The Expulsion of Ishmael and his Mother by Paul Gustave Doré
There are always two sermons a preacher has every Sunday: one they write and the other they preach. Sometimes they are the same … sometimes not. Today is one of the “not” days. I had a sermon all ready for this morning but at 9:30 last night, I ran across a prayer from Martha Spong and everything changed. She posted the prayer with an image from Gustave Dore – “The Expulsion of Ishmael and His Mother.” This woodcut image grabbed me and I knew that everything I had planned on preaching would change. Not that I was crazy about this idea – rewriting a sermon at 9:30 on a Saturday night isn’t what I’d planned on. I went to bed, it woke me up at 2:00 am … and this is what came up. You see this haunting image of Hagar and Ishmael being cast out is an ugly story of jealousy and abuse inflicted by two people who claimed to be following God: rejection from an unexpected source.
To understand the story of Hagar and Ishmael’s expulsion, we need to go back a bit in the Genesis story. God begins the story of Abram and Sarai by making a promise: a promise of land and progeny. But in the course of the narrative, the promise of children (at least by Sarai) doesn’t materialize. It is believed Sarai is too old to have children, so she hatches a plan for Abram to take her slave girl Hagar as a second wife and have children by her. This was not uncommon in tribal culture but there is the discomfort of realizing Hagar really had no agency in this decision. She was a slave and defying her mistress’ order would have been unthinkable. So Hagar becomes pregnant by Abram. The narrative tells us that Sarai complains to Abram that after Hagar conceives that she looks down on Sarai. Abram tells Sarai to do with her whatever she wants – and Sarai “dealt harshly” with Hagar. We don’t know exactly what that means, but it was bad enough that Hagar runs away into the wilderness.
In the wilderness, an angel meets Hagar and tells her to return to Sarai. Hagar is given a promise that God has heard her plight and will greatly multiply the children who will be born to her son and make of them a great nation. In that encounter, her son is given the name Ishmael and Hagar calls the name of God “El-roi” which means the “God who sees me.” The God who sees me: sees me as a person and not as any of the labels like foreigner or slave which might have defined me. Hagar is known and seen by God and she receives a promise that God would bless her child. She returns and gives birth to Ishmael.
Some 13 years later, Abram meets God again who repeats his promise of land and progeny. Abram is given the name Abraham, “father of a multitude of nations” and Sarai becomes Sarah, meaning “princess.” Sarah becomes pregnant by Abraham and bears him a son, Isaac. But now we hear that once Isaac was weaned, jealousy rears its ugly head. By patrimony tradition, Ishmael as oldest son would normally carry on the family name and receive the double-portion of inheritance. Sarah wanted no rivals for her son! So she tells Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away – she cannot even bring herself to call Hagar or Ishmael by name: “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.”
Abraham is troubled but receives an assurance from God that Ishmael and Hagar would be provided for and he follows Sarah’s orders and drives Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness with a skin of water and some bread. Dore’s portrayal of this in his wood cut is heartbreaking: Sarah seated in the background with the toddler Isaac, looking down and frowning, Abraham standing with a forlorn look on his face and pointing away from camp, and Hagar and Ishmael in the foreground a tear running down Hagar’s cheek and Ishmael’s face buried in his mother’s skirts.
And in spite of all the assurances we hear as the readers of this story, what must Hagar have been thinking? She followed everything her owners told her to do. She dutifully produced a son for the patriarch of the tribe. And now she is thrown out? Rejected by these people who believe they are following God? This story is a disturbing reminder that following God does not make people immune from pettiness, jealousy and even abusing others. As Paul’s letter to the Romans speaks of our dying to sin, and by that he means the power of Sin to enslave us and forever destroy our souls, it doesn’t mean we will not fall into sinful actions even as we seek to follow God. Abraham and Sarah are not perfect people and Sarah’s jealousy and her desires to protect her son’s inheritance rights have tragic implications for Hagar and Ishmael.
Jesus speaks to this in his mission discourse in the Gospel. This is no pep talk he is giving to the disciples – it is a reality check. He warns them that by following his teachings, they will be opposed and rejected. That doesn’t exactly sound like “good news,” does it? Jesus warns them that he has already been called Beelzebub by those who oppose his message – and if that’s what they call him, how much more will his disciples be maligned. He tells them to expect opposition – this is what following the counter-cultural message of his teachings will bring. And they can expect the opposition to come from unexpected places – even from within their own households. Rejected by their fathers and mothers – and cast out just like Hagar.
When we follow the teaching of Jesus Christ, we will run into opposition and rejection – and sometimes it will be at the hands of those closest to us and even those who claim to follow God. The teachings of non-violence, economic justice, radical hospitality and equality still threaten the culture of violence in which we live. Make no mistake – there are many who profit and gain power from violence, income inequality and perpetuation of poverty, exclusion and inequality. Following the teachings of Jesus as Christians will bring us into conflict with others – even those who claim they are following God while still upholding the social status quo which opposes the Gospel. Someone once asked the question, “If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” If you have not experienced conflict with someone over following the Gospel, it’s likely you’d be acquitted.
We are not called as Christians to uphold the values of a culture of violence but to respect the dignity of every human being. When we really follow Christ it is risky business. We risk rejection from places where we would least expect it. But we are, like Hagar and the disciples, promised by God that we are known, seen, and will not be abandoned. El-roi, the God who sees me and sees you, has called us into the hard work of transforming the world. And the God who sees me and you will not leave us to face our perils alone.
In the year 1632 the Reverend George Herbert, poet, priest and Anglican Divine, sat in his Rectory at Bemerton, then just a little village outside Salisbury, and put the finishing touches to a small book which he called A Priest to the Temple, or, The Country Parson His Character and Rule of Holy Life. In it he wrote: “The Country Parson is a Lover of old Customs, if they be good, and harmless; and the rather, because country people are much addicted to them, so that to favor them therein is to win their hearts, and to oppose them therein is to deject them.”
Borrowing from Herbert’s words, today is a day of “old customs.” It is the 6th Sunday of Easter which is also known as Rogation Sunday. Now I have an older Book of Common Prayer here … a 1928 BCP to be exact. It was given to me on April 17, 1976 – the day Bishop Richard Millard, the bishop suffragan of the Diocese of California, laid his hands on my head conferring the sacrament of Confirmation. In the 1928 BCP, as in prior versions, this day appears in the lectionary as “The Fifth Sunday after Easter, commonly known as Rogation Sunday.” Take out your prayer books for a moment and turn to page 895. It is the lectionary for year A and you’ll see listed “Sixth Sunday of Easter” … but the word “Rogation” is missing. Rogation Sunday, and Rogationtide, was dropped in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer and it was also dropped from the Roman Missal about the same time. Part of the reasoning behind this was that Rogation Sunday seemed a quaint throwback to a time where our economy was more agrarian and, with the rise of urban and suburban living, it just seemed out of step with our modern life. But, with all due respect to the Standing Committee on Liturgy and the General Conventions of 1976 and 1979 who approved our “new” BCP, I’d like to suggest they were just a bit shortsighted.
Rogation comes from the Latin word rogare meaning “to ask.” The tradition began in Vienne, France in 470 … in the waning days of the Roman Empire. The town had suffered from a period of severe natural disasters which decimated the crops. Rogationtide was the Church’s liturgical response. By the time George Herbert wrote his book, this almost 1200 year “old custom” had four distinct aspects to it: “First, a blessing of God for the fruits of the field; secondly, justice in the preservation of bounds; thirdly, charity in loving walking and neighborly accompanying one another, with reconciling of differences at that time, if there be any; fourthly, relieving the poor by a liberal distribution and largess, which at that time is, or ought to be used.” So Rogationtide was more than just about crops and fields – it was also about the preservation of boundaries which led to the tradition of “beating the bounds” and noting where parish lands had encroachments. Part of this process was to engage in “loving walking and neighborly accompanying one another” so that reconciliation of differences (especially with respect to boundaries) could be attained. And finally, as an act of stewardship and recognition that all blessings come from God, the relief of the poor through liberal wealth redistribution was to be accomplished. Clearly, blessing, boundaries, justice and generosity were all interlinked in this liturgical act.
At the Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland in 2007, Resolution 2007-3 was brought to the floor. It was entitled “Caring for God’s Creation through Waste Prevention and Recycling” and it generally encouraged parishes to take up the cause of reducing waste and enact recycling programs as an act of stewardship. The final paragraph of the resolution read “Resolved, that this Convention urges parishes to designate the Sunday closest to Earth Day each year as Stewardship of Creation Sunday.” Now on the surface this sounds like a good idea, right? There’s only one problem … Earth Day was established in 1970 … one-thousand, five-hundred years after the first observance of Rogationtide. You see, the Church already knew about “Earth Day” – we’d been doing it since the end of the Roman Empire! But by dropping Rogationtide from our Prayer Book, the younger members of our Church had lost their history! Earth Day was copying the Church … and I thought it was time for us to take back the Church’s role in teaching the world about the stewardship of creation.
So I rose to speak to the resolution. I offered a friendly amendment to change the wording and strike the words “Earth Day” and replace them with “Rogation Sunday.” I gave the rationale for reviving Rogation Sunday and Rogationtide and was very appreciative that the Secretary of Convention was kind enough to let me speak before … calling me out of order because I technically wasn’t a delegate yet (I was 6 weeks shy of ordination). One of my fellow priests stepped in and offered the friendly amendment in my place and it was accepted and the motion carried on a voice vote.
The Church has historically defended care of the Earth, taught respect and preservation of boundaries, undertaken the work of reconciliation, and the teachings of Jesus speak directly to the rebalancing of wealth in care for the poor. This is our witness and this is who we are. This is why we blessed the Food Forest project today, why we blessed the animals and the town, and why we beat the bounds. And these practices are liturgically enacted this day but are reminders that what we do this day is part of the warp and weft of our lives as Christians.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is the one who asks the Father to send the Advocate, the Paraclete, to guide us into all truth. There really is no good translation for the Greek word Paraclete – but it implies the one who comes alongside us to help and assist us. It is this Advocate who helps us become co-creators with God, if we just listen for the opportunities to do so. I believe this Paraclete has been quite active here in the past three weeks as plans for the Brunswick Food Forest have come together far faster than anything I could have imagined and residents of Brunswick have joined this vision to bring fresh and healthy produce to our community. This is the work of Rogationtide, isn’t it? To ask God’s blessing on our work and crops that they might be a blessing to all of our community and to continue the co-creating and reconciling work of God in this community.
I invite you this Rogationtide to claim your Christian witness as a steward of the earth, a steward of right relationships with others in the respecting of boundaries, to seek reconciliation as an expression of honoring Christ in others, and to be generous in your giving of treasure and talents. We have something to teach the world in these old customs … and something to learn about God and ourselves.
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” What does “abundant life” mean to you? Have you ever thought about that? What does it mean have “have life, and have it abundantly?”
The fourth Sunday of Easter is nicknamed “Good Shepherd Sunday” mainly because in all three years of our lectionary, there is some reading from the Gospel of John having to do with sheep. Today we hear Jesus is the gate by which the sheep come and go and find pasture. Baptism is our gate through which we enter the Church and each week we come back to be nourished at the Eucharist and then go out to be the Gospel in the world. But make no mistake, the thief who comes to steal, kill and destroy is ever present and ever trying to steal us away.
So who, or what, is this thief who tries to steal our “abundant life”? And what is abundant life anyway? In order to approach this, we need to see this story in context. The downside of the lectionary is it chops up scripture and we lose the context. This passage happens as the ending to the story of the man born blind – which we heard in Lent when Canon Slater was with us. Remember? That’s the story of when Jesus healed the man born blind. He didn’t restore the man’s sight; he created the man’s sight ex nihilo (out of nothing). The man is then brought into the temple and grilled by the Pharisees about what happened to him. There is a long interchange including bringing in his parents to testify. The upshot of it all is that in the narrative, the man born blind not only receives sight physically, he receives freedom and finds his voice to advocate for himself. This is liberation! And the price he pays is … expulsion from the community.
Immediately following the healing and inquisition is when Jesus teaches about abundant life. For the man born blind, abundant life was sight and freedom … but both came at a price of being cast out of the system. This implies that “abundant life” is contextual – what it meant for the man born blind isn’t what it might mean to you and me. And if abundant life is contextual, then the thief who would kill, steal and destroy it is also contextual. So what does this mean in our context?
I think we need to begin answering that by looking at our 21st century American life and the value system it promulgates. In theory, we live in a democracy (our political system) steeped in capitalism (our economic system) wherein all get to participate in the political process and the consumption of goods drives our economic engine to prosperity for everyone … right? Notice I said “in theory.” What we have seen as of late is this theory collapse on itself. If we look at economic date from 1979 to the present, it is clear that much of the economic gain has not just gone to the 1% … but to the 0.1%. Since 1979, the one-thousandths of uber-rich corporate executives have seen their incomes go up 400% while real wages for everyone have fallen. Even college graduates have seen a stagnation of their incomes since 2005. Now I didn’t get these statistics out of some “lefty” media organization like Mother Jones Magazine or MSNBC. These figures from economist Paul Krugman who won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Economics and teaches at Princeton University (“Oligarchy: American Style” – NY Times November 4, 2011). He knows a lot more about economics than I do. He has rightly pointed out that America’s political system, as a result of largely unregulated capitalism, has evolved into an oligarchy – a government of the few, by the few and for the benefit of the few. As much as we want to deny this, if we are honest we know it is true. Money and political power are now largely in the hands of big corporations who buy the political influence of both political parties. The Supreme Court has declared that corporations are people, for crying out loud! And this evolution towards oligarchy isn’t solely the fault of Republicans, Democrats or Tea Partiers … it’s the whole system. Politicians’ votes are largely being bought by corporate interests regardless of political affiliation. This is the natural consequence of unregulated capitalism. It will always move towards oligarchy.
The result of this shift to a “democracy in theory but oligarchy in practice” has caused the middle class to shrink and puts many of us on the brink of falling out of it each day. Most of us are one or two paychecks away from being in the line at the food bank. We are one illness or car accident away from personal economic collapse. When I hear people say, “We want our country back,” I hear the fear in this statement. Sadly, I believe we spend our time blaming and venting spleens on Facebook more than we do understanding that this is the norm of human history.
That’s right. Oligarchies, as a governance structure, are historically the norm! Government of the few, by the few, for the few has been the dominant form of governance throughout world history regardless of culture. What we experienced in the post WWII era of a stable middle class with rising incomes was a fluke! It happened as a result of regulated capitalism with a taxation structure that redistributed the wealth … and yes, that’s a form of socialism. If we consider our reading from Acts 2 this morning – we hear about the early Christian church pooling their wealth and redistributing it! That’s right – the early Christians were socialists in the economic sense.
If oligarchies, government of the few, by the few, and for the benefit of the few, are normative for the world, then we shouldn’t be surprised that our economic and political culture is becoming more like the era when Jesus lived. In ancient Rome, a narrow band of elites governed the empire. The economic structure was proto-capitalistic but largely based on barter trade. Our economy has some different mechanisms, to be sure, but the challenges of income inequality are quite similar. This inequality has made us fearful – and fear is the thief which steals, kills and destroys our spirit! So what, then, does abundant life mean in our world of wealth inequality and fears of scarcity and want and how do we claim back our abundant life from the thief of fear?
I think we can begin by embracing the idea that abundant life isn’t just something promised in some future time when we die; it is something we are called to live into right now. Abundant life is a challenge to our faith to live contrary to the message we are receiving from the world. It is our call to resist the fears which make us want to pull in our horns and withhold our time and treasure from others. It is our call to remember that all things come from God and that God will provide all we need when we are generous with each other and the world. It is trusting that abundant life looks like freedom and liberation in Christ instead of the acquisition of worldly goods and earthly power. It is knowing that when we gather in community for the common purpose of serving others, we can do so because of the power of the risen Christ. We discover abundant life when we extend it to others.
I had a Holy Spirit moment when Tom+ read the Gospel today. I realized the stole I pulled out of the closet in the sacristy is a symbol of abundant life from a place quite far away. This stole was made by a Muslim woman in Sarajevo. She's part of a cooperative of women who sew and embroider vestments for Christian and Muslim clerics. This cooperative was born out of the violence of the civil war which tore their country apart. The thief of sectarian violence, genocide, and destruction tried to steal away their abundant life. But in the aftermath of that horrible collapse of their society, these women are reclaiming the abundant life God promised in Jesus Christ. While they do not share the same faith, they are learning again to trust each other and work together for the sake of a greater love.
What does this all mean for us here at Grace Church? Well, I think it means we need to relate to what God has given us in new ways. We have this building (and the one next door). We have land around those buildings. I am persuaded we are being led to use these assets in new and creative ways to bring people together for the purpose of serving our community in a new way. Some of you have heard about the idea of stealing back the food supply and using our grounds to grow food. I made a phone call last Monday to Mike Dickson who runs a nursery and restaurant. He is an urban gardener and I called him to ask questions about what creating an urban garden entails and how it all might work. When I told him I was from Brunswick, he was ecstatic! Mike is part of the Convoy of Hope which has been an annual event to help those in poverty with food, clothing and medical care. They have been looking for a site in Brunswick to stage an event and part of that program would be to plant an urban garden. Now you know me, I don’t believe in coincidences … but I do believe Jesus when he said he came that we might have life and have it abundantly. The way that people and resources are quickly coalescing around this idea, the more I am persuaded it is something the Holy Spirit is asking us to do and be for the sake of God’s people. Maybe for us, abundant life looks like … tomatoes, corn, squash, green beans … and the people who will be fed both in body and in spirit from them.
“My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. No merit of mine own I claim but solely lean on Jesus’ name. On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand. All other ground is sinking sand.”
That hymn and the Thomas Merton prayer were the two things which saw me through seminary. This isn’t a hymn I knew from my youth – it wasn’t in the 1940 or 1982 Hymnals (it is in Lift Every Voice and Sing, though). This hymn is one I go back to when everything seems to fall apart and I need reminding of where to place my hope. Where do you place your hope?
Today’s Gospel reading takes us back in time. This story from Luke’s Gospel, commonly known as the Walk to Emmaus, is one which informs our weekly liturgy. We hear about the disciples being met by Jesus on the road and hearing the scriptures and having them opened through teaching – this is the first half of our worship each Sunday. This is followed by the Eucharist where Christ is known to us in the breaking of the bread. So if you think about it, each week we journey on the Emmaus road to find the risen Christ in this community which empowers us to take the good news of Christ into the world.
This is a joyous story of the appearance of the risen Christ which takes place on evening of the Resurrection. But there was something in the story this week which stuck with me – in fact, it haunted me. Luke tells us that the disciples were very sad as they walked towards Emmaus. They were depressed after all that had happened – their hopes were dashed. When Jesus comes alongside and asks what they are talking about, the disciple named Cleopas basically asks if he’s the only one in Jerusalem without a clue about what has happened. Jesus plays along and Cleopas tells him about himself – that he was a prophet, mighty in word and deed before God and all the people and how the chief priests and elders turned him over to the authorities to be crucified. He then says, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” But we had hoped …
The disciples were Jews who had a very well formed idea of what the redemption of Israel would look like. It would be when a descendent of King David would rise up, drive out the Roman occupiers, and reestablish the Kingdom of Israel under their own autonomous control. This redemption plan had a very earthly and concrete set of expectations as to how it would happen. A suffering and dying Messiah just wasn’t in the equation! They had pinned their hopes on a vision of a preferred outcome and the loss of that outcome depressed them. They couldn’t see another way.
We are not so different from these disciples, are we? We can get caught up in our visions of preferred outcomes to situations. Don’t get me wrong, having a vision for the future is not inherently a bad thing. But when we set our hope on a preferred outcome instead of the risen Christ who is there regardless of the results, it is devastating and becomes idolatrous.
We have had many hopes dashed since the beginning of this year, haven’t we? Those haunting words of Cleopas, “but we had hoped,” are in our hearts too. But we had hoped … to avoid the layoff. But we had hoped … to get the job and didn’t. But we had hoped … at least one of those bids would have come through. But we had hoped … the chemo would have worked and Lila would still be here. But we had hoped …
Today we bring those dashed hopes to Christ here at Grace. We bring them to this altar in this community. We will be offering the sacrament of unction shortly, right here in front of this altar. I invite you all to come forward with those shattered hopes, your hurt and brokenness to meet the risen Christ, be anointed in his name, and to receive his spirit in touch and the oil. And then, may our eyes be opened to see the risen Christ in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of his Body and Blood.
“His oath, his covenant, and blood sustain me in the raging flood. When all supports are washed away, he then is all my hope and stay. On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand. All other ground is sinking sand.”
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Tonight we enter the holiest time of the Christian year: the Triduum – the Great Three Days. The Triduum encompasses the three days of our Lord’s passion, death and resurrection – it is the central theme of our faith. I often tell my catechumens preparing for baptism and confirmation, “If you don’t get the Triduum, you are missing the center of your faith.” And the center of our faith begins with a commandment. This day is called Maundy Thursday and “Maundy” comes from the Latin mandatum, meaning mandate or commandment. We are given the mandate to love one another as Christ loved us. This is no small, trivial task.
We don’t know how to love well. None of us do. We often stunt our understanding of love and limit it to sentimental romanticism or sexual attraction. We treat it as a noun – as if it is a place or state of being with phrases like “falling in love” (as if it were a sinkhole … although at times this may be an apt metaphor!). This isn’t the kind of love that Jesus speaks of in John’s gospel. The love he speaks of is a verb and a willful act of giving oneself, even to death. It is a love which suffers – and great suffering always walks hand in hand with great love.
This night is one of both love and suffering. Jesus is gathered with his closest intimate friends. He knows that one of them is going to sell him out to the authorities – throw him under the bus. He knows he could run away to the Judean hill country and hide out. His followers would have likely applauded that move – “Way to stick it to the man, Jesus!” But he doesn’t run away … he stays right there – right in the middle of this mess. Why? Because real love does not cut and run when things go wrong. Real love presses through, suffers with, takes us into death and does not leave us.
This isn’t “touchy feely” stuff of sentiment. This is the hard road of the cross. Christ this night demands something from us – from you and me. That we love one another with the self-giving love he demonstrated. That we love to the point of losing ourselves – which is a kind of death. It is a death of ego, of selfishness, of wanting life on our terms and our terms alone. It is a death of grudge holding and score keeping that puts us in the sin accounting business instead of the loving business. It is the death of my small pathetic life on this earth so that God can do something so much bigger than anything this pea-brain can imagine. And you know what? I don’t like that idea any more than you do! That’s right. I fight it tooth and nail with a spiritual internal struggle that feels like Sisyphus eternally pushing that boulder up the hill only to have it roll down again … over and over and over.
And yet, like it or not, the way of love unto death is the only way out I have found. Because the truth is, death will come. We know this … and we deny this all the time. I’m not solely referring to physical death – I’m talking about all the kinds of death we experience around us. Death comes in many forms throughout our lives: death of dreams, of hopes, of careers, of our health, of security, of our abilities, of family and friends. Whether we choose to love others as Christ loved us or not, death will come – you can’t stop it.
The love that Christ commands us to show for one another is what transforms dying into something more than just a nihilistic end without meaning. It is dying so that something, or someone, might live and live abundantly. And on this day we not only hear of Jesus washing the disciples feet, but we also hearken to our other gospel accounts that this is the night where Jesus gave a new meaning to the Passover feast. Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples telling them “this is my Body which is given for you.” Jesus himself is the sacrifice who is broken for us and who we receive in the sacrament of the Eucharist. And it is this kind of brokenness to which he calls us – to be broken for a reason … to be broken for love’s sake.
Jesus tells us to love him, love God, love each other and he shows us how to do it. As we partake of his Body and Blood broken and poured out for us, may this be our invitation to also love through our brokenness and be given to others for Christ’s sake.
In keeping with our Lenten theme of contrasts, this week is no exception. We have explored contrasts of temptation which tries to steal our identity as beloved daughters and sons and the contrasts of how we trust … or not. Today’s readings reveal the contrast between freedom and slavery.
For all of you in our Coffee Talk Bible Study … here’s the “spoiler alert” (plug your ears!) … Pharaoh lets the Israelites go. OK … you can take your fingers out of your ears now. Today’s reading from Exodus is another “whine and geez” party thrown by the Israelites in the desert. In the prior chapter, the people were whining about having no food and God provided Manna in the wilderness. This week, we hear they are at a desert place encamped and there is no water. So round 2 of the “whine and geez” party starts as the people quarrel with Moses. A big part of this whining has to do with how people deal with freedom.
The Israelites had been in slavery under the Egyptians for 400 years and suddenly they were free from that bondage. But freedom exacts a high price! The first stage in this freedom process is that the people have to grow up. You don’t get the luxury of having your overlords decide everything about your life anymore. You have to grow up and make your own decisions. This is no simple task!! The whole wilderness experience of the Israelites is about their growing up, making decision, and taking the radical risk that God really is in the midst of them. This is spiritual adulthood … and they aren’t sure they want it. And we are not unlike them at all, are we? I don’t know about you, but there are times I really don’t want to be the adult in the room! I’d rather have somebody else tell me what to do and then I get the luxury of blaming them when things don’t work out … who wouldn’t want that?
Slavery isn’t something we think applies to us, but it does. In his book Addiction and Grace, Dr. Gerry May talks about addictions and attachments which steal our freedom. Addiction is the absolute enemy of freedom and addiction isn’t just limited to drugs or alcohol. Think about it … there are many things to which we are addicted. In our culture, the most common addiction is money. Doesn’t matter how much money you have, does it? You always want more, right? These addictions and attachments are forms of slavery – they are the absolute enemy of the freedom God created us to live in. But giving up these addictions and attachments means we have to work … we have to think … we have to make decisions … and we have to place our trust in God’s presence even when things appear to be falling apart. We have to trust that there will be living water in our own wilderness instead of griping and falling back into our old ways. Admittedly, the Israelites are ambivalent about this freedom thing and it takes them a long time of wandering and trusting God before they forget the bondage of Egypt and trust in God’s freedom
In our gospel reading, we hear of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well and this too is a story about freedom and liberation. Too often, much is made of her domestic situation: she’s been married five times and now living with a man who is not her husband. I have seen way too many Biblical literalists classify this woman as a “whore” when Jesus uses no such word. Let’s be clear – there is NOTHING in this reading which indicates that the woman is engaged in immoral practices nor is there anything which condemns her sex life. There are all kinds of reasons she may have been in this situation. In a culture where women had no rights, a husband could toss his wife out on her ear for no reason by giving her a writ of divorce, and where life expectancies were shorter than today (Who knows? She may have outlived 5 men!), not to mention the requirement of the Levirate marriage which would have caused her to be married to the brother of her deceased husband to raise up children for the dead brother … well, let’s just say there are any number of reasons she was in this condition. Jesus never tells her to “go and sin no more” – in fact, sin isn’t even mentioned. So let’s get off the morality train right now and let that go! Her plight is likely one that is marked more by tragedy than immorality.
When Jesus tells her to call her husband and then tells her the truth of her life, her response is quite surprising – she doesn’t get defensive or argue. Did you notice that? Jesus puts the finger right on her place of greatest brokenness and she doesn’t get angry. That’s quite remarkable because most of us would get angry or lash out. I know how I am. When my spiritual director or therapist puts their finger on something broken in me, my first reaction is defensive. It hurts when somebody looks through us and tells us the unvarnished truth. But that’s when I have to take a deep breath and trust these people aren’t trying to hurt me – they are trying to help heal me. I think Jesus’ words are received by this woman as a non-judgmental statement of fact … meant for her liberation. Instead of responding in anger, she makes a confession of faith: “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.” In John’s gospel, the concept of “seeing” is strongly linked with believing. She believes that Jesus has really seen her too – she is a whole person to him, not just an object or a victim. She has worth in Jesus’ eyes.
Her next question may seem like a non sequitur: On which mountain will we worship God? This question continues to divide Jews and Samaritans. She is testing whether or not Jesus will separate himself from her because of the things which have kept her in captivity: her gender, her ethnicity, her dependence on other men. All of these have enslaved her ... will Jesus be just another Jewish man who will keep her in shackles?
Instead of the either/or response she expects, Jesus’ answer opens a third way for her – not a black and white answer which chooses sides. This third way opens a path of liberation for her where she can chart a new course to believe in God in a whole new way. And it is so exciting that she drops her water jars and races off to tell her friends. She leaves behind the very thing that had been so important to her – the water she drew which symbolically could be the chores and expectations placed upon her. In dropping everything, she was freed to share this news of a new and transformed life with her friends.
We, like this woman, are burdened with many struggles, temptations and challenges in life which can enslave us and hold us back from being the people God calls us to be. Take a moment and think … what are you facing right now? What are the past tragedies of your life that you need to drop and leave behind? A dead-end job? A death dealing relationship? An addiction or attachment which is killing you physically or spiritually? Anxiety, guilt, sadness? What holds you back from living into your freedom in Christ? Offer it to Christ right now and ask for the courage to drop your water jars, to seek God’s freedom and to give us the grace to tell our friends what God has done for us! What do you need to drop this day … on a broken altar … at the foot of a broken Christ on the cross?
For those of you who are going through football withdrawal – today is your day! Yes, it’s “John 3:16” day! You know, there’s always that guy in the end zone that you see when the kick is good holding up the sign with “John 3:16” on it. I’ve always wanted to go to a game and stand in the end zone with a sign that says “John 3:17” … just to mess with people. But in all seriousness, John 3:16 has become a bit of a cliché which gets rattled off by those trying to proof-text why unbelievers will not go to heaven or to bolster another believer who is going through a difficult time (after all, if God so loved the world, then you can’t really be having any problems, can you?). For those of you who are tired of this cliché, fear not! This sermon isn’t going there. Instead, I’ve been fascinated by the contrasts our readings have presented so far … and I think I’ll stick with that theme.
For those of you who were here on Ash Wednesday, you know why our altar is uncovered this Lent. If you missed that, here’s the recap. About 15 years ago, Grace Church experienced violence in its walls. There was a break in and vandals desecrated the church. In their rampage, the Blessed Sacrament was dumped out on the rug at the high altar and crushed under foot, candlesticks were smashed and this altar’s marble top was smashed. When you come up for communion, take a moment to look at it … run your hands over the damage. It was a day when a small group of people poured out contempt on Christ and his people. This community was violated. It was an act of evil.
We speak of evil in our prayer of confession and Lent is a time for us to face evil: the evil we do, the evil done to us and the evil done on our behalf as our confession prayer states. Evil and sin are intertwined and they manifest through our broken lives – broken like this altar, broken like Christ on the cross. Our readings thus far have talked about our broken nature. Last week’s readings were about the identity theft that temptation causes – the ways that our true identity as beloved sons and daughters is stolen when we are tempted to break relationship with God and others and “go it alone” in our lives. The contrast was between Eve and Adam who fell for the temptation to “be like God” and go it alone and Jesus who completely trusted God and stayed in solidarity with us.
Today we are given another set of contrasts – this time about trust. While the word “faith” and “belief” run rampant through these readings (especially in the Epistle), I’m using the word “trust” intentionally. Too often, we fall into the trap of thinking “faith” and “belief” are intellectual assents to a set of propositions. That isn’t how the early Christians experienced this. It was about what you gave yourself over to completely – a complete act of trust: trust of body, mind and spirit. And trust is something with which we struggle, isn’t it? Anybody have “trust issues?” Of course we do. Our experience is that people have let us down and we are wary of trusting, giving ourselves over, to the care of someone or something outside ourselves. Abram and Nicodemus are both put in the position of being called into complete trust.
The Torah portion from Genesis is known by our Jewish sisters and brothers as “Lech, Lecha!” – or “Get up and Get out of here!” It comes from God’s call to Abram – “[Get up and] Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Notice that God does not say, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to this lovely little condo I have picked out for you in Haifa. It has a great ocean view – you’re gonna love it!” No … God says, “Go … to a land I will show you.” Abram had no clue where he was going – but he had to go – and he trusted this voice and acted upon it as if it were true.
Now you might be thinking Abram was nuts and you would never be able to trust God at this level. Admittedly, God doesn’t tend to speak with us directly like he appeared to do with Abram. Perhaps it would be easier if God did do this. But we often hear the voice of God calling us through the mediation of regular old human beings … which brings up those trust issues again, doesn’t it? But think for a moment about a time when somebody called you – speaking something to your heart that you just knew was true. Now you may not have wanted to hear the truth – and it was painful to face. Truth isn’t always fun but it is always healing – always healing! Gloria Steinem is said to have riffed on this: “The truth shall set you free … but first it will piss you off.” This kind of truth is a place where Christ’s light shines into the darkness of the evil that may be enslaving you – it’s an invitation to drop the pretense, get real, and be free. And when you trust that truth, you begin to live as if it were real – even if you don’t really fully trust it yet.
It may be that a deep, heart penetrating truth gets spoken to you and it calls you to do or be something that you never imagined yourself to be. Think about that for a moment … did you ever have a moment when somebody believed you were capable of more than you thought? And because they had trust in you, you began to behave as if it were true even if you didn’t totally get it yet? The Saturday before Ash Wednesday, Wendy made a trip over to visit Lila and Bill Wenner. She asked me, “Is there anything I can take to them?” I said, “Yes … Holy Communion.” My response just came … and I think Wendy was a little taken aback as she asked me, “Can I do that??” I told her, “Of course you can. Let’s get a kit and I have a book for you.” And … she did. She took Communion to Lila and Bill and, reports have it and as we say in Brunswick, she “done good.” Now Bill did put her at ease by telling her that if she made a mistake, God would just laugh anyway. But here was a place where God called Wendy … oh sure, I was the mouthpiece, but I am persuaded God called her to this. She hadn’t seen this in herself up to that point – but when I said she could, she believed … she trusted this was true and acted as if it were true and she went. It was an Abram response.
The Gospel reading tells us of another response. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night – out of the darkness to encounter the light of Christ. Forget your preconceived ideas about Pharisees – Nicodemus isn’t a bad guy. He’s genuinely interested in Jesus and acknowledges that he sees God’s power working through him. Jesus then tells him that no one can see the Kingdom of God unless you are “born from above.” The phrase “born from above” also can mean “born again.” I think it’s a both/and – born again from above. He’s speaking of the death of our egos and our preconceived ideas of God and ourselves. This has to die for us to turn over our trust completely to God and thus be spiritually resurrected. This is totally going over Nicodemus’ head – essentially he says, “You can’t go back into your mother’s womb! That’s just crazy talk!” Nicodemus’ knowledge of scripture and his own attachment to his identity becomes a stumbling block – he can’t see the God behind the words of scripture. He can’t quite understand that no words, no Torah, no earthly container can possibly limit God’s power. Trusting Jesus’ words just is beyond him. Perhaps it’s because God’s call is being mediated through what appears to be a mere human being (we’re not the only ones with trust issues). Or maybe it is just seems too good to be true.
Abram and Nicodemus are two sides of our ability to trust God. There are those grace filled moments when we hear something that just cuts to our hearts and we know it is true – we know God is behind those words (even if we don’t really want to hear them) and we step out as if what was said was actually true. And then we have times when our preconceived ideas, our egos, our addictions and attachments, seem to get in the way of God’s call to us for a healed and resurrected life.
Now before we “flat Stanley” these two characters as “Abram who is faithful” and “Nicodemus who doesn’t get it,” we need to remember that Abram will doubt God’s call on more than one occasion (the folks w.ho journeyed through Genesis with us at our Coffee Talk Bible Study will remember that). Nicodemus does not disappear from the Gospel of John after he stumbles in his trust – he shows up again to defend Jesus’ legal right to a fair trial … and he shows up again with Joseph of Arimathea to prepare Jesus’ body for burial.
Our ability to trust God’s call in our lives is, admittedly, a mixed bag and our challenge is not necessarily to always “get it right” but to keep struggling and wrestling with it. Our trust may be broken, like this altar, but it is the broken Christ who meets us in order to heal us and make us new again.
Have you ever had your identity stolen? Unfortunately, it’s getting to be a more common occurrence, isn’t it? I remember the first time it happened to us and our bank account was drained in Barcelona …unfortunately, I wasn’t in Barcelona so it wasn’t me. There’s a horrible feeling of violation when our identity is stolen and it’s a real pain to clear it up. What was violated was my good name – my creditworthiness was in peril. And my creditworthiness is a sign and symbol of my being a trustworthy person. But it’s only part of my identity. I have a lot of other pieces to my identity – wife, mother, priest, friend, and daughter, among others. And most of these pieces of my identity are dependent upon my relationship with others. Think about it, I cannot be a wife without my husband. I cannot be a mother without children. I cannot be a priest without the consent of the Church and people to whom I minister as a priest. Even my creditworthiness and trustworthiness are dependent upon how I treat others – like my creditors. Much of our identity is rooted in our relationships.
Today’s readings are about identity theft. It may not seem like that on the surface, but this is what is happening in both the reading from Genesis and from Matthew. We often frame these as stories of temptation; however, temptation is the means by which our identity can be stolen.
In the reading from Genesis, we hear about the temptation of Eve by the serpent. He questions her about what she is allowed to eat. She tells him that they can eat of any tree, but not the one in the middle of the garden because if they eat of that tree they will die. Eve’s identity at this point is based on her relationship with God as a trusting child of God. The serpent sets about at stealing her identity – through a temptation to break this trusting relationship with God and “go it alone” by eating of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Not only does this thievery work, it fundamentally changes Eve and Adam’s relationship with God. This story is our story – of how we distrust God and are constantly tempted to “go it alone.”
In contrast, Matthew tells of how Satan attempts to steal Jesus’ identity. This is a day when the Church Year readings take a chronological twist. We are now back to the baptism of Jesus … which we celebrated in January. When Jesus was baptized, a voice proclaimed: “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.” This was the same voice we heard last week in the reading from the Transfiguration and it is Jesus’ core identity: God’s Son, the Beloved with whom God is well pleased (or some translations say, “in whom I take great delight”). This is the truth and it is a truth spoken not just in Jesus’ baptism, but at ours. Our core identity is as beloved sons and daughters of God.
But, we hear that right after his baptism, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness – and here his core identity is at risk of being stolen. Satan appears and makes three attempts to get Jesus to break relationship with God and us – and to lose his core identity. The first temptation is “I need.” Satan attacks Jesus’ very real need to eat: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” I want you to know that Satan is not questioning the identity of Jesus with this statement – he is attempting to steal it. His statement “If you are the Son of God” is not a challenge to his identity – it is an assertion of it. The “if” used in the Greek is the “if of certainty” not the one of uncertainty; which means we can translate this as “Since you are the Son of God.” Satan never questions Jesus’ identity as Son of God. Jesus could have at that point given in. If he had, not only would he have broken his dependence on God in an attempt to “go it alone,” he also would have broken his solidarity with us who hunger, both literally and figuratively. Jesus responds by quoting scripture: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” He thwarts the attempt at identity theft through the temptation of “I need.”
But Satan isn’t done with him yet. If Jesus can quote scripture, so can the devil (remember that!). Satan takes Jesus up to the pinnacle of the temple and gives him the temptation of “I can”: “Since you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Satan is quoting Psalm 91. Yes, Jesus could have done this … he could have succumbed to the temptation of “I can.” But if he had, he again would have broken his dependence on God and would have become invulnerable – and in so doing, would have broken relationship with us as vulnerable human beings. Jesus resists this attempt to steal his identity with another quote from scripture: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Satan’s final attempt at stealing Jesus’ identity comes with the temptation of “I want” by showing him all the kingdoms of the world and promising that to Jesus if only he would bow down and worship him … in essence worshiping as God that which is not … committing idolatry. Had he given in, his core self as God incarnate would have shattered and he would have lost any power to save this broken humanity. Jesus tells Satan to be gone and with one final word of scripture tells him: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
Each of these temptations – “I need,” “I can,” and “I want” – are our temptations too. Each represents the opportunity for us to break relationships with each other and with God. Each of them is an attempt to steal our core identity and get us to distrust God’s promise in our baptism that we really are beloved sons, beloved daughters. When our core identity is stolen, we forget who we are and Whose we are and the results can be devastating.
Think for a moment over this past week. Where was your core identity as beloved put at risk by the Identity Thief? Where did “I need,” “I can,” or “I want” trip you up? How did it make you feel in the moment? As you see it in this light, how does it make you feel now? Has it made you doubt your beloved status? Now hear the words of St. Paul:
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
That is your promise beloved in Christ. Regardless of our failings, which are merely opportunities to turn and return to God, absolutely nothing can steal your baptismal identity away.
Have you ever been scared to death? OK, maybe not literally since you all are sitting here in church, but you know what I mean. If you live long enough, you’ll encounter things that will scare the daylights out of you. Most of the things that have scared me in my life have been the times when I thought I could defy the forces of natural law laid down by the Almighty from before the foundation of the world. You know, laws like … gravity … or inertia (especially when I’m the body in motion that is tending to stay in motion and meeting the body at rest that is staying at rest … that always leaves a mark) … or the second law of thermodynamics (ask me about that one later … it’s a long story). I often think of the times when I've tried to confront the awesome forces of nature and come up short. You know, "Awesome Forces of Nature versus 112 pounds of ... Me! Let's get ready to rumble!!!" Yeah ... it usually ended up pretty bad.
Awesome forces of nature usually ends up putting me in a place where I was scared out of my wits on more than one occasion. I remember being about 16 when one of those incidences happened. I grew up in California and did a lot of body surfing. There was this place I went to called “The Wedge” in Newport Beach. It’s where the jetty that protects the opening to Newport Harbor juts out at the end of the Balboa Peninsula. That structure creates really serious waves – like 10-20 foot waves. The problem is when a set comes in, these big waves suck all the water out from where you are standing, so you really can’t duck or dive under the incoming wave. It’s a fine art to not be in the wrong place at the wrong time … an art which I had not mastered when I found myself standing in about 12 inches of water with a 15 foot wave about to crash on my head. All I could do was take a deep breath and tuck down. When that wave hit, it knocked me face down flat into the sand and pinned me there. I could not move and the sound of the water was deafening. That’s scary … can’t move, tons of water holding you down and hoping you didn’t run out of breath. I heard a voice say, “Hold on. The wave will let you go.” And eventually it did and I was sucked up into the swirling waters and made my way back to the surface. But for that time when I could not move, I was terrified.
We live in a culture that is deeply fearful but in total denial about it, don’t we? Somewhere, usually in our teen years, we get the message that to be “grown up” means we can’t be afraid – or at least we can’t admit we are afraid. But there are many fears that try to claim us, aren’t there? Most of what we fear is loss – loss of job, loss of our faculties, loss of security, loss of loved ones, alienation from friends and family, loss of control, loss of life. Most of us try to mask our fears – and the most common way we do it is through anger. Somehow it’s ok to be angry and lash out in our culture but it isn’t ok to deal with the underlying fear that brings us to that angry place. How screwed up is that??
Today is the Last Sunday after Epiphany and we hear the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus – a story which is about fear and transformation. Admittedly, it is a rather weird and unsettling story with a whole lot of “woo woo” factor about it. Shining Jesus (and no, we aren’t going to sing “Shine Jesus Shine” today) with Moses and Elijah showing up out of nowhere. I always wondered how the disciples knew it was Moses and Elijah … not like they had Facebook pages with selfies on them to check their id. It just is a weird story! No matter what happened and what was seen by Peter, James and John, the fact that it was weird didn’t cause them to be afraid. There is no mention of fear at all at the sight of Jesus, Moses and Elijah at all. But I suppose the weirdness of it all was what prompted Peter to blurt out, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But Matthew goes on to say that while Peter was still speaking, the bright cloud came down and the voice came out of the cloud and said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased; listen to him!” If these words sound vaguely familiar, you heard them just a few weeks ago. “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” was what the voice said at Jesus’ baptism – word for word! Peter, James and John were not at Jesus’ baptism to hear that voice and that voice now interrupts Peter as if to say, “You’ve said enough Peter! Shut up and listen! This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased … Listen to him!”
It is at this point, the disciples fall face down in fear. This was something big … and WAY beyond their control. The writer of Hebrews said, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Our finitude is no match for the Eternal One. Awesome forces beyond their understanding or control scaring the daylights out of these disciples. But Jesus doesn’t leave them there. He came to them and touched them and he said, “Get up and do not be afraid.” This is where I wish our English language could better capture the nuance of what Jesus says. His command to “get up” is also translated “arise” … and it means “resurrection.” Its mood and voice in Greek tell us that God is the power behind their rising – as if to say “Let God resurrect you!” I’ve said it before and will say it again: resurrection isn’t the revivification of a corpse. Resurrection is rising to become something new and transformed! Jesus follows this with another command “do not be afraid” whose mood and voice in Greek tell us that letting go of our fear is not something we can do in and of ourselves; it is an act in which Christ is also participating. So it’s more like, “Let God resurrect you and I will walk with you so you can let go of your fear.”
Jesus was not the only one transfigured on the mountain. Peter, James and John were also changed. Their experience that day confronted them with awesome powers that were far beyond their puny human abilities to handle. But the touch of Jesus invited Peter, James and John into a transformed, resurrected understanding of Jesus in that moment and to let Jesus walk with them into and through their fear so they could be released and no longer hold power over them.
Each of us faces powers in our life that are far beyond our control. There will always be things which will make us fearful. Even the disciples who witnessed the transfiguration would not be immune to fears in the future – the events of Jesus’ crucifixion and the disciples abandoning him would prove that. But the message Christ gives us this day is to trust his touch, which still comes to us through this community, our loved ones and friends: a touch which bids us to let God raise us up and let Christ walk with us and not be afraid.
Did you know that it is illegal to take a lion to the movies in Baltimore? It is … I know you were worried about that. It is also required to document the services of a jackass in Maryland … which could mean I’ll be filling out timesheets in 2014. But Maryland isn’t alone in having wacky laws. In Washington DC, “bridges must be clear of sheep between 6 and 10 AM.” That’s right … no driving your sheep to market over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge in the morning. Apparently, doing so during the evening rush hour is not a problem. You also cannot operate a surfboard while under the influence of alcohol, marijuana or other hallucinogenic drugs. That should make the Potomac River safe for everyone. But my favorite wacky law from DC was “Manure may not be deposited without a permit.” Somehow I don’t think congress got that message! There are a lot of downright weird laws on the books all over the world and this week’s readings have a lot to do with law and its place in our lives.
Ideally, laws exist so that people can live together and relate to each other in a civilized manner. It’s been said that “good fences make good neighbors” and laws serve as a way to set fences, or boundaries, by which we can live somewhat peaceably. But people being who they are, laws don’t always function that way. Sometimes laws, especially some of these weird ones, are created as a reactive response to a group’s “delicate sensibilities” or as a way of protecting one group’s status or privilege. I’m thinking of things like Jim Crow laws that excluded African Americans from full participation in society in order to protect white privilege. Right now, the Kansas state legislature passed a law saying anyone can refuse to serve LGBT people without explanation because of their religious objections. Really? Can you imagine saying “We don’t serve your kind” to any other group of people in 2014? It sickens me when religion is used as a cover for bigotry and then gets enshrined in law. But we have a track record of doing that, don’t we?
Today we are hearing much about the Law – the Halakah which governs the Jewish people. We are familiar with the “top 10” that were given to Moses on Mount Sinai. But there’s a whole body of rabbinic law which makes up the Halakah and in total, it’s about 700 specific laws. These laws cover all aspects of what it means to be Jewish: what to eat and not eat, proper business practices, who you can and cannot marry, how to maintain purity, judicial procedures including crime and punishment and restitution, temple worship, and more. Admittedly, some of these laws are archaic holdovers from a stone-age people … and they sound as weird as not taking lions to the movies. But if we throw out the Law because of a few oddball pieces, I think we do so at our own peril – even as Christians.
Christians often misunderstand adherence to the law by Jews – it sounds burdensome, and didn’t Paul say in Christ we are set free from the law? Well, not really. Last week, Jesus said he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. The word Halakah actually means “the way in which we walk.” To an observant Jew, this means the law is a gift from God to help them be in right relationship – with God and with each other. So for us, it is not irrelevant. Fr. Richard Rohr speaks about the importance of the Law as giving us a container, or a “home base,” from which to operate in right relationship to God and with each other. In today’s reading from Sirach, one of the apocryphal books of the Bible, we hear that God gives us choices – fire or water, life or death. God made us to be moral beings with the ability make choices – even if we make bad choices. It is a reminder that the law has a place in our lives, even as Christians.
Jesus’ teaching today, which is from the Sermon on the Mount, follows last week’s reading where he says that not one stroke of the law will pass away until all is accomplished. He even commends the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees. Today, he is teaching on the law with a very specific kind of rhetoric. It follows a pattern: “You’ve heard it said in ancient times … but I say to you …” In a way what Jesus is doing is challenging his listeners to go deeper into the meaning of the law. In essence, he tells them, “So you’ve heard this and I’m sure you think you ‘got this’ buttoned up and handled … but I say you don’t and here’s why…”
Martin Luther once called this a “second use of the Law.” He used the metaphor that the Law is both mirror and hammer. First, the Law holds up a mirror to us and shows us our behaviors. And if we take a serious and sober look at how we behave, we have to admit we fail … epically. That’s when the second part comes in … the hammer. It falls on us like a judge’s gavel and convicts us of our bondage to the power of Sin. This is what Jesus seems to be doing as he teaches “what I say to you.” The truth is we will never have a handle on Sin and its grip on our souls. Luther said we are in bondage to Sin and cannot free ourselves – sounds a lot like addiction, doesn’t it? It is … we are Sin sick souls and we have no power in and of ourselves to break this hold. But that’s not Gospel, is it? No, not at all … it’s a page out of the book of DUH!
At this point we tend to go into one of two paths when we are confronted by so stark a reality as how much power Sin has over us. The first is to run away and go into denial about the serious nature of our condition. This is the path of rationalization. It sounds like, “I’m really not a bad person” or “This is just a guilt trip laid on us by the Church to try and control us.” If we succumb to these rationalizations, we’ll tend to minimize the very real damage caused by Sin – damage we do to ourselves, to others, and to creation. We’ll ignore the bigger implications of Sin – the systemic Sin of society which can seem too big for us to do anything about and so we ignore it. But do take this path is to reject the truth of our condition and to let Sin puff us up with a false grandiosity blocking our ability to let God’s grace in to heal us.
The other temptation we have is to heap coals of fire on ourselves. We can mistake our bondage to the power of Sin as something which renders us worthless and beyond the saving grace of God. After all, if I’m so terrible, why would God waste time, let alone love, on me? This too is a distortion caused by Sin itself and blocks the grace of God by sending us into a cynical, nihilistic spiral of doom.
Fortunately, there is a way in which we can walk … a way forward out of the mess. First is to let the Law be both mirror and hammer but, rather than take the road of rationalization or worthlessness, let the Law be an agent of the Spirit’s gift of humility. Humility is that place where we walk the middle way with Christ in both acknowledging and naming our sin and trusting completely that the promises of baptism are true – we are marked as Christ’s own forever. Forever beloved, forever belonging to God and nothing, absolutely nothing, can erase this. Our sins are not powerful enough to cause God to reject us … to think so is sheer ego driven hubris.
Last week, I spent three days at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park NY. It is an Episcopal Benedictine monastery and they hosted Fr. Martin Smith, the former superior of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, who conducted a workshop for clergy on the sacrament of reconciliation which is probably the most underutilized part of the Prayer Book … second only to the Historical Documents in the back of the book! For those of you who are former Roman Catholics, you may have been more accustomed to the compulsory nature of the sacrament of reconciliation as a requirement for receiving the Eucharist. Those of you from more Protestant traditions may wonder why we have this as a sacrament. And those of you who are cradle Episcopalians likely just ignore its presence in the Prayer Book and figure the general prayer of confession before the Eucharist is sufficient. We seem to have an ambivalent feeling about this sacrament.
The Anglican ethos tells us that Baptism and Eucharist are the only sacraments “necessary for salvation” because Jesus commanded we do them; however, we would be selling ourselves short to think the other sacraments “don’t really matter.” They do matter! They are given to us for a reason. The sacrament of reconciliation is important because it gives us a means by which we can avoid the temptations of rationalization and worthlessness as we let go of what Martin called “spiritual congestion” which impedes our ability to accept God’s grace and healing. The Anglican approach to this sacrament is one of healing and proclamation of the Gospel – so that we can receive the good news of our belovedness given to us in Baptism and live in the freedom of Christ as God’s children.
And so, as we begin our journey towards Lent on this Septuigesima Sunday, I encourage you to reflect on your life in self-examination. Take some time in the silence we have before our general confession to recall those things done and left undone this week and be intentional about giving them over to God. As you uncover those things which you may find more troubling, I encourage you to consider availing yourself of sacramental reconciliation. Think of it this way … it’s a place you can dump your spiritual manure and leave it … and you don’t even need a permit!