Jesus’ Family Tree: Rahab’s Story

Scripture: Joshua 2:1-14

As I was preparing this week, I couldn’t help but think of a scene from one of my favorite movies, Hitch.  It came out when I was in college and in it Will Smith plays Hitch, the “Date Doctor,” a guy who sets people up professionally, but doesn’t actually seem to have a lot of game himself.  When he meets a woman he’s interested in named Sara, he has the idea to take her on a fun and romantic expedition to Ellis Island to see one of her ancestor’s names in the log they kept of immigrants entering the country.  He keeps his plan a secret from her, though.

They ride jet skis over to Ellis Island and are wandering around the museum when they come upon the registration book where her great-great-grandfather’s name is written, and Hitch casually stops and gestures for her to look.  When she sees the name she tears up, and he’s smiling to himself, until Sara cries out angrily and starts actually crying and runs away.  In the next scene they’re walking and Sara is saying to Hitch, “…and my family never saw him again, well, except on the Wanted posters.”  And Hitch says, “When I saw it on the computer, it said ‘The Butcher of Cadiz.’  But I thought it was a profession, not a headline.”

She says, “It’s just one of those horrible family legacies we’ve all tried to forget.”

I asked last week if any of you had anything interesting in your genealogy.  Have any of you come across something or someone you’d rather erase out of your family tree altogether?

Rahab could have easily been one of those people in Jesus’ family tree.  She was no Butcher of Cadiz, I mean, but she was a prostitute, and that’s one of those things you maybe don’t mention in your seventh-grade family tree project.  But as it turns out, not only does she make it onto the family tree, she’s one of only five women who does in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus.  So what’s she doing there, and why does Matthew think she’s so important?  What does Rahab have to tell us about her descendant Jesus and who he is and what God is doing through him?

Well, let’s back up and hear her story.

Rahab’s story takes place just as the wilderness years are coming to an end and the Israelites are camped on the eastern side of the Jordan River, about to enter the promised land of Canaan.  She and her family live in the city of Jericho, the first city in the promised land to fall.  You might remember the song – Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, and the walls came a-tumblin’ down?  Rahab and her family actually lived inside the wall of the city, which confused me until I visited the city of Cartagena, Colombia, where the wall was actually wide enough to stroll on at sunset and have shops and such inside it.  Anyway, this is right before that wall and all its wall-houses come a-tumblin’ down.

Moses has died, by this point, and his assistant Joshua is in charge.  God tells him to “be strong and very courageous.”  If he and his people act in accordance with the law that God gave them through Moses, God promises him, God will be with them.  Before Joshua leads the Israelite army into Jericho to take it over, though, he wants to scout it out, see what they are up against.  So he sends two spies into the city for a little recon mission.

The spies enter the city and the very first thing they do is go to Rahab’s house.  Very important spy work going on there, I’m sure.  The Bible simply says they entered her house and spent the night, but as one writer, Tom Fuerst, put it, “Two unnamed soldiers in the house of a prostitute does not stretch the imagination.”[1]

But while they are there, the king gets wind of the fact that some spies have entered his city.  They must not have been very good spies, but, so the story goes.  So the king sends some of his guys to Rahab’s house to find them.

Rahab must also have heard that they were coming – I suppose word travels pretty quickly in Jericho – because she ushers the men up to the roof, where flax is drying from the recent harvest, and hides them there under the drying stalks.  And when the king’s men knock on the door, she tells them, “Oh yeah, they were here, but they left.  I think they went that way,” and the men thank her very much and ride off.  Then she lowers the spies out through the window on the outer side of the city wall with a rope and tells them to literally run for the hills.  (Notice they haven’t done much spying.)

We are reading this story, of course, from an Israelite perspective, and so Rahab immediately goes from Canaanite prostitute to Israelite hero.  We read about her in Hebrews 11, listed as a paragon of faith.  We read about her in the book of James, as someone whose faith was shown through her actions.  But Rahab was a traitor.  She harbored two enemy spies, people who would literally cause the walls of her city to come a-tumblin’ down.  Why would she do it?

Maybe, as one of my commentaries suggested, she was not the polished professional, the madam, that we might picture, but a poor girl from a poor family forced into her line of work to repay debt or help put food on the table.[2]  Maybe, given her marginal social status, she didn’t feel much loyalty to the powers that be.  That first part – her poverty – seems likely.  Still, it’s hard to believe she wouldn’t have cared if her whole city was destroyed.

Here, though, is what Rahab tells the spies.  She says, “I know that the Lord has given you this land.  We’ve heard what you all did in Egypt, how your God dried up the waters of the Red Sea, how you went to war against some kings across the Jordan and one.  We are all afraid of you.”  And she says, “The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below.”

Rahab believes when she has no reason to believe.  She stakes her life on a God her people don’t even worship.  For that, we are called to emulate her faith.

Then again, it’s possible Rahab’s faith might have been a little more calculated than miraculous.   If she really had heard these stories of Israelite military victory, then maybe she simply wanted to make sure that when those walls came a-tumblin’ down, she’d be standing with the winners than the losers.  Is this faith, or  is this just telling these men what they want to hear – something she must be very practiced at – in a desperate gamble for her own survival?  How much of a difference is there?

Either way, the spies agree to her request: she has saved them, and they will save her too.

As they head down the wall and toward the hills, though, they do give her one condition: that she and all her family tie a red cord in their window, so when the invading army comes, they will know to pass those houses over.  Sound familiar?  This Canaanite family gets a Passover of its own.

So that is Rahab’s story.  Here’s the thing, though: it’s not just Rahab’s profession that made her an unlikely candidate for Jesus’ family tree.  It’s not even just that she was a non-Israelite, though that was a strike against her at the time, too.

It’s that most of the book of Joshua is based around the divine command to utterly destroy everything and everyone in the land of Canaan.  In Hebrew this is known as herem, sometimes translated into English as “the ban.”  When the Israelites entered the promised land and took it for themselves, not one person, not one animal, not one thing that might cause them to assimilate to another culture, was to be spared.

This is not an aspect of our theological heritage we tend to talk about a lot in church, because it doesn’t actually make us look very good.  Especially if we affirm – as Jesus would have – that the God of the Old Testament is the same God we meet in Jesus in the New Testament.  Who, these days, wants to worship a God who calls for the utter destruction of the people already in the land?  They weren’t even the invaders – just the people going about their business in the place where they presumably always had.

This is one of those big theological problems for pretty much anyone who has any sliver of compassion, and no one has a great way out of it.  We could spend a lot more time on this, but for now let me simply recognize the problem and also mention that we can think about it symbolically, our need to cut everything out of our lives that is not of God, no questions, no exceptions.  (Recognizing that it is also problematic to think of people only symbolically.)  Or we might say that that is how people understood God’s will at the time, but times change, and it’s possible they were wrong, just as it’s possible we’re wrong in some of the ways we understand God’s will today.

In Rahab’s story, though, that command is violated.  Had the Israelites followed the rules—the rules they understood to be from God—Rahab and her family would have been toast.  Instead, she lives to become the father of Boaz, who will marry Ruth, who will give birth to Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David, the ancestor of Jesus.  Rahab represents a branch of Jesus’ family tree that might never have been.

The beauty of Rahab’s legacy is that someone who was apparently supposed to be blotted out of God’s story gets written back in.

And maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise, because God’s story is full of people who by some standards shouldn’t have been a part of it, from Jacob, who tricked his way into the family tree, to Moses, raised as a son of the enemy king, to David, chosen and thoroughly fallen, to Paul, who hunted down the very people he would become a pastor to—to a baby, born to an unwed mother, whose first bed was a feeding trough, and who would die a criminal’s death.

“Advent,” writes Tom Fuerst, “opens our eyes to the ways in which God’s love is bigger than we possibly could have imagined.”[3]

In Jesus’ time, too, we hear of people who might otherwise have been written out of the story: of Mary Magdalene, who had seven demons.  Of lepers, banned to the outskirts of the community, and paralytics, begging outside the Temple.  Of Zacchaeus, the tax collector, complicit in his own oppression.  Of a Roman soldier who lost a child.  Of a woman married five times who showed up at a well when she thought no one else would be there.  Of – once again – a Canaanite woman whose daughter was possessed.

They were outcasts, enemies, people living in the margins.  And what did Jesus do?  He healed them, forgave them, showed mercy on them, healed their children, invited himself over for dinner.  He wrote them back into the story.  He made them believe that maybe it wasn’t God who had written them out, after all.

Maybe you know someone who seems like an unlikely candidate for being part of what God is doing in our world.  Maybe they’re an addict, someone who has wasted their life and potential and brought only misery to others.  Maybe they’re needy in a way it’s hard to feel sorry for, always taking and never giving.  Maybe they are just not a good person, always looking out for number one without regard for how their actions affect others.

Or maybe you are someone who wonders if you yourself have been written out of God’s story—if God has simply left you to the devices of the people or forces who would destroy you.  If your past or even present has made you unworthy of your place at the table, unworthy of doing God’s work.

I know one Canaanite woman who would tell you otherwise.

What are we waiting for during the season of Advent?  Maybe this is a season of waiting to be written back in.  Because when you think about it, all of us are unworthy to be part of God’s story.  All of us are unworthy to do the work that God has for us to do in the world.  So maybe this is a season of waiting for the grace that includes those of us who might otherwise have been  excluded.  A season of preparing ourselves to be able to recognize it when we see it.   A season leading to the birth of the one who gives us reason to believe we were never written out.

So this is your job this second week of Advent: Remember that God’s love is bigger than we ever thought possible.  Try to look at others in that light, and try to look at yourself in that light too.

 

[1] Tom Fuerst, Underdogs and Outsiders: The Untold Stories of Advent, p. 34.

[2] New Interpreter’s Bible: Joshua

[3] Underdogs and Outsiders, p. 31

Jesus’ Family Tree: Tamar’s Story

 

Scripture: Matthew 1:1-16, Genesis 38

Most of us probably think we know where the Christmas story begins, with a visit from an angel to Mary or Joseph, depending on which Gospel you read.  But actually it begins before then.  In Luke it begins with the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist.  In Matthew’s Gospel, the very first part of the story is a genealogy – a family tree of Jesus.

We usually skip over that part of the story when we tell it, because really, who wants to sit and listen to a bunch of “begats.”

But some of the people who show up in that family tree might surprise you, and we are going to spend this Advent with a few of them, because they are the people who made Christmas possible.  So we’re going to begin this morning by reading Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus.

(Matthew 1:1-16)

Now we’ll hear the story of one of those names: the story of Tamar.

(Genesis 38)

Are any of you into genealogy?  In your research, have you come across any interesting family facts or stories?  In those stories, do you feel like you have learned anything about who you are and where you come from?

I’m not going to claim I’m super into genealogy, although both my parents have been on and off, and over the years I’ve had to do a few school projects where I research my family tree, so through this I’ve learned a few things about my family.  I remember my grandmother, who would be 113 years old today if she was still alive, talking about what Christmas was like for her and her siblings as a kid growing up in Philadelphia.  She said they would get a pair of roller skates, and a book or a game, and there would always be an apple and an orange at the top of their stockings.  Later my grandfather, her husband, who I never knew, would go out and pick up coal from along the railroad tracks to heat the house during the Depression.  Stories like that have stuck with me because they remind me that I come from a family of people who had a lot less than I am used to, even if, as my dad says, they never knew they were poor.

Our family histories certainly don’t dictate who we are, but they can help us learn a little bit about ourselves and each other.  And just like that’s true for us, it is also true for Jesus.  By learning a little bit about the people who make up his back story, we can learn something about who Jesus is and what God was and is doing in this world through him.

In Jesus’ family tree, there are a lot of really obscure names, but there are also some famous people.  Matthew starts with Abraham.  Luke’s genealogy traces Jesus all way back to Adam.  Either way, we learn that Jesus has to do with our beginnings: God’s creation of the world, and God’s choosing of God’s people.  And then there is Isaac and Jacob, who was called Israel, and whose sons and their families became the nation of the same name.  And further down the line there is King David.  That is important, because Jesus is seen as the fulfillment of God’s promise that a descendant of David will rule Israel forever.  Finally we follow the family tree all the way down to Joseph, which is interesting, because then we learn that this is an adoptive genealogy: Joseph isn’t even his biological father!  Still, Matthew—and Luke—affirm that Joseph’s family are the people who make up Jesus’ story.

The other thing you might notice about this family tree is that it’s almost entirely made up of men.  I guess the women don’t get credit for being the ones who actually bore all of these people (but you know, maybe I’m sensitive because that whole experience is still fresh.)  But there are some exceptions.  Five exceptions, to be exact: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary.  Since Matthew usually doesn’t include the women, we can assume that these five are here for a reason, because they are particularly important to the story somehow.  And indeed these women have some of the most interesting and even scandalous stories in the whole family tree.  So they are the ones we are going to hear from this Advent.

First, there is Tamar.  Tamar is – bear with me here – Jesus’ great great great great great, great great great great great, great great great great great, great great great great great, great great great great great, great great great great great, great great great great grandmother.  (If I counted correctly.  If not, you get the idea.)

You just heard part of the story of Tamar, but I want to back up a little bit.  Tamar’s story takes up one chapter of Genesis.  It’s a brief detour from the story of Joseph and doesn’t seem to be connected much to anything around it, enough that some scholars say they don’t know why it’s there at all.  (“It is not evident that it provides any significant theological resource,” one said[1] – but clearly Matthew thought otherwise.)

Judah, son of Jacob and brother of Joseph, who has just been sold into slavery, settles in another place, marries, and has three sons.  Judah’s oldest son is named Er, and Judah takes a wife for him, a presumably Canaanite woman named Tamar.  But then, Genesis tells us, “Er…was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death.”  All right – not how I believe God generally operates, but so the story goes.

In Deuteronomy we learn about this thing which was practiced in ancient Israel called levirate marriage.  The rule is that if a woman’s husband dies and they don’t have any children, his oldest surviving brother then has to marry her to provide an heir for the first brother, to carry on the family name.  It’s unclear how much this was really practiced, but it’s important to the story.  Er dies, so it is up to Judah’s middle son Onan to marry Tamar and provide an heir for Er.

Onan apparently doesn’t really love that idea, because after all, if the oldest son doesn’t have any heirs, then Onan himself will get the greatest part of the inheritance.  So Onan sleeps with Tamar, but as for providing heirs, he finds a way to get out of it, so to speak.  (If you don’t know what I mean, Genesis 38 is more explicit.)

God isn’t too happy about that, so God puts Onan to death too.

The culturally mandated thing at this point would be for Judah’s third son, Shelah, to step up and marry Tamar.  But you can imagine if you were Judah and your first two sons have just died you might not be excited to marry your last remaining son off to the same woman.  So Judah tells Tamar “He’s too young, wait until he’s older, go back to your father’s house until then.”  Judah has no real intention of ever letting her marry Shelah, and she probably knows it.

Here’s the problem for Tamar: if you were a woman in the Ancient Near East, you got your social and economic standing through your husband and your sons.  Tamar, at this point, has neither, but she also can’t marry anyone else, since technically she is promised to Shelah. She is Judah’s family’s responsibility, and Judah has effectively tossed this vulnerable person aside.

After a while Judah’s wife dies, and Tamar knows he must be lonely, and she has an idea of how to take back what is rightfully hers, a place in Judah’s family.  So when she hears that Judah is going to be in town, she dresses up like a lady of the night, shall we say, and Judah takes the bait. As payment, he promises her a sheep from his flock, but since he doesn’t have one on him at the time, she asks for his seal and staff as collateral.  His seal and possibly also his staff were like ID.  Judah does not know that this woman whose services he is paying for is in fact his daughter-in-law.  When he tries to send the sheep and get back his ID, this mysterious woman is nowhere to be found.  Instead of making a big thing of it, Judah says, “Meh, let her keep them.”

About three months later he finds out his daughter-in-law, still technically promised to his son Shelah, is pregnant.  Scandal!  In the Ancient Near East, this is a crime that calls for a death sentence.  But just as she is about to be brought out to her own execution, she hold up Judah’s seal and staff, and says, “Anyone know who do these belong to?”

Judah is convicted, because he knows he hasn’t held up his end of the bargain with Tamar.  She, though, is prepared to provide an heir for the family and procure some security for herself, no matter what it takes.  And in due time she gives birth to twins, who continue on the family tree that eventually leads us to David and then to Jesus.

Can you imagine Mary and Joseph sitting around the dinner table passing this family story on to Jesus?

But here’s where the story packs a punch: when Judah realizes that the person who has gotten Tamar pregnant is himself, he says, “She is more in the right than I.”  Or in some translations, “She is more righteous than I am.”

Tamar’s story is a story about redefining righteousness.

Judah is perhaps not a good man, but he is a man, apparently with some means and some standing in the community.  Tamar, meanwhile, is a childless widow with no standing who has apparently committed a sexual transgression.  If we were there, who would we see as righteous?  Which of these characters would we have respect for?

Maybe that’s hard to answer, because we know how the story turns out and we know who we’re supposed to root for.  But what about today?  Have you ever looked at someone askance for their questionable but possibly desperate decision?  Maybe the mother buying steak from the grocery store with her food stamps because she wants to make one nice meal for her family?  Or the young man selling drugs in the hood because he doesn’t see any other options for survival? Or protestors disturbing the peace while the rest of us sit complacently and don’t make any waves?  These are people we might be tempted to label as “unrighteous,” if we were given to using that kind of religious language in our day to day lives.

That’s certainly not to justify or excuse away any bad decisions a person might make, but sometimes it can be all too easy to judge another person’s actions as “unrighteous” without knowing their whole story – in fact, without even realizing how their story might implicate us.

When I was in seminary, someone broke into the church I attended at the time and robbed the church office.  Though I don’t know for sure who did it, we were surrounded by a large homeless community, and I remember that my pastor stood up on Sunday morning and told us what had happened, and when she prayed later on in the service she prayed for the people who had done this and then she said, “God, forgive us.”

Forgive us – but we were the ones who were robbed.  Then again, wasn’t the desperate need of our neighbors also our responsibility?  Was this a sign of our failure as a church and a society to care for them?  Who, here, was really righteous and unrighteous?  Maybe it wasn’t as simple as it seemed.

Especially now in the wake of the election, I think we in the US have different ideas about what it means to be righteous – to vote a certain way, to believe certain things, to fulfill a certain social role.  On both sides, we look across the aisle and are horrified by the wrongness we see.  This is not a call for cheap unity where we simply look past our differences and see the good in each other, because I think some of those differences matter. As our bishops said [in a letter from this past week] it is our job as Christians to stand up against the hateful treatment of minorities and immigrants that we’ve especially seen in the past few weeks post-election – that is not a partisan issue.  At the same time, when it does come to some of those partisan issues and cultural differences, I’m reminded that God often needs us to break out of our own assumptions of what “righteousness” looks like.

I’m reminded of the parable Jesus told about the Pharisee and the tax collector.  One followed the rules and the role society expected of him, and one was a sellout to the empire.  One spent his life in an attempt to be pure and holy, one was a sinner in search of redemption.  Which one went home justified – or “in the right”?  Not the one anyone listening would have considered righteous.

Maybe that idea that we need to rethink who and what we call righteous is something Jesus got from his ancestor Tamar.

He was, after all, the one who ate with people who were labelled outcasts and sinners.  He saw through the “good” religious people and upstanding citizens and hung out instead with people whose pasts and even presents were questionable.  Maybe he saw a new kind of righteousness in them.  Maybe their righteousness came from the fact that they knew they needed him and the life he showed them how to live.  Maybe it didn’t come from following rules and being “nice” but from the kind love and sacrifice that broke rules and crossed boundaries.

It is week one of Advent, we have four weeks until Christmas, and we are waiting for the coming of the One who showed us how to judge righteousness through different eyes.  So here’s your job for the next week: when you are tempted to judge and blame someone, maybe let Judah’s words echo in your mind and heart: “They might be more in the right than I.”

 

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: Genesis, p. 307-308

Coming Home

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Fundamentals of Christian Living: God’s Grace

 

“This fellow welcomes sinners and even eats with them.” Luke 15:2

Last week we looked at the Cross of Jesus Christ as fundamental to the Christian faith. There can be no Christianity without the Cross of Jesus.  We said that the Christian faith rises and collapses on the question of Jesus Christ and the cross. We believe that God became flesh (took on the form of a man in Jesus) and dwelt among us. He later suffered and died a humiliating death among criminals on the cross. This was a scandal to Jews who believed that a messiah cannot be killed, and it was foolishness to the Greeks who could not understand how a man could give his life for people that didn’t want him and had rejected. Yet for us who believe it is the power of God demonstrated through love even in death. Therefore, it is our hope for salvation. Without a clear understanding of the message of the cross, there is very little chance of living successfully as Christian disciples.

Today, we look at another fundamental of Christian living – God’s Grace.

The Christian faith begins with an assumption that we came from somewhere, and we are going somewhere. That, somewhere along the way, something happened that alienated us humans from God. God created humans in “imago Dei” (God’s image) as living souls, male and female and placed us on earth. Humans were thus created perfect and with a purpose, and God saw that it was good. But sin being present in the world distorted everything including the image of God in humans.

Sin also separated us from God.  And as such, our consciences were disillusioned. We are thus all lost. We no longer seem to know what our purpose is. So we try filling the void with meaningless thrills – alcohol, sex, material possessions, fame, etc. We call evil good and good evil. We no longer see ourselves as part of the whole human community, but instead we have become more self-absorbed and obsessed. Each one for themselves. Isaiah 53:6 says “All of us like sheep have gone astray and we have no clue where we are headed.” We all are like lost sheep.

Luke tells us that all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and Scribes (religious leaders) were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” They couldn’t just stomach the idea of Jesus hanging out with people they considered outcast. People they thought didn’t deserve a chance.

Tax collectors were some of the most hated people in Israel due to the nature of their work and alliance with the Roman government. Many were wealthy loan sharks and accumulated their wealth by imposing higher levies than even the Roman government required. They were thus seen as traitors, extortionists, and criminals. It was a scandal and against popular opinion that anyone who considered themselves righteous or one with the people would friendly interact with them. And Jesus did exactly that. He welcomed and even included some among his disciples. Remember the first gospel in the New Testament? Matthew – he was a former tax collector with his co-worker Zacchaeus.

To be honest most of us would likely sympathize with the grumblers.  I am certain that I have done that before. There are just certain people who have done deplorable things that I would not want to associate with. There are certain characters that I don’t want to influence my thoughts and tarnish my character. Even just thinking about it makes me nervous. In fact, one of my favorite Bible verses is Psalm 1. Blessed is the one who does not follow the counsel of the ungodly, or walks in the path of sinners, or sit in the seat of scoffers, but instead delights in the law of the lord.”

I don’t know what I would do with Scoffers like Thomas Jefferson who said “the Christian God is a three headed monster; cruel, vengeful and capricious. If one wishes to know more of this raging, three headed beast-like god, one only needs to look at the caliber of people who say they serve him. They are always two classes: fools and hypocrites.”

Yet Jesus welcomed such people. He even had sleepovers at their houses. He knew that they were lost – “This fellow welcomes sinners and even eats with them.” the scoffers, tax collectors, the law breakers, loan sharks. Jesus uses a parable to explain his motivation and actions. Jesus demonstrates that God’s greatest desire is for us to be reconciled with God; regardless of our social reputation. God takes the first step. Guthrie puts it well when he says “God does not demand that we first do something to make up for what we have done or not done before God reluctantly agree to forgive and love us again” (Guthrie, 1994, p. 257). God makes the initiative to seek us out when we are lost. It is not we who makes peace with God; it is God who makes peace with us. That is a fundamental Christian understanding.

Grace gives you the desire to think about the possibility and our need for God.  Grace causes us to repent of our sins and gives us the assurance of forgiveness, and grace enables us to desire to grow in love of God and neighbor. Grace is the unmerited favor of God. It is the divine initiative to seek and recover those who are lost in sin. Grace is the unfailing love of God. One commentary said “love does not care if it looks foolish. Love only asks that it be allowed to love at whatever cost.”  

How does God see us?

Many of us look at ourselves and think we are beyond God’s reach. We think of ourselves as undeserving of God’s love and attention. We look at what we have done in the past, the people we have hurt, the mistakes, the regrets. We cannot forgive ourselves and so we think even God cannot forgive us. We try to work out our own salvation and try to manufacture God’s attention.

However, God does not see us as worthless and despicable. He does not look at a sinner and shake his head in disbelief or resignation that salvation for such a one is impossible. Instead God looks at you and me and sees God’s own reflection. In the image of God we were created, male and female. Not as little gods, but as the highest form of God’s creation to reflect God’s own glory. You are, therefore, precious in the sight of God. It does not depend on what you do or haven’t done. It depends on God’s unfailing love that is extended to you. God desires a relationship with you. All we have to do is receive the gift – Jesus.

Sinners as characteristic of sheep – sheep don’t intentionally run away, they wander off unintentionally in search for greener pasture. Often they just look for their next immediate thrill until they wander off and panic. It can thus be said that they are more naïve than rebellious. Many of us are like sheep. Naïve of our limitations. We often don’t know that we are lost until it is too late or somebody reminds us. Some of us even when we are reminded still argue with the GPS, yet it graciously keeps on recalculating. We don’t intend to rebel against God, but we wander off because of ignorance and stubbornness. We crave empty thrills.

Those who intentionally rebel against God are often referred to as wolves in the bible. These are people who know and have tasted the truth, they know they’re doing wrong but do it anyway – Either because of pride or selfishness. Lucifer (Satan) lost his place in heaven because of pride. He thought he deserved to be worshiped as God was.

Are you living an intentional life or are you simply drifting along? Do you know where you are headed? Is your life filled with hope?

How does God react when we repent?

Verse 7 of Luke 15 tells us that heaven throws a shindig when one lost sinner repents. It is like having a child that was lost and thought dead suddenly comes back home. God throws a party in heaven. There is joy in the Holy Ghost. Maybe you have been gone away from God or faith for a very long time and you think it’s too late. Maybe you are holding onto a grudge, you are angry and cannot forgive. Maybe you are lost and don’t know what to do?

The Holy Spirit is calling you to home. “Behold I stand at the door and knock? If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them” (Revelation 3:20). Jesus moved by compassion left his comfortable place in heaven to look for all of us who are lost. God’s grace is sufficient. God’s love never fails.

Come home!

Sermon by Kelvin Mulembe ,  for September 24, 2016

References

Guthrie, Jr., S. C. (1994). Christian Doctrine. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press.

Living Church

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The Fundamentals of Christian Living: The Living Church (Acts 2)

Around the world millions of people are gathered in worship and celebration of communion as we join in recognizing October 2nd, as  World Communion Sunday. One voice of worship is rising to the heavens churches gather. The Apostles’ Creed includes a clause which declares that “Christians believe in the Church.” And some of us are uncomfortable with saying we believe in the holy Catholic Church. So what is meant by all this? What is the church, and what is its purpose? In this day and culture where we are obsessed with individualism and personal space, can we truly practice Christianity through the church as Christ instituted?

In Greek the word for Church is ekklesia, which sometimes carries a double meaning. And anything with a double meaning has the potential to create significant confusion. Much of our contemporary understanding of the church is so convoluted and misinformed. Partly because Christian leaders have done a bad job at explaining the nature and purpose of the church or more importantly they have lived lives that embarrassingly fall short of the ideals they preach. Jesus said “your love for one another will prove that you are my disciples.” But this has not been so obvious. Mahatma Gandhi one of the great reformers of India is known to have had admiration for Christ but not Christianity – famously quoted “Your Christ I like, but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike Christ.” Unfortunately, this seems to be a growing perception that many people hold of Christians, and consequently the church.

Scandals of child molestations, infidelity, embezzlement, war mongering, and all kinds of mischief that has engaged in have tainted the purpose and appeal of the Christian message. Recently we heard of Father John Mattingly former pastor of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church who was indicted for fraud. Over decades he wrote about 500 unauthorized checks and stole close to $76,000 money meant for the poor and put it in his retirement accounts. The church community has been deeply hurt and trust shaken.

In Acts 2, the author describes a model of what the church should be. We see a community driven by an appetite for learning God’s word, of communion and breaking of bread, and of prayer. People began to ask what they should do to be saved, to join the community of faith. I wonder how many people in the past year have come to you and asked what they should do to become Christian? Do they see a representative of the church of Jesus Christ? Do people at your workplace even know you as a Christian? Until we recover the true message and character of the Kingdom of God, the church will keep dying.

Significance of the Church – the church is fundamental to the Christian living because it was instituted by Christ. No one person can claim authority to build the church   “On this rock, I will build my ekklesia, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”

In the New Testament, the word church is used in two distinct ways. In some cases the church refers to the community of all true believers for all time. Ephesians 5:25 says “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” This applies to all those for whom Christ died to redeem both in the present life and those that have gone before us from the Old to the New Testament. In Psalm 22:22 the church refers to an assembly or congregation, “in the midst of the ekklesia, I will sing praises.” Assembly (fellowship) thus dismisses the notion that you can have church alone on your couch while watching televangelists. It denotes you having fellowship with other believers. I used to be one of those people who claimed I was having church at home watching preachers when I felt lazy to actually go to church.

The second way, church is described as a geographical locale. Revelation 3:14-22 is addressed “to the Church in Laodicea”. Similarly, Paul’s letters to the Church at Corinth or Philippi imply a local community of believers. It is my belief that Christ did not intend for us to have various denominations. But I also trust in God’s sufficient grace to use the various denominations and non-denominations to express God’s universal reach. Traditionally, the church holds that there is only one universal church which exists in local communities (McGrath, 2012, p. 138).

The nature of the church – appears to be both local and universal. And we Christians must live with this tension in order to be faithful disciples.  We can say the Church is a worshiping community established by Christ for Christian fellowship and witness. Hebrews 12:1 talks the great “cloud of witnesses” denoting an invisible membership. On this World Communion Sunday, we are joined by multitudes of ekklesia, assemblies of believers to worship God. Though we cannot see them, we are still joined as one church.

Thus, the church is invisible yet also visible. Invisible because only God knows those who truly belong, only God knows our inner hearts (2 Timothy 2:19). However, the church is also visible as we all here are the Christian representatives, we can see it through all who profess Christ and live out their faith on earth. All of us make up the church. Some not so polished, most of us broken and trying, sinners searching for the truth, you name it. Day by day we are being perfected by the Holy Spirit’s  work in our lives as we continue to follow God’s word.

The church’s primary task is – to actively participate in receiving and practicing God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven; – to make disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the world (Campbell, 1999, p. 112). Therefore, the institutions of the church, its activities, its worship and its theology must be tested by how effectively it succeeds in receiving and practicing the Kingdom of God. The church cannot see itself outside the universal Kingdom of God.

Today however, our focus has shifted. The church seems to find its aims in itself, detached from community and individually focused. We have stopped being missional except if it benefits local congregations, or adds to our branding. We have stopped being a global and outward movement and become solely institutional and localized. If the church stops spreading, it is dying. In order to be the true church of Jesus, we  need to re-engage in movement spreading. Through this grace-filled response we participate in bringing about the reign of God on earth.

How can we live faithfully as the living church?

The church was initiated by Christ through the Holy Spirit. On the day of Pentecost we know as assembly of believers reached three thousand plus. Church plays a significant role in bringing about salvation. Physically Church reminds us that we belong to the family of God as we gather in community with from various backgrounds. It is a means of grace through which the Spirit bears witness of the presence of God’s Kingdom on earth.

Church is the living witness of the power, righteousness, and love of God. It enables an environment in which we are empowered to grow in love of God and of neighbor. It gives us opportunity to seek and practice the common good. There is no room for selfishness in the Kingdom of God.

Church is the tool God uses to convey God’s engagement in healing relationships. Luke shows us that in the early church, they all had a commonwealth of resources. They shared all things in common. They cared for the needs of its members. These are the seeds that grow the church. That appeal to those who are not yet part of the community. Love is and should be the defining characteristic of the church.

Church creates an environment of attaining Christian maturity and discipleship. Next time you feel like skipping church for no proper reason, remember that you are depriving yourself and us of God’s gift for maturity and fellowship. The choice is yours and there is no excuse for ignorance. Henry David Thoreau said – “the price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it. What are you paying for staying away from church? – From studying God’s word, from practicing daily prayer? It is like a book with missing chapters. Your story adds to the richness of our story of faith. Your testimony and prayer helps bring salvation and healing to someone else. You may never know what your presence does.

The author of Hebrews encourages us “do not neglect meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encourage one another — especially now that the day of breaking forth of God’s reign is drawing near (Hebrews 10:25). In short, do not stop being the church. Do not stop coming to church. Do not stop praying for the church universal. May God build the church!

Amen.

Sermon by Kelvin Mulembe

Fundamentals of Christian Living: Scandal of the Cross

By Pastor Kelvin Mulembe

September 18, 2016

The words fundamentals or basics are often mistaken for something unsophisticated. The more sophisticated we become the more we tend to overlook our foundation. However, if we neglect the foundation, the fundamentals or basics of our faith, we will fail to live faithfully as Christians.

How many of us in here are Christians? I know that question sounds redundant, or perhaps even judgmental. Of course we are all Christians, we are in church, right? Only Christians go to church. Well, my Jewish friend comes here too. He’s not a Christian. And, there may be others who are not sure, and are still searching for the Truth. Being born in a Christian family doesn’t automatically make you a Christian. Just like not everything in a garage is a car. To be Christian entails receiving, believing, and practicing what is known as the Christian Truth. So what is the Christian truth?

Most of us who have grown up in predominantly Christian cultures assume we are Christians. In fact, in this nation we unconsciously link being American to being Christian. We talk about American values as Christian values and vice versa. To be Muslim or Buddhist or anything else is seen as anti-American, and therefore, anti-Christian. Even with efforts to try to separate church and state, we find some Christians who value the American flag more than they value the Bible. I have been to churches where the American flag has literally and symbolically replaced the cross of Jesus. Pulpits that are adorned in the American flag but having no Cross.

But, can we still be the church of Jesus Christ without the Cross? What is the significance of the Cross in our faith? You may say what does it have to do with anything in my life, with my job, my homelessness, my illness, my family? Why can’t we just love one another? Surprise, surprise, everything! The Christian faith rises and collapses on the question of the Cross. There is no message greater than the belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. His death is absolutely necessary to understanding the Christian truth. Without the Cross of Jesus, there is no Christianity. A Christian must believe that Christ died for our sins and was raised from death so that we may have eternal life. Christianity is a truth claim that “Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life”

Unfortunately, Christianity is on the decline in America. In the last seven years, the number of Americans who identify as Christian dropped from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent. 56 million adults living in America today do not affiliate with any faith (“Pew Research Center,” 2015, p. 1). There is a cultural and spiritual shift. I am convinced that this shift has to do with our loss of focus on the fundamentals. Christianity has become an alternative ideology rather than the good news.

Paul was confronted with a similar shift. As the Greek culture (Hellenistic) began to influence Christian thought and practice, through philosophy and rhetorical debates, and popular regard for charisma and wisdom became trendy, the Corinthian Christians began to conform to the standards around them. Divisions arose within the church as a result of celebrity worship. Some said they were for Paul, others Cleo’s people, some Cephas’ and others were for Jesus. Much like we have celebrity preachers of our own. I am for T.D Jakes, or Joyce Meyer, or Joel Osteen, I am for Adam Hamilton or Tom Berlin.

Christianity began as movement within Judaism. Followers of Jesus were not called Christians, but as “people of the way.” The message they preached was about the way of the Kingdom of God. This way of God’s kingdom was the direct opposite of everything that humans thought was important and plausible. Many Jews and Greeks alike opposed the message as shallow and unsophisticated. As foolishness and a dangerous scandal to the religious institution.

This could explain why the Corinthian church was in trouble, just like our church today. We have lost the essence of being a movement and have become an institution. We resist everything that doesn’t fit it in, including what may be the working of the Holy Spirit. We have been consumed by a desire to conform to the standards of the world rather than to be a light for the world. Our worship services are now geared towards comfort and convenience, and are void of power to transform lives. But the church is not about an organization. Christianity is not about rules and regulations. It is about living by faith under the reign of God. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Rollo May the famous American psychologist once said, The opposite of courage is not cowardice, but conformity.” People acting like everyone else. We conform to what is popular around us. Just because the message of the cross is uncomfortable, does not mean the church needs to dilute it. Paul says the message of the cross appears foolishness to some, but to us who are being saved, who are experiencing transformation, it is the power of God. This gospel of Grace is the most powerful good news available to humanity. I personally know how it changed my life and the lives of many. Try it for yourself, and your life will never be the same again.

I remember being a part of congregation that split because the Associate Pastor was more charismatic than the senior pastor. To be honest, he was more gifted both as a preacher and as a pastor. The senior pastor was boring, and a very rigid intellectual. His sermons were elaborate discourses that showed his higher education. He always talked down on others and never really took time to know the people. You could not visit him without an appointment. The Associate pastor on the other hand was the exact opposite. He was easily accessible and more sociable. So, naturally people began to gravitate towards him. This put a strain on the relationship between him and the senior pastor and he stopped giving him opportunity to preach.

This went on for a long time, until things got worse. People stopped coming to church, but would attend the bible study at the associate pastor’s house. Eventually, the senior pastor ordered the bible study illegal. People boycotted and continued to meet. Things got out of hand that the leadership decided to let go of the associate pastor. When this announcement was made in church, half the congregation left and followed the associate pastor to start another church.

Paul warns us as he did the Corinthians that Christ cannot be divided. We cannot let our own selfish interests dictate how God should work among us. Only Jesus died for us, and only Jesus has the power to forgive our sins. We cannot engineer our own or other people’s salvation, nor can we find salvation by human wisdom. No matter how educated or sophisticated, we cannot think ourselves out of a sinful nature. Only Christ can forgive our sins and transform us.

In order to understand the fundamentals of Christian living, we need to revisit the significance of the message the cross, and clearly understand Christ, Salvation and the language of Sin.

In the next few weeks, we are going to look deeper at other aspects of Christian fundamentals.

What is sin? In our contemporary usage the word “sin” could be understood as a moral failing or immoral act. In theology sin is something that separates humanity from God (McGrath, 2012, p. 92).

What is salvation? Salvation is the breaking down of the barrier that separates humanity from God on account of Christ. It is not about having a Mercedes Benz car, or a fat bank account. It is about being reconciled with God and living an abundant life in Christ.

Who is Christ? Christ is the redeeming sacrifice, a demonstration of God’s unfailing love for humanity. He is the messiah, the savior or the world. The only hope for salvation.

As we start this week, God is calling us to come back to into relationship. Though we have moved away, and led lives that are in contradiction to Christian living, the grace that Christ demonstrated on the Cross is still available and sufficient to welcome you home. Come home to Jesus. The cross symbolizes forgiveness of our sin through Christ Jesus.The cross also symbolizes victory over sin and death – “the word of God was made flesh in order to destroy death and bring us to life….” The cross also symbolizes Christ’s self offering as a perfect sacrifice. Though it may appear as foolishness, or a scandal, to us who believe it is the power of God for our salvation. Amen!

 

References

America’s Changing Religious Landscape. (2015). Retrieved from http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/

McGrath, A. E. (2012). Theology: The Basics (3rd ed.). West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

 

The Life of a Prophet: Can These Dry Bones Live?

Scripture: Ezekiel 37:1-14

Not everyone is called to be a prophet.

Not all of us are called to that particular life of seeing the world through God’s eyes, of speaking truth to power, of unsettling people with words they would often rather not hear.  Not many of us have heard the voice of God so clearly as to claim to speak for God.  As Paul reminds us, God made some of God’s people apostles, and some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, all for the sake of doing God’s work together (Ephesians 4:11).

But I do believe that we can all live lives that are a little bit more prophetic.  I believe that wherever life takes us, whatever our particular ministry is, we can apply some lessons from the prophets: To be concerned for the orphan and the widow.  To speak up for righteousness and justice.  To boldly believe that God’s call is enough for us, unworthy though we may be.  To weep with God’s people who are hurting.  To cultivate an intimate connection with God’s Word.  These things, as I’ve preached throughout this series, are things all of us can do.

Today we hear again from Ezekiel, our prophet of trippy visions and fantastic sign-acts.  Where we left off last week, Ezekiel was in Babylon, at a precarious time for the Kingdom of Judah.  The Babylonian army had already carted off the first wave of exiles from Jerusalem, the government officials and religious elites, of whom the priest Ezekiel was one.  Ezekiel was commissioned as a prophet by the River Chebar and instructed by God to eat a scroll with God’s Word written on it, words “of mourning and lamentation and woe.”  Those words would let God’s people back in Judah know that the worst was not yet over, that in a few short years Jerusalem would be utterly destroyed.

As we pick back up with Ezekiel today, much later in the book, that thing which was both unthinkable and inevitable has happened.  Jerusalem, God’s own city, has fallen.  The Temple, the place where God’s glory resided, lies in ruins. God’s people are scattered across the empire.  And they who once thought they were indestructible under God’s protection are asking, why has God forsaken us?  It’s a situation the biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann compares to America in the aftermath of 9/11, with its sense of “emotional, political, and theological free fall.”[1]   That’s a feeling that we surely remember especially clearly today.

Ezekiel had prophesied judgment on God’s people for their unfaithfulness, but now that that judgment has come to pass, things are different.  Given the new political and theological landscape, Ezekiel’s message changes.  It is no longer a message of doom, but of what comes after doom.  And what comes after doom?  Hope.

You may have heard it said that God afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted.  This is also a good summary of what God’s prophets do.  There is a time for judgment, to jar people out of their complacency, but there is also a time to deliver a much-needed message of hope to God’s afflicted people.

And so, in the wake of all of this, God gives Ezekiel another vision.

In this vision Ezekiel is transported from Babylon and set down in the middle of a certain valley.  It is a parched, rocky, desolate place.  He looks around him and all he can see for miles are human bones and as he tells us, “they were very dry.”

Somehow the first picture this conjured up for me was of the Elephant Graveyard from the Lion King: this creepy, forbidden, fog-covered wasteland littered with skeletons, the place where the hyenas live.  We might also think of an abandoned battlefield, or maybe one of those pictures of a mass grave from Rwanda in the mid-nineties.  Ezekiel walks all around, slowly taking it all in.

God asks Ezekiel, “Mortal”— (God always calls Ezekiel “mortal”)—“can these bones live?”

It’s an odd question for God to ask of a mere mortal.  The answer would certainly seem to be no; the bones of dead people don’t just put themselves back together and come alive.  But Ezekiel answers in the way I imagine I might, too: “You’re the only one who can answer that, God!”

God just says in response, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.”

Well, surely bones can’t hear the word of the Lord, but this is a vision, so we’ll go along with it, like Ezekiel does, and God continues: “I will cause breath to enter you, and you will live.  I will put sinews on you, and I will cover you with flesh, and wrap you in skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

And as Ezekiel repeats these words to this pile of human rubble, suddenly the bones begin to rattle.  Can you imagine the rattling as all the bones piled up in this valley begin to move?  And the bones begin to come together, and suddenly there are sinews growing on them, and flesh and skin covering them, and then God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath, or the wind or the spirit, telling it to fill these lifeless bodies with breath, and the bodies begin to come alive.

It’s really quite a vision.

But as God tells Ezekiel next, it’s not really about the bones.  It’s about the people of Israel, the exiles, people who have seen true horror, who have been cut off from their home and their people and seemingly forsaken by God.  People who, the way they themselves see it, might as well be as dead and dry as those bones.

God tells Ezekiel to tell those people, “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.”

What comes after doom?  Hope.

We may not all be called to be prophets but we all know what it is like, from time to time, to feel like those are our bones in that valley—to feel that we are exiles in our own lives, that we are lifeless and forsaken, cut off from everything that matters to us, that there is little hope of anything ever being different or better again.  We know it in personal ways, and we also know it in collective ways, in the wake of events like 9/11.

And so for all of us, Ezekiel’s vision is a reminder that even when all seems lost, God has other plans.  We could call it a foreshadowing of God’s greatest “other plans” yet—the resurrection of Jesus.  Ezekiel reminds us that God has always been a God of resurrection, even in the Old Testament, always bringing life out of death and hope out of despair.  That wasn’t just a one-time thing, and it’s not something that only happens when we are literally dead: when all seems lost, God gives God’s people new life.

But this vision of Ezekiel’s isn’t just an Easter-y message of God’s ultimate power over death and despair—though it is that.  It’s also about the prophet, and his job to speak a powerful word of life into a landscape of death.  The power comes from God, of course: but those bones don’t start rattling until Ezekiel tells them that by God, they shall live.

And how can he do that?  How can he look at those piles of bones and tell them with a straight face to get up?  How can look his fellow exiles in the eye and tell them it will be OK, they’ll go home and know God is with them again?

He can do it because he sees things differently than they do: he sees things the way God sees them.

I like the way one writer put it: “Can these bones live?  Of course not.  But look at them through God’s eyes, and watch bones rushing to their appropriate partners.  Watch as ligaments bind them together, flesh blankets them, and skin seals them tightly.  Watch as God’s Spirit, which heals hopelessness, infuses them, so that they rise up—a great army testifying to the power of Yahweh.  Can corpses be brought forth from graves and become living beings again?  Absurd!  But look through God’s eyes, and watch them come up, receive God’s spirit, and return home.  When we raise our vision to look beyond what our mundane eyes can see, we watch the impossible happen through God’s eyes.”[2]

Looking at this world through God’s eyes means sometimes that we speak a word of protest in the midst of complacency; but it also means speaking a word of hope in the midst of despair.  This, I believe, is a big part of living more prophetically.

Here’s what that doesn’t mean, though: it doesn’t mean offering people platitudes in a shallow response to their suffering.  It doesn’t mean telling people that everything happens for a reason and it’s all part of God’s plan, which sometimes say theologically questionable things about God.  It doesn’t even necessarily mean telling people that it will all be OK.  Maybe it won’t be, in the ways we think of or hope for—but still there can be new life in the dryness and death.

I read that after their land was taken by white settlers and the buffalo killed or driven away, the chief of the Native American Crow Nation found his people in a state probably very much like God’s people newly in exile.  “History ended,” he said.  “The hearts of my people fell to the ground and they could not lift them up again.  There was little singing anywhere.”  But this chief had a dream, maybe not unlike Ezekiel’s vision, and in the dream this is what he learned, and passed on to his people:

-That their traditional way of life was coming to an end.

-That they had to “open [their] imaginations up to a radically different set of future possibilities.”

-That there was hope for a “dignified passage across this abyss, because God is good.”

-And that “we shall get the good back, though at the moment we have no more than a glimmer of what that might mean.”[3]

God’s trusted goodness, of course, does not excuse the damage wrought by the white settlers in the first place (that seems especially important to remember in a week where the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have been in the news protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline) and yet these are powerful words from a prophet to his afflicted people.  What comes after doom?  Hope.

Sometimes speaking that word of hope might not even involve speaking at all: instead, it might mean showing people a glimpse of the life that God promises.  It might mean helping them to see that vision of God’s, of resurrection and newness, of things that can still be different.

There was an essay a few weeks ago in the New York Times titled “Why I Go to Aleppo.”  Aleppo, which has been in the news a lot lately, is the biggest city in Syria and one of the centers of the fighting there, with food and supplies largely cut off.  Its population is now less than tenth of the over two million inhabitants it had before the war began.  This essay was written by a doctor, an American of Syrian origin.  He spends a few weeks a year working there in Aleppo, in a hospital in the basement of a bombed-out building.  There he helps exhausted Syrian doctors and nurses as they treat people coming in from the latest airstrikes and chemical attacks.

This doctor, Samer Attar, was there the day the Twin Towers were attacked fifteen years ago.  He was a medical student at the time, and crammed into an ambulance with nurses and medics to go to the World Trade Center and help.

He wrote, “We wrote our names on the back of our scrubs with black markers in case our bodies needed to be identified. I was scared, but I was surrounded by good people doing the right thing.  I had never felt that way again until I went to Aleppo in August 2013.”

He says one time he treated a boy who got caught in an airstrike during a charity event at his school.  The boy’s father asked why he was speaking in a different language, and the nurse told him that he was an American.  The boy’s father said he had never met an American, and never thought he would.  He couldn’t believe an American doctor would come to Aleppo in this time of war.

“That,” said Dr. Attar, “gave my work a new dimension of meaning: a palpable connection to alleviate the suffering of a people long abandoned.  It lets them know they’re not alone.  It’s … why I go back.”[4]

Maybe it’s too soon to see that there can be life again in Aleppo, life as it is meant to be lived.  Maybe it’s not till the horror is over that we can really start seeing signs of resurrection.  On the other hand, maybe simply being there, risking something, caring, can help people see a little beyond the death and despair.

Just like we’re not all prophets, we’re not all doctors.  But whoever we are, we can all speak a word of life with what we have.  Where there is despair, we can all help show God’s people how things can be hopeful again—even if it is simply to say that they are not alone.  In that, we all can live prophetically.

So when someone asks you, “Can these dry bones live?” You can say, “Yes—by the power of God.”

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks, p. 90

[2] Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, “The Book of Ezekiel: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VI, p. 1503.

[3] Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope, paraphrased in Brueggemann, Reality, Grief, Hope, p. 120-121

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/28/opinion/sunday/why-i-go-to-aleppo.html

The Life of a Prophet: The Prophet Who Ate a Scroll

Scripture: Ezekiel 2:1-3:3

Our Scripture lesson today came from chapter 2 of Ezekiel, but I want to back up a bit for a minute, back to chapter 1, when our prophet first becomes a prophet.  Ezekiel, a priest from Jerusalem who has been exiled to Babylon, is hanging out on the banks of the River Chebar when suddenly he sees the heavens begin to open.  I want you to hear his description of what he sees, and while you listen, I want you to close your eyes and try to picture what he describes.

As I looked, a stormy wind came out of the north: a great cloud with brightness around it and fire flashing forth continually, and in the middle of the fire, something like gleaming amber. In the middle of it was something like four living creatures. This was their appearance: they were of human form. Each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf’s foot; and they sparkled like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. And the four had their faces and their wings thus: their wings touched one another; each of them moved straight ahead, without turning as they moved. As for the appearance of their faces: the four had the face of a human being, the face of a lion on the right side, the face of an ox on the left side, and the face of an eagle; such were their faces. Their wings were spread out above; each creature had two wings, each of which touched the wing of another, while two covered their bodies. Each moved straight ahead; wherever the spirit would go, they went, without turning as they went. In the middle of the living creatures there was something that looked like burning coals of fire, like torches moving to and fro among the living creatures; the fire was bright, and lightning issued from the fire. The living creatures darted to and fro, like a flash of lightning.

Do you have a picture in your head?

He keeps going from here, though I’ll stop there.  From here he sees four wheels, one by each of the living creatures (if you know the Gospel song Ezekiel Saw the Wheel, well, now you know) and the wheels move along with the creatures, and when the creatures flap their wings it sounds like thunder, or an approaching army.  Over the head of the creatures there is a dome, and over the dome there is a throne, and on the throne, someone almost human-like, but with fire coming from his loins.  “This,” writes Ezekiel, “was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.”

Once, in a college class I took on the prophets, we had to draw a picture of what we saw when we heard this.  I sat at my desk paying really close attention, trying to make sure I got all the details right.  But I think I missed the point, which is that you’re not supposed to be able to get all the details right.  This vision is supposed to leave something to the imagination, and even beyond the imagination, because this is a vision of God’s glory that we are talking about, and how can you put something like that in words?

Visions like this are why I like to call Ezekiel the trippiest prophet.

When Ezekiel sees all this, he falls on his face, into a trancelike state, and he hears a voice, and the voice has a job for him.  “I am sending you to the people of Israel,” the voice says, “a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me.”  Ezekiel likes the word “rebel.”  “You shall speak my words to them,” the voice continues, “whether they hear or refuse to hear.”

At this point we might expect the voice, which comes from God, to tell Ezekiel what those words are.  This is what God usually does with the prophets.  But instead, God does something different.  God tells Ezekiel to open his mouth—not to speak, but to eat.

And God hands Ezekiel a scroll, with words written on both sides, “words of lamentation and mourning and woe.”  And God says to Ezekiel, “Eat this scroll.”

At this point we may all be wondering: What’s going on?

Well, Ezekiel, as we heard earlier, is already in exile.  But the worst has not yet come for the people of Judah.  In 597 BCE, the King of Judah had revolted against Babylonian rule and in response got himself sent into exile along with all of Jerusalem’s ruling, elite class—like the priest Ezekiel.  This was the “first wave” of the Babylonian exile.  The second wave will come about ten years later, when the new puppet king propped up by the Babylonians in Judah also revolts, and this time they tear down the Temple and send everyone else they can get their hands on into exile too.  Ezekiel, for the moment, is writing in between these two waves, speaking to both his fellow exiles and everyone left back in Judah, telling them there is more trouble yet to come, and furthermore, that they have brought it on themselves by their failure to be holy people, faithful to God’s covenant.  As always, this is not an easy message.  But Ezekiel is clearly not any old priest.

Eating a scroll, by the way, is not the only weird thing our friend the prophet Ezekiel does.  In chapter 4 Ezekiel is commanded to draw the city of Jerusalem on an unbaked brick, then press a baking griddle against it as a sign of what is to come.  Then he lies on his left side for 390 days, symbolizing the time that Israel is to be punished. Then he switches to his right side for 40 days, for Judah.  Then God commands him to bake a cake over burning human excrement, because the people of Israel will be forced to eat unclean food; though Ezekiel does protest and get it switched to cow dung at the last minute.  He shaves his head and does different things with his hair, in thirds: burning part of it, cutting part of it to pieces, and scattering part of it to the wind—the different things that will happen to the people of Judah.  Ezekiel is a fan of what we call “sign-acts”: not just speaking the Word of God, but also acting it out.  Other prophets do this kind of thing too, but Ezekiel is the king of sign-acts.

Since I’ve been talking a lot in this series about how we can “live more prophetically,” maybe I should specify that I am not necessarily talking about Ezekiel.  Don’t be like Ezekiel.  He is fascinating, but very weird and a little scary.

Except for this one thing, the part about eating the scroll.  There we should be like Ezekiel.

You see, for Ezekiel, the Word of God isn’t just something that he hears and passes on, like he is passing a note from God to God’s people, or playing a divine game of Telephone.  For Ezekiel, the Word of God has to be something he actually puts inside of himself, chews on, digests, perhaps that he is strengthened and nourished by—before he can deliver it to others.

For a prophet, the Word of God has to fundamentally become part of who he or she is—and I believe that is true not just for those biblical figures who are formally commissioned as prophets, but for all of us who hope to live a little more prophetically.

Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are, once got a card from a little boy names Jim.  Jim had drawn a picture in the card, and Sendak thought it was charming, so he sent a card back with a hand-drawn picture of a Wild Thing in it.  He wrote: “Dear Jim, I loved your card.”  Later Maurice Sendak got a letter back from Jim’s mother, who wrote, “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.”  Sendak said, “That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received.  He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything.  He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”[1]

Do you love the Word of God like that?

I wonder what it would be like to eat the Bible, the Word of God?  What would it be like to eat the Ten Commandments?  The Beatitudes?  Jesus’ parables?  I imagine each of them might taste a little different, and have their own unique texture.  The Ten Commandments would be brown rice, a dietary staple, but nutritious, too.  The Beatitudes would go down sweet and smooth with their words of blessing.  But then we might find they have a little kick to them, the kind that sneaks up on you.  The parables would be sure to be nice and chewy.  Maybe you can come up with some more!  Then again, we can’t make too many assumptions, because the words Ezekiel ate were words of mourning and lamentation and woe and he said they tasted sweet like honey—maybe because they were the truth, that the people needed to hear, even if it was hard.

If that’s a strange thing to think about—what would the Bible taste like—remember, Ezekiel is a pretty weird prophet.

But here’s a less weird idea: instead of literally eating the pages out of our Bibles, maybe we just spend some more time with them.  Maybe we read the words slowly, two or three times or more, instead of rushing through a familiar story and thinking we know what it means.  Maybe we try some different translations and see how they illuminate those original Hebrew or Greek words from different angles.  Maybe we sit back and close our eyes and allow ourselves to imagine being part of the story, or maybe we draw what comes to mind, like my professor had us do in college.  And maybe we pray and listen for what God has to say to us through the words we are reading, and we read some background and we discuss it with others, and then instead of just moving on with our lives we let it roll around in our hearts and our minds for the next few days as we go about our lives, because maybe it will speak to us again when we least expect it.

Maybe we begin to live more prophetically by making the Word of God part of us that way.

My Methodist theology professor in seminary told us that John Wesley saw the whole world through Scripture-colored lenses.  He spent so much time in it that he brought it to everything he encountered in life: This reminds me of when Jesus does this.  This is what I think God might have to say about this.  I believe it was this perspective that allowed him to speak up against the evils he saw in the world around him, from drunkenness to slavery to riches; and what allowed him to speak prophetically to the church, asking why faith seemed to have done so little to change the lives of so many Christians.  Since my professor put it that way, I have always thought that that was the way I wanted to be.  I want God’s Word to be such a part of me that it becomes part of my living, part of my day-to-day, part of my speech, something that I can’t help but share in word and action.

I think I still have a long way to go, but I also find that as time goes by God’s Word is more and more on the tip of my tongue and in the front of my mind; and if I don’t always act on that, well, that’s on me.

I wonder how often, though, we’re content to pass on God’s Word without really digesting it.  We can quote Scripture and assume we know what it means without really taking the time to sit with it and pray about it and study it.  We may fancy ourselves prophetic because we can quote a chapter or verse, sometimes out of context, to support or to condemn—but how much have we let that chapter and verse become a part of us?

Or maybe the opposite is true—that, because God’s Word hasn’t become a part of us, we’re afraid to speak it.  It doesn’t come naturally to the tip of our tongues.  And we’re not really sure we know what any of it means.  We haven’t tasted the richness of it all.  I think back to how God told Ezekiel not to be afraid of the rebellious people he spoke to, not to be afraid of their words or their looks, not to be afraid “though briars and thorns surround you and you live among scorpions,” and I can’t help but wonder if that was possible only because he ate that scroll, because God’s Word became part of him so that he couldn’t help but live and speak it out, no matter what people would say.

Even though we don’t eat Bibles around here, we do eat bread.  And we do drink grape juice.  And that’s actually not altogether different.  I believe God speaks to us through those elements, too.  I believe that when we eat and drink the body and blood of Christ, we are empowered to become, as we say, “for the world, the body of Christ redeemed by his blood.”  Take and eat, God says.  It’s a way that little by little, who I am can become part of who you are. 

I’ll close with a story I read once a long time ago about a guy who was talking to a group of youth at a camping event, and at one point he held up a Bible, and they all expected him to say the kind of normal pious things that you might hear about a Bible at church camp.  But instead he tossed it onto the wet, muddy ground and said, “This book is useless!”

Then, picking it up again, “unless you take what is inside this book and put it inside you.”

[1] http://mentalfloss.com/article/12975/highest-compliment-maurice-sendak-ever-received