Dancing with death and resurrection | Easter | April 16

Matthew 27:45-53; 27:55-61; 28:1-10

If death were a dance, what would it look like?

When death dances with you, what will it feel like?  What does it feel like?

When Joseph of Arimathea danced with death it looked like… a meeting with Pilate – a rare conference with the political authority who held in his hand the power of life and death.  Who had withdrawn his power to protect life, and handed yet another subject over to a tortured death.  Who had been swayed by the fickle crowd.  Whose soldiers had done their job, carried out their duty, ensuring the security of the state.

When Joseph of Arimathea danced with death it looked like asking for a body, a dead body, from the one with power to grant or withhold that body.  With the wave of his hand, Pilate granted Joseph his request.

When Joseph of Arimathea danced with death it felt like new linen cloth, clean and slightly course, wrapped tight around the body.  It smelled like myrrh and aloes.  It felt like stone, cold and hard.  A new tomb, hewn in the rock.  He laid the body in the rock tomb.  “Then,” Matthew writes, “he rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb, and went away.

When Abbie and I danced with death it sounded like… nothing.  Our first two children were born the way we’d hoped and expected.  The work of labor was followed by the yelp of life and a flurry of activity – doctor and nurses who had done this many times before, skilled at attending to a child in the first minutes after birth.   As the father, who had not felt life slowly growing within me, one minute there was nothing, and then there was something, someone, very real, very real, and very alive.

But with our third child, we danced with death, something we had not expected.  The work of labor was followed by a deafening silence as our daughter Belle was stillborn at 22 weeks.  There was no flurry of activity afterwards because there was nothing to do.  We held her and sat with her, talked and didn’t talk for long stretches of time.  We received visitors who sat with us in silence, talking, and not talking, moving about and being still.  Eventually, hours and hours later, it was time to go.  Eventually, we walked out and drove away.  Back home, where life was very much the same, and very much different.

The two Marys danced with death from a distance.  They’d followed Jesus from Galilee and provided for him out of their own means.  They had invested their resources, their money, their time in this man and his message about the kingdom of God.  They’d invested their hopes in the way he moved among the people, the way he touched people with his words and his hands.  People who hadn’t been touched for years.  The way he lifted them up, women!, as partners in this work.

The two Marys were there with “many women,” Matthew says, as witnesses to death, watching from a distance.  When Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” danced with death they strained their eyes to make it out.  It was happening, over there.  Jesus’ other companions had fled for their own safety.  But Mary, and the other Mary, were there, with many women, watching.

They were distant, and then they came near.  The Sabbath had ended.  It was dawn, the first day of the week.  They came together to see the tomb.  They came near to see, when they danced with death.

What’s it like to be distant, and then to come near to death, to see.  Like walking into the labyrinth, winding your way along the only path there is. Eventually you make your way into the center, surrounded on all sides by the path that got you there.  And there you are.

When Jesus and death had their day to dance, Jesus was silent when commanded to speak.  “Do you not hear the accusations they make against you?” Pilate demanded.

He was nonresistant when expected to fight back.  “Put away your sword Peter.  For all who live by the sword, die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).

For one who had demonstrated such power, he was remarkably powerless.  “He saved others, why can’t he save himself?”  Matthew 27:42

Matthew narrates Jesus’s last moments this way: “Then Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and gave up his spirit.”  Jesus gave up…his spirit, his breath, that thing through which the body has life.  He gave it up, let it go.

There’s a great mystery in that moment.  When the miracle of birth meets its mirror image.  Life is there, then it’s not.

As Matthew tells it, Jesus’ dance with death was a moment of rupture.  “At that moment,” he writes, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.  The earth shook, and the rocks were split.”  Temple, earth, rocks.  That which represents the most sacred, the most sure, the most solid thing we can imagine.  Is torn, shaken, and split.  The earth moves under our feet and we can only try to keep our balance.  Or sometimes, not even try.

If you were to dance with resurrection, what would it look like?

When resurrection dances you, what will it feel like?  What does it feel like?

For Matthew, there is not one cataclysmic rupture, but two.  After the death of Jesus, the rock splitting earthquake, after Joseph of Arimathea’s careful attention to the body, after the women have looked on from a distance, they come near after the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning.  It was Mary Magdelene and the other Mary who came to see the tomb.

“And suddenly there was an earthquake.”

And again that which was most sure and solid is torn, shaken, and split.  Only rather than life being shaken, this time it’s death.

When Mary and Mary dance with resurrection, it looks a stone being rolled away.  It looks like flashes of lightning.  It looks like guards becoming like dead men and a dead man becoming like… Life itself.

It feels like fear and great joy, and leaving the tomb because what you were looking for is not there.  It looks like running out of the labyrinth without paying any attention to the lines.  The way has opened up ahead of you in all directions.

It sounds like being out of breath from running and still running into the light of day.  It sounds like encountering Life itself which says, “Greetings!” and, “Do not be afraid” (Matthew 28:9,10).  It looks like running to tell your friends.  Christ, and you, are on the loose.

About a month ago I was putting Ila to bed and she surprised me by asking “Where’s Belle?”  I told her that Belle had died when she was born.  We buried her ashes on grandpa and grandma’s farm and planted a tree there.  We can go and see the tree, but we can’t see Belle.  Ila wasn’t entirely satisfied with my answer.  Neither was I.

I imagine one day, not too long from now, she’ll ask me an even more loaded question.  “If Belle hadn’t died, would I have been born?”  I’m not ready with an answer on that one yet.  What I want to tell her, eventually, is that it might not be the right question to get stuck on.  Whether the life you are living would have been entirely different, or would not have been at all, had death not intervened somewhere along the way.  I’d like to tell her the same thing I tell myself.  That we are surrounded by mysteries, and that one of the most wonderful mysteries of all is that we are alive right now, and that “now” keeps changing, even though it’s still now.  That Christ is Risen, on the loose, and is not confined to any singular package of cells and organs.  All to which Ila might respond: “Geeze Dad.  It’s like you’re preaching a sermon.”

The March 9 issue of Christian Century magazine included an obituary for Richard Reinhold Niebuhr.  He was the son of theologian H. Richard Niebuhr and himself a long time professor at Harvard Divinity School.  It included a quote from him he had written in 1960.  “The problem of preaching at Easter (is that) it is a relatively easy thing to muse on the story of the first Easter, for it is not Easter as such that is a scandal,” even to modern people. “The difficulty arises at the juncture in which the humanity of Christ and our own humanity are equated or not equated, at the juncture in which we either do or do not recognize ourselves in him and him in ourselves.”

To recognize ourselves in the one who was dead but is risen is an act of faith.  To acknowledge that even though death is at work within us, so is life, which includes and transcends the power of death.

When resurrection dances you, what will it feel like?  What does it feel like now?

Matthew includes in his gospel a brief anecdote not mentioned anywhere in the other accounts.  It is as delightful as it is bizarre.  It happens right after Jesus’ death.  Right after the temple curtain is torn, the earth shakes, and the rocks are split.  Right in the midst of the disruption.

Matthew writes: “(And) the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.  After (Jesus’) resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many” (Matthew 27:52).

Now imagine this scene.  Many bodies of the saints have been risen to life.  They are waiting, just waiting in those tombs that held them for so long.  And after Jesus’ resurrection they start to come out, to dance their way into the holy city.  To move their way through the streets, making unannounced appearances to unsuspecting people going about their daily lives.  To appear to many.  To dance their way into the marketplace.  To dance their way into homes.  To dance their way in and out of the paths that people tread every day.

Matthew makes very clear that resurrection is not confined to Jesus.  The same Power that raised Jesus from the dead raises others from the dead.

Now, imagine that we are the others.  Even though death is at work within us, so is life, which includes and transcends the power of death.  Imagine resurrection dancing its way all around you and towards you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No more scapegoating | Palm Sunday | April 9

Texts:: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Matthew 26:14-25

If you were to randomly walk into our house anytime in the last four or five months, odds are pretty good you’d hear a certain Broadway musical playing at high volume.  A little before Christmas, Hamilton took our household by storm.  It’s still a favorite, although not quite as intense now as it was for a while.  It’s been such a constant at our house it’s nearly miraculous this is the first time it’s come up in a sermon.

For the uninitiated, Hamilton is the true story of Alexander Hamilton, an orphan who became a Revolutionary War leader and the first US Treasury Secretary ; George Washington’s right hand man.  And it’s all set to hip hop.  As the opening number says, he was

“The ten dollar founding father without a father

got a lot farther

by working a lot harder

by being a lot smarter

by being a self starter.”

Alexander Hamilton was an immigrant to New York from the Caribbean and is played by the musical’s writer, Lin Manuel Miranda, himself the son of a Puerto Rican immigrant to New York.  In the original cast, George Washington is black, and Thomas Jefferson has dreads.  Along with being lyrically brilliant, thoroughly educational, and impossibly catchy, another reason for its popularity in our house is that the female leads are the Schuyler sisters, Angelica, Eliza, who marries Alexander, and Peggy.  Three sisters.  The Miller sisters quickly adopted and perfected their part.

Another feature is that the story is largely told through the eyes of Aaron Burr.  Burr and Hamilton shared much in common, but had very different ways of pursuing their aspirations.  In case we had forgotten or slept through high school US history, Burr tells us right away that he’s the fool who shot and killed Hamilton, in a dual.  So one of the threads throughout the musical is seeing how these two friends and collaborators eventually have their falling out.

When asked about his inspirations for writing Hamilton, Lin Manuel Miranda included the 70’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar.  That musical tells the story of Jesus, largely from the perspective of Judas, who, in case you had forgotton or slept through Sunday school – every year – eventually betrays Jesus, aiding in his crucifixion.  That musical takes a lot of liberty with the psychology of Judas and Jesus, but it’s a powerful method: to hear a familiar story from the perspective of the “villain,” and thus see it in a new way.  As Aaron Burr sings, after he and Eliza are by Hamilton’s side as he dies from the gunshot wound: “Now I’m the villain in your history.  I was too young and blind to see.    I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.”

Today is Palm Sunday, and the lectionary gives two options for the gospel reading.  There is the standard reading of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  He parades into the city in street theater fashion, met by cheering crowds and a road covered with cloaks and palms.  Greeted with shouts of joy: “Hosanna, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”  Less than a week later, he’ll be dead.

The other gospel reading, which we chose, features Judas.  It’s four days after that dramatic entry into Jerusalem.  Jesus is gathered for supper with twelve of his closest companions, Judas among them.  As they eat, Jesus reveals that one of them will betray him.  All the disciples deny it, but we, the reader, have already been told that Judas had met with the chief priests.  He’d offered to betray Jesus, for a price.  The reading ends unresolved, the tension thick in the air.  Judas says, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” And Jesus replies, “You said it.”

Every story needs a villain, and here we have our man.  The one so close to Jesus that they would dip their bread in the same bowl, becomes the betrayer, the Judas, the villain.

If you need a villain, someone to blame for the death of Jesus, Judas is definitely in the running.

But let’s consider the possibility that the gospels are doing something far more interesting than giving us a story with a hero and a villain.  Something much bigger and ultimately far more revolutionary.  Something that calls into question the whole framework for how we tell our stories.

Rene Girard was a literary critic who did extensive research into how the scapegoating mechanism has worked throughout human societies.  Because groups are inherently unstable, with desire and conflict threatening cohesion, we need a way to keep ourselves together.  The scapegoating mechanism provides a powerful means to do this.  We may not be able to agree on everything, but if we can, at key times, agree that this particular person, or this particular group of people, are what is causing our problems, and if we can direct all of our energy toward casting out, eliminating, defeating, executing this person or group, we will achieve a remarkable unity.  It will hold us together, for a while longer.  The unity will inevitably start to weaken as the energy from the scapegoating event dissipates, and so eventually another scapegoat is needed.

Girard proposed that human sacrifice began as a way of regularly ritualizing the scapegoating act.  Sacrifice obviously pleased the gods because it brought the powerful blessing of group cohesion.  It was a miracle every time.  By directing the anxiety and anger and scattered energy of the group all in one direction, all laid upon that sacrificial victim, the group managed to both restored their unity and affirm their own goodness.  They have cast out of their presence the cause of all their strife.  This is the right and righteous thing to do for the security of the group. And it’s self-evidently true that the sacrificial victim was the cause of the strife because it’s such a unifying act to cast them out.  The priest who carries out the sacrifice mediates the gift of the gods to the people.  The victim is declared guilty and offered up, and the crowd, the congregation, is redeemed and declared innocent, born again as a people.

Even though we don’t do human sacrifice, or animal sacrifice in the same way these days, the scapegoating mechanism persists.  The more anxious the society, the more passionate and urgent the scapegoating.  It doesn’t matter who the current scapegoats are – the communists, the terrorists, the Jews, the gays, the immigrants.  What matters is that there is a space that must be occupied by some small group in order to keep the larger group together.  This can also happen on a very small and mostly harmless scale.  Parents eventually figure out that one way for their fighting kids to get along is to get them mad at you.  It’s a desperation move, but sometimes making yourself the scapegoat temporarily can create a miraculous harmony for everyone else.  It can shift the dynamics in a snap.  So I’ve heard.

Scapegoating is a gift from the gods.

Unless.

Unless the story starts to get told from the perspective of the sacrificial victim, the designated villian.  From the perspective of the crowd, the ritual and mechanism is the truest and best thing they’ve been given.  It’s what holds them together.  It’s what renews and redeems creation.  It’s what brings safety and security, and purity.  But when the story starts to get told from the perspective of the scapegoat, it starts to crack.  It starts to be revealed as a lie.  It starts to be revealed for what it is.  A lynching.  A murder.  A form of unity based entirely on the power of violence and death.

Girard was a secular philosopher and literary critic and came to believe that the difference between good literature and bad literature was that bad literature covered over the scapegoating mechanism, and good literature revealed it.  In the latter part of his career he focused much of his attention on the literature of the Bible and came to see it as a document filled with standard examples of cultural and religious ritual around the scapegoating mechanism.  Except that the Hebrew and Christian scriptures are ultimately concerned with revealing and exposing and doing away with scapegoating.  It’s the story of empire told from the perspective of the Hebrew slaves who get blamed by Pharaoh as the cause of all his ills.  It’s the story of a nation told from the perspective of the prophets, who defend the most vulnerable in the public square.  It’s the story of conquest from the perspective of the exiles and the occupied, who refuse to assimilate into the dominant society.  As is echoes in so many of the Psalms and the Isaiah reading today, the God of the Bible takes up the defense of the one surrounded by the accusing crowd.

And it’s the story of a Messiah who refuses to play the role of Messiah.  It’s customary to comment this time of year how strange it is that the crowds who one day are cheering and Hosanna-ing Jesus into Jerusalem, turn around so quickly and shout “crucify him, crucify him.”  But this is exactly how the whole thing works.  This is standard procedure for human culture.  The Messiah, the king, the president, the quarterback is either the savior or the villain.  The dynamics can shift in a snap.  We either demand that they fix everything, or demand that they be crucified so we can move on to the next potential Messiah.  Either way, we are innocent of this man’s blood.

One of the reasons I loved the story from Mark’s sermon last week was that it captured the exact moment when the hero was about to become the villain.  The guy who fixed everything was about to lose favor with the crowd, and he was pondering at the edge of the cliff whether he should just save them the trouble and do to himself what the crowd was about to do to him anyway.

How strange and terrible are the events of Holy Week.  That Jesus would knowingly walk into that space occupied by the scapegoat.  That space that has taken a thousand forms and faces throughout human history.  Jesus will occupy that space not because scapegoating saves us, and certainly not because God demands a human sacrifice in order to forgive us.  But because scapegoating kills us.  We are the ones who demand a human sacrifice.  It’s just what we do.  We demand someone else pay for our sins, so that we can remain convinced of our own innocence and righteousness, assured once again that god is on our side.

Crucify him, Crucify him, shout the crowds.  It’s such a powerful force that even Pilate, the Roman governor, is like putty in its hands.  It’s what the crowd demands.  It’s what will pacify anxiety.  It’s what will keep the peace and restore order.  It’s what will confirm what we whisper to ourselves.  That this man deserves every bit of it, and we are innocent.

Jesus occupies the space of the scapegoat, and thus exposes it.  Exposes it as violence – and not just violence against another human being.  But violence against God.  Jesus, the god-man, occupied the vulnerable space of the scapegoat, and so everyone who has been in that same place becomes the image of Christ among us.  This is why James Cone would declare with authority that Christ is black.   Jesus assumes the place of the scapegoat.  Exposes the lie, breaks the spell that entranced us, and blinded us.

The writer of Colossians says that Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities by making a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them on the cross” (Col 2:15).  The scapegoating mechanism has been disarmed and need not hold any power over us any more.  God redeems freely and abundantly, and Jesus, by refusing to be the Messiah, becomes the Messiah, who saves us from our perpetual need for victims.  Jesus overcomes sin by becoming the sinful one, the scapegoat, and offers a new way of being human.  A way that has no need of victims.  A community made up of victims, and perpetrators, who recognize their own complicity, who live into the gift of grace, who give themselves over to being a community of love and repentance and reparation.

Christianity has often fallen right back into the old pattern.  God becomes the ultimate demander of sacrifice with Jesus on the cross, the Jews get blamed for it, and Judas embodies the villain.  But Christianity at its best has offered to the world a peaceful and redemptive form of community.  We are all complicit, which strangely frees us up to become something else.  The world is wide enough for us all and there need be no more scapegoats.  It is our gospel, good news, message.

As Aaron Burr sings in one of his many fabulous numbers: “Love doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints.”  (“Wait for it“)

During this Holy Week may you know the gift of Christ who gave of himself so that we can be free from the powers of death and participate in the parade of life.

 

 

 

 

 

Into / Out of the labyrinth | Lent 1 | March 5

Texts: Genesis 2:8-9; 15-17;   Matthew 4:1-11

Labyrinth

 

If you’ve read the Lent devotionals, looked at the bulletin cover, or found the pattern in the hanging dots behind me, you’ve likely noticed a visual theme.  We’re using the labyrinth throughout Lent as a symbol of the Inward / Outward journey.

It’s an ancient design.  Not necessarily this particular one, but the labyrinth.  One site in northern India has a labyrinth pattern estimated to be 4500 years old.  A cluster of islands in northwest Russia have over 30 stone labyrinths that may be as old as 3000 years.

Greek mythology includes the story the part human/ part beast minotaur who wreaks havoc on the population until the great architect Daedalus designs and builds a labyrinth whose sole purpose is to contain the minotaur at its center.  The hero Theseus eventually enters the winding labyrinth and slays the minotaur.  Some labyrinths still portray a minotaur at the center.

In later medieval times stone labyrinths show up in regions like Scandinavia, frequently around the coast.  Fishing communities likely built these with the superstitious hopes of trapping harsh winds and trolls that may endanger a successful fishing outing.

Around the same time, the labyrinth was being adopted more fully as a Christian symbol of pilgrimage.  Labyrinths were embedded into the pavement of grand cathedrals.  Worshipers were invited to pray their way along the path, into the center, a place of holy encounter, and pray their way back out.  Some writings suggest that walking the labyrinth was an alternative option for those unable to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as Christian crusaders regained and then lost control of the Holy City to the Muslim armies.  There’s a real bright spot in religious history.

In the last few decades the labyrinth has made a resurgence in the Christian imagination.  Labyrinths are popping up in all kinds of places.  Maybe you’ve seen one and wondered what it was.  They’re used frequently at retreats as a more active prayer practice.  During my years at seminary AMBS decided to mow a labyrinth into a large area of native prairie grasses growing on the campus.  The labyrinth is a trending piece of spiritual technology, and we’re riding the wave.

One of the primary differences between a labyrinth and a maze is that the labyrinth has only one path, with no dead ends or false trails.  This is different than, say, the hedge maze at the Triwizard tournament that Harry Potter had to find his way through, the four contestants frantically darting through corridors, trying to avoid wrong turns and blast ended skrewts, and find the Cup.

If you put your finger at the bottom opening of the labyrinth on the bulletin cover, or if you do the same with your eye with the banner, and start to trace the line, you’ll notice there is only one way to go.  In a labyrinth the task is not to avoid getting lost, but simply to keep going.  If you keep going, you will make it into the center.  And after arriving, you will find your way back out, if you only keep going.

So why go on a pilgrimage like this?  Why go through this circuitous route when it would be much easier to walk a straight line into the center?  And, since when did anyone decide that the journey into the labyrinth was a good thing?  Aren’t there harsh winds and a minotaur waiting for you in the center?

The scriptures for the first Sunday of Lent speak about why such a journey may be necessary.

The reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is one of the opening scenes of the Bible.  It’s an origins story about who we are and where we come from.  In Genesis 2, the human is formed from the dust of the ground.  Shaped by the Lord God, Yahweh Elohim, breathed into being through the Divine breath of life.  The humans begin life surrounded by everything they need to flourish.  They live in a lush garden.  There are all kinds of trees planted by the very hand of Yahweh Elohim, producing different kinds of edible fruit.  Humanity starts out in a perennial forest garden.  The only hitch is that one tree from which the humans are commanded not to eat.  The tree of knowledge of good and evil.  Knowledge of good and evil could have a moral meaning, or it could also be an expression of comprehensiveness.  Like the “heavens and the earth” includes those two things and everything in between.  “Good and evil” could also mean those two things, and everything in between.  The tree of knowledge of the full scope of that which is knowable, all the way from the good, to the evil.

Now if Yahweh Elohim would have had any kind of parenting experience whatsoever, God would have known that as soon as you declare something off limits, you inadvertently and immediately awaken the very desire you are seeking to quelch.  I guess it might add a little extra incentive for obedience if you say, “On the day you do it, you will surely die.” In Genesis, God is learning right along with humanity how to make this whole creation thing work.  And so the stage is set.

We’re so familiar with the general outline of the story of the Garden of Eden that it’s easy to miss how surprising an origins story it is – one in which humanity is surrounded by abundance.  It seems much more intuitive to tell a story of scarcity.  These up and coming humans struggling against all odds in a hostile environment.  Scrounging for food, fending off wild beasts, never more than an annual cycle away from the threat of starvation or annihilation.  Within our own myths of economic competition and perpetual progress, it’s tempting to look back into the mists of pre-history and imagine that kind of continuous struggle for survival in which life, in the words of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Leviathan, 1651).

But Genesis proposes another scenario, another way to think about our origins, and thus our present predicament.  It’s a story in which the central question is not How will we have enough resources? but rather How will we use the abundance of our resources in a way that contributes to the flourishing of life rather than the destruction of life?  That’s an important enough point that I’m going to say it again.  In the biblical imagination, the defining question of human origins is not How will we get enough food and clothes and resources to survive?  Food is abundant.  Clothes are optional.  The defining question is What will or won’t we do with the many resources we do have?

One of those resources, of course, being the acquisition of god-like knowledge.

The Garden of Eden story famously hinges on the role of the serpent.  In later tradition the serpent  came to be conflated with the devil, but here it is simply described as more crafty than any other wild animal that Yahweh Elohim had made.  And that word “crafty” doesn’t have to be negative.  That word is elsewhere translated “sensible.”  In Proverbs it is most frequently translated as “prudent.”  Even Jesus said to be shrewd as serpents, but innocent as doves. Now the serpent was more “prudent,” “sensible” “shrewd”… “crafty.”  The Jewish Publication Society translates it as “subtle.”  The subtle serpent.

And the subtle/sensible/shrewd serpent says, No, you won’t die, you’ll become like God, knowing good and evil, the full range of knowledge.  And the serpent is right.  When they eat the fruit, they don’t die, at least not that day, as Yahweh Elohim had said.  And they do obtain knowledge.

And they get booted out of the perennial forest garden – and they have to start farming, struggling with the earth.  It’s the agricultural revolution that brought us refrigerators and DDT (See last week’s sermon).  Such far ranging knowledge.

And that’s the broad framework in which the drama of human history unfolds.  What will we do with our tremendous knowledge and god-like power?

And it starts to become more evident why a pilgrimage into the center of the labyrinth becomes essential.  Just because we have the basics of what we need to live, doesn’t mean we know how to truly live.  How to live in such a way that glorifies God and resists temptations detrimental to the flourishing of life.

Might this kind of pilgrimage be precisely what Jesus is doing at the onset of his public ministry?

Jesus has just been baptized, he has just been declared the Beloved Son of God, and the first thing to follow, Matthew says, is this: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”  Congratulations on your baptism.  In case you didn’t read the fine print, we’d like to inform you you’ll be spending the next 40 days in physical and spiritual anguish.

In so many ways, Jesus has all he needs.  He’s got Resources, with a capital R.  But Matthew, Mark, and Luke all agree that before he exercises any of this, he has to go into the wilderness, the place of physical scarcity – led there by the Spirit.  And in the wilderness, the question of the tempter, the devil, is not, do you have the power?  Do you have the ability?  But since you have the knowledge, ability, how are you going to use it?  What kind of power are you going to exercise?  Since you are the Son of God…

Jesus walks into the labyrinth, keeps moving up, down, around that singular path, and arrives in the center, in the wilderness, distant from the outside world but face to face with the most common temptations humanity faces.  In the center there is indeed a minotaur, of sorts, waiting for him.  Jesus faces these temptations in the wilderness so that when he faces them in the land of abundance, he will have already made his decision.

The temptations seem eccentric on the surface, but there is an interpretive tradition that links them very much with the human experience.  If you like alliteration, you can think of them as the temptations of possessions, pride, and power.

The devil first tempts Jesus, who hasn’t eaten for weeks, to turn the desert stones into bread.  In response Jesus says something to the effect of “Even if every single stone in this desert were a steaming hot loaf of bread, it wouldn’t be enough.  We don’t live just on bread, we are sustained by every word and that Breath of life that comes from the mouth of God.”  Even though one might have possessions, they need not define one’s life and worth.

And when the devil suggests that Jesus might leap from the pinnacle of the temple because he’s so special that there’s no way God would let him get hurt, Jesus rejects  that kind of prideful thinking.   Years later, back in a garden setting, he will pray that if it be possible for his life to be spared, that God would do so.  But not my will, but yours be done.  And there are no angels who intervene to stop the whole procession that leads to his state execution on the cross.

And when the devil shows him the kingdoms of the world which he will gladly hand over if Jesus will only genuflect before the altar of power dominance,  Jesus again rejects this offer.  He sends the devil away, angels come and attend to him, and he soon makes his way out of the wilderness, out of the labyrinth, back into the land of abundance.  Now finally ready to do his work.

The early church father Irenaeus wrote that the “The glory of God is humanity full alive.”

Lent is a time when we confess that we don’t know how to be fully alive.  We think we have some ideas, but we know enough to know we’re likely screwing it up.  We live in the land of abundance, we have tremendous knowledge, but it doesn’t fill out the full picture of how to live lives that bring glory to the Creator and add to the flourishing of life.

So we head into the labyrinth.  We take the inward journey, assured that this is not a trick.  There are no dead ends or false paths.  There is simply the road that leads to the center where we will encounter what and who we need to encounter.  What we need to encounter in order to come back out with a renewed sense of who we are, and the small part we play in the abundance of creation.  It’s a journey we take multiple times throughout life.

Let me end by saying that this journey can take many forms, but if you want a way to get together to pray with others, we will be meeting every Wednesday of Lent here in the sanctuary.  We’ll be teaching and practicing Centering prayer, a simple form of silent prayer.  And we’ll be praying from the Anabaptist Prayer Book which includes open spaces for voicing our concerns and intersessions.  We’re having these at 5:30pm with the hopes this can assist some folks in joining in route to their way home from work, and still have most of the evening to be home.

May you know that the Breath of Life, the Christ of Love, accompanies and sustains you on your journey, and may you be led by the Spirit to go where you need to go.

 

 

 

 

101 | February 5

Text: Matthew 5:13-20

Tuesday evening this space was full to overflowing for a teach-in led by the Central Ohio Worker Center.  The event was called Sanctuary for Immigrants 101: Theory, Data, and Action.  It was kind of a rally, but moreso a class.  It was designed to teach the basics of how the immigration system functions in the United States, how it’s changed especially over the last 15 years, the relationship between federal departments and local law enforcement, and how cities like Columbus fit into the mix these days.  Mark blogged about this Wednesday and included a link to the power point that Austin Kocher presented.

I think the genius of the event was that it was both a timely response to a very specific situation, and a deeper look at a decades old system.  It was a 101 class.  It was an introduction, a foundation, a teaching of basic concepts.  Personally, I left feeling more grounded, with a better sense of history, and community.

By way of holy coincidence, during the month of February, 2017, the lectionary is gifting us with another kind of 101 class.  The texts throughout the month come from the gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7, otherwise known as the Sermon on the Mount.  This solid block of teaching from Jesus was one of the most valued guides for the early church.  It was one of the most often cited passages among our spiritual ancestors, the 16th century Anabaptists and Mennonites.  In other words, if there’s such a thing as Christianity 101, or Discipleship 101, or If- you- want- to- follow- Jesus- you- should- really- pay- attention- to- this 101, it is the Sermon on the Mount.

And so, the four weeks of February, the remaining Sundays before the season of Lent, we will be focusing on parts of the Sermon on the Mount.  Hopefully it serves to further ground us in the ancient words and teachings of the church, even as we listen for what this present moment might be asking of us.

Each of the gospels organize their material a little differently in order to communicate to their original audience, and one of the important things to know about Matthew’s gospel is that it separates Jesus’ teaching into five major blocks.  The Sermon on the Mount is the first and longest of these five blocks.  The second major block is in chapter 10, then another in 13, another in chapter 18, and then the final block in chapters 24 and 25.

For a mostly Jewish audience, five blocks of teaching would have had immediate symbolic connection to the Teaching.  The Torah.  The five books of Moses that provided the foundation of Jewish life.  Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.   To suggest that what this teacher from Nazareth had to say was on level with the teaching of Moses would have been quite a claim.

The Sermon on the Mount readings actually started last Sunday with the Beatitudes when we had our Coming of Age service focused on Esther, so now it’s kind of like we’re walking into the 101 teach-in after it already started.  We missed the opening session.  Traffic was bad, and you had to drive around looking for parking.  You finally find a spot, walk briskly toward and into the building.  You slip in the back, find one of the few remaining seats, hoping you didn’t miss anything important.

“You are the salt of earth” is the first thing you hear, and the speaker is looking right at you.

Me?  I am the salt of the earth?  I think have missed something important.

The You is plural, the speaker clarifies, but Yes, it includes you.  You are the salt of the earth.  You all are the salt of the earth.  Ya’ll.

Salt, as in that substance which the Romans believed to be the purest and most useful of all things, product of sun and sea.  A gift of the gods and so offered up to the gods, the most primitive and elemental of offerings.  Your life is gifted to you, product of sun and sea, fruit of love and longing, and so your life becomes a gift to the world.  Salt.  You.  Your life, an offering.

You all are the salt of the earth.

Salt, as in that most common of substances used for preservation.  The world has not always known refrigeration, you know.  And the world’s tendency toward decay, toward decomposition, toward slowly coming undone, bonds of relationships loosening and dissipating.  That inclination is met with salt.  Salt gives us more time.  Salt extends viability.  It preserves the good.  You.  Salt.  Your life, an agent of preservation.

You all are the salt of the earth.

Salt, as in flavor.  Our foods are so permeated with salt it’s easy to forget it’s been added in there.  It tastes better with salt.  Salt not only preserves the good, it accentuates the good.  It adds enjoyment, pleasure, it deepens the quality.  Not too much now, don’t overdo it.  It’s not all about our salty selves.  You, your life, is a sprinkling, here and there.  That’s enough.  A sprinkling that accentuates the good.

You all, collectively, are the salt of the earth:  An offering, preserving goodness, flavoring life on earth.

And not only that.  The speaker goes on.

You are the light of the world.  Again, the you is plural, and it is a collective reality.

It’s one of those statements that automatically becomes untrue if the person or group claims it for themselves.

“We are the light of the world.”  “I am the light of the world.”  If it’s the ego making this claim, it comes to represent the exact opposite reality.  It becomes colonial.  We are the light of the world and must therefore take this light into all the dark and backwards places of the earth.

But it’s different when the claim is made by an authoritative voice speaking to you.  “You are the light of the world.”  Like a reminder of a truth easily forgotten.  Jogging our memory, reminding us that although we are not the source of the light, we contain the light.  Our bodies composed of those ancient elements, fused in the cores of distant stars.  Fusion’s byproduct is light.  Those sacrificial stars gone supernova long ago, offering their creations to world.  The cosmos salted with stardust.  The periodic table drifting through space.  The elements, longing with attraction, find each other, come together, make a home together, join and evolve over an unimaginable stretch of time.  We are one of the forms to emerge from this light infused process.  It is preserved in our bodies.  Your existence is a testimony to sacrifice and love and miracle.

You are the light of the world and there is no hiding.  In fact, the speaker is now saying that the light must be public, radically visible.  “A city built on a hill cannot be hid.  No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others.”

You are the light of the world, and that light is brilliantly, publicly, visible, but there is a part of us that must disappear in order for that to be true.  It’s the part that serves only the self.  The part that either has an overblown sense of itself of being the light, or, equally destructive, the part that will not believe it contains any light at all.  The part that denies the Divine miracle that has birthed it and so becomes confined.

You are the light of the world.  And Lord knows the world needs light.

This is Discipleship 101.  Salt and Light.  It’s basic stuff.  Profound in its simplicity.

Rather than being asked to do anything yet, it appears we’re being asked to be.  Or even simpler than that, we’re being asked to acknowledge who we are already are – the grace that has already been given us.  It’s not “You should do salty things,” or “You need to go illuminate something.”  Rather, we are given statements of being, reminding us who we are.  You are salt.  You are light.  The doing flows out of the being.  Settle into the being, and the doing will flow naturally.

Meanwhile, the speaker has moved on.

It’s sounding a little more archaic now.  He’s shifted to talking about those uniquely Jewish documents known as the law and the prophets.  Moses and Jeremiah and Ezekiel and so on and so on.  Those Scriptures we’re frequently unsure what to do with.  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish, but to fulfill.”  He goes on about the value of even the tiniest notation of those ancient scriptures, the jots and the tittles of the scribes.  He’s talking about carrying out the old commandments.  How whoever does them and teaches others to do the same will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  Surely he can’t mean all the commands of the law.

Maybe this part doesn’t apply to us as much.  Might be a good time to sneak out for a restroom break and hope our neighbor saves our seat.

Besides, we were kind of hoping for a repeal and replace approach to what we call the “Old Testament.”  Can’t these five blocks of teaching in Matthew just take the place of those five books of Moses?  We’re the new wave.  The big tent of Jews and Gentiles.  The new coaltion that’s more chill about all those rules.

But the speaker can’t seem to let it go.  Can’t just move on and start something new.  “I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill.”

I confess to personally having tendencies toward wanting to abolish.  My beef isn’t so much with ancient Judaism, but there are times when I wonder why we don’t just abolish the whole Christian project.  Or at least disassociate and try a new name.  So much baggage and harm done with that name.  I remember a visiting professor at seminary from the UK who talked about a group he knew who wanted to follow the teachings of Jesus but didn’t want to have any connections to the pitfalls of the Christian church.  Since they recognized the Sermon on the Mount was the core of Jesus’ teaching, they decided to call themselves the Mounties.

I confess I struggle mightily with some of the stances of the national Mennonite Church.  Its hesitance to address matters of racism.  It unwillingness to affirm the gifts of LGBT folks.   Can’t we just abolish the law?  Can’t we just be the Mounties?  Or just Humans?

The teacher has an alternative suggestion.  Rather than abolish, the teacher draws our attention toward fulfillment.  Toward living out the aim of the tradition.  Fulfillment.  Staying on the trajectory and being a part of the arc for where all this is headed.  Fulfilling the best intentions and best aspirations of the law and prophets, and gospels, the church teachings, and maybe even the Mennonite Confession of Faith.

It’s a salty move by the teacher.

To find and preserve the good that’s there from the beginning.  Salt, just by being salt, has the capacity to preserve that which is good.  To give us more time with what we’ve inherited.  To flavor the batch.  For example, protecting the immigrant and sojourner in your midst is one of the most repeated themes throughout the Torah.  That’s about as old and conservative a value you can find.

Those are a few of the opening ideas of Discipleship 101.  Salt, Light, Not abolish, but fulfill.

The speaker has plenty more to say.  It appears he’s just getting started.  Settle in.  Get comfortable with your neighbor.  There’s more to come.

Treasure and heart | 16 October 2016

Texts: Jeremiah 32:1-15; Matthew 6:21

It’s a long and winding road from Jeremiah, through Jesus, to Jourdan Anderson’s 1865 letter to his old master, to the color coded map on the front of our bulletin, to the Black Manifesto, to Columbus, Ohio in the 21st century.  A long and winding road.  The letter and the map are both pieces that Adam brought in to our Exodus Bible Study class in the spring.  We were trying to make connections between the Hebrew’s exodus from slavery narrative and the African American experience.  These two pieces did that, with the bonus of bringing it home to Ohio soil.

Last Sunday’s sermon included the story of James Forman interrupting worship services at predominantly white churches throughout 1969, beginning with the influential Riverside Church in Manhattan, New York.  He did this to read from the recently written Black Manifesto which called for reparations for black Americans from white Christians and Jews.

One hundred years before this a formerly enslaved man named Jourdon Anderson, living in Dayton Ohio, wrote a private letter to his former master (included at the end of the sermon).  The old master had initiated the correspondence, as Jourdon acknowledges in the opening.  “Sir, I got your letter and was glad you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again.”  Jourdon goes on to highly qualify what he might mean by “glad.”  It seems that the former master still holds a place for Jourdon in his heart.  The feeling, it seems, is not mutual.  The formerly enslaved Jourdon would only be glad for a reunion if the old master has a change of heart.  And Jourdon is careful to outline just what a change of heart would look like.  He essentially asks that his old master give up all claims of masterhood, present, future, and, very importantly, past.  Treasure accumulated from the unpaid labor of Jourdon and his wife would be returned to them.  These fair wages would now serve as reparations.  Even though late in coming, they would be a sign that, in the words of Jourdon, “the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers in making us toil for you for generations without recompense.”

There are any number of teachings from the gospels that relate to what we’ve been talking about.  But I want to pick out one brief statement from Jesus as a way of following a thread through these different eras and stories in front of us.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  He makes a direct connection between treasure and heart, and I want to follow this thread of treasure and heart for a while.  It will be winding, but hopefully not too long.

For the ancients, the heart was the center of the being.    It was the home of physical warmth and energy.  It was also the seat of intelligence, of intention, and even sensation, perception.  The condition of the heart had moral overtones.  You think and sense and reason and aim with your heart.

These days our fascination has migrated about a foot and a half north to the brain as the center of the being, but our language is still peppered with these ideas about the heart.  A lovely and relatively new phrase that Brene Brown has popularized is whole-hearted.  Whole-hearted living involves things such as authenticity, vulnerability, gratitude, cultivating creativity.  Whole-hearted.

A key part of Jesus’ teaching is how he orders treasure and heart.  “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”   The order implies that the place where we put our treasure – our resources, our time, our relationships, our money – is the place our heart ends up.  In this arrangement, our heart follows rather than leads our treasure.

For where you put your money, there you mind will go.

For how you use your time, there your temperament will be formed.

When I think about how this has played out in my own life I think about how purchasing our first house elevated my awareness of the surrounding area — the Oakley neighborhood of Cincinnati, uncoincidentally on the same street as Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship.  All of a sudden, we were invested, and I felt my involvement and interests, and interest, and intelligence and intentions, shaped by that investment.  I could sense that happening in a way it hadn’t before.  Purchasing real estate is a big decision.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

I also think about our girls entering school.  When your treasured children walk out the door to be instructed in another setting, your heart follows close behind.  And it goes not only with them, but the heart becomes all the more wrapped up in the well-being of that classroom, and that particular school, and that particular school system.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

There’s a story in the book of Jeremiah where the relationship between treasure and heart shows up.  For years, decades, Jeremiah had been preaching the unpopular message of Jerusalem’s destruction.  And now, that day had arrived.  The Babylonians, under the direction of King Nebuchadnezzar, have surrounded the city and put it under siege.  The city walls will be breached, its buildings leveled to the ground, the holy temple plundered and burned, its treasures carried off to Babylon, the princes captured and executed, the king and other city leaders and nearly all the people forcefully marched away in exile, carried off to Babylon.

Jeremiah was the prophet of doom who warned about all this.

But he was not without hope for the future.  He also prophesied a restoration.  And in Jeremiah 32 we read an account of him putting his money where his mouth was, firmly planting his heart in the Judean soil.

In the middle of the siege we get this rather detailed account of a real estate transaction.  King Zedekiah of Judah is convinced Jeremiah is going to defect to the Babylonians, so he has him imprisoned in the king’s palace.  Jeremiah’s cousin Hanamel finds Jeremiah and asks him to buy his field in their ancestral area of Anathoth just east of Jerusalem.  We’re not told what prompted Hanamel to make this request, but the Torah taught that if someone was in dire need and had to sell off land in order to survive in the moment, that it fell to the nearest family member to purchase that land to keep it in the family.  The right of redemption – the obligation of redemption.

Buying land in a war zone is not exactly a good investment.  But Jeremiah had received a vision from God telling him to make the purchase.  So he does.  And the text is very careful to give us an almost play by play account of this economic exchange.  The deed is signed and copied, by hand of course, with witnesses.  One of the copies is sealed and one left open for quick reference.  The money is weighed and exchanged.  Both deeds are carefully placed in an earthen jar for preservation.  It is an official, genuine, legal exchange of property, with the papers to prove it.  Cousin Hanamel gets the silver, Jeremiah gets the family land about to be abandoned.  The point of the act is not for Jeremiah to buy low so he can sell high.  It will not be appreciating in his lifetime.  It is portrayed in the text as a symbolic prophetic action.  The sequence continues with Jeremiah 32:15 stating, “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”  This is followed up with a prayer by Jeremiah, now crying out to God because he’s pretty sure he’s just made the worst investment of his life.

Just as soon as his street cred as a prophet is assured with Jerusalem’s destruction, he again looks like a fool, asked to invest in a restoration yet to come.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be.  Jeremiah will end his days exiled down in Egypt, but his heart, his longing heart, was camped out by his treasure in the depopulated fields of his kindred.

It’s a long and winding road from Jeremiah, through Jesus, to the present moment.  Many hearts have followed much treasure along the way.  And there has been much plunder.

Between Jourdon Anderson’s letter suggesting reparations from his old master – 1865 – and James Forman’s Black Manifesto demanding reparations from white churches and synagogues – 1969 – there was this map, and more real estate transactions that affected treasure and heart.  This map was first published in 1936 by the Home Owners Loan Corporation, a creation of the US Congress.  The goal was to help households refinance troubled mortgages during and after the Great Depression.  To do this Columbus and other cities across the US were split up into these four color coded categories with green considered the most desirable and safest areas to issue mortgages and other kinds of loans, and red considered the least desirable, highest risk mortgage.  Black neighborhoods were famously redlined.  Then and in the decades that followed as this became an entrenched practice, they didn’t receive the kind of mortgage and business and credit financing that enabled ownership and wealth building in other communities.  Neighborhoods with recent immigrants, even some recent European immigrants were also downgraded.

redlining_columbus_map_150-277x300

 

The colors on that map don’t directly correspond to racial or economic distributions in Columbus today, but they are a key part of the story.  Needless to say, redlining is another layer in the painful history of masterhood, and treasure acquired by some and denied to others.  I did zoom in on the map online and note that Columbus Mennonite Church is located in one of the few green zones.  And so I wonder, Does that mean something to us now, and if so, what is that?

It would be one thing if this was a situation where we had personally wronged someone and could make amends.  We would get a letter from our Jourdan Anderson outlining the extent of the damage, the treasure we have accumulated at the other’s expense, and the address we can mail the debt we owe.  It would be hard to swallow, but specific and concrete.  An act of reparations.

And there might be interpersonal situations like this we need to attend to.

But it all feels so much more subtle and elusive than that.  Redlining is no longer legal, but its effects are everywhere.  And if you’ve considered buying a home you’ve likely wrestled with all the factors of meeting your own needs and living out your values, and how zip codes are still coded with the opportunities and deficits we’ve inherited from the past.  Schools, for example.  And then there’s this cycle that gets perpetuated.  For where you treasure is, there you heart will be also?

Treasure is segregated, which means there’s always the danger of our hearts being segregated.  This is one of the great spiritual challenges of our time.  How to live in a time of treasure segregation without this encompassing the condition of our heart – our ability to see, the intentionality with which we go about our relationships, our intelligence and ability to understand others experiences, taking concrete actions to right past wrongs.  Our longing to live whole-hearted lives, in the pattern of Jesus, is frequently an act of resistance to the patterns so readily available to us.

I truly believe and hope that this awareness and consciousness we’re trying to develop together can be a source of empowerment rather than guilt and disempowerment.  We have treasure.  And we have heart.  There are ways that each of us can follow the cues of Jeremiah and invest in restoration.  It can be as simple as deciding to frequent a black owned business.  Or, like Barb Gant who bought 50 Black Lives Matter yard signs and has made them available at the church.  When I asked her how much I owe her she said, “Nothing.  Everyone can do something and this is one thing I’m doing.”  If the saying of Jesus holds up, when we intentionally put our treasure toward the restoration, then something wonderful and life-giving happens to our own hearts.  We sense and see new things, we think new thoughts, love gives birth to love, and we get glimpses of the great restoration yet to come.


Dayton, Ohio,

August 7, 1865

To My Old Master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee

Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy,—the folks call her Mrs. Anderson,—and the children—Milly, Jane, and Grundy—go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, “Them colored people were slaves” down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.

As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve—and die, if it come to that—than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.

Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

From your old servant,

Jourdon Anderson.

From: http://www.lettersofnote.com/2012/01/to-my-old-master.html?m=1

“Forgive us our debts,” and glimpses of Jubilee | 26 April 2015

Texts: Matthew 6:9-13; Acts 4:32-37

Maybe this has happened to you before: You’re in a group that’s praying the Lord’s Prayer without a script, everything is going smoothly until: “Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our…”  At this point, unless a leader has prompted the group ahead of time, you have one of four options.  You can say “sins,” “forgive us our sins.” You can say, “debts,” “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”  You can say “trespasses.”  Or, you can make a noncommittal mumble  or simply stay silent as a way of yielding to whichever choice the majority of others go with.  I think I’ve tried all four options at different times.

One can cite Scripture for using any one of those three words, but on closer examination, there is one that comes out as the leader for the original intent of the prayer.

The Lord’s Prayer appears twice in the New Testament, once in Luke’s gospel, and once in Matthew.  Jesus is giving his disciples words to use when they pray.  The prayer condenses Jesus’ theology into just a few statement. Luke’s is the shorter and more compact version and goes like this: “Father, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come.  Give us each day our daily bread.  And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.”  So Luke uses both “sins” and “debts.”

Sins 1, Debts 1

Matthew is the more commonly cited version of the prayer, the one Eve and Lily recited, which occurs in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount.  Right after Jesus teaches this prayer in Matthew, he says, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.”  Trespasses doesn’t occur within the prayer itself, but it is one of the ways that Jesus immediately clarifies and interprets the prayer, so we should give it a point.

Sins 1, Debts 1, Trespasses 1.

It’s neck and neck.  All tied up.

Within Matthew’s version of the prayer, it says this: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

And we have a winner. “Debts” it is.

In some ways these three words communicate a similar idea and can be used interchangeably.  They speak to a wrong, or harm, or injustice committed.  In order for forgiveness to come to fruition, we are both givers and receivers of forgiveness.  And the way both prayers are worded, interestingly, we are the ones who forgive first, which clears the way for us to be forgiven.  “Forgive us (now)…as we also have forgiven others (past tense).”

But these three words are also quite different, and the one we use in our praying can affect how we practice and receive forgiveness.  “Sins” is the most general and could include internal thoughts or outward actions or speech of any kind.  “Trespasses” has its own unique references and perhaps feels the most archaic to say.  It has to do with crossing a line and boundaries that ought not be crossed – which could include things like sexual boundaries which Mark talked about last week.

But what about debts?  Forgive us our indebtedness, as we have forgiven those indebted to us.  This has a much more direct economic dimension to it.  Not limited to this, but certainly including it.  On the one occasion when Jesus gave his followers a set of words to use when they pray, he included a phrase about praying for and practicing the forgiveness of debts.

First century Roman controlled Palestine was a much different world than 21st century America, but one thing they have in common is the prevalence of crippling debt.  In first century rural Galilee where Jesus lived and taught, the primary basis and creator of wealth was land.  Sociologists classify that type of arrangement as an agrarian and peasant society.  Urban elites had control of nearly all the land, holding the power to issue rents and taxes to the villages and countrysides, paid not in the form of cash but in the form of grain and goods produced, making for what one scholar calls, “a relentless flow of wealth away from the rural producers to the storehouses of cities, private estates, and temples” (The Social World of Luke-Acts, Neyrey, ed., p. 156).  Farmers were actually laborers, or tenants, or maybe managers, working on land previously owned by their ancestors, still dependent on its output for their own sustenance, but having less control over what was grown and how much they could keep for their families and livestock.  Studies have estimated that about 2% of the population was a part of the ruling elite, 8% made up the service class such as the soldiers, merchants, craftmen, and priests, and the other 90% worked the land  (Neyrey, p. 155).  A poor year, combined with various other taxes and tolls owed to the Romans and Herod and the temple could lead to a cycle of indebtedness from which one might never escape.  The frequent reference to slaves in the New Testament often refers to debt slavery – perpetually working to pay off a debt that never goes away.

Reading the Gospels with an eye toward these economic realities is a window into this world.  Jesus’ parables are populated with managers overseeing the land and wealth of their absent master; slaves whose manager goes away on a long trip, temporarily entrusting the operations of the estate to the slaves; tenants in vineyards; slaves thrown into debt prison for their inability to pay the massive sum they owe; day laborers looking for hire; taxes owed to Caesar and the temple.   The farmer in the parable who sewed seed among the stones and thorns and beaten path and good soil would likely need to surrender up to half of that abundant harvest to the landlord.  The anonymous man going up from Jericho to Jerusalem in the parable of the Good Samaritan falls victim to a class of people who had checked out entirely of the system of patronage and debt, instead living in the hills and surviving through robbery and banditry.

Jesus encounters tax and toll collectors, rich rulers who want to follow him but don’t want to surrender any of their wealth, beggars completely dependent on the goodwill of those only slightly better off than themselves, masses of hungry people.  I was reminded in some study this week that even those fisherman Jesus called to be his first followers weren’t the independent entrepreneurs we may see them as being.  They too were a part of the state run political economy, the Roman emperor collecting port and road taxes and tribute from Herod Antipas, who had local control over the waterways like the Sea of Galilee, harbors and fishing rights, selling licenses to brokers, tax collectors, who sold them at inflated cost to fishing families, who formed cooperatives to bid on fishing contracts, and hired workers to assist in the manual labor.  In both Matthew and Mark the first disciples are from fishing families – Simon, Andrew, James, and John – and the next disciple called – Levi, also called Matthew – is the broker manning the tax booth, probably overcharging for fishing rights in the same little fishing village of Capernaum where Peter and crew live and work.   It’s quite a strategy of Jesus for forming a group that is called to practice an ethic of forgiveness and mutual aid.  I wonder how they all got along in those early days.

Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

The April issue of Sojourners magazine carried an article with the appropriate title: “Forgive us our debts,” specifically about student debt in the US.  The lead in line states: “The high cost of US education loans is causing a new form of indentured servitude.”  The article notes that US education debt now totals $1.2 trillion and that more than 7 million borrowers are in default.  Education loans now have unique rules in that they can’t be refinanced to a lower rate and are impossible to walk away from like a car or house loan, not eligible for bankruptcy.  Not only do they never go away, a missed payment or default gives a lender the ability to issue penalities up to 25% of the balance and legally increase the interest rate to several times the original rate.  If one falls behind in payments one can have their federal tax return withheld and up to 15% of their wages garnished.  Bloomberg Business Week reports that in 2013 the federal government withheld full or partial Social Security payments from 155,000 retirees to pay off student debt.  The article says: “For millennials, their whole life is caught up in this debt.”

Medical debt is also a major source of indebtedness in the US and one hopeful and creative response to this is a campaign called “Rolling Jubilee” which grew out of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement.  Rolling Jubilee is operated by folks who have an inside track on the debt collection industry and use donated funds to buy up debt – mostly medical debt – that is in default just like a collection agency would.  Only rather than going after the debtor, they send them a letter that says that their debt has been abolished and that they owe nothing.  Because they can buy this debt for pennies on the dollar, Rolling Jubilee has currently used over $700,000 in donations to buy and forgive nearly $32 million in debt – a small slice of overall debt, but significant, especially for those random folks who had their debts forgiven.

Rolling Jubilee is not a religiously based group, but that concept of Jubilee is borrowed directly from the Hebrew Bible.  Leviticus 25 decrees that every 50 years the Israelites were to return all land holdings back to their original family owners, such that those who had fallen under misfortune and needed to sell their land to stay afloat, and those who had accumulated wealth over the 50 year period were balanced out in a system reboot.  Leviticus 25:10 says, “And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.  It shall be a jubilee for you.”  Although it is enshrined in Torah there’s no literary or archeological evidence that it was ever practiced.  Deuteronomy 15 details a similar type of program, perhaps a more manageable legal reworking of the Jubilee, in which debt slaves were released from their obligations every seven years, so that no Hebrew would be perpetually enslaved to another.  You were not only to let your fellow Hebrew/Israelite slave go, you were to send them out with provisions so they could have a fresh start.  You do this, the text says, because you remember that you were all once slaves in Egypt, and you are to create a society in which you no longer enslave one another.  There was to be institutionalized debt forgiveness.

And so, like many of Jesus’ teachings, rather than offering something brand new, when Jesus taught folks to pray “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” he was calling on his people to implement the ethical teachings already commanded in Torah – reigniting the memory and the vision of the people, and creating a community which, at least among themselves, put these commandments into practice.  We get a little glimpse of that in Acts chapter 4.  It doesn’t refer specifically to debt forgiveness, but it does note that this particular community of believers held everything in common such that there was not a needy person among them.  They were becoming the answer to their own prayers.

So there are practical things we can do.  We can vote for public officials who are going to push to make better rules about issues like student debt – allowing for refinancing of student debt, capping penalties and interest rates and all those good things.  We can give to Rolling Jubilee and help a random stranger become freed from a debt.

I would also like us to try something among ourselves, just within this congregation.  If we pray together, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” might there be a small creative way to start to become the answer to our own prayer?  We are practicing resurrection this Easter season.  Debt is a complex, messy, and sometimes overwhelming problem, but one of the aspects of practicing resurrection is that none of those things gets the final word.  So today, and over the next two weeks, we are going to have a window of practicing resurrection by practicing a modified form of jubilee.  I’ve been in conversation with our Finance folks and the Shepherding Team and Worship Commission, and got a thumbs up on this, so here’s what we’re going to do.

I want everyone to take out a piece of paper in pew.  Adults, kids, everyone.

Write your name.

Everyone is going to write one more thing on it, but let me explain first what we’re doing.

You will be writing “Debt” under your name if you have any education debt, or if you have any other kind of debt such as medical or credit card, or other debt, that you consider overly burdensome, overwhelming.  If you have a mortgage and are doing fine with monthly payments, this wouldn’t be included.

If you do not have any student debt or other forms of burdensome debt, you will be writing “Jubilee” under you name.  You can fold that paper in half, and when we pass the offering baskets around, put it in.  Only me and a couple of our financial folks are going to see these slips of paper.

And for all you who write Jubilee, you are invited, this Sunday and the next two, to give to a Columbus Mennonite Jubilee Fund.  We’re going to take that Fund, divide it by however many people wrote Debt under their name, and mail out checks to each person which are to go toward paying down the principle of the loan.

This is not going to wipe out anyone’s debt.  So let’s say, for example, we raise $10,000.  That would pretty easy for us to do.  And let’s say there’s 50 people who write Debt under their name.  We will be mailing out checks of $200 to 50 different people.  I think we can raise $10,000.  This is not money for an outside project.  Every dollar that you give will be going directly to debt relief for someone here, someone you worship with, someone you know.

Here’s one way to think about how much to give: If you have paid off a student loan, you can go back and see what your monthly payment was, and give that amount to this fund.  So Abbie and I were fortunate a few years back to pay off our last student loans.  One of the payments was $60 a month and one was $90, so that’s $150 into this Jubilee Fund.  That’s maybe too much of a stretch for some, others of you can give lots more than that.  For kids, elementary school, high school, if you have not yet borrowed money, you can give into this fund.  Use your share fund from your allowance and give a couple dollars or a couple quarters and you’ll join the Jubilee party.

So here’s a few technical things:

All gifts are tax deductible, which helps.  Those who wrote “Debt” are not expected to give.  This is a time for you to receive.  If you have some but not a lot of debt, or if you have debt from your kids’ education and don’t know whether to write debt or jubilee, then please choose whichever you need most.  If you need to give, choose that.  If you need to receive, choose that.

Checks are made out to “Columbus Mennonite Church,” but have to be designated in the Memo Line as “Jubilee Fund.”  If you don’t make that designation, they’ll go toward our general budget, and this giving is above and beyond general budget and pledging.  Or if you give cash, you’ll need to give in an envelope designated “Jubilee Fund.”  And I realize most people won’t have their checkbooks ready right away here, so we’ll be collecting this the next two Sundays and there will be plenty of reminders.

OK, so one more thing.  I’ve also been in conversation with Everence, the Mennonite Stewardship agency, and they are able to match up to $2,250 of this Jubilee Fund, so that’s going to help as well.  The only technicality here is that they don’t match giving toward student loans, so if your debt is only student loans, please write ‘sl’ in front of it.  We’ll work the math to make sure everyone still gets the same Jubilee check, but I want to honor their policy of what they match.

So go ahead and write you name on the paper, and under that write either Jubilee, or debt, or sl debt, and fold the paper in half, and put it in the offering plates when they come around.

A world fellowship | 25 January 2015

Text: Matthew 6:9-13

When Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, he taught them to say: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  Jesus spoke often of the Kingdom of God, or, the Kingdom of Heaven, and remarkably, taught that it was already at hand, near, already present.  Some scholars have emphasized how Jesus presented the Kingdom of God as an alternative to the Kingdom of Rome.  Others have noted its essential grounding in Jewish understanding of redemption and salvation.  The Kingdom of God is a reality in which relationships are mended, or mending, and creation is freed up to become a fuller and fuller manifestation of goodness and beauty and creative outpouring.

In our religious vocabulary we have developed the notion of us going to heaven, but in Jesus’ ministry and in the prayer he taught us, he emphasized the flow going in the exact opposite direction.  Heaven is coming to us, breaks in at unexpected times in unexpected places.  Your kingdom come on earth, as is already is in heaven.

The universal nature of this kingdom, which spans all ethnic and national divides of persons, means that, by way of happy coincidence of the English language, the kingdom of God is just as much the kin-dom of God, the family under Divine care.  And so in a time when kings are less prominent, but when the kin-ship of humanity and other living things is fragile at best, our prayers can also be that the kin-dom of God come on earth as it is in heaven.

We are blessed in this congregation with people who have spent significant amounts of time in other parts of the world – who have seen unique glimpses of the kin-dom of God.  So on this World Fellowship Sunday, I have asked three of them to tell us a story or two from their experiences, and what this might have to do with us at Columbus Mennonite.

Laurie Z – China

Jerome H – Israel/Palestine

Phil H – Colombia

Their responses to the questions below can be heard on the audio player at the top of this post.

Tell us briefly about the part of the world where you have been, what organization or motivation took you there, and what you did while there.

Truck to church

What’s a story or situation in which you encountered or learned something about the Kin-dom of God?

Wall

What is a message you bring to us Mennonite Christians in Columbus, Ohio, United States, about our own participation in the Kin-dom of God?

Easter Church