Sabbath economics | Lent 5| March 18

Texts: Deuteronomy 15:1-18; John 12:1-8

This is week five of Lent, and so the fifth angle we’re taking on Sabbath.  So far we’ve focused mostly on Sabbath as a personal practice.  To review: Sabbath is a sanctuary in time, a certain sort of space-time sacred architecture.  Sabbath is a way of practicing freedom by ceasing from all that tries to enslave us: to-do lists, consumerism, self-importance.  The invitation into Sabbath is not so much like an exasperated Voluntary Service worker ripping up the creations of a persistently active child with the words “this is what happens when we don’t follow the rules,” as it is a way of enjoying that which has been created.  And Sabbath is a way of remembering, remembering original blessing.  That we are blessed and beloved not because of what we do and what we produce, but because of who we inherently are, children of the Creative Spirit whose image we all bear.

If you’re just now joining us, that’s the last month in summary.

Sabbath is personal, but it’s not merely private.  Sabbath practices have broad implications on our collective life.  Sabbath shapes the economy of relationships between people, plants and animals, oxygen and carbon, soil and sun.

Sabbath very much has to do with one of the most under-reported themes of Scripture, and Jesus’ ministry: Economics.  Sabbath economics.

One of my go-to gurus on the topic of economics is an old farmer who lives down in Henry County, Kentucky.  His name is Wendell Berry.  Maybe you’ve heard of him.  It’s difficult to lift out just one thing he has to say on the matter, but this past week I thought of a collection of essays he published in 2010 titled What Matters?  Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth.  In one of the essays he makes an observation about our Anabaptist cousins, the Amish.

Berry’s observation is that the use of draft horses and mules on those farms is more than just “a choice of one kind of traction power over another.  It (is) instead a choice of one kind of farming, and one way of thinking about farming, over another.”  The work animals orient a farm away from specialization and toward diversity.  With the animals come the need for “pasture, forage crops, fenced fields, feed grains, and barns for stable room and feed storage.”  This opens up niches for having other animals.  Crop and animal diversity call for crop rotation, cover crops, and using manure as fertilizer.  The animals also affect scale, keeping the farms relatively small.  The local business community takes shape around these needs.  Harness makers, small equipment factories, and repair shops, serve the farms and circulate money in the community. (“Simple Solutions, Package Deals…, p. 56-57).

His point is not the demotion of the tractor and the promotion of horses, or the glorification of the Amish, who have their own challenges.  The point is to illustrate what he calls “Package deals.”  Many decisions we make about our economic lives are package deals.  Relationships and resources organize themselves around those foundational ways we shape this complex web of relationships we refer to as economy.  So the question whenever we adopt a new kind of technology or practice is What kind of package does this come with?  How does this change other relationships?  How does this impact the community and the neighborhood?

Economics contains the Greek word for household, oikos.  Economics basically means “household management.”  Anyone who has tried to manage a household quickly gains a sense of how even small decisions can become part of a larger package.  Like how where you live affects your monthly mortgage or rent payments, which you need a job to pay, which you may or may not need a car to drive to.  Where you live affects the people you do and don’t see on a daily basis.  It’s a package.

When four friends and I took a year off from college and lived together in Atlanta, we made the decision that even though our apartment had a dishwasher, we weren’t going to use it.  We figured washing and drying and putting away dishes together would give us more time to talk about our days.  We stuck with it the whole year, with varying lengths of time in how long it took for the dishes to actually get washed.  It was a good package for us.  Now Abbie and I use our dishwasher constantly because we’d much rather talk about our days while not doing dishes.

Sabbath economics, as presented in the Hebrew Scriptures, is its own kind of package deal.  One shaped around just a few foundational values.

Sabbath is set up as a cycle of seven days.  It’s also set up as a cycle of seven years.  Just as every seventh day was a day when the community was free to cease from production mode, shift from doing to being, so every seventh year was an entire year dedicated to Sabbath practice.  And in this year, all sorts of strange and wonderful things happened.

For starters, according to Leviticus 25, farmers got the year off.  Farmers stopped farming, which meant the land got to rest, the livestock got to rest, male and female indentured servants got to rest.  For one year, everyone reverted back to foraging, living off their pantries and whatever the land volunteered on its own.  One can quickly imagine how a year like this would be a package deal, with the other six years organized around the fact that year seven is a very different kind of year.

Deuteronomy 15 adds that in the Sabbath year all debts among fellow Israelites would be forgiven, and all Hebrew slaves would be freed.  These weren’t the kind of slaves that would have been bought and sold on a market, but people who had fallen into personal crisis through poor health or poor harvest, had already sold all their land to cover expenses, and needed to sell their remaining asset, their labor, in order to stay afloat.  Basically, they entered the household of their creditor.  But after seven years, they were released, along with a generous parting gift supplying all they would need to get back on their feet again, to re-form their own household.  Again, we can begin to imagine how this kind of arrangement would bring with it a whole package of how credit and indentured servanthood worked in the community, with the built in mechanism of debt being only temporary.

And if the Sabbath year wasn’t enough of a package arrangement, after every seven Sabbath years, seven sevens, on the fiftieth year, was a mega-Sabbath.  On this year, called the Jubilee, even land was to be returned to its ancestral owners, such that no Israelite family would be permanently landless – Land being the source of self-sufficiency, financial security, and wealth.

As far as I can tell, there were two primary foundational ideas, or values, or organizing principles of the collective imagination on which Sabbath and Jubilee practices were based.  Both very simple.

One is that the land belongs to Yahweh, Leviticus 25:23.  The people are just tenants and immigrants on Yahweh’s land so they can’t own it and what it produces forever.  That’s number 1.

And number two, there shall be no poor among you.  Deuteronomy 15:4.

That pretty much covers it.  That’s the box that holds the package.  Hardships and crises are going to happen, but no one should be permanently poor, and it’s the responsibility of the community to see this is the case.  And, the land’s not yours anyway, you’re just renting it from Yahweh, so don’t be too upset if Yahweh reclaims and redistributes the leases every couple generations.

There is strong historical evidence that the Sabbath year was regularly practiced.  There is little to no evidence that the Jubilee year was ever practiced.  It was a complicated and maybe even impossible piece on legislation to implement, even though Leviticus 25 tries to get into how it might actually work.  When we dug into the nitty gritty details of this text in the Sunday school Bible study class last week the only person in the room whose eyes weren’t glazing over was the attorney whose neurons were firing in delight in comparing and contrasting ancient and contemporary property law.

Even if Jubilee was never operationalized, Sabbath economics remained a package deal for people who believed that 1) the land belonged to God and that 2) there ought not be any neighbor who was stuck in debt slavery.  That’s your horse and your mule.  Every other feature of the economy took shape around those two starting points, with the Sabbatical year being one of the key ways the package got delivered.

So we don’t have the Sabbatical year baked into our society.  Quite the contrary.

But we are a community that keeps alive a collective imagination that everything we have originates from and returns to the Source of All Being, in other words isn’t really ours, and that poverty is more a reflection of the health of the community than the person who is poor.

I was pleased to see in Friday’s Dispatch an article about how the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Columbus has set up a micro loan program.  It’s designed as an alternative to loans from payday lenders.  Ohio has the highest payday lending rates in the country.  And while these businesses are offering a needed service, they are profiting immensely off of people’s crises or just their struggles to get by with a low wage job or two or three.  Rather than people getting stuck in a cycle of ballooning debt, St. Vincent de Paul is working through a credit union to offer small loans at low rates.  This is accompanied with financial counseling for how they might pay it back over a reasonable amount of time.  That is Sabbath economics at work.

Three years ago we did a little experiment.  We acknowledged that many among us carry overwhelming debt, and we invited anyone who felt this way to submit their name anonymously while everyone else was invited to give generously toward what we called a Jubilee Fund.  After three weeks, just three weeks, we collected $25,285.  We then distributed this evenly to 28 folks, who were then able to pay down the principle on their debt by $903.03.  It wasn’t a full Jubiliee, by any means, but hopefully it was sign that we have not forgotten that we can be Jubilee people.  I’m aware of at least two congregations who heard about this and did the same thing.

Let’s end with another story.  It’s today’s lectionary gospel reading: the story of Mary anointing Jesus’s feet in her home at Bethany, just outside Jerusalem.

John doesn’t name this as a Sabbath story, but textual clues point toward Sabbath.  It begins by saying this was six days before Passover.  Passover was on a Friday.  Do the math six days prior to Friday and we’re on a Saturday, the seventh day of the week, the Sabbath.

So it’s the Sabbath.

Jesus is at the table in the home of his dear friends Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, who are all siblings.  Lazarus and Martha are playing their predictable roles – Lazarus sitting with Jesus at the table, and Martha serving.  But Mary does something entirely unpredictable.  In an act that is both extravagant and intimate, she takes a pound of very costly, imported perfume, a pound of it, and pours it out on Jesus’ feet.  And then she bends down and begins wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair.  And whatever people were talking about before trails off into silence, and whatever smell from the meal had filled the room is overpowered by the fragrance of this perfume.

Judas is not impressed.  He calculates the worth of the perfume, almost a year’s wages for a laborer, let’s say, for us, $50,000, poured out, on someone’s feet, wasted, wafting out the windows.

Judas accuses and wonders out loud how many poor folks could have been fed with a year’s wages.

Jesus’s response is one that has been used against poor people ever since.  “The poor you will always have with you.”  So, like, Why do anything about it, right?  Jesus’ words are a direct reference back to Deuteronomy 15 which said, “there shall be no poor among you.”  Sabbath economics.  As if Jesus is admitting the failure of the community to live out the command that there shall be no poor among you.  As if Jesus is telling the disciples where they must position themselves in the calcified social hierarchy.  The poor you will always have with you and so you must always locate yourselves alongside the poor.  As if Jesus is pointing to his feet, motioning to Mary, breathing in the sweet fragrance of the perfume and saying Do you see this Judas?  This is what Sabbath economics looks like.  This is what Sabbath economics smells like.

We can’t count on Sabbath economics to just happen when everyone simply plays their predictable roles.  Sabbath economics is based in abundance, in extravagance, in the unpredictable pouring out of everything like a sweet offering.  On this Sabbath day, it is Mary who has demonstrated Sabbath economics, and it is for us to continue in her unpredictable path, so that a new kind of package might take shape among us, formed around the conviction that all we have is a holy gift ultimately not our own, and there shall be no poor among us.


Sabbath and Original Blessing | Lent 4 | March 11

Texts: Genesis 1:1-13; 1:26-2:3; John 3:14-21

Long, long ago, before you and me – before people – before animals, plants and bacteria, before the earth, and stars, before anything.  When the universe was just an unrehearsed verse in the mind of God, all was dark and unformed.  Only a breath from the Creator swept across the void.

The breath gathered into a shape, a word.  That word was “light,” and when it was spoken, there it was – light.  And the Creator saw that the light was good.  The light was separated from the darkness, and thus began the dance of night and day, evening and morning.

The generation of light was assigned to the stars, and with it the power of creating the full range of elements.   Stars were born and stars died, and in their death they seeded the expanding order with these elemental gifts out of which the rest of creation would be formed.

The Creator spoke again.  Rocks clustered and crashed and formed a planet, a dome with waters above and below, sky and seas, and dry land.  And the Creator saw that this was good.  To the land and sea was given the power to bring forth life.  Plants of all kinds grew and flourished.  To them was given the ability to catch the sun, to splice molecules and rearrange elements to create food for themselves and enrich the atmosphere.  Animals of all kinds grew and flourished, fed by the plants and air.  The land and the sea teamed with life.  The rhythm of evening and morning continued, as life improvised a melody.  And the Creator saw and heard that it was good.

The Creator spoke again, the most daring word yet.  “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them” have self-reflective consciousness to make their own decisions to direct the ongoing unfolding of creation.  And so it was.  God created humanity, in its full range of gender, in the likeness of the Creator.

The Creator blessed them:  Creatures to continue the creative process, in concert with the stars, the earth and waters, the plants and animals.  God saw everything that had been made, and indeed, it was very good.  And there was evening, and there was morning.

If all this could be condensed down to a week, we would have just finished day six.  Humanity is not the end of the story, not God’s final word on the matter.  They have been granted the powers to be co-creators with God, but there is something that happens first that’s even more important than more creating.

It’s a whole day, day seven, on which nothing of note happens.  For a whole day, nothing new is created.  On it, even God rests.  It’s a day that exists for itself, a day of pleasure and enjoyment, a day of ceasing from work.  A day of reveling in the goodness of creation and resting from whatever control and authority one might have over it.  It’s the first and only aspect of creation which God hallows – declares holy.  The seven day cyle forms a meta rhythm within which the daily rhythms of evening and morning take on their meaning.

This is, more or less, the Hebrew story of creation that begins our Bibles – with a bit of 21st century cosmology sprinkled in for good measure.

It’s a creation that gets a five star review with eight words in the comment section.  Good.  Good. Good. Good. Good. Good. Very Good.  That’s how many times that word shows up in Genesis 1.

In summary, it’s all good.  The light is good.  The dark is good.  The earth is good.  The stars are good.  Life is good.  It is lovely and loved.  A literal translation of John 3:16 is “For God so loved the kosmos.”

The cosmos, the world, is good.  Material reality is good.  Creatureliness is good.  Bodies are good.  Sexuality is good.  Skin and flowers and taste buds and supernovae are good.  Creation has a Divine blessing and it, we, all of this, is very good.

That’s how the story begins.  Goodness and blessing get the first word.

The story does continue, and, as you may be aware, it takes a turn toward the not-so-good.  The humans begin to use their tremendous power against each other and against the earth.  The earth is soon filled with violence.  Brother kills brother.  Tribe battles tribe, forgetting they are a part of the same extended family.  The Creator just about hits control-alt-delete on the whole project by sending a flood to clean the slate and do a system reboot.  It’s not a particularly effective strategy.  The survivors spread out over the earth.  They are complicated creatures.  They perform acts of great courage, love, devotion, and healing.  They commit acts of tremendous violence against neighbors and so called enemies.  At times they even harm themselves.  This cycles through the generations, with the sins of the parents often passed down to the children and grandchildren and so on up to today.  The goodness of creation is not lost, but is often forgotten, hard to see.

Christians have always believed that the person of Jesus plays a central role in this grand drama.

The third chapter of John’s gospel presents one of the ways Jesus understood the meaning of his own life and death.  It involves a serpent, although not the one from the Garden of Eden that gets much of the credit for steering humanity down the wrong path.  This  serpent comes from the wilderness, from the time of Moses and the Israelites.

This is what Jesus says: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have abundant life.”

It’s a reference to the story in Numbers 21, when the Israelites face an infestation of venomous snakes biting and killing them.  The people beg Moses to do something – to pray that the Lord will take the serpents away.  Moses prays and receives instructions that, at first glance, seem strange to the modern mind.  Rather than getting rid of the serpents, Moses creates another serpent, this one out of bronze.  This bonus serpent is then mounted up on a pole.  When the people get bit, they are to look up at the bronze serpent and in doing so, they will live.

In this story, the source of healing is found within the source of harm.  The serpents are not hidden or banished, or defeated, they are elevated for all to see.  And it is in seeing clearly, in gazing upon, that which is destroying the community, that the community is preserved.

This is how Jesus interprets his own death.  He too will be lifted up.  For him it will be on a Roman instrument of torture.  The cross embodies all that is abusive and violent about humanity’s misuse of power.  The violence of the cross is what has been destroying the community throughout history, like a venomous snake that keeps biting and biting.  And now, the path back to life, the way to defeat the serpents and live into the goodness of creation, must involve gazing on the very violence on which humanity has come to depend to hold up the whole apparatus that we think keeps us secure and moving forward in history.  In gazing on the cross, we discover our own complicity in the violence, and thus are presented a way out.

Mennonite pastor Horace McMillon recently wrote an essay about how his understanding of the bronze serpent and the cross of Jesus has been deepened through the story of the murder of Emmett Till.  Emmett Till was born and raised in Chicago.  In 1955, when he was 14, his mother, Mamie Till Bradley, sent him down to Mississippi to visit family.  While there, Emmett entered a store and got into a conversation with Carolyn Bryant.  She was 21, married to the store owner, and white.  Emmett Till was black and had unknowingly violated the color codes of the Jim Crow South.  Emmett was accused of making sexual advances toward Mrs. Bryant.  Her husband and his brother abducted Emmett from the home where he was staying, beat him, shot him, mutilated his body, and threw him in the Tallehatchie River.

When his body was recovered, Mamie Till Bradley made the decision that her son would not only have a public funeral, but that it would be an open casket.  In gazing on the brutalized body of Emmett Till, the world was forced to confront the violence of racism and the sin of white supremacy festering in society.  The death of Emmitt Till, his body lifted up for all to see, like the bronze serpent in the wilderness, like Jesus on the cross, like Michael Brown on the street of Fergusson, Missouri….Emmit Till became one of the galvanizing moments for the beginning of the Civil Rights movement.

Exposing and thus overcoming violence is one of the ways Jesus interprets his own death within a good creation that has lost its way.

But looking at a cross is hard work.  Especially when it keeps showing up in the headlines every day in the form of murdered school children, refugees fleeing war, mass incarceration and deportation, you fill out your own list.  We are in one sense saved from our complacency in being willing to gaze on these sins of humanity.  We are pointed toward the grace of God. In another sense, we can quickly succumb to cross-gazing fatigue, outrage fatigue, compassion fatigue, fatigue fatigue.

We need another part of the story to sustain us.  We need a story that leads us back to the goodness of creation, to life as a blessing and a gift to be enjoyed.

Back in the 1980’s Matthew Fox wrote a book called Original Blessing.  It was his way of offering a corrective to the church’s longtime emphasis on original sin.  One of his key points was that even deeper than violence and sin is the reality of blessing and goodness.  Genesis 1 comes before, Genesis 2 and 3, and so, he reminds us, we are, at our deepest core, in our truest self, blessed and beloved of God.

Gazing at the cross, in all its many forms and faces, is six day a week work.  It’s painful work, and one of the ways we journey with Jesus through life.  It is a constant reminder of the power of our collective sin to destroy and harm life.

But Sabbath can be our way back to original blessing.

Sabbath invites us to cease even from struggling to do good, and to simply receive the goodness already given, which is from God, which has been from the beginning.

Original blessing, like Genesis 1, is the language of faith.  It’s the language of myth, in the best sense of the world.  There is no actual point in history in which everything was perfect and good.  There is no point to return to in order to “Make creation great again.”

It is the language of faith that offers us original blessing.  It’s a container that holds everything else.  And it makes a profound difference to operate out of a mode of original blessing.  Original blessing impacts how we understand our bodies, and bodies that are different than ours, because they too are blessed.  Original blessing is a container able to hold all the sorrow, and all the joy in the world.  Original blessing can hold the Christ of the cross, and the Christ of the incarnation which participates in the material world not to solve any problems, but simply because of its goodness.  Because God so loves the kosmos.

Original blessing may not be a historical point in time to return to, but Sabbath is.  Sabbath is a recurring point in time, it is embodied history, and it comes around on a seven day cycle.  Sabbath practice is a way of living out the blessedness of creation within history.  To practice Sabbath is to enter into the rest of God’s goodness, to relish in that goodness all around us, to approach the world and people not as a set of problems to be solved, but as a gift to be enjoyed for its own sake.

Throughout Scripture the word remember is frequently attached to the Sabbath.  Remember the Sabbath.  Remember.  It provokes the question of what is it we forget when we forget to Sabbath?  What of blessing, what of goodness, what of life abundant, what of Christ do we forget?

Remember that you are blessed.  Remember that you are beloved.  Remember that you are created in the image of God in order to create this world with God, and in order to sabbath with God and enjoy the goodness that is ours.



Sabbath as ceasing | Lent 2 | February 25

Texts: Deuteronomy 5:1-7; 12-15; Mark 8:31-38


Before Sabbath was a holy day, a noun, it was a verb, with nothing particularly holy about it.  To sabbath means to cease, to desist, to rest.  Verbs are action words, and sabbath is an action word meaning, basically, to refrain from action.  Sabbath is the un-verb.

The first four times the word appears in the Bible it is in verb form.  It’s mentioned twice in Genesis 2, where the Creator Elohim famously and somewhat mysteriously ceases, rests, sabbaths from all creative activity.  This happens on the seventh day, which is not yet called the Sabbath.  The seventh day is declared holy because on it Elohim sabbathed.

It’s mentioned nowhere else in the book of Genesis, and so we’re on to Exodus, chapter five, where Pharaoh is scolding Moses and Aaron for daring to ask for a three day holiday for the Hebrew slaves.  Holidays and paid vacation leave were not a part of the slave memorandum of understanding.  Rather than give them a break, Pharaoh makes their work more difficult, demanding the same quotas for brick production, while making them provide not just labor, but some of the materials.  From now on, the Hebrews will have to gather their own straw to mix with clay.  Pharaoh says to Moses and Aaron, “Why are you taking the people away from their work.  Get to your labor!  Now they are more numerous than the people of the land and yet you want them to stop working!”  It’s that very last phrase that translates Sabbath.  To sabbath = to stop working.  Pharaoh is anxious about the demographic shift of the foreign slaves starting to outnumber native born Egyptians, and yet Moses wants them to sabbath?  How could this possibly help Pharaoh’s bottom line?  In Pharoah’s economy, sabbath is an absurd request.

Sabbath is also a verb in Exodus 12, when the Hebrew people are to put away, to sabbath, all the yeast in their homes as a part of the weeklong observance of Unleaven Bread leading up to Passover – a remembrance that the people exited Egypt so quickly their bread didn’t even have time to rise.

Sabbath is first mentioned as its own day, the seventh and final day of the week, in Exodus 16, regarding manna collection in the wilderness, the passage we read last week.

It’s next mentioned in Exodus 20 as one of ten Divine commandments etched in stone tablets.  Remember the Sabbath, a whole day that comes around every seven.  A day of sabbathing.

If sabbath is first of all a verb, and if this verb means to cease, to desist, to rest, it raises the question: From what shall we cease?  From what shall we rest?

These are questions I’ve done some thinking about in my own life.  I’m in my twelfth year of being a pastor, or in verb form, pastoring, and if there is one thing I can point to that has most sustained me through these years, it is having a Sabbath.  Holy Monday.

But here’s the thing.  What my Sabbath looks like is likely very different than what others might consider sabbathing.  When I sabbath, I cease from pastoring.  Aside from the quarterly BREAD gatherings, which seem to be firmly established on Monday evenings, etched in stone, I check out from church on my Sabbath.  I let go of responsibilities, don’t check email.  I blissfully release the idea of being needed and useful.  I love you all, but on Mondays my mind is elsewhere.

But lest this start sounding like I’m an exemplary Sabbath keeper, I don’t think my Sabbath fits the biblical and rabbinical model very well.  With farm boy blood flowing strong in my veins, I still find it surprising how much sitting, and living in my head I do throughout the week.  It’s head and heart work, relational work, organizational work, but not so much body work.  If I would treat Mondays like a spiritual retreat for meditation and study, it would feel way too much like work…at least in this stage of my life.

So for me, I find physical activity to be essential Sabbath practice.  I cease from sedentariness…with space for an afternoon nap, if so moved, and not having too much of an agenda.  Runs, bike rides, and remodeling projects all fit into my Sabbath groove.  That latter one likely undermines my real Sabbath cred, so I guess I’m being confessional at this point.  My point is that it’s not pastoring.  And these are things I find freeing and restorative.  A sanctuary in time, to use the Heschel phrase.

One Sabbath moment that stands out was a couple years back when I was pushing Ila in the jogging stroller on the Olentangy Trail.  It was the middle of a Monday morning, I was at a particularly beautiful part of the trail, and no one else was around.  If you’ve ever found yourself alone in a beautiful part of the world, maybe you’ve had a similar thought as I did then: Over seven billion people in the world, and I can’t believe I’m the only one seeing this right now.  What could be so important as to miss this?  The givenness of this place.  My complete non-involvement in having created it.  It felt like a Sabbath gift.  I guess your odds of having moments like this increase when your Sabbath falls on a day when most other people are back to work.

Still, of all the Ten Commandments, Sabbath feels like the most optional.  Like, maybe extra credit for the over-achievers.  Or just for when you feel like you need it, rather than a weekly built in rhythm of life.

Perhaps as a direct counter this thinking, Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann calls Sabbath keeping the most radical commandment for our time.  The title of his book about this says just as much: Sabbath as Resistance.  Which provokes the question: When we Sabbath, what is it we are resisting?

The Ten Commandments are presented twice in the Torah, once in Exodus 20, and again in Deuteronomy 5.  As one might imagine, seeing as how they are reportedly written in stone, the two versions are quite similar.  There are, however, some notable differences.  The commandment that differs most between the two versions is the Sabbath.  Perhaps it anticipates our question about why this is important, because two different reasons are given for keeping Sabbath.  Mark will address the Exodus version next week.  This week we’re on Deuteronomy.  In both versions, it’s the longest commandment, the one that gets the longest airtime, the most scroll space, the largest hunk of stone.

This is the full Sabbath commandment in Deuteronomy:

12 Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 14 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. 15 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day. 

In Deuteronomy the reason for Sabbath observance is that you’ve been delivered out of slavery in Egypt.  In Egypt there were no Sabbaths, and sabbath-ing was condemned as laziness by the people who sat atop the pyramid scheme and counted the brick per slave ratio and quarterly earnings reports.  In Pharaoh’s economy, Sabbath keeping is nonsensical because people are viewed as brick making machines rather than divine-image bearing beings.

Sabbath is the creation, the introduction, the gift, of an alternative economic arrangement.  One which places life and the blessedness of being, rather than endless production, at the center.

Brueggemann emphasizes that Sabbath is first and foremost work stoppage.  Stop working.  Cease and desist.  Because we can.  Because we’re not in Egypt anymore.  Because we are more than what we do.  Because otherwise we are in danger of becoming a mere function of the production economy which will take over our life and make us its slave.  Slavery in Egypt was not a choice.  Sabbath is an opting out of voluntary slavery.  Which is why it’s presented as a command.  Otherwise the Israelites, and dare I say we, might treat sabbath-ing as optional.

Which, of course, it is.

And not only does sabbath-ing free us from voluntary enslavement, but it frees up our relationships with our neighbors, and other creatures.  Resident aliens who don’t own land and are dependent on their own labor to gain wealth are included in Sabbath.  Debt slaves get to cease.  Ox and donkeys who have been domesticated and bred for the very purpose of increasing human productivity, are also sabbath-worthy creatures.

To sabbath is to cease.  The Sabbath is a ceasefire in our continual conquest of the material world.  It’s a sanctuary in time, holy for its own sake.  We are freed up to be enjoyers rather than just producers and consumers.

As a final thought, it’s a step in the right direction to ask ourselves, From what shall I cease? When we Sabbath, what are we resisting?  It’s a step in the right direction to form personal Sabbath practices that move us away from the bondage of Egypt, and into the liberation of the promised land.

But there is also a certain sense in which Sabbath has to be a collective commitment in order for it to work.  It’s hard to have a Sabbath when you’re earning minimum wage and need to make rent.  It’s hard to find Sabbath rest when you’re a parent of a one and three year old and don’t have family around to help with child care.  It’s hard to share a Sabbath with loved ones when our weekly work rhythms don’t coincide.

This is our world.  These are the times in which we choose what Sabbath means for us, in which we join in solidarity so that all may have Sabbath opportunity.  Sabbath is an act of resistance.

Sabbath is primarily a matter of Divine grace, a way for us individually and collectively to live in to this strange and wonderful gift of existence.





Sabbath and Time | Lent 1 | February 18

Texts: Mark 1:9-15; Exodus 16:1-5; 13-26

Over the years I’ve watched my fair share of TED talks.  One that left a big impression was also one of the shortest.  It’s a talk by Jessa Gamble from way back in 2010 titled “Our natural sleep cycle is nothing like what we do now.”   Rather than the standard 18ish minute TED talk, this one is only three minutes and 55 seconds.

Her talk goes something like this: Humans, like all other multicell organisms, plants and animals, have an internal clock.  It’s part of our chemical make up, linked to the daily cycle of light and darkness.  Humans evolved close to the equator, where days and nights are about equal, so our body clocks are most naturally equipped for this kind of cycle.  But we’ve spread to every corner of the globe, where daylight and night time hours are not evenly split, and of course our modern world of abundant artificial light throws another curve at our sleeping patterns.

But we seem to have a fairly persistent body clock, even when we don’t know whether it’s night or day.  Jessa Gamble cites studies of people having their watches taken away and living in a bunker underground for weeks and months at time, with a combination of darkness and artificial light.  After the initial disorientation, participants settled into a consistent sleeping pattern, what Gamble and others refer to as our natural sleep cycle.  It matched up with what we know about pre-industrial sleeping patterns.

It turns out we most naturally sleep twice, rather than once.  Participants would go to sleep around 8pm, wake up around midnight, have about a two hour span of alert wakefulness, and then go back to sleep from about 2am until sunrise.  Eight hours of sleep in a ten hour window…ish.  During those middle two waking hours the body releases high doses of prolactin, a chemical with all kinds of positive health benefits.

This is how Gamble ends her talk:

“The people in these studies report feeling so awake during the day time that they realize they’re experiencing true wakefulness for the first time in their lives.  So, cut to modern day, we’re living in a culture of jet lag, global travel, 24 hour business, shift work.  And our modern ways of doing things have their advantages, but I believe we should understand the costs.  Thank you.”  End of TED talk.

I don’t remember when I first watched this.  It was probably around 11pm, when my not-so-distant ancestors would have been sleeping their way toward their daily surge of prolactin, and I was trying to milk the day for just one more thing before trying to fall asleep.  I do remember how I felt right after those closing lines about true wakefulness.  It was like someone shows you something beautiful and says, “This, this is your birthright.  But you know you can’t get it.”  And then says, “But I dare you to try.”

This short talk that I’ve never really stopped thinking about came to mind soon after we settled on Sabbath as the theme for Lent.  Practicing Sabbath in the modern world often feels about as practical as the pre-industrial, pre-artificial light sleep cycle – for many of the same reasons.  There are just so many factors working against us.

One option would be for us to dive into the history and purpose and theology and poetic praise of Sabbath, to paint a beautiful picture of what could be, and then end by saying, “Well, at least now we know what we’re missing.”

Another option would be to do that first part, to look more deeply into Sabbath scriptures and practices and their meaning, to glimpse something beautiful that is our birthright, and then dare ourselves to try.

I’m aiming for the latter.  As I’ve been in conversation with Mark and Robin and Worship Commission about this Lent, we share a hope that Sabbath practices, Sabbath-making, being made by Sabbath, might become a more important part of our lives, individually and collectively, as a result of this season.

So let’s get started and see where this leads.

The first Sunday of Lent always takes us out into the wilderness, with Jesus.  Jesus has just undergone that radical life-defining water ritual of baptism.  He had come from Nazareth, where he grew up, in the Galilee region, and opted in to the restoration movement initiated by John the Baptizer.  Under the hand of John, Jesus goes down under the waters of the Jordan.  As he emerges he’s greeted by a feathered Spirit, a dove descending toward him, and a voice that proclaims him a Beloved Son.

This, however, is only the beginning of Jesus’ initiation into the work ahead of him and the kind of consciousness he must have to fulfill it.  In Mark’s urgent style of narration, that same dove-like Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness, where he lived for 40 days.

In the scriptures the wilderness is a place of education.  Of learning and un-learning.  A prime location in the Divine pedagogy.  Separated from one’s usual environment, and from the life-support systems of civilization, one faces down everything one most fears, is exposed to one’s limitations, is confronted with one’s desires.  In the wilderness one must separate intuition from temptation.  Sort through the voices in one’s head and find the center that holds.  Mark summarizes all this by saying Jesus was “tempted by Satan; and the angels waited on him.”

Those 40 wilderness days are re-lived each year in the liturgical season of Lent.  Throughout Lent we enter into the wilderness with Jesus.  The wilderness is a place of re-education, refinement, casting off things you don’t need; finding something you didn’t know you’d lost.  Sort of like going down into a bunker for a while and re-disovering your natural sleep cycle.  The trick is how to have the wilderness experience while life goes on as usual.  Maybe life has to stop going on as usual.

This is not a Sabbath passage, per se, but it does set the stage in some way for Sabbath-living.  Jesus emerges from the baptismal waters, then emerges from the wilderness, with a message.  It’s a message summarized in Mark 1:15, placed on the tongue of Jesus:  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.  Turn, change your mind, and believe this good news.”

This is Jesus’ elevator speech, and it’s very much focused on a peculiar way of living in relation to time.  Living, as if time has reached its fulfillment, and the kingdom of God is present and pervasive.  Such that we can relax in to a world defined by compassion, peacefulness, and neighborliness.  That’s the good news Jesus proclaims.  It’s an invitation to a certain consciousness about time which affects every aspect of how we live and move and relate within time.  The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.

In the middle of the 20th century, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote what is still the definitive work on Sabbath in the modern world.  One of his key ideas is that humans have gotten pretty good at mastering the world of space.  Not space travel space, but space as in the world of things.  Three dimensional space.  Atoms, molecules; roads and cars; streets and buildings; mining and manufacturing.  He calls all this “technical civilization,” which excels at the conquest of space.

He traces our pre-occupation with space and things back through ancient religions that located deities in particular locations, “like mountains, forests, trees or stones, which are…singled out as holy places” (p. 4).

And then he turns a corner:

He writes: “Indeed, we know what to do with space, but do not know what to do with time, except make it subservient to space.  Most of us seem to labor for the sake of things of space.  As a result we suffer from a deeply rooted dread of time and stand aghast when compelled to look into its face.  Time to us is sarcasm, a slick treacherous monster with a jaw like a furnace incinerating every moment of our lives.  Shrinking, therefore, from facing time, we escape for shelter to things of space”  (p. 5).

Heschel proposes that we’ve missed the point.  That it is that mysterious 4th dimension we call time which is most sacred.  That holiness is most deeply experienced not in sacred objects but in sacred moments.  And that Sabbath is the primary embodiment of time’s holiness.

He writes: “Sabbaths are our great cathedrals” (p.8).  The Sabbath is “a palace in time,” a “sanctuary in time.”  It puts a different spin on this concept of sanctuary we’ve been working on for a while now.  Sanctuary has to do with how we use our space, but also has to do with how we use time.   When we live in such a way that we enter regularly into sanctuaries in time, we are on our way to Sabbath living.

The first biblical account of people engaging in Sabbath practice is found in Exodus 16.  It takes place, not coincidentally, in the wilderness.  The wilderness is a place of education and re-education, learning and unlearning.  What the Hebrews are unlearning in the wilderness, throughout Exodus, is their deep enculturation into Pharaoh’s time clock.  For generations the Hebrews had been slaves in Egypt, under the regime of Pharaoh.  In Egypt, there were no Sabbaths.  Under Pharaoh’s anxious eye, the demands for production were always rising and time as a gift of being was always in recession.

But the Hebrews had been delivered out of slavery by Yahweh, under the leadership of Moses and Aaron and Miriam, who led them through the Red Sea which now marks the beginning of a new era of re-education in the wilderness where they will be for 40 years.

The wilderness can be a fearful place, without the life support systems one has come to depend on.  As if to confront this head on, the first instance of collective Sabbath practice has to do with something as absolutely necessary as food.  There will be manna in the desert six days a week, and on the sixth day they are to gather enough for two days, because the seventh day will be a Sabbath, when they will celebrate the enoughness of what they have, and there will be no need to gather.

It’s a new kind of rhythm that will come to define their lives.  Under the regime of Yahweh, time is not merely for labor and provision and altering the world of space.  It is for dwelling content within the world of time.  Defined not by acquisitiveness or accumulation, but by restful enjoyment.  Or, in the words of Jessa Gamble and those bunker experiment participants: “True wakefulness.”

Very soon the Israelites will come to a mountain in the desert where they’ll be given 10 commandments to order their lives.  Sabbath is one of those commandments.  More on that in the coming weeks.

The Christian default mode is perhaps to assume that Sabbath is the one commandment Jesus didn’t particularly care for – and neither should we.  He was rather fond of pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable on the Sabbath, but it was always in the direction of healing and wholeness and restoration.  Not so much in the direction of a more frenzied life.

His message about the time being fulfilled and the Kingdom of God being near could be understood as an expansion of Sabbath and Jubilee.  They’re so good and beautiful that they’re in the process of taking over the world.  They’re our birthright as beloved sons and daughters of God.

As distant and almost impossible as it may seem much of the time, what if our lives would more and more come to be ordered around sanctuaries in time that we enter and enjoy?  Regularly.

Marking the spot: Dreams and blessings for the journey

Text: Genesis 28:10-19     

Coming of Age Celebration

What do a baby doll, a Bible, a notebook, a water pitcher, a blanket, a red kick ball, and a communion cup have in common?  This winter I’ve been a guest in each of our elementary school age Sunday school classes.  Our Christian Education Commission asked me to talk with our young people about rituals in the church and why we do them.  Those objects are some of the props I’ve been carting around.

Many of these rituals are ones we share in common with other Christians.  In these classes we’ve started out by gathering in a circle around the red kick ball, which serves as our sun.  We talk about the liturgical calendar.  So far we’ve managed to circle through the seasons of the church year without breaking out in a spontaneous game of dodgeball, but there have been a couple close calls.  After the full circle we talk about Communion and baptism and what they mean to us.

We also talk about the different rituals they will experience as they grow up in this particular congregation.  We dedicate babies as a way of blessing families and committing to raising children as a community.  We give Bibles to second graders and encourage them to be in lively conversation with Bible stories.  Toward the beginning of high school we have a catechism class that gives a big overview of how Mennonites have understood Christian faith.  At the end of high school, we wrap you in a blanket that will be yours to take with you wherever you’re headed next.

Toward the middle of that progression, usually in your twelfth year, is this Coming of Age celebration.  It’s our way, as a congregation, of marking that major transition from childhood to adolescence.  We like to make a big deal out of it because it is a big deal.  Cultures around the world have found it vital, in their own way, to mark entry into this new stage of increased independence and responsibility.

I have to say this is the first time I’ve ever had one of my own children Coming of Age, so it makes me wonder if I am now coming of age as a parent – entering parent tweenagehood.

So Eve, Mira, and Ivan – Hello.  One of the ways you have helped design this service was by choosing the scripture.  We looked at a couple different stories and the one that you chose was this one about Jacob in Genesis 28.  Jacob has this strange dream about this stairway or ladder that goes between the earth and heaven.  During the dream God tells him that God will always be with him.  It’s such an important experience that Jacob marks the spot with a rock that he sets up as a pillar.  He even anoints the rock with oil, which I believe was Ivan’s favorite part of the skit.

So what does this story, this dream, this stairway to heaven, this rock, have to do with you?

One of the first things to note about this story is that it is a story about leaving home.  Jacob has lived with his mother Rebecca and father Isaac and his older twin Esau his whole life.  This is the first we know of Jacob setting out on his own, all by himself.  His plan is to go from Beer Sheba in the south, way up to Haran in the north, to meet with his uncle Laban and find a suitable wife for himself.  So Jacob is getting a little ahead of us since I’m not aware any of you are planning on leaving home or finding a spouse anytime in the next few years.

But in this stage of life we call adolescence, we begin the process of leaving home.  Even though you still have a number of years living with your parents, you’re already starting to peak out the front door and see what else is going on in the world.  It isn’t a physical leaving home yet, but there’s something within you taking place where your world is opening up much wider than just your home, just your family, just the familiar and comfortable world that you have known your whole life.

You’re starting that process of moving out into the world, and this is a good thing.  You’re welcoming relationships and experiences that you have apart from parents and home.  And there’s this sense of boundless potential that you might feel, wide open possibility, and that gives all of us who know you great joy when we think about that.

So we meet up with Jacob when he is leaving home.  And he’s in this in between place.  Not home anymore, in Beer Sheba, and not yet at his destination, Haran.  Maybe for you this is kind of like not being in childhood anymore, but not yet quite in adulthood.  You’re officially in between.  And in this in between land, Jacob comes to a certain place.  It’s getting dark, so he stops traveling for the day.  He looks around like any resourceful young person might do, and finds a good rock to use as a pillow, and camps out for the night.

This is a camping story.  Maybe we learn some things when we camp that we can’t learn when we’re safe inside our house with our comfy mattress and soft pillow.  Jacob is on a solo camping trip, but he soon finds out he is not alone.

It must have been a pretty cozy rock, because the next thing we know, Jacob is asleep and he’s having a dream.  And this dream becomes a key experience for him.

Now I have on pretty good authority that each of you are big Harry Potter fans.  And so, on the subject of dreams, you might recall that in the fifth book, The Order of the Phoenix, Harry keeps having this recurring dream about this mysterious corridor and a room where he is looking for something.  Harry’s mentor Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry, is concerned that the Dark Lord Voldemort might be influencing Harry through these dreams, getting into his mind when his guard is down, and so Harry is supposed to be doing some training and learning techniques for how to keep his guard up while he is sleeping.

Well in the Bible, it’s God who gets into people’s minds while they are sleeping.  It’s in people’s dreams, when their guard is down, that God shows up and has a chance to show them a path, a place, a possibility, that they might otherwise not be aware of.

Jacob is one of the early dreamers in the Bible, and then his son Joseph turns out to be quite a dreamer, and interpreter of dreams.  Daniel has dreams about God and also interprets the dreams of the king of Babylon.  Many of the Hebrew prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, have dreams, or visions – dreams during the day – where God gives them a picture or words to speak to their people.  And then in the New Testament there’s Joseph the Dreamer part II, this guy who gets a series of dreams telling him what to do about this situation with this woman named Mary he’s supposed to be marrying who is already pregnant and whose baby, who they’re going to name Jesus, is threatened by the somewhat Lord Voldemort-ish King Herod.  Throughout the Bible dreams are an important way that God speaks to people.

And so instead of learning how to keep your guard up during dreams, your mentors and teachers and parents and pastors will be encouraging you to let your guard down, to let these mysterious messengers of God speak to you.

Pay attention to these things you sense deep within you about what is wrong with the world, or what is wonderful about the world, places where you see beauty and joy and love, these pictures that you have in your mind.  Dreams at night or during the day.  This is part of the way that God speaks to you.

Jacob is in a vulnerable and even scary situation.  He’s not at home anymore and not yet at his destination.  He’s in this in between land, camping out by himself.  He drifts off to sleep.

And when he dreams, he sees this stairway connecting earth and heaven.  The point of this stairway, it turns out, isn’t so Jacob can walk up and take a peek around the heavens and see what things are like.  The point is for Jacob to see that these two worlds that we can so often separate in our minds, the world of people and places and things, and the world of the heavens, the spiritual world of God, to see they are connected.  This stairway has angels going up and down. And the word for angels means messengers.  There are messengers going between, so Jacob sees that the lines of communication are wide open here.  Even though he’s camping on his own in the middle of nowhere, God is with him.

This stairway is a symbol of that connection.  It fills in the gap.  Like in your house where the stairway helps you get up and down between the different floors, so you’re not stuck on one or the other.  You can be in the whole house.

One of the people who has done a lot of thinking and writing about the relationship between human development, different stages of life, and faith development is a professor by the name of James Fowler.  He says that one of the things that begins to happen for you right about now is the process of synthesis – of drawing together different parts, different thoughts, different experiences and perspectives.  Parts that may not feel all that related right now, but parts that you will begin asking how they might hold together.  How do this and that fit together?  How can this and that both be true?

A big part of this has to do with personal identity.  We have this new consciousness in our early teen years where we start asking who we are.  We start paying more attention to who others say we are.  We have different groups of people in your life, and some of them don’t overlap very much.  You have your life at home.  You have the relationships in your extended family.  You have this group of folks at church.  You have your life at school with teachers and friends and people who you’re trying to figure out if they’re actually your friend.  You have all these parts, all these different yous – and you start to wonder: Well…which me am I?  Am I who my parents say I am?  Who my friends say I am?  Who the people I don’t get along with very well say I am?  Who church says I am?  Who’s right?

A big part of your life for the next number of years will be working on how all these parts fit together.

Jacob’s stairway is a message that there is a connection.  All these parts that feel separate and disjointed and almost like different worlds, do fit together.  And, most importantly, God is in each one of those places.  It’s like different rooms and levels all inside the same house, and you’re free to move around and explore.

God shows up alongside Jacob and tells Jacob that no matter where he goes, God will be with him.  God tells Jacob that he will be blessed, and that others will be blessed through him.  And that’s exactly what Jacob needs to know for this journey.  He doesn’t know how things are going to turn out, but he goes with a blessing.  Even though he’s in this in between place, God is with him, Love with a capital L is with him, and all of these different parts somehow will fit together some day.

So that’s the dream.  Jacob wakes up.  This is a dream he’s going to remember the rest of this life.  He says, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it.”  This place is like the house of God.

It’s such an important experience that he decides he has to mark the spot.  This has to be more than just a memory in his head.  He needs something physical as a reminder, so whenever he sees that thing he can remember the experience.  And so, being the resourceful young person that he is, he decides that this rock which has been his pillow is going to be a multipurpose rock.  He sets it up as a pillar, puts some oil on it, perhaps in the same way he would have put oil on his own head each morning as a lotion.  He treats the rock, the visible reminder of those messengers connecting earth and heaven, like he would treat his own face.  It’s now a part of him.  It fits into the person he’s becoming.

In the next part of our service we’ll be giving you a physical reminder of this day.  You’ll each receive a notebook that contains blessings and personal words from your church family.  Just like God sent Jacob with a blessing, we want to give you our blessing for the journey ahead.

Jonah and the plant.  The Lord and the great city. | January 21 

Text: Jonah chapters 3 and 4  

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.

The first time the word of the Lord came to Jonah it said, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their wickedness has come up before me.”  Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, the empire that ravaged the northern kingdom of Israel, Jonah’s home.  They were ruthless, cutthroat, and showed no mercy to captive peoples.  They were Israel’s bitter enemy.

When Jonah is first commanded to go at once and preach to them, he does go at once, in the opposite direction.  Rather than head east, toward Nineveh, he boards the first ship he can find heading west, to Tarshish.  If Jonah lived in Columbus and was commanded to go preach in Washington, DC, he would have jumped on the next flight to LA.

This does not work out well for Jonah, or his ship mates.  A storm arises, and their ship experiences heavy turbulence.  Jonah takes the blame for the storm.  They throw him overboard.  The sea goes calm, and peace is restored.  Except for Jonah, who is sinking like a stone.  But the Lord sends a big fish, which swallows Jonah whole, giving him a three day retreat in the belly of this beast to ponder the meaning of life.  Unable to digest this wayward prophet, the big fish barfs him up onto dry ground, and heads on its way.

And the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.

It’s the same word as the first.  To get on his way to Nineveh, that great city, and call for their repentance.  And so we pick up the story from today’s lectionary reading.  The second, less familiar, half of the book of Jonah.

And so Jonah heads on his way, toward enemy territory.  Nineveh, we’re told, was such a massive city it took three days to walk across.  Upon arrival, Jonah plods into the city, into the belly of the beast, no doubt mulling over the message he’s going to preach to these wicked Ninevites.  After a long day, he finds a good street corner with a nice soapbox, stands up and preaches his well-rehearsed sermon, which turns out to be a one line zinger:  “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”  That’s it.  That’s the entire sermon, only five words in Hebrew.  That’s the word of Lord he came all this way to deliver.  “Ninevites: Your… days… are… numbered.”  He most likely did not have a manuscript, did not end with reflective silence and a hymn of response.    He steps down from his box, tosses his megaphone in the trash, and checks in to a motel, his duty to the Lord technically complete.

And then the worst possible thing happens.  The people of Nineveh pay attention and actually believe him.  They shift into repentance mode.  They throw a massive repentance fest.  A repentance fast, giving up eating and drinking.  The Twitter and Facebook feeds light up about this urgent action.  Great and small, young and old, must put on the punishlingy uncomfortable sackcloth.  Sackcloth has its single greatest day of sales in Ninevite history.  The king quickly gets the message.  He steps down from his throne, exchanges his robe for the not-so-royal sackcloth, and sits in ashes, a sign of self-debasement and humility.  Just to cover his bases, he decrees that even the sheep and cows are to participate in the fast, and put on sackcloth.  Ninevite cattle and people join in solidarity.  The king puts up a hail Mary and says: “Who knows, but that God may relent and change God’s mind?  God may turn back from fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”

And it works.  God turns, changes course, calls off the fire and brimstone.  Calms the Ninevite sea.  The city is saved, and all the peoples and animals in it.

Most preachers I know would be quite pleased having delivered a one line sermon that changes an entire city.  Jonah could have returned home a happy prophet.  He could ride the momentum of his astonishingly successful speech, take up a tenured position at Jerusalem University and teach homiletics the rest of his career – how to compose a sermon that will bring an empire, and its animals, to their knees.  Aspiring prophets from around the nation would flock to sit at his feet to learn his secrets to success.

But this is not what happens.  As the story goes, this turn of events was displeasing to Jonah, and he becomes angry.  He is enraged, not because he is surprised at what has happened, but because this is exactly what he knew what going to happen.  The prophet of few words suddenly has many words for the Lord, which can be summarized in four words: “I told you so.”

“O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”  And then he gets quite dramatic: “And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”  To which God replies by saying, more or less: “So what I hear you saying is you’re angry?”

Jonah is not done here.  He sulks out of the city, past inner and outer ring suburbs, and finds a perch overlooking the metropolis.  He scavenges for materials and builds himself a little campsite.  He is yet to give up on the ticking time bomb he declared to the city.  Maybe they’ll forget about their repentance and the whole place really will go up in flames in forty days.  If so, Jonah will have the best seat in the house to watch the fireworks.  He’s willing to wait.

The Lord God, being the gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love God that he/she is, provides a plant, a vine or tree of some sort, to grow over Jonah’s head.  Jack has his rapidly growing beanstalk, Jonah has this rapidly growing plant of his own, not to climb, but to give him shade, to save him from his discomfort.

And this makes Jonah quite pleased with himself and his good fortune of this shady plant.  Life really can be OK sometimes.  Now he has it made, cooling in the shade with a lemonade, cheering against the home team.  That they’ll strike out, screw up, do something evil and get the punishment they deserve.

This is a good time, for about a day.  Until God, who, as we know, always reserves the right to change plans, sends a little worm that attacks the plant so that it withers.  Just like the squash in our garden every summer.  And not only that, but God sends a scorching wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head, and the ice in his cooler has melted, and he remembers how angry he is, and how much he wants to die.

And the Lord asks a familiar question, with a slight twist.  “Are you so angry…about the plant?”  And just so God knows exactly how he feels, Jonah assures God, “Yes.  Angry enough to die.”

The story ends unresolved.  It actually ends with a question.  God posing a question to Jonah who is still perched, still overlooking the city, still uncertain whether he can accept such mercy, still mad about the only thing giving him temporary comfort, that little plant that shriveled.  God says, perhaps even pleading with Jonah, “You are concerned about the plant, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.  And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”  That’s the last line from the book of Jonah.  We’re not told how the prophet responded.

So is Jonah a misguided counter-example to the faithful life, a drama-king so caught up in his own world that he is blind to God’s big picture of love and reconciliation?  Maybe.  Probably!  You can read it that way.  It’s kind of fun to read it that way.

And here’s another angle.  The scholarly consensus is that Jonah was written when the Jews were under the rule of Persia, maybe about 500 years before Jesus was born.  By that time the city of Nineveh as a center of power was long gone, destroyed by the Babylonians who came before the Persians.  The Assyrians conquered the world, decimating Israel, then the Babylonians conquered the Assyrians, including their capital Nineveh.  Then the Persians took them down.  The Jonah story shows all kinds of signs of being a fable and parable rather than history, but it is based on a character of Jonah the prophet who lived only decades before the Assyrians had conquered Israel.  This Jonah is mentioned briefly in 2 Kings 14:25.

So you got that?  For the original readers – or hearers – of Jonah, Nineveh has already been wiped from the face of the earth, yet only after they did irreparable harm to Israel.  And this is a story about a prophet who lived right before they did that harm.

If you are Jonah the prophet, do you go to your future abuser and warn them of the evil of their ways, or do you stay as far away as you can, hide out in Tarshish and let the Lord destroy them before they destroy you?  Because they will destroy you, that much is known.

As the story goes, the Lord doesn’t give Jonah the option of getting to Tarshish.  Jonah’s resistance is met with a storm, and even though he voluntarily opts to end his own life by having his shipmates toss him into the sea, thus saving them, the big fish comes along and keeps the story alive, keeps Jonah alive.

And the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.

And so he goes.  He heads toward this so-called great city which has built its fortunes on the destruction of others.  A city of plunderers and war profiteers.

There’s a unique Hebrew phrase that gets translated as Nineveh being an “exceedingly large city.”  More literally, it could be translated as a city as large as the gods.  Big like god.  Titanic proportions.  Like people drove around with bumper stickers on their chariots that said “Not even god can sink this city.”

The foreigner Jonah gives his little sound bite of a sermon, and the city instantly goes from terror alert code yellow to code red.  The whole city fears impending danger, and follows protocol to avert the crisis, in this case putting on sackcloth to appease the angry deity.  If the Lord won’t be moved by people, maybe the Lord at least not attack if reminded that the animals would be collateral damage.  And so the cows and sheep are enlisted in the pageantry.

And it works.  God does not sink the city.

The powerful are pardoned with no questions asked.  Nobody is put on trial, nobody goes to jail, everybody walks away with a clean record.  No need to pay reparations toward those they have harmed.  No need to restructure society or call off the next conquest of the empire.  The conquerors live on.  The sea is calmed, and everyone is at peace.

Except for Jonah, who’s still rocking the boat.  As it says: “This was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.”

“O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.  And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”  To which God asks Godself: “Is it right for Jonah to be angry?”

In this reading Jonah is accusing God of practicing what Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to as “cheap grace.”  Grace that demands nothing of those who ask for it.  Grace that simply lets people off the hook without the difficult work of re-orienting their lives toward repair of harm.  If this is how it’s going to go down, Jonah doesn’t see the point in living.

And so for Jonah, this is not good news.  He finds a place outside the city where he will keep vigil.  Where he will sit with his anger.  Where he will contemplate what is next.  He is alone.  He continues to wonder whether it would be better if he were dead.

The plant that grows up gives him a passing glimpse of contentment, but it doesn’t last long.  It quickly gives way to the worm.  And the burning sun and scorching wind.

The Israeli artist Jacob Steinhardt captures the essence of this alternative reading in the woodcut image that we put on the bulletin cover.  Jonah is angry and depressed, holding on to the dead plant, which had been his only source of comfort – defeated by God who sent the worm and sun and wind, and who has allowed the great city to thrive, the city that will soon ravage his people.



The story ends unresolved.  We don’t know what the Lord’s next move will be.  If the Lord might again change course and affirm Jonah’s anger.  We don’t know what Jonah’s next move will be.  Will his anger be constructive, or will it drown him?  Will hard anger and soft grace merge and mature into fierce compassion?  We don’t know what the great and powerful city of Nineveh will do next, and if its people and animals will learn the ways that make for peace.






Behold: Stars, Child, Church | Epiphany | January 7

Reading: Isaiah 60:1-6

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,[a]
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.



The Advent/Christmas/Epiphany season starts in darkness and ends in light.  This follows the cycle of the natural world in the northern hemisphere.

It’s in the darkness that the living are renewed through rest and fresh possibilities.  The darkness is where we are awake to the quiet.  The darkness is the womb of Mary, where Christ grows.

Advent waits patiently for nativity.

And Jesus is born… into a world where emperors make decrees about census counts.  A world of people on the move, back and forth to ancestral lands, making pilgrimage to temples, visiting far off relatives, fleeing violence.  It’s a world of agriculture.  Wild grasses have become wheat and barley, wild beasts have become herds of cattle and flocks of sheep, foraging people have settled down and claimed lands to build, to farm, to accumulate wealth, to defend.   Jesus is born into a swirl of animals and angels, people hungry for food and kings hungry for power.

Nativity widens into Epiphany.

The prophet Isaiah lived well before Jesus, but the times weren’t all that different.  In words that have become an annual reading for the church’s celebration of Epiphany, Isaiah prophesies light:  “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”  Despite outward appearances, Isaiah assures the people that the light is already in the process of breaking through, if they only lift up their eyes and look around.

After counseling the people to look and see the light, The Jewish Publication Society poetically translates verse five of Isaiah 60 in this way: “As you behold, you will glow; Your heart will throb and thrill.”

Behold is one of those great biblical words that has become underemployed in the modern world, along with thee and thou and begotten and smite.  To behold something is to perceive in such a way as to allow the presence of that thing to affect one’s own disposition, one’s inner self.  To behold another person is to allow the presence of that person into one’s field of consciousness.  Beholding is an intimate, vulnerable act.  To behold another, one must allow the protective membrane around oneself to be softened.  When we behold, neither we nor that which we behold go away unchanged.  Beholding involves an intersection of presence.

Isaiah dares the people to behold the light whose source is God.  It’s a call to behold that which precedes emperors and their empires, commanders and their armies, even people, plants, and animals, domesticated and wild.  To behold the light whose source is God is to be in the presence of that which brought the world into being, out of which all things have been made.

My thoughts on this are no doubt influenced by the week between Christmas and New Years with Abbie’s family in Kansas.  Kansas, as you may know, is not particularly close to Ohio, and the small town of Quinter, in western Kansas, is not particularly close to an airport.  14 hours of driving each way provides ample time for rumination and audio books.  That, mixed with the wide open landscape of the high plains, makes for a mentally and visually uncluttered week.  For years now I have experienced this regular annual trip as a mental reset.  It helps that it coincides with the closing out of one year and beginning of another.  For this native Ohioan, a week in Kansas is a palate cleanser in between chews on the buffet of life.

The themes for reading and listening material for this year’s trip were the geology of North America, and the origins of the universe and solar system.  Or maybe that’s the same theme: a big zoom out from the present moment to remind oneself of the bigger context: millions, and billions of years of context.

Take a break from beholding the daily headlines.  Behold, the stars in which the elements of your body were created.  Behold, the glaciated Midwestern soil under your feet which blankets the ancient geological core of North America.  It’s enough to makes one’s heart throb and thrill.

Vocals: Of the Father’s love begotten (v. 1 re-write)

Of the perfect love begotten, ere the worlds began to be, they are Alpha and Omega, they the source, the ending they, of the things that are and have been, and that future years shall see, evermore and evermore.

Congregational humming: Of the Father’s love begotten, 1x through

Reading: Matthew 2:1-15

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men[a] from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah[c] was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd[d] my people Israel.’”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men[e] and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising,[f] until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped,[g] they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph[h] got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”


As Matthew tells it, it is the act of beholding the stars that brings the wise men to Jerusalem, and eventually Bethlehem.  The magi were a class of intellectuals whose sources of knowledge included stargazing.  They were astrologers.  Tradition says they were from Persia, modern day Iran.  They stand in a long line of people who have looked to the stars to make sense of things happening closer at hand.  In their observations, they see something unusual, check it against their meticulous records, and decide to saddle up for a trip west.  Millions of years of geological activity between them and the Mediterranean had made for a difficult trip.

Within Matthew’s narrative, the visit of the magi to Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus serves as an announcement that what has just happened in Bethlehem is more than just a local phenomenon.  Jesus is Jewish through and through, and will remain so cradle to grave.  These magi from the east are the first non-Jews to honor Jesus.  They come from afar and represent the global, even cosmic significance of the one who would come to be called the Christ.  They find him not by abandoning their own wisdom and culture, but by beholding the truth within what they and their people had studied for centuries.

What Jesus has to offer is for everyone.  The light he embodies illuminates everything and everyone willing to behold it.

We aren’t told how they experience that encounter with the infant Jesus.  The Scriptures are mostly uninterested in the psychology of their characters.  Whatever it was they were expecting, what they saw in Bethlehem would have been entirely unremarkable, all things considered.  Jesus is a human child.  The carbon and oxygen in his Jewish body were sourced from the same cores of stars that produced the carbon and oxygen in the Persian bodies of the stargazing magi.

Another way of putting it would be that Jesus was remarkable because of his humanity, as are other children, whether Jewish or Persian or otherwise.

The magi do seem to have an experience that resembles the act of beholding.  Matthew says “On entering the house, they saw Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.”  They give their gifts.

Let’s say they do behold Jesus.  Let’s say they allowed the presence to enter deeply into their field of consciousness.  Let’s say that within that room there was an intersection of presence.  Let’s imagine that the protective membrane around those foreigners, everything that made them separate and other than the holy family softened.  Let’s imagine that the magi had spent a fair amount of their travels preparing themselves for the possibility of being changed, and that they, now empty handed, gifts given, received a gift they carried with them when they returned home.  They had beheld the light in the way Isaiah had counseled his people many centuries prior.

Let’s imagine that those who then beheld them shared in that presence.    Let’s imagine that we who are also foreigners have inherited the light of that presence, passed down through generations by those who have held and honored and shared it.

But there’s more going on in this story.

Behold Herod.  Behold that which will not behold the other and recognize the sacred in that other.  Which seeks to dominate and control.  Behold, if you will, if you can stomach it, one more refugee story.  Mary and Joseph fleeing with Jesus for their lives to escape Herod, given sanctuary in the foreign land of Egypt.  The magi, disobeying Herod’s orders to be informers about Jesus’ location, going home by another route.

Vocals: Of the Father’s love begotten (v. 2-3 re-write)

By the word was all created.  They commanded and twas done.  Earth and sky and boundless ocean, universe of Three-in-One.  All that sees the moon’s soft radiance, all that breathes beneath the sun, evermore and evermore.

This the one whom seers in old time chanted of with one accord, whom the voices of the prophets promised in their faithful word.  Now it shines, the long expected.  Let creation praise its Lord, evermore and evermore.

Congregational humming: Of the Father’s love begotten, 1x through

Reading: Ephesians 3:7-13

Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see[a] what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; 10 so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him


On this Epiphany Sunday, I invite you to ponder what it is you are in the habit of beholding.  How does that impact your spirit?  How does that affect the way you relate with others?  After a calendar year ending palate cleanse and mental reset, I find it a little easier to notice what I’m in the habit of beholding.  Speaking for myself, I know to stay sane and centered I need the warmth of family and friendship.  I need the perspective that comes with knowing that everything we are is a rich inheritance billions of years old.  I need to remember that, geologically speaking, we are insignificant dust, and theologically speaking, we are radiant presence.  I find both of those things comforting.  I know it’s essential to not look away from the violence of our world, the spirit of Herod still causing refugees and horrible injustices.  To behold that.  To actually let that sink in and be discomforted by that.  And to behold the light and things that cause my heart to throb and thrill.

For many years I’ve found this passage in Ephesians which also goes with Epiphany to be jolting and half-comical.  Essentially, the writer says there’s a great big mystery that’s been hidden since the universe started expanding, but now there’s something that is going to make that mystery known to the whole cosmos, and that thing is… the church.

As someone who spends a fair amount of my time with the church, well aware of our limitations and shortcomings, I want to say to this writer: Are you out of your mind?  It’s got to be one of the most optimistic views out there of what the church can be.

But I think I have an idea what he might be getting at, especially if we expand that notion of church in a very ecumenical multifaith kind of way.  To keep it in this beholding framework, what I think this passage might be saying is that when a group of people behold the holy, when they carry that presence with them in such a way that it infiltrates the way they think and talk and relate with each other and especially relate with those considered by many to be ‘other,’ that this carries a message, it broadcasts a signal, and this love that was from the very beginning, of the perfect love begotten ere the world began to be, that love is the great mystery that we carry and that is made known through us, which is what church is at its core.  Where there are people in Christ-like relationship, there is the church.

We behold, and whether we like it or not, we are beheld by others.

Our sanctuary work has helped me understand this in a new way.  We live in a time in which our government openly practices “enhanced interrogation techniques” against our enemies, and “extreme vetting” of immigrants and refugees.  And so it seems we are responding by openly practicing enhanced welcoming techniques, and extreme hospitality.  And I can tell you that people around the state and country are taking notice and that it’s further opening our eyes to what matters.  To put it in the lofty language of Ephesians, it might even be “the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.”  Now being made known.  To put it in terms of Matthew’s nativity, it’s the thing the magi came seeking, which they carried home with them, which Herod could not overcome.  To put it in the words of the prophet Isaiah, it’s the light which has come.

Christ is born.  God is with us.  We behold the presence, and the mystery is made known, evermore and evermore.

Vocals: Of the Father’s love begotten (v. 4 re-write)

O ye heights of heav’n adore them, angel hosts, their praises sing.  Powers, dominions, fall before them, and extol our God and king.  Let no tongue on earth keep silent, every voice in concert ring, evermore and evermore. 

Congregational humming: Of the Father’s love begotten, 1x through