“In the wilderness prepare the way” OR “What shall I cry?” | Advent 2 | December 10

Texts: Isaiah 40:1-6; Mark 1:1-8; Luke 1:46-55

Reading: Isaiah 40:1-4

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.  3A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  4Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”  

Reflection:

Wilderness, desert, valley, mountain, uneven ground, a plain.  These are the features that inhabit the words of Isaiah to the Jewish exiles in Babylon.  And running through it all, a road, a highway straight and level.

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

For this way to become a way, valleys needed to be lifted up, mountains and hills brought low.  Obstacles would be removed, uneven spots leveled out.

The last time I was on a road in the wilderness was two weeks ago, although it was more a path than a road, and not so much a wilderness as a few acres of woods.  And there were plenty of uneven spots.  But stick with me.

It was the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend, late afternoon, the final daylight hours of our family holiday on the farm in Bellefontaine.  It had been a sunny day, but we’d spent a solid four hours cooped up in the basement by the TV, watching young men collide into each other in an attempt to advance an oblong shaped ball down a field toward a designated zone.  With the game over, victory achieved, a renewed sense that all is well and right with the world, it was time for a walk.

We’d been wanting to do this all weekend.  Children and adults headed out toward the woods, an island of trees surrounded by farmland.

It’s difficult to make one’s way through these woods, even this time of year without the leaves or sprawling undergrowth.  But Dad had hired a friend who owned a large piece of equipment designed just for the task to come and clear out a path.  It had cut and ground its way through the dense thickets, avoiding the larger trees, making a path wide enough for a group of people to walk through comfortably.  It made a way in our little wilderness.

The trees are a mix of species, hickory and oak, black cherry, but the most common is honey locust.  A few years ago we had a forester walk through with us and he estimated the woods were about 50% honey locust.  That’s unusually high.

Honey locust is not a particularly pleasant tree.  Growing up, we just called them thorn trees.  This is because… they’re covered in thorns.  The trunks are covered with thorns, the branches are covered with thorns.  Even the thorns are covered with thorns.  There is a thornless variety that grows well in cities, but these aint no city trees.  One of my nephews, who goes barefoot just about everywhere, turned back part way into the hike after realizing the odds were not in his favor of returning without a bloody foot.

The woods are also overrun with honey-suckle, not to be confused with honey locust.  In this part of the world bush honeysuckle is known as an invasive.  It out-competes native species with its aggressive growth and prolific seed production.  It spreads fast.  It shades out the forest floor and prevents other seedlings from getting the sunlight they need to grow.  Without some kind of intervention the honey-suckle could keep choking out new generations of trees.  If it keeps doing that until all the other larger trees that got there first die out, it would be all that’s left.

These woods are not particularly healthy.

But they feature some beautiful old trees, including a burr oak that dad estimates is perhaps 200 years old.  It was there long before the honey locust and the honey suckle.  Standing under the extended branches of the burr oak is itself worth the trip back to the woods.  The path strategically goes right by it.

It’s not a perfectly smooth path, and it’s not a healthy woods.  Even in this peaceful corner of the world there are signs that all is not right and well.  But the path opens up a way to move through it all.  To witness and even enjoy it.

We arrive safely back to the house just as the sun is about the set in the west.

Flute: My soul cries out 1x (no refrain)

Vocals: My soul cries out, verse 1 (no refrain)

My soul cries out with a joyful shout
that the God of my heart is great,
And my spirit sings of the wondrous things
that you bring to the one who waits.
You fixed your sight on the servant’s plight,
and my weakness you did not spurn,
So from east to west shall my name be blest.
Could the world be about to turn?

Reading: Isaiah 40:1-5

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.  3A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  4Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”  6A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?”  

Reflection

There’s so much that needs said, so much urging us to cry out, or just cry.

A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?”

Where to even start?

Isaiah starts with a road in the wilderness.  “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

For Isaiah, the way in the wilderness was a message of comfort.  It was good news, spoken to a people living with generational trauma from having been violently uprooted from their homeland.

When the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and destroyed its temple they claimed not only the land, but also what they considered to be the best of the population, for themselves.  Palestine was on the western tip of the fertile crescent, Babylon on the east.  The captors would have marched their captives up and around that fertile crescent, staying close to water sources and other life support systems as they went.   Below the fertile crescent, directly between Palestine and Babylon, was an infertile desert.

So when Isaiah cries out to prepare a highway in the desert for God, he’s speaking about the most direct path from exile to home.  It’s the shortest distance between two points, and when that line goes through a desert, you better make it a grand highway.  Lift up the valleys, make the mountains low.  Level out that uneven ground.  We’re about to cruise the sandy hypotenuse of the fertile crescent, with the Lord leading the caravan.

All this talk of raising up valleys and bringing the mountains low is also pregnant with signs of a great reckoning.  It was the powerful conquerors who stood tall like mountains, the conquered who were in the valley looking up.  The work of the Lord involves a great leveling.

Mary echoes these words in her magnificat, spoken during her pregnancy with Jesus.  The song “My soul cries out” sets these words to an Irish folk tune.

A voice says, “Cry out.”  And I said, “What shall I cry?”

And Mary says: “My soul cries out with a joyful shout…”

Vocals: My soul cries out, v. 3, with refrain

From the halls of power to the fortress tower,
not a stone will be left on stone.
Let the king beware for your justice tears
every tyrant from his throne.
The hungry poor shall weep no more,
for the food they can never earn;
There are tables spread, ev’ry mouth be fed,
for the world is about to turn. 

My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears,
For the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn.

We are witnessing, in these last weeks, a moral reckoning – the fall of powerful men, kings of cinema and politics and news media, being brought down from their thrones before our eyes.  Survivors of sexual assault are newly emboldened to cry out from the valley and speak the truth they have known for years.  It’s a densely populated valley.  And they’re being heard, and believed.

The prophet speaks of comfort and tender speech to a traumatized people.  It’s the kind of comfort that is good news, accompanied with a difficult reality.  “Comfort, o comfort my people.”  A way is opened up through wilderness.  But there’s a long journey ahead.  A collective journey through a desert where there is no guarantee of life support systems at every turn.  It’s a road that demands the valleys be raised up, the mountains be brought low.  It’s the direct route back home.

Flute: My soul cries out 1x + refrain

Reading: Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news[a] of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.[b]

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,[c]

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,[d]
    who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared[e] in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with[f]water; but he will baptize you with[g] the Holy Spirit.”

 

Reflection

When John the baptizer cries out, the word on his lips is “Repent.”

In New Testament Greek the word is metanoia.  It literally means to change one’s mind.  In our age of neurological discovery, we can imagine metanoia as an act of literally rewiring the brain, forming new pathways that result in different destinations for how we live.  Repentance is nothing less than a collective change of consciousness.  In the wilderness that is our mind, the Lord prepares a way.  Baptism in the life giving waters of creation declares our intent to live a life of repentance.  To live in right relationship with creation, one another, and ourselves.  To have the high ego-inflated parts within us to be brought low, to raise up the parts of us that have been silenced or beaten down.  To receive the baptism of Holy Spirit that Jesus offers.

In Hebrew the word for repent Shuv.  It means to turn, or return.  Like you’re walking one direction, and then you turn, you repent, and walk another direction.  Or you return to the home you’ve either forsaken or that was taken from you.  The world is about to turn.

If John the Baptist was a tree he might be a honey locust.  Not because of the bizarre coincidence between this tree’s name and the fact that John survived on honey and locusts in the wilderness.  And not just for the fact that John came across as thorny, referring to people who came to him as poisonous snakes, almost provoking them to stay away lest they get punctured by his sharp language.

As unfriendly as the honey locust appears, it’s a tree that’s in the business of preparing the way.  It’s known as one of the succession trees, and from the forest’s perspective, it is one of those trees whose mission it is to reclaim lost, disturbed, injured land.

It can grow in compacted soil, alkaline and salty soil.  It’s heat and drought tolerant.

Honey locust is a preparer and a repairer.  Its deep fibrous tap root takes up and removes contaminates out of the soil.  It releases a heavy load of leaf matter each year, replenishing nutrients in the soil and building up biomass.  A recent Yale study showed that the leaf litter of honey locust also replenishes nitrogen in the soil, something few other trees do.  It replenishes what has been depleted.  It does difficult work, and trees in the generations that follow all benefit.  The thorns of the honey locust might be a way of the tree crying out: “Hey, I know it’s not pretty, but we’re doing some healing work here.  Step back and give us some space while we turn this place around.”

“In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord.”  Repent.  Change your mind.  Turn.

Flute: My soul cries out, 1x

Vocals: My soul cries out, verse 2 (no refrain)

Though I am small, my God, my all,
you work great things in me.
And your mercy will last from the depths of the past
to the end of the age to be.
Your very name puts the proud to shame,
and those who would for you yearn,
You will show your might, put the strong to flight,
for the world is about to turn.

Reading: Luke 1:46-55

46 And Mary[a] said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

 

Reflection

If 21st century humanity were a tree, or a shrub, we might be honey suckle.  We’re excelled at colonization and conquering territory for ourselves, shading out other life forms, causing them to go into exile, or disappear all-together.  We cast a heavy shadow.  It’s yet to be determined how we might find a balance among the community of life.  Can honey suckle repent?

If Isaiah and Mary were a tree, they might be an old burr oak.  These mother trees not only bear witness to the generations that come and go around them, but they feed the growth of new trees through their roots systems, connected in what’s been called the “wood wide web” through roots and channels of fungi.  They are so established, so certain of themselves, they have such an abundance of life to give that they pour it out beyond themselves.

Mary not only gives birth to Jesus but she accompanies him along the road of life, is by his side during the excruciating hours of crucifixion, and becomes a leader in the community of resurrection.  We share in this community and cry out with her.  This is our Advent prayer and baptismal vow.  It’s the most direct route we know toward home.

Flute + Vocals: My soul cries out, verse 4 + refrain

Though the nations rage from age to age,
we remember who holds us fast:
God’s mercy must deliver us
from the conqueror’s crushing grasp.
This saving word that our forebears heard
is the promise that holds us bound,
‘Til the spear and rod be crushed by God,
who is turning the world around.

My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears,
For the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn.

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Awake in the dark: Welcoming the season of Advent  | Advent I | December 3

It’s impossible to know with certainty why the birth of Jesus came to be linked to the date we now celebrate it, December 25.  Early Christians didn’t find it particularly important to celebrate at all.  They focused instead on Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.  The Gospels link those to the Jewish festival of Passover, in the spring.  By the year 200, various writings suggested the date of Jesus’ birth to be January 2, March 25, April 18 or 19, May 20, November 17 or 20.  (Elesha Coffman, “Why December 25?”. Christianitytoday.com. August 8, 2008).

Add in December and you’ve got half the months of the year.

The date of December 25 became more solid in the West in the fourth century, as the church increasingly took on the role of being the glue that held together the Roman world.  December 25 had been the Roman date for the winter solstice, the longest night, shortest day, of the year, when the dwindling sunlight began to reclaim hours of the day.

In the fourth century the North African bishop Augustine said this in his Christmas sermon: “Hence it is that He was born on the day which is the shortest in our earthly reckoning and from which subsequent days begin to increase in length. He, therefore, who bent low and lifted us up chose the shortest day, yet the one whence light begins to increase.” (Augustine, Sermon 192).

Of course, had Augustine been a South African bishop, he would have needed to find a meaningful connection between Christ’s birth and the summer’s longest day, when the most light shines on the earth.

Regardless, for us in the Northern Hemisphere, the birth of Christ, and the season of Advent leading up to it, now correspond with the darkest days of the year.

We regularly associate darkness with the bad, and light with the good.  It fills our language, and thus our imagination.  Darkness is something from which to escape, a symbol of evil, or at minimum, something undesirable and incomplete.

This gets deeply problematic when attached to the racial history of our country, whiteness constructed as a form of dominance over blackness and brownness.

This Advent, and this sermon in particular, is an invitation into the darkness of the season.  The darkness of rest.  The darkness that provides a canopy for solitude and the richness of the inner lfe.  The darkness in which our brains consolidate the events of the day and make new pathways, the foundation of creativity. The darkness of the womb, Mary’s womb, which births Christ.  The womb of the Divine Mother, who births new worlds into being.  The darkness which wraps the light in its embrace.

Hear now several brief reflections, paired with music, scripture, and verses from the song “Joyful is the dark,” HWB 233.  Settle in.  Allow yourself to enter the darkness that is God’s gift to us.

Violin: Joyful is the dark

Vocals: Joyful is the dark, verse 1

Joyful is the dark, holy hidden God, rolling cloud of night beyond all naming, majesty in darkness, energy of love, Word in flesh, the mystery proclaiming.

Reading: John 1:1-5, 14

Reflection: “Dark Advent” poem

“Dark Advent,” by Isaac Villegas, pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship in North Carolina.

First, there’s one word in this poem that needs a brief explanation.  It’s the word tehom.  It’s a Hebrew word that appears in Genesis chapter one.  It refers to the deep, the watery abyss out of which creation emerges.

Genesis 1:1-2 says, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of tehom, the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

“Dark Advent”

In the beginning was the end
and in the end, silence
and the silence is God.
She was and is God,
all of life born through her.

She flashes rays of darkness
and the whiteness does not overcome her
because in her is life
and her life is flesh
like midnight.

In the dark
her eyes flicker tehom
and her chest trembles mine
with the quiet of the most high.

We have seen her glory:
a raven’s black sheen,
beauty’s shadow.

Violin: Joyful is the dark

Vocals: Joyful is the dark, verse 2

Joyful is the dark, spirit of the deep, winging wildly o’er creation, silken sheen of midnight, plumage black and bright, swooping with the beauty of a raven.

Reading: Mark 13:24-27

Reflection

Whenever, in the Gospels, Jesus quotes a passage from the Hebrew scriptures, my NRSV Study Bible gives the reference in the notes section.  It’s a nice feature, a frequent reminder that Jesus’ speech is peppered with borrowed phrases.  In Mark 13:24-25, when Jesus speaks those ominous words about sun, moon, and stars going dark, the powers in the heavens shaken up, the note section looks like a family reunion of Hebrew prophets: Isaiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Amos, Daniel, Zechariah, even the non-biblical book of 2 Esdras gets an honorable mention.  And here’s why: When Jesus says these words, it’s not so much that he’s quoting any particular one of them.  It’s that he’s piecing them together, evoking the entire apocalyptic stream of the prophetic tradition.  Because if there’s one thing the prophets can agree on besides the importance of doing justice, it’s that the whole system that holds us in its grasp is teetering on the edge of collapse.

So begins the liturgical year in the church.  So begins Advent.

“In the beginning was the end,” a collapse of everything.

Or, not everything.  Just the things that appear to be most stable.  The fixtures that order our days.  The rhythms we set our clocks to.  Like the moon, and the stars, the sun.  The prophets forecast poetic darkness.  Only after this collapse, after the darkness receives all the broken pieces of the day, only after this, will the Human One come and create anew.

For Mark’s original audience, the collapse of their world was the Jewish temple being destroyed by the Romans.  It was part of the Roman strategy, shock and awe to put down the Jewish rebels trying to reclaim their homeland through guerilla style warfare.

The rebellion didn’t work.  When the temple was destroyed, with it went the symbolic universe the structure had upheld.  It was both a crisis of politics, and a crisis of meaning.  The fixture that orders life is no more, the powers in the heavens are shaken, the sun goes dark.  The cell phone battery goes dead and Siri’s voice fades.  You have no map for this road.  You’re driving blind.

Vocals: Joyful is the dark, verse 5

Joyful is the dark depth of love divine, roaring, looming thunder-cloud of glory, holy, haunting beauty, living, loving God.  Hallelujah! Sing and tell the story!

Reading: Mark 13:28-37

Reflection

Here’s the hardest thing: When the sun is darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars are falling from the heavens, and the great powers in the heavens and the earth are shaken – The hardest thing is to keep awake.

Not the kind of awake where you’re lying in bed, unable to sleep., restless because of everything.  That kind of awake is easy, too easy.  That kind of awake is exhausting.

The hardest thing is the kind of awake where you’re alert, paying attention, mindful.  Awake like the Buddha.  Awake like Christ.  Awake, as in woke.

As it goes, apocalyptic moments, apocalyptic times, are not all that rare.  We live through multiple apocalypses.  The world we thought we knew collapses.  The light we thought was guiding our way goes away, and we’re left in the dark.

After that mashup of the prophets, a dozen dark flavors of apocalypse, Jesus turns his disciples’ attention away from collapse and toward a tree.  A fig tree.  When all else fails, find a tree.  Pay attention to the fig tree, Jesus says.  When it’s winter you can’t see the life within it.  You can’t observe the roots weaving through the dark soil, but watch.  Watch for its branches to become tender.  When they do, they’ll put out leaves, as if from nowhere, and you know summer is near.

The key, the hardest thing, is to keep awake in the dark.

Jesus goes on to name the watches of the night through which the disciples must keep awake.  “Therefore, keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep.”

These are the same watches of the night narrated in the following chapter, Mark 14, when Jesus gathers with his disciples for their last supper in the evening, and they go to Gethsemane at midnight, and Peter denies Jesus at the cockcrow, and the chief priests consult on Jesus’ fate at dawn.

In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus again asks the disciples to keep awake.  It’s the hardest thing to do when your world is collapsing.

Sometimes it becomes too much, and we need companions to keep awake for us.

Vocals and Violin: Joyful is the dark, verse 4, verse 3

Joyful is the dark coolness of the tomb, waiting for the wonder of the morning.  Never was that midnight touched by dread and gloom; darkness was the cradle of the dawning.

Joyful is the dark, shadowed stable floor; angles flicker, God of earth confessing, as with exultation Mary, giving birth, hails the infant cry of need and blessing.

Reading: Luke 1:46-48

Reflection

In the beginning darkness hovered over the surface of tehom.  This is the foundation of creativity and new life.  The first Sunday of Advent speaks of the end of worlds, the tragedy of collapse, the possibility that the darkness that follows provides the shelter in which the new creation is born.  Like a womb.

And so it’s Mary who serves as our chief guide through this season.  Mary, the unsuspecting Palestinian Jewish teenage peasant girl.  Mary, who said Yes to the divine messenger without fully knowing what she was committing to.  Mary whose body becomes a temple, a sanctuary for God.  Mary, within whom Christ is formed.

The outlines of this story will take on color in front of our eyes this season.  You can take it home and add your own colors.  There is a life growing within Mary.  “In her is life /and her life is flesh / like midnight.”

There is a life growing within us.  Like the fig tree.  The darkness embraces us, like deep down soil around roots.  Like silence.  No one knows the day or the hour of this great birth.  Stay awake in the dark.

Let’s hold silence for one minute, after which we’ll sing together all five verses of “Joyful is the dark.”

Congregational Song: Joyful is the dark, verses 1-5

The sheep and the goats, continued… | November 26

Text: Matthew 25:31-46

 This is the last Sunday of the lectionary cycle, meaning we’re at the end of the church calendar.  Next week is Advent 1, the beginning of the new church year.

This is called “Christ the King Sunday,”or “Reign of Christ Sunday.” In closing out the year, the lectionary goes all in with it really being the end.  It gives us a judgment scene, the story that Jesus tells in Matthew 25, commonly known as the sheep and the goats.  Or, commonly known for the phrase “the least of these,” which becomes the surprise criteria by which people are judged.  “Whatever you’ve done to the least of these, you’ve done to me,” says the king/judge/son of man/human one/Jesus.

It’s an important line for social justice minded Christians who believe faith has to do with how we live in this world, especially toward vulnerable people.  Yet the scene of a gentle and sacrificial savior turned eternal judge also has its own problems.  They are problems that the story itself begins to raise, as the sheep and the goats both talk back to the king, questioning why such an arrangement has been made.

I invite you to listen closely to the reading of the text, and then enter with me into a purely speculative continuation of the story.

 

 

—————————

Matthew 25:31-46

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[a] you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

——————————-

When the king finished saying these words, there was silence.  It may have lasted minutes or hours.  Everyone was too stunned to speak, or move.  All eyes were pointed down.  They were aware that something tremendous had just happened.  Something that would define everything going forward, but it had not yet sunk in.   They were shocked and confused.

Not long before, they had been one mass of humanity, a family.  A highly dysfunctional family to be sure, but a singular vast tapestry of cultures and nations, old and young, all succeeding and failing in some way or another to be the kind of person they thought they wanted to become.  They had been mostly oblivious to how their small lives affected those around them, for good or ill.  They were faint lights flickering in the dark cosmos, occasionally possessed by heroic or demonic impulses.  Mostly trying to survive and stay sane and enjoy the good things in life they had been given.  More alike than different.

Now a clear and undeniable line had been drawn between them.  They’d been separated, as a shepherd separates sheep from goats, some to the left, others to the right.  No one in the middle.  Not a one with one foot on one side, and one foot on the other, of that line.  No both/and, no in-between, no room for gray or ambiguity.

After…a while…a few of them, and then all of them, starting looking up, looking around to survey the scene.  They made eye contact with those near them, stood on their tip toes to see those far away, all the while increasingly aware of the overwhelming Presence of the One, the Human One, the King.

They all stood there, soaking it in.  Trying to come to terms in their own minds with what this meant.  After a while, neighbors began talking in hushed tones, all discussing a version of the same question: What is going on?

Finally, one of the goats spoke up, clear and loud enough for all to hear, directed at the king.

“Is this a metaphor or is this for real?”

The king, unstartled, replied: “This is as real as it gets.”

Another voice from the goat side, emboldened by the first: “But I’m a person, not a goat.”

“That part’s a metaphor,” said the king.

“What about the eternal fire part,” asked a third goat from the very back, “Is that a metaphor?”

Everyone, goats and sheep, waited anxiously for a response that never came.

The goats, who were actually people, began murmuring among themselves, tension in the air.

The sheep, who were actually people, began murmuring as well, and now it was their turn to speak up.  One of them asked: “So, just to clarify, the only determining factor as to whether we have been assigned to the sheep or the goats is whether we gave you food when you were hungry, welcomed you when you were a stranger, gave you a drink when you were thirsty, clothed you when you were naked, took care of you when you were sick, and/or visited you while you were in prison?”

“Yes, that’s correct,” replied the King.

“Even when we didn’t know it was you?”

“Yes.  Whatever you’ve done, even to least of all these,” replied the king, sweeping his hand across the countless mass of humanity gathered in front of him, “you’ve done to me.”

“And to further clarify,” said the same sheep, “you have separated the goats from us not because of bad things they’ve done, but because of these things just named they haven’t done.”

“Yes,” was the reply.

And so it began to sink in.  They had each unwittingly chosen their own fate.  Every day of their lives they had made small decisions that had added up to major consequences, for others, and now for themselves.  They had made their own judgments, and now the Human One was making their judgments visible for all to see.

But there was more than just that.  It was impossible to ignore or forget those final words the Human One had uttered.  “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

The King seemed to motioning now, to the angels, as if to bring this ceremony into its second Act.  Act One: separate sheep and goats.  Acts Two: reward and punishment?  Now to shepherd the sheep into the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world.  To herd the goats away, to a place where they would forever feel the pain of those they had oppressed, or simply ignored.

But then, another twist.

“No,” shouted one of the sheep.  Everyone, including the king turned their heads in the direction of the voice.  She was small, perhaps just a child.  A likely candidate for one of those the king had dubbed, “the least of these.”

“No,” she shouted again, and started slowly making her way through the crowd of sheep.  As she walked, people parted in front of her.  After a short distance some of them began to realize where she was headed.  Not toward the king, as if to confront him on the throne, but toward the line of separation, toward the goats.  As she got closer, her destination near, her resolve evident, several people along her path began to caution her.

“Where do you think you’re going?” challenged one person, who already knew the answer.

“Don’t throw your life away,” chided another.   “They have made their decision, and the king has made his.  You’re safe here.  We’re safe.”

But she kept going, through the crowd of the righteous, until she reached the edge.  There was no real line, no wall of separation.  Just a gap.  She walked into the gap, out of her group, into the onlooking and disbelieving crowd of goats.

“You’re a fool,” shouted one sheep across the gap.  “You heard what the king said.  They’re on their way to hell.”

To this, she had a ready reply: “We were given favor by the king because of how we treated the least of these.  And who is more the least of these than the recently damned?”

Moved by her response and courage, several more sheep began moving toward the goats, defying the gap of separation.  Then more, and more.

Observing what was happening, it donned on some of the goats that there was nothing stopping them from also crossing that gap, joining the sheep who had stayed in place.

Soon the orderly scene devolved into chaos.  There were sheep on the goat side willing to risk their eternal destiny to be in solidarity with their fellow humans.  There were goats on the sheep side  trying to blend in and gain a reward that was not theirs.  There were goats on the sheep side who thought they could ruin the purity of the righteous and drag them down with everybody else.  There were sheep on the goat side who thought that if everyone was changing sides then they could still be with the sheep if they stuck with their flock.  There were goats on the goat side and sheep on the sheep side too baffled to budge.  There were goats on the goat side who felt they deserved the punishment and therefore would accept their fate.  There were sheep on the sheep side convinced that if they stayed put the king would sort this all out and set things right again.

But the king was nowhere in sight.  During the confusion he had stepped down from the thrown.  His radiant presence was noticeably absent.

It was just the people who remained.   The distinction between sheep and goats had all but gone away with the mixing, the crossings back and forth.  They were just people, undivided and unmarked as righteous or unrighteous.  They were, once again, one mass of humanity, a family.  A highly dysfunctional family to be sure, but a singular mish-mash of cultures and nations, old and young.

Not only had the king left, but the throne was gone as well.  In its place was a great banquet table, filled with good things to eat and drink.  It was set for a feast, and everyone moved toward it.  There were seats and places set for everyone.

As they ate they began to talk about what had just happened.  Some mourned the absence of the king, while others reveled in their recovered freedom.

Some concluded that this had been humanity’s final test.  To defy and dispense with the god of wrath who assigns people to eternal fates.  Human kindness and solidarity had triumphed over the god of judgment.  The human race had freed itself from the shackles of oppressive religion.

The girl who had been the first to risk her own life on behalf of those formerly known as goats, who had been the recipient of scorn and anger, was hailed by all as a hero.

The feast was so good and rich, many wondered whether this might be paradise.

The feast continued day after day, and soon the judgment scene of the sheep and the goats seemed more like a dream than a real event.  A shared hallucination.

 

And then, late one evening, as the day’s festivities were drawing to a close, an old man looked out from the banquet table and saw someone barely clothed, shivering at the outskirts of the gathering.  With wonder and compassion, the elder left the banquet table and approached the ragged one, putting his coat around her.

In the following hours, weeks, years, there were similar kinds of sitings around that massive banquet table.  Some caught site of a stranger, in need of a companion.  Some noticed a person who was hungry, in need of food.  Others glanced out and saw a person who was sick, in need of care.

Some believed in their hearts this was the Christ, the king who had returned to be with the people, the Human One.  Others simply saw someone in need and responded with kindness.  Many went out to her, extending a hand of welcome, or a plate of food, and or a caring touch.  Others saw whatever helpless creature she appeared to be, but turned their heads away, continuing with their own feast.  Others were so busy feasting, they never noticed there was anyone there but themselves.

 

“Wisdom has built her house” | November 12

Texts: Proverbs 9:1-6; Matthew 11:28-30

There is a house with a table, set for company.  On this table is a feast: Wine and bread and meat.  Everything that makes for a good meal.

The doors of this house open wide, always unlocked, ready to receive whoever walks in.

It’s not a secret.  It’s not a hidden place, tucked in some out-of-the way grove.  There are no fences or gates, no passcodes.

The owner of this house is Wisdom.  She built it.  She set up the posts, leveled the beams, designed the way this room flows into that one.

Wisdom has built her house and gives an open invitation.  She walks through the city, calling out.  She cruises the countryside, searching for takers.  She opens her contacts and selects “Send All.”  Wisdom has issued an invitation:  Come to me, feast, rest, learn.

Even better, the house that Wisdom built will come to you.  Look for it, and there it is.  Occasionally it shows up when we’re not even looking.

A few weeks back I had one of those all too rare moments where I may have briefly stepped inside this house and glanced around.

Back in the spring when I was writing the Sabbatical grant I included funds for a new bike.  Thankfully, the Lilly Foundation deemed this worthy of Sabbatical activity.  They issued the full grant check, with the encouragement to begin making purchases and reservations and whatever else in preparation for next summer’s Sabbatical.  So on a Monday afternoon in the middle of October, Abbie and I headed down to Baer Wheels, on High Street, to purchase a bike I had been eyeing.

This moment began with a stray thought, about half way down the sidewalk, looking at the trees on the street.  It was a beautiful fall day and even though the trees still had almost all their leaves, I found myself already missing them.

Then another thought: It’s a Monday, my Sabbath.

It’s a Sabbath, and it’s a beautiful day outside and these trees are stunning.

It’s a Sabbath, it’s a lovely day among these trees and I’m healthy and going for a walk down a beautiful street, and I’m sharing this with someone I love.

It’s a Sabbath, and it’s a beautiful day outside, and the trees, and I’m healthy and going for a walk down this beautiful street with my wife whom I love.  And all our children are at school, good schools, learning important things.  And we’re walking to a bike store.  Not driving to a bike store, walking to a bike store right around the corner from where we live.  And I’m going to buy a bike, with other people’s money.

How in the world could I almost miss this moment?

If I can’t be grateful and feast on the goodness of this moment, then I have officially lost at the game of life.  I turned to Abbie and said just as much.  She agreed.

So maybe it took all of those factors to finally hear the invitation, but I heard it.  Hopefully you’ve heard it at least once.  We glimpse that house that’s been waiting for us.  We step inside for a bit.  The single dimension of the line of time, in which we so frequently move from point A to point B and on to points C and D…the line of time takes on width and height and becomes a place to dwell.  The second and minute hands keep moving, but there’s still something there, something that feels almost like a place, to walk around, even explore, or sit and rest for a while.  Even, have a meal.

Seventy years ago Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel coined the phrase a “sanctuary in time.”  He was referring to the Jewish Sabbath.  While other ancient cultures focused on holy objects, holy spaces, holy buildings, it was the peculiarity of the Jewish tradition, Heschel wrote, to focus on the holiness of time.  The sanctification of time.

Writing in early 1945, with the bullets and bombs of World War II still flying, the death camps still exterminating his people, Heschel wrote, “Technical civilization is man’s conquest of space.  It is a triumph frequently achieved by sacrificing an essential ingredient of existence, namely, time.  In technical civilization, we expend time to gain space.  To enhance our power in the world of space is our main objective.  Yet to have more does mean to be more.  The power we attain in the world of space terminates abruptly at the borderline of time.  But time is the heart of existence.” (Sabbath, p. 3)

Heschel pointed back to Genesis 1, in which the heavens and earth are created.  The first thing Elohim the Creator declares to be holy is not an object of creation, not even us amazing humans, but the Sabbath.  Time.  “So Elohim blessed the seventh day and hallowed it.”  Elohim creates a sanctuary in time, a cathedral.

Or, to tie it back in to Wisdom, a house.

“Wisdom has built her house..and set her table,” Proverbs 9 says.

Wisdom is one of the unsung heroes of the Hebrew Scriptures, or at least under-reported.  In Proverbs 8, Wisdom is speaking in the first person.  She says, “Yahweh created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.  Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth” (Proverbs 8:22-23).  As this passage would have it, even before Genesis 1, Wisdom was.  Wisdom playfully accompanies and assists in the process of creation.

When that singular, unimaginably dense point of pure possibility goes bang, it is through Wisdom that the cosmos takes on length and width and height and becomes a place to dwell.  The house that Wisdom built is made possible in space, and appears to us in time.  Wisdom is a way to live, not just as biological creatures that are born and die along the vast timeline of history, but to live well, as  spiritual beings.  To consciously live in communion with the same Spirit that created and creates us.

Like that rare moment when you realize that everything around you is a gift.  The moment holds you there and extends the feast.

The book of Sirach didn’t make it into the Hebrew Bible, but it was known and influential by the time of Jesus.  In Sirach, Wisdom again speaks for herself and says, “Come to me, all you who desire me and eat your fill of my fruits” (24:19).  Later it says about Wisdom, “Put your neck under her yoke, and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by” (52:26).  It’s Wisdom back in invitation mode, calling out, inviting, maybe even pleading.

So when Jesus evokes those words in the passage that we read from Matthew, he’s evoking the entire Wisdom tradition, inviting people in the same way that Wisdom invites all people, to enter into the sanctuary in time that he offers.

Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is good (a better translation than “easy”), and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

This invitation goes out to all that are weary and carrying heavy burdens.

Somewhere along the path of life we all qualify.

We pick up burdens that aren’t ours to carry.  They accumulate like software on a hard drive, things we thought we needed, cluttering our lives and slowing down processing speed.

Or we have other people’s burdens loaded onto us.  A loved one’s addiction catches us between wanting to love and support them while also trying to avoid enabling behavior.  A perpetrator’s sexual violence becomes a survivor’s trauma, weighted with shame and confusion.

Or sometimes there are loads so generationally ingrained and socially pervasive they hide in the very patterns we assume to be normal.  In 1899 Rudyard Kippling wrote a poem called “The White Man’s Burden.”  It was during the Philippine-American War.  The poem suggested that while it involved sacrifice and thankless labor, it was the moral duty of whites to advance civilization into the lands of non-white folks, for their own good.  Military conquest was one of the key ways of doing this.

Half a century later Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel would reflect on the bitter fruits of technical civilization, consumed with the conquest of space.

We carry personal and collective burdens.  We carry them through our days, from point A to point B, and on to points C and D.  They come to define how we move through time, how we inhabit the world.

It would be nice if Jesus’ invitation were one of simply laying down our burdens.  “Come to me, all you who are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Lay your burden down and go forth free of weight and obligation.”

Instead, Jesus offers something like a burden-exchange program.  Laying down one burden and accepting another.  “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is good, and my burden is light”

Rather than simply lay down the white man’s burden, and walk away free of further responsibility, we are given the holy burden of decolonizing our minds and building just relationships.  Rather than simply doing our own trauma work, we are given opportunities to walk with others on the same journey, a good and holy, and even light burden.  Rather than just de-cluttering our lives, we are given the holy task of living fully into the moment, of taking up Wisdom’s invitation to her feast, entering her house, inviting friends.

A sanctuary in time.  Hearing the gentle and fierce call of Christ, into restoration, into the house that Wisdom is building.

Through the Desert Goes Our Journey | All Saints/Souls | November 5

Text: Genesis 21:8-21, Revelation 3:7-13    

 

The Hebrew Scriptures trace the story of the people of Israel from their beginnings, into and out of slavery in Egypt, into and out of their desert wanderings, into and out of nationhood and kingship, into and out of exile, and the diaspora that follows.  This is the story of peoplehood into which Jesus and his early followers were born.  It’s the one that non-Jews like us get adopted into.  The story begins with a couple, Abram and Sarai, who miraculously have a son in their old age.  The lineage of the people of Israel is traced through that son, Isaac, the child of promise.

But one of the endearing and enduring features Scripture is that it also includes stories that don’t fit so well into that main narrative.  Some of them are even shameful, or at least embarrassing to tell. The story in Genesis 21 about Hagar and Ishmael is one of those.

Ishmael was the oldest son of Abraham, born through his slave woman Hagar.  It was Sara’s idea to give Hagar to Abraham.  Sara was unable to have children, and so a child through Hagar would serve as her own, giving her husband an heir.  When Sara does conceive in her old age, she gives birth to Isaac.  She quickly feels a rivalry between her and Hagar, her son and the older Ishmael.  Her solution is to have Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away, so Isaac can get the family’s full inheritance.  Abraham gets a message from God that, when it doubt, listen to your wife.  He gives Hagar and his oldest son some bread and water, and sends them away, into the desert, where they wander until they have nothing left to drink.  It must not have been much bread and water.

It’s not a very flattering story to tell about your revered patriarch and matriarch.

Hagar is unable to watch her son die.  She sets him under a shrub and then walks a ways off so she can’t see him.  This is how Genesis describes what happens next:  “And as Hagar sat opposite Ishmael, she lifted up her voice and wept.  And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar?  Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.  Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.’  Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water.  She went, filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.  God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness.”

As an origins story this works on a few different fronts.  It portrays the god who will be so closely identified with the children of Isaac as a god who sees and cares for the needs of those outside that particular lineage.  More specifically it is a story that honors today’s Muslims who trace their lineage through Ishmael.  And it humanizes the founding mother and father by telling a story in which they are, to put it kindly, not at their best.  If Abraham and Sara are saints, then there’s hope for all of us after all.

The last couple years we’ve tried something that I hope to continue for years to come: We use this first Sunday of November to highlight the story of one of our Anabaptist/Mennonite forbears.  Halloween gets most of the press, but historically the reason for the season is a little more substantive than pixie sticks and Kit Kats.  Although Kit Kats are a highlight.  The intergenerational neighborly sidewalk festival that is trick or treating on Hallow’s Eve is a prelude to something quite profound.  In the All Saints and All Souls observance that follows, we in the church remember the dead, especially those who touched us in life.  We open ourselves to the possibility that even those from whom we are separated by many generations are somehow present, even Abraham and Hagar and Sara.  We consider the mystery that in God all are alive.  And we’re comfortable acknowledging this means different things to different ones of us.

Two years ago we looked at the story of Anna Janz from the 16th century.  She died a martyr in her early 30’s, leaving behind a young son and a heart wrenching letter she wrote to him in her prison cell.

Last year we looked at Menno Simons, the man who put the Menno in Menno-nite, shepherding the young Anabaptist movement toward sustainability and peacableness.  .

Anna and Menno are pillars of the faith.  We remember them as heroes, perhaps even saints, although we don’t use that language much.

This year I want to take a different angle and tell a Hagar and Ishmael kind of story.  As we’ve been talking about sanctuary over the last month I’ve been mindful that most of the stories I’ve told have been from the perspective of providing sanctuary.  Saintly

So today I want to tell an unflattering story.  A story that, if it has been remembered at all, has been remembered with shame.  A story in which we are not the heroes.  A story in which we were not the providers of sanctuary but the recipients.

It’s the story of Claas Epp and a wayward group of Mennonites who followed him.   Interest in this has been revived in the last decade by a group that re-traced the steps of these events, discovered new things, and thus offered new ways to see the story.

It has been called the Great Trek.  It begins in Russia in the year 1880.  Mennonites had been invited to Russia about 100 years earlier, by Catherine the Great, to occupy farm land recently conquered by the Russian army.  But now they were facing forced military conscription.  Most of the Mennonite communities were responding by moving to the Americas.  But there was a group of families and leaders who felt it was a mistake to go West.  Their ancestors had always kept moving East to escape persecution.  They believed there was significance in heading toward the rising sun.  From the Ukraine, five wagon trains, about 200 families, headed east.  They kept going beyond the reach of the Russian empire into Muslim ruled territory in Central Asia. The trek would ultimately cover 2000 miles and land them in Uzbekistan.

There were unfamiliar with the land.  Much of it was desert, and they faced incredible difficulties.  Eventually they abandoned their wagons and mounted all that they had on camels to make it through the desert.  They often relied on the knowledge of the Muslim leaders they encountered and the hospitality of the villages where they would stay for winters.

Two years into the Trek, the largest wagon train settled and established four different farming villages.  Those who kept traveling were driven by strong apocalyptic beliefs.  One of the leaders in particular, Claas Epp, believed that Christ’s return to earth was imminent.  He believed it was the mission of this community to travel to the site where Christ would return.  They would present themselves as the bride, and rule with Christ in the millennial kingdom on earth.

Claas Epp saw their community reflected in the imagery of Revelation.  He believed they were like the 1st century church in Philadelphia, one of the seven churches addressed at the beginning of Revelation in the letters to the angels of the churches.  He often quoted the line from the letter addressed to Philadelphia: “See, I have set before you an open door.”  Claas Epp believed a door was being opened for them to trek toward the place where they would meet Christ.

They wandered in Uzbekistan for four years, looking for the proper site.  Claas Epp declared that March 8, 1889 would be the day of the Lord’s return.  When the day arrived the community waited with great anticipation.  When the day passed and nothing happened, Epp extended the time to 1891.  Just two more years, and then the end will come.  The Mennonites settled in the region, and when Christ didn’t return again, again, they continued to live there until fleeing Stalin’s forces 50 years later.

So that’s the story.  Up until recently little more was known than this sketchy outline.  Our un-hero Claas Epp has been remembered at best as the butt of a few jokes.  He does have his own Facebook profile where he occasionally comments about the end of the world.  At worst, he is remembered shamefully.  Or just not remembered.  Overall, he’s been someone about who we now say “I’m not with him.”  Someone who, like Abraham and Sara with Hagar, represents a time when the tradition was, to be kind, not at its best.

The reason this story is being reconsidered is that ten years ago a group of scholars, writers, filmmakers, and descendants of those involved retraced this journey.  They were looking for more details about what the trip was like and what may be learned.  Part of what made them especially interested was they felt there are aspects of the Great Trek that have particular relevance in our own setting, ten years ago and now, even this past week.  I had plans to tell this story well before a man born in Uzbekistan aimed his truck down a bike path in New York on Tuesday, killing eight.

What this modern day group of North American pilgrims to Uzbekistan discovered and experienced was rather remarkable.  From diaries that had recently resurfaced they knew that one of the wagon trains set up camp for nine months in the village of Serabulak.  Those original German-Russian Mennonites were of course trying to escape notice from the Russians.  They were greeted and taken in by local Muslim leaders.  Five of the Mennonite families had been given sanctuary within the mosque courtyard.  The locals had also offered their mosque as a place of worship for the Mennonites.  The Muslims would use it on their holy day, Friday.  The Mennonites used it on Sunday.  Several weddings and funerals were held in the mosque and 21 youth were baptized there.

While the investigative tour group was exploring Serabulak, they had a fresh encounter with the hospitality of the village.  They met with the local imam who allowed them to pray and sing inside the mosque.  They offered a gift to the imam so he would remember them.  In turn he offered them a blessing.  One of the pilgrims, Jesse Nathan, wrote this: “Astounding as this experience feels, it fits with what we’ve been discovering as we retrace.  These peaceful Christians built friendships with Muslims – Muslims, who in turn, shepherded the Mennonites through difficulty.  In exchange, Mennonites introduced tomatoes, potatoes, dairy cattle, butter, and cheese to Uzbekistan” (Through the Desert Goes our Journey film).

As they kept traveling and retracing the steps of the Trek they continued to discover that not only were the Mennonites remembered in the region, but they were remembered with respect .    In another of the villages the imam still does the annual springtime blessing of the crops on the land where the Mennonites lived because of the fruitful agriculture that thrived while they cared for it.

Maybe most surprising was that the people of Uzbekistan had no associations with the Mennonites as being a group getting ready for the end of the world.  We know that they were a group getting ready for the end of the world, but the way they related with their Muslim neighbors was one of making an investment in this world.  These Mennonite guests and migrants are remembered by the local residents for their nonviolent practices, frugal economics, and generous wages that they gave to those who worked for them (Mennonite World Review, July 14, 2008).

One of the group participants, a direct descendant of Claas Epp, felt her travels offered a reinterpretation of the open door.  She commented that this history could provide an open door to thinking about how Christians and Muslims relate to each other across differences and how the mutual respect and neighborliness that these group showed to each other could be a model for us.  (Through the Desert Goes Our Journey film). 

Maybe today it’s enough to remember that a little over 100 years ago, a group of theologically misguided Mennonites were given sanctuary in Uzbekistan.  It’s a story in which we are not the heroes.  In which God worked through Uzbek Muslims to welcome and shelter our people, and thus create the conditions in which we could be mutual blessings for one another.      

In a time when the children of Ishmael and the children of Isaac continue to be suspicious of each other and commit acts of violence against each other, we can remember that we are all children of Abraham.  There are times in our life together when we have been friends and a blessing to each other.  We can believe that God has set before us an open door, to live out the story of God’s reconciling love that is meant for all people.  Ultimately that is our story.

——————

A 10 minute preview of the Through the Desert Goes our Journey documentary film can be viewed HERE.  The title song for the soundtrack won a regional Emmy.

“Have you not read…” | Sanctuary III | October 15

Texts: 1 Samuel 21:1-6; Mark 2:23-3:6

 

Let’s take a field trip in our imaginations.

On this field trip, we’re heading out of the city.  We’re going away from dense populations of people are toward dense populations of corn and beans.  On this trip we’re traveling not just through space, but also through time.  This is a magic school bus kind of field trip – if anyone’s familiar with those children’s books.  We’re traveling back a couple thousand years to 1st century Palestine.  As we get closer to our destination we notice that the agricultural fields and the places where people live aren’t as segregated as they are now.  There are small fields at the edges of villages and towns, with public paths running through them.  We get out of the bus and start walking.  We find one of these paths and notice that we’ve left behind the crops of the new world and are surrounded by barley and wheat – crops first domesticated in the Ancient Near East.  The wheat is fully mature.  The head of grain is heavy enough that the top of the stalk is bending under its weight.  It’s harvest season.  We veer off the path and head into the field.  We put our arms to our sides, open our hands, and feel the brush of the grains as we walk through them.

This, of all places, will be the site of an important dialogue about ethics, law, and theology.

These first three weeks of October have turned into a sanctuary trilogy.  In my own study I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how common a practice sanctuary has been, dating all the way back to Ancient Greece and Egypt and Israel, and likely before that into pre-history.  The first week focused on what sanctuary looked like before the church, and last week focused on the 1000+ year practice of sanctuary throughout medieval Christian Europe.

Sanctuary in the churches began largely as a form of penance and reconciliation.  The bishops protected and interceded on behalf of the wrong-doer as they sought to make things right with God and the one they harmed.  But it eventually lost its theological grounding.  It became domesticated, a routine function of the legal system.  It still protected one from the death penalty of royal justice, but in its later versions it typically involved a felon reporting in to a church, acknowledging their crime, and agreeing to leave the kingdom.  In England, after a traveling judge would visit the church and hear the case, the felon would be given safe passage to a port and sent on their way, never to return.  In other words, in a tremendous irony alongside what sanctuary in its present form is trying to protect from, sanctuary at the end of the medieval period involved the church serving as a holding cell for someone awaiting deportation.

As church and secular laws changed, sanctuary became more and more restricted until it was essentially outlawed.  Focus on the well-being of the soul, and repair of harm faded.  Focus on punishment as a form of deterrence, for the public good, became prominent.  Restorative justice was swallowed up by punitive justice.   In 1623, King James 1, passed this definitive legislation: “And be it so enacted by the authority of this present parliament, That no sanctuary or privilege of sanctuary shall be hereafter admitted or allowed in any case.”  If you’re looking for more irony, this is the same King James who commissioned the King James Bible.

Since then sanctuary has again shifted in its function.  It has become a minority practice, sometimes done in the shadows, which puts a new twist on the image from Psalm 91 from last week “In the shadow of the Almighty.”  Sometimes done in the open.  Sometimes done as an act of civil disobedience.  Some of the more prominent and heroic examples include the Underground Railroad, and villages like Le Chambon in southern France that sheltered over 5000 Jews from the Holocaust.  And of course the Sanctuary movement of the 1980’s that gave protection to Central Americans fleeing the violence of civil wars.

The scriptures for this week aren’t concerned with heroics.  We’re in the middle of a wheat field, remember.  But this is a site for a dialogue about the purpose of laws, and the site for Jesus staking out his approach to this.

So we’re in this wheat field, which gives us a front row seat to what’s happening in Mark chapter 2.  Jesus and his newly called disciples are walking through this very field, and they begin to pluck the heads of grain.  They’re spotted by Pharisees, who come over and challenge the lawfulness of this act.

What they don’t challenge might surprise us private property minded folks.  They don’t charge Jesus and his crew with trespassing, and they don’t charge him with stealing.

The Torah was clear that grain fields existed not just for personal profit, but for the public good.  They were part of the social safety net for the poor and the landless, resident aliens.  Landowners were actually restricted from harvesting all of their fields.  They weren’t even allowed to go back and pick up the grain they missed on the first round.  These were known as the gleaning laws.

Leviticus 19:9-10 “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.  You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.”  Eight verses later there’s a little saying that may be more familiar to us: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Give it up for Leviticus!

It was not a problem for Jesus and his new friends to be exercising their gleaning rights in someone else’s field, but it was a potential problem that they were doing this on the Sabbath.  This event is contained within sacred time.  And in sacred time, according the Exodus 34:21, “Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day, you shall rest (you shall Sabbath).  Even in plowing time and in harvest time you shall rest.”

So the question is, Is this a violation of Sabbath law?  What to think of this micro-harvest by Jesus and the gleaners – which is probably what they were planning on calling their new band.  Jesus and the gleaners.

Before we get any further down this path let’s abolish any thought of this being a case of Christian freedom and liberty versus Jewish legalism.  Jesus was a Jew.  Jesus was a Jew.  The Pharisees, as portrayed within the New Testament, are often caricatured to represent an extreme branch of the Jewish family tree.  The Pharisees were the forerunners of rabbinical Judaism which emerged later, and would come to teach unequivocally that “The Sabbath is given to you, but you are not slaves of the Sabbath.  We should disregard one Sabbath for the sake of saving the life of a person, so that person may observe many Sabbaths.” (Mechilta Shabbata 1, in Sabbath and Jubilee, by Richard Lowery, p. 124)

What was and wasn’t permitted on the Sabbath was a lively topic of discussion within first century Judaism, so when Jesus responds to the Pharisees, he stays within the tradition.  He anchors his response within the scriptures in order to claim that what he’s doing is within, rather than outside, their common tradition.

The Pharisees implicitly cite Exodus 34 about keeping Sabbath even during the harvest, and Jesus cites another passage.

If you’ve ever been in one of these scripture-versus-scripture conversations, you know they can be exhausting and not a little bit frustrating.  Sometimes they’re important, sometimes it’s better to just let go, or walk away.

Of all the angles Jesus could have taken in the wheat field on the Sabbath, he does some creative interpretation of a story about David and the priest of Nob found in 1 Samuel 21.   “Have you not read…?” Jesus begins.  Well, of course they’d read the story.  They probably had it memorized.  But they probably had never seen it with the spin Jesus puts on it.

We have received overwhelming support for our decision to be a sanctuary church, but within the first couple days, we did get several emails and a voicemail into the office that had a similar message.  Each time the person said they were a Christian, but thought what we were doing was wrong because Romans 13 says we are to obey the governing authorities.  So who’s within the tradition and who isn’t?  Or, to ask it a different way, which part of the tradition are we using to interpret that part of the tradition?  Have you not read…  How would you fill in the blank to respond?   “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Or the command throughout the Torah to provide for the resident alien?  Or Jesus’ practice of aligning himself with outcasts?

Jesus references the story of David and the priest at Nob.  Rather than being about sacred time, Sabbath, it’s a story about sacred space and sacred objects.  It takes place in a temple rather than a field, and involves wheat in its value-added form, a loaf of bread.  And not just any loaf of bread, but the Bread of the Presence, which was set on the table in the temple and replaced every week, a sign of Divine hospitality.  But here’s the catch: according to the Torah, the Bread of the Presence that was replaced with a fresh loaf, was only to be eaten by the priest – also in Leviticus (Leviticus 24:5-9).

In this story, David comes into the temple and meets the priest Ahimelech.  David is not yet king, but has made quite a name for himself as a warrior.  He’s so popular, that King Saul is consumed with jealousy and has been trying to kill him.  David is now on the run, which explains why the text says Ahimelech is trembling when he speaks to David.  The priest is aware that if he gives aid to this upstart former-shepherd, he could be charged with harboring a fugitive.  This, too, is a story of sanctuary.  His fears come true in the following chapter.  A loyal follower of Saul – who had been in the temple during David’s stay – becomes an informer.  And Saul comes to Nob and kills the priests, including Ahimelech, for giving assistance to his enemy.

But Jesus doesn’t get that deep into the story.  He zeroes in on the fact that David is hungry, there is a pressing human need, and there’s no other bread in the temple except the Bread of the Presence, the holy bread.  Hunger, urgency, and mercy, take precedent over the Levitical holiness code, and priest Ahimelech gives the bread to David to eat.

Quoting from Mark: “’Have you not read,’” Jesus said to the Pharisees, “’what David and his companions did when (they) were hungry and in need of food?  He entered the house of God…and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’  Then he said to them, the Sabbath is made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.”

Jesus and his companions continue through that wheat field and walk right into a synagogue where Jesus heals a man with a withered hand.  Before he does this, he poses this question: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath?”  In this context, doing harm means doing nothing.  Which is more lawful?  To do good, or to do nothing, and thus do harm?

Maybe these are examples of civil disobedience.  Or maybe these are examples of Jesus claiming the compassionate stream of his tradition and inviting others to step into the stream with him.  Whatever it is, it’s an example within our tradition that poses important questions about the hierarchy of values that we live out.  Especially in an age in which sanctuary is in friction with the law of the land.

What is especially beautiful about these stories of Jesus and the gleaners and David and the holy bread eaters is that they affirm something that the Christian tradition has too easily discounted.  Rather than doing away with the Sabbath, and rather than doing away with the idea of holy space and holy bread, they affirm and expand holiness.  To offer bread to a hungry person is what makes bread holy.  To do good and heal and protect makes the Sabbath and all days holy.  It’s not that Sabbath disappears into the ordinariness of the rest of the week.  It’s that the holiness of Sabbath infiltrates the rest of the week.  The holiness of the house of God infiltrates ordinary space.

As we keep working at this thing called Sanctuary, my prayer for us is that we not view it merely as an exception for exceptional times.  Sanctuary is the norm that filters its way out into other parts of our lives, and transform us into the likeness of Christ.

“In the shadow of the Almighty” | Sanctuary II | October 8

Texts: Psalm 91, 2 Corinthians 5:16-20

 “You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who lodge under the shadow of the Almighty, will say of Yahweh, ‘My refuge, my fortress, my Highest Power, in whom I trust.’”

These are the opening words of Psalm 91.  It’s a sanctuary Psalm.  It might be referring to the physical sanctuary of the Jerusalem temple, but it certainly refers to the sanctuary of the Divine Life, the ultimate place of refuge.

The Psalm goes on to describe the full degree of protection one receives under the “wings of God,” another of its poetic images.  “You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day.”  “Because you have made Yahweh your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.”  “I will protect those who know my name.”

It’s so unwavering in the protection it promises, there’s reason to pause and ask “Really?”  “A thousand may fall at your side, but it will not come near you.”  Really?  “He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you in all your ways.”  Really?  “You will tread on the lion and…the serpent.”  Really?

A mis-reading of this Psalm is exactly how the devil tempts Jesus during his 40 days of fasting in the wilderness after his baptism.  The devil quotes the Psalm directly – the part about commanding the angels and not letting your foot strike against a stone.  Jesus rejects the thought that his body is somehow immune to the pain that comes with being human.

But it would be an equal mis-reading of this Psalm to believe that God is only concerned about protecting the soul, and not the body.  Jesus lived his life in such a way that he became a walking sanctuary for those seeking refuge.

The Psalm speaks to something one can only know through a particular kind of orientation to reality we refer to as faith.  It’s this faith that enabled the writer of Colossians to say to that congregation, “your life is hidden with Christ in God.”  It’s this faith that enabled Archbishop Oscar Romero to tell the poor people of El Salvador, whose side he had taken at the beginning of that country’s Civil War in the late 70’s, “If they kill me I will be reborn in the Salvadoran people.”

The God of the Bible is a protector of vulnerable persons.  Full stop.  And so too, when they’re being faith-full, are the people of God.  Jesus embodies this, and beyond his execution, he is reborn in those who follow in his way.

This is week two in our worship focus on Sanctuary.  If you missed last week and didn’t get to read the sermon online, this may feel a little bit like watching the Empire Strikes Back before watching the original Star Wars.  These first three weeks will build on each other, giving some historical, and theological background for the practice of sanctuary.  By way of warning, today will have an above average amount of quoting from medieval law codes.

Last week we looked at the story of Eutropius taking sanctuary in the Great Church in Constantinople in the year 399.  He was a high ranking Roman official who had made too many political enemies.  When he sought sanctuary within that church building to save his life he was welcomed by Bishop John Chrysostom.  This included much drama and intrigue.  In one of his sermons to the congregation, preserved through all these years, Chrysostom speaks poetically about Eutropius being in sanctuary there: “A few days ago the church was besieged: an army came (not a metaphor), and fire issued from their eyes (metaphor), yet it did not scorch the olive tree; swords were unsheathed, yet no one received a wound” (Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages, Karl Shoemaker, p. 27).  Sanctuary was an established enough practice by that time that the emperor himself called off the royal army.  He instructed them to honor the sanctity of the church, and Eutropius’ protection inside it.

This happened during a pivotal time in the relationship between the church and the powers that be.  For the first decades of its existence the church had been a tiny minority within the Roman Empire – at times ignored, at other times discounted as atheists who didn’t honor the Roman gods, or cannibals who, in their secret ceremonies, ate the body and drank the blood of their Lord.  I almost mentioned that last week, but decided to wait until after World Communion Sunday.

Ignored, discounted, and at times persecuted and scapegoated for society’s ills, like when the first century Emperor Nero blamed a massive fire in Rome on the Christians, which was news to them.

As the church grew in numbers and converted people of social standing, it grew in social power.  The Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the early 300’s and over the next century Rome became Christianized…or, depending on your perspective, Christianity became Romanized.

We don’t know when sanctuary became a common practice among the churches.  We do have records from the Sardican Council, convened by the Roman Emperor, at the urging of Pope Julius, around the year 343, counseling bishops on this matter.  It said:

“But since it happens often that those who suffer injury, or who for wrongdoing are condemned to exile or to the islands, or those, in fact, incurring any sentence, flee to the mercy of the church, these are to be aided and indulgence (forgiveness, reconciliation) is to be petitioned without delay”  (Crime and Sanctuary, p. 22).

But then, fifty years later, during the time of Eutropius and John Chrysostom, the empire struck back, restricting sanctuary through three different edicts.  The first said that debtors could be dragged out of churches if they or the bishop couldn’t settle the debt.  The second forbade Jews who pretended to be Christians from taking sanctuary in a church.  The third limited certain public officials from taking sanctuary, likely the idea of Eutropius himself, striking out against his political rivals.  But when Eutropius needed sanctuary, John Chrysostom and his congregation were willing to disregard the law that Eutropius had helped create.  A legal historian could interject here noting that laws in the ancient world didn’t carry quite the same notions of authority and enforcement as they do now.

These laws restricted sanctuary, but then, less than 50 years after that, those restrictions were reversed, and an extensive practice of sanctuary became enshrined in edicts that shaped its practice for the next 1000 plus years.  The Theodosian Code, named after the current Emperor himself, affirmed the churches, and a buffer zone around them, as locations for sanctuary in all kinds of cases.

Even though it was likely added to the Code years later, one rule that became widely circulated across medieval Europe went so far as unhooking sanctuary from the church building itself.  It said:

“If some unfortunate fugitive (someone seeking sanctuary) crosses paths with a bishop or presbyter or a deacon, either in a city street or in a field or any other place, we order that they be detained or abducted by no one, because in priests the Church consists.” (Sanctuary and Crime, p. 69)

Overlay that with the later Protestant theology of the priesthood of all believers and you’ve got yourself quite a rule.  “In priests the Church consists”…“In the people the Church consists.”  Imagine if all people of faith, priests every one, had this identity of being sanctuary people “either in a city street or in a field or any other place.”

One of two temptations might be to overly romanticize sanctuary.  The good old days, when the churches and their priests were truly places of refuge.  The other temptation might be to discount sanctuary as the church merely playing a role that a well-organized government should be doing.  Our Anabaptist tradition does have a thing or two to say about the mismatched marriage between church and state that was Medieval Europe.

From all I can tell, the church, at its best, brought a theological approach to sanctuary.  The church taught the centrality of intercession and penance.  If someone had committed a crime, rather than seeing the person as merely a criminal, and the crime as something to be punished for its own sake, the church saw it as a sin against God and humanity.  But sins can be forgiven, and harms against fellow humans can be reconciled.  Penance can be done, for the sake of the penitent, to restore them as a human being, and for the sake of the one who has been harmed – to find a way to right the wrong, return the stolen item, repay the debt.

At its best, the church has participated in what the Apostle Paul referred to as the ministry of reconciliation.  This included reconciliation with God and reconciliation between people.

The church stood in the way of vigilante justice and the cycle of violence.  The church was a home base in the game of tag-with-knives that often produced more and more victims of violence.

At its best, church has been like the shadow of the Almighty, a place of refuge from the heat of human wrath.

One law declared that if a murderer flees to a church he must admit his homicide, and “with half his goods, be placed in servitude to the heirs of the slain.”  After his death, his remaining possessions or estate are handed over to the family of the slain. (Crime and Sanctuary, p. 79)  But he gets to live, and the family of the victim gets material compensation.

And at times, of course, those who claimed sanctuary were innocent, vulnerable people.  Sanctuary offered due process before there was due process.

In the 1300’s sanctuary remained important enough that when it was violated the authorities did whatever they could to restore it.  Sometimes this involved returning someone physically to sanctuary if they were still alive, but sometimes it required more creative measures.  In 1301 a man took sanctuary in Bury St. Edmonds in England after killing another man.  But the parents of the dead man came and dragged the killer out of the church.  They brought him before the bailiff, and he was hanged.  But after this the bailiff was reprimanded by a superior that this had been a violation of the liberty of sanctuary.  The records are preserved ordering him to make a “sign of the restitution of the said Liberty.”  This was to happen by placing in the church an effigy “in the form of a man with the name…of the aforementioned felon” displayed (Crime and Sanctuary, p. 141).  So, even though there was no way to restore this man to sanctuary, the bailiff who had him executed was to create a life-size doll of this man, with a nametag, and symbolically restore him to the safety of the church, so that whoever saw him/it would call to mind the shelter he sought there.

Sanctuary as a legal practice affirmed by kings and magistrates did not last past the 1600’s.  And, at least in England, the decline of sanctuary coincided with the rise in the construction of jails (Sanctuary and Crime, p. 114).  There were many currents that converged to cause this, but here’s one that feels especially pertinent to the attitudes of our time.

It was declared back in 1203, not by a king, but by a Pope.  The author of the book on which I’ve been leaning heavily for this history highlighted this brief written statement by Pope Innocent III as emblematic of the shift in consciousness.  It says, “It is in the public interest that no crimes remain unpunished.”  (Crime and Sanctuary, p. 163)  It is in the public interest that no crimes remain unpunished.  This circulated widely, and the idea it expresses led to sanctuary being seen as more of an obstruction than a service to good and right and just order.  It is still circulating.  We can feel it in the air.  Rather than justice as getting what you need, it is justice as getting what you deserve.

When you mix the idea of no crime remaining unpunished with the criminalization of migrating peoples, we are into the present moment.

Faith is a particular kind of orientation to reality.  It is oriented toward the ministry of reconciliation, toward mercy, toward restoration.  The church, at its best, has been a place of sanctuary.  People of faith, at our best, have been sanctuary people, in the streets, in a field, or any other place.

The God of the Bible is a protector of vulnerable persons.  The Shadow of the Almighty still invites rest and refuge.  It is in that shadow that we find our peace.  It is in that shadow that we find one another, We escape the arrows of the day, and release the fears of the night.  May we lodge under the Shadow of the Almighty, and make room as new friends join us.