Sunday, December 26, 2010

Our Wandering Savior: Sermon on Matthew 2:13-23


It always comes as a shock, doesn’t it? The letdown after Christmas. Suddenly, you feel as if the sound of one more Christmas carol just might drive you bonkers. The idea of returning to the store to exchange something that was the wrong size or the wrong color or just plain wrong is about as appealing as stale cookies. Everything builds and builds to the day of Christmas—and the peace on earth and goodwill towards all is fleeting at best. The Irish performers “The Chieftains” have a song about this very phenomenon—the evaporation of peace and goodwill on December 26. The song is called “The Saint Stephen’s Day Murders.”

And so we come to it: the dark side of Christmas. And make no mistake, there is indeed a dark side to this holiday, and every three years the lectionary provides us with a reading that is a glass of ice water in our faces to remind us of the reality that sweeps in as a result of the birth we have just celebrated. The reality is death, stark, unlovely and violent.

We are going out of order with our story, because the events described in today’s reading take place after the visit of the travelers from the East—variously called magi, kings, philosophers, wise men or astronomers—a reading we will not hear in church for another week or so. You will remember that these traveling astronomers learned from their charting of the stars that a king was to be born in or around Jerusalem, and they came inquiring of Herod the king where that child might be, so that they might pay him homage. That was their deadly mistake, inquiring of Herod.

Here are some of the things we know about this King Herod, not to be confused with Herod Antipas, one of his sons, who later sees to the killing of John the Baptist. This Herod was known as Herod the Great—a title he, perhaps, gave himself, since his brutal regime did not inspire love in his people. He was King of the Jews, but not a Jewish King—he was an Edomite, installed as king over the Jews by Rome; he was a puppet king, a client king. As long as he did Rome’s bidding, he was able to retain a certain amount of power. That power included the ability to put to death anyone who threatened his claim to the throne.

Here are just a couple of instances in which Herod used that power. First, Herod had three of his own sons executed, lest they usurp his throne. And second, Herod issued a decree that, upon his death, one member of every family in Judea should be killed. That way, he reasoned, the people would truly mourn.

And so, Herod was entirely capable of responding to the threat of a new king, a king whose birth even the stars bore witness to. And his response is a brutal and merciless act, the act of killing all the children in Bethlehem who were two years old or younger. Mind you, scholars are not convinced that this killing really happened. There are a couple of reasons for that; first, there is no evidence outside scripture, or anywhere except this passage, that it happened. And second, Matthew writes his gospel very much with the intention of showing Jesus to be a kind of new Moses, and the slaughter of children by a cruel monarch echoes the killing of the Hebrew infant boys by the Pharaoh.

Still. Bethlehem, in the years of Jesus’ birth and infancy, had a population of just around 1000. That means there would have been, perhaps, twenty infant boys of the age Herod targeted. It may be that, in the midst of a tyrant’s reign that was filled with killing, the deaths of twenty Jewish children were not considered to be worth the notice of the historians. In any case, whether or not the story is factual, it is true.

What do I mean by that? That the story may not be factual, but it is true. I mean, the empire always strikes back. When someone rises up, someone on the margins, someone like this Palestinian Jewish baby boy, born to poor parents with no political power, but still someone who, in Herod’s mind constituted a threat to him, to the Empire—of course, the empire will strike back. Think of everything Jesus came to stand for. Jesus came, preaching the good news to the poor and powerless. He came healing the blind and the deaf and the lame and welcoming sinners and children. He came challenging the system that insisted on ritual purity and instead insisted on love and compassion. He came, eating dinner with anyone and everyone. He came saying, not “Blessed are the fortunate,” or “Blessed are the elite,” but “Blessed are the poor,” and “Blessed are the merciful.”

Of course, Herod couldn’t yet know any of that. All he knew was that someone, somewhere was thought of as newborn king, perhaps only by a handful of star-gazers. For King Herod in Judea, for the Emperor Augustus in Rome—the coming of this child could only mean that the delicate balance of power of the empire was being threatened, was being challenged. In Jesus’ day, as in our day, innocents are regularly killed when they become even the tiniest threat to those in power.

And so what becomes of Jesus? His parents flee with him; they become vagabond refugees. Like Moses, Jesus becomes a wanderer in Egypt. Our church teaches us that Jesus is fully human and fully divine—that is the mystery of the incarnation, that is what is at the heart of Christmas . If we take that belief seriously, we are confronted with the staggering irony of the all-powerful creator of the universe, the one who fashioned every star and planet and galaxy and sun, on the run from a third-rate king who only gets to wear a crown because he is willing to play nice with Rome. This gives us some sense of the cost of the incarnation, the cost to God of becoming human. God was willing to empty God’s self of power so thoroughly, so completely, that he took on our fragile human flesh and made himself vulnerable to even this Herod, this petty tyrant. Jesus becomes our wandering savior, on the run with his parents, until such a time as Herod himself is dead and the warrant cancelled.

This is a hard gospel lesson for the Sunday after Christmas. But the incarnation is more than a beautiful baby held by his glowing mother in a warm and cozy stable. The incarnation is more even than glorious visions of angels singing their heavenly melodies, and shepherds running, jubilant, to tell the good news. The incarnation is about God being willing to experience what it is to suffer and die as a human, because God wants to put an end to our suffering. The incarnation is about love so deep, so broad, so high, it is willing to go to any lengths for our sake. That kind of love is something to make us rejoice, to be sure. And it reminds us where Jesus’ heart is, who it is that Jesus stands solidly alongside: the refugees, the vagabonds, the powerless, and the poor.

Because this story is so painful, Matthew remembers for us the weeping of Rachel, one of the matriarchs of Israel. He quotes from Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” The piece I am about to sing was written about five hundred years ago, and it too gives voice to Rachel’s pain. I invite you, if you are mourning any loss, or if you simply are mourning the ongoing violence of this world, the ongoing suffering of the innocents, to pray this lament with me, knowing that the love that saves comes at a great cost.

Rachel’s Lament From a Medieval Mystery Play


Ah! Alas! You tender babes!
Such savage wounds we are viewing!
Ah! Alas! You sweet infants,
Doomed to death by a deed of madness!

Ah! Alas! That neither years
Nor tender affection could save you!
Piteous mothers, Ah!
That you should have to realize
What we have witnessed!

What shall we do now? Alas!
How can we bear such happenings?
All these memories of ours, Alas!
Can but serve to renew our grief!

No more can there be gladness
Since our sweet pledges of love have perished!



This is, as I have said, a hard gospel to hear the day after Christmas. But we have to hold alongside this story the words from Christmas Eve: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5). The empire strikes back. But the power of the empire is fleeting. And the Christmas promise of peace on earth and goodwill towards God’s people is real and enduring, despite the burnout we may feel today from overdosing on shopping or cookies. We can find that promise reflected in the resilience and courage of this little vagabond family, traveling home again after a sojourn in Egypt. They made their home, we are told, in Nazareth of Galilee. But the truth penetrates deeper than that: God made a home with humanity, forever. And nothing—no petty tyrant or superpower, no heartbreak or illness, neither heights nor depths nor things past nor things to come—nothing can separate us from God, now that God’s home is with us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Tale of the Innkeeper's Wife: A Sermon for Christmas Eve


“It’s all about the hospitality,” he says, my husband, Amos. He says that all the time. I suppose it makes sense. We’re innkeepers. What else would it be about? Well, I’ll tell you what else it would be about: it’s all about the business. It’s a business! Sometimes you have to shake that man to remind him: we’re not doing this for our health.

Perhaps I should introduce myself. I am Rachel, and my husband and I are innkeepers in Bethlehem, the great City of David. Oh, it’s not so “great.” Just a thousand souls or so. But every so often, when the Roman bigwigs get it into their minds that they want a count of us, just to see how much trouble we’ll be, or where they need to send their regiments and legions, Bethlehem swells to be a city of many, many more than that. It’s a great homecoming: everyone of the house and lineage of David, which is to say, the tribe of Judah, comes home to Bethlehem. Amos and I, we’re not from Bethlehem. We’re of a different tribe, the tribe of Benjamin. And the tribe of Benjamin—let’s just say, we don’t have quite the reputation for hospitality of our brother tribes. Maybe that’s why Amos has such an issue with it. Maybe he feels he has something to prove.

It’s like those guests we had, in the time of that last census. Oh my, the city was packed. I had never seen it so filled with travelers. Now, most travelers, when they come to their ancestral city, well, of course, they stay with family. But occasionally, you have a family that’s not—well, let’s say, they’re not so friendly with one another. Let’s be realists here, shall we? It happens all the time. So, that’s where we come in! Some poor travelers come all the way from Bethany or Jerusalem or even, God help them, some backwater like Cana or Nazareth—and who puts them up for the night or the week or however long it takes the Romans to count them on their little beads? We do! Amos Ben Joseph! And wife. Of course.

And children. We have five, thanks be to God, five who have lived beyond the age of two, at any rate. The children work with their father and me in the inn, they tend our little garden and see to the livestock. It’s a good life, an honest living. And it’s a service that is needed.

So the town was filled to overflowing, and for the first time ever we had to turn away traveler after traveler. A lot of families having squabbles that year, I suppose. Or maybe our people are exploding in number! Who knows? But day in and day out for two weeks, Amos and I were forced to say, “No, I’m sorry, we are full—try Jacob and Naomi down the street.”

I remember I was working in the kitchen that night, trying to provide a decent meal for about thirty hungry souls when in walks Amos, with that look on his face. That look he gets when he has to tell me something he knows I’m not going to like.

“What is it?” I asked. I was kneading dough for bread. I’m sure my face was flushed, which also happens when I get angry. I wasn’t angry. Yet. He hesitated. Amos is a good man, but he can be timid. Especially with me.

“What is it?” I asked. I was so busy. I had no time for some great complication that probably wouldn’t matter in the end. I had so many things to do!

Amos straightened himself up and said, “We have taken in some additional guests. You will find them in the stable. See that they have a decent meal tonight.” And he turned on his heel and walked away.

Or, tried to. “Just a minute, husband,” I stopped him, and he turned around to face me again. I see that very same look on our children sometimes. That look of almost having gotten away with something.

“What in the world are you telling me? The busiest night of our year, the we are full to overflowing, and you get it into your mind to put someone up with the cows and the goats?” Then I thought a moment. Maybe Amos was a good business man after all. I was suddenly eager to hear what could possibly have persuaded him to open our stable to travelers. “What—did they offer you some exorbitant amount of money? Did they give you a denarius?”

Amos shook his head. And all pretense left his face, all false bravado. He was just the man I married, just for a moment. A deeply kind face, my Amos has. Kinder than his wife.

“Rachel, they were so poor. A husband and a wife. And… she was in a bad way.” My Amos, five children, and he still can’t bring himself to speak frankly about the facts of life. I knew instantly what he meant.

“The girl is with child?” He nodded vigorously. “Is it… soon?” He shrugged his shoulders. “Could be.” I nodded, still kneading.

“And there’s something else,” Amos said. I could feel myself bristling with irritation. “What? What else?” I snapped. Amos looked down. He was twisting a piece of cloth in his hands. “His name was Joseph, like my father.” Then he looked up at me again. “It’s all about hospitality, Rachel. What kind of people would we be to turn them away?”

I shook my head. It’s all about the business, except when it isn’t. Then I looked up into my husband’s kind face. I suppose even we Benjaminites have learned a thing or two about hospitality. “Fetch me one of the girls,” I said, and he nodded and ducked out of the kitchen.

I placed six fat fragrant loaves on the stone in the oven, and stepped out to the well to wash my hands and face. Hannah, my eldest came running to me, a little out of breath. She had been serving the guests in the great room. Hannah is a good girl, smart, and ready to be helpful. Truth be told, she should be married by now—she’s almost fifteen. But I have been dragging my feet. It’s good to have a good daughter by your side.

“Mama?” she said, expectantly.

I placed my hand on her shoulder. “Hannah, there are guests in the stable, a husband and wife, and the wife is going to have a baby. Go to them, see what they need.”

She nodded, turned and ran. My Hannah. I know I can depend on her.

A few short minutes later she came running back. “Mama,” she said. “I think you’d better come.” My daughter does not panic. If Hannah felt it was urgent, I should listen to her.

“Check the loaves in about an hour,” I said, “unless they smell done before that. See to the guests in the great room.” I smiled at her. “I know you can do it.” She smiled back at me.

I ran to our closet and took an armful of soft cloths, and I went to the well for water. I ducked my head back into the kitchen. “And Hannah—warm up some water for me. Not too hot.” She nodded, and pulled out a large pot. I took a good sharp knife from the table, and I was ready.

As I headed towards the stable I was shaking my head. For the goodness and kindness of my husband, tonight I would be a midwife. This was a first. Not midwifing a birth—no woman gets to be my age in Bethlehem without standing in on a birth or two or ten. No, the first was—they were strangers. It was in our stable. I said a quick prayer of thanksgiving that Amos and I had taught our boys to keep a tidy stable; I knew there would be fresh straw at least, for a bed for the mother.

I stepped into the dim light. There was a lantern near the door, and another at the far end, which is where they were, the wife already lying on the ground with her back to the wall, the husband hovering nervously over her. I looked around at the animals… they were restless. They knew what was happening. Animals have unfailing instincts about birth and death, and they lend their sympathy to all creatures going through the great passages.

I approached, and I could see she was already in hard labor—she probably had been for some time. I smiled at the husband, in a way I hoped was reassuring. The wife—young thing, high color, grimacing with pain and trying as hard as she could not to make any noise—looked up at me with, not fear exactly, something more like—hope. The husband startled me by his insistence on staying, though I tried to shoo him out more than once. He seemed—very attached to his wife, which is always refreshing. At some point Hannah crept in with the basin of warm water. She stayed by my side, wordlessly taking directions from me, helping as if she’d been doing it for thirty years instead of just an hour.

What happened next is what nearly always happens. The hard, hard work of bring a new life into the world. She was brave. Far more brave than I was at her age, and I had my mother and my sisters beside me. As the night wore on and the moment grew nearer, her face changed so that—I swear, this is true—it was filled with a kind of light. I have never before seen anything like it, or anything since.

And then all was silent, as the mother lay back in the straw, breathless, pale again. I took the babe, and showed the mother how to wrap him in clean strips of cloth. I held him, for just a moment. I saw it in his face too—that light, I swear it stopped breath in my lungs. And then I handed him to his mother. I left them, and the father had curled himself around the mother, who curled herself around the child. Just an ordinary babe, an ordinary family, after all. As Hannah and I left I realized I was trembling. I wondered why it affected me so much. Why it affects me still.

It was already early in the morning by the time we returned to our room, where we found Amos awake, waiting for us. I must have looked tired; he put his arm around me without saying a word. I was still filled with the wonder of the birth—the accident of it all, wandering travelers who just happened to find their way to us, my husband who just happened to have a soft spot for young couples in distress, and for men named “Joseph” like his father. And me, called upon to be midwife for these poor strangers. It just seemed the right thing to do. In the end, it changed me. I’m still not sure how.

It’s all about the business. That’s what I like to tell Amos when it seems he’s grown too softhearted to make tough decisions. But maybe Amos is right. Maybe it’s all about opening your home, opening your heart to the weary, needy traveler. Opening your life to a young family, to a child in need. Maybe it’s only when we do that, that we can truly open our hearts to the holy One, to God. Thanks be. Amen.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

The Nearness of Heaven: A Sermon on Matthew 3:1-12


Who or what draws us? By which I mean, for what or for whom would you stand in line, or go through security, or pay an exorbitant amount of money to get the tickets? In my family, we have been known to go out of our way for theater. Far out of our way. Three hour drives, for example. For my mom, it was Frank Sinatra. She first stood in line for him when she was in her twenties, and I joined her in one of those lines when she was in her sixties. Performers like Lady Gaga regularly attract sellout crowds at astonishing prices.

Of course, we go out of our way to experience things other than entertainment. About a month ago I drove almost two hours and went through pretty tight security to see former President Bill Clinton speak at Colgate University. My son got on a bus in Manhattan that same weekend to be one of about 215,000 to attend Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore the Sanity in Washington, DC, just a couple of months after about 100,000 other Americans attended Glenn Beck’s Rally to Restore Honor. Who or what draws us?

John the Baptist, the man at the center of today’s gospel lesson, draws people. He draws crowds. He draws all types of people—young and old, rich and poor, liberal and conservative. Pharisees and Sadducees are among those he draws, and that means he draws people from across the religious spectrum, from those considered most tradition-bound to those pushing the boundaries of progressivism. He draws them all, and we have to wonder why. What is it about this man who suddenly appears in the wilderness, proclaiming a message of tough love that has crowds flocking to him? What is it about John, about whom Matthew makes an astonishing claim—that five hundred years earlier the prophet Isaiah was referring to John when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” What is it about this man who dresses strangely, wearing animal pelts, and who survives on a diet of insects and wild honey? What is it about this man who urges people to be baptized, because, he promises, “The kingdom of heaven has come near”?

John offers people a “baptism of repentance.” John takes us back to the most ancient understanding of baptism, from a Greek word that means, “dipping.” For John, baptism is about one thing and one thing only. People come to him in the wilderness, and he dips them into the water, and when they emerge, they are cleansed. They are free. They have a fresh start. And John wants them to have a fresh start, because the nearness of heaven demands their full attention.

When John says, “The kingdom of heaven has drawn near,” he is using a euphemism. When he says heaven, he means God. It was not permitted in Judaism to use the name of God casually, or to even write it down in its entirety. Across the street from the place I went to seminary is Jewish Theological Seminary. In the seminary there is a room dedicated to the permanent—eternal—storage of pieces of paper that have the name of God written on them, but which are no longer being used. Such paper cannot be destroyed, recycled, or otherwise re-purposed. The name of God must be preserved. John uses a euphemism to indicate God. He uses the word “heaven.”

At this point in the gospel, John knows that something, someone extraordinary is coming, but it isn’t until Jesus presents himself for baptism that John knows precisely who and how. Only when he lets John dip him in the water does John come to realize that the presence of God is found in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. At this point, John simply knows that something amazing is on its way, that God’s presence will be made manifest among people in a wholly new way. And John’s judgment is that the best possible way to be ready for this presence is to throw off the old, to be done with the sin and failure of the past. John invites everyone to come with a clean slate, a new lease on life.

I think this is the answer to my question. I think this is the draw. This is what has Pharisees and Sadducees elbowing each other to get a better place in line. This is what appeals to young and old, to rich and poor: the chance for a fresh start. What would you give? What would you endure? What would you pay? How long would you wait for a fresh start? A clean slate? A sense of being totally new?

No matter that it is still Advent in here, and will be for nearly three more weeks, out there you and I know it’s already Christmas. The lights are up, the carols have been playing since mid-November, the magazines telling us how to have that elusive “perfect” celebration have long been on the stands. I think one of the things that draws us in this season is that promise of the perfect Christmas. I think it represents a kind of fresh start for us, a day when old hurts are healed and we come together with loved ones in perfect peace and harmony.

Except, we don’t seem to believe we can come together in perfect peace and harmony unless we have managed to transform our homes into some kind of magazine-spread of glittering Christmas beauty. And so we do all kinds of things to make the holiday everything we think it should be. We cook and we clean, and we bake and we decorate, and we buy and we buy and we buy, because we have somehow become convinced that the amount of love in our hearts is directly translatable into dollars and cents. And we come to the day itself, and we find that the preparations have entirely drained us of all hope of feeling anything but exhaustion or numbness.

I think that none of the trappings are anywhere near the heart of what we really want. I think what we want is a fresh start—with our family, with our friends, with our church, with our co-workers. I think that’s why the image of the “white Christmas,” in which a fresh fall of snow blankets everything, is so powerful. We want a beginning that fresh, that pristine, that beautiful. We want hope.

‎Writer Barbara Kingsolver said, “The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside your hope. Not admire it from a distance, but live right in it, under its roof.” John the Baptist reminds us of what it’s like to live in hope, the confident anticipation that heaven, God, is near. Living in hope means casting off what is weighing us down. Living in hope means accepting God’s gift of a fresh start each morning, sometimes each minute. Living in hope means opening ourselves to every opportunity to experience the nearness of heaven—starting now, around this table. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Least Likely: A Sermon for Advent 1

I have gone off-lectionary with this sermon. I was reading the marvelous Brian Stoffregen's commentary on the lectionary gospel, and he made an off-handed reference to this passage, Matthew 1:1-17, as a possible alternative reading. I went with it.

Some have called me chicken. That is their right. But I had fun with this text. Maybe 'fun' is the wrong word. I felt connected and excited about the dawning of this beautiful season, and the amazing women whose stories we can tell as a part of it.

~~~

I suppose I’ve been fascinated with genealogies from the time I was a little girl. Maybe it’s because I am an adoptee, and for much of my life there was always a kind of mystery to my background. Maybe it had something to do with old family photographs—I could look for hours at my parents’ black and white or sepia-toned pictures or daguerreotypes showing the faces of people long dead. Many such pictures, of my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, hang in my hallways. The questions they raised up in me were always, “Who are they? What is their story? And how are they connected to me?”

The first Sunday in Advent seems to be an appropriate time to look at Jesus’ genealogy. Two of the gospels, Matthew and Luke, consider it important enough to include genealogies, though the two genealogies are very different. The first Sunday of the new church year, which for us will also be the year of Matthew, is the right time, I think, to delve into the genealogy of Jesus as found in Matthew’s gospel, and to ask about some of the names it holds: Who are they? What is their story? And how are they connected to Jesus? How are they connected to us?

Hopefully something jumped out at you when you I read our passage from Matthew just a few minutes ago. I’ll let my seminary professor, Ann Ulanov, lay it out for us. She writes,

Nothing odder or more stimulating occurs in the genealogies of Christ’s ancestors than the appearance of four women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba [she who is called ‘the wife of Uriah’]… Why does Matthew place them among the “begats,” which for the rest consists only of men and the lines of fathers? Why only these women... What is special or distinctive about them? And why have we heard so very little about them in our traditions and our teachings? What explains their presence in the Tree of Life leading to Jesus? [1]

Before we look at the individual women in Jesus’ family tree, let’s remember this: every time a genealogy appears in scripture, it’s meant to tell us something important about the person at the end of the line, the ultimate member, in this case, Jesus. Genealogies point to character, but they also speak to something deeper. To know one’s roots is to be able to live in connection to the past as well as the present. In the ancient world connection with one’s ancestors is incredibly important. Through his genealogy, Jesus embraces all those people who came before him. He is the product of all these souls, whoever they may be. Their struggles tell us something about what Jesus himself will face.

The first woman to be found in our passage is Tamar (Genesis 38). Tamar is the daughter-in-law of Judah, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, and Judah is the patriarch of the tribe bearing his name. Judah had three sons, and Tamar, a non-Israelite, was wed to the eldest. However, he died before they had any children. A couple of weeks ago we were talking about that hypothetical woman who was married to seven different brothers in succession: remember that passage from Deuteronomy, describing what is called the Levirate duty.

When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage… and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. ~Deuteronomy 25:5-6

Tamar was the wife of a man who died childless, and who had brothers to fulfill this obligation. So, her husband’s second brother married her. However, he was not willing to father children by her, and so he died as well. Judah, seeing that two of his sons had died, became unwilling to risk the life of the third, as he saw it, and told his daughter-in-law Tamar to live as a widow.

We cannot overstate the tragedy of this kind of situation for a woman in ancient Israel; to be a childless widow is to have virtually no value in that society. Starvation and death were two very real possibilities.

Tamar takes matters into her own hands. Dressing as a temple prostitute, she sits by the side of the road when she knows her father-in-law will be passing by. He obligingly goes into her, and not recognizing her, fathers twin sons. When all is revealed, he admits that she was in the right—it was his family’s duty to give her children. Tamar and her children are in Jesus’ family tree.

Rahab’s (Joshua 2:1-24) name will be familiar to you if you know the story of the conquest of Jericho by Joshua and the Israelites as they enter the Promised Land. Rahab is no pretend prostitute: she is the real deal, living in an apartment in the city’s walls. By virtue of her profession, she is not only an alien to the Israelites, she is also an alien among her own people, living on the outskirts of society as well as the city. Rahab aids the Israelites in return for their promise that neither she nor her family will be harmed in the coming invasion; they are identified by a red cord she hangs out her window. Rahab and her family are spared. Rahab and her child are in Jesus’ family tree.

The story of Ruth (Ruth 1-4) is another story of an alien, non-Israelite woman married to an Israelite man, whose husband dies, leaving her alone and childless—along with her sister-in-law and mother-in-law, both of whom have had the same terrible hand dealt to them. Ruth and her mother-in-law return to Bethlehem where an opportunity presents itself for Ruth to join herself in marriage to Boaz, the male next-of-kin to her deceased husband. Ruth, at the time of the harvest festival, takes the advice of her mother-in-law and memorably anoints herself and lies at the feet of Boaz, her gentle suitor, after a feast on the threshing floor. Ruth and her child are in Jesus’ family tree.

The wife of Uriah (2 Samuel 11-12) is included in the genealogy, but not by name. Women were left unnamed in the ancient world for two main reasons. The first, and far most common reason, was that women were not considered important enough for their names to be recorded. The second reason to leave out a woman’s name was to protect her honor and dignity, when to associate her name with a story or an event would tarnish it too badly. That latter one seems to be the reason here. The wife of Uriah, whose name was Bathsheba, came to the attention of King David when he spied her from his rooftop while she was performing a ritual bath, a ritual required of all Israelite woman. David was immediately seized with desire for her, and sent for her, and took her, even though he knew she was the wife of one of his most trusted generals. When she told him she was pregnant he tried to cover it up, first by calling the general home, and finally by having him killed. God punished David for his crime—which apparently included rape as well as murder—the child born to David and Bathsheba did not survive. Bathsheba was subsequently taken into the palace to be a queen of David’s. In the end, as the mother of King Solomon, Bathsheba was a woman of great influence. But her original connection to David was so scandalous that Matthew, apparently, chose to leave her name out of it. Still: Bathsheba and her child, Solomon, are in Jesus’ family tree.

Does a pattern seem to emerge as you hear these stories, all together? We have entered into this season of Advent in which we prepare ourselves to celebrate a mystery. The mystery at the heart of our faith is that our all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving God chose to take on human flesh, to live among us in Jesus. What thread ties together the stories of these women who are Jesus’ ancestors? To put it in one word, scandal.

Each of these women either comes to be pregnant in a way considered scandalous, or comes to pregnancy with her own scandalous background. And when we think of the story of Jesus’ birth, the inclusion of these women begins to make sense. Jesus is the son of a woman who found herself to be pregnant out of wedlock, and not by her intended. Jesus was the son of a woman whose fiancĂ© had every right under the law to take her out and have her stoned.

But Jesus is also the son of a woman whose intended was visited in a dream by an angel. Jesus is the son of a woman whose fiancĂ©, instead of “quietly putting her away,” decides to marry her, because whatever the nature and source of this pregnancy, he becomes convinced it is the handiwork of God. Jesus is the son of a woman who is also convinced of God’s role in her pregnancy; in another gospel she announces that, “the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (Luke 1:49).

I believe these four women—the woman who achieves pregnancy by trickery, the prostitute who bargains for the lives of her family, the woman who seduces by her innocence and hard work and love for her mother-in-law, and the woman who was raped by a king—these four women take their place in Jesus’ family tree as a sign to us. Though they may seem to be the least likely candidates to be a part of Jesus’ genealogy, they are a sign to us that, with God, nothing is impossible. They are a sign to us that, no matter the brokenness in our own lives, God stands ready to redeem. They are a sign to us that Jesus will take his stand alongside the least and the lost, the sinners and the sinned against. They are a sign to us that the Savior whose birth we await in this Advent season stands ready to save us all. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Ann Belford Ulanov, The Female Ancestors of Christ (Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, 1993), 1.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving: Sermon on Deuteronomy 26:1-11


I once heard someone say, “You can tell your life story in two ways. You can say, ‘I can’t imagine how I got from there to here.’ Or, you can say, ‘Every road I traveled, every choice I made, was designed to bring me right here, to this place.’” If you think about it, both are completely true. We marvel at the winding and twisting path that somehow brought us to the present place. At the same time, we recognize that who and where we are has a kind of weight to it, a sense of a larger vision than our own. We Christians call the one who spins and oversees that vision God.

In this morning’s passage from Deuteronomy, we have a kind of “life story” of God’s people. Throughout the book of Deuteronomy, Moses retells the entire story of salvation, and he does so under very particular and poignant circumstances. Moses and all the tribes are camped together in Moab, just beyond the Jordan. They have been wandering in the wilderness for forty years, and they are about to enter the Promised Land. Moses is dying, and he knows that he will not have the privilege of entering into that land. Despite being God’s mouthpiece with the Pharaoh, and despite being the mediator of God’s plagues upon the Egyptians, and despite being the great liberator, the one who led the people out of Egypt, Moses sees the people all the way to the edge of the Promised Land, and no further. The reason scripture gives is this: when the people were crying out for water in the wilderness, and God instructed Moses to strike the rock with his staff, Moses struck it not once, but twice. Moses’ sin is that single, momentary lack of faithfulness; Moses’ punishment is that he will never enter the land himself.

And so, on his deathbed, Moses recounts this long history, with all its twists and turns. And here he gives instructions about what would constitute a good and proper expression of thanks from God’s people to the One who is their redeemer, the One who heard their cries, and brought them to this new place of abundance. Moses is invoking his authority as the leader of the people. Moses wants the people to be appropriately thankful.

One of my very favorite movie musicals of all time has to be “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” Adapted from a story by Stephen Vincent Benet, it tells of Millie, a young woman in the Pacific northwest during frontier times, who impulsively marries Adam, a backwoodsman, just a few hours after meeting him. She soon learns that he is one of seven brothers who are eager to have a woman around the house to cook and clean up after them. Somewhat in shock, but still hoping she hasn’t made a dreadful mistake, Millie cleans up the pigsty of a house and cooks an enormous meal for her new family. When the men descend upon the meal like a swarm of locusts, pushing each other out of the way to grab the food, spilling it while they are stuffing their faces, Millie delivers them a lecture on their shameful behavior. It has absolutely no effect. In a rage, she turns the table over, like Jesus with the moneychangers, and yells, “If you’re going to act like hogs you can eat like them too!” Millie is horrified by the fact that the men don’t give thanks before diving into their meal. The rest of the movie follows her attempts to civilize her new brothers and her husband. But her initial rage has a powerful effect. The next time the brothers are at table, they bow their heads, chastised and docile, while Millie offers grace. And the grace she offers echoes some of the words that Moses proposes for God’s people to say when they offer thanks. Millie prays:

“O Lord, thou has brought us through desert, mountain and wilderness to a good land, a land of wheat and gain where we need never hunger. We thank thee for thy care and thy bounty. Amen.”

Here’s the grace that Moses suggests:

“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey…” ~Deuteronomy 26:5b-9

Moses encourages the people to remember their story, with all its twists and turns, and to tell it to one another in the act of offering their thanks to God. It is a story that could be told any number of ways, including, ‘How did we start out there and get here?’ Moses answers that question, and in so doing he tells the story in the other way as well: ‘Every road we traveled, every choice we made, was designed to bring us right here, to this place God had chosen for us.’

In describing how to give thanks, Moses encourages the people to remember the hard parts, the painful parts of the journey as well as the good parts. He doesn’t want them to edit them out or to forget them. The act of thanksgiving, in some way, always involves holding together the bitter and the sweet, and gazing upon them, and knowing that, somehow, however improbably, we have been guided and cared for and blessed.

I saw a beautiful needlepoint tapestry the other day. It was large—maybe five feet wide and four feet tall. It depicted a scene from the life of King Solomon—that moment when he is determining who is the true mother of the child claimed by two women. The tapestry is almost finished, though there are three small areas, just a few inches here and there, where it is not complete. Still, the family that owns the tapestry has decided to frame it, because the tapestry will never be finished. The Jewish woman who began and nearly completed it, a labor of love for her dear husband, died more than sixty years ago in a concentration camp in Poland.

The tapestry is a treasured family heirloom. It contains memories both powerfully good and terribly painful—the love of that woman for her husband, the manner in which she died. The family wants the tapestry framed by Thanksgiving. They want this treasure to be a part of their celebration, filled as it is with the beautiful and the painful, inextricably woven together, like all our lives.

It is the season in which we, as a nation, turn our attention to those people and things—tangible and intangible—for which we are grateful. We have an entire day set aside for this giving of thanks. Like the Hebrews, we are the descendants, most of us, of people who traveled to this land from far away. Also like the Hebrews, we have had our ups and downs, our conflicts, the moments in which our actions were filled with honor and courage and beauty, and the moments in which we failed in our common human vocation. The good and the proud mingle together inextricably with the painful and the shameful. This is our heritage, these are our lives. This is Thanksgiving: holding together the bitter and the sweet, and knowing that, somehow, we have been cared for and blessed.

Moses advises us to gather for a celebration! He says, “Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.” Among the ancient Hebrews, the Levites were the upper crust, the ruling class of temple priests. And the aliens—well, they were wanderers in the land, just as the Hebrews themselves had been. They were the most vulnerable people in a society, the ones without tribes or families to fall back on in hard times, the people most likely to fall into slavery. Moses’ intention is to gather all these people together at table: the upper crust, the vulnerable immigrants, and everyone in between.

The advice of Moses suggests that we need to broaden our scope when it comes to celebrations of Thanksgiving. We need to broaden our definition of who’s in the family, who is invited to the table. When we consider our lives, the beautiful and the painful, the bitter and the sweet, we start to recognize that the God who blesses us doesn’t intend for the blessings to stop there. The blessings we receive are to be given away, shared, dispersed, like the pie and the stuffing and the cranberry sauce. Everybody gets some. That’s God’s vision for every human being on the planet.

We can each tell our life story in any number of ways. At Thanksgiving, we have an opportunity to tell it again—while bustling around the kitchen, or gathered around the table, or sitting on the couch with pie and coffee. For each one of us, we can marvel that we started out there and ended up here. Each one of us can trust that a powerful and loving heart created the vision, was guiding us, even in the times we felt confused or alone. And each one of us can celebrate—truly celebrate—the bounty we have been given at God’s generous hands. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Wolf and Lamb Society: Sermon on Luke 21:5-19 and Isaiah 65:17-25


In the year 999 of the Common Era, it was widely believed that the world was about to come to an end. The millennium approached, marking the first thousand years since the birth of Christ (give or take a few years, as we now know). Throughout the Christian world, everyone embraced this anticipated (or dreaded) reality, from the huts of the lowliest indentured servants to the fortresses of the most powerful and wealthy nobles. Everyone believed they were about to experience Judgment Day, which meant one of four possibilities: heaven, hell, limbo or purgatory.

We Protestants have never thought much about purgatory, so a brief refresher may be in order. Purgatory was believed to be a spiritual realm that would be a kind of temporary housing for the souls of persons who were in venial sin. Venial sins were minor sins—offenses committed without full understanding, for example, or that were somewhat inadvertent. In this spiritual realm, those who were in venial sin would be purged of that sin over time—hence the name, “purgatory.” And those who were alive could do certain things to shorten the length of the stay in purgatory, either for themselves or for those they loved. In order to shorten one’s sentence, one would pay to obtain indulgences. So: pay a certain amount of money, get a certain amount of time off the sentence to purgatory.

Again. It was the year 999, and Christians were convinced that the world was coming to an end, and everyone faced that final reckoning. So people began loading up their valuable possessions. Princes and paupers, housewives and ladies in waiting, all began piling up their jewels, their gold, their silver, their artwork, their tapestries—everything of any monetary value whatsoever was collected and made ready for transport. All these expensive items were brought to the church. And so they began to arrive—at cathedrals, at country chapels, at rectories, at monasteries, at convents, the carts and wagons and caravans of goods began to arrive. The frightened faithful sought to purchase relief from the punishments they believed they were about to receive by divesting themselves of their wealth, and turning that wealth over to Mother Church.

I think you know what happened. On January 1, 1000, just about everyone woke up, alive—except for those who were already sick, or had accidents, or died in any one of the ways we normally die. The world had not ended. The elites of the Christian world were considerably poorer. And Mother Church was considerably richer.

More than a thousand years later, the world has still not ended, though in every single generation since, there have been people who believed that the end was imminent. That is not to say the world will never end. It’s a basic Christian tenet that Jesus will return, at the consummation of all things, and his return will herald the fulfillment of God’s reign here on earth. It hasn’t happened yet. But Christians believe it will. And this is the time of the year when the calendar of the church turns our attention in this direction. The lectionary passages for today point us to the end times.

In Jesus’ day, the idea that the Temple would be destroyed seemed to portend the end of the world. The Temple had been destroyed before—the Temple in whose porticoes Jesus walked and taught was not Solomon’s original splendid creation, but the one rebuilt by the exiles after their return from Babylon. The Temple of Jesus’ day was the second Temple. But memories of the first Temple were powerful in Israel’s culture and scriptures, and its loss permeated their worship and poetry and history. The Temple was God’s home on earth. Without the Temple, where was God? That felt like the end of the world.

I heard someone say recently that when reading a passage of scripture we have to look at it through the lens of three different times. We have to look through the lens of the time being described—in the case of our Luke passage, we’re talking somewhere around the year 30 CE, the last week of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Then we have to look at it in terms of the time it was written, which is often much later. In the case of our passage, it was written more than fifty years later, around the year 85 CE. And, finally, we have to look at the passage through our own lens—the time in which we are reading, and ask—where, in this passage, is the Good News for us today?

These three lenses draw our attention to three very different but related realities. Jesus is talking about the destruction of the second Temple. And he is talking about the Temple in ways that would be heard as blasphemous, and shocking. That’s the first lens.

But remembering that second lens, Luke is talking to a congregation that knows that the second Temple has already been destroyed. Luke is describing the very real things that happened in the year 70, when Jerusalem was utterly decimated by the Romans. And Luke is talking to Christians who are already undergoing the kind of persecution Jesus describes. Listen to this eyewitness account of the destruction of Jerusalem:

The roar of the flames streaming far and wide mingled with the groans of the falling victims...one would have thought that the whole city was ablaze...With the cries on the hill were blended those of the multitude in the city below, and now many who were emaciated and tongue-tied from starvation, when they beheld the sanctuary on fire, gathered strength once more for lamentations and wailing...Yet more awful than the uproar were the sufferings. (Josephus, cited in Luke, David Tiede.)

For Luke to remind his readers about the destruction of the Temple that had already taken place was devastating,. That’s the second lens. And for us to look through our own lens we have to take into account a world in which, still, many anticipate that the end is near. We look around and see wars and insurrections. We look around and see earthquakes, famines and plagues. We look around and we see dreadful persecutions and suffering. We look online and find websites all too willing to provide us with specific dates. How do we understand what we are reading and witnessing? Where do we find the Good News? Where do we find our hope?

I believe we find our hope by going back to the scriptures that informed Jesus; we go back to those words that gave him hope. Today, the lectionary offers us the chance to have our understanding about end times informed by Isaiah.

God speaks through Isaiah to people who have undergone the exact same thing as Luke and his congregation—those who have seen the Temple destroyed, the first Temple. God speaks to people who know devastation and loss and persecution. God speaks to people for whom the situation may well seem hopeless. And God says: “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind” [Isaiah 65:17]. God’s vision for the people is a complete renewal of everything—there is nothing that is not covered in that phrase, “new heavens and new earth.” Instead of framing end times in descriptions of destruction Isaiah speaks of God’s acts of creation.

Not only will the former troubles and trials be forgotten, God says, but, “I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress” [Isaiah 65:19]. These are words out of time—these are words for this generation, and Jesus’, and Luke’s, and Isaiah’s. God’s vision for “end times” is one in which every tear will be wiped from our eyes. God’s vision for “end times” is a vision for “new times”—a new heaven, a new earth.

And just look at how that vision plays out.

God promises health at every age, and astonishing longevity. [Isaiah 65:20].

God promises that people will enjoy the fruits of their labors—no small promise in a time when so many were slaves or indentured servants. [Isaiah 65:21-23]

God promises to hear the cries of each and every human heart— “Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.” [Isaiah 65:24]

And God promises something that, is so extraordinary, it seems truly as if heaven would have to come to earth to make it so: “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.” [Isaiah 65:25]

Imagine: The Tea Party and the Move-On people will sit at table together. Those who watch Glenn Beck will dine with those who watch “Democracy Now.” The Bristol and Mark fans will have supper with the Jennifer and Derek fans. It all seems too magical to be real. And yet, these things can be and have been done. Societies are made up of wolves and lambs who have somehow learned to live together. Like the people of South Africa after the fall of apartheid, who participated in the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, telling their stories of human rights abuses and then moving forward to live in harmony. Like Julia Grant, the widow of Union General Ulyssess S. Grant, and Varina Davis, the widow of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who lived near one another and became best friends. Wolf and Lamb Societies, where people who have no reason to trust and forgive one another, decide to do just that.

The church turns our attention to end times in these November and December days. How shall we respond? We could respond with anxiety and number crunching and attempts to nail down where and how and when it all will come about. Or, we could choose to live in the present as if the coming reality were with us already—lives of reconciliation and forgiveness, trusting in the promise of God’s new heaven and new earth. We could choose to work hard at our labors, trusting in God’s promise that we will enjoy their fruits. We could choose to trust that God hears the cry of every human heart even before the prayers are on our lips. We could choose to trust in God. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Welcome to the 'Family': Sermon on Luke 20:27-38


Just how do we define ‘family’? The Random House Dictionary provides no fewer than fifteen different definitions, beginning with the one that has become a political hot potato in our day: “family: a basic social unit consisting of parents and their children, considered as a group, whether dwelling together or not.” This, we are told, is the “traditional” family. But right on its heels is another definition, “family: a social unit consisting of one or more adults together with the children they care for.” For some people, these definitions are equivalent. For others, they are contradictory.

Just think of all the ways that word, ‘family,’ has been used in our culture. When I was coming of age in the 70's and 80's, it was fashionable among people who'd had a little therapy (or who'd been reading certain kinds of self-help books) to speak of the difference between the “family of origin”—that is, the family in which you grew up—versus the “family of choice”—that is, the friends with whom one surrounded oneself. ‘Family’ even took on a slightly negative tone, and was contrasted with ‘friends,’ the ones you could really depend on, the ones who promised: “I’ll be there for you.”

And then we have the other strange and sinister uses of the word. Having grown up with a vague awareness of the local mob, which was only enhanced by movies such as “The Godfather” and TV shows such as “The Sopranos,” it's hard to forget that ‘family’ is used to refer to members of the Cosa Nostra, the Mafia. And who can forget that most notorious of ‘families,’ Charles Manson and the people who were willing to kill at his bidding?

And now, think of our many, disparate experiences of ‘family.’ Yes, two parents and children. Or, one parent, stepparents. Step grandchildren. Grandparents and aunts and uncles raising children. Couples who choose to remain childless, for any number of reasons. Families that are loving or not; close or distant; right next-door or thousands of miles apart; wonderfully thriving and nurturing or horribly broken and dysfunctional. Any and all of these can describe, truly and accurately, ‘family.’

Here’s my point in deconstructing this word that probably means something pretty significant to every one of us: it’s a word we need to use carefully. And it’s a word whose use in church, particularly, needs to be informed by the gospels. Our understanding of ‘family’ needs to be informed by Jesus.

Jesus is asked a fairly loaded question revolving around a particular definition of family in our gospel reading today. The context is spelled out in verse 20, just before our reading begins, where it says, “So they watched him and sent spies who pretended to be honest, in order to trap him by what he said…” Some Sadducees approach Jesus, and we are told right up front that they are skeptical of at least one of the basic tenets he teaches. Here’s how to remember what the deal is with the Sadducees: The Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection—so they were sad, you see? (My apologies—that was awful.)

I was intrigued by something I learned this week about the Sadducees. In this teaching, their rejection of the idea of the resurrection of the dead, the Sadducees are actually holding on to the most ancient tradition of Israel, in which “eternal life” means, simply, that one lives on in children, and in the memories of the living. “For the ancient Israelites, before a belief in the resurrection of the dead, ‘eternal life’ was understood as producing heirs (sons?) who would continue the family's ownership of their land.” Therefore, it was a fundamental ethical obligation of a family member: to ensure that those you love will live on after death.

And so the story the Sadducees lay out for Jesus—one bride for seven brothers—may sound just totally implausible and absurd. But it’s based on traditional teachings that are very much about this understanding of eternal life. Here’s how it’s described in Deuteronomy:

When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage… and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. ~Deut. 25:5-6

That’s the concern of the Sadducees: that no one’s name will be blotted out. It’s the concern they bring to Jesus, who is teaching another kind of eternal life. And so they ask this question. One bride, seven brothers—in the resurrection, whose wife will this woman be? Of course, the Sadducees don’t really care about the answer. Their goal is to make Jesus look and sound silly, while scoring a point for their team.

Instead, Jesus turns their argument on its head. Marriage is for this age, he says. But in that age—in the age of resurrection—there will be no marriage. “Indeed,” Jesus says, “they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection” [Luke 20:36].

Jesus is going about his normal radical business of redefining social relationships every way he knows how. At this moment he continues with his re-definition of that weighty word, ‘family.’ In eternal life the significant relationship is not marriage; it’s that we are children of God. This is the same Jesus who, when told his mother and brothers were waiting for him outside, said, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” This is the same Jesus, who when a man who wanted to follow him said that he first needed to attend his father’s funeral, said, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God” [Luke 9:60]. And to another who wanted to just go home and say goodbye before his missionary journey, this is Jesus, who said, If you look back, you are not fit for the kingdom of God [Luke 9:62].

This is Jesus at his very hardest. This is Jesus telling us something that may feel very much like bad news, not good news, because so many of us treasure our family relationships. But this is Jesus offering the very best possible good news to the least and the lost—to those who have no family, to those who have no circle of love and goodwill holding them together. This is Jesus offering a home to the homeless, a meal to the hungry, a warm coat to the shivering, and urging us to do the very same. This is Jesus saying, yes, family is important—but why not build a family on love rather than blood, on the true desire to come together rather than social obligation? Why not build the kind of family that will truly last?

We gather this morning to welcome three new members to our church family, although it seems odd to call them “new.” They come to us, not as strangers, but as brother and sisters in Christ, nurtured in faith in many different places and contexts. They come to us out of that mysterious combination of God’s call and free will and happenstance that often forms the basis of the families in which we find ourselves. They come to us, it is our very fervent hope, in search of a home and a meal and warmth—in search of that very peculiar experience of ‘family’ that constitutes the church. And they come to us, not only looking for welcome but for work—ready, each one of them, to join in the ministry of this particular corner of Jesus’ redefined and reconstructed family unit.

The church is a family, perhaps a family that needs constantly to reexamine how it understands and defines itself so that we are sure we are in line with Jesus’ understanding of family. To be a member of Jesus’ family, we do not need the right bloodline, or to be one of a number of brothers ready to perform his obligation to keep someone’s memory alive. We do not need any particular social status or marital status or parentage or ethnicity or anything at all. We simply present ourselves, ready to hear God’s word and to strive with all we are to let it inhabit and inform our lives and actions. That’s it. Welcome to the family. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

In Good Company: Sermon for Halloween/ All Saints


Just over two weeks ago, on a blustery October night, six youth and three adults from St. Sociable found themselves wandering through wooded paths encountering ghosts, chainsaw-wielding madmen, extraordinarily creepy clowns, and other things that went “bump” in that rainy night. We were at “Scary Zoo Night,” and I can assure you, there was much, much screaming as well as much laughter. At one bend in the road we found ourselves face to face with a fortune-teller, and it didn’t take long before the youngest among us noticed that the woman in the turban said virtually the same thing to each person whose palm she read: we all had undergone, or were about to undergo, “change.” Beside her, on the floor, sat an enormous stuffed bull’s head, which, we were informed, was all that remains of her husband “Bruce.” I can only assume Bruce underwent a change as well.

Halloween is all around us—it has been for many weeks—and I have to confess, it’s a holiday I’ve loved ever since I was a little child and my mother dressed me as a drum majorette and told me I could have lots of candy, all at once. There is something about giving ourselves over, both to fantasy and to the opportunity to become just a little scared, that can make for a truly exciting experience. All in a completely safe environment, of course. Halloween is celebrated primarily in the US, Canada, Ireland and the United Kingdom, and there’s a very good reason for that. The roots of Halloween are found of the Celtic celebration of Samhain.

Samhain is a festival marking the end of the harvest—it has been described as one of the two great “doorways” of the Celtic year. The Celts have traditionally recognized two seasons: the season of light and the season of darkness. Samhain, celebrated on October 31st, is a transition between those two seasons. In Celtic spirituality, it is believed that these turning points—from light to dark and back again in the spring—mark a time when the barriers between this world and the next become thin. All around us we see that things are dying—food crops and flowers and the leaves on the trees and even animals. From ancient times, the Celts have believed that this thin time is a time when those in the next world could reach back and reappear in this one.

The ancient Celts marked this time in a number of ways that will be familiar to us. They burnt bonfires, a custom that is still strong in the Irish and Scots countryside. They wore masks and costumes to imitate or sometimes placate the dead who might decide to reappear. And they hollowed out large turnips, and carved faces in them, and used them as lanterns.

Samhain marked another turning point as well. It marked the turning from the outdoors to the indoors, when the vast expanse of green fields was replaced by the dim and smoky room, and the song of birds and insects was replaced by the conversation of friends and family around the hearth. [1] It wasn’t all fear and mischief; it was a time when communities gathered closer together.

As Christianity spread throughout the Celtic world, many of the customs of Samhain were adapted into the new Christian context. 16th century Scotland introduced the name “All-Hallows-Even” to the festival, connecting it to the Christian feast of All Saints, which took place the next day, November 1.

Why talk about Halloween and its Celtic roots in a sermon ostensibly recognizing the Christian celebration of All Saints? First, I should probably say a bit about the difference between the Protestant understanding of “All Saints” and the Orthodox and Roman Catholic understanding. The Roman and Orthodox Catholic understanding saints in this way: saints are those who have lived (and died) in exemplary ways, and one is only named a saint after lengthy consultation, trials, and miraculous confirmation. The Protestant understanding is different. We understand “saints” to be the community of all believers—past, present and future.

And so I ask again: Why talk about Halloween and its Celtic roots in a sermon allegedly recognizing the Christian celebration of All Saints? For me the common root, oddly enough, is in fear.

When I was a child and it grew dark on Halloween night, I was filled with a sweet excitement that had just a little to do with fear. Would I see a ghost? Would it be a friendly one? Or would it make my hair stand on end with fright? On Halloween I think we deliberately evoke a sense of fear in ourselves. Why is that? Is it an entirely sensory, visceral experience we’re after? Is it the same thing that drives us to get on roller coasters that spin us upside down and make us dizzy? Or is there something more to it?

The thing we “fear” on Halloween, if anything, is that otherworldly connection, the thinness between this world and the next that we are warned of from ancient times. What if we do see a ghost? What would that mean?

Writer Kathleen Norris talks about her experience of joining a Presbyterian church in her little North Dakota town. She recalls the morning she walked into church to become a member of that particular outpost of the church universal:

It was January, bitterly cold and windy, on the day that I joined the church, and I found that the sub-zero chill perfectly matched my mood. As I walked to church, into the face of that wind, I was thoroughly depressed. I didn’t feel much like a Christian and wondered if I was making a serious mistake… I still felt like an outsider in the church, and wondered if I always would…

Before the service, the new members gathered with some of the elders. One was a man I’d never liked much. I’ll call him Ed. He’d always seemed ill-tempered to me, and also a terrible gossip, epitomizing the small-mindedness that can make small-town life such a trial. The minister had asked him to formally greet the new members. Standing awkwardly before our small group, Ed cleared his throat and mumbled, “I’d like to welcome you to the body of Christ.” The minister’s mouth dropped open, as did mine—neither of us had ever heard words remotely like this come from Ed’s mouth. Like distant thunder, the words made me more alert, attuned to further disruptions in the atmosphere. What had I gotten myself into? I was astonished to realize, as that service began, that while I may never like Ed very much, I had just been commanded to love him. My own small mind had just been jolted, and the world seemed larger, opened in a new way.
[2]

I don’t think it’s any accident that on the day before we celebrate All Saints—that day on which we recognize that we are one in the body of Christ—popular culture engages in an exercise of fear. Just for fun, mind you—because none of us really expects to be confronted with the ghost of Great Aunt Lucy looking for that naughty child she remembers. We engage in a playful re-creation of fear, but not because we’re afraid of the ghosts and goblins that might be hiding under our beds. We engage with fear because other people are scary. Their emotions, and their needs, and their differences from us, and their ways of being in the world. If people are unfamiliar to us, if they are new, and different, and just a tiny bit outside our own personal mold—we leave our comfort zones and step into a new world at the moment when we are commanded, not to like, but certainly, to love all those whom Christ puts in our path.

And Christ puts everyone into our path, and commands us to love them. All those poor, hungry, weeping, hated people from our reading in Luke—all those who are most assuredly a part of this great communion of saints, because didn’t Jesus just say so? And we, by virtue of our membership that same communion, are under orders to love. Maybe you don’t find that scary. I do. I doubt my ability to do it. I question my moral courage to really love people who are unlike me. I stand with my knees shaking at the very thought of it. Maybe you do, too.

If so, we’re in good company. Some of the people we think of as showing the greatest, most astonishing levels of love in their service of humanity were clear-eyed realists regarding how very difficult that mandate can be. Mother Teresa of Calcutta revealed just how trying she sometimes found it when she spoke of “loving until it hurts.” But she found the way through that difficulty too. “I have found the paradox,” she said, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only love.”

In our celebration of the feast of All Saints we are called to recognize the unsettling, even scary reality of our connection to one another, our utter interdependence. As I heard a wise man say recently, we can’t get away from one another. And we can look at that and tremble, even as we recognize that now, the world seems larger, opened in a new way. The command to love our enemies takes on a different light when we begin to understand that our enemy is part of the same body that we are, that we depend on one another, that we are swimming in the same pool.

Tonight many of us will welcome little zombies and werewolves and vampires—as well as princesses and Lady Gaga’s and even (God help us) Snooki’s as they wander the streets in search of treats. If we look closely, they will all be there—the characters we admire as well as the ones we revile and, indeed, the ones who leave us completely and utterly stumped (which is my position on Snooki). They will all be there—the vast array of humanity, perhaps in cartoonish exaggeration. But a nice reminder, if we will be reminded, that people as well as trick-or-treaters come in more varieties than we can imagine, and we, by virtue of our status as saints of God, are commanded to love them all. Scary, perhaps. But thrilling, in a way that opens the world up, makes it larger. Thanks be to God. Amen.

~~~
[1] Mara Freeman, “The Celtic Year: Samhain,” at http://www.chalicecentre.net/samhain.htm, 1999.
[2] Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 141-142.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Testimony of Truth: Stewardship Sermon on 2 Timothy 4:6-18


We’ve had some fun doing this before, so why not do it again? Famous last words. Silent screen actor Douglas Fairbanks said, “I’ve never felt better.” Lady Astor, when she opened her eyes to see her entire family gathered around her bed said, “Am I dying or is this my birthday?” Thomas Edison, speaking to his wife, assured her he was not in pain, and then said, “It is very beautiful over there.” And Union General John Sedgwick scoffed at Confederate sharpshooters, saying, “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist—.”

There’s something compelling about the last words we utter. Ideally, I think each of us would like to say something that wraps things up in a neat package—our life, the short version. The things that matter to us. The way we would like to be remembered. Vital information for everyday living for those we love.

All of these are present in the Second letter to Timothy, a letter written as Paul’s farewell valediction to one of his closest companions and co-workers. Often, reading a New Testament epistle feels like what it is: a visit to some middle section of a theological treatise. But the passage we read today really feels like a letter, like a last letter, like the last words written (as they may well be) by this man who is at least as responsible for Christianity as Jesus.

Just a quick recap. Paul has been traveling around Asia Minor and Europe on his self-imposed mission to bring the message of Jesus to the Gentiles. Christianity began, of course, as the offspring of Judaism—Jesus was an observant, faithful Jew every day of his life—and the early church debated whether those outside that covenant community could be brought in. But eventually Jesus’ own words and actions guided the early church into opening up the table and offering the good news to all people, regardless of their religion or country of origin. This is the background for the situation in which Paul finds himself when writing this letter to Timothy.

The opening words of our passage say it plainly—“As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come.” This sentence is a mixture of so many emotions—wistful and proud, matter-of-fact and defiant. Now, Paul is in jail. Now, Paul has been tried and found guilty. Now, Paul faces the death penalty for his crime. Though there are no existing New Testament writings that detail Paul’s trial and its outcome, it’s safe to assume he was convicted of roughly the same crime as Jesus—most likely, sedition. In a country where the emperor is regarded as a god, no other loyalties are permitted, even the worship of an unseen, transcendent deity. Paul, by his unwavering witness, has sealed his own death warrant.

And yet, his words show not only acceptance, but even a kind of satisfaction. “I am being poured out as a libation.” A libation is a drink offering, usually wine, poured out in honor of a divine being. Paul’s life is being poured out for Christ, for the gospel message that has formed the cornerstone of his life. To be a libation is to be a part of a celebration, to be part of a worship service. Paul’s death will be his final act of worship in this life. And Paul betrays no anxiety about facing death here. Paul shows absolute trust that God is pleased with his offering, the gift of his life for the spread the gospel.

The next section of our passage takes on a slightly different tone. Here, perhaps, the bravado of the first paragraph falters a bit. Yes, Paul is confident of God’s approval of him. Yes, he is joyful to be poured out as a libation. But here the painful reality of his situation breaks through. It’s not that he is going to die that bothers him. It’s that he’s going to die alone. His friends are, for the most part, nowhere to be found. He ticks off a list of where his co-workers have gone, and it sounds a little like the stereotypical mother joke—insert your preferred ethnicity here, in my family it would be the Polish or Irish mother—moaning “They never call, they never write.” He is particularly bitter about those he feels have deserted him. Paul makes requests, and they sound urgent—bring this, bring that, but mostly, bring yourself. Don’t leave me alone.

And in a moment, he is himself again—his friends may have fallen away, but God never deserted him. “…The Lord stood by me,” Paul writes, “and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.” This is a remarkable statement. Of course, we know that for many Christians their punishment was to be thrown into the ring with hungry animals who would tear them apart. Paul is spared this because he is a Roman citizen, so will undergo the more dignified punishment of being beheaded. Still, I don’t think he is speaking literally when he boasts of avoiding the lions. I think he is giving thanks for having been able to be faithful to the gospel message—for not succumbing to the temptation to recant, to back off, but rather, staying true, even in the face of death. This is Paul’s testimony of truth. He has remained true, and God has remained true to him. In these last words Paul shares his gratitude for the privilege of sharing the gospel, no matter where it has brought him.

Paul’s life in a nutshell: Jesus showed himself to Paul, and Paul spent the rest of his life showing Jesus to the whole world. Even in his last words to his friend Timothy, Paul takes pains to show God’s faithfulness to him throughout his trials. God has saved me, Paul declares. God is faithful. God will remain so. This is the great reality of Paul’s life.

So how to capture the great reality of our lives here at our church? Well, one way is by virtue of a mission statement. And ours has something in common with Paul’s:

“As members of St. Sociable, we live to serve our Lord, our congregation, our community, and our world. We unite our spirits in faithful, loving commitment to this calling in Jesus Christ and, as a church family, we celebrate the Kingdom of God.”

Like Paul, we celebrate God’s love and faithfulness. Like Paul, we seek to bring this love to others—to go beyond ourselves, and our little neck of the woods. In fact, we seek to bring it to the whole world. And—like Paul, this necessitates footwork on our part, and taking risks, and pouring ourselves out, in many different ways. One way we pour ourselves out is by our financial support of the church. Whether we tithe—and there are those among us who do—or whether we determine what we offer by other means, the financial gifts we make are tremendously important to the work we are able to do here.

Many of you are aware that St. Sociable has been most generously blessed with the gifts of benefactors who came before us. Our endowment funds bear names like Name1 and Name2 and Name3, and each fund reminds us of some individual or family who believed the work of our church was good work, and the task of sharing the gospel with the whole world merited a generous gift on their part to make it possible. Sometimes I imagine church members might wonder—if we have endowments, then why is my gift needed? It’s a fair question. I suppose we could depend even more heavily on our endowments than we do. When I arrived at St. S. just 35% of our annual budget came from what I think of as “living gifts”—annual pledges of our members and friends, while 55% of our annual budget came from income from our endowments—the gifts of our ancestors. It was and is my strong opinion that we need to flip those numbers—that a vital, thriving ministry is only possible if the members and friends of St. Sociable are giving more than those who came before. And we are making progress.

I recognize that this is an ambitious goal. I recognize that this means our church members and friends giving at a greater level. But I also recognize that this is a church with a tremendously generous heart. And I believe that the giving I have witnessed here—the giving of people’s time to visit one another, to bring communion to the homebound, or to throw a wonderful coffee hour; the giving of people’s talent to make our worship service beautiful or to ensure that our physical plant is running well—all that giving sets a tone. All that giving sings a message loud and clear: we believe in St. Sociable. We believe in our mission to serve God and one another and the entire hurting world. We believe that this work is worthwhile.

On his deathbed, another great silent film star Charlie Chaplin was speaking with a priest who had come to administer last rites. The priest concluded, “May God have mercy on your soul.” Chaplin replied, “Why not? It’s His, after all.” This is the very heart of the message Paul shared, whether it was with his friend Timothy or the thousands who heard him preach or worked with him to found faith communities. We belong to God, heart and soul, mind and body. Paul knew that in his last moments on earth. Let us know that, too, every day. We belong to God, completely. That is the greatest good news we can hear. And it doesn’t depend on our goodness or our intelligence or our talent or our imagination or our prayer life or our financial contributions to this church or to public radio. It depends only on the endless, bottomless, grace-filled love of God. God, who is faithful and true, will remain with us, and stand by us. We belong to God. Thanks be. Amen.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Wrestling With the Truth: Sermon on Genesis 32:22-31


Some relationships seem to be doomed from the get-go. Take these fraternal twin brothers, Jacob and Esau—sons of Isaac, grandsons of Abraham. As we stumble upon this scene from their drama, Jacob and his entire household—wives, servants, children, livestock—are on the run from the brother who is bearing down upon him with an army of four hundred men. Jacob has already divided his retinue, figuring, well, if Esau catches up with us, he can wipe out half, and the other half will be left alive—a strategic move made only by one who is certain disaster is approaching. He has sent a portion of his wealth ahead as a gift —hundreds of goats and rams and camels and cattle. Well, really, it’s a bribe. A bribe whose message to his brother reads, “Please don’t kill me.” Finally, Jacob has decided the only way he can protect his family is to send them to the other side of the river, and face whatever is coming—whatever he has coming to him—alone. This is where our reading begins.

How did things get this bad between these two who share much of the same DNA? How did a bond so often used as a metaphor to indicate connection manage to sink to this dreadful nadir for Jacob and Esau? This moment in which one of them is essentially waiting to be killed by the other? One answer is, it seems to have been their destiny. They are already wrestling with one another in the womb, to such an extent that their mother Rebekah utters a prayer that could be summed up, “Kill me now.” She asks God for illumination about these prenatal warriors, and is told, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided…” (Genesis 25:23). And thus they are born, fighting even as they first see the light of day—first Esau, hairy and red, and then Jacob, holding on tight to his brother’s heel, unwilling to give up the fight, just one minute old.

Things don’t improve. Next comes a scene from their adolescence, when the characters of the young men are being established. Enter Esau, the hunter, the outdoorsman, the eldest with all the rights and privileges associated with that. Those privileges include the right to inherit double the amount of any other siblings. But Jacob, evidently a decent cook and more of a homebody, has his own talents, which include an unerring sense of when the time is right to make a bargain. Esau comes in after a day in the field, and he is famished. Jacob has made some lentil stew. Esau asks for a bowl. Jacob agrees, but the price is this: he wants Esau’s birthright. Esau, not the pointiest arrow in the quiver, agrees without hesitation. What a steal!

Fast-forward to young adulthood. Isaac, recognizing that his life is drawing to a close, asks for a gift of a special meal, hunted by the eldest, Esau, Isaac’s favorite. But Rebekah has her own favorite, Jacob, and she recognizes the significance of the moment: Isaac is preparing to bestow his fatherly blessing on his firstborn, a once-in-a-lifetime gift, which can be given only to one person. With Rebekah’s help, Jacob disguises himself as his brother and steals the blessing. Esau’s cries of despair and rage when he learns what his brother has done make for chilling reading. Immediately, Jacob hightails it out of town.

Which brings us to today’s scene. Jacob is on the run. He has recently been on the run from his father-in-law—another totally dysfunctional family relationship, which has come to an uneasy truce. But now Jacob must come face to face with the brother from who he stole, well, just about everything. He is alone, his family removed to a somewhat safer position across the river, and night is falling.

Genesis tells us the eerie, otherworldly tale in just a few short verses. “A man,” it says, “wrestled with [Jacob] until daybreak.” The story continues,

When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” ~ Genesis 32:25-26

Jacob is not willing to let go. Whoever this is, this mysterious opponent, Jacob and the man are a pretty even match, an all-night-long-no-one-cries “uncle” match. They are well-matched for physical strength, but there’s more—they are well-matched for tenacity, for stubbornness, for unwillingness to let go, for single-minded determination to see this thing through, whatever it is. The man even manages to dislocate Jacob’s hip, with Jacob still hanging on for dear life.

I love to think of this tale being told around the campfire thousands of years ago, before anybody wrote anything down on papyrus. I imagine the storyteller painting the mysterious scene, and each person around the fire summoning up their own explanation for the otherworldly event, recognizing that, of course, there is no dearth of wrestling partners for Jacob. God, an angel, Esau himself, Jacob’s father-in-law—any one of these could have decided Jacob needed a good throw-down in view of the course his life was taking. And, in truth, I think Jacob is wrestling with all of these. I think Jacob is finally wrestling with the truth.

What is truth? Pilate famously asked the question, and then didn’t bother to wait around for Jesus to answer. It’s not hard to notice that this question is sort of obsessing us as a society right now—and, of course, as you might predict, there are always multiple versions of it floating around. There’s the Republican truth, and the Democrat truth, and now, the Tea Partier truth. There’s the pro-natural gas drilling truth and the “no hydrofracking” truth. There’s the person of faith’s truth and the atheist truth and the agnostic truth. Now, in many of these instances, each one of us may privately be pretty sure which one is the real deal, the real truth, but… it’s not always easy.

Take Jacob and Esau, these men whose conflict seems to have been predestined. Here’s Esau’s truth: his younger brother violated both social norms and his (Esau’s) property rights, leaving him both economically and spiritually impoverished. Here’s Jacob’s truth: God chose him to be the father of a great nation, and everything he did served that end. I can’t help feeling this: throughout that long night, as Jacob wrestled with the elusive, mysterious man, and the sweat poured off both of them, and time was suspended as the stars wheeled slowly across the heavens, I can’t help feeling that Jacob wrestled with the knowledge that he had caused his brother pain, and that he had taken something from his brother that could not be restored, not even with a nifty cattle bribe.

Jacob leaves the wrestling match with his hip out of joint—an injury that will remind him of this night for the rest of his days. He also walks away with a new name, Israel, which is sometimes translated as “he wrestles with God,” but which may also mean, “God wrestles.” And as important as that name is, and historic, and central to the faith that you and I profess, my favorite part of the story was left out of our passage this morning. My favorite part of the story is the moment when the two men are, at last, face to face, and Jacob is waiting for either the arrow to pierce his heart or the sword to lop off his head. And instead, his big brother runs to him, and falls on his neck and kisses him, and the two men weep.

What is truth? The truth, here, turns out to be grace: pure, unexpected, undeserved forgiveness. It’s not about who’s right. It’s not about who wins. It’s not about bribes or superior forces or anything other than the turning of a heart from anger to love, from a desire for vengeance to a desire for union. Or, in this case, reunion.

As Presbyterian Christians, this goes right to the heart of our faith. Forgiveness, as Jesus so annoyingly said, seven times a day for that person who has harmed us seven times in that day. Forgiveness, as in God looking at each one of us and seeing only a beloved child, rather than the wavering, wandering, recalcitrant beings we so often know ourselves to be. Forgiveness, as in a brother looking at another brother and saying “All that is behind us now. Let’s not talk about it any more.” Grace. None of us earns it. Someone gives it. And the whole world is changed in an instant. Instead of a bloody battle, we have a family reunion, and Jacob’s next project when they finally pitch camp again: building an altar to the God Who Wrestles.

This morning we have embarked on a particular season in the life of the church, the season of Stewardship. Our theme this year is “The Giving Spirit,” and it’s evocative of so many aspects of our lives together. I believe a giving spirit is usually also a forgiving spirit, because forgiveness requires a certain generosity of heart, whether we are forgiving a debt or forgiving a hurt. For today, I’ll just say this: with a giving and forgiving spirit, all kinds of things are possible and all kinds of transformations really happen.

All kinds of things are possible—even for relationships that seem doomed from the get-go. All kinds of transformations really happen—even in places where the anger runs deep, and the hurt is old. All kinds of possibilities open up—even, or especially, in places we never expected. We live in grace. That’s our truth. And it’s at the heart of the faith we profess. Thanks be to our wholly gracious God. Amen.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Be Where You Are: Sermon on Jeremiah 29:1-7

I grew up with a mother who always gave the impression she was in our beautiful seaside town under protest. While I was grateful and thrilled to be on the beach every day all summer long, and in the ocean most of that day, my mom never got over the loss of the home she truly loved: a city block in South Philadelphia. Mom complained bitterly about the trees at the shore (and we didn’t have that many, to be honest). She claimed that if you placed her between two trees she promptly got lost. I loved sand between my toes and the smell of salt in the air. Mom loved the sound of the trolley bell and the hard pavement beneath her feet. It was an odd situation for a child: My mom was not at home in our home.

Years later I had a tiny taste of what my mother experienced. I had lived in BeanTown 12 years when we decided to move to this place so that my then-husband could go to graduate school. I was a stay-at-home mom with an almost-three-year-old, and I was leaving almost everyone and everything I loved… friends, colleagues, our faith community. I told myself it would be fine, it would just be for a few years. And when I arrived here, I’ll be honest, there were a few months of real loneliness, true displacement. I remember driving my red Volvo 240 to the park with Larry in his car seat, listening to music I associated with BeanTown friends, and wondering, would I ever feel at home in this new place? Twenty years later, not only is this my home, it is my beloved home. I’ve lived her longer than I lived anywhere, including the house I grew up in. My mom was never able to feel at home in the town where I grew up. I found my true home here in this community.

What makes a place “home”? And what does it mean to lose a home, a sense of being in the “place just right”? We read stories about people losing their homes fairly regularly—whether we are thinking about the those displaced by the mudslide in Oaxaca, Mexico, or people whose homes were taken by foreclosure, the Native Americans forced onto the Trail of Tears, or the thousands of people who are still not able to return to the lower 9th ward of New Orleans. My mother and I were both able to participate in the decisions that led to our leaving one home to try to find another. The most devastating stories of exile are the stories of those who had no choice. They are the stories like the one found in this morning’s scripture passage.

Our passage is from a section of Jeremiah called the “Book of Consolation.” It contains words of encouragement from God to the exiles—those described in verse 1: “the remaining elders among the exiles… the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.” One professor of Hebrew Scriptures describes the exile this way:

It was, for all intents and purposes, the end of the world.

Imagine if their story was our story:

Our national government has just collapsed as the result of an invading foreign power. There is no remnant of the military. There is no government. The President, First Lady, Cabinet and Congress have all been exiled. All of the artists in New York and steel workers in Pittsburgh have been separated from their families and exiled as well.
[1]
There is one piece of the ancient Hebrews’ experience that is not translatable to our diverse and multicultural 21st century experience: the loss of the Temple. At the same moment the Babylonian armies killed or carried off the learned and artisan classes, they also destroyed Solomon’s magnificent Temple, including, presumably, the contents of the inner sanctuary, the holy of holies, which contained the Ark of the Covenant. The Babylonians trashed the place that was believed to hold, to house God’s very presence on earth. The tangible expression of God’s care and protection was obliterated. * (After delivering the sermon, I was informed that there is indeed a modern day equivalent of the Temple, the Holy of Holies: Yankee Stadium.)

Jeremiah, responding to this devastating situation, sends this message by royal emissary:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. ~Jeremiah 29:4-7

To people who are still mourning the homes from which they have been torn, God says: build new ones. To people who remember with tears the backbreaking labor they put into cultivating the land, God says: plant more crops, and then eat them. To people who look at their neighbors with suspicion and dread, God says: get to know them. More than that, marry them, and have children, and let your children marry. More than that: pray for them, pray for your captors, the Babylonians.

I believe there is a fairly profound and simple truth at the heart of God’s instructions to the exiles—simple, though not necessarily easy. You have to be where you are. For some reason, this truth dawned on me fairly quickly when I was a young mom riding around the Southern Tier with a toddler in the back of my car. I realized I needed to be at home, wherever I was—I am not, by nature, a transient creature. And so, before I’d given it much thought, I was trying out for the Madrigal Choir, and running for a seat on the pre-school board. I knew if I wanted to be happy, I needed to start acting as if this was home. Before long, I wasn’t acting any more.

This truth holds at a deeper level, as well. “Be where you are” is a kind of catch phrase expressing what Buddhists call mindfulness, the practice of being truly aware. Buddhism is organized around the basic principle that life is hard—people find themselves “exiled” in all sorts of ways, and for all sorts of reasons, and there are ways to cope that help us to wear our difficulties more lightly. Perhaps ironically, mindfulness, paying attention, is one such strategy. And it’s surprisingly easy to do. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh gives these instructions:

Every time you feel lost, alienated, or cut off from life, or from the world, every time you feel despair, anger, or instability, practice going home. Mindful breathing is the vehicle that you use to go back to your true home.

You don’t have to do anything very special. You just become aware of the fact that you are breathing in. Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out… and suddenly I find I am totally alive, totally present. And this everyone can do, and it makes a big difference. Our true home is life, and life is in the present moment, in the here and the now. That is the address of true life.
[2]

Something like this can happen when we turn our attention to our own spiritual disciplines, when we pray, when we practice experiencing the presence of God, simply enjoying God’s company. We recognize that we are home, our true home. And here is the other level at which this truth operates: if we are going to “be where we are,” we also have to be willing to “start where we are.” I’ve been talking with a small group about the challenge of incorporating things like prayer into our daily lives. It’s not easy. One of the reasons it’s not easy is that we have this preconceived notion of where we “should be” what we “should be doing,” and it feels so far removed from what we are actually doing, it paralyzes us. I see my ideal round of spiritual disciplines as including daily prayer, scripture reading, meditation, and walking—but if I’m not yet doing all of these, I can feel so overwhelmed it stops me in my tracks from trying to do any of these.

The answer to this conundrum is to start where we are. If we want to pray, then we pray today—without reference to or criticism of whether or not we prayed yesterday. If we want to read scripture, we open the book today—we don’t give up because today’s Friday and we didn’t do it Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. We start where we are, because today is our true home. We start where we are, because it’s too easy to let ourselves feel exiled from the people we want to be instead of embracing the people we actually are already. We start where we are, because this day—the planting of these bulbs, the listening to this child, the holding the hand of this parent—is all we truly have. We start where we are, because it is not God’s true desire for us to live in exile, but for us to be home—in our true home, in God, in this day, in this life—whenever and wherever and however we are. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] The Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney, Associate Professor, Hebrew and Old Testament, Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, at workingpreacher.com: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=10/10/2010.
[2] Thich Nhat Hanh, Taming the Tiger Within: Meditations on Transforming Difficult Emotions, as found at http://www.mindfulness.com/2010/09/21/mindful-breathing-is-a-way-back-to-your-true-home/.