In the early 19th century, the state of New York outlawed slavery. They emancipated the slaves but not all of them. There was a cut-off date in the law and, if you were born before that date, you would not be granted your freedom. I’d like to think this was born out of a paternalistic concern for older slaves who might to too old to work and make their way in a world of freedom. But nobody asked the slaves if they wanted the law written this way. There was a woman who was a slave in upstate New York – she was big and powerful and still had young children. She could not, however, prove her birthdate and her owners claimed she was born prior to the cut-off date. She could have accepted this news but she didn’t. Instead, she rejected her owner’s definition of her and, gathering up her children, walked off the farm and never looked back. She took a new name in freedom – Sojourner Truth. She went on to become an outspoken abolitionist and feminist arguing for not only the abolition of slavery but also for the suffrage of women. She lived long enough to see the first but did not live to see women, all women, get the right to vote. Sojourner rejected the definition others tried to put on her in favor of a new identity she was called to by God.
Who defines you? That might seem like a strange question but consider we do not leap from the womb with a fully formed personality and sense of identity. Our self-definition comes from the people around us and how we interact with them. Our lives are spent working out this definition – accepting some definitions and rejecting others. Who defines you? Both the Hebrew text from Esther and the Gospel reading from Mark address this question.
I’ve said I have a “love/hate” relationship with the lectionary and today is more the latter than former. This is the one and only time the book of Esther shows up in our lectionary! It’s as if the writers of the lectionary realized they had missed the wisdom literature so they have to put a smattering of it in … and we get the very end of the Book of Esther. Some of you know the story, but a good number don’t and quoting the end of the book is kind of like turning to the last chapter in an Agatha Christie novel to find out “who done it” rather than read the whole thing. So permit me to give you the Sparknotes version of Esther.
Many scholars question whether or not Esther was a real live human being. There is some belief this is a fictional work and there is evidence to suggest this. First, there is no corroborating evidence from other ancient Near East sources documenting a King Ahasuerus. Usually there are other sources that can cross reference nobility from other places. Second, the story line begins in a preposterous way. King Ahasuerus throws a big party and so does his wife Queen Vashti. He demands she come over to his party so he can show her off and she refuses to come. There may be some good reason for this but the king overreacts and his advisors tell him if word gets out all the women in the kingdom will disobey their husbands … the whole thing gets out of hand and Vashti is banished – a pretty extreme response and not very kingly. Then the advisors decide to hold a beauty contest to choose a new wife for the king. There is nothing in ancient Near East literature to suggest this was the way any queen was chosen! So, you see there’s a comic element going on here.
Mordecai, a Jew in exile, puts forth his niece Esther as a contestant in the beauty contest and she wins. She hides her true identity from the king and his advisors, which include the notorious Haman. Now Haman is a “Snidely Whiplash” kind of villain – the kind who tries to undo his nemesis Mordecai and every time he does, it backfires on him. Today we hear about the final backfire – Haman has determined to annihilate the Jews and Queen Esther reveals her true identity to save her people. The very gallows Haman built to hand Mordecai becomes his own death sentence. In the end, we hear of the decree to observe the 14th & 15th of Adar as a feast to remember Queen Esther revealing her true self to save her people – and the Jewish people celebrate this as Purim by eating cookies known as Hamantaschen or “Haman’s pockets.”
The Gospel reading also is about identity and who defines it. John begins by telling Jesus the saw someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name and the disciples told him to stop because he wasn’t part of their group! Jesus essentially tells them to quit protecting his brand identity and recognize that anyone who does a work of power in Jesus’ name cannot remain an enemy of theirs. “Whoever is not against us is for us.”
But there is a subtext in how Mark is telling this story. This vignette comes on the heels of the conversation about who is the greatest. In the days when the Gospels were written, there were a lot of little communities springing up around the Jesus movement and there were a great variety of understandings of who Jesus was and what his life, death and resurrection meant. This is long before the Nicene Creed was written or any of the church councils convened. So there’s rivalry between the Jesus groups about which ones are the “real Christians” and who are the posers. Mark is addressing this controversy by weaving the story the way he does. John and the disciples are presuming to define the other person and essentially say his ministry in the name of Jesus is not legit. Jesus responds by saying it isn’t important whether they are part of “our group” or not – what counts is doing the things Jesus told us to do.
We still do this as Christians today, don’t we? Various groups define themselves by defining others with rules of exclusion. The most obvious issue that comes to mind is Eucharistic practice – who gets to receive the Eucharist at any given church? Some Christians practice closed Communion where only their members can receive. I’m not just speaking of the Roman Catholic Church – the Orthodox Churches, Missouri and Wisconsin Synod Lutherans, and some Baptists also practice closed Communion. Who defines who can receive is an example of defining one’s self over against another.
Episcopalians do this too … but in a more subtle way. Sometimes we can get to thinking we are “all that and a bag of chips” and believe that we have the best music and most beautiful liturgical practices. Again, that’s defining ourselves at the expense of other Christians – and Jesus says when we do that we are wrong. Anytime we define ourselves by putting our foot on someone else’s neck, we are not embodying the Gospel.
So who defines you and where do we make the error of defining another at their expense? The truth is there is only one identity which matters to us. It’s our identity as “child of God” … and even more than that: “beloved child of God.” Our human tendency towards striving to be special and set apart is nothing more than vanity and ego. The truth is our best and greatest identity is found in God and being claimed in Baptism as Christ’s own forever. Beloved children of God is who we really are – and that is enough.
His name was Aylan Kurdi. He was three years old. If he had lived in the United States, or the UK, Japan, Australia or Western Europe, he might have been starting preschool right about now. Instead, his lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach this week. Aylan, his mother and 5 year old brother all drowned at sea trying to escape the violence in Syria. This picture struck hearts around the world. Over 4 million people have fled not only the Syrian civil war but also the threat of ISIS and their recruiting of children as soldiers. When one embarks on the open ocean in a small boat or enters the back of a tractor trailer truck for transport it is for one reason: staying where you are is more frightening than taking your chances on leaving. It is estimated there are over 4 million people of Syrian origin who have fled the country and that 25% of all refugees worldwide are Syrian. And this isn’t a foreign thing to us here at Grace Church. Our friend Abed who owns the Potomac Street Grill, is from Syria and still has family there.
The response of the world to this crisis has been mixed. Turkey has already resettled 1.6 million Syrian refugees. Jordan has been flooded with them too. But European countries and the United States have been slow to respond. The official word from the Icelandic government last week was that they could accommodate 50 refugees … 50. Seriously Iceland … 50?
This week’s gospel reading shows us a similar desperation and a very rude response by Jesus. In the village of Tyre, which is located in modern day Lebanon and just west of the Syrian border, Jesus enters a house and is hoping not to be discovered. But when word gets out, a Syrophoenician woman comes and throws herself at his feet in humble prostration to beg him to heal her daughter of a demon. Jesus responds in a manner which is shocking: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” That’s right … he not only refused, he called her a dog.
There are scholars who want to refine and clean up Jesus’ intentions and words here. They will tell you this was just a case of Jesus testing the woman’s faith. I’m not buying that. I’m not buying that primarily because it doesn’t do justice to the text or to Jesus. I have trouble believing that the Son of God, who has shown mercy to others, is going to proverbially kick this woman when she is down. That posits a God who is sadistic and cruel – one just waiting for us to be in a vulnerable position so he can stick it to us and test our faith. I rather can find myself understanding this through the lens of Jesus as fully human. If we look at the progression in the Gospel of Mark, we cannot understand his response to the Syrophoenician woman as a typical response to a Gentile in need. Two chapters ago, we heard the story of Jesus healing the Gerasene demoniac in the region of the Decapolis. He didn’t have a problem healing him … so why this response to this woman in particular?
I think Mark gives us a clue at the beginning of the reading. “Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” Why would he leave Galilee and go to the ancient land of Phoenicia? Perhaps, he wanted to get away from the demands of his ministry. He needed a break. He was exhausted. I don’t know about you, but when I’m exhausted, I get a little cranky. Who knows? Maybe his blood sugar was low too! No matter … he didn’t want to be detected for a reason – he likely needed a break. But that was not to be and I think we can gauge the difference in Jesus’ interactions with the Gerasene demoniac and this woman by who initiated the contact. If you recall, the Gerasene demoniac ran up to Jesus, bowed down before him and the legion of demons begged Jesus to be left alone … because Jesus had tried to cast out the demons. From the way Mark tells this story, it appears that Jesus is choosing to engage with the demon possessed man. The man does not ask for anything but to be left alone. In contrast, the Syrophoenician woman makes a demand on Jesus asking for her daughter to be healed. She might not have asked for herself – but a desperate mother will do anything, even endure humiliation, for the sake of her child. Jesus is not in control of this encounter – she has been the agent of action on him not the other way around like it was with the demoniac. She has inconvenienced him and intruded on his private time and he responds rudely. Notice too, that after she gives her retort, Jesus ends the encounter abruptly: “For saying that, you may go - the demon has left your daughter.” This is no Hallmark moment and Jesus doesn’t commend her faith or say anything to her other than her desire had been granted. He still seems a bit cranky.
I think it no coincidence that Jesus has a similar encounter with the man who is deaf and mute. He returns to the Decapolis and “they brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him.” Who are “they?” Honestly, we don’t know, but now we hear a group (they) are begging Jesus to heal another person. The word begging is link here – both “they” and the Syrophoenician woman beg Jesus on behalf of another. This time Jesus complies and in one of three points in Mark’s Gospel, we hear Jesus speak in his native language of Aramaic: Ephaphtha! Be opened!
It seems to me these two stories together are telling us something of the nature of ministry and of Jesus’ growing understand of who he is. Rather than clean up Jesus and make excuses for him, I’d rather hold that Jesus did not come into his ministry having all the details worked out. Unlike Athena who sprang fully formed from the mind of Zeus, Jesus is human and his own self-awareness and understanding of what it means to be Son of Man and Son of God is evolving in his own lifetime. He knew the prophesies about Messiah coming to the Children of Israel, but he didn’t quite realize until this encounter that the world, the others beyond his own people, would come to him and yes, make demands of him. He realizes he cannot control when or where the needs of others will arise and when and where he will need to respond. Ephaphtha, to be opened, is a statement not only for the deaf man’s ears and tongue, but also of Jesus’ heart to embrace a new understanding of what the demands of a hurting world will place at his feet.
This is also true for each and every one of us. Today’s admonition from James reminds us that faith without works is dead. Turning a blind eye when the needs are in front of you does not honor God and makes our faith a sham. The Gospel shows the demands of a hurting world are not always going to show up when it is convenient for us. They will come at us when we are tired and cranky – when we believe we have nothing left. It is in these moments where we are called to remember it is not ourselves we proclaim and it is not the power merely within us that will respond but that God will supply what we need to act. Our call is to be opened, ephaphtha! Be ready to see the need and respond.
The Icelandic people did just that this week. After their government said they could only take 50 refugees from Syria, two people went onto Facebook and called Icelanders to action. “Who knows? We might be welcoming your next doctor, or a baker, or a drummer for your band!” Over 10,000 Icelanders heard the call and promised to open their homes, provide for the needs of the refugees, teach them their language, help them with jobs – whatever it took to help their sisters and brothers in need. This is the Christian response! This is being opened to the possibilities in faith instead of fear. This is what we are called to do and to be for the sake of the world … and the next Aylan.
Kim Davis, the court clerk of Rowan County Kentucky, has been making news since the Supreme Court decided that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment also applied to marriage equality for same sex couples. She’s the court clerk who refuses to issue marriage licenses for same sex couples because of her understanding of how the Bible views same sex relationships. She holds very conservative Christian beliefs and I support her right to her biblical interpretation. However, as an elected government official, she is to uphold the law not the Bible. She is now seeking an “asylum for her conscience” to allow her to continue to deny same sex couples marriage licenses because of her deeply held religious beliefs and she’s arguing it under First Amendment guarantee of the free exercise of religion. Of course, that’s only half of what the First Amendment says about religion. The other half of that is commonly known as the “establishment clause” which states Congress will make no law establishing a religion as an official religion. In essence, she wants protection under half of the First Amendment and the right to ignore that her actions are, in fact, an attempt to establish her form of Christianity as the law of the land for anyone who doesn’t share her beliefs. I think she has an uphill battle in the courts.
There’s a spiritually more troubling aspect to Kim Davis’ claim to her Christian faith. While spouting her Christian beliefs, she doesn’t seem to want to accept that her beliefs just might require her to sacrifice something for them. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll restate the fact that I completely support her right to hold her beliefs. I don’t share those beliefs but they are just that – beliefs. She is entitled to hold them but holding those beliefs comes with a price – a price she seems to not be willing to pay. These beliefs may come at the price of her job or even jail time. But instead of standing for her sincerely held beliefs and giving up her job, she appears to rather expect same sex couples to bear the sacrifice of her belief system. That would be like Jesus telling his followers to go out and get crucified for him instead of laying down his life for us. There are plenty of Christians who seem to think their faith should cost them nothing at all – not even an inconvenience let alone a real sacrifice.
James exhorts us today to “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” He is calling us to not just give our faith lip service but to make it count in our actions. Sometimes those actions require us to make sacrifices to be true to the Gospel. Jesus confronts the scribes and Pharisees with the truth that outward practices are not what make us clean or unclean – that what goes on in the heart determines this. If pious practices exist only for show and do not result in the conversion of heart God wants, they are meaningless. If you go through the motions but never experience conversion and never sacrifice anything for the sake of the Gospel then you are not a follower of Jesus but rather an admirer.
19th century Danish poet, theologian, philosopher and social critic Søren Kierkegaard spoke of this in a piece entitled “Followers Not Admirers.” In it, he sharply defines the difference as follows:
It is well known that Christ consistently used the expression “follower.” He never asks for admirers, worshippers, or adherents. No, he calls disciples. It is not adherents of a teaching but followers of a life Christ is looking for.
Christ understood that being a “disciple” was in innermost and deepest harmony with what he said about himself. Christ claimed to be the way and the truth and the life (John 14:6). For this reason, he could never be satisfied with adherents who accepted his teaching - especially with those who in their lives ignored it or let things take their usual course. His whole life on earth, from beginning to end, was destined solely to have followers and to make admirers impossible.
Christ came into the world with the purpose of saving not instructing it. At the same time - as is implied in his saving work - he came to be the pattern, to leave footprints for the person who would join him, who would become a follower. This is why Christ was born and lived and died in lowliness. It is absolutely impossible for anyone to sneak away from the Pattern with excuse and evasion on the basis that It, after all, possessed earthly and worldly advantages that he did not have. In that sense, to admire Christ is the false invention of a later age, aided by the presumption of “loftiness.” No, there is absolutely nothing to admire in Jesus, unless you want to admire poverty, misery, and contempt.
What then, is the difference between an admirer and a follower? A follower is or strives to be what he admires. An admirer, however, keeps himself personally detached. He fails to see that what is admired involves a claim upon him, and thus he fails to be or strive to be what he admires.
To want to admire instead of to follow Christ is not necessarily an invention by bad people. No, it is more an invention by those who spinelessly keep themselves detached, who keep themselves at a safe distance. Admirers are related to the admired only through the excitement of the imagination. To them he is like an actor on the stage except that, this being real life, the effect he produces is somewhat stronger. But for their part, admirers make the same demands that are made in the theater: to sit safe and calm. Admirers are only all too willing to serve Christ as long as proper caution is exercised, lest one personally come in contact with danger. As such, they refuse to accept that Christ's life is a demand. In actual fact, they are offended at him. His radical, bizarre character so offends them that when they honestly see Christ for who he is, they are no longer able to experience the tranquility they so much seek after. They know full well that to associate with him too closely amounts to being up for examination. Even though he "says nothing" against them personally, they know that his life tacitly judges theirs.
And Christ's life indeed makes it manifest, terrifyingly manifest, what dreadful untruth it is to admire the truth instead of following it. When there is no danger, when there is a dead calm, when everything is favorable to our Christianity, it is all too easy to confuse an admirer with a follower. And this can happen very quietly. The admirer can be in the delusion that the position he takes is the true one, when all he is doing is playing it safe. Give heed, therefore, to the call of discipleship!
Kierkegaard goes on to speak of both Judas and Nicodemus as admirers of Jesus who made no sacrifice and took little to no risk for his sake. He concludes his reflection as follows:
Now suppose that there is no longer any special danger, as it no doubt is in so many of our Christian countries, bound up with publicly confessing Christ. Suppose there is no longer need to journey in the night. The difference between following and admiring - between being, or at least striving to be – still remains. Forget about this danger connected with confessing Christ and think rather of the real danger which is inescapably bound up with being a Christian. Does not the Way – Christ's requirement to die to the world, to forgo the worldly, and his requirement of self-denial – does this not contain enough danger? If Christ's commandment were to be obeyed, would they not constitute a danger? Would they not be sufficient to manifest the difference between an admirer and a follower?
The difference between an admirer and a follower still remains, no matter where you are. The admirer never makes any true sacrifices. He always plays it safe. Though in words, phrases, songs, he is inexhaustible about how highly he prizes Christ, he renounces nothing, gives up nothing, will not reconstruct his life, will not be what he admires, and will not let his life express what it is he supposedly admires. Not so for the follower. No, no. The follower aspires with all his strength, with all his will to be what he admires. And then, remarkably enough, even though he is living amongst a "Christian people” the same danger results for him as was once the case when it was dangerous to openly confess Christ. And because of the follower's life, it will become evident who the admirers are, for the admirers will become agitated with him. Even that these words are presented as they are here will disturb many - but then they must likewise belong to the admirers.
Christianity without conversion, without sacrifice, is play acting at discipleship. We’re not called to lofty play acting – we are called to follow.
The Rev. Eric Folkerth, a Methodist pastor in Dallas, Texas, posted the following question on his wall last night: “President Carter is 90-years-plus, suffering from Stage 4 Melanoma, recovering from chemo-treatment on Thursday, and intent on teaching his Sunday School class tomorrow morning. So, remind me again, what’s your excuse for missing church?” Yeah … mic drop! Phyllis Tickle, the Episcopal lay woman and prolific writer, is 84 years old and in hospice care for terminal lung cancer. She’s stated her intention to write about the experience of dying and how she sees it as the next adventure. Nelson Mandela held to his Christian faith and conviction in the evils of Apartheid when jailed for so many years. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has been battling recurrent infections yet even in his hospital room, he welcomed visitors, prayed and shared Eucharist with them. What makes these people approach hardships, illness, suffering and death with such commitment to their faith? Sure, some will say it’s because they are famous that makes them different. I don’t buy that … because they are all just like you and me. They are real people in real situations. What makes some stick with their faith in Christ when the going gets tough while others bail out? Today’s gospel reading is a reflection of this contrast.
Today we finally come to the end of our protracted readings of the 6th chapter of John. It’s been a long six weeks, at least for me as your preacher! This all began with the feeding of the 5,000 and led into Jesus calling himself the Bread of Life and stating whoever “eats me” will live forever. In this discourse he’s run up against the crowd who doesn’t seem to understand but asks questions nonetheless, the Jewish authorities who push back, and today we hear of a third group: “many of his disciples.”
Jesus’ language is provocative and even offensive in challenging long held taboos within the Jewish religious system. He really means this “eat my flesh” and “drink my blood” stuff! He’s not kidding around! Ewww! People are now very disturbed by him. Now, his many of his disciples can’t take it anymore. “This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?” Jesus then ups the ante with reference to the Son of Man ascending to where he was before and tells them that some of them do not believe … and so they turn away and leave. They bail out. Now Jesus turns to the twelve and asks them, “Do you want to leave too?” And Peter replies, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
This contrast between the disciples who bailed out and the ones who stayed has intrigued me this week. What makes the difference? I don’t think it was that the twelve had more faith. Let’s face it, when the chips will come down later and this all becomes a matter of life and death at the cross, even these twelve will bail out. But why did they not take offense and walk away when the teaching became difficult?
I think part of the difference lies in the spiritual state of these two groups of believers. One element is the spiritual gift of humility – that recognition that I have limits, my knowledge is imperfect, and there’s always something new to experience and learn so that I might grow. If we get to a place where the teachings and life of Jesus seem easy or that “we got this,” then we are not experiencing humility at all. If we take these teachings seriously, they are hard! They will ask us to give up all kinds of things, even deeply held beliefs. If one lacks humility, there is nothing to be learned and challenging teachings become something offensive to which we will rebel and leave.
Another characteristic of the group which stayed is persistence or perseverance. There is a gift of persevering and persistence they seem to have. This doesn’t mean they won’t fail (they most certainly will), but in the words we say at the AA meetings, they “keep comin’ back” because “it works if you work it.” They know their faith is an action not a possession and they need to work that faith to make it real. This requires persistence, especially when things get hard and there is a temptation to quit.
Humility and perseverance are the foundations of growth in the Spirit and living the Christian life. They are the foundations for living a life marked by falling and failing, forgiving and seeking forgiveness, reconciling and healing. They are the spiritual gifts which mark the difference between the followers of Jesus and those who are fans. Fans of Jesus are content to sit on the sidelines and applaud but when the going gets tough and their faith makes demands, they bail out. Followers make sacrifices, persevere and pray with humility knowing they don’t have it all together. Followers know deep down there is nowhere else to go – that Jesus has the words of eternal life.
What the lives of Jimmy Carter, Phyllis Tickle, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu reflect are those Christian virtues of perseverance and humility. Each of them faced, or are facing, hard truths of life and death – the same hard realities we face too. But their consistent practice of faith – not just lip service but really practicing it within community – carried them to that place where they could face the end of their days with gentleness and confidence is the promises made by Jesus Christ. They are followers of Jesus, not just fans. This isn’t something super human and beyond us. The virtues of humility and perseverance are available to you and to me and help us to become true followers of our Lord Jesus Christ. As we eat the bread of life and drink from the cup of salvation, may we become what we receive and be imbued with humility and perseverance to run the race set before us as faithful followers of Christ.
Have you ever offended somebody? I did … once … a day … at the minimum. Not because I was trying to offend people. I really don’t get up in the morning and think, “Who can I offend today?” But one of the consequences of being ordained is that we have to preach and live an unpopular message. We are called to preach the Gospel which, while it technically means “good news,” it isn’t received as “good news” by everyone. It still challenges our comfortable world view by telling us to let go of our egos, our need to control and dominate, and our possessions. Its message is still offensive and lucky me (and every other pastor), we get to be the messengers.
We are continuing the saga of the Feeding of the 5,000 and its aftermath this week. We still have a few more weeks of this story so hang in there. It’s a challenge for preachers because how much can you say about bread and how long can you milk that? But I suppose the writers of the lectionary put it in August because they knew people would be on vacation and not likely attending every week … so the congregation won’t feel as inundated by bread as the preacher will!
Today we hear that “the Jews” are complaining, in Greek “grumbling”, among themselves about Jesus’ statement “I am the bread of life” and “I am the bread which came down from heaven.” The story is beginning to take an antagonistic turn. If you remember last week, the crowd who followed Jesus to Capernaum after the feeding episode were asking him questions: “What must we do to do the works of God?” and “What sign will you give us?” Now “the Jews” are beginning to attack the motives of the messenger – or at least his credentials. “Who does he think he is? We know he’s Joe the Carpenter’s kid!”
I want to pause here to clarify John’s usage of the term “the Jews.” Sadly, this has been construed in our Christian history to be an anti-Semitic polemic and was used to justify persecution of Jewish people. John is a product of his context and he uses two terms to refer to the people: “the crowd” and “the Jews.” Let’s be clear, “the crowd” were Jews! Who else would they be? But John here is referring to the peasant Jewish people – the working class Jews who were engaging Jesus. When John uses the term “the Jews,” he is referring to the religious leadership (the Pharisees, Sadducees, and temple priesthood) who stood in opposition to Jesus’ message. So when you hear John using these terms “the crowd” and “the Jews,” realize that he is drawing a line between Jews with religious and political power and those who don’t have that power.
So it is clear Jesus is offending the religious leadership who just cannot figure out how some ordinary guy can now claim to have come down from heaven. I mean, if you think about it, it is an audacious claim, isn’t it? Especially if you had grown up with him! You knew his family and friend. You saw him skin his knees and remember when his voice changed and got all squeaky. I mean … he’s just an ordinary guy! So the grumbling begins and they are taking offense.
It’s still hard to believe this, isn’t it? This ordinary carpenter’s kid living an ordinary life but telling us something of God that is extraordinary: simply the fact that God uses the ordinary to accomplish the extraordinary. This is still an audacious claim and we live it out every single week here at Grace. We claim and give our hearts to see ordinary bread and ordinary wine becoming the Body and Blood of Christ in our own midst. We claim the water of Baptism destroys Sin’s power over us … but it is plain old tap water from Brunswick! We even have to run the faucet to get the rust out of the pipes … that’s how ordinary it is. The Oil of Unction through which we trust the Spirit of God to bring healing and wholeness to our broken bodies and spirits … it’s Colavita olive oil … how ordinary. All of these things are ordinary, but God infuses them with the extraordinary so that we are strengthened and drawn closer to Christ. And if it is true for bread, wine, water and oil, so much more so is it true for me and for you.
We too are very ordinary: ordinary people living ordinary lives. Yet, through the sacraments and our community here, Christ is truly present. Through the ordinary elements of the sacraments, God empowers us as ordinary people to be the extraordinary presence of Christ in a hurting world who needs to experience the Gospel now more than ever. We ordinary people are infused and empowered to continue the extraordinary work of healing and reconciling in the name of Christ. It is an audacious and remarkable claim made on our lives by the Living God and if it is true for bread, wine, water and oil … how much more so is it for you and for me?
I met a man when I was living in Orange County who was raised an Orthodox Jew in Chicago. His father was a kosher butcher and during the Great Depression, he worked for his father as a delivery boy taking customers’ orders to them on bicycle. During that time in many ethnic neighborhoods, word got around about families in need and their local grocers and butchers either carried them on credit or sometimes food would just show up (my great-uncle did the same for his Italian community as a grocer in San Francisco). He shared with me about how his father planned to help a particular family in need by doing a mitzvah. The word mitzvah means “commandment” and it is generally seen as the keeping of the Law; but in particular it speaks of acts of kindness and generosity done for others. A mitzvah, at its altruistic best, is done in secret – hence Jesus’ admonition of not letting the right hand know what the left is doing when giving alms to the poor. So this man’s father would give him all the deliveries for his Friday and an extra bundle of meat to be put in the bottom of his pack. That last bundle was to be delivered to this one particular family and his cover for this was to tell them there had been a mistake on an order and that he had been given too much that day; however, since it was so close to sundown, he had no way of getting back to the butcher shop in time to put the meat away and still make it home in time for Shabbat. “It would be a blessing to me if you would take this meat, otherwise it would spoil,” he was to say. Now you know the family could see through that ruse, but it was a way to preserve dignity in a very hard time. Well, after a while the father of this household in need found gainful employment and, one day, my friend walked in on him at the butcher shop with money in hand trying to pay for the “extra bundles” and “father’s mistakes” for the time he was unemployed. My friend’s father was irate: “I will not take your money! You will take away my mitzvah!!” My friend never learned the outcome of that argument … he felt it best to leave while he had a chance.
I recalled this story as I looked at today’s readings because the giving of gift and what we do with gifts appears as a subtext in all of the stories. What is it about the receiving of gifts that is so difficult? Sure, there are specific gift giving occasions when one expects them that don’t seem to bother us much: days like Christmas, birthdays, and anniversaries. But what about unexpected gifts – how do we feel about them? If we are honest, they are a bit unsettling aren’t they? Unexpected gifts signal a shift in the dynamics of a relationship.
Unexpected gifts are often a sign of intimacy and connection between people. They can signify a deepening of a relationship and, while that can be wonderful, it does change the dynamics. Temporarily at least, when one receives an unexpected gift, they are in a vulnerable position vis a vis the giver of the gift. Gift giving creates an asymmetry in the relational dynamics and it’s hard to be the vulnerable one – and even harder to admit to feeling vulnerable. And this is where our reaction to being on the receiving end of a gift can take several turns.
One reaction is to start wondering what we have to do to reciprocate. Receiving a gift can make us feel obligated to give something back, right? Or it may make us wonder what we have to do to “deserve” it. It can feel like there are strings attached. Another reaction is to question the motives of the giver. Now we don’t always do that to their face, but the little voice in our head may be wondering about the meaning behind giving this gift. Yet another response is to accept the gift with an attitude of entitlement – of course I should get gifts, because I already deserve it. One way or another, these responses are attempts to rebalance the disquietude felt within us when we are on that vulnerable receiving end of a gracious gift given.
Our readings today speak of gifts and the reactions of those on the receiving end. Our Hebrew text from 2nd Samuel is a follow up to the terrible incident of David’s coveting Bathsheba to the point of having sexual relations with her causing her pregnancy and to cover up his sin, David arranges for the death of her husband Uriah the Hittite. Nathan the prophet is tasked with confronting David with his sin of covetousness. After giving David the analogy of the rich and poor man, Nathan speaks of how God has been so generous with David and how much he has been given. It is said in scripture that David had 300 wives and concubines … apparently he thought he needed one more! David had cultivated an attitude that he deserved what had been given and this entitled him to take whatever he wanted whenever he wanted. His response to having received so much was to take even more.
The writer of Ephesians speaks of us being given gifts for ministry to equip the saints. It is not uncommon for people to feel like they don’t have spiritual gifts. We’ve had this conversation in our Tuesday Bible study recently. But if we view all that we are and all that we have as gift, then we see that our talents and aptitudes have the capacity to build up the kingdom of God. We can often be dismissive in claiming our gifts which is another way of rebalancing the asymmetry of the relationship with God. If I can minimize or deny my gifts, I won’t be called upon to use them. In some ways, I think we fear using our gifts because we fear failure; but if we trust in God, we will often find that which looks like failure ends up being the very thing which God uses to touch others. In other words, the use of our gifts and the outcome thereof are not our works alone – it’s not all up to us!
This week’s Gospel reading is the “extended dance version” of the story of the Feeding of the 5,000 in John. This is the only miracle story which clearly is the same in all four Gospels, but John really expands the narrative. Why? John’s gospel lacks a narrative of the Last Supper insofar as the sharing of bread and wine at the meal – the institution of the Eucharist as we know it. John tells of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. I suppose we can be thankful we have more than just John’s gospel or we’d be washing feet every Sunday … talk about a gift that makes people uncomfortable! It is believed that John uses the Feeding of the 5,000 story to speak of the Eucharist rather than doing it in the context of the Last Supper. Last week you heard that Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it – the four acts of the Eucharist. Today we hear it is the next day and the crowd has figured out Jesus made his getaway to Capernaum. They follow him there and when they find him Jesus pointedly says they didn’t come because of signs but because they got a “free lunch” yesterday. He urges them to seek more than just food which perishes. Notice what their reaction is to the unexpected gift of both the free meal and his invitation – “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Or, “what do we have to do” in exchange for what you’ve offered. The crowd is disquieted by the asymmetry of their relationship to Jesus. His response is to believe in him – to give their hearts to his ministry and message. A simple request, but not so easy for them or us. The crowd still is uncomfortable with this answer and so demands a sign from him. Really? Um … yesterday 5,000 of you got fed off of five loaves and two fish … remember? Apparently, they quickly forget and now begin to question the credentials of the giver by telling him “Hey, that’s nice and all but Moses fed our ancestors with manna in the wilderness … what makes you different?” Jesus’ response is to remind them that God was the originator of that gift of manna, not Moses, and that Jesus not only gave them food in the wilderness yesterday, but he gives himself to them completely as the bread of life. He gives more than bread … he gives his very life for them and for us … and every time we gather at this table, Jesus gives himself again and again. This gift continues and is beyond any price.
That’s where it can get a bit uncomfortable for us. We cannot do anything to earn the gift of the Eucharist. Don’t get me wrong, the Eucharist does move us to action born out of our gratitude to take the gospel into the world in our words and deeds. But it isn’t something we can earn by being good little boys and girls or by any action of our own. It is not something we can control nor is it something to which we are entitled. It is free gift and grace and it will make us vulnerable and it will make us uncomfortable.
The only stance we have left is to receive this gift in complete humility. To let go of any pretense that we deserve it or earned it and place our vulnerable selves at the foot of this altar, in the presence of the living Bread which has come down from heaven to give life to us and to the whole world.
Sister Maggie and Suzy Roche collaborated on an album about 15 years ago entitled “Zero Church.” Strange name, I know, but its title comes from the address of the building where they were working. They began working on in and in the midst of their process, the attacks of 9/11 happened. The project took a different turn and, in collaboration with other artists, the music was a compilation of grieving, lament, and hope. On the album they set a Jewish poem by Zelda to a haunting tune. The poem was entitled “Each of Us Has a Name.” It speaks of the various names we carry in our lives and in our death. This poem reminds me of the Name Project – the quilt which was created in memory of those who died of AIDS, especially in the first wave of deaths in the 1980’s and early 1990’s.
I realize now we have young people gathered here today who may not even know about the Names quilt. It is exhibited in smaller panels now in various places and you can look up the panels online to see them. In the early days of the epidemic, the panels were largely for gay men but as the disease spread through the blood supply, people outside the gay community were affected – hemophiliacs, intravenous drug users, prostitutes, straight men and women who had been infected by intimate partners. The Names Project brought light to the scourge of HIV but also allowed us to see these people as something other than the single name of “AIDS death” – we saw them as more as their names were restored.
One panel is for a man who was a botanist – his specialty was bamboo and orchids. He worked in landscape design and even created an exhibit for the Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park called “The Forest in the Clouds” made up of bamboo and orchids. His name was James and yes, he was gay. He died of AIDS as did his partner in the first wave. His quilt panel, three feet by six feet (the size of a human coffin), has bamboo, orchids and clouds on it. On each cloud is hand stitched quotes from the letters his mother received upon his death. The one that choked me up was written by a 5 year old girl named Erin. “I am sorry Mr. Jim died. He was my friend even though I am a little girl.” It was written on Snoopy stationary. His quilt panel restored part of his identity to him. How do I know this? Well, I did not know James in life, but I designed that quilt square and my mother made it for his mother to add to the names. Each of us has a name.
Today’s story from the Gospel of Mark is about two women – one young and one old. One who is known only as the “daughter of Jairus” and the other named by her malady – “the woman with a hemorrhage.” Outside the immediate family of Jesus the disciples and the main characters representing the power structure (Herod, Pilate), most people are mentioned by their other names – names surrounding their roles (chief priest, scribe) or their maladies (the man with the withered hand, the paralytic on the mat, the hemorrhaging woman). Both women in this text are bound by the span of 12 years – for one the span of her life and the other the span of her social exile. The woman with the hemorrhage likely had a gynecological illness for which there really was no cure in her day. This bleeding was seen by rabbinic law as making her, and anything she touched, defiled and unclean. So by this law, she was socially dead – she was not to touch anything or anyone. She was desperate to get her life back and spent all her money on doctors who could do nothing. She had nothing to lose when she saw Jesus.
In desperation, she slips through the crowd following Jesus to the home of Jairus. She says, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But when you are desperate, you’ll do anything no matter how crazy it sounds. Immediately she was healed and in the same instance, Jesus detects something has happened. There’s been a disturbance in the “Force” – power has gone out of him. He whirls around to see what happened and who touched him – the disciples can’t believe he’s asking that question, but Jesus is undeterred. He will not go forward until he finds out.
Imagine the terror of the woman. She knows she has ritually defiled this man! She knows he could retaliate against her! She had nothing to lose but to be called out. She falls on her face in front of him in terror and blurts out “the whole truth.” Jesus does not get angry or rebuke her or humiliate her. He gives her back her name: “Daughter!” “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” She transforms in this instant from the woman with a hemorrhage to … daughter. Each of us has a name.
Too often, the names we carry are given by others and by our circumstances. Some of the names are relational – daughter, son, wife, husband, father, mother, sister, brother – but others are not. The person who suffers from illness can find themselves named by it: alcoholic, drug addict, anorexic, mentally ill. A person might be named ugly, pretty, fat, skinny based on cultural standards of attractiveness. We even name people as a “success” or a “failure” – and those are the names I can mention. Some names are meaner and more vilifying – meant to destroy the image of God in us. Each of us has a name.
Yesterday, a number of us from Grace attending Frederick Pride – the fourth such event and I’m happy to say we have been there as a church since day one. Prior to the event on Carroll Creek, there was a Pride worship service at Grace UCC. Our speaker was The Rev. Allyson Robinson. She is the first transgendered female Baptist pastor in the world. Now wrap your mind around those four names: transgendered, female, Baptist and pastor. Not names you would generally expect to find in the same sentence, let alone describing one person. She preached a message of reconciliation and peace in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to allow same-sex couples to marry in all 50 states. She spoke of this journey as a battle – for that it surely was for the LGBTQ community and straight allies. But she now called us to put down the “weapons of battle” for tools of reconciliation. She quoted, not from the majority opinion written by Justice Kennedy, but from a dissenting opinion written by Justice Alito. She asked us to hear not the anger but the fear in it. Fear is what those who once oppressed now have because human history is filled with stories of how the oppressed, when the tide of opinion turns, become oppressors themselves. She exhorted us to be peacemakers rather than succumb to being oppressors. A powerful message of reconciliation from one who has a name: Christian.
Each of us has a name – a true name and identity in God. That name is “beloved child.” Too often, the names of the hurts and the wounds can drown out that real name and we are like the woman with the hemorrhage – desperate to find healing from those other names which would steal our real identity. All of us have those wounded places, those names which have claimed us and which we find confining. Like the woman with the hemorrhage who becomes “daughter” again, all of us can reach out to touch the garments of the living Christ. What does that mean? It depends on what you need. For the alcoholic struggling in recovery, it might mean one more round of rehab. Last week, we had a speaker at our recovery Eucharist who told us he went through 12 rounds of rehab and multiple jail terms to finally break his alcohol and crack addiction. He kept grabbing for Jesus’ garments, even when he didn’t know that was what he was doing, and now has serenity and sobriety one day at a time. For the person with an illness, it may be trying a new treatment option to improve the quality of life. For someone who lost their job, it may be reaching out for gainful employment. For someone who flunked a class, it may mean reaching out to try again or find another path. Each time we reach out to touch the garments of Christ, we stretch a little more. Each time we do, something of our identity gets restored. We know we cannot save ourselves, but reaching for the garments is the faith response to the grace offered by God in Christ. The grace is there but we have to reach out in faith to connect with it. Reaching for the garments of Jesus is how we can respond to the grace – it’s how we are drawn to it. In so doing, we get back our real identity, our real name … “beloved child.” Each of us has a name.
Each of us has a name - by Zelda (Translation by Marcia Falk)
Each of us has a name
given by God
and given by our parents
Each of us has a name
given by our stature and our smile
and given by what we wear
Each of us has a name
given by the mountains
and given by our walls
Each of us has a name
given by the stars
and given by our neighbors
Each of us has a name
given by our sins
and given by our longing
Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love
Each of us has a name
given by our celebrations
and given by our work
Each of us has a name
given by the seasons
and given by our blindness
Each of us has a name
given by the sea
and given by
“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Those words have been echoing in my mind and heart this week – especially after the murder of nine of God’s beloved children in Charleston. Nine children of God targeted because of the color of their skin. Nine children of God whom the shooter admits almost made him not do it – because they were so nice. But he did it. Dylann Roof, a young angry white man infected with the disease of racism, gunned down nine of God’s beloved because of the color of their skin. He was blinded to the content of their character. We are in the midst of a great and terrible storm of violence and we can feel like the disciples – our boat is being swamped and the storm is just too big. We are numb and fearful at the same time – and we are frozen in this numbness and fear.
It seems to me that part of our collective problem is we have misidentified the name of this storm. We are focusing on racism because these recent outbursts of violence are coalescing around our differences in skin color. But racism is not the name of this storm. It’s the symptom of a much deeper existential disease – a much more besetting sin. Until we can properly name it, we cannot even begin to pray for deliverance.
So what is the name of the storm? What is the underlying besetting sin? It comes down to one word – privilege. Privilege is the disease and it is undergirded by the deadly sins of pride and anger. Privilege is insidious precisely because when we have it, we cannot see it. Privilege sits in our blind spot as we participate with others who share privileged class and create systems to protect that privilege. Any threat to that privilege is met with reactivity and violence – and the blood of God’s murdered children attests to this.
This morning’s message is going to make you squirm – some of you much more so than others. What I ask of you this morning is to breathe through your discomfort today. I ask that when I speak today of things that make you defensive, and make no mistake you will get defensive, take a deep breath, let go of the need to be right or defend your privilege, and step into the humility needed to grow more like Christ. I entreat you to do as St. Benedict asks – open the ear of your heart and listen deeply today. I ask you on behalf of the children of God who are dying because the protection of privilege is turning into a matter of life and death.
Privilege is the setting up of some traits and characteristics as desirable and others as less than or even undesirable. It is human nature to do this and it is instinctual – part of our primitive brains. But as humans created in God’s image, we are more than just a collection of instincts and we operate with more than a reptilian brain. If we possess these desirable traits, we don’t reflect on them or how others who do not possess these same traits might be harmed by not having them. In our blindness, we create systems which continue to uphold and reinforce the privileged status and keep those without that privilege in their place.
You’ve probably heard it said that the wealthy operate by a different set of rules. That’s a statement commenting on the privilege of a high socio-economic status. Those of a high socio-economic status have largely influenced the tax structures and laws which have been made to preserve their privileged status (and not just in our country, but in others as well). This is an example of how one “privilege card” is used to create a system to benefit those who hold the same card.
Think of privilege as a hand of cards you have been dealt. You didn’t ask for this hand of cards – it was largely determined long before you were born. Theologian Walter Brueggemann spoke to our clergy conference a few years ago and said, “If you are straight, white and male in America, good for you! You won the genetic lottery.” And he’s right. While there are many other “privilege cards” in our hands, the storm of violence we are facing is really a battle fought on three major fronts over race, gender and sexual orientation. And God’s children are dying because of people who are bent on protecting their privileged status by any means necessary.
This past April, at the University of Mary Washington, Grace Mann was strangled to death. She was a member of Feminists United who dared to speak out about the sports teams on their college campus and how the young men were perpetuating a culture of sexual harassment with jokes about rape and violence against women. This included the use of social media to harass women, physical threats, assaults and rape. Grace was a part of the Feminists United group which called out the rugby team in particular. When the rugby team was suspended for performing a sexually demeaning chant at a party, Grace was targeted for retaliation. Reports say some members of the rugby team said it was time to “put the bitch in her place.” Steven Vander Briel, a former member of the rugby team, has been charged with her murder. The protection of the privilege card of gender killed another child of God.
Sexual orientation is another major front over which the issue of privilege is playing out. Gay bashing, trans violence, harassment of LGBT youth to the point of suicide, and the fight against same sex marriage are all designed to keep “those people in their place” – it is the defense of heterosexual privilege. If two people of the same sex want to get married, this isn’t going to “ruin marriage!” For crying out loud, straight couples have been screwing up marriage all by themselves – we don’t need any instructions on that. But in all seriousness, marriage as a legally protected status is imbued with privileges! And fearful people who don’t want that privilege challenged are fighting back.
Tragically, our own sacred texts become grounds for fodder in the protection of privilege. While we don’t hear it much today, the Bible was used to justify the enslavement of blacks – all the way back to when the first slaves came through the middle passage to Jamestown in 1619. The Bible’s texts have been used to keep women “in their place” and justify male dominance and privilege. I cannot tell you how many times I have been hit with the clobber passages from 1st Corinthians and 1st Timothy which out of context tell women they are not to speak in the assembly. Proof texting used to keep me “in my place” and under the thumb of men. I have news for anyone who tries that game – my place is anywhere God calls me … get over it! Our LGBT sisters and brothers get clobbered with Biblical proof texting too … all meant to reinforce and protect privilege.
“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” We are perishing. We are shedding blood over the protection of privilege and God’s beloved children are dying. We all have a hand of cards dealt and some carry more privilege points than others. But let me ask you this – what does the word “privilege” even mean in the Kingdom of God? It’s been said that if God had a refrigerator, all of our pictures would be on it. And I would add each of those pictures would have this caption: “My dear and beloved child.” So can there be privilege in God’s eyes? I suggest the answer is no … a resounding NO! It is in the realm of human eyes where privilege exists.
Now at this point, I know those of you holding lots of high value human privilege cards are really struggling. Don’t lie and say you aren’t … this is hard stuff. I know it is. I carry the high value privilege cards of race (white), sexual orientation (straight), socio-economic status (upper-middle class), education (advanced college degree), and others. I lack the privilege card of gender – and that has made me aware of this privilege problem. Red carpets are not rolled out for me like they are for you men – especially in a vocation like this where the preference for male clergy is still dominant although denied because we want to think we are progressive. I live in a world where I have had to navigate sexual street harassment, threats of physical violence, and even sexual assault. All of that behavior comes down to the protection of male privilege.
Now I know, the reaction of those of us carrying the privilege card is “but I’m not like that!” And very likely you are not. But in carrying that particular card of privilege, you participate (often unknowingly) in a system which is doing everything it can to protect the privilege. Your participation is most often silence. And this is where Jesus’ response to the storm helps inform us about what we can do. In response to the fearful disciples, Jesus rebukes the wind and the sea – “Peace! Be still!” and the storm ceases. The storm of privilege protecting violence can be stilled … but it will take more than one word. It will take many words and deeds over time. It will take those of us who hold the high value privilege cards to engage and call out those who are actively trying to protect their privilege. So where do we start? It can seem overwhelming. Let me suggest a course of action for you to take beginning this week.
First, in your prayer time this week, ask God to help reveal to you where you hold privilege in our society. I’ve given you a head start – if you are straight, white and male, you hold three cards. But there are others I’ve mentioned. Take an honest inventory of the desirable traits our culture values – how many do you have?
Second, with your inventory, ask God in prayer for the courage to engage and listen. Ask God for the gift of humility to enter into this process. This process needs a lot of humility to counter the disquietude and discomfort you will feel. I guarantee you will feel it … but like lancing a boil, it will feel better as you begin to heal from the wounds that privilege is inflicting on you. Even if you have privilege, you are wounded by it!
Third, pick one of your privilege cards and engage someone who does not carry that privilege card. This calls for you to “check your privilege” and listen deeply with the “ear of the heart.” Do it in small doses as it is hard work and when you engage someone without the privilege card you carry, they may be wary and reticent to talk about this with you. Be patient, take your time, build relationship, bridge the divide. Straight married guys? You have it built in … talk to your wives and daughters about the gender based harassment they are facing every single day.
Fourth, with an opening of your eyes and hearts to the problem of privilege, be attentive with a new consciousness about where it is happening and, when you hear or see acts of micro-aggression, call it out! That’s right – call it out. When you hold a privilege card and another person carrying the same card makes a comment or joke which reinforces that privileged status, call it out for what it is. Whether it’s racism, sexism, homophobia – call it out! If you remain silent, you are reinforcing and participating in the protection of your privilege. Call it out. Tell the other person their comment is not funny and hurtful to others. Expect push back … it will happen and often takes the form of telling you it was “just a joke” and “where’s your sense of humor?” When I get that, I just look them in the eye and say, “Oh I have a sense of humor. But your comment was not funny. It was [fill in the blank with the appropriate ‘ism’].”
Calling it out is what Jesus did to the storm and it ceased. Privilege is not dismantled from the outside in …but from the inside out when those who have privilege stand in solidarity with those who lack it and dismantle it from within. This is revolutionary work. This is the kind of work Christ did among us. It’s work which demands the conversion of our hearts and minds. It is the mission of the church to continue Christ’s healing and reconciling work. We are called to it, by the power of the Spirit we can do it and the lives of God’s beloved children depend on us to do it.
Never judge a book by its cover. How many of us have heard that piece of advice over the years? It’s a way of warning us not to be caught up in outward appearances but to investigate what is going on inside. This week’s readings have coincided with the much publicized “coming out” of Caitlyn Jenner – formerly known as Bruce Jenner. Bruce now Caitlyn has become a very public face on the issue of transgendered people. For those of us old enough to remember Bruce as an Olympic athlete, this came as quite a surprise! But from what Caitlyn has shared publically, this sense of disconnect between the outer world of the physical body and inner world feeling totally different has been a very painful thing. My friend Annabelle and I were talking about this in our icon class this past Monday and how when the inner world and outer world do not match, there can be much so much suffering.
Today’s first testament reading from 1 Samuel is about God directing Samuel to anoint David as king. Now this is where I have a “hate” relationship with the Lectionary – because there is a whole big story that gets chopped out for the sake of brevity! Last week, we heard the people demanding a king and, if you paid close attention to the scripture citations, we skipped from the demand in chapter 8 to the anointing of Saul at Gilgal in chapter 11. That means three chapters were cut out! There’s back story here. In those three chapters, we hear that Saul has a chance meeting with Samuel on the count of losing his father’s donkeys. What is reported of Saul is he is a “mighty man of valor,” who was “handsome” and stood “head and shoulders above everyone else.” Much is made of Saul’s height in the chapters telling of how he meets Samuel. It seems that his height and outer appearance was part of what made the impression as his being fit to be a leader.
The other part of what we missed is why this week we hear God has rejected Saul. This is part of what was left out too. When Saul takes over as king, he begins to exhibit two major character flaws: pride and impatience. Saul is prideful and begins to ignore the advice of Samuel who is mediating God’s instructions. Saul is going to do things his way! Saul is also impatient and appears to give in to the anxiety of his soldiers and others in his charge. Rather than waiting on the word of the Lord, he charges ahead. Remember last week, we heard in Samuel’s warning to the people about what having a kings would mean for them this line: “And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day.” Now this does not mean that God has abandoned the Israelites – it does mean he will let them live with the consequences of choosing Saul. In this week’s reading, God begins to lay the groundwork for the next king.
We hear Samuel’s fear that Saul would become enraged and kill him. Saul is beginning to show signs of mental illness and violence. Many have speculated on the exact nature of Saul’s manias but we know he attempted to kill David at one point later in the story. God gives Samuel a plan to make contact with Jesse. One by one, each of the sons passes by Samuel. The first makes an impression but God tells Samuel not to look on the outer appearance or the “height of his stature” – almost as if to say, “You fell for the tall thing with Saul – that’s not what we’re looking for here!” God reminds Samuel that he sees the heart and doesn’t fall for outward appearances. Finally, after seven sons pass by and the answer is still no, he asks Jesse, “Got any more kids?” “Sure, one more, but he’s with the sheep.” And this! This is the son – one who is just a boy. The most unlikely one but look at how he is described – “ruddy” (the outdoors type), has “beautiful eyes” and is “handsome.” The eyes are the mirror of the soul – to be seen is to be known. God sees that what is on the outside is congruent with what is on the inside – David is anointed as the next king. Now this does not mean that David is perfect. He has some serious character flaws and does some pretty terrible things, but God works through him in spite of it. Let me also say that God worked through Saul too. Even as unstable as Saul was, it was under his leadership that the Philistines are defeated and peace secured at the northern border.
Paul speaks of this seeing past outward appearances in his letter to the Church in Corinth today too. He says “we regard no one from a human point of view” even though Christ was once human. He is calling the Corinthians to see past the obvious signs of wealth, status, and honor and look to the heart – to the new creation we become in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Jesus’ parables today about seeds also speak of a hidden inner nature. We have all done the elementary school science project of sprouting the lima bean in wet paper towels, right? We know what happens when a seed is planted. But, even knowing what happens, we cannot completely explain why it happens. Why do some seeds sprout and others don’t? I can’t get parsnips to grow … carrots, yes / parsnips, no. Why one and not the other? I don’t have a clue. It is mystery. A point Jesus is making about both the seed sprouted and the mustard seed is that there is a mysterious hidden nature to the seed. When I speak of mystery in this way, I’m not talking about Scooby Doo and Shaggy solving a mystery! We are talking about the Divine Mystery which is beyond human understanding. The inner nature of things is often a mystery wrapped in an enigma.
Jesus uses some hyperbole in speaking of the mustard seed growing into a great shrub or tree. Mustard was known to the ancients and it’s the same stuff we have – a low growing leafy plant with yellow flowers. The Jewish people avoided mustard at all costs because it doesn’t play by the rules – it spreads invasively! It gets all mixed up in the crops and thus breaks the Jewish laws forbidding two kinds of crops in the same field. It messes up everything and so it is with the kingdom of God! The inner nature of the kingdom is it will show up in unexpected and seemingly innocuous ways but it will spread like a weed. The inner nature is more powerful and pervasive than what the outer nature would indicate.
We are all people with both an inner nature and an outer one. The spiritual life is about becoming more real and transparent so that the inner world and outer world are congruent – what you see is what you get. There are people with a high degree of congruence and others who seem not to possess it at all. There will be people who look good on the surface and mouth all the right words, but their actions show their inner nature is not what they portray. They can betray and hurt us deeply! There will also be people who don’t look so good on the outside but whose inner nature is kind and generous. There will be things we discover in ourselves as we grow in Christ - some will be wonderful and others disturbing. But we must make the inner journey so that God may, through grace, bring our inner and outer worlds into alignment. We need not fear this process - for just as God worked through Saul in spite of his flaws, God also works through us.
My friend Annabelle pointed something out to me when we were talking about the Caitlyn Jenner story this week. Apparently, she read that Caitlyn (while still Bruce) and the Kardashian family financed a church start up. While the Kardashians have fallen away, Caitlyn still attends this church. I found this rather remarkable in light of thinking how the kingdom might just show up through unexpected people in unlikely places. This trans woman who lived so long with an incongruent inner and outer world now has changed … but still is a person of faith. May we find the grace to see the inner nature of others, be honest and courageous to face our own inner nature, and trust that God is working in the midst of these discoveries no matter what.
You’ve probably heard the admonition, “Be careful what you ask for … you just might get it!” I think that would be a very fitting subtext to the reading from 1st Samuel today. We are beginning the “long green season” of Pentecost where our Hebrew scriptures will journey through the history of the Jewish people and our Gospel texts will focus on the actions and teachings of Jesus in his life and ministry among us. We open today with the story of the people of Israel demanding a king … be careful what you ask for indeed.
This story comes after the Israelites came out of slavery in Egypt and settled in the Promised Land. Joshua, who led them in after the death of Moses, is now long since dead. After Joshua’s death, Israel was governed by two groups of people: prophets and judges. The prophets attended to the spiritual life of the people and the judges addressed practical disputes. There’s a whole book about that period called “Judges” … admittedly, not a very original title! Probably the best way we can understand the judges was as a kind of tribal warlord but remember both men and women served in this role. But now we hear the people of Israel demanding a king from the prophet Samuel. Of course, they start by dissing Samuel’s kids … that doesn’t help things. Samuel is angry over this request but God says, “Hey, welcome to my world. It’s not about you Samuel, it really is about me.”
God does something interesting, though, in giving Israel a warning about what they are asking for. I wish God would do that for me! “Hey, Anjel, if I really give that to you, here’s what you’re in for.” It doesn’t work that way for me … but in this story, Samuel takes the dire warning about what they would be in for if they go the route of having a king. The people don’t care – they want a king and they want him now and they don’t care what they have to give up.
I think we can best understand their request in the context of their world. Geographically, the Promised Land is in a very vulnerable place. To the southwest, you have the great world power of Egypt – pyramids, the Sphinx, powerful armies with chariots, and Pharaohs with big hats! To the northeast, you have the various ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia – and they have armies, and chariots, and kings with big hats too! And what does Israel have? Judges? Yeah … you’re feeling kind of vulnerable stuck in the middle between these world powers and right on the trade route between them. Israel is kind of the Poland of the ancient near east – everybody runs over her!
This puts the request of the people into focus – they are afraid. They are surrounded by power and they want … security! The primary driving force behind this request is fear and the desire for security. It is in our human nature – we know we are squishable people and we know we are vulnerable both personally and corporately. What is the remedy? Do something to guarantee our security. We are still this way. I’ve been talking with my oldest daughter this week about how congress is revisiting the Patriot Act which was passed in the wake of the attacks of 9/11. It was a reactive response which rolled back many of the freedoms we cherish. When we are in fear, we will sell out our freedom for security every single time. This is what is happening with the Israelites – they are selling out their freedom as God’s people for the security of having an earthly king to defend them. The warning God gives is that one day they will cry out because of their king and the Lord will not answer. This sounds harsh but it is the reality that God will not save us from our choices. Choices have consequences and God will not magically swoop down and save us from them. Be careful what you ask for!
A little over a thousand years later, the people want another king – a Messiah, and anointed one, one who would restore the kingship of David. God sent … a carpenter’s kid from some jerkwater town called Nazareth. Be careful what you ask for … this king wasn’t going to look like what they expected and already he’s causing trouble. We are only in the third chapter of Mark and Jesus is really ticking people off. They think he’s gone mad! He’s possessed by Satan! What in the world could be causing all of this reactivity? What has he done? He healed a few people … on the Sabbath, ok that’s breaking the rules. He’s hanging out with tax collectors and other sinners … definitely associating with undesirable elements of society. He’s challenging the authority of the scribes. Come to think of it … he’s threatening the community’s … security! Rules are established for the purpose of security, and don’t get me wrong, some basic rules are necessary for us to function well and respect others. But rules can go overboard and begin to shun and exclude. This is what Jesus is challenging – rules which exclude those who most need the grace of God in their lives. But these challenges are a threat to their security. Security is now a “small g god” – an idol being worshiped.
We are not so different. We are squishable people too and quite aware of our vulnerability. We ache for security and struggle to place our trust in God for it. Jesus is redefining family and what it means to be community by welcoming people who don’t fit in. Now here at Grace, I think we do a pretty good job of welcoming people here and making safe space for all who come. But one tendency of groups, especially churches, is to welcome people with the understanding that joining our group means becoming “like us.” We welcome you to … become like us. But what if our call isn’t to being people in to this fellowship to become like us but rather to welcome people in to change us? I know … sounds scary at a deep level doesn’t it? A metaphor for community which I find helpful is dancing.
I am not a good dancer. I have witnesses who can attest to this. Mom enrolled me at Miss Vernetta’s Dance Studio in San Diego to help me get over my klutzy ways and I probably do remember a few tap numbers … but it’s not a pretty sight. But if you watch people who are really good dancers, you’ll find they have studied with many different groups and people to learn new moves and develop their own style. If we apply this idea to the way of following Jesus, we as a community have some moves to teach those who come here AND they have some moves to teach us. This will challenge our basic desires for security, but it makes for a more glorious dance and a more vibrant witness to the power of God among us.
Many of you who have been here a long time have prayed for Grace to grow in mission and in membership. Be careful what you ask for … because your prayers are being fulfilled. Grace is growing because the Holy Spirit wants a vibrant witness here in Brunswick. Changes come with risks, they aren’t always comfortable and change will at times feel like a threat to our security. But let’s keep dancing together and as we teach others our moves, may we be open to learning some new ones that our dance may be joyous and more fully glorify God.