21Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
This is much more complicated story than our reading of it may suggest. There is more to it that meets the eye – or in this case “meets the ear.” Matthew has hidden a meaning away inside for us to discover. So, I think it will be helpful if we retell the story – get inside it and understand its contextual complexities. In doing so, I believe we will not only derive Matthew’s intended message, but we will also receive a very clear directive for our lives today.
I've told you before that, one of my biggest frustrations with the Bible is rooted in the culture in which it was cultivated. Women, who were second class citizens at best and property at worse, frequently go unnamed in the Bible. I, for one, feel like when we speak of the main character of this story simply as “the Canaanite woman,” we show her just about as much disrespect as we hear in Jesus’ calling her a dog. So, for the purposes of this story we will give her a name.
Extracanonical tradition, or writings used by the early church but not included in the Bible when it was put together in the year 367 - Extracanonical tradition names her Justa, meaning just or justice. So, in our story her name is Justa.
Justa was Canaanite. Yes, the same Canaanites whose heritage is traced back to Canaan, the son of Ham who saw his father Noah naked. In Genesis 9:25-27, Noah curses Canaan to be the slave of his brothers, essentially cursing Canaanites to be the slaves of Israelites. The antagonism, however, does not stop there. God promises Abraham and his descendants “all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding” (Gen. 17:8). In Deuteronomy, God lists the Canaanites as part of the people Israelites were to kill (Deut. 20:17). Joshua then does kill some of them as he leads the Israelites into Canaanite land. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the name Canaanite is also used as an almost generic term, for designation of non-Israelites (Gen. 12:6; Num. 21:3; Judg. 1:10).
As you can begin to see, it is reasonable to say their religious histories made the Israelites and the Canaanites distrust each other at the least and most probably feed intense disdain toward the other. Matthew’s naming Justa as a Canaanite clearly places her among the hated. She is among people who must stay two arms lengths from a Jewish man at all times and whose homes were considered unclean and therefore off limits to Jews. This hatred even led to the contemptuous, but common slang, of “dog” to refer to the Gentiles.
In short Justa, was an outsider. She lived on the outskirts of town on the border between Jewish and Gentile lands, but she was on the border in so many other ways. She was a woman; she was property. She was Cannanite; she was the enemy; She was from a rural people; she was an outsider. She was a Gentile; she was unclean and a non-believer. She may have been thought of as demonic, after all her daughter was possessed by a demon. In almost every way, she was seen as “less than,” undeserving, an outsider, a person living on the borders of life.
Enter Jesus and the disciples. In an effort to escape a recent skirmish with the Pharisees they headed out to the border land, an area somewhere to the north of Jewish territory. They were probably seeking a little R&R, a little peace and quiet. When they get there they find neither peace nor quiet.
A woman started shouting at them. The Greek texts are actually a little more descriptive and begin to hint at her persistence. They says she kept following them shouting. It gives the feeling the disciples were walking away from her but she just kept right on after them.
At first Jesus just tries to ignore her. We’ve all played that game before, “Maybe if I just ignore her, she’ll go away.” She doesn’t. She begins to get on the last nerve of the disciples and they plead with Jesus to just give her what she want so that she’ll leave them alone. Jesus’ reply seems curious. He says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Basically, with her standing there pleading, he says, “I’m not here to help her kind.” Any one of us would have felt defeat. Any one of us would have tucked tail and ran. She doesn’t.
Jesus’ words may seem cruel to us, but we have to understand them within a larger Biblical context. Jesus’ resistance to help her is rooted in his messianic identity. In a way, this is another desert temptation. Jesus, after a skirmish with the Pharisees, is presented the opportunity to turn his back on Israel - the ones he was sent to redeem while here on earth. It would have been easy to do. He doesn’t. Instead he is persistent and reaffirms his commitment to God and God’s plan and in doing so he is afforded the possibility to redeem not only Israel but the world as well.
Justa is an outsider living on so many borders. She is rebuked by the disciples. Jesus ignores her and then after being badgered finally says, “I’m not here to help your kind.” Justa should just throw in the towel. She doesn’t. She persisted and responds to Jesus’ words by kneeling before him and crying, “Kyrie, Eleison” – Lord, have mercy. She believes to the very toes of her unclean feet that Jesus can heal her daughter. She persists. What great faith! What a remarkable woman!
In the face of such a great witness, Jesus had to respond kindly. He doesn’t. “It,” he says, “is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." Throw it to the dogs? Justa, while groveling in the dirt on all fours, has just been called a dog. She should just pick herself and her pride up and go home. She doesn’t. She persists.
Then Justa uses Jesus’ own words to remind him of something about his messianic identity. “Even the dogs,” she says, “eat crumbs from their master’s table.” In those brief words, Justa gives a sermon. She reminds Jesus that “yes” he is sent for the children of Israel that sit at the table, but that after the children eat so will the rest of the world. In one word, “master,” she reminds him of her own faith – a faith that persisted.
From the moment she approached him she, a outsider, a person on the very borders of life – from the moment she approached him she recognized him as the Messiah, the Anointed One. She called him “Lord,” bowed at his feet, called him “son of David,” believed in him and believed that he could heal her daughter, and in a time of challenge and controversy she persisted. What great faith! What a remarkable woman!
Well, what else was he to do? "Woman,” he says, “great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly.
What does this story mean for us today? Well, for one, it means that just like Justa, God’s redeeming grace has been extended to us. But what about the deeper more hidden meaning Matthew may have buried in this story for us to find and how does it apply to our lives now? Well, I think that there are two very clear directives we can take with us - one for those of us who find ourselves on the borders, marginalized - and one for those of us who don’t count ourselves amongst that group, that is, one for those of us who marginalize from our places of privilege.
In Justa, we learn about the importance of the persistence of faith for those who are marginalized. Let me say that again, we learn about the importance of the persistence of faith for those who are marginalized.
What does that look like lived out in this life? It looks like Elm St., in Greensboro, February 1, 1960. Four freshmen from North Carolina A&T University defied the segregationist policy so prevalent in the Southern United States by boldly asking to be served at the “whites only” lunch counter at the Woolworth’s department store. In the face of the controversy some would say they should just go home. They didn’t. Their courageous act launched the sit-in movement that was a major component of the civil rights movement. They persisted; they demanded to be recognized as equal in the eyes of God. They had been marginalized and pushed out to the borders of society and in the face of challenge and controversy they stood firm in their faith; they were persistent and faithfully claimed they too were children of God.
The life of Dr. King is also shining example of this...this Justa syndrome, this persistence of faith from those who are pushed to the borders of society. Dr. King described what I’m calling the Justa syndrome this way, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Matthew tells us that faith shows itself in the persistence of marginalized people claiming liberation and recognition as children of God.
Dr. King’s words also bring us to our second life lesson from Matthew – the lesson for those of us not marginalized, but privileged. Hear it again, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” In Jesus, we learn the importance for those who live in privileged places to reach out to those marginalized and recognize them as equally worthy of God’s grace. Let me repeat that, in Jesus, we learn the importance for those who live in privileged places to reach out to those marginalized and recognize them as equally worthy of God’s grace.
The life of Dorothea Dix is an example of this. Dorothea was gifted from an early age. At the age of 15, yes 15, she started her own private school. It is fair to say that while she was a good person with a good heart, Dorothea came from a place of privilege. One day, later in her life, a ministerial student came seeking advice from her about teaching a women’s Sunday school class. She volunteered to teach the class. The catch was it was at a prison and in 1841, well, it just wasn’t proper for a lady of privilege and place to be seen in a prison. She should have just given up on it and stayed home. She didn’t.
She persisted. When she saw the conditions of the mentally ill inmates she was horrified. In order to help them claim back their humanity she took on the state of Massachusetts, then other states, then US congress. She then traveled to England, Scotland, France, Austria, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Russia, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and Germany changing the way the world saw and treated the mentally ill. She was challenged at every corner and should have given up. She didn’t. Why? In her own words, “In a world where there is so much to be done. I felt strongly impressed that there must be something for me to do.” Matthew tells us that faith shows itself in how we respond to Jesus’ teaching of the inclusion of those marginalized.
Our faith that Jesus is the Messiah can be measured, in part, by the persistency of our trust in Christ even during life’s struggles. The Justa syndrome tells us that oppressed groups should be persistent in seeking liberation from subjugation. In harmony with that, Jesus’ response in the story indicates that reaching out to those we have marginalized is part of God’s post-resurrection plan and that we should never perceive those we consider outsiders as somehow more distant from or less deserving of God’s grace. When we can step out into the margins and claim God’s grace for all the children of God, then and only then can we say that we, like Jesus, have learned the power of the persistence of faith. Then and only then can we truly say that we are disciples of God.
Genesis 6:9-22, 7:24, 8:14-19, 9:8-17
6:9These are the descendants of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God. 10And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
11Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. 12And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth.
13And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. 14Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. 15This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. 16Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above; and put the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks. 17For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. 18But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. 19And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. 20Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive. 21Also take with you every kind of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them.”
22Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.
7:24And the waters swelled on the earth for one hundred fifty days.
8:14In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dry.
15Then God said to Noah, 16“Go out of the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives with you. 17Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh—birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth—so that they may abound on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.” 18So Noah went out with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. 19And every animal, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves on the earth, went out of the ark by families.
9:8Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9“As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
12God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 17God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
The Peanuts characters Linus and Lucy are standing at the window watching the rain. Lucy says, "If it doesn't stop raining everything will be washed away."
"Oh no!" says Linus. "Genesis chapter 9 says that never again will God wash everything away."
"Thank you." says Lucy, "that is a great comfort to me."
Linus replies, "Sound theology will do that."
Now, some of you didn’t laugh at that. And with good reason, I’d say. The irony in that cartoon is two fold. First, when you are in the middle of a monstrous storm, an old story recorded some 3,000 years ago really isn’t all that comforting. But secondly, and possibly more disappointing, just as frequently as not “sound theology,” at least on the surface, can seem anything but comforting.
As a child I remember the Noah story being on of my favorite stories. I could pass endless hours drawing pictures of a large boat with an old man wearing a rain hat hanging over the stern. On a side note, I have to admit to being remarkably confused about how Noah actually put all those animals on one boat when I couldn’t even think of all the animals, more-or-less draw them on my sheet of paper.
If we think about it, we all really love this story. How many children’s rooms, across the US are decorated with animals, arks and rainbows all painted in vibrant pastels? Somehow there is something comforting about it. Somehow, there is something beautiful in the promise for the future captured in an acrylic rainbow that has been painted in an exaggerated arch just over the baby’s crib.
I’d have to say my perspective has change considerably since my naïve childhood. As I come to these texts again, the reality of the chaos comes crashing through with every imagined wave. This is not a pretty story and I’m not talking about how far humanity had fallen.
Place this story in modern times. What would be the newspaper headline? One noted reporter penned this headline for the Noah Flood Event, “God Destroys the World – One Family Survives.” Sounds like the perfect chair-rail border for the little toddler’s room doesn’t it – “God Destroys the World.” No...it really doesn’t, does it?
Looking at the Flood Event from a more analytical perspective gave me a new insight about how horrifying this story really is on multiple levels. Let’s just start with God. Up until this point, God has given humanity one commandment – “go forth and multiply.” Really, read the first five chapters of Genesis – “go forth and multiply,” that’s it. There is no, “thou shalt not kill,” “thou shalt not covet thy neighbors wife,” not even a “don’t eat shellfish.” So, seemingly, without any real justification God condemns all of humanity, except for one family.
If you look at the texts in its entirety you can even reasonably make the argument, and some have, that God is behaving like an adolescent. “I don’t like how things are going. I’m taking my ball and going home.” God doesn’t like what the way people are acting, even though they had never been giving anything by which to measure what God expected of them. So without warning God reaches into the sky, opens the drain that holds back the deluge and goes home. No warning, except for telling his best friend…"you might want to build a boat."
Now if that wasn’t bad enough, after it is all said and done. After countless humans and animals spin and whirl in the chaotic waters of the flood and their bloated bodies finally come to a rest in what must of been some horribly unspeakable places, God seems to feel regret, like a child being scolded by a parent, “I promise I will never, ever, ever do it again…look I drew a rainbow for you.” The reality of the chaos comes crashing through with every imagined wave.
Noah, in my book, is no better off in this story. Noah, the one person in the entire face of the planet who was found to be “righteous,” has a conversation with God. God says, “ you should build a boat. I’m going to send some rain…well, a lot of rain…ok, a whole, whole lot of rain. Enough to wipe out everything…except you and your family and a few of every animal.” Now, what does Noah do? Well, by the judgment of God, Noah was the only “righteous” person on the planet, so presumably Noah argues to save the innocent like Abraham argued with God for the lives of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah...right? Wrong. Noah builds the ark, somehow crams millions of varied species into it, and follows his family onto the ship as God closes the rest of the world out, leaving them to deal with the chaos that was to follow.
It is at this point that the reality of the chaos comes crashing through with every imagined wave. It must have been horrifying as the rest of the world came to grip with the reality of what was happening. The floodgates had open. Crazy old Noah wasn’t looking so crazy any more. Can you imagine sitting on the inside of the boat and doing nothing? The horrific scream of friends and neighbors, the crackling of fingernails bending back on end trying to pry into the one place of refuge in the chaos of the world. Can you imagine sitting on the inside of the boat and doing nothing? I can’t. The headline would read, “God Destroys the World – One Family Survives.”
Now that, my friends, would make some baby room. Swirls of water painted in deep blues and black. Each wave delicately decorated with a slowly swelling body of one of the millions who did not make it. Resting heavily on the wall just over the crib is a monstrosity of a boat, completely closed in and along the edges of the door are the traces of fingers that never made it in. On the other side of the room the swells are beginning to subside. Carcasses rest in the trees, muck and debris are beginning to find less than convenient resting places and you begin to think how good it is that you cannot smell what it must have been like. And in the far corner of the room, scratched out in crayon, almost in an after thought is a small rainbow and scribbled just below the rainbow is the simple word, “Sorry.” The reality of the chaos comes crashing through with every painted wave. God Destroys the World – One Family Survives.
Noah’s actions remind me of so many of the choices we as a species have made. Whether it is the Holocaust, slavery, the taking of Native American land, Rwanda, or Darfur we continue to make the same horrific choices made by Noah in this Flood Story. One of the best recent depictions I can remember of this was in the movie “Hotel Rwanda.” If you have not seen it, do yourself a favor and rent it. Let me set the scene: Rwanda was being consumed in the flood of its own tears and the blood of its own people. Diplomats from America and European countries, who were in Rwanda and had done what little they could to help, begin to see that the tide is not turning and that the deluge of chaos is about to come crashing through in waves of violence. In an astounding piece of cinematic brilliance, the diplomats (those who are thought to be righteous) load themselves into a small bus (a bus eerily shaped like an ark) in the middle of a rainstorm. The bus pulls out of the oncoming flood without as much as a single Rwandan on it. The reality of the chaos comes crashing through with every wave of violence.
Genesis 9 verse 11 God said, “Never again shall all flesh be cut off by a flood.” Never again? And for that matter why couldn’t God make that promise without the “again,” “Never shall all flesh be cut off by a flood.” But even now it happens, a flood of hatred cut off the Jews, a flood of greed and entitlement cut off the American Indians, a flood of arrogance and unjustified superiority cut off millions of Africans who were forced into the slave trade, a flood of tears and blood washed away millions of Rwandans…and today a flood flows in Darfur. We? We continue to play the roll of Noah gathering on our boats of pride, privilege and superiority and somehow imagine that in our righteousness God has entitled us to it and closes the door behind for our protection in a sort of divine seal of approval for our lack of action.
The Flood Story is more than that. There are bigger lessons to be learned. In the Flood Story we do have a God acting (in some ways) like an adolescent, but God hasn’t been dealing with this creation thing for long at this point. If we are made in the likeness of God and we have to learn how to handle something new, why could it not be the case that God is learning here? In the end, God regrets that the flood happened, promising to never do it again. What is regret, if it is not a result of learning? I regret that I made the choices I made, but I have learned something from it and will not do it again. God learned that destruction was not the solution. The thing to never loose sight of is that in all of it, God’s anger, disappointment, response, regret and promise – in all of it God has one underlying desire – God wants to save the world.
We can also learn from Noah – the one righteous person left. Noah never went to God on behalf of those who were to suffer through the floods. Noah was disengaged from the world. He had built this amazing ark, designed by the hands of God and he kept it all to himself and his family.
Floods happen on a daily basis in this world - some are the Darfurs of the world, some are floods of economic oppression, floods of fear, floods of social stigmas and even real floods that devastate entire coastlines as they wash out thousands of lives. We call ourselves, the people of God. Are we? Do we live our lives that way? Have we learned from the stories? Do we understand that destruction is not the answer? It is not about destruction…it is about construction. Building arks of refuge in a world of floods. Did we learn not to shut the world out, but to bring the world in? Can we look into the swirling chaos of today’s world and honestly make that Rainbow Promise, “You will not be cut off by the floods. You will survive.” Has our church become an ark of refuge or have we huddled into our refuge and assumed that God has closed the door behind us?
Building arks. Surviving Floods. Rainbow promises. We ARE the people of God. In our baptisms God has claimed us by name. Before we were even born God cherished every fiber of our beings – all of us, everyone in the world. Now we have to get busy.
Did we learn not to shut the world out, but to bring the world in? Did we learn from Noah? From Rwanda? The answer is important. Watch the movie “Hotel Rwanda.” Then read about Darfur. Have we learned? Can we look into the swirling chaos of today’s world and honestly make that Rainbow Promise, “You will not be cut off by the floods. You will survive.” I say, we have work to do. Building arks. Surviving Floods. Rainbow promises.
49“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
54He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. 55And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 56You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
It has been said, and rightly so, that Jesus came to “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” Well, while today's reading most certainly disturbs the comfortable...I'm just having a hard time seeing how it comforts the disturbed.” In a world where bumper stickers proclaim “Jesus Loves You, but I'm His Favorite,” lines like, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” certainly do disturb all of us, those the world would see as comfortable.
When you Google names for 'Jesus' you find things like, Prince of Peace, Holy One, Deliverer, Author of Salvation, Bread of Life, The Good Shepherd, Lamb of God, Light of the World, Righteous One, Savior...not one of those names suggest anything that would make Jesus' words in today's text, things like, “From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother,”...not one of the names of Jesus suggest anything that would make those words more palatable, believable...comfortable.
The bottom line is, what we read in today's scripture reading is disturbing – disturbing in part, because it does not fit nicely with what we've come to believe about Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Now, in part, that has to do with what I call the “dualistic lens” through which most of the western hemisphere has chosen to try to judge and understand this world that God created. We will talk more about that in a minute, but first, I think we could gain a better understanding of why The Author of Salvation says he will divide families.
The background to this is actually pretty straight forward. First, remember that we are reading the Gospel of Luke here. Who was it's intended audience? Who did the author of Luke assume would be it's primary reader? The gentiles. Well...there ya' go. For gentiles, there is no doubt, Jesus will put “father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
In their day and age, those who were turning away from the pagan gods to be followers of Jesus, Followers of The Way, would most certainly divide their families. In part, this was the reason for many of the recorded Christian persecutions that happened back then. So, Jesus wasn't saying that it was his plan all along to bring division, what he was saying is, “When people (say the gentiles) do what is right (like following the teachings of Jesus) their families will be divided.”
This becomes a problem for us because of what I call the “dualistic lens” through which we like to see life. Through the lens, this dualistic lens, things can only be this or that, one thing or the other. If it isn't a solid, it must be a gas or a liquid...period. The things is, that's not even close to reality. For instance, 99% of the universe God created is not solid...but it's not, liquid or gas either. It is something that can have proprties like any of the state of matter, it's called plasma.
You see, looking through our miss-informed, dualistic lens, we like to think that Jesus, the Prince of Peace, was either this or that one way or the other. Believing that he came to both bring peace and to divide us can be difficult for us to wrap our heads around.
Let me give you another example of this that will also help further our discussion. You may or may not know who Anne Rice is (if you follow me on Facebook, quite recently you have no choice but to know who she is).
She is a Christian writer who has not only written about Angels but has also pinned a best selling set of novels about vampires – so right away, you just about have to figure that she is a very interesting person. I bring he up because of something she did a little over a week ago. On her Facebook page, this author whose current novel is about angels announced that she was quitting Christianity. It's not quite as drastic as it sounds though. Let me read you her exact words: “For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being “Christian” or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to “belong” to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”
Like I said earlier, “When people do what is right (like following the teachings of Jesus) their families will be divided.” “It’s simply impossible for me to “belong” to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group.” Anne was saying that the family of God is dramaticly divided and she just can take it any more. “They will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
When Anne made this announcement, as you might imagine, people began to form some pretty harsh opinions. One of them basically, said she took the easy way out; that believing the church was broken and staying in it was the hard choice to make (and implied in that was that it was also the only right choice to make). It is at that point that I entered the conversation. My point was simply this, why can't they both be difficult choices? Why can't we set aside our dualistic lenses through which we try to define things in the world and recognize that my choice to stay in the church when I think it can be a “quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group,” and Anne's choice to leave it both can be terribly terrible choices to have to make? Very few things are either this or that, one thing or the other.
Yet it is thinking like that, thinking that things are either this or that, right or wrong, us or them, that has created a church where a devout follower of Jesus, like Anne, decides that the only reasonable thing to do is to continue to follow Jesus and the only workable way to do that is to leave The Church. It is thinking like that that has caused young people throughout our nation to make the exact same decision, to be spiritual, but not to attend a church, because the church has become a very judgmental, and a very divided, place – a very divided family. “They will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
It is our isms that are to blame. Next week in in a sermon called “ism Schism” we will look more specifically at the “isms” that divide us. We will look at isms like: classism, racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, weight-ism, able-ism, ageism, looks-ism, heterosexism, capitalism, nationalism, anti-semitism, faith-ism…all sorts of isms. Each of them determined to divide the world into us and them, this or that, wright or wrong.
Some would point to today's scripture and say that the divisions are to be expected. Some would even say, based on this text, that God doesn't mind. We have to keep in mind, Jesus wasn’t saying that he wanted division to come to God’s people, he was just saying that he knew that there would be division, that there would be some who followed the teachings and others who would get real bothered by it because it isn't what they want.
As I said earlier “When people (this time says us) do what is right (like following the teachings of Jesus, things like love your neighbor, don't hate) their families will be divided.”
We must not forget, that Jesus died so that we might have life and have it to the fullest. While you can clearly hear a great deal of angst and frustration in Jesus' words from today's scripture, Jesus’ frustration may well have been that he dearly wanted God’s people to live out the two great commandments 1) to be happy and at peace, 2) to love your neighbor, to care for the poor and needy...and he didn’t see it happening, so he cried out in anger.
Would it be any different today? As our nation bubbles up to a slow boil over the location of a mosque – allowing hate, anger and fear to rule our perspectives? Even as the worshipers of that religion turn to the God of Abraham? Faith-ism, racism.
Would it be any different today, as we shout out in anger at people who God' claims as God's own, because a judge said that it is OK for them to marry the person they love? Heterosexism.
Would it be any different today as big business clamor to squeeze out the “least of these” all in the name of making yet another almighty dollar on which the print ironically proclaims, “In God We Trust?” Class-ism, Capitalism.
The answer is no – no it would not be any different. Jesus would still cry out in angst and anger, asking “What part of love thy neighbor, did you find difficult to understand? What part of judge not lest you too be judge, escaped you?” This is not a game. It is not an on-again off-again love affair. This is a lifetime commitment to becoming our better selves.
If we’re honest with ourselves, selfishness, hate, division, cruelty, and ignorance still grasp at the very souls of God’s people. We still see the clouds and predict rain, rather than recognizing the present potential to live out heaven on earth simply by being the people God created us to be, the people Jesus tried to teach us to be.
To paraphrase theologian Bob Dillon, how many road must we walk down? How many ears must we have before we have enough to hear? We have to stop playing games. Stop turning our heads and pretending that we don't see. Bob Dylan's song “Blowin' in the Wind,” captures the angst that God feels every time we turn our head to someone in need, take advantage of the least of these, or make choices out of fear and hate. You see in this family, in the church family, God is the parent...and that adds a whole new take on “They will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother.” We not only divide ourselves from each other, but from God.
On hearing Bob Dylan, perform “Blowing in the Wind,” Pope John Paul II, told the crowd of some 300,000 young Italian Catholics that the answer was indeed "in the wind" – not in the wind that blew things away, but rather "in the wind of the spirit" that would lead them to Christ. And that is where our hope resides as well.
In the movement of the Spirit there is hope for a divided world, hope for a divided nation, hope for a divided church...hope for you are me.
One of the sermons I gave during our church's month long celebration of our 50th Anniversary.
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
4So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.5Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan,
6Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7Then the Lordappeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. 8From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. 9And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.
Today's theme is “No Place like HOME.” As I reflected on that theme, clearly the concept of “home” was very important. What do we mean when we say home? Well, some would say home is where the heart is. Emily Dickens say that home is “where thou art.” The contemporary Christian author Kathleen Norris says, that the other name for home is peace. Billy Graham, however, gave the answer that (not surprisingly) probably most closely reflects an biblical understanding of home. He said, “My home is in Heaven. I'm just traveling through this world.”
Well, as I thought about the different ways we each may define home, I thought it might be wise to turn to the Bible to understand what it has to say about home.
Now the first text I turned to wasn't the one we read today, arriving there was a sort of journey of it's own. The first text I turned to was from the Gospel of Luke. I wanted to look at what Jesus had to say about home. The first scripture I looked at was when Jesus returns to his home as an adult and reads from Isaiah in the synagogue. Jesus, the son of God, proclaims that in the reading of the words from Isaiah that say, “He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor,” - he says in the reading of those words the have been fulfilled.
Well this was his hometown, so you'd expect a reasonably warm reception – right? Only that's not what happened. The crowd became increasingly agitated, which leads Jesus to basically say, “you can never go home again.” (OK, I might be paraphrasing). At which point those who knew him as a child chased him out of town and tried to run him off a cliff. You can never go home again.
I suspect that this, in part, is what led Jesus (just a few chapters later) to say, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Even more interesting is what Jesus was responding to when he said this. You see someone was wanting to follow Jesus and that was the answer he received. Furthermore, the poor guy says, “OK, but let me go bury my father.” Jesus says, “let the dead bury the dead.” Then the guys says, “at least let me say farewell to those at home.” And Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
At first that seems like a rather cryptic exchange, but the more I read it, the more a very clear theme came out of it and ultimately it is how we ended up reading the Abrahamic call story for today's scripture.
Jesus' early experience with trying to return home sent him packing. As a matter of fact, his earliest memories were probably not of Jerusalem but of Egypt. You see, Jesus probably spent his first Christmas in Egypt. Because Joseph was warned by the magi and then directed by an angel, Jesus probably spent the better part of the beginning of his life traveling to Egypt. His first home was a journey.
Then when he tries to return as an adult to his home town, he get's run out of town. For him, maybe home is not always where the heart is – maybe, you can never go home again.
So, a few chapters later when someone ask to follow him, Jesus give him some hard truths about what being a follower of his is like. There is not place to lay your head. We do not settle down and get comfortable for long. Then the guy's immediate reaction is to want to tie things up at home. And Jesus says, the past is the past – let the dead bury the dead. You can not plow a field looking backwards.
For me, all of a sudden, placed within the context of his life, what Jesus is saying seems a little less than cryptic. He's simply saying, being a follower of Jesus means moving forward. Being in a relationship with Jesus means being on a journey. In many ways it was simply the life he knew. He had essentially said, you can never go home again. But I think time had taught him it was a little more involved that that.
Maya Angelou says, “You can never go home again, but the truth is you can never leave home, so it's all right.” Combine that with Emily Dickens' thought that home is “where thou art,” and I think Jesus' response to this man is to say, “If you are to be my disciple, you have to have a new understanding of home. Home isn't the history, home is the journey.”
Well, that insight led me to consider Moses. After all, one of the key things Jesus' family's flight to Egypt does is tie him to Moses. Moses came out of Egypt to free the Jews, Jesus will come out of Egypt and free Jews and Gentiles alike – free the world.
And that's when it hit me, home for the Israelites fleeing from the Pharaoh for 40 years was also a journey. It wasn't always a journey they wanted to be on, but the journey (for 40 years) was their home none-the-less.
For that matter David spent much of his life journeying first from the countryside to the king's side and then when Saul saw that David would succeed him, David's home was on the run from Saul's wrath, spending years journeying from cave to cave in enemy territory while also journeying in his relationship with the very God whom he understood to have forced this journey upon him. It would seem that even for David, who wrote so many of the Psalms to God, journeying with God did not always lead him were he wanted to go.
Throughout the old testament prophet after prophet, in an effort to be good followers of God, find themselves unwelcome in hometowns and other places and find themselves on the move in order to follow God.
From the New Testament, we've already mentioned Jesus, but let us not forget Paul who spent his life on no fewer than four journeys as he chased the will of God. He found himself everywhere from Damascus to Antioch, Cyprus and Philippi, Corinth, Ephesus, Jerusalem, Caesarea and even Rome.
Clearly following God means being on a journey. Which is what brought me back to the Abrahamic call story, because it is the foundational biblical journey story. God tells Abram. Go. Go from your land. Go from your birthplace. Leave your father's house, where he is buried. (You should hear echoes of Jesus saying, “let the dead bury the dead – you can't plow looking back.”)
God takes it a step further basically saying, “Head thata' way. Not telling you where you are going. You are on a Journey with me. But I will tell you, it will be a blessing when you get there.” So, for Abram, and his family, home (home with God) was a journey. Over and over again Abram literally “pulled up his stakes” and and left what was home behind. And as is the case with journeys, it meant change. For Abram his whole identity changed, even his name changed.
Much like our church's founders who 50 years ago stepped out on faith and started a new journey, a new church...., as people of faith, we too are called to take a journey. Sometimes we may only know which direction we’re going, or that God has called us to leave what has been familiar, comfortable, and known for “the land that God will show us.” Biblically we can see that obedience, listening, worshiping, selflessness, and remaining open to new understandings of God can turn all sorts of experiences and efforts into Abram-type pilgrimages. We may be out of our comfort zones and in places where we feel out of our depth, but God calls us to go anyway, toward an unknown future.
When the people of Israel left Egypt, it took them forty years to finally enter the land of Canaan. Only two people who actually left Egypt were still living to enter the promised land. That trip could have been made in two weeks, but there was a lot of spiritual formation that needed those years “on the journey.”
In many ways, this is the kind of journey we have been on these last few years as a congregation. Over our history, our journey with God has taken us to many wonderful and exciting places. It has also (like with the Israelites, David and others) has taken us places we either didn't want to go or never imagined going.
Most recently, our journey has taken us away from a lot of things that have traditionally been considered essential for a church. We have found ourselves outside of our comfort zone with what the worship space sometimes looks like, with what we do in worship, with new church activities, with our view of pastoral ministry, with how we connect with the community in which God planted us and in many other ways.
Even now, we don’t know just where we will end up, or whether we will ever reach our destination – whether one day again Vandalia will be a vital, and growing congregation. But it’s not whether or when we get there that is the important thing – the important thing is how we make the journey.
It’s the pilgrimage, the journey, that is important, not reaching the destination. It’s the journey that is our home, not the destination. God calls us not to a final destination but to make a pilgrimage that involves obedience, listening, worshiping, selflessness, and remaining open to new understandings of God. These are the qualities that can make all of our journeys and changes of direction into spiritual pilgrimages.
Billy Graham once said, “My home is in Heaven. I'm just traveling through this world.” Indeed, there is no place like home, when the journey with God is our home.
27“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you. 32“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
37“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
Humans are a race of dominance; a race of power over; a race of violence. As far as I can see we always have been. It is so much a part of us that linguistic idioms that communicate our vindictiveness are common place: “Eye for an Eye and a Tooth for a Tooth,” “Quid Pro Quo,” “Tit for Tat,” “Let the punishment fit the crime.” Retributive justice seems to be an almost primal need.
When the first ever World Report on Violence and Health was released, it said the death and disability caused by violence make violence one of the leading public health issues of our time. Violence is among the leading causes of death for people aged 15-44 years of age, accounting for 14% of deaths among males and 7% of deaths among females. On an average day, over 1400 people are killed in acts of homicide - almost one person every minute. Roughly one person commits suicide every 40 seconds. About 35 people are killed every hour as a direct result of armed conflict. In the 20th century, an estimated 191 million people lost their lives directly or indirectly as a result of conflict.
Even religions are violent. Muslim extremist conceptualized and executed the event of Sept the 11th. In the Spanish Inquisition Christians abused, tortured, or executed more than 300,000 people (including other Christians) - 2,000 of whom were burned at the stake. Then there is violence based on ethnicity. In the holocaust, or the Ha-Shoa, Hitler and the Third Reich killed 9 to 18 million people. In Darfur an internalized genocide has killed more than 400,000 people in graphically gory ways. War, of course, kills too. In the 20th century alone over 35 billion people lost their lives as a direct result of war.
Our human lust for power and as a result violence is so strong we’ve had to event new words to categorize violence of the powerful. Democide is death by government. From government endorsed famine to regime initiated massacres, democide has outpaced even war in deaths in the 20th century brining in a toll of 119 billion people.
One of my favorite authors and theologians, Walter Wink, says “Violence is the ethos of our times. It is the spirituality of the modern world. It has been accorded the status of a religion, demanding from its devotees an absolute obedience to death.” We humans, like it or not, are a violent people. Wink would suggest that, whether we want to admit it or not, we don’t just like it. In our own way, we worship it.
It is not surprising then that religion has historically had segments of its varying bodies that have produced antithetical responses to power, war and violence. Most typically these segments produce some varying form of pacifism. Christian, among others, have been at the forefront of the movement. Pointing to texts such as the one today that reads, “turn the other cheek,” they oppose war and violence as a means to settle disputes. But in its extreme form pacifism can lead to dangerous, even life risking, perspectives. In its extreme form, pacifist have used text from today’s readings to actually encourage women (and sometimes men) to stay in abusive relationships, telling people who have been abused (physically and mentally) to turn the other cheek.
That brings us to today’s text. As some pacifist may suggest, in this text Jesus speaks clearly about the biblical mandate, God’s will, for conflict to be solved without abuse of power and resorting to violence. Unlike they say, it does not in anyway suggest that God wishes for Christians to be doormats, getting stepped on every time someone else wishes to excerpt his or her power or strength over them. To the contrary, these texts suggest that God does not want us to live in the violence of humanity (be it war or social injustices), and at the same time it also suggest that God also does not want us to be doormats for the world to walk all over because of some religiosity that encourages us to avoid conflict. These texts suggest that conflict does not have to be solved by excerpting power or acting out physically, nor does it have to be solved by passively avoiding conflict. These texts suggest there is another, better way. It is what Wink calls Jesus’ Third Way.
To see how it work let’s break down the texts into three directives – turn the other cheek, give your cloak too, and go the extra mile. Jesus was never one to back down from confronting injustices and from defending the oppressed. So, it is likely that he did not mean “turn the other cheek” to be taken at face value (pardon the pun). What else could he have meant?
Walter Wink has a very interesting and very helpful perspective here. First, he considers the words of the often misquoted and misused “turn the other cheek.” The important part of this verse is frequently left out when it is quoted: “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek.” This use of the word “right” points to the probability that there is something more here than meets the eye (again, pardon the pun).
Now, if Jesus’ purpose was to advise his disciples to be passive when it comes to resisting violence, the qualification of “right” is not really needed. What then could he be trying to communicate? What would the significance of the right cheek be?
Consider this, if you are right handed (as most of those listening to Jesus would be) and are standing face to face with another person how would you strike them on the right cheek? There is only one reasonable solution to this puzzle. You would have to strike them with the back of your hand. In Jesus’ times, this delivered a clear message. It was a message of place and power. Masters struck slaves backhanded. Husband struck wives backhanded. Parents struck children backhand.
It delivers a very clear message about who has the power. Contrary to this, if you are fighting someone of equal power, you would do so with a closed fist. So, what is Jesus’ teaching on how to handle this aggression from a place of power? He says to level the playing field – nonviolently. “Turn the other also.” Why? Once again, if you are right handed and someone has offered you their left cheek to strike, how would you do it? Could you strike them with backhandedly? No. It's not possible. It would have to be with a closed fist, effectively leveling the power structure.
Wink also looks at, “and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” What good is there in giving more than is asked of you? Well, in thinking about this, it is important to ask why would someone be suing for clothes rather than money or some other substantial asset? Placing the text in its day and age, the Old Testament provides some answers. Exodus, Deuteronomy and Amos all contain examples of people suing for another’s clothing. It always happens when the person being sued is poor.
Once again it is a question of power. What is Jesus’ response? Is it to be a doormat and allow the person bringing the suit against you to not only have their way but also take extra? No. He proposes that they not only give their outer clothing but also all of there inner clothing, which in that day and age would leave them stark naked. What could possibly be the purpose in this?
Once again Jesus has suggested to creatively and nonviolently shift the power structure. Imagine the rich man standing there with the poor person’s clothing carelessly draped over his arm, all of it, while the poor person stands there (willingly at this point) naked. The embarrassment of the rich man is almost palpable, but it doesn’t end there. In Jewish traditions, public nudity is extremely taboo. The interesting point here is that the shame is not on the person who is naked but rather on the one viewing it. Again Jesus has shown an alternative, a third way, to both non-violently solve the conflict and claim the biblical identity of all people being created equally in the image of God.
The final teaching says “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” Once again we need to consider this text from within its contexts. The people hearing this would undoubtedly be very aware of the Roman Empire’s limitation of forced labor for its armies. You see, each soldier carried a pack that could weigh as much as eighty-five pounds. The powers that be wanted to allow the soldiers to enlist whatever help was needed but at the same time limit the anger occupied nations have toward the Empire. So, soldiers could “enlist” civilians to carry their packs, but only for one mile.
Now, not adhering to this law entailed severe penalties. If a civilian refuse, they incur the penalty. If a soldier made them go more than one mile, the soldier incurs the penalty. That is the first and obvious reason to offer to carry the pack a second mile – severe penalties for breaking the law. Immediately the power has shifted. Wink suggests that the scene would quite hysterical - a soldier asking, possibly even begging, for his pack back from a civilian. The civilian has taken the initiative away from the soldier.
In terms of contemporary theology, this way of thinking is probably considered pragmatic pacifism. It is the non-violent perspective recognized and practiced by Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Cesar Chaves, Hildegard and others like them. It is Jesus’ Third Way - a way of not backing down, of not resorting to violence, a way that seeks to creatively level the playing field so that no one person ever is greater than or holds a power over another.
The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads “…recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…”
We are to work creatively for solutions that level the playing field. Jesus’ Third Way emphasizes the humanity and dignity of all people. It exposes the injustice in the system and breaks the cycles of oppression and humiliation. In short, Jesus abhors both passivity and violence and gives us a way in which evil can be confronted but not emulated. Let us pray that someday, we as a race, learn this lesson of Jesus’ Third Way so that we might stop the violence and begin to restore heaven on earth.
Luke 17:11-1911On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
I imagine that most of you have heard of or maybe even know a great deal about what is known as the Prosperity Gospel, some may even believe in it – and it is understandable why you would want to. Being that it is the title of today's message, we probably need to start with a little background on it before we go any further, so that we all are starting on the same page.
My personal awareness of the Prosperity Gospel (or Prosperity Theology as some call it), started with the nationally bestselling book, The Prayer of Jabez
. It is a book based on 2 Bible verses 1 Chronicles 4:9 & 10. Jabez himself, after these two verses is never mentioned again.
The two verses read: “Jabez was more honorable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez, saying, "I gave birth to him in pain." Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, 'Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.' And God granted his request."
Now there is a lot of God stuff in The Prayer of Jabez
, but the overarching message is that of Prosperity Theology. While it is full of good things to consume (as one reviewer aptly put it), "as a final touch the chef sprinkled just a little rat poison over the plate." In this case the poison is the author's constant suggesting that he has found the magic prayer, the magic words that will make God give you everything you want.
And that's the Prosperity Gospel. It says that God gives those whom God favors prosperity...and like I said as we began, it is understandable why people would want to believe it. Some people estimate that 10s of millions of people practice it. The most famous among those who teach it include names like Kenneth Copeland, Kennith Hagin and Joel Osteen.
In some form or another they teach of a Prosperity Gospel that says God gives those God favors all the material and physical possessions they desire. Those whom God favors are the pious; people who confess the loudest, believe the hardest, faithfully tithe. All that is asked is that they “believe, receive and act upon God's promises.” If you do you will be healthy and wealthy.
Scott McKinght, a New Testament scholar and Professor of Religious Studies at North Park University, gives this helpful understanding of how to conceptualize the Prosperity Gospel, “God could be seen as The Vending Machine God
: put in faith and out pops blessings – money, homes, cars, beautiful spouses, clever kids, good neighbors, big churches, and plush vacations. For the prosperity gospel, humans are The Happiness Machine: receive the blessings, rely on the promises, act on the commandments and you can put on a happy face – a big one. Every day, from the moment you get up to the closing of your eyes, happiness is the aim of life. In the prosperity gospel, God is there for us; we are here for God to bless.” He concludes his thoughts saying, “To quote my father, Hogwash!”
Which brings us to today's scripture. (At this point you may be asking yourself, “it does?” but stick with me). For me today's story about the 10 lepers is a great critique of the core values of the Prosperity Gospel.
The end of this month is the 493th anniversary of Martin Luther's nailing his 95 Theses to the doors of the catholic church in Wittenburg. It was his way of saying that The Church had lost it's way. It was a call for the church to abandon the false teachings it had adopted over a period of time and to reform itself more in the image of the teachings of the Bible.
As we look at what I consider to be a false teaching of The Church, I think Martin Luther is probably a fine place to start. As the reforms of the early church were taking place, reforms his 95 Theses helped to usher in, Dr. Martin Luther was asked to describe the nature of true worship. His answer was to the point. To answer the question of what the nature of true worship is like, he said, the tenth leper turning back.
On a first read though, you could almost use the story of the 10 lepers as proof for a Prosperity Gospel. Remember? It asks you to “believe, receive and act upon God's promises.” The lepers believed, calling Jesus “Master.” They received his instructions and they acted upon them...and they were healed of their leprosy. It does sound a bit like McKinght's "Vending Machine God."
But the curious part is the part to which Martin Luther calls our attention – the tenth leper turning back. This is where the values and foundations of the Prosperity Gospel begin to unravel.
While all ten of the lepers were healed, only one of them returned to give proper thanks and show gratitude to God. Jesus tells the one, “your faith has made you well.” This is where it gets interesting. If you read closely, this leper did not
do what Jesus told him to do. Jesus says, “Go and show yourselves to the priest.” As a matter of fact, Jesus' question of where the other nine are seems a bit disingenuous – they are going to show themselves to the priests! This one leper didn't do it.
He decides to come back. So “believe, receive and act upon God's promises" begins to unravel. He is clearly not acting upon what Jesus said, yet he remains healed from leprosy. The question is why?
Jesus tells him, "Your faith has made you well.” In The Message version of the Bible, Eugene Peterson interprets this as, "your faith has healed and saved you.” We need to get in a little deeper on this thing the Martin Luther called true worship, so lets look at the original words used here. The Greek word here is sesoken
, which comes from the root sozo
and can mean a number of things including: healed, made well, saved. The King James Version translates it as, "Your faith has made you whole."
One thing is for certain, no matter how you translate it, this one leper (who didn't actually act upon Jesus' instructions) received something more than the others. In the eyes of Jesus, while the others were healed of leprosy, the one was made whole. In the eyes of Jesus, while the others were healed of their earthly afflictions, the one was healed of his spiritual afflictions.
You see there are more important things up for grabs here than simple healing. The key to understanding this passage and understanding the problems with the Prosperity Gospel is, just as Dr. Martin Luther suggested, understanding worship.
The one leper who came back recognizes what God has done for him through Jesus and he risks what he has been given to give praise to God. That is the key to understanding worship, understanding this passage, understanding our relationship with God and understanding the problem with the Prosperity Gospel.
The Prosperity Gospel ultimately focuses on claiming
what God gives you. But, like with the one leper, worship does not focus on claiming what God gives you, it focuses on recognizing
what God gives you and returning
to God..even at the risk of losing what you have in order to return.
Be it worship, stewardship or life in general,
being healthy and wealth is one thing,
being made whole is another.
Be it worship, stewardship or life in general,
the thing that Dr. Martin Luther was pointing to
was a sense of gratitude rather than a sense of privilege.
Be it worship, stewardship or life in general,
we will find our wholeness,
we will find our sense of completeness,
we will find our sense of well being,
not when we claim
what God gives us
but when we recognize
what God gives us
and are grateful
and we return
all that we are back to our God.
When we do God will look upon us and say, “Your faith has made you whole,” and that...that is more of a blessing than any thing we could posses here on this earth could ever be. So, thanks be to God.There is also a Children's Sermon to go with this message.
11Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. 12As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. 13When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!”15The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. 16Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” 17This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.
I was speaking to...well, to one of our church members about today's text, a resurrection story, and they said, “not to sound anti-religious or anything, but stories like this one sort of creep me out.” That set me to thinking, “what is it about this story and ones like it that might creep us out.”
Well, I think a good place to start would be the line, “The DEAD man SAT UP and START TO SPEAK!” As far us most of us are concerned, that just isn't supposed to happen outside of TV shows like Lost.
But in the Bible, it happens no less than 10 times. People who are supposed to be dead, people who's lives are supposed to be ended, getting up and going on with life. Endings that aren't endings. Most of us just aren't comfortable with that and neither were the people who witnessed the resurrection in this story. Their first reaction wasn't amazement or celebration or joy. No, it creeped them out...more specifically, the text says that after the dead man sat up and started to speak, “Fear seized all of them;” well, of course it did! There's a dead man talking!
We probably would have had the same reaction, it's probably part of why that person told me stories like this creep them out, dead people are supposed to stay dead...of course they were creeped out. In our scientific world, endings are final.
When you think about it, the things that scare us, disappoint us, bother us, and sometimes offend us the most are not actually the things themselves, but rather, it is partly about how those things represent an ending to us…and our human instinct is to react negatively to endings. Endings seem so final. Which may end up being why biblical resurrection stories like the one we just read are so important.
Some endings, some deaths are the obvious ones - we loose loved ones, an important relationship ends, an institution that was significant to us closes its doors, a building where we worked is boarded up. Beyond the sadness connected with the permanent absence in our lives, there is also a part of us that morns the ending itself.
Then there are the endings, the deaths that are less obvious to us – like when things change. We are not just upset about the new way of doing things, we are, in part, morning the ending of the way things used to be. When we are not able to achieve a particular goal, we are not just upset about our inability to attain the aspiration, we are, in part, morning the death of the self we believed could achieve those goals.
When you think about it, the things that scare us, disappoint us, bother us, and sometimes offend us the most are not solely the things themselves, but also how those things represent an ending to us…and our human instinct is to react negatively to endings – they just seem so final.
We don’t like endings, dying. We avoid them (pardon the pun) “like the plague.” The funny thing is… death is an important part of life. The truth is, parts of us are dying all the time. Since I began this paragraph, you probably lost a million cells or so. We all lose about 100,000 cells per second. Death is an important part of life. In some ways, like with our cells, it is only in dying that we live.
In today's text we see a real life parable of the power of life over death that comes through God. A widow's only son has died. A widow's only son. Much like we might feel at times of loss, be they actual losses or perceived losses, this woman is utterly alone. In her day-and-age, the things that probably gave her life the most meaning are gone, the things that gave her life...well, life were dead. At the very least, spiritually, her life seems over.
The lesson in today's scripture though isn't about endings, it is about beginnings. Specifically, it is about how to find new beginnings in endings, how to find new life in death.
Examples of new life through death surround us in the world that God created. Looking at God's creation, it is difficult to understand how we ever started to believe that endings were final. A great example of this new life in death is the the life cycle of the salmon. (So, you see, they are not only delicious, they are educational).
A salmon has an instinct inside of it to bring it back to the place of its birth. After spending a year or two or three out in the ocean and swimming thousands of miles back up to the stream of their birth, the salmon prepare to die. They embrace endings. Their instinct is to search it out. Even in the face of obstacles such as rocks and dams and waterfalls, they do not falter in their instinctual understanding of death as an important part of living.
They finally, at the end of their long laborious journey, dig a hole, lay their eggs and die. And out of those eggs comes new life. For it is only through dying that there is new life among the salmon.
We can see it in the example of our own cells. As I’ve said, we all lose about 100,000 cells per second. Fortunately, in a healthy body, at the same time those are dying just a many cells are being reproduced. Healthy bodies have this constant cycle of dying cells and rebirth of new ones. Some scientists say that we actually fully regenerate all of our cells every seven years. When this natural cycle of life, this dying to live pattern, is interrupted or altered, that is when we have problems. Apparently, cells that don’t die off in the normal cycle are a real problem. These cells are related to diseases like cancer and become problematic because they get in the way and block the healthy development of the body. Death is an important part of life. In some ways, like with our cells, it is only in dying that we live.
That’s on microcosmic level; on the macrocosmic level we see the same dying to live pattern. The universe itself is locked into this essential cycle of life. The elements that are needed to make life possible are produced by the death of a star. How much more proof could we need, that endings are not bad? How much more proof could we need, that new life from death is just the way God designed this thing we call life?
Endings are not bad. They are possibly the opposite of bad – they are essential. Endings are not the death of something, they are simply the markers to the beginning of new possibilities – new life.
In today’s scripture reading we have one of the most extreme biblical examples of the fact that with God, endings are not final; that when there is a God there is a way; that nothing in this life, not angles, rulers, things present, things to be, not powers, height nor depth nor DEATH can separate us from God.
It is interesting to consider that, just like we have been learning in conformations class, there are only two sacraments in the Presbyterian church – anyone know what they are? Right, communion and baptism. Both of them, both of our sacraments are centered around the very idea, that new life comes in death. In communion we celebrate the resurrection, a reminder that because of God's love for us there is life after death. And in baptism we die to our old life and as we cross through the waters of baptism, the old life is gone and the new life has begun.
You see, today's scripture is not just about the way that the widow's only son was brought back to life; about how he got back his physical life. It is also not just about how in getting him back she got back her spiritual life. It is also about how our spiritual and emotional lives are sometimes not all God intends for them to be until we die to what we once knew and are born again into the new life that God has waiting for us.
If we want to continue growing in our relationship with God, we have to see the importance of dying in order to live – not just the reality of the death/life cycle that God imprinted into even the furthest reaching corners of Creation, but the reality of the spiritual and emotional deaths we all must die everyday – dying to ourselves and finding life anew in the grace of God. And trusting that God is always on the other side of death – be they physical, emotional or spiritual deaths; trusting that with God, endings are not final; trusting that when there is a God there is a way; trusting that nothing in this life, not angles, rulers, things present, things to be, not powers, height nor depth nor DEATH can separate us from God.
If we can do that, if we can trully trust God, even when facing physical, emotional and spiritual deaths – if we can trust God so much that facing deaths does not cause “fear to seize” us as it does those who witnessed the resurrection in today's scripture, then we can begin really living our lives for God.
It is a difficult lesson, but if we can learn it, if we can live it, if we can trust in God fully, even in the face of death – then earthly endings that creep us out, scare us, disappoint us, bother us, and sometimes offend us the most - well, they become just that “earthly endings,” but in our relationship with God, in following the teachings of Jesus, we can see them for what they also are “markers to the beginning of new life” – new possibilities in Christ.
We don’t like endings. We avoid them “like the plague.” The funny thing is, death is an important part of life.
Jesus once said, “Unless a seed dies, it remains only one seed; but if it dies, it produces many seeds and small seedlings of love which then grow into great love.”
St. Francis of Assisi knew this law of life well when he wrote his prayer for peace; “it is in giving that we receive; it is in dying that we are born again.”
The Apostle Paul knew it well when he said: “We will not be united with Christ in a resurrection like his, unless we are first united with Christ in a death like his.”
I would like bring this message to a close with a riddle that I've asked before in a similar sermon. What does a cell, a seed, a salmon, a star, and our lives have in common? If you understand the answer to that riddle, you have the key to growing your relationship with God even deeper.
Isaiah 49:8-168 Thus says the Lord: In a time of favor I have answered you, on a day of salvation I have helped you; I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages; 9 saying to the prisoners, "Come out," to those who are in darkness, "Show yourselves." They shall feed along the ways, on all the bare heights shall be their pasture; 10 they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them. 11 And I will turn all my mountains into a road, and my highways shall be raised up. 12 Lo, these shall come from far away, and lo, these from the north and from the west, and these from the land of Syene. 13 Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones. 14 But Zion said, "The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me." 15 Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. 16 See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.
Naming God is difficult at best, divisive even in its mildest form and can be thought of as sacrilegious at its worst. I was confronted squarely with this reality as I entered Divinity School. I can only begin to tell how excited was was to be accepted into Divinity School at Wake Forest. I had only applied to Princeton, Duke and Wake Forest and quite frankly had low hopes of being accepted into any of them. I still remember the day my acceptance letter arrived at the house. As I opened it standing mid-way up the driveway, I was overwhelmed with joy and relieved to finally be able to peruse the thing to which I believed God was calling me.
My first day of orientation at Wake made me forget about all of that as this divine calling I had answered, this desire deep in the core of my soul to talk about the God that I love and what that God wants for this world, was given parameters. More specifically, we spent a great deal of time discussing the topic of “gender neutral language.” “Discussing” is a bit of a false misnomer here. What we did was not so much of a discussion as it was that we were told what we were going to do (don't use words like 'father,' 'he,' or 'him' in referring to God), then we were allowed to vent our frustrations and articulate cogent theological perspectives of the problems with being told how we can talk about God, and then told (once again) what we were going to do (don't use words like 'father,' 'he,' or 'him' in referring to God).
I hope that what we are going to talk about here today, doesn't feel anything like that to any of you. While we are going to talk about “gender neutral language,” my hope is to present the case for such language in a way that is inviting and in a way that is convincingly shown to be what God would want.
Now let me say, I've always questioned the gendering of God. Even before that less than comfortable day when I and all of my new classmates sat listening to the Dean Leonard tell us what was acceptable language for talking about God – to the extent that gendered language in referring to God would not receive a passing grade – I was very comfortable thinking about God more as Spirit than Being (neither male or female as opposed to one or the other). I was however much more comfortable calling God “Father” just as Jesus had called God “Abba.”
Jump forward a year. My daughter Kayli was about 7 years old and had received a praying doll as a gift. Each night as I tucked her in bed and she would say her prayers, she would say them with her doll. “Our Father who art in heaven.” Its the same prayer we frequently pray in this service. “Our Father.” Night after night I heard that. At the same time, day after day, I was in school listening to my theology professor, Dr. Frank Tupper, remind those who chose to refer to God as 'he' that and I quote, “God does not have a...” Ok, you know what, I'm not going to quote here. Dr. Tupper would remind them that God does not have male parts. At night in the innocents of a young girl's voice I would hear God called “Father” as her own father tucked her in and during the day a man who dedicated his life to thinking about God would remind me that God does not have...well, God's not a man.
That's where I want to enter this conversation about God. That slice of my life. That moment in time when a young girl embraced the image of God as male and an older man refuted the image of God as male. Today's texts provide an opposite image of God as male. It presents a feminine image of God – God is equated to a mother who will not forget her nursing child or a woman who shows compassion for the child in her womb. Admittedly, some would argue that what we have isn't an equating of God to those images, but rather a placing of God above them, but that sales short the larger work of Isaiah where in a few chapters he says (Isaiah 66:13), “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you....” Clearly Isaiah wishes to equate with the name of God, mother.
Before we go further, let’s consider the importance of naming and names in the Bible. While in modern times names sometimes are meant to say something about a person (my son Hunter's middle name is “Grant” meaning gift), they typically are not thought of as something that identifies a person's character. The opposite is true with biblical names. They were descriptive. They tell us something about the person. Or as we are told in 1 Samuel 25:25, “As his name is, so is he.” Adam's name is from the root adamah – or earth\dirt – the very stuff from which humanity was made. Jacob, meaning “heal grabber,” came out of the womb holding his brother's heal and would later wrestle with an angel of God and change his name to Israel, meaning “One who has struggled with God.”
Biblically names are important. So much so that knowing a person's name gave you knowledge of them and could even suggest that from that knowledge you had a certain control over them. In the story where Jacob changes his name to Israel, he attempts to gain more than a physical advantage over the angel by asking for the angel's name, but the angel (who was willing to give in on the physical battle) does not relent on that battle. Moses tried to gain similar knowledge of God as God spoke to him through a burning bush. Asking for God's name, God replies with a mysterious (almost like the cartoon character Popeye), “I am what I am.”
All of this is to point out how important naming is biblically. Specifically, today we are talking about the naming of God. When speaking to Moses, God said, “My name is “I am what I am.” Well, I don't know about you, but it seems to me that's not even a name. The texts actually say God gave the response of Y-H-W-H (Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh) which is where we get the names, Jehovah, Yahweh and Adonai. But in essence they aren't so much a name as lack of a name.
The earliest name for God in the Bible is Elohim. Interestingly enough, this is not a masculine name – it is grammatically feminine. Another frequently used name for God in the Old Testament is El Shaddai which is popularly translated as God of the Mountains, but because “shad” the root of the word “shaddai” actually means “breast,” it has recently (and possibly more appropriately) been interpreted as “God with Breast,” and considering the image of God presented in today's texts, that seems perfectly reasonable.
Historically, God is presented in churches by masculine dominated language in spite of the fact, which we have just begun to see, that we have a list of biblical images of God as female. In Genesis men AND women are created in God's image. In Hosea (11:3-4,13:8) God is described as a mother and a mother bear. In Proverbs as Lady Wisdom. In Deuteronomy (32:18) God gives birth. As we just heard in Isaiah God is compared to a nursing mother and a pregnant woman. Isaiah also speaks of God as a pregnant woman crying out in pain (49:15). Jeremiah (44:25) - Queen of Heaven. Matthew (23:37) - a Mother Hen. Luke (15:8-10) – a woman looking for her lost coin. And possibly one of the most endearing images of God captured in the song “On Eagles Wings,” Deuteronomy (32:11-12) says, God will care for us just as a mother eagle “stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young as it spreads its wings, takes them up and bears them aloft on its pinions.” And all of those are just to name a few of the Bible's female imaging of God.
Now, even in the face of this abundance of references, there are those who will point to Jesus in an effort to hold on to a dominantly masculine imagining of God. Specifically, they point to his use of calling God, “Abba.” Now there was a time I would answer this concern by helping contextualize the language. Pointing to the family structure of the day. Recognizing that Jesus understands God to be the head of the human household and needed to use language that reflected that understanding. In that day and age, given the social and familial position of a mother, “abba” was the only choice since “ama” (Aramaic for mother) would have carried no understanding of head of the household - he might just as well had used sister as mother in those days. I would have concluded by saying. If Jesus were with us today, given our modern contexts, he just as likely would use mother as much as father. To take it a step further, considering the much higher percentage of women who attend church as compared to men, on a spiritual note he may have chosen mother over father.
While I still hold that perspective as a good response, I also recognize that they are just my feeble attempts at understanding God. We would do better to turn to the words of Jesus the one who chose the word "Abba" to refer to God. In Matthew (23:9) Jesus tells us, "Do not call anyone on earth 'Father' for you have only one 'Father,' who is in heaven." Jesus, whose mother tongue was in all likelihood Aramaic used the word 'abba' for father and here he is saying the word should only be used to refer to God. He seems to be saying, "when I use the word 'Abba' it has nothing to do with the word 'father' used on earth to describe a male parent."
As a male parent myself, as a father, 'abba' in the Aramaic, I stood over Kayli's bed as she said her bedtime prayers. “Our Father,” she said. That night I sat up thinking about what she was saying. About how the language of the church, of her prayers and language in sermons, worship, music, seem to be teaching her that God is male or at least more like a man than a woman; that God is more fittingly addressed as male than female – effectively subordinating women and devaluing the understanding of women as being created equally in the image of God, a God who clearly can be understood as well (and in some cases better) through a female image.
I checked back in on Kayli before going to bed. As I looked at my daughter resting, I was struck with a deep need for the church to begin reprogramming itself to have a fuller understanding of God – one that subordinates no one because everyone is created equally in God's image.
I also checked on my son, Hunter, before I went to bed. He was about 3 and a half at the time. I thought about him growing up in a church that allowed him to believe that on some level he is made more in the image of God than his sister – than any woman for that matter. I decided to teach him and Kayli both, to paraphrase Dr. Tupper, God has no male parts.
It is time for a paradigm shift in the Christian church not only in how we present God in terms of gender but more importantly in the beliefs that support masculine dominated language. Believe it or not, we've already begun. In our worship for the past three years, we have limited music that refers to God in the masculine. Our sermons, never refer to God as 'he,' 'him' or 'Father' (Dean Leonard and Dr. Tupper would be proud). From what I've heard, that has played a role in making our worship more vibrant, more essential and more inclusive and inviting than it has been in years.
The next morning, after tucking the kids in thinking about the paternal imaging of God, Kayli and I had a talked about who God is. We talked about God in the Bible, what God did, who God was, who God is. We talked about what moms and dads do for us and mean to us. We talked about how she felt about calling God “Father.” Every night now when I listen to Kayli pray the Lord's Prayer, I have to say I am hopeful for the future of the church. I can't help but smile just a little and give thanks to God as she prays the words she herself chose to pray, “Our Creator who art in heaven...Amen.”There is also a Children's Sermon to go with this message.
Genesis 1:1-5 (JPS)
1 IN THE beginning G-d created the heaven and the earth.
2 Now the earth was unformed and void (tohu wabohu), and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of G-d hovered over the face of the waters.
3 And G-d said: 'Let there be light.' And there was light.
4 And G-d saw the light, that it was good; and G-d divided the light from the darkness.
5 And G-d called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.
Edward Lorenz is a meteorologist. He fills his days with observing and predicting the weather. Over time, he developed a computer model to show how weather systems react to outside variables. Now, if you were like me and got caught in the rain in Thursday afternoon’s spring shower, you are very aware that Mr. Lorenz did not create a model that could actually predict the weather, he only modeled how weather works.
At this point you may very well be asking yourself, “Why are we talking about a meteorologist in church?” Fair enough question. We are talking about him for the same reasons they talk about him in med school, MBA classes, advanced flight school, and maybe even in space camp. How could this guy you’ve never heard of be so important? Well, he discovered something in 1961 that has changed the world. Ok, maybe not actually changed the world, but it has changed how we understand the world. He discovered “chaos.” …sort of.
He discovered what is now known as “Chaos Theory.” At that point it was simply called it “The Butterfly Affect.” Up until his model, it had been purely theoretical. It went something like this… “a butterfly flapping its wings in Asia could affect the weather in New York a few days or weeks later.” Lorenz’s model simply proved that minute differences in initial weather conditions produced drastic changes in the outcome. That, in effect, is a simple model of chaos…small nearly untraceable changes can effect systems in unpredictable ways.
The surprising thing about this Chaos Theory or Butterfly Effect is what happened when he mapped out these changes. He put the formulas and equations in a computer and set the computer out plotting the effects 3-dimentionally. You have a picture of the results in your bulletin labeled “tohu wabohu.” (In the picture at the top beginning of this sermon). The results are remarkably less than chaotic. Oddly enough, they sort of look like the originally theorized butterfly. Chaos, it would seem, is not so chaotic. It actually has order.
Not only does chaos have order, it is also better equipped for the world in which we live. Let’s really over simplify this. As an example of a chaotic system we will use a shuffled deck of cards. Las Vegas banks on the fact that this deck behaves in unpredictable ways – chaotically so to speak. As an example of an ordered system let’s use a laptop computer. While some of us may find computers to be less than predictable, the truth is to those with the knowledge, a computer is excruciatingly ordered and predictable. Just tell me what you are going to do to it and I’ll tell you how it will respond. Now, what if I introduce change by dropping the cards (drop cards to one side)…are they any less shuffled or any more predictable? No. Even though they have experienced and extraordinary amount of change they are just as functional as they were in the beginning. Now (hold up computer)…yes, I am going to do it,…what if I introduce change, what if I drop this laptop? Some of you already know what is going to happen. It is very likely that it will stop functioning. (Drop laptop). The question is, which system is less affected by change – a so-called chaotic system or an ordered system?
What does all that talk about chaos have to do with a sermon on Genesis? Surprisingly enough, quite a bit. In part, Chaos Theory, deals with how one thing effects another. We have to do the same thing to get to the heart of the first Genesis creation story. We need to consider how the surroundings effect the story.
It is widely accepted by Biblical scholars that Genesis was recorded during the Babylonian exile. Which is important to us in our study because of how it affects the story. The people of Israel were relegated to the outskirts of society – Babylonian society. Necessarily, they had to understand who they were as a people over and against the Babylonian culture. Looking at Genesis then, we are particularly interested in the Babylonian conceptualization of Genesis – of the beginning.
It is called the Enuma Elish. In it the god of the deep, Tiamat – also know as the Chaos Dragon Monster picks a fight with the Über god – the ultimate god (alluring, sparkling, exalted, perfect, described as Lord of lords and King of kings). The Battle to Defeat Chaos ensues – he captures Tiamat in a net – she opens her mouth to eat him – he sends a wind, blows her up, shoots her with an arrow – out of the pieces of her chaotic body he creates the world. In their creation story the universe was created out of chaos.
Now lets turn to the first Genesis creation story. When the earth was tohu wabohu (as it is described in the regional Hebrew). Think of that as “wild and waste,” “helter scelter,” “mixed mess” …or maybe you prefer the more simple “chaotic.” When the earth was tohu wabohu darkness was over the “face of the deep.” At this point, it is worth remembering that Tiamat, the Chaos Dragon Monster was the Babylonian god of the deep. When the earth was tohu wabohu darkness was over the face of the deep. Then God speaks - God does not lift a finger – God speaks. To defeat the Chaos Dragon Monster, the Babylonian god had to go to battle. The people of Israel, in defining themselves against their oppressors, say, “Our God is so great the only thing Elohim has to do to overcome chaos…is speak.”
The writers of the first creation story in Genesis have gone to great lengths to put God in relationship with tohu wabohu – chaos. If chaos was so important to them in understanding God then I believe we need to understand it as important to us. After all much like the Babylonian creation story, the Enuma Elish, in our creation story, the only thing from which God has to form the things of this world is tohu wabohu – chaos. Ultimately, it is an ordered chaos, but chaos none-the-less. So even in our creation story the universe is created out of chaos.
Don’t we see it every day? As much as we’d like our lives to be ordered, they really aren’t. Life throws curves at us that we could have never predicted. In my life, among other things, I have found a dead friend, stopped someone from committing suicide, been divorced, been unemployed, wondered where I'd get food for my kids to eat and even struggled with depression. My parents are with us today. Do you think when that young couple had their first baby boy they could have imagined his life would be so chaotic at times?
Now I just use me as an example. We all have experienced the tohu wabohu of this life. They don’t have to be major events like finding a dead friend; even the small moments of chaos are enough to point to the tohu wabohu of the world. But here is the rather odd thing to think about…God designed it that way.
My first reaction to that thought was “how dare God!” Do you mean that this life was designed so that chaotic events like slavery, the invasion of Native American land, the Holocaust, and 9/11 could happen? How dare God! But then I had to learn to hear that question differently. Think back to our brief discussion on Chaotic and Ordered systems. Of the two systems, which one was capable of handling a change to the system but still function? The so-called chaotic system was… Do you mean that this life was designed so that chaotic events like slavery, the invasion of Native American land, the Holocaust, and 9/11 could happen? Yes.
It was designed so that they could happen. It had to be. In giving us freedom of choice God knew that humanity was being gifted with a terrible power and responsibility, and that some would abuse that power – God knew that Holocausts would happen. If God had designed an ordered system, like the laptop computer, Holocausts would have resulted in total, everlasting pandemonium – perminate and real chaos. In God’s infinite wisdom, however, God designed a world that was ordered tohu wabohu. It is part of what we are just learning in Chaos Theory. It is precisely the chaos that allows a system, God’s creation, to respond to sever changes to the system. God’s creation is able to respond to real chaos, without being destroyed. The chaos of this world seems to be necessary.
We need to trust God’s resilient system of ordered tohu wabohu. After all, when finished creating it, God called it exceedingly good. We have to stop insisting on working out of the same old systems. They are not resilient enough for the complexities of the world God created. Ordering things based on the way they have always been done or on a set of specific rules or on cultural expectations can be a very dangerous thing. God created a flexible universe precisely by ordering the tohu wabohu, not destroying it. I can’t help but wonder if it was more than just designing a system that could respond to change. Maybe it also is a God made design that makes us more dependent on God, more dependent on faith. If the world was completely ordered and we knew what to expect around every corner…who would need God? There would be no need for faith.
If you watch from a bridge as a leaf floats down the stream, you may see it trapped by a small whirlpool, whirl around a few times, and escape, only to be trapped again further down the stream. Trying to guess what will happen to the leaf is as futile as trying to insist on keeping things the way they have always been. You see, the tiniest shift in the leaf's position can completely change its future course. The same is true with us. It is something that Chaos Theory points out for us. Small changes lead to bigger changes later. This behavior is the signature of chaos and chaos, tohu wabohu, is the stuff from which the universe was created. Small changes are unavoidable. Small changes necessarily lead to bigger changes. So why do we resist it so hard? It is a God given design that works for our own benefit. It allows us to react to and survive changes to the system that happen in life. It encourages us to be active parts of the continuing creating of God.
We need to be willing to change, to respond to the chaotically changing needs of the world around us. Even the smallest change can, over time, lead to bigger changes. The good news is that God has designed the world to work best that way. Just like the deck of card, we are capable of experiencing an extraordinary amount of change and still remain just as functional as we were in the beginning –it just takes a little faith…not in ourselves, but in God.
Not all change is bad. It can lead us to places beyond our imagination. There is one thing that is true about all change, and maybe it is the thing that holds us back and frightens us. As Lorenz learned in mapping out the Butterfly Effect, we cannot predict where change will take us. That is when the faith comes in. We are fooling ourselves if we think by keeping things the same that we can predict where we are going. Inevitably things will change. Even the smallest change can, over time, lead to bigger changes. So why not trust in God and try something new. Have faith that the system God created is capable of experiencing an extraordinary amount of change and still remain just as functional as it was in the beginning. It will be an amazing journey, if we only learn to trust in God.
4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” 7John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”14Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
ALL Means ALL
I’m not sure what big city it was. It was either Atlanta, San Antonio or Washington, D.C. Admittedly, in my early years of travels they were all just “big cities” to me – places that represented the unknown, places where I felt lost and overwhelmed – a concrete wilderness.
On this particular trip, I had stopped at an ice cream shop just off the city square. The square was encircled with a three-foot stonewall that seemed to hold up the grassy park that was littered with park benches, people and pigeons. Just off one edge of the park a street herald stood perched atop the wall on his stacked stone pulpit. He was dressed in clothes that were tattered and torn. They looked as if they had never been washed. His salt and pepper hair was long, matted and wild. His face bore the badges of a long and difficult life. He held a ragged Bible in his right hand and with his head cocked back he proclaimed to the rooftops, “The time is near. Are you ready for Jesus? Has the blood of Jesus saved you from the fires of hell?”
When I finish my mint-chocolate-chip waffle cone, I got up from the park bench from where I’d been watching him, and I intentionally walked past him. I kept watching him – a fact that did not escape his attention. “Son, do you know Jesus?” I paused for a moment and said, “Yes sir, but I think the Jesus I know and the Jesus you know…aren’t the same Jesus.” I said it with very little thought and I regret it to this day.
I cannot help but think of my experience with this modern-day John when I think about John the Prophet almost 2000 years ago - the one crying in the wilderness. Proclaiming the one yet to come – the one whose sandals John was not fit to untie – setting the foundation and way of Jesus. “The voice of one crying in the wilderness – Prepare the way of the Lord.” Much like Jesus in the temple, in the saying of these scriptures, John fulfils them – he is a voice crying in the wilderness. He is laying the foundation, the path, the highway, in the wilderness. This imagery did not fall on deaf ears. Those listening knew of the highways the Roman Empire were cutting through the desert that sweltered with heat. They were straight-a-ways that cut through the hills and raised up the valleys, giving access to everyone – making the desert a doable thing for everyone.
Luke’s use of Isaiah is foundational in establishing the remainder of his Luke-Acts tale. In the opening declaration of the one yet to come, Luke suggest the Jesus movement is going to be about removing the obstacles in this world, making the paths straight, giving access to every one – making the modern day deserts a doable thing for everyone.
Making modern day deserts a doable thing is a theme that one 20th century prophet carried into the heart of today’s deserts. Dr. Martin Luther King was a voice crying in the deserts of racism and classism. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’” Make no mistake, Dr. King knew the significance of John words from Isaiah - “I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
He was a voice that cried out for the millions of voices that still cry out today. They are crying for a higher way – calling for a path that is not so unnecessarily cluttered with the mountains and the pitfalls of the powerful. They are crying out not only for help, but to help. How do we prepare the way for the Lord? How do we begin to usher in the Baseliea, God’s new social order? Level the playing field – Dr. King saw it: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” That’s what happens when we level the playing field, ALL flesh will see the salvation of God. Not white flesh, not male flesh, not rich flesh, not intellectual flesh, not American flesh, not heterosexual flesh – flesh flesh – ALL flesh… not Christian flesh – flesh flesh – ALL flesh.
What then does this highway look like? What should we do? For John it was nothing less than social revolution. Verses 10 through 14 have no parallel in the Gospels. It is not from another source. It is unique. It is here for a very pointed reason. Resounding in it is the rhetorical refrain, “What should we do?” Among those who came to be baptized were at least three social groups each asking “what should we do?” and John speaks to each of them. The wealthy should share their wealth of food and closets of clothing with those in need. “The mountains and the hills will be made low and every valley shall be lifted up.” The tax collectors are to stop their shifty ways. “The crooked will be made straight.” And the solders are to stop taking physical advantage of their social position. The Mesopotamian mafia is to cease and desist. “The rough ways will be made smooth.” It is nothing less than social revolution.
The danger here is allowing it to become about charity rather than social justice. John is not talking solely about the abuse of power, but about the source of power. It is not just about the people, it is about the system of domination. But the axe is at the root of the trees. The systems of domination bear the fruit of domination. The same strange fruit that white supremacists hung from the trees in the South - The same strange fruit that the Nazis baked in the ovens of Auschwitz – The same strange fruit that was diced and sliced with machetes in Rwanda - The same strange fruit that is left to rot to death in Africa because the cost of a cure may undercut someone’s bottom line – The same strange fruit that is pounded to death daily with rocks and bombs in the Middle East - The same strange fruit that are depressed to death because of homophobic bullying. Trees that bear these fruits, systems that bear these fruits are to be cut down and thrown into the fires – they are the chaff that God wills to burn in an “unquenchable fire” - for in this new social order, they will bear fruit of domination no longer.
It is easy to see that in the United States, our entire social system has become an “economy.” Profit is the highest social good. Consumerism is the fruit of our burdens. Consumerism is the only universally available means of participating in this society. The work ethic has been replaced by the consumer ethic – the temple with the skyscraper, the hero with the billionaire – the saint by the executive - and theology by a consumer ideology. This modern replacement can continue no more. Charity tries to fix up people so that the system will work better. Justice tries to fix up the system so that people will work better. The axe is at the root of the system. Claiming to be justified by your social position is not justifiable…for God can rise up socialites from stones.
Liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez says the domination system is so internalized that the focus is not where it should be. Charity focuses on helping the bourgeois discover the meaning of life while justice assists the dehumanized to recover their humanity. “The mountains and the hills will be made low and every valley shall be lifted up. The crooked will be made straight. The rough ways will be made smooth.”
Much like Jesus in the temple, in the saying of these scriptures, we fulfill them – we are to be voices crying in the wilderness. We are to follow his example, maintaining domination-free relationships in a discipleship of equals that includes all flesh. We are to lord over no one…for God can raise up lords from stones. Look at the life of Jesus. Most scholars agree, Jesus himself rejected the titles people tried to give him. In the very next chapter of Luke the Devil itself insinuates Jesus’ kingly title, “behave like a messiah: be like the great heroes of Israel.” Jesus refused to take the title, for God can raise up great heroes of Israel from stones. We are reminded of a king who’s thrown was a manger, who’s wealth was a cross, who’s crown was made of thorns. His very life confronts the economic inequities that are the basis of domination.
In that peasant society …poverty, taxation and brutality kept the poor in their place. Our modern day sensibilities dress those methods in the clothing of social programs that promise economic and social upward mobility. The problem is, that while individuals are able to rise up above their class, the system itself and the consumer ideology keeps them looking critically at the domination system out of which they operate. It is the system that needs to change not just the people, but the system is built to call your attention away from that undeniable fact. What is needed is an ax at the roots of the system of domination. Breaking with domination means ending the economic exploitation of the many by the few. John the Baptist set the tone “Lower the mountains; raise the valleys; make the crooked straight; who ever has, share; take the ax to an root of the problem.”
A voice was crying in the wilderness and I did not hear it. I mean, I heard that crazy man whose voice was crying out across the sea of people who did not hear him, but I did not hear the voice of the One crying. Thankfully, someone else did. All I had for this modern day John was condemnation. As he looked down from his stone pulpit at me, I looked down my Presbyterian elitism at him – “I think the Jesus I know and the Jesus you know…aren’t the same Jesus.” My heart sank when just after I passed John an elderly man, who was following behind me, did not just walk on by. The man slowly sat down next to John and without saying a word placed his small paper sack between them. He then carefully slit the bag down two sides and pealed the opposing faces back until they lay flat across the stack stone pulpit that was now being transformed into an alter. With a slight nod of his head he invited John to take part in his sandwich and chips. As the rest of the world bustled by busily attending to their lives, the old man and
John ate a feast together on that earthly alter of stones.
Me? I began to realize there was nothing fulfilling about my ice cream indulgence. The real confectionary indulgence that day took place when those two men broke bread together. In that moment, the radical justice of God was realized here on earth in the midst of a concrete wilderness.
A voice crying out in the wilderness, remove the obstacles, live outside of the power structures, be a person of power with not power over – be with people where they are. We too must have a dream that one day even the great nation of the United State, a desert nation that sits on the mountains of superiority, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.