A Nascent Promise – Feast of the Annunciation Observed

Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Sermon Text

We come now to our Scripture. The celebration of the Annunciation is an ancient one. It was solidified in our Church calendars as being properly celebrated on the twenty-fifth of March, nine-months before December twenty-fifth and the celebration of Christ’s birth. While there is no actual date recorded in scripture for Christ’s birth, and subsequently of Christ’s conception, there is a tradition of the Church that dates back centuries. Following a Jewish belief at the time that a righteous man would die on the day he was conceived, the early tradition that Jesus was crucified on March twenty-fifth locked in place both the celebration of the Annunciation and Christmas.[1]

Today, though we have waited four days for our observance of it, we celebrate a feast day like no other. The first moment in which a person became a minister in the New Testament, the first moment that Christ was received by a person, the fist transmission of the Holy Spirit in the era of Christ’s earthy ministry. It begins in a simple moment, a conversation between two people in a small room in a small city. A private conversation with a universal impact – the moment that Mary is told of what her life is to become, and the moment that she accepts her place in God’s plan without reservation.

The Annunciation is the starting point of the Christian faith, the first obvious interaction of the entirety of the Godhead with creation. The arrival of the Word made flesh, the Anointing of Mary with the Spirit, as she received her blessing from the Father. The world was transformed as it had never been before – not by general and armies, not by Caesar or Herod, not even by priests, but by the faith of a woman that was sufficient for God to work within her.

What can come as a surprise to us, steeped in various Mariologies that either cast her as the Queen of Heaven or just some woman who happened to be in the right place at the right time for God to work through her. The Scripture does not ask us to make so much or so little of Mary. She is the only woman in the New Testament to speak prophetically. While Elizabeth blesses Mary and Anna is called a prophetess, Mary alone is given voice to shout her praise and prophecy of God. The prophecy that she gives later, the Magnificat, is one of the most powerful pronouncements in scripture – it challenges us to understand what God has done, is doing, and will do. It tells us about a God who is planning to shake up creation, to turn it on its head, to make things right at last.

However, the Magnificat is not where scripture takes us today. We see the moment, months before, in which the incidents that allow for this wonderful song of praise to be sung take place. An angel appears to Mary, tells her that she is going to have a child and that that child will be the Holy. Not only will they be Holy, but they will be called a “Son of God.” This title is used throughout scripture to mean one of two things – either that a person is an angel, as it is used in Genesis or else that they are a descendent of King David and therefore worthy of being called King.[2]

The second title Gabriel bestows upon Jesus is significantly rarer – calling him a “Holy One.” This title is given in some places to all of God’s people, elsewhere to specific anointed prophets, but most interestingly as a title for those who are directly representing God in a situation. Angels who speak for God are given this title, when it is presented in plural it refers usually to God in Godself.[3]

These two titles, one tying Jesus to being King, the other to Jesus being a prophet and envoy of God. They establish what role Jesus is to have in the world as its ruler and as its new mediator between God and God’s people. The angel speaks to Mary and assures her that her child is going to be a spectacular child.  Worthy of a lineage like King David’s, as magnificent as Moses and Elijah before him.

Mary hears all these things and we can imagine that like each of the encounters she has with prophets speaking to her, she contemplated them deep within herself. The reality of her coming pregnancy was now revealed to her. The complexity of her child’s future was laid out before her. The evidence of God’s power was presented in the pregnancy of her elderly relative Elizabeth. The wonders of God were all arranged now to culminate in a grand convergence that required pieces from all of time and space to act in concert – the incarnation of Christ had begun.

Mary provides us all a model for our own faith. From beginning to end of her appearance in scripture Mary is presented as a paradigm of what a faithful servant of God is to be like. She listens attentively to God, to questions God to learn more about God’s will, and she follows God when she is given a direction to go in. Throughout the rest of Luke 1 and 2 we see Mary interact with God directly. Not on a mountaintop like Moses had, not in a chariot of fire like Elijah had, not in terrifying visions. No… Mary saw none of these things when she saw God. Instead she saw God in a child, in her child, nestled up to her and dependent upon her.

God’s magnificent entry into a corporeal form was in the form of a fragile child. All the work of God in this new era of Christ was wrapped up in a child, and before it was wrapped in a child, it was wrapped in the waters of the womb. Jesus begins Jesus’ ministry prenatally. A nascent promise waiting for Advent among us.

Mary is pushed from her life in the city into the wilderness of her close relatives immediately after the angel’s proclamation. Perhaps seeking safety while her child gestates – we have to remember that her and Joseph are not yet married and that the law of the land makes this pregnancy dangerous for both of them. Mary travels to her relative Elizabeth, the one who has received her own miraculous child, and there Elizabeth sings for Joy that Mary has graced her with her presence. Elizabeth, who finally is going to have a child after years of waiting, pronounced Mary more blessed than she is. More than that, she says that Mary’s child is more blessed than any other child.

Upon reception of these words Mary sings a song which we know best as the “Magnificat,” literally meaning, “Magnifies,” from the first words of the prayer. “My soul magnifies the Lord.” This prayer lays out all the wonders of God. God’s taking down of the proud, God’s salvation of the meek and needy, God’s constancy in all conditions, the promises of God which never go unfulfilled. Mary, pushed into a place she does not know, receives support and blessing from someone else in the faith, and she is able then to fully realize what God is doing with her life.

Mary is a model for us because she is the first person to hold the promises of God within themselves. She was the first to have the Spirit transform her body into a temple of God. We are told through the letters of Paul that we too inhabit this state of being. While we are not pregnant with the physical Christ, we all contain within us the Spirit of God – the fullness of divinity wrapped in our flesh. We are not fully divine and fully human like Christ was, our nature is not one of twofold unity, but we are united to Christ’s divinity through Christ’s spirit. We all contain the fullness of Christ’s promise through the Spirit’s participation in our life.

At the beginning of our faith we all receive a word from God. “You will bear Christ into the world. You will tell others about him and show others what his love was like. You will speak against the proud and lift up the humble. You will bear the Most High because the Spirit is with you.” Still we often are unconvinced, “How can this be? I am no great orator, no speaker, no wonder worker. I have not done nearly enough to be worthy of this title – I’ll go even further and say I do not know how it is possible!”

Then comes the word from God, “I have made it possible for thousands of people for centuries. I have seen kingdoms rise and fall and yet I am present in my servants. See the wonders around you, and know that no word that comes from my mouth is impossible.” We hear this, we consent to be workers in God’s economy of grace – but can we really say that we have taken hold of the reality we are now in? Not until we come face to face with grace in action, not until the time is right for us to embrace our future. When we come into hardship and God’s grace appears to us in the kindness of another – in an Elizabeth who sees the blessing within us for what it is.

In that moment we are ready to declare what God has done and will do. “Lord! You who bring down the mighty you have chosen to work with us who are lowly. Lord! You who have kept your promises will not abandon us after saying you will protect us! Lord! You who have destroyed the thrones of power will lift up the poor and the powerless!” The promise which had up to this point been contained within is now free to go out into the world and grow. We, following Mary’s model, not only carry Christ but let Christ out into the world. The wonders that will be completed are let loose, and we in giving up our control join with Mary. In joy, in pain, in ministry, we follow the example of the first great evangelist – Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Amen

[1] Golden Legend, vol. 3, the Annunciation. C.f. De. Pascha Compututs. Pseudo-Cyprian. Latin Text available: https://scaife.perseus.org/reader/urn:cts:latinLit:stoa0104p.stoa009.opp-lat1:1-5/?highlight

[2] Psalm 2 reflects this relationship most clearly

[3] Gehman, Henry S. “‘Άγιος in the Septuagint, and Its Relation to the Hebrew Original.” Vetus Testamentum 4, no. 4 (1954): 337-48. Accessed March 23, 2020. doi:10.2307/1515813.

A Stop Along the Way – Lectionary 03/22/2020

Psalm 23

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.

He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.

Sermon Text

We all know today’s scripture. It is beside us even in the roughest patches of our life. In times of sickness, its words provide a blanket to cover our cold. In our despair, it offers a light to see us through to something better. In our grief, it reminds us of the rest which God has given to our loved ones now departed from us. It has given us all a place to settle into for over two thousand years. It is one of the earliest and most incredible examples of trust in God’s provision.

We who read it now, several centuries removed from its composition find little about it that we cannot relate to. While few of us tend sheep anymore (I know several in this congregation do,) we can see them gathered together on a hillside chewing the grass around them. While we do not often walk through the rift valley of the Levant, we know what it is to be betwixt and between the hollers that dot the state we live in. We can even picture the attentive shepherd perched on their crook. Standing at the gate or walking his flock across from one field to another.

In the ancient world, Shepherd language was usually applied to leaders of the community. A King shepherded all the people in their Kingdom. A landowner was the shepherd of their tenants. The priests were the shepherds of the people of God. Whenever we see the word, “shepherd,” to describe a person in scripture the intent is to establish them as a leader of the community they are a part of. The idea being that a leader should do whatever is best for those they serve.

Despite our warm feelings about Shepherds, the Biblical narrative usually invokes the image of Shepherds negatively. In Jeremiah, the leaders of Judah and Israel are described as shepherds who scattered God’s flock. (Jer. 23:1-6) Likewise, the invading armies of the day were given the same identification. The Psalms talk about how the wicked take on death as their shepherd. (Psalm 49) These examples are always contrasted with God, the Shepherd who brings the scattered people together and sets them at peace. The pastures of God, the rest of an eternal Sabbath, this is the hope offered to all people through God and God’s work in the world.

The promise of this Psalm is not a far-off reality. While there are many descriptions of a future time when God will lead the people of the world into rest, this Psalm speaks to the here and now. God is not going to be our Shepherd. God is our Shepherd. From the moment that we are initiated by God’s Spirit into God’s church, we are a part of God’s flock – protected by our shepherd. The promises of Psalm 23 are here for us now, in our daily life, in the midst of the most profound difficulties and visceral joys. Nothing can keep us from them.

This does not mean that our life is easy. It does not mean that we will never be afraid or upset, mournful or lost. Our shepherd can never lose us, but we have an incredible skill of getting ourselves lost. We run from the safe places we find ourselves in into dangerous waters. We are swept along currents and dragged into pits that we have no hope to climb out of on our own. One of the most profound realities of the human experience is that we are very good at losing the plot. We find ourselves in places of distress, and we look around and see only darkness, the deep darkness like the Shadow of Death hanging over us.

For some people, this reality is closer than it is to others. Those who struggle with mental health can often find themselves put closer to the dark than to the light, if not in actuality than in perception. I myself suffer from dysthymia, a low-grade but persistent form of depression that I can best describe as a draining of life’s colors. No emotion is blocked from me, but the shades that those emotions take are washed out, distant, sometimes completely in black and white. The reality of my mental illness is that I can easily lose track of things that are bright and good in the world because shadow and light are quite similar in a greyscale world.

Even for those of us who are not struggling with mental health, there are obstacles to feeling God’s presence. Life is hard. Life is scary. Right now, as we look around us we see a world that is wild with concerns over COVID-19. There are genuine and warranted emotions and distress at work right now. After all, this is a matter of life and death. On a smaller scale, we must deal with the individual attacks against our wellbeing. Attacks that take the form of feelings of inadequacy, knowledge of our mortality, conflict with loved ones, with ourselves.

Even in the presence of these conflicts, there are many ways we can make ourselves more receptive to God’s goodness. For all of us, not just people with chronic mental health struggles, seeking therapy can do wonders for sorting out our perceptions of the world and one another. Seeking instruction from God’s word and reliable commentators wakes us up to the reality of what God has done in the past and will do now. Community with other people of the faith, of all ages and demographics, allows us to see God in one another. Acts of service carried out in love allow us to become Christ to the world and see Christ in those we help.

We cannot be the church alone. We cannot pursue God without the full community of God interacting with one another. What has probably become clear to all of us in our various states of isolation this past week is that being in a single place and not seeing those we are used to seeing has an effect on us. We are social creatures, and God made us to crave social interaction. Therefore, times when we are away from other people often make us feel distant from God. God lives in the eternal company of Godself – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So we who are made in the image of God experience God most fully in communion with one another.

Psalm 23 is important as we come to the second half of Lent. As we worship apart and as we have maintained social distance, it draws us close. As we are praying more earnestly than ever to engage with God’s work of Easter, it gives us a taste of our Sabbath rest. In this year more than many in memory, we certainly need the reality of God’s presence, because in this year we seem to have faced hardship after hardship. We need to rest with confidence, we need to stand with God, with the presence of the whole church.

The message of Psalm 23 is not that someday God will appear to us and we will feel taken care of. It is not that our present problems should never overshadow God’s work. It is that our present problems will seem to surround us, that we will be awash in our troubles, that there is a lot in life we can be distressed about. Yet, God is here with us. Yet, God does not leave our side. Yet, we are on a path that culminates in green pastures, a feast we can celebrate in, all the good things that we could ever want or imagine. We live in a complicated space as people who are members of God’s flock – always stuck between what is now and not yet, always looking to the next step and living in the present moment.

Despite this uncertainty. Despite this disorder. There is a calm that we can find again and again. The familiar words of scripture that spells out for us the reality that God is present with us even when we cannot see God. God is leading us forward even when we feel lost. God never leaves the side of the wandering sheep, even if the sheep has lost all sight of the Shepherd. We can live into the reality of God’s presence even in the darkest night, not by pretending we are not struggling – but by being authentically transparent about it.

We have all been secluded lately – call one another. If you have the means to use skype or zoom or facetime to see one another face to face do so. Take advantage of whatever services you have to connect to people you’ve been meaning to reach out to for a time. If you are in a season of life that leads you to despair confide in someone you trust and who loves you. Share the burden of life with one another and chase after the goodness of God. We are in a dark night, the sun seems faint in the darkness of a world that is broken, but God’s goodness cannot be snuffed out.

Find the opportunity in the silence. Pray when your mind wanders. Turn off the TV and read a book, talk to your family, listen to or play some music. Read some scripture (Mark is only about an hour of reading and we’re doing a study of it soon – just as a suggestion.) Whatever you do, let it be something that seeks life. Whatever you are feeling feel it fully. Whatever good is in your life lift up proudly, whatever distresses you share it freely. Seek help where before you felt fear, seek understanding where before you feared ignorance, and show to the world the acceptance that we are all craving now.

The Lord is our Shepherd, we shall not want. The Lord is our Shepherd, we will walk through the darkest valleys. The Lord is our Shepherd, speak to God all the concerns of your heart. The Lord is our Shepherd, praise the Lord, hallelujah, and amen.

Theologizing Illness and Testing God – A Meditation on Exodus 17:1-7

This Sunday many churches will be preaching on Jesus as the living water which, once given to a person, ensures they will never thirst again. The infinite spring of Life which allows for us to enter into the rest of God. Love that transcends people groups and gender, such that all people – whether they are a Jewish man, a Samaritan woman, or any other combination of identifiers – can become part of the new life in Christ. A divine life defined by God-likeness.

However, on the other end of the lectionary we see God giving water in another circumstance. Here God’s people complain against their lack of water and God gives them water from the rocks around them. The stones are named Massah and Meribah – the place of testing and the place of complaining, for the people had tested God and complained to God. The land itself is called “Rephidim,” – Land of Support, Land of Supply.

We lose track often of what it means to test God. It is not simply to ask God for something – or else our prayer would constantly be testing God. It is not simply doubting God’s provision – because we do this more often than any of us care to admit. Despite our uncertainty about what scripture means by, “Testing God,” it is one of the most consistent traditions in scripture. This Massah tradition is so central to the Christian tradition that it is even in the Lord’s Prayer.[1]

 

 

The word Jesus uses to describe, “Temptation,” in the Lord’s prayer is “πειρασμός” (Peirasmos.) This word is more often translated, “Testing.” The testing of a person that leads them to be better is peirasmos. The testing that comes from the suffering naturally in life is peirasmos. However, it is not only people who experience it. After all, Massah in the Greek Old Testament (LXX)  is called, “πειρασμός”

Jesus was sent into the desert to be tempted (πειράζω.) While there the Devil urged him to throw himself from high up, plummeting but being saved by a God who would never let his Son be hurt. Jesus rebukes the Devil, saying that we are not to put God to the test – to not  ἐκπειράζω (2nd Person Future Active Indicative of πειράζω.) This testing of humanity and of God comes down to the same concept of testing.

So, what does this have to do with our theologizing of illness?

We are currently experiencing a pandemic across the world. Many countries are taking steps to prevent its spread through quarantines, closed borders, and social distancing. We in the United States are beginning to feel the effects of these preventative measures. Schools are closing, businesses are conducting work at home, and before long more than just a few churches will likely stop meeting in person. The question has been raised again and again, “Don’t these steps show we lack faith? If the churches close what does that tell people?”

It is irresponsible to relate the church and society taking reasonable steps to prevent infection to a lack of faith. Timothy was told to take medicine when he was ill. (1 Tim. 5:23) The people of God frequently took steps to avoid disaster. (Gen. 12:10, 27:41-46, 46:1-4, Matt. 2:13–23, 24:16, to name a few) The message of scripture is not that we should live recklessly because God will take care of us. We are told we will be saved from serpents, not that we should drink their venom. In the same way, we are told we will see healing from disease not that we should chase after catching it.

We must be willing to take extreme measures. If that means closing churches for a time, then we will meet some other way. We must care for those who are vulnerable, if that means we stay away from them then we must retreat. We must take all the steps necessary to protect those around us.

God will not punish us for our caution, but if we choose to test God by blindly acting against the recommendations of experts then we will suffer. We do not need to give into despair, but we also should not assume we are immortal. God is the giver of life and wisdom. Wisdom demands we make unpleasant choices sometimes. The fact is that we are in a new wilderness, one of contagions and diseases we do not understand. Our responsibility in trusting God is not that we sit silently and hold our worries within, that will not do. Our responsibility in trusting God is not that we chase after new ways to harm ourselves so that God’s grace may abound, that is putting God very plainly to the test.

Pursuing God, trusting God, sometimes means that we step away from the comfort of proximity. Sometimes we have to disrupt our routine. Sometimes we must close ourselves off. Will this impact our life? Of course. Will it lead us into difficulties of income, difficulties of loneliness, difficulties of luxury? It definitely will. However, we cannot afford to sit on our hands when the world grows sicker minute by minute. Do not put the Lord your God to the test. Stay at home, stay safe, and do not let this virus spread beyond our ability to treat it. God will provide, but we cannot chase down streams in deserts and then be upset when we do not find them.

[1] Cornelisu B. Houk. “Πειρασμος, The Lord’s Prayer, and the Massah Tradition” in Scottish Journal of Theology. 19 no 2 Jun 1966, p 216-225

 

Balancing Bitterness – Lectionary 03/15/2020

Exodus: 17:1-7

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

Sermon Text

The rocks of Meribah and Massah are among the most formative moments in the history of God’s people. The long walk through the wilderness has the people of God struggling with Moses, with God, with one another. The constant travel wore down the edges of every relationship. Sometimes this strengthened them, other times it harmed them, but it always transformed them. It was here at Massah and Meribah that an entire tradition within the biblical writings was created.

The pattern of people coming to a time of trouble, complaining to God, and then God responding to that complaint is what some scholars call the Massah tradition. It is a train of thought that is present in several Psalms, the book of Hebrews, and even potentially in the Lord’s prayer.[1] The basic idea being that we all are at risk of engaging in the namesake of Massah – the testing of God.

When we engage with the divine we can do so in nearly infinite ways. We pray to God to work wonders. We praise God for the good in our life. We cry out to God when we are broken and ask for answers, to be healed. God is able to take on all our emotions – good and bad, praise and anger, love and consternation. The work of the prophets attests again and again to God’s willingness to work alongside us in the muck and mire of our most difficult hours. What then separates Massah from other instances of crying out to God? Why is this particular cry for help treated negatively when the Psalmist, the Prophets, and many more in scripture have raised much bigger questions of God?

We cannot, through our reading of scripture create criterion in which a situation is or is not testing God. This creates an obligation based understanding of our relationship with God. “If we use this word we are testing God… If we say it in this way we are testing God…” That does not help us. Imagine any other relationship in your life where the specific words you use were the only part of communication that mattered. That if you had a set of rules to follow that would be enough to promote a good relationship.

Everyone naturally forms boundaries in conversations with people, topics or words you know will make them upset. I personally have an understanding with my friends that they can question anything about me and my actions, but they should not use the word “Naïve,” it is a word that I do not react well to and so I have that understanding with people not to use it. The Rabbi’s talk about a consideration for people that goes even beyond this, “Someone who had a person who hanged in his family, should not say to his fellow, “Hang a fish.” – In other words, simply saying the word, “Hanged” can bring up emotions that a considerate person would not want their friend to be pulled back into.

However, it is rarely a matter of word choice or sentence formation that makes up the meat of interactions between people. Yes, we do a great deal when we learn how to communicate with one another in better more productive ways. Yes, it is better to ask someone, “Can you explain your reasoning?” than to yell, “You idiot! Why would you do that!” But if we are only concerned with the words we choose and the order we put them in then we will inevitably fall into the trap of finding loopholes. “I did not call them an idiot, I just heavily implied they were.” Is not very life giving for anyone involved.

The story of Massah is not one of God’s people failing to meet criteria X,Y, or Z that would allow their complaint to God to be valid. It is not a lesson for us to say, “And thus we should never question God, because if we do God will be cross.” It is instead a lesson in two realities – our need to stop trying to manipulate God and God’s care for us even when we try to do so.

There is a long tradition across most religious systems where people try and persuade a God through trickery to do what they want. The Greeks tell stories of two bags being sorted, one with very good meat on top but nothing but bones and skin underneath and the other with the majority of meat from a cow. The Gods choose the choice meat and are tricked into their lot in sacrifices to mostly be bones while people enjoy the majority of the meat. In Japan the hero Susanoo tricked the Gods many times and so was banned from Heaven till he proved himself. Even in our fiction Gods are frequently tricked, the patriarch of rabbits El-ahrairah in the book Watership Down attempts to trick the great God Frith into blessing him, somehow succeeding in becoming the fastest animal on earth.

The people of God and others throughout scripture are no different. Jacob wrestled with God and would not let him go without being blessed first, trying to strong arm the divine. (Gen. 32:22-32) Moses’ wife, Zipporah, dipped blood on his feet in a seeming attempt to trick God away from killing Moses. (Exo. 4:24-26) Balak the Moabite pays a prophet to prophecy against Israel, attempting to take away the divine voice with money. (Numbers 23-24) Even King Saul of Israel attempted to pull one over on God, by summoning the Ghost of Samuel to try and speak against the rising star that would become King David. (1 Samuel 28)

Whenever people wanted something they would do whatever they could to try and pull the wool over God’s eyes. To make sure that God somehow got confused and worked in their favor, even when doing so would mean that God would be doing something counter to Godself.

For the Israelites in our scripture today the transgression was simple. They were thirsty and they needed water. Yet, when given the chance to pray for God’s provision they chose instead to accuse God of evil. “Is God here or not?” “Are you just trying to kill us?” These questions are certainly the words of people who are concerned about their life, but it is also the words of people who are not prepared for God to deliver something to them. Their first response to trouble was to make accusations, not to ask for direction. That betrays a great deal about the state of their relationship with God.

When we are in relationship with one another we have to be in a responsible relationship. When someone we love comes to us with a problem, we hope they will do so understanding we are not intentionally causing that problem. When we go to a loved one with our own problems, we hope they know we are seeking understanding not making accusations. If on either side of this equation doubt enters in about the good-will of one another things begin to fall apart. If, worse still, one member of the relationship genuinely stops desiring good for the other, then things will also begin to fall apart.

The people of Israel were not wrong to come to God and ask for water. We need water to survive, that was as true then as it is now. However, rather than asking they accused. Rather than seeking understanding they already had made up their mind about God. Rather than seeking an understanding of relationship, they charged onward and fractured the space between themselves and God. It would be like one person accidentally hurting the feelings of another and that person accusing them of ill intent without explaining why they were hurt. It would be like a person being told they had hurt another person accidentally and saying, “Well it wasn’t my intent so it isn’t my fault.” Communication, not intent, is what makes relationships function. Yet, using the right words without proper intent will not produce a healthy relationship either – both are needed.

The complex steps we all must take to communicate with one another are not dissimilar to what happens when we come to speak to God. When we feel we are not having our needs met the solution cannot be to pretend all is well and then sit on our hands. Likewise, it cannot be brazenly charging ahead and demanding what is ours as if God has been playing against us this whole time. Job, perhaps the most afflicted person in scripture questions God for 40 chapters and at the end of it all God said, “My Servant Job has spoken what is right.” (Paraphrase Job 42:7.) God intervenes after a long litany of complaint not to say Job was wrong but to shut down his friends who spoke for God rather than questioned, who assumed they knew what Job needed to do without ever asking how he was.

Testing God can mean a lot of things. Taking unnecessary risk, pushing God to act against God’s goodness. However, most often it manifests in a lack of trust that comes from us not communicating with God. When we come to God with a pointed finger and a raised voice before we ever came to God with a quiet question. Sometimes it is appropriate to yell in relationships. Sometimes it is appropriate to give voice to all our feelings with all the intensity we feel them. More often than not though, it all begins with a question asked in good faith. If we were only willing to ask one another more questions to understand a situation, and less willing to assume we know what’s going on already. What a wonderful world we might create.

So, today, let your desires be known to God. If you are upset tell the almighty. If you have your doubts about God’s goodwill voice that concern. If you have everything joyous in your life let God know. Do the same with your loved ones. Loved ones listen to one another. For God is not an avenger against you, neither should your loved ones be, but when we all come to a place of testing and complaint, let us do so in a land of Support – our own Rephidim to house Meribah and Massah. Test not God, Test not one another. – Amen

[1] Cornelius B. Houk. “Πειρασμος, The Lord’s Prayer, and the Massah Tradition” in Scottish Journal of Theology. 19 no 2 Jun 1966, p 216-225

Rebuking Haman – Sermon for the Week of Purim 2020

Esther 3:1-6

After these things King Ahasuerus promoted Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him and set his seat above all the officials who were with him. And all the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate bowed down and did obeisance to Haman; for the king had so commanded concerning him. But Mordecai did not bow down or do obeisance. Then the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate said to Mordecai, “Why do you disobey the king’s command?”

When they spoke to him day after day and he would not listen to them, they told Haman, in order to see whether Mordecai’s words would avail; for he had told them that he was a Jew. When Haman saw that Mordecai did not bow down or do obeisance to him, Haman was infuriated. But he thought it beneath him to lay hands on Mordecai alone. So, having been told who Mordecai’s people were, Haman plotted to destroy all the Jews, the people of Mordecai, throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus.

Sermon Text

Esther is one of those books of those Bible that we do not give enough time or energy to. Usually, it lives in the realm of children’s storybooks and women’s Bible studies. It will soon be a musical at Sight and Sound theatre, but even then, I have a feeling they will make it sterile and feel good and not really dive deep into what this book can tell us. It is a book of secrets, of silence, of hidden identity and hidden motivations. From start to finish we see men and women, Jews and Gentiles, the powerful and the powerless, put into contrast with one another again and again and again. It is a book that asks us to make assumptions, and then makes clear how wrong we are in having made them.

In particular, we drill in today at the moment in which the stakes of the book become clear. While Ahasuerus’ search for a wife is what allows Esther to come into power, it is Mordechai’s confrontation with Haman that allows for the conflict of the book to begin. A confrontation between two city leaders that results in a demand for genocide and concludes in the massacre of thousands. The book of Esther, with all its reversals in fate and convoluted narratives of responsibility, chooses an inciting incident that does as much to confuse us as it does to establish us.

We are introduced immediately to the person of Haman. We are given no backstory about him and it is not explained whether or not he had worked in the city of Susa alongside Mordechai and the other servants of the King or if he appeared one day. His position before this moment is unknown, but we are told that he has become the highest official in the land, second only to the King. This humble Agagite has taken a position that allows him to rule over much of the Persian world. As powerful as a King, beloved by the true ruler of the nation, we are told that he is to be bowed to whenever he arrives – not by his own command, but by that of the King.

Yet, Mordechai, our hero in this story, refuses to do so. The story does not tell us why he will not bow. Many claim that because he was Jewish he could not bow down to the King, but there is no such instruction in the Torah. Others suggest he was simply too proud to bow to Haman, perhaps because Haman took a position that should have been his – he was a national hero for having saved the King after all. Whatever the reason for not bowing, Haman took note and Haman demanded to have his bruised pride be avenged. As a result, we are told that he sought out to kill not only Mordechai but all those like Mordechai, all his kin, the entire Jewish race.

The transition from anger toward a single person to an entire race of people. That is not a small step for a person to take. Certainly, Haman would have been better off just punishing Mordechai. He had the power to do so. He had all the money needed to finance such a disgusting mission. Yet, he was not content to just eliminate an enemy, his pride was too great for him to consider it an option to simply take out the person he considered to have offended him. No, he decides the only route to remove his shame is to remove every trace of the people his offender belongs to.

Hatred, as much as we do not like to admit it, is rooted deep within our hearts. One of the things that define our initial gut response to a situation is how we demarcate things as a threat and not a threat. The thing we decide is a threat we then decide whether or not we would like it to stay and be tolerated or be removed and be done with. This desire to remove a thing we see as a threat. This is hatred. It is an emotion born out of demarcating someone as other than ourselves and then finding that otherness to be a danger. The attribution of whatever we do not like or find strange about a thing with its essential qualities rather than with its anecdotal occurrence.

Separating out people based on their traits, their place of origin, the culture that they were raised in, is something that our mind does automatically. When we meet someone who has a different dialect of English to us, who dresses differently than us, and of course who is of a different race than us the mind has a tendency to create a distinct category in itself to place these things. Categorizing allows the brain to pull up everything it knows about something and bring it to mind instantaneously. It is this that allows us to look at a loved one and instantly feel better, to look at a food we dislike and know that it is bad, and unfortunately to look at someone of a certain culture or race and decide whether we have deemed them good or bad.

Some of us will say at this point – “Well, when it comes to people its person by person. There is never a time where I make an assumption, I let people stand or fall based on their own merit.” Maybe so, but if we just assume, we can meet and look at people without making assumption we’ll never know if we actually do. So, let’s test if we’re good at processing two pieces of information at once.

Here are some words printed in different colors. Read the color and ignore the word. XMAS. POTATO. WASHBIN. COLLISION. SODA. That was easy. Now, if we do this again color and not word remember. BLUE. RED. ORANGE. PURPLE. GREEN. Again, say the color of the text, not the word. RED PURPLE RED GREEN BLUE. Not as easy.[1] Our brain struggles to process two things at any given time. That is why our brain is dangerous when the two things we are looking at is a person and the assumptions we have made about the group that they belong to. When we look at a person of another race do we seen them, or do we see what our brain has decided to think about them? A person who is wearing dirty or ripped clothes, someone obviously poorer than us, and decided something about their work ethic or place in life? At a woman grappling with several children in the cart and decided what she should have done to prevent such a situation?

Our scripture today shows us two pictures of hatred born within a person. On one hand we have Mordechai. Mordechai is a Jew descended from the tribe of Benjamin, of whom King Saul of Israel was a member. Saul, the most famous Benjaminite was removed from his throne because he failed to kill Agag the king of the Amalekites. Agag, despite later being killed by Samuel, had many children and their lineage became known as the Agagites – of whom we will remember Haman was a member. Haman, the new vizier of the Persian kingdom, was descended from an ancient enemy of Mordechai’s family, and Mordechai decided that because of this he could not bow down to him.[2] This is the most likely reason, given all that scripture has given us, that Mordechai caused all this trouble – because he looked at Haman and rather than seeing a person saw a bloodline, that rather than celebrating difference he decided upon defiance.

Despite the distasteful nature of his assumption, Mordechai is not acting blindly in his distrust of Haman. As a member of a group who suffered under constant oppression, whose people were killed again and again on trumped up charges of one kind or another, he was right to be warry when an ancient enemy reared its head. We would not expect a Jew in Nazi Germany to trust just anyone they met on the street, nor can we expect people of color who grew up in the Jim Crow south to assume that a few decades passing have automatically made the streets they walk to be any safer. For those who have suffered it is not as simple as turning on and off bias, when that bias may save your life.

Yes, Mordechai may have some excuse for his distrust that makes it reasonable but that does not mean it is our ideal. Ideally, we can live in a world where people never have to do as Mordechai did, assuming harm will come to him form someone in power descended from ancient enemies. However, the world we live in today is not a safe one for many people, and that is largely because Haman is still at large in the world.

Whereas Mordechai acted defensively out a very real threat to his existence, one that proved correct we will note, it was Haman who chose to act out of hatred. Haman found someone he did not know, decided he was a threat, and then when the additional information of his race was made known to him he decided to rope all Jews into the conflict rather than just this one person he was having problems with. Haman, with all power and privilege in the world, far removed from any real threat that Mordechai could ever bring against him, decided that he needed to eliminate not only Mordechai, but everyone like Mordechai. He was not experiencing implicit bias like we all might experience; he was actively choosing hatred.

If we wish to see a world without conflict, we must begin by removing hatred from within ourselves. Our minds will always work selfishly against us in this endeavor. Those mechanisms more ancient than we can ever understand that demand we categorize all groups of people as friend or foe, all cultures as good or bad, all races as above or below – those mechanisms of the mind are the enemy we all must combat with day after day after day. If we do begin to seek understanding, if we reject our assumptions and seek the truth of those different to us we will inevitably find ourselves in a better world.

When we enjoy the benefits that come from the experiences of all people of all races and all cultures and all creeds then we will see what loving our neighbors is really about. When we are active about pushing beyond the assumptions of our mind and begin seeking out the soul of those around us. We must also be aware of our failings in life, acknowledge all those moments when we knew better but still did what was worse. We must repent of our brokenness, we must repent of our hatred, and we must rebuke Haman whenever he manifests in our hearts. Then and only then, will we be free from our own misguided minds. – Amen.

[1] This exercise is adapted from Jerry Kang. “Immaculate Perception” Lecture. TedxSanDiego 2013. Available at:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9VGbwNI6Ssk&feature=youtu.be

[2] Linda Day. “Mordecai versus Haman” in Esther. (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon 2005) 66-67

Uncover Your Sin – Lectionary 03/01/2020

Psalm 32

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,  and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

While I kept silence, my body wasted away, through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them. You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.

I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.

Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord. Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.

Genesis 3:1-7

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’”

But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

Sermon Text

Sin is absolutely poisonous. It is that illness deep within our hearts that constantly leeches out and attacks every system within us. The goodness of God, the untouchable image imprinted on us at birth, it cannot be removed. Yet the cancer of sin has covered it up. The deepest darkness of chaos, the primordial ocean which covered the world before creation, exists in each and everyone of us. It covers that image of God, and it keeps us from living the life God has set up for us.

Sin is a mystery. No one has ever been able to completely explain its presence in the world. We all know the story of the first transgression humanity ever committed. Genesis gives us the story of two people, the first two people, and their inability to listen. They do not listen to each other, not to God, even the Serpent that courts them is not listened to fully. The Serpent does not provide any rationale for why what it says is true, there is no interrogation of its words, but both humans rush to believe it. The implication then is that, given enough time, the two would have found an excuse to eat the fruit with or without the words of the Serpent.

Often when we discuss this story we look for culprits to blame. The snake for tempting humanity. Eve for listening to the Snake. Adam for not stopping Eve. The reality of the text is that it does not invite us to put blame on any one party. In the following chapters the serpent, the woman, and the man are punished. They each leave Eden with something having been taken away from them and with many new problems added to them. The blame game that the three parties take part in later in Chapter 3 is not an invitation for us to do the same.

Yet, the Bible does not say why Sin was present in the hearts of humanity, it never says what the Serpents end game was in tempting humanity. We see in later commentaries all sorts of explanations provided. The write of Revelation connected the Serpent of the Garden with Satan, an interpretation that persisted in the Church. Some people began to look for Sin as something predating the temptation of the Serpent. Somehow something living within us, ready to take advantage and rule over us. Some people even began to suggest that God created us with Sin within us already, giving us an opponent from the very beginning.

However, we do not have to hold to any of these ideas fully. Revelation tying Satan to, “that ancient serpent,” is not necessarily a description of the snake in the garden. In fact, it is more likely modifying the word before it  – “The dragon, that ancient serpent,” as both Greek and Hebrew sources imagined dragons to look like anacondas or boa constrictors. There is no indication in the text that Sin was present before this first transgression, the only thing declared wrong up until this point was Adam being alone.

We do ourselves a disservice when we turn to this passage and try to find an explanation of Sin and its place in the world. The story is not trying to provide us a window into the secrets of how God made the world, it is not trying to present us with an explanation of why Sin came to exist at all. It is simply making clear how the first instance of it came to be, how the sickness took hold and began to corrupt the image of God within our hearts, moving us further and further from God’s light and love and goodness.

The reality of Sin is known to every person who ever walked this earth. We know Sin because we see what it does. The anger that has become the most basic emotion we feel regularly anymore. The brokenness that our careless treatment of one another has produced time and time again. The entire history of humanity, from Eden to today is marred by the work of Sin, and our personal history likewise shows the sign of its work. We can never escape the reality of Sin, because it more often than not defines the world we live in. More than this though, our acknowledgement of Sin, our comfort in discussing it honestly, this is what allows transformation in us. Sin is a paradox, and as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “Sin is our only hope, the fire alarm that wakes us up to the possibility of true repentance.”[1]

The fact is that we are sinners. The fact is that we daily transgress God’s instructions in our lives. Not one of us is exempt from it. Not one of us freed from its consequences. Not one of us is given special privilege to do as we like. We must acknowledge sin, we must flee from it, because it is a disease like no other. It is a sickness that we choose whether or not we give into, the only cure is in denying it any purchase in our hearts.

Honesty is therefore necessary. We cannot act as though we do not have a problem. Even the smallest harm that we cause to those around us, even the littlest purchase we give for our wrongdoings, can grow out of control. We must starve it, we must cast it away from ourselves, and we must open up about what it has done to us. We must confess our sin to God, we must confess our sin to one another, we must confess.

When we open up to one another and acknowledge the wrong we do, especially if it is a wrong that we have committed against the person we confess to, then we begin to allow for healing. We become contrite, we feel deep in our heart the weight of our sin and desire liberation from it. We confess it to those we have hurt, those of us who hear the confession forgive it freely and openly, and we who have done wrong must then do more than just say we are sorry but begin the necessary work to be better, to fix the relationship we have broken. Only then can we be reconciled back to one another.

This pattern is as Biblical as can be. Jesus teaches us to make amends before we ever think of worshipping publicly. The Psalm we read today makes clear the great riddle of God. That we wither away when we hide our sin. When we let the darkness cover up the image of the divine within us it will gnaw away and destroy our humanity. But the moment we begin to let the air in, to admit all that is within us, then God comes in. God “Covers our sin,” literally, “gives refuge to it.” We are allowed space to grow, to recover from Sin and to begin practicing righteousness rather than wickedness.

Even as we return to Eden, our initial discussion today, we see this pattern. That God comes into the Garden and shouts to us, “Where are you?” We should not deceive ourselves in thinking God only asked this once. God asks it again and again, “Where are you?” God does not seek to find us to punish us, not to destroy us. Our actions are not without consequences, God is not mocked, make no mistake. However, God does not seek us out as a destroyer, God is not a lion waiting to pounce on you for having transgressed.

Instead God offers to all who confess, all who come forward and name their Sin, to them is given a covering. For Adam and Eve a covering of leather to replace theirs of leaves. For us it is a covering of righteousness to replace our sin. Slowly but surely, out in the open, we will transform, but only if we are willing to take the step forward, to uncover our sin, and to live into righteousness truly in the here and now.

As we gather for the feast of Christ’s grace – listen and find that ancient pattern once more. As we gather at the invitation of God, confess our Sins, are forgiven, and we declare the Peace of God to one another. Only after all these things happen, can we truly gather together and give thanks to God for the work of Christ. In this bread, in this cup, we meet a story as ancient as Eden, one of a God who will meet us where we are and bring us out of the pit. Take hold now of this grace, let us drink deep of a new fruit which brings redemption. Let us come now before the Lord our God. – Amen

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor. “Sin is our Only Hope.” In Speaking of Sin. (Plymouth, United Kingdom: Cowley Publication. 2000.) 48. Taylor provides an orthodox presentation of penance in the same text, which is the basis for the model discussed today.