Jesus’ Secret Service?
Sermon date 10/25/2015
It’s easy to hear these healing stories as little soundbites. Jesus healed a blind man, Bartimaeus, as he and his followers left Jericho. It’s the kind of story that would make the headlines or the feel good segment on the evening news. But the gospel writer told this story within a larger framework. We find the story at the end of the 10th chapter of Mark’s gospel. (Now, designated chapters are a later additions – not the gospel writer’s division.) For the gospel writer, this is one of the events that happened between the first time Jesus told his disciples that he would be killed and his entry into Jerusalem. Within this framework, we are told again and again that the disciples, that Jesus’ followers, just don’t understand the values of God’s realm. “Who is the greatest?” they argued among themselves. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” Jesus told them. “Welcome a child,” Jesus said. Then they complained about an outsider who was performing good works in Jesus’ name. “Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” Then Jesus challenged convention when he spoke about divorce – addressing a practice that placed women in vulnerable positions. He blessed the children that the disciples would have kept away from him. He called the rich man to place his trust in something other than his wealth. And when James and John asked for positions of privilege and power Jesus said, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink and or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”
Those around Jesus had been hearing and seeing Jesus’ concern for the sick, for the powerless, for the poor. Over and over he told them that his way would lead to his own death – not to a glorious earthly rule. It was these insiders, the ones who had been with him and heard him, who were clustered around Jesus as he left Jericho.
Biblical scholar Walter Wink said that we should be willing to put ourselves in the Bible stories as all the different characters. It’s easy to encounter a story like the one about Bartimaeus and think of ourselves as the one in need of Jesus’ healing presence. Maybe it’s a little harder to be part of the crowd – insiders even—who are hovering around Jesus – but still don’t get it. They didn’t think Bartimaeus was worth Jesus’ attention. He was, after all, just a blind beggar. He had gotten what he deserved – a limited life on the edges -- here, literally on the edge of the city – where he had to rely on the reluctant generosity of those who might pass by.
Commentator Cynthia Jarvis said, “[Jesus] is buffered by people who want to be identified with him. Mark does not say that they are at his side in order to be healed or taught, only that they are in his company. Often unmindful of what they want Jesus to do for them, they nevertheless want to be numbered among the faithful. Once in that number, those on the ‘inside’ curiously act, time and again, to keep others on the ‘outside.’”
Those on the inside act time and again to keep others on the outside! Have things changed? Not much! A friend posted a list of “25 Really Weird Things Said to Pastors and Other Church Leaders. The author of the list said he had to really work to narrow his list to 25 things. A few of the items on the list reflect this desire to identify who should be on the inside and who should be out.
Now, we may not really look at sanctuaries that way. But, the attitude sneaks in. How many times do we come feeling we have to hide what’s going on in our lives – that it’s not appropriate to let our fears or our sorrows or our struggles show? We strive to protect God/protect Jesus, protect each other, from the embarrassing messiness of who we sometimes are. And if we ourselves can’t be fully present to Jesus, how in the world will we let the rest of the world’s messiness come in?
I think Jimmy Carter was the first modern president to exit the bullet proof limo during the inaugural procession through Washington. The secret service had fits! How could they keep him safe? I heard the same fear expressed when Pope Francis visited and the secret service was charged with keeping him safe. They knew that they wouldn’t be able to prevent him from going out into and among the people – and that, consequently, their job would be difficult.
They knew he could not be kept away from the crowds. Jarvis asks, “What are we to make of Jesus’ response to the crowd, and so of our ministry to the many who may want to be near Jesus while keeping their distance from another in need of healing and succor?....He does not upbraid them for their blindness to human need, nor does he call their faithfulness into question. Rather, in his command to ‘Call him here’ he is also commanding the gathered crowd to become the disciples they would not be without this very specific act of obedience. Given that in Jesus the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, and the lepers are cleansed, those who simply want to be near him will find themselves in the company his love commands them to keep.”
Jesus had invited the rich man to “follow him,” to go where he went, to see those whom Jesus saw. It is the invitation that is always before us, God’s people. If we want to find Jesus, we have to look where he has always been—not locked away in our sacred places, but out “in the company his love keeps.” Jarvis goes on. “The cry of need that caused Bartimaeus to be shunned by many becomes the occasion for their glimpse of God’s final intention for creation in ordinary time.”
The question of evangelism comes up over and over again as the church struggles with shrinking numbers. “We need to convert more people,” is a cry that I hear again and again. “We need to tell them the good news so that they can believe.” This gospel story might tell us something different about evangelism. Yes, Jesus taught the good news over and over again. But he also lived it – and brought people alongside of him to see him living it. To be with Jesus, one had to be willing to go where he was going – to touch the lepers, to see the plight of the poor, the outcast, and the downcast. His disciples, his followers had to learn that any time they drew the circle close and small, any time that protected Jesus from the crowds, from the pleas for mercy, they were demonstrating that they still didn’t understand what Jesus was all about.
Presbyterian Women, at its gathering this past Wednesday, heard from a woman who was sold by her mother’s boyfriend from the time she was ten until she was seventeen. She also spoke about the ministry that the organization she works with has with and for women who are trafficked now, particularly those who work in the strip clubs. “We go in weekly,” she said. They take items that the women will appreciate. They are with them! And, it is in that context, that they share the good news of God’s love for them – and a message that the women can have a different life, a better life.
There is an incredible power in a willingness, on the part of God’s people, to be in the midst of the brokenness. It is a witness that cannot be denied. Years ago, after the war in Bosnia, I remember reading about a Presbyterian ministry that came in and rebuilt the mosques for the Islamic people who had been so victimized in the violence. There was astonishment that Christians would choose to minister to Muslims. Not only the recipients were astonished, many Christians were also stunned. But, would Jesus not have been there?
A few years ago people were sporting those What Would Jesus Do (WWJD) bracelets. Those tended to call people to focus on their own behavior, their own morality. Maybe we could or should ask a different question, Where Would Jesus Be? (WWJB)? As soon as we move into a protective mode, thinking the church or Jesus has to be kept safe from the threats of the world, we cut ourselves off from being “with” Jesus “where” he is.
Jarvis writes, “How easy it is to let the manageable needs of a congregation buffer [us] from those who await word of God’s mercy on the margins… Yet, [Bartimaeus] throws off his cloak, springs up, and comes to Jesus with great expectation and a disarming clarity… Think of those for whom faith is a matter of life and death rather than a social convention.”
There is something freeing in Jarvis’ observations on this story. Jesus doesn’t ask those around him to understand everything. He asks them to continue the journey with him, to see those whom he sees, to answer his call to notice them and extend God’s care and concern to them. It is a call that the church has answered through the centuries in its varied missions and ministries – in the building of hospitals and clinics, schools and safe-houses, in ministries of compassion to the homeless, to the sick, to the lonely, in its pursuit of justice for the trafficked and the overworked and underpaid. These ministries aren’t secondary. They are the reason we exist. Our institutional life is not merely for our own benefit, but so that we might be equipped to go where Jesus goes, to be where Jesus is. Amen.
(The Book of Job)
Sermon date 10/18/2015
There is nothing about this book that says it is an historical document. In many ways, it is an extended parable with the intent of telling us, teaching us something about the nature of God and faith. If it were written today, it would probably begin with “Once upon a time” – not to say it is a fairy tale, but to tell the hearers, immediately, that this is not biographical in nature. The beginning is close to “Once upon a time.” It starts (in our translation) “There was once a man…”
My research this week told me several things I didn’t know. The story has its roots outside of Israel. There are strong connections with the wisdom literature of the ancient Near East. Neither the name Job nor the names of his friends are Hebrew in nature. But, the story has been adapted for use by Hebrew/Jewish scholars so that the Lord is assumed to be Yahweh, the God of Israel.
We know that this is not a biography when the narrator moves to the heavenly gathering and tells us what went on. “The Lord said to Satan, ‘Where have you come from?’ Satan answered the Lord, ‘From going to and fro on the earth and from walking up and down on it.’ The Lord said to Satan, ‘Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.’”
It is an odd story. Our theological assumptions are immediately shaken when the Lord conspires with Satan to test Job. “God looks at a good person and bestows suffering on that person for no good reason – except to challenge and test faith? What kind of God is that? Can we assume that God is good if God is choosing to inflict suffering on the upright?”
We could distance ourselves from such a naïve, ancient understanding of God – except that it is also an ever-present understanding of God – one that hovers and influences perceptions of God outside and inside the Christian Church.
“Why?” It’s the perennial question when we are confronted with suffering, with injustice, with life that doesn’t work out the way we think it should –either to our own liking or to the ways we understand to be of God. “Why? Where is God in all of this? Where is God when a child is killed by parents? Where is God when someone gets sick and dies well before his or her time? Where is God when neighborhoods are caught in webs of violence and destruction that seem to have no end? Where is God in the places torn asunder by war? Where is God?”
We hear the easy answer approach. “Those who are suffering have somehow brought this upon themselves.” “Sin caused it!” (That one seems to be part of the public rhetoric these days!) We assume cause and effect – and, conversely, that if there is an effect, we should look for the cause. So, if someone is suffering, he or she must have done something that caused that suffering. In our world of faith, that means the person sinned.
Thomas John Carlisle was a pastor and poet in Northern New York. He wrote an entire book of poems looking at this story of Job. Listen to the one that speaks of Job’s friends.
What’s in a Name?
God crushes is what Eliphaz’
name means. God crushes sinners:
which meant he went uncrushed
while spreading his serene
and tireless word
that suffering is after all
most just and logical
the apt reward for sin.
Bildad never doubted
that darling of God
was apropos for him
though not for Job
whose son’s delinquencies
must have brought down
the house upon their heads
their parent in the bargain.
Zophar was sorely irked
to be reminded
his name spelled twittering bird
or jumping goat
or a sharp nail
since none communicated
opinion of himself
or his acuity
as just accuser –
except the nail!
Welcome in this case
the friends whose words
provoke the terror
and the majesty
of Job’s replies:
Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar
you live –
because of Job.
Job laments his life – and each friend, in turn, tells him that he must have done something to deserve God’s harsh judgment. Elphaz says , “Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off?” Bildad challenges him, “How long will you say these things, and the words of your mouth be a great wind? Does God pervert justice? Or does the Almighty pervert the right?” Zophar said, “For you say, ‘My conduct is pure and I am clean in God’s sight.’ But oh, that God would speak, and open his lips to you, and that he would tell you the secrets of his wisdom! For the wisdom of God is many-sided. Know then that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves.”
After hearing his friends’ words, Job was adamant that this suffering was undeserved. “I would speak to the Almighty, and I desire to argue my case with God.”
Whoever coined the phrase the patience of Job didn’t read the book. Job ranted. Job complained. Job challenged God with every fiber of his being. He saw injustice. And he wanted answers that would satisfy him – answers that connected with his experience and made sense of it. He knew that nothing he had done merited the great suffering he was enduring. The simplistic theology that says people get what they deserve just didn’t cut it.
Around and around they went – the friends telling Job that he had done something wrong --- that he should confess that wrong in order to be set right with God again – and Job maintaining his innocence. Another character enters in chapter 32. Hear Carlisle’s words:
A Late Starter
Elihu was a late
starter. The scorecard
omits his name.
Three veteran pitchers
had hurled their hardest
without getting Job out.
And now from the stands
this freshman rookie
strides to the mound
to put one over
for God. His warmup
a neophyte trying
his stance and position.
He fails to retire
Job but he clearly
puts one strike over.
Don’t miss it!
The Eloquence of Elihu
Since you have failed – you three--
though older and presumably
wiser than I – you forfeit
your chance to vindicate
the Lord. Leave it to me.
I mark the loopholes Job
has squeezed through cunningly.
I’ll close them while I talk –
and talk – and talk – and talk.
I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about traditional approaches to Christianity – traditional in the last couple of centuries, at least. The Protestant tradition out of which I come emphasizes belief – and spends an inordinate amount of time codifying what those beliefs are. The belief systems we develop then serve as the test for whether or not people can be “in communion” with one another. A clergy group in a small town splintered when one of the pastors demanded that we come up with a faith statement that all of us could find acceptable. Our beliefs didn’t match up. We couldn’t even find a sliver of agreement that would enable us to continue as a group and offer the community various missions and ministries.
“Do you believe in Jesus Christ, accept him as your Lord and Savior…?” Such questions are ingrained in the way we organize church life. We pastors have to write faith statements to be ordained as Presbyterian Clergy – and when we move from presbytery to presbytery. We are tested for orthodoxy – right belief, within the tradition. Our wisdom is content based. It may not be simplistic – but it is caught up in words and explanations of who God is and how God acts.
Many expect faith to provide answers. And then when, frequently, those answers are less than satisfactory, people get angry – justifiably so. The church comes across as Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Elihu. And the suffering are not helped.
Finally, in chapter 38, after all Job’s questions, and all the pontificating from his theologically self-confident, somewhat well-meaning friends, God spoke to Job. “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?...I will question you and you shall declare to me!”
What follows is a series of questions that no one could answer. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?...Where is the way to the dwelling of light?...Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail? Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion?”
Does God give Job answers? No. There are no easy answers because the world is complex in nature. God’s questions are in the field of astronomy, biology, history, physics, geology, sociology – every ology you could think of! Some of the questions now have answers – in part. But God’s series of questions reminds us that we still don’t have all the answers. One answer generates new questions.
I was going to suggest that wisdom comes not from answers, but from a willingness, from the courage to ask questions. We see it in all those fields of study that push the boundaries, that are willing to set aside assumptions and look at the world – from determining the patterns of DNA to looking at the mysteries of space. Sometimes we get answers. But wisdom is different than answers. There is an interesting clip that you can find on you tube – it may have been updated. It looks at the exponential rate at which knowledge is expanding. Wisdom is knowing what to do with that knowledge. What do we do with knowledge that comes from studying DNA? Do we allow the creation of designer babies? Is that wise?
For Job, wisdom came not from specific facts – but from a willingness to be in relationship with God – even when everything fell apart. Marcus Borg in his book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time described it as moving from a “secondhand religion” to a “firsthand religion.” He says, “Secondhand religion is a way of being religious based on believing what one has heard from others. It consists of believing that the Christian life is about believing what the Bible says or what the doctrines of the church say. Firsthand religion, on the other hand, consists of a relationship to that to which the Bible and the teachings of the church point – namely that reality that we call God or the Spirit of God.”
The explosion of knowledge calls for wisdom in our world. We need to wrestle with how to use what it is we know – how to use it in ways to enhance life for all. The story of Job teaches us that wisdom is born out of relationship – relationship to God, relationship to each other, and relationship to the world.
I’ll end with one more poem by Carlisle.
Out of the Whirlwind
Within the whirlwind
of eternal mystery
and inventive power
tinged with tenderness
the voice of I
What Must I Do?
“Dr. Robinson, what do I have to do to get an A in this course?” My father heard that question over and over again from students in the last years of his teaching career. “I want an A. What do I need to do?” I think the question was one of the reasons he decided to retire early. He was frustrated. “They don’t really want an education,” he complained. “They just want a grade!”
Dad saw real value in a true liberal arts education where students studied literature, philosophy, religions, history, sociology, government, mathematics and different branches of science. He wanted his students to encounter his specialty, physics, and begin to see the world in new ways-to marvel at the intricacies of the atom and to wrestle with the vastness of the universe. He wanted them to ask questions, not just spew out answers. What does this tell me? How does this connect with or challenge my experience of the world so far? He didn’t expect everyone to be a physicist. But, he was hoping that the university would produce graduates who were thoughtful rather than robots who could spew information without having any idea what it meant.
“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” a man asked Jesus. Jesus gave him the syllabus: You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and mother.” “Teacher,” he said, “I have kept all these since my youth.” You can almost hear his excitement. “I’ve done it! I’ve earned eternal life!”
Rabbi Kula spoke of a student who referred to these commandments as “common sense.” Kula points out that as soon as we say, “of course” to any commandments we are, in essence, saying that we don’t really observe those commandments. He wrote, “When we dismiss anything out of hand, we are preventing our own growth and expression; we become less intimate with our impulses and desires. ‘Do not murder’ invites us to meditate on who we want to murder. Who gets under our skin; who enrages us beyond reason; who cheats us or betrays us? Who are the people about whom we have those delicious, if only fleeting fantasies of murder or revenge, or whom we wish would disappear off the face of the planet?”
Kula notes that we perceive commandments as “external directives or repressive limitations… contemporary religions have portrayed them as instruments of social control.”
“Contemporary religions have portrayed them as instruments of social control.” Not only religions, but politicians and those in power in the United States have often understood the commandments in this way. So, we have judges and community officials who want the Ten Commandments placed in our public buildings – engraved for all to see. I’ve heard them say, “People need to remember that this is the standard by which we live.” We have many who would choose to legislate morality – according to their own “of course,” “common sense” views of the world.
I went back to Kula because he provides the tradition that would have been familiar to Jesus. Kula says that the Torah never uses the word commandment. Now, in this story, Jesus referred to the commandments, but I have to wonder if that is a word that has been mistranslated or misused because of language differences and cultural differences. In the Torah the word is “devarim” which means “words” or “utterances.” Kula describes them as a “poetic and profound series of intuitions about human behavior.”
They are not external directives to be followed to earn eternal life. They are a pathway to life deeply lived, to a life that is more intimately connected to God and to other human beings.
I have a little book titled Peace Prayers. In it there is a chapter called “Mindfulness Must Be Engaged.” It is filled with observations from great leaders representing many traditions and walks of life. Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote: A society based on the letter of the law and never reaching any higher fails to take advantage of the full range of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relationships, this creates an atmosphere of mediocrity that paralyzes man’s (humanity’s) noblest impulses. And it will be simply impossible to bear up to the trials of this threatening century with nothing but the supports of a legalistic structure. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King observed, “We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighter did in Hungary was ‘illegal.’”
The prophet Jeremiah wrote of God’s new covenant which would be “written on their hearts.” It would not be external. It would be deep within them, a part of their very nature. The man who came to Jesus was in every way a “law abiding, practicing, faithful man.” Yet, his observance of the law had not touched who he was. It had not transformed his heart. His observed the law as an external directive.
Do you remember the Jesus movement? I think it started in the late 60s and went into the early 70s. Young people began to discover faith in a new way. I think every generation has its own incarnation of the Jesus movement! Each is a little different. They find new ways of expressing the faith in worship and community and service. (We might look at the music of the church and see the generations reflected! I always have to laugh when someone says, “I like the old hymns.” They usually don’t mean the oldest hymns of the church – chant and plainsong – or even those from the 16th century. The old hymns tend to be the hymns of one’s youth – the familiar.) The reason I remember the Jesus movement is that many of its adherents criticized the faithful churchgoers of the older generations. They saw faith that was little more than habit. It’s an unfair generalization – based more in a lack of understanding and in the arrogance of youth. Yet, there is always the challenge before us to make sure that our faith life is deeply rooted in God – and not merely habit.
“I’m a good person. I go to church every Sunday! This shouldn’t happen to me!” I’ve never heard that said quite that way. But, I have heard the sentiment. We are so influenced by the world’s assumption that people get what they deserve. So, the poor and the sick and the injured have somehow “earned” their troubles, their misfortunes. When we throw faith into the picture, it’s easy to think that if we live carefully – according to the rules – we will earn God’s approval, God’s acceptance – even the promise of eternal life.
We want an A from God, from Jesus. “What must we do? Go to church? Be nice? Support good causes? What does God want from us? How do we get the reward?”
I was re-reading the introduction to the book Living the Questions. It spoke of the unchurched in our society who are not here because “[they] simply cannot suffer the shallow message of the churches of their birth any longer.”
It’s easy to get hung up on the conversation that Jesus had with the man who came with the question. “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” We hear, immediately, all the things about money. It sounds so unreasonable. But, maybe we’re to hear, first and foremost, the invitation. “Come, follow me.” It is the invitation that the disciples had accepted. They had followed. The relationship with Jesus took precedence in their lives – it transformed who they were, what they did, how they lived.
The other part of that conversation is a reminder that we cannot be in a true relationship with God without being aware of other human beings. If the man had accepted Jesus’ invitation, he would have become part of a community that followed Jesus. He would have seen Jesus’ concern for the poor, the marginalized, the sick and the hopeless. Albert Schweitzer said, “Concern for people is the beginning of hope.” The power in that conversation between the man and Jesus is Jesus’ challenge to the man to look beyond himself. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asked Jesus. We hear the same self-interest when people demand others live certain ways so that their own relationship with God is preserved. I think of Kim Davis in Kentucky. Every one of her pronouncements is about her purity in her relationship with God. There’s little acknowledgement of what her demands do to others. Whenever we become the moral police, we tend to sacrifice true community. We choose the shallow way. Christianity, when lived legally, according to a moral checklist, tends to be self-centered and selfish.
Living the Questions says, “It is a common temptation among faithful Christians of all stripes to believe – deep down—that if we’re good, God will protect us and rescue us from life’s difficulties. But being in relationship with God does not create some sort of divine force field protecting us from harm. Being in relationship with God strengthens us for living life, come what may.”
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” It was the wrong question. It was self-serving – selfish, in fact. It was based on a legalistic approach to faith that reduced his relationship with God to a careful, yet shallow, living with or within the law. He had reduced God to an award giver who would recognize good behavior. It would be easy to dismiss him – except that his careful legalism is a tempting approach to faith. And so his question challenges us to ask ourselves, “How do we understand God’s call in our lives?” Do we see God’s call to be law-abiding or God-abiding?
All God’s Children Gotta Place at the Table
Some traditions, as they celebrate the Lord’s Supper, follow the invitation to the Lord’s Table with a section of liturgy referred to as “Fencing the Table.” Its purpose is to “clarify whom the meal is for.” Sometimes the words are announced. Sometimes they’re printed in the bulletin. “The Lord has prepared his table for ‘true believers.’ If you are sorry for your sins…you are invited to come.” “The Lord has prepared his table for all who love him and trust in him alone.” “Professing members in good standing of a church in which Jesus Christ is professed as Lord and Savior are ‘warmly’ welcomed to join with us…” “We welcome all baptized Christians who are members of congregations that proclaim the gospel…” “If you are not able to receive communion,, please use this time to meditate on one of the following prayers…”
I thought of all the different ways those statements are open to interpretation. I also thought of Nadia Bolz-Weber’s assertion that she doesn’t focus on belief, but on belonging. Those statements that “fence” the table are all about what one “believes” – even the ones that speak of membership. Belief becomes the means by which the church, in so many ways, throughout the years, even the centuries, has focused on setting the fences so that we can know who it is who belongs, who deserves to be welcomed to the table with us.
Have you had the experience of being fenced out? Sometimes the fencing is explicit. One of my early church memories is of sitting with my visiting grandmother during a communion service. When the bread was passed down our pew, I reached out to take a piece. And she slapped my hand! Not hard, but a slap, a “You’re not welcome” slap. I wasn’t “old enough” to be invited to the table. I hadn’t joined the church. I hadn’t made a public profession of my faith. I didn’t, to use terminology I’ve heard many express through the years, yet understand what communion meant.
“People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them…Jesus [said], ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.’” It’s nice to see the paintings that portray this wonderful encounter. But, what did Jesus mean? I studied the book of Mark in college. The professor for the course declared, “He didn’t really mean children. He was speaking of the lowliest in society. Not children.” That interpretation has hovered in my mind through the years. I finally realized that his interpretation reflected the bias that he had. Children couldn’t really be welcomed, because they didn’t understand what that meant. I’ve never found anyone else who shared his perspective. Jesus welcomed children who couldn’t understand who he was! He didn’t demand knowledge. He welcomed, and he set that as the example we are to follow.
It has always struck me as odd that communion, this sacred rite which has its roots in that last meal that Jesus shared with disciples who would actively and passively betray him and abandon him, would give rise to traditions that are meant to exclude. If the Biblical witness is accurate, Jesus shared that last meal with those who didn’t, couldn’t and wouldn’t believe. If we use belief as the standard by which we include or exclude, they deserved to be excluded!
Today is World Communion Sunday. The designation is one that is shared by several denominations. I read an objection to the entire concept. “Why would we recognize the world on only one Sunday?” was the question. It’s a good question, a good challenge to the notion that we need a particular Sunday to call our attention to the world. The world should be present with us each time we gather. Of course, we might then ask, “Why celebrate Easter? After all, each Sunday is to be a reminder of the resurrection – a mini-Easter!” But, we know that Easter Day invites particular attention to the story of the resurrection. So, World Communion invites us to reflect on what it means to be part of the Body of Christ that is so much more than what we can envision as we gather together in our church buildings or other settings and share this meal.
Sometimes our fences are invisible to us because they come from traditions handed down through the generations. These traditions are so engrained that we begin to think they are of God.
A member of one of my congregations was diagnosed as gluten intolerant. Even a little piece of bread was a problem. So, I began researching recipes for communion bread that weren’t wheat based. I came across interesting stories. One family told of their daughter’s gluten intolerance. When it was time for her to have her First Communion, they provided a wafer that she would be able to eat. Later, the church declared her First Communion invalid. I read, further, that Roman Catholics who were gluten intolerant could not be priests – because Communion Bread can only be wheat based.
Yes, the Bible speaks of wheat. But was it the wheat that mattered? Or was it the fact that the bread Jesus shared was the indigenous food – the everyday staff of life?
Olivia Juarez and Sara Larson Wiegner, in Mexico wrote, “Some indigenous churches have begun to use elements more traditional to their culture such as tortillas for the bread and atole or pozol (a corn drink) or coffee for the wine. In the Nahuatl culture it is important to look each other in the eyes when sharing the elements because they reflect one’s inner song. With one’s eyes you can give a flower or a thorn. This act then demonstrates a person’s sincerity in confession both of sins as well as faith.” (They suggest reading John 6 and substituting tortilla for bread. “It is my Father who gives you the true tortilla from heaven. For the tortilla of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
Indonesian Christians wrote: Lime juice and cassava—these ingredients from our lives and lands are Eucharist. In them we can give thanks to God for God’s gift – that is the breaking down of all social, economic, and political barriers.
Tahiti: coconut, marked with a cross and kicked, rolled, and finally hacked in a service that concluded with the Lord’s Supper – the meat and water of the coconut used as “bread and wine.” “O Lord, our palm trees can no longer hide us from the world. Strengthen our hearts that we may look with confidence to the future.”
God Is Rice: Rice is the symbol of our life. We eat rice daily. There are different kinds of rice but we are one as the rice-eating community. Rice is the symbol of celebration. We express our joy of harvest with it. There are many sufferings in Asia, but we anticipate the time of cosmic celebration. (Massao and Fumiko Takenaka, Japan)
These emerging practices connected with the Lord’s Supper challenge the ways we have let our traditions and assumptions divide us from one another – and divide people from their own heritage and culture.
One of my favorite Robert Frost poems is titled “Mending Wall.” Frost declares,
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
Frost’s poem speaks of the neighbor’s perception that “good fences make good neighbors”. So, he muses further:
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
"Why do they make good neighbours? Isn't it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down."
This Sunday reminds us that there are walls, there are fences that divide. Some of them are a necessary part of what it means to live in a world that is broken. That doesn’t mean that they are God’s ultimate intent. “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out.”
Who fences God’s table? Is it our responsibility? Or do we come, truly and only, as guests of the One who welcomed, welcomes all?
In preparation for yesterday’s presbytery meeting, I watched a documentary produced by WEDU several years ago. The documentary, “Too Close to Home,” explores the reality of Human Trafficking in the Tampa Bay area. That ended up being a lens through which I reread the story of Esther.
The book of Esther is a strange one to have included in the body of scripture. God is never mentioned! Isn’t that odd? Yet, it tells of the origins of one of Judaism’s feasts, the Feast of Purim. One Biblical scholar noted that this is not one of Judaism’s primary festivals – and that is a good thing!
I began to hear this book differently when I was at a gathering of Biblical storytellers. Each year they “tell” an extended passage of scripture – sometimes an entire book! Those who will be in attendance are invited to be responsible for the “telling” of portions of selected scripture. One year, the book of Esther was chosen for the “epic storytelling evening.” Whoever told a portion of the 7th chapter gave it a very different interpretation. The New Revised Standard Version says, in verse 8, “When the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet hall, Haman had thrown himself on the couch where Esther was reclining; and the king said, ‘Will he even assault the queen in my presence in my own house?’’’ The storyteller used the translation found in the New Jerusalem Bible. The king asked, “Is he going to rape the queen before my own eyes in my own palace?”
It’s not the Sunday School version. It’s not the G rated version. I read some of the Jewish midrash that has been developed around this story. One group of rabbis suggested that the original queen, Vashti, who had been ordered to appear before the king and his guests, had been ordered to do so naked – wearing only her crown. She was little more than a possession to be paraded before guests. Again, this is not the book of Esther I encountered when I was young – or even in the cleaned up language of the NRSV. Even coming back to the story of Esther, if we listen through more adult ears – and, perhaps, even more worldly ears, there are troubling details.
After Vashti had been banished (some Rabbis said, executed,) a decree was sent out. “Let beautiful young virgins be sought out for the king.” These virgins were “prepared” to be presented to the king – prepared over the course of a year. Then, the virgins went into the king for a night. I’m suspecting they didn’t talk. Esther had her night and pleased the king. That’s how she became queen. She “slept her way to the top!”
The book of Esther reminds me that we cannot claim that all we needed to know about the Bible we learned in Sunday School. If Biblical stories are filtered in ways to make the Bible presentable to children, and that’s the only way we hear them, we miss the power of stories that emerge from the true messiness of human experience. This is not a sweet, Cinderella story, where the orphan gets the prince. This is a story about a woman who was trafficked, caught up in a system that treated her and other young women as little more than sexual playthings.
Even as “queen” Esther had no real power. She couldn’t even come into her husband’s presence without being invited. So, when her cousin, Mordecai, asked her to act on behalf of her people, the Jews, because Haman had decreed that they should be killed, she was reluctant. Mordecai encouraged her, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”
Esther used the only resource she had – her body, her beauty. She dressed regally and stood in a place where the king would see her. It was still a risk laden move on her part. She was in further danger when she accused Haman. The primary reason this book remained among the sacred writings is that the Jewish people saw, in this story, God’s salvation being worked out through the risks that Mordecai and Esther took. God is not named. But God is assumed.
Scholars point out that this story isn’t really a happily ever after story. The persecuted, the Jews, become the persecutors. They took the power they had been denied and used it to kill all who had threatened them. Maybe it was discomfort with ending that kept the festival of Purim from becoming a major festival. Perhaps God is overtly absent because God’s salvation was corrupted by new brokenness.
As I said earlier, I read this story through the filter of the documentary on Human Trafficking. That documentary made me grateful for this book which is not sweet, which has a backdrop of violence that we might wish we could relegate to a barbaric past – yet a violence that continues into our day and into our own communities.
The documentary had the story of a young woman from Haiti who was “adopted” by American parents who promised her a better life, a good education. She came to this country where she worked for her “parents” as an unpaid domestic. She cooked. She cleaned. She did not attend school. She wasn’t even allowed to use the bathrooms indoors. She was caught in this brokenness for years.
A young woman spoke of losing her dad – and turning to a woman who had befriended her as her dad was dying. This “friend” then drugged, raped her, and offered her to a series of men. That was the first night of years spent as an unwilling prostitute. There were stories of men who came because they had been promised work – work that would benefit their families at home. They came – owing unimaginable amounts of money to those who “brought” them. Then they’re forced into living situations that cost them whatever wages they might have earned. These men work in the fields and in restaurants.
Esther survived. Vashti didn’t. And then there are all those other nameless virgins who were forced into the king’s palace – and into his bedroom – yet, who did not ascend to the throne. What happened to them? They probably continued to serve as his concubines – as long as they pleased him. What would their fate have been when he was done with them? It’s a question that can’t really be answered. But, I’m guessing they didn’t have much of a future.
I had a colleague, years ago, who said that his preaching each week was focused on giving personal advice to his congregants – how they should live. He rebelled against any approach to faith that spoke about the ills of the world. He was willing to let his members support some mission projects. But, for him, faith was really about “me and my God.” It was a personal thing. And his preaching reinforced that.
Stories like the story of Esther drive me far, far away from a “me and my God” theology. Esther could not keep her identity a private thing. She risked her very life in order to call the king’s attention to the injustice that Haman intended to wreak upon the Jewish people. Justice was more than personal. It had to be institutional. It had to be rooted in the structure of that society.
The resource person for a community organizing group in Pennsylvania told a parable. “A man lived beside a river. One day, a dead body floated by. He pulled the body out of the river and gave it a Christian burial. The next day there was another body. Then another, and another, and another. He pulled the bodies out. He buried them. But, he never asked what was happening upriver. He never asked why those bodies were floating downstream.” Those involved in community organizing, he told us, were people who were striving to address the upstream issues so that no more dead bodies would be found in the river.
It is a daunting task. It would be easier to keep religion, faith, relegated to the personal and the private. I may disagree with Pope Francis on some issues, but I think he is a wonderful, refreshing voice when he calls all people to justice, to an awareness of the need to treat God’s creation with care and concern, to upstream ministries that address the brokenness in our world.
John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name and we tried to stop him because he was not following us.” How easy it is for us, in the church, to get territorial, to find reasons not to work together. We see it and bemoan it in the political realm – yet the church is as divided, or maybe more divided, that our leaders. Instead of two parties we have multiple denominations and divisions within those denominations. We fight about theology. We fight about décor in churches. We fight about procedure. We fight about money. We fight about the way things ought to be done. And the world suffers.
But there are groups – some of which never or hardly name God – and they are involved in the healing of the world, in dismantling systems that perpetuate injustice. There are groups that take risks on behalf of those who are victims of our own society’s ills and victims in other places in the world. “Whoever is not against us is for us,” Jesus said. People have labeled some of those groups as “para church” organizations – groups like AA or NA, or Habitat for Humanity – maybe some of those community organizing groups. They tend not to focus on theology – but on healing and justice and overcoming brokenness.
I had a friend who went, very unwillingly, to church with his wife one Sunday. The text for that particular Sunday was Mordecai’s statement to Esther. “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” He said he heard God’s voice through that passage of scripture. It changed his life. He finished his military career and went to seminary. His wife wailed, “I just wanted you to go to church! I didn’t want you to get religion!” He was, they were, wonderful leaders in the faith who spoke justice and worked for justice. He challenged many in places of privilege to consider the plight of those who were on the margins – and he worked to make his communities work toward deeper justice and generous compassion. He worked within the church. He worked outside the church. He worked with anybody and everybody who was willing and able to see the need.
The story of Esther is a powerful reminder that we don’t live in a G rated world. In fact, some people are caught up in horrors which we can hardly imagine. Yet, we are God’s people – placed where we are and called to see, to risk and respond, and to seek justice, wholeness, and healing for all God’s people and God’s world.