Rev. Peter Faass
(Picks up cell phone)
Let’s see, where’s that “Google Maps” icon? Ah, there it is.
E-M-M-A-U-S (presses search). Oh, there’s no Emmaus listed. Well, there is the “Emmaus Bible Fellowship Church” in Mentor, but I’m pretty sure that’s not the same place.
I’m not sure why Emmaus didn’t come up on Google; everything else does! The Biblical text says Emmaus was seven miles from Jerusalem. Let’s see if I can find it if I type “Jerusalem, Israel.”
Yes! There’s Jerusalem. Oh no, not Jerusalem, Ohio! Oh great, this GPS only finds locations in the USA and Canada. How I am going to Emmaus so that I can encounter Jesus if my GPS can’t get me there?
This is how meeting Jesus and believing in the Resurrection happens. You have to duplicate the same circumstances and be in the same environment for it to be real. It’s like a scientific experiment; we need a methodical and empirical procedure, with the goal of verifying, falsifying, or establishing the accuracy of the Resurrection. If I get on the road to Emmaus, I can see if Jesus meets me just like he did with Cleopas and his companion. It would be cool to watch him vanish from my sight. Poof! Now you see him, now you don’t. If this doesn’t happen for me, if it’s not scientifically repeatable, how can I possibly ever believe in his Resurrection?
A lot of Christians – especially we Episcopalians - are skeptical about these passages of scripture that speak of Jesus’ paranormal appearances. That stuff isn’t real, we think. We are too smart, savvy and sophisticated to believe in those myths. If we don’t have concrete evidence or see it with our own eyes, then it can’t be true. And yet, Biblical texts about the Resurrection of Jesus Christ are all paranormal experiences meant to inspire our faith and not lead us to disbelief.
Mary Magdalene encounters a man who suddenly appears to her at the empty tomb. She believes he is a gardener. It is only when the man speaks her name that she recognizes him as the risen Jesus.
The terrified disciples are secreted away in a locked room when the risen Jesus suddenly appears. Only when doubting Thomas insists on hard evidence and sees the marks of crucifixion on Jesus’ body does he believe.
On the Road to Emmaus, two followers of Jesus were heading out of Jerusalem on the Sunday of the Resurrection. News that the women who visited the tomb have seen the risen Lord is fluorishing. As these two walk the dusty road, a man suddenly appears. The text tells us “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” This is similar to Mary’s experience in the garden.
This mystery man walks with the two men as they relay recent events about Jesus, events they’ve not yet reconciled. Jesus admonishes them as he interprets these events through scripture.
As they approach Emmaus, the two men encourage Jesus to stay and have dinner with them. He accepts their invitation. When Jesus is at table with them, he takes bread, blesses, breaks and gives it to them. The active verbs of taking, blessing, breaking and giving are Eucharistic. In the context of these actions, the men recognize the risen Jesus, clearly indicating they were present at the last supper just a few nights prior.
Jesus then “vanished from their sight.”
Astonished, the two men begin to connect the dots. Of course this was Jesus. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” they ask. Despite the late hour, rush back to Jerusalem to share their encounter of Jesus with the disciples.
The Road to Emmaus Resurrection Story, as well as the stories of Mary Magdalene in the garden and Thomas and the disciples hiding in the upper room, provide us with a boilerplate truth about our Christian faith; a truth that strikes at the head and heart dichotomy that splits Christians and how we engage our faith . . . or not.
The central question these Resurrection stories ask us is, “How do we encounter the risen Jesus in our lives? Is it through deductive reasoning, scientific evidence, our intellect, or in the experiences of our heart?”
If we believe the former, and our minds can’t rationally process the Resurrection stories and the presence of the risen Jesus, do we disbelieve? Do we disbelieve because we fear the experience of our hearts, thinking them as too emotionally fraught, irrational and susceptible to sentiment?
With both Mary and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, the evidence clearly favors the heart. Mary didn’t know she was encountering Jesus until he lovingly uttered her name.
The man in the garden did not compute in her mind, which told her that a gardener was standing in front of her. Mary was struggling to resolve the impossible situation of the empty tomb. When Jesus finally spoke her name, her heart leapt in recognition.
Cleopas and his companion couldn’t intellectually compute the presence of Jesus walking with them on the dusty road. They were trying to figure out what this bizarre story of a man coming back from the dead meant. When they heard Jesus’ voice, blessing and sharing bread, they realized, “Oh my gosh, it’s him!” When the men recognized Jesus, they said to one another,
“Were not our hearts burning within in us while he was talking to us on the road?”
They recognized the risen Jesus in their hearts.
As Benny van Buren sings to his struggling baseball team in the play, Damn Yankees, “You gotta have heart!”
We know the heart helps us recognize the risen Jesus after the Lord responds to Thomas touching his wounds and professes his faith. Jesus responds, “Have you believed me because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Just like my GPS will not lead me to Emmaus and a real-time encounter with Jesus, my mind itself will never ultimately lead me to an encounter with the risen Jesus. If we just trust in our highly educated, rational minds, we will always be skeptical of what we believe is the irrational experience of the heart when Jesus appears to us. Our blessedness only occurs when we make our hearts vulnerable so we can encounter the risen Lord.
Our intellects are valuable assets – we Episcopalians believe that Jesus died to take away our sins, not our minds – but our faith cannot be built solely on an academic, intellectual or scientific enterprise. Scripture is clear that the human heart is where God meets us.
Our life journeys are our road to Emmaus, where we encounter the risen Jesus. To be a pilgrim on that road, we must open our hearts to experiences that are beyond rational explanation.
Jesus is present in the hearing of the word and the breaking of the bread. Jesus is also equally present to us in the rest of our lives. Just as with our eyes, we need to open our hearts so we may know the presence of the risen Jesus as he accompanies us on the way.
Emmaus reminds us that our intellects and great powers of rational thought that don’t ultimately matter.
Our risen Savior seeks us out, is with us, and walks with us in our human confusion, fears, pain, anxieties and joys. Emmaus brings awareness to our hearts burning within us, recognizing Jesus’ love.
Ultimately, when it comes to the Resurrection, “You gotta have heart!
Rev. Peter Faass
Alleluia, Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!
Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!
Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!
One of my all-time favorite films is The Wizard of Oz, with Judy Garland, Bert Lahr, Ray Bolger and Jack Haley. The familiar mantra of “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my” occurs when Garland, playing Dorothy, Haley, as the Tin Man, and Bolger, as the Scarecrow, are deep in the forest. Night is falling and the enveloping darkness and sounds of hoots and howls of birds make the three friends very afraid. Dorothy says, “I don’t like this forest, it’s dark and creepy . . . do you suppose we’ll meet any wild animals?”
Scarecrow asks, “You means like ones that eat straw?”
The Tin Man remarks, “Some, but mostly lions and tigers and bears.”
The threesome repeatedly chant, “lions and tigers and bears, oh my,” as they hastily skip down the road. Moments later, they encounter a lion, played by Bert Lahr, who puts up a ferocious front of threatening behavior and roaring. When the lion begins to chase Toto, Dorothy comes to her little dog’s rescue and smacks the lion’s nose. Shocked, he cries, and reveals his true self; he’s a Fraidy cat in lions clothing. While a lion is supposed to be a fearless King of the Beasts, this one is not. Dorothy accuses the lion of being nothing more than a great big coward. To which lion replies, “You’re right, I am a coward.” “In fact,” he says, “I haven’t any courage at all.”
The three friends invite the Cowardly Lion to join them on their journey to see the Wizard at the Emerald City, from whom they hope to receive courage, a heart, a brain, and a return ticket to Kansas.
The Cowardly Lion believes that his fear makes him inadequate and prevents him from being courageous. He does not understand that courage means acting in the face of fear. When the Wizard of Oz gives the Cowardly Lion a medal of courage, it changes his attitude. The medal gives him courage, but more importantly, it gives him faith in himself so he no longer fears those things that threaten him.
“Do not be afraid,” the Wizard seems to telling the Lion, “you will get what you need, including courage, to do good things in the face of terrifying circumstances.
“But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, he has been raised from the dead. ’”
“Do not be afraid.” Angels and messengers say this phrase at key moments of tension and drama in the biblical story. “Do not be afraid” are the restorative and empowering words of courage that define the Gospel. Courage in the face of fear is the essence of the good news and lies at the heart of the Resurrection.
Words of courage were offered to the terrified women who came to Jesus’ tomb that first Easter morning. And there certainly is no shortage of fear-inducing events to be terrified by! First, there is a huge earthquake, followed by an angel swooping down from the heavens and rolling away the enormous stone that seals Jesus’ tomb. The angel’s appearance is described as being, “like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.” All that flashing white light the angel emits is fear inducing. So fearsome in fact that we are told, “for fear of him the guards [at the tomb] shook and became like dead men.” Which is a face saving way of saying that, like the Cowardly Lion, they fainted from fright.
And then the angel utters those words of empowerment and comfort, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So the women left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy to tell his disciples.
Fear and great joy! The announcement of resurrection doesn’t take away their fear; it empowers them to keep faith amid their fear, and to do as the angel commanded them, sharing the good news in spite of their anxiety. They are given courage.
As with the Cowardly Lion, the two Marys discover that courage means acting in the face of fear. This is the very definition of courage. And for this reason, courage is precisely what Easter is about.
Believing in Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the grave is not some panacea that takes away life’s hardships. If that’s what you’re looking for, you will be disappointed. The Resurrection of Jesus gives us the courage to stay standing when life’s earthquakes strike. It enables us to persevere and flourish through adversity. The Resurrection gives us courage.
When the women encounter the risen Lord, he repeats the angel’s words and tells them, “Do not be afraid.” These words are not some saccharine, reality denying, alt-truth. They are the essence of the good news.
We all are aware that living a mortal life means encountering enormously fear-inducing things. Jesus, of all people, understands that.
Chronic and life-threatening illnesses occur, robbing our health and vigor. Family and friends die too soon. In a changing economy, we worry about our jobs, our financial security and retirements. We are fearful of aging and maintaining our physical agility and mental acuity. Crazed dictators, uninformed presidents, and callous governments threaten our security and way of life. The deteriorating environment and the havoc being wrought by global warming on “this fragile earth, our island home” terrifies us. We fear the world we are leaving to our children and their children. Human life is filled with fear.
As we witness the two Marys and the other disciples, the Resurrection of Christ creates the possibility of joy, hope and courage in the face of these fearsome things. Like the medal of courage the Wizard of Oz gave the lion, God in the Resurrection gives us the courage to face life’s hardships. In the Resurrection, we have God’s promise that life is stronger than death, that love is more powerful than hate, that compassion overcomes judgment, and that all the sufferings and difficulties of this life are transient. Sure, these challenges are real, palpable and painful, but because of Jesus’ Resurrection, they do not have the last word nor represent the final reality for us. Resurrection changes everything.
Winston Churchill understood this truth of the Christian faith. At his funeral (which he planned), Churchill arranged to have a trumpeter play Taps in the west end of the nave of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The sun sets on the west side of the church, where the architecture also signifies death. Taps signals the end of a day and is often played at military funerals. After a respectful silence, a second trumpeter played Reveille in the east end of the great nave. The east, of course, is where the sun rises, and in a church signifies Resurrection and new life.
Churchill exhibited great courage in the face of enormous fear, and understood that Christ’s resurrection tells us that God is a God of new life. The good news of Christ’s Resurrection does not take away our fear. It does offer us courage and hope with its promise that God will have the last word, and that word is one of light, life, grace, mercy and love.
Do not be afraid. He is not here, for he has been raised.
Alleluia, Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:1-15
Rev. Peter Faass
The capture and destruction of Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple in 587 BCE was an apocalyptic event for Israelites. Everything treasured – socially, religiously, culturally – was assaulted and seriously threatened. The oppressive Babylonian empire appeared to purposely destroy the core identity of Hebrews through forced exile and forced co-mingling with foreign nations.
Exiles anguished in despair, lamenting that their bones felt dried up and their hopes perished. They felt utterly cut off from the Promised Land and Jerusalem – and from God himself.
In the midst of this despair, God sends the prophet Ezekiel who experiences a series of oracles. The most famous prophecy is the vision of the valley of dry bones. Just before Ezekiel sees the oracles, God shares his desire to offer the House of Israel a new heart and spirit to revive the Israelites and restore their hope.
God then relayed visions of Israel’s future. In the opening verses Ezekiel proclaims, “I was among the exiles by the river of Chebar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.” (Ezek. 1:1)
In one vision, Ezekiel is brought to an arid valley of dry bones. It was the site of a former battle, with the unburied bodies of armies left to rot and be eaten by carrion-eaters.
God asked the prophet, “Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel answers, “O Lord God, you know.”
God tells him to prophesy to the bones. As Ezekiel does, the bones slowly come together; bone-to-bone, sinew binding them, flesh upon them and covered with skin. God then breathed life-giving spirit into these bodies. “And the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”
God said these resurrected bones were the people of the House of Israel. “I am going to open your graves,” God tells them, “and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel . . . O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.”
It’s an awe inducing vision, nearly impossible to believe. For the as good-as-dead Hebrews in exile, good news was difficult to hear – and even more impossible to visualize.
As he relays his vision, Ezekiel challenges the Israelites to view their dire circumstances past their visions of despair and through God’s eyes.
With human eyes can dry, desiccated bones live? Well, of course not!
But see them through God’s eyes, and suddenly bone comes to bone. As one commentary I read stated, “Watch as ligaments bind them together, flesh blankets them, and skin seals them tight. Watch as God’s spirit, which heals hopelessness, infuses them, so that they rise up – a great army testifying to the power of God . . .
[Through human eyes] can corpses be brought forth from graves and become living beings again? Absurd! But look through God’s eyes, and watch them come up, receive God’s spirit and return home.”
If God can restore the desiccated bones of a hopeless people back to life, then there are absolutely no limits to God’s power to do the same in our lives. If we can see hope through God’s eyes, then there is no limit to the possibilities of hope for our being revived from even the most desperate and hopeless circumstances.
God’s opening the graves of the dead and putting his spirit back into them is exactly what occurs in the story of Lazarus. This miracle occurs in John’s Gospel, which was written by a community of early Christians who had just been exiled (or if you will, excommunicated) from the Jewish faith. At its inception, this community considered itself a Jewish sect. Around the turn of the first century, institutional Judaism determined that Jewish expectations of messiah had not been fulfilled in Jesus, whom the community of John proclaimed as the authentic Messiah. So they were cast out, no longer welcome, even despised. They were considered as good as dead.
This denial caused considerable despair and hopelessness. From the context of this situation, the author of John presented the story of Jesus raising the dead man Lazarus from the grave.
Whether we believe this is an actual bodily resurrection or not misses the point. We are seeing through our own, limited eyes and not God’s. It does not matter if Jesus literally raised a corpse to life or not, although he could have done so.
It mattered for the despairing and entombed Johannine community that Jesus –who of course sees everything through God’s eyes - offered them hope. With that hope, they were raised from the graves of despair. That hope is centered in the statement Jesus makes to Martha when he tells her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
In that theological statement, we find that whether death is literal or metaphorical, God’s powerful love for us and the world defeats death in all its insidious forms if we believe in the way and truth of Jesus. We’ll see as Jesus did, with God’s eyes.
Ezekiel shared God’s vision for the “defeated and as-good-as-dead people, giving them hope. Looking through God’s eyes, it was only a matter of time before Israel was freed from exile and restored to Judea, with the Temple and Jerusalem rebuilt.
Bone came to bone. Sinew, flesh and skin grew, and God breathed onto them. God’s vision of salvation for the people became reality.
In John’s community, the death and entombment of excommunication was transformed by Lazarus’ rising from the grave. Jesus did this because he loved Lazarus, also conveying this love for the despondent Johannine community.
In both instances, God gave dead communities a new heart and spirit. Love is resurrection and life; to love is seeing with God’s eyes.
The entire purpose of Jesus’ life was to teach humanity how to see through God’s eyes – the eyes of love. As the hymn, My Song is Love Unknown states, “love to the loveless show[n] that they might lovely be.”
The incarnate God’s desire is always to give us a new heart and spirit so that when our bones are dead and dry, sealed in the tomb of death, we may find the hope to live. When we see through Jesus’ eyes and see as God sees, we are released from the graves that entomb us. Jesus becomes resurrection and life.
When we feel as if our bones are dried up and our spirits gone, when we feel like the tomb has been closed over us and the stench of death grows ever stronger, I can’t think of a greater life-giving message than this one. This is true for us individually in our own struggles and challenges and corporately, as we encounter social and political shifts that threaten us.
Can we believe that God has power over the course of life and death, that God can raise the driest of bones and the deadest of bodies? Can we envision a way of life that sees our lives and the world around us through God’s eyes, with love? If we do, we will have hope. Hope will propel us to testify to the power of God, and a new resurrected life will be ours.
Rev. Peter Faass
At this past week’s Wednesday morning Bible Study, Mark Biggerman reminded me that when I previously preached this particular gospel passage, I held up a sign that read, “John 3:16.” That was six years ago.
You’re familiar with this sign, right? It’s almost impossible to watch a professional football game without spotting at least one of these being held up by a fan in the stands. The verse referred to is the one we heard just a moment ago:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”
John 3:16 is one of the most well-known Bible verses and simultaneously one of the most destructive. Right wing Christians (those holding those placards at sporting events and concerts) define this passage to assert exclusion rather than inclusion to God’s abundant love. These folks say, “If you don’t believe in Jesus exactly as I do, then you are not saved. If you’re not saved, well, get used to a lot of relentless fire and brimstone in the hereafter.”
This use of John 3:16 shows you can’t cherry-pick scripture and use it out of context without rendering great harm. We need to put this verse back into its context. Verse 3:17 follows, stating, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Jesus came to save the world not to condemn it. Yet, the claim that right wing evangelical Christians make of John 3:16 being a litmus test for religious purity while ignoring John 3:17 and other verses that follow it, allows them to justify damnation for many. Disregarding 3:17’s message that God desires to be in relationship with all people, 3:16 has become a bludgeon in the arsenal used to fight the battle for a theology of salvation that is foreign to John’s Gospel and to the Jesus of the Gospels.
Yes, God will save you, but only if you believe in my right wing, evangelical-dogma Jesus. All the rest of us folks, Christian and otherwise, are, to quote a local evangelical pastor, “dangerous and deluded.” Read between the lines: this means going to hell.
Statements calling others “dangerous and deluded” or condemning people to hell portray a God alien to Jesus’ message. These statements are also alien to John’s assertion that Jesus did not come to condemn the world. The certainties about salvation that these folks proclaim come from claims about God that do not reflect the God we know in Jesus.
The assertion in John 3:16 that God loves the world is not some theory for salvation that can be parsed: God loves the world . . . except those people I don’t like and who I want to condemn.
God loves the world is specific, not ambiguous. God loves the entire world.
When we are told God loves the world, we are called to do likewise. We do so by striving to emulate Jesus’ behavior in our lives. This entails radical love and hospitality offered through the care and compassion for the least among us, companionship with all God’s children, and loving one another as we have been loved.
When we read John 3:16, we should understand it as saying this: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him and loves other as Jesus loved them will not perish but have eternal life.”
To love as Jesus loved means that we can never look at any human being and place them in a “God doesn’t love them” category because such a category does not exist except in the minds of severely misguided people. Yet, we still have this great divide between the Jesus of the Gospels and the Jesus created by right-wing evangelicals.
Polls consistently reveal what social scientists have known for a long time: White, conservative, evangelical Christians are least likely to support politicians and policies that reflect the actual teachings of Jesus. It is a dumbfounding irony. Conservative evangelical Christians, who most fiercely proclaim to have a personal relationship with Jesus, are the very people who are most likely to reject his teachings and despise his radical message of love. This is why we have a federal government waging an all-out assault on the lives of so many vulnerable, marginalized, unloved people in our society.
Jesus unambiguously preached mercy and forgiveness, cardinal virtues of the Christian faith.
Jesus proclaimed the slavish pursuit of wealth is contrary to the Kingdom of God . . . and that to be a follower of Him means to give generously of one's money to the poor.
Right wing Christians loath any policy that they think is "socialism," even though socialism is essentially what Jesus preached. They despise food stamp programs, support for struggling schools, job training - anything that might dare to help out those in need, even though helping those in need was exactly what Jesus commanded us to do.
This group loathes Obamacare even though it provides essential medical coverage to millions of poor people. They supported politicians who pledged to repeal it, until they discovered that the Affordable Care Act is the same thing - and repealing it would deny themselves health insurance.
You can’t claim to follow Jesus if these are your values.
Why do I tell you this? Well, I believe that everything I hold of value as a human being and as a Christian is under assault today. I tell you this because I want us to hear Jesus’ voice over and against the forces that lead this assault on authentic Christian values. I want that voice to propel us to action.
I want us to raise our voices for:
I tell you this because recognizing our common humanity with all these peoples, and the earth we share as our home, compels us to understand the sacredness of our being made in the image of a loving God. I tell you this because I believe following the way and the truth of Jesus gives life itself. All this compels me to protect all that is sacred, holy and beautiful in this world. Most importantly, I tell you this because I want you to understand what it truly means when we are told that God loved the world so much he gave us Jesus and his love.
The next time we see someone holding a placard that reads John 3:16, remember John 3:17: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
That is the way, the truth and the life of Jesus. Now let’s live it ourselves.
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11
Rev. Peter Faass
One of my favorite jazz singers is Diana Krall, and her signature song, Temptation, composed by Tom Waits:
Temptation, oh temptation, temptation, I can't resist . . .
My will has disappeared
Now confusion is so clear
Temptation, oh temptation, temptation
I can't resist.”
Imagine these lyrics sung by Eve as the serpent tempts her with the forbidden fruit from one tree in the Garden of Eden:
“Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” the serpent slyly asks Eve. “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden;” she replies, “but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’“ But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Whew! One bite of this fruit and I will be like God? Temptation, oh temptation, temptation. I can’t resist. Chomp!
We have two scripture stories about temptation this morning. The Genesis story is about the fall of the perfection of creation in the Garden of Eden when Eve and Adam disobey God and eat the fruit the serpent tempts them to consume. By caving in to temptation, they introduced death, the pain of childbearing for women, and hard labor to earn their daily bread. The humans are also expelled from the idyllic world of Eden. For his nefarious roll in their fall from grace, the serpent is condemned to slither on his belly. This intriguing punishment leads one to believe that the serpent walked in some upright fashion prior to this; certainly not an image of snakes that I want to think about too deeply!
Adam and Eve were easy marks for the serpent’s wily temptations. How about us?
As we enter Lent, the temptation in Eden poignantly reminds us of how we resist the seductive call of things we have given up this Lent as part of our self-denial. We are subject to weakening resistance even five days in. I suspect many of us hear the serpent’s voice calling us in the chocolate bar, the cup of coffee or the glass of wine. “If you partake of me, you shall not really break your Lenten fast.”
At this time of year, I frequently am asked if it’s okay to break our Lenten disciplines on Sundays, as Sundays are not officially a part of Lent. This is technically correct. The six Sundays of Lent are not counted in the forty days of the season. While that may be legally correct, breaking one’s Lenten fast on Sundays is suspiciously spiritually barren.
Listening to the wrong voice in your life leads us away from keeping our commitment to God. If you eat that hunk of chocolate or drink that coffee you gave up for Lent on Sundays because it’s “not technically Lent,” inevitably the siren sound of the serpent will grow more seductive and insistent, tempting you to do so again on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, because that’s just how temptation works when it wants you to turn away from God. Temptation, temptation, I can’t resist.
Our second temptation story focuses on Jesus in the wilderness. Satan tempts Jesus after forty days of fasting in the desert. Jesus has already gone the distance with his fast - presumably no Sunday exceptions for him! He’s not eaten, so he’s starving and in a weakened state, which makes him vulnerable.
Taking advantage of Jesus' hunger, the devil tries to entice him by turning stones into multiple loaves of bread. He tempts Jesus to demonstrate his close association with the powerful, proving that God's angels will keep him from injury. The devil also lures him to secure the glory of political leadership by offering him the power to rule all the kingdoms of the world if he would only but cave in to temptation, turn from God, and worship the devil.
Think of how often we have had these temptations proffered to us in different forms. Hey, grab all you can get to ensure your own needs and more. Live by the motto, “I got mine too bad for you,” or, “It’s not what you know it’s who you know. Nepotism is good!”
Make sure you fawn over the rich and powerful despite how they treat people, if you believe doing so will benefit you. Amass as much influence and power as you can to satisfy your own ego and meet your goals, regardless of the means, despite how that may be to the detriment of others.
All of these temptations are held before us like luscious fruits of Eden in the world of commerce, advertising, community life, our professional lives, and maybe most poignantly, in politics. If you thought that chocolate was tempting, wait until unlimited stuff and power and status seduce you.
Temptation, oh temptation. I can’t resist.
Despite his weakened state, Jesus does not cave in to these temptations. He refuses to turn stones into bread to assuage his own hunger. He will instead feed thousands of hungry people in the wilderness with just a few loaves and some fish. He makes sure all have what they need, not just himself.
Jesus refuses to take advantage of his relationship with God by hurling himself down from the heights of the Temple. At the end of his earthly ministry, he endures taunts and scourging, trusting God's power to the end as he hangs on a Roman cross.
Jesus turns down the devil's offer of political leadership over the kingdoms of the world, and instead offers the kingdom of heaven (the restoration of the fallen Eden) to all those who follow him in the ways of justice and righteousness.
Jesus’ response to temptations becomes the template for his earthly ministry.
Each is replayed in Jesus' encounters with persons who are sick, hungry or in need; with persons who use their connections to power to gain benefits for themselves; with people who too easily worry about the world's assessment of their greatness rather than God's assessment of how they are doing with loving one another as they have been loved.
If we take nothing else away from this story of Jesus’ temptation, I pray that we understand that when we are tempted (in ways great and small), God is with us, always. God was with Jesus in the desert and stayed with him throughout his life, even when he hung from the cross.
God is with us when:
God is with us.
God knows our temptations and how seductive they are because God in Jesus experienced them. Because we have an incarnate God who knows our humanity inside-out, we have a God who not only knows and is with us, but who sympathizes with us when we are so tempted as well.
There is no place so desolate, so distant, so tempting or so challenging in human life, where Jesus has not already been. There is no test or temptation so great that Jesus has not already overcome. Because he has been there and done that, he can love us back into right relationship with God, even when we have given in to our temptations.
Whether it’s the seductive call of chocolate, wine or caffeine during Lent, or the tempting voice of evil in the world saying it’s okay to think only of yourself and your own needs to the detriment of others, even when you are tempted by the offer of excessive accumulation, status and power, know Jesus has experienced it. When we pray, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” know that Jesus hears our prayer and he is with us and in his strength, we are strengthened to resist. God’s reign draws ever closer.
Let’s continue to work toward that coming reign as we walk the way of a holy Lent.
Rev. Peter Faass
Why is Ash Wednesday such an anathema to most people? When I promote participation to worship on this day, trying to convince people that the message of this fast day is absolutely necessary to enter into the true meaning of the Christian faith, the look on their faces appears as if I had asked them to go through a root canal without anesthesia.
“Are you kidding me?” the looks on their faces convey.
“All I hear about on Ash Wednesday is ashes, dust and death. What a downer. Life is hard and burdensome enough without having to hear about my mortality and death and on a Wednesday no less, when my favorite programming is on television. No thank you!”
And yet it is a fact (not an alt-fact), a theological fact of our faith that the message of Ash Wednesday is the inverse of this response. Encountering the ashes, dust and death of our mortal being allows us to fully enter the portal of real life. You can’t apprehend the true meaning of Christianity, which is focused on new life, unless you immerse yourself in the topics of human mortality and death that Ash Wednesday addresses.
In today’s Ash Wednesday meditation from the booklet “Living Well Through Lent 2017: Listening With All Your Heart, Soul, Strength and Mind,” the writer quotes an anonymous monk who stated, “Wake up before death wakes you up!”
This is a parallel statement to C.S. Lewis’ quote that I frequently use in burial homilies, “Die before you die, there is no chance after.”
These comments convey that life is a precious gift which often gets weighed down with our burdens, distracted by our frenzied activities, jaded by our prejudices, and addicted to our habits so that we squander the whole blessed opportunity that the gift of life affords us.
Lewis sagely advises that we die from those things which kill us in this life before we literally die. Once you are dead, once you have returned to the dust from which you were created, you don’t get another chance to grasp the gift of life and live it fully.
On Ash Wednesday, the Church reminds us of our mortality and of life’s fragility and brevity. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” are poignant words that remind us our death is inevitable regardless of our best efforts to prevent it or deny its reality. Accept that reality and use your energies to focus on the here and now of your life and the quality of it, especially as that pertains to your relationship with God and your neighbor.
By reminding us of this reality, the Church also calls us to live the gift of life fully and authentically; dying to those death-giving behaviors and activities that deny us truly living as God desires us to live.
As the Absolution in today’s liturgy states, God “desires not the death of sinners but rather that they may turn from their wickedness and live.” The truth of this desire is undergirded in Jesus’ statement to the disciples that, “I came that [you] may have life and have it abundantly!” (John 10:10)
God doesn’t want us to live burdened by our addictions, bad behaviors, preoccupations, fears or prejudices, which all are death-inducing things. When we let these things define our lives, we are like Zombies, members of the walking dead. We have not “died” before we die, robbing ourselves of authentic life. That is sinful and wicked.
The movie Manchester by the Sea is a vivid example of what this means to allow this burdensome and wicked way of life to rob us of real life. The protagonist, Lee Chandler, is a man who through selfish, reckless behavior and wanton negligence sets up the circumstances for the tragic death of his three young children in a house fire. His lifestyle, which leads to this horror, is one of self-indulgence, revolving around drugs, alcohol, his desire to play more than work, and the need to have his sexual desires met on demand.
Lee is also living off the fading glory as his hometown’s most famous hockey star from his high school days. He seriously needs to face the realities of his wicked ways. Burdened by addiction, a sense of entitlement, bitterness, resentment, self-pity and lack of counsel, these behaviors prevent him from understanding that life is fragile, brief and precious. He needs to die to these things so that he may truly live life, as God desires him to.
The character comes to know the fragility and preciousness of life as he watches the fire fighters bag and remove the bodies of his three dead children from the ashes of his burned house. His children’s deaths do not become an epiphany for him, turning from his wicked ways as the ashes of those burned bodies mark him. His life continues to spiral further downward into death-inducing behaviors.
By the grace of God (through the love of a nephew for whom he has been named guardian and whose life is similarly precarious), he eventually gains a sense of life’s precious fragility, beauty and inherent worth, including his own. He slowly is transformed, possibly by the ashes that fell on him from that hideous conflagration years before.
He begins to journey the road of healing and wholeness, turning from those wicked ways that made him a walking dead person. We can see the inklings of one coming back to life, being transformed and redeemed. It’s a holy moment.
Such is God’s desire for us; to die to before we die, so that we may truly live. May we fully apprehend that truth as the ashes are imposed on our foreheads today and begin a right relationship with God. May we leave those burdens that prevent us from dying before we die behind at this alter. Let’s offer those burdens to God, so we may have a holy Lent and a holy life. By doing this, we will be resurrected with Christ on Easter; receiving the precious gift of authentic life that God has given every one of us.
Leviticus 10: 1-2; 9-18; Psalm 119: 33-40; Matthew: 5:38 - 48
Rev. Peter Faass
Law and Order ran for twenty years (1990-2010) and I was addicted to it. The had great actors: Detective Briscoe, played by the legendary Jerry Orbach, was the cool, levelheaded precinct captain; S. Epatha Merkerson played Anita Van Buren; and Sam Waterston played the righteous district attorney, Jack McCoy.
In seminary, we had a Law and Order night in the student lounge, where 20 or so people would watch the program. Since Law and Order often filmed scenes at General Theological Seminary, we seminarians had a vested interest in supporting the show!
What drew me most to the program was the characters’ passion to enforce the law and bring violators to justice. Law and Order did not always provide a sweet ending to every episode, where the bad guys paid the price and the good guys rode off into the sunset. Sometimes, the law represented by the police, and the order represented by the court system, did not succeed in their endeavors to prosecute wrongdoing. The bad guys sometimes got away with it. This never deterred the good guys, who doubled their efforts to do better the next time. They were committed to justice.
The readings from Leviticus and Matthew’s Gospel this morning focus on the topic of law and order in earlier times.
Leviticus is one of the five books of Moses (the Torah), which contain the law as given by God. The Torah has 613 commandments. These laws cover every aspect of human life, providing order in the Hebrews’ lives after they left slavery in Egypt, wandered in the Sinai desert and began to coalesce as a people. The law was especially intended to help define the people who had been chosen by God as witnesses to just and righteous living. This intent was clarified when Moses relayed God’s directions to the people, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”
As the Hebrews entered the Promised Land, they encountered numerous pagan cultures engaged in a lot of less-than-holy living. While the law provided order to people’s lives, it also ideally prevented the Jews from engaging in behaviors that would diminish their relationship with God and His desires for them. If the law commanded one way of behaving for Hebrews, it was because the pagan culture was engaging in its opposite.
Today’s passage in Leviticus centers on God’s desire for just behavior:
You will not harvest your entire field or vineyard when the crops are ripe, but rather you shall leave a portion of the harvest for the poor and the alien so they will not starve.
You shall not steal, lie or deal falsely with another person.
You shall not defraud.
You shall not hold back equitable wages from a laborer.
You shall honor the disabled.
You will not slander. You shall not hate. You shall not take vengeance on one another.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
These laws were intended to hold the disorder of pagan ways at bay, guiding the Hebrews toward a just way of life. To follow these commandments is what it means to be holy like God.
You will notice that all these laws require compassionate behavior toward others. Because of that, we might rephrase God’s directive to, “You shall be compassionate, as I the Lord God am compassionate.” Through God’s compassionate love, life is given order and its ultimate value.
This awareness of the life-giving quality of practicing God’s compassionate law compels the psalmist to sing,
“Incline my heart to your decrees
and not to unjust gain.
Turn my eyes from watching what is worthless;
give me life in your ways.” (Ps. 119:36-37)
Laws, whether religious or secular, can become rigid, applied unevenly, or used for nefarious purposes. We can lose the spirit of the law if we apply it too stringently – and make ourselves less compassionate toward those the law is meant to serve.
Jesus addressed this issue in his time. Recall his healing of the disabled man on the Sabbath. The Pharisees and scribes, rigid followers of the law, criticized him for doing so, believing it violated the command to do no work on the Sabbath.
Jesus notes their hypocrisy, telling them that if one of their farm animals would had fallen down a well on the Sabbath, they certainly would rescue it, regardless of the work prohibition. They still believed humans needed to suffer, so they remained obedient to a rigid application of the law.
Jesus said that this application of the law was cruel and inhumane, defying God’s intent and contravening the law to honor those who were disabled and in great need. This rigid, selective application of God’s law by those in power was chronic in Jesus’ time, which negatively affected the weakest, sickest, poorest and most vulnerable in society.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (of which today’s passage is a part) is a blueprint of what God’s reign will be, which is law and compassion toward all God’s people, especially those who have been violated by egregious, unholy, applications of the law. Jesus tells his followers that addressing this egregious behavior and following the authentic application of God’s laws will allow God’s reign will come.
Jesus said we must bend over backwards to be compassionate in all circumstances. We must love those who hate and persecute us, even though the law says it’s legitimate to hate them back. By using a compassionate application of the law, we engage in behavior that makes us holy, as God is holy.
We find our current circumstances to be frighteningly similar to those of earlier times. We see a rise of elected leaders who do not desire to apply law with compassion, thereby creating deprivation and hardship. These same leaders are increasingly attempting to dismantle laws that are intended to serve the needy and most vulnerable in society. This is nothing less than a return to pagan behaviors where God’s law is not relevant.
Last week in the reading from Deuteronomy, Moses gives God’s law to the people, and he tells them,
“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live . . . I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life.” (Deut. 30; 15-16a, 19b)
In God’s realm, true, meaningful, holy life is achieved by following the law of compassion. This leads to holiness – and to be holy is to be blessed.
Jesus said we are blessed when we hunger and thirst for righteousness for all God’s children. We are blessed when we are persecuted and reviled and have those who believe otherwise utter all kinds of evil things against us when we resist their pagan behaviors as we exercise God’s compassionate ways in the world.
In this blessedness, we become a light shining in the darkness, allowing all to see the holiness of God reflected through us and calling others to be this light as well.
Sisters and brothers, many of God’s people are crying out for the compassionate law of God; which is love. In our Collect we prayed, “without love whatever we do is worth nothing.”
When we reflect God’s love in our lives, it is worth everything! Let us proclaim God’s love by both our word and deed, being a brilliant light of love, and banishing the darkness. When we do, we will have chosen life, which is worth everything.
Rev. Peter Faass
These words are taken from the Rev. Faass' reflection, which he incorporated into his sermon on Sunday, January 29.
February 3, 2017 will mark the 60th anniversary of the SS Zuiderkruis (Southern Cross) arriving in New York harbor with my family on board. Having embarked from Rotterdam on January 21st, the Zuiderkruis encountered turbulent North Atlantic winter storms, making it an arduous thirteen-day crossing instead of the anticipated ten.
Hundreds of Dutch people were on board. They were leaving the Netherlands, a country economically struggling with high unemployment rates and inadequate housing after World War II. Exacerbating these conditions was a 1953 North Sea storm that breached many dikes protecting the lowlands. Floods affected thousands of hectares of land, leading to significant losses of human life and livestock. These immigrants were seeking a new life where they could work, find good homes, provide for their families and lead better lives.
As the ship entered New York Harbor, she passed the Statue of Liberty. On deck were a young husband and wife with their two year, four month old son. That little boy was me. The photo above shows us leaving Rotterdam with me on my father's shoulders and my mother waving to her parents. While my parents could not see the plaque with Emma Lazarus’ poem, “The New Colossus,” on the statue’s base, the message was explicitly clear to them as Lady Liberty raised her torch, a beacon of hope for all who came to America.
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Lazarus’ words are a sacred promise. They morally and ethically define who we are as Americans. Lady Liberty’s promise is not just extended to white European Christians; it is for people of all nations, races and creeds. If it is not, if we limit the rays of Liberty’s beacon of light and hope and the promise of a better life to those who are seeking it (for whatever reason), that promise becomes meaningless. We are seriously diminished as a people.
This week, we’ve confronted the new administration’s wanton and reckless behavior as a moral rather than a political conflict. This behavior threatens the very fiber of our souls as Americans, and for me as follower of Jesus.
As a fortunate little boy, I had to endure a bad storm at sea, but I arrived here alive. I’ve also had a wonderful and productive life as an American citizen. My boat did not sink and my lifeless body did not wash up on a Turkish beach or elsewhere as my parents sought a better life for me.
I want my fortune and blessings to belong to all who seek a better life on these shores, regardless of their religious faith, the color of their skin, or their national origin. I will do everythng in my power to make that so.
Isaiah 42: 1-9; Matthew 3: 13-17
Rev. Peter Faass
As we look in the rearview mirror and leave 2016 behind, I wondered what to name this past year. 2016 was the Chinese calender’s Year of the Monkey. According to a Facebook meme, Dame Helen Mirren reportedly labeled 2016 with her own colorful moniker, but even that elegant star of theater and film isn’t necessarily quotable for a sermon!
I have decided to call 2016 the Year of Vulnerability. Maybe you have as well.
2016 was a year when I came to profoundly sense my own vulnerability; the fragility of those things I previously took for granted, like my health and vitality, and my financial stability for the future. The year started with a thyroid cancer diagnosis and ended with a nasty case of the flu, which is taking forever to recover from. In between were the surgery to remove said thyroid, the much-longer-than-forecasted recovery period, Anthony’s increasingly frustrating twenty-month search for suitable employment, (thankfully resolved in early December) and the utter shock of the direction our country is going in this post-election period.
The last is the one that has caused me to feel the most vulnerable and frightened about the future of myself and our country. I am uncertain about what the next few years will bring regarding marriage equality, voters’ rights, national health care and civil liberties for people who are not considered to be in the mainstream. That makes me and many others feel extremely vulnerable in our personhood. The spike in hate crimes since early November (including this week’s defacing of the sign at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati with a swastika) should have us worried about how vulnerable justice and liberty for all in today’s nation.
As I contemplate my growing awareness of life’s fragility, our Isaiah text for today reminds me that our circumstances are not unique or hopeless. In one of the “Suffering Servant” passages in Second Isaiah, God sends the Servant to proclaim a message of hope to people who have experienced their own great vulnerability, suffering through what they believed to be hopeless times.
At the time, the kingdom of Judah found itself in exile, with the temple in ruins and the kingdom at an end. Zion, in all of its splendor, had been diminished, and some of the Judahites are forced into exile in the foreign land of Babylonia. Without a temple or a Davidic leader, the people’s future was in great peril. They felt vulnerable as this once great nation stared into the face of a mighty ruthless empire. They needed assurance, assistance, and a new vision to assuage their vulnerability.
In the midst of this dire situation, God sends the Suffering Servant.
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
My chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
He will bring forth justice to the nations . . .
He will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
Until he has established justice in the earth.”
Isaiah continues, “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,
To open the eyes that are blind,
To bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
From the prison those who sit in darkness.”
God sends this avatar of hope as a light to all nations (i.e., all people, Jews and Gentiles), to open the eyes of those blinded by their own vulnerability and release them from the prisons of their hopelessness and fear.
Theologically, there has been a tension between Jewish and Christian interpretations of who this redeeming Suffering Servant is. For Jews, the Suffering Servant generally represents all Israel. It might also be Cyrus of Persia, also the leader of the ascendant Persian Empire, who liberated the exiles and allowed the Temple to be rebuilt.
Generally, Hebrew scholarship points to a collective, communal quality to the Suffering Servant. The people, working together in righteousness, will receive their redemption from the fear and blindness that beset them. In a later passage, Isaiah is very specific about this communal servant when he says, “And [God] said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” It is the Hebrew people who are being called by God to be the Suffering Servant, serving and being light to the world.
Christians see the Suffering Servant as an individual, prophesizing Jesus as the Messiah. Centuries later in the gospel of Luke, Jesus has this very self-understanding when he reads this Isaiah passage in the synagogue:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
He then tells the congregation, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21b)
As an Anglican, I see the Suffering Servant being theologically significant either as communal or individual. It’s not either/or, but rather both/and. That understanding of both/and lays our hope in addressing our current malaise of vulnerability.
Certainly, the individual Cyrus the Great did liberate the Hebrews from exile and restore them to Jerusalem and to Judah. Yet it was the collective, communal efforts of the Hebrew’s who unified as a people to achieve the rebuilding of the Temple and restore the nation to greatness and, most importantly, righteousness before God.
With Jesus, it is clearly an individual who is proclaimed at his baptism to be God’s beloved Son, sent to herald in the reign of God, in the midst of a time of great vulnerability. It was clearly an individual who is sent into vulnerable circumstances so that in word and deed Jesus could show us the way to our redemption.
We Christians also see ourselves communally in that baptism, as we are baptized into the faith and into the Body of Christ. We are together the daughters and sons of God. As such, God is well pleased with us when we live into His reign, especially when vulnerable times occur in our life. .
We are, each of us, called as individuals to live out our lives as followers of Jesus. As a community of faith we are called to work together in harmony as that Body in the world, as Suffering Servants of God, presenting to others the hope of a way of life that will lead to redemption and new life.
Whether as one or as many, we do this through the practice of our Baptismal Covenant, which is the distillation of the ways of God’s reign Jesus taught us. Through our practice of continuing in the apostles’ teaching, the breaking of the bread and in prayer we are bonded in community. Through resisting evil in all of its myriad manifestations we gain strength as one unified together as many. By proclaiming through word and example the good news of God in Christ, we increase awareness of God’s ways in a tenuous world. When we seek and serve Christ in all persons, we remember our own humanity and unity with each other. By striving for justice and peace and respecting the dignity of every human being, we recognize we all are daughters and sons of a loving God in whose holy image we are made.
Doing these things reminds us who we are, and who is with us in life. It reinforces our belief that, as Paul stated in his letter to the Romans, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The practice our Baptismal covenant dispels our sense of vulnerability and gloom. The practice of our Baptismal covenant also brings us hope and empowers us to do God’s will in a world that is broken and sin-sick.
May the dove of God’s Spirit alight on us this day, reminding us of our belovedness, and empowering us to be light in the world for all people.
Rev. Peter Faass
A church in the area has a front lawn sign proclaiming they are a “Bible following church.” My travels take me by it frequently. Each time I read the sign, I ponder what that statement means to their congregation and what it’s supposed to mean to me.
Exactly what are they trying to convey to travelers as they pass by that sign? What I understand is this: If you are proclaiming that theirs is a Bible following church, it means there are churches that are not Bible following.
Since the Bible is the foundational text for Christians who believe it conveys God’s word to them, this is a derogatory and judgmental proclamation. It means this Bible following congregation believes that those non-Bible following churches are either ignoring God’s word in scripture or are not taking it very seriously. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, the subtext of the message is if you’re one of those churches “You got it bad and that ain’t good.”
The differentiation between Bible following and alleged non-Bible following churches is a conflict that arose in Christianity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with the development of the historical-critical method of Biblical scholarship, which examined, among other things, the contextual, cultural and literary components of scripture. It discerned to hear the word of God through these lens. To approach the Bible in this manner is to believe that the scriptures are a living text and have something important and new to say to us in each age and in every human circumstance we find ourselves. The Episcopal Church studies the Bible through this methodology.
At its inception, this approach to the Bible was not welcomed by all believers and resulted in the fundamentalist response, which believed that the Bible was the literal word of God in its entirety and could not be understood any other way. This belief is summarized in the bumper sticker that says, “God said it, and I believe it.” Fundamentalists see the Bible as being complete as received and is to be apprehended at face value. This literal interpretation of the Bible often reduces the text to legalism and can err on the side of lacking in compassion.
Our friends in the United Church of Christ have a slogan that captures the historical-critical approach perfectly: God is still speaking. If God is still speaking, we must listen and be attentive to hearing the word of the “still-speaking God” in our lives.
It’s hardly a new concept to listen for the word of the still-speaking God. In today’s story about Joseph, we have a wonderful example where someone is confronted with choosing the literal, legalistic understanding of the Bible or hearing the still-speaking voice of God. We know the story: Joseph is engaged to Mary and they are to be married.
Before she has had marital relations with Joseph, Mary discovers that she is with child by the power of the Holy Spirit. Note the sequential order of who knows what and when. At first, Joseph only becomes aware of Mary’s pregnancy but not its origins. Mary (but not Joseph) knows her pregnancy is by the Holy Spirit.
Subsequently, the angel of the Lord reveals the pregnancy’s divine source to Joseph in a dream. Initially all Joseph knows is that Mary is pregnant. Naturally, he assumed she had sexual relations with another man. I mean in the first century was there any other way?
We do not know if Joseph believed the liaison to be consensual or not, but considering how young and vulnerable Mary was, the latter was highly possible. Regardless her pregnancy’s circumstances, Mary was no longer seen as suitable for marriage, and Biblical law was clear about what should happen to her.
Deuteronomy 22:23-24 states, “If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.”
That was the law. To take it literally meant that Mary would need to be stoned to death for this breach of the law – but Joseph didn’t do that. The text states that “being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, [Joseph] planned to dismiss [Mary] quietly.”
Joseph decides to spare Mary public humiliation and death. He decides to let her go quietly, possibly to the protection of friends or family, slipping into anonymity and delivering her child privately. While the future prospects for Mary as an un-wed mother were not great, they were certainly better than death.
Confronted with a challenging – if not impossible – situation, Joseph lets his conscience hear the compassionate, still speaking word of God to guide his decision. Joseph didn’t follow the literal letter of Torah law.
Because he ignored the law’s direction, some people wouldn’t have considered Joseph a Bible follower. Matthew’s Jewish audience, whose literal belief in the Bible was fundamental to their faith, were Bible followers. To them, Joseph’s compassionate option didn’t adhere to law and would have been see as out of favor with God.
And yet… Joseph is described as “being a righteous man” even as he decides to not follow the literal law.
This nativity story about Joseph established the pattern of what Jesus’ life and ministry would role model: every time he was confronted with a choice between the literal law and compassion, rigidity or love, Jesus always chose compassion and love. Jesus’ acts of compassion and love show the still-speaking God who guides us to lead a righteous way of life.
Joseph is a glimpse of what Jesus will epitomize and teach about acts of justice – even when these acts violated the law and predominant culture’s expectations. This was especially true when following such laws would harm society’s weakest, neediest and most vulnerable, like unwed mothers.
This teaching reaches its apex in Matthew’s Gospel in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus challenges the law and all those self-proclaimed Bible followers. He says to his listeners, “you have heard that it was said, but I say to you.”
Jesus’ sermon turns their literal, legalistic world upside down and inside out as he introduces God’s reign, which is built upon compassion, justice and love.
My sisters and brothers, we Christians are always called to respond as God’s righteous people when confronted with difficult decisions and challenging times. There will be occasions when we will be compelled to choose between being Bible followers or Jesus followers.
I predict for the foreseeable future that we will be put to the test – and in fact are being tested. We will increasingly have more Joseph moments as we see the weak, needy and most vulnerable assaulted by many quarters. Laws will be challenged or changed to further harm the already disadvantaged among us. As we encounter these challenging circumstances our choice to follow the legal manipulators or the still-speaking God we hear in Jesus will be a stark one. We must do this in deed and action – not just in prayer or social media posts.
Will we be Bible followers or Jesus followers? Like Joseph, I hope we will opt to hear God’s still-speaking voice and respond with justice, compassion and love in all we do, and all that we are. Our salvation lies in that choice.
The Reverend Peter Faass
The Reverend Peter Faass was born in Delft, Netherlands. He is a graduate of the General Theological Seminary in New York City and has been at Christ Church since 2006.