Merciful strength | Sanctuary I | October 1

Texts: Matthew 9:10-13; Numbers 35:9-15;

Worship Theme: Sanctuary People

 In the year 399 a man named Eutropius ran from the Roman palace in Constantinople into the nearby Great Church, as it was called.  He was seeking sanctuary from his political enemies.  He was greeted by the bishop John Chrysostom and granted the protection of the church.

Eutropius began life as a slave and became a eunuch in the court of the Roman Emperor Theodosius.  He rose through the ranks, and when Theodosius died, Eutropius was in middle of the power struggle that followed.  He arranged a strategic marriage for Theodosius’ son Arcadius who became emperor over the eastern half of the empire.  Eutropius managed to exile and fend off his political rivals.  He became Arcadius’ closest advisor, eventually having himself named Roman consul.  But his enemies soon rallied and forced his removal, and he feared for his life.

Bishop Chrysotom’s thoughts on the matter are preserved in two sermon manuscripts.  He used this situation to compare the misguided quest for worldly power with the steadfast mercy of the church.  Addressing Eutropius directly, he stated: “The Church, which you treated as an enemy, has opened her bosom to you.”  One of the ways Eutropius had treated the church as an enemy was by arranging for edicts that restricted the ability of his political enemies to obtain sanctuary.  But now he, known for his conniving and greed, had no other place to turn but the refuge of the Great Church.

As you may imagine, this was not a particularly popular move with the congregation, initially.  Not only was Eutropius famous for being ruthless, and not only were there imperial officers, with swords and spears, surrounding the church demanding Eutropius’ removal, but Chrysostom himself admitted in one of the sermons that providing Eutropius sanctuary may very well be against the law that Eutropius himself had recently helped establish.  But sanctuary was an established enough practice by that time that emperor Arcadius commanded his soldiers to stand down and not interfere in that hallowed place.

In the words of one historian, summing up the situation: “Sanctuary provided opportunity for Eutropius to see the truth of life’s fleeting glory and for the church to demonstrate that it was strong enough to protect even its most unpopular enemies against a fearsome army.”

The situation unfortunately did not end well.  Eutropius tried to secretly escape from the church building, but was captured, exiled, and eventually killed.

(All quotes and information above from Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages: 400-1500, by Karl Shoemaker, pp. 25-27)

One month ago we decided to become a sanctuary congregation.  And not just in theory or belief, but in practice.  We welcomed Edith Espinal to take up sanctuary, aka live, within our church building.  It has not been a simple process, but it is simplified by the fact that rather than being a conniving, assassinating political power player, Edith is an active member of the community and mother with no criminal record.

Since that time we’ve been learning as we go, with the significant twist that Edith left our building after two nights because of a temporary extension to apply for a delay in her deportation.  This congregation was a part of the sanctuary movement in the 1980’s, and a number of you have training in accompaniment and advocacy through Christian Peacemaker Teams.  Now we’re very much in the middle of what appears to be a growing movement within the faith community, locally and nationally.

So we’re asking questions, and, to borrow a phrase from the poet Rilke, we’re living the questions.  What does it mean to be a sanctuary congregation?  What does it mean to be sanctuary people? Continuing down that line, how might the sacred space around our bodies become sanctuary space for whoever we’re with?  And how do walk the inward journey of sanctuary?

These are the kinds of questions we’ll be speaking to through the fall in our worship services.  And hopefully they’re the kinds of questions that make for good discussion around the dinner table, in small groups, and whatever other ways we are together.

This week and next will focus on the history of sanctuary, inside and beyond the church.  In other words, what has sanctuary looked like in other times and places?  I’ll be relying heavily on this fantastic book, “Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages: 400-1500 by Karl Shoemaker.

I apologize if I start sounding like I know more about this than what I actually do.  Most of this is pretty new knowledge for me.

But I will just go ahead and give away the punch line right up front.  One of the punch lines.  Here it is: The Church, big C, has practiced sanctuary extensively for the majority of its existence.  For well over 1000 years sanctuary was standard church practice.  And, sanctuary practices show up regularly in non-Christian settings.

What I’d like to do is to use this story of Eutropius and Chrysostom in the Great Church of Constantinople in 399 as a hinge.  This week we’ll start there and look backwards, and next week we’ll start there and look forwards.

The gospels portray Jesus as someone who had no official credential but who demonstrated power and authority through his teachings, his healings and miracles, and his bold actions.  There are any number of gospel stories relevant to sanctuary, including the one we read this morning.  In Matthew 9 Jesus is in Capernaum, the home base of his ministry, where his early followers lived.  He’s in “the house” which seems to be the house of Peter’s family.  He’s sitting at table with his disciples, joined by tax collectors and sinners, social and moral outcasts.  It’s nothing like an official practice of sanctuary, but when the religious leaders see this and challenge Jesus on it, he offers his guests protection, material and spiritual refuge.  He replies, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are “sick.”  Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’”

The last bit about mercy not sacrifice is a quote from the prophet Hosea which the religious leaders would have known well.  It’s a bold and even comical move for Jesus to shoo them away and tell them to go study up on their own tradition and get enlightened on this thing called mercy.  It’s typical Jesus style.  To use the language of sanctuary, Jesus was a walking sanctuary, and everywhere he went, people who could find refuge nowhere else, were drawn to him.  And he welcomed them –  little children, those who sold their bodies to make a living, those, like tax collectors, who had sold out to the empire.  Jesus was a mobile sanctuary, and when he entered a house, or a field, or a boat, the wind shifted, and those who were previously at ease were on edge, and those who had no other refuge, were put at ease.

These are the same winds of the Spirit that blew at Pentecost after Jesus’ death and resurrection and created a multi-lingual, multi-cultural community defined by the mercy and power of Jesus’ ministry, which we simply call, “the church.”

Things are pretty foggy before the case of Eutropius about the growing practice of sanctuary within the church.  One thing that’s clear is that the church didn’t invent it.  The ancient Greeks developed sanctuary practices around temple sites and sacred groves.  These spaces were considered sacred, inviolable.  And debtors, criminals, and slaves were protected if they took asylum in these locations.

Rome recognized that fugitive slaves were safe from their pursuing masters if they clung to the feet of a statue of of Caesar in Rome, or, later, the feet of a statue of Romulus.  To get their slave back the master had to solemnly swear to treat them fairly and not punish them for having fled.

In a very different part of the world, the Big Island of Hawaii has a well preserved site of ancient sanctuary where those who had violated taboos and were under the threat of death, or those defeated in war, could flee, undergo a purification ceremony with a priest, and return home free of guilt.  I definitely would not have known about this except that Melonie Buller recently visited the island for their older sons’s wedding and came upon this while doing some site-seeing.  So the next time you’re visiting some exotic site, keep your eyes open for sanctuary sites.

The Torah gives instructions for the creation of six cities of refuge for the Israelites.  Numbers 35 is one of the places these are described.  They had a fairly narrow purpose.  They were open to people who had killed another person unintentionally.  Intentional or premeditated murder was given the death penalty, but unintentional murder, or even murder in the heat of the moment that wasn’t pre-meditated, made one eligible to escape to a city of refuge to avoid the nearest of kin who had the sacred duty of redeeming the death by killing the murderer.  The accidental murderer was only protected if they stayed within the city, and they were only allowed to go home if the high priest in office died.  The death of the high priest may have been seen as purifying the land of the spilled blood, or as the great Jewish scholar Maimonides later suggested, the death of the high priest was such a sorrowful event that everyone gave up any thoughts of vengeance.   (Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, chapter XL).

There’s a great piece of writing in the Jewish Misha that says: ““Therefore, mothers of high priests were wont to provide food and clothing for (the fugitives) that they might not pray for her son’s death.”  (Mas Makkoth 11a)

The Talmud noted that the roads to the cities of refuge were made twice as wide and exceptionally smooth in order to present no obstacle to those fleeing.

When the early Christians began offering sanctuary, they did not initially rely on the argument of their places of worship being sacred spaces.  Reverence for place was associated with the pagan world.  In Christian thinking there was nothing sacred and inviolable about the temples and sacred groves and the gods who populated them.

What they did rely on was the idea of intercession and penance.  They believed in the sacred duty of interceding on behalf of the accused, the criminal, the fugitive.  They believed that if one had committed a great crime, that they should be offered the opportunity for repentance and that the priest had the duty to intercede not only to God, but to the one seeking vengeance, or the public official, to give the fugitive protection from harm.  And they believed that the crime could be reconciled through penance, such as a thief paying back or working off the value of what they had stolen.  In short, they believe in something akin to what we now call restorative justice rather than punitive justice.  In short, they were committed to practical acts of mercy that Jesus demonstrated so clearly.

The early church was not without fault, and it was about to become entwined with political power in ways that have not even yet been completely undone.  But they did carry on and deepen the ancient human practice of giving sanctuary to those threatened with life and limb and exile.

Sanctuary is and always has been a practice of merciful strength.  Next week we’ll look at how it became a legal and essential practice for 1000+ years across medieval Europe with intercession, penance, and reconciliation mixed in with criminal justice and politics.

For today, we’ll end with a quote from Bishop John Chrysostom whose congregation extended sanctuary to the Roman official Eutropius.  Since we are in the sanctuary of this building, we can receive it as spoken to us: “When you take refuge in a church, do not seek shelter in the place, but in the spirit of the place.  The Church is not wall and roof, but faith and life.”  (Sanctuary and Crime, p. 17).



A covenant of peace? | 19 October 2014

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Text: Numbers 25:1-18

Today’s reading contains just about all the elements one could fit into a “difficult passage.”  There’s forbidden sex.  There’s idolatry and sacrifices to the wrong god.  There’s a treatment of foreigners, and specifically foreign women, as inherently dangerous.   There’s Divine wrath which demands public executions.  There’s a respected leader, Moses, ordering his people to kill their fellow Israelites.  There’s a plague that wipes out 24,000 people, many of them no doubt innocent.  There’s violent vigilante justice by a zealous individual, Phinehas, which apparently brings resolution to all the above problems.  Phinehas is rewarded by the Lord with “a covenant of peace,” for him and his descendants.  To top it all off, there is a final command from the Lord for Moses and the Israelites to keep harassing these foreign neighbors.  Forgive me if I’ve failed to name another feature of the story you find particularly troubling.

Welcome to worship.  Today’s lesson has been rated R.

This is indeed a difficult passage.

But, as we are committed to doing during this series, rather than cut this page out of the Bible or pretend like it’s not there, we’ll confront the story head on, wrestle around with it, and see what kind of blessing it has to offer.  That phrase I’ve highlighted as the sermon title “A covenant of peace,” comes from the words spoken by the Lord to Phinehas after he kills the Israelite man and Midianite woman, Zimri and Cozbi.  Posing it as a question is meant to highlight a topic of particular interest to us.  A question which hangs over this entire text:  In a violent world, what is it that makes for peace?

The passage is printed as an insert in the bulletins and I’d like to start by walking through the first half of the story as it’s told, at face value.  In Jewish interpretation, this is called the pshat, the most literal meaning of the text, or the simple reading – although there’s nothing simple even with the simple reading.

The Israelites are staying at Shittim just as their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness are coming to a close.  They are just at the edge of the Promised Land, about to make their move into this new place of settlement.  But like just about every other group of people moving toward a new land, they are not the first ones to arrive.  In this particular area there are Moabites, with their own culture and practices.  In an event that echoes the earlier worshiping of the golden calf at the foot of Mt. Sinai, the Israelites are drawn into worship of a foreign deity; having sexual relations with Moabite women and eating the sacrificial food.

Verse 3 notes that the Lord’s anger was kindled against Israel.  The literal Hebrew wording is that Yahweh’s nostrils burned against Israel.  Yahweh’s response and remedy is to make a public display of the ring leaders, commanding Moses to impale all of them in broad daylight for everyone to see.  This will turn away Yahweh’s anger.  Restore order.

Does Moses do it?  No.  Rather than carry out this command, Moses orders the tribal leaders to each go out and kill any of the people who have betrayed their allegiance to the tribes and Yahweh.  This potentially has an even more violent outcome since it is now out of Moses’ hands and in the hands of many different leaders to decide who are the guilty and who are the innocent.

Just as all this is breaking out, our attention is drawn to one Israelite, who we soon learn is named Zimri.  In plain view of Moses and a large congregation, he brings into his family a Midianite woman, not to be confused with those Moabite women we’ve just heard about.  Moses and this congregation were weeping, and Moses does nothing to stop Zimri and this Midianite, who is named Cozbi.

But someone does do something.  Phinehas, the grandson of Moses’ brother Aaron, sees this, gets up by himself, leaves the congregation, gets a spear, and goes after this couple, finding them in their tent, most likely in a moment of sexual intimacy, killing them together with one strike of the spear through their bellies.

It’s an utterly chaotic story up to this point.  The community is at the edge of the promised land, and they are also at the edge of things completely falling apart, the cohesiveness of the group shattered, nobody following orders from anybody, or staying within defined boundaries, people being accused and killed by their own people, the main leader in mourning, and finally a vigilante youth taking matters into his own hands in a religiously zealous act targeted at one couple.

In the ancient world a plague was used to refer to anything that threatened the integrity and well-being of a community.  A defeat in battle, social chaos, or a physical epidemic all had the same effect of threatening the cohesiveness of the group.  They didn’t have YouTube videos to go viral, but disruptive events and ideas could still spread like the plague.  This whole story is one escalating plague and not until verse eight, after Phinehas’ action, is the plague stopped.  24,000 people are dead.

That’s the simple reading.  Any questions?

I have few.

Not much later down the road the people of Israel will record and honor another story – of Ruth, woman from Moab.  Ruth’s land of Moab is a refuge for an Israelite couple during a time of famine, and Ruth the Moabitess will return to Israel with her mother-in-law Naomi to eventually marry Boaz.  Ruth the Moabitess will give birth to Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David, who will become King David.  Ruth the Moabitess is also an ancestor of Jesus.  Question:  Is the story of Ruth the Moabite woman told as an intentional counter-story to those which demonize foreigners?

Moses got married before he was the leader of his people, while he was taking refuge in the land of Midian.  His wife, Zipporah, was the daughter of the priest of those people.  Moses himself was married to a prominent Midianite woman.  Question: Is this why Moses won’t carry out the killings himself, was weeping rather than out on the rampage, and is this why he did nothing when Zimri the Israelite and Cozbi the Midianite came by?

Question: How do you stop a plague?  Why was it the zealous action of one lone individual, Phinehas, directed at one couple, Zimri and Cozbi, that brought all the chaos to a hault?  Question: Why is it that when society is at its most fragile point that we are most susceptible to rallying around those who are the most zealous?  Why does this simple formula seem to work time after time to restore social order:  1) Someone utterly convinced of the righteousness of their cause + 2) a common enemy onto whom we can project all our collective anxiety.  That’s all you need.  It doesn’t matter who the leader is, but the more certain they are, the better.  It doesn’t matter who the enemy is, there just has to be one.  It could be the foreigners, it could be the Communists, it could be the terrorists, it could be the Jews, the immigrants, the liberals, the conservatives.  The Moabites, the Midianites.  It could be any of these.  It has been all these.  It’s simple.  And it works. Because “we” can finally agree that “they” are to blame.  Chaos averted.  “The plague was stopped among the people.” Number 25:8

Question: Why does Yahweh seem to be the scariest character of all?  Is this a story like that of Abraham haggling with the Lord to save the people of Sodom in which we must demand that the Lord find another way to make peace?

The rabbis have wrestled with this text as well, many of them going beyond the pshat, the plain reading.  One of the more creative interpretations comes from the Polish Rabbi Mordechai Leiner.  Rabbi Leiner argued that Phinehas is misguided in his zeal, and missed the opportunity to follow the deeper Divine will.  Rabbi Leiner proposed that Zimri and Cozbi, the Israelite and Midianite, were soul-mates, and that their coming together was an act of tikkun, of healing the cosmos, since they were trying to bring together in their union, and overcome the hostilities between, their two peoples.   Phinehas judges them as violating God’s law but they are actually achieving God’s greater law.  They make their partnership known, as it says in verse 6, “in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the Israelities,” and thus offer a new picture of community.

In this reading, the covenant of peace that Yahweh grants to Phinehas is shown to be only temporary and fleeting as the Israelites are immediately plunged back into hostilities with the Midianites.  Yahweh would have rather granted a new covenant of peace through the way of Zimri and Cozbi.

A Christian reading of the text adds another important element.  Throughout his ministry and especially toward the end of his life Jesus seems to be especially aware of this dynamic that has been the glue that has held people together over the millennia.  As long as we have a common enemy, some kind of outsiders, we can be united as insiders.  It’s a way of being that depends entirely on there always being outsiders, and there always being violence directed toward a particular group of people.  One of the ways of understanding Jesus’ death is that he was intentionally occupying the space of the outsider, the one who is the target of all of our wrath, the rejected one, the stone the builders rejected.  In voluntarily occupying this space, Jesus turns the whole system on its head, causing us to see not from our perspective as the insiders trying to hold things together, but from the perspective of the outsider.  From that point on Christ is forever identified not with the in group, but with the poor, the prisoner, the foreigner, the outcast.  Christ is the one with the spear pointed at him, not the one holding the spear.  Jesus undoes our violent way of making peace, and calls into being this fragile community that defines itself in an entirely different way; that loves even its enemies.

A final question we could ponder is where we might locate ourselves within this story in Numbers 25.  I wonder if some of us feel that we are with Moses and the congregation weeping by the tent of meeting.  Things seem to be coming undone all around us.  A literal plague is taking the lives of thousands of West Africans and raising anxiety in our country.  Our nation is engaged in perpetual war against an elusive enemy that has the religious zeal of Phinehas himself.  Our natural environment is strained and the future is uncertain.  Moses weeps.  He can’t follow the old way of wrath, but he can’t yet see a new way forward.  He is praying.  He is calling on Yahweh to be the Lord of justice and mercy.

I wonder if some of us identify positively with Phinehas.  He is violent, indeed, but at least he does something when the rest of the congregation seems to be paralyzed.  Gandhi would often say that it was much easier to make a violent person be actively nonviolent than it was to make a passive person stand up for what is right.  Phinehas may be misguided, but in his mind he is doing what has to be done in the moment.  We can be grateful for youthful passion to do what is right, and we can learn together how to best direct that passion for the common good.

And I wonder if some of you are attracted to these mysterious characters of Zimri and Cozbi.  One of the beautiful things about the Hebrew text, which the rabbis use with great creativity, is that it is so sparse on details, and thus provides space for us to imagine worlds of possibility between the lines.  Perhaps they were soul mates, and perhaps they felt that they were following the deeper law of God in their coming together, trespassing social boundaries for a higher good.  They were not trying to save the world, but within the bonds of their own relationship, they could enact the kind of world they hoped for.  They formed their own covenant of peace even though no one else could see it yet.

One thing we will resist doing, is that we who have come to know Christ, can no longer think of the world as a place of insiders and outsiders.  As soon as we try and capture Christ in our inside group, he jumps outside of our boundaries and eludes our grasp.  The risen Christ invites us to live out of a different space, and accompanies us in a covenant of peace that no longer needs enemies in order to hold things together.

“Lifted Up” – 3/18/11 – Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21

Just before those beloved words of John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that God gave the only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” – just before this Jesus compares himself to a poisonous serpent, mounted on a pole, hoisted up for all to see and have life.  This is one of the reasons why I love the Bible.  Even the most familiar and comforting words are just about always in the same contextual neighborhood as something completely jarring and disorienting.  The double and triple take it gets out of us requires us to go deeper, and to question whether we can really understand the one familiar part without knowing how it relates to the other.

The specific wording of those two verses before John 3:16, coming from the mouth of Jesus, reads like this: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Last Sunday morning there were six of us scratching our heads about this one during the Sunday school hour.  This reflection flows out of conversation that we had gathered around Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:11-21.  The people being William Brenneman, Dustin and Tiffany Miller, Carol Monson, and Judy Herbold.

One of the themes emerging from these Bible studies is certainly the cultural distance that we bring to these biblical texts, especially the Hebrew Scriptures.  Our first instinct is often one of critical distancing of ourselves from the apparent plain reading of the text.  And why not?  The Numbers story feels, in some ways, like it is begging us to label it as bizarre and archaic.

It begins with a familiar enough tone.  The Israelites are again on the move, wandering in the desert, freed from their enslavement in Egypt.  But the desert is a fearful place.  They are completely dependent, day to day, on the gift of manna, which, over the years, doesn’t make for a very tasty and diverse diet.  They are always a few days away from death and speak out against God and Moses, who together had the brilliant idea of taking them away from their dependable daily rations in Egypt and bringing them to this place of no food and no water.

So far, so good.  We all feel lost at times, wandering in a strange and fearful land, dissatisfied with life, pretty certain that God isn’t holding up God’s end of the bargain, whatever the bargain was.

In response to the complaints in Numbers 21:6, it says: “Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.”  Now we’ve crossed a line where we’re not willing to go along for the ride with the story.  We had various reactions to this.  God is supposed to be the deliverer, not the destroyer.  One felt that this story is a misrepresentation of God.  Another marveled how quickly the people, and the text, make natural happenstance out to be an act of God.  You’re wandering in the desert, you come across a bunch of poisonous snakes.  What did we do wrong that God is punishing us?  It’s a kind of connection that we still find deeply troubling.  A Tsunami or tornado or earthquake takes out a whole countryside and some are quick to assign moral value on the event and God’s involvement in it.

The Lord plays the part of the destroyer, but also that of deliverer.  The story goes on: The Lord said to Moses, “’Make a poisonous serpent and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’  So Moses made a serpent of bronze and put it on a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”

We wondered about this graven image that Moses made and thought that seemed counter to other parts of the Israelite experience.  Previously, Moses reprimanded the people for making a golden calf and looking to it for their salvation.  The second of the ten commandments proclaims that the people are not to make an image in the form of anything in the heavens or anything on the earth beneath that they might worship.  This bronze serpent feels like it’s pushing up against that boundary of idolatry.  If this thing really works, it is so easy for people to see it as possessing power in itself, rather than the power being in their own faith.  One person commented that the solution could have been anything, as long as the people believed it.  “Cut up a serpent into three parts, throw it over your left shoulder, and you will be saved.”  One person commented that the whole story feels too patriarchal, too much top down control over of the people.

The text, as we have it, offers the bronze, or copper, serpent on the pole as the prescribed remedy.  “Bronze serpent,” is a pun in Hebrew, the two words sounding similar, “Bronze serpent,” (NeKHoSH NeKHoSHeT).  Rabbi Arthur Waskow suggests that a good English rendition of this could be that Moses makes a “copper viper,” or a “super-serpent,” or a  “copper copperhead.”  A (NeKHoSH NeKHoSHeT)( So, there is an underlying playfulness that is part of the people’s salvation.  The evil threat gets caricatured and posted for public view.

What is the cure for these unwelcome serpents of death?  The cure is to bring forth a serpent of our own, one of our own creation, that we carefully fashion and playfully? mold into the image of these poisonous serpents.  It has a likeness to those that destroy life, but is its own creature, purposefully made and offered.  Within the peril lies the seed of our salvation.  We each get a small dose of the threat, and it no longer has any power over us.  Homeopathy for the community.  Hoist up the copper viper for all to see, the very thing destroying you.  Now lift up your eyes and look death in the face.  In looking at it our eyes are taken off our own ankles and find a common focus.  Keep watching and be amazed as death loses its power over you.  The symbol of death becomes the symbol of life.  The serpent on the pole.  And salvation comes to the community.  Now walk with bold faith, free from fear.

“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.  For God so loved the world, that God gave the only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

As we were working with this connection between the Numbers and John passages, we found it helpful to clarify some of the terms we were working with in John.

One of those terms is “Son of God.”  One member of the group has been reading a book that discusses how this title was one that was already claimed in the ancient world.  Caesar Augustus claimed for himself the title “Divi filius,” “Son of the Divine One.”  This divi filius was inscribed on Roman coins in circulation in Jesus’ time that also had the image of Caesar on them.  This would have been the coin Jesus held in his hand when he said, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesars, and to God the things that are God’s.”  Our group agreed that seeing “Son of God” as a contested title, rather than one Jesus creates for himself, affects our reading of the New Testament, especially as John claims that Jesus is the only Son of God.  The self-giving love of Jesus is the real personality of God, rather than the dominating power of Caesar, the imposter.

Another term that shows up here in John is “eternal life.”  This makes the passage sound like its primary concern has to do with what happens after we die.  And that belief in Jesus, and the meaning of the cross, is focused on the afterlife.  But the term for “eternal” speaks to quality rather than duration of time.  The point is life, full, abundant life, as Jesus says elsewhere in the gospel, and the time for that life is now.  “Eternal life” could be translated as “fullness of life that keeps on going and going.”  The group made the observation that in Numbers, the effect of the copper viper was not so that the people would be saved after they died.  It was to give them life that day.  To lead them into a deeper, richer, abundant life and save them from the toxicity that surrounded them.  The same holds true for Jesus.

One other clarification of terms in John is that whenever Jesus talks about being “lifted up,” he is talking about the cross.  It’s John’s way of flipping our standard view of what it means to be exalted and glorified.  This is mentioned explicitly in 12:32-33.  “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself,” Jesus says.  After which John adds, “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”  How much more unexalted can you get than being lifted up on a cross?  But that’s what we’re given in John.  It’s jarring and disorienting.

So how we understand those terms – Son of God, eternal life, and lifted up, has a big impact on our reading of Jesus’ words in John.

When Jesus is saying all these things in John chapter three, it’s all about bringing into the light the things kept in darkness.  He is talking to the Pharisee Nicodemus, a man who knew the Hebrew scriptures well.  A man used to mining the scriptures for wisdom, playfully engaging the language of these texts to lead people toward the heart of God.  OK Nicodemus, teacher of the people, what can you make of this one?  “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”  A riddle from one rabbi to another.  A human being lifted up on a cross is like a copper copperhead lifted up on a pole.  The way that the community can receive true, abundant life now.

Seeing a man nailed up on a cross would not have been a new sight for Nicodemus or other listeners of Jesus.  In Ohio, we issue our death penalty out of public view; behind thick walls, within the confines of Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville.  In first century Rome, enemies of the state were crucified publicly.  A document from a Roman source of that time says, “Whenever we crucify the condemned, the most crowded roads are chosen, where the most people can see and be moved by this terror.  For penalties relate not so much to retribution as to their exemplary effect.” (Pseudo-Quentilian, Declamations 274; quoted in Palestine in the Time of Jesus, Hanson and Oakman, p. 92)

I think this must have come from the first century Wiki-leaks, because it reveals the exact intention of Roman crucifixion.  Crosses were an open display of the power of death, meant to inject the paralyzing venom of fear into people, a deterrent to anyone having thoughts of undermining the reign of the empire.

After a while, one might get used to these crosses and stop seeing them for what they are.  You just accept them as part of the landscape.  Or, you intentionally stop looking.  Convinced that if you keep your eyes to the ground, focused only on avoiding those obstacles that threaten just you, minding your own business, you can save your own life and escape all this death around you.

With an innocent man lifted up on a cross, this avoidance of the truth no longer becomes possible.

What is the cure for our addictions to domination and the destruction of innocent people? For our paralysis of fear that keeps us from living an abundant life?  The cure is this innocent person, a Human One, who carefully and playfully? bears the form of our own victims of violence.  It has a likeness to that evil that is destroying us, but is its own creature, purposefully enacted and offered, this caricature of Rome’s power to dominate.  The true Son of God peacefully overthrowing the ways of the imposter. Within the peril lies the seed of our salvation.  We each get our eyes opened to the violence in which we passively participate, a small dose of the threat, and it no longer has any power over us.  Homeopathy for the community.

Hoist up the Human One for all to see.  Now lift up your eyes and look death in the face.  In looking at it our eyes are taken off our own narrow worlds and find a common focus.  Blink once and you see the fangs and venom of the Caesar Son of God looming over you.  Blink again and now see the Christ Son of God who has detoxified the whole regime.  Once and for all rendered it powerless.  Keep watching and be amazed as death and violence and fear lose their power over you.  The symbol of death, the cross, becomes the symbol of life.  And salvation comes to the community.  Now, Believe!  Walk with bold faith, free from fear, in fullness of life that keeps on going and going.

From Curse To Blessing – 6/27/10 – Numbers 22-23

Balaam’s donkey holds the honor of being one of only two animals in the Bible who have a speaking role.  The other, perhaps more famous, animal who gets in on the dialogue is the serpent in Genesis 3.  In that case, things didn’t work out so well when the humans take the advice of the animal.  According to Genesis, we’re still reaping the consequences of that decision.  The woman and man listen to the words of the serpent, eat from the fruit of the tree, resulting in a lot of cursing.  The serpent is cursed and doomed to crawl on its belly and eat dust.  The woman is cursed with painful child birth and being ruled over by the man.  The man is cursed with hard labor and even the ground is cursed to produce thorns and thistles.   

Lest we think that talking animals always spells bad news for the humans, Balaam’s donkey comes along and offers some words that are enlightening in a positive kind of way.  Balaam, the prophet who is supposed to be able to see into the spiritual world, can’t see the angel of God standing in front of him in the middle of the road.  But the donkey can.  Balaam, hired by his king to carry on the great tradition of cursing one’s enemies, in this case, the people of Israel, is stopped in his tracks by a donkey that refuses to walk any further down that path.      

We’re going to be looking at Old Testament stories for much of our summer worship and one of the things about these stories is that parts of them are just plain alien to the world that we experience on an everyday basis.  Talking animals aside, Old Testament stories usually contain elements that we have really no idea what to do with.  We’ve got elderly women giving birth.  We’ve got a sea parting open for people to walk through, followed by those walls of water crashing down and drowning a different group of people.  We’ve got a fiery bush where the plant isn’t consumed.  We’ve got a fiery furnace that burns everyone who gets close except for three righteous youth who get tossed inside and survive just fine.  And it’s not a particularly moral world – there’s plenty of slaying and cursing of enemies, any number of dysfunctional families, intrigue, and betrayal.   And sometimes God appears to be the most unpredictable and violent character of the whole story.  But there are also these golden threads that run through all of the stories, threads of mercy, forgiveness, justice, and covenant faithfulness.  And as strange and cross-cultural as these stories are, they always seem to be about us in some way.  They illuminate the human condition in profound ways, even if that isn’t always evident on the first read through.  So we’re going to have a summer of living with some of these stories and entering inside their world and letting their world enter inside our own and see what we come up with. 

Balaam is summoned by the king of Moab because of his power to curse.  The king wants Balaam to curse the Israelites so that he can defeat them in battle.  So as we get into this story let’s remember all the way back to those original curses of Genesis.  That it’s the understanding of the biblical narrative that things have gone awry from the beginning and that men and women, and nations, and really all of creation is living under some kind of curse – that things are not as they should be.  It’s the curse of patriarchy – he shall rule over you, the words to the woman.  It’s the curse of unsatisfactory work – by the sweat of your brow.  It’s lots of other things.  It’s nation’s warring against each other.  It’s creation twisted out of shape.  And this curse gets passed down from generation to generation in various ways, and one of the ways is through the act of speaking curses, at which Balaam excels. 

Now that’s going all the way back.  So coming all the way into the present, in case we think that we don’t really do that curse thing anymore, consider these two rather mundane examples, one we could call an unintentional curse and one more intentional and generational.

While I was at the Collegeville Institute in Minnesota a couple weeks ago for the writing workshop we were writing short essays and then reading them to each other for input and feedback.  One of the essays, written by a pastor from Chicago was about impatience and how she felt she had always struggled with being an impatient person.  And one of the things that she mentioned in the essay was that she had an elementary school teacher who told her one time that she was impatient.  And she talked about how that short statement that he had made had stuck with her and, in some ways, kept defining her character into adulthood.  Those small words holding a power over her, still being something that she is working to overcome.  So maybe that’s something like an unintentional curse. 

A more intentional curse: When I was living in Elkhart I had the chance to get to know a struggling family where something like this was in effect.  The mother in this family had been told by her own mother that she was going to be a terrible mother whenever she had kids.  And she had meant it maliciously.  This mother had heard those words early in her life and they had stuck over her like a curse and she had, indeed, struggled to be a good mother to her two children.  I can’t be for sure on this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this mother’s mother had also carried a similar kind of curse passed down to her and she had simply passed it on to the next generation.  Knowing the family for three years, as the children were in their early teen years, I had the chance to see how it could once again get passed down to another generation, or, possibly, how it could stop with this mother.  Maybe always struggling with it herself, but managing not to pass those words down to her children.

So, curses, and the curse, continue in various ways.

Now let’s take a look at this Balaam story, which happens in between the beginning and now.

You’re welcome to open your Bibles to Numbers 22 if you want to follow.

This story of Balaam and his donkey takes place as the Israelites are coming near the end of their 40 years in the wilderness.  They are edging up to the borders of the land of Canaan, looking for a way to enter into this land that has been promised to their ancestors.  They can’t find safe passage from the South, through Edom, even though they tell the Edomites that they don’t want to conquer their land, and will repay them for food that they eat on their way through, they just want to pass through.  It’s very nonviolent of them, actually.  But the Edomites won’t let them pass through.  So they arch up to the north and the east, on the far side of the Jordan.  They ask the same favor of King Sihon of the Amorites, who gives them the same answer, and comes out against them for battle.  The Israelites defeat King Sihon, and then defeat King Og, and are camping in the plains of Moab, across the Jordan river from Jericho.  This is soon before they go conquer Jericho.  And the king of Moab and all the people of Moab are in great fear of the Israelites.  They’ve heard about this powerful and hardy people who came out of Egypt and have come through the desert. 

So we’ve got this big tension between Israel and Moab happening here.  And rather than try and take them on in battle, which he knows he can’t do successfully, the king of Moab, Balak, goes for the secret weapon.  He is going to hire Balaam to curse the Israelites.  He sends messengers who will say, “Come now, curse this people for me, since they are stronger than I; perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them from the land; for I know that whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed.”  So Balaam is obviously good at this thing, well known for his cursing prowess.

The Balaam story gets a little fuzzy on the details after he is asked to be a curser-for-hire.  After the request is made by the messengers, who are holding the fee in their hands as they speak, Balaam tells them to wait and spend the night so he can sleep on it and consult with the Lord on what he should say.  He hears a clear message that he should not curse Israel, and tells the messengers he won’t do the job.  They go away, but others messengers – “more numerous and more distinguished” the text says – are sent with the same request.  Balaam says, “Although Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of the Lord my God, to do less or more.”  This sounds like another strong refusal, but some read this as a form of bargaining, that Balaam is playing hard to get and is upping the ante for his services.  But it’s a little fuzzy on his motives here.  It gets more confusing when God appears to Balaam in a dream and tells him to go with the messengers, which is immediately followed by the statement in verse 22 about God being angry at Balaam because he has chosen to go to the king.  Either Balaam misheard God in thinking he should go, or has devious plans in going to the king, or God has had a change of mind, which wouldn’t be the first time in the Bible, or, in my personal opinion, this is all a strategy in order to get the talking donkey into the story.

…Or not, but that’s what it sets us up for.

So Balaam is on his way to consult with the king, he’s riding his donkey, and an angel of the Lord comes to stand in the road, with a drawn sword, to stop Balaam in his tracks.  Balaam the great seer, can’t see this angel.  The donkey, on the other hand, sees the angel perfectly well, does not want to have an encounter with a sword, and so we get this rather comical series where the donkey keeps trying to avoid the angel of the Lord who is standing on the road, and Balaam keeps getting more and more angry at his obviously stupid and stubborn animal. 

Some commentators note that this series also reflects the way God works when God wants us to stop going down a certain path.  At first the angel appears on the open road, and the donkey veers off to the side of the road to avoid it, but keeps going.  Then the angel appears on a narrow part of the path, surrounded by a wall on both sides.  The donkey can still barely get by, but scrapes Balaam’s leg against the wall, giving him some pain.  Finally, the angel finds an even more narrow part of the path where there is simply no getting through and the donkey does the only thing it can do.  It sits down in the middle of the road and refuses to go any further.  So eventually, God gets Balaam’s attention by giving him no other way around.

Which makes Balaam really angry.  So he’s whipping his donkey that has just plopped down in the middle of the road.  At which point, of course, the donkey says, “Hey, ouch.  Quit it.  What have I done to deserve this?”  Balaam, apparently unflustered by the fact that his donkey is talking, tells her, and it is the Hebrew word here for a female donkey, for whatever that’s worth, that he wishes he had a sword so he could just kill her on the spot.  To which the donkey answers, “Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day?  Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?”  To which Balaam says, “No,” which is the end of that discussion.  

So Balaam loses an argument with his donkey, and just so they don’t have to sit in awkward silence for too long, God open’s Balaam’s eyes, and there is the angel of the Lord in the middle of the road, with the sword that Balaam didn’t have.  And not there to strike the donkey or Balaam, but to tell Balaam that he must go to Balak the King of Moab who wants him to curse Israel, and he must speak, but only the words that God gives him.

And, as it turns out, the words that God gives him are not words of cursing.  But words of blessing.  Balaam gives four oracles of blessing in chapters 23 and 24.  This whole saga of the journey and the donkey results in a transformation where that impulse, that deeply ingrained human tendency to perpetuate the curse, becomes an opportunity for blessing.

Which, I believe, is really what these golden threads of the Hebrew Scriptures, and the New Testament, the calling of the people of God is all about.  God is about the work, Jesus was about the work, we are to be about the work, of transforming cursing into blessing.  And through Christ, the curse has been broken, such that we are utterly free to live into that original vision of creation – men and women each equally created in the image of God, creation meant to be enjoyed and tended with care.  Nations are not doomed to be in perpetual antagonism and warfare.  Women are not doomed to be in perpetual second class status to men.  Those children in Elkhart are not doomed to be horrible parents to the next generation.         

Balaam might have been a paid professional, but we know that, in many ways, it’s true of all of us, that “whomever we bless is blessed, and whomever we curse is cursed.”  And we probably know that power others have had for us – either speaking words of blessing – that we will do well, that we are valuable, that we are a beautiful person – or words of cursing – that we are doomed to failure or mediocrity or that we’re bound to self-destruct somewhere along the way. 

When we allow our words or intentions to get off track, when we head down the wrong path, God will use just about any means necessary – just about any means necessary – to let us know that God desires blessing, not cursing.