Isaiah 2: 2-4
Matthew 5: 43-48
One of the history teachers in the high school school where my brother in law taught, gave a final exam at the end of the unit on the Second World War in which she asked this question: Which nation wrote the following editorial, and in what year? Justify your answer in a few sentences. "They are utterly lacking in any ability to understand the principles of humanity. Whatever may be the state of their material civilization, they are nothing but lawless savages in spirit who are ruled by fiendish passions and an unrestrained lust for blood. Against such enemies of decency and humanity, the civilized world must rise in protest and back up that protest with punitive force. Only through the complete chastisement of such barbarians can the world be made safe for civilization."
Make your own mental guess, before I tell you the answer: Japan, specifically The Nippon Times of Tokyo, on March 29, 1945 in an editorial, directed against American fire bombings of Tokyo, which on March 9th of that year killed between 80 and 100,000 civilians. By the end of the war, American planes had bombed 66 Japanese cities, leaving dead an estimated 400,000 civilians, half of whom perished in the atomic blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When we consider that the total U.S.military casualties in the Second World War were 300,000, 400,000 civilian deaths should give us pause Japan lost more civilians than we lost soldiers. But, of course, as we all know, we did not start the war, though we did manage to finish it, successfully, though certainly not easily.
War is always ugly, and as all nations learn, they must help their recruits to move not only beyond the moral prohibitions against killing but also beyond any feelings of empathy and compassion for the enemy. At one of the camps for the building of the Burma-Siam railway, the Japanese commander, noticing that some of his men were showing compassion to Allied prisoners by allowing them to rest, ordered his men not to waste their compassion on “the remnants of a degenerate white race and the fragments of a rabble army.” If you were a new American recruit in 1944, the United States Army had learned just how strong the prohibition against killing was. And so beginning in 1944, a pamphlet with these words was handed out to its newly drafted men: You’ve got to rid yourself of squeamish feelings about killing these men who are your enemies. You may not hate them, but they hate you, and killing them is the only means of defeating what they would kill you to accomplish.
Yes, war is hell to quote the famous Union General William Sherman, and we all know or should know each side does hellish things to the other. No one fights wars with clean hands, and many people openly acknowledge they did not fight with clean consciences. This is not to excuse war, but rather it is a frank acknowledgement of war’s inevitable brutality. The words from the prophet Isaiah: Nation shall not lift sword against nation or learn war any more express the human longing and hope for the peaceable kingdom, but alas, that kingdom is not yet here. Jesus commands us to love our enemies, not kill them, but most of us do not expect governments, including our own, to run on non-violent principles. It is not practical, we say, and so in some instances, many of us are willing to go to war, and pick up the pieces afterwards. We do what we have to do, and then ask for forgiveness later. This is not cynicism; it is reality. This is the world in which we live, the world we have helped to make.
73 years ago, almost to the day, on August 6th and August 9, 1945 the United States dropped the atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, causing over 200,000 civilian deaths. And on August 15, General Henry H. Arnold, who wanted to show Japan that we could “bake, boil and burn them to death” even without the use of atomic weapons, ordered the final bombing of Tokyo, knowing that the words of surrender were being worked on even as the planes took off. 1,014 bombers were sent against the already devastated city, and Japan’s surrender came before all the bombers had returned. True, we did not begin that ugly war, but how we ended it is worth pondering. We ended it through the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians. And if we do not know that, if we do not face that, we do not fully know who we are as a nation, and we fool ourselves into believing that we are more morally pure than we actually are.
The great Protestant reformer, John Calvin said, ‘The Bible contains two kinds of knowledge: knowledge of self and knowledge of God.” And knowledge of self embraces more than our individual lives. We are part of various communities, including a nation, and as citizens we partake of a national identity and a history that far transcends our own personal actions. When the prophet, Isaiah, spoke, his words were directed to a covenental people to whom he held up the image of the peaceable kingdom. But he also demanded that his people take a hard look at themselves as a people and acknowledge the ways the community had failed to honor God and God’s covenant.
Any nation that fights a war inevitably has blood on its hands. The world is a violent place, and the church recognizes that hard truth. Though the early church was a pacifist institution---no military person was allowed to join the church--- by the 5th century the theory of just war developed as a means to help Christians live in an unjust and violent world. Just war theory says you have a right to protect yourself as well as a right to defend those who are too weak to defend themselves, but you must consider the good that can be achieved and the means used to achieve that good. If you must kill civilians to achieve good ends, (such as the ending of a war) how many deaths can be tolerated? In the case of the atomic bombs, it is interesting to note that although the military overwhelmingly supported the idea, two of the strongest opponents to dropping the bombs came from military men. Admiral William Leahy and Dwight D. Eisenhower both argued that an invasion of Japan was unnecessary, since we had broken the Japanese code, and we knew that Japan was near surrender anyway. Such civilian slaughter would leave the United States morally compromised, they argued. Slaughter, by the way, was the exact word Eisenhower used.
We all realize how much easier hindsight is than foresight. In 1945 everyone just wanted the war to end, and most did not care how. Most Americans did not know then that Japan was near surrender and was working the details out through the Soviet Union. Most Americans did not know then that the dropping of the bombs was a determined demonstration of American power to the Soviet Union, who was growing into the new enemy. And so today when we look back, what do we see? What have we learned? Those are questions worth pondering.
My brother in law told me that no one answered his colleague’s exam question correctly. A few thought it was an English editorial during the Blitzkrieg of London; one thought it was Russia after Germany invaded; some thought it was a U.S. editorial after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and most thought it was written in May, 1945, when the United States saw the death camps in Europe. The teacher did give a lot of partial credit for the answers, because she said while they were wrong, the students were able to justify them. That’s really quite fitting, isn’t it? We can be oh so wrong, but oh so clever at justifying our answers. But the God in Jesus Christ, who commands us to love our enemies, may be much less impressed with our justifications than history teachers are. In the end it is not justifications, which save us or our enemies, but the final form of love, which is forgiveness.
2 Samuel 11: 1-15
Romans 5: 18- 21
Soon after I was ordained, I was invited to guest preach at a church in .Mount Kisco, New York. After the church service, this woman and I became engaged in a fascinating conversation. She told me that she had been a nun for over 25 years, but after becoming deeply influenced by the writings of the Jesuit priest and scholar, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, she realized that she must not only leave her convent but also her Roman Catholicism. As part of the departure process, her Order requested she speak to the bishop, and so she agreed. The Bishop was a learned and wise man, somewhat familiar with the thought of Teillard de Chardin, who had died in 1955. Rome had barred Teilhard from teaching and publishing, accusing him of heretical ideas, and although he continued to write, he was obedient to Rome’s dictates. It was only after his death, when the ban is automatically lifted, that his work gained public recognition.
Without going into details about his ideas, let it suffice to say that Chardin believed that the whole creation was moving toward complete fulfillment; salvation would encompass everything and everyone, and when the nun told her bishop that she believed this with her whole heart, he wistfully looked at her and said, “If I believed what you believe, I would be the happiest of men.”
Now consider for a moment what the bishop said: “If I believed what you believe, I would be the happiest of men.” What belief would have the capacity to make you the happiest of men or women? Imagine waking up tomorrow morning and someone tells you that you can choose one belief to be true. What would it be?
For me what Paul wrote in what is now the 20th verse in the 5th chapter of Romans would do it: but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more. What if the tense is not simply past, but also present: where sin increases, grace abounds all the more! Can we really imagine something like that being true? Sin increasing, but grace abounding even more! Consider the sin that greets us everyday in the news---war, poverty, greed, violence. Consider the sin that reduces human life to rubble---addictions of all kinds, carrying in its wake deep misery and depression. Consider the sin of human betrayal: adulteries committed, friendships betrayed, children abandoned and abused. Consider the sin of King David, who not only took another man’s wife, but then had Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, killed. And yet, Paul claims that where sin increased, grace---that is the presence and working of God---- abounded all the more. Could this possibly be true?
We cannot directly see all this abounding of grace, and so believing it, believing in it, sometimes seems impossible. Oh we see glimmers; we do see good things happening in the midst of sin---- teens survive a shooting in their Florida high school, because a teacher protected them by throwing himself over their bodies. A teenager, who spent years in shelters and living in a car with her parents, returned to the apartment her family was living in to discover that the family had left her behind. And despite all these terrible disadvantages, she was a straight A student, who gained admission to Harvard, from which she graduated with honors. Sometimes glimmers of grace do happen, even while sin abounds. But grace overtaking sin? Grace abounding more than sin? That is a hard one to believe, isn’t it, because it seems to fly in the face of so much of our experience.
Where was the grace, when some years ago, in my former church in Middletown, I refused to give a gas voucher to a man, both my colleague and I had helped many times before to buy gas---until we learned that he was making drug runs to Harford, and so the next time he came in, I refused to help him. I can still remember how he begged me for that voucher. Look, he said, sometimes I do sell drugs. I don’t have a regular paycheck like you. But I do need the voucher so I can keep warm. But I can’t use the church’s money to help you sell drugs. Then don’t use the church’s money, he literally pleaded. Use your own. Please help me.” I did not, and four days later he was found frozen to death in his car, with a cache of cocaine in the front seat. Oh sin increased all right, his own and mine, but where, where in that situation was the abounding of grace?
In my former church in New Haven I remember well this young woman, who came to me devastated over the suicide of her 20 year old brother, who shot himself when his girlfriend dropped him. She came to me one afternoon with a whole set of pictures of her brother, lying in his coffin. She wanted to know where God was for her brother. Why would God allow such a terrible thing to happen? He could not see beyond the pain, she said. He acted impulsively, like a lot of 20 year olds do. He did not think of the consequences. Why wasn’t God there for him, she wanted to know? She came around pretty regularly for months, and then she told me she was pregnant. She could barely care for herself; I couldn’t imagine how she would care for a baby. But of course she insisted that she would be a good mother. And then a year after the baby was born I learned that both she and the father had struggles with depression and drugs. And two years after that, she took her own life. Where sin increased, grace, the presence and working of God, abounded all the more?
The stark truth is that the abounding of grace is not what our mortal eyes normally see. Recognizing grace is not a natural process that clearly presents itself to human vision. And yet, and yet again it is the call of Christian faith to believe, hope and proclaim such a thing, and that is why the church, that is why this community of the faltering faithful is needed. Where else but the church is grace openly declared? Where else but the church are we regularly reminded that in spite of all the world’s pain, God is yet working to make a new creation. This is what Teilhard de Chardin believed---that nothing and no one shall be lost to God, who can and will make all things well. The past and the present, said Teilhard, are not nearly so important as the future---the future of God in Jesus Christ.
In the midst of great personal turmoil and self-doubt, when Rome ordered Teillhard de Chardin not to publish, when he was forbidden to teach, whenhe was accused of heresy, he wrote these words to a friend:
Over every living thing which is to spring up, to grow, to flower, to ripen during this day, say again the words: this is my Body. And over every death force which awaits in readiness to corrode, to wither, to cut down, speak again your commanding words: This is my blood. More and more I come to see the importance of speaking and believing these words. Personal success or satisfaction are not worth thinking about or worrying about---whether they come to us or evade us. The most important thing is action---faithful action in the world and in God. And the most important action belongs to God, who uses even our most meager and failing action to bring about the new creation.
Teilhard could have left the priesthood; he could have said good-bye to his beloved Jesuit Order, and he surely would have found many willing publishers for his writings, not to mention an appointment as a professor in a prestigious university. But that is not what he did. He said he was who he was, because of his Roman Catholic faith, and the Jesuits had nurtured him along the path of his becoming. Though loyal to his church, he believed that the most important loyalty was not his or ours, but God’s. God, he said, is loyal to the church and to us, even when the church and we are not always loyal to God. And that is indeed Good News.
Mark 6: 1-13
One night last week I met with a group of colleagues, two of whom were retired, while three of us were not. And so the discussion came around to Mark’s gospel, the sending of the disciples out into the world. One of my colleagues always speaks of the gospel as a pair of glasses, a kind of lens, meaning that when you put it on, you are invited to see life through that lens. Things can look differently. So what do we see when we look at life, including our lives, through the particular lens of this story?
Now up to this point in Mark’s gospel there have been some questions about Jesus’ identity. Back in chapter four people wanted to know who this guy is, and in chapter 3 even Jesus’ family thought him crazy. No one was prepared to give Jesus much credit for anything. He is dismissed as a hometown boy, a tekton, a word, which can be translated as carpenter or even stonemason. Though Jesus has performed some pretty impressive deeds, and even flabbergasted the crowds, now it is Jesus’ turn to be astonished as he learns that their utter lack of faith is impervious to his ministry. So what does he do? He sends his disciples out into the world and gives them at least some of the power he has---the power to cast out demons and heal. So off they go.
Now on some level it is pretty extraordinary that these disciples are sent out, because in so many ways they are a pretty pathetic lot. Of all the gospel writers Mark is the hardest on the disciples. He shows them utterly lacking in all knowledge and understanding. Jesus is always explaining things to them, and still they don’t get it. And yet they are his disciples, chosen by him to do the work that needs doing. And the fact that these disciples are so unimpressive, so extraordinarily ordinary is exactly the fact, which grabbled my colleagues’ attention, directing the course of our conversation and in the end giving us all some hope. And perhaps we too can find that hope, because let’s be honest, in so many ways we too lack understanding and knowledge. We too are not necessarily the greatest examples of faithful discipleship. But here we are, trying in our own ways to be faithful, and we too are sent out---though often we fail to notice that sending out, because we don’t often use the gospel as a lens through which to look at our lives.
But when one of my colleagues looked at his life through the lens of this particular story, he recalled an incident from his life when he was 10. I was suddenly called out of Mrs. Dodson’s class, he told us, to go down to the principal’s office. I could not imagine what I had done; I tried to think of things. Oh yes, I had witnessed a fight in the schoolyard, but I was not a part of it. I hadn’t been late to school; my homework was done. Why was I being called down to old Mr. Nelson’s office? Of course, he was not really old, but when you are 10, 40 years olds seems ancient. So when Mr. Nelson looked at me over the rim of his glasses and said my name out loud, James Wilson, I just stood there, terrified in the very pithy of my soul. Very brusquely he said, “Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you, because I will say it only once. Go out of the school and walk down Maple Street until you get to Oak Street; take a left and walk three more blocks until you come to 17 Raymond Road. That’s where Peter Hanson lives. Tell his mother that if Peter is not in school by noon, I will report her for truancy.
Well, first of all, my colleague continued, I did not know what truancy was, and secondly Peter Hanson was the toughest kid in our school. He was mean, and one time he punched me in the stomach for no reason at all. So why was I being sent to his house?
It didn’t take me long to get there. The blocks weren’t long, but the last four of them were run down, a neighborhood I had never been in before; had never really seen before. When I arrived, I saw this guy getting into a blue Chevrolet. Are you Mr. Hanson? I asked. He just laughed at me and said, “Like hell I am,” and got into his car and slammed the door shut and drove off in a hurry. Almost immediately I remembered what everyone used to say. The reason Peter was so mean was because he had no father. This was, after all, 1952, and in those days single parenthood was not so common. So, I got up my courage, knocked on the door, which was hanging off its hinges, and who should answer but Peter. He was as startled as I was, and his eyes became as big as saucers, but he did not speak a word. He just stared until his mother came to the door, wearing a dirty blue bathrobe and smoking a cigarette. What do you want, she asked.
Well, the principal sent me to get Peter. You see, it is kind of a special day in school, and we all feel that it is just not right without Peter. I mean we are doing some pretty interesting stuff today, and Peter could help us. It’s just not the same without him. And then came a pause, before I said, At least I think this is what the principal said.
Well, Peter, his mother asked, do you want to go to school? And Peter nodded his assent. So there it was: Peter and I walking to school together. We had never had a conversation before, and now was not the time to start, so we just walked along in silence, and when we arrived at school Peter let me lead him to the principal’s office, and as he turned to go in, he gave me this look---a kind of half sad, half relieved, mixed with some embarrassment look, and that was that.
When I arrived home from school that day, I told my mother what I had done. That is outrageous, my mother objected. What is wrong with Mr. Nelson, sending a child to that neighborhood to do his job? He ought to have his had examined. Why, I have a good mind to go to your school and give him a piece of my mind. But this was 1952, and parents back then did not tangle with school principals, so my mother never went.
But you know something, my colleague told us. Even back then, I knew my mother was wrong. I knew even then that something important happened that day, and now when I look back at that experience, I see it was one of the most important things that happened to me in my entire elementary school years. When I look at it through the lens of the gospel, I know I was sent. And my world got a little bigger that day. And in some respects so did Peter Hanson’s. I think he actually believed what I said: that we wanted him to be there, that he could help us with the things we were doing. We were making salt maps, and he did a brilliant job of painting one. His was the most striking of all the maps, and the teacher told him so, and he was proud, and you know something, so was I.
You see gospel moments do not always have to be huge drama with God playing the major role. Sometimes God is in the background, hanging out on the sidelines, whispering hints and suggestions that we might hear or choose to ignore. One of my other colleagues told us he had just finished reading a book, Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer. The message was basically that we are called to listen to our inner voice, listen to our life, calling us to be who we are born to be. It is not something from without, Palmer insisted; it comes from within. But you know something, all of us gathered around the table that evening thought Parker Palmer was wrong. It is not all about what is within; there is also something without, something pushing and pulling us out of ourselves. There are times in life we are summoned and called by something beyond ourselves.
My colleague said that if there had been a call for volunteers to go to Peter Hanson’s house to deliver a message from the principal, he NEVER would have gone, never would have volunteered. Why he was called; why the principal chose him that fateful day, he never will know. But it was a big moment in his life, and he sees that moment differently; he sometimes sees his life differently because every now and then he puts on the gospel, like a pair of glasses, and sees what he has not seen before. And so the same is true for all of us. We too are invited to put the gospel on and see even a moment through that lens. And we just might be surprised at what we see.
Deuteronomy 30: 15-20
Matthew 5: 1-10
If you have learned anything about me at all this past year, you realize that I am a person who pays attention to stories, which I try to see through the lense of the gospel. Well, in my first semester in semianry in the course Philosophical Theology, my professor, Leroy Rouner, told this story to the class about one of his seminary professors, who was barely 20 years old, when he landed in France for the Normandy invasion in June, 1944. He and three other young men were scouting around a small French village when through no design or intention of their own, a young German soldier fell into their hands. They didn’t know what to do with him, since keeping him as a prisoner was impossible. They considered letting him go, because well, he was no more than a kid, about 16 or 17 years old. But what if he pulled down the wrath of other Germans upon their comrades, who had just parachuted into German held territory? And so, sadly and reluctantly, they decided they had no recourse but to shoot him. Four young men, who had grown up going to church and who could tell you something about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount made a decision they did not want to make. They picked some blades of grass, and the one who got the shortest blade was assigned the horrific task. They decided to shoot him in the back with no warning, so he would not be afraid, and this 20 year old recruit got the job. He carried it out against his conscience, believing he was acting against what Jesus would have him do, and eventually after the war and college, he found his way into seminary and into the field of ethics, becoming a professor at Union theological Seminary in New York. He had done something he knew to be wrong, but under the circumstances of brutal war, he did not know what else could be done.
Many of you are famiiar with the Sermon on the Mount, which, in Matthew begin with the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they inherit the earth, Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy, and so on. We know them as the heart of Jesus’ teaching, just as these four young men also knew them. But they also knew (as we do too) that they did not live in a black and white world, where absolute good stands on one side and absolute evil on another. And so they did what they did not want to do, because they did not see any alternative. Choosing life, as the reading in Deuteronomy dictates, is not without its ambiguity.
At Wesleyan University, where my husband teaches, there was a professor of ethics, Philip Hallie, who during World War II, was a young soldier in the infantry. Hallie witnessed and participated in the horror of war, and after the war’s conclusion he found himself haunted by the depth of evil and cruelty that people did and do to one another. He became a student of the Holocaust, cataloguing horror after horror, and contemplating the darkness that lies within the human heart and psyche. He said that after decades of studying evil, he was descending into a pit of depression and hopelessness ---until one day, reading some Holocaust literature in his office, he suddenly noticed that he could no longer read, because his eyes were blinded by tears. He stopped, wiped his eyes, and saw that the pages before him were drenched and the paper crinkled.
Why am I crying? he asked himself. And then he read the page again, the story of a French Huguenot village, Le Chambon, whose 3000 citizens, took Jesus’ commands seriously and literally. They believed what Jesus said about love---love the neighbor and the enemy. Show mercy to the neighbor and the enemy. Resisting the Nazis and the puppet Vichy government, they hid and helped to escape nearly 6000 Jewish children. Led by their pastor, Andre Trocme, his wife Magda, and his associate pastor, Edward Theis, this village is an admirable example of pure faith. They saved Jews, and they did it without harming or killing any Germans or their French collaborators. They were pacifists, who believed it was unChristian to save lives by destroying others. And it was this story, which made Philip Hallie cry. Hallie had become so immersed in studying evil that he had forgotten how to cry, but when he came across something good, he wept. And so he began a new study, the study of Le Chambon, whose story is told in his book, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed.
But there is more to this story than the pure goodness and faith of these French Protestants. How was it then that this little village managed to do what it did right under the nose of the Germans? You see it was known that Le Chambon was hiding Jews, and with the record of Nazi terror, why was this village not utterly destroyed? And the answer has to do with the very thing that Le Chambon would not do---compromise.
In the last week of August, 1944, Hitler’s Third Reich was about finished in France, and trials of Germans and French collaborators were already beginning. On August 23, a German officer, Major Julius Schmahling, who had for the past two years been in command of the German troops in the region, which included the village of Le Chambon, was now facing an inquiry about whether or not he should stand trial as a war criminal. As he walked up the aisle toward the presiding officer of the hearing, who had been one of the leaders of the French Resistance, something strange began to happen. People, including members of the French Resistance, rose to their feet. As the inquiry began, a Resistance leader spoke on Schmahling’s behalf, saying that he had fought his bad war well; he fought with dignity and with justice, and he refused to harm the village of Le Chambon, because though he knew they were hiding Jews, they were not killing or hurting German soldiers.
Schmahling had been an officer in the First World War, and after that war, he became a teacher. He despised the Nazis, though he was finally forced to join the Nazi Party to keep his teaching job. In 1942 he was called up to military service, and given command of the Haute Loire region in France. He was told to go after the French Resistance, and he was also commanded to do something about the village of Le Chambon. While Schmahling did fight the Resistance, he did nothing about Le Chambon.
When the Major died in 1973, his son found a letter in his father’s wallet, a letter written in 1966 by the mayor of the French region, where Schmahling had served. The letter thanked the Major for “rendering the conditions of war as supportable as they could be within the limits of the freedom you were granted. We remember you with affection and gratitude during an epoch when it was not easy to be a good German among good Frenchmen.”
Understand that Schmahling was not a lowly soldier; he was the commander of the region, and it was his job to control the French while Germany went about its business of trying to win the war. He was serving a nation, which was murdering millions and millions of people, and Berlin put him in command, because they thought he would keep the region quiet. And Berlin was right. Schmahling did his job well; there were few attacks on German soldiers under his administration. If evil is about the twisting and systematic abuse of human life, then there is no doubt that the Nazi government Schmahling served was evil, and in serving it, he was part of that evil. But if goodness has something to do with the prevention of cruelty and murder, then there is no doubt that Schmahling did good. It was not the goodness of the people of Le Chambon, who under no circumstances would commit violence against their enemies. It was not the goodness enshrined in the Beatitudes of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Julius Schmahling had no interest in religion or in Jesus, but he did have his ethical standards. He lived in a world he did not make, but choose to accept, a world where compromises are made that some can survive, who under different conditions, would be murdered.
Most of us are probably more like Julius Schmahling than we are the people of Le Chambon. So what is the lesson here? Is it that that even in a world of lions and lambs, the world still has need of the purists, like the people of Le Chambon, as well as those, like Major Schmahling and those four young soldiers in Normandy, who were wiling to compromise that some measure of goodness might have a chance of surviving in a world where evil also flourishes. There are lines we draw in the sand, and though we do not always know beforehand where we will draw the line, still a time may come when a decision must be made. And then we decide how and to what degree we are serving Christ and choosing life over death?
Micah 6: 6-16
1 Corinthians 12: 27-13: 13
From the looks of it, The Community Church of Joy in Glendale, Arizona was a great success. Construction was everywhere on the church’s 187 acre campus, and there were 12,000 names on the membership roles. There were professional musicians, who delivered what people called “upbeat music”, square dancing classes, weekly group trips to favorite restaurants and game playing nights. But the Rev. Walter Kallestad was having difficulty sleeping. While discipleship calls Christians to take up their crosses and care for the most vulnerable, Kallestad reached the disturbing conclusion that his congregation was not interested in engaging with God, but were looking for relief, entertainment and inspiration. While the church, he thought, had become a formidable institution, it was not following Christ, and so one Sunday morning he
stood before his congregation and confessed that under his leadership the church had become a dispenser of goods and services. And so, he said, things would have to change. And change they did. The professional musicians were suddenly gone, because, he said, they had no real interest in the faith. No more group trips to restaurants or game nights or any of the other frills. One out of every three members and half the staff immediately left the church in protest. Soon others would follow, when they recognized the minister meant what he said. “Faith is costly; if you’re a spectator and a consumer here,” he said, “then you are living a lie and you are ignoring what Christ commands you to do.” The church has still not recovered even one quarter of its former membership, but at least some people learned that faith is not a commodity and that the church is not primarily about making its members feel comfortable or satisfied.
Because we live in a consumerist society, people have learned to approach everything as consumers---including religion and education. But unlike commercial enterprises, the church does not exist to satisfy the wants of customers. In fact, its call is to transform what their so called “customers” want; in other words, diminishing selfish and primitive desires and moving its members to desire what is truly good and worthy of human desire. The church’s business is character formation or transformation on the deepest levels---to become conformed to the image of God in Jesus Christ.
In former times the business of the church was understood to be about “saving souls.” Though many of us do not embrace the old images of keeping souls out of a devouring pit of fire, we certainly should believe that the church is still in the business of salvation. And at least part of what that word means is to be constantly in the process of being saved; that is, having our desires transformed, learning, in other words, to desire what God in Jesus Christ would have us desire.
For what we desire says a great deal about our character, about the kind of people we are and want to become. When my husband began his career as a professor in a medical school 30 years ago, the most competitive residency was orthopedics, but now it is dermatology. And do you know why, because it’s a lucrative specialty with defined hours. Money, ease and comfort are what many desire. Professors at universities and colleges sometimes lament what they see as the brain drain to Wall Street. While decades ago, the so called best and brightest went into medicine, scientific research, law and teaching, now many head off to Wall Street, where some figure out how to do all kinds of complicated financial manipulations that escape the attention of the less clever. One of my husband’s colleagues, who formerly worked on Wall Street, before going into molecular biology, told him, “It is scary how smart some of these people are. But they too often use their intelligence for the wrong things.”
Who or what helps us to use our intelligence for the right things? The public schools have all but given up on character formation and the church is not far behind. If the church makes its priorities what the culture deems worthy, what are we? Who are we? Why do we need to exist? The temptation is to surrender the distinct religious identity by merging into the larger cultural identity. Micah told his people that they had become a vassal state of the Assyrian Empire, because they had pursued the wrong desires. You have been greedy, he said. You have cheated the poor by using scales that do not properly weigh the grain. Your wealth rests on violence. Lies and deceit dominate the public square. You know, Micah said, what your call is: do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.
And Paul told the Christians of Corinth that their differing gifts should be used in an excellent way. Let love be your guide. These well known verses on love, too often, in my opinion, read at weddings, are not about romantic love. The love here is agape, which can be translated as charity. This is care and concern for the other, including the enemy. This love is not about liking or approval, but it is about deep caring, desiring for the other true fullness of life. Paul wrote these words in the context of church. This is his vision of what the church should be and become: a community whose members have had their desires transformed and changed. When your desire is changed, your view of yourself and the other and the world changes. You do not see as the culture sees.
Do you think, for example, that St. Francis or Mother Theresa saw the leper or criminal or the drug addict or the illegal migrant as less than they, lacking the image and likeness of God? Would they have poured contempt upon these people, because they fail to do what our common morality dictates? No, because their vision had been transformed by the gospel, and so they saw differently, dimly to be sure, because no human being can see the fullness. No institution, church or state, can make the new creation. Only God can do that, but in the meantime the church is called to be witness to God’s new creation. How? By doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God. And though we cannot do that perfectly, we can open our eyes and recognize when justice is NOT done, when mercy is denied and when arrogance rules the day. And then we raise our voices and our prayers in the hope that God’s will indeed one day overcome the world’s will and make all life new.
Job 38: 1-11
Mark 4: 35-41
Last Wednesday some of us gathered to watch the move, The Painted Veil. It is a story of love and betrayal, forgiveness and redemption. In one scene between the Mother Superior of an orphanage and the wife of a doctor, who is battling a cholera epidemic China, the nun says to the woman, “When I was 17 years old, I fell madly, passionately in love with God. But over the years, God has disappointed me, and now God and I are like an old married couple. We don’t talk much any more, but God knows I will never leave him.
Disappointed with God: It is not a subject usually brought up in church. After all, as Christians we are called to love God with the fullness of our hearts, minds and souls, and to admit disappointment appears to be a faithless act. And yet, over more than three decades of ministry, I have heard many, many people express keen disappointment with God. A baby is stillborn; a 12 year old loses her sight; children at the southern border are ripped from the arms of their parents and placed in detention centers. God, where are you? We are in a terrible storm. Don’t you care? Imagine those disciples, out in a boat in a storm, fearful that they might drown. Their fear is not unreasonable, and so they cried out to Jesus, “Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?” Or to put the question in another way, “God, where are you in the midst of life’s storms?”
We all know life is full of storms, and there are storms severe enough to push some people to unbelief. But the disciples were not tempted by unbelief; they were tempted by fear to doubt the power of God, the power they had witnessed in Jesus. And so they were mightily disappointed, just as Job was also mightily disappointed. Poor Job, battered and bruised by a series of calamities, because he was made a pawn in a bet between the Adversary and God. God had permitted the Adversary to afflict Job to see what Job would do, if he would maintain his faithfulness. And so Job lost his wealth, his children and finally his health. And he wanted an answer to a very human question: WHY? Have I not been faithful? Have I not been just? Answer me, God. And finally God spoke out of the whirlwind, and what we heard today was the first part of God’s response. God basically told Job that he was so small and puny in understanding that he could not possibly comprehend the fullness of God’s power. Since God is beyond everything that he, a mere human, can know or understand, how dare he question God?
But Job always knew that his understanding was limited, just as we all know that. But can we be blamed for being mere human beings, for having limited understanding? We have no alternative but to see, speak and understand as humans, and so the questions we put forth must be human questions, spoken from our limited human perspective. That is the very best that we can do, and unless God wants to tell us that our humanity is completely trivial, we do have a right to question and to ponder from our limited human point of view. Job and the disciples were not asking to understand as God understands. They were asking for help as human beings.
And this is what the early church was asking for as well. It is not at all unlikely that the community out of which the Gospel of Mark emerged had its own beef with God, because the sovereign ruler of the universe was not taking corrective action against the church’s enemies. The Emperor Nero had been dipping Christians in oil and setting them on fire, so imagine the challenge of converting people to Christ with that threat hanging over their heads. Was not God supposed to care for and protect God’s people? If the church truly is Christ’s body in the world, why is it so hard to build up that body? Why all this persecution and failure? Those are some of the questions on the minds of the early Christians. They were having a very hard time, and they saw their church in the middle of a great storm, buffeted and bashed by strong winds and heavy rains. Why doesn’t God do something? Does God even care? These are the questions the writer of Mark’s gospel was dealing with, and so it was essential that the story he told be filled with hope for a people in a boat out in a storm.
Notice how skillfully Mark weaves his story. Right before this, Jesus had been teaching in parables, and exhausted, he said to his disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.” In other words, let’s get out of here; let’s leave the crowds behind. And so they did. They pushed off, and there they were on the Sea of Galilee. Now I have been to Israel and I have seen the Sea of Galilee, and let me tell you, it can get mighty rough. Storms blow in very rapidly. On the east shore the mountains rise up to about 2000 feet, and when the wind blows through the ravines the danger to boats out on the water is fierce. So we can imagine that the disciples had a very good reason to be afraid---just as the early Christians had good reason to be afraid. And where is Jesus in the story? Why, he is asleep in the boat; the text even gives us the extra detail that he is asleep in the stern, on a cushion. He is in the back of the boat, not the front. He is behind his disciples, not ahead of them.
And what do these disciples do? Terrified for their lives, they awaken him with this accusation, “Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?” Notice to whom or what Jesus first speaks. Mark tells us he first rebuked the wind, and this term rebuke, a term of great power, was the same verb Mark used to describe Jesus’ control over the demons. Earlier in the gospel Jesus had rebuked the demons, telling them to come out of the possessed man. Next he speaks to the sea, but in a gentler voice. “Peace! Be still.” Only then did Jesus address his disciples, asking them “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And the text tells us that the disciples were filled not yet with faith but with great awe, and they wondered who this man is that even the wind and the sea obey him.
Now up to this point Mark has been giving us a Jesus, who has been mainly a teacher, preaching and teaching in parables. But now through the end of chapter five, we are going to see a Jesus performing miracles, and this stilling of the storm is a reminder of what God did to the Israelites in Egypt, parting for them the Red Sea so they could escape. So the message to the early church was: just as God saved the Israelites then, so will God save the church now from the fearsome power of Rome.
But how will God accomplish that? Through the power miracles? No, that is not how it works in Mark’s gospel. People may be awed by miracles, but awe is not faith. In fact, miracles represent diminishing returns in Mark. In chapter 6, for example, 5000 people are fed, but in chapter 8 the number drops to 4000, and in that same chapter Jesus has to try twice to heal a blind man. When we arrive at chapter 11, Jesus does not seem to have much power left, and when the fig tree does not give him any fruit, he curses it. His power seems to be spent, and he cannot even prevent his own death. What kind of a Messiah is this, anyway? With what kind of God are we dealing? If the expectation is raw power, God’s complete restoration in this life of what has been so grievously lost, the gospel shows us that such expectations may be the wrong ones to have. God is not magic; God is love, and love works differently from magic. Love does not make all the pain go away; it cannot restore everything that has been lost. But love allows us to see life differently.
Some years ago, I met a 30 year old man in a nursing after a car accident left him severely brain damaged. His father visited him regularly, but after a while the father painfully admitted that he had stopped loving his son. The truth is, the father confessed, his son no longer seemed like his son. He could not talk or respond, and he did not realize anyone’s identity. Well, one day, when the father entered the room, another man from his Presbyterian church was there, visiting his son, talking to him, reading scripture and praying as if the young man could understand what was being said. What’s wrong with this guy, the father pondered? Doesn’t he know that my son can understand nothing that his brain is damaged and he will never be well? He was about to say something, but suddenly it dawned on him that this man was looking at this son through the eyes of faith. His words were not wasted, because even if the young man could not understand them, God heard them and accepted them as an act of faith and love. “That man’s faith,” the father said, “helped to rebirth my love for my son.”
There are many storms in life, and the waves bash against us, threatening to overwhelm our little boat. Sure, we are afraid, wondering what the outcome will be. There is no promise that there will be no more storms. The only promise given is that God is love, and love does work in mysterious ways as it helps us to see what we did not see or understand before.
Genesis 17: 1-8
Mark 5: 21-24; 35-43
Earl was a powerhouse of a man with huge hands seemingly capable of handling anything, which is why he seemed to be entrusted with everything. He was president of the school board, chairman of the local United Way, a deacon in his Presbyterian church, and a shrewd but just banker. He made a name for himself, when as a young loan officer, he lent money to people who were not conventionally considered financial good risks. A sharp and perceptive judge of character, Earl knew whether or not he could trust someone's word. Under his leadership the poor in his Indiana town were able to both borrow and repay their loans.
The trouble began when Earl failed to show up at the bank one day. When his secretary called his home, his wife was beside herself. "I don't know what's wrong with Earl," she said. “He got up the usual time, said good-bye to our daughter as she left for school, but instead of getting dressed and eating breakfast, he climbed up into Scamp's tree house. And there he is; he won't come down, and he won't say a word."
In a small town, such behavior constituted a community crisis. Within the hour the bank president was in Earl's backyard, along with the chairman of the board, Earl's brother, the family doctor, and the fire and police chiefs, both of whom were family friends. By the time the 12 year old Scamp arrived home from school, it seemed that half the town was crowded into the backyard.
Earl's brother then climbed up into the tree house, but Earl kicked him in the head so hard that he practically flew out of the tree. “Well,” concluded the family doctor, “I think we had better send up some medics to put him in a straightjacket.”
"Don't you dare do such a thing to my father,” yelled Scamp. And then turning to her Mother, she ordered, "Send everyone away, Mom, now. We can handle this ourselves. Holy cow, she objected, looking the police chief right in the eye. All he's done is stay up in the tree house for the day; I do that all the time. And then Scamp told her mother to make a sandwich, which she brought up to her father. He ate, smiling at his daughter, though he would not speak to her. For three days and nights, Earl would not budge, and Scamp stayed with her father the entire time. Finally on the fourth day, father and daughter climbed down from the tree house together. Off Earl went to the mental hospital, where after a series of drug treatments, he began to respond---but only to Scamp. He would talk to her in a halting, hesitant way, and as the weeks became months, his talking improved, and so he finally was discharged, a tall, forlorn, gaunt man, totally dependent on his 12 year old daughter.
Scamp dressed him in the morning and put him to bed at night. And when she came home from school, the first thing she did was take him out to the park behind their home. There they played together on the swings and the see-saws, chased butterflies and birds, caught minnows in the creek. Sometimes he wet his pants like a toddler not yet toilet trained; at other times he would just sit, silently weeping with huge tears rolling down his cheeks. Scamp never asked him why he was crying; she would just sit him down, take her place next to him, holding his hand in her own. The tender love that flowed between them was palpable, and Earl's psychiatrist stepped back and said, "There is a healing power here which though I do not understand, I honor. Leave them be." And so everyone did.
On a beautiful morning in June, Earl woke up, dressed, went downstairs and began cooking breakfast. When his wife entered the kitchen, he smiled at her and said, "I think I'm going to work today. I feel like my old self." And so Earl went to the bank, and put in almost a full day. Days turned into weeks into months and years without anything strange happening. Earl was healed.
We all know that the Bible is filled with stories about fathers and sons. Abraham is promised a son, not a daughter. In our reading from Genesis today, Abraham is called the ancestor of a great nation, though the older translations all call him the Father of the nation. Jesus is the Son, and his God is called Father, never mother. But what about the relationship between fathers and their daughters? Though literature is filled with such stories--- who could forget King Lear and Cordelia, or Oedipus and Antigone---the Bible hardly pays fathers and daughters any mind. This morning's story about a father and his sick daughter is important enough to be told by Matthew, Mark and Luke, but it is not designed to give us any keen insights into the relationship between fathers and daughters. Its sole purpose is to reveal who Jesus Christ is, the healer, yes, but also the one whose power extends even over death. The story highlights Christ, revealing who he is---the chosen one of God. The story is not about a father and his daugher.
And yet consider this: Christ comes to the ordinary; he meets us in the midst of real life, where relationships among all kinds of people, including fathers and daughters, help us to become who we are. If you are a daughter, your father is most likely the first male relationship in your life. And that relationship carries its mark into adult lives---for both the father and the daughter and for better and for worse. When I was a hospital chaplain, I saw stubborn, ornery old men refuse to cooperate with anyone on the medical team until their daughters arrived. I recall this 79 year old man, suffering from dementia and a liver ailment. No one could get him to do anything, including his three sons and his wife. But when his daughter arrived from California, walked into the hospital room, and said one word, Daddy, he immediately calmed down. You see his sons called him Dad; only his daughter called him Daddy. And the same thing was true in my own family of origin. My two brothers in adulthood always called my father Dad, but to my sister and me, he always remained Daddy.
Thanksgiving of 2002, a little over a year before my father died, he suffered a stroke when he was at my home, visiting with my mother from New Jersey. We had no idea what the outcome would be, but for a few days, he lost his speech, and I simply could not believe it. I mean my father always had an answer for everything, and it was he with whom I fought and argued as soon as I could put two words together. My mother always tried to make nice; she hated controversy, while my father and I thrived on it. Thriving on controversy did not make our relationship easy; he was hard on me, and over the years we said things to each other, which would have been much better left unsaid. But I will tell you something--- as my father lay in Middlesex Hospital unable to speak, I would have given anything to hear one word---even a harsh one. My father recovered from his stroke. His speech returned to normal, and he could walk again though this time with a shuffle. But he would tolerate no reference to his stroke. When I mentioned that he had lost his speech for a few days, he simply denied it. "You're making that up, he growled at me. I was never that bad!” He did not want to admit his vulnerability any more than I wanted to admit that he was vulnerable.
My dad is gone now, having died in January, 2003, and still there are times I cannot believe he is gone. When my first granddaughter was born in 2005, my daughter wanted to know what I wanted to be called. Well, I said, Jason’s mother is grandma, and then there is Jason’s father’s wife, who also wantes to be called grandma, so I have to be called something different. I want to be called Zhan-Zhan. What? Well, I explained, that is what my father sometimes called me; it was a term of affection. He would often come into the room, and see me in my rocking chair reading and pondering, and he would say, “Zhan, Zhan, what are you up to, plotting against the government?” My daughter just looked at me as if I had lost my marbles. But it was not my marbles I had lost; it was my father, and hanging on to a childhood name, was one way I could hang on to him. And so to my granddaughers, I am Zhan-Zhan.
The Bible tells us a lot of things. The great genius and reformed theologian, John Calvin, reminds us that the bible contains two kinds of knowledge: knowledge of self and knowledge of God. And our knowledge of self encompasses our relationships with others, because who we are and who we become is always connected with the others in our lives. Now the bible does not tell us everything, and sometimes what it leaves out---in this case the experience of fathers and daughters--- communicates something very critical about that paticular culture--- how unimportant females were. Attention was so concentrated on fathers and their sons that it ignored a whole realm of human experience, where laughter and tears, comedy and tragedy happen every day. Those of us who are daughters know that the human story, including God’s part in it, can never be complete without the inclusion of fathers and daughters. Those stories are not always happy ones, but then truth is not always happy. Yes, there are times the Bible does not get the fullness of the life story, but because God is always working in history, because God is always pushing and pulling us to learn and understand new things, we are able to grasp what it is that the bible missed—in this case the importance of the story of fathers and their daughters.
5/28/2018 0 Comments
Luke 15: 11-32
We are all accustomed to the metaphor of God as father. Each week we say the Lord’s Prayer, which begins with the words Our Father. But how often do we hear God referred to as Mother? Of course, all language about God is symbolic, since God is beyond all concepts and language, but certainly mother and father are major forces in human life, so it should not surprise us that these images have brought people closer to God. I came across a poem recently, portions of which read:
I cry out without a sound to Him I’ve been
told is there,
But my soul yearns for something more.
He knows my pain, yes,
But so does She. And
A mother’s pain
Needs a mother’s comfort.
In both Matthew and Luke, Jesus, when weeping over Jerusalem, the city that rejected the prophets and would eventually kill him, referred to himself as the mother hen, longing to gather her brood together under her sheltering wings. In Genesis, where God is sometimes referred to El Shaddai, usually translated as God Almighty, scholars say that the word Shaddai derives from the word, shad, which is a woman’s breast, the place where a baby is cuddled and nursed. Some years ago, when I was visiting France, I was in a cathedral---I cannot remember which city it was, and this massive wooden pulpit, was held up by a statue of a nursing mother. Now this was a Roman Catholic Church, but as a Protestant who sees the pulpit as the central symbol, I was blown away by that image: the place where the word of God is pondered, interpreted and preached, upheld by a nursing woman.
Now let’s change directions. Take a look at this copy of one of the greatest paintings ever painted: Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son. You heard the story. This younger son, in asking for his inheritance basically told his father, “I wish you were dead.” Such a request was beyond all decent convention. And then he goes out and lives a life of dissipation until he is broke and is hired to feed the pigs—for a Jew that is the lowest of the low. And so he returns home, falls at his father’s feet and begs for forgiveness. I am unworthy to be your son, he confesses.
Now take a look at the father: He is an old man; his eyes look almost blind. He wears a huge red cape, wing like in its ability to gather and protect the son under its folds. Now look at the hands. Those hands mesmerized Henry Nouwen, one of the great spiritual teachers of the 20th century, who died in 1996. When Nouwen went to St. Petersburg, to the Hermitage Museum, where this painting is, he sat and stared at it for over four hours. And he could not take his eyes off those hands. Of course the father in this parable is a metaphor for God, but in those hands, Nouwen said we have the hands of both a mother and a father. Let me read to you what Nouwen wrote:
The father’s left hand touching the son’s shoulder is strong and muscular. The fingers are spread out and cover a large part of the prodigal’s shoulder and back. The hand seems not only to touch, but also to hold. How different is the father’s right hand! This hand does not hold or grasp. It is refined, soft, and very tender. The fingers are close to each other, and they have an elegant quality. It lies gently upon the son’s shoulder. It wants to caress, to stroke, to offer consolation and comfort. The father in this painting is indeed God in whom both manhood and womanhood, fatherhood and motherhood are fully present.
The parable tells us that the father ran to meet his returning son, and indeed in the Bible there are stories suggesting a God who searches for the lost---the lost sheep, the lost coin. But Rembrandt choose to paint not the movement of God, but rather the stillness of God. “What I see, Nouwen wrote, “is God as mother, receiving back into her womb the one whom she made in her own image. The near blind eyes, the hands, the cloak, the bent over body, they all call forth the divine maternal love, marked by grief, desire, hope and endless waiting. God has chosen to become linked to the life of her children. She has freely chosen to become dependent on her creatures, whom she has gifted with freedom. When they leave, she grieves; when they return she is glad. But her joy will not be complete until all who have received life from have returned home and gather together around the table prepared for them.”
Rembrandt, by the way, painted this painting as an old man. Though he had enormous success early on, living a life of luxury, it all came crashing down. He lost his wealth; he lost two wives, two mistresses and four children; only one daughter survived him. And yet his losses did not disillusion him. In fact, some say his losses had a purifying effect on his artistic sight. He began to regard humanity and nature with an even more penetrating eye, no longer distracted by riches and outward splendor. And it was then, and only then that he could paint what some say is the masterpiece of his life, The Return of the Prodigal Son.” Shortly after its completion, Rembrandt died. And we are left with a gift that invites our reflection and our gratitude as it leaves us with many penetrating questions one of which is: Who is God for us?
11 Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with[b] the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’[c] 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father[d] said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”
Genesis 27: 1-29
Mark 7: 24-30
One of my first theological disagreements was with my friend and next door neighbor, Antoinette Nicosia, who was Roman Catholic and at 9, two years older than I. Admiring this necklace around her neck with a picture on it of someone looking very regal and imposing, I wanted to know who is was. This is the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, she told me. Oh, I responded, clearly disappointed. I thought it was someone really important. At which point, Antoinette became angry. She’s the mother of Jesus. She is important. I guess so, I said. But all she did was have Jesus and take care of him. That is what all mother’s do. It seems pretty boring to me.
Well, when you are 7, mothers can indeed seem boring. The mothers I knew in my neighborhood and school all seemed alike. None of them worked outside the home, except for one, who was divorced. They all cooked and cleaned, took their kids to the doctors and dentists and yes, meted out discipline in an effort to teach their children right from wrong. All essential, but at 7 I did not think it was very interesting.
Well, whatever we might say about the two mothers from this morning’s readings, we have to at least admit they are interesting. Now biblical women did not have many options. Motherhood was expected of them, and if they failed to conceive, they suffered the humiliation of barrenness---until God opened their wombs, as the biblical text usually put it. Recall Sarah, Abraham’s wife, who eventually bore Isaac; and Hannah, who finally conceived Samuel, who became a prophet to the king. And then there is Elizabeth, who in her old age gave birth to John the Baptist. And today we hear about Rebekah, who like the previously mentioned women, also had trouble conceiving and suffered shame on account of it. But Isaac, her husband, prayed for her, and God heard his prayer, and she gave birth to twins, Esau and Jacob. Now the older or oldest son was usually the favored one in the Jewish family, but Rebekah favored her younger son, Jacob. Jacob was a schemer, and the truth is, he was a lot brighter than his hotheaded older brother, who would give up his birthright for a bowl of soup. Rebekah undoubtedly realized where the talent really lay, and so it was her idea to deceive Jacob into giving the paternal blessing to his younger son, when it should have gone to Esau. She was a clever schemer, so perhaps we should not be surprised that Jacob too learned to cleverly scheme.
And then there is the mother from Mark’s gospel. Perhaps some might call her a scheming mother, because she was trying to get what she was not really entitled do. Jesus said he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel, and she was a foreigner, a Phoenician from Syria. But she was a suffering mother, and mothers, especially ones with sick children, do what they have to do. We don’t know exactly what her daughter’s problem was, since in Jesus’ day unclean spirits were blamed for all kinds of illnesses, including what we would today recognize as mental illness. Jesus was traveling through the region of Tyre in Phoenicia just north of upper Galilee, which in Jesus’ day was a predominantly Jewish area. We know nothing about this woman, whether she had a husband or what her social status was. We know only that she had a sick daughter. And she was desperate for her daughter to be made well.
Now it was completely taboo for women to accost males; only prostitutes did such things, but she did approach Jesus in someone’s home, and that is where respectable women should be---at home, their own or someone else’s. Jesus had gone there to escape notice, but this woman had heard about Jesus, and so she entered the house and fell down at Jesus’ feet to make her request, a sign of deference. Now two chapters earlier in Mark Jesus had healed a foreigner, so the foreign identity of the woman would not necessarily be enough to explain Jesus’ refusal. But that she a woman, a stranger to Jesus, would take it upon herself to enter a home and make such a bold request---that was beyond what social convention tolerated. And so Jesus turned her down, calling her a dog. Well, she did not care what Jesus called her. She did not try to defend herself or call Jesus out for his insulting treatment. All she cared about was her daughter, and so she turned the metaphor around: Even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs, she said, and for her bold and clever persistence--- the only example in Mark, where Jesus is out maneuvered by anyone---Jesus consents to heal her daughter. And there you have it: a mother doing what she has to do to save her daughter. An old story that is really not so old.
Some years ago in my former church in Middletown, I received a call very early one morning from a parishioner, a woman in her 50’s, whose 88 year old mother had suddenly died. The woman was hysterical, and wanted to know if she could come over to my house immediately. And so she did. The two of us sat in my living room, while she poured out her mother’s story. Her mother had been living in Florida for years with her second husband, when my parishioner was 10. “No one will ever know what my mother did for my sister and me. You see, my father started to sexually abuse my older sister when she was 12, and I was not far behind. My poor mother did not know what to do. She had been married since age 21, and had not worked since then. Here we were in a suburban community in Ohio, living in our split level home on a lovely tree lined street, going to our Methodist church every Sunday. Who in 1958 ever talked about sexual abuse?
What’s a mother to do with four children, two of whom were daughters, threatened with sexual abuse. So do you know what she did? She started an affair with the town pharmacist, a 42 year old single man. I don’t think he knew what hit him, my parishioner told me, but she got him to marry her, and so my father was out. My mother told my father she would see him in jail, if he did not let the divorce go through, and so, guilty coward that he was, he let it all go through. We kids were heart broken, because my mother would not let us see our father. Even my sister cried about it. And mother, well, she was run out of the Methodist Church; none of the women would speak to her. She was viewed as the town whore. Did she care? Oh, on one level, she must have. She was shy and sensitive, and the nasty comments hurt. But still the most important thing was to protect her daughters, and this was the only way she knew how. My step father moved us to another town, where he got a new job in a bigger pharmacy. All four of us kids were angry; we did not want to leave the only home we had ever known. I knew none of this, the woman told me, until about five years ago, when my mother finally told me the awful story. Even my older sister did not realize what our mother had done.
Maybe there are some people, who even today would criticize this mother, but she did what she felt she had to do, and she was willing to take the shame upon herself to protect her daughters. I don’t think you have to be a mother or a daughter to understand the powerful poignancy of that woman’s story, but I do think there is a reason that mothers and motherhood have their place in the bible. Yes, we all realize that motherhood was the female role---but there is something in that role that uniquely shows us what God in Jesus Christ is like, when suffering is taken on willing for the sake of others. What’s a mother to do? Sometimes she does what she has to do, and often no one knows the extent of the creative scheming that went into the plan, or the suffering and humiliation that was privately and publicly suffered.
My parishioner told me she was so shocked when her mother told her the story, she did not know what to say. My poor mother told me how humiliated she felt, doing what she did. But I did not know what else to do, she kept saying over and over again. I couldn’t think of anything else. Do you understand why I did it? Do you understand why I had to take you away from your father? I was so overwhelmed, my parishioner said, I just sat there crying. I felt so badly for my mother. I took her hand in mine, but I never thought to express my thanks. She saved me, and she saved my sister, and now she is gone without ever having heard our words of deepest gratitude and admiration. My mother was so ashamed, and she took that shame to her grave. She thought of herself as weak and cowardly, but she was really strong and courageous. She did what she had to do. I hope she is now at peace, her daughter said to me.
And so do we all hope. We hope that what is not repaired on this earth will somehow be made well in a time beyond time, a time we cannot now see or know, but a time in which we can hope. In the meantime we remember the stories---the stories in the bible, which are still played out in the drama of daily living.
Acts 10: 44-48
At the end of my first year in seminary I did a summer unit of clinical training at Deaconess Hospital in Boston, where one of my assignments was the heart unit. The head of the unit offered us a short tutorial on heart disease and described some of the therapies, surgical and non surgical. “Every July 1,” he said, “I get an eager and talented bunch of new residents, fresh out of medical school and committed to saving these patients from themselves, from all the bad habits that in many cases have led to heart problems: poor diet, no exercise, too much stress, etc. And I am going to tell you, aspiring clergy, exactly what I tell them: MOST people would rather die than change.”
Pretty stark words, but often true. Change is never easy, and has often been viewed as the enemy. In 1803 the preacher Jedidiah Morse, who on the one hand established a school for girls in New Haven, because he was distressed that girls were not being educated, nonetheless also said, “Let us guard against the insidious encroachment of innovation, an evil and beguiling spirit now stalking to and fro on the earth.” In 1854 the Transcendentalist of Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau, complained about the construction of a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas. “Why do we need that?” he asked. “Maine and Texas have nothing important to communicate.” In 1906 the composer John Philip Sousa lamented that phonographs were causing a deterioration in American music, and in 1926 the Knights of Columbus warned that the telephone would break up families and the practice of visiting friends. And just last Sunday I read an article in the New York Times about the resistance Pope Francis is facing, because he has chosen to be more concerned about issues of economic and social justice, rather than abortion and divorced Catholics, whom, he hinted, might at some future time be allowed to take holy communion. He is a heretic, some have charged, which means that his thoughts are not the thoughts of the cardinals, resisting change.
Change is never easy, and the church also has a long history of resisting change. When Martin Luther began what became historically known as the Protestant Reformation, the most scathing criticism against him had to do with innovation---Luther’s way of interpreting scripture and authority. What makes you so confident that your new interpretation is right? he was asked. And this charge of innovation greatly troubled Luther, who insisted, “I am not innovating. I am simply returning the church to its glorious beginnings, when the Apostle Paul’s teaching on justification was rightly understood and taught. Perish the thought that he should have a new idea.
And yet history shows us that new ideas and change are inevitable. The church, though very similar to the synagogue, was not exactly the same thing. And the writings that became known as Christian scripture, the New Testament, are not the same as the Old Testament. Yes, there is continuity, but there is also something new. And we see something new in our text this morning from Acts.
Peter would later be called before the elders of the church to explain his actions---not only eating with a despised gentile but also baptizing him. For Jewish Chriatians this was completely outrageous behavior. Gentiles were considered unclean, and although Jews and gentiles did have business dealings with one another, that was as far as the relationship went.
Now earlier in Acts Cornelius, a Gentile, had a vision from God in which he was told to send for the apostle Peter. And Peter had a dream in which foods deemed unclean in Judaism came floating down from heaven along with a command to eat. Peter was a faithful Jew, and even in his dream he would not eat. But then a voice said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” When Peter arrived at Cornelius’ house, he acknowledged that Jews should not call on gentiles, but then he admitted that God had told him he should not call anyone profane or unclean. Peter then preached to Cornelius and his friends about Jesus, and while he was speaking our text says the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. All---no distinction made between Jew or gentile. But, of course, some of the Jews were upset, astounded that the gift of the Sprit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. This is a god-smacking moment, when people feel as if their whole world has been disrupted by something new. And they don’t like it. Peter realized this; he realized he was in the midst of a spiritual crisis, and so he asked his fellow believers, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing when they have received the Spirit?” No one dared say a word, and so Peter baptized Cornelius, his family and friends.
Make no mistake about it; this was an incredibly radical shift, a complete disruption of what had been the normal operating principles, and later (in chapter 11), when Peter faced his critics in the Jerusalem church, who were horrified that he had welcomed gentiles into the body of Christ, he asked them another question: If then God gave them the same gift as he gave us when we first believed in Jesus Christ, who was I that I should hinder God?”
Hinder God: sometimes we do just that, because well, we resist the change that God would bring. But how do we know if the change is of God? How do we know when and if we are hindering God? How did Peter know the embrace of the gentiles was the way to go, the way God would have him go? And the truth is: he did not fully know. He made a leap of faith, trusting in a future he could not see while hoping that future is indeed in God’s hands.
The Bible was written not when the events being described actually happened; it was not written by the people who lived through them, but rather it was written by those who were looking back and reflecting on the past in view of the present. And as the early church was growing and becoming a gentile church, Peter’s decision looked like the right one. But when it was made, who really knew?
Peter took a risk, and indeed the bible is full of risk takers, people who pushed against the religious conventions. Jesus pushed against them when he told the story of the Good Samaritan, who stopped to help a wounded Jew; he pushed against conventions when he healed the daughter of a Canaanite woman. And Peter pushed against the conventions when he went to Cornelius’ house and baptized him. Such actions made people feel very, very uncomfortable, but these stories remind us that God often comes to us in moments of radical discomfort, when our beliefs look vulnerable, and we suddenly find ourselves asking tough questions, not so easily answered. Churches, like people, sometimes do hinder God, but we are assured that even when that happens, God does not give up on the church just as God does not give up on people. God continues to show up again and again and again---until the church and we finally get it. So we might ask ourselves now: What is God trying to tell us? Where is the new thing God is trying to do in our midst?
About Our Pastor:
I am very happy to be here at the First Church of Christ, Congregational in Unionville, CT. I arrived here in July, 2017, and have been warmly received. This is a wonderful church community. I have been an ordained minister for over three decades now, and I consider it a great privilege and challenge to be called to serve. Before coming to Unionville I served churches on Long Island, Middletown, CT and then ten years in New Haven, Center Church on the Green. My home is in Middletown, where I live with my husband, Donald Oliver, who is a professor of molecular biology at Wesleyan University. We have four grown children, two boys and two girls and three granddaughters, the youngest born on October 3, 2017!