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

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Healing sight | Lent 4| March 26

Text: John 9:1-41

Every morning I have a familiar routine.  One of the very first things I do after getting out of bed is walk to the countertop in the bathroom.  I find this case, unscrew the lids, and put a round piece of plastic in each eye.  Before I do this, the world is really blurry.  I am badly nearsighted.  I started wearing glasses in the 3rd grade and went to contacts sometime in middle school.  If the numbers mean anything to you, my contact lens prescription is in the -7’s.  This amounts to me being significantly handicapped when I don’t have my contacts in.  I trip over stuff on the floor.  I wouldn’t even think of driving.

If I didn’t have my contacts in right now, this would be a very different experience, mostly for me, but also for you.  I’d have to hold my notes close to my face to read them…or get better at memorizing sermons.  Looking across the congregation would be more for effect than actually seeing anyone.  You all would be fuzzy blobs.  I would be able to guess that Al and Kathy Bauman would be sitting right about there, and Julie and Phil Hart would be about here, but it would be a guess.

I’m so used to wearing corrective lenses that I don’t think of myself as having a disability.  It’s strange to even say.  But if it were not for these highly engineered pieces of plastic, or the glasses alternative, my experience of the world would be entirely different.  My life would be different.  My disability is easily hidden, to the point of making it functionally go away.

Those of us with bad eyes undergo a mini transformation each morning – so routine, we easily forget how vital it is to our functioning.  We can’t see, very well, and then we can.  Every morning.  It’s a small dosage of what the blind man in John 9 got all at once.  He’d spent his entire life unable to see, restricted, but one day Jesus walked his way and changed his world.

Rather than saline solution and contact lenses, Jesus mixes up a concoction of saliva and mud – spit + dirt – and smears it all over the man’s eyes.  In traditional cultures, saliva and clay were both believed to have healing properties.  Science has backed this up, although I’m guessing this mix is less than 100% effective in curing blindness.  But this man who has never been able to see has an encounter with Jesus the wonder worker.  He goes back to the pool of Siloam where Jesus tells him to wash.  And, as John reports, “he came back able to see.”

His sight instantly changes his status in the community.  Not surprisingly, he had been a beggar, unable to provide for himself.  John writes: “The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’  Some people were saying, ‘It is he.’  Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’”

His place as a blind beggar had become so established, people had organized their mental neighborhood map so much around him being defined by his blindness and begging, that some folks are unable to recognize him even as the same person when he is no longer defined by those things.  They literally don’t see him as someone who might have something to contribute to the community.  As someone who, later in the story, becomes a full member in the discipleship community that Jesus is calling into being.

And this is where the story takes on another layer of depth.

This is our third week in a row with a story from John’s gospel and you may be recognizing a pattern.  In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus has lots of relatively brief encounters with many different people.  John, on the other hand, will take an entire chapter, or most of a chapter, to tell of one encounter.  Each of these stories, and others within John, start with a very physical, even biological kind of problem or situation.  Being reborn by going back into your mother’s womb as an adult?  Nicodemus the inquiring Pharisee – Chapter 3.   Seeking a thirst-quenching drink of water from a well.  The Samaritan woman – Chapter 4.    A blind man’s eyes recreated through something as earthy as earth itself.  Chapter 9.  These scenarios all have multiples layers.

Most of this story with the man-born-blind-who-isn’t-blind-anymore turns out to be about the perceptions of those around this man.  Can they see him for more than his disability?  Can they welcome him as a full member in the beloved community?  And, even more specifically, are they able to drop this persistent notion of sin — assigning moral failure to someone’s health deficiency?

In February we had a series on the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew, and one of the passages we didn’t cover says this:  These are the words of Jesus: “The eye is the lamp of the body.  So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light.  But if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.”

It’s a little strange for us to think of the eye as a lamp.  We think of the eye as being a receptacle of light.  Light bounces off the surface of surrounding objects, makes its way into our eye, which translates the image into electrical pulses it sends to the brain, which translates those pulses into an image which we “see.”  Light travels towards us, and our eyes, to varying degrees of clearness, with various forms of corrective assistance, catch the light.

So, that’s amazing.  And that’s how we see.

Jesus’ audience would have believed other things about the eye.  The eye was not only a light receiver, it was a light projector.  Plato, for example, taught this.  He wrote:

“The pure fire which is within us…they made to flow through the eyes in a stream smooth and dense, compressing the whole eye, and especially the centre part, so that it kept out everything of a coarser nature, and allowed to pass only this pure element. When the light of day surrounds the stream of vision, then like falls upon like, and they coalesce, and one body is formed by natural affinity in the line of vision, wherever the light that falls from within meets with an external object. And the whole stream of vision, being similarly affected in virtue of similarity, diffuses the motions of what it touches or what touches it over the whole body, until they reach the soul, causing that perception which we call sight.” (From “The Project Gutenberg Etext of Timaeus,” Citation HERE)

That’s Plato on sight.  I had to read that seven times before I got half of it, so if you got any, well done.  The point is that the eyes cause us to see by emitting the light that is within us.

The eyes were, as Jesus says, a lamp.  You have light, or darkness within you, and everywhere you look, you project that light.  Your eyes are light emitters.  Light moves from within us, out, and then mixes and coalesces with other light, and comes back into the soul, where the seeing really happens.

When you look at a thing, or a person, you see them in the light that you cast on them, and they are affected by the light, or darkness, you cast on them.  The eye is the lamp of the body and we are constantly shining that light, and that’s how we see what we see.  Or don’t see what we don’t see.

Long before psychologists taught us about projection, the ancients had it figured out.  Kind of.

There’s a quote that fits this well, and nobody really knows who said it, but it’s a good one.  It says, “We see the world not as it is, but as we are.”  “We see the world not as it is, but as we are.”

I have a very recent example of this playing out.  Ila will be entering kindergarten in the fall and we’ve been visiting the neighborhood and lottery schools within Columbus City Schools to get a sense of our options.  We’ve also been comparing notes with friends doing the same thing.  It turns out we have pretty different impressions of the schools, Abbie and myself included.  Abbie was recently talking with a couple other women and they cracked the code.  It seems each of us likes the school we’d most want to go to ourselves – or that fulfills some need we feel our own education was lacking.  We saw the school as we are.  It doesn’t exactly solve the dilemma that is school choice, but it sure helps to recognize what’s going on and why we see the same thing differently.

“We see the world not as it is, but as we are.”  Sometimes the way we see exposes something deeper within us.

So it goes in John chapter 9.  From the very beginning: “As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.  His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’”  What is initially described as an objective reality – a man blind from birth, very quickly transforms into the subjective reality of the disciples.  To whom should we assign moral responsibility for the characteristic that has come to define this man’s being – his blindness?  Who sinned, this man or his parents?

The question itself narrows the entire field of perception down to choice A – this man sinned, or choice B, his parents sinned.  How would you like to have that perception projected on you your whole life?  The narrow framework persists all the way through the story, with the Pharisees soon picking up that role.  Their ways of seeing also projects more darkness than light onto the situation.  After being unable to get the answers they want from the man-who-can-now-see they say in exasperation, “You were born entirely in sin, and are you trying to teach us?”  And they drove him out.  They excommunicate him because there is no space within their present way of seeing for him to fit.

And Jesus will have none of it.  He reflects that lack of light right back on the Pharisees and says if they must assign sin to this situation, then it looks like sin is coming right out of them.  He welcomes the man not because he can or can’t see, but because he acknowledges that God is at work here.  Jesus chooses “none of the above” and tells the disciples that neither this man nor his parents sinned.  The point of this man’s life, just like the point of any person’s life, is, to quote Jesus “so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

Or, to quote Sarah Werner’s lovely devotional from Monday: “Of course we are all incapacitated in one way or another.  Blind to many things while seeing clearly others.  But blindness as a physical reality is only another way of being in the world, not chosen, but also not punishment.  Nor is ongoing disability a failure of faith, or an object lesson, or an inspiration.  There are many ways of being and moving through the world.  We are each here so that God’s works may be revealed in each of us.”

The gospel invites us into a certain way of seeing, and this really matters.  Having our vision corrected is an inward journey that directly impacts the kind of outward journey we take.  Today people from around the nation are gathering in Columbus to march with workers from Immokalee Florida who pick tomatoes for fast food restaurants.  How we see these folks has direct impact on our response to them.  If we see them with suspicion and fear, it will produce one kind of response.  If we see them as worthy of dignity, safe working conditions, and a living wage, it will create a different kind of reality.

The gospel invites us into a certain way of seeing.  The light of Christ comes at us in front of our eyes, but also behind our eyes.  It projects itself out of us.  It casts light.  It is a lamp.  It sees people as beloved children of God before assigning them to a particular category of what they can and can’t do.  This way of seeing is itself an act of healing.  It believes that each person is another channel through which God’s works might be revealed.

Living conversations | Lent 3 | March 19

Text: John 4:1-30; 39-42

This is a story about a conversation.  It’s heavy on dialogue, short on action.

There’s really not much happening here until the very end.  Jesus and a Samaritan woman meet each other at a well, start talking, and keep talking.  It’s a long conversation – the longest Jesus has with an individual in all the gospels.  It opens with Jesus asking her for a drink of water, but we’re never even told if he ever got it.  The conversation takes over, and turns into something much more than giving and receiving a drink of water from a well.

What makes the conversation remarkable, aside from its length, is that it even happened in the first place.  Neither Jesus nor the Samaritan woman had much business being at that well at that time.

Jesus had been in the Judean countryside, the area around the holy city of Jerusalem.  He’s on his way back to Galilee, his home region.  Up north.  John says, “Jesus left Judea and started back to Galilee.  But he had to go through Samaria.”

If you look on a map, it’s true that as you head north out of Judea, you’ll soon enter the region of Samaria.  Keep on going north through Samaria and eventually you’ll get to Galilee.  It’s a direct shot.  If you’re walking on High Street in the Short North and you want to get to the church, you’re going to have to go by campus.

When John says that Jesus “had to go through Samaria” it wasn’t exactly a geographic necessity.  There was, in fact, a well-traveled route established for the very purpose of avoiding Samaria.  Jews and Samaritans had a difficult and even bloody history together, and so Jewish pilgrims traveling between Galilee and Judea would frequently take a longer route around, on the East side of the Jordan River.

“Lucky” for us, and that’s “Lucky” with quotes around it, our highway system enables us to bypass entire neighborhoods without so much as having to think about who and what it is we’re bypassing.  Although there are certain Saturdays in the fall when you definitely do not want to be driving High Street through campus.  You might still be stuck there when church starts the next morning.

But John says that Jesus, on his way home to Galilee, “had to go” through Samaria, as if Jesus had some kind of resolve, had made some kind of conscious decision that he was going to travel that route on which he would very likely encounter, Surprise, Samaritans.

Once he’s in Samaria he comes to a well.  He is “tired out by his journey,” and he takes a seat.

The well would have been a regular stop for any local Samaritan woman.  God had not yet created indoor plumbing, and everyone needs water.  This was a common thing.  An everyday kind of task.  A woman’s task.  To head out in the cool of the day, morning or evening, along with the other women of the village, and fetch the water for the household: cooking, cleaning, washing, drinking.  Fred Suter reminds us that this is still a reality in parts of the developing world as he travels to the Congo and comes back with stories about water, and how one good, well placed well can change the life of a whole village, especially the women, whose day is no longer consumed with long travels to and from the nearest well.

Everybody needs water.  In his hierarchy of needs, Maslow listed it at the very foundation of what people need to thrive – right along with food, shelter, breath.  If you’re going to reach for the top and become self-actualized, you need to be well-hydrated.

This unnamed Samaritan woman, who had not heard of Maslow, came to the well not in the cool of the day, and not with other women.  Mark pointed out last week that the details of John’s gospel are never just throw away lines.  Nicodemus came to Jesus “at night,” under the cover of darkness, to have an inquiring conversation with Jesus.  This woman came to the well by herself “at noon,” in the blazing heat of the day.  It was an unusual time to do the heavy lifting of fetching and carrying water.  If Jesus was being intentional about traveling through Samaria to encounter Samaritans, it’s possible this woman was being just as intentional about not encountering anyone.

And how about never being told this woman’s name?  Nicodemus got named.  Mary Magdalene, who will discover the empty tomb of Jesus and encounter the risen Christ, gets a name.  But not this woman.  She’s a Samaritan woman – another anonymous character in the gospel stories alongside the rich young ruler, the woman with the hemorrhage, the poor widow who gives her last pennies to the temple treasury, the man born blind who will be the topic of next week’s Scripture, and many others.

Not knowing her name can make the story feel a little less personal.  Perhaps reducing her individuality and personhood.  But by calling her a Samaritan woman, there’s a way in which her significance is increased, representing far more than just herself.  The entire story and situation of the Samaritan people gets loaded into this one woman, and not naming her may allow the reader to consider just how freighted an identity is that of a Samaritan and how remarkable it is that she and this Jewish rabbi are having a life-giving conversation.

I’m thinking about the difference between saying: “Today I met someone named Fatima and we had a long conversation.” and saying, “Today I met a Muslim woman and we had a long conversation.”  Or the difference between “Today I met Patricia and she talked about her fears for her children.”  Or, “Today I met a Mexican woman and she talked about her fears for her children.”  Naming the nationality or religion of the person and not their name can both depersonalize, and highlight the significance of such an encounter.  We are not just decontextualized individuals.  We carry in our bodies stories, identities, entire biographies of peoples.  It’s one of the easiest things for white middle class folks to forget that I am not a generic human being but am freighted with history just like everyone.

Jesus, the Jewish male, on his way back home to Galilee, had to go through Samaria. And at a well, in the heat of the day, he encounters a Samaritan woman.

What made Jews and Samaritans such bitter rivals wasn’t how different they were, but how similar they were, while disagreeing on a few fundamental matters.  The Samaritans claimed that they were the true keepers of the Torah, with direct lineage back to the early priests of Israel.  Jews believed the Samaritans to be half-breeds and unfaithful to the God of Israel, a result of mixed ethnicities and religious practices that came about after the Assyrian empire conquered the 10 northern tribes of Israel way back in the 8th century before Christ.  One of the major Jewish/Samaritan divides is highlighted in this conversation when the woman brings up the Samaritan claim of Mt. Gerizim as the designated place of worship, compared to Jewish claims of Mt Zion in Jerusalem.  This was not a small matter.

It may be somewhat analogous to the current relationship between fundamentalist and progressive Christians.  We claim the same scriptures and the same Christian tradition, but offer our sacrifices on very different mountains.

Jesus had to go through Samaria on his way home, and, try as she might to avoid any kind of encounter, this Samaritan woman finds herself in a conversation with the enemy.

Strange how something as simple as talking with someone you’re supposed to hate can be a revolutionary act.

In living with this Scripture this week I couldn’t help but think of the numerous conversations I’ve been a part of in which we’ve talked about…conversations.  How hard it is to talk with people who think so differently.  How valuable it is to form relationships with people from different backgrounds.  It feels like really basic stuff, but it’s incredibly easy not to do.

We know society is polarized and polarizing.  We know social media is a lousy way to have an argument.  We know we want to be motivated by love, and not fear, or disgust.  We know how almost impossible it is to change those people’s mind to think the right way : )

With this in mind, the phrase from the dialogue that most drew me in was when Jesus tells the woman he can offer her living water.  “Living water” was a common phrase the simply meant running water, moving water, like a river, as opposed to stagnant water like a pool.  But Jesus goes on to say that the kind of living water he offers is the kind that will become in you a spring of water gushing up to life everlasting.”  It’s water which gives life, which leads to more life, which leads to more life, in a never ending ripple effect.

It makes me wonder if another aspect of the Inward/Outward journey is the practice of having living conversations.  Conversations that lead to life, which lead to more life, as opposed to soul-sucking conversations, or no conversations at all.  What if the encounter in the center of the labyrinth that we’ve been talking about is a living conversation, and the journey in is the work we do to enable ourselves to have living conversations, and the journey out is how we carry that conversation and allow it to transform us, as if we had encountered Christ.

The easy part is that this can count for pretty much any conversation we have.  The hard part is, well, you know….It’s hard.

I think I’ve had a few of those kinds of living conversations recently, and I’ll share one.

It was a few weeks back at the mosque on the West Side.  They hosted an open house that our own Robin Walton helped organize.  After exploring the building a bit, Lily and I went up to the refreshment line.  The energetic young Somali woman serving food spotted my wedding ring tattoo and asked me about it.  I told her I had already lost two rings, am in it for the long haul, and figured this was a solution.  She replied how cool she thought it was when people decorated their bodies and that if she ever got tattoos she would have the word Hello in 200 languages all over her arms.  She asked me where I was from and when I said I grew up in rural Ohio she said how much she likes country folks.  “They know how to fix things,” she said.  I agreed.  She has some friends in a rural area west of Columbus she likes to hang out with.  Then she started telling me her favorite country music singers and I had to confess I hadn’t heard any of the songs.  After she educated me about the American country music scene I figured I better not hold up the line any more.  She served us delicious Somali food, and we moved down the line.

It was a living conversation with a Somali woman whose name I can’t remember.  I’m guessing when most folks think of Somalians they don’t picture the face of a tattoo-admiring, country music loving grad student.  But now you can.

These days, having a respectful conversation with someone you’re supposed to view only with suspicion or fear can shake things up, even if just a little.

So maybe you identify most with Jesus, who had to go through Samaria, who made a commitment to encountering people he could have easily avoided.  Who both asked for a drink out of his own need, and offered living water whose effects would last well after the conversation was over.

Or maybe you identify most with the Samaritan woman, initially avoiding, then willingly entering, then embracing the gift of a living conversation.  At the end she puts down her water jar and goes back to her people and invites them to come and see.  She invites them into this life, this experience, this freedom, that this stranger has given her.  She becomes the jar that holds the water, and living water flows out of her to her people.

May the Source of all Life gift us with living water.

Wisdom calls | 29 May 2016

 

Texts: Proverbs 8:1-4; 22-31, John 1:1-5

 

About four years ago the University of Chicago received a large grant from the John Templeton Foundation.  It was for the creation the Wisdom Research Project.  The project is pretty much what it sounds like, and describes its mission this way: “ We want to understand how an individual develops wisdom and the circumstances and situations in which people are most likely to make wise decisions.  We hope that, by deepening our scientific understanding of wisdom, we will also begin to understand how to gain, reinforce, and apply wisdom and, in turn, become wiser as a society.”

Dr. Howard Nusbaum is the Director of this project and was recently interviewed in a publication I receive, which is how I found out about it (Bearing: for the Life of Faith, A publication of the Collegeville Institute, Spring 2016, pp. 16-17).  The interview notes that Wisdom researchers “use everything from brain scans to personal narratives to help them test their hypotheses about wisdom.”  Some are researching the effects of meditation on awareness and humility, both keys for wisdom.  Others are looking at the relationship between wisdom and the body.  For example, one research team has found that “years of ballet practice are related to increased wisdom.”  It’s never too late to start… Other researchers are finding significant connections between wisdom and sleep!  While sleeping our brains help us to generalize “from experiences, allowing us to use knowledge from one experience to help with a novel situation.”

So the next time you take a nap or lay down at night to sleep, consider it an exercise in gaining wisdom.

Nusbaum is especially interested in asking, “What is the relationship between wisdom and human flourishing?”  He cites Aristotle who believed these two were closely connected.  Nussbaum says that flourishing “does not necessarily mean health, prosperity, and pleasure.  Rather,” he says, “it seems to refer to a broader sense of social connection.”

I love that something like the Wisdom Research Project exists, and wonder how much we would learn if we spent half as much researching wisdom as we spend researching weapons and warfare.

The search for Wisdom is ancient.  If you are a member of the homo sapiens, a safe assumption, your very taxonomic classification, names you as “sapient human,” “wise human.”  Although when I looked up “sapient” it was defined as “wise, or attempting to appear wise,” which sounds about right.

In Proverbs 8, Wisdom is not merely something to be sought, but something, someone, doing the seeking.  Wisdom is personified as a female sage.  The bulletin cover artwork is one artist’s imaginative portrayal of Wisdom.  Proverbs 8 begins: “Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?”  Here, Wisdom is not hiding in foggy mists.  She is not trying to be elusive.  Wisdom has things to say.  Wisdom is calling.  Wisdom wants to be heard and she is raising her voice.

But where?  Where do you have to go to hear Wisdom?  The text goes on: “On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrances she calls out.”  Where is Wisdom to be found?  Up, down, out on the traveling road, everywhere roads intersect, in the city, at the gate where people gather and judicial cases are decided and economic exchanges take place.  Wisdom is everywhere.  You can’t get away her.  You almost can’t miss her.

Back to the text: “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.”  If you are alive, you are on the list of those to whom Wisdom is calling.

You don’t need a holy book to find Wisdom.  You don’t need to be literate.  You don’t need a degree, a credential, you don’t need a certain income level, you don’t need permission to listen to what Wisdom is saying.  You don’t need a multi-million dollar grant, although I wouldn’t suggest turning it down if someone offered it.  Wisdom, Proverbs suggests, is utterly accessible to woman, man, child – anyone with ears to hear, as Jesus was fond of saying.

In the age of the internet, this description of Wisdom sounds pretty close to the way we are now experiencing information.  Does not information call?  Do not audio and visual media raise their voice?  On the heights, beside the way, in the home, at the office, in the car, in the coffee shop, anywhere a wi-fi connection can be had, as far as LTE can reach?  To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all who have a device to receive me.

If you ask me just about any fact-seeking question, I could have you an answer as fast as I could enter it into my phone.  For most of us it has become totally normal to have 24 hour access to the all-knowing, all-present global brain, as close as your pocket.

I am in no way complaining about this state of affairs.  I’m rather fond of living in the digital age.  But let’s be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that having access to information does not mean that we are wise.  Information and wisdom, being smart and being wise are two different things.  Our President’s visit to Hiroshima this past week calls to mind the time when our nation got the smartest people together all in one room to come up with a solution to a problem, and they created the atomic bomb – which was used, twice, against our enemies, the civilians of Japan.  Information and wisdom, being smart and being wise are two different things.  One could argue that the smarter and more powerful we become as homo sapiens, the more urgent the need to become wise.

Proverbs 8 has more to say about Wisdom.  Wisdom and God, it appears, go way back.  Like, way back.  Proverbs 8:22 speaks in the voice of Wisdom: “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.”

Before the bang banged, wisdom was.  Before the drifting remains of a supernova star began aggregating together, forming the space ball we now know as planet earth, Wisdom was there.

Proverbs: “When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with waters.  Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth – when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil…when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker.”

Following the entire arc of this passage is like taking a trip back to Genesis itself, such that all that is, has come about under the watchful eye, through the power of, Wisdom.

So not only does Wisdom call out to all that lives, but Wisdom is embedded within all that lives.

Consider the lilies, Jesus said.  Consider the birds of the air.

Consider the cyanobacteria 2.7 billion years ago that learned how to receive the energy of sun in such a way so as to part the waters, to part water itself, the first to set oxygen free from its bondage to those two hydrogens, through photosynthesis, creating the kind of oxygenated atmosphere that enables creatures like us to breath.

Consider the strands of fungi under the soil, under this building, connecting tree to tree, root to root, an underground shipping and receiving network of water and nutrients.

Consider the world wide web of life, of wind currents, the unhurried tectonic shifts that thrust up mountains and push continents drifting toward and away from one another.

This is the world that Wisdom built.

John begins his gospel by speaking of the Logos, the Word, in a way similar to Wisdom.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  All things came into being through it, and without it not one thing came into being…  And the Word, the Logos, became flesh, and dwelt among us.”  Jesus is an embodiment of Wisdom.  His frequent talk of coming to bring abundant life finds echoes in Dr. Nusbaum’s question about wisdom research:  “What is the relationship between wisdom and human flourishing?”

So here’s my question: If Wisdom is calling out, everywhere, to everyone; if Wisdom is woven into the very fabric of creation; if the Christian tradition was founded on and celebrates embodied wisdom – then why is it so hard to become wise?  Why is it so hard to listen to whatever it is that Wisdom is saying?

Wisdom is a creator, and yet so much of what we are undertaking these days is uncreating the world that Wisdom has built.

We need elders to teach us how to listen to Wisdom.  We need our children to remind us of Wisdom.

There’s one more thing Proverbs 8 says about Wisdom, right where we left off.  “When he marked off the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in the inhabited world, and delighting in the human race.”  That word for “rejoicing,” which shows up twice, is translated by the Jewish Publication Society as “playing.”  Wisdom is not only a work horse, a mad scientist and visionary artist, but Wisdom is playful, Wisdom rejoices, Wisdom delights in the human race.

This past Thursday, after the group had met at Wendy’s headquarters in Dublin to demand fair wages and working conditions, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and their allies from around the Midwest came to CMC to have a lunch.  There was good reason to be discouraged.  Wendy’s continues to be the last holdout of the major fast food chains not to join the CIW Fair Food Program.  The folks who pick our tomatoes, predominantly Spanish speaking, have been working for over two decades to create the kinds of conditions for themselves in which they and their children can at least have the chance to flourish.  It’s hard work, and I can barely imagine being in their place and doing what they do.

But on Thursday, here in our fellowship hall, there was delight.  There was cheering, there was laughter, there was a good meal and conversation shared by all, there was an impromptu birthday song for one of the long time allies of CIW.

Wisdom plays.  Wisdom delights in the human race.  Wisdom calls us to put down our labors from time to time, and throw a fiesta, and rejoice in the goodness of life that the Creator has brought about through Wisdom.

“To you, O people, I call, and my invitation to the Great Fiesta is to all that live.”

The conversion of Thomas: A fictional alternative OR A parable about doubt and doubles | 3 April 2016

Text: John 20:19-29

 

The disciple we know as Doubting Thomas is referred to in John’s gospel as Thomas Didymus.  Didymus is Greek for “twin.”  Thomas the Twin is famous for having missed seeing the risen Jesus.  He believes only after he is able to place his hand in the side of the wounded Christ, who appears a second time.  With our Easter focus on Conversions, I wondered this week how Thomas’ life might have been different had he never gotten that second chance to touch, and thus believe.  This is a story of that possible alternative path, starting with the biblical narrative, and soon veering off into pure fiction.

The conversion of Thomas: A fictional alternative OR A parable about doubt and doubles

Thomas the Twin, as we was called from birth, rested in his home on what would be the final day of his life.  His body frail, but mind still sharp.  As people tend to do when they know death is near, he began to mentally review his life.

He thought back to that day he had revisited so many times before.  He was once again in the house with the shut doors in the holy city of Jerusalem.  He was there with ten of his comrades, those who had given up everything to follow the man from Galilee, their Master.  One of their own had betrayed the Master and now both of them were dead: one crucified, the other death by suicide.

Despite this grim turn of events, the tiny band of disciples were now overcome with excitement.  A week ago, behind these same doors, the Master had appeared to them, still bearing the signs of his brutal death in his hands and side, but miraculously alive.  Somewhere between human and angel, he had stood among them, blessed them with a greeting of peace, breathed on them, breathed into them, and given them a mission to spread his message throughout the land.  Mary Magdalene and other female disciples had their own stories of seeing the Master alive.

But for Thomas the Twin, these remained just stories.  He had not been there for Jesus’ public execution.  He had not been there at the tomb.  And Thomas was the only one who hadn’t been there when these supposed appearances took place.  Why was it, again, he hadn’t been there?  What was so important to have taken him away from his comrades at a time like that?  As much as he tried to recall, that detail was lost to memory.

But now he was back with them, behind the shut doors, only a week after these events, and they declared to him with one voice, “We have seen the Lord.”  As if waiting to say it all week, he responded, with equal conviction, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails, and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  It was spoken out of passion, out of sorrow, even out of anger that he had suddenly been separated from his friends by what seemed like a random occurrence of not being in the right place at the right time.  Everyone heard him say it, but he said it again, louder and more deliberate this time, confident that he was justified in his demand: “Unless I see what you have seen and touch the Master, I will not believe.”

They all stayed together in the house that day, recalling the events of the past few years, making plans of what to do next.

But there was no reappearance of the Master that day or that evening.  They gathered in the same place each day the following week, making sure Thomas the Twin was with them the whole time, hoping they could recreate the experience that had transformed the ten of them.  But it never happened.

As he felt the gap widening between himself and his friends, Thomas turned down the next invitation to meet.  When they eventually returned together to Galilee, he opted to not go fishing with them by the Sea of Tiberias.  When they returned to him after that fishing outing, with the same glow they had back in that house in Jerusalem, declaring that now, once again, the Master had appeared to them, had orchestrated a massive catch of fish, had even broken bread and eaten with them on the shore, Thomas felt the gap widen to a chasm.

This was the last day the eleven of them were ever together in the same place.

As Peter and James and John and the others started speaking out in public about the Master’s teachings and his death and resurrection, returning to Jerusalem, Thomas the Twin stayed behind, mourning the loss not only of the Master, but also of his friends.  Just as difficult was the loss of his own bearings, his sense of what was and wasn’t true, his sense of what he was to be about in life.  What was once a statement of earnest desire, became a personal mantra of suspicion, “Unless I put my finger in the mark of his hands and the wound of his side, I will not believe.”

Soon word came back to Galilee that his former companions had spread out to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth.  As if matching the degree of their conviction of faith with his own conviction of doubt, Thomas gave up entirely on his hopes of seeing the Master alive, resolving to never think on it again.

Faced with the need to make a living, with no donors stepping forward to finance his gospel of doubt, no energized communities forming around his lack of faith, Thomas returned to what he knew.  He sought out his brother and joined him in the trade they had been taught as boys: stone work. Building homes and structures throughout their small region in Galilee.

For two human beings who had started life so similar, been called each other’s names throughout childhood, even their parents having trouble telling them apart until their youth, Thomas and his twin brother had taken remarkably different paths.  The twin had always been the pragmatic one, wanting nothing more than to continue in his father’s work of masonry and construction.  He had married younger than most, had children soon thereafter, and spent his days content to work and care for his growing family.

Thomas had been the restless one, moody and frequently discontent, his mind always on something beyond what he was doing.  When the Teacher, the Master, had come around to their village with a small band of followers, Thomas had dropped everything and followed him.  He had scorned his twin, stuck in the drudgery of life, himself free and alive.

But now Thomas looked on his twin with a newfound respect.  He admired his steady, modest life.  He even admired that he had not been troubled by the incessant questions of God and redemption that had plagued Thomas for as long as he could remember.  After working long days, as he spent evenings with his nieces and nephews, Thomas softened ever so slightly to the simple joy of being with children, to their lightness of being, to the responsibility that came with having others depend on you.  He learned to accept the basic satisfaction of building something with his hands, something at the end of the day that he could see and, yes, touch.  Something that may not save the world or open the eyes of the blind, but something concrete, something necessary, something that life demanded be done.  He thought less and less of his days with the Master, speaking nothing of them to family or friends.  And no one asked.

One day, years later, while working on a tall structure, Thomas’s twin fell from a great height.  Thomas was there, and rushed to his aid, the body broken and bleeding.  As Thomas comforted him, his life quickly ebbing away, he put his hand on his twin’s badly wounded side.  And then, without forethought, he had visions of that room with the shut doors so many years ago.  He heard again the declaration of his friends, that they had seen the Lord, he heard again himself declare that he would not believe unless he saw and touched the wounds of the Master, he felt again his bitterness and alienation that followed, and he looked, back in the present, at his twin, his body now still and lifeless.

Although entirely inappropriate given the tragedy of the moment, for the first time in decades, Thomas laughed out loud.  He laughed as he looked at the one who was so different yet so like himself, now looking back at him, eyes gone dim.  He laughed at the cosmic confusion of it all – randomness, accident.  His laughter slid into sorrow as he wrapped his other arm around the limp body in front of him, his double.  Thomas the Twin was both alive and dead, wounded and whole, in an embrace with life and death.  His old forgotten prayer, neither answered nor unanswered.

Thomas called fellow workers over, led in carefully mounting the body on a cart to be carried back home, was the first to tell the news to the family, the first to give comfort.  The family of his twin now fell under his care.

Although he was more alone than ever, having lost Master, friends, calling, and now his very flesh and blood, a sense of peace welled up within Thomas.  And he breathed in a new thought.  He began to doubt his doubt.  Not that he fully believed what he could never bring himself to believe, but he started to let go of suspicion, he started to release his sense of being left out of some grand plan, his feeling that he had been the one who had been betrayed.  He carried his doubt more loosely and began to be simply open to life, whatever that may be.

Over the years Thomas had heard reports coming in from distant lands of his former comrades being martyred for their faith and testimony.  They had believed so strongly in their message that they had given their life for it, just like the Master.  They had started new communities throughout the empire and beyond, those communities carrying the message even further beyond themselves.  Although he had given little thought to these reports when he heard them, the names seeming like a distant dream, he recounted them now, and wondered if he was the only one remaining who had walked so closely with the Master, heard all his teachings, and witnessed the miracles and healings.

Another shift took place within Thomas.  Not instantly, but noticeably.  Rather than seeing his Master nowhere, he began to see him everywhere.  He began to see him present in the wandering sojourners who came through the village, he began to see him in the poor and outcast.  He saw him in the vitality of life he witnessed every day.

Much to his own surprise, Thomas began to open his home to guests.  He began to tell the stories and parables he had sworn to forget to his nieces and nephews, themselves now grown with children of their own.  He began to delight in the mystery and wonder of his own breath, knowing he wouldn’t have it forever.  He continued to work as long as his body allowed him, but he also traveled to far off places.  When he met strangers he would sometimes tell stories of the Master, and sometimes simply listen to the stories the other told.  In time he learned to end each conversation with a blessing of peace, that it would go well with the other and their people.  In doing this he felt his spirit expand, and felt something of the Master alive within him.

Thomas died an old man.  He died at peace, but also with the rekindled sense of restlessness that had never really left him.  He had never been certain of anything, wavering between doubt and belief, but he had learned to not be paralyzed by doubt, anger, betrayal, and loss.  He had believed enough to learn how to love, and his love was felt and cherished by those near him.

When he died he was buried in a family tomb along with his ancestors.  He started no churches, he wrote no gospels.  He would have no cathedrals named after him and was never given the title of saint.  Centuries later the family tomb was destroyed in one of the many military conquests of armies seeking to reclaim the Holy Land.  There is no place to go to visit his remains.  Thomas the Twin is nowhere and everywhere.

You…and your cattle | Lent 3 | 8 March 2015

Texts: Exodus 20:8-11; John 2: 13-22

If you ever want to see an aurochs, you’ll have to go to a museum.  When you do, you’ll be looking at a set of assembled bones.

If you’re extremely fortunate, or have some amazing connections, you could witness depictions of the aurochs on the cave walls of Lascaux, France, a gift from ancient artists, accidently discovered 75 years ago by four teenage boys, preserved for almost 20,000 years.

LascauxBull

But hardly anyone’s allowed in there anymore, too much humidity and light.  A more likely opportunity would be to watch the stunning documentary from Werner Herzog, “Cave of forgotten dreams,” which gives rare video footage of these kinds of paintings.

The aurochs once had a range across Europe and Asia and North Africa, that stretched from the western most parts of present day Portugal and Spain to the East coast of China and the Koreas.  At some point, the story of the aurochs and story of the human intersected and merged.  Aurochs became a reliable source of meat for hunters, a source of inspiration for artists.  About 8-10,000 years ago, in at least two separate locations, India and the Near East, people began selecting the traits of aurochs that they found most useful, forming an even tighter bond of interdependence with this creature.

The aurochs is the ancestor of domesticated cattle – minor and intentional changes over generations resulting in the different breeds of cows we have now.  Open your refrigerator and you’ll likely encounter many products for which you can thank the aurochs.  That gallon of milk.  All that cheese without which none of our children would have survived toddlerhood.  Yogurt, butter, cream, sour cream, and, of course, beef.  And, in the freezer, ice cream.  Thank you aurochs.  Even if you’re a vegan, the ghost of the aurochs still looms large all around you.  Drive a few miles outside the metro area and you’ll soon be surrounded by corn fields, about half of the harvest each year going to feed those milder and more economically productive descendants of the aurochs.

The last wild aurochs, a female, died in Poland in 1627, not so long ago.  Those minor and intentional changes over generations impacted the world enough that it became a place where more and more space has been made for domesticated cattle, even as there was less and less space for the aurochs.  I learned this week that there is a stone monument by the forest in Poland where that last aurochs grazed and chewed her cud.

Aurochs Monument

By the time of the Hebrew slaves’ exodus from Egypt, humans and cattle had been living interdependently for millennia.  Key to the Hebrews’ exodus was the giving of the Torah at Mt Sinai – the heart of which we know as the Ten Commandments.  All of the Ten Commandments are included in the lectionary reading for today, but we read only one.  The Sabbath commandment.  It’s one of two commandments that mention cattle.  The other being “Do not covet what belongs to your neighbor.”  One could argue that a reference to cattle is just below the surface in a third commandment, “Do not make for yourself an idol.”  As soon as Moses comes down from the mountain the Israelites have already broken that one, melting their jewelry and forming a golden calf.  Of all the things to worship besides the Creator Spirit, I suppose this is a decent candidate, with human life having become so dependent on cattle for sustenance.  No cattle, no civilization, at least not in that part of the world.  All hail the mighty cow.

The Sabbath Commandment begins: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.”  It’s a commandment that calls for a regularly observed practice of work stoppage.  Every seven days, you must stop working.  And not only you, the commandment continues, “You – your son and your daughter, your male and female servants, and your cattle, and the alien resident, the immigrant, who resides in your towns.”  That’s where the title of the sermon comes from, by the way.  “You…and your cattle.”

How interesting that the Sabbath commandment is extended to how the community relates with its livestock.  As the son of a former dairy farmer, I’m aware that milking dairy cows is one of the things from which a modern farmer can’t take a Sabbath.  You could take a break yourself and send out your child or your hired hand, but the cows have got to be milked, twice a day, every day, seven days a week, year round.  I’ve been told this is one of the reasons I’m the son of a former dairy farmer.

The Ten Commandments are recorded two different times in the Torah, in Exodus 20 and in Deuteronomy 5.  They are almost identical, as it seems they should be, but the Sabbath commandment is the one with the biggest difference.  The difference comes not in the commandment itself, but the reason for the commandment which directly follows.  In Exodus 20 it says, “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.”  In Deuteronomy 5 it says, “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.”

The Sabbath is so important that the people are given not one but two theological foundations for why it must be kept: Creation, and Exodus.  God creates the world in six days, and we create the world for six days a week, and so on the seventh we rest to remember that we are not god.  You were slaves in Egypt, and now you have been freed, you and your cattle, and so you rest on the Sabbath to remember that you are no longer a slave.  There is no Sabbath in Egypt.  You make bricks and more bricks every day, seven days a week, and the cattle pull the pallets they’re stacked on.

We exercise god-like power over our environment, shaping raw materials, generations of animals, the whole landscape, around our interests.  We are prone to enslaving others and sometimes ourselves, to achieve our intentions.  The Sabbath exists to remind us that we are not god, and that we are not slaves.

Two weeks ago I was at a luncheon with some other Columbus clergy where the speaker happened to be our own Yvonne Zimmerman who talked about how we relate with the world through the Economy, with a big “E”.  It was hosted at the Weiner Jewish Student Center by OSU and during the discussion time one of the hosts from the Center spoke up and talked about the importance of Sabbath practice in how Jews relate to the economy.  When you practice a Sabbath, he said, the days leading up to it are spent preparing for Sabbath.   And the days after it are informed and illuminated by Sabbath.  So that rather than simply being a day to catch your breath so you can re-enter the world to be an even more productive component of the economy, the Sabbath becomes the purpose around which the rest of life is organized.  And it filters its way into relationships and workplaces and the inner life of prayer.

What would an inner economy of the soul, centered around Sabbath, look like?  What would an external economy of goods and services, centered around Sabbath, look like?

In Jesus’ time, a major intersection of the inner and outer economy took place in the Jerusalem temple.  It was a holy place of prayer and devotion, and it was also a place of economic exchange.  The Torah called for animal sacrifices, and because the temple drew in people from different parts of the world, there was a necessary currency exchange in place to purchase the required animals on site since that was easier than everyone bringing their own animals from far away.  It was a hub of activity and, because of all the animals involved in the process, it was also a stable, and a slaughterhouse.  The priest received the animal, did the official holy work, but the whole thing didn’t just go up in smoke.  After the ritual the priest brought the roast beef back for the family to eat in gratitude.  So the temple area was also a restaurant.  It was not a quiet place to be, and it did not, in all places, smell like flowers and incense.

For those of us who emphasize the nonviolence of Jesus, the story of his clearing out the temple can feel jarring.  Nobody gets hurt, as far as we can tell, and no animals were harmed in the clearing of this temple, but still…..    John’s version is especially intense, including details not present in Matthew, Mark, or Luke.   John is the only gospel to mention Jesus making a whip of chords, and is the only one to mention the presence of sheep and cattle.  The others just mention the smaller and gentler doves.  John’s version also, surprisingly, takes place at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, while the other gospels record this as happening during the last week of Jesus’ life, the act that pushes the authorities over the edge and leads to Jesus’ death.  Although it’s probably more likely this happened at the end of Jesus’ life, we might think of John’s telling the same way a film plays with the order of chronological events in order to shape the way the story unfolds.  Rather than building momentum for the end, John cranks up the heat right away and lets us know we’re in for quite a ride.

His story is earlier, louder, smellier, and more aggressive than any other account.

I’m guessing we’re thankful we didn’t have to pass cattle and currency exchanges on our way into worship, but before we count ourselves religiously advanced, we might consider that we’ve simply removed our stables and slaughterhouses away from the realm of the sacred.  These things still happen, just mostly out of sight, and now without a sense of it being a holy process.  Now the priests in the slaughterhouses get paid only slightly more than minimum wage.  And without much drama or involvement on our part, the meat ends up in our refrigerators, right next to the cheese.

The temple was supposed to be the coming together of the sacred and the common – the place where heaven and earth met.  It was to be a witness that all of life is holy, even the smelly and bloody parts, a cause for gratitude and humility before the Holy One.  There was nothing overtly out of line with what was happening in the temple as John describes it.  It was going according to design.  But Jesus perceived that it had lost this sense of the holy.  The house of prayer had been reduced to a marketplace.  Buying and selling and praying and praising need not be mutually exclusive activities, they can dwell together in a beautiful harmony, but they can also become separated. Perhaps slowly, even imperceptibly, over time, generation by generation, the temple had become an entirely different species from its original aspirations.  And so Jesus raises his whip of chords and makes a scene in the temple; the humans watching, jarred and bewildered; the cattle celebrating their exodus, running loose in the streets of Jerusalem.

In a world where the temple is no more, and the official sacrifices have ceased, I wonder where are the places – the businesses, the schools, the homes, the souls, where there is the coming together of the holy and the common.  I wonder who will be the priests who remind us that the meal, and the animals and vegetables and minerals that make it possible, are sacred, to be received with awe and thanksgiving.  I wonder how there might be no divide between our prayers and our purchases.

I wonder if we, who do not cross paths with cattle on a daily basis but are just as, if not more dependent on them as any ancient Hebrew, will ever find a way to observe Sabbath with the animals.  To remember that we are not god.  And we are not slaves.  And neither are they.

I wonder if the artists in the caves were praying with each stroke of their instrument as the image of the aurochs took shape on the stone in front of them.  If those caves were just as much their temple.  I wonder what they would think if they knew that their prayers would outlive even the aurochs, rediscovered in an age whose landscape they would barely recognize.

Baptismal identity and privilege | 18 January 2015 | MLK weekend

Christ stain glass

Texts: 1 Samuel 3:1-10; John 1:43-51

The image behind me, also printed on your bulletins, is a stained glass window in 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.  It was a gift from the people of Wales, after that church was bombed in September, 1963, less than three weeks after the March on Washington and King’s “I have a dream” speech.  Four black girls died in that bombing.

Much transpired between the giving of that iconic speech and the words King delivered at Stanford University in April, 1967. Less than a year after that he was killed at the age of 39.  King still expresses hope in the words we have been hearing this morning from that speech, but they are tempered by the continued resistance and outright violence and hatred directed against blacks and the civil rights movement.  The new movie Selma, which I hope all of us have a chance to see sometime, is set in 1965, and is one of those events that happened after the hopeful and beautiful dream of 1963 spoken in Washington DC, and before the more solemn and urgent plea of 1967, spoken at Stanford.  Because we are listening to some of that speech today, my words will be brief.

Last week Joseph Sprague spoke to the racial inequalities in our prisons and criminal justice systems.  The recent police shootings of black males and grand jury trials have highlighted continuing racial disparities both in attitudes and in systemic injustice.  And here we are, on the weekend our nation has set aside to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

It’s important for us to hear together these challenging words from the King of 1967.  “What I’m trying to get across is that our nation has constantly taken a positive step forward on the question of racial justice and racial equality. But over and over again at the same time, it made certain backward steps… And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again… And so we must help time, and we must realize that the time is always right to do right.”

These words join with the lectionary scripture readings for the morning of God’s call to the young Samuel, reminding us that it’s never too early to begin God’s work, and that since the old and experienced Eli was also in the temple but was not hearing the same call, that each new generation must hear for itself what is the call of its time.  In John Jesus calls Phillip and Nathaneal into a journey of discipleship that will lead them away from the familiar and perhaps comfortable world of Galilee toward Jerusalem, a journey that, for Jesus, will result in what is pictured in this stained glass window.

I invite you to look again at this image and to ponder it.  One of its signature characteristics is how the artist portrays the hands of Jesus.  The right hand, you may notice, is turned, in a pose of opposition.  If you are or have ever been a parent of a teenager, you may recognize this gesture as closely resembling “talk to the hand.”  If you are a teenager, or have ever been a teenager, perhaps you have struck this pose yourself once or twice.  While not always a great conversation tactic among family, it is an essential aspect of our relationship with injustice.  It is an expression of active resistance.  Jesus does not go passively to the cross, but accepts this fate as an act of resistance against all that is evil and all that defies and threatens the power of life.  On the cross, Jesus exposes and overcomes the powers of violence, making a public display of them, as the writer of Colossians says in 2:15.  This image asks us to meditate on the question of how we actively resist that which belittles and harms life.

On the other hand…the left hand is open.  It’s in a position of vulnerability.  It’s an offering of oneself.  It’s a gesture of forgiveness grounded in the ultimate hope of healing and reconciliation.  If you have ever seen the artwork displaying early Christians in prayer, you’ll note that their hands are not folded in the way we associate with prayer, but are up, and open, in a posture of surrender, and openness to God.  “Your will be done.”  We receive the grace and goodness of God through an openness that is both strong and vulnerable.  This is what prayer looks like.

Last Sunday I was out of town and missed the chance to preach on what the lectionary has designated as a day to remember the Baptism of Jesus, the first Sunday every year after Epiphany.  I invite us to consider this image of Christ as a wonderful example of what our baptismal identity means.  Our baptismal identity, our heeding of the call of God which came to Samuel, and Mary, and Phillip and Nathaniel, and also to us, looks like these two hands of Christ – both actively resisting injustice and being open and vulnerable to the work of the Spirit, relating to our enemies in such a way that transforms the landscape, refusing to treat them as a permanent enemy.  “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

And I want to approach this image from one other angle.  As we become more aware of the ways that racism persists, we become more aware of what has been appropriately called White Privilege.  White privilege, to be rather concrete about it, speaks to the social fact that I could go into a local Wal-Mart and take a bb gun off the shelf that is for sale and not have someone in the store who sees me with that gun suspect me of being a threat, call the police, and have the police come into the store and shoot and kill me without asking questions – something that happened last August about an hour’s drive from here, to John Crawford III, in Beavercreek, Ohio.  John wasn’t white.  John was black.  White privilege means the systems work for me, assume the best of me, give me second chances and the benefit of the doubt, doesn’t target my neighborhood for extra patrol.  White privilege means I can decide whether or not I want to care about any of this.  It means I have the privilege of not having to think about race every day.

White privilege is not a cause for debilitating guilt, but the more we become aware of it, it is a cause for responsibility and another way of heeding that Divine call which comes our way.  It’s cause for recognizing that our baptismal identity happens within these bodies we have been given.  These bodies which carry other identities – of race and gender, and mental and physical ability, sexual orientation, national citizenship and immigration status.  Our baptismal identity informs how we live with all these other identities.

And so as a parting thought, looking at this image one more time, we can notice that this portrays a black Christ.  There is a sense in which we identify with this Christ, with the two hands of resistance and forgiveness.  But there’s another way, if we are in the position of privilege in any of these categories, that we should not pretend that we’re the ones on the cross, not the ones having injustice directed at our very being.  And so our baptismal identity takes us to a different place.  A place of listening.  A place of honoring and learning from the experience of others, and allowing that to transform us.  From a position of privilege, we are not in this image, but we are witnesses of it.  We honor and accompany the way others resist and the way others keep their hands and hearts open to those who harm them.  Our baptismal identity reminds us that even though we could ignore this image, we have chosen to live with it, to be haunted and troubled by it.  Ultimately, to be redeemed by a Christ who gave his live for the whole world, no exceptions, and continues to extend the hand of grace to those ready to respond in the same way as Samuel: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”