What It’s Like To Be Free

October 8, 2017 – 18th Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 20.1-21

In 1967, musical icon, Nina Simone, recorded the song “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free.” Written by Billy Taylor and Dick Dallas, it quickly became a civil rights anthem.[1]

I wish I knew how it would feel to be free
I wish I could break all the chains holding me
I wish I could say all the things that I should say
Say ’em loud, say ’em clear
For the whole round world to hear[2]

            In 1967, Nina Simone sang into the context of racial segregation, discrimination, and the violence of white supremacy.

I’ve been thinking about this song this week as I’ve thought about the Israelites, led into freedom in the wilderness by the providence of God.

Freedom in the wilderness scared the pants off the people of God. “Where’s the food?” “Where’s the water?” “What are we doing out in this wilderness??” “You brought us her only to die!” “We wish we were slaves again in Egypt.”

And into this wilderness—and into this fear—God gives instruction. This is how you live as free people. This is how you live as my people who are free.

We often talk about the Ten Commandments as God’s law and this story as the giving of the law. But the word “law” is a misleading translation for the Hebrew word which really means instruction or teaching. Psalm 19 says the la—the precepts—the teaching—of the Holy God is perfect, reviving the soul…it is to be desired more than gold…and is sweeter than honey.

That’s not how we Americans generally think about the law. We tend to think about the law and laws as things you are required to do or prohibited from doing—more like a minimum expectation. But “in Jewish understanding the law is seen as a gift, because it provides the signposts that show how to live as the people of God.”[3] (And you’ll find that note about the law at the bottom of the hymn we sing following the sermon.)

And so the Ten Commandments, The Ten Best Ways to Live as Godly Play tells it, are a gift from God given in love to God’s people. They are teaching for how we live in relationship with God and with one another. How we love God and love our neighbor.

Freed from the law of slavery, God teaches this fledgling community how it would live—how they would be God’s people. And isn’t it telling, that to live in relationship with God, we get instructions on how to live in relationship with each other?

Now when you hear the Ten Commandments, they might seem like rather common sense instructions. Wouldn’t everybody know to act this way? Well, apparently not.

In any community—whether it’s a country, city, neighborhood or family—there is always tension between my needs, your needs and our needs. We learn as children that our needs are not the only needs to be considered and we begin a life-time of learning how our actions, or inactions, will affect other people.

All the commandments have both an obligation and a restraint. The majority of the commandments begin “You shall not.” But they also contain a “You shall.”

John Calvin gives us an example. In the commandment “You shall not kill” it is common sense, Calvin says, to “see only that we must abstain from wronging anyone or desiring to do so.” But, he goes on to illuminate that there is a positive requirement in this command “that we give our neighbor’s life all the help we can…God wills that” our neighbor’s life “be dear and precious to us.”[4] As dear and precious as our own life.

About a hundred years later, in the discussion of the ten commandments in the Westminster Larger Catechism—which was designed for preachers to use for instruction from the pulpit each Sunday—the question is asked “What is required in this commandment” and “What is forbidden?”

So in the eighth commandment, “You shall not steal,” part of what the Larger Catechism says is required by this commandment is truth, faithfulness, and justice in contracts and commerce between people, giving and lending freely, avoiding unnecessary lawsuits, living frugally, and endeavoring by all just and lawful means to procure, preserve, and further the wealth and well-being of others, as well as our own.[5]

What I’m trying to say is the Ten Commandments are what we aspire to, not simply what we are prohibited from doing. We aspire to live a life in community where the well-being of everyone is supported.

Another way to think of it is when I am prohibited from bearing false witness against you, you can live in freedom to know you will not be lied about. When we are instructed to honor our parents, our parents can live in freedom knowing they will be cared for even when they are frail and vulnerable.

Nina Simone sings another stanza:

I wish I could share all the love that’s in my heart
Remove all the bars that keep us apart
I wish you could know what it means to be me
Then you’d see and agree
That every [one] should be free[6]

            Nina Simone cries out for this kind of freedom. To bring herself as an equal and valued part of the community that is not whole without her.

Frank Bruni, writing in the New York Times on Tuesday after the mass murder in Las Vegas, said, “There’s the right to bear arms, sure, but there’s also the right to walk into a nightclub or a concert—or to send a child off to school—without a sense of dread that’s increasingly and fully warranted. Aren’t we entitled to that too?”[7]

You know, I’m really sick and tired of preaching after yet another mass shooting or after the police shooting of another African American man or woman. I know it’s a preacher’s job to honestly address the brokenness and ugliness of the world in which we live but it feels like broken and ugly is the new normal that only gets more broken and even more ugly.

All this week there’s been wringing of hands in the news and by law enforcement to figure out what was the motive of this week’s mass murderer. We call him a lone wolf—making him isolated and not even human because we don’t want to admit that he is anything like us. The white skinned shooter didn’t get called a terrorist even though he terrorized a crowd of 20,000 people. But if the shooter had brown or black skin he’d likely be labeled an Islamic terrorist or a Black Identity Extremist.

The Presbyterian Planning calendar designates today as Domestic Violence Awareness Sunday. Most years that’s an invitation to draw attention to the scourge of violence that takes place between intimate partners. But this week, domestic violence takes on an additional meaning—violence that is cultivated here, in our own country, in our national home. It is carried out by an American against other Americans. It didn’t come from someplace else outside of our borders.

It’s a little hard to pin down what the statistics are about the number or percentage of white men in our country who perpetuate mass shootings. But I think we have a problem. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a 20th century mystic, prophet, rabbi and social change agent, said, “In a free society, some are guilty but all are responsible.”[8]

Some of our white brothers have drunk an extra lethal dose of the kool aid. And I think it’s the kool aid of white supremacy—that death-dealing ideology that took root in the founding of our country that says white people are superior to people of all other races, especially African Americans, and by right we who are white should control the wealth, land, analysis and decision making in American society.[9] And we don’t, we can resort to violence White supremacy is an ideology that we’ve all been steeped in and that continues today in both subtle and overt ways. It’s a way of life that has been institutionalized in our laws for generations and continues to have life-altering repercussions in our communities and in our country. It’s an “ideology that objectifies, dehumanizes and kills”[10]—not just people with brown or black skin but all of us.

Why do we focus on just this one white man in Las Vegas? If we do discover a motive, won’t we use it to say, “See, he wasn’t like us?” Shouldn’t we be looking at the cadre of white men murderers? Shouldn’t we be asking, “Why do so many white men take the lives of others? Why do white men stockpile weapons of war to use on other human beings?” If he were anything but a white man in America, we would attribute a group motive to him. But since he is a white man in America, we think he is an isolated individual and I just don’t buy it.

And maybe that’s part of the problem. That he and many like him feel isolated from individuals. Tragically, unconnected to the human community where our lives matter to one another. Unmoored from the life-giving freedom that is possible when we live in relationship with God and with our neighbors. This is part of the lie of white supremacy—that says some neighbors don’t matter, that their well-being doesn’t count, that their lives are disposable. And that is a lie that dehumanizes and kills us all. Some of us just more slowly than others.

Last year, Colin Kaepernick began taking a knee to give voice to the tragedy and violence of racial injustice in our country. His teammate, Eric Reid, joined him a few weeks later, taking a knee beside Kaepernick. Reid recently wrote about why he did this. He said, “We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”[11] So on Monday, and through this week, when flags were flown at half-mast because of this worst mass murder by a single shooter in US history (let’s be clear that it’s the worst mass murder committed by a single person—there are several more devastating mass murders of African Americans by groups of whites in our nation’s history[12]). When I saw all the flags at half-mast because of this tragedy this week, all I could think of was Colin Kaepnerick and his NFL brothers kneeling at half-mast because of the tragedy of racial injustice that goes on all across this nation every day of the year.

Nina Simone sings again:

I wish I could give all I’m longing to give
I wish I could live like I’m longing to live
I wish that I could do all the things that I can do
Though I’m way over due I’d be starting anew

            The Bible is a collection of stories of people trying and failing, succeeding and stumbling to live these hard commandments—to live as God’s people who are free—to live as free people in relationship with God and our neighbors.

We, too, are writing our story into this collection as we try and fail, succeed and stumble to be free—to love God and love our neighbors. How we are trying and failing, succeeding and stumbling to dismantle white supremacy so we can all live in freedom. The freedom that brings abundant life. The freedom that brings wholeness in body, mind and spirit. The freedom that God desires for every single one of us in the human family.

* * * * *

How to Build Community

Turn off your TV.
Leave your house.
Know your neighbors,
Look up when you are walking;
Greet people;
Sit on your stoop;
Plant flowers;
Use your library;
Play together;
Buy from local merchants;
Share what you have;
Help a lost dog;
Take children to the park;
Garden together;
Support neighborhood schools;
Fix it even if you didn’t break it;
Have potlucks;
Honor elders;
Pick up litter;
Read stories aloud;
Dance in the street;
Talk to the mail carrier;
Listen to the birds;
Put up a swing;
Help carry something heavy;
Barter for your goods;
Start a tradition;
Ask a question;
Hire young people for odd jobs;
Organize a block party;
Bake extra and share;
Ask for help when you need it;
Open your shades;
Sing together;
Share your skills;
Take back the night;
Turn up the music;
Turn down the music;
Listen before you react to anger;
Mediate a conflict;
Seek to understand;
Learn from new and uncomfortable angles;
Know that no one is silent although many are not heard.
Work to change this.

— Syracuse Cultural Workers

* * *

[1] https://www.ft.com/content/2ae1f31c-b339-11e6-9c37-5787335499a0, accessed October 7, 2017.

[2] http://www.metrolyrics.com/i-wish-i-knew-how-it-would-feel-to-be-free-lyrics-nina-simone.html, accessed October 7, 2017.

[3] Hymn note on #61 “Your Law, O Lord, Is Perfect” in Glory to God (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013).

[4] Patrick D. Miller, The Ten Commandments, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 8.

[5] Westminster Larger Catechism, Q.141, Book of Confessions, (Louisville: Office of the General Assembly, 2016), 248.

[6] http://www.metrolyrics.com/i-wish-i-knew-how-it-would-feel-to-be-free-lyrics-nina-simone.html, accessed October 7, 2017.

[7] Frank Bruni, “God bless America,” New York Times, October 3, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/03/opinion/vegas-shooting-trump-god-bless.html?_r=0, accessed October 3, 2017.

[8] https://onbeing.org/programs/arnold-eisen-the-opposite-of-good-is-indifference-sep2017/, accessed September 25, 2017.

[9] Thanks to Rev. Dr. Kevin Cosby for this analysis.

[10] Jessica Vasquez Torres, facebook post, October 3, 2017.

[11] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/25/opinion/colin-kaepernick-football-protests.html, accessed September 28, 2017.

[12] Thanks to Dr. A.T. Simpson for this reminder. (E.g., East St. Louis Massacre in 1917, Tulsa Massacre in 1921, Rosewood, Florida in 1923.)

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A Father’s Love, the Brothers’ Hate

August 20, 2017 – 11th Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 37.1-28

This morning we begin yet another sibling rivalry story in the book of Genesis. This is the story of Jacob and his sons, specifically the son Jacob loved the most, Joseph, who was also the son of the wife he loved the most, Rachel. It is the story of the brothers who resented their father’s favoritism and hated the brother who was loved the most by their father.

This story takes up nearly a third of the book of Genesis but the lectionary only gives us two Sundays with the story of the family of Jacob. We jump in this morning at the beginning of the conflict between Joseph and his brothers and then hear the resolution of the conflict next week.

READ: Genesis 37

In a speech this week at the Capitol Rotunda in Frankfort, the President of the Louisville Urban League, Sadiqa Reynolds, said when she hears the slogan “make America great again” she wonders when it was that America was so great. And great for whom?

“Was she great when it was legal to own another human being?… [Reynolds asks.]

Was she great when the Chief Justice said to Dred Scott that a black man has no rights that a white man is bound to respect?…

Was she great when she made education illegal for black people?

Was she great in 1860 when rather than accept blacks as equals – American citizens decided to secede from America?

Was she great after the civil war when terrorist groups like the KKK were founded to keep her former slaves in a state of subservience and fear? Groups that our leaders are now empowering. Groups that we saw active in Charlottesville [last weekend].

Was America great in the 20th century when lynchings, terror and inequality were so pervasive that they mandated the founding of organizations like the National Urban League.

What about 1954 when southern states responded to the Brown v. Board [of Education] decision by reincorporating confederate symbols into their state flags…

When was America great for Black people?

Was she great when black veterans of World War II came home and couldn’t get jobs…

Was she great when she allowed and encouraged redlining of our communities, creating the urban challenges we now all live with in Urban America?”[1]

The history that Sadiqa is recounting does not yet have a good ending.

 

This week, I’ve been thinking about the movie “The Mission.” The movie is set in 1750. The Treaty of Madrid divided up land in South America between the Spanish and Portuguese empires. And there’s an ensuing conflict between the Jesuit missions and the indigenous people and the political empires. Near the movie’s end, one of the Jesuit missions is attacked by Portuguese and Spanish soldiers who murdered almost all of the priests and the indigenous men, women and children, who had sought sanctuary in the mission.

In a final conversation between a Catholic Cardinal and the Portuguese governor, the governor looks out at the destroyed mission and the massacre that has taken place and laments that what happened was unfortunate but inevitable because we must work in the world; the world is thus.’” The Cardinal replies, “No, thus have we made the world.”

 

The story that we hear of Joseph and his brothers doesn’t start well and it doesn’t end well either. Once again, we hear about a father loving one son more than the others. Jacob loves Joseph more than his other sons. He shows that love by making Joseph a special coat.

The Hebrew word describing the garment is uncertain but some translations now say, “a robe with sleeves.” The sleeves may indicate a life of leisure because you can’t do manual labor with sleeves flapping around. They get in the way. The story says Joseph is tending sheep with the sons of his father’s slaves. But it may also be that Joseph gets to stay around the house with his father. This love and favoritism shown to Joseph causes his brothers to hate him. And when Joseph starts telling his brothers about his grandiose dreams where everyone bows down to him, his brothers hate him even more.

One day Jacob sends Joseph out to check on his brothers. They are all out pasturing the flock—perhaps while Joseph has been at home with his father. Joseph is looking for his brothers and eventually they see him while he is still at a distance and they make plans to kill him.

On one hand, we could read this as purely a geographical detail. The brothers see their brother Joseph coming toward them while he is still a ways away.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his book about confronting religious violence, Not in God’s Name, suggests we read this detail as an emotional detail. The brothers saw his robe but they couldn’t see his face yet and so they didn’t see him as a person. They saw him as a stranger.[2] From a distance, they planned to murder him. Even when he came physically close, they “would not let him come close emotionally.”[3] Stripped of his humanity, devoid of his brotherhood, he was stripped of his robe and thrown into a pit.

Then they sat down to eat.

It is an odd detail. Brothers have just made a plan to murder their own brother, the outcast brother is held captive in a pit, and the brothers sit down to eat.

I found myself thinking about lynchings in this country. James Cone in his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, says during “‘the lynching era,’ between 1880 and 1940, white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women.”[4] Lynchings became a white social spectacle. They were announced in the paper. Photos were taken that were turned into postcards to mail to friends and family members. White families—adults and children—brought picnics to enjoy together at lynchings—as African Americans were tortured and murdered.

So Joseph’s brothers plot to kill him and then they sit down to eat—as if everything was ordinary. It’s a grizzly detail.

Soon they see a caravan of traders on their way to Egypt. They figure their brother is worth more to them alive then dead and so they sold him to the traders for twenty pieces of silver. They sell their brother into slavery and Joseph was taken to Egypt where he was sold to an Egyptian officer of Pharaoh.

The story mentions the traders as Ishmaelites and Midianites. It may be a mash-up of two stories traditions here. The irony in this part of the story is that Ishmaelites were descendants of the brothers’ great-uncle Ishmael, whose mother was Hagar, an Egyptian slave in the household of Abraham and Sarah. Midianites were also their relatives—descendants of their great-grandfather Abraham and his wife in old age, Keturah.

So descendants of an Egyptian slave in the household of Abraham and Sarah will now enslave an Israelite and after a few generations, Egyptians will enslave generations of Israelites.

And so the beginning of the story of Joseph and his brothers, the story of the family of Jacob, ends with estrangement, violence, and enslavement. This part of the story of a father’s love and the brothers’ hate ends with hate triumphing over love.

 

With the lectionary’s abridged version of the story of the family of Jacob, we miss hearing at the end of chapter 37 about the deep well of grief of Jacob when he hears and sees what he believes to be news of his beloved son’s death. The brothers lie and say they found a bloodied robe and they think it might be Jacob’s son’s robe (they have kept Joseph at such a distance they can’t even call him their brother). Jacob, assuming Joseph’s death, is inconsolable.

 

I wonder if mourning isn’t part of what we too must do these days as well. We can no longer act as if damage has not been inflicted, as if terror has not reigned, as if injustice lives only in the past. Whether we are on the side of “thus is the world” or “thus have we made the world,” neither proposition can protect us from the estrangement, violence, and enslavement that continues in our community, our nation and our world.

 

Part of Joseph’s story in Egypt includes being falsely accused of wrong doing and being unjustly imprisoned. Another person in jail will eventually help him get released and Joseph, quite improbably, is noticed by the Pharaoh and eventually becomes the second in command in Egypt and helps the Egyptians plan for and survive years of famine.

The famine was widespread and Jacob sent his sons to Egypt to try and procure food for their family. They end up in front of Joseph asking for food but they do not recognize him. He has truly become a stranger to them. Joseph recognizes them but keeps his identity a secret. Instead, he sets up several situations where the brothers must reckon with what they did years ago. Experiencing a piece of this they say to each other, “We deserve to be punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us.”[5] They knew the truth that every time we harm someone, that harm rebounds on us and others. At another place in the story, one of the brothers is “willing to sacrifice his own freedom rather than let [one of his brothers] be enslaved”[6]—a reversal of what the brothers were willing to do years ago when they sold their brother Joseph into slavery.

In Judaism there is a “concept of ‘perfect repentance’…which is a simple demonstrable change of [action].”[7] Rabbi Sacks says “perfect repentance comes about when you find yourself in the same situation but this time you act differently. That is proof in action of a change in heart.”[8] We can say we’re sorry, but what are we going to do about it? “Repentance—true change of character—is difficult. Yet it is repentance and moral growth on which the biblical vision depends [says Rabbi Sacks]…Repentance is the proof that we can change. The [brother] who offers to sacrifice his freedom so that [his youngest brother] can go free is not the same man he was twenty-two years earlier [when he agreed to sell his brother Joseph into slavery.] ”[9]

 

In our country, it is white people who created the culture of white supremacy and it is white people who have continued to enforce it both legally and illegally; both overtly and covertly. It is also we who are white who can decide to dismantle the culture of white supremacy and take action to do so. We too, can change, repent and grow.

I heard Krista Tippett on her podcast recently quote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel said, “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”[10] Those of us who are white in this community assume we’re not white supremacists—and I don’t believe we harbor the same hate as the young men who demonstrated in Charleslottesville last weekend. But we have all been steeped in a culture of white supremacy and there are attitudes, assumptions, and actions we must excavate from our lives. Ways of being in the world that derive, often unconsciously but also consciously, from the culture of white supremacy that we have absorbed simply by being born in this country that was founded on the enslavement of human beings who were considered strangers. Who we did not see as human. Who we saw only at a distance.

 

I read this week that “at the Martin Luther King Jr., Memorial Service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, worship begins with the opening sentences from the story of Joseph (this is the King James Version): ‘Behold, this dreamer cometh. Come now therefore, and let us slay him…and we shall see what will become of his dreams.’”[11]

Indeed.

The religious dream of Dr. King’s, and so many of the Civil Rights activists in the 1950s and 1960s, was drawn right from the biblical prophets and “shows the power of a religious vision to reframe history”—and thereby to liberate us, says Rabbi Sacks, “from the otherwise violent dynamic of revenge and retaliation.”[12] As much as we would like it, this liberation rarely seems to move in a straight line. It happens in fits and starts. It moves with energy and then stops abruptly. And at times it unwinds.

But the biblical story says that people can change. We can change, repent and grow. “And if we can change ourselves, together we can change the world.” This freedom God has given us “includes the freedom to reshape our understanding of the past, healing some of its legacy of pain.”[13]

That’s part of what the Tuesday Book study is doing in their choices of authors to learn from. It’s an opportunity we have when we tutor students at Coleridge-Taylor or Engelhard or Simmons College—doing our part to support all students to be successful. It’s what you do when you show up to a rally or a prayer service or write a letter to an elected official calling for an end to injustice. It’s what’s behind our campaign to raise money for a scholarship for a Simmons College student. It’s what happens on Wednesdays when we see our neighbors not as strangers at a distance but as sisters and brothers with whom we share Christ’s peace.

Sadiqa Reynolds, at the end of her speech in Frankfort, said, “Unity requires more than a rally, more than a conversation. Unity requires you to stand with us everywhere that justice demands.”[14]

The story of Joseph and his brothers that is told in the lectionary reading ends with estrangement, violence and enslavement. It ends with the brothers’ hate triumphing over the father’s love. But we know that this is not the end of the story. We know that we can change. And if we can change, we can change the world. That change comes from God’s goodness and love and light and life. So we trust the words of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu that we have sung so often:

“Goodness is stronger than evil.
Love is stronger than hate.
Light is stronger than darkness.
Life is stronger than death.
Victory is ours. Victory is ours.
Through God who loves us.”[15]

* * * * *

[1] Sadiqa Reynolds, Facebook post, August 16, 2017.

[2] Ibid., 153.

[3] Ibid., 148.

[4] James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 30-31.

[5] Sacks, 154. Genesis 42.21.

[6] Ibid., 155.

[7] Ibid., 154.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 156-157.

[10] Unedited podcast with Ruby Sales, https://onbeing.org/programs/ruby-sales-where-does-it-hurt-aug2017/, accessed 18 August 2017.

[11] Patrick J. Willson, “Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 – Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, (semi-continuous supplement), (Louisville: Westminster John Knox), 6.

[12] Sacks, 157.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Reynolds.

[15] Desmond Tutu, “Goodness Is Stronger than Evil,” © 1995.

The Rejection of Rejection

August 6, 2017 – 9th Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 29.15-30.8

The Rejection of Rejection

As we pick up our story this morning, Jacob is on his way to his uncle’s house; fleeing the anger of his brother, Esau, from whom Jacob has stolen his father’s blessing. Somewhere on that journey, Jacob comes to a well and meets a woman named Rachel who happens to be the daughter of Jacob’s uncle who has come with her sheep to the well for water. Jacob tells Rachel who he is and she returns to her father with the news that his nephew is nearby. Uncle Laban runs to meet Jacob and brought him to his house where Jacob stayed for a month.

READ Genesis 29.15-30.8 As you hear this story, you might listen for any parallels between it and the story of Jacob and his brother Esau.

Notes on the text: 29.18: Meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain. Leah had “tender” eyes which might mean “lovely” or it might mean “weak”; Rachel was “shapely and beautiful.”[i]

29.25 – An ironic question for Jacob, who deceived his father, to ask of his uncle.

29.32 – All the names of the children carry some part of the meaning of the emotional expression of Leah or Rachel.

 

I thought about titling this sermon “What Goes Around Comes Around.” Jacob the trickster is tricked by his uncle. The deceiver is deceived. He is burned by the privilege of the elder child over the younger child. He wants to marry Rachel. He’s gets Leah instead (and then Rachel in exchange for a total of 14 years of labor).

Coming from a family where Jacob’s father loved Jacob’s brother more than he loved Jacob, Jacob repeats a version of that in loving Rachel more than Leah. Which sets up sibling rivalry between the two sisters—another family dynamic Jacob knows all too well. (Two weeks ago when I preached on Jacob and Esau I said all the stories of sibling rivalry were among brothers, I obviously forgot about Rachel and Leah.) Leah wants what Rachel has which is her husband’s love. Rachel wants what Leah has which is children.

Each of these sibling rivalry stories is a story of rejection. One sibling is loved more than the other. The other sibling feels rejected. Isaac and Ishamael. Jacob and Esau. Rachel and Leah. And at the end of Genesis, Joseph and his brothers.

It is a human reality to love one person more than another person. Most of us love people we know more than we love people we don’t know. We love friends more than we love strangers. In a theoretical way we could say we love all people but in reality, it’s human nature to love some people more than others. It’s probably not a stretch to understand that Jacob would love one of his wives more than the other. We may not think it’s right but we understand how it happens.

And at the same time we can probably feel how painful it would be to be Leah—the one who is loved less. The one who is rejected. You’ve probably had the experience of being shut out of a circle of people you thought were your friends. Or being the one who was broken up with. Or feeling unable to measure up in comparison with a sibling who seemed to be unable to do anything wrong. Or discovering who you are or what you value leaves you on the margins, or excluded from, of your family.

More than just individually and personally, we can also think about this systemically. Take systemic racism, for instance. Systemic racism and white supremacy culture both establish those who are chosen (primarily people who are white) and those who are rejected (primarily people of color). And just as it feels terrible to be rejected in a personal circumstance, it also feels terrible to be rejected in a systemic circumstance. For those of us who are white, we have more and more opportunities these days to comprehend the rejection experienced by people of color, especially African Americans, in the history of our country: enslavement, Jim Crow, lynching, red-lining, mass incarceration, education inequality. And experiences of the exclusion and exploitation of immigrants from the Chinese Exclusion Act in the 1880s to today’s Muslim Travel Ban.

While religion is often used to exclude people, and we see that even in some places in the Bible, in these stories of sibling rivalry in Genesis, God always sees and hears “the plight of the rejected.”[ii] And reading these stories we cannot escape feeling the anguish of those who are rejected. And God feels it too because in each story, God comes alongside the one who is rejected and provides a blessing.

God saw Leah was unloved. And in God’s compassion God gave Leah children.

A sidebar about that: The Bible has lots of stories about the capacity or incapacity of women to bear children. The Bible’s perspective much of the time is that to bear children is to be blessed and to be unable to bear children is to be not blessed and even cursed. That’s the biblical view from a different day and time. It is not an easy view for women, especially, and also men, who long to be parents and have been unable to have children. In our day and time, this is not a theological perspective that we should make normative. Because people have all kinds of reasons for not having children and not being able to have children and now we know from science it has nothing to do with the absence of God’s blessing.

I want to emphasize God sees and hears and responds with compassion for all those who are rejected. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says “Genesis is the story of two covenants…between God and humanity on the one hand, and between God and Jacob’s children on the other. God unconditionally affirms both.”[iii] It is not the case for God that as one group is chosen, the other is rejected.

It has been easy for people to read these stories as about inclusion and exclusion. Isaac is included. Ishmael is excluded. And from there it’s not far to: Judaism is good. Islam is bad. Or push ahead to the New Testament and say Christians are good for accepting Jesus and Jews are bad for rejecting him. That’s a poor reading of the Bible.

Rabbi Sacks, in his book titled Not in God’s Name, which confronts religious extremism and violence, says, “Dividing the world into saints and sinners, the saved and the damned, the children of God and the children of the devil, is the first step down the road to violence in the name of God.”[iv]

And to divide these stories about siblings into the children of God and not the children of God is a misreading of the stories. Because, as Rabbi Sacks says, God has a covenant with everyone—one covenant with all of humanity, in fact, with all living creatures, established back in Genesis 9 after the flood, and a covenant with Abraham and his family and the descendants of Jacob, the stories of whom we hear in Genesis.[v] The message in Genesis is no one is excluded. No one is rejected. In these stories, God rejects rejection.

In this day of globalization, we know we are all one family. We know about people and events all around the world. What happens to one person or one community or one country has effects beyond individual or communal or national borders.

Rabbi Sacks says, “Every time we harm someone, that harm rebounds on us and others.”[vi]

Wendell Berry says we all live downstream from someone and what they throw into the river will end up affecting us. And what we throw in the river will end up affecting the people who live downstream from us.

If what’s in the river is rejection and hatred, that’s what we all get. If what’s in the river is compassion, that’s what we all get. Scientist turned Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard talks, writes and teaches about meditation focused on compassion. We know the importance of exercising our physical bodies regularly. Ricard emphasizes the importance of also exercising our mind and spirit by meditating on compassion. It’s a skill that can be cultivated just as playing the piano is a skill that can be practiced and improved upon.

Compassion is an antidote to rejection. It’s a skill for opening our hearts to others. A skill for training our minds to encounter others as blessed children of God and responding to others from a well of compassion. We know from modern neuroscience that our brains can change and meditation and focused attention on compassion will change our brains. Our mind will change. And, says, Ricard, “what we are will change.”[vii]

We can also practice compassion at this table. While it will physically be those of us in this room who share this feast, as the traditional communion liturgy says, “People shall come from north and south, from east and west, to sit at table together in the realm of God.” As we come to this table, where all lives are fed and blest, we can practice a prayer of imagining a person and holding them in God’s light and love. Invite God to bring a person or two into your mind and hold them in God’s light and love and bring them with you as you come to the table.

As we hear the stories of pain and struggle in Genesis and see God’s compassionate response with blessing for each person, may we too practice and cultivate this compassion that comes from God, that we might experience God’s blessing and in turn be a blessing to others.

* * * * *

[i] Danna Nolan Fewell and David M. Gunn, Gender, Power, & Promise: The Subject of the Bible’s First Story, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), 78 and Miguel A. De La Torre, Genesis, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 267.

[ii] Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, (New York: Schocken Books, 2015), 168.

[iii] Ibid., 169.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid., 195.

[vi] http://rabbisacks.org/quotes/, accessed 5 August 2017.

[vii] OnBeing podcast, “Happiness as Human Flourishing,” https://onbeing.org/programs/matthieu-ricard-happiness-as-human-flourishing-jul2017/, accessed 5 August 2017.

More Questions Than Answers

July 9, 2017 – 5th Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 22.1-14

This story may be the most difficult and troubling story in the entire Bible.

When we get to the end of the reading, I don’t want to say, “Thanks be to God.”

There has been lots of commentary through the centuries trying to explain the story—to make it not seem as terrifying as it is: a father being willing to offer his son as a burnt offering to God.

Genesis 22 says this is a test God administered to Abraham to determine the strength of Abraham’s faith. This idea of someone being tested was a common theme in ancient literature—and is common as well in contemporary literature, such as the Harry Potter series.

Some scholars have said this was a story to point out that while other religious groups in the Ancient Near East sacrificed children to gods, the God of Abraham would never require that as illustrated by the provision of a ram just in the nick of time.

But other scholars say there is scant evidence that there was any child sacrifice going on anywhere at that time. To this point, Carol Delaney, anthropologist and theologian, writes, “Most examples of known human sacrifice come not from primitive and/or nomadic societies but from highly complex, sophisticated and cosmopolitan ones.”[1]

A side-bar to illustrate Delaney’s point. The Hunger Games is a contemporary story about sacrificing young people. It’s fiction but still illustrative and comes out of our current culture where many young people feel unsure about the trustworthiness and security of the world around them. I would argue that any society that tolerates poverty as we do in this country is guilty of human sacrifice.[2]

There are so many connections between poverty and all kinds of poor outcomes, including death. There’s information on concentrated poverty in Louisville[3] on the bulletin board near the back parking lot door if you want to take a look at what’s happening in our city.

One specific connection I want to mention this morning about our toleration for poverty and human sacrifice. Maybe you saw Jim Bruggers’ article in the Courier-Journal about neighborhoods with poor air quality and the highest risk of asthma symptoms and attacks.[4] If you overlayed Joshua Poe’s story map that illustrates the modern day consequences of red-lining in Louisville,[5] with the map of high risk for asthma, you would see a lot of neighborhoods who suffer economically because of the legacy of red-lining are also the neighborhoods with the highest rates of asthma. And asthma is a killer.[6] It can be managed but that requires access to health care and money to pay for doctor visits and prescription medicine. And if you are poor, you have fewer of those options.

Back in Genesis, some commentators point out Abraham’s great faith to give up the son through whom God promised the covenant would continue. God asked something of Abraham that most fathers (and mothers) would recoil from. Yet Abraham did not question God. He passed the test God set before him and some say this reflects his great trust and faith in God.

For me, none of those explanations take away the horror of a father not questioning the God who would ask such a thing of him. What kind of father would not even pause to say, “Are you sure?” The explanations for this story don’t take away the terror of a father binding his son like an animal and raising his arm in mid-air ready to kill him.

And what kind of god is this who would test a person in this way? If someone told you that God told them to harm or kill another person, wouldn’t you say, “That is not God talking to you”? And if this is what God asks—to murder another person—is this a god to whom we want to be faithful?

In order to deal responsibly with this story we must acknowledge its terror. At the end of the day, I have no theological moves to undo its troubling content. Every thing I read that tries to clean up the story or dilute its horror, for me, only ends up with more questions or with conclusions about God or about human beings that I cannot live with.

So today I’m not going to be able to package this up neatly. I can’t explain it away or say it’s not really what it seems. We’re going to be left with a text that is significant and which we must hold lightly, be willing to let it speak to us and be willing to speak back to it as well. As Mark said last week, many of these stories in Genesis come with far more questions than answers.

This story is shared by Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And all three religions have struggled with it. We each call it by different names:

Christians typically call it the sacrifice of Isaac (pre-figuring another Father’s sacrifice of another Son in the New Testament Gospels).

Jews typically call it the binding of Isaac with the focus on Isaac and his response. Isaac did not choose his fate but was chosen; as the Jewish people did not choose but were chosen by God.

The Qur’an doesn’t name the son but most Muslim commentators say the son Abraham took to Mount Moriah to offer up was Ishmael.[7]

While our three religious traditions read the story in different ways, “all three faiths agree that this story raises some of the most difficult questions ever posed by and to humankind.”[8]

The biblical text gives us no psychological analysis of either Abraham or Isaac. That is not the writer’s interest. However it certainly can be ours.

And so while the story does not address this, we can ask: What kind of damage does a father do to a child when he demonstrates he is willing to kill him because he heard God tell him to? What kind of damage does it do to a father to be willing to slaughter his child—even if God intervenes at the last minute?

Twelve years ago when I preached on this story, a ten-year old boy in our congregation and his father came up to me after the service and that ten-year old looked me square in the face asked, “Do you think Isaac could ever look his father in the eyes again?” I have remained haunted by that question from a boy who was clearly imagining the horror of this story.

And the truth is Isaac disappears in this story. He doesn’t come down from the mountain with Abraham and he barely shows up again until the time when he and his brother Ishmael meet to bury their father.

I have no answer to wrap this story up neatly. But I have one final observation.

The first sentence of the story tells us God is testing Abraham. We don’t know why. We just know that’s what this story is going to be about.

Years ago God had asked Abraham to leave the land of his father, to leave his relatives to go to a land that God would show him. In doing so, God asked Abraham to leave his past behind. Now God asks him to let go of his future, his son, as well. So Abraham stands in front of God with only the present—no past and no future to hold on to.

Now why this test? Indeed why any test? Does God bring calamity to us in order to see how we’ll do? I don’t like that view of God but we do see it again in the bible in the story of Job. And the apostle Paul in his first letter to the church at Corinth talks about God allowing us to be tested.[9] Even in the face of that, I do not believe God brings things like cancer or the death of a child or a car wreck or whatever other tragedy. I do believe God can bring good out of terrible circumstances and that God accompanies us in terrible circumstances but I don’t believe God brings those circumstances about in order to make us grow or to see if we’ll be faithful.

So this is one of those places I have to hold the text lightly. The story says God tested Abraham. That’s how the writer understood what was going on.

But test or no test, this story seems to say that even if you are the one with whom God has made a covenant, that doesn’t protect you from suffering. God promises to be with us but that doesn’t mean we won’t suffer.

And what we see at the end of the story is that God provides. Abraham says this to Isaac when Isaac asks,

“Where is the lamb for the burnt offering, dad?”

“God will provide, my son.”

Perhaps that was Abraham’s prayer every step of the three-day trek to Mount Moriah. “God will provide. God will provide. God will provide.”

That word provide also means “see.” So some translators translate the name Abraham called the place where the ram was discovered, “The Holy One will see.” And so the One who sees is also the One also provides.

So when we stand inside the story and wonder what it is all about, perhaps it is the reality of life, that even as God’s people, we are not spared suffering and anguish. But neither are we alone. We are seen by the God who provides for us even in our greatest need.

In this story, God is the God who tests. But in this story God is also the God who sees and provides. And so, perhaps, even in this terrifying story we might find a glimmer of Good News.

* * * * *

[1] Carol Delaney, “Abraham and the Seeds of Patriarchy,” Genesis: A Feminist Companion to the Bible, ed. Athalya Brenner, (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 132.

[2] 21% of all children live in families with incomes below the federal poverty threshold which is actually a very low threshold for what families need to cover basic expenses. When you look at what it takes to cover basic expenses, 43% of children live in low-income families who struggle to make ends meet. http://www.nccp.org/topics/childpoverty.html, accessed 8 July 2017.

[3] http://greaterlouisvilleproject.com/annual-city-reports/2015-competitive-city-update/, accessed 8 July 2017.

[4] http://www.courier-journal.com/story/tech/science/environment/2017/06/28/hey-theres-app-that-asthma-attack-risk-covers-much-louisville/397768001/, accessed 8 July 2017.

[5] https://lojic.maps.arcgis.com/apps/MapSeries/index.html?appid=e4d29907953c4094a17cb9ea8f8f89de, accessed 8 July 2017.

[6] For more statistics on asthma, hospitalizations, deaths and the racial/ethnic disparities in asthma hospitalizations and deaths: http://www.asthmamd.org/asthma-statistics/, accessed 8 July 2017.

[7] Bill Moyers, Talking about Genesis: A Resource Guide, 105-106.

[8] Ibid., 106.

[9] 1 Corinthians 10.13.

Chaos and Order

June 18, 2017 – 2nd Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 1.1-2.4a

This morning, we begin a summer long preaching series from the book of Genesis. We won’t get to all of Genesis because it’s 50 chapters long and we have 11 weeks in this series. But we’ll hit some of the highlights and the lowlights.

We start in chapter 1. Genesis 1 comes with a lot of baggage. One of the commentaries I was reading has a section called “Further Reflections” in which the author, Miguel De La Torre, who teaches at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, addresses on some of the contemporary questions that are related to the stories in Genesis. And so there it was, on page 17, “Creationism.” And where does he go to talk about creationism? You guessed it. Northern Kentucky and the 70,000 square-foot, $27 million, Creation Museum.

De La Torre unpacks some of the issues around the fundamentalism of creationism and then he notes that “it is rare to find any biblical and theological scholars of color participating in the creationism debate. When…people live under repressive structures,” he says, “they turn to the Bible for the strength to survive another day, not to figure out how long a day lasted in Genesis 1.” De La Torre continues, “Most people of color look to the text to find guidance in dealing with daily life, a life usually marked by struggles and hardships. Debates over the scientific validity of the Bible becomes a luxurious privilege for those who do not endure discriminatory structures.”[1]

That is also a reminder to a related understanding that for the writers of the Bible, the question for them was not “Does God exist?” That’s not the question they are asking. But instead, “What is the character of this God who we claim exists?”[2]

That’s a big part of how I’m reading Genesis for our preaching series. Who is this God? And then, how do people relate to this God and how does this God relate to people?

This beginning in chapter 1 is the cosmic story of God. It’s the Hubble telescope view looking far into space and, turning around and looking in the other direction, it’s the view of the beautiful blue sphere of earth from space.

In chapter 12, we will zoom in close on one family who God will bless that they may bless all the families of the earth. And then through the rest of Genesis, we see the unfolding of the family of Abraham (and Sarah—oh, and Hagar, with whom Abraham also had a child), the family of Abraham and Sarah’s son Isaac (and Isaac’s wife Rebekah), the family of Abraham and Sarah’s grandson, Jacob (and Jacob’s wife Leah—oh, and Jacob’s other wife, Rachel—and Leah’s maid Zilpah and Rachel’s maid Bilbah, with whom Jacob also had children) and finally the family of Joseph, the great-grandson of Abraham and Sarah.

But back to the beginning.

Actually, while the translation in most Christian Bibles says, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,” the standard Jewish translation is “When God began to create the heavens and the earth.”[3] Which gives the impression that this is not the story of the absolute beginning, and, actually, we would say, theologically, God has no beginning. Even at this point in the story there is something—the earth was a formless void with darkness covering the face of the deep. Another translator says the earth was “devastation and desolation.”[4] Clearly, there is something already there in addition to God. And a wind from God—which could also be translated as “the spirit of God”—sweeps over the face of the waters. There is not nothing. Which if you’ve ever heard people say “God created the world ex nihilo” (which means “out of nothing”) that’s really not the biblical story.

When everything was chaotic, without form, God said, “Let there be light” and began to bring order to the chaos. And through each movement of the formation of the cosmos, there is more and more order—not uniformity, not order as in everything lines up or looks the same, but less devastation and less desolation, less formlessness. In fact, more and more different forms that God calls good.

The final form in creation are human forms.  (A side note: The word create and creation come from the Hebrew root that means “‘to form or fashion’ by means of cutting; it means to sculpt.”[5] And so some people speak of God as a sculptor.[6]) In verse 26 we hear God say, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” Jewish readers over the centuries often understood this “us” to mean “the heavenly host of angels from whom God took counsel.”[7] Christian readers have come to identify this as the Trinity, which, of course, would not have been in the early story tellers’ minds.

However we understand the “us” in whose image we are made, there is an indication of relationship. There is relationship at the heart of the Divine—which we Christians talk about in terms of the interrelatedness of the triune God: Creator, Christ, and Spirit. Relationship, of course, is required in the charge God gives to the humans to be fruitful and multiply. And God initiates a relationship of blessing and provision with the humans. If Genesis 1 is indeed addressing the question of who God is and who we are, these relationships are all part of the Divinely sculpted order and form of the cosmos.

But…relationships also bring chaos. Perhaps some of you have experienced that before. Relationships can be chaotic. Sometimes it’s the traumatic chaos of domestic violence or addiction or death. Sometimes it’s the busy chaos of children or a life overly full of activities with friends and family. Sometimes it’s the chaos of the splintered, broken world around us.

While God brings order and form out of chaos, God is not absent from the chaos. In the beginning of this story, God is present in the formlessness and the devastation and the desolation. The Spirit of God is hovering, sweeping over the deep waters.

Where ever the chaos finds us, God is present there.

In the story of the four generations of the family of Genesis, we are going to encounter a lot of chaos. God sculpts order and form and chaos returns, again and again we will see that cycle. Perhaps there will be part of this original family’s blessing or chaos that reminds you of your own experience—your own family—your own life in this world.

I heard an author on a radio program yesterday. Her book is titled, Where Ever You Go, There They Are: Stories About My Family You Might Relate To. I think that’s a great title for the book of Genesis. There’s craziness in here. Dysfunction and outrage. People who are broken and deceitful. There’s disappointment and heartache. And also blessing and surprise and a God who keeps showing up in the chaos and the order. Perhaps as we explore these stories, we will experience God showing up in our own lives in ways we did not anticipate. Hovering in the chaos. Sculpting new order and form. Bringing unexpected and undeserved blessing to our lives and to our world.

* * * * *

[1] Miguel De La Torre, Genesis, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 19.

[2] Ibid., 20.

[3] John Goldingay, Genesis for Everyone, Part One, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 5.

[4] Loren R. Fisher, Genesis: A Royal Epic, 2nd ed., (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 37.

[5] Ibid., 37, n.1.

[6] John Thornburg writes “God the sculptor of the mountains” in his beautiful hymn text by the same name.

[7] De La Torre, 20.

What Sustains Our Witness

May 28, 2017 – 7th Sunday in Easter
Acts 1.6-14

Introduction: In the first chapter of Acts, we hear that the risen Jesus appeared many times to the apostles and continued to teach them about the realm of God. He also told them to stay in Jerusalem to wait for the promised baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Read: Acts 1.6-14

Recently a friend was telling me about an illness in her family. She described the intentionality in which her family prayed together, giving thanks at the end of each day for the medical staff who were helping them and the many people who they knew were holding them in prayer.

She told me about a time several years ago when another illness struck her family. At that time, she mostly worried about all the worst possible outcomes. She lost sleep and, reflecting now all these years later, she was conscious of how all the energy of worrying didn’t change the outcome one single bit and only made her miserable.

With the current illness, there is no promise it won’t recur but that has not been what she and her family have focused on each day. In their prayer each evening they are conscious of the gift of each day and the blessing of being together. They give thanks for the miracle of medical advancements and for the love and care from others that is sustaining them.

I was thinking about this conversation with my friend as I read the Acts story this week.

In the Christian year we are at the last Sunday of the season of Easter. Next Sunday we will celebrate Pentecost. So the story in Acts is at this transition where Jesus is about ready to leave and before he leaves, he promises that the Holy Spirit will come to the apostles and they will receive power from the Spirit. That arrival of the Holy Spirit is what we will celebrate next Sunday.

The first question the apostles ask Jesus when they’re all together in Jerusalem is, says Willie James Jennings, a nationalist question.[1] (You might recall Jennings was the 2015 Grawemeyer Award winner in religion for his book The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race.) The apostles want to know when they will get to rule their land and impose their will on others. They’re still thinking that Jesus the Messiah is going to reassert the political kingdom of Israel and drive out the Romans.

Jesus says they have it all wrong about him. Instead, he says the question to ask is, “What is the work you are to do now and how will you do it?” And the answer to that is the apostles are called to be witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. In other words, they are to tell and demonstrate the good news about Jesus—about his life, and death and resurrection—to the whole world. But they won’t do it on their own. They will have power from the Holy Spirit to do this.

And then Jesus leaves—right up into the sky where he disappears into a cloud. And just like when the women in the gospel of Luke go to look for the body of Jesus at the tomb and are met by two men in dazzling clothes, the apostles now are also met by two men who say, “What are you doing here? Didn’t you hear what Jesus said?” Stop looking up expecting Jesus to return and start looking out into the world and your mission in it.[2]

Hearing that, I would sort of expect the apostles to charge ahead and say, “Okay! What are we going to do? What’s the plan? Who will do what? Who will go where?” and get started on this work Jesus has given them.

Or, I would expect them to freak out. “What? Be witnesses all over the world? How would we ever do that? Won’t we get in trouble in the Roman Empire talking about Jesus all over the place?” There is likely some fear for them because this Greek word “witness” can also mean martyr and I imagine none of the apostles were too keen on that.

But the writer of Acts tells us the apostles neither go full steam ahead nor do they freak out. Instead, they gather together with some of the women disciples and they pray. Not just a quick perfunctory prayer. They constantly devoted themselves to prayer.

This is typical of what happens throughout the book of Acts. The followers of Jesus are devoted to prayer. They aren’t only praying—like a monastic community that is cloistered away committing itself wholly to prayer. For the early followers of Jesus, prayer is an integral part of their action. Again and again, prayer precedes the decisions and directions the disciples take.

What’s so striking to me about this story is this response of prayer. Because the whole book of Acts is uncharted territory. It is the story of the church continuing “the work of Jesus and  [continually] rethinking its own self-understanding as it reinterprets what it means to be disciples of Jesus in new times and places.”[3] The response to this new thing is not worry or anxiety or “we can’t do that!” but a community praying together.

This seems so illustrative for our world right now and the life of the church as so much is changing around us. The first page of the constitution of the Presbyterian Church says, “Christ calls the Church into being, giving it all that is necessary for its mission in the world…and for its service to God.”[4] Just like those first followers of Jesus, we too are given everything that is necessary for the work we have been given as disciples. Not so much in a fixed box of rations and supplies but through the power of the Holy Spirit and through prayer. Together. With one another. This is what sustains us.

And this seems true for our own lives as well. As so much changes in our lives—health, relationships, work, family, geography, finances—what can we do? It is natural to worry, to be anxious, and to cry out, “I don’t want it to be this way!” And there is something else we have to sustain us: The power of the Holy Spirit and prayer and being together.

Prayer doesn’t make everything work out the way we want it. But in praying, and in praying together, we are accompanied, we are not alone. Those early disciples didn’t go their own way separate ways to pray. They stuck together and prayed, waiting for the wind of the Spirit to arise, to show them the way to go.

My friend whose family is once again visited with illness doesn’t know what will come next but she and her family have chosen to pray together and to invite others to pray with them. To give thanks for all their blessings, even among this illness they would never choose in a million years, and to open their lives to the healing, sustaining Spirit who arrives in surprising ways.

May we, too, devote our lives to prayer and prayer together that we may find ourselves sustained by the Spirit who promises to accompany us in all the circumstances of our lives.

* * * * *

[1] Willie James Jennings, Acts, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 17.

[2] M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 367

[3] Ibid., 363.

[4] Book of Order, F-1.0202.

Is Your Mind Too Small?

April 23, 2017 – 2nd Sunday of Easter
John 20.19-31

Preliminary Remarks: The gospel reading this morning is from John’s gospel. I like John’s gospel a lot because there’s so much depth and breadth to the writing and to the mysteries and wonders it points to.

But there are also distinct difficulties in preaching from John’s gospel. One of them is the language of “the Jews.” We hear it in this passage so I want to unpack it just a bit before I read the gospel.

Jesus, his disciples, and almost all members of the earliest Christian community were Jews. It’s only sometime after the death of Jesus that the Jews who believed Jesus was the Messiah began to have a separate identity from those who didn’t. For the writer of John’s gospel “the Jews” primarily referred to those who did not believe Jesus was the Messiah, and particularly the religious leaders who did not see Jesus in this way. As one commentary puts it, “The conflict that develops between the Jews and Jesus and his disciples was an intramural Jewish conflict, as Catholic/Protestant conflict at the time of the Reformation was not the persecution of one religion by another but an intramural Christian conflict.”[1]

Unfortunately, John’s gospel has been used over the centuries to support anti-Semitic racism because of his repeated, negative reference to “the Jews.” But this is a misuse of the gospel. So as we often do in reading John’s gospel, I’ll use “religious leaders” instead of “the Jews” directing our attention to the theological dispute in John’s gospel rather than a racial or ethnic dispute.

Read John 20.19-31

For whatever reason, Thomas is not with the other disciples on the evening of the resurrection. The other disciples are together and afraid. The religious authorities colluded with the Roman Empire to destroy Jesus.[2] So it’s not unrealistic for the followers of Jesus to think they would also be in the crosshairs. In this setting, Jesus appears and shows the disciples his hands and his side—and seeing his wounds, they know that it is Jesus. It’s not some ghost. Not some unembodied spirit. This Risen One has the wounds of the One who was crucified. So the disciples, except for Thomas, see Jesus’ wounds and believe it is Jesus but when Thomas asks for the same experience, he is often criticized, unfairly I think, as a doubter.

As a side note, the nails, blood, and spear thrust of the crucifixion are all unique to John’s gospel. While John has the highest Christology (meaning we experience the divinity of Jesus more in John’s gospel than the humanity), John is also the most insistent that Jesus is also truly human. The first chapter of John’s gospel says, the Word [true God] became flesh [true human].[3] Now the gospel ends with that same mysterious combination—Jesus is both raised from the dead and physically wounded—both God and human.

A week later, Thomas is with the disciples and Jesus appears again. Jesus invites Thomas to touch his side and hands and in response Thomas makes a profession of faith.

The criticism of Thomas as a doubter is often picked up again when Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Instead of a criticism of Thomas, I think this is Jesus turning to us—breaking the fourth wall, as they say in the theatre—to address those of us listening to this story in the generations that follow. Because none of us will have seen Jesus in the flesh but that does not mean we cannot come to believe.

This sermon has its roots in the hymn that Phillip suggested to follow the sermon. The hymn is specifically about Thomas and his encounter with the risen Jesus.

Hymn writer Tom Troeger wrote these words in the second stanza.

“The vision of [Thomas’s] skeptic mind
was keen enough to make him blind
to any unexpected act
too large for his small world of fact.”[4]

While Thomas often gets a raw deal as a doubter in many interpretations of John’s story, this hymn text got me thinking of the multitude of ways we fail to see what falls outside of our expectations and our conclusions.

The other day I was looking for a book. I was quite sure where I had last put it on the shelf but I couldn’t find it. I knew I was looking for a book with a white cover and spine and maroon lettering. I looked through all my bookshelves twice and still could not find it. Later in the day I looked one more time for the book I couldn’t find. This time, instead of scanning for what I remembered the spine of the book looked like, I slowly read each book title on the shelf where I thought I had put the book. And, what do you know? I found it. While I was convinced I was looking for a book with a white cover and maroon lettering, it turned out it was a maroon cover with white lettering.

Now that’s a small example of the way we see what we expect to see and we don’t see something new. But it happens in large ways too.

Jesus says to Thomas, “Touch. See. Believe.”[5] Jesus does not condemn Thomas’s inability to see. He offers Thomas what he needs.

Faith needs an open, curious, expectant mind and the capacity to be surprised. Faith gets narrow-minded when our minds are small. When we think what is true has to be protected and guarded because somehow it is fragile or subject to damage.

John Calvin said, “All truth is God’s truth.” Which I take to mean there is no reach of our minds, in our search for what is true, that can take us outside of the realm of God. There is no discovery that can somehow threaten God. There are discoveries that can unsettle our minds about God. There are discoveries that can upend what we thought was true. But there is no truth that would, by definition, take us away from God.

Which is why, on this weekend of The March for Science, that has happened around the world in 600 cities on six continents, it feels like a good time to affirm that science and religion can be friends. One can be a follower of Jesus and a scientist without having to check your heart and mind at the door of the church or at the door to your classroom or office.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said this week, “one of the great things about science is that it is an entire exercise in finding what is true.”[6] Which could also be said of religion. We want to know what is true.

Just like faith, science needs an open, curious, expectant mind and the capacity to be surprised. Because we don’t know all there is to know. And, likely, we will never know all there is to know. Science, too, gets narrow-minded when our minds are small.

A number of you know my undergraduate degree was in Biology with an emphasis in nutrition and anatomy and physiology. But I delayed my chemistry sequences in order to take classes in the School of Religion…which is part of the reason why I’m here instead of teaching biology or giving talks as a Forest Ranger.

When I studied anatomy and physiology I was constantly amazed at the wonder of our bodies and how they work. For me, that all the systems of our bodies function as they do leads me to give praise to God for this amazing creation. And I can also marvel at the evolutionary changes that have happened as single-cell organisms over billions of years have become us. That too speaks to me of an amazing wonder in creation.

And as a person of faith I read the creation story in Genesis and hear the theological questions it asks about the nature of God and the nature of creation and of human beings. I can read that without needing to compress those questions into a scientific explanation that the universe was created in six days. Religion asks questions like, “What is the nature of God?” and “What is the purpose of human beings?” while science asks questions like, “Where did people come from?” and “How was our galaxy created?”

As a person of faith and as a scientist I marvel at the engineering feat of how the two new bridges were built across the Ohio River and give thanks to God for the intellectual knowledge and the technological capacity and physical labor that go into building a bridge.

As a person of faith and as a scientist my heart can be broken by the reality of cancer and know that researchers are working every day, using their God-given gifts, to understand how cancer changes normal cells into abnormal cells so scientists can develop new treatments and cures.

Often what we think we know is, in truth, a small world of facts (or, these days, so-called “alternative facts”—also known as half-truths and lies). Even in 2017, with all that we know about the world, there is still so much to be curious about, to be surprised by, things that we miss when we get stuck in a small world of facts—whether those are religious facts or scientific facts.

So may we, scientists and Christians alike, in service to God and to humanity, cultivate an open, curious expectant mind and the capacity to be surprised so that together we may discover what is true.

 

 

 

[1] M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 287.

[2] E. Elizabeth Johnson, “John 20:19-23 – Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Gospels, John, Volume 2, eds. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 320.

[3] Boring and Craddock, 358.

[4] Thomas H. Troeger, “These Things Did Thomas Count as Real,” in Glory to God, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), #256.

[5] Martin B. Copenhever, “John 20:19-31 – Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 396.

[6] https://www.facebook.com/neildegrassetyson/, April 19, 2017 post, accessed April 22, 2017.