Far and Wide

In seminary at Yale Divinity School I was awed to find myself in a vast landscape–that of the Christian witness spoken through the centuries.  My perspective, having grown up in the Southern California United Church of Christ, was limited by comparison.  I realized I had only seen faith from one small corner of scholarship in this time and place.  There were more voices to hear, endless voices of faith and ways of understanding God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.  Add to that the Jewish traditions that are woven into scripture, and the totality of the Judeo-Christian witness reaches back to the days of creation.  This faith tradition is varied and beautiful, reaching far and wide, inviting us into a relationship with the living Creator, God’s self.

The vastness of the Judeo-Christian faith starkly contrasts with the image of the temple, the day Jesus arrived, as described in the gospel of John.

“In the temple Jesus found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.”  (2: 14)

Entering into the space where people came to meet God, Jesus is accosted by the sights and sounds of animals being sold for sacrifice to atone for sin.

In the claustrophobic chaos, the faithful find their way to the stalls in order to buy the appropriate animal as described in Jewish law.  Imagine the sounds, the smells, and the difficulty of holding an animal long enough to carry it to the priest for the altar.  How easy it would be to lose the intent, to lose God’s larger story, in the business of what must be done.

Recall, the Jewish people have come to the Jerusalem temple to celebrate the Passover, the day when God freed Israel from Egyptian bondage.  They remembered a day of blood and horror and salvation.  The night before Passover, each family of Israel was to sacrifice a lamb and put the lamb’s blood on their door.  God passed over the households that had this sign, inflicting the last plague on the rest of Egypt, killing their first born sons.  Only this last plague turned Pharaoh’s head long enough to allow Israel to leave his service and enter into a new life with God.

Israel, the freed people, enters into the wilderness, a vast landscape which opened them to experiences of God they had never before known.  Beautiful experiences, as when they saw God as a pillar of cloud and fire.  Frightening experiences, like a snake rising up from the desert floor.  After a generation had passed away, the new generation led by Joshua, entered, with God, into the land God promised.  God’s presence there is marked by the Jerusalem temple.

Having come to the temple, the symbol of God’s promise and presence, the crowd enters in thinking about what must be done to atone for sin. How small is their view as the din of animal noises and seller’s voices echo off the high walls of the courtyard.  Is this really the freedom that God envisioned long ago when blood was shed in Egypt?

Jesus gets angry…very angry.

“Making a whip of cords, [Jesus] drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle.  He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.  He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here!  Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (2:15 – 17)

I’m sure Jesus’ actions confused the temple leaders of the day.  They were only doing what was expected.  Maybe the root of that which would debilitate the churches of this day is similar.  It is all too easy to get into a business that, in its essentials, is quite similar to selling sin offerings: we do what has always been done in order to placate what someone has said is the Holy Way instead of seeking to invite all people into God’s grace.

Jesus was angry because the temple had created a way for people to placate the Holy One instead of opening the doors to a relationship with His Father and our Father.

Church practices are rarely questioned, indeed, just as in Jesus’ time, there is always a scripture to point to defend them.  Every such practice can be justified through tradition…and will continue to be as long as we are trading in our earthly temples.

Would that Jesus enter in, whip in hand, to tell us to get out.  Stop selling your doves here, your narrow way to peace with God.  This is my Father’s house.

In Christianity, we come to know God through Jesus.  When Jesus saw the faithful confined to buying sin offerings, he overturned the tables.  Given this, is it not possible that God is unhappy with tradition bound rules even if they can be justified by a small portion of scripture?  Isn’t possible that, even now, God continues to overturn the tables of our limited understanding that we might better know God’s way?

When Jesus saw that the temple, the place where one could come to enter into God’s presence, had as its first and foremost concern making people act according to tradition, he told them to get out.

Then, he pointed to himself as the temple which would be destroyed and in 3 days raised up.

Of course, the temple faithful had no idea of that which he spoke.  For it required leaving behind expectations in order to imagine God in a new form, one who would not kill, but would die to set us free.

May we allow God to make us free to enter a faith which is varied and beautiful, which reaches far and wide, and invites us into a relationship with the living God.

In Christ,

Heather

Now What? A sermon for troublemakers

Church signs on one of the main streets in Tucson, AZ tell the story of our holiday.  On the Wednesday, after Christmas, five signs still advertise the Christmas Eve/Day worship services.  One tells of a group that meets there, Alienated Catholics Anonymous…it was at a Catholic church.  And then there is the one at a bigger church that someone showed up early in the week to change, proclaiming:  “One Service Only, January 1.”

Jesus has been born, now what?

The Christian church seems to fall down and say, “no more!”   “We’re tired.”  No kidding.  I saw what was done here on Christmas Eve.

Gone will be the poinsettias and added candles.  Gone are the expectations for overflowing crowds dressed in their shimmering greens and reds.  Gone are the dancers, the choir, the folk song artists, and the poet.

Take a breather, rest.  We are among friends.  You who come on a Sunday after Christmas, you are like a fine sauce boiled down to its richest flavor.  You are those I wrote about at miningtheword.net, those who follow a law of sorts that says Sunday morning belongs to God.  You are the ones who I love to hang out with, for your faith always strengthens mine.

If you are one who has come here today because of a commitment made on Christmas Eve, know there won’t be any bells and whistles today, but if you listen, you just might hear God.

Listen.

Scripture is not done on Christmas Eve.  It doesn’t take time to pause.  In fact, it seems in a hurry to leave the manger, to get back to Nazareth, where Jesus is circumcised 8 days later.  Luke has yet to reach its climactic moment–which doesn’t happen in the manger.   The sheep and the donkeys are given no song to sing when Jesus arrives despite our love of “Away in the Manger.”   Instead, the climax, the final songs and predictions about the baby Jesus, are given voice by a pair of faithful people, an elderly man and a woman, who happily greet Jesus in the temple.

Simeon and Anna have served the temple for many years.  We are told that Simeon was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. Of Anna we are told she was a prophet, some 84 years old, and lived in the temple worshipping there with fasting and prayer night and day.  Taken together, they represent all that is good about the people of God.  Fred Craddock lists their traits.  They are “devout, obedient, constant in prayer, led by the Holy Spirit, at home in the temple, longing and hoping for the fulfillment of God’s promises.”  When Simeon sees Jesus, he became the first Christian prophet, praising God… “my eyes have looked upon your salvation.”  When Anna sees Jesus, she becomes the first Christian preacher, “speaking of Jesus to all those who are looking for the redemption of Israel.”  Together, they shout out: this baby, this Jesus, brings to us what we’ve been looking for all along!

Words like consolation, redemption, and salvation are drawn out of the Old Testament, the Hebrew scripture.  “’Comfort, comfort, my people’ says the Lord God” in Isaiah 40, a word to those who had been under another’s oppressive rule, those who had their possessions stripped away.  To console is to comfort.  Redemption…my favorite image of redemption is of standing in line with cans and bottles ready to put them in the machine–that they might be remade.  Redemption suggests that the current form has used up its usefulness, and a new form is required.  Salvation:  that which a people who understand they are in need of help–that they are in some type of trap–seek.  One image holds us, another remolds us, the last sets us free.

John Calvin’s writings suggest that if it is true that we have an implant in our hearts to seek God, it is also true that we are capable of making anything into our God…or the inverse, that we are capable of making God into anything.  How true that is with the one who was born a man and yet still of God.  How true it is with us who don’t like to sit still enough to be held, don’t want to be remolded, and see ourselves as free when we are unattached to religion.  Oh, how quick we are to model Jesus, not on the Holy Word, but on our own prejudice, our protectiveness, and our idols.

And so to a scene from a movie unafraid to deal with the sacred: Talladega Nights.

Carley (the stereotypical sexy golddigging wife of the race car driver Ricky Bobby) : Supper’s ready! C’mon ya’ll. I’ve been slaving over this for hours.

The family comes to the table, and all take hands to pray, something they are certainly not used to doing.  And, in one of the most often played scenes used to show us how not to pray, we watch as Ricky Bobby, the successful race car driver bows his head and says…

Ricky Bobby: Dear Lord Baby Jesus, or as our brothers to the south call you, Jesús, we thank you so much for this bountiful harvest of Domino’s, KFC, and the always delicious Taco Bell. I just want to take time to say thank you for my family, my two beautiful, beautiful, handsome, striking sons, Walker and Texas Ranger, or T.R. as we call him, and of course, my red-hot smoking wife, Carley who is a stone-cold fox. Who if you were to rate her [behind] on a hundred, it would easily be a 94. Also wanna thank you for my best friend and teammate, Cal Naughton Jr. who’s got my back no matter what.

Cal (Ricky’s best friend interrupts with the words he speaks throughout the film): Shake and Bake.

Ricky Bobby (continues): Dear Lord Baby Jesus, we also thank you for my wife’s father, Chip. We hope that you can use your Baby Jesus powers to heal him and his horrible leg. And it smells terrible and the dogs are always bothering with it. Dear tiny, infant Jesus, we….

Carley (interputs): Hey, you know, sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don’t always have to call him “baby.” It’s a bit odd and off-putting to pray to a baby.

Ricky Bobby (responds): Well, I like the Christmas Jesus best and I’m saying grace. When you say grace you can say it to grownup Jesus, or teenage Jesus, or bearded Jesus or whoever you want.

Carley: You know what I want? I want you to do this grace good so that God will let us win tomorrow.

Ricky Bobby: Dear tiny Jesus, in your golden-fleece diapers, with your tiny, little, fat, balled-up fists….

Chip (Carly’s dad, the one with the bad leg that smells): He was a man! He had a beard!

Ricky Bobby: Look, I like the baby version the best, do you hear me? I win the races and I get the money.

Carley: Ricky, finish the damn grace.

Cal: I like to picture Jesus in a tuxedo T shirt, cause it says, like, “I wanna be formal, but I’m here to party, too.” Cause I like to party, so I like my Jesus to party.

Walker (another man at the table): I like to picture Jesus as a ninja fighting off evil samurai.

Cal: I like to think of Jesus, like, with giant eagle’s wings. And singing lead vocals for Lynyrd Skynyrd, with, like, an angel band. And I’m in the front row, and I’m hammered drunk.

Carley: Hey Cal, why don’t you just shut up?

Cal: Yes, ma’am.

Ricky Bobby: Okay. Dear 8 pound, 6 ounce newborn infant Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant and so cuddly, but still omnipotent, we just thank you for all the races I’ve won and the 21.2 million dollars – woo! (the rest of the family says “woo” too) – love that money, that I have accrued over this past season. Also, due to a binding endorsement contract that stipulates I mention Powerade at each grace, I just want to say that Powerade is delicious and it cools you off on a hot summer day. And we look forward to Powerade’s release of Mystic Mountain Blueberry. Thank you for all your power and your grace, dear baby God.

Oh, there are many uses for this scene.  Don’t pray like this, a favorite of youth leaders.  Jesus can’t stay in the crib forever and neither can you, a favorite of mothers whose 16 year old won’t get out of bed.  But my favorite is… Jesus didn’t come here to be what we think we want, neither a ninja nor a democrat or republican nor one wearing a tuxedo shirt.

Jesus came to fulfill God’s plan, one that is described in the language of consolation, redemption, and salvation.

Luke fits the birth narrative around a well-known story of God engaging an older couple that a prophet might be born.  In reading the first chapters of 1 Samuel you will meet Hannah, an old woman who after much waiting bears a son named Samuel, who she gives into the service of God (as she promised).  Luke starts his narrative with Elizabeth, an old woman who is given a son: John the Baptist, a prophet.  As Hannah’s part in the story ends with her bringing Samuel to Eli, the temple priest, Luke’s birth narrative ends with Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus into the temple, giving him into the hands of Simeon.  Jesus belongs to the God you know from scripture.  Jesus is given definition through scripture.

Luke, writing years after Jesus’ death, dares to see Jesus as the one God will use to console, redeem, and save.

And so…is this really what we need to go forward with God?

Or is this just another man with giant eagle’s wings better left in the crib while we go our own way?

C.S. Lewis argued that the part in us that cares for strangers, the part of us that would risk our lives for another, tells us of God’s existence.  For, he argues, it would not follow from evolution that we would care for someone unrelated to us.  Yet, those are the stories that do our souls good…those stories where self sacrifice saves another.  For Lewis that is a sign that God is at work, because it is a force that stands against the natural world.  Others would say it is the human spirit, and argue that we would be more responsible to not look to God but rather to develop our own selves–our humanity.  Perhaps we can get beyond religion, they argue.

They imagine themselves with giant eagle’s wings.

Comfort, comfort my people, says our God. 

I didn’t come here on Christmas Eve to celebrate Jesus coming into the world so I might fly on my own wings.  I’m not winning any races these days.  I’m not even sure where the starting line is.  But when I stop and imagine Jesus, because of these gospel images, I can feel him taking my hand, leading me through the redemptive fire, that I might be free.

The Biblical imagery makes sense…with Jesus I’m consoled—he takes my hand.  With Jesus I’m willing to be reformed that I might better serve God as did he.  With Jesus, God is free to have the last word in my life.

God’s work through Jesus makes a whole lot more sense than anything I might conjure up.

And Luke keeps it real.  It isn’t all “good news.”

Even as Simeon holds Jesus, gleefully announcing his departure, he is obliged to speak in a more ominous tone:  “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

I don’t imagine these words came easily.  Why can’t it just be joy?  Because eventually the baby cries, eventually we face the difficulty of keeping Christ alive in our world, alive in our own hearts.

Our independence fights against God’s comfort, our need to look good rebels against being reformed, and our humanistic beliefs call us to save ourselves.

This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel. 

Note the order of the words: the falling comes before the rising.  This suggests this is less a categorization of people into two types, than a statement that the falling is part of the cycle of anyone who chooses to follow Jesus out of the manger.

Jesus has been born, what’s next?  Trouble.  The right kind of trouble.

In Talladega Nights, Ricky Bobby was intent on being first because his drunken Dad said to him one day “If you are not first, you’re last.”  All kinds of bad happened in his soul because that became his mantra. Then one day, his temporarily sober father turned up. Ricky Bobby looked his Dad in the eye and said with feeling “I remember you telling me…’If you are not first, you’re last.  Everything I’ve sought to be is because of those words.’”  Hearing this, his Dad laughed and said “that’s a stupid thing to live by, the words of a drunken man.  They make no sense.”

I was reading in USA Today the New Year resolutions of CEOs of small companies.  One talked about making more personal phone calls to his employees, another told about encouraging more travel for those of his company, and another about getting a stand up desk so he might exercise while working.

Jesus has been born!  Are we going to allow ourselves to be defined by the failings of the past?  Is the only important thing in our new year our diet, exercise, and vacation?  These things do not make sense of our lives.

Or…

Are we going to get into some good old fashioned trouble by taking hold of Jesus, his purpose becoming ours…a mission to bring God’s consolation, to bring God’s redemption, to bring God’s salvation…however imperfectly we shoulder it…into our world.  Come on, for Christ’s sake, let’s get into some trouble together…for such is the way of our Lord.  Amen.

Dyers of Purple Cloth

One day, as they had many times before, a group of women gathered by the river to pray. Among them was Lydia. Scripture tells us she was a dealer in purple cloth, meaning she was a businesswoman. Her name is the same as the name of the state from which came the dyers of cloth, allowing her to act illustratively as a connection between people of business and people of faith. Lydia is not poor. She has no disease from which she needs healing. She hasn’t had 7 husbands. She does have a business and a household to run. Even with these responsibilities, she takes time out of her day to meet with other women to pray.

Paul arrives in Philippi looking for someone to talk to about Jesus. He is told that there is a group of God Fearers who pray by the river. A God Fearer was someone who wasn’t Jewish–or a worshiper of the gods in the Roman Pantheon–but one who sought to know the one God more. Paul walked over to the women with Timothy and Silas. The women looked up from their prayers. Allowing the interruption, they welcomed them, and asked them to speak.

Scripture does not record the men’s words. Instead, it turns us towards Lydia. At first, we are told, she heard their words. The Greek word used is the usual one for hearing. But there came a time when Timothy reports, “the Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said.” The word behind “listen eagerly” is prosecho, meaning to turn one’s attention and mind towards. There has been a change: Lydia’s heart opened, and she awoke to a new way.

We do not hear details of her baptism. Here the sparse writing matches a down-to-earth, get it done attitude which may be the way of Lydia. Scripture gets on to business: ”When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful, come stay with me.’ And she prevailed upon us (Luke 16:15).”

(The only other time someone prevails upon another in Luke/Acts is when the two men who unknowingly walked with the resurrected Jesus to Emmaus urged him to stay and eat with them. And, in the breaking of the bread, their eyes were opened.)

At first glance, it seems as if Lydia is merely being hospitable, allowing the small group of evangelists to stay with her. But just as there is silence between Paul’s visit to the river prayer meeting and Lydia’s whole household being baptized along with her, so there is silence between the time she welcomes Paul into her home and the last word we have about her. It is as if the writer of scripture throws up his arms and admits not knowing how Lydia could do what she has done.

While Lydia operates beyond our vision, we watch as Paul gets into trouble when he, in frustration, sends away a spirit of divination that had made a woman following him around in the marketplace quite the pest. His exorcism angered the unnamed woman’s owners who enjoyed profits from her spiritual gift. A crowd gathers, Paul is accused of disrupting city life, and Paul and Silas are thrown into jail. Many know the oft-told tale of Paul and Silas singing hymns at midnight, the chains falling off them, the jailor’s baptism, and the Romans’ official release of Paul and Silas. It is a story worthy of the many sermons that have been written on it. But, when Paul is released, how many of us remember where he goes?

Here’s a clue–there is a ministry in St. Louis called Lydia’s House; it provides transitional housing to women coming out of prison.

Acts 16: 40 “After leaving the prison they went to Lydia’s home….”

To do what? To collect their belongings? To get a good meal before they left?

Perhaps both, but here is what we are told: “When they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed.” Brothers, in Greek, is a way of naming those who have become part of the family of God through Christ, by whose spirit Paul says, we are adopted. In short, Lydia had founded a church. She brought people into a life with Christ, those who were looking for a spiritual home and a way forward with God.

How did she do it? How do we do it? It isn’t all spelled out in this scripture, but there are general clues. First, Lydia had a group of women she met with regularly to pray. Prayer and community were already a part of her life. Second, she allowed the Holy Spirit to take hold of her, to open her heart, and help her listen attentively. She was present, leaving behind her worries, allowing what God wanted to give to her to enter in. Finally, she sought to be a person of faith. She didn’t invite Paul into her house based on what she had there, but rather on what she had shown herself to be. With all these traits in place, she got to work without fanfare or arguments about a woman’s role, doing what God would have her do in the name of Jesus.

Whether you are a woman or a man, as we enter into Advent preparing for the coming of Christ, it seems like a good plan.

In Christ,

Heather