You, O Human, I Have Made a Watcher – 9/4/11 (Labor Sunday) – Ezekiel 33, Romans 13:8-12

Good morning!  It’s good to be back with you, and to get resettled into the neighborhood and congregation.  We’ve been back in town for about three weeks, Eve has been in kindergarten for two weeks, and this is the end of my first week in the office, so we are mostly through but not near completely making this mental shift away from Sabbatical life and into this old/new routine. 

We do look forward to catching up with you and hearing about what has happened in your lives and in the life of the congregation this summer.  Yesterday at the Headings was a good chance to get started with this.

In the Spirit of getting back to work, this happens to be Labor Day weekend, a time that our nation has set aside for remembering and honoring the role of labor and the dignity of work.  Since 1996 a broad coalition of faith groups have chosen to recognize the connection between religious faith and the justice issues related to labor by focusing on these issues this Labor Sunday.  This year, as I understand it, there has been a particular push for congregations to recognize this in their worship due to the political climate and some of the legislation that has been proposed which removes some of the historical rights of workers.  In Ohio, Senate Bill 5, regarding public workers, has been at the center of debate.  It will be up for a referendum vote in November as Issue 2.  And so congregations in Ohio and across the country are choosing to reflect on the intersection of labor and religious faith this Sunday, and we have chosen to be a part of that group.  Nothing like jumping right into the fray after a peaceful summer on the farm.

We’ve included an insert in the bulletin which gives a brief history of Labor Day as well as something titled “Some Basic Principles of Economic Justice.”  This was prepared by the Cincinnati Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice.  I want to read down that column just to give a sense of where this is coming from and how these issues can be framed in the language of faith:

Some Basic Principles of Economic Justice

We believe:

Through work all people are privileged to be co-creators with God who is the center of human life and community;

Through work men and women participate and contribute to the well being of their families and society;

Economic choices and institutions must be judged by how they protect or undermine the life and dignity of persons, support the family and serve the common good;

All people have a basic right to productive lives including employment with just compensation and benefits;

All employers have a right to expect workers to be productive and committed to quality;

Workers have a right to form unions, cooperatives and other associations to secure the above rights and exercise the above responsibilities;

All work is deserving of respect. Labor Day provides an opportunity for the religious community to affirm and celebrate the workers among us and to highlight questions and issues of the workplace.

Prepared by the Cincinnati Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice

 

One of the lectionary readings for today comes from Ezekiel.  Ezekiel speaks from Babylon, the place where his people have been exiled.  Ezekiel is the prophet of the exile, giving counsel and proclaiming his visions to these people of the house of Israel who have been displaced from their native land, now subjects under the king of Babylon, with an uncertain future.  In this reading Ezekiel is alerted that when there is a threat that comes against his people, they will take one of their own and appoint them as a watcher, a sentinel, someone who looks with anticipation at the horizon, pays attention to the situation,  and alerts the people of danger.  If danger is on its way, it is the watcher’s job to blow on the shofar, and sound this trumpet so that the people can take heed and prepare for what’s coming.

Ezekiel then hears the word of God spoken to him – “You, oh human being, I have made a watcher for the house of Israel.”  Ezekiel is charged with being one who stands on guard for his people and faithfully warns them of danger so they can take the necessary precautions to keep safe.  Before there was the color coded national security alert system signaling the likelihood of terrorist attacks, before there was the national weather service issuing hurricane and tornado warnings for people to take cover, before there were daily reports about the stock market being up or down, and monthly reports about the unemployment rate being up or down, and quarterly reports about corporate earnings being up or down; before any of this there was the watcher, who was charged with paying attention to the situation on the ground, to listening and looking for potential threats to the community.  The watcher was an agent of God.  Sounding the alarm, blowing the shofar, warning the people to prepare themselves for what was coming.  The well-being of the community, God’s people, rests on the watcher’s ability to see and interpret well what is going on.

It is worth asking: who are the watchers we are paying attention to these days, and what are they saying?       

I got an email from President Obama on Thursday.  Normally, that might make one feel special, but this was one of those that went out to millions of other people around the country.  Maybe you got the same one.  I usually quickly delete my presidential spam, but this one caught my attention because of the subject line.  It said, simply, “Frustrated.”  I opened it and a brief skim revealed that this was about the job situation in our country and the political gridlock for proposing some solutions.  He noted that he was frustrated and he knew the American people were frustrated with the current lack of jobs and economic opportunity.  Our presidential watcher has looked out over the national landscape, surveyed the big picture, has utilized the shofar of the mass email, and has sounded a long note of frustration.             

I have to admit that I’m coming at this from an angle that doesn’t fit very well into this big picture perspective and that I haven’t been paying much attention recently to most professional watchers.  That’s not to say that’s an entirely commendable thing, it’s just to say that these last three months have had a very different focus.  For most of the last three months I’ve been watching what, compared to the big picture, is a ridiculously small piece of land, on the outskirts of a small struggling town, of little consequence to the national GDP.  I’ve been watching and participating in the summer season of a small farm.  Planting seeds, watching them grow, watching weeds grow that need to be pulled; feeding animals, helping sell meat at the local farmer’s market, baling hay that the animals will eat when the pasture grass isn’t growing in the colder months, and starting to harvest some of the garden produce – green beans, garlic, sweet corn, and the first of the tomatoes; eating it fresh and canning it for the winter.  Abbie made the connection that baling hay is kind of like canning for cows.  With the barn being the rather large animal pantry.  Only unfortunately they don’t do their own canning. 

I’ve been observing that, while over 9% of the country remains out of work, there’s lots of work to be done on the farm.  Too many projects for a single household, even when you’ve got extra people working at it.  There’s lots of work, and there’s lots of food that can be grown on a small amount of land.  More than a single household or extended family can eat.  There’s a wealth that the soil possesses which, combined with good management, enough sunlight and water, creates abundance out of small seeds.  An abundance of good food but not so much an abundance of money.  We could put people to work, but they wouldn’t be getting much of a paycheck.  But butternut squash, tomatoes, green beans, eggs, and even some meat could be available. 

I’ve been reading different watchers who are stationed mostly in rural America, where things look different than the city.  I’ve been reading from those who lament the extent to which rural America has been depopulated, seeing these populations move off the farm to cities where some of them confront the new reality of unemployment, or, if they’re a little luckier, wage labor. 

I’ve been reading people who lament the perspective of government offices, universities, and economists that there have been too many people on the farm.  The experts promoting the philosophy of “get big, or get out.”  The small farmers’ comeback line on this is that, while agricultural economists have been quick to highlight that there are too many farmers, “no agricultural economist has yet perceived that there are too many agricultural economists.”  (“What are people for?” in What Matters? by Wendell Berry, p. 106). 

I’ve been reading watchers from the country and the city who see great potential for greater self-sufficiency for people no matter where they live.  For building up local economies.  For learning to live with less and reviving systems of bartering that give people a chance to use and share wealth in ways that don’t involve the exchange of money.

In other words, I’ve been thinking about things that are very impractical to implement from a big picture policy perspective, but things which provide a wealth of potential for small scale actions, human community, for meaningful labor, even if it doesn’t register in the official economy.  I’m not really sure how relevant it is to many of the issues at hand on Labor Day weekend – the vitality of unions, the right to collective bargaining, just labor laws, living wage jobs. 

 If you have any interest in what these marginal watchers are saying, you may also have interest in another marginal watcher.  This one who was the leader of these little start up communities all throughout the Roman Empire in the first century.  The Apostle Paul who wrote letters of encouragement and instruction to these little communities of how they may better reflect the radiance of the Christ, who was alive and active among them.  In another of today’s lectionary readings, Paul, the watcher, writes to the small community in Rome, those living in the heart of the empire, those spiritual exiles whose claimed for themselves another kingdom as their homeland.  Another kingdom already present in the world.  Paul writes, and I’m using a combination of the NIV and NRSV translations here: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; you shall not murder; you shall not steal; you shall not covet;’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:8-10).

“Let no debt remain outstanding except the continuing debt to love one another.”  Talking about debt and economics and politics could take up down a path we don’t want to go this morning.  The way the apostle imagines debt functioning in a positive way in the Christian community is as a perpetual indebtedness that we have to one another.  A love debt, that never can be fully repaid.  So I am indebted to each of you for the love you have shown me, and you are indebted to each other for the kindness, the generosity, the goodwill, the love that you have shown one another.  And we are always indebted to the soil, the earth, for the wealth that it has given us, our very lives.  It is the only inescapable debt you ever want to have any part in because it is a debt that keeps creating greater and greater wealth of love, of justice, of right relationship, of forgiveness, of grace, of undeserved opportunity.  It is the love of God in action in our lives.  The apostle Paul is the watcher over this little household of believers and he seems to be suggesting that we are all watchers for one another.  Watching for the well being of the community.

Imagine, a small community living this way.  Each of them indebted to one another, beginning to treat others outside of their community with dignity and respect, having positions as workers and employers and administrators, relating with colleagues and employees out of this sense of love and gratitude for gifts that they share.  All of life – work, rest, family – taking on a quality of holiness.  Love, fulfilling the laws of justice.  You, o human, I have made a watcher.  Now what do you see?        

 

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Eating Your Bible Like an Anabaptist – 10/28/07 – Ezekiel 2:3-3:3, Matthew 7:24-27

(Mennonite Heritage Sunday)

We have a growing collection of children’s books in our house.  We started out keeping them all in a basket upstairs in Eve’s room, but over the months we’ve expanded to having several places in the house where we keep these books.  We keep a few in the kitchen, a few in the basement, we have a shelf in the living room where we keep a good amount of them, and we still have those books in her bedroom.  Throughout this collection are books that have been scarred for life by Eve’s aggressive reading style.  She went through a phase where she was bending and tearing just about any page she could get her hands on.  She also really liked to chew books.  The ones that faired the worst are the books we left in the crib for her to look through to help her get to sleep.  When she woke up from one Sunday afternoon nap I went into her room to discover that she had eliminated a large chunk of a Thomas the Train book.  There were no scraps from this in her crib, meaning that she had eaten the whole corner.  My first thought at the time was not that I would later be using this as a sermon illustration, but Eve’s book eating tendencies actually serve us quite well for this Mennonite Heritage Sunday when we look at an Anabaptist approach to Scripture.  So, alongside this lovely, historic, well-preserved Bible that Jim brought for us to display, I’m going to place this partially eaten Thomas the Train book.              

We have just sung a hymn that was written by Felix Mantz, the first person to be martyred as an Anabaptist.  “I sing with exultation all my heart’s delight, is God who brings salvation, frees from death’s dread might…God sends Christ as example, light and living guide, before my end he bids me in his realm abide.”  During the events of the Protestant Reformation in the early 16th century, Felix Mantz was a part of a small group of students who took seriously the reformers call to look to the Scriptures as a primary source of authority.  These students gathered in small group circles where they studied the Bible together.  What they found in their studies was that much of what was passing as the church of Jesus Christ had little to do with what the Scriptures taught.  How could the church justify expecting all peasants to pay tithes to support its hierarchy?  How could the church ask for believers to take up the sword to defend its territory?  On what basis did the church baptize infants to incorporate them into this tithe paying, sword bearing population?  The Anabaptists came into existence as a group of people who believed that it is better to follow the Christ of the Scriptures than the authority of the state church, or any other authority.  They re-baptized adults into this brotherhood and sisterhood of believers, appointed their own leaders, and refused to defend themselves with violence.  And many of them were tortured and killed as a result of these actions, considered heretics and threats to society.  Felix Mantz was the first of these martyrs.  The city council of Zurich, Switzerland approved of his execution and he was drowned in the Limmat River in January, 1527.

So at the foundation of the Anabaptist movement, is the conviction of taking Scripture seriously, and, more specifically, taking Jesus seriously.  They studied the gospels, they discussed their meaning, and they worked to align their communities with the practices that Jesus taught, even if it caused them to be out of sync with the prevailing wisdom of the day.  Lynn Miller says it well when he says, “we believe Jesus meant what he said, and we believe he was talking to us.”

The words from Matthew chapter seven speak to this very reality.  They come at the end of the Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, a sort of Manifesto for living the Jesus way.  To conclude this teaching, Jesus reminds his listeners that this was not just an exercise in eloquent speech, and that they as listeners should look to get much more out of it than simply hearing a good sermon.  “Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.  And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.”  It makes for an excellent children’s song, and it makes for an excellent, although risky approach to life.  Jesus notes that hearing the Word and acting on the Word have to be part of the same action, and that to do the one without the other is as foolish as camping out in a sand castle right before the tide comes up and the storms roll in.

A couple themes that the Anabaptists noted within the Sermon on the Mount:

 Jesus taught his followers not to swear any oaths, but to simply let their Yes be Yes and their No be No.  There should be no double standard for truth.  One shouldn’t have to sometimes say, Yes, I’ll do this, and then other times say, Yes, I swear to you by God that I will do this.  No, you say Yes, or No, and then you do what you said you’d do, without having to back it up with any other levels of Yes or No.  This got many Anabaptists in trouble with local princes who were asking people to swear oaths of allegiance to them.  They refused to say Yes, or swear Yes, to anything that they knew they couldn’t do in good conscience.       

Jesus taught his followers to go beyond the tit for tat logic of taking an eye for eye.  As a creative way of surprising someone trying to insult them by slapping them on the cheek, Jesus taught that instead of slapping back, to do the unexpected thing and turn your other cheek.  Refuse to be insulted, and refuse to insult yourself by allowing the offending party to dictate how you’ll respond.  The Anabaptists chose not to retaliate with violence when they themselves were attacked, which they were often.  It was the beginning of the peace witness within our tradition.   

…Just a couple examples of how the Anabaptist house was built on the solid foundation of hearing the Word and acting on the Word.

The prophet Ezekiel had a provocative way of demonstrating how to combine hearing and acting on the word.  Never content to let a metaphor be just a metaphor, Ezekiel, one who felt the words of God within his inmost being, digested them into his own self, and then proclaimed them to Israel, actually ate a scroll that had the words written on it that he would speak.  Which is sort of the ultimate way of letting the Word become a part of you.  For Ezekiel, the Word of God was not something outside of himself to be read and observed and pondered and maybe or maybe not spoken out loud to others – it was something that must be chewed on, swallowed, digested, allowed to disperse itself throughout the entire person, energizing and animating the body to do what the Word said.  To have the Word in front of you without letting it get inside you is just as foolish as building your house on the sand.    

So we could say that the Anabaptists ate their Bibles in a way that allowed them to internalize and then incarnate its truth.  The Anabaptists are to the Bible as Ezekiel is to his scroll as Eve is to Thomas the Train.  Although, fortunately, Eve didn’t eat the whole book.   

In the Spirit of taking Scripture seriously, a fascinating book has been released within the last couple months.  AJ Jacobs, a journalist for Esquire magazine decided that for one year he was going to follow the Bible as closely as he could.  The book is called The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.  Being an agnostic Jew with a thoroughly secular background, he had the goal of entering the project as curious and open minded as possible.  I’ve read only a few excerpts and a couple interviews, but have found what I’ve heard to be intriguing, highlighting all sorts of good questions about what it means to give authority to the Bible. 

Parts are quite funny.  Aside from not cutting his hair or beard all year, and not wearing any garments with two kinds of fibers (Lev. 19:19) he also saw that there are many instances where people are commanded to stone someone who has sinned in a certain way.  He decided he could carry this out to the letter of the law if he carried a pocket full of pebbles around with him wherever he went and threw them at people who he discovered to have violated these laws, like being a rebellious child or being an adulterer.  He did have a run in one day with a guy who admitted to being an adulterer.  Jacobs politely asked if it would be OK if he stoned him with his pebbles since he was trying to live exactly by the Bible and the Bible commanded that adulterers be stoned.  The man was not happy with this proposal, but Jacobs still managed to get in one hit before the man angrily walked away.

But there is also a serious, quite profound side to his discoveries.  He talks about how much he fell in love with the Sabbath.  Being a self-described workaholic, he came to look forward to a day completely free to relax and spend with his family.  He also realized how hard it is to love your neighbor in New York City since he didn’t really know any of his neighbors.  He initiated a relationship with one that still continues.  He described his biggest challenge in this way: “That’d be no coveting, no lying, no gossiping. They’re little sins, but they’re killers. My year made me realize just how many of these sins I committed every day. And refraining from them for a year was really hard but completely transforming.”  (Click here for online reference

Another transformation he mentions is how much more grateful of a person he became.  He says, “I was saying thanks so often that it became part of my routine. And it’s a great thing, because you forget to thank for all the little things that go right in a day instead of focusing on the three or four that go wrong.” (Click here for online reference)

As he reflected about his project, he just so happened to use a metaphor that fits well with the idea of Eating the Scriptures.  He says. “One of the lessons of the book is, there is some picking and choosing in following the Bible, and I think that’s OK. Some people call that cafeteria religion, which is supposed to be a disparaging term, but I think there’s nothing wrong with cafeterias, I’ve had some delicious meals in cafeterias. I’ve also had some terrible meals in cafeterias. It’s all about picking the right parts. You want to take a heaping serving of the parts about compassion, mercy and gratefulness—instead of the parts about hatred and intolerance.”  This is someone with no formal training in theology trying to talk about the persistent question of hermeneutics – how we interpret and apply scripture in our present day setting. 

This book can be so valuable because it puts in front of us the pitfalls of biblical living, as well as the radical, countercultural possibilities of biblical living.  It’s kind of a dangerous day and age to say that we highly value the Bible and that we want to let it shape our identity and our direction.  There are plenty of abuses and misuses that can go along with Bible eating — enough to make the whole idea of feasting on scripture seem rather sour, and bitter.  But rather than abandoning scripture, or merely selecting a passage here and a passage there that fits with our particular tastes, we would do well to continue in the spirit of the Anabaptists who allowed themselves to be transformed by these difficult, challenging, life-redirecting teachings.  They believed that hearing and acting had to be held together, just as Jesus had taught.  And that acting transforms not only your neighbor, but it transforms you as well.

This is not seeing Scripture as a set of unchanging rules, but as a story that must be continually renewed in every generation.  A story of people joining with God to help redeem our world.  Anabaptists have always valued not individual interpretation, but the interpretation of the community — like the thoughts and teachings that came out of those early small group circles of students and peasants that Felix Mantz was a part of, looking at the scriptures and asking what it meant for their lives.  And so each generation has to work at this together.  What does it mean to live truthfully?  To not return harm to our neighbor?  To treat each person as created in the image of God?  To be willing to suffer for good news?  To love our enemy?     

God said to Ezekiel – open your mouth and eat this scroll.  Jesus said to his listeners – listen and do what I am teaching you.  The Spirit is asking us to gather around the feast of scripture, to eat together, and to be transformed as a community of faith.