Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Thirsty Ones: Sermon on Exodus 17:1-7

The film “The Shawshank Redemption” is mostly about Andy Dufresne, a banker who is convicted of murdering his wife and her lover, and given two consecutive life sentences. But the film is also about the other men Andy encounters in prison. During his long incarceration, Andy becomes the assistant to Brooks, the prison librarian. Brooks, like Andy, is a lifer—he’s been in prison since he was in his twenties, and he fully expects to be there until he dies. Only, to his shock and dismay, he is paroled after having served more than fifty years—he has to be in his seventies. Out in the world, where he is given employment as a grocery bagger and lives in a halfway house, he is disoriented, depressed and frightened. Before long, he writes a note to the men he knew inside. "I don't like it here. I'm tired of being afraid all the time. I've decided not to stay." He ends up taking his own life.[i]

You know things are bad when prison looks like a good option. This story from the movies parallels the situation that faces Moses and the people of Israel in today’s passage from Exodus. We are coming in at the middle of the story; it might be good to catch up. The tribes of Israel found their way to Egypt during a time of famine, when Joseph was a high official in the Egyptian court. Now, Joseph and his family had some significant issues to work through—remember that unpleasantness where Joseph’s brothers threw him into a pit, and then sold him to a passing caravan of Ishmaelites? Well, once these issues were all sorted out the Israelites received welcome and hospitality, food and shelter. Egypt became home. However, before long, not only had Joseph died, but also that whole generation—and another Pharaoh came into power who viewed the Israelites, not as welcome guests, but frightening and prolific interlopers—scary illegal immigrants, who must be controlled and punished. That frightened pharaoh tried all sorts of measures to keep the numbers of the Israelites from growing, everything from oppressing them through forced labor (presumably to build the Sphinx and the pyramids), to trying to get the midwives to kill their newborn baby boys (the midwives did not cooperate). Nothing the pharaoh did worked. The people multiplied and grew, for something between 200 and 400 years.

Still, slavery is slavery, and the people cried out to God for help. God recruited Moses to become their somewhat reluctant leader. By following God’s instructions carefully, after many signs and wonders that you can see by Netflixing “The Ten Commandments” starring Charlton Heston, Moses led the Israelites to freedom. That was just two chapters ago.

Only two chapters before our passage, Miriam and the women were singing and dancing on the shore of the Sea of Reeds, celebrating their escape from the mighty pharaoh and his armies. Only two chapters ago, roughly a few weeks before this scene takes place, the hearts of every Israelite swelled with joy at this knowledge: we are free! No more backbreaking labor. No more building monuments to the pharaoh’s vanity. No more threats of our children being snatched away to be killed at birth. We are free. But… you know what they say about freedom. It’s just another word for “Nothing left to lose.” Between 200 and 400 years of living a certain way—even as slaves—well, that is bound to leave a legacy. No living memory of freedom. No traditions, other than slaves’ traditions. And after coming to the stone cold, hard reality you can’t eat or drink your gold and silver and jewelry… the people have had it. They are thirsty. They are frightened. They are no longer sure whether they should trust this Moses or not. They ask, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” You know things are bad when slavery looks like a good option.

What were the Israelites thirsting for? Water, of course. The deep, unquenched thirst for water is terrifying… with bodies made up of something like 60% water, we begin to sense very quickly how contingent our lives are when deprived of that essential element. Within 72 hours the human body’s systems begin shutting down. The Israelites were wandering in a hostile and dry wilderness. There was no water. Of course that is what they were thirsting for.

But is that all?

There is a sentence that rings out at the end of the passage—a passage that includes a solution to the water problem, by the way, another work of wonder, by Moses’ hand, courtesy of the power of God. Still, the passage bears witness to the real thirst, the deep, underlying fear at the heart of the quarrelling and testing and accusations:

Is the Lord among us or not? Is God here?

One thing about systems based on brutality: it’s pretty easy to know who’s in charge. Recently four New York Times reporters went missing for a week while covering the uprising in Libya. They had been picked up by a militia, and handed off between rival groups, repeatedly beaten, until finally they were taken into the custody of Libyan diplomats. But they noticed that their captors—the ones who beat them—exercised authority by brutality. None of their captors wore any insignia identifying their rank; all authority came from barked orders, the loudest voice, the ones who were willing to do the beating.

But when that system is gone—when freedom exists as a tantalizing possibility or promise—then who is really in charge? Was it this Moses, this shepherd who’d spent much of his adult life hiding out in the land of Midian with his in-laws? This man who spoke with a speech impediment, and who really didn’t want this job in the first place? What this the guy the Israelites were supposed to follow? Was he the one who spoke for God? The Israelites may have been thirsty for water, but they had an even deeper thirst: a thirst for reassurance, that they were not alone on this journey into the unknown. A thirst for guidance, a steady hand at the helm. A thirst for compassion, the sense that someone, somewhere, understood what they were going through.[ii] Is the Lord among us or not? Is God here?

And we who read this story perhaps four thousand years later, what are we thirsting for? We who can turn on any one of a dozen taps in this building and quench our thirst for water in a second? I think we thirst for the very same things. Human nature has not changed all that much, even across this many centuries. We too thirst for reassurance, that we are not alone on our journeys into the unknown. We too thirst for guidance, if not in the sense of having a leader to follow, at the very least in knowing there are trustworthy and good-hearted souls to whom we can turn when our questions and worries steal our sleep at night. We too thirst for compassion—we want to know that someone gets it, that someone really understand what we are going through. We thirst to know the answer to the question: Is the Lord among us or not? Is God here?

And if we are thirsting for these things—we who are able to be here in church on a Sunday morning, and who therefore probably have a place where we can lay our heads at night, and who know where our next meal will be coming from this afternoon—if we are thirsting for these things, well, just imagine. Imagine with me, what it is like to be someone who does not know where his next meal is coming from (or who, perhaps, needs to find the right church, to know that they will have a meal on a Sunday). Imagine, with me, what it is like to sleep on a bus that goes back and forth across Broome County, because that’s the safest and warmest place there is to sleep. Imagine, with me, what it is like to be hanging by one finger from the safety net—and imagine that deep thirst for reassurance, and for guidance, and for compassion. Is the Lord among us or not? Is God here?

Maybe this is the question we need to ask ourselves when we find we are confronted with quarrelsome people who test our patience. Is this person thirsting for reassurance? Is he thirsting for guidance? Is she thirsting for compassion? Because, we can do that for one another. We can be the presence of God for one another—not to get brownie points with God, or to show one another how good we are. But out of our own gratitude, out of our own sense that God is with us, here, in this place.

Perhaps this is the answer to the question, “Is the Lord among us or not?” If you look around you at Coffee Hour, and you see someone sharing her time, giving reassurance… God is here. If you look into the eyes of someone and realize that they have just given you the best guidance you could imagine, simply by helping you to understand what your heart is telling you… God is here. If you can respond with compassion to someone who irks you, who makes you roll your eyes, who really tests your patience … God is here.

We are, all of us, “the thirsty ones.” And we find the living water in community, we accept the cup from our neighbor, and we offer it in return. And it is at that point, perhaps, that we begin to find the courage to step out and live into that freedom God calls us to. The Israelites are presented with the sure sign of God’s presence, and they can go on for another day. You and I show the presence of God to one another—to our families, our friends, and the strangers we meet—and we find that we can all go on for another day. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Mark Suriano, “Sermon Seeds: Third Sunday in Lent Year A, March 27, 2011,” United Church of Christ, Samuel,

[ii] “SheRev,” “Introductory Comments,” RevGalBlogPals, 11th Hour Preacher Party, March 26, 2011,

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The One Who Was Ashamed: Sermon on John 3:1-17

I don’t think we’re born with it. I think it’s something we have to learn. I think we pick it up any number of ways: Perhaps someone we love and depend on teaches us. Perhaps we are witnesses to someone else’s experience of it. Perhaps we stumble into it, in a sudden rush of awareness. But sooner or later, we all have an experience of it. I’m speaking about shame.

Just to be clear, shame is not about wrongdoing. That would be guilt. And there is nothing wrong with a little healthy guilt, when we have violated certain boundaries of goodness or decency. Guilt can help us to change for the better, because guilt is about what we do. Shame, on the other hand, is about who we are. When we are ashamed, we don’t believe we are capable of doing what is good, we think some part of ourselves is intrinsically bad. So shame can’t help us. Shame can only hurt us.

I think Nicodemus is ashamed. Why else would he come to Jesus in the middle of the night? The gospel of John, which frequently appears in our lectionary cycle during the seasons of Lent and Easter, is a gospel rich with symbolism and imagery. And one of the most potent symbols John uses, again and again, is the contrast between darkness and light. Jesus is described in the opening verses of the gospel as being the bearer of God’s light, coming to give life to God’s people “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” And eventually, in this gospel, Jesus will say explicitly, “I am the light of the world.” And this pretty much tells you all you need to know about the darkness. If Jesus is the light, then the darkness is at odds with him, doing its best to snuff the light out before it can illumine too many people. If Nicodemus is coming to Jesus under cover of darkness, in John’s symbolic world, Nicodemus is of the darkness. At least for now.

And that’s strange, because Nicodemus is a Pharisee, which makes him a member of a very influential Jewish social movement of Jesus’ day. The Pharisees were known as being the upright, law-abiding very religious members of the community. The fact that he is described as a “leader of the Jews” may indicate that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, the local assembly of judges. It’s important for us to break down and resist some of the stereotypes that have emerged as a result of the gospel portrayals of Jesus and the Pharisees, or Jesus and the Sanhedrin, being in opposition to one another. We need to remember that the Pharisees sincerely sought the best way to be obedient to God’s laws, and that the Sanhedrin was charged with enforcing those laws. Some scholars believe that Jesus, himself a devout Jew, may have been a follower of the Pharisees early in his career. Many of Jesus’ teachings echo teachings of some of the most famous Pharisees, Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Gamaliel. And so all conversations and arguments that we witness here are what we should think of as family fights, and not wholesale condemnations or rejections. I truly believe that nothing would have horrified the gospel writers more than the idea that centuries later, Christians could find any excuse for hostility towards Jews in our misinterpretation of these writings.

Nicodemus is unsettled in his own mind, that much is clear. And so he comes to Jesus in the darkness, ashamed… of what? Of being seen with Jesus? Or, perhaps, of feeling divided loyalties, having a sense that he should follow Jesus, but then wondering if he could manage hold on to both pieces of his faith identity, Pharisee and Jesus-follower? He wouldn’t be the first, and is certainly not the last, to feel that kind of divided loyalty. Think of the things we care about, the people we love. Jesus and family. Jesus and job. Jesus and mortgage payments. What happens to us when our loyalties are divided, when they are challenged? Whatever his motivations, these are the first words Nicodemus speaks: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God” [John 3:2]. Now, these are good words, affirmative words, words that tell us he gets it. Nicodemus correctly sees what Jesus has accomplished so far. The first half of the gospel of John is filled with signs that reveal who Jesus is: Nicodemus recognizes the signs.

And then Jesus looks at him and makes a proclamation, the implications of which are still being talked about and debated—actively debated—today: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” [John 3:3]. That phrase, “from above,” translates a Greek word that can mean either, “from above,” or “again,” or “anew.” But its primary meaning is always “from above,” and every other time John uses the word, that’s exactly what it means. For most of the history of Christianity, this phrase was associated with baptism, our understanding of the way in which God claims us in that sacrament—as Jesus indicates in the next verse, by water and the Spirit.

However, for about the past forty years, there has been a trend among many to use the secondary meaning, “born again, ” and to use it in a very different way. It has been used to indicate whether or not a person subscribed to a particular vision of the Christian life. Whether or not I understand myself to have been “born again” became code for asking the question, “Are you one of us?” Or, to look at it another way, “Are you one of them?” In some circles, unless you can assign a date and time to the moment you knew yourself to be “born again,” you aren’t considered a real Christian. And in other circles, if you can name and describe a moment of conversion, “coming to Christ,” you are considered to be somewhat of a fanatic. It is absolutely tragic that Christians have allowed these words to so divide us, to compartmentalize us, all of us who are simply trying to follow Jesus.

We see immediately that Nicodemus gets very defensive—he protests against the secondary, less common meaning of the word. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” [John 3:4]. Jesus gets a little stubborn here. Maybe Jesus is teasing Nicodemus. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit… The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” [John 3:5, 8]. Would it surprise you to hear that there is one word that can be translated both “wind” and “Spirit”? More multiple meanings, more possibilities for misunderstanding.

I think Jesus is joshing with Nicodemus, because Nicodemus has become very concerned about what he hears as an instruction, or perhaps a scolding—as if Jesus were saying to him, “You’d better go and be born again, right now.” Which, of course, is absurd. Ask any woman who has had a baby how easy it is to instruct that child that it is time to be born. Believe me, as a mother of the child whose due date was August 20th, and who showed up on September 9th. If it could have been done, it would have been done. But it can’t. Birth cannot be commanded. Birth cannot be scolded into happening. Birth is a process that occurs, either by the hand of the physician or by the hand of God. In Jesus’ day, it was far more likely to be by the hand of God.

Nicodemus acknowledges the signs Jesus has done. For Jesus to respond with these words about being born from above is for Jesus to remind Nicodemus of a deep truth about God, and also about humanity. God is our parent. God created us. God labors every day to bring us to birth in new life, in faith, in goodness and kindness. To be born of water and the Spirit is not something we can will in ourselves, any more than we can will ourselves to age five years in a month. And this is nothing to be ashamed of. Nicodemus is like every one of us who has ever thought, “When I get out of high school, then I’ll have it made.” Or, “When I get this degree, then I will be all set.” Or even, “When I find the right person to marry,” or “When I have a baby,” or “When I can afford this house.” Nicodemus is a striver, someone who is accustomed to carrying the heavy load of achievement all by himself—even spiritual achievement. And it is never-ending. There is no relief from it. By reminding Nicodemus of the possibility of being born from above, Jesus is offering him a respite from that heavy load. He is saying, “God is laboring to bring you to birth. Only God can accomplish this. Try trusting in God, rather than trusting only in yourself. Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

Jesus is calling Nicodemus to let go. Let go of the notion that you can control all the outcomes. Let go of the idea that there is some way to be perfect, to obey the law, and interpret the law, perfectly. Let go of shame. Let go of the idea that you can somehow avoid sin on your own, without God’s help. The great protestant Reformer Martin Luther wrote a letter to a young colleague, who was much like Nicodemus. He was concerned with the law, so much so that he was nearly paralyzed—he could not go right, he could not go left. It was almost as if he had forgotten about the grace of God, our loving parent who is laboring on our behalf. Luther wrote,

If you are a preacher of Grace, then preach a true, not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly. For he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. As long as we are here we have to sin. This life in not the dwelling place of righteousness but, as Peter says, we look for a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. . .

Luther is not advocating that his friend take up sinning. He is simply telling him to trust in God. Which is exactly what Jesus is telling Nicodemus. Trust in God. We don’t know how Nicodemus responded on this occasion… he fades out of the passage, he falls silent. But our passage ends with some of the most comforting words in scripture: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

I don’t think we’re born with it. I think it’s something we have to learn. I think we pick it up any number of ways: Perhaps someone we love and depend on teaches us. Perhaps we are witnesses to someone else’s experience of it. Perhaps we stumble into it, in a sudden rush of awareness. I’m no longer speaking of shame. Now I’m speaking of trust in God, our loving God, our loving parent, who longs, who labors, who is waiting to bring us to birth and fullness of life. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The First Ones: Sermon on Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

“Genesis” means “beginning,” as in the very first words of the bible: “In the beginning, when God made the heavens and the earth…” All the stories in Genesis are stories of beginnings. They are all stories about firsts. The first moments of God creating. The first stars in the sky. The first waters to run across the earth. The first animals to inhabit dry land and birds to fly through the air. The first people. All the stories of Genesis are stories of firsts.

Today, on the first Sunday in Lent, it seems appropriate that we have a story that contains a number of these firsts: The first people. The first commandments given by God to those people. The first temptation. The first sin. And the first people to live in the consequences of that sin.

When our passage begins, only the “human” exists. The word used in the Hebrew, “Adam,” later becomes the proper name for the first man. But “Adam’s” original meaning is earth-creature, groundling, one formed from the earth, from the “Adamah.” When we meet the first human creature, we cannot assume it is either male or female. All we know is that it’s human. The surgery which assigns sex to the earth-creature, and results in the creation of male and female, occurs offstage for us this morning, in the eerie tale told at the end of chapter two. The lectionary skips over that part.

“Adam,” the earth-creature, is given a task. Really, a commandment. When God gives you a job—I think we all know it’s a commandment. God’s first commandment is contained in the first sentence of our reading: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it” [Genesis 2:15]. The first commandment is that the human should care for the earth that God has created, “Adam” should care for the “Adamah”. The garden is God’s creation, this beautiful and lush garden paradise, and the human, also God’s creation, is to care for it, to till it and keep it. This is humanity’s first assignment. This is the first commandment.

The second commandment is a curious one, and it’s the one that leads to all the trouble. God selects one tree from among all those in the garden and places a boundary around it by telling the earth-creature, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” [Genesis 2:16-17].

There is something in this story that begs the question, “Why?” Why would God not want the earth-creature to know good and evil? Is God being an over-protective parent? Is it because humankind is still in its infancy? Remember, this commandment being given when the earth creature is in, at the least, a pre-adolescent stage of development—one can’t have an awareness, for example, of the opposite sex if no such thing exists. Living in a paradise where all your needs are met and there is no reason for conflict would seem to preclude an awareness of evil, but also of good—if good is all you’ve ever known, how can you see it for what it is, except by contrast? For whatever reasons the Creator has in mind, it is God’s choice, at this moment, to shield the earth-creature from that particular knowledge.

By the time chapter three commences, we no longer have an undifferentiated earth creature, but a man and a woman—neither of them named, neither of them ashamed, both still in that strangely pre-adolescent state. And immediately a new character is introduced: the serpent. The serpent is described as the craftiest of all the wild animals God has created, and we immediately see why: the serpent is placed in the role of Tempter. And his first temptation is brilliant: he asks a question to which he already knows the answer, and it’s one that is designed to confuse, to interrupt the logic of what God actually said. The serpent asks the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” [Genesis 3:1b]. Very clever. Because, of course, that’s not what God said at all.

And the clever question plants a little seed of doubt in the woman. We can tell, because of how she responds. She says, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die’” [Genesis 3:2b-3]. The woman misquotes God. God never said that they shouldn’t touch the tree. But the woman reveals her anxiety by doing what the Rabbis call ‘placing a fence around the Torah.’ That’s what you do when, in order to avoid a particular sin, you avoid other activities that are related to that sin—what has been called “the near occasion of sin.” The woman, by adding the prohibition on touching the fruit—which God never said—shows that the Tempter is getting to her, just a little bit.

Then the Tempter tries another strategy. He applies reason, and imputes a somewhat sinister motivation to God’s commandment. The Tempter tries to get between the woman and God by making her doubt that God has her best interests at heart. The serpent says, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” [Genesis 3:4b-5]. Very, very clever. The tempter essentially asks the question, Does God really have our best interests at heart?

One of the things it’s important to remember about Genesis is that, by its very nature, it is a book that contains some very early understandings of God. Much of Genesis is written by an author who has God behaving downright humanly—just after our passage ends, we are told that God is walking around the garden at the time of the evening breeze, presumably because God’s warm and wants to cool off! God is highly anthropomorphized, that is to say, God is given human characteristics. What the serpent says to the woman, to our ears, sounds outrageous. Of course God has our best interests at heart. What nonsense! But that would not be such a given for the earliest storytellers. With a history of capricious gods who often are quite antagonistic towards humans, the possibility that God might be a kind of trickster would not be unheard of.

The words have an effect on the woman. And, in something that is fairly unusual for biblical literature, we are given a full description of the reasoning the woman uses to make her decision. “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate” [Genesis 3:6].

The woman is a philosopher. She is an ethicist. She has an artist’s eye! She sees that the tree is good for food, she sees that it is beautiful, and she sees that it will give her wisdom. The woman wants all of these things, and so she eats the fruit. And she gives some to her husband, who gobbles it up without a word of question or protest.

The man and the woman feel the consequences of their action immediately. Their eyes are opened. They see that things have changed. They see that they are naked. And, for the first time, it occurs to them that clothes might be a good idea. But they don’t die. At least, not yet. Scholars are divided. Does the fact that the man and the woman don’t die immediately, as God had told them they would, indicate that the serpent’s reading of God’s motives was correct? That God didn’t want them to be wise, and so tried to scare them away from the tree with what amounted to a fib? Or, are we to understand that now they will die, whereas before, they would have lived forever, in their garden paradise, never knowing their nakedness, never knowing evil, but also, never knowing good?

The traditional Jewish interpretation of this tale sees it as a coming-of-age story, one in which humanity moves out of childhood and into adulthood—which includes, always, a knowledge, if not an understanding, of good and evil and their place in the world. Some have speculated that this may have originated as a folk tale, told to young women on the threshold of adulthood. In fact, some feminist scholars have even celebrated the action of disobedience to a command to stay in ignorance. One writes,

When [the woman] bit into the [fruit], she gave us the world as we know the world: beautiful, flawed, dangerous, full of being… Even the alienation from God we feel as a direct consequence of her fall makes us beholden to her: the intense desire for God, never satisfied, arises from our separation from him. In our desire—this desire that makes us perfectly human—is contained our celebration and our rejoicing. The mingling, melding, braiding of good and mischief in every human soul—the fusion of good and bad in intent and in art—is what makes us recognizable (and delicious) to one another; without it—without the genetically transmitted knowledge of good and evil that [the woman’s] act of radical curiosity sowed in our marrow—we should have no need of one another… of a one and perfect Other… [The woman’s] legacy to us is the imperative to desire. Babies and poems are born in travail of this desire, her great gift to the lovable world.[i]

Lest this sound like an entirely outrageous concept—the idea that we should be grateful for the sin of the first woman and man—none other than Saint Augustine said precisely the same thing. “O felix culpa,” he said, “O happy fault that merited… so great a Redeemer,” meaning, of course, Jesus Christ. Each Advent and Christmastide choirs sing that very sentiment in the medieval carol, “Adam Lay Ybounden,” whose last line is, “Blessed be the time that apple taken was/ therefore, we might sing, Deo Gracias.” Thanks be to God!

Sin has found its way into our lives. There is no doubt. We can either thank or curse the first ones for that. The aftermath of the first sin is the loss of paradise: the loss of a perfect world where there is no hunger, no pain, and no knowledge of good and evil. But the aftermath of the first sin is also the understanding of what it is to desire and what it is to create. Who knows? Perhaps the loss of paradise was God’s intention for us all along; after all, it is only through the “happy fall” that humanity comes to have need for a Savior. “The intense desire for God, never satisfied, arises from our separation from him.” Perhaps we were born to be prodigals, so that we would know in our bones the joy of coming home. Deo Gracias! Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, “A Meditation on Eve,” in Out of the Garden: Women writers on the Bible, Celina Spiegel and Christina Buchmann, eds. (Ballantine Books, 1995).

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A True Fast: An Ash Wednesday Meditation

As a balance to last night's meditation, I recommend this wonderful blogpost, "Eating Chocolate for Lent." God calls each of us, individually, by name. Some, God calls to eat chocolate.

This meditation is on Isaiah 58:1-12 and Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.


Lent is a tough season. Tougher, certainly, than Advent, which invites us to kindle lights in the darkness in anticipation of a birth. Advent is about angels and pregnancy and starlight hope, and at the end of it all, we get Christmas!

Not so with Lent. For one thing, Lent gets absolutely no play in the world outside the church. Easter does, to the extent it becomes an opportunity for folks to sell us candy and flowers and hams. The commercial world is on board with Easter! But Lent—how can you pretty up a season whose chief metaphors have to do with journeys in the wilderness and the kinds of diets they would never print in a women’s magazine?

Lent is misunderstood, I think. Our friend J. pointed this out beautifully in his Lenten meditation, found on the Ash Wednesday page of our church devotional. He noted that we tend to think Lent is about us, a kind of spiritual home-improvement project involving self-reflection, self-awareness, self-discipline, to the point where we neglect to notice where all that navel gazing is supposed to lead us—to a closer walk with Jesus. Lent is about Jesus. Lent is about sharpening our focus on Jesus. The church has traditionally encouraged us to do this by the adoption of certain spiritual practices which pre-dispose us to notice how very much we need him to show us the way. One of those practices is the fast.

Fasting is the practice of going without something, or limiting your access to it—in scripture, fasting nearly always refers to abstaining from food for a certain period of time. But in our modern context people can fast from anything they suspect they are overly attached to, as part of an attempt to make more room for God. Saint Augustine said that God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them. Fasting is a way for us to try to empty our hands, so that God can give us something good. Both our readings this evening speak of fasting. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus speaks of fasting; he seems to accept it as a normal part of religious observance, something most faithful people will do at one time or another. However, he seems to be talking about it as if the practice is somehow going wrong as he observes it.

And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

~ Matthew 6:16-18

It sounds as if those who are fasting are using it as an excuse to either get everyone to think they’re extra-special good people, or to garner sympathy. Neither of these, Jesus says, is the point of fasting. Likewise, in the passage from Isaiah, the prophet sounds frustrated with those who are using the fast as an excuse for oppressing their workers, or even for getting involved in fights and skirmishes—“striking with a wicked fist,” as he puts it. Clearly, if a fast has anything at all to do with deepening our connection to God, striving to follow Jesus, this fast has gone entirely off the rails.

And—I have to confess—when it comes to food, I have always found it difficult to separate a fast for religious purposes from that other purpose that always interests me, controlling my weight. I can’t tell you how many times I planned to abstain from some specific goodie for Lent, all in the service of trying to lose weight—a perfect example serving my own interests on the fast day.

So, here are a bunch of ways fasting can go wrong:

We use it as an excuse for crankiness, or even violence.

We use it as an excuse for oppressing others.

We use it as a way to gain sympathy.

We use it to impress someone.

Fasting goes wrong if we do it for the wrong reasons, to serve our own interests. Fasting goes wrong if God is not at the center of it. Simple. So, how do we do “fasting” right? How precisely do we empty our hands, so that God can give us something good?

First, I think we need to recognize that when we give something up, our natural response is going to be to try to replace it with something else. When fasting, one of the goals is to actually experience the emptiness we feel when we cannot eat or drink or do or have that thing we are fasting from. So, we have to resist the urge to fill up on something else. If we have given up chocolate, we have to resist the urge to fill up on pie. If we give up the internet, we have to resist the urge to fill up on TV. We have to commit to feeling the emptiness.

And there’s just one exception to that rule. Don’t fill up on something else—unless that something else is God. So, in the midst of our stomach churning emptiness, we can pray. We can grumble or complain to God, or ask, just what it is that God wants us to learn in this empty moment. When our fingers are itching to text or to fire up Facebook, we can turn to scripture—perhaps this is a good time to set ourselves a goal of reading through one of the gospels, or the book of Exodus. When we think we’ve just gotta have cake or die, we can try to understand our powerful and disconcerting feelings by writing about them, keeping a journal. Our fast will only accomplish the goal of sharpening our focus on Jesus if we actually give Jesus a shot at speaking to us. Prayer, scripture and writing are all ways we can open ourselves to hearing his voice.

Isaiah has still more to say to us about the fast. Isaiah directs the people to the great fast that God truly wants them to observe—a fast from injustice.

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? ~Isaiah 58:6-7

Lent is not about us. Fasting from something we are attached to—whether food or drink or digital media or toys—is one way for us to open ourselves to an awareness of Jesus’ presence. Fasting from injustice is a way for us actually witness to Jesus’ presence in a broken, hurting world. Lent is not about us. If we choose to fast, whatever fast we choose, let’s allow God to be the nourishment that fills us and strengthens us. Let us allow God to direct our path, as we seek to walk more closely with Jesus. Let us allow God to break the bonds that chain all of us to those things that are not good or true or holy. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

What We Need: Sermon on Matthew 6:24-34

This sermon was preached on February 27, and, for whatever reason, I failed to post it. This past Sunday we did a service of Lessons and Hymns on the Sermon on the Mount-- a nice change from T-Fig! And no sermon! A little breathing space before Lent.

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We don’t have work too hard to find examples of worry all around us. We don’t have to work hard at all to find worry nested right inside us! In last Thursday’s New York Times, columnist Gail Collins gave a great example of the kinds of thoughts that are swirling around many Americans’ minds:

Right now concerned citizens are probably asking themselves: What will happen if the federal government shuts down? Also, why is the federal government in danger of shutting down? Whom can I blame for this? Does it have anything to do with what’s going on in Wisconsin? Did Congress pass a budget last year at all? Why not? And does this relate in any way to the report that Christine O’Donnell, the former United States Senate candidate from Delaware, may be joining the next cast of “Dancing With the Stars?” [1]

We can all come up with our own lists… the things we’ve worried about within the past week.

We can start, as the columnist did, with our worries about the national and international scenes: The collective bargaining rights of union employees. Women’s rights, right here at home and around the world. The crisis in Libya, and exactly what our president means by “the full range of options we have to respond to this crisis.” The protesters in Bahrain, and all throughout the suddenly less-stable-than-ever Arab world. The nascent democratization process in Egypt. Global unrest generally. The earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand. The growing inequality in the distribution of wealth. Our continuing presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention Pakistan.

Then our worries might come closer to home: Our children. Our grandchildren. Our parents. Our grandparents. Our spouses or partners. Our health. Our weight. Our blood pressure. Our vision. The results of that test. How much we spend on groceries. How much sleep we get. Whether that windstorm will blow the attic windows right off the house. Whether we will slip and fall on all that ice out there. Whether we will find a job. Whether that job will pay enough. How long the unemployment benefits will last. The prospect of gas costing $5 a gallon. Whether we can absorb gas at $5 a gallon on a fixed income, or no income. Whether our pension will be there when we need it, or our Social Security check.

And then, there’s the thing churchgoers often find themselves worrying about: the church. Money, always money. Our budget shortfall. The growth of the church. Our responsibilities, as committee members, as volunteers. Our aging infrastructure. Fights, about this or that.

You get the idea. So many things that crowd into our minds. So many worries that can take us for what feels like a long forced march down the primrose path of anxiety. Of course, all worries are not necessarily created equal, though the worry about our own or our loved ones’ health may share equal status with our worry about the state of the nation.

Jesus seems to be worried about worry today. Perhaps “concerned” would be a better word. Our passage begins with a stark warning: “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” [Matthew 6:24]. The old King James Version translates that word “Mammon,” and it’s an interesting word. It’s Aramaic, which is Jesus’ native tongue, and it carries a very negative connotation. To call “money” or “wealth” by the name “Mammon” is to do two things. First it is to use the word as a personification… almost as if the money, the wealth, has a personality. As if it were a god. And second, the word “Mammom” could be translated something like “filthy lucre.” You cannot serve both God and that other fake god, Mammom.

Now that Jesus has set the context, he moves on to the real matter at hand: worry. And not just any garden variety worry. Worry about survival. These are the basics he speaks of: Food. Clothing. Shelter. These worries were made very real to me this week as I sat with a dear friend of many years, whose financial situation has become so dire, she is facing the unthinkable. My friend said to me, “We’re going to be living in the car.”

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” ~Matthew 6:25

It’s good to remember who Jesus is talking to here. First, he’s talking to his friends and followers. Remember, these are the ones who have just left their nets and boats and income-producing work and families to follow him around, learning from him, being in the presence of his healing touch. And by now the crowds have gathered around. So Jesus is talking to them, too. And the crowds were made up of, for the most part, the poor. The ancient world was like our world in that the disparity between the richest and the poorest was chasm-like, and ever widening. One writer describes it this way:

75% of the people were merchants, fishermen, artisans, and farmers. Today, these are respected professions—lucrative, in some cases. Then, however, these workers operated at a bare subsistence level. We would call this "third world." The very bottom rung of the social ladder, the "fourth world," accounted for as much as 15% of the people. They were beggars, cripples, prostitutes and criminals who lived off the land outside the cities. [2]

This is Jesus’ audience. These are the people to whom Jesus is saying, “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? ” [Matthew 6:26-27]

In some ways, this is an incredibly hard saying. It almost feels as if Jesus is saying “Don’t worry, be happy” to the most vulnerable, those most likely to fall into that chasm, never to emerge. It almost feels as if he is being cavalier about the truly perilous position this 75% finds themselves in, those who, today, are two paychecks away from living in their car, if they have one.

But at the heart of Jesus’ message is something that is truly life-changing, if those who are listening might be able to hear it. At the heart of his message is the love of God for each person, the inherent value and dignity of each individual. “Are you not of value to God?” goes Jesus’ rhetorical question. The answer is, must be, yes.

Church health guru Peter Steinke has made somewhat of a career by talking about anxiety, how it is born, how it grows, how it spreads, and how to manage and even transform it. He has a prescription for managing anxiety and worry. It includes suggestions such as,

“Know your limits.”
“Know your core convictions, values and beliefs.”
“Know where you stand.”
“Know what you would die for.”

But they all amount to one thing: Know who you are. Know who you are.

How does knowing who you are lessen or relieve your anxiety? It helps you to respond thoughtfully rather than react instinctively when frightening events occur. It helps you to take a deep breath when free-floating anxiety is the soup you are swimming in. It helps you to know the kind of person you want to be, even when you don’t know what to do.

For the people in Jesus’ audience “knowing who they were” was tricky. All around them were messages telling them that they were less than nothing, expendable. The Roman Empire had the power to take them as slaves at will. The religious leaders had set things up so that people had to continually fret about whether they were in a state of ritual purity—whether they were good enough, clean enough, human enough to even approach the holiest places. Jesus had life-transforming, anxiety-managing Good News for them: “In the eyes of God, you have value.” And its corollary, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Does this mean a magical replenishment of food supplies or hands filled with cash? No. It certainly doesn’t. But it does mean the ability to face the unacceptable, even the horrifying with the quiet confidence, not that we will be rescued, but that we won’t be alone. I read an article this week by a woman who lost her young daughter to cancer. She was writing about the love of God in the midst of suffering. She wrote, “I wanted Love to look like rescue. But it is Love, when you look at it from a certain angle—the love that is solidarity, understanding and union.” [3] What we need is the knowledge that we are loved, even in the midst of our trauma and desolation. What we need is to serve God, and not our fear.

And the circle is complete, as we return to the first words of Jesus in this passage: “No one can serve two masters… You cannot serve God and wealth.” I would like to suggest that perhaps it would be ok to make the following substitution: You cannot serve both God and fear. You cannot serve both God and worry. If we are serving God we will know that love that stands with us, even when we believe we are alone in the dark. If we are truly seeking God’s reign, we will know that love that has been there before, through the suffering and fear, that love that perfectly gets what we are going through. If we are a part of God’s healing community, we will know that love that tells us we are one of many, one member of the body of Christ. We have what we need: that love that isn’t rescue, but solidarity, understanding and union. Thanks be to God. Amen.


[1] Gail Collins, “Revenge of the Pomeranians,” New York Times Opinions, February 24, 2011.

[2] John Petty, “Lectionary Blogging: Matthew 6:24-34,” Progressive Involvement, February 20, 2011.

[3] Karen Gerstenberger, “Random Thoughts on Religion and Faith,” Gberger, February 19, 2011.