Special Guest Sermon
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46
Rev. K. Dean Myers
Last week, a Facebook friend shared a post that about a Christian minister in Uganda who felt he was so holy that he would not let himself be contaminated by the church floor. He demanded his parishioners to lie on that floor so he could walk into the church on their backs. The story was accompanied by a picture of a man in a suit being balanced by men on either side of him as he made his way across a sea of human backs. Probably a lot of like how it feels to lumberjacks when they traverse logs floating on water, rolling a few, I suspect along the way.
Was this story real news or fake news? Anymore, who knows? But my immediate reaction, as a retired minister, was, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
Then I caught myself, and thought, “How awful; I never did that, or anything like it.”
And then I caught myself again: “Or did I?”
Real news or fake, the story is an example of the old saw, “It’s true, whether it happened or not.”
Pastors can, and sometimes do, walk all over the backs of the people they are called to serve. Though not at Christ Church, of course!
Clearly, that African pastor was unfamiliar with 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8, as well as with a whole slew of similar texts in the New Testament.
Paul, the author of this morning’s epistle reading, was not officially the pastor or priest of the church in Thessalonica, of course. There were no such formalized clerical offices in the very beginning. But he was the first century church’s premier evangelist, and apostle to the world. He was certainly an authority figure to many of the churches around the Mediterranean Sea. And Paul, who could have employed the power he had received from Christ in all kinds of negative and dehumanizing ways, reminds the church at Thessalonica that he came to them with one purpose on his heart: to declare the good news of God in Jesus Christ. That is, he came to preach the news of God’s unconditional love and acceptance of each of person, of the church as a body, and of the world itself.
Paul articulates the personal implications of this news in his behavior and in his relationship with that church. He did not come out of deceit or impure motives or trickery; he did not speak to please folks with flattery or pretext for greed; he did not seek their praise. He may have made some demands, he confesses, but there’s no evidence that walking on their backs was one of them. No, Paul and his companions, Silvanus, and Timothy, “were gentle (literally, infants) among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.” (Mixed metaphor there!) He writes that they shared not only the gospel, but also themselves. The Thessalonicans had become very dear to them. They’d never abuse their mutual relationship.
Why was it so important to Paul to make a big deal about how modestly and humbly he had worked in Thessalonica? In the opening of this letter, which we heard read last Sunday, he celebrates the power of example as crucial to Christian witness. First, Paul followed the example set by Jesus himself. Then, the Thessalonicans followed his good example, and thus they became a good example to the entire Greek peninsula. If Christians not only believe in Christ, but act like him, their actions will speak in ways their verbal professions of faith do not. And, who knows, the world itself beyond the church might take notice and change the way it acts.
The good news does not allow anyone, even Paul, to walk on anyone else’s back, either literally or figuratively. We are all equally and wholly loved just as we are, and just as we shall always be. So, before God we stand together as brothers and sisters, clergy, lay, all of us. The good news is as true for today as it was in the first Christian century. And living by that good news is desperately needed today, perhaps as never before in our lifetimes.
There was a time, a time I somewhat remember, when people joined churches to improve their social status. In order to be respected in a community, you had better be a church member. It would help your business or profession. Moreover, it mattered which church you were associated with. Some churches had more important members than did others, perhaps people who were potential business contacts, who belonged to the economic status to which you aspired, who were members of the right country club.
Fortunately, that time is mostly gone. Church members may feel that certain churches have more or less status than theirs does, but to the world outside the church itself, that hardly matters. Few outsiders know or care about the differences between denominations, or much at all about individual congregations. You do not need church membership to shore up your business or career goals, or to have status in a community. While members of a congregation may enjoy relationships that lead to some kind of gain on the part of one or the other of them, seeking material benefit is no longer a common reason for being part of a church. In fact, many think they do better in the world without the baggage of being known as a church-goer.
I am quite sure this change is the work of the Holy Spirit. The search for personal gain was never a good reason for being a church member or leader, and it certainly is not a good reason for being a disciple of Jesus Christ. Getting ahead materially or socially in this world has nothing to do with living out the good news.
We can easily cite examples of the worst excesses of using the church for personal gain. USA Today last week reported that a Mississippi minister stole some $330,000 from the church he was serving. The horrifying scandal of child abuse by priests in the Roman Catholic Church still has repercussions, even though the church has tried to address the problem. Not to mention walking on others’ backs! These and other less spectacular stories involving both clergy and laypeople happen too easily and too often in churches in part because churches are regarded as places of trust and safety, and no one wants to break an unwritten code of silence: it’s not polite to question another church person’s actions or motives.
Then there are the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” churches and preachers. Such ministries thrive in places such as Africa where poverty and need are rampant. But they also have found a home in this country. People who have perhaps unsuccessfully tried all other avenues of material success hear their gospel as one more chance to make it in this world.
Unfortunately for this distortion of the gospel, there are too many people of strong and vital faith who never really “get ahead” in this life, often for reasons far beyond their control. Such people are often the most-compelling examples of real faith at work. As to totally-unfaithful and unethical people amassing large fortunes…well, it happens. I think the only folks who generally prosper from the Prosperity Gospel are those who proclaim it. And they seem to prosper very well indeed. Paul would be horrified!
In the “day-to-dayness” of ordinary church life, we are most tempted to play the kind of one-upmanship games that ultimately do harm. These games can be played in terms of faith, knowledge, giving, attendance, participation, leadership. They are often unconsciously contrived as proof of our high rank, or of our low place on the congregational totem pole. My faith is stronger than Joe’s. We give more than the Smith’s give. The Jones family’s kids always act up in church. I’m not as smart as Sally, so you don’t expect me to lead that discussion, do you?
Appropriate to this most wonderful season of stewardship, we may let ourselves off the hook with something like, “My gift can’t make any difference, so it doesn’t matter.”
It does matter . . . to the church, and to you. It matters to you because you matter to God, and yourself.
Most churches employ some ordering of people for purposes of providing leadership. It is for carrying out responsibilities, not for bestowing privilege, nor for proving that God loves some of us more than others. Pope Francis has captured the world’s attention within the context of the enormous power and prestige of the Papacy because he has retained the humanity that is common among us all. We may not agree with him on everything, but he comes across a serving in the very way Paul sought to serve the early church.
Believing and living as a follower of Jesus can help us order life in productive ways, and focus on important habits that may lead to financial or other material gain. But no earthly guarantees may be attached to the effort. The most important hard and fast promise God consistently makes in Scripture is to be “with us” in all our times. It is the promise fulfilled completely in Emanuel – that is, in “God-with-us,” in Jesus Christ.
This morning, we gave Bibles to our first-graders. It is always a happy time. Even though we know few of them are now able to read and understand it, we trust that this gift will begin a relationship between them and Scripture that will last a lifetime and lead to faithful understanding and discipleship. The gift of a Bible to ones so young is a testimony to scripture’s place in nurturing faith.
Scripture’s centrality to the Christian life was one of the main themes of the Protestant Reformation in 16th century Europe. Today, many Protestants are celebrating what we call “Reformation Sunday.” The Sunday before October 30, All Saints’ Eve, is celebrated annually. On All Saints’ Eve in 1517 (exactly 500 years ago tomorrow), Martin Luther struck the spark that triggered the Reformation. The whole history of the church, Europe, and ultimately of the world, took a sharp turn from which it never turned back.
Luther translated the Bible into German, the language of his people, because he believed that without a personal knowledge of the Bible, believers could be led into all sorts of mistakes and abuse. They could be fooled and used by people who could take advantage of their ignorance to line their own pockets, to promote their own interests, or just to make themselves feel good at their expense.
Luther wanted people to read for themselves the words of Paul in Romans that finally brought him peace and hope, “Those who are righteous are righteous by faith.” By faith in our faithful Savior, we are liberated to live the lives God gave us. It’s the good news Paul preached and lived, that your pastors preach and live, and that I hope you have heard today.
I trust that those children, and we ourselves, are moved to living faith by all the words of grace in the Good Book. Then, none of us will ever need to walk over anyone else to know our worth in Jesus’s saving love. All of us will stand together in the bright light of his grace. And perhaps the world will take note of us and our example, and give God the praise.
Courage: The Heart of the Resurrection
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!
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.
Law and Compassion
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.
2016: The Year of Vulnerability
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.
Bible Followers or Jesus Followers?
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.
Rise Up to Joy
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.
Zwarte Piet and Chief Wahoo
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.
Who Rescued Who?
Jeremiah 22:13-16; Galatians 6:14-18; Psalms 148:7-16; Matthew 11:25-30
Dr. Carol Franklin
Last Sunday, (Rev.) Rachel (Hackenberg) talked about her rough week and how challenging it was to find hope in the face of evil (especially the evil we do to each other). This week hasn’t been much better, but her powerful message grounded in the gospel of love and hope still resonates with me. For it is love and hope which shaped my reflections on the blessings of our companion animals. Today’s gospel talks of things hidden from the wise, but revealed to those who are spiritually open enough to receive it. What is hidden is the miracle of creation and the power of love. Today we stand with St. Francis to affirm and celebrate that all of creation is divine speech and that each of us, two-footed, four-footed (and maybe even no-footed if there are any snakes here) is an example of creation’s wonder and unconditional love.
Hope, love, gentleness, and humbleness of heart… These gifts of the spirit are easily found in our companion animals. Since I am dog crazy you know I’m gonna have to talk about “The Boys.” It has always been boys (cocker spaniel boys to be precise) and puppies until these two (who are rescues). I was known for raising these uniquely spirited creatures, loving and full of personality. This included my last puppy, The Jazzman, whose nickname was The Devil’s Minion. He got into a lot of trouble, and yet he was the cutest loving little thing smiling up at me amid the chaos only he could create.
When Maxx died just before we went to Israel, I wasn’t sure I had puppy stamina. A friend suggested I consider a rescue. I was a bit unsure as I would not be the molder of its personality while trauma may have been. But then she sent me a link to Petfinder and the picture of a face – the face of Rocket, who thankfully became Rock the House. Rocket was a 2-year-old purebred raised from puppyhood by his first mom, who surrendered him as she struggled with terminal cancer.
When I saw his face for the first time, it seemed full of despair and sadness at being separated from his mom, but it was also full of hope and promise that out of the darkness light and love would be found. What a lesson and gift she gave to him and me out of her selflessness, a gift of hope and love, of gentleness and humbleness of spirit. If you came to my front door, you would probably question the gentleness ‘cause he “rocks the house” with his barking. But if he met you on the street or you came in and stayed awhile, he’s timid and shies away from stranger and friend alike. Just ask Byrdie.
For two years, Jazz and Rock were the boys. When Jazz died in 2014, I wondered if Rock and I needed a companion beyond each other. The energy in the house was different, so the search was on as I applied three times more on Petfinder. The third time was the charm as my friend who led me to Rock went with me to Columbus to get Mopsey (now known as Motown), who was found wandering in West Virginia.
Blind in one eye and losing sight in the other, we believe Motown was either abandoned or was a runaway with an owner who couldn’t deal with a handicapped dog. The owners didn’t realize they were abandoning a bundle of joy and love. When I saw Mo’s face, I saw joy and openness despite limitations, I saw forgiveness and pardon for any injury or abandonment. Mo is this happy-go-lucky not-so-little boy whose tail literally wags the dog. His inquisitiveness and pure joy on our walks and his open loving personality which greets friends and strangers with excitement epitomizes his amazement with all of creation.
My Boys are two uniquely colored dogs with two vastly different personalities. They remind me that each of us and all of creation is a receptacle of divine breath. They are two blessings who exemplify love and hope, gentleness and humbleness of spirit. The want to love and be loved, to offer comfort and understanding even though they have no words. Whatever my mood or if I forget dinner time (although that’s hard to do with Rock the timekeeper), they return only love and acceptance. Our companion animals remind us that it’s not about wisdom or knowledge: It’s about love, about surrendering to the well of grace that is the love of God. In opening my heart and home, I became something new: A rescue mom totally owned by the manifestation of the spirit on four paws who daily questions, “Who rescued who?”