Healing sight | Lent 4| March 26

Text: John 9:1-41

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living conversations | Lent 3 | March 19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labyrinth

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

“Consider…” | February 26

Text: Matthew 6:24-34

Within the final 10 verses of Matthew chapter six, Jesus mentions “worry” 6 times.  Worry, Anxiety, take your pick translation wise.  Worry, as in “Do not worry.”  Anxious, as in don’t be.

In itself, telling someone not to be anxious can be predictably counterproductive.  Like we know we’re not supposed to be anxious.  We don’t want to be anxious.  When we feel anxious we get anxious about that.  We worry that we’re worrying too much.   So it goes in the land of mental loops.

In Jesus’ teaching, he highlights food and clothing as primary sources of worry.  These are basic human needs that far too few, past and present have had enough of.  And, when we do have plenty of both, we manage to find other causes for anxiety.

Jesus points away from the world of humans.  He points to the birds.  “Consider the birds of the air,” Jesus says, “they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns.”

Consider the birds.

Consider that humans have not always been sowing and reaping and gathering into barns.  As best scholars can tell, agriculture is a relatively recent experiment.  For the vast majority of our existence our ancestors were foragers, bird-like.  About 13,000 years ago humans started relating in a new way with particular plants and animals.  We domesticated them, or they domesticated us.  In different parts of the world, we started doing less foraging of perennials, less roaming, and more planting of annuals, more settling – sowing, reaping, and gathering into barns.  Even though food diversity and nutrition went down, food quantity went up, as did population.  Towns and villages got bigger and more permanent.  We cut or burned trees to plant fields in the rich soil, rerouted water sources for irrigation.  Having food reserves, we specialized into a division of labor.  And when you have barns full of food you better have a way to defend them.  Societies became organized more hierarchically.  With more ability to create and collect, trade developed and flourished.  Keeping track of what’s in the barns led to accounting, which led to writing, and eventually there are Starbucks and smart phones and rumors of self-driving cars.

And lots of food and lots of clothes.  And refrigerators, the mighty refrigerator.  The little electrified barn in your house preserving what others have sown and reaped.  How cool is that?   Our own private mini-barn.

Consider the refrigerator.

Matthew 6:25-26 “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.  Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  Consider the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet the Holy One feeds them.”

Consider the words of Gordon Hempton, Krista Tippet’s final interview of 2016 for her podcast “On Being.”  Mr. Hempton has dedicated his life to listening.  He’s taken his ears and recording equipment to some of the quietest, and sound-rich places on earth.  He explains: “(Humans) have a very discreet bandwidth of super-sensitive hearing, and that’s between 2.5 and 5 kilohertz in the resident frequencies of the auditory canal.” He says that people often assume the human ear is adapted to best hear the human voice.  But this is not the case.  He points out that most of what he’s saying now, “except for the “s” sounds and the high-pitched sounds, fall well below that range.”

He asks, “Is there something in our ancestors’ environment that matches our peak hearing sensitivity?”

He answers his own question.  Yes, there is a perfect match: birdsong.

It turns out that considering the birds is something we’ve been doing longer than we’ve been farming.  It’s in our DNA.

And Why, Mr Hempton goes on, “would it have any benefit to our ancestors to be able to hear faint birdsong? Why would our ears possibly have evolved so that we could walk in the direction of faint birdsong?”

And he answers his own question, “Birdsong is the primary indicator of habitats prosperous to humans.”

“Isn’t that amazing?” Mr. Hempton asks his interviewer.

Consider that the birds of the air have their own ways of dealing with anxiety, and have established their own neighborhood watch system.

This year’s Winter issue from the Arc of Appalachia speaks of this.  The Arc is based in southern Ohio and is committed to buying and preserving remnants of the Eastern hardwood forest.  “Woodland sprawl,” they like to say.  A text box on a page invites the reader to consider this: “Our native songbirds have an inter-species defense pact.  When a hawk is sighted, each species alarm call is recognized by other bird species, who immediately repeat the alarm in their own dialect and pass it on to the next bird listening.  The resulting ‘siren’ song races through the forest, reaching speeds approaching 150 miles per hour” (Winter 2016-17, The Arc of Appalachia: Recovery, p. 7).

Consider this cooperative form of security.  “Do not worry about your life.  Consider the birds.”

While considering the birds in the early 1960’s Rachel Carson found great cause for anxiety.  Her research detailed that bird and other wildlife populations were being decimated by the widespread use of powerful pesticides, like DDT, and that the chemical companies had been deceptive about their dangers.  She named her book Silent Spring.  The title suggested that the birdsong which has accompanied us through our coming of age as a species was in danger of falling silent.  It’s hard to consider the birds if there’s a silent spring.  Her writing is seen as the beginning of the environmental movement.  It also led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Consider the ways that 13,000 years of agriculture have brought us civilization and prosperity.  Consider how the fortunate ones have no worry of where their food or clothes will come from.  Consider that the same agricultural revolution that brought us refrigerators also brought us DDT, which threatened to silence the birds, that neither sow nor reap nor store into barns.

Consider what we’ve created in just a few thousand years.  To quote Mr. Hempton: “Isn’t that amazing?”

Are we feeling less or more anxious than when we started this long-running experiment?

In the verse before speaking about human worry and bird foraging Jesus says: “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and Mammon.”

In Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, mammon referred to wealth, or money, or property.  The message about anxiety, birds, and lilies, and seeking first the Kingdom of God is all spoken in the context of economy, the complex network of relationships of giving and receiving, trust and reciprocity.

Mammon wasn’t considered evil in itself.  In fact, the Aramaic translation of Hebrew Scriptures uses the word in Deuteronomy 6:5, which Jesus will later lift up as the greatest of all commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God will all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your Mammon.”  In English we translate that as strength.

You shall love the Lord with all your mammon.  With all your substance.  With all you can muster.

You cannot serve both God and mammon.

In the Divine economy, mammon has a purpose of loving and glorifying God.  Mammon can add to the abundance of creation.  It can multiply that which it touches.  It can add value.  It can enrich the quality and diversity of life.  It can reduce anxiety.

How are we doing with that?

Maybe God is the one doing the experimenting.  Seeing how these humans do with the gift of Mammon – wealth, money, strength.  Reminding us that mammon must always be put in the service of life, and not life in the service of Mammon.

The other greatest commandment Jesus will combine with the first is the command from Leviticus to love your neighbor as yourself.  In the Divine economy, the neighbor includes the birds and the lilies.  The Holy One feeds them and they enthusiastically participate in the economy of life on which we’re all dependent.  Economy and ecology become synonyms.  One can imagine headlines on the front page of the business section: consumer contentment is up, birdsong is on the rise, the lilies are flourishing.

How about this treasonous thought: You cannot serve God and unfettered global capitalism.

These are anxious times.  Here in the homeland there are promises of dedicating more resources to defending our own barns.  Stripping away some of the laws that were on the side of the birds and lilies.  Building walls around ourselves.  Casting blame on a particular group of people and rounding them up for removal. These are actions born out of deep anxiety.

Consider how to resist an anxiety based economy without being overcome with the very anxiety we seek to resist.

Consider that we will need to develop a neighborhood watch system much like the birds.  Such that when a member of our community is detained for deportation, and a family torn apart, a siren call goes through the network, and a rapid response team is ready to inject compassion and advocacy into the situation.  The Central Ohio Worker Center is in the process of creating something very much like this throughout Columbus.  They are hosting a dinner and fundraiser a week from this evening to invite a wider circle into their work.  If you haven’t already seen it, we will link to it in the Tuesday announcements.

Consider your participation in an economy of life.  Consider the exchanges, the giving and receiving of love and support and solidarity, that multiply and enrich the health of the community.  Consider prayer as an essential act of loving God and your neighbor and yourself at the same.

Consider the great company of women and men who have sought first the kingdom of God.  Consider that, 800 years ago, St. Francis was known to stop along the path and speak with the birds, much to his disciples amazement and delight.  Consider that the current leader of the Roman Catholic church has chosen this name for himself.  Consider seeking out his words at least once a week.  Consider who else you need to listen to these days.  Consider a place where you will look at and listen to the birds.

Jesus said: “Seek first the kin-dom, the global interspecies family, of God, and God’s righteousness and justice, and all these things will be given you as well.”

The (third) way | February 19

Text: Matthew 5:38-48

If and when word gets out that you’re a pacifist, or that you’re committed to nonviolence , you will no doubt, at some point, encounter questions like these:  What would you do if someone broke into your home and attacked a family member?  If we have another 9/11 should we all just turn the other cheek?  And what about Hitler?  If we were all pacifists, Hitler would have won and Nazism would have taken over the world.  Sound familiar?

These questions carry certain assumptions about what it means to live nonviolently.  They may be asked out of genuine curiosity – like, really, how would it work?  I’m interested.  Or they may be intended to make peaceableness appear weak, ineffective, intellectually ridiculous, and just downright impossible, even immoral.  After all, what kind of person would just stand by and do nothing while someone they loved was being harmed?  Perhaps you’ve been asked questions like these in conversations where you’ve “come out” as being against violence.  Perhaps you’ve asked questions like these to yourself, wondering if nonviolence is a path you are able to take with integrity.

It would be hard to overemphasize how key to this discussion are Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 5:38-48.  Packed into this short passage are the core principles of Christian pacifism.  And just as an aside, you may already notice that I’m using some language interchangeably so as not to get hung up on “pacifism” as a rigid ideology.  Nonviolence.  Peaceableness.  A newer field of thought talks about Just Peacemaking.  Within this core teaching are also phrases often used as weapons against pacifist understandings to prove their impracticality.  It’s a passage Mennonites, more than most streams of Christian tradition, have tried to live out.  Although since I said something good about Mennonites I have to follow it up with the more humble and self-deprecating observation that we have also used this text in harmful ways.  I’ll give an example in a bit.

Today’s teachings follow the text Mark preached on last week.  Jesus is offering concrete illustrations of how scripture might be fulfilled, of what the God-ward trajectory of shalom, holistic well-being, might look like.  This section includes the final two of those “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…” lines from Jesus

Verse 38 begins: “You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’”  Gandhi had his own observation on this by famously saying, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”  As harsh as the ancient measure sounds in its tit for tat demands, it’s likely that this law was initially intended as a limitation of violence.  In a world where a wrong done against a family member or tribe called for seven-fold, or hundred fold vengeance against the offending party, defining justice as a one for one exchange would be a major step in stopping the escalation of violence.  An eye for an eye – No more!  But even this, Jesus teaches, does not break the cycle of violence.

How one translates the next words goes a long way in how one understands the thrust of Jesus’ teaching.  The NRSV says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.”  If one takes this translation choice, which, nearly all English translations have done, we are taught that an evildoer should not be resisted.  In other words, pacifism as a passive act.  Faithfulness as nonresistance, whatever the harm may be.  Nonresistance became the main interpretative emphasis of North American Mennonites in the 20th century – and here’s that example.  This interpretation led many Mennonite leaders to not join or support the Civil Rights movement because it involved too much active and assertive and public resisting.  “Do not resist an evildoer.”  Full stop.  Nonresistance.

Fortunately there has been some important scholarship and thinking to help us now resist that interpretation.

When the word translated “resist” shows up in other literature, including the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, it is frequently used as a military term.  To resist violently.  To resist with lethal force.  Some better ways of wording this remark from Jesus could be, “Do not violently resist an evildoer.” Or, “Do not resist an evildoer in such a way as to perpetuate harm.”  Or, more concise: “Do not mirror evil.”  The apostle Paul gets at this idea in Romans 12 when he says “Do not repay anyone evil for evil…if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink…do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  Don’t respond to violence in kind.  Don’t let violence limit the options from which you respond.  Resist with good.

This one shift of translation in Jesus’ words changes the entire tone of the teaching and is more in line with the transforming initiatives that follow.  Rather than passively accepting one’s fate, Jesus gives different examples, specific to that time and culture, of how one might transform a situation without causing harm to the other person.

This is what we had some fun with during the children’s time with turn the other cheek, give the second garment, and go the extra mile.  The two additional teachings, “Give to the one who begs,” and “”Don’t refuse the one who wants to borrow,” are examples of the disciple being the one in the position of power.  But in those first three, the disciple has less power – a familiar arrangement for this open air congregation of Jewish peasants living in Roman occupied Palestine.

Rather than being instances of allowing the other person to express abusive power unchecked, Jesus presents his listeners with examples of transforming a situation by doing an unexpected act – asserting one’s dignity as a human being, calling on the other person to recognize one’s humanity.  Although there’s no guarantee it will “work,” it has the effect of actively disrupting the oppressor/oppressed relationship.  It provides opportunity for something new to emerge.

Here’s a 21st century story of this in action.  It comes from a friend, Jeremy Garber, and was included in an article he wrote a number of years ago:

Jeremy and his friends frequented a restaurant that had hired a new security guard who seemed to especially enjoy his power.  He would “use his taser on the metal edge of the serving counter and snap at people for putting their feet on the scuffed plastic tables, just to prove he was in charge and had the weapons to back it up.”

One day the guard was sitting, leaned back in his seat, feet up on a table.  One of Jeremy’s friends, Paul, being a fair minded person, thought he would hold the guard accountable to his own standards so went up to him and said, “You really shouldn’t yell at people to keep their feet off the table and then do it yourself. It sets a poor example.”

Jeremy writes: “The guard drew his loaded handgun from his holster and set it on the table. He responded with menace in his voice, ‘That’s why I get to do what I want.’”

So Paul had some options.  He could have done something that might have escalated the violence, he could have made a logical argument against gun violence, he could have walked out….

But instead Paul did something that neither Jeremy nor the guard expected.  He reached back to the counter, grabbed a plastic spork, and in a mock-menacing voice said, “Well, I have a spork.” And then Jeremy writes this.  “The guard, disarmed by Paul’s humor, laughed, put the gun back in his holster and took his feet down off the table. The entire restaurant breathed a sigh of relief, and (our group of friends) bought Paul’s meal in celebration of his creative response.”  (All quotes taken from article, A Spork in the Road, from The Mennonite, pp. 12-14, November 16, 2004 issue)

A way Anabaptists have come to talk about such transforming action is a “third way.”  The primary two options we often see as available to us are deeply engrained in our evolutionary biology.  Fight or flight.  We can engage with all the strength and force we’re capable of, knowing that one or both parties are going to lose – fight; or we can turn and run, leave the situation and concede power to the other – flight.  We now know that these responses are embedded in the oldest part of our brains, near the brain stem, sometimes called the “reptilian brain.”  They are responses the animal kingdom developed for survival, so we can be grateful to them in many ways.  They are there as options, but they are not the only responses available to us, and this thing called the prefontal cortex enables us to tap into another level of consciousness.

Jesus, and other great spiritual leaders, suggest we can rise above our reptilian inheritance and consider third ways.  Whether it be asserting one’s dignity, as in the case of turning the other cheek.  Or publicly exposing the injustice and unfairness of a situation, as in the case of giving the second garment (quite literally exposing), or whether it be using the just laws of the land in one’s own favor, as is the case of going the extra mile.  Or, to misquote Yogi Berra, when you come to a spork in the road, take it.

So, we might suggest something like this for those opening scenarios:  If foreign terrorists attack your country, go on a school building rampage all over the lands they come from.  If someone breaks into your house while you’re home, ask them what they need and if you can help them find it.  Regarding Hitler – Martin Luther King Jr. suggested that if enough of the population of the pre-dominantly Christian nation of Germany would have also put on those armbands with yellow stars, in solidarity with Jews, it would have been much more difficult, if not impossible, for the Nazi forces to isolate, round up, and execute the Jews.

All these responses are highly contextual, and, again, they are never guaranteed to work.  They may be different for men and women.  There may be times when flight is by far the best option.  Sometimes a wise use of strength and force may be what is needed to protect innocent life.  And I don’t know this for sure, but I’m guessing Jeremy’s friend Paul was white.  Had he been a young man of color, reaching back for an unknown object may be one of the most life-endangering things he could have done.

All this to say that this is not a new legalism, but a new way of thinking and acting.  It’s vitality important that we elevate these stories to invigorate our imaginations.  So I am officially opening a Third Way Thinking file on my computer that I would love to populate with stories from your lives.  Not stories about King or Gandhi, but everyday stories, either about something you did, or something you observed, even an online exchange.  I’d like to collect these, and will find a way to share them down the road.  Here’s another example, very simple, that I remember from someone in the Cincinnati congregation where I pastored before.  I’ll call her Cindy.  Cindy had two school aged children and another mother would frequently say negative things about Cindy’s children to Cindy.  So she decided every time this happened, she would give a compliment to that mother’s children.  Miraculously, the insults soon stopped and the relationship improved.  I anxiously await your stories, this week, or half a year from now.  I’ll keep the file open.

But we’re not done quite yet with this passage.

After giving some examples of ways of resisting harm without mirroring it, Jesus goes nuclear, or un-nuclear, dropping the ultimate peace bomb, one of his most radical teachings, the final “You have heard that it was said.”  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemies.’ But I say to you, ‘Love… your…enemies.’”  Just when we thought we were getting the hang of this…  All of those transforming initiatives and creative, witty responses are overshadowed by these words: “Love your enemies.”  The point is not to win.  Love, it seems, is its own point.  Its own end.  As the scriptures say elsewhere, love is the ultimate fulfillment of the law.

Booker T. Washington once said, “Don’t ever let them pull you down so low as to hate them.” (don’t know reference).

In a polarized climate, Loving your enemies can feel like a betrayal of one’s tribe.  Like, how could you?  Especially when the enemies are actively harming you and/or people you love and/or vulnerable people.  How could you?  How could you?  It likely has something to do with the difference between loving and liking.  We don’t have to like our enemies, at least not yet.  But love, in this context, has less to do with feeling, and more to do with concrete ways that we relate to one another.

And there’s always that closest of all enemies, our own inner violence and tendency to project our own pathologies onto other people.  If we look with any kind of honesty at all, we will find plenty of violence within us.  We are our own enemies.  But Love your enemies.  Love is the fountain of all transformation.  Love is so close to that Reality we call God that the letter of 1 John goes right ahead and says “God is love.”  Christ is love.  Christ in us, which is so much more than just us trying to be good.  It is the life of God at work within us.  We too are the ones in need of transformation.

We may not always be so quick on our feet as to grab the nearest spork when someone whips out a gun, but we can prepare ourselves to love.  Love of enemies is the ultimate third way.

“So that you may be children of your Father/Mother in heaven,” Jesus says, “who makes sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

This is the entire shape of the gospel.  In Jesus’ ultimate confrontation with evil, his execution on a Roman cross, he resists with transcendent love.  Violence depends on others internalizing the violence inflicted on them and passing it along to others.  It feeds on itself, as it cycles and snowballs through history.  Jesus triumphs over evil by refusing to mirror its ways, by transforming it in his person into relationship-restoring, resurrected love.  And what he passes on to those ready to receive it is the Spirit whose fruit is love, joy, and peace.  Evil has been defeated because it has been halted in its tracks, and a better way is opened up to us.  Call it a third way.  Or just call it The Way.  The love of God, triumphant, recklessly pouring itself out on the righteous and unrighteous.

101 | February 5

Text: Matthew 5:13-20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You all are the salt of the earth.

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

You all are the salt of the earth.

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

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

And not only that.  The speaker goes on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, the speaker has moved on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a salty move by the teacher.

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

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

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

Finding your voice: your No and your Yes | Coming of Age | January 29

Text: Esther

When do you stop being a child and start being something else?

It’s a question cultures around the world have found important to answer.  Throughout time, human groups have created practices and rituals to mark that otherwise fuzzy boundary between childhood and adulthood.  And it’s done for the benefit of the young person and the community.  We need to know together that the child has become something else.  Childhood was a time of dependence, of protection and growth under the careful and loving watch of family.  Adulthood is a time of independence, increased responsibility and leadership, a time when one will ultimately grow into being a protector, a caring presence for the following generations.

Our culture has developed a third category of development between childhood and adulthood.  Adolescence.  It’s a period of tremendous growth and formation when you are no longer a child, yet not quite an adult.  So the question for us remains: when do you stop being a child, and start being something else?

Our congregation has created its own Coming of Age ritual to mark this transition out of childhood.   We’re in the middle of it right now.  This year we honor the Coming of Age of Elise, Gideon, Stella, and Dakota.  We’ve been preparing for this.  You helped create parts of the service.  A number of us have written blessings and naming of gifts for you.  Those have been compiled in notebooks that you’ll soon receive.  You’ve been matched with a mentor who will walk with you in the upcoming years.

Our hope is that you can experience today as a marker in your life.  A boundary marker.  On one side of the boundary is childhood.  Today we celebrate your cross over into adolescence.

As people of faith who value the role of community, we recommit ourselves to being the kind of community in which your God-given gifts and personhood can flourish.  That is our hope for you and for ourselves.

And so – Elise, Gideon, Stella, and Dakota – here we are.  When we met together three weeks ago we talked about how we shape our worship services around scripture.  I gave you a couple different options for the scripture that you would like to shape this service – to place your own experience within the broader story of the Bible.  You chose the story of Vashti and Esther.

So for starters, something we didn’t talk about when we studied this.  Esther is a book in our Bible, but there is a character who regularly shows up throughout the Bible who isn’t in Esther.  Doesn’t have a speaking part, isn’t even mentioned.  That character is:  God.  Interestingly enough, the book of Esther doesn’t mention God.  This maybe seems like a basic criterion for making it into the Bible, but that’s not the case.  This suggests it is possible to tell a holy story, a story that gives us wisdom and insight, without mentioning the name of God.  Or, here’s another way to think about it:  Since God doesn’t have a speaking part, who will be God’s voice?  Who will act on God’s behalf?  Who, in the story, represents the ways of God?  That’s an open question that makes this story all the more interesting.  It’s a question that makes our own lives more interesting.

We’ve already talked about this story together, but I’m going to review it just to bring the rest of these folks here up to speed.

Esther, I believe, is best read as a comedy.  It’s full of exaggeration and hyperbole.  It pokes fun at power, especially a certain mold of manhood that takes itself, and its importance, way too seriously.  Feminists have seen Esther as a proto-feminist novel, with a message that helps both women and men be truer to our best selves.

The story takes place several centuries before Christ – so Jesus isn’t mentioned either! – during the reign of the Persian Empire.  It’s set in one of the major cities of the Persians, Susa, where numerous Jews lived.  The opening verses of Esther introduce us to a King – King Ahasuerus, the most powerful man in the world, who rules over 127 provinces, ranging from India, to Ethiopia – lots of territory.  He is sitting on his royal throne, and he decides to throw a royal party.  A very big party.  A very long party.  180 days.  A half year party, during which he displays the great wealth of his kingdom.  Impressive.

When this half year party is over, the king decides that he kind of feels like… having a party, and throws a banquet for everyone in the city, lasting seven days.  A week long afterparty.  The next bit goes into details describing the elegant décor and furniture.  White curtains, marble pillars, couches made out of gold, and drinks served in gold goblets and the one rule about drinking was that there were no rules.  “Drink to your heart’s content,” the king orders.  The king, and all the king’s friends,  follow this rule very well.  They get everything their hearts desire.  Impressive.

On the seventh day, the king is feeling fantastic.  He’s in charge of the known world, has partied non stop for over half a year, has indulged in everything his heart desires, and now wants one more thing to make this the perfect ending to the perfect party.  He commands his seven attendants, not just one attendant, but his seven attendants to go, bring Queen Vashti all decked out in the royal crown, and have her come parade her beauty to all the peoples.  A perfect ending to the perfect party.

But here’s the problem, and here’s where all that merry-making screeches to a halt.  Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command.

Vashti refused.  Refused to obey this king who always gets exactly what he wants.  Refused to come dance in front of all his highly intoxicated buddies.

Queen Vashti said No.

The king is not impressed.  The king is enraged.  The king doesn’t know what to say or do.  He needs his legal advisors.  This is an outrage, this is despicable, this is surely…illegal.  “Oh yes,” assure his advisors.  “Not only has Queen Vashti done wrong to the king, but also to all the officials and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus.”   If other women find out about this, they’re going to feel like they don’t have to do everything their husbands tell them to do.  It could be chaos.  This is a national security threat.  We’ve got to do something.  So, the king and his advisors send letters to all the provinces, from India to Ethiopia, written in everyone’s native language, “declaring that every man should be master in his own house.”  That ought to solve it.

That’s the end of chapter one.  And that’s pretty much the end of Vashti, as far as this story is concerned.  She is dethroned, fired from queenship, and banished.

And all we really know about Vashti from this story is that, she said No.  She refused.

I asked you if you thought Vashti was a hero or a villain.  You said she was a hero.  You also noted that she would be seen as a villain by some, like the king.

The cool part about the first chapter of Esther is that it uses over-the-top satire to mock the kind of abusive power, prevalent throughout so much of history.  The kind of power which is so threatened when someone refuses to go along.  The sad part of this, is that for most of history, people haven’t gotten the joke.  Vashti has often been portrayed as a villain – assuming that the king was the good guy, and mysterious Vashti, was the bad woman.  So does the king speak for God, or might God be represented in the voice of Vashti?

In 1878 Harriet Beecher Stowe called Vashti’s disobedience the “first stand for woman’s rights.” (1878). (Bible heroines: being narrative biographies of prominent Hebrew women in the patriarchal, national, and Christian eras, giving views of women in sacred history, as revealed in the light of the present day. Fords, Howard, & Hulbert. Retrieved Feb 27,2009.)

A few years later, in 1895 Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote that Vashti “added new glory to [her] day and generation…by her disobedience; for “Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.” (1895). (The woman’s Bible: a classic feminist perspective. European Pub Co. Retrieved Feb 27,2009.)

One of the wonderful gifts of growing up, of entering adolescence and adulthood, is that you start to find your voice.  You listen to the voices of others, you learn from what others have said and done.  And, as you do this, your own voice starts to emerge – your own convictions and perspective, and the unique gifts that you have to bring to the world.  And one part of that voice, is finding your No.  Of all the things happening in this world, around you, in your lifetime, what are you going to say No to?  What are you going to refuse to go along with?

When you say No, you are in good company.  The banished queen Vashti smiles on you.  Your No in a situation of injustice or harmfulness could very well be the voice of God being expressed through you.

But there’s another important player in this story.  There is a vacancy in the queen department, and someone is going to have to fill it.  As it turns out, the next queen is a Jew, Esther, although the all-power, all-knowing king doesn’t know she is a Jew.

Esther takes a different path than Vashti, and we’re most likely more familiar with her part of the story.  She becomes one of the many young women in the king’s harem, his company of sexually available women.  Esther and these other women follow all the rules of proper cosmetic treatments and diet and dress, at the king’s command for his own pleasure.  And when it’s Esther’s night to be in bed with the king, the story says that “the king loved Esther more than all the other women…so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.”  Congratulations Esther.  And to celebrate?  The king throws a party.

The king “loved” Esther.  Esther isn’t like Vashti.  Esther is different.  Esther does what she’s told.  The King “loved” Esther, but we’re not told about Esther’s thoughts or feelings at this point.  Maybe she despised this role she was forced into.  Maybe she felt honored, chosen, and would have been content to be in that situation the rest of her life.  What we do know is that, for better or worse, she found herself in a position of power and influence, and she was presented with a situation where she would have to make a decision that would affect not just her life, but the life of her people.

A high ranking official in the king’s court, Haman, had a big enough ego that he felt everyone should bow down to him and when Mordecai the Jew does not bow to him, Haman convinces the king to destroy all the Jews.

Mordecai hears of this, and does the one thing he thinks can reverse the situation.  He pleads with Esther to risk her own life in order to save the lives of her people.  And his plea includes that key phrase which brings it all into focus: “Who knows?” Mordecai says to Esther.  “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for such a time as this.”  For such a time as this.

Esther did not ask to be put in this situation, but it has come to her and she has a decision to make.  It was up to Vashti to say No, and it is up to Esther to say Yes, at such a time as this.  And she does.  And she’s pretty savvy about it.  By now she’s figured out that this king likes parties, so she’s sure to have a couple big banquets for him before she reveals her Jewish identity and her demand that her people be saved. Esther’s Yes ends up saving her people, and opening the king’s eyes to the plots of Haman.

Throughout childhood you have a lot of decisions made for you.  You’re going to eat this for supper.  You’re going to go to bed at this time.  No, you can’t have that.  Yes, we are going to church this morning.  Some of those things might not change much while you’re still living with your parents.  But as you cross the threshold into adolescence you are starting to find your own No and your own Yes.  What will you resist and not go along with?  What will you pursue?

One of the signs of moving from childhood to something else, is that you start making decisions not just on the basis of how they affect you personally, but how they affect those around you.  Those 19th century American women felt that Vashti had said No not just for herself, but for them as well.  Esther says Yes on behalf of an entire people, and on behalf of us, women and men.

It’s hard to find your Yes, and may never be perfectly clear.  But when you find your Yes, it will not just be your Yes, but it will be the Yes of God expressing itself through you.  You will become God’s hands and feet in situations where God’s name may not even be mentioned, but where God’s presence is experienced through you.

As your church, we believe that each of you is a gift from God, and that you each are being given a voice.  We will be beside you to help you find that voice.  And although only you can determine your own No and your own Yes, we pray with you that you will never need to be alone in living out either one.  Even though you may still feel like a child sometimes, you are now also something else.  We honor you and welcome you across that boundary.