What to Expect/Sermons
At Community Church of the Pelhams, we love a good sermon. For us, that means a sermon that engages both our hearts and our minds. We like to consider how Scripture is relevant to our daily lives, and we listen for a message that both challenges and inspires us. A skilled preacher, like a skilled teacher, will frame an issue or text in a way that invites multiple perspectives and leaves you thinking.
December 4, 2016 Makin’ Room at the Table Genesis 45:4-11; John 14:1-3 Rev. Noel Vanek
As we head toward Christmas this year, radical hospitality is our theme. Today we explore how we make room at the table for all the guests that may crowd our celebrations. What do they have to do with making room for the Christ child in our hearts?
Obviously, I might have told the story of Mary and Joseph going up to Bethlehem to be counted at the time of the census. You remember: Mary, Joseph’s betrothed, was expecting a child, but they had difficulty finding a room in which to stay. There were no commercial inns, but there were plenty of people guest rooms attached to the back of their homes, adjacent to the area the animals slept in at night. Joseph had to knock on a lot of doors… probably trying out distant family members he was related to but perhaps had never met, before he found one family who could put them up. Somebody made room for Joseph and Mary, and soon, little Jesus child.
But I didn’t select that scripture. The passage from John’s Gospel came to mind: In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places… most frequently translated as “rooms.” God’s house is a spacious house and Jesus our Savior goes there to prepare a place for us. Our God is a spacious God, God makes room for all sorts of people, even folks you wouldn’t be to sure to let into your house, God lets in. And all God asks us in return is to try and do likewise. Be spacious in our attitude toward others. Make room at your tables. This Christmas, this season, and I might add, in this great country of ours. Make room. It’s a spacious land. We are an immigrant nation… everyone came here from someplace else! Don’t turn people away.
And yet, it’s true. Sometimes we can feel just too crowded. Too pushed. Too tired. Maybe too afraid to make room. And those people coming in to Bethlehem looking for a guest room in our house, sayin’ they’re related to us., why they just don’t look like our kind of people. I’ve heard they’re violent, someone says. And someone else nods and replies, I’ve heard they are no account loiterers, freeloaders, expecting a hand out. There’s a part of our hearts that wants to turn people away, especially when we don’t know them and they don’t look like us. We’re sorry that the lady is carrying a baby and about to explode, from the look of her. We’re sorry they’ve come such a long way and the traveling was dangerous. But it’s not our problem. We’re closed up for now.
The author of the little study book on Advent that gave me the idea for my December series, “Makin’ Room,” is Rev. Dr. Henry Masters, Sr. He recently retired from a long and distinguished career as a United Methodist pastor. When he wrote this little book in 1994 he had no idea that we would be discussing in the United States today, 2016, whether to discriminate against Muslims, whether to close the door on refugees, whether to deport 5 to 10 million illegal immigrants from various countries south of our border. He had no idea But he did know the history of his people, the descendants of slaves brought here 250 years ago. He knew that growing up in Waco, Texas, it was common for all the relatives to come home at Christmas and there was never, ever, ever a question of not makin’ room for them. And he asked himself, where does that strong commitment to hospitality come from?
From African roots. In Africa people are defined by their hospitality, expressed in the concept of Ubuntu, sharing with others defines our human-ness. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has always been an advocate of incorporating this contempt of Ubuntu into his theology: He writes:
“In our African understanding, part of ubantu – being human – is the rare gift of sharing. This concept of sharing is exemplified in African feasts… when people eat together from a common dish.”
My wife Linda’s favorite restaurant is an Ethiopian little hole in the wall down in the Village. You order various vegetables and meats and they come served on ajura, and everyone eats off of a common bread dish. Ajura for two people isn’t so great. But it’s wonderful when there are four, six or eight of you all together sharing and laughing. This makes a meal indeed to be a communion. We are one at the table. At the table there’s always room. Ubuntu, sharing, makes us human.
Rev. Dr. Masters notes in his book that the fact that Christianity is growing rapidly in Africa while in decline in Europe and North America may well illustrate the affection and solidarity African people have with the person of Jesus Christ. Where, after all, did Jesus come from? Israel, which though not in African, is right next door. That village of Bethlehem knew some of the ways of Ubuntu. And where did Jesus flee with his mother and father when things got too hot for safety in Judea? To Egypt, to Africa, to find safety and hospitality. And this wasn’t the first time that God’s Israelite people fled to Africa to find a safe haven. It happened many many centuries earlier when Joseph fled to Egypt and eventually was able to feed his whole family when they, too, came there seeking relief from the famine. That’s why I included the Old Testament lesson for today, to remind us that the patriarchs in the Bible went to Africa to find food. They found room at the table then and it saved their lives. Ubuntu is a very old, very trans-cultural concept.
Funny… it’s only in countries like ours, that we seem to have forgotten it. Make room at the table, because hospitality isn’t just about being kind, it’s not just about being gracious hosts. It’s about saving someone’s life. It becomes a feast when we remember we are together to help someone to live.
Advent is a season of makin’ room. How do we make room in our hearts for the strangers among us, who have no place to go and no one to whom they can turn? We have a rich culture upon which to call, to learn to accept all humanity as our brothers and our sisters.
By remembering our roots of Ubuntu... and they’re our roots either because we are African in heritage or because we are just Christian and Ubuntu is a part of the Gospel story… by remembering to make room as did that ancient village in Egypt when Mary and Joseph most needed a place to hide, we can turn a holiday atmosphere into a feast celebrating our common humanity.
So, think about how you can expand your holiday hospitality. Who aren’t you thinking of, that you could think of… Don’t buy them a present. Invite them into your home. And as you do, remind yourself that God has invited you into God’s eternal home, by asking you to follow in faith the way of Jesus the Christ. Amen.
August 21, 2016 The Exile Experience
Jeremiah 1:11-19; Hebrews 13:1-8 Rev. Noel Vanek
We don’t talk much about exile, do we? It seems foreign, strange, even slightly un-American to do so. We Americans are winners. We always overcome adversity. We live with the mentality of people who seem sure that they will come out on top. Perhaps there’s a little doubt creeping into our national politics these days, which makes the debate even more heated.
But our Jewish brothers and sisters remember exile. They work very heard to recall the time when the ancient Jews were sent into exile. As the insert explains, they remember the Babylonian exile with a specific day, Tish a B’Av, set apart for commemoration. It’s their history and they don’t want to forget it. And you can understand, I think, why the exile that occurred in Babylon from 597-538 BC seems to most Jews to have only been a precursor to their modern history: discrimination, pograms, explusion, being sent wander as refugees, and even holocaust. No, if you are a good Jew you don’t forget the exile experience.
And if you are a good Jew you also don’t forget that the scriptures are adamant that in some way, some of the suffering of exile you brought on against yourself through your rebellion and lack of faithfulness, through your internal divisiveness. The exile experience is about misery, about feeling helpless and without choices, but it’s also a bitter pill to swallow because in some way or another you were partly to blame. No one, no one likes to hear that their misery is their own fault. And indeed the people who say this are often heartless and pursuing their own agendas. But the biblical portrait of exile makes it clear that our own partial culpability is also a part of the truth.
So, what about you? Have you ever, personally, felt like an exile? Can you recall feeling as if things were happening to you that weren’t your fault (or perhaps, that you were suffering consequences out of all proportion to your mistake)? Have you ever felt that you had no control, that everything was going against you and you couldn’t do anything to change it? Have you ever felt lost and homesick and depressed and de-energized?
Yes, I would guess that most of us have felt this way at least for a short time in our lives. Feeling this way doesn’t make us exiles, mind you… to be an exile isn’t a psychological experience… it’s a social reality… we haven’t literally lost our homeland and in most cases people aren’t literally taking away our legal rights and persecuting us… but many many of us have felt oppressed, or set upon, or as if we’ve lost our home anchor and are now wandering, lost.
The good news is that even when we have felt this way, we managed to right the ship. We have resources to fall back upon. We rediscoverd our self-esteem. They cut us some slack at work, and gave us the time to work things out. Or, perhaps, by the grace of God, someone helped us see reality more clearly again, and we started seeing and then making better choices for ourselves. We took action to reign in our sense of depression and desperation. Slowly we got back to what feels like “our life.”
Living presents these challenging times. But you see, most of us here today have resources to help us out. So let’s call these experiences of depression, helplessness, being cast adrift, “wilderness” experiences. In the wilderness we are not really exiles. It’s true, at one time or another most of us do venture into the wilderness. Sometimes we get bumped there, sometimes we get fed up with our normal lives and choose to journey into the wilderness, we drop out, just to look at and experience life differently. The biblical picture of the wilderness shows us that it isn’t a safe or even nice place to be, but it is a place where one does encounter God. It’s meant to be a temporary experience. You retreat into the wilderness for forty days. Then you return and take up your regular life, albeit hopefully with new insight.
And of course, some people get knocked off their feet and land in the wilderness, and have a really tough time finding their way back.
But in either case, wilderness isn’t quite the same thing as exile.
So, let me ask you, who today might we identify with the term exile and the story of the ancient Jews sent to exile in Babylon?
Refugees fleeing wars in the Mideast? They didn’t choose to depart. This isn’t a great adventure for them. They aren’t seeking a better way of life, they aren’t emigrating. They are fleeing against their will.
Who else?... I think of the displaced Palestinians still living in refugee camps 60, 70 years after the Jewish war for independence. What a tragedy!
But in particular, more locally, the occasion of the police killings of young black men which have continued unabated in our nation led to a movement in early July, here in our country. It caused people of good will, Black and White, to gather into a coalition. The first step was a protest march in White Plains on July 14th. It was called the “Crossing the Line” march. Too much violence, too many African-American men shot. And in Dallas, a crazed hatred turned back on innocent police officers. It all crossed a line. That coalition of churches and synagogues then gathered for reflection. Our Jewish brothers and sisters suggested a preach-in on the topic of the exile. Because when you feel the law and the institutions of society turn against you, when you feel you can’t get justice, when you are no longer sure what to tell your teenage African American son to do if stopped by the police… when you can no longer trust the society you fought to defend and which you still feel pride for when you watch the Olympics on TV… that’s when the term exile becomes relevant to a whole slice of people who are Americans and who live right next to us. And in many cases who are us her in our church.
What makes an exile an exile? An exile suffers and can’t see any good choices to make. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t is the way it feels. They are taking my country away from me, is what goes through an exile’s mind. I might as well be banished for all the good living here is doing me. And I’m angry, angry, that this is happening to me in my own homeland!
That’s how an exile experiences life. I’m not saying it’s all entirely rational, I’m not saying there are no choices to be made, I’m not saying that exiles don’t bear some responsibility for what’s happening. But it feels as if they have their home taken away, it feels as if the society is against them, it feels as if nothing they do will be allowed to turn out right. And the exile feels angry and somewhat desperate.
What do you do to help exiles? Work for justice, of course. But justice takes a long, slow time. Progress toward justice can be measured, to be sure, but it’s never perfect. For example, we no longer permit slavery, but we’ve hardly abolished racism. Progress, but not perfect justice yet.
What else can we do to help people caught in the exile experience?
That question has lingered in my mind this past month. It seems to me we are so unfamiliar with exile that we might try to become more familiar. One way is to pay attention to the Bible. So I’ve decided to focus on reading the Book of Jeremiah over the next three months in worship… the prophet Jeremiah was called to both warn and finally condemn his people before the great tragedy occurred, then he was called on by God to comfort them. And no one, absolutely almost nobody liked Jeremiah… he caught flack from all sides. Everyone tried to shut him up. But he soldiered on, he persevered as a prophet, because God called him, and God promised that God would protect and empower Jeremiah no matter what.
That’s what our Old Testament passage today says. God warns Jeremiah that disaster will come out of the north and fall upon his people, and God will turn this into a judgment against them, a judgment that Jeremiah must announce. People will get so angry to hear Jeremiah condemn them in the name of God that they will attack him. “You be prepared, Jeremiah,” God says. But don’t you worry. I will be with you." And when the time finally came, God used Jeremiah to once again offer hope to the Jewish people in exile.
I think that one thing we need when we are exiles, is help seeing that we have choices. As an exile, we’ve been disempowered in society. In many cases we’ve been displaced, forced out, closed down, told we were no longer wanted or appreciated, had a part of our humanity stolen away. That leaves us feeling disoriented and often depressed, and as I said before, if we are at least somewhat healthy, we turn that depression into anger.
But angry heads don’t often see straight. What they need from others… from Jeremiah, from people of good will who want to make a place for them in society, from people who care…. What they need is being empowered once again to make choices. To go from being a victim to an agent. To change their mindset from “no way: to “God will make a way.”
So, we, what… we teach literacy to those who aren’t learning to read through their regular school classes. Rhonda Morgan does that, you will recall. We not only give food to share but we give away our old good clothing to a professional back-to-work clothing closet so that people can look nice when they go for a job interview. I learned from Vi Dierks’ daughter Gini that Vi’s really nice suits and tailored dresses went to the Shepherd’s Flock in White Plains, which does just that, help women get a basic back-to-work professional wardrobe.
Through the Interfaith Clergy for Social Action group I participate in, we are helping young people in Westchester County register to vote. We’ve worked out a little routine out on the strip on Saturday night where a clergy person talks to a dummy, and the dummy talks back, “no, I don’t care about voting… I don’t like any of the candidates and voting never helped anyone I know.” And the live person replies, “that’s right, you go dummy… that’s exactly how the people in power want you to think… because they don’t want you to vote.” A little sarcasm helps motivate disaffected millenials to register to vote.
Mona Lau from our church, a trained and experienced therapist, has a gift for counseling women who are seeking to return to the workforce. Often they feel low self esteem and worry they won’t be able to do anything. Mona tries to help them see they can do things, she helps them persevere. She helps them see choices.
We try to give people not just charity, but choices. That is ultimately what Jeremiah went about doing. Giving people comfort, yes, but also called them to responsibility and told them they could still make choices, even in exile. Choices. To once again be an agent rather than someone who can only let things happen to them. Even if the options aren’t always as good as we’d like, to be able to choose, to go from thinking of yourself as a victim to someone who makes decisions, is to walk part of the way back home.
Our job as Christians is to remember our heritage. The bible and all its people are our spiritual ancestors. Our family. We once were sent into exile. We have been persecuted and set upon. We have been cast out with no where to go. We have been accused by the Lord of bringing down our own house because of our sins, and we have beseeched God to find us, to help us, to save us. If we can remember, then we can listen to the story of others who are exiles, listen and feel greater compassion and even solidarity.
And then second, once we have listened, our job is to care, and to pray. The best way to care for an exile is to help empower them to find choices that they can make once again in their own lives. The best way to pray is to remind God that people are out there who need God’s help. And that we won’t give up praying for them until they are fully brought home.
Bring us all home God. Bring us home when we feel lost in the wilderness. And bring the exiles who no longer have a home, who feel they no longer have choices… bring them home, too. Help us to do our small part. Amen.
June 26, 2016 Risking Greater Love Ps. 32; Luke 7:41-50 Rev. Noel Vanek
Let’s talk about salvation. Not salvation from the vantage point of God, how God does it, why God makes it necessary. But from the human perspective. How do we get to know God through Jesus in the first place? How do you feel saved by him?
These are big questions. Big questions we often avoid. Oh, to be sure, some of us avoid thinking about salvation because we’ve had our feelings hurt: someone has approached us and spoken to us about it in words we didn’t like. But if salvation is important… if your very soul’s life depends upon it… then that’s a silly objection. Get over it.
Truth be told, we often avoid speaking about salvation because it makes us feel uncomfortable. Who wants to get that close to the living, burning, holy God? We want to say, I’ll think about that later. Like all the old jokes, “who wants to give his life to the Lord?” And the punch line is, “I do, just not yet.”
And what if we don’t get saved, what if we aren’t saved? The Christian faith calls that condition hell. We don’t know very much about hell, but we do know it’s not a state of being you want to be in. Maybe it’s eternal regret. Maybe it’s just an end, this was a wasted life and it’s over. Maybe in hell you are doomed to try to relive life again and get it right. I don’t know. I just know that God offers us chances at salvation. These chances are precious! Grab them!
Salvation has a story in our lives, and that begins with faith. For many, many of us, who have grown up in church all our lives, we can’t remember that beginning of faith. We started absorbing faith in Christ as Lord and as Son of God from the earliest days of Sunday School and from the songs we sang as children in church. Lord I want to be a Christian. The Old Rugged Cross. Amazing Grace. We absorbed these ideas until they became our own.
Some of us reacted against these traditional ideas because we saw them abused. We saw people act as if they “knew” they were saved so how they treated others didn’t really matter. We’ve witnessed the church act in ways that Jesus surely condemned. We’ve seen the church pretend it was perfect. We’ve seen it act as if it controlled God’s grace and salvation, and decided who got them and who didn’t. What a sin! But don’t be thrown off by our imperfection.
Salvation is important. What does it look like?
Many of you will be familiar with American author Marilyn Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Gilead. Her next two novels, Home, and Lila, fill in our knowledge of the characters and this small, mid-Twentieth century Iowa town.
The central characters in this saga are two aging, dying pastors: John Ames, and Robert Boughton. We see them from the vantage of their own words and the thoughts of family around them. John Ames is a gentle, grace-obsessed man whose wife and child died young, who marries again when he is very old, about 70, and fathers a son of his old age. John Ames struggles with reconciling his life as a minister with his angry, hurt feelings toward his own father, and his dis-ease and anger and lack of forgiveness of his godson Jack, who has returned to town as a 43 year old ne’er-do-well.
The second pastor, Robert Boughton has been John Ames’ life-long friend, but when we see him from the vantage point of his family in the novel Home we see that he has a dark side: he is now a crochety, domineering, selfish old man. He’s the father of Jack, and he can’t understand how his son turned out so badly. We see that each of these aging pastors is struggling to make some sense out of their lives, to measure their own responsibility for what they have passed along to others, to gain a clearer sense of their own sins, and to seek forgiveness. In old age they are struggling to grasp, to claim, to hold onto salvation. John Ames does this tolerably well. John Boughton less convincingly. But they are each asking, “God, do I have a place in your heart? Have I sufficiently asked for your forgiveness… have I sufficiently loved you, Lord?”
But we don’t have to turn to American literature for a picture of salvation.
Take the woman spoken of in the passage from Luke chapter 7 that we read. A Pharisee, a pious Jewish leader, invited Jesus to dinner. Luke makes it clear this Pharisee respected Jesus and thought of him as a prophet. A woman who is known in that traditional village as a “sinner” suddenly barges into the Pharisee’s home. She came up to Jesus and stood crying at his feet. With her hair she wiped her tears from his feet, and then anointed them with perfumed oil. Jesus allows her to do this, but the Pharisee thinks smugly to himself: “If you really were a prophet you’d know who this is and what sort of a woman she really is.”
Sensing his host’s judgment, Jesus tells the Pharisee a story. A certain creditor had two debtors…” And so on. Each debtor has his debt cancelled, but one owes way more than the other. Jesus ask the Pharisee point blank: Which of them will love the creditor more? The Pharisee can’t help but reply, “The one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.”
“You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman, Jesus said to the Pharisee, “I entered your house and you gave me no water for my feet, no kiss of greeting, no oil to refresh my head. I’m grateful to you for your hospitality, but do you see what she has done? Bathed my feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, anointed my head with her perfumed oil.
Now, the Pharisee was in no way a negligent host. It wasn’t necessary he do these things for Jesus. But the woman’s display of welcome and affection made his dinner host look stingy in comparison.
Jesus goes on to say, therefore I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven.
Let’s stop the narrative. We are at a tricky point. It is clear that this woman is repentant. The tears are signs of that. But does she come to Jesus to repent, seeking forgiveness from him? Many who interpret this passage understand it this way. But there’s a problem with this interpretation. Her love for him then becomes something like a precondition of her salvation. “Love Jesus and repent,” we’ve heard preachers preach. But it’s not always easy to love Jesus. Is he really saying “love me, repent of your sins, and I will forgive you for God?” That’s a lot to swallow. In fact, those who are with them at the dinner interpret Christ’s words this way. They ask “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
But Jesus doesn’t say that he forgives her. He tells her “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
It’s quite possible that this woman comes to Jesus not to beg forgiveness with her tears, but because she is grateful for already having received forgiveness from God, and she is aware of it. She seeks out Jesus as God’s representative to show her gratitude. Because she senses she is loved and forgiven, despite whatever her sins were, she overflows with love. I think this is the more correct way of understand what occurs. She finds God’s forgiveness, and then her love grows. She loves greatly because she recognizes how greatly she has been loved.
What is salvation? It’s knowing deep down inside that we have a place in God’s heart, it’s understanding that our sins don’t separate us from that divine love but have only hurt ourselves and others, and its coming to trust God to care for us now and into eternity. But there’s a second part, our response. Salvation is also wanting to grow into the person God created us to be. We do that by risking greater love. It was risky for the woman in Luke’s story. By entering the Pharisee’s house to return love to Jesus she risked a lot. But she grew a lot.
At the end of Luke’s story Jesus turns and looks at his host. He can’t help but add a little moral. He says, “But those to whom little has been forgiven, will as a result love little.”
These are searing words. They pinpoint exactly what is wrong with the attitude of the Pharisee. But I also wonder, “Who is Jesus speaking to today” with this observation? I think he’s speaking to those who are pretty sure of themselves and their place in heaven. Like the Pharisee in the story. I think he’s speaking to us when, like the Pharisee, we don’t think we have that much to be forgiven… we’re all good people, right?? But consequently when this is true for us, we also don’t love quite as much as we should.
Whether we are new, just trying out living the Gospel of Jesus Christ, for the first time, or whether we’ve been at it for years, we all would do well to try loving God just a little more. The first step in doing that is to allow ourselves to recognize just how much we have been loved, carried, forgiven, already.
Some of us have had pretty rough lives. We drank, we abused drugs, we were at times disrespectful toward those who loved us. We squandered opportunities in life. Others of us never had many opportunities to begin with. We’ve lived under the pall of poor luck, a bad start, racism, sexism, maybe even prejudice against us because of our sexuality. We’ve carried some bitterness in our hearts, but that bitterness hurts and weighs us down.
Some of us have lived charmed lives. We benefited from the place in society we were born into. Or we worked hard and luck went our way and we succeeded financially. For a long time we congratulated ourselves on our good fortune… but recently we’ve begun to wonder, “Where would I be if I hadn’t had so many breaks… ” I hope many of us will be reading a new book by economist Robert Frank that’s making a big splash: Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy. It pushes us to be more honest about the breaks many of us have received, that we tend to discount, not pay attention to. Sooner or later we look at someone else, less fortunate, and think to ourselves, maybe it’s true, “There but for the grace of God go I ...”
It’s when we can think about our lives like this that we can begin to risk loving God more. Because we can see what God already has done for us, forgiving our sin, lifting us through so many hard times and places, walking with us through adversity. I think the woman who came to Jesus with tears and perfumed oil, first came to God with a cries of self-recognition, and then gratitude.
There’s another dimension to our sin. Sin surrounds us, sin ensnares us.
Novelist Marilyn Robinson so subtly helps us see this social dimension to sin in her picture of 1956 small-town Iowa life. She permits us to listen in as the characters watch and discuss the events of the day as shown excitingly on the tv news. TV is brand new. We see news of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the civil rights protests and police brutality that followed, in what seems to the characters a far-away place, Alabama. We see how Boughton boy who has returned home, the bad son Jack, seems very concerned about the growing Civil Rights movement and the treatment of the black protesters. But his father remains unconcerned. “Pshaw! In six months no one will remember what it was all about!” the father cries dismissively. We learn that unbeknownst to the father, the son has a taken on a black woman as a lover and mother of his child in St. Louis. He’s come back home to Gilead to reconnoiter: is Gilead, he wonders, a place where a bi-racial family can live peacefully in 1956 America?
The answer, alas, is no. And that’s an indictment not just on the Boughton family, not just on the town of Gilead that once had a Black Church but years ago it mysteriously burned down and all the Black people slowly left town… it’s an indictment of America, where our great original sin has always been racism.
We all have been given so much. There’s so much to feel grateful to God for. And we all, whether or not we are willing to recognize it, are embroiled in, caught in sinful structures that surround us, much as water surrounds a fish. Sin is so much bigger than we want to admit.
But so is God’s salvation. So much bigger, so much nearer than we imagine.
What is salvation? It’s recognizing who we really are. It’s grasping that our sins don’t separate us from that divine love but have only hurt ourselves and others. It’s seeing how much God has loved us, through thick and thin. It’s returning, risking greater love, for God, and for our neighbor.
All our seeking begins in a story: our story. What weight do you carry in your heart? How can you approach God and seek forgiveness? How might you risk living with more honesty, more feeling, more tears? More love?
It’s your salvation. Grasp it! Amen.
October 15, 2015 Sex for Dummies
Genesis 3:1-7; I Corinthians 7:25-31 Rev. Noel Vanek
We live in an age which flouts sexual activity in front of us, no matter whether we are watching television, working on the internet, or just reading a magazine or newspaper. The message is: everyone is having sex, and lots of it! It doesn’t matter who you have sex with, just do it, or you’ll be left out. Is that what Christians believe and practice? And is this what we wish for our children and grandchildren to think?
No. You all know better. You’re not dummies. But too often we don’t talk about this. Look how the church is dumb on matters of sex because for some reason, some people get upset by talk about our sexuality and our sexual values during worship. Pastors invariably receive negative feedback for sermons on this topic, which is why we avoid them like the plague. But we shouldn’t.
There’s another reason we seem like dummies. This is because the Christian church often appears as if it doesn’t know what it believes on this subject. I’m going to share with you two core values on sex, and then also my thoughts on a couple of contemporary application of these values.
Going back as far as I can see to its inception, the Christian faith has always taught that genital sexual relations are God’s good gift, to be enjoyed and indeed cherished, but to be enjoyed and cherished within the context of marriage. Otherwise what is meant by God to be good, often turns to harm. Paul writes at the beginning of chapter 7 in his first letter to the Corinthian church: “Each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband” for the enjoyment of sexual pleasure. The loose, casual sharing of sexual relations between people who are not married and committed to one another is uniformly condemned by the New Testament. The New Testament calls this fornication and considers it a sin… a sin which harms both the individuals involved, and the entire community. You and I have seen the harm casual sex does to people right and left, right there in front of our eyes. For every person who says, “I had a little fun first, but then I found the one I loved and settled down… what’s the harm?” there are two or three persons who have had their lives seriously marred. Unwanted pregnancy. The sense of being betrayed when a relationship is serious for one person but just a fling for the other. Loss of a sense of integrity and doubts about one’s desirability. The cheapening of sex in the culture at large. We as a congregation need to affirm for one another and for our families that sexual relations are good, but they are intended for married life.
And I might add: now that marriage is legally available for all people, including LGBT persons who were so discriminated by both society and the church for eons… now that marriage is an option for everyone, I can preach the importance linking sexual relations with married life once again without feeling like a total hypocrite.
So this is one of the two foundational positions I would affirm to you in this sermon. Sexual relations are intended by God for pleasure. They are good. But they are intended for people who love and are committed to one another in a covenantal tie.
A second foundational position about sexual relations we find expressed in the passage we heard read from Paul’s 7th chapter to the Corinthian church. But it requires just a little more explication to clarify a principle from Paul’s writing that we can listen to today.
Paul writes in vs. 26, concerning the unmarried, “It is well for you to remain as you are (single), in view of the impending crisis.” By the word “virgins” Paul simply means people who are unmarried. He’s thinking with the Corinthian church about what they should teach single Christians. His advice, plain and simple: don’t get married. Stay single.
Why does Paul say this? Remember, Paul himself was single and considered the ability to remain chaste while unmarried to be a gift from God, a “charism” to be exact. Remaining single, for Paul, was a good thing. In fact, he recommended the single life over the married life because he felt that the world would come to an end soon and that Jesus would return in the midst of a great conflagration, a time when there would be tremendous suffering, chaos, and finally, judgment of all who were alive by the living God. No, Paul hadn’t been reading the sensational “Left Behind” series of novels by Tim LeHay. He simply was a pious Jew who believed in the predictions of the Day of the Lord, as foretold by the prophets, coming to literal fruition during the lifetime of those who still remembered Jesus in the flesh. To Paul it wasn’t conceivable that if Jesus was Lord, that he would delay very long in returning to judge the earth and bring in the Kingdom of God.
Well, this didn’t happen, did it? We still proclaim as a part of our faith that Christ will come again, but we now realize more than Paul did that we don’t know when this event will happen, or for that matter, how.
Does this mean that we throw out, that we disregard entirely, Paul’s advice to the Corinthian single persons about marriage and sex? I don’t think so. Rather, we need to translate the principle Paul was trying to get across into language that makes some kind of sense to us today. His reason – that the world was going to come to an end soon – can’t be our reason. But he did have something important to say.
Here’s my crack at re-phrasing the truth about sex which Paul understood, in words we can hear: “In the great scheme of things, when you think about everything in life that matters, how important is sex really? Whether we are single or married, whether we are having wonderful sexual relationships, or none, or maybe having a sexual relationship that’s a very mixed bag, sometimes bringing fun and joy and fulfillment and others times bringing us misery and guilt and feelings of inadequacy… in the great scheme of things, sex doesn’t matter all that much!”
When you look back at what’s truly important in life, in your life, sex won’t crack the top five topics you remember.
This is what I think Paul discovered. Paul lived a single life, and like so many other people who are single I’m sure this frustrated him at times. But he learned to give his frustration up to the Lord, even to consider it a special gift that enabled him to travel extensively to spread the Gospel of Christ. He learned, that for a Christian, in the big scheme of things, sex is not the most important aspect of our lives.
Just because our culture says sexual fulfillment is the most important thing adults must “do” to be happy, “normal,” accomplished human beings, doesn’t make it so! From a scriptural point of view, there are many, many other things about our lives that are more important: our honesty, our courage, our compassion, our friendships and loyalties, our ability to share and be generous, our depth of love and faithfulness, even I would venture to say, our ability to laugh at ourselves… these are ALL more important aspects of good living. They certainly are more vital to living a satisfying life as a follower of Jesus Christ, than how often and how well we are making love. Sex simply shouldn’t be placed so high on the list of the ultimate goods in life.
Here let me share an historical aside: when our Reforming ancestors started a new way of living out the Christian faith from that which they inherited in the Roman Catholic, in other words with the start of what we now call the Protestant churches, they threw out the call to celibacy as respectable order of living. They regarded it as something Papist, superstitious, and unnatural. Our secular world has inherited this view, and many of us have, too. Popular psychology proclaims it somehow “unnatural” to live as a single, chaste person. But both the witness of scripture and the witness of history tell us there is, however, a legitimate call to a celibate life that comes from God, a calling that to people in all ages and places and cultures. The fact that we are so totally uncomprehending of singleness as a possible good is another evidence of our partial understanding and blindness to the gifts of God today.
Now, I wonder, what makes us over-value sex? Here the scripture from Genesis 3 is helpful. The first woman is tempted by the snake, but she is also tempted by gazing at the forbidden tree and its fruit. Genesis tells us that when she saw the tree it “was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise she took of the fruit and ate.” There’s something like attraction and desire happening here. The significance of Eve’s verbal delight in and desire for the beautiful fruit jumped out to me the other day when I was reading a passage from Barbara Brown Taylor (my favorite contemporary preacher), who quotes the early 20th century French philosopher Simon Weil:
The great trouble in human life is that looking and eating are two different operations… it may be that vice, depravity, and crime are… in their essence, attempts to eat beauty, to eat what we should only look at.
Eve, like so many of us, feels desire from her eyes, and instead of being satisfied with filling her appetite for beauty visually, decides she must eat the desired but forbidden object. In her case it was an apple, but don’t you know, so often for us the desired object is another human being whom we find attractive. What Simon Weil is saying is that God made attractions, God made human beings to be beautiful, and it’s ok for us to appreciate and even to desire, with our eyes. But don’t bit the apple that’s not meant for you. Your mother said it well: look but don’t touch!
Our sexuality in itself is not an enemy to our faith… the human body is beautiful! It provokes desire in us. People who try to de-sexualize themselves in the name of following Jesus have got it all wrong. There are a host of ways we relate to each other that involves our sexuality. We smile. We joke. We even sometimes flirt. This is part of what makes us interesting, indeed, beautiful people. But we need to help one another reinforce the limits that have been placed upon what we can pluck and eat, limits placed there by God, for our own good.
While I’m on a roll, let me share one other counter-cultural sex tip. Popular culture makes the audacious claim that sex itself is better with strangers. It’s more exotic, more arousing, when you don’t know your partner very well at all. But that’s just simply not true. For every rush of excitement, casual sex with a stranger provides a ton of embarrassing failures and all too many feelings that you have done something you know you shouldn’t have done, something that may well lead to harm and hurt. No, sex is more fulfilling, more satisfying, when it’s accompanied by the deep familiarity and trust and deep communication that comes as part and parcel of really knowing your partner, and knowing you both care about one another and will be there for each other come morning.
Finally, please let me emphasize for you that Paul, as do all Christian thinkers, wrote in dialogue with his society and culture. The people of God are always in dialogue with the world around them. Yes, we often complain about the values of the world around us. Paul certainly lambasted the morals of the Roman world. Yet he also adopted a good many of that culture’s norms in his thinking about how we are to live together sexually.
Every religious application of God’s Word must take into consideration how best to communicate with the world around it. For example, in what we call the Old Testament, you will find not one denunciation of the polygamous cultural norms we see reflected in the very oldest writings. Rather, the scripture here accepts the cultural norm in its day, polygamous marital relations, and then tells stories about how to live virtuously in that culture. We must do the same thing to today. The challenge is, how do we take the message of the Bible and apply it now?
One of our dilemmas is that so many couples try out married life by living together without a formal commitment. Some make it to the wedding altar, many couples now eschew the commitment of marriage altogether, and many just break up and move on to other partners. I don’t know exactly what to do about our penchant today for putting off, and sometimes avoiding completely a formal commitment to the one we love. It’s part fad and part a change in how long it takes to fully grow up today. Remember, you don’t have to be mature to marry… God forbid! In New Testament times people married at age 15 or 16… were they mature? No. They grew up together, just as many unmarried but cohabitating couples do today. Is this a good thing? No. But I’m not going to be able to change it, and neither is the church. But what we can do is tell people who live together how important it is to value and cherish and honor their partner, to stay faithful and work through problems together, even though they are not married. Even in relationships that are pre-covenant, God can and does work with us to help teach us the joy of commitment. So much literature has it wrong: the exciting and challenging part of life isn’t finding a partner. It’s learning how to change and grow and compromise and more deeply understand another so you can share your life with him or her.
Well, then, Reverend Vanek, I can hear someone thinking, isn’t there any kind of sexual sin we should really get angry about? You seem so accepting it makes us suspicious.
Well, my answer dear friend, is yes. I think we ought to really get angry about the cheapening of sex we see all around us. You know what cheapens sex: the glorification of one night stands, hooking up culture because the very young don’t date any more, sex clubbing, pornography, adultery. And I’d add to that list cheap advertising that uses sex to sell things… jeans, cars, chicken wings, anything and everything, by pushing sex blatantly and in the process often treating women as mere sex objects.
And let’s add one more, deadly sex sin, to the list: being so scared to talk about the good gift of sexuality and of genital relations that we become dumb. We don’t talk to our children. We don’t talk to them at home, we don’t encourage and enable the school to talk to them, and above all we don’t talk about sex at church! So our children learn about sex from one place and one place only: that’s right, from the media. And what they learn on television and in the movies provides them with a very incomplete picture of what God intended by this exciting, powerful, beautiful but scary gift.
Single, married, divorced, widowed, young, old, straight or gay, we are all sexual beings. That’s good. Use this gift wisely. Rejoice in it! Don’t spoil it by biting the apple that isn’t yours. Don’t cheapen it by abusing the power of this gift, or by using other people to satisfy a transitory desire for a cheap thrill. Talk about it, but don’t obsess over it. As Paul said so many years ago: the present form of this world is passing away. In the big scheme of things, sex is nice, but not all that important when compared to God’s powerful love for us. Above all, we’d truly be dummies to think sex is more important than our relationship with God. Amen.
September 6, 2015 ShopRight! Amos 5:6-14, James 5:1-6 Rev. Noel Vanek
Ah, Labor Day weekend. What does it make us think of? The last hurrah of summer? Cookouts? If we were a different kind of congregation, I’d say, “Time to close down your outdoor swimming pool.” Or the last day at the beach club. But what about remembering those whose labor built this country?
My grandfather worked as a machinist in a tool and die shop in Cleveland, Ohio. Because his union won him good wages and fair benefits, he and my grandmother were able to send move from the inner city Czech neighborhood to what was then a new suburb, Maple Heights. And they managed to send my father and his two brothers to college. In this one family, the Vaneks, we saw the realization of the American Dream.
Today things are different. You know this and I know this. Young people fight to find a job, let alone a good paying job. What can you and I do to help? How can we help continue the American dream? Most of us no longer are members of labor unions, their membership is way down. But we are members of a very very large special interest group. We buy things at the store. Like this tomato (show tomato). Consumers are the largest power brokers in this country. There’s a lot more behind this tomato than you might think. And how and where you buy it matters to others who need our help.
More of the story of the tomato to come, but as they say on NPR, first, let’s do the numbers.
Many of the presidential candidates are talking about the high level of college debt most young people graduate with today. There are various plans being proposed to make college more affordable for middle class families and more accessible to kids from poor backgrounds. But make no mistake: all of these plans hinge on one assumption: establishing a variety of taxes on the very very wealthy, the upper tiers of the 1%. The super wealthy.
Reading the passage from James, the brother of Jesus, you can see pretty quickly he doesn’t have a high regard for rich people. He tells them they laid up treasure by defrauding the laborers who mowed their fields, and holding back what was due those who harvested. “You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter,” he tells them. Beware, God is not fooled, he warns. James here sounds a lot like Bernie Sanders, who also really really doesn’t like the super wealthy. James the brother of Jesus was probably an early version of a socialist, like Bernie Sanders. If they had their way, no one would be permitted to become super super rich. But Jesus can’t be pinned down quite so easily. He warns the rich that their wealth gets in their way of responding to God’s call. What did he tell the young man who came to him in the middle of the night… we call him the rich young ruler? Jesus said, “Give away your wealth and come follow me.” Yet Jesus also seemed to take pity on the rich, and create loopholes where they could possibly survive God’s judgment, loopholes like a camel going through the needle’s eye. What’s impossible for mere human beings is possible for God, if we have faith.
On the whole, if I were wealthy, I’d rather have Jesus create legislation for me than James. But whether we follow James or Jesus, know that the Bible doesn’t believe the top tier of the 1% deserve to be paid 30,000 times what the lowest paid worker makes. That’s greed. And in the Bible, that’s a crime.
Most of the commercially grown, year-round available tomatoes we buy at supermarkets, and consume at Wendy’s or Taco Bell, are grown in Immokalee, Florida. The people who harvest these tomatoes from the vast corporately owned farms are mostly from Mexico and Central America, and they earn very little. Until the creation of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a human rights and lobbying group representing the interests of the farm workers, these workers had very little clout. But since the CIW (Coalition of Immokalee Workers) started their push for a Fair Food Program, by encouraging boycotts at the national level of big supermarket chains and fast food chains, two things have happened.
First, crime has decreased. Yes, crime. Crime against workers. Our capitalist system encourages big corporations to take advantage of especially uneducated workers. For example, human slavery. The CIW pushed for the creation of a third-party monitor created to ensure compliance with both the law, and rules agreed to in collective bargaining agreements. In the 1990’s and first decade of the 2000’s, United States government investigators found and prosecuted numerous “enslavement” of workers complaints. Workers were literally held against their will on the tomato farm until the season was over. This new agreement between tomato laborers, tomato farms, and large national tomato buyers creates regular audits of worker conditions and carries out ongoing complaint investigations. Wage theft was another big crime. Workers weren’t always paid what they were supposed to get, and no one defended them. Now with the Fair Food Standards Council, workers’ rights are better protected.
Who would have thought that people who own swimming pools in their back yards might possibly pay for them at the expense of a family picking tomatoes on a farm in Florida?
The prophet Amos also has hard words for the wealthy, the landowners in his day who trampled on the rights of the poor: “You have planted pleasant vineyards but you shall not drink their wine, you have built homes of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them…” he warns. But for those of us who are mere 99%ers, he also has a word from the Lord: “Seek the good and not evil, that you may live.”
Rather than get over angry at the super wealthy, maybe we should put our energy into protecting the weak and vulnerable. Like tomato pickers.
Or, frankly, like young people in our society graduating from college.
It’s important that we understand the hard facts about our changing economy. Since 2000, the demand for highly educated workers declined, while jobs in low paying occupations increased strongly. The recent trend of job creation of lots of low paying service industry positions, accompanied by the slow contraction of high paying jobs, including high paying jobs in technical fields, will continue. There will be blips when a new industry takes off and hires like crazy, creating more higher paying jobs, but sooner or later the advance of technology and the pressure of capitalism will cause a shrinkage of those new high paying jobs. The future is more people working at low-paying jobs.
A college education by itself is no longer a guarantee that one’s work will be higher paying. You can imagine how difficult life is when you’ve worked hard to get through college, graduate with $35,000 debt (which is about the national average now for graduating seniors), and go to work for a service industry job that pays, what… Whole Foods gets high marks and many young people want to work for them because they offer a starting wage of $10 an hour, plus some benefits.
What would it mean for us to seek the good, and not evil, for this next generation of young people entering the work force, the millenials, as they are called?
Well, like a Republican, I’d say we older folks need to look at reducing the budget deficit so we don’t just keep pushing over high debt onto the next generation. And like a Democrat, I’d say we need to fund projects that repair our weakening national infrastructure… bridges, roads, the electrical grid, because this helps us be around for another 50 years and also stimulates employment. But there’s something even more important you can do than vote your conscience. You can speak up for a current hot issue that you may have never thought touches anyone you know.
If our future economy is going to continue creating lots of low-paying jobs, much more than high paying jobs, then we must do more to protect and enhance those jobs. Because those are the jobs our kids and grandkids are going to get. The fight for a $15 minimum wage makes sense in the long run because it helps people afford to live. Initially it will probably decrease the number of jobs in a few industries, but we’ll eventually get used to the price shock. My hamburger will cost $6 instead of $5; and underwear will go up to $12.50 for a bag of three instead of $11.00. You and I will cope, and the people who work at McDonalds or Target will do a whole lot better. My coffee at a coffee shop, where I am waited on by a barista who graduated with a degree in art history or psychology, will go up a quarter. Here’s drinking to you, kid! Speak up for a decent minimum wage act. Our politicians need to hear this so they can find the courage to do the right thing.
As Amos put it, “Seek the good and not evil, that you may live.”
Remember, I said that the CLW won two victories for the tomato workers. The second thing that the Fair Foods Act has won for these farm workers is more income. The agreement adds a penny per tomato to the cost, and that penny goes directly into the farm workers paycheck as a bonus.
Why did giant chains and tomato growers agree to this Fair Food Program? Because people like you, and me, agreed to stop buying from the company featured in the protest until they agreed to participate. Since 2006, chains like Subway, Walmart, Whole Foods, McDonalds, Wendy’s, Stop and Shop, and just this past month….(da data da!)… our own local ShopRight, have signed on to the Fair Food Program agreement. Everyone wins. The chain retailers receive a system that protect their product from the stain of worker abuse by eliminating those abuses, growers gain an effective risk management system and a steady supply of workers, and workers receive protection of their human rights as well as better wages. Win, win, win.
What we buy, how we do the most simple things in our lives, the choices we make about automobiles, vacations, clothing, are not value neutral. We can blind ourselves to the politics behind our choices, or we can educate ourselves. When you spend your money, seek to do so so that it prospers a good cause and helps people who need help. Find out where the dollar goes, follow the money. See who is hurt and who is helped. Seek the good in all you do as a consumer. It’s a great big took our society has empowered you with. Use it wisely.
August 9, 2015 I AM God’s Word
John 1:1-5, 14-18 Rev. Noel Vanek
Every sermon has a purpose, or at least it should have. For example, Asayo’s interesting sermon two weeks ago aimed to increase our sensitivity to migrants both worldwide and locally. My sermon today has one aim. To get you to smile for joy, to nod your head and say Yes!, and if you wish, to say Amen!
Linda and I have just returned from two weeks in Vermont. The Vermont Congregational churches seem to have developed a consensus about applause during worship: mostly they don’t like it, but they understand that some folks want to interact and show their approval and appreciation, so instead of clapping hands they encourage people to go like this: (demonstrate: wave hands above head and wiggle fingers enthusiastically... how you all try it out...). Personally, I find this gesture kind of geeky, but it’s another option for us. I hope you will clap your hands, smile for joy, say amen, or wiggle those hands.
The passage we heard read from John’s Gospel, from what’s called the “prologue,” makes a dazzling assertion about the Word of God. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God… all things came into being through him.” Up to this point we don’t have a clue who John means by his phrase “the Word”, but then later in the prologue he lays down a big hint: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” God’s glory becoming flesh and living among us and revealing God’s grace and truth reminds us of Jesus Christ, and not just at Christmas. So there’s no doubt, John ends his famous introduction to his Gospel by telling us point blank: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” For John, Jesus is the Word of God who reveals the Almighty Creator.
In all truth, God’s glory is beautiful to behold! I praise God for giving us Jesus to better see God’s glory. Do I hear an “amen” or a clap or see a hand waggle? Yes!
This is important, because, as John reminds us, “No one has seen God.” We can’t prove God’s existence to our skeptical neighbor or family member. All we can do, really, is say, “Listen, look… what’s going here on with Jesus?” Could there be something more behind his words, his deeds, his very presence that we sense is going on here?
John said Jesus is God’s Word. But, please note, Jesus didn’t say that. John has a way of putting words into Jesus’ mouth, but not even in the Gospel of John does Christ come out and say “I Am God’s eternal Word.” Jesus never makes a lot of nose about himself. He’s not like a tv preacher or a talk radio show host, thank God! (Amen?) Instead, he says does the most amazing things, says outrageously provocative remarks aimed to upset the status quo, and then asks, indeed taunts his critics, saying in effect, “Well who do you think I am?” Listen to this exchange from John chapter 10:
People gathered about him, demanding, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify to me, but you do not believe….The Father and I are one." So many of those gathered picked up a stone to throw at him, and Jesus quickly stopped them in their tracks by asking, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which one of these are you going to stone me?” They replied, “It’s not for what you do, it’s for what you say… you are making yourself out to be God.” Jesus answered them, “If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, then believe the works….."
If you can’t believe in me, then believe the works. It's as if he's asking: What do you think is happening when I heal someone? When people come and find my teachings open up the Holy Scriptures so that they can understand what God wants? When the disenfranchised and the despised are given dignity and hope? Believe the works if you can’t believe in me.
But I say to you, believe Jesus. He is God’s glory. He is the revealer of the great, mysterious Creator. He is in God, by which I mean he has looked deeply into the Father’s heart, and the reverse is true, too. In some wonderful, totally impossible to describe kind of way, the Almighty and loving God is in Jesus. We see God working through his life, his words, his deeds, and in the way he died and was raised from the grave.
Beautiful to behold your glory in Jesus. Thank you, Holy God! Amen!
This is what I mean, and I think what Jesus would mean, by saying he is the Word of God. He represents God. He stands for God. He reveals the Almighty and Mysterious and Holy One. We sometimes hear the old aphorism: “a man is only as good as his word.” That means a man who cannot be trusted with what he says, is not worth much. Well, Jesus is God’s Word in that he tells us we can trust God. Though invisible, God is not a monster. He isn’t an angry, irascible judge. And God isn’t capricious or arbitrary, even though we don’t understand many of the things we think he does in this world. Jesus as God’s Word, says in effect, “look at, examine the things I do and say, and then know that Your Creator stands behind me and is revealed in how I am.”
Believe me, or believe in the works themselves, and believe in God.
Amen! For now we’ve been given someone good, someone holy, someone tangible to grasp, to take hold of. Jesus is God’s flesh, God’s Word.
But this presents a problem for us, at least a bit, doesn’t it?
Don’t we like to think of ourselves as the ones, the Christians, who don’t go goo goo over the Bible? Don’t we like to say, “I worship God, not the Bible?” Don’t we take pride in understanding that fundamentalism is not an ancient and revered way of interpreting holy scripture, but a relatively modern invention? That biblical literalism arose as a way of using the Bible to attack others when some felt threatened by the new ideas cropping up in the modern world. When people feel the ground fall out from under their feet and they don’t know which way to turn, it’s not a comfortable feeling, and some respond by focusing on the words, the literal words in the Holy Book, and defending their literal factuality with an angry and defensive zeal.
You know, or have met someone, who is scared by the life sciences and what they reveal about the deep and ancient roots of human history, so they say, “No way. The Bible says God created the world in six days, and that means just what it says, six 24 hour day and night sessions. And if you don’t believe that then you’re as bad as an atheist, or even worse, a liberal.”
You know, and have tried to talk with someone who says, “See, here, right here in John 14: “No one can come to the Father except through me,” so that means only Christians are saved. It’s right here in the words, and the words don’t lie.”
All too often we’ve heard people screaming on the news on tv, holding up signs that read “Romans 1:26.” “For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men…” And someone else is shouting “Stone them, stone them, stone them, praise and thank you Jesus!” And we look away and say to ourselves, “If this is what believing in the Word of God means, then make me an infidel, because Lord, I don’t believe you hate anyone, and certainly not homosexuals.”
No, we don’t believe in the Word of God in this way. We are not captured by hatred or fear or insecurity. We don’t defend the little words, each and every one of them, as divine truth. We don’t pick up the Bible and hold onto it and worship it because we are scared of the theories at evolutionary biology, or neuroscience, or astro-physics might come up with next. And we don’t say “Word of God, Word of God” and then club someone over the head with a nasty statement we can find in the scriptures.
We don’t do this because we’re not that kind of Bible believing, Word of God Christians. For us, the Bible unfolds God’s mystery and beauty and love to us. The scriptures free us, they don’t hold us in a vice grip. The way some folks treat the Word of God, it forbids them to think for themselves, but this is not how God works. Where God is, there is fullness of being, freedom and authenticity.
Thank God almighty, we are free at last! Free from being scared, free from thinking that faith means putting on blinders. We are Word of God believers because we believe that Jesus reveals God, first, last and foremost, and God is love, God is compassion, God is justice. And that is why we say the Gospel is Good News!
The Good News of the Gospel because Jesus is God’s good Word to us. Yes! Thank you, Lord. Yes! And a big hand waggle for you from the depths of our hearts!
You see, the Word of God, Jesus, is to God what a person’s word is to him or herself. Jesus is trustworthy. Jesus is the pledge of God’s own goodness and authenticity. Through our words we express our hopes and dreams and fears, and so, too, does God. When God sent Jesus into the world to be the True Word, the true Revealer, we see God’s hopes and dreams and fears. Believe in me, he says. Believe the works themselves, if you can’t just believe in me. But above all, Christ tells us, believe in the goodness and trustworthiness of God.
God offers up his best in sending the Son to the world. God took his Word, his intentions, and made them flesh, and gave us Jesus. God sent us truth and grace and light through Christ. We have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.
This is how I think Jesus Christ, the Word of God, works in our lives: He becomes God’s Word when we hear him speak and teach and heal and do mercy, and above all when he tells us something we need to know or do… when we hear him speak to us, with faith. He encourages us to look inside to see what is really good, or true, or merciful, or generous, or brave, to do in our situation, and then he whispers that he can also give us the courage to do these things. He shows us that there are joys in this world that are worth making even a sacrifice to find, or to find and then give away to others. He shows us where our treasure lies. He shows us God.
And Amen to that! (hand waggle!)
July 12, 2015 Learning from History II Sam. 6:3-13; Mark 6:1-6 Rev. Noel Vanek
Bob Hoffman is our unofficial church historian. He was a very active member of the Community Church for about 40 years, till he retired and moved north with his wife Barbara to Willsboro, New York, on Lake Chaplain. Today we carry on a correspondence. I get a slice of church history from him, but of course it’s a selective remembering of events and people he encountered while he was a fixture of our congregation from the 1930s through sometime in the 1960’s. The question is, how can we learn from someone’s selective reminiscing?
Yet the Bible itself is a collection of stories pointing to God, not a treatise built around an idea. It’s true, there are great ideas in the bible: covenant, sacrifice and a renewed concept of sacrifice, law and a new understanding of law, holiness and a revolutionary idea of where holiness really resides… but not everything in the scriptures fits neatly into theological categories.
Take, for example, the story of bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. The Ark, which supposedly contained the original Ten Commandment slabs of stone, had always been housed at Israelite religious shrines. But David was building a capital city… he was ambitious. He wanted the Ark and its symbol of religious power in his new capital. When you think of Jerusalem in the time King David, bring to mind pictures you’ve seen of Washington DC in the early 1800’. Washington looked like a mud patch with a great big White House surrounded by grazing cows. Jerusalem was primitive too, but David new the value of the Ark. But something went wrong when he tried to move it up the mountain by ox cart to his new capital. An ox must have stumbled or the Ark somehow pulled loose. Uzzah, one of the men leading the oxen, reached out his hand to keep the Ark from falling to the ground, and he was struck down dead right there.
The interpretation given was that God killed Uzzah for his arrogance in touching this holy object. David felt angry at God, and also scared. With such an unpredictable God and such a need to keep the Ark holy, David re-considered, and left the ark at the house of Obed-edom, on the road to Jerusalem. Time passes. Suddenly reports filter up to David about how Obed-edom’s household was experiencing a surprising prosperity, a blessing. People attributed it to the Ark’s presence there. So David finally girded up his loins and brought the Ark up to Jeruslaem, with proper religious fanfare and sacrifices.
Now, in my opinion, this isn’t primarily a story about God, or a treatise on the irascibility of the Almighty One warning not to disturb God’s holiness. No, it’s a story about how someone died mysteriously while moving the Ark, and how that scared off David for a while, till he gained back his courage.
The closest thing I can find to a parallel in our church history to the story of Uzzah and the Ark was related to me in a letter from Bob Hoffman this past March. Years and years ago, a Mrs. Gilmore Clark contributed a nice upright piano to the church before she moved to Massachusetts. It was place in the sanctuary, but then after a while some folks decided it should be moved from the sanctuary to the Community Hall and Bob Hoffman among others was recruited to move it… this occurred of course before there was an elevator. The young men build a ramp on the stairway, but unfortunately the ramp broke under the weight of the heavy piano and the piano crashed down to the ground floor landing. The remains were moved to the furnace room, where the heavy wood cabinetry was cut up and burned in the coal furnace. When Mrs. Clark came back to visit a few years later, no one seemed to know what had become of her piano!
What did we learn from II Samuel and First Bob Hoffman? Moving heavy sacred objects is a perilous business, whether it’s going uphill to Jerusalem or downhill into the Community Hall. Be prepared for not everyone to like what you’ve done… David fielded complaints from some priests for years that he exceeded his power as king by taking the Ark and moving it. I’m sure Bob Hoffman heard from people for many years who remembered his piano moving mid-adventure.
I’ve told some of you my furniture story: we had a finely crafted oak table at a previous church I served that just didn’t fit the area it was placed in. It graced a busy lobby area that was filled with strollers and coffee cups… the table was wasted there. It was a nice table so the Trustees decided to sell it. No one remembered where it had come from. The Trustees took it to the local antique dealer. About two weeks later the family that donated this priceless treasure called the Chair of the Trustees to complain and threatened God knows what. The Trustees gave me the task of returning to the antique store to fetch the table back. The antique store did very well that week selling the priceless treasure back to the church at a good profit!
But there are more serious lessons to learn from history than be very, very careful about moving sacred furniture. Think about the story of Jesus returning to his hometown to teach in the synagogue. Many who heard him were astounded. Why?
First, the passage tells us that the people in Nazareth were saying, “What is this wisdom that has been given to him?” Isn’t this the man who was a carpenter, following in his father’s footsteps, the son of Joseph and Mary? Don’t his sisters live here still? Where did He get all this “high-falutin” knowledge/wisdom/holiness?
Was Jesus being uppity? I don’t know, but I don’t think so. It’s a sad old old story. Prophets are not without honor, except in their own hometown, and among their own kind, and in their own house. This reminds me of a general piece of wisdom about clergy: all clergy come from somewhere. Most often they are very active in their own home church, teaching, visiting the sick, working on the Church Council. And then a call to ministry dawns in their hearts and ascends into their consciousness. They work overtime to go to seminary, and carry two jobs to help pay tuition, and many times neglect their friends and sometimes their family because the drive to serve the Lord is so strong. So what often happens? Upon graduation, their beloved home church offers them a call to an ordainable position: Christian Education Minister, Small Groups and Evangelism Pastor, Associate Minister, whatever.
They are ordained and everyone feels great!… until the first time they have to exert their authority as a pastor and say, “No, don’t do that.” Or, “Here’s a better way of addressing this situation,” and a former equal gets his or her nose out of joint. Don’t accept a call in your home church! Why? Because while they love you when you’re sacrificing to go to seminary, once you start to serve in your home church and have to say what ideas you like and which you don’t like, they won’t love you so much. You’ll hear whisperings: “Where did he get all this wisdom all of a sudden… didn’t we know her when…who does she think she is?” A prophet is not without honor except in her own home church. I’ve seen it happen too many times myself.
But there’s more to this passage than just a jealous reaction by Jesus’ childhood neighbors.
After Jesus’ call at his baptism and temptation in the wilderness, Mark makes it clear that he gathered disciples and took to both teach and heal. He taught with an authority, and a style, people found remarkable in so relatively young, inexperienced, and unschooled a man.
But it was the healings that really put him on the radar. And where did he do many of his first healings? Across the Sea of Galilee in the region of the Gerasenes, in other words, among Gentiles. Jews hated Gentiles. People heard about this. Then the second big healing Mark recounts Christ performing takes place back across the Sea of Galilee, back in Galilee. Jairus the leader of the local synagogue came to Jesus begging him to lay his hands on his daughter. By the time Jesus can reach Jairus’ home the daughter is dead, but Jesus insists on going to her, and he raises her from death. Word spread some more.
Jesus has now healed Gentiles and the daughter of the synagogue leader, whom probably most peasants in the village didn’t like because of class differences. He was educated. They were not. So a resentment gets voiced as his hometown neighbors talk about him: “What will you do for us, Jesus of Nazareth?” Or maybe, “We remember you when you weren’t so famous. Who are you to go and do all these things which people are saying about you, you show off! Do you think all of a sudden you’re better than us?”
Hometown jealously, the urge to see that no one rises up above you, hurts people everywhere. It’s apparently a universal human flaw. It’s why a lot of people who come to the New York area from elsewhere find they can’t go home again. They’ve changed. But their hometowns don’t really want them back if they bring along with them big city attitudes and snooty-ness.
But there’s still even more. People in the hometown resist change when it comes from someone younger.
Let me share two additional stories from Bob Hoffman.
Bob Hoffman was nominated to be the church’s financial secretary of the Community Church in 1940 as a 20 yrear old. A long-time member of the church rose up and objected that a 20 year old would be trusted with so sensitive a position. Bob offered to withdraw his name, but the Congregation prevailed on him to stay in the election and he was voted in. Hurray for the majority, but Bob remembers what it felt like to be called a young whipper-snapper.
Bob Hoffman will be forever identified in our memories as the champion of the young person’s ecumenical program called Christian Endeavor. Christian Endeavor was started by Rev. Francis E. Clark pastor of the Williston Congregational Church In Portland, ME, in 1881, because he saw that the young people in his church were pretty much ignored by the “old guard” who ran the show. Christian Endeavor often worked with young adults, not, only teenagers. It encouraged leadership among young people by involving them in planning county-wide programs for all the youth from the different congregations involved. Bob Hoffman shepherded our Christian Endeavor program here from the 1930’s into the early 1960’s. As Bob Hoffman put it, “After we chartered the Christian Endeavor program at the Community Church, my Sunday evenings belonged to Christian Endeavor. I missed out on a lot of good radio shows.” But he had no regrets.
Well, time passes and the Christian Endeavor group at our church grows. Then one day a CCP Trustee came up to Bob and complained that our Senior Christian Endeavor youth were not attending worship often enough. Bob replied, “Yes sir, I’ll look into that.” For one month he tracked attendance and posted it weekly on a chart right out there, in the Narthex. The chart recorded weekly worship attendance of Christian Endeavor youth, members of the Deacons, and members of the Trustees. The Christian Endeavor youth of course turned out to attend worship more frequently than either Deacons or Trustees! Young Bob Hoffman heard no more complaints about poor worship attendance from the church’s young adults.
You see the point. Jesus wasn’t listened to, Bob Hoffman was resisted. Now of course Bob Hoffman isn’t Jesus… but the tendency to reject and resist new ideas, especially new ideas brought by the young, is a feature of all established communities. It even happened here at the Community Church of the Pelhams in its “hay day,” when the sanctuary was reasonably crowded by pillars of the community, the elders who loved this church and took care of it and saw it through its many ups and downs through the years from the 1920’s on. A lot of people sacrificed and gave of their money and their time to make this church what it was… Bob Hoffman in particular singled out to me in his letters the devotion to the church of some of the old-time members. Our church wouldn’t be here without them.
However, it’s a new day. You have a new pastor here for almost two years, who has, gently I hope, but persistently told you that we have to change to adapt to the new times and especially we need to seek out ideas that speak to the needs of younger people today. You’ve received my chidings well.
But we are entering an exciting new time of our church life. You’ve heard about the New Beginnings consultant process the Church Council has elected to participate in. You’ll hear a LOT MORE about this very soon, as our first even happens on Wednesday, July 29. I’ll let Church Moderator Dawn Vetrano tell you more about this. The point is, through the New Beginnings study process we are going to learn some new things about what people are looking for in a church. We can’t be all things to all people, but we need to be more things to some folks or we’ll gradually shrink and die. A big challenge lies ahead: How will we respond to the new information, marketing analysis, and finally choices to make that the New Beginnings study will eventually provide us?
Will we be like the villagers in Nazareth responding to that upstart Jesus?
Will we be like some elders in our church years ago when Bob Hoffman brought the new program of Christian Endeavor to the Community Church in the 1930’s?
Will we worry more about what Mrs. Gilmore Clark thinks about her piano, or what God thinks about God’s church?
Or can we find the faith to respond with open minds and eager hearts, because we know we need God’s Spirit to send us both healing and new energy?
Will we learn from history, or simply repeat it?
Easter Sunday April 5, 2015 What Does Resurrection Look Like? John 20:1-16 Rev. Noel Vanek
In many places in Medieval Europe, profane comedies acted out by regular townspeople cropped up around the Christian holidays. The most famous of these is The Second Shepherd’s Play, a funny version of the Christmas story. Monty Python’s Life of Brian picked up some obvious parallels to this ancient farce.
But there were also funny Easter stories, gobbled together buy combining events from all the Gospels. Visitatio Sepulchri was performed on Easter morning. The play begins with the angel asking the three Marys, “Whom do you seek?” And they along with all the others act out the rest of the Easter drama. In one version, the three Mary’s are shown on their way to the tomb stopping to haggle with shopkeeper over the best prices for the spices to anoint Jesus’ dead body. When Peter finally arrives he is shown fortifying himself with gulps from a wine flask. Mary Magdalene, meanwhile, stays around the garden searching for Jesus. When she encounters the gardener, he yells at her for stepping on his vegetables, and then accuses her of seeking a sexual rendezvous with some lover. Finally, Mary Magdalene explains the pathos of the moment, looking for the dead body of her teacher, and it is only then that Christ reveals himself to her. Angels come and they announce the glory of the resurrection.
I ask you: why evoke laughter at such a solemn moment as the celebration of Christ’s resurrection?
Because we are all scared silly by the idea of someone being raised from the dead, for one reason. Why do you think different cultures invented the myth of the zombie? We’re not sure that the living dead will be friendly to us, and we don’t want them to eat us alive. So laughing at the dead is a very human response.
Another defense we have developed today against taking this story too much to heart is scoffing at it. We intellectualize it away as only a hallucination. Or we spiritualize it as just another way of saying that when someone dies they go to be with God… eternal life. There is certainly the hope that as Christ lives we who believe will too. But that’s not all that Easter, not all that Christ’s resurrection, is about.
One of the problems many people face when confronted with Easter Sunday is simply this: if you try to accept the story of Jesus’ being raised from the tomb at face value, we’re left to wonder “what, then, does resurrection look like in my life?” Preachers are notoriously bad about answering that question.
Resurrection life isn’t the same as our regular living. We are not the same for going through death and coming out the other side. The scriptural accounts of the resurrected Jesus all try to express this “the same, but different” notion. Jesus seems like, but also not like, what he was before his crucifixion. Remember Mary at first doesn’t recognize him when she returns to his empty tomb and waits, hopeless but unable to depart. At first she thinks he’s the gardener, and the problem isn’t the waning light. It’s only when he speaks to her as he used to that she recognizes him. Resurrection life isn’t just like regular life. It’s not obvious. It’s hard to see.
Here’s my thesis: Christ’s resurrection isn’t just the promise that we will live after death forever with God. Resurrection life is God’s way of keeping God’s promise of “I will never abandon nor forsake you… I will be with you always.” That always begins now. The resurrection life of Jesus isn’t just up in heaven. It’s with us now. It occurs whenever we allow God to work in us to overcome death, including the living death of fearful timidity.
Resurrection life now is filled with laughter that leads to joy, as a way of defying the powers of death that are still among us and threaten to take away our peace. Increasingly over time, the New Testament develops the theme of the laughter of the wise. Paul writes about being a fool for Christ. The ancient writers spoke of an Eighth day of Creation, the last day of resurrection when the world is brought back to its original purity, and all laugh at the evil they have overcome. For Christians, the resurrection changes the whole direction of things.
One of the ways to tell a faithful and alive congregation from a zombie congregation is to listen for its laughter. People who are empowered by resurrection life laugh a lot. They laugh at life’s threats and pains. Interestingly enough, a whole area of research has developed in the field of Holocaust studies about Jewish humor at the concentration camps. Laughing at death gave people courage to go on.
The Liberian civil war of the 1990’s spawned a courageous response by indigenous Christian and Muslim women, led by Lehmah Gbowee, a Christian activist. As a result of their three year, nonviolent, direct action campaign that included a sex-strike, Gbowee’s network brought about the downfall of the notoriously violent regime of Charles Taylor and ushered in the election of Africa’s first-ever female president.
Towards the end of her book about the struggle, Mighty Be Our Powers, Gbowee tells the story of how fellow Liberians gathered together after a rocket attack leveled much of their village. “We were running all over the place and when we got to a bit of safety, someone pointed to Josephine’s boyfriend’s uncle… ‘did you see that guy run? Is he even wearing underwear?’ Everyone broke out laughing.” Gbowee concludes, “When something evil happens to us Liberians, we laugh. I sometimes think that was the way all of us survived those terrible years.” Meeting a woman who had been tortured and had one breast cut off by a soldier from the regime, she was shocked to find her talking only of her hope of returning to her village so she could teach her children to sing and dance the old traditional songs. Gbowee couldn’t help herself and expressed astonishment. The woman replied, “What else should I do? Allow them to win?” Oppressors can rob faith filled people of justice, but they can’t take our hope away.
Earlier in today’s service I told the children about how bravely the little girl Hushpuppy behaved in the movie Beasts of the Southern Wild. The context of the movie is, of course, Hurricane Katrina and the disaster it brought not just to New Orleans, but to all the small fishing towns up river. In the movie, the small area they live in is called the Bathtub. After the flood the residents celebrate surviving the great storm and make plans to re-build. But everything then begins to die due to the salt water which has washed way up river. Hushpuppy’s adopted father Wink and some of his friends dynamite a hole in the levee wall so that the water recedes and life can go on, but this then brings in the authorities, who hitherto have totally ignored the residents. They say it’s too dangerous in the Bathtub, and enforce a mandatory evacuation order. Hushpuppy’s father gets sick and almost dies. Hushpuppy soon leaves the shelter in search of her mother, whom she finds working on a floating bar. Her mother tells her she can stay there with her, but Hushpuppy after a little while decides it’s not for her… it’s not “home.” So she journeys back to the Bathtub, despite what the authorities say about the region’s safety. On this final journey Hushpuppy must confront, and then drive away, the Aurochs, the imaginary prehistoric monsters in her dreams, which stand in a herd, blocking her way back. She overcomes her fears and pushes them off, finds her father and says her last goodbyes. The movie end showing Hushpuppy at her father’s funeral, in solidarity with all the other residents who have returned to rebuild in spite of being told it was too dangerous.
Christ has overcome death. Christ is with us now! When we “get that,” we can begin to live our current lives differently: more boldly, more courageously. We can be made new.
In 2012 Quvenzhane Wallis at age nine became the youngest Best Actress Academy Award nominee. Her Hushpuppy is funny, fearful, curious, and independently defiant. All these characteristics remind us of Lehmah Gbowee and the women she admires during the struggles in Liberia. Watching Hushpuppy, we see in her a living embodiment of the courage to laugh at death and defy injustice, we see in her a young Lehmah Gbowee. We see that this resurrection life crops up in people without any regard to age, gender, or “churchiness.” She mocks people who fear the authorities, and overcomes her own fear of the dark beasts in their imagination. At movie’s end it’s not clear whether Hushpuppy will go back to try to live with her mother. But we do know she won’t waste one minute of her precious life feeling sorry for herself.
Mary Magdalene didn’t waste any time feeling sorry for herself either. She stood weeping over the tomb after Peter and John departed, but she wasn’t crying for herself. She cried because she thought Christ’s tomb had been desecrated. Only when she summons up the gumption to express what she fears is happening to the one she takes to be the gardener, a sharing which presumably could have put her into danger by identifying her as one of his followers, only then does the risen Christ reveal himself to her. She responds to his voice, to his teaching, to his vision for how she can go on living faithfully and courageously.
“Mary,” he says. She picks up her head and whispers back, incredulously, “Rabbi!” Life is suddenly full of promise again when we know he is with us, no matter what. But Jesus didn’t die and go to the tomb and conquer death with his resurrection so that we could live hushed, quiet, sheltered lives. Like the song says, he died to set us free!
This Easter, then, the resurrection story demands from us an answer to the question: What binds you? Of who, or what, do you cover before in fear? The resurrected Christ bids you laugh at death. The resurrected Christ bids you defy injustice, bids you rise up, sing and dance! He asks you to live, because he died to set you free. Amen.
A House for the King II Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Luke 1:46b-55
Dec. 21, 2014 Rev. Noel Vanek
Jesus was a king. We know he was born in something less than luxury housing, probably a separate area reserved for domestic animals in a typical Palestinian house of his day. Before his family could return to Nazareth, where presumably Joseph had somewhere to live, they were warned to flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s jealous attempt to kill any rivals. The Egyptian Coptic Church has an extensive legendary history concerning Mary and Joseph and Baby Jesus while they lived in exile in Egypt, the friends they made, and the impression of God’s holiness that remained after they departed. The Coptic Church dates its origin to the days Christ resided in Egypt as an infant.
But when God speaks to King David through the prophet Nathan, telling him, “No – don’t you build me a house, I don’t need you to build me a house. No, David, I will build you a house,” ... when God says all these things to David, the Lord isn’t talking about a small two-story, flat roofed dwelling place made out of mud blocks…. What does it mean for God to build a house?
A house is a lineage, a family tree. A house is the assurance that you matter, your ancestors mattered, and most importantly, your descendants will still count for something, too. As the second king of Israel, David was concerned to know that his heirs would keep the throne. In that time, it was not a sure thing that the son of the king would automatically become the new king once his father died. David felt anxious about who would rule after him. And God gives David a message of hope: I will make you a house. Your son, and your descendants after him, will rule. Your throne will be established forever.
A house that lasts forever. Now that’s a house fit for a king.
A house, however, is not a home. God became so identified with the Israelite King it felt to the ancient Hebrew people that as long as the King was safe, and on his throne, God was with them, protecting them. And as you can imagine, when people think this, they begin to take liberties in how they act.
The prophets arose in Israel to remind the people that God’s presence, God’s protection, should not be taken for granted. But over generations, bad behavior led to a breakdown in society. Larger, more powerful empires moved in when Israel became weak. Israel became a conquered people. At the time of the worst destruction, the prophet Jeremiah told of a vision he received: the Lord Almighty appeared to him as a great winged flying creature. When Jerusalem finally fell to the enemy, in his vision Jeremiah saw God fly out of the Temple, never to return. The house no longer was fit to hold God.
And then come eight centuries of Jewish waiting and hoping and looking for God to return to his house. This is where the Christmas story enters in. In Christ’s birth, the New Testament affirms, God has returned to his house. All the Gospels assert that Jesus is born of Davidic heritage.
So what might this story of a house for God mean to us? Like Joseph and Mary, at Christmas a lot of us return to our homes of origin. Maybe it’s not the exact same house we grew up in, not the bedroom we sometimes dream about when in our nighttime slumbers we become children again… but a return of sorts. We fly home to the Caribbean Island of our birth, or take the train back to Brooklyn, or drive 20 hours to Lake Woebegone to catch up on the latest gossip and see Aunt Myrtle. And coming home again, in this little way, reminds us of who we are. It’s not that we want to return to living where we came from. It’s just that we don’t want to entirely lose that way of life, and its values, in the world we inhabit now. As they say about me, “You can take the boy out of Ohio, but you can’t take the Ohio out of the boy.” That’s good.
This Christmas, as you mix your hometown virtues with your big city ways, smile and be a mench. Don’t make fun of the old recipes or tell jokes about how out of step with the modern world your relatives and old neighbors are. Make them glad to see you rather than holding their breath till you depart. Do this for Jesus, who is God’s return to us… and as you do, you give him some glory.
But the story sounds quite different to many. The experience of leaving home was not about choosing to leave Ohio or Africa or Long Island, but of being forced out. Thrown out. Thrown out of the house. Do you know what that feels like?
How many of you know someone who had exactly that happen to them? The drug-addicted adolescent who keeps stealing from her parents until they say no, you must go. The young adult bailed out of jail over and over again until, finally, the folks find the courage to say, “No more; you must take responsibility for your actions. You are an adult now.” The husband who cheated on his wife one too many times, until finally she cracked and threw his belongings out onto the lawn. The older relative who kept hugging the little girls in the family just a little too long, until someone finally said, “Fred, you’re not welcome here any more.” Even the prodigal son or daughter who fights with mom or dad over politics, clothing, music, the hours they keep and the friends they hang with... there’s no peace in the family until they pack their bag.
Thrown out of the house.
At my first church, in Olivet, Michigan, a small college town of 1000, I had the privilege of knowing a guy we’ll call Tom. Tom’s wife grew up in that church, but he grew up as a hell-raising “local” as we called them. He worked maintenance at the local college. He drank a lot of beer and on the weekends drove his motorcycle fast and furious. He had tattoos before tattoos were trendy.
When his drinking got totally out of hand he found the local AA group. Of course, it met in the church basement on Sunday nights. Then when he was diagnosed with lung cancer, he came to worship… once a month and out before anyone could talk to him, twice a month, and so on, like a stray dog, afraid to get cornered. When finally he agreed to talk to me, he shared how he felt about church. Tom said he’d wanted to come to the church years before, to please his wife, to try out something new… but he always worried about whether he would be welcome. Was he acceptable enough? He worried about whether his presence would be an embarrassment to the memory of his wife’s parents and grandparents, who had been pillars in years long past.
It’s not easy to change your spots in a small town, but Tom’s discovery that he really could be welcomed proved to be a life-changer. It was the most important step for him in a journey of transformation. And although I only knew him for a couple of years before his death, he made it clear that he “got it.” For one thing, Tom became the most visible and out-going “welcomer” you ever saw…a one man hospitality crew, looking always for others who didn’t think they could be welcomed home, either.
It’s true, Tom never got thrown out of church… he threw himself out, because he internalized the deepest, nastiest lie that Christians tell: that the church is only for “good, respectable people. Not for the ones who don’t have their act together.” What is it we like to say about ourselves in the United Church of Christ? “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”
Any house for Jesus has to be a home for people like Tom.
Where is King Jesus’s house, the house that will last forever? You all are sophisticated enough to know it’s not the outward church building. We love our building, but you and I know it won’t last forever. It’s not guaranteed.
If we are feeling pious, the correct answer would be, Jesus’ house is right here inside me, in my heart. That’s where he lives… in me. This is a deep truth of the Christian faith: when in faith we turn over our lives to God, more and more Christ’s Spirit does reside in our hearts. But this only captures a part of what Jesus was about. He wants to live in our hearts. But he wants more, too. He wants a lineage, a legacy, a people who pass on his vision and values from generation to generation.
So this Christmas, when you think about the house fit for King Jesus, ask yourself what you have learned from him that you will pass along to others after you. Oddly enough, the best way I can think of to help you explore that is to suggest you ask another, very simple question: who do I invite into my house? Or rather, who don’t I invite? Who never comes to my house, and why? Then think of a way to expand your hospitality.
Who might benefit from a welcome, a bit of wisdom, a home cooked meal, or an affirmation of trust from you? And just as important, who do you not know? Who around you do you find “suspect”… untrustworthy….that you might invite in? A young adult with too many body piercings… no problem, our young people can help set you up! Someone whose life experience has been so totally different from yours… reach out and ask. A neighbor down the street or down the hall who seems aloof, different. Perhaps someone from a different race or culture? Invite them in.
And of course, this point seems so obvious it hardly needs to be said: as you think about leaving behind you a house fit for King Jesus, don’t forget the people who build houses for poor people… Habitat for Humanity. A house you help build for someone in need is totally a house fit for King Jesus.
Friends, God gave us the greatest gift of all time in the birth of the Savior, Jesus Christ. Honor him in your heart.
But not just your heart. God gives King Jesus an everlasting house… so see how you can be more a part of it. More a part of the House of Jesus, shaped by his teachings, molded by his love. When it comes to building a house for Jesus, the message is always: make more room at the inn… God’s outpouring of mercy for all people is never limited… except by us.
But not this Christmas! Amen
Dry Ground Joshua 3:12-17; I John 3:1-3
October 26, 2014 Rev. Noel Vanek
On this Sunday when we remember those we have loved who have passed away, it’s appropriate to think a bit about how it is we pass from this land of the living, into the land of those who have died. I don’t mean to meditate with you about the characteristics of what we call heaven, and Jesus called most often the Kingdom of heaven, or the Kingdom of God. That’s an entirely different topic, and a sermon for another day. Rather, I want to ponder with you: what is the crossing over like? From life to death. That’s scary. Perhaps many of us are more concerned with the transition journey than with the final destination.
You’ll not be surprised that people have been thinking about the crossing over experience for as long as we have recorded history. That journey is often pictured in mythology as a watery one.
In the mythology of the ancient Egyptians the dead voyage from this life to the next in the Boat of the god Re. They must pass through the first two regions of death into Amenti, the Third Region of the Duat where the judgement Hall of Osiris stood waiting to receive them. Only one who has a pure heart may remain in Amenti. The judgment is like having one’s heart torn out, and weighed by the gods, to see if it is indeed pure.
Or, in Greek mythology, upon death a soul is led by Hermes, the son of Zeus, to the entrance of the underworld and the ferry across the River Acheron. There is a single ferry run by Charon to take the souls across the river. Only those who can pay the fare, with coins placed on their lips when buried, receive passage. The rest are trapped between two worlds. The souls then enter through the gates. The underworld gatekeeper Cerberus will allow all to enter but, none to leave. The souls then appear before a panel of three judges, Rhadamanthus, Minos, and Aeacus, who pass sentence. The very good go to the Elysian Fields. Others are singled out for less special treatment.
We often go tut-tut at the ancients, assuming they believed their myths literally; but in reality, then as now, some people understood their religion literally, but many others took the myths as metaphors describing indescribable but spiritually true realities. So it is with many stories from the Bible.
Joshua chapter three is a profound. It shows signs of redaction...re-writing by religious story tellers...over the course of the many years it was told orally, and certainly as it was put into writing. The religious editors purposefully intended for this story of the Israelites passing over the River Jordan to remind us of the parting of the Red Sea when they escaped from Pharoah’s army. Forty years of wandering in the desert have gone by, during which God has tested the people. Mostly they flunked the tests, but they are still God’s people, and God will keep the divine promise to give them a land of their own. Moses has died, and Joshua is now their leader. A new symbol for God’s presence with the people, the Ark of the Covenant, suddenly makes its appearance in the Book of Joshua. The Ark is now the Holy of Holies, to be protected at all costs, the physically specific reminder and assurance that God is with them.
Opposite Jericho the Jordan separates into distinct channels as it courses through a low, swamp-like jungle. Picture in your mind swampy bayous in Louisiana, only without the moss. The going is damp, muddy, and nasty. Scripture tells us “the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap... They were wholly cut off.” Imagine a spring going dry. But the word for Heap in Hebrew is the same word that describes the suddenly frozen waves in the Red Sea that Moses commanded to part for the fleeing Israelites. As then, we are meant to understand that another miracle is occurring. God paves a way for his people.
This is a story of liberation, of God’s power to protect and guide the people God has called into a future if they learn to follow with faith. But it is also, of course, a story of invasion, blood thirsty battles, the struggle for survival of one culture against another. Reading Joshua is on the whole not a very pretty picture.
But it isn’t history, at least not history as we know it. What Joshua describes as one-sided victories by, even slaughters by the conquering Israelites, archeology instead shows as a slow, steady incursion fraught with small victories and lots of defeats. In sacred scripture the Israelites completely vanquished the Cannanites and drove them from the land. In real life, as far as we can re-construct using modern historiography and archeology, they fought to a standstill and over time. And over a longer period of time, the Cannanite and Hebrew people inter-mixed.
At the start of Joshua chapter 4, we’re told that the Israelites placed 12 stones in the river where they crossed, in order to commemorate this miracle and to be helped in telling its story to later generations. “When your children in time to come ask “What do those stones mean to you?’ you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord.”
Twelve stones, large boulders from the description, placed in the River Jordan. Play with that image in your mind… and let time pass by. Over time, the issue becomes not so much how can we as a people know that God is with us and help us survive, but… how can I as a person of know that God is with me, and will lead me to life eternal?
Our New Testament passage from I John states, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God.” What does the faith about God revealed in Jesus assure you of? What was true in the year 100 is still true today: “Beloved, (in Christ) we are God’s children now.”
But most of the time I don’t feel or act very much like a child of God. You know what life is like: complaints about aching bones and grumbles about someone not thinking about anyone but themselves, worries about the spread of Ebola and wishing … too late… that you hadn’t spent so much on your credit card… How do I move from this state, to what we shall be… children of God, pure in heart, like Jesus?
We need a boatman, a guide, to help us pass through the murky waters that separate this life from the next. We need a way to pass through the waters to the other shore, the shores of the land of milk and honey.
In the ancient church, scripture was often interpreted analogically… using an analogy. The crossing of the Jordan River by the Hebrew people led by Joshua was a real historical fact. Over time it became a part of our sacred story. For Jews it is a story of liberation. But for Christians, it can become an analogy to tell us about something else...crossing over from this life into the next. That journey we all wonder about and sometimes fear can said to be something like the Israelites waiting until the Jordan dried up, following the Ark of the Covenant, and then placing the twelve stones in the river so that others after them could claim this story too.
Like the Israelites, even we who try to live as faithful Christians wander around our lives as if in a wilderness. We go two steps forward but one step backward. We’re not very pure. Neither were the Hebrew people. But God claims us as his anyway. What’s that song Paul wrote for the beginning of worship? "We belong to Jesus"… and so we cling to him and hope he clings to us.
Jesus is the good Shepherd, he doesn’t lose his sheep. Or, he’s the good scout who shows us the way to cross over the river. At first, through the miracle of his death and resurrection, he stops the river of death from flowing and escapes that tomb and appears again to the disciples and ascends into heaven to be with God the Father. But then, he leaves something for those of us who come after to go by...the twelve stones.
How do you ford a dangerous river that might well sweep you away in the middle of the night? You look for the dry ground, you keep your balance as you leap from one boulder to the other, and you pray. That, my friends, is what faith looks like.
I literally tell you each Sunday, follow Jesus. The book of Hebrews calls him the pioneer and perfector of our faith. He is much more. He is the one who will show you where the stones in the dangerous river lie...and he will give you the courage to leap over them, one dry stone at a time. He is your precious Lord. He will take your hand, and keep you from falling in. Amen.
Let us now sing the hymn, “Precious Lord.”
Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand, I am tired, I am weak, I am worn Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light: Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.
Extravagant Welcome Jonah 3-10; Mt. 14:14-18
September 21, 2014 Rev. Noel Vanek
Jesus, when he feeds the 5000, is modeling for his disciples and for us God’s extravagant welcome. God’s welcome is extravagant because it includes everyone, people like us, people not like us. But God’s welcome is also extravagant because it doesn’t turn people away when it seems there won’t be enough to go around. And because of this, we display an “extravagant welcome” banner outside our church building. Those words on our banner don’t refer to the kind of food we serve at hospitality hour. They refer to how well we can model what Jesus taught about God: everyone’s welcome and there’s a place for all.
You know the feeding of the 5000 is important, even though you might not know why you know this. It’s important because all four Gospel writers tell the story, and two of them tell it twice. Here’s the scene: John the Baptist has just been executed and everyone… including Jesus… is upset. He seeks to go off to a lonely place to pray, but by now everyone in this very poor hill country has heard about him. The crowd follows, builds, until he has to turn and speak. The 5000 men that were fed would equate to a total audience of fifteen to twenty thousand people when you include women and children.
Jesus had compassion for them, rag tag as they were. In his day, homelessness and extreme poverty were at crisis levels in the north, in Galilee. The transfers of wealth out of the poor regions and into the wealthy ones had decimated the rural areas where Jesus did most of his ministry. The people left behind were very poor indeed. He taught them about God’s kingdom coming, and he healed their sick.
And then, suddenly, the disciples noticed that the sun was sinking low, and felt their tummies growling, and realized that everyone else was growing hungry, too. They didn’t have a plan for this. They’d only packed a simple knap-sack with a few loaves and fishes to feed Jesus and themselves. So they looked at Jesus, their teacher, their leader, some of them would soon call him their Lord, and they wanted to do what he wanted them to do. But their minds just had not been changed enough… yet. They’re still working from an an old model of how the world fit together. You can’t feed everyone, they reasoned, and these people aren’t our responsibility. Just send them away and let them take care of themselves.
You can’t feed everyone… they aren’t our responsibility… just send them away.
This week I’ve enjoyed watching the Ken Burns documentary, “The Roosevelts,” on public television. Have any of you watched it? It’s so amazing for me to see what our country looked like, pre-unemployment insurance, pre-social security, pre-federal regulation and guarantee of bank deposits. One statistic this long series shared really unsettled me, though. As war came to Europe in the late 1930’s, Franklin Roosevelt tried to prepare people in our nation for the fact that we would inevitably be drawn into it. But polls at the time indicated that the vast majority of Americans were isolationists… they didn’t think we should be involved in a war across the ocean… and 85% of the population opposed our country opening our doors to take in refugees fleeing from violence in Europe. 85% opposed. Send them away, they aren’t our responsibility. Let them take care of themselves.
Of course, the 1930’s was a long time ago, wasn’t it? Surely we’ve changed. Surely today, if people needed refuge, if children were fleeing violence in their homes far away, we wouldn’t say “send them away… they aren’t our responsibility.” Would we? Because the Bible is Very Clear on this: when someone is a refugee, you don’t send them away and say, “take care of yourself.”
Of course, the people gathered to listen to Jesus weren’t refugees. The disciples weren’t that heartless. I’m sure Jesus listened to them and shook his head. He didn’t bother to explain to the disciples that their plan to let the people return to the nearest town and buy their own food, wouldn’t work. Too many were poor. And the town wouldn’t have enough supplies to feed such a large group, even if they could afford to pay. No, he simply bit his tongue… paused, and then said, “They need not go away… you give them something to eat.”
You give them something to eat.
Panicked, they replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” You can understand how they felt. “Cousin John called to say that he’s coming to tonight’s party, and he’s bringing along ten of his friends.”… “But America can’t feed the world, and not everyone in the world can live here,” we say, exasperated.
In Ken Burns’ documentary on the Roosevelts, the narrator shares that when Franklin was paralyzed and running a high fever with polio in 1921 nurses and care-givers moved into the house in Hyde Park to care for him. The oldest Roosevelt child, Anna, had to give up her bedroom. This situation lasted for a long time, and she never quite got over the resentment. Perhaps you can identify with that feeling from some experience in your life. “What if there won’t be enough for me?” we wonder. “Why do I always have to be the one put out?”
Jesus’ disciples were thinking out of a mindset of scarcity… the resources available are limited, and you have to pick and choose very carefully when and where you share them, and to whom. We understand this. It’s for the most part our way of looking at things, too. It’s the mindset of the economic system we live in. We can’t get away from thinking that there’s too little to share. Too little food, not enough bedrooms in our big house, too little space in our country.
But you know that Jesus… he never does quite what we expect. He turns the tables on us all the time. Jesus doesn’t look at problems with a mindset of scarcity. He looks at the world through a lens that refracts God’s radical hospitality. He lives and breathes God’s extravagant welcome to all, a welcome that never says “you don’t fit in,” or “you can’t come because there won’t be enough.” Christ acts out a theology of abundance right in front of everyone’s eyes. He said, and did, just this: share what you have because it all belongs to God, anyway. Just share it, put it out there, because it’s not really yours. And then let’s see what happens.
Let’s see what happens when we bless what we do have, and share it in faith.
If you’re wondering how I’m going to explain the miracle, you’re out of luck. Miracles are miracles, they aren’t meant to be explained away. Jesus said to his disciples, “Bring the food you do have to me,” and commanded the crowd to sit. Then the scriptures say he said a blessing, broke the bread and gave it to his disciples, and his disciples passed the loaves, and the fish, to the crowd. They all ate and were filled, and at the end, collected twelve baskets of left-overs.
What does this language about his saying a blessing and then breaking bread remind you of? Surely the Lord’s supper, communion. Jesus knew, they all knew that one of the signs expected of the Messianic times was that God would once again bring down manna from heaven to feed his people, just as God did for the Israelites when they were hungry and wandering in the desert of Sinai. Jesus brought down the manna from heaven on that day to feed God’s people. And he’ll do it again. And again. That is our faith. God isn’t finished doing miracles yet. It didn’t only happen with Moses, or with Jesus. It still happens today.
But to do those miracles, God needs our help. God needs us to start looking out at the world with eyes that see abundance, not scarcity. With ears attuned to people’s cries of fear. God needs us to offer an extravagant welcome to everyone who comes our way and has a need. Somewhere in our hearts we feel some of the same compassion Jesus felt; let’s have faith enough not to squash that compassion.
In other words, God needs our loaves and fishes to feed the 5000, or the millions of hungry people today. God needs us to say, “Ok, we don’t know how we’re going to do this, but everyone can stay, everyone gets to eat.” God needs us to stop worrying that we won’t get enough, and start seeing what we can come up with and lay it all out there… for Jesus… to multiply.
That’s radical. That’s a welcome worth calling extravagant, worthy of God.
My grandmother lived through the Depression. It’s funny, she didn’t trust Roosevelt. But she shared with me how when things got tough, people in the factory my grandfather helped run took less money… everyone took less money, a lot less…and they didn’t have to lay anyone off. They all got through it together. She wondered why people can’t seem to be able to do that today.
We can. Just lay it all out there, see what we’ve got.
How does this message apply to your life? You are probably not going to be asked to house a frightened kid from Honduras, or try to feed all the homeless in Westchester County… and there are a lot of homeless people in our county…. But you might have to decide whether to offer a bedroom to someone you know who’s temporarily down and out. You might need to think about how to help feed someone who’s hungry… maybe there’s a better way than giving a dollar to the woman with a sign sitting on a corner. You might need to speak up so that commentators don’t continue to say, “Where is the Christian Church on the issue of accepting refugees? How come they are so silent?”
It all belongs to God anyway. Miracles still happen. Let’s see what we can pull together. Now, can anyone say a blessing?
The Binding Gen. 22:1-14; Rom. 6:19b-23 June 29, 2014 Rev. Noel Vanek
The Cleveland Museum of Art has a sculpture by George Segal of Abraham and Isaac. A middle aged Abraham stands over a young, handcuffed, kneeling Isaac, who gazes up wonderingly, and you look closer and see that Abraham is holding a police billy club. Segal wrote “there is a strong connection of the Abraham and Isaac story in my mind with the killings at Kent State University.” In his sculpture he is addressing the centuries old moral problem of older men sending young people into battle, and the implied condemnation of an unjust God who asks terribly immoral things from his followers. Kent State University declined to display the statue, once it saw it.
This is indeed how some contemporary thinkers have approached the story in Genesis… as in indictment of God… as an indictment of an Abraham who seems not to care about the sacrifice of his son…but this approach, no matter how congenial it may be to our hearts, is not what the scripture asks us to think about. And I’d urge us not to rush to judge either God or Abraham more harshly, or more quickly, than we judge ourselves.
Classical Christian exegesis of the Abraham/Isaac story notes the link to the parallel story of a God who willingly sacrifices his son in the New Testament. Several places in the New Testament (notably in Hebrews and James) Abraham is likened to God the Father, and Isaac to the Son, Jesus. There’s something here that draws our attention and deepens the story for us. But while we begin with a Christian reading of the passage, and perhaps end with one, today we want to read this great scripture through Jewish eyes. In the rabbinic tradition, this story has its own specific name, the akedah, the binding. Akedah, the Hebrew word for Abraham’s act of binding Isaac to the altar is unique in the Old Testament scripture. In its uniqueness it has come to summarize the special nature of this story.
What is clearly laid out here is a story with the theme of God’s testing of Abraham. And implied for us all to think about is what we are to do, how we are to respond, when God tests us.
We might well ask “why does God have to test us,” and the answer to this question is clearly laid out in II Chronicles 32:31….. (you know this passage, don’t you). When the Babylonian envoys came to Jerusalem to tell the people they were fools to follow the advice of their king Hezekiah, who told them that if they remained faithful God would provide a way for them to be saved from the approaching Babylonian armies, it says that “God left Hezekiah to himself, in order to test him and to know all that was in his heart.” God tests us to know what is in our hearts. Clearly Abraham also is being tested by God.
Now, it’s certainly true that Abraham had been tested all along by God. Mostly he has passed this testing; he has heard God’s voice to him in the first place. That’s a big something, to hear God’s voice. He trusts God’s promise of a land and an heir and agrees to go where God will send him. Along that journey there are two instances when Abraham doesn’t show great trust in God: he makes Sarah pretend she is his sister… and he takes Hagar, Sarah’s slave girl, to himself to provide a child when he despairs of Sarah being able to give birth. But on the whole, Abraham proves faithful. God fulfills the promise, and gives Abraham and Sarah a child in their old age. Against all hope they hold and then raise Isaac. Then, when he thinks everything will be fine, God tests Abraham one more time. God will take away the promise. God demands the sacrifice of the child.
We are not to emulate Abraham in being willing to sacrifice a child. He is a spiritual giant, we are not. God does not ask this of us. Yet his situation sheds some light on our smaller troubles. We don’t know what goes through Abraham’s mind when God tells him to take his beloved son Isaac to the land of Moriah to sacrifice, but we do known what occurs in our minds when we feel there’s no way out, no escape from a problem. When there’s no good option to choose. When we feel trapped. When we are bound.
This binding requires us to confront our lack of faith. There’s a wonderful phrase, functional atheism, that describes how the church functions most of the time. Richard Floyd in his UCC “Still Speaking Devotional” from earlier this week, writes: “We might open our meeting with a prayer, but we fully expect to take care of business ourselves.” It’s only when the church runs into a problem, a roadblock, an insurmountable obstacle, that we really stop and try to put our faith to work.
But what happens to our little church when we encounter a building problem that surpasses our ability to do a fund raiser to fix it? We want a building, we want a pastor, we want to continue as we are. And our leaders are doing a wonderful job of continuing us as we are. But what happens when we face the problem that traps us, binds us? Will we still have the faith to walk forward, together, with our Lord wherever he may lead us?
And if that’s true of the church as a whole when we face a problem that “binds us,” how much truer it is of my life. I like to pray and to ask God to guide me, but most of the time I go fast forward on my merry way until I hit a pothole that I can’t get out of on my own. Kerplunk! Sunk! I find there’s no rational escape. No good option to choose. I feel trapped, bound. If I turn this way I’m dead. If I run that way I’m a jerk.
So, like you, I complain: God where are you, why have you abandoned me? Why me, Lord? Why does this have to happen to me? Out of a job, facing a bad medical prognosis, my family hates me, even my dog bites me… what am I to do? You’ve been there, I’ve been there. It’s not a pretty sight.
You too, you know this too. About yourself. You know you aren’t as good as you would like others to believe you are. There’s no where to run, no where to hide, from yourself.
To be tested means we must find a way to continue to trust the God who has been with us faithfully this far through the journey.
Scripture gives no hints that Abraham has second thoughts about obeying God. I guess he’s giant where I’m a puny ant in terms of faith. Despite some failures, on the whole Abraham has built up a habit of listening for God, and then obeying what God asks of him. That’s a good habit to fall back upon when you don’t know what else to do. Listen, and obey.
But the scriptures do give an indication that Abraham trusted God so much that he had hope. Hope where there should be no hope. When he’s dismounts from his donkey, he tells his servants, “Stay here… the boy and I will go over there; we will worship and then we will come back to you.” We will come back. Is Abraham dissembling because he doesn’t want to scare his son? Certainly some interpret the story this way. But most think Abraham, even now, at the brink of ruin, is hoping and trusting that God will find a way to save his son even when there appears no way out.
Then when Isaac asks his father innocently what they will sacrifice on the altar, Abraham replies, “God himself will provide the lamb.” Again, some see irony, but most interpreters see a hope against hope, a trust in God that goes to the very edge of death, and perhaps beyond.
Abraham passes the test. He does not withhold his son, his beloved son, from God. The Hebrew word for withhold, hasak, implies holding back in a selfish sense. I withhold the good cupcakes all to myself, and do not share them with you. But hasak can also can mean to rescue. To withhold someone from harm. Abraham refuses to withhold, to hold back his son, and so responds with fullness of faith in God. And because he does not hold back, because he is faithful, Abraham discovers that God is faithful, too. God will keep his promise even when it looks like the promise is dead. Because God is faithful, God will not withhold God’s promise, God will withhold Isaac from harm, God will rescue.
Because God is faithful, God will not hold back.
When God tests us, God looks deeply our hearts to see if we have come to understand this about God. God looks deep into us to see if we have come to trust in God to fulfill his promise with us, to see if we have come to trust in God to save. This is why Christians link the story of Abraham and Isaac to the story of Christ. It’s another story of God not withholding his saving love, when there is no other hope to be found. It’s another story of God saving when all hope is lost, because there is deep faith that does not hold back.
When I’m trapped in my own awareness of my weakness and failure… when I see no way out of a problem… when I become aware of how much I live and act like a functional atheist, the question is whether I can still listen, and obey. The question is whether I will have the faith to not withhold my life from God, but rather to trust and continue to walk with the God who has been with me all thus far in my journey. The question is whether I can, in faith and trust and obedience, allow God to be God, allow God to bring grace, and not try to “help God out” by trying to work out my own salvation and no doubt clumsily gum up the divine works.
Abraham chooses obedience over whining or questioning. Abraham’s act of obedience doesn’t earn him a reward or a miraculous act of salvation from God. But his wholehearted trust allows God to find a way to keep the promise even while looking into the very depths of his heart. Abraham abandons the claim to save himself, he gives up trying to control the things in his life that he cannot control. By developing the habit of listening to, and trusting God, he makes room for God to be God. By ceasing to try to make everything work out right when he is trapped, he makes room for God to save. God will indeed provide whatever is necessary for our blessing, even when it appears that we are bound. God tests us to help us find the strength to trust him with everything we have.
The story ends with God reiterating God’s promises to Abraham and Sarah. But there’s a twist. We’re told at the end, “So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beersheba; and Abraham and Sarah lived at Beersheeba.” But Isaac does not return with his father. Isaac is left to the care and guidance of God. Isaac is left to discover in his own life, in his own way, that God is faithful. And surely Isaac someday will be tested too.
And so will we.
Let us pray: Lord God, Holy One, your ways are not our ways. Grow in us that we may develop the habit of listening, and trusting in you, and help us when we are tested. Amen.
Fasting II Sam. 12:15b-23; Mt. 4:1-4; Mt. 6:16-18 March 23, 2014 Rev. Noel Vanek
This Lent I’m preaching a series about food, spiritual and physical. It seems only logical to address the topic of fasting from food, since so many Christians do this at this time before Easter.
Protestants don’t talk much about fasting. Indeed, Protestant churches starting with Martin Luther himself, took a critical attitude toward the ancient traditions of fasting. Luther said, “These spiritual practices are external, they don’t really indicate a change of heart, and they do not lead you to salvation.” Luther and Calvin, the two giants in the Reformation, both abolished mandated fasting times for their new church communities, but allowed individual believers to fast privately, if they felt so moved, as a means of approaching God more closely.
Growing up, I had no personal experience of fasting. I only heard about it second hand, from complaining teen age peers, and a bit from former Catholics who were be glad to be rid of it. Then one day it dawned on me: maybe I was missing something. Maybe the sum of all spiritual wisdom wasn’t contained in either the practice of a mid-Ohio Congregational Church or even in the thoughts Martin Luther and John Calvin. Maybe the Roman Catholics, the Anglicans, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, the Coptic Church, the Ethiopian Church, the Assyrian Church, the Armenian Church, plus the Buddhists, the Hindus, the Muslims, and even the Jews… all these religions that prescribe times for fasting for their faithful… maybe they posses some deeply spiritual wisdom at least worth sampling.
Fasting is found in almost all world religions, and it’s a very ancient practice. No one promises fasting leads you to salvation. But Fasting is intended in all religions to do two things: first, to display our true penitence. David fasted when the child Bathsheba bore him became ill – the scriptures tell us it was a punishment from God for his adultery that led to him having Bathsheba’s husband killed. II Samuel that shows us David fasting and refusing food, while the child was ill; but as soon as the child died he ceased his fast, saying that to continue it was useless.
How are we to react? His actions can strike us as a very cynical attempt to manipulate or fool God. Yet, there is a rich Biblical tradition of people who fasted to show their penitence, with the result that God did change his mind. When Jonah went to Nineveh the wicked Ninevites repented and fasted, and because of this God didn’t follow through on his earlier decision to wipe out the entire city. God paid attention to the fasting of the Ninevites, and assessing the situation, believed their repentance to be sincere. Fasting as a sign of penitence can in fact be very sincere, and the scriptures tell us that sometimes, at least, God takes note.
But the scriptures, the writings of the prophets in particular, also want us to know that fasting is not enough. The prophet Isaiah famously depicts God saying, “Is not this the fast I choose, to loose the bonds of wickedness… to let the oppressed go free… Is it not to share your bread with the hungry… and when you see the naked, to cover him....?” If you are in the wrong, fasting is not something you are to do instead of changing your behavior. It was always meant as a sign of a desire to change and do what is right. Without change of behavior, fasting becomes a sham, and is useless.
So what attitude did Jesus take toward fasting? Matthew shows us Christ being driven into the desert by the Holy Spirit soon after he was baptized and heard the heavens open and God declare to him, “You are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” Before he could begin his ministry, Jesus was to be tested. So to prepare for his testing, what did he do? He withdrew from normal human society, he went where the evil spirits were thought to live… . in the desert, far far away from home and the comfort of friends. To prepare himself, he fasted for forty days and forty nights, fasted so totally that at the end he was famished.
His experience fasting in the wilderness points to the second benefit of fasting. Fasting tends to intensify one’s religious experience. At the very least, a successful fast reminds us that without the animating Spirit of God, we are nothing. To fast is to experience the limitations of our bodies. Normally we rely so much on our senses, on our strength of body and personality, but fasting undermines this reliance only on ourselves. One spiritual commentator put it this way: Fasting “hoists the sails of the soul in hopes of experiencing the gracious wind of God’s spirit.” When we really want to meet God, when we desire to experience what it is like to live by God’s strength and God’s sustenance, rather than our own, fasting can open the door. Because a good fast makes us feel vulnerable, it can lead us to being more open to the presence of God.
To fight off the wiles of the devil, Jesus fasted so that he could be sure he was relying more upon God’s strength than his own.
Of course, knowing how hungry he must be, Satan’s first temptation to Jesus is to turn the stones at his feet into loaves of bread. Christ responds by quoting Deuteronomy ch. 8, that man does not live by bread alone. This passage in Deuteronomy begins by reminding us of our spiritual ancestors’ experience while wandering in the wilderness: “God humbled you and let you hunger, and [then] fed you with mana which you did not know…” By quoting this passage back to Satan, Jesus is saying, in effect, “I am humble, I am prepared and open to doing God’s will, and I will humbly trust my Father to take care of my every need… . even my hunger.” Through his long fast, Jesus intensified his relationship, his reliance, upon God. It would be a mistake to say that Christ our Lord threw out fasting or said it wasn’t a useful tool.
But of course, like the prophets of ancient Israel, he criticized the insincere use of fasting. If fasting is just an outward show, to try to impress the people around you… than fasting is useless. Recall how Christ exhorted his disciples “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites"... If you fast just for show, then the only reward you’ll receive is the admiration from a fool or two. But such fasting won’t get you any closer into the heart of God.
Now, I wonder, what might we do with fasting, if we are willing to suspend disbelief and skepticism, and experiment a little?
Rick Warren, the well-known pastor of Saddleback Church, a mega church in Southern California, back in 2011 announced to his congregation one Sunday that his physician advised him he needed to lose 90 pounds. He asked the congregation to hold him accountable and went on a planned diet called the Daniel Plan for 40 days. 12,000 signed up on-line to diet with him and they lost a combined 250,000 pounds. That’s pretty impressive. But it wasn’t a fast.
The first warning about fasting is that it’s not for show. The second is that it’s not a weight loss technique. Many religious people point to fasting as a sign of the deep connection between body and soul, soma and psyche; fasting in the body can promote health in the spirit. But fasting is not intended primarily as a tool for losing weight.
In fact, there is a weight loss plan espoused by many Christians today called the Daniel Diet. It’s the diet plan Rick Warren chose. You can look it up on-line. It’s based on the diet the young prophet Daniel adhered to when he was being trained to serve at the Babylonian king’s court, a diet of eating only fruits and vegetables and drinking only water. The plan works. People loose weight.
To turn a diet plan into a fast, the intention must be first of all to grow in spirit, and secondly, as you empty yourself of excess satiation from food, you need to put something else back in… something that will grow your spirit. All the classic instructions concerning fasting recommend one devote more time to prayer and scripture during a fast. It’s also recommended that during a fast one find time to try to do good things for other people. Many of the spiritual guides to fasting recommend that when you fast and skip a meal, you should contribute what you would have spent on that meal to relief for the poor. Or, contribute to the One Great Hour of Sharing offering next Sunday... (smile).
It’s as if fasting is there to help take our attention off ourselves… what I want… what I need … what I’m feeling. Instead, a fast offers the very real entry into a way of life whose focus is bigger than the imperial “I”. A fast invites us to think bigger, to look outside of ourselves. To look at God, for instance. Or pay attention to the needs and feelings of others.
Dieting is best done with others to help keep you faithful. With others to spur you on. Fasting, on the other hand, is best as a solitary experience. The more you talk about it while you are engaged in it, the more you bring the focus of your thoughts back onto yourself. That’s not helpful. If you need encouragement in a fast… and you will…. then ask the Holy Spirit to be your guide.
Let’s return to that scene in the desert with Jesus as he’s fasting and fighting off the temptations of the devil. This is when he learns what it really means to be the Son of God. Through fending off Satan’s temptations, Christ understands that his blood relationship to the Holy One comes not from seizing power, but from turning it down. He won’t use special magical powers or seek unlimited power, even to do good. To be the son of God, he will remain only human.
And this event tells us something important about how we are related to God, too. A son of God is not someone who is related to the Almighty One by rising out of his humanity, not a super-hero, but rather is someone who is beloved for sinking into his humanity even when famished. Fasting helps us to sink into our humanity, sink real deep into our human frailty. Sink so deep we discover that only God can rescue us.
You know, sometimes I fall into thinking about my life with a little bit of depression. I find myself commiserating, “Gosh, I deserve something better… a little bit bigger piece of the pie, a life that goes a bit more smoothly, a life now that I’m past 60 that’s getting easier, not harder.” And it’s then that a devilish voice pops into my head and whispers, “Yes, Noel…Shouldn’t it be easier, and shouldn’t God treat you just a bit better?”
Above all, I think, the experience of fasting is a help to us to answer that whiny and shrill voice when it comes calling. When we hear a voice seductively suggesting that life is unfair to us and that we ought to think of ourselves more highly, that others would do well to esteem our talents more, we can think back on who we were when we were fasting. Hungry. Merely human. In need of God to fill us and to save us. Entered into the right way, a fast creates out of our emptiness a proper perspective on our place in the world. Indeed, we are beloved of God, but we are also desperately reliant on God. A good fast helps us find the will to then reply to that tempting voice, “Away with you... be gone...for I know who you are. And I know who I am.”
After all, that’s what Jesus did when he fasted.
We can’t do everything Jesus did, by any means. But this one thing... this one little tiny thing... I think we can safely try. Amen.
Eat and Remember March 9, 2014 I Corinthians 8:7-9 Rev. Noel Vanek
This Lent, my sermons will be about food. Spiritual food, the food that nurtures our soul, to be sure; but also the food choices we make that affect our bodies and other people’s lives. Food is a gift from God. The argument can be made that when we say “God blesses us,” that means first and primarily with the gift of food. And we are to share the blessing with others.
So we eat, but as we do, we can’t help but remember. Other meals. Others who have shared our table. I cannot eat a meal in the month of June without thinking of my last Father’s Day luncheon with my dad. June, 2004. My father, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, arrived early for the wedding celebration planned by Linda and me. Three months early. His nurse called from LaGuardia while we were driving up to a church retreat I was leading in Connecticut. I panicked, “Send him back,” but Linda knew better that the poor man couldn’t do this. So we dropped her off at the nearest train station and she rode back to Manhattan, and cabbed it to the airport, and brought Dad and his nurse to our home. I cut short my part in leading the retreat and drove home after our outdoor worship service on Sunday morning. At one or two o’clock we went down the block to the local eatery and celebrated Father’s Day together, my father, my wife, and our two daughters. Now that he’s gone, I have a photo from that meal that I look at often. It was the only Father’s Day I ever had with my Dad, since I was maybe 22. My dad was weak. He didn’t understand everything that was happening around him. He got dates confused. I loved him anyway.
We spend a lot of time at the dining table. Breakfast, probably for many of us not lunch, dinner, and snacks – after school, mid-morning, afternoon tea, midnight. As we eat, we watch tv (yes, we know we’re not supposed to do that at the table, but many of us do anyway), we read (that’s my small sin), but most of all I hope we talk to one another. Meals go better with conversation.
And when we talk, we often remember. Remember when grandma was alive and cooked even though she couldn’t see. Remember the terrible twins who used to make cookies with your brother, and the mess they’d make? Remember Lolly, the angel dog, who would cry in tune from the floor hoping we’d give her a table scrap. And then when we did she’d pass gas and you wish you hadn’t.
A lot of things happen around the table that we remember. Remembering around the table is one of the chief pleasures of growing older.
This morning we remember Jesus around his table, and eat his body and blood… symbolically… to recall how he gave his life for us, and to remember that he is present with us when we do the things he told us to do. Christ’s family is gathered at his table… it’s at his table that we chiefly remember that we are Christ’s family to begin with. “Take, eat and remember me.” I am with you always, and especially as you feed my sheep, he told us.
The Apostle Paul spent a lot of his time in worship gathered around the table of the Lord, remembering Jesus with the young house churches in what is now Turkey and Greece. Of course, when they gathered around the table they ate a real meal… people got fed, the rich and the not-so-rich, the wealthy Roman citizen and the slave, came together. They shared in this one thing that made them one… they shared in Jesus Christ. But of course they squabbled around the table…we do, too. Paul spends a good deal of his letter writing trying to clear up squabbles and misconceptions about what it means to eat together as Christians.
For example, in the passage we heard from I Corinthians chapter 8, Paul urges the gathered Christian community to consider the provenance of their food as it may cause others, those with a weak conscience, to stumble. Here the issue must seem a bit strange to us. Meat in all Roman influenced towns and cities was first sacrificed at the temple to a pagan god, and then turned over to the local butcher to sell to the general population. So early Christians asked if they could eat such meat and not be supporting pagan worship. Paul is eloquent in his argument earlier in the chapter that pagan gods are not gods at all; there is only one God, the Father, from whom all things come and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. Paul equates the Son with the Father, and says that, in effect, “no problem.” You know that these pagan gods are just make-believe, so don’t worry about buying meat from the butcher that has been previously seen time at the altar of a Roman god.
But not everyone felt sure about this. Here is where Paul’s words apply today. “If, however, one of you is weak in conscience, and does not think he or she can eat meat that has been sacrificed at a pagan altar, then no one should eat this meat when you gather together.” Those who are strong in conscience must look out for how their behavior affects others. Paul warns, “But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”
In other words, when we eat, we are to remember others and their situations, not just gorge ourselves. Well, we don’t have a big problem today with whether or not to eat mean previously sacrificed at pagan altars… do we? But still, Paul’s words speak to us rather directly. Who are the weak whom we should think about, and consider how our eating may affect them?
We might, first of all, think of those who will go to bed hungry tonight, whether they live a mile or two from us or across the world. Our eating patterns affect how much, and how little, others may eat. No, it’s not as direct as “clean your plate because there are starving children in China” that my mother told me when I was a kid (now it’s North Korea and the Congo and parts of Central America). We can’t just ship our uneaten food directly to someone. Now and then Linda and I will take leftover food from a restaurant and place it by a telephone booth in the city, knowing that for sure someone who needs it will see it and grab it before morning light. But mostly our eating habits have indirect effect on what others can eat. The average person in the US eats three times as much meat and dairy products as the global average (which means seven or eight times as much as someone from a very poor place). Reducing the amount of meat we eat, if we do it together, will gradually cause less land to be used worldwide for grazing and feeding cattle, and free up more land for production of crops for people. There’s of course no guarantee that the poor will be able to eat these local crops… but for sure they aren’t eating grass fed beef and other cash crops sent to the US now.
The weak are affected by our decisions around our table. We must eat, but we must also remember others as we eat.
There’s another group of contemporary “weak” persons who are affected by our eating, and we don’t even see them as often as we see photos of the hungry in the evening news. If you pay attention, you can these days get a pretty good picture of how your food has been raised: anti-biotics, or not. Pesticides, or not. Free range and natural habitat, or not. But how often or how easily can we learn about the people who have harvested our food for us? Are they a child of 12 or 13 working as slave labor in a fish farm in Thailand, or not? Making minimum wage in an animal slaughter house in Omaha, or not? Migrant farm laborers living in decent temporary housing, or (more likely) not? Touching pesticide soaked fruit with their bare hands and breathing in the pesticide fumes without proper safeguards, or not? We actually know more about how the animals and corn and grapes are treated than the people who bring it to us. And you know, and I know, they are, on the whole, not treated very well. That’s why we never see them… no one wants us to think about them.
When we eat and remember, as Paul suggests, let us eat and think of the people who bring us our food and about how our eating affects the ones who are so “weak” in power in our agricultural system. Again, the choices we make, even our remembrance that in eating we are making choices, eventually will affect their lives, too.
I have not one thing to suggest to you, that will bring an easy or quick fix to the lot of these hungry and weak, exploited persons. But I do know they need to be remembered. As we remember Jesus, as we remember his coming to us when we gather in his name, as we say a simple table grace and prepare to dig in, let us eat with memory of those who are weak today. Jesus, for sure, would name them to us as we break his bread and drink his lifeblood poured out for us. He would have us remember Grandma, and my father, and your loved ones… but he’d also ask you to think of Pedro and Adia from Central America, Hadiya and Onani from West Africa, Malea and Rosito and Duck-Young from Asia, Nura and Talman from the sub-Saharan Arab world… children and adults from all across this wonderful planet who are in danger of hunger.
Eat and remember, Jesus. Eat and remember those who have a claim on your love, and on your conscience. Amen.
You’ve Heard Feb. 16, 2014 Mt. 5:21-48 Rev. Noel Vanek
Now I lay me down to sleep, Jesus says I should be meek.
If I die before I wake, my brother’s life I shall not take.
There are four angels by my bed, one to watch, two to pray, and one to keep
the lust away.
God bless Mommy, Daddy, and my enemy whom I shall not hate.
And if my right eye causes me to sin, out it goes into the trash bin.
The danger with Jesus’ teachings from the Sermon on the Mount is that we hear them so often, they can loose their sharpness, their ability to jar us, and sound to us instead more like fairy tale morals. In his teaching to the multitudes here, Jesus was anything but cute or sentimental. He wanted to wake people up and make them think about all the truisms of their religion which they had heard ad infinitum.
You have heard that it was said to those of old, “you shall not kill”… but I say to you that everyone who is angry with her sister shall be in danger of judgment, and you who scoff, “you fool” are hanging by a thread from falling into the abyss of damnation. Reconcile your disagreements quickly; and above all stay away from lawyers, for if you go to them they’ll take every farthing you own and then some.
Don’t come to church and put money in the offering plate if you’ve said angry words to a friend or loved one and let them just stand there. Go home and mend fences, lest your dollars be crammed down your throat for your hypocrisy.
You have heard it preached forever, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that today, if your right hand touches a laptop mouse that then pulls up pornography, sear it off before you burn in hell.
You see, when we just paraphrase his words only a little bit, and contemporize them, they sizzle and catch our attention. They give off steam. Jesus isn’t being sincere and oh so noble here. No. He’s angry. He wants his words to sting. He wants them to scorch our souls.
Why is Jesus angry?
Hold off on that question a moment. Here’s another: what guarantees conflict for a religious leader… perhaps even will get them killed? Sure, you know the answer: tell people that what they’ve always believed is wrong. You have heard from of old, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, “Do not resist evil. If someone strikes you on the right cheek (note: the right cheek is important here – it implies that the blow was struck by a right handed person with the back of the hand, which is the worst insult imaginable in Christ’s world)…if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to them the other one; if a Roman soldier drafts you to carry his backpack for one mile (which was legal), carry it two miles Give to those who beg from you (I’m sure even in Jesus’ day people got tired of beggars) and don’t refuse when people seek to borrow things. So much for neither a lender nor borrower be.
Jesus is overturning traditional wisdom, much of it based on the handed down interpretations of the Law of Moses, and as he says, “No” to some of these maxims, people shake their head at him and whisper, “Who does he think he is?” “By what authority does he change what we’ve been told Moses taught?”
Actually, Jesus was doing two things at once here in the Sermon on the Mount. First, he tells people that they aren’t aiming high enough by simply passing along the rules they’ve been taught. Don’t kill, don’t smear someone’s good name, take only vengeance that is proportional to the crime committed against you, don’t commit adultery, love those who love you (which may well have morphed in popular culture into “and hate those who hate you”). No, Jesus wants his listeners to understand that doing these things aren’t enough. Following these rules or laws won’t get you where you want to go… they won’t change your heart, they won’t change the world, and they won’t make you, as he calls it, “perfect… as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In this entire section he compares the traditional teachings to what he discerns that God wants from us, and then sets up a higher standard of righteousness for those who would march with him to God’s kingdom. He’s preaching a higher standard because he’s defining a new law, a simple law but a very demanding one. Love. Just love the other person. And do what love demands.
You and I both know that doing what love demands, doing the loving things, treating our loved ones and friends with the kind of loving response they really need, is a lot harder than simply obeying commandments. It’s not enough to avoid doing the bad thing. The law of love that Jesus taught asks us to act with discernment as to what the right thing would be for someone in particular. And when it comes to the stranger, the people we don’t know, and even our foes, our enemies, the new law he lays down requires just the same: respond in love. React with just the right measure of peacemaking, respect, and humility. Don’t put yourself first all the time. Care like God cares about what people need, not just about what you must do to seem respectable.
That’s the first thing Jesus is doing, raising the standard, but there’s another purpose hinted at here, and it gets him into even bigger trouble. He didn’t come right out and say it, at least not here, but in these teachings Jesus implied that the traditional religious wisdom isn’t always loving and kind. Traditional wisdom, even wisdom from God, when passed on down through the decades and centuries, can be used to hurt people. When that occurs, Christ is saying, it needs to be changed. Adjusted. Tweaked.
It’s not enough to stone the woman caught in adultery (notice no one talks about stoning the man). Instead, the law of love Jesus teaches asks if anyone who is holding a stone has ever fantasized about someone who wasn’t their wife.
It’s not enough to make sure you follow all the ritual rules of cleanliness in preparation for worship. The law of love asks you to treat the common laborer who doesn’t have the time off or the money to be so exact with these rules of ritual purification, as an equal. It asks you to inquire if they have enough to eat on the Sabbath Day.
It’s not enough to work at treating your family and friends and people like you with respect. Jesus made many enemies by saying emphatically that the hated occupying soldiers, the Gentile Romans who stank from eating pigs, were also human and were also loved by the One he called heavenly Father. Many of the Jewish sects in his day countenanced either contempt or violence toward the very visible enemies occupying their land. But that’s not what Christ taught.
And we see in our day how religious wisdom, religious laws passed down through the ages, can be used to cause hurt to real people. “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” for instance… so many instinctively assume someone who doesn’t have the luxury of bathing every day is a little bit less a person, not someone “good.” And obviously our attitudes toward people with different sexualities… homosexuals, lesbians, bi-sexuals and trans-gendered persons, also can be warped by religious regulations that are just out of touch with how five to ten percent of human beings are wired. It was not that long ago that women as a group also came under religious prejudice and limitation, a male-dominated suspicion of the female handed down from era to era all through the centuries. Thankfully, that is... mostly... past.
Remember, Jesus asks us “what would be the loving way to respond to the needs of this person?” He didn’t label people as a group as “good” or “bad”, “clean” or “unclean.” Woe to us when we use god-language to wound, limit, or to put someone down. That’s what made Jesus angry. He cringed when he saw people taking God’s name in vain, using the teachings of God to hurt and make second class citizens of people.
This week a staff writer for The New Yorker, Margaret Talbot, commented on a recently released report on abortion by the Guttmacher Institute. The report shows that the abortion rate in the United States has fallen to its lowest since 1973. That’s something all people can agree is good news, no matter what our personal judgment abortion may be. The report’s interpreters state that no one knows for sure why abortions are down; some part may be due to economics. In a recession people just have fewer children. But another likely cause is that between 2002 and 2009, the proportion of women using long-acting reversible contraceptives like IUDs and implants rose from two percent to nine percent of contraceptive users. This increase almost certainly came because of greater federal funding for family planning programs. Larger numbers of poor women had more effective birth control available to them. Hurray! This is a victory to celebrate.
Talbot ends her article with this comment: “All this brings to mind the bizarre inability of certain prominent Republicans to understand the importance of contraception in our society.” She wants to make a political point. I think Jesus, hearing this news, would make a different point. He’d ask, why do certain Christians who speak in my name, still make people feel guilty for doing the right thing… namely, using contraceptives? Jesus would stare at us and ask a simple, obvious, but hard question: Why for the love of God… in a world where we are approaching the boundaries of over-population… in a world where inequality means some go hungry and many starve… in a world in which we are harming the long-term sustainability of the earth’s environment from the human “footprint” left on the ecosphere… why does not everyone who loves me, encourage people to limit the number of their children in every effective and humane way possible?
I think Jesus looked around and saw that people used religious teachings in his day to justify doing things that were the opposite of loving. I think he grew incensed as he observed his heavenly father’s teachings, revealed generations earlier, being used…mis-used... in a different time and context to hurt, to belittle, and to limit.
Don’t just blindly follow what you’ve heard.
Think about what actually would be the loving thing to do. Think about what people need. That’s the new law Jesus taught.
Looking at the religious world then, he grew angry. Somehow, I don’t think we’ve done much to make that anger go away.
It’s not about what you’ve heard. It’s how you respond with love to each person, to each situation, that matters. Amen.
God’s Surprises: a Stewardship Sermon November 24, 2013 Jeremiah 23:1-6; II Thessalonians 2:16-17 Rev. Noel Vanek
Stewardship sermons turn a lot of people off because they seem to focus so much on money. But we intuitively understand that our response to God is much more than what we do with money. What is it, I wonder, that we really ought to be concentrating on? Let me put it this way: Stewardship is about being aware of what God has given us to take care of, and then taking care of it faithfully.
The passage from Paul’s second letter to the church at Thessalonika (II Thessalonians) speaks of Jesus and God reaching out to us in love and surprising us with gifts of unending help and confidence. Gifts that put a fresh heart within us and enliven and invigorate us. Stewardship is noticing the surprising gifts God gives us, and doing something good with them. Have you been surprised by God? I hope so!
The biggest surprise in my life in the past ten years, has been my beloved wife Linda. I think she was sent to me by God. We had a late-in-life romance which turned out to be very sweet. I was a widower, and she a widow. We met at church, signed up to split a share in the local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), and she kind of knew this guy was interested in her when I showed up one night at her apartment at 9:30 at night to deliver her half of the vegetables. We had a very healthy, vegetable-centered start to our courtship.
But the surprise part was in discovering just how much I would have to change to love her. She didn’t ask me to change. I just discovered I needed to, in order to be truly a partner to her.
A saying from the Sufis, the Islamic mystics, leaps to my mind here. “Don’t make friends with an elephant trainer unless you have room in your home for an elephant,” the saying goes. The elephant being referred to, of course, is God. We might translate the Sufi saying into everyday English like this: “Don’t make friends with someone who will lead you closer to God, unless you have room in your life for God.” God is like the two ton elephant in the living room that everyone notices but tiptoes around and doesn’t mention, afraid of the obvious. If you want to get close to God, God’s going to wreak some havoc in your living room. God’s going to re-arrange your furniture. Friendship with God will most likely require you to attend to God’s needs first. Two ton elephants have a way of making their will known when you invite them to come home with you.
Loving Linda was like making friends with a one-ton elephant. She’s not as demanding as God. But still, a lot needed to happen in my life to make room for her, so that I could truly love her and be a good partner. God surprised me by showing me, through her, what it means to love all the way. God expects at least as much room in our lives for him, as we learn to make for the people we love.
Another one of God’s surprises is you. When I interviewed to be your pastor I knew you were a tenacious lot, struggling to stay alive. And I got the sense that you were forward thinking. But what I had no idea of till I came here was how nice you are to work with. I don’t sense that there are a lot of in-house cat fights between members here, which you find in many congregations. And when one of you says you’ll do something, you follow through. I’ve spoken now with enough other Pelham clergy to hear that not every parish is blessed with folks who are so willing to work in such a hands-on way to get the work of the church done. Apparently it’s pretty typical in some Pelham congregations for the members to figure they’ve hiring the clergy to do the dirty work for them… they simply write checks and keep their hands clean. But that’s not the attitude here. You are a real joy to work with; you are a surprise from God, a very good surprise. My job as pastor is to help you use your gifts to spread the love we see in Jesus. My stewardship task is to nurture the good spirit that you already have, to care for the seeds of God’s Kingdom already sprouting up amongst you.
But I would be lying to you if I were to imply that all God’s surprises come in pleasant packages. Jesus came knocking at Christiaan Beker’s door. A Dutchman, Christiaan Beker turned 20 and finished high school in 1942, two years after the Nazis invaded. All boys his age were being drafted into forced, slave labor camps, sent to work inside Germany to fuel the Nazi war machine. At first, Christiaan hid, but when pressed, and when his pastor father was arrested and questioned by the SS, he reported for the train bound for Berlin. The trains were little more than cattle cars. He despaired of ever seeing his family again, and wondered why God was abandoning him. He ended up working in a factory that made navigation equipment for u-boats, where he tried to do as little work as possible, but he quickly became ill with typhus. Moved to the infirmary, there was no medical care. Death drew near. He was sent back to the factory, in his pajamas, and collapsed again and returned to the infirmary.
That night the Allies bombed and destroyed the camp... being in the infirmary saved his life. But his health sunk until, mysteriously, he was declared to be useless to the war effort, so he was free to go. He arrived home in the Netherlands, still in his pajamas, sick but alive. He spent the rest of the war hiding in his parents’ attic, starving but free.
After the war was over, he was investigated as a Nazi collaborator since he had worked in Berlin, but was cleared. Finally healthy and able to continue his studies, Beker decided to study the ways of a God who allowed immense suffering but who also had reached into his life to gracefully offer hope. By a chance of luck he was able to win a scholarship to study theology first at Utrect, then in Chicago.
Christiaan Becker went on to become the most important scholar of the writings of the Apostle Paul in the 20th century. Beker used his experience of suffering during the war to comprehend how Paul could believe that we see revealed in Jesus a God who is already casting the bright rays of God’s final triumph over evil, even in the midst of suffering. Beker, like Paul himself, realized that he was a steward of the message that God has not left us alone in darkness …that even when all looks lost, a new day filled with God’s joy is on the horizon.
Timothy Smith, a Methodist pastor serving in Pennsylvania, wrote a story about a woman named Kay. For some unknown reason Kay finds herself one afternoon alone in her basement, watching the old home movies saved from her childhood. Her kids are outside playing, and she has an hour of much needed solitude. She watches the old flickering 8mm movie reel, and suddenly she sees her grandmother come to life. Not her grandmother as she remembers her, who died as an older woman when Kay was still a teenager, but her grandmother as a younger and healthy woman.
On the movie screen in the dark basement her grandmother flickers in front of the old row house in the city. It seems like it was Easter Sunday. There’s her grandmother helping Kay’s mother and aunts as children get ready to go to church. Her grandmother was wearing a beautiful blue dress with a flower pinned to it, while her aunts, and Kay’s very young mother, proudly display Easter bonnets. What strikes Kay suddenly is that her grandmother is beaming, smiling. She didn’t remember seeing her grandmother smile so. What she recalled was her grandmother’s suffering with a lengthy illness, her drawn but determined look. The smile on this younger version makes Kay smile.
Feeling totally drawn into the experience, Kay finds herself saying out loud, “If only she knew what would happen to her.” In the movie her grandmother looked so healthy. The movie seemed to carry a secret message for her, if only she could freeze in time that idyllic scene: the smiling face of her grandmother, who would not find out about the disease that claimed her life till many years later.
Kay found her eyes tearing. She wondered if her grandmother would have been smiling so if she had known what would happen to her.
Suddenly Kay came to a realization. Her grandmother in the home movie was close to Kay’s age now. Kay suddenly thought: I don’t know what the future holds for me either. She wondered, was the tear she felt on her cheek really for her long gone grandmother, or was it more for herself, and her own realization that someday she would die, just like her grandmother?
Suffering is hard, and no one can take away the pain of hurt and loss...we each must go through that. But Jesus told us suffering can be understood as the pain of a birthing, a birthing into a life that is abundant, verdant with joy because it lies beyond the shadow of death itself. Jesus promises that the way through the fear of suffering is through love, a love willing to give itself away for the other.
Kay thought about her grandmother’s un-seen death and coming suffering. She cried a tear for her grandmother, and she acknowledged to herself that the tear was also for her But when the tear was gone, she looked once more upon her grandmother’s smile, as this middle aged woman from long ago danced before her on the flimsy movie screen. That image of her grandmother clucking at her daughters on Easter Sunday reminded Kay of her grandmother’s deep faith, the faith that was passed along lovingly to her. It was Kay who smiled now. She suddenly knew something deep in her heart. Her grandmother suffered and died, but she was not gone. In faith, love triumphs in the end. No love that gives itself away for others is ever lost.
My friends, today is stewardship Sunday. Our most important task as stewards is to recognize God’s greatest gift to us is this triumphant love that never ends, a costly love modeled, given to us by Jesus. God surprises us, over and over again, with this love. Our job is to keep it alive till he comes to relieve us of our responsibilities.
So, all of you, help me, please… help me, to help you keep this Christ-shaped love alive… in our church, between and among us, alive as we welcome the stranger, and alive in our hearts. Perhaps God’s biggest surprise of all is that stewardship is primarily about love, not money. Amen.
In Too Deep: a Stewardship Sermon Nov.17, 20013 Malachi 8:8-12; Luke 5:1-11 Rev. Noel Vanek
No, we human beings cannot rob God. The prophet Malachi, last writer in the Christian version of the Old Testament, wasn’t being obtuse or primitive here in his understanding of the Divine One. He was speaking rhetorically. He simply wanted to impress upon his audience that they were not fooling God by their withholding of their tithing to the Temple. Malachi was angry, and wanted them to know he believed God was angry, too.
But no, we cannot rob God. Because Malachi knew just as surely as you and I know, that everything belongs to our Creator. If God wants it, God can take it. Which means of course, that God can save the Community Church of the Pelhams if he wants to. And it also means that the world won’t come to an end if our church goes out of existence one day. We belong to God. Our church belongs to God. We can’t rob God because God already owns everything.
But with this admission that Malachi here is being a bit over-dramatic, comes another hard realization. Everything we have, houses, our cars, our clothing, and especially our money, also belong to God. Oh, to be sure, we have to go out and earn them. But they are surely God’s. Gifts from God. God gives us life, talents, guidance, second chances, so much more than we actually deserve by our own goodness or by our own hard work. Look at you…look at me… do I deserve to be so wealthy compared to all the others out there equally as smart, who live with almost nothing? Everything comes from God, and as you and I know, God can take everything away. The money we work so hard to get, isn’t ours to keep. It’s not really ours at all, despite… I know… how much we feel we’ve earned it. Blood, sweat and tears went into most of our paychecks… or into our Social Security checks. But no matter. That’s just an illusion. The truth is, we cannot rob God because everything already belongs to God. What we have are God’s gifts to us.
Malachi here is yelling. Yelling at people for being stingy and unfaithful. Who wants to be yelled at? I don’t. But I may want to understand why it is that I don’t give more to the church, and ultimately through the church, to God. Are you curious, even a little, about this? Here’s where Jesus comes in.
You recall the NT reading from Luke, ch. 5. Jesus talks a fisherman into taking him onto the lake in his boat. Once in the boat and off the shore a ways, Jesus can more easily speak to the crowd. Sitting down in the shaky little boat, he bellows out his teachings in the natural amphitheater made by the hillsides just above the water. When he’s done, he says to the fisherman, who lo and behold turns out to be Simon Peter, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”
Peter’s exhausted, having worked all night and caught nothing… nada. Putting out the nets again is the last thing he wants to do. He’s tired, he wants to go home and sleep. And he’s nervous by this character he’s carrying in his boat. He’s heard the talk. This Jesus guy heals people. He has power. So instead of a wisecrack, he bites back his tongue. “Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” He doesn’t add… “Even though I know it will do no good. We’ve already tried that, fished there, done that new program… and nothing works.” But he lets down his nets anyway.
And wouldn’t you know it, the nets quickly fill with swarming fish. They can’t pull the fish in fast enough. Peter signals his partner’s boat to come catch fish too. Both boats become so full of fish that they almost sink. Simon Peter can’t believe his eyes, and then he gets it. It’s this Jesus guy. He turns to Jesus, falls down at his knees, and says, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man… a man of unclean lips… is the way most of us learned this story.”
Is Simon Peter here being pious, religiously adoring Jesus on his knees, worried about contaminating the holy Jesus with his all too human lowliness.
Nah! Don’t you believe that. Simon Peter is scared, scared … we have an expression for how scared he was.
What’s he scared of? Of Jesus. Of who Jesus really is. Of what he can do, but more importantly, Simon Peter is scared of what Jesus might do to him. What if Simon Peter dared believe in Jesus just a little… Who might he become? What might happen to him… to his life…if he let Jesus get a foothold?
Jesus told Simon Peter to cast into the deep water. The depths of God are exactly where most of us are afraid to go. We like the idea of a big catch… but who wants to go deep to pull it in? Better to stay in shallow waters. Better to fish where the fish aren’t biting, and join your neighbors in complaining, than to have to explain a supernatural haul. Better not to go too deep. We might not come back ourselves. Jesus… God… might change us.
At the very deepest place of our resistance to good stewardship… our reluctance to learn how easy and fulfilling it is to be generous… our defense to putting God first in our lives… right down deep where we resist, we don’t find rational objections. It’s not the fear of over-extending ourselves by giving too much to the church that lies buried down there. It’s not all those doubts about whether the church is good enough to receive our hard-earned money, that holds us back and keeps us in the shallows. At the deep place we run smack into our fear… our fear that if we really abandon ourselves to follow Christ, he might actually succeed in turning us into someone shaped more like him.
Mary Luti tells a story of a rookie pastor attending her first stewardship committee meeting. She enthusiastically but naively reported that the neighboring Latino congregation had retired the mortgage on their new addition in just three months, solely with sacrificial gifts from members of the congregation. Members who obviously weren’t exactly rich.
The committee had just reported that they’d hit a pledging wall and were stymied. “You can’t get blood from stones,” they reasoned. They’d have to settle for failing to reach their goal. So the new pastor told them about their neighboring congregation, hoping to inspire them.
But you know how the stewardship committee reacted, don’t you? “Oh,” one committee member responded dismissively. “They are an ethnic congregation. They do that kind of thing.” Not us, was the unsaid message.
Earlier, the church council dared to set a goal for church growth. In three years, the Moderator trilled, we want to have 15 more members.
“You mean 15 per year?” corrected the new pastor. “No, I mean 15 in three years. Overall. Just enough new blood to balance the budget, yet still keep our family feel.” She asked what he’d do if they somehow got 15 new members in the first year… put up a sign outside that said, “Sorry, we’re full.” He got mad, too.
Just like Simon Peter said to Jesus in the boat sinking full of fish, “Go away, Lord!” Someone once wrote, all night Simon Peter had a problem… no fish. But then after Jesus came, he had a bigger problem – fish! What would he do with so much new life rocking his boat?
The pastor of this mythical church I’m telling you about was a rookie. She didn’t know that churches are supposed to think small and aim low. She didn’t know that when church folks respond with anger, it’s often because like Simon Peter, they’re scared. Scared by too much Jesus, seeing in him too much closeness to the deep places of God. The deep places where we’re all a bit scared to go… what might God do with us if we really trust and follow Jesus? How might God change us, and change our church, if we really dared to cast into the deep places of faith?
I am not a rookie. I should know better. But I tell you, too, we must dare to follow Jesus, we must try casting into the deep places and go down, deep down, with faith. If we cast deeply enough, if we dare to give of ourselves without hesitating, God will provide the fish. But you and I both know that if we go fishing and cast our nets deeply, God is going to change the Community Church of the Pelhams. In fact, if we go deep, God will change you and me, too.
Mary Luti’s little parable appeared in a UCC Still Speaking e-mail Devotional a couple of weeks ago. She ends by reminding us that Jesus keeps saying, “Cast again. This time cast in the deep water.”
And we keep insisting, “No. There’s absolutely nothing there. Nada. We’ve already tried that. We’ve been there, done that. There’s nothing there. Trust us.”
And Jesus says looks at us with such compassion, knowing our fear, and replies, “No. Trust me.”
This year when you think about your pledge, about your giving… about how much you are willing to buy into being a true community of God… trust the Lord. Cast deeper. Amen.
Angels… or Demons? October 20, 2013 Genesis 32:22-31
Rev. Noel D. Vanek
This month Pelham Reads invites people of all ages to read, and discuss, Mary Shelley’s Gothic horror novel, Frankenstein. The famous movie was an adaptation of Shelley’s novel. We can take part in that discussion, too. Let’s see how much you already know about Frankenstein.
First, who was Frankenstein? .Is that the name of the scientist or the monster he created from dead bodies?....l Yes, it’s the inventor, Dr. Victor Frankenstein. In the novel the monster really doesn’t have a name.
Next, how does Dr. Frankenstein create his monster?.... Yes, out of dead body parts stolen from cemeteries. He went to Germany, as a young science student. There he conceived his idea, and connected a dead body of his own gruesome carving onto wires, and those wires onto a lighting rod. When lighting strikes the lighting rod, the jolt brings the monster to life.
Last question: who does the monster hate and pursue with vengeance?.... Yes, the monster chases Dr. Frankenstein. Escaping its maker’s workshop, it kills his brother, and frames a young girl for the murder. Later the monster makes a demon’s bargain with Frankenstein: create for him a wife, also made from dead body parts, and he will go away and cease killing. But when Frankenstein has created the bride, he stops himself, feeling deep inside that what he was doing was wrong. So he destroys the female before bringing her to life. Taking revenge, the monster kills his fiancé e Elizabeth on their wedding night. And Dr. Frankenstein spends the rest of his life chasing after his frightening creation, pursuing him all the way to the North Pole before he dies.
Why? Why does Frankenstein create the monster? In the novel he exults: “From dead skin and bones, I would create a loving being. Electricity would bring it to life. And my creature would treat me as if I were a god.” Frankenstein wants to feel like… God. Remember how Adam and Eve got into trouble in the Garden of Eden? They wanted to taste the apple from the forbidden tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, so they could be just like God. We’re not meant to be like God.
Being a brilliant scientist indeed is using a gift given from God. We might say Frankenstein was visited by angels, messengers bearing gifts from the Almighty, enabling him to succeed creatively far beyond the average scientist of that time. Mary Shelley imagined him a truly gifted, God inspired man. But he could not live with what he did with that gift. Knowing he’s created a monster, Dr. Victor Frankenstein can’t sleep at night. The monster he created became for him a demon which haunted his waking and sleeping hours all the rest of his life.
Now let’s make a jump in time from one famous author, Mary Shelley, to a 20th century American playwright, Tennessee Williams. Williams was the author of The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, lived a tempestuous, storm-tossed life, rocking back and forth between fits of incredible creativity, and periods of alcohol and drug abetted depression. He worried that he would end up lost in the haze of schizophrenic mental illness, which was the fate of his beloved sister. When asked about his tendency to live at the edge of disaster, Tennessee Williams famously replied, “Kill all my demons, and my angels might die, too.”
Angels and demons. That was the title of a Dan Brown best-seller from the year 2000. We’re fascinated by stories about these supernatural visitors.
But the truth is we all live with angels and demons. They are closer to us than we like to think. What, or whom, do you wrestle with when you wake up in the middle of the night? A brilliant idea that just came to you somehow while you were dreaming? Or some fear, or guilt, something that bothers you, and you wake with a panicky feeling in your gut. At some point in our lives, I think we all experience this nighttime wrestling match. Jacob awakened with the nighttime sweats, only to discover he was wrestling with God.
Who is Jacob? He’s the smart-aleck who talked his older but dumber brother Esau out of his birthright, charming him into trading the eldest son’s double share of their father’s inheritance for a pot of stew. Esau couldn’t think about tomorrow when his tummy was hungry today. But finally Esau wakes up and sets out to kill his younger brother, so Jacob runs away to his mother’s far-away relatives. The story we heard read in today’s scripture tells us how Jacob returns to his homeland, many years later, a wealthy man with two wives and children and much livestock. He expects to find his brother Esau still angry at him. To protect the rear of his traveling party he decides to spend the night by the river. Half sleeping, half awake, he’s on guard for Esau.
But though he’s waiting for his brother, it’s not his brother he wrestles with, is it? Have you ever been in a tight spot, felt life close in around you till it took your breath away? Like it or not, the Bible tells us that’s a time we are most likely to wrestle with God….or an angel sent from God. The Holy One doesn’t tend to descend upon us usually when everything is hunky dory…when we’ve aced our SAT’s or married our sweetheart or received the promotion. No, it’s in the dark night of worry that God comes. It’s when our back is up against the river with someone bearing down upon us, and ever shadow looks menacing… that’s when… he comes.
Mary’s Shelly’s eccentric inventor Victor Frankenstein is driven to create a living being out of dead parts, he’s driven to be like a god. But he looks with horror at his own creation, once it becomes alive. He’s used his angelic gift to create a demon, and the demon won’t let go of him.
Tennessee Williams lived with depression and fear all his life. To keep his creative angels going, he fought off the demon of depression through alcohol and drug abuse. He chased away that demon, but no doubt destroyed some of his God given angels in the process. Eventually, as he grew older, the demon took over more and more of his life.
And you… and me… we live with our own night-time terrors. Worry about money? Ill health creeping up upon you? Or maybe it’s a guilty conscience, or fear we are wasting our talent and our lives. Some of us try to self-medicate away these existential fears. Some of us just numb our bodies with too much sugar and fat, dumb ourselves down with TV. You can find ways to trick your brain into not thinking about either your wasted talent or your nocturnal demons. But these tricks leave us feeling less alive, more like zombies than people made in the image of God.
But there’s a better way.
Jacob sits at the ford of the River Jabbok, staring into the dark, waiting for an angry brother to appear. But on the journey of return to his homeland he has learned something. He says a prayer to the Lord, “O God of my fathers, God who said to me, ‘Return to your homeland,’ I am not worthy of the steadfast love and blessings you have shown me. Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, for I am afraid of him.”
Jacob did fight a fierce fight in that river valley, but he didn’t fight it with his brother. The scripture only tells us that “A man wrestled with him until daybreak.” As the story unfolds we come to understand that the man is an angel, a representative of the God who has called and blessed Jacob’s ancestors and who offers that same calling and blessing to Jacob. In spite of all Jacob’s many flaws God is willing to walk with him. Jacob neither defeats the angel in combat, nor is totally overcome by it. But in the nightlong struggle, he is changed. That night he came as close to seeing God face to face as anyone can. And in so doing, he comes to see and know himself, too. In the dawn he limps away… wiser, humbler, but made new.
Our angels are strangely tied to our demons. We don’t fully find our blessings and God-given gifts in life without confronting all the destructive hurt that we do, and without looking fully face to face at the demons that also lie buried within us. Victor Frankenstein looked inside, but in his pride only saw the face of the monster he had created. Tennessee Williams ultimately was too afraid to look deeply inside. Let Jacob be our role model here. With faith we can fight off our demons at the nighttime river, and dare to look inside ourselves. In so doing, we discover that we are blessed, that God does indeed walks with us.
Next time you awaken in the middle of the night….. or perhaps can’t sleep at all… don’t go looking for monsters hiding in the dark shadows. Rather, say that prayer, and remember Jacob. Be honest with God and with yourself, but claim God’s blessing. Wrestle your way into a new day. When you do, the angels win out over the monster within. Every time. Amen.
"One Tough Parable” Sept. 22, 2013 Luke 16:1-13 Rev. Noel D. Vanek
Today I’m either going to throw the book at you, or I’m going to hit you with a dirty, ratty stuffed animal. You choose.
We’re talking about parables these first few weeks of the fall. That’s because a) they were important to Jesus; much of his most profound teaching he did in the form of parables. And b) exploring the meaning of a parable is good way for us to get to know one another, especially for you to see how I, your new pastor, think. Finally there’s a c): the parables allow you, the congregation, to think creatively. But, Ho Boy! This parable of the unjust manager is a tough one. There’s something even a little shocking about it, when you think that we are invited to be model ourselves after the dishonest manager!
Here’s what happed in Jesus’ story. The owner of the estate learns that his estate manager is probably dishonest, and squandering his assets. Angrily he calls the man in and tells him the accusation; the man doesn’t try to defend himself so the master tells him to get his accounts in order and come, settle up, before he is dismissed. The manager thinks to himself, “What will I do to survive? I am too weak to dig ditches and too proud to beg…I know what I’ll do!” he suddenly exclaims to himself. So he goes to a business partner of his master who owes his master money. “How much do you owe?” he asks. “I owe your boss for 100 jugs of olive oil.” “Take your debt paper and write on it 50 jugs instead,” said the manager. Then on to the next business partner who owed payment for 100 unites of wheat… “Take your debt paper and write on it instead 80 unites.” And so on down the line. By doing this, the dishonest manager was winning friends with other businessmen who might take him in or give him a job, once he was dismissed by his master. When the master found out, he couldn’t undo what the manager had done… to do so would have exposed him to ridicule. So he had to grudgingly admit how clever the dishonest manager had been.
The story of a subordinate outwitting a superior was a common one in the ancient Near East. Many stories exist of clever slaves who act as rascals and tricksters, who subsequently receive praise from their master. But what are we to make of a story that’s not just for entertainment, but to teach us something about living the way of Jesus?
There’s tremendous temptation to put a twist on the parable that makes it seem “ok” or respectable to our good Christian ears. My guide to the details in interpreting the parables, the guy who wrote this large commentary I purchased recently, Arland Hultgren, does the same thing. He can’t help himself, he’s a Lutheran, and he wants to put Jesus in the best light possible. So this is how he interprets this funny and troubling parable:
The manager who arranges things for himself dishonestly is so clever, so wise, that the rich man, the owner of the estate, can’t help himself but be amazed… “That scoundrel! I fired him just a couple of days ago for mismanagement. But now look. He has feathered his next among my debtors. What gall, but how clever.”
So at the end, we are given the tag end, the application: “The children of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” The children of this world are secular minded people, wise in securing their own future. The children of light are Christians. Of course, all of us are both, and that was true back then, too. We all live in the world, but we are also trying to be Christians. Hultgren says Jesus is advising his followers to put as much thought and effort into being a good Christian, as they do in planning their finances and their retirement. Take God at least as seriously as you do your everyday fiscal responsibilities, he says is what Jesus meant. And then someone else, seeing the parable was about money, added on the tag line in vs. 9 (Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone they may welcome you into the eternal homes… ); in other words, make as much money as you can in this world but be generous with it, so that God will think you’re a good person and let you into heaven.
We might call that the Bill Gates interpretation of the parable. And a lot of people think that way.
I don’t believe a word of it.
In a parable, you want to pay attention to what grabs your attention and strikes you as unusual, or outrageous. What is outrageous here is that the dishonest manager is commended. We are to be like him, in some way. Why? Why would Jesus say that a dishonest but shrewd person is to be commended over a good and well-intentioned but maybe not so bright one?
For shock value. I think something else is going on here.
(picking up stuffed toy…) Let me tell you about Cooney. Coneccio is his real name, and he is our dog Chumley’s favorite toy. Chumley loves Cooney, and was quite disturbed this morning when I borrowed him. But how did Cooney get to be so beloved by Chumley? Chumley chews on him, bangs him around, pulls at his stuffing...Tries to “kill” Cooney.
Psychoanalyst DW Winnicott is famous for his description of object attachment that occurs in very young children. A baby needs to learn that the object... a toy, a crib... even Mommy... has an existence separate from itself. How does it learn? It kills the other object, vents rage on it. And slowly discovers that the other is truly other and won’t disappear just because the baby has killed it. That which we can’t kill, we can begin to understand, and love.
Just like my dog Chumley has come to love Cooney, only after killing him many times over. Jesus, I think, told this parable because he knew that sometimes you have to kill people’s surface expectations to make them find something deeper.
What idea about God do you need to chew on? Take out you insecure anger on? Destroy or kill, to see if anything is left? What do you need to attack, in order to make sure that God is real in your life, is really there independent of your thinking he’s there? So that you can begin to rely on God and trust God, and not just try to please God and look good to yourself?
Jesus in telling the parable of the dishonest steward was trying to kill some of our too conventional and too unexamined thoughts about what God likes, how God wants us to be. He is asking us to kill the superficial so we can discover the God who is real, and there for us. Jesus asks us to consider that sometimes God may commend a bad choice, a sin, as superior and braver and more faith-filled than playing it safe.
Now, of course, it’s not that we are to be bad. Our sins cause us, and others, misery. But often our goodness is more fake than heartfelt, based on a fantasy idea of ourselves more than on who we are deep down inside.
God can take the real us, the way we are, deep down. Can we really believe in the reality and separate existence of a God who loves us despite our sins? To do that, Jesus I think was saying, we need to kill some of our expectations of how God works. It’s as if Jesus was saying, “Think you know God? Well, Chew on this!” Go ahead, pick it up, bite it, see if you can kill it. See if God comes out alive, a living separate being in your life whom you can actually love.
I can only illustrate what I mean by this through a very personal story. My brother Steve was born seven years after me, with a major disability, myotonic dystrophy. This disease gave him both a mild mental retardation and some muscular coordination limitations. After he grew up and graduated from high school, he spent most of his adult life at a residential campus for people with mental disabilities, where he grew to be very comfortable. In 2006, when Linda and I have been married 15 months, we got a surprise call from the residential center. My brother’s physical symptoms related to the myotonic dystrophy were rapidly worsening, and though they were very apologetic, the center could no longer keep him there. We had two weeks to find him a place to live. There was no other family that could take him. The only institutional answer was the state of Mississippi’s institution for the developmentally disabled, which was known as a pretty rough place. My brother was terrified he would end up there; he’s heard stories told among the residents at his center of beatings that occurred there. So Linda and brought Steve to New York City to live with us. Filled with anger at the center and noble purpose, we made a rash promise to my brother: Steve, we love you and you can live here with us for the rest of your life.
Well, things started out ok. I found Steve a day program and he spent a lot of time volunteering at the church. People came to know and love him. But his physical abilities continued to decline. Plus, after a while, he began to drive us a bit crazy at home. Steve would fight us every inch of the way when we had to puree his food (Myotonic dystrophy caused the epiglottis not to retract properly so there was a grave danger of food becoming lodged in his windpipe and lungs, which would cause pneumonia). Then when he came home, and Linda arrived home, he’d follow her around from room to room, wanting to chat, not realizing how tired and emotionally exhausted she was from work. I knew the right thing to do was to honor our pledge to Steve. But it was killing our marriage. Linda and I began to fight ourselves over Steve. Plus, I could see the writing on the wall. Steve was physically deteriorating. He started to fall a lot. Our two story house was rapidly becoming an inappropriate and dangerous place for him to live.
He was on a waiting list for several group homes, but the list was long. I felt that I was trapped between a rock and a hard place, my pledge to my brother versus my love for, and pledge, to my wife. I didn’t know what to do. I said to God one day, “Ok, God, I’m going to do the wrong thing, because I think it’s somehow right. Please help us... I swallowed hard, and went and found a placement in a decent nursing home. The day I moved him out was the hardest day of my life. I felt awful, and Steve was very, very angry. Hurt.
The kicker to the story is that, by sending Steve to live at the nursing home, because he was no longer at home with a family member, and because he was so high functioning, he was moved to the front of the waiting list for placement. In five weeks he moved into a very nice group home in Manhattan that met his needs perfectly.
Sometimes doing the wrong thing for a good reason can be a way to trust that God can love you and guide you, and hold your life, even if you are bad. I don’t say this lightly, because for sure there are many times when we need to do the right thing and tough it out. But not always. Choosing when to be bad, and to trust that God is bigger than your goodness or your badness, is why the Apostle Paul says we must work out our salvation with fear and trembling. God’s grace abounds, but these choices in life are very very difficult.
Or, maybe I’m off base, and Jesus in this parable is really only trying to communicate, “Try harder to be a godly person,” like it says in my book by Hultgren.
Is Jesus throwing the book at you, or maybe just the dead but somehow living stuffed toy? I think you get to choose which one you want to live with, when you think about this parable.
All I know is that God’s grace abounds, and God moves in wonderful but often mysterious ways, God’s mercy to bring home.
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