect, and begs for his assistance. But he won’t give it.
Instead, he says something truly horrifying. Jesus says, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.” Jesus says that. The Jesus who said “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” the Jesus who told the story of the Good Samaritan, the Jesus who has pity on the crowds and helps them even when he is trying to get away from them. That Jesus says, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.” (T. A. Burkill, “Historical Development of the Syrophoenician Woman,” Novum Testamentum 9:173 (1967).
There is no way to get around the fact that this is a dehumanizing insult. In a Jewish context, in a Phoenician context, in a Greek context, in a Roman context, it is insulting to compare a person to a dog. They were considered scavengers and unclean. The word Jesus uses here is the diminutive form: it means little dogs. But, of course, that doesn’t help matters. In English, we use the same sort of word to insult women. You know the word; it starts with a ‘B.’ And in English or in Greek, “to call a woman a little [dog] is no less abusive than to call her a [dog] without qualification.”
And here is the crux of the problem. Who is this Jesus who uses abusive language with someone who speaks respectfully with him? Who is this Jesus who seems entrenched in racial hatred? Who is this Jesus who refuses to help someone who humbly asks? I do not recognize him. He bares almost no resemblance to the Jesus I know. It is one thing for me or you to hold prejudice. It is quite another thing for Jesus the Christ.
We everyday humans always hold prejudice, whether we try to or not. The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville last weekend was a reminder that even in a society that espouses freedom and justice for all, there are still those who actively hate people who are not like them. There are those among us who’s conception of America is of a white, Christian nation and who see no place for people who are not white, except possibly as servants. They stoke fear of the other. The Jew who is trying to swindle me. The immigrant who wants to take my job. The illegal who takes from the system and gives nothing back. The black man who wants to hurt me. The Muslim who wants to kill me.
These are, of course, all lies and distortions. But facts make little difference in such arguments. It is enough simply to suggest that the other is out to harm me, to take what is rightfully mine. And then any misfortune I suffer can be blamed on someone else. And once I am distracted by fear of the other, I can be convinced to give over my power to the people who stoke that fear. I can be convinced to act against my own morals, to act even against my own interest, if it means that some harm will come to the person I have been conditioned to fear.
There are some who preach such hatred openly, who will stand up in defense of hate. But we do not have to choose to fear in order for fear to live inside us. Some of it comes with the innocence of fearing something we have little experience with; we seem programmed to fear things that we do not know or understand. Some of it comes to us unacknowledged in our culture. I have had the experience several times recently of going to share with my kids a television show or movie that I enjoyed as a child, only to find as I watched again that it was filled with negative stereotypes and shaming of women and minorities that I had no awareness of at the time. And yet they are operative on me, below the level of consciousness, in the unexamined, shadowy corners of my mind. We do not have to choose to fear in order for fear to live inside us.
And we do not have to acknowledge our privilege in order to benefit from it. Part of the reason it is so easy for someone to stoke racial resentment in a person of privilege like me is that I have no direct experience of what it is like to live in this world without my privilege. I haven’t had the experience of being followed by security in a department store. I haven’t had the experience of being cat-called while walking down the street. I haven’t had the experience of having a stranger touch my hair without permission. I haven’t had the experience of being abused because my immigration status means that I cannot report a crime that is committed against me. And I have rarely seen any evidence of such behavior against others, because such things are done only when there are not bystanders like me to witness them. A woman walking with me will not receive cat calls precisely because I am there. And because I cannot witness the things that happen when I am not present, I have no reason to know and believe that such crass and demeaning things are possible.
I may not even be aware when the things I do and say myself are hurtful or harmful to others. I think that I am only joking. I assume that if no one calls me out on my bad behavior that I have not done anything wrong. And then when someone does finally call me out, I become defensive because this is something I do or say all the time and no one has called me out before. I do not need to be aware that my actions are hurtful in order for them to actually cause harm to others. I do not have to be intentionally prejudiced in order for prejudice to act in me.
Jesus says, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.” These words dehumanize a desperate mother and the child for whom she asks for help. Nevertheless, she persisted.
She says, “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their masters’ table.” She does not stand up and point out Jesus’s cruelty. She does not insult him in return. She does not argue her equal worth as a person. She does not spit at his feet and turn away.
Instead, she does what she hopes will heal her daughter. She bends Jesus’s words in such a way that he can grant her request without losing face. She says, “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” She chooses to quietly accept the crumbs. But we should not be content with offering only crumbs.
This very strange story of Jesus, a Jesus we can hardly recognize, tells us something important about ourselves. Because there are times when my words and actions, if I could see them from another perspective, would shock me. There are times when, if I could see myself through another’s eyes, hear myself through another’s ears, I would not recognize myself.
Matthew is not clear about what happens to Jesus once his mind is changed? Does he recognize that he was being cruel, that his ideas of who is in and who is out were insufficient, that he was not drawing the circle wide enough to include all of God’s people. We don’t know, exactly.
What we do know is that this story opens the door. This is what convinces those early Jesus-followers that Jesus’s message is not just for the lost sheep of the tribe of Israel. This is what convinces them to tear down the walls of exclusion. This is what convinces them to open the doors of the church to people of all ages, nations, and races. Through this, and through the continued movement of the Holy Spirit, Christ does indeed break down the walls that we put up to divide ourselves from one another
I still don’t understand this story. It still leaves me uneasy. But it also leaves me hopeful. It makes me hopeful that if there could be transformation in Jesus, there can certainly be transformation in me; that if I am able to listen to others and accept that I may have blind spots in my moral thinking, that God is able to change me for the better; that while the arc of the moral universe is long, it does indeed bend toward justice. And I pray that when I find myself living contrary to the values I espouse, that God would grant me the grace to listen, to confess, and to be changed by the transforming power of Christ, which leads to ever greater love for God and for all God’s people, the people Christ came to save.