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.
Isaiah 35:1-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11
Dr. Carol S. Franklin
The last month has been tough. Seeing the writing on the wall, I took to my bed the evening of November 8th and might still be there if the boys hadn’t finally insisted it was going to get ugly if I did not get up and see to them. My distress was not just about politics or about the fact that my candidate lost. That’s happened before without this deep sense of malaise. More than any other time in recent memory, we seem to be at a turning point. Change is coming, and I don’t just mean politically. As a people, our story is more than a political saga. It is a story of our countless generations, those who have passed to glory, those we journey with now, and those yet unborn. This is the story of a country and a people of every hue and persuasion who toiled and cried, celebrated and worshiped and in the process built a great nation.
My malaise is rooted in the realization that the national narrative once grounded in limitless possibility has changed, becoming one of fear and hopelessness, of a deep distrust of the other. It is a sense that the glass is not only half empty, but the odds of it ever being filled are seen as stacked against a broad spectrum of the population. In the face of all that, my next gambit was to declare that Christmas was cancelled. If Christmas never came, then neither would the new year and all the changes it would bring. Then I realized I’d be preaching during advent on Rose Sunday, what Pope Francis calls the Sunday of Joy.
Who can feel joyful when our nation has become an alien landscape in which language and action against those who are different is seemingly more acceptable? Though I have no illusions that matters of race, or gender, or orientation were issues of the past, the current social climate seems to have given license to speak what was once at least politically incorrect and publicly unspeakable. Then I remembered what Ghandi said:
“When I despair, I remember that throughout history the ways of truth and love have always won.”
I acknowledge the reality that I can’t stop time and really don’t want to. At a time like this, the upsurge of hope and joy that Advent heralds is as needful to me, to all of us, as breath.
In trying times, when all seems lost, we need to remember that God has not brought us this far to drop us on our heads. The theologian Henri Nouwen defined joy “…as the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war or even death – can take that love away. Thus joy can be present in the midst of sadness. …” Instead of despair or that malaise I was feeling, we are called to rise up into that joy. As I read Isaiah, it was like a prayer and a promise offered for those of fearful heart to be strong and not dread.
Isaiah reminded a captive people that they were God’s chosen people, being given strength for the journey ahead. In Matthew, John wants to know if we have to wait longer or if Jesus is the one who will lift those who are bowed down. Jesus rephrases Isaiah, affirming that the wait is over. The eyes of the blind are being opened, the lame leap like dear, the ears of the deaf are unstopped, and sorrow and sighing flee away. Advent reminds us that we too are exiles who, living in hopes of God’s liberation, are called to rise with joy and lift our voices with strength, proclaiming the glad tidings – “Here is your God!” and He will save you.
In this season of expectation and preparedness, our lessons remind us that Advent isn’t about gift buying and gift giving – it’s about letting go of anxiety and fear. It’s about being cleansed and reborn, awakened to the saving grace of God. It’s about change and transformation, it’s about being refined, perfected and made ready to engage with God in the work of kingdom-building. As a people in community and a people of God, we are at a crossroads. What we say and do in the coming months and years will matter. Advent reminds us that we are on this journey together. We must also be awake and ready to let God work through us to transform the future we all share.
Perhaps my great grandfather said it best in a speech at the Cotton States and International Exposition of 1895 “…Here our dead are buried. Here we are bound by the most sacred ties that ever touched or stirred or thrilled a human soul. …”
In the face of hate, God wills us to acknowledge that common bond and to love all of his children enough to make the uneven ground level and the rough places plain. This is the good that God desires us to do.
Like John the Baptist, we must move beyond this liturgy of worship to a liturgy of living. Though we may feel that we are crying out in the wilderness, we are the voices that must witness God’s grace in the world. As we await patiently for his coming, we are called to sing a new song, one of hope and redemption, like Andra Day’s Rise Up.
To paraphrase, “we must rise up in spite of the ache. Rise like the day, rise unafraid and together move mountains.”** Rise up and speak truth to power. Rise up to joy and give voice to the hope and promise of God’s love and care for all of his children and all of his creation. On this Sunday of Joy, let us rise up and embrace a liturgy of living. This is a liturgy which we will carry the anticipation, hope and promise of that child for whom we await – and the man that he will become into this needful world. Rise up to joy!
**Written by Cassandra Monique Batie, Jenifer Decilveo. Copyright Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.
Rev. Peter Faass
“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near . . . Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey . . . But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
Whew! Clearly John the Baptist was not an Episcopalian. You brood of vipers! Even in our worst internecine disputes we Episcopalians cloak our anger and disdain for one another in polite language. Bless your heart; did you really think you would be cleansed of sin with your hypocritical life-style?
What about John’s diet? What place-setting fork do you eat locusts with anyway? I wonder what we would do if John showed up in church some Sunday morning?
John the Baptist did not mince his words and he did not cut a proper figure. What he did do was preach the truth in love, which is the point of a prophet’s whole mission. John was fearless. His faith was strong and his trust in God resolute. Whenever John saw evil – in the state, in the established religion, in the crowds that gathered around him - he rebuked it.
When King Herod married his brother’s wife – his brother was not divorced by the way – John railed against the king’s immoral behavior. When the leaders of institutional religion feigned repentance of sins to receive John’s baptism, he called them out on it. Let’ face it being called a viper is not a compliment in any age. If people were living lives that ignored God, John upbraided them.
John’s message can be distilled down to one simple phrase; clean up your act. The Messiah is coming and we have serious work to do to prepare for him.
That work is this: You need to repent of your sins, which means facing the chasm between who you believe you are and who you actually are. It means bringing light to the dark places of your life by asking hard questions of yourself and engaging in the challenging work of amending your life.
John was a light that lit up the dark places, preparing people for the greater light that was coming into the world, so that they could repent and be light themselves. There is no better way to prepare the way of the Lord than that.
In our Collect today we prayed that God “give us grace to heed [the prophet’s] warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer;”
How might we heed the prophet’s warnings, repenting of our own sins and preparing ourselves for the coming of Christ?”
Today, the second Sunday of Advent, is St. Nicholas Sunday. St. Nicholas is the predecessor of our American Santa Claus, whose origins are rooted in the New Netherland’s colony and the Dutch celebration of St. Nicholas, known as Sinterklaas.
Sinterklaas in the Netherlands is a delightful celebration of gift giving, limerick writing, music, great pastries and conviviality. Yet Sinterklaas is a celebration in need of redemption because it is marred by one very disturbing component that undermines its joyfulness. What mares the celebration is St. Nicholas’ helper Zwarte Piet or Black Pieter. In the Dutch legend of St. Nicholas, the saint comes from Spain and is accompanied by Moorish servants who give out gifts and sweet treats to good children and apply a switch to the bottoms of those who are not good and take them back to Spain. These servants are the Zwarte Piets. This finds its origins in the days when Spain occupied the Netherlands in the 15th and 16th centuries. On the face of Zwarte Piet seems harmless enough, at least to many people.
The problem with the Piets is that they are white people in black face, whose lips are exaggerated with bright red lipstick. The Piets also don frizzy haired wigs, gold earrings and harlequin outfits and they act like simpletons. In other words the Piets are white, colonialist era, caricatures of Africans.
We are familiar with this depiction of Blacks in American history, which is rife with similar imagery. I am reminded of this watching the 1940’s film Holiday Inn where the white actors perform the Lincoln’s Birthday skit in black face. Watching this scene makes me cringe. How could Whites have been so callous, I think? Yes, it was a different era, but still.
In some ways, Americans have made progress with our racism. And clearly, as we have poignantly discovered over the past several years, we have made very little progress indeed. The Dutch find themselves in the same predicament. Some folks understand that this racist caricature is wrong, while others are adamant that it is not, claiming that Piet is an integral part of Dutch culture.
This camp insists Piet is not a racist depiction. He is black from the soot he acquires when he comes down the chimney, they protest. This is a disingenuous argument as the Piets are already black when they arrive in the country with St. Nicholas three weeks before the holiday. This argument is also undermined by the fact that the Piets clothes are immaculate; only their face and hands are black. Let me ask you; who goes down a chimney without getting their clothes dirty?
Many protest – sometimes violently - the racism charge, saying Zwarte Piet is an innocent part of a children’s holiday. They believe no harm is done; that’s it just plain fun. They accuse those who make that claim of racism as are being politically correct.
I will observe that it is almost to a person only White people who defend Piet. The large Black Surinamese population in the Netherlands have protested Zwarte Piet as have a growing number of Whites. But many Blacks have also been cowed into not being too outspoken for fear of retribution.
A New York Times Op-Ed piece several years ago, prominent Dutch writer Arnon Grunberg, said this: “Until recently, Black Pete was uncontroversial. Not because the Dutch are particularly racist, but because Sinterklaas, like the royal family, is sacred in the Netherlands, perhaps because of a dearth of other, specifically Dutch traditions. A matter, in other words, of conservatism . . . [but the Sinterklass tradition is] even more important [to the Dutch] today, given the view that, in order to safeguard the Dutch national identity, homegrown culture and folklore must not be tampered with — a view expressed primarily, though not exclusively, by the extreme right wing [and I would observe xenophobic] Party for Freedom . . .
As the defense of traditions has grown stronger, so has the criticism that Black Peter is a racist holdover from the Netherlands’s colonial past. In January 2013, the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights sent a letter to the Dutch government stating that Black Peter perpetuated the image of people of African descent as second-class citizens and constituted a “living trace of past slavery.” This year, many municipalities are banning the black face, opting instead for either rainbow Piets or White Piets with a simple smudge or two of soot.
The irony imbedded in this controversy is that the Netherlands is a nation with enormous pride in its rich history of tolerance and acceptance for the marginalized and persecuted peoples of the world. According to the historian Russell Shorto, the country is arguably the birthplace of Western liberalism. Yet the Netherlands is clearly a place where there is a chasm between what much of the population believe they are and who they actually are. There is a dark, blind spot – one of profound Pharisaic hypocrisy – that needs a prophet’s refining fire to redeem it.
Why do I tell you about this controversy in another country 4,000 miles away? You might think it is because of my own Dutch ethnicity. That certainly drives me. I am ashamed by this obdurate refusal to see the unrepentant sinfulness of the continued defense of Zwarte Piet.
But more importantly I relay this issue to you because the Zwarte Piet issue has undeniable parallels to the use of the Chief Wahoo symbol by the Cleveland Indians; an issue we continue to struggle with here in this city.
Defenders of the Chief Wahoo emblem use many of the same arguments made by those Dutch defending Zwarte Piet. It is innocent and harmless fun, they say. There is no racist intent it’s just a caricature. It is an integral part of our history, our culture, and our identity. Those who think otherwise are just being politically correct.
As in the Netherlands, Clevelanders supporting Chief Wahoo are mostly White. My sisters and brothers, the attitudes of those who defend Zwarte Piet and Chief Wahoo are dark places that need the light of the Gospel shone on them to illumine them for what they are: institutional racism.
Preserving an emblem that causes pain, discomfort and offense to people who are Black or Native American is wrong. If protecting one's cultural heritage requires offending and thereby diminishing the inherent value of another group of people, it is not worth conserving. Because of that, Zwarte Piet and Chief Wahoo need to be tossed into the dustbin of bad history. To say that is not to engage in political correctness, it is to follow the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is take the Gospel seriously.
We are called to be voices in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord. Today, in our own culture that call to prophetic action becomes increasingly urgent as the diminishment and hatred for others rears its ugly head and threatens the wellbeing and human rights of many. As in the times of John the Baptist, God calls us to speak the truth in love about sinful, dark behaviors that threaten this nation- even if it means offending people, even if it means literally putting ourselves on the line - especially with those who refuse to confront their own sinfulness. This may mean we need to start with ourselves.
Advent is about preparing our lives for God who, taking human form, became one of us, to help us recognize and repent of our sins, and to learn to care for each other – particularly the most vulnerable and despised among us.
May we as followers of the One we prepare to receive into our hearts this Christmas, do just that, beginning here and now.