One Week in Jerusalem: Sunday – Jesus Enters the City

Scripture: Mark 11:1-11

We cycle through news stories quickly these days – and don’t worry, I’ll come back to the most recent and pressing one – but it wasn’t so long ago that parades were in the news.  Not just Mardi Gras parades, either, but big military parades, and in particular, the idea of having one here.  I’m not going to get too deep into this.  Suffice it to say, from the reaction, that there are those who think a parade is just a parade – a way to celebrate our country and honor our troops – and those who think a parade is a statement, either to us here in the United States or our opponents abroad.

Just a parade, or an attempt to make a statement?  What kind of parade do you think the people of Jerusalem saw on that first Palm Sunday?

That might seem like a strange kind of question.  We’re used to Palm Sunday as the joyful, triumphant time before it all went wrong.  But still, it was an interesting kind of procession, wasn’t it?  Hardly what you might have called stately: a man dressed like a peasant, riding on a donkey colt, while a ragtag group of disciples and Passover pilgrims walked alongside waving branches and singing pilgrimage songs.  The kind where if you were there, you might have stopped and wondered what was going on.

Well, according to John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg in their book The Last Week, this was likely not the only procession to enter Jerusalem that day.  Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, would have also been on his way to the city.  After all, it was the beginning of Passover, the Jewish holiday of liberation, and the occupying Romans were ready for trouble.  Pilate, that day, would have entered the city from the other direction, riding on horseback, followed by impeccably dressed soldiers on horseback and on foot.  Borg and Crossan ask us to visualize: “A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold.  Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums.”[1]

From the west, a stately imperial parade.  And from the east, a man rides into Jerusalem on a donkey colt, surrounded by a spontaneous crowd waving branches and singing Hosanna.

Coincidence?

You be the judge.  Of course, there were some aspects of Jesus’ ragtag Palm Sunday procession that might have caught the eye of those who were paying attention. For example, the prophet Zechariah had written long ago that the Messiah would arrive from the direction of the Mount of Olives, riding on a donkey.  Spreading your coats on the ground was something you might have done to welcome a king.  For a king to enter a city on a donkey, rather than a horse, was a sign that he came in peace.

Unlike, for example, the parade entering the city from the west.

Let’s be clear about one thing: Jesus could have walked.  He and his disciples had already walked from Galilee, in the far north of Israel, to Judea in the south.  He didn’t need to ride a donkey the last two miles.  It’s almost as if Jesus got to the Mount of Olives, cocked his head, heard the hoofbeats and drums of the Romans in the distance, paused for a minute, and then said to his disciples, “You know what?  Bring me a donkey.”

One parade to answer another.

In other words, it’s possible to understand Palm Sunday not just as Jesus’ brief moment of glory before all hell broke loose – but almost as an act of satire.

In other words, Palm Sunday is when the Gospel gets political.

And while it’s possible the disciples and the people surrounding them joined in the procession naively and unironically, it’s equally possible that as they watched Jesus prepare to climb on to the back of that too-small donkey and head toward the city, something clicked, and they began to smile as they spread their coats on the donkey’s back and on the road in front of him.

Their choice was clear: they could choose Rome, with its pomp and circumstance and raw military power and wealth.  Or they could choose Jesus, the peasant king who came in peace.

Who would they proclaim as Lord in their chants and songs?  Jesus, or Caesar?  Whose kingdom would they pledge allegiance to?  Jesus’, or Caesars?

On that day, they chose Jesus.  On that day, the Gospel was a political act.  In fact, you might call it downright subversive.

Doesn’t it seem sometimes like the Gospel has lost its edge?  Like we’re so worried about not being “political” in church that we actually forget about the very political implications of the Gospel?  Or even worse, that in the US in the 21st century, Christ and Caesar have somehow come to mean the same thing?

I’m certainly not trying to say that God is a Republican or a Democrat.  In fact, I think it’s pretty dangerous to go from “the Gospel is political” to “God happens to agree with all of my political views.”  But what I mean is that truly living out the Gospel does make a political statement, and it has to do with who we proclaim and serve as Lord.

Jesus didn’t get out there with signs protesting Roman rule.  He certainly never led a military uprising against this oppressive colonial power.  What did he do?  While Caesar’s representatives were marching into Jerusalem, he had his own parade.  And instead of conveying power and grandeur, he conveyed humility and peace.

And in doing so, he made a mockery of the values the Roman Empire was built on.  And this fact was not missed.  We only have to look to the end of the week to see that.

A couple years ago two pastors and 90-year-old homeless advocate were arrested in Ft. Lauderdale for feeding homeless people.  Ft. Lauderdale had been passing a series of laws designed to make it harder for homeless people to live on its streets, in an effort to “clean up” the city, believing that “the sight of homeless people was affecting tourism.”  One of these laws restricted feeding people in public.  So when Arnold Abbott, Dwayne Black and Mark Sims headed out to a Ft. Lauderdale park that day in November 2014, they knew they risked angering Caesar with what they did.

One of the men arrested told a local TV station that one of the police officers said to him, “Drop that plate right now” – “as if I were carrying a weapon,” he said.[2]  The police officer must himself have been carrying a weapon, yet somehow it was the man brandishing a plate, used for feeding the hungry, who was seen as a threat to the values of the city.  Kind of like the man riding into Jerusalem on a donkey.

Like I said, living out the Gospel subversively isn’t all protest signs and revolution.  It doesn’t even necessarily mean breaking the law, and “Caesar” doesn’t have to be the government.  Sometimes the powers that be are other powerful institutions.  Sometimes they are our prevailing cultural norms. When Jesus encountered those powers, he didn’t fight them; instead, he said “Here is my parallel witness.” Sometimes just living out the values of the Kingdom of God in the midst of the kingdoms of this world can be enough to call out those values of this world.

When Caesar says the homeless are an eyesore, we can say “Here’s a sandwich.”

When Caesar makes immigrants our enemies, we can say “You are part of our community.”

When Caesar demands that we devote our lives to work and be on call 24-7, we can observe Sabbath.

When Caesar says salvation lies in acquiring more stuff, we can give our money away.

Our lives, lived in light of the Gospel and according to the values of the Kingdom of God, can quietly call into question the values of the world around us.

I do think we need to be a little careful here, because if all of a sudden we’re living just to make a point about how much better we are than everyone, then we’ve colossally missed the point.  The point is that our lives are a witness – and in the end, we can call Caesar Lord, or we can call Jesus Lord.  We can join Caesar’s parade, or we can join the Palm Sunday procession.  But if we join Jesus’ parade, it ends up exposing the other for what it really is.

I have to admit that I struggled for a while with all of this in light of this week’s school shooting.  In our culture where mass violence has come to be practically expected, where we mourn and then do nothing and wait for the next time, where we throw up our hands and say “Well, you can’t stop evil,” and where what does it mean to live by the values of the Kingdom of God rather than the Kingdom of Caesar?

A lot of my friends talked angrily this week about the need for more gun control.  I agree with them, though some of you may not.  And I pondered whether being faithful to the Gospel meant that I should stand here and say so, even if that came across as “too political.”  But I think if I did that, I would win points with some of you who agree with me, while others would go home angry and more convinced of their own views than ever before.  To tell you the truth, I’m not sure that yelling louder is actively creating a safer and less violent world.  And I am sure that the roots of our problem here in America go much deeper than our access to guns.  There was a story going around this week about a principal who took it upon himself to visit the homes of children at his school who were the most isolated and angry, to show them he cared and intended to be personally involved in their lives.  He assigned them mentors to check in on them when they didn’t seem to be doing well, and to ask how they could help.  By the end of the year, supposedly, the attitude and behavior of many of these children had improved.

I’m not saying that replaces the actual structural, systemic, even legal changes needed, but maybe our witness to the Gospel begins with intentionally extending love to those who are isolated and angry.

There was also the story of a man who owned multiple guns, including an AR-15, the kind that was used in this shooting and in many other recent mass shootings, who surrendered the gun to the Broward County sheriff’s office this week.  “I enjoyed shooting this gun,” he said, “but I don’t need it.  There’s no one who needs it.”[3]

Maybe our witness to the Gospel begins with our own sacrifices that, instead of holding on to that which is our right, instead proclaims “I come in peace.”

If this all sounds jumbled and kind of like I’m thinking aloud, that’s because I am.  I don’t know for sure that my convictions are right, and I don’t know all of what needs to change so that I don’t have to fear for my daughter’s life every time she leaves for school in a couple years, and I don’t for sure know my part in it all, though I repent of the many times I have done nothing.  It sounds great and bold to say that the Gospel is political, but in the end, it’s not always clear how our commitment to the values of God’s Kingdom play out in real life, or how they confront and critique the values of Caesar’s kingdom.

And maybe sometimes our witness begins in talking to each other and committing to find some solution together rather than simply yelling louder – even if we are right.  That would be countercultural, right?

Or, maybe our witness does mean peacefully holding our ground for what is right, while we strive to love our enemies and opponents at the same time.

I don’t know.  Sometimes I just ask the questions.  I think any one of these might be a way to choose Jesus’ kingdom over Caesar’s.

Here’s what I do know: that the Palm Sunday story isn’t just a story of a triumphant entrance.  It’s a story that casts its shadow over the week to come, when Jesus will much more directly and much less satirically come into conflict with the powers that be in Jerusalem, whether Jewish or Roman.  This is the subversive act that sets the stage for the rest.  Jesus didn’t die because he was a nice, loving guy.  He died because love breaks the rules, spoken and unspoken.  He died because love – quietly sometimes – speaks truth to power.  He died because love is subversive.  He died because love is political.

Here’s what else I do know: Caesar might have a big parade.  But his kingdom, in the end, cannot withstand the kingdom whose law is love.

So as we head into the season of Lent and into the unfolding events of Holy Week: whose kingdom is it going to be?

 

 

[1] Borg and Crossan, The Last Week: What the Bible Really Teaches About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem, p. 3

[2]     https://www.cbsnews.com/news/90-year-old-man-2-pastors-charged-with-feeding-homeless-in-florida/

[3]     https://www.facebook.com/ben.dickmann/posts/10155416664157362

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The Crooked Wisdom of God

Scripture: Ecclesiastes 7:13-18

Last week I introduced you to a man called Qoheleth, the Teacher, the author and main character of the book of Ecclesiastes, and his strikingly modern search for the meaning of life.  If you remember, Qoheleth first decides that he is going to look for some meaning and purpose in life by trying to become as wise as he can, wiser than anyone else who came before or after him.  So he does, only to realize that there’s still something missing.  So, he decides to look for the meaning of life in pleasure, instead, and so makes sure all of his heart’s desires are fulfilled, but alas, the meaning of life is not found in fine wine and beautiful women; and then he builds vast gardens and parks that will be there as his legacy after he is gone, but as it turns out, he finds, the meaning of life is also not found in your accomplishments or the things you leave behind.

It’s all vanity, he concludes.  The Hebrew word is hebel, which means something like a puff of air, something you can’t quite grasp, something you keep chasing that is always just out of your reach.  Even if we attain these things, he says, none of them are lasting; all of them have their limits, we die and they come to an end, and nothing ever really changes.  I’ll remind you that I told you this is why we do not cross-stitch verses from Ecclesiastes onto pillows.

And if you remember, what Qoheleth concludes in light of all that is that the best thing we can do is enjoy the blessings of today, knowing that tomorrow everything might change, and to find enjoyment in whatever work we do.

Earlier this week I read an interview in Time Magazine with a woman named Kate Bowler, who is a Christian history professor at Duke Divinity School and who was diagnosed with stage-four cancer at age 35.   She’s the mother of a toddler.  She was working toward tenure.  She just wrote a memoir, and in the interview she talked whether it was silly to try to do something ambitious, like writing a book or still trying to get tenure – when she didn’t even know how much time she had left.  Hebel, right?

But then she also said, “When the world shuts down, then you realize, these are my plot points. This is my one job, this is the one man I love, this is my one kid. Infinite possibilities can be exciting, but sometimes even more beautiful is doubling down on the life that you have.”[1]

I thought there was a lot of Qoheleth in that.  As it turns out, there is joy to be found in accepting our own human limitations and even our mortality, and not always looking for something more.

But as I mentioned last week, it’s not only the hebel of his own life that bothers Qoheleth.  It’s also the hebel he sees in the world around him.

In the Bible, if you read wisdom literature like Proverbs, you learn a little bit about how the world is supposed to work.  If you work hard and you’re wise instead of foolish, you’re supposed to get ahead in life.  If you do the things God wants you to do, things will go well for you; that sort of thing.  To be fair, most proverbs aren’t meant to apply to every situation we might encounter.  But they’re good, solid, baseline wisdom; things that help guide us as we seek to live a good and faithful life.

Only Qoheleth doesn’t see things working that way.  Instead, he looks around him and he sees that “in the place of justice, wickedness [is] there” (3:16).  He looks around and he sees “all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun” (4:1).  He sees people who have had everything and lost it all at once (6:13-14).  He sees wicked people praised and righteous people slandered (8:14); wicked people who prosper and righteous people who never seem to reap any sort of reward for their righteousness (7:?).

As he writes in chapter 9, “I again I saw that under the sun, the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful: but time and chance happen to all of them.”

In other words: hebel.

And, just like I said last week – even if this isn’t how you feel about the world all the time, you do know the feeling, right?  The feeling that something about the world is fundamentally not as it should be?  That the bad people win and the good people come in last, and hard work isn’t rewarded, and you can do everything right and not get anywhere, and even pure evil is somehow allowed to flourish?

Unlike Job, Qoheleth’s fellow skeptic in the Hebrew wisdom tradition, Qoheleth hasn’t been the victim of any terrible tragedy or injustice himself, at least not that we know of.  He’s the richest, wisest man in the world, remember?  But he reads the news.  He knows people.  He knows things simply don’t always make sense.

I have to tell you that a lot of the time I feel like this is one of those cliché questions, why does God allow bad things to happen, and I can tell you all the possible big theological answers to this question.  But then once in a while it really hits home, even when it doesn’t directly involve me.  I read an article about migrants dying crossing the Mediterranean.  I see a homeless neighbor genuinely struggling to get ahead when the system seems to oppose them on all sides.  I’m not Kate Bowler, the Duke professor who is fighting cancer, but I can appreciate what it means to be a young woman facing the prospect of leaving your small child behind.  Why do we live in a world where this is a possibility?

If you’re Job, dealing with this question on a very personal level, you shout at God and you shake your fist and you say you wish someone else could be God instead, someone who would do it right.  But Qoheleth is more of a philosophical kind of guy.  He’s more at a distance just wondering what it all means.  Nothing that his wisdom has taught him really seems to hold.  How do we find the meaning of life in this world of hebel?

Qoheleth shrugs. “Who can make straight what God has made crooked?” he asks.

If you think about it, it’s kind of a shocking allegation, though, that the way God has made and ordered the world is fundamentally crooked.  That’s not the language we usually use for God’s ordering of things.  God, and God’s Messiah, is the one for whom we have to make our own paths straightWe’re the ones who have got things all crooked.

But that’s not what Qoheleth says.  So what do we make of a God like that?  How do we worship a God who’s made things crooked?

A lot of people have given up on faith with questions like that, but let me say how much I love the fact that the Bible itself voices these questions, which means that we can be faithful people and still ask them.  If you think about it, the Bible can sound a little irreverent at times, even as it sounds pious at others.  That’s because the Bible itself is a holy conversation, and Qoheleth’s part in the conversation is to say, yeah, this doesn’t all seem quite right.  So what now?

Anyone want to take a chance?  How would you respond to that?

As it turns out, the conclusion Qoheleth comes to is something like: fear God.

I don’t mean fear God like “be afraid, because this crooked God can do whatever he wants with you.”  But more like the fear of God Qoheleth describes in chapter 5: “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God…Never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore, let your words be few.”

The response to a God whose ways we don’t understand is, for Qoheleth, humility and reverence.  Because in the end, who are we to really say what is straight and what is crooked?

I have to admit that I struggle a lot with this.  I’m afraid of saying this and seeming to justify things that should be roundly lamented and condemned.  Just because something is so, in our world, doesn’t mean that God has ordered it that way and called it good.  This isn’t Qoheleth’s way of saying that everything happens for a reason.  As far as he can tell, reason has nothing to do with it.  Sometimes people are terrible to each other.  Sometimes systems fail us.  Sometimes tragic things happen in a fallen and broken world.

And yet God is still God.

And I struggled because when we do see injustice in the world around us, I don’t think the answer we want to come to is to throw up our hands and say “Well, who really knows what is right?”  That’s not what we should do when faced with racism and xenophobia and a culture of sexual assault in our country.  That’s not what we should do when we decide how to faithfully respond to situations around the world like the conflict in Israel-Palestine.  I don’t think that’s what God wants.  As it says in Revelation, God doesn’t love it when people are lukewarm.  Sometimes we need to take a stand.

Again, it’s important to read Ecclesiastes as one possible faithful response to a world that doesn’t seem to work like it’s supposed to, because the Bible gives us others.  It tells us that God joins us in those places of pain rather than turning away.  It tells us to enter those spaces ourselves – to do something about it by feeding the hungry and welcoming the stranger and taking care of the sick.  It tells us that even the worst things, no matter how they got that way, can be redeemed – that even Good Friday can lead to Easter Sunday.

But yet, even after all that, Qoheleth tells me I need to be reminded of how little I know about what is really, ultimately, good or bad or right or wrong.  And how easy it is for me to think that I can be the judge of those things.  And sometimes I need to be reminded is that I am not, in fact, God, and that I cannot, in fact, create God in my own image.

Have you ever been sure that something that happened to you was unfair and unjust, until looking back it turned out for the better?

Have you ever condemned another person just to find out you were wrong?

What if there’s more to all of it that we can’t see, but only God can?

I don’t think the answer is to just give up and say there is no truth, but simply to humbly, reverently hold open the possibility that there’s more that we can’t see.

Going back to the interview with Kate Bowler, the professor from Duke who was diagnosed with cancer, the last question the interviewer asked was, “Do you believe in miracles?”

“I do,” she said.  “I like to be equally open to lovely things happening as to bad things happening.”  But of course, that takes being open to the bad things happening too.

As Qoheleth said, “In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider, God has made the one as well as the other.”

Fear God, says Qoheleth, and what he means is that we are not God.  In the end, the order of things is not for us to know.  And though surely God hasn’t totally left us without instruction, good and bad are also not ultimately for us to know.  This is never meant to be an easy, off-the-cuff answer that we use to dismiss pain or injustice.  This is never meant to be an excuse to do nothing, claiming we didn’t know what was right.  It’s not supposed to make us sound too pious: for Qoheleth, this realization is all mixed in with his questions and his skepticism.

But in the end, God is God, and we are not.  And whatever we do, we hold open room for the possibility that maybe God knows more than we do after all.

So what do we do, in this world of hebel?

We keep doing the best we can with what we believe to be good.  We hold fast to wisdom, as much as it keeps making sense. We keep pursuing justice and righteousness, and we change our course when we’re shown to be wrong.  We love our neighbors, knowing that the ones who are good maybe aren’t so good, and the ones who are bad maybe aren’t really so bad.  And neither are we.

And meanwhile, we give thanks for the blessings of today, and we remain open to both the good days and the bad.

And in all of it, we worship this mysterious, inscrutable God, whose ways are not our ways, but in the end, who we know to be love, and who in the end is God in the midst of it all.

 

[1]     http://time.com/5118044/kate-bowler-interview-cancer-faith/

All is Vanity?

Scripture: Ecclesiastes 1:1-2, 12-18

I’m pretty sure Ecclesiastes is one of the most underappreciated books of the Bible.  If we were to follow the lectionary, the three-year cycle of scripture readings that many churches use, we would only come across Ecclesiastes once.  We do actually get some well-known sayings from it – “There’s nothing new under the sun,” for example, though probably not that many of us could have actually said that that came from Ecclesiastes; as well as at least one pop song, “Turn, Turn, Turn” by the Byrds.  Still, it’s not a book from which we get the kind of memorable stories we might have learned in Sunday School, and while it does contain some Proverbs-style nuggets of wisdom, they are not the kind you’d be likely to find cross-stitched on a pillow.  “A good name is better than precious ointment,” begins chapter 7, optimistically, and then the verse continues, “and the day of death than the day of birth.”  Womp womp.

But I love Ecclesiastes.  I really believe that it is one of the most modern, relevant books in the Bible, and that’s because this is a book about a person on a search for meaning and purpose in his life, who happens to find that meaning somewhat elusive and scoffs at easy answers.

We’ve all been there, right?  We graduate and move out only to realize we’re not really sure who we are or what direction we’re going.  We get entrenched in a career or place or relationship and wonder if the path we’re on is really the right path for us, whether it’s too late to try something different and whether it would be a mistake if we did.  We reach middle age and wonder if this is all there is.  Our kids move out and we wonder who we are when we’re no longer a parent first.  We retire and wonder how to fill our days if not with work.  We face the end of our lives and we wonder if we’ve gotten it right, if it’s all been enough.

You may not experience a crisis of meaning at all these levels, but at some point, we’ve all been there, right?  And maybe some of us are there now.  If that’s the case, Ecclesiastes is your book.

One thing you may know or think you know about Ecclesiastes is that it was written by King Solomon.  It is attributed to “the son of David, the king in Jerusalem,” though the Hebrew is too late for Solomon to actually have written it.  He does make a useful persona for the writer, though, as the quintessential man who has everything.

So who is this writer on a search for the meaning of life?  He’s called the “Teacher,” or sometimes “Preacher,” which in Hebrew is Qoheleth and in Latin, Ecclesiastes. Though I refer to the book as Ecclesiastes, I like to refer to the author and main character as Qoheleth, which kind of helps separate them, even though they mean the same thing.

As Qoheleth embarks on his search for meaning, he first decides that he is going to set out to become the wisest person in the world.  And you might think the problem is he fails at it, but he doesn’t fail at it.  He succeeds.  “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me,” he says.  It’s just that…in the end, as it turns out, what good is wisdom, really?

It’s just vanity, he says, and chasing after wind.  We’ll come back to this word, vanity.

So he decides to try something completely different, and instead live for pure pleasure.  So he drinks only the best wine, and surrounds himself with beautiful women, and he amasses great wealth, more than anyone ever before him. But it’s not just about himself, it’s also about the legacy he leaves behind, and so he builds gardens and parks and pools and vineyards, things he’s sure to be remembered for.

Again – he doesn’t fail at what he tries to do; he “surpasse[s] all who were before [him] in Jerusalem.”  Then he he looks around and he said, “So what?”

“I considered all that my hands had done, Qoheleth writes, “and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”

Let’s come back to this word, vanity.  It doesn’t mean the “you’re so vain” kind of vanity.  Instead it’s more like doing something in vain.  There’s no one perfect translation for the Hebrew word, hebel, but it means something like pointless, meaningless; a puff of air; that thing that we keep chasing after that always just eludes us; it’s trying to hold water in our hands; it’s a cat chasing a laser, it’s trying to grasp something un-graspable.  It’s vanity, hebel.

Do you know the feeling?

Do you ever find yourself getting up when it’s dark, working until it’s dark, going home, maybe going out, getting paid, feeling like you’re chasing something you never quite seem to catch up to?

Do you ever wonder what it’s really all about?

We might say that Qoheleth’s problem is that he was looking for meaning in the wrong places.  It’s not hard for those of us who are inclined to come to church to say that ultimate meaning probably isn’t found in alcohol and concubines or wealth.  We are familiar enough with stories of people who got everything they wanted – fame, money, success –only to discover they wanted the wrong things.

But what about wisdom?  That sounds like a pretty good pursuit.

Then again, I remember a morning a few years ago when Divine and I walked into the church and found that a pipe had burst and part of the church had flooded.  Maybe you remember that too.  I spent that morning rescuing books from my office and taking them upstairs, all those books that I had collected, that contained and symbolized the knowledge I had acquired over the course of two degrees, all those books that were almost lost in an instant.  But mostly what I thought as I walked up and down those stairs, was – how many of those books would I really have missed, anyway?  Hebel, all of it.

But what if Qoheleth devoted himself to something else, something like service to others?  A cause greater than himself? What if he devoted himself to working for justice?  Maybe then he would have found what he was looking for.

I do happen to believe there’s a lot of meaning to be found in a life that is lived for others, in seeking the Kingdom of God here on earth, and I happen to think that Jesus would agree with me.  That, after all, is why we open the doors of the church to our homeless neighbors during the week, and why we make sandwiches for the Homeless Services Center, and why we’re talking about what our just and faithful response should be to the conflict in Israel-Palestine.

But still – what if the work we do never really seems to make a difference?  What if nothing seems to change the world?  What if the hours we spend volunteering start to just seem like one more part of the daily grind?  What if sometimes, all of that starts to seem like hebel too?

And besides, it’s not just his own life that Qoheleth sees as hebel: it’s the whole world around him.  The sun rises, and the sun sets, and nothing really changes.  Around him people work too hard and stress themselves out about the future and hoard their wealth and then they die.  People with power treat those without unfairly, and nothing seems to make sense, and again the sun rises and the sun sets, and all is hebel.  Even if you don’t quite believe that that is true, surely you at least know the feeling.

So.  Now that I’ve thoroughly depressed you…

(This is why we don’t cross-stitch verses from Ecclesiastes, because at this point, while it may resonate with a certain aspect of the human experience, it also sounds pretty bleak.  This is what you come to church for, right – some good old nihilism to start your week?)

The question becomes, how do we find meaning in a world full of hebel?

As Christians I’m sure we suspect the answer has something to do with Jesus, but Qoheleth is several hundred years too early to explicitly find the meaning of life in Jesus.

So what do you think, after all this, his conclusion is?

What if I asked you to fill in the last part of another famous saying from the book of Ecclesiastes: Eat, drink, and…

It’s not quite “Be merry.” Instead, what Qoheleth concludes, after failing to find meaning in all these other things, is this: “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil.”

One the one hand, there’s nothing especially holy sounding about that, and I think it’s important to say that there are many other possible answers to this question of meaning that we might find in our Bibles.  We don’t read Ecclesiastes alone!  In Acts, Luke writes about apostles who felt the fire of the Holy Spirit driving them forward in mission; when you know what God has created you to do, there’s no time to stop and worry about the meaning of life.  Paul might remind us that even if we have everything in the world, all wealth and all wisdom, or even if we pursue holy poverty, but don’t have love, we really have nothing.  And Jesus himself tells us that “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” and he reminds us that the sum of everything he is teaching is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  “Blessed are the peacemakers,” he says, “for they will be called the children of God.”

If we’re looking for meaning in our lives, these are all good places to start.  Love.  Service.  Peacemaking.  Sharing the Gospel.  Living the abundant life that Jesus both embodies and invites us into.

But the truth is I do find something beautiful and holy in Qoheleth’s answer too, especially when we read it in conversation with the rest of the Bible: that if life is hebel, or even if it just feels that way sometimes, then what you should do is eat, drink, and find enjoyment in your work.  It’s thanking God for our daily bread – which is not too much, and not too little.  It’s gratitude for the people we eat and drink with, the people we have and love today, even if we don’t know what tomorrow might bring.  It’s finding something to appreciate in whatever work we do, which for most of us is not work that will ultimately change the world.  Still, we can do what God has given us to do – whether it’s the work we get paid for or the work we do as volunteers or the work we do as part of a church community or simply the work we do as we go about our daily lives – and we can do those things as if unto God and not unto people, and maybe we can at least make the world a little better for those around us – and that is a good, faithful, meaningful life.

There’s a freedom in that, I think – freedom from the burden of thinking that my life has to be outwardly significant for it to have meaning; freedom from the treadmill of trying to figure out how significant is significant enough: how much money, how much wisdom, how much service, how much fame, how much do I have to accomplish for it all to mean something?

Nothing. None of it.

And that’s why, as much as his words sometimes seem to be full of gloom and doom, some have also called Qoheleth the Preacher of Joy.  There is something joyful about this idea of leaving ultimate meaning to God, and simply faithfully doing our work for God’s Kingdom and giving thanks to God while we’re here.

I’ve told you all before that one of my favorite movies ever is As Good As It Gets, which if you don’t remember from the 90s is about a man named Melvin Udall who struggles with OCD and other mental illness as well as general crotchetiness, and there’s a scene where he marches into his psychiatrist’s office unannounced and demands to be seen after a rough week and some drama with his dubious love interest Carol.  The psychiatrist refuses to see him without an appointment, and as Melvin leaves, infuriated, he turns to the crowd of people sitting in the waiting room and says, “What if this is as good as it gets?”

There’s an audible gasp and then silence, because of course every single person in that waiting room is there with the hope that life can be more than it is right now.

But this is also kind of a turning point for Melvin, because from here on he seems to gradually realize that if this is as good as it gets, maybe he can work with that.  No more hiding from other people behind a shield of rudeness and bigotry.  Instead he will take his medicine, and he’ll take a chance on a real relationship with Carol, and he will help his newly homeless neighbor with a place to stay, and nothing is perfect or ideal or different all at once, but some joy begins to emerge in both accepting what life is not, and appreciating what it can be.

And just maybe, there is something in accepting the ultimate vanity of this life that opens us up to that which is eternal.  Maybe there’s something in dying to ourselves and our never-ending striving for something more – that allows us to rise again into life lived in the abundant grace of God.

Have you ever felt like Qoheleth?  Have you ever wondered what the meaning of it all is?  Maybe it’s only to be found in giving up our constant search for it – and, instead, in eating and drinking and sharing our abundance together, and faithfully doing our work for God’s Kingdom, and trusting God with the rest.

There may we find grace, and freedom, and beauty, and joy – all those things we didn’t know we were looking for all along.

 

 

Faith of the Dog People

Guest Preacher: Rev. Alex Joyner, author of A Space for Peace in the Holy Land: Listening to Modern Israel and Palestine

Scripture: Matthew 15:21-28

I took a trip to Israel and Palestine in September.  It was my third time in the region and each time I go I’m convinced that there’s nothing to see there.

That sounds wrong.  There’s plenty to see there.  This time I saw the date farms of the Jericho River valley and got to eat some wonderful dates right off the tree at a packaging plant.  We went to a school in Bethlehem where Palestinian students are learning English and excelling.  We saw a new Palestinian city rising up from a mountainside near Ramallah.  We met Syrian refugees recuperating from the war in an Israeli hospital.

People—Jews, Muslims, Christians—spend a lot of their religious lives dreaming about the Holy Land and Jerusalem—imagining what it must look like.  They go on pilgrimages to see these places and touch these places and just to be there where Mohammed rose to the heavens on his night ride, where Abraham raised a knife over his son Isaac, where Jesus fed the multitudes.

So, yes, there’s a lot for pilgrims to see.  But the most important thing for Christians to see is nothing.  Emptiness.  Openness.  That’s what’s in the tomb.

We’re not even sure exactly where the tomb was.  The likeliest spot, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, is covered over with an ornate shrine so that it doesn’t look anything like your Sunday School picture books.  The Garden Tomb looks more the part and it was a 1st century tomb, but we’re really not sure.

What is important is that, wherever it was, it was empty on Easter morning and this changes everything.  Old narratives about the truth of our lives and the world are overturned.  Old dreams and promises were vindicated.  God had crossed the yawning gap between God’s own self and the world and vanquished the hold that sin and death had on humanity.  In the resurrected Christ we see the new humanity.  He is the substance of our faith as Christians.

And what does this mean for the world that we hold on to this empty space?  What does it mean for Israelis and Palestinians who seem no closer now than 70 years ago to coming to some resolution of their conflict?  What does it mean for American Christians who want to do something about it?

“The relation of Christians to others,” the great theologian Karl Barth said, “is that they can hope for them.”

That seems pretty simple.  And very inadequate.  Because for us, who are practical people, hoping sounds a lot like wishing which sounds a lot like whistling in the dark which sounds a lot like why bother?  We want to see some action.  We want a solution.  One-state, two-state.  Or else some other thing.  Settlements dismantled.  Security barriers torn down.  Borders drawn.  Exiles returned. Boots on the ground.  Something.  But if the relation of Christians to others is that they can hope for them, what does that even look like?

It looks like…an interaction in Lebanon.  Or what became Lebanon in later years—the region of Tyre and Sidon.  Jesus has withdrawn here—withdrawn from Israel to this land of Gentiles.  Where he is confronted by a Gentile woman—a Canaanite—who comes to him and says a most extraordinary thing: “Have mercy on me, Lord, son of David.  My daughter is severely tormented by a demon.”

What’s extraordinary is not that her daughter has a demon.  Jews had told stories for years about the Gentiles and how prone they were to getting demon-possessed.  It’s like finding out that that North Korean defector was riddled with parasites.  You weren’t all that surprised, were you?  It just confirmed your suspicions about how horrible things are for the people there.

No, what’s surprising is that this woman recognizes Jesus, a Jew, and calls him by a Jewish Messianic title: Lord, son of David.  Israelites may be having trouble recognizing who he is, but this Canaanite woman doesn’t.

So Jesus…doesn’t say a word to her.  His disciples come up and say, “Just send her away.  She’s bugging us with her persistence.”

Jesus turns and talks to them—not the woman.  But she surely overhears and should have gotten the message when he said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

“Now, wait a minute,” you might ask.  “Where did this Jesus come from?”

If you didn’t know how Jesus was going to respond to the disciples would you have expected this?

They want to send the people away to get food when they’re out in the wilderness

and Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.”

They want to keep children away

and Jesus says, “Let the little children come unto me and forbid them not.”

They want to bring down fire on unbelieving villages

and Jesus says, “No.”

They want to shut this woman up

and Jesus says, “You’re right.  I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

Wait…what?

So the woman slunk away in silence, shamed by this encounter with Jesus.

O no, she didn’t!  She came up and knelt at his feet.  Actually the Greek says something more like she worshipped him.  Now she’s not the first one to do this in the gospel of Matthew.  The first people to kneel and worship at Jesus’ feet are…anybody?…the Magi, who also have the distinction of being foreigners.  You know…not Jews.  And yet they also recognize that if Jesus is good news and hope for Israel, he must also be good news and hope for the world.

This woman is not going to be distracted or ignored.  She sees that this man who says he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel is not in Israel.  That must mean something.

Besides she has a problem and the disciples can push her away.  They can all pretend she isn’t there.  But her daughter is sick and this is the Lord.  She kneels there at Jesus’s feet and says, “Lord, help me!”

To which Jesus replies, “It is not good to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

“There it is,” she could have thought.  “That ugly prejudice of the Israelites.  Just below the surface they believe all of us Gentiles are dogs.”

Let’s not be shocked by this.  We could be.  We could try to justify Jesus’s words by saying that he was testing her.  That he was being playful with her.  That he was playacting the part of the ugly Israelite.

But let’s see this with the eyes of the woman.  She knows who he is.  She’s not put off by the words.  She knows that he is good news even for dogs.  So even when she is confronted by the ugly reality of the gulf between Gentiles and Jews—the divides that were tearing the whole region apart—she is not going to let go of where the hope can be found.

She says, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat from the crumbs that fall from the table of their master.”

She has called forth the Lord who is Lord.  She has been audacious in her belief.  Jesus recognizes it and says, “O woman, great is your faith.  Let it be done as you wish.”  And her daughter was healed from that moment.

What a turnaround.  What is this faith that the woman has?  It is something she has done?  Is Jesus somehow saying that she is responsible for this miracle?  If so, how do I get that superpower?  What do I have to do?  How hard to do I have to believe?

Except the faith the woman has is not so much within her as it is in front of her.  In Jesus she has been confronted with the reality of how the universe operates.  In Jesus she has seen how it all comes together—not just the healing of her daughter but the healing of the whole world.

What does Christian hope look like?  As Barth put it, Christian hope is the “coming alive of the promise incorporated in the world.”  It’s a promise that was there in the beginning.  It’s the promise of Eden and the covenant.  It’s the promise of Israel that always makes room for unlikely aliens—Rahab the Canaanite prostitute, Ruth the Moabite widow—-and now an unnamed mother with a sick daughter.  It’s the promise that finds flesh in Jesus as the goal and future of the world.

What does Christian hope look like?  What does the faith of the Canaanite woman look like?  It’s the same.  It’s Christ.

Now this is an unreasonable to thing to take into a battle.  It’s an unreasonable thing to take into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  To say that the relation of Christians to other is to hope for them and that hope is a future becoming alive even now in the advent of Jesus—what does that say about what we should do?

Shouldn’t there be some more clear direction?  There are some Christians who believe that because modern Israel shares continuity with the biblical nation of Israel that we should be supporting an expansive Jewish state that stretches from the river to the sea.  There are others who look at the suffering of the Palestinian people and hear echoes of Jesus’s identification with the poor, the outcast, and the alien and therefore believe that we ought to be opposing the occupation of the Palestinian territories with economic sanctions and boycotts.

I’m going to be discussing some of these realities and particulars in the Sunday study following the service, so stick around.  But what it means that Jesus is the hope of the world is that Christ is good news—for every human person.  So we hold the narratives and realities of Israel and Palestine before Christ for healing and redemption.  And if we fail to see the humanity and promise in either side—if we see one side as blessed and the other as dogs—-then we fall into the horror that haunts the edges of this story of the Canaanite woman.  The Jesus who would not be hope for her cannot be hope for Israel.

Which brings us back to the tomb.  The tomb is not just empty; it’s open.  It’s got space for a new reality and a new possibility.  It’s a place where peace already reigns and we are just trying to live into it.  It’s a place where the narratives of conflict and division are rewritten.

And if conflict and division are the rule of the day in Israel and Palestine, and in red state and blue state, then perhaps the role of Christian hope is to stay close to Jesus, close to the story that defines all stories for us, and to stand with those who long for peace, hoping for them and with them.

On one of my trips to Jerusalem, I interviewed a young woman named Haneen.  We met at a restaurant overlooking East Jerusalem.  It was December and the restaurant had Christmas music playing.

Haneen was a graduate student at Hebrew University and she comes from a Sufi Muslim family.  Over the speakers “Ave Maria” started to play.  “I love this song,” Haneen said and she paused to listen, looking out the window at the city.

East Jerusalem is a difficult place to be these days, especially if you are a Palestinian resident.  After Israel annexed East Jerusalem following the 1967 War, Palestinians were given the option to become citizens or permanent residents of Israel.  Most chose not to become citizens.  They were given rights and benefits, but many of them aren’t aware of that or have difficulty accessing them.

Haneen, in her early 20s, had decided to start a social non-profit to help them.  Attaa helps Palestinian residents get the services they are entitled to.  At Attaa they help Arab-speakers interpret letters they have received, connect them to health care, and advocate for them when they receive unjustified bills.

But it’s still not enough for Haneen.  Beyond Attaa, she brings together Jewish and Palestinian students at Hebrew University for conversation groups.  She tutors Christian children, who are often the poorest of East Jerusalem children.  She works with a nutrition program for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim women.

She’s not naive.  She knows some people think she’s normalizing the situation by trying to help.  Giving cover for the greater injustice.  Others think it’s a drop in the bucket.  Pointless.  “I picked my way to deal with it,” Haneen told me.  “My philosophy is ‘Come.  Talk.  Let’s see where we will get…I consider myself a proud Palestinian, but before all of that, I’m a human being.”

Haneen continued to listen to “Ave Maria,” looking out at the homes and businesses and the walls of the Old City.  I was winding up the interview and I wanted to make sure I got the spelling of her name right.  “Haneen—do you know what it means?” she asked.  “It means ‘longing’ or ‘desire.’”

“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen,” the biblical book of Hebrews says.  Except it has been seen.  In the space where a new story has already been written.  In the faith of the Canaanite woman.  In the longing and desire—-I’m waiting with Haneen.  Along with all the dog people, I’m waiting in hope.

Thanks be to God.

More Than

Scripture: Mark 1:4-11

We’ve just been through the season of the year that is all Baby Jesus:  Advent, when Jesus’ birth was announced and anticipated; Jesus’ birth and then his presentation in the Temple at 40 days old during the 12-day season of Christmas; and last week, the visit of the wise men at Epiphany.  Matthew and Luke tell us these stories, and they are some of our most cherished.

Mark, however, doesn’t recount any stories about the miracle of Jesus’ birth or the reaction of nearby astrologers.  In Mark, the story begins with Jesus’ baptism.

In Mark the curtains open on John the Baptist.  Not baby John the Baptist leaping for joy in his mother Elizabeth’s womb, but grown-up John the Baptist, wearing his camel hair tunic and eating his locusts and baptizing the repentant masses and proclaiming that someone greater than him is coming.  When Jesus appears on the scene just a few verses later, he is likewise an adult, on the verge of beginning his own career in earthly ministry.

Mark is the kind of Gospel writer who likes to cut straight to the chase.

The baptism of Jesus is hardly the major holiday that Christmas is, but the liturgical calendar does bring us back here year after year, to this story which serves as the launching point for everything that is to come.   Jesus shows up as John is going about his business baptizing people, and all of a sudden he’s there to be baptized too.  Matthew tells us about the cognitive dissonance John had in this situation: he’s supposed to cleanse the one whose sandals he’s not worthy to untie?  The one who is greater than him needs something from him?  But as Mark tells it, John the Baptist doesn’t ask questions.  He just does what he is there to do.  It’s not really about him, anyway.

As Jesus comes up out of that water, he sees the heavens splitting open, and he sees a dove descending on him, and he hears these words: “You are my beloved Son; in you I am well pleased.”

I’ve read this story, in its various Gospel forms, a lot: like I said, the liturgical calendar brings us back to it year after year; but what I think I’ve always missed is just how personal that proclamation is.  I think I always pictured that moment as a proclamation and revelation for everyone gathered there at the Jordan River – and in fact, Luke does depict it more that way.  But as Mark tells it, these words, this vision are for Jesus alone.

Of course as Mark writes his gospel, this story functions to let us know who Jesus is from the outset.  But in the events themselves, these words, “You are my beloved Son,” are for Jesus himself.

Why does Jesus need to hear them?  Doesn’t he already know?

But then – he’s on the verge of beginning to live out his ultimate calling and purpose in this world, on the verge of beginning a life that is going to be wonderful and hard and lonely; a life that can really only end one way – and even if he knows those words are true, that he is the Son of God, that he is beloved, that his Father is pleased and delighted with who he is – it probably doesn’t hurt to be reminded.

After all, in the three or so years that followed, Jesus would be told a lot of things about who he was and what he was worth.  He would be called a glutton and a drunkard for attending too many dinner parties.  He would be called satanic for battling demons.  He would be looked askance at for the people he welcomed into his circle.  He would be labeled as a heretic and a traitor for the truths he told about his relationship with God and about God’s kingdom.   As John told it, he would even be looked down and doubted simply for coming from a place like Nazareth.

And maybe at those times he could hold on to those words that opened his story, because of course he was more than any of those things that people might have called or thought about him: he was God’s beloved Son, in whom God was well pleased.

And though we are not Jesus, Jesus’ followers have throughout the years heard those words as meant for us, too.

I like the fact that the liturgical calendar brings us back to this place right around the new year each year.  I say that knowing that  for a lot of us it probably doesn’t even feel like a new year anymore.  We’ve already had two weeks to fail at our resolutions, 14 days to get back into the grind and forget the hopefulness we had on January 1, half a month for that blank page to start looking kind of dogeared, and maybe those old doubts about who we are and what we are capable of are starting to creep back in.  But our Christian year reminds us that we are, in fact, still at the beginning of the story, still on the verge of something new.  And maybe we also need to be hear this truth again:

You are more than a number on a scale.

You are more than the money in your bank account.

You more than your relationship status.

You are so much more than any of those things.  You are a beloved child of God.

Henri Nouwen, the well-known late scholar and chaplain, wrote a whole book based on this premise when one day a journalist named Fred Bratman walked into his office at Yale for an interview.  At the end of a rather flat-feeling interview they got to talking, and eventually, over a number of years, the two men became close friends.

Henri Nouwen came to know in Fred Bratman a man who was searching for meaning and purpose.  In those years that followed that first interview, Fred got divorced, remarried, had a child; he tried different jobs, looking for the right fit.  Though he was a secular Jew, he was interested in the kind of spirituality that Henri Nouwen seemed to embody, though he felt no real connection to it, and one day he said, “Why don’t you write something for people like me?  Something about the spiritual life for secular people?”

Henri Nouwen, in response, wrote his book Life of the Beloved, and he began by recounting the story of Jesus’ baptism and writing these words: “Fred, all I want to say to you is ‘You are the Beloved,’ and all I hope is that you can hear these words as spoken to you with all the tenderness and force that love can hold.  My only desire is to make these words reverberate in every corner of your being – ‘You are the Beloved.’”

He admits: “It is certainly not easy to hear that voice in a world filled with voices that shout: ‘You are no good, you are ugly; you are worthless; you are despicable, you are nobody – unless you can demonstrate the opposite.”[1]

I think of the time a few years ago when someone from the neighborhood here walked into my own office, someone who needed to talk.  Things weren’t going well in his job and he wasn’t sure how long he would still be there and he felt useless there in the meantime, though for various reasons he couldn’t just pick up and find something new.  So I said to him, “Well, maybe this is a time to remember that your primary identity isn’t your job.”

And he said, “Then what is it?”

If you’ve ever asked a question like that, then hear these words, let them “reverberate in every corner of your being”:

You are more than your job.

You are more than a paycheck, or the size of your debt.

You are more than your degree, or the letters after your name.

You are more than the successes or failures you have had in your life.

You are more than the mistakes you may have made.

You are the Beloved.

As we go deeper into the story of who Jesus was and is, in his life and death and resurrection and continuing presence in and with the church, we learn something of what it means for us to join him in baptism; for us to die as the people we once were and be reborn into new life as new people.  In Galatians, as Paul writes to a community ravaged by identity conflict – did you have to first convert to Judaism to be a Christian – that in baptism, all of those old markers of identity are left behind: “In Christ, there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male or female.”

Of course, none of those things about us cease to exist just because we’ve been baptized.  Baptism doesn’t change our ethnicity, or our gender, or, on its own, our socioeconomic status, and of course all of those things have the power to shape us and our experiences in this world.  But it does mean that in the Body of Christ, none of those things define us.  None of those things have the power to tell us who we are or what we’re worth to God or each other.

Today it might be different labels than the ones Paul wrote about that define us and try to tell us who we are and what we’re worth.  Or, sometimes, it might not be.  Regardless, hear this: In baptism, in the Body of Christ:

You are more than your gender.

You are more than the color of your skin.

You are more than where you come from.

You are more than your sexual orientation.

You are more than your diagnosis.

Those things all shape who you are, but they do not define you, and they do not define your worth.  You are God’s beloved child.

Maybe there are those of you who have not been baptized, and I believe those words are no less true for you: you are, first and foremost, God’s beloved child.  I hope you might think of baptism as a chance to hear those words Jesus heard for himself; and a response to God’s call to live into this new reality, one in we are more than all those things that try to sneak in and define and label and quantify us.  You don’t have to live in that old reality.  You are not beholden to it.  God invites you into something different.  For those of us who have been baptized: will you keep letting those things around and within you tell you who you are – or will you claim that first, primary, core identity you have been given?

My campus minister, David, used to remind us of once in a while when exam time rolled around: “You are more than your score on a test.”

To be honest, I was surprised to realize that, in the midst of the stress around exams and finals and what my GPA would look like at the end of it all, that those were words I needed to hear.  After all, I knew that – right?

Or did I?

There is a part of me that actually wanted to hold on to the idea of quantifying myself in that way, because, honestly, I was good at it.  Those numbers that came back on the top of that exam or paper, more often than not, gave me something to validate myself.  I wanted those letters and numbers to mean something fundamental about me, because in some ways, they were the one thing I ever felt good at.  I wanted them to define me, because if they did, then that would surely mean I was worth something.

But they still didn’t, not ultimately, even if I wanted them to.

And maybe that’s the flip side of all this, because sometimes, the scale or the resume or the bank account or the diploma on the wall or popular consensus tells us what we want to hear.  But this is the beauty and the danger of claiming the identity affirmed for me in my baptism: that not only do I get the comfort of knowing I am more than all those things I don’t want to define me – but I also receive the challenge of realizing that all those ways I try to define myself and justify myself over against other people – they don’t matter either.  And my work is to let go of them so that I can live into the one identity that truly matters: my identity as a beloved child of God.

When I graduated from seminary and no longer had a GPA to worry about, I have to admit I felt a little bit lost for a while, because how would I know if I was succeeding?  How would I know what I was worth?

What if the stock market crashed tomorrow, or you lost your job, or you got divorced, or you failed a test, or you gained back the weight, or got the dreaded diagnosis, or something prevented you from continuing to do that one thing you were good at?

Even if all of those things happened, this one truth would hold: that you are more than any of those things, because you are God’s beloved.

Jesus’ ministry began that day at the Jordan River, and the life of God’s beloved children still starts here.  It is a life of gratitude, and extravagant welcome, and self-giving service, and relentless love, all rooted in the identity-defining, barrier-breaking truth of first being loved by God.

Today, if you are are baptized, I invite you to remember your baptism and be thankful; and if not, to experience this water as God’s prevenient grace, the grace that is there before we know it, poured out on you.  For all of you, the invitation stands: to die to all the things the world around you tells you you are, and rise again, made new, claiming your identity as a beloved child of God.  Remember your baptism and be thankful.

 

[1]              Henri J.M. Nouwen, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World, p. 26

Epiphany Then and Now

Preacher: Barbara Schweitzer

Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12

It’s Epiphany Sunday. When I talked to my husband about giving a sermon today, he admitted that he didn’t know anything about Epiphany Sunday, other than that it occurred after Christmas. I have to be honest that what I had known about epiphany I learned for the song “We Three Kings.” When I was a little girl, my mother would play “We Three Kings” on the piano every Christmas Eve and every Christmas Day, and I would stand next to her singing the song at the top of my lungs. While singing, I imagined three Asian kings, riding on camels over fields, mountains, and moors following a bright star in the sky all the way to Bethlehem, hoping to find a newborn—baby Jesus—who was destined to save the world. This Three Kings song and the images it created in my mind captivated me so much, that without realizing it, every-time I’ve read the story in Matthew’s gospel, the words “wise men” never registered in my brain. What does register, are the words “three kings,” despite the words on the page. But, when I sat down three weeks ago, to study this Epiphany story in Matthew, in preparation for writing this sermon, I experienced an epiphany of my own. I discovered that Matthew’s story says absolutely nothing about three oriental kings coming to Bethlehem, nor does Matthew say that the three Kings visited a baby Jesus lying in a manger. In Matthew, depending on what Bible version you read, wise men or magi come from the East searching for the prophesied new born King of the Jews; and when they find Jesus, they find a child—not a baby. And, they find the Jesus and Mary in a house, not a manger. Can you imagine my surprise at this epiphany. After I got over the shock, I was able to read Matthew with fresh eyes, and attend to the text in a way that I never had before.

So why does the church call this Sunday, Epiphany Sunday and what is there to celebrate? Well, Epiphany is a Greek word meaning an event or action that reveals the otherwise hidden presence of God. But that still doesn’t answer the question of why this Sunday is called Epiphany Sunday. The supreme revelation God to the world was given to the wise men in Matthew’s Epiphany Story. The early Church took over 200 years to decide that this story was the quintessential story of Epiphany, it represents the revelation of God in the infant Jesus to non-Jewish wise men; in other words, this story represented God’s outreach to the non-Jewish or Gentile world with the God’s message of salvation. This story of epiphany, reveals the truth that the presence of God in Christ came to us. This is THE revelation that gave birth to Our Christian faith.

There have been many epiphanies that have formed our Christian tradition, and epiphanies continue to be received today in the lives of people all over the world. Throughout our Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany seasons, we hear of the many early epiphanies of our Christian tradition, which surround Jesus birth, baptism, and first miracle performed by Jesus. Epiphanies like Mary learning she will have a child, name him Jesus, and that Jesus would be the savior of our world. Elizabeth and Zechariah have epiphanies that they would give birth to John the Baptist, who would prepare the way for the Lord. Simeon and Anna prophesy about Jesus, when Jesus is presented at the Temple according to Jewish Custom. And next week, Allie will tell one of the most famous epiphanies in the New Testament, when she talks of the baptism of Jesus and the epiphany and theophany that accompanies the epiphany, when a dove alights on Jesus as he comes up out of the water and God’s voice is heard identifying Jesus as God’s son and that God is well pleased with Jesus.

An epiphany is an event or action that reveals the otherwise hidden presence of God. Epiphanies are the same thing as manifestations or revelations of God. Sometimes they are big manifestations, and usually are accompanied by theophanies. In the Bible, theophanies are visible or audible manifestations to human kind of God. In the Old Testament, perhaps the most widely known theophany and epiphany is the Burning Bush that Moses sees when God reveals God’s identity to Moses—I am who I am. The Burning bush is a visible manifestation of God’s presence and Moses received an epiphany of God’s identity while hearing a theophany. Another epiphany or theophany was given to the people of Israel when they escaped from Egypt. The Bible says that a pillar by day and the fire by night that led the Hebrew people and Moses out of Egypt, through the wilderness, to Mt Sinai and then to the Promised Land. Abraham has an epiphany, accompanied by an audible theophany, when God, through an Angel’s voice, stops Abraham from sacrificing Isaac on the Altar. There are many more epiphanies or manifestations of God that are strewn throughout both the Old and New Testaments that we could name. So, you can see that epiphanies have formed our Christian faith and tradition.

In our Epiphany Sunday story from Matthew, I can name four Epiphanies that the wise men have.

In Matthew verses 1 and 2, Matthew writes: Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men[a] from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose[b] and have come to worship him.”

The first epiphany is that the wise men perceived that God’s truth was present in an ancient Jewish prophecy given in Micah, chapter 5, verse 2. This prophecy says that a great ruler of Israel would come out of Bethlehem. We also know, from their mere presence in Jerusalem, that the wise men, who are not Jewish, believed enough in the truth of this prophecy, that they were willing to travel over 500 miles, to see for themselves, if this prophecy had been fulfilled.

A second epiphany that these wise men had, came to them when they were doing the mundane activities of their daily jobs. These wise men were in-part, astrologers, probably from ancient Persia or Mesopotamia. Astrologers in those days, read the skies looking for signs that would help them understand their world. Priests and scribes read the regularities of the sky to set calendars and to predict the future concerning societies, cities, and royalty. There were no horoscopes for individuals apart from royalty. Specifically, comets always portended or signaled political turmoil. So, when Herod and Jerusalem heard of the rising star or comet, foretelling of a new born king, it was natural for them to be troubled.1 So, we can conclude that the wise men, while doing their daily job of reading the skies, when they saw a rising star, possibly a comet, which was in-line with the horoscope that told of a royal birth which recently occurred in Bethlehem. This second epiphany, connected the wise men’s knowledge of the old prophecy in Micah with their knowledge of astrology. Why were these wise men willing to act this epiphany? Could it be that they were curious to see if the ancient prophecy was being fulfilled? They spared no expense seeking to confirm their predictions. They invested their time, energy, and fortunes and risked their jobs, their professional reputations, their physical safety and their social influence when they ventured out. Are we willing to do the same, when we perceive God to be doing something new?

The third epiphany came to the wise men when they arrived outside Jesus’ house and after they entered it. For Christians, this epiphany, the epiphany of God incarnate in Jesus is the quintessential epiphany of our Christian faith tradition. Matthew’s text says, in verses 9 through 11:  9 After listening to king Herod, the wise men went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose— went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts: gold and frankincense and myrrh.

With this third epiphany, we want to recognize the spontaneous and extreme joy erupting from the wise men and how they spontaneously fall down and worship Jesus as a result of their epiphany. These responses speak to an experience of God that would be hard to deny and would function to transform a person’s doubt into faith, if one was open. Bearing gifts fit for a king, these wise men brought frankincense and myrrh, showing that they had a hunch that this king would be no earthly king. These aromatic plant resins were frequently used in religious rituals.

The fourth epiphany that the wise men have is reported in verse 12. It says: “being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, the wise men departed to their own country by another way.” Because the wise men heeded this warning in this epiphany, and evaded Herod, they gave Jesus’ parents the time to escape to Egypt before Herod could kill Jesus. Thus, the impact of this last epiphany changed the world for all time. However, the wise men probably never realized the impact that their obedience had.

This story of the wise men and the epiphanies they received from God is teaches us about how God interacts with us to grow our faith. This story teaches us that epiphanies rise-up from our daily activities as we walk through life. This story teaches us that epiphanies can help us grow in our faith and trust in God’s care for us. This story teaches us that epiphanies can help us grow in our ability to discern God’s presence and God’s guidance. And, this story teaches us that epiphanies can help us grow in our ability and willingness to take the risks that faith demands, so that we can live the lives God has planned for us.

You might be thinking that it would be nice to have a good example of a person living in more recent times that has routinely experienced epiphanies that transformed their life and the world.

Recently, I came across the biography of John Newton, who is best known for writing the hymn, Amazing Grace. John Newton also worked in the late 1700’s alongside Wilbur Wilberforce and others to abolish slavery in the British Empire. Newton was influenced by John Wesley and Charles Whitfield, and became one of the founding fathers of the great revivals of 18th and 19th centuries, contributing to the worldwide growth of evangelical churches in our contemporary society.

What is important for us is to see, however, is John Newton as the normal person that he was, and how God progressively transformed his life and our world through epiphanies. I’d like to tell you briefly, just a little bit of Newton’s story.

Newton’s early years were filled with anger and rebellion. He was raised up as a Christian by his devout mother, but she died when Newton was six. His father was a ship captain who was very strict and distant, but he also gave Newton a good knowledge of seamanship. Newton, however, was an impulsive trouble-maker as an adolescent. Newton recalled two incidents in which he saw God at work in his life. These incidents, were epiphanies. Jonathan Aitken, his biographer, writes that one of ‘these episodes occurred at the age of twelve, when Newton had a fall from his horse . . . As he got to his feet, Newton saw that he had narrowly missed being thrown on top of a sharp spike protruding from a hedge. The realization that he had been only inches away from being impaled on this spike made him give thanks to God. Newton praised the mercy of divine providence for his narrow escape from death, and he recognized that he was in no fit state to meet his Maker on judgement day; so, for a while, Newton repented and mended his ways. However, he soon fell back into what he called “profane practices” and “greater depths of wickedness.”

A second epiphany occurred when Newton was late for an appointment. He and his friend were supposed to meet a ship anchored off-shore in the Thames River. But because he was running a few minutes late, he missed the longboat. As he watched his friend in the longboat going out to the ship, it capsized, and all the passengers, including his friend drowned. Newton was devastated by the loss, but he attributed missing the boat and not drowning to God, looking out for him. In other words, Newton had another epiphany which led him to renounce his sins and take-up a contemplative life. This time, Newton’s repentance lasted two full years. However, this holy and devout life turned-out to be an unfulfilling and meaningless existence that he deemed poor religion, making him gloomy, unsociable, and useless. Newton vacillated between “feeding his appetite for sensual sin and satisfying his hunger for religious reading—which produced instability. His life went on like this for several years.

Newton had a third epiphany happened when Newton was on a ship in the middle of the Atlantic. Aitkin writes that Newton “was bored, and the only available book on ship was The Imitation of Christ by Thomas Kempis. As he read it, Newton began to worry that its words might be true. So, he slammed the book shut and went to sleep until awakened in the middle of a terrifying storm by the cry, [that] ‘the ship [was] sinking!’… As the ship seemed to be going down, Newton, to his own great astonishment, began to pray for God to have mercy on them . . . and after many hours of extreme peril, the storm subsided, and Newton felt at peace.” This incident brought an epiphany to Newton, who said that it was “at that time that he began to know that there was a God who answered prayer.” “Almost immediately,” Aitkin writes, “Newton stopped swearing, changed his licentious lifestyle, and started to pray and read the Bible. And from that day, March 21, 1748, until his death in 1807, Newton never let a year go by without recognizing in prayerful thanksgiving, what he called his ‘great turning day’ of conversion.”

Newton had a variety of things happen to him during his life at sea and admits that it took him a long time after his conversion experience before becoming a steadfast Christian. In the words of the Hymn, Amazing Grace gives evidence of the depth of his spiritual transformation, of how wretched he was in his sin and of God’s amazing grace that saved him. His epiphanies, over a lifetime, helped him to not only build a strong faith, but to experience a transformed life. He eventually became a priest, worked tirelessly towards abolishing the slave trade across the British Empire alongside Wilbur Wilberforce, lead revivals, and worked to reform the church.

This is only a summary of three of the earliest epiphanies of Newton’s life, but it illustrates that God does gives people epiphanies outside of ancient biblical times. And it illustrates that over a lifetime, epiphanies can have a great impact on a person’s spirituality and on the world, just like the epiphanies that our ancient wise men had in Matthew’s Gospel had.

Francis Shaeffer wrote an article about Why Theophanies Matter, which I think sums up, much better than I can, why God continues to give us theophanies or epiphanies today.

First, Shaeffer writes that “theophanies [epiphanies] remind us that God is there and is not silent. God has not and will not leave his people to suffer in isolation. God is with us.”

Second, “God is holy, awesome, and majestic.” Shaeffer writes that “Theophanies should humble us. Our God is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29). All the various pictures of Yahweh in the Old Testament highlight this truth. Theophanies, . . . convey a sense of the awesome majesty and power of God who is to be approached only with reverence and humility according to divinely prescribed procedures.”

Finally, Shaeffer writes that “God condescends to us. Theophanies point to God’s gracious condescension to our weakness. Theophanies are visual—-they give tangible and physical proof of God. In a sense, they are God ‘writing it in the sky’ for us. Though God wants us to trust him even when we can’t see him (‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed,’ John 20:29), theophanies offer a glimpse into the heart of our God who graciously condescends to help and comfort those who join Thomas in unbelief.”

It is my hope and prayer, that on this Epiphany Sunday, that we go out from this place, not only challenging ourselves to be on the look-out for God’s presence in our daily lives, but that we open ourselves up to the possibility of receiving epiphanies from God during our daily activities. I believe that by looking for God and remaining open to the possibility of epiphany, we will experience little epiphanies from God that will grow our faith, our ability to discern God’s presence, and our willingness to act on the insights that we receive along the way. Over our lifetimes, these epiphanies will help to transform us and help us to live the lives God calls us to live. Ultimately, these epiphanies will help us transform our world.

 

 

 

1 New Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary, 338-339.

Hope Like Simeon and Anna

Scripture: Luke 2:21-40

The end of the year is usually a time of taking stock.  We look back on the year that has passed and we decide whether it’s been a good year or a bad one, or kind of a mixed bag; we think about the important things that have happened, that have changed our lives for better or for worse; we remember what’s happened in the world around us, the shootings and the Nazi rallies and the political drama and the celebrity deaths; and of course we decide what it is that we are going to change about ourselves in the new year.

Over the past couple years I’ve noticed a trend, which is increasingly to want to say good riddance to the old year which has not lived up to our expectations in any number of ways.  Maybe this isn’t a trend at all – maybe it’s just human nature, and we are tired, and when it feels like we are drawing to the end of one thing and something new is about to begin, we are just anxious to get on with it, for a sense of newness.  But somehow it seems like the despair and longing for a clean slate grows stronger every year, and on Facebook I see people posting good riddance to 2017 and everything it brought with it – as if 2018 will magically be different.  And maybe it will.

Since this does seem to be a very human thing, let’s start here.  It’s December 31, the last day of 2017; tomorrow is a new page on a new calendar.  What parts of 2017, personal or global, are you looking forward to leaving behind?  (They can be realistic or not.)

It’s in this context of despair and the longing for new beginnings that I’d like to introduce you to a man named Simeon.

Simeon was a man who believed in a promise that God had made.  It was, first of all, a promise that God had made to Israel, and by extension, to the world: that Israel would be restored, that it would be liberated from the oppressive grip of the Roman Empire, that God’s people would once again be free to live as God’s people, ruled by a king from the line of David, experiencing God’s blessings and in turn being a blessing to the world.  But it was, second of all, a promise God had made to Simeon, because the Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would live to see the Messiah, the one who would accomplish this restoration.

Simeon was, presumably, an old man, who had been waiting for the fulfillment of this promise for a long time.  (Luke doesn’t really tell us that – I’m just filling in the gaps.  What we know is that Simeon has been waiting, with expectation.)  And, presumably, the years have come and gone, and that promise has remained unfulfilled.  Each Rosh Hashanah Simeon has reason to bid good riddance to the year that has gone by, that has seemingly only brought more hardship and more oppression and still no one to save God’s people from any of it.  And each year Simeon holds out hope, rooted in faith and prayer, that this year might be different from the last.

And while we’re at it I’d like to introduce you to a woman named Anna, who was, in fact, very old.  Luke often likes to have male and female counterparts in his stories, and Anna is Simeon’s female counterpart.  She, too, is faithful and devout, staying in the Temple courtyard night and day fasting and praying to God.  Her prayers, too, Luke leads us to believe, have to do with the “redemption of Jerusalem.”  And Anna, the widow, waits; and the years come and the years go, and Jerusalem is no closer to being redeemed, and sometimes redemption seems a lot farther away than it ever has been, but each year, Anna holds out hope rooted in faith and prayer that this year might be different from the last.

And then one year it is.

The Holy Spirit leads Simeon to the Temple that day, where he happens upon a young family, a mother and father and a small several-week-old baby.

There are two things that might be happening here, in accordance with Jewish custom.  The first is the ritual cleansing of Mary.  When a mother gave birth, she was considered unclean for seven days and then in a state of purification for another 33 days (for a boy) or 66 days (for a girl.)  After those 40 or 73 days, she went to the Temple to make an offering of a young lamb and a turtledove or a pigeon – or, in the case of poor families, two turtledoves or two pigeons.  (Which does Jesus’ mother offer?)  Already, there, we know something about his family.

The second is the redemption of a firstborn son.  In remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt, in which all firstborn Egyptian sons were killed, Israelites were supposed to dedicate their own firstborn sons to God’s service – or, usually, pay a certain amount to redeem them.  Luke mentions this law, but doesn’t say anything more about it – maybe, as some commentaries suggest, because Jesus was not in fact redeemed from God’s service.

Either way, as the Holy Family approaches the Temple to fulfill their obligation as good Jews, Simeon approaches them.  And he knows, as takes newborn Jesus in his arms (I do have note that he didn’t ask first) that the promise he has been waiting all these years to see fulfilled – is.

All those years of waiting, all those years of increasing hardship and despair instead of restoration and liberation, and Simeon never gave up hope that God was at work, that God was indeed going to make good on God’s promise, that God was indeed making all things new.

 

Question: What promises, from God or otherwise, are you waiting to see fulfilled this year?  What are you holding out hope for – on a personal or global scale?

 

When Simeon holds the baby Jesus, he praises God and says these words that sound almost like a hymn.  They are sometimes called the Nunc Dimittis, which is the first two words in Latin: Now you can dismiss your servant in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation.”  All the waiting is over; the hope and purpose of Simeon’s life has been completed.

Here’s the thing that impresses me about Simeon, though: Jesus is just a baby.  And at this point, 40 days into his earthly life, Jesus hasn’t redeemed or restored a thing – at least not visibly in any way, and certainly not in the way Simeon was expecting.  Jesus hasn’t freed Israel from Roman rule.  Jesus hasn’t taken his place on the Davidic throne.  At this point, 40 days into his earthly life, Jesus is still spending most of his time eating, sleeping, and pooping.  And somehow this is enough for Simeon to say “Now, God, you can let me go, because my eyes have seen your salvation.”

And then Anna joins in, and she too sees this tiny baby and hears Simeon’s testimony and she, too, praises God and goes off to tell “everyone who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” that this is something they should know about; that their waiting, too, has not been in vain.

And Jesus hasn’t done anything yet.

What kind of faith is that, that makes it enough to just see this baby and believe that God’s promise has come to pass?  That makes it so much enough that Simeon can say he’s seen what he came here to see?  That Anna can go and tell others?  It’s enough because, seeing him, they know now that the rest is unfolding; that it won’t be long now until God’s promise of liberation and restoration comes to fruition.  They don’t need to see it all.  Seeing one piece of it, remembering and receiving confirmation that God is still at work, is enough.

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but 2018 is probably not going to be the year that we see all of God’s promises fulfilled in their ultimate sense.  I could be wrong, of course; maybe Jesus really is getting ready to come back and bring peace and renew creation, and sometimes I hope so.  But he didn’t last year, or the year before that.

But God has not left us without signs that God is at work.  And even if we don’t get to see the whole promise fulfilled, maybe we can see part of it.  Maybe we can see steps toward peace in the world around us.  Maybe we can see the arc of history bending ever so slightly toward justice as events play out on the political and social stage in the US.  Maybe we can see some small movement toward reconciliation and wholeness in our own lives – even if we’re not quite there yet.

 

Question: What is giving you hope that God is at work as we transition into this new year?

 

Luke concludes this part of the story: “When Mary and Joseph had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.  The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him.”  The story, and God’s promise, continues to unfold.

May these things be reason for us to praise God as we flip to that new page on the calendar, to begin the new year in faithful hope, and to say, “My eyes have seen your salvation,” even while we’re still waiting.