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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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A cosmic hallelujah | August 13

 

Twelve Hymns Project: Praise God from whom

Text: Psalm 148

 

Psalm 148 is like one of those emails you get where the sender entered all the recipients in the To: box rather than Blind Carbon Copy.  This Psalm is the text we used for our Call to Worship this morning.  It’s an invitation to what theologian Douglas Ottati refers to as “the party of existence.”  And we are invited.  Only rather than simply getting our own invite, with all the other recipients hidden, like that lovely Blind Carbon Copy feature allows, we get the full catalogue of invites, which we scan through first before getting to our part.

The sender must have had two lists going, and begins with the first: those in “the heavens” or “the heights.”  It includes things unseen and seen: angels, hosts; sun, moon, and stars; the waters above.  The second list is “you who are on earth.”  It ranges from sea monsters to winged birds, wild beasts to domesticated animals to creeping things to fruit trees and cedars.  To make sure we get the message that we’re all invited, it names kings and peoples of the earth, young men and women, old and young.  And the invitation is not limited to carbon-based life forms.  Even the mountains and hills, fire, various forms of precipitation, even the wind gets an invite.

It’s like when the person who’s working the booth at the skating rink gets on the loud speaker and announces: “the next skate will be an all skate, and all skate.”  The lights go down, everyone gets up from their seats, the disco ball kicks into gear, and before you know it everyone and everything is on the floor, swirling around the same center of gravity, gliding to the same beat.

The party of existence is an all skate, and we are invited.

The operative word, woven throughout Psalm 148 is “praise.”  At least how we translate it.  In the Hebrew poetry, it’s that familiar word that almost needs no translation.  “Hallelu.”  Every appearance of “praise” in our text is originally a Hallelu.  God has spoken creation into being, and now creation returns the favor by speaking the language that translates across species and continents: Hallelujah.

If we would translate not just the language, but also the cosmology from that of the ancient world to our own, we might see this Psalm as a call to the entire universe to remember that it originates from a singular point of burning possibility; that the cosmos has been ignited into being, vast and still expanding.  That energy has cooled into matter, that atoms have gathered and fused new elements in the cores of stars which have seeded the universe with new possibilities, that our home planet has become a place of hospitality for novelty, that we are the latest in a long line of the star’s descendants, that the universe has now become conscious of itself through us, or, in the words of Brian Swimme, “The human provides the space in which the universe feels its stupendous beauty.”  (The Universe is a Green Dragon, p. 32).

It’s significant that Jesus’ favorite title for himself was ‘The Human One,’ Son of Man.  He embodied in a new way the Source with a capital S from which all this comes.  We, his spiritual descendants, have the privilege of orienting ourselves toward the awe and wonder that leads to life and more life.  We have the awesome gift and responsibility of being the DJs for the party of existence, the choir directors for the cosmic hallelujah.  Even when it’s a cold and broken Hallelujah, thank you Leonard Cohen.

This is the final week of our Twelve hymns series and what better way to end it than with “Praise God from whom.”  Both because it is a lovely benediction, and because it has become the de factor Mennonite anthem.

Its words are simple – a cliff notes version of Psalm 148, with a barely noticeable reversal of the order of below and above.  “Praise God from who all blessings flow, praise God all creatures here below.”  “Praise God above, ye heavenly host.”

If you’re new-ish to CMC and haven’t spent much time in Mennonite fellowships, you might be thinking, “Oh yeah, I know that song.”  Unfortunately, this is most likely not the case.  This is not the version of the song you sing around the Thanksgiving table, commonly known as the Doxology.  This is the Doxology on Mennonite four part steroids… which is actually much prettier than it sounds.  It’s one of the lovely quirks of this tradition.  Although for a 500 year old tradition, it’s still relatively new.

Last year The Mennonite magazine  carried an article in which Mary Oyer names her top ten hymns.  Mary Oyer was a long time professor of music, served as executive secretary on the 1969 hymnal committee, had widespread influence in teaching church music for decades, and, on the side, studied African musical traditions in 22 countries through a series of Fulbright grants.  She’s a Mennonite rock star, still going strong in her 90’s.  Within the article she tells the story of how “Praise God from whom” came to take its place in Mennonite hymnology.

These are her words: “The 1969 committee labeled this a “Choral Hymn,” placing it in that section because we thought at the time that it was too difficult for a congregation and that it belonged with choir numbers. It was only when the new hymnal was introduced in July 1969 [at the Mennonite Church assembly] in Oregon that I heard a large congregation try it. I was leading the hymn sing with fear that we would not get through the hymn’s three pages, but it was an immediate success. And it certainly was a favorite of mine for many years as I saw how it enlivened people as we sang. It brought us joy.”

She points back to Joseph Funk who first included the hymn in an 1876 edition of a song collection known as Harmonia Sacra.  That collection was responsible for popularizing singing in four parts among Mennonites in the US.  In looking back at this, Mary Oyer says, “I am grateful for the generations of song leaders who went out to Mennonite homes, farming during the day and teaching music with Harmonia Sacra in the evening. It made possible our singing 606 (Praise God from whom) with energy and pleasure for many years.”

But here’s something else from the Mary Oyer article:  She tells all this after listing her top ten hymns, in which “Praise God from Whom” does not appear.  The woman largely responsible for bringing this song into anthem status, doesn’t list it in her top ten hymns.

And here’s the reason she gives: While participating in Mennonite World Conference in India and Zimbabwe, it was evident that this could not work as a congregational song in most settings.  She ends the article by saying, “I am increasingly aware that as we become a more global church I want to be able to learn the hymns that our members around the world find valuable.”

Praise God from whom is a beautiful, even breath taking hymn of praise, but it has a catch: This song that calls upon all creatures here below and the heavenly host to join in cosmic praise, is… really hard to join.  It’s a very culturally particular expression of the universal hallelujah.  Austin will have more to say about this in his reflection.

I want to end my words for the series on a personal note, hopefully a note that harmonizes.  Since my growing up years in church didn’t involve four part singing, seminary felt like a now-or-never time to get started.  I quickly discovered an informal way of learning.  The seminary chapel is relatively small, with brick walls and hard floors.  The sound is live and the acoustics are pretty spectacular.  I found that if I stood close to someone singing bass and listened for it, I could actually feel the notes in body.  My body, and specifically my voicebox, would vibrate with the same wavelength as my neighbor – his voice bouncing off those hard surfaces and coming right back at me.  I could catch the note in my throat, amplify it, and be just a millisecond behind that person throughout the entire song.  But I had to be close to them…without being annoyingly close.

It’s an experience I had many times during those years, and since.

It’s a feeling of being dependent.  Dependent on the community in order to find my own voice.  Of not being able to take a first step until that step is made for me.  It’s a bodily experience of being moved, perhaps even on a cellular level.

It’s an experience that also has something to do more broadly with the party of existence.  I like to think that walking among trees, studying about stars, playing with children, and paying attention to rivers has a similar effect.  That in doing so I and we are joining something, something very beautiful, that animates our bodies but extends far beyond them, very far beyond them.  Something that points beyond our lives to the Source of life and existence itself.  Something that engages us in what we call Praise, amplifying our part in the cosmic hallelujah.

So we’ll end today’s service with Praise God from whom.  If you know it, sing with gusto.  If you’re learning it, listen for your part and see if the acoustics are good enough in here to feel it in your body.  And if your act of praise is simply to listen, then so be it.

And if you like second chances, a heads up that we’ll also be singing this at the end of next week’s worship service in which we celebrate 55 years as a congregation.

Thanks be to God for all this.

Deeply personal, radically communal | May 14

Text: Psalm 23; Acts 2:42-47

The sermon today and next week will be multi-voiced.  We’ll be hearing from our new members.  I’ve gently suggested they keep their sharing brief, so I’ll follow my own counsel.

Today’s scriptures speak of a faith that is deeply personal and radically communal.

Psalm 23 proclaims God as a shepherd.  And not just any shepherd, but my shepherd.  “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.”  How many people have recited these lines through the millennia?

And who doesn’t need shepherded?  Is there anyone out there who has it all figured out, knows exactly where they’re going and why?  Does anyone always know the way to green pastures and still waters?  Most of the time we’re stumbling in the dark, or, as the Psalmist says, in “the valley of the shadow of death.”  It doesn’t say we avoid the valley or the darkness.  It says we are accompanied through it, and that we need fear no evil.

There is a dimension of faith that is deeply personal, and there are paths we alone have to walk.  Psalm 23 proclaims that when we do, we are accompanied by the great Shepherd, with goodness and mercy trailing close behind.

And there is a dimension of faith that is radically communal.

Acts chapter 2 gives a summary of life in the early church.  “Awe came upon everyone,” Luke writes.   “All who believed were together.”  They “had all things in common.”  “They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”

Radical is perhaps an overused word.  It means to get at the root of something.  For the early Jesus movement, the root of faith included an economics of sharing, and a life oriented around community.  We Mennonites are the heirs of the Radical Reformation in 16th century Europe.  The Anabaptists set their sites on digging down to the root of faith, which rested in the life and teachings of Jesus.

In our highly individualized society, we hunger for community.  Community gives us life, but it also asks of us.  It asks that we participate in the Divine economy of sharing, that we give, and receive, and thus flourish together.

The Lord is our Shepherd.  Jesus is at the root of our faith.  We are welcomed into, formed within, and challenged by the community of faith that bears his name.

The Psalm 1 tree or The Giving Tree? | 20 September 2015

Text: Psalm 1

The trees have been in the news recently.  Earlier this month the Washington Post carried an article with the lengthy headline “Scientists discover that the world contains dramatically more trees than previously thought.”  Before this study scientists had used satellite imaging to estimate that there are about 400 billion trees in the world.  The revised number is 3.04 trillion.  Climates like Ohio, home of temperate forests, have about 600 billion trees total, itself quite a bit more than the previous estimate for the whole planet.    The new global estimate means there are about 422 trees per person.

For those wondering, a tree gets defined as a plant with woody stems larger than 10 cm in diameter, about four inches, at breast height.  So the waist high service berry and Japanese maple we planted in our front yard two years ago do not yet count as trees.  The new total is based on satellite imaging, plus on the ground measurements at 429,775 different locations around the world, so this was truly a colossal study.  If you want to know more of the technicalities I’ll put a link to the original scholarly article from the journal Nature on the sermon page of the website, although be forewarned that the methodology section contains sentences like this:  “To account for this collinearity, we performed ascendant hierarchical clustering using hclustvar function in R’s ClustOfVar package in each biome-level model.” p. 6

3 trillion is a lot of trees, but it’s the least amount of trees in the last 10,000 years, barely half of what it once was.  We’re losing about 15 billion trees a year.

More locally, the Dispatch carried an article on Wednesday about the city’s “Branch Out Columbus” campaign.  The goal is to raise the tree canopy of the city from 22% to 27% in the next five years by planting 300,000 trees.  The majority of these will make up for the 200,000 trees anticipated to be lost in that time, the emerald ash borer being a major culprit.  The article noted that special attention will be given to low income neighborhoods, but that everyone is encouraged to plant trees.  A small piece of the funding will be for $50 rebates for people who purchase and plant their own native trees.  The first round of rebates is available through the end of October, and now is a good time to plant.  (Link HERE for rebate info).

Trees are good.  They pull carbon out of the air, build up soil fertility, filter water, slow down erosion, provide habitat for all kinds of beneficial insects and wildlife, provide shade and fruit and beauty.  Not to mention the wonderful usefulness of wood.  You are currently sitting on a cushioned tree.  I am speaking behind and standing on a tree.  The trees are holding up this sanctuary.  When you go home into your house you will most likely be surrounded below, above, and around by a gift of the trees.  Factor in other products from trees like paper, medicines, oils, dyes, cork, cinnamon and maple syrup, rubber, and oh yeah, oxygen, and it’s hard to imagine life without trees.

Given all the depressing news in the world it’s good to see the trees in the news.  I wonder how our mindset would change if they made the front page every day.  Trees growing slow but steady this year.  Local tree shades residents.  Trees holding strong after big storm.

We’re in the midst of our first fruits pledging for next year’s budget, and it’s a good time to consider stewardship from the perspective of a tree.

Psalm 1 uses a tree as a primary image for the righteous life.  As the first in the collection of 150 Psalms, Psalm 1 gives something of an orientation to the Psalms.  It presents us with two different paths, the way of the wicked, which ends up being as immaterial as chaff blown away by the wind; and the way of the righteous, which is as healthy and sturdy and fruitful as a tree with a lifetime supply of nourishing water, planted by stream.

Jesus uses a similar kind of motif to end the Sermon on the Mount using different words, talking about the wise and foolish builders.  Those who listen to his words are building their houses on solid ground – the wise.  Those who ignore his teachings are building on sand – the foolish.

This binary approach of the wicked and the righteous might feel a little simplistic to us.  Rather than thinking about this as different groups of people who fall neatly into one category or the other, we might think of these two paths and tendencies as existing within each person, within ourselves.  There are parts of us that stray off course, foolish and misguided, and there are parts of us that, in the words of the Psalmist, delight in the law of the Lord, wise and righteous.

The Psalmist exalts in those who seek the righteous path: “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked…They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither.  In all that they do, they prosper.”  The prophet Jeremiah uses the same imagery.  Jeremiah 17:7-8 says, “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is in the Lord.  They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream.  It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.”

Both the Psalmist and Jeremiah point to a strong healthy tree with everything it needs to thrive and say, “you want to know what a life connected to the Divine looks like? – it looks like that.”

The combination of this being a season when we think about giving, plus the lectionary tree reference, along with that opening line about “Happy are those…” was enough to make me think of that popular children’s book, The Giving Tree.  It had been a long time since I’d read that book, but after looking it over again it makes me think that it, just in itself, could be the subject of a long exegetical sermon on the nature of giving.

Is that story a beautiful picture of selfless giving that ultimately fulfills both boy and tree?  The tree gives of itself through all the seasons of life.  No matter what the boy needs, the tree finds a way to fulfill the need of the moment, even at great cost to itself.  And even when it looks like it has nothing left to give, it offers itself as a place of rest and quiet.  The giving tree.

Or is this a dark parable about humanity’s one sided relationship with nature?  Or about a co-dependent relationship which is ultimately harmful to both?  The giving tree is willing to do anything to make the partner happy even if it involves reducing herself to almost nothing.  The boy is oblivious to the effects of his desires and discontent, and keeps taking and taking until there’s nothing left but a grumpy old man and a bare stump.  Never once does he ask what the tree needs.  I wonder how this book would read differently if, rather than being called The Giving Tree, it would be called The Taking Boy.

Or maybe this too, is too binary.  Either praising the message or condemning it.  This was one of the reasons I wanted to gauge this kids’ emotional response to it.

So here’s a question back to you.  When you think about a life of generosity, life as a giving person, a giving community, a righteous life, do you identify this more with The Giving Tree or with the tree of Psalm 1?  They don’t appear to be the same tree.  Psalm 1 does not say, “Happy are those who are righteous, they will be like a tree that gives itself completely away until there’s nothing left.”  Instead, Jeremiah says, “it does not cease to bear fruit.”  But there are certain parts of the New Testament that call for costly sacrifice, like being willing to carry a cross, or selling all you have and giving to the poor.  And the Hebrew Bible isn’t all down on stumps.  There’s the lovely passage from Isaiah we remember at Advent which says, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”  Christians have understood this as referring to the coming of Jesus.

Which have you been taught to admire and imitate?  Do we keep giving ourselves away until there’s nothing left, or is there some way to keep being renewed from the Source of Life itself, the living water, bearing fruit all seasons?  Or is it some open combination of both of these?  Even a tree by a stream has a life cycle, we’re all on our way to being compost eventually, and in the meantime we want to give and give and grow and grow at the same time and trust the Spirit with whatever comes next.  Different stages of life might call for an emphasis on one or the other.  And sometimes the boy needs to let the tree have a life of its own, or the tree needs to tell the boy, “No, my happiness does not depend on fulfilling your every need.”

I’m hopeful we don’t have to choose between giving and growing, emptying and filling, that one naturally leads to the other in some kind of Divine ecology.

As a closing thought, I want to mention one of the surprises from studying the language of Psalm 1.  Every English translation I’d ever seen says something to the effect of this being a tree planted by a stream of water.  When I hear this I think of a scene like the banks of the Olentangy, or the tree lined Blue Jacket creek which runs through my parents’ farm.  There are streams of water, and, out of all the 3.04 trillion trees in this world, there is a small percentage that have the good fortune of sprouting and growing right beside them.  Good for them.

But the Hebrew of Psalm 1 is actually pointing to a different picture.  There is a common Hebrew verb meaning to plant, but the word used here is a much rarer word that means to transplant.  Both the Psalmist and Jeremiah use this word, as does Ezekiel to talk about a very similar thing.  So this is a tree that has been transplanted.  And the word for stream or river actually refers to a channel or a canal, as in irrigation.  In other words, the location of the tree and the very existence of the stream, rather than being chances of nature, are the result of intentionality.  Even if the tree was not originally by a stream, and even if a particular piece of land was not originally well watered, they have been made to be that way through a conscious choice.  Through careful intentionality.  Through an act of grace.

This is a freeing thought.  What do our spirits need to thrive?  What practices and habits and relationships transplant us by a steady stream of living water?  How can we learn to be more generous with our time and our kindness, our finances, our skills?  Happy are you who are transplanted by such a channel of water.  They will bear fruit.  Their leaves will not whither.

“Where does my help come from?” | 24 August 2014

Twelve Scriptures Project

Texts #11, 12: Psalm 121, Romans 8:35-39

 

We have arrived at the end of the rainbow.

For the last ten weeks we have been pondering these twelves scriptures as foundational/ centering passages for our understanding of God and what it means to live a life of faith.  Next Sunday the front will look very different as the sanctuary is prepared for the wedding of Rosa W.  Even though we will be moving beyond these scriptures to focus on other things, I hope they will have a lingering presence with us in some way.  Yesterday the church commissions had a retreat and had these scriptures in front of us while talking about the kind of future we want to live into as a congregation.  And I wonder if there are other ways we can keep coming back to these passages, or to keep remembering the kind of foundation we have together.  Remembering back to my few years of construction experience with Habitat for Humanity, having the foundation in place meant it was time for the rewarding work to really start, with lots of collaboration to help something take shape.

Psalm 121 begins this way: “I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come?  My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”

There are a couple ways of interpreting these opening verses.  One is that the Psalmist is looking for a sign of God’s presence, and sees the hills and mountains in their beauty and solidity as a sign of divine goodness, their largeness putting our own lives in perspective and reminding us that all will be well.  I lift up my eyes to the hills and am reminded that God is my helper.  This perhaps has become the most common interpretation.  Us flatlanders of central Ohio have reason to be especially awed when we travel to the hills and mountains.

Another interpretation, a more ancient one, notes that this Psalm begins by saying it is a psalm of ascents, to ascend, one that was most likely recited when one would make the pilgrimage up to Jerusalem, ascending the hills around it to enter the Holy City.  It’s a Psalm for sojourners, travelers, pilgrims.  The hills around Jerusalem were not known as being friendly to travelers, with the potential to come upon beasts or bandits around any turn.  It was not an easy climb.  If one were coming from the north and east, one could ascend nearly 4000 feet en route.  A common route from this direction would have brought the traveler through the city of Jericho, and one of Jesus most familiar parables begins by saying “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.”  For anyone who would have ever made pilgrimage to Jerusalem from Jesus’ neck of the woods, Galilee, this would have been an instantly familiar scenario.  Even if you make it safely up to Jerusalem, will you make it safely back, going down from Jerusalem to Jericho on the journey home?

In this reading, the hills are not a source of comfort, but the source of danger, the obstacle one needs to get beyond in order to reach one’s destination.  The traveler looks out from the safety of their home in the village and says, “I’ve got to get on the other side of those hills, now how am I going to pull that off?” or, as the Psalm begins,  “I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come?”  This is the prayer of Frodo Baggins and his faithful companion Samwise Gamgee on their epic journey, which you could spend an entire waking day watching if you were so inclined.

Without negating the first interpretation, what I like about this second one is how true to life it is.  When we look out at the journey ahead of us, the thing we most often see isn’t how we’re going to get through it, where our help is going to come from, but the obstacles and the barriers through which we will certainly need help.  The hills are easy to see, painfully obvious.  What we don’t see, what remains unknown, is how we’re going to get through them.  I lift up my eyes to this illness I will be living with: this cancer diagnosis, this injury, this mental health struggle.  Where will my help come from?  I lift up my eyes to graduate school, where will my help come from?  Besides coffee.  I lift up my eyes to this job transition, I lift up my eyes to retirement, I lift up my eyes to raising a child, I lift up my eyes to taking a risk in my career, I lift up my eyes to a really difficult conversation I need to have.  Where will my help come from?  We may not always phrase it liturgically, like a Psalm, but this is a question we live with.

The Psalm poses this question, and proceeds to provide an answer which is both definitive and completely open ended.  “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”  My help comes from YHWH.

This is where my rational brain kicks into full gear and isn’t quite satisfied.  If God were a very large person able to reach down and lend a hand, one might be able to trust more easily that everything will go smoothly.  But She’s not.  God is not a person in the way that we are a person, God is not an object somewhere out there, neither does God seem in any way predictable, to help us in the way we think we need help.

I think of the story of Moses at the burning bush when the voice from the bush had asked him to go back to his people in Egypt, from where he has fled, and tell them that he is there to lead them to freedom.  Moses is resistant at every point in the conversation and finally asks the voice to tell him its name, so that he can tell the people the name of the god who is leading them.  The name the voice chooses, the self-selected name of the Divine is “I will be who I will be;” the Hebrew of which gets condensed down to the name YHWH, the unique name for God the Jews carry forward with them.  Tell them, “I will be who I will be” has sent you.  How’s the for reassuring?  Translated over into Psalm 121, it would read something like this: “Where does my help come from?”  My help will come from where my help will come from, Yahweh, the maker of heaven and earth.  Our help comes from the one beyond naming, the one with a thousand names, the Divine, the Source of life itself, the creative force that produces the very hills that have become a danger.

Our help comes from the Lord, but we never know what form that help will take, and most of the time, we don’t see it coming until it’s there, unexpected, a grace, seeing that our foot doesn’t slip on this rock, or that we’re protected around this corner.  We can’t always get what we want.  But if we try sometimes, we just might find, we get what we need – said another Psalmist.

On Wednesday I had lunch with Yasir Makki, who attended this church in the late 90’s and early 00’s and returned to his home in Sudan out of a sense of call to minister to his people.  He’s been back in the US during August this year.  We did not cite Psalm 121 in our discussion, but he is a person who has a strong sense of God as his helper and his guardian. He told me his story.  He refused and fled from mandatory military enrollment in Sudan.  Ended up in the US as a refugee.  Found a community of support, part of that community being the Mennonites.  Got a Bible degree at Rosedale and a Masters of social work at OSU and was making a pretty good life for himself here, before feeling called to return to Sudan.  Even his dad in Sudan said it was a bad idea for him to return.  His center that he has established teaches sewing skills to women.  They have a home that houses political refugees from South Sudan.  He oversees four churches and they have had meeting houses demolished by the government.  He has maintained his Muslim identity, continues to study the Qur’an, but also identifies as a follower of Jesus in a country where converting to Christianity can be punishable by death.  He relies on support from American churches.  He’s hoping to open up a school because young people in his town don’t read and literacy has all kinds of implications about the kind of life that will be available to them.  Many of you know the details and complexities of his story better than I do and hopefully I have these few details straight that I’ve mentioned.  His help comes from where his help comes from.  It comes from the Lord, he says with great faith.

We have paired Romans 8:35-39 with this Psalm.  What if Romans 8 said this: For I am convinced that neither hardship nor distress nor persecution, nor famine, nor nakedness, nor peril will happen to me if I serve God.  It doesn’t say that.  It gives that list, assuming they will happen, then says none of it can separate us from the love of Christ.  I am convinced, Paul says, that these things are not cause for separation from that which holds me up in being.  I am convinced that the hill to which I lift up my eyes cannot, will never, separate me from the love of God.

So here’s a parting thought.  A parting thought for this sermon, but also a parting thought for this series.  The thought for this parting thought came while pondering the final line of Psalm 121.  That final line in that Psalm for sojourners says: “The Lord, YHWH, will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.”  So the parting thought is that in order to even begin our going out and our coming in – our Sojourner mobility – it takes a certain amount of groundedness in this love of God which Paul and these other passage speak about.  Without this groundedness, without a trust that there will be help along the way, we don’t even set out on the journey in the first place.  We stay in the safety of the village, the safety of the familiar, the routine, the comfortable.  It takes faith and trust in something to set out and to be free enough to go out and come in as you feel so led.

I often tell couples in pre-marriage counseling that they definitely want to think long and hard about this commitment they’re making to each other, but not to think about it too hard or they’ll never do it.  If you have to know exactly how everything is going to work out and where your help is going to come from at every turn, it’s likely you’ll never make the first steps.

The opposite approach would be our daughter Ila and her love of climbing.  Rather than calculating anything ahead of time, she starts climbing up whatever is around to climb, until she gets stuck or can’t get down, at which point she just starts screaming for help, apparently convinced that help will always come her way.  It’s worked for her so far.  I lift up my eyes to the dining room table.  I totally got this, or not.

One of the best things we can do in parenting and grand parenting and mentoring, seems to be giving our young people a sense of being so enveloped in love that they are able to go out and come in and take risks.  Not completely protecting them from all harm that happens on the journey, but creating the conditions that enable the traveler to make the journey in the first place.

So what if the purpose of these foundational scriptures, these centering values, and the purpose of our worshiping life together, isn’t to give a certainty that everything will be alright, that no harm shall befall you, or to give anyone a blueprint for what their life should look like.  But to instill in each of us the freedom of going out and coming in, from this time on, and forever more.  A confidence in God as our helper, whatever form that might take, and a sense that we are utterly immersed in the love of Christ, such that the hills ahead aren’t a reason to avoid the journey.

Paul must have felt this in an overwhelming way to write what he does in Romans and to lead the life that he did.  He knew nothing could separate him from the love of God, so he was utterly free to do just about anything that made this love more evident in the world.

So that’s it.  It’s hard, but that’s OK.  Our lives are not our own to protect.  We are held in being by a love that surpasses our ability to understand and manage it.  And the Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

 

Easter | Christ, cornerstones, and couches | 20 April 2014

Texts: John 20:1-18; Psalm 118:1-2; 14-24

 

Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!

“Easter is late this year.” I’ve heard this said many times over the last number of months, and have said it a few times myself. A late Easter affects worship planners and pushes back spring breaks for some schools. It would normally mean that the early signs of spring would already be starting to look like the full greenery of summer. But it just so happens that spring is also late this year, so it actually feels like we’re about on track.

The date for determining Easter is complicated enough that it can’t be stated succinctly in a few sentences, especially since it has changed a few times throughout church history. In Western Christianity it involves a combination of factors including the spring equinox, the full moon, and the date of Passover. Sun, earth, moon, all hurling through cosmic space; and the commemoration of ancient Hebrew slaves liberated from the captivity of empire. When everything aligns, Easter has arrived. For us Easter can be as early as March 22 and as late as April 25, so today, April 20th is pushing the back end of possibile dates.

Despite the difficulty in knowing quite why Easter is when it is, the fact that there is a formula, and that it does come every year, even if it’s late, is marvel enough. Having a formula for an annual celebration of resurrection feels, in some ways, like a marvelous contradiction. The resurrection of Jesus, almost by definition, is a shattering of expectation, a break with our tired, worn out way of living, a most un-formulaic burst of life which alters our perception of how the world really works.   Maybe we’ve been ready since March. Maybe we’ll never be ready. Ready or not, Easter is here. Christ is Risen.

Of all the mornings of the year when the earth turns toward the sun and brings us another day, this is the one where we ponder that one morning, when women made their way to the tomb; or, as John tells it, one woman, Mary Magdalene, about whom he has told us almost nothing previously; only that she was present, standing near the cross with Jesus’ mother and some other women as Jesus died.

Lutheran pastor Nadia Boltz Weber has referred to Mary Magdelene as the patron saint of showing up. Matron saint in this case. In John, she’s one of a few who show up by Jesus’ side at the cross, and the only one who shows up to be with Jesus’ body after his burial. Nobody else is there, and the male disciples, it turns out, are on lock down red alert, hiding behind locked doors for fear that they’ll meet the same fate as their master.

But Mary is there.

Much to her dismay, she can’t find Jesus where she expects him to be, but Jesus finds her. Resurrection is all about a new way of seeing, and at first she doesn’t recognize him, thinks she’s talking with the local gardener, but he calls her name, Mary, and she is found. Because she showed up, she is the first witness of the resurrection, and she becomes the apostle to the apostles.

When the early believers were looking for a way to make sense of their experience of resurrection what they had was their Hebrew Bible, and they found these different phrases and snippets in their Scriptures, which are part of our scriptures, that all of a sudden had a deeper, richer meaning than they had before. One of these phrases came out of Psalm 118, and it was just one verse, one odd phrase, like a mini-parable: “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” And sometimes when they were quoting it they extended it to the next verse also, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” This was part of the text of the call to worship this morning.

Psalm 118 is one of those Psalms that Jews would have sung as they made pilgrimage to the temple. It’s a Psalm we heard last week on Palm Sunday, something they would have recited as they neared Jerusalem and which they recited as they walked with Jesus on his way into the city in his non-triumphalist entry. “Open to me the gates of righteousness, (these are actual temple gates that we’re talking about) that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord….Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of God.”

And it was this other piece of that Psalm about the rejected stone and the builders that caught their imagination as it clicked into place with their experience of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.

So we can imagine a group of ancient builders quarrying and selecting just the kind of stone they want in their structure. Dressing the stones, chiseling them to just the right size and shape. They have the technique down to a science and an art. They’re skilled, expert builders. They could do this in their sleep. Some nights they do it in their sleep. You keep the walls plumb and the corners square and you’ve got yourself one more solid structure alongside all the other things that have been built. Well the builders do this time after time and then one is working with a stone and sees that it just isn’t right. It won’t conform to the desired shape. It’s the wrong shape, wrong kind, wrong everything, so it can’t be used. It would mess up the whole wall and might even be dangerous for the integrity of the structure. The building inspector might see it and make you tear it out. So, no big deal, get rid of it, heave it over on the pile of rejects. Rocks are cheap. There’s plenty more where that came from.

What this line in Psalm 118 is saying and what those early believers discovered their experience of Christ was like, was that that stone that the builders rejected, which had no place in the standard pattern of things is actually the beginning, orienting stone of a structure of a whole different shape. It was the cornerstone. He had taught: blessed are the merciful, forgive not seven times, but seven times 70, turn the other cheek, love your enemies. He was a Samaritan befriending, female affirming, leper loving, truth-telling force to be reckoned with. The experts who kept civilization moving forward didn’t have any place for it. Better get rid of him.

But now that is the starting point for a whole new order of humanity. It’s a cornerstone. The cornerstone gets laid down first, and all other stones that get laid after it are laid in reference to that stone. It determines the position of the entire structure.

My closest experience to this is laying ceramic tile. The most important tile you lay is the first one because once it’s in place you’ve set the course for the whole project. Every other tile finds its place in accordance with the first tile.

“The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”

Jesus quotes this in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Then in Acts Peter quotes this in a speech he gives before the elders of the people (4:11). And then later in 1 Peter, in his letter to a group of believers, Peter quotes this again (2:7).

The rejected stone as the cornerstone is kind of like that thing about interior designing that you may have heard or maybe experienced, about the person who gets a new couch and ends up remodeling her whole house as a result. She gets a beautiful new couch, and sets in place in her living room. It’s so beautiful that it makes the coffee table next to it look really shabby, so she goes and finds another coffee table to go with the couch. Well now she needs a new end table to match that, and then the desk doesn’t quite work. And the color on the walls doesn’t quite work with the fabric on the couch, so she repaints the walls, and then the paint in the other rooms doesn’t quite go with that so that has to be redone. You can complete the picture that this eventually works its way through the entire house. The beauty from the new couch radiates out through the entire home and over time the pattern of design gets reset.

This analogy works pretty well, except with resurrection you don’t go out and buy the couch, it just shows up in your house one day. You’re going about your routine, walking into the living room ready to slump down on your old lumpy couch, and there it is. You might not even believe your eyes, but there it is.

This may sound strange for a pastor to say, but I’m actually not all the concerned what you believe about Jesus’ resurrection: Whether you believe that resurrection had to happen to the dead, physical body of Jesus which rose up and walked and talked, or if you believe that is was more something that happened in the consciousness of the disciples, a shift in perception about the aliveness of Christ despite the crucifixion. Or if you just don’t know what to believe. Genuine, committed Christians believe all sorts of things about the resurrection.

What I’m more interested in, and what I hope for us, is that we are open to experiencing resurrection in our lives. For Jesus’ followers, it was experience that came first, and then belief worked itself out over time. They didn’t have to believe in resurrection to experience it. When Mary Magdalene went to the tomb that Sunday morning she wasn’t looking for resurrection as far as we know. This isn’t to say that she didn’t have faith, but it wasn’t what brought her there. She was showing up in a situation that everyone else had abandoned. She was there to anoint and honor a dead body of a man she deeply loved. It was radically disorienting for the body not to have been present in the place and the way she expected. This at first was not good news. This was awful news. This was the absolute ending of a story. With Jesus gone, there’s nothing else to build on. And it was at that very point of wild unknowing, that resurrection breaks in to her life.

John is unique in setting the resurrection story in a garden. Jesus’ tomb is in a garden and this is where the first resurrection appearance, with Mary, happens as well. John began his gospel by harkening back to the creation account of Genesis when he says “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Now at the end we’re back in the garden, like another Genesis creation story. This is the place where the new creation begins.

With resurrection nothing changes, but everything changes. There’s a vitality and an aliveness that presents itself to us and calls us by name. That reveals itself to us when we just keep showing up for life. Thank you Mary Magdalene, the matron saint of showing up. And even if we don’t show up, it might break in anyway, through our locked doors, which is what happens to the male disciples later that same day.

Resurrection is not just one more piece of religious furniture to add to our spiritual house. It is the thing that changes the way we perceive and order every other thing. It is this beautiful radiance that makes its presence known among us, and then it dons on us that everything looks different now.

So all of us are walking around with these partially-remodeled lives. And there’s no condemnation in this whatsoever. The radiance that reminds us how incomplete we are is just there, being radiant. That’s what it does, it just keeps radiating beauty. Some of the things we thought we had just right look really shabby now. And some of the things we thought were completely ugly end up looking stunning in the new light. So it’s there. And all of our other stuff is there. And that’s fine that we don’t have our things in perfect order. We never will completely, so we might as well accept that up front. The beauty of the eternal Christ just starts to work its way through our house, and in our own time we yield to its love. OK, let’s repaint this wall. Please, help me repair this floor. That broken glass I’ve been trying to sweep out the door for years actually takes on a whole new quality in this light. I need to live with it there a while longer and see it in this new way. Nope, not ready for that room yet. Need to keep that door closed for a while. That’s alright, we can come back later and maybe that will be a better time.

Whether we like it not, that rejected stone drops in on us with a thud, and sets the course for the new creation, and with fits and starts and fights and finally surrender, our lives take shape around its presence. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.

Lent 4 | Who sinned? | 30 March 2014

Audio picks up after the initial story

Text: John 9:1-41

 

This is a story passed on to me a while back by Nate Toland, told by Peter Rollins, who’s from Northern Ireland, and he told it as if it were a story that actually happened, so that’s how I’ll tell it.

In Ireland they hold these public competitions which people find quite entertaining and a few years ago they held a competition for who could build the largest sheep pen. There were three competitors: an architect, an engineer, and an old farmer. They were each given the same amount of lumber and they had the same amount of time, to build their sheep pen.

So the architect went first and being an architect he knew how to build the fencing so it maximized efficiency and strength and he worked away at it, and when his time was up the judges came and looked it over and tested it out and it was able to hold 100 sheep. Well done.

And the engineer went next and she had the idea that if she could cut each of the boards down the middle lengthwise, if she could rip each piece of lumber, that she’d have twice as much lumber to work with and it would still be strong enough to hold up. So that’s what she did. And when you do that, if you think about it, it actually allows you to build something with four times the square footage, so after making her cuts she worked away at building the fence and when her time was up the judges came and tested it out and it held 400 sheep. Very well done.

Well the old farmer was last, and he worked slowly but he finished rather quickly. The judges came and saw that he had built this fence around himself and there were still lots of pieces of lumber lying around. The judges said “We didn’t expect you to beat the architect or the engineer, but that is one of the smallest sheep pens you could have built.” And the farmer said, “Actually, I’m quite sure my sheep pen could hold every sheep in the world. And the judges said, “Are you kidding, you can barely fit inside of it yourself. How are you even going to get outside of that thing?” And the farmer said, “No, I am on the outside. You’re the ones on the inside of my sheep pen.”

Audio begins here:

When’s the last time you heard a good sermon about sin?

Or, if I would rephrase that: When’s the last time you heard a sermon about sin, good or bad? My guess is that sin is less of a main topic of sermons and church conversation than it was several generations ago. At least in certain parts of the church. And maybe the people in these certain parts of the church are here for that very reason. The church hasn’t always done a good job of talking about sin in a way that is actually helpful in shedding light on our human predicament, much less freeing us from the grips of sin. And so, as is sometimes the case, when we don’t do something very well, we think that perhaps if we just say it louder and more often that we can somehow remedy the situation. Or, we give it a rest for a generation or two and just don’t talk about it and assume that we all know what sin is and so there’s really no need to go into any kind of depth with it.

At the risk of stirring up any manner of negative emotions associated with the topic, we’re going to dive right in to a sermon about sin. Whether it’s a good one or a bad one will be yours to decide. We can think of it as our Lenten obligation to at least give sin an opportunity to be talked about. All we are saying is give sin a chance.

One of the ways that groups of people have tried to organize our lives – political, religious – is around something that would seem the opposite of sin – goodness, or righteousness. We tend to get our sense of goodness by being a part of a group that defines goodness for us. Originally, this group was the tribe, which developed certain practices, and certain taboos about what it meant to belong, to uphold the integrity of the tribe – the group being inherently good, the only way of survival. To step outside of these practices would be to threaten the safety and purity of the group. That worked relatively well for a long time.

And, as groups tend to function, one of the greatest unifying factors for a group is a threat from the outside. Nothing unifies a group more than a common enemy. If we think we’ve outgrown this tendency, consider the role that communism, and more recently terrorism, has played in unifying our nation. It also sheds some light on why immigrants, whose threat to our national security is marginal at best, somehow got lumped together with the war on terrorism. When a tribe, or nation feels threatened, all outsiders are perceived as enemies. And the more threatened a group is, the more the group becomes convinced of its own goodness, of the righteousness of its cause – the more dire the need to defeat and put an end to the outside threat, to restore the purity and safety of the group.

But of course it never works. The group is just externalizing its own issues and never really doing the hard work of searching its own soul. So it always needs a new enemy to hold itself together.

Well, we get a sense for how this works. It happens in inter-personal and political relationships. It is a particular way of seeing the world which deeply affects values and priorities. So let’s take a look at John chapter nine to see how all of this might be playing itself out there.

A casual read through this story would make it seem that it is similar to many other healing miracle stories in the gospels. There’s a blind man, who Jesus heals, and it happens to be the Sabbath day. The religious leaders, the Pharisees, get wind of this and are scandalized by a healing on the Sabbath, which, by law, was to be a day of rest. The story ends with a confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees with Jesus siding with the blind man over the Pharisees. A pretty familiar outline that shows up in various ways in different stories in the gospels. Almost a boiler plate kind of gospel story.

But there are some unique things about this story that make it quite a bit more than just another instance of a blind man getting healed.

The first clue that this is the case has to do with the way the story is framed. If we look at the opening lines, we notice what is at stake. “As Jesus walked along, he saw a man who was blind from birth. Jesus’ disciples asked, ‘Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither he nor his parents. This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him.’ Now if we look at the closing lines of the story, when Jesus is talking with the Pharisees, we read this: v. 40, “Some Pharisees who were with him heard what he said and asked, ‘Surely we aren’t blind, are we?’ 41 Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you wouldn’t have any sin, but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.’” So the entire story is framed by the question of sin. And we can already see that the story is playing with this relationship between sight and sin. Who is in sin? Those who can’t see but really can? Those who think they can see, but are actually blind?

I am drawing on Catholic theologian James Alison’s interpretation of this passage and he refers to this whole story as nothing less than a revolution in the understanding of sin – a provocative idea. (“The man born blind from birth and the Creator’s subversion of sin,” in Faith Beyond Resentment)

Let’s go back to the beginning and look at this question that the disciples ask Jesus about the man born blind from birth: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents?” Both of the options that the disciples give Jesus are attempts to moralize a physical abnormality in this man. There was some precedent for doing that. In Exodus 20:5-6, during the giving of the ten commandments, it is recorded, “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.” Let’s be honest and admit that we don’t really believe this anymore, that this is God’s doing, but there is plenty of truth in sins of parents getting passed down to the next generation. Any social worker or psychologist can tell you how the pain of abuse or addictions can get passed down to the third and fourth generation, or we can consider the power of generational poverty and how hard it is to escape that cycle. It’s at least all too often a sociological fact, even if we no longer hold it to be a theological fact.

The prophet Ezekiel was already trying to mitigate this teaching. He says, in chapter 18, verses 1-4, “The word of the Lord came to me: “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parents as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.” So Ezekiel challenges this notion of children inheriting the sins of their parents. Each person is responsible for their own life.

Groups have a need to maintain their own sense of goodness, and we can see how the disciples would have still been caught up in this attempt to moralize blindness or other ailments. Being blind would have been considered a physical defect that excluded this man from the priesthood and would have limited his abilities to participate fully in the ritual life of the group, which is so often a group’s way of re-affirming its own goodness. A ritual defect would have also been a moral defect. He would have been one of those outsiders, which is so often synonymous with sinner. If he would be included in the group then all of a sudden the group would be defective and could no longer think of itself as entirely whole.

Jesus rejects any attempt to moralize this man’s condition. His “sin” of blindness isn’t a sin at all. Being outside the purity of the group has nothing to do with sin. Jesus’ answer anticipates the words of the popular theologian of our day, Lady Gaga. “He was born this way. He’s on the right track, baby.”

So that’s one shift in the understanding of sin, but it’s not the big one that turns the whole thing inside out.

Verse 6: “After he said this, he spit on the ground, made mud with the saliva, and smeared the mud on the man’s eyes. Jesus said to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.’ So the man went away and washed. When he returned, he could see.” More than just a gesture of folk healing, one could interpret this use of mud, of ground, adamah, in Hebrew, as an allusion back to the creation story, when Adam is formed from the adamah; the human from the humus. This man has not yet been fully created, and Jesus is completing the act of creation. This supplemental adamah, brings sight to this man who had been blind from birth.

When it is discovered that this man can now see, he is brought to the Pharisees, which is when we are told that this happened to be the Sabbath. The reference to Sabbath also harkens back to the creation story. In Genesis God creates the world in six days and rests from on the seventh day. Because God rested, we also rest on that day in imitation of God. As an observant Jew, Jesus would have loved and honored the Sabbath, but in the gospel of John he is actively redefining the purpose and meaning of Sabbath. Like other practices, Sabbath can become yet another one of those ways of dividing the world into the good people and the sinners. Those who observe Sabbath in a certain kind of way and those who don’t. A group affirms its own goodness by practicing together Sabbath rest from work. Jesus heals, does work on the Sabbath, and so they can’t believe that he is from God, and can’t believe that this blind man’s healing is an act of God. Jesus had said in verse 4 “While it’s daytime, we must do the works of him who sent me.” Earlier, in chapter five, verse 17, Jesus said something on a Sabbath day even more challenging: “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” God is still working. So creation is still happening. It’s not yet complete.

Sabbath might be taken to be a way of declaring that creation has been completed, and we’re all stuck in the ways we have supposedly “been created,” with fairly neat categories of who is pure and good and righteous; or, Sabbath can be a way of saying that time, Sabbath time, is the ongoing work of God bringing creation to completion, in which case our categories of goodness and belonging are much less rigid and much more open to growth, and change, and transformation.

In this story in John 9, the religious leaders cannot accept that an outsider has inexplicably been let in on the goodness of the group by someone acting in ways not approved by the group. They happen to be Jews in this case but it could apply to any group. He can see! but they can’t accept that he was the one who had been “created” blind. And so, as groups tend to do when they’re losing an argument, they devolve into namecalling, and excommunication. In verse 34, their final comeback to the formerly blind man is, “’You were born completely in sin! How is it that you dare to teach us?’” Then they expelled him.” He is banished from the group, which has no way of including this outsider into their righteous belonging that they’ve created for themselves.

My summary of verses 35-41 which end the story, is this: Jesus hears that they had driven the man out, and he asks the formerly blind man, “Do you believe in the Human One, the Son of Man? Jesus tells the man that he is the Human One, humanity fully alive, and the man says that he does indeed believe. Jesus says, “I came into this world for discernment, so that those who do not see may see, and those who think they can see, can be shown to be blind.” The Pharisees hear this and ask if they, then are blind. Jesus answers that if they were to admit that they couldn’t see, they wouldn’t be in sin. But since they believe they can see, and yet act in the manner they do, they remain in sin.

The Pharisees in this story are caught up in a pattern of goodness maintenance that they are completely blind to. They are blind that their own sense of righteousness always depends on having people on the outside over and against to define themselves. They are righteous because of the supposed sinfulness of the outsiders.

And this is where Jesus presents the revolution in the understanding of sin. This is where the sheep pen gets inverted and completely redefined. It is not the outsiders who are in sin, but it is this very pattern of keeping outsiders out that is itself sin. It’s the very mindset that builds fences to keep the good in and the bad out. When one is freed from this, or starts to see that pattern for what it is, one is on their way out of sin. No longer needing the badness of others to define one’s own goodness. One is simply a human being, still in the process of being created, just like everyone else. Goodness resting entirely in the free gift of life that comes from Creator Spirit. This is the kind of abundant life that Jesus came to give. Let me say that one line one more time: One is simply a human being, still in the process of being created, just like everyone else.

The easiest thing for us to do in this story is to side with the blind man and condemn the Pharisees for their shortsightedness. But, in doing so, we may notice, we’d still be caught up in the same trap. Trying to convince ourselves of our own goodness by casting out those who don’t get it. So, another step along this path, is actually finding some kind of sympathy with the Pharisees, who, like us, continue to be caught up in blindness. We’re proud that our sheep pen is bigger than other people’s pens, the engineer beating the architect by being a little more open minded. There is still a conversion to undergo in which the whole thing gets inverted, and we find ourselves and everyone else on the inside of something massive. Something that claims us and perceives us into a whole new way of being in the world.

The temptation of being able to see, is that we think we perceive the world at it is. We see the light reflected off the surface of a thing and we think that we have understood the whole of it.

So this inversion doesn’t really make sin go away. It’s just this great equalizer that recognizes that we actually all have our blindnesses and we’re all in this together and Christ is there with us, not sorting out the goodies from the baddies, but teaching us all how to see.

The Lord is our shepherd. We shall not be in want. We shall not fear. The Shepherd restores our souls and prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies. Our cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue us all the days of our lives, and we shall all dwell in the Lord’s house, in God’s expansive sheep pen, forever.